Wednesday, April 14, 2021

An experiment in nature writing – changing a two-letter word

I recently attended a one-hour online writing workshop with Rebecca Rolnick, where she led us in an exploration of “the grammar of animacy."  This phrase shows up in a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I’ve been reading off and on for the past few months.  It’s taking me a while to read because every page requires a day of reflection!  The full title is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, so that gives you an idea of the scope.

Nature journal sketch
Nature journal sketch and poem.
Click to view larger.

What is animacy?

Animacy refers to a feature of language that expresses the “aliveness” or sentience of something.   For me, the word sentience represents awareness and a capacity for feelings and conscious action.   We tend to think of a thing as either animate or inanimate, but there are gray areas involved when it comes to personal meaning.  Reflect for a moment on how you think about the natural world, and how you relate to the essence of something within it.  Do birds have feelings?  How aware are bees?  Can trees communicate? 

The old two-letter word

There is a degree of scale involved here, and a built-in order of importance when it comes to pronouns.  The idea of “it” vs “he” or “she” is an expression of the degree of animacy.  Things in nature are typically an “it”.  We typically use the pronoun “it” to refer to rocks, trees, birds, panthers and porcupines.  People are seldom referred to this way, and when they are it has a negative meaning. 

It seems that animacy used in everyday language in my culture is based not so much on how sentient a thing is, but on its relevance to the speaker.  For example, someone may refer to a cat as “it” but a dearly loved pet is nearly always a she or he.  They are important to us, they are relevant – they are family.

I too speak and write like this, in spite of a feeling of kinship with living things (which include a deep-seated feeling that rocks have awareness).  “It” is what I’ve been taught – the good grammar of communication.  Not to mention that the word “it” is a useful, multi-meaning and functional term. 

The new two-letter word

Sketch of an unknown bird - sparrow?

After a conversation on the idea of animacy, the words we use, and the meanings we give them, Rebecca spoke of a new pronoun for nature proposed by Robin Wall Kimmerer to replace the “it” pronoun when referring to things of nature.  We needed a word that signifies animacy. 

In a 2015 essay for Yes! Magazine, Robin relates how Stewart King suggested to her that the proper Anishinaabe word for “beings of the living Earth” would be Bemaadiziiaaki.  Stewart was a Potawatomi elder and spiritual teacher who mentored Robin’s return to her Native American roots and ancestral language.  Robin shortens Bemaadiziiaaki to two new pronouns “ki” and “kin”.   Ki takes the place of it, he, or she.  Kin replaces the plural pronoun they.  

As part of our writing exploration last week, Rebecca challenged us to try using these pronouns.

I tried using ki as a nature pronoun instead of “it”.  Not to humanize nature, or to drape my subject with an anthropomorphic cloak, but to see if there was a difference.  I had been thinking about a poem to go with a recent nature sketch, but the pronoun for my imagined birdling showed up only once.  I went ahead anyway and substituted ki for it.

Was there a difference in how I felt?  Yes.

What happened? 

No trumpets sounded, but somewhere in the sub-basement of my consciousness, I felt a tremor.  Something shifted (in a positive way).  Because it’s still dark down there, I’m not sure what happened.  As I’ve gotten older, I realize that I tend to process profound emotional changes through my physical body, and this was a core body feeling. 

So… something did change, felt in heart and body.  I feel a new closeness, a deeper link that’s hard to describe.  I’m already reevaluating my relationship to nature and the responsibilities that emerge when kinship ties deepen.  Every rock I’ve collected, every plant transplanted and seeds sown where kin have no business living.  

I have to stop thinking at some point because I am overwhelmed. 

Will changing my nature pronouns change how I think and speak and write and live?  I hope so.  Using ki and kin signifies something – connections strengthened, a sense of family instilled.  We treat friends differently than strangers.  But habits are persistent, and the old ways tend to creep back in.  Perhaps with this bit of awareness, I’m making a place for ki and kin until they become old friends.

Want to explore more?  Here are some links for you:

The workshop

The title of the online workshop is Nature Journal Writing Workshop Wednesdays, led by Rebecca Rolnick, a biologist, writer, and environmental educator.  The workshop is open to anyone and free, with a donation option.  During the one I attended last week, an idea was discussed, then we explored the concept with a short writing time, and ended the hour by sharing our words. 

https://www.rebeccarolnick.com/nature-journal-writing-workshop?fbclid=IwAR3QF6y-X4glB0JcL-mbmd1NOQaLUz0EPaJ8-8dmP3CejQUoWLwTJJBGi60

The book

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braiding_Sweetgrass

 Essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer

“Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching ‘It”’

Yes! Magazine, March 30, 2015.  https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship

 “Speaking of Nature.”  Orion Magazine, June 12, 2017.  https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/

 I’d love to know your thoughts on animacy.  What do you feel or think or have experienced?  

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