because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just
things.” He echoes the words of Wendell Berry who writes, “
People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but
they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a
particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”
While it’s true that words are simply vessels for meaning,
without meaning of their own, many cultures imbue the utterance of words with spirit because they originate with the breath,
with the mystery of life itself. In her book Becoming Wise, Krista
Tippett writes, “The words we use shape how we understand
ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others.
Words make worlds.”
I don’t mean to say that we are constrained to act in a certain
way because of our grammar. I’ve been saying it for most of my
life and so far I have not clearcut a forest. (I can’t even bring
myself to litter, although I tried once, just to see what it would
feel like.) Nor does a language of animacy dictate that its speak-
ers will behave with respect toward nonhumans. After all, there
are leaders of indigenous nations, raised speaking a grammar of
animacy, who willingly surrender their homelands to the use of
mining or timber companies. And the Russian language, while
embracing animacy in its structure, has not exactly led to a flow-
ering of sustainability there. The relationship between the struc-
ture of a language and the behavior characteristic of a culture, is
not a causal one, but many linguists and psychologists agree that
language reveals unconscious cultural assumptions and exerts
some influence over patterns of thought.
As we talk beneath the oaks, one of the students emphatically
disagrees: “Just because I say it doesn’t mean I disrespect nature.
I grew up on a farm and we called all of our animals it, but we
took great care of them. We just said it because everyone knows
that you don’t give a name to the thing that you’re going to eat.”
Exactly! We use it to distance ourselves, to set others outside our
circle of moral consideration, creating hierarchies of di=erence
that justify our actions — so we don’t feel.
In contrast, indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings
as our relatives, including the ones we intend to eat. Sadly, since
we cannot photosynthesize, we humans must take other lives
in order to live. We have no choice but to consume, but we can
choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the
life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence.
Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can
embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food
plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated
practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.
The students we walk with in the cemetery are primarily envi-
ronmental scientists in training. The practice of it -ing everything
in nature is not only prevalent, but is re-
quired in scientific writing. Rachel points
out that in her biology class, there are “strict
taboos governing personification of nature,
and even a whisper of anthropomorphism
will lose you a grade on a paper.”
I have had the privilege of spending my
life kneeling before plants. As a plant scien-
tist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an
indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am
gathering medicine. These two roles o=er a
sharp contrast in ways of thinking, but I am
always in awe, and always in relationship.
In both cases the plants provide for me,
teach me, and inspire me. When I write as
a scientist, I must say, “An 8 cm root was
extracted from the soil,” as if the leafy be-
ings were objects, and, for that matter, as
if I were too. Scientific writing prefers pas-
sive voice to subject pronouns of any kind.
And yet its technical language, which is de-
signed to be highly accurate, obscures the
greater truth. (Continued on page 23)
Like the Butter Butt I am not known for winter hardiness
and yet I am also one tough bird and
can digest wax (those sweet-wax lips or those tiny wax bottles
of awful sweet liquid as opposed to the Butter Butt’s bayberry). Yes and
like the Butter Butt I have a yellow rump and
not only do hybrids occur in my ranges
I am in fact a hybrid.
Unlike the Butter Butt I’m not always good company
even and you may know this at arm’s length.
— Kimiko Hahn