It was the first time I ever told my story to strangers.
My story of how Alaska cracked me open. The dark nights. That I arrived as a devoted perfectionist and a post-college workaholic. Everyone loved what I was doing in the world so they did not ask, but if you looked on my insides it was all there like a dark jungle of depression and inevitable doom.
Mt. Tabor Park was our home for the morning. We sat under the folding branches of a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) on the fresh cut lawn. We were a circle of 27. I was surrounded by young adult environmental educators who were serving as counselors for all of Portland Parks and Recreation’s summer youth programs.
These people were amazing. The would become masters of first aid, camp songs, tying shoes, sticky hands, nature games, “Hey, look over here, did you see what I found!?,” and “What is this plant teaching us?” They were superheroes in their own right and I was there to model a lesson about animacy. A lesson about how to engage youth in the natural world through inquiry, direct emotional experience, and a deep sense of belonging.
My breakdown/breakthrough years in Alaska and all I experienced there in school and daily life led me to remember the animate world I lived in as a very aware child. There, in the Y-K Delta tundra community 500 miles from the next major city, a powerful combination of emotional heartbreak, solitude, a town without fences, a vital local Yup’ik language, a community-centered subsistence lifestyle, classes in ethnobotany, and elders who loved the old ways, that I remembered how to see and acknowledge the awareness of all beings.
For those not familiar, animacy can be described as a worldview that sees all beings as living beings with awareness. Rocks. Plants. Animals. Fungi. Trees. It this regard, the only things that are not animate are those that humans have created, yet, even then the materials for those objects come from an animate being. Can we come to know our web of relations as a democracy of species?
A worldview that does not recognize animacy is one that can devour life without a thought of consequences to our great web of life. It gives permission to dismiss or, in some circumstances, completely forget our responsibility as human guardians of this sacred home to all.
As I prepared for the lesson that day, I decided to lead our exploration of animacy through what I learned from my own grief. And I invited the group to do the same. Here is why.
“We must say of the universe, that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” –Thomas Berry
Practicing a Grammar of Animacy
If we are to remember that some other way of relating exists, we have to acknowledge and stay present with the chasm between where we are and who we want to become. In this chasm is grief. Our personal grief, cultural grief, body grief, gendered grief, homeland grief, history grief, spiritual grief. It reminds us that we know some other relational worldview is both possible and necessary.
As preparation for our time together, I had all the student’s read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay, Learning the Grammar of Animacy from her powerful book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
After digging into Robin’s essay, the question the students were to ponder was this. What do we get to let go of as a culture and individuals in order to remember, practice, and teach a grammar of animacy?
On the grammatical end, one of Robin’s brilliant suggestions is to create other pronouns we can use (other than “it”) to relate to our non-human relatives. In her OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett, she offers ki (singular) and kin (plural) as options.
Before this day, I spent one afternoon on the phone with Marie Meade, a beloved elder, friend, and Yup’ik language instructor (among many other hats she wears). “Will you remind me about pronouns in Yup’ik?” I ask. She clarifies that there is no category for gender in the language. All beings are seeing as aware, no different from humans. “This helps us know how to take care of each other,” she says.
This is a practical beginning. We can practice animacy by letting go of the object-identified pronoun “it” and instead say “ki” or “standing being” as we speak with or about a tree, for example.
However, I knew these students would have other answers to this question: What do we get to let go of as a culture and individuals in order to remember, practice, and teach a grammar of animacy?
Oso was the first to raise his hand.
“Yeah, Oso. Go ahead” I said. Oso, meaning bear in Spanish, looked like a perfect camp name for this strong and tender young man.
“We have to let go of thinking we can learn everything with our heads. In Mexico, we learned about life through experiences with our bodies. We didn’t expect each other to know all this stuff. We had to learn how to live.” His sense of loss was alive as he spoke.
Oso’s reflections were followed by many others. Each one a story. Reflections on the confusion of consumerism, the cultural obsession with objectivity and capitalism, ownership of places and each other, the maze of white-privilege, the silencing of other languages, all the inner judgments we have about ourselves, and how we cannot grant aliveness to a tree if we do not ourselves feel alive.
I then told these new superhero strangers, how Alaska showed me that all my life I’d been navigating a crisis of belonging. I told them how my friends, ethnobotany instructors, elders, the land, my dog, my own broken-heart all taught me how to begin a journey of belonging. Once we belong to ourselves, then we can belong to a worldview that is based on belonging to each other. We can see all of life as alive. We can begin to allow ourselves to feel deeply and trust our instincts and intuition. These are essential linguistic elements in a grammar of animacy. Sentience.
In silence, each person wrote down on a slip of colored paper what they were ready to let go of and tossed it into a metaphoric fire of sticks at our circle’s center (they were burned later). We all breathed.
“This work is a practice,” I reminded them and myself. “We will release all that we can inside us today and must do our best to do the same each day. Practice. All we can do is practice.”
“From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.” — Ursula K Le Guin, A Wizard of EarthSea
Practicing the Art of Listening
Our time flew quickly.
After the fire, it was time for me to step down as the teacher-storyteller. My story was the richest part of what I had to offer. So I had the students break out into small groups. Each group was sent to a different standing being (tree) teacher. Hawthorn. Pin Oak. Douglas Fir. Grand Fir. Big-Leaf Maple. Sequoia.
Each group also had a word related to the human condition and asked for a teaching. Death. Pleasure. Grief. Conflict in personal relationships. They were to ask their tree and find their own way to listen, learn, give thanks, and report back to the circle.
I did my best to let go. I had no control over what any of the students would do with this assignment or what their groups might have to share when we circled up 20 minutes later. It felt good to trust that direct experience is the most powerful teacher. Not answers.
Our closing circle could have been hours, except that hungry bellies have their place of importance. The last group to share their tree teaching was the Sequoia group. Their question to their tree teacher had been about death.
The spokesperson for the group was a young man named Jaguar. He seemed like a quiet person but moved by something inside of him, spoke.
“Sequoias are one of the longest living trees and they are evergreens. This was a very interesting teacher for us to learn about death.” He paused. By the feeling of deep listening present in the circle, I sensed his peers were surprised by his words. “I think our teacher was telling us to live a long, full-seasoned life. To decide what this means for us.”
Before we moved on, another student asked how we learn to listen to the natural world and trust what we hear. I could only shake my head. “It is a journey,” I said. “And all of you will hear or know or feel or connect to these non-English speaking begins in your own way. Give yourself permission to explore your own inner language. Invite your student-campers this summer to do the same thing.”
Again, Robin Wall Kimmerer has such useful wisdom for this moment. She states that Science trains scientists to look at the material part of a being even if it is really up close. Indigenous ways of knowing recognize a being not only with physical senses and intellect but also engage intuitive ways of knowing. Emotional knowledge. Spiritual knowledge. She asks, “What is the story that this being would tell if we knew how to listen as well as we can see?”
What would happen if we knew how to listen as well as we can see? Humm…
Voices of Nature
We close by forming a Council. Inspired by the 2017 Maori court victory earning the Whanganui river the rights of personhood, two students are nominated by their peers to speak as guardians on behalf of nature. These students read the principles of the Honorable Harvest as reflected by Robin Wall Kimmerer and the rules that guide a good harvest shared by Yup’ik people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where I lived in Alaska
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Talk to animals that you see to tell them what you’re doing there.
It is the custom in this region to share what you gather. This is true especially for the first food you make of the season, and especially with the elders. Also, the first fish a boy catches, or animal he hunts should be given to the elders. The first berries or greens that a young girl gathers are also given to the elders.
For all plants, say quyana— ‘thank you’ after you pick them.
**These are included in full below for your learning pleasure.
In Learning the Grammar of Animacy, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.” I had to practice this language in myself in order to get us to this day. I wanted to ask for guidance.
The month before, I biked up to Mt. Tabor Park for their monthly tree walk and later stayed to sit on the land. I did my best to clear my mind and ignore the initially persistent thoughts about being a crazy hippie lady meditating under a Douglas Fir tree.
With my inner voice, I spoke about how I had met Chrissy at Portland Parks and Rec through a turn of events and her desire to include this topic for their training schedule. I spoke through my spiritual and emotional body; my feelings. I shared my worry about teaching such an important lesson. My gratitude for this challenge. And then said to that land and those beings, “How do I focus what I teach? How can I help these students experience you and all of your teachings?”
It took some time, but I stayed within myself. And then I heard this.
Teach them how to belong to something.
And so it is. Each day may we all practice coming home to ourselves, our stories, our homelands, and a worldview that is based on us belonging to each other. A democracy of species. A fluency in the grammar and intuitive linguistics of animacy.
“Being born as humans to this earth is a very sacred trust. We have a social responsibility because of the special gift we have, which is beyond the fine gifts of the plant life, the fish, the woodlands, the birds and all of the other living things on earth. We are able to take care of them.” –Audrey Shenandoah, Clan Mother, Onondaga Nation
The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life: An On Being interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer
Honorable Harvest, Robin Wall Kimmerer, from the YES! Magazine article, The “Honorable Harvest”: Lessons From an Indigenous Tradition of Giving Thanks
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Take only what you need and leave some for others.
Use everything that you take.
Take only that which is given to you.
Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
Reciprocate the gift.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
A Guide to Ethnobotany of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region, (Introduction, v), Edited by Kevin Jernigan
The rules that guide people when they harvest wild plants are an important knowledge to pass down. These rules model the close interconnection of knowledge of plants to the moral and spiritual values of local people. These rules were provided by a group of Elders in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, particularly Tacuk of Chevak and Danny Charles of Bethel.
- It is the custom in this region to share what you gather. This is true especially for the first food you make of the season, and especially with the elders. Also, the first fish a boy catches, or animal he hunts should be given to the elders. The first berries or greens that a young girl gathers are also given to the elders.
- For all plants, say quyana— ‘thank you’ after you pick them.
- For purifying plants (such as ayuq (Rhododendron tomentosum) or ikiituq (Angelica lucida), bury a bit of food where you picked them as an offering. You can also leave a bit of tobacco or water as an offering after picking plants.
- Avoid stepping on young plants ripening in the spring. Just make one path and use that.
- When you have to go to the bathroom, find a spot that just has grass.
- Don’t eat or sample plants if you don’t know what they are.
- Out of respect for nature, don’t make unnecessary noise. Try not to scare animals too much.
- Talk to animals that you see to tell them what you’re doing there.
- Ask the wind to blow harder if mosquitoes are out.
- If any berries you’re picking fall to the ground, say “grow next year” to them.
- Don’t think too much about bears and other dangerous animals (or mention them aloud). It might make them come.
- If you see a grave, put something you value (e.g. food, pennies, gum, ammunition, etc.) in there, under the dirt as an offering for the dead.