Illustration by: Priyal Shah
Listen to this Story
He, She, They. Ki & Kin
‘I am missing my babies the most, especially Solo, he is way too attached to us, and will be sulking by now’, announced our dear friend with sadness, stuck in Goa due to the lockdown and some delay in the work she was here to complete. It had been a month, since she got here. Our friend was referring to her cats, and to her dog, Solo, who were in her apartment home in Mumbai.
If we just rewind our conversations we might have had with friends, family, or with farm owners in our travels, who have pets or a farm with horses or cattle, and tend to them regularly with love, OR if we are already one of them, and tend to such beings regularly, do you see how we give a status of personhood to them, and often describe the beings we care for, in some of these ways…
- Oh, she seems to be in a bad temper today. I would say, don’t go close to her.
- He loves people, and prefers to be stroked, so go ahead, he won’t harm you.
- She, she loves to be fed all the time, and eats anything. What an appetite she has!
- This bunch, they are a ruckus. Our previous ones didn’t behave this way.
In paying attention to each of these beings, we are able to see their character and their personality, in other words see them for who they are. By acknowledging this through our language and action, using pronouns such as he/she/they or even with a name, we speak to the relationship we share with them. In doing so, we convey to one another, that they are a part of our family, they belong to our circle of loved ones.
However, when we move into the outside world, and see other beings, whether while walking in the neighborhood, or on a hike, or in a safari, or when we are taking something from one of these beings for our daily life, we often move into a different pronoun, and use `IT’ to refer to other beings, objectifying them.
- Look at it, what a leap it manages from one tree to another (maybe referring to a monkey)
- It’s such a magnificent creature (maybe referring to the tiger we just spotted)
- It gives such delicious fruits (maybe referring to the mango tree)
I had been doing this too, until about a year ago. Most of us mean no harm through such a usage at all, and moreover for many of us to whom English is not our mother tongue, this usage has been passed onto us from where it originated and has been in use for generations.
Instead of asking a plant ` What are you?’, Robin Wall Kimmerer, celebrated writer, scientist, distinguished teaching professional, and an enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, approaches the plants from the question `Who are you?’. ‘When talking about plants…’, she says, ‘I talk about someone, not something’. In doing so, Robin Kimmerer encourages her students, readers, scientists and the rest of the world into not clubbing the other beings who live on this earth, under the pronoun `IT’, but urges us all to recognize that other beings have a status of their own, just like us. Her words, `The world is made up of persons, not things’, nudges us to understand that the other beings are not to be seen as just utility or as a resource. She adds, `IT-ing gives permission for exploitation’, bringing to attention the consequences of such objectification.
Instead she makes a beautiful offering of a singular and plural pronoun that could be used when referring to other beings with whom we share this planet. She expands and suggests, how would it be if we look at them as an elder or relative, and recognize the kinship we share with them as biological beings.
The pronouns she suggests:
But can a shift in the pronouns we use make such a big difference, we might ask?
About a year ago, I began to try and observe what happens to my energy within, when I replace `it’ with `he, she, they’, be it in my conversation with other beings (which I often engage in), or in speaking or writing about them to others. My blog is titled, How I Wonder What You Are, Who You Are, How You Are, and Who You Are refers to this shift I chose to hold for myself consciously. The way this awareness has enhanced my experience and relationship with other beings, is indeed magical.
I realized when I engage with other beings from this energy, I immediately feel the oneness and interconnectedness, that runs deep in my bones. I also began to notice that each of these beings love being seen in this manner, and like David Abram, the American ecologist, geo philosopher and writer adds, `if you reach out to check the smooth bark of the Aspen tree, you notice, you aren’t just touching, also the tree is touching you’. Aaah, just this one line is so rich and profound, that it gives me goosebumps, even when I type it out. How true David Abram, the world filled with these incredible persons are noticing us indeed. They are seeing me too, and noticing me, certainly. Add to this, your beautiful insight, that when I touch a plant or any being, to know that they are touching me as well, makes me want to be and act ever more honestly, gently, and with tenderness and care. I want to be in kinship with them as I am with my human loved ones.
Stories in Indian mythology, our rituals, our ancient traditional languages, art, poetry, are rich and ripe with this deep connection, where rivers, mountains, forests, dry lands, thunder, lightning, rain, all living beings are alive and are in constant interaction with the human world. Gods and Goddesses in most religions are accompanied by spiritual beings, many from the natural world. Indigenous wisdom, to this day, continues to not objectify, and instead hold these beings with sacredness in language and action.
Decades ago, Jane Goodall’s unorthodox techniques of giving the chimpanzees from her study group names instead of numbers, became controversial in the scientific world. Today, scientists and researchers who are writing about their study, findings and their experiences in the natural world, are embracing and offering personhood status to other beings, and advocating for it, in all their communication. Suzanne Simard, the renowned scientist who discovered the `wood-wide web’, in her latest book `Finding the Mother Tree’, speaks of the Trees, as `mother’, `children’, `her’, and in an interview with Emergence Magazine, shares, `our Aboriginal people view themselves as one with nature. They don’t even have a word for the ‘environment’, because they are one. And they view trees and plants and animals, the natural world, as people equal to themselves’. She too urges us to re-envelop ourselves in the natural world as one. Her language in this beautifully written book indicates that she too is tired of the objectification in the science world, and prefers to root herself in kinship, and the wisdom of our cultural past.
- Instead of, It gives delicious fruits, while referring to the mango tree, maybe we say, Ki gives such delicious fruits.
- Instead of, It is such a magnificent creature, we say Ki is such a magnificent creature.
I am now able to see how objectification occurs through language. I can also understand how such a language has only distanced us from the web of life we are a part of. In such a usage we begin to see a tree, a mountain, a river, a living being as a resource, as being in service to us. But if we use the language of kinship that we seem to naturally use with other beings when they are our pets, or a part of our nurturing in some form, then such a language might allow us to see these beings for who they are and not what they can do for us. If this is how we see them, what would our actions be? Wouldn’t they automatically be filled with what Robin Wall Kimmerer reiterates as `reciprocity’ filled with love and an intention to give back in equal measure? How would we behave if this world filled with persons were noticing us, touching us, smelling us, sensing us, just like we do of them?
What beautiful questions to ask ourselves, isn’t it?
Thank you Jane Goodall, thank you Robin Wall Kimmerer, thank you Suzanne Simard, David Abram, and to many of you scientists, ecologists, educators, for proposing this shift in the way we see, feel, acknowledge, sense, notice and speak of the rest of the natural world.
And thanks to all of you for listening to me each week, as we connect and weave this web of Life together. If this resonates with you, I invite us all into both these conscious practices over the next few days, and maybe forever thereafter:
- One is the language (it could be- he, she, they, ki, kin) when approaching these beings or speaking about them,
- And the second is to hold the awareness and understanding that the rest of the natural world is also noticing us, when we do so.
Please do share what this brings up for you and what these two practices reveal to you. I really look forward to hearing about it.
Thank you for reading.