instead of ‘it is waving its branches’? In doing so, I am not meaning to be anthropomorphic by attributing human-ness to the tree. I am simply acknowledging her as a being that lives and breathes as much as do I.
(Indeed, it is telling that the only way in the English language to recognise a tree, or a rock, or a mountain, as a being is to attach human pronouns to the tree, rock, or mountain. More on this below.)
Would such an acknowledgement and encounter shift the way in which we perceive the world and our place in it? I suspect it would.
Our use of language both reflects and creates our understanding of the world.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects upon this.1 Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and has a PhD in plant ecology. She writes of learning her native language and also the language of science. Although recognising the usefulness of scientific language, when compared with her native language she discovers how much is missing in in the language of science. She writes that one of the first words she learnt in Potawatomi is the word Puhpowee. She translates this as, ‘the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.’2 She was stunned. Such words do not exist in scientific language. This word spoke of ‘unseen energies that animate everything’ to her.
To Kimmerer and her Nation, the world is not an inanimate place where mushrooms are referred to by it. The Potawatomi language recognises the beingness within the world. She tells us that only 30% of English words are verbs, whereas in Potawatomi 70% of the words are verbs. So it is that in her native language, where English would use a noun, Potawatomi speaks of ‘to be a hill’ or ‘to be a river.’
Thus, the its of English become beings in Potawatomi.
It is little wonder that Kimmerer and her Nation look upon the world in a completely different way than do those of us raised in a western-styled culture.
Few within western-styled cultures share Kimmerer’s understanding of the world. One who did so was the eco-theologian Thomas Berry. In his classic The Dream of the Earth Berry writes that ‘The universe is a communion and a community. We ourselves are that communion become conscious of itself.’3
Expanding upon Berry’s metaphor; when we enter into communion with the universe, we surely can no longer entertain a consumer relationship. Our relationship with the world must be one of reciprocity, rather than simply take, take, take.
Are we able to imbue our language, including our scientific language, with such an understanding? Can we look at, and speak of, the world as a community of beings rather than an assembly of things?
We rarely consider our language when we think of social change or environmental protection. Yet, our language shapes how we think of that change and protection.
Changing our language, or at least some of the words we speak, could be one of the simplest steps we take.
1. Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Penguin Random House, U.K., 2013.
2. Ibid. 5 pages later (on p 54) Kimmerer tells us cheekily that ‘Puhpowee is used not only for mushrooms, but for certain other shafts that rise mysteriously in the night.’
3. Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth, Counterpoint, Berkeley, USA, 1988