The Language of Nature

What’s the difference between a butterfly and a cage?

What would happen if we referred to a tree as ki? Can you imagine calling squirrels (Vanderbilt’s largest population) kin?

It might sound weird, but changing the way we speak—and think—about nature is what Robin Wall Kimmerer challenges us to do in her article “Speaking of Nature”. In it, she explores how our language both reflects and shapes our beliefs about the natural world.

In English, humans are more special than any other living being. We have names. We use he/she/they pronouns. “Jenny buys ice cream,” we might say. “She’s hungry.” But even if your neighbor has passed away and become an inanimate corpse, we don’t really say “it is buried here.”

Yet we do use that impersonal “it” in reference to not only inanimate objects but also every other living being. Not “who is she?”, but “what is it?” “It’s a chickadee!” “It flies!” We distance ourselves from every other species. Birds might as well be bulldozers. Trees are toys. Squirrels are equivalent to the concrete they scurry on.

Can you spot a difference?

Now, like all works of literature, this article addresses many themes and could be interpreted in many ways. But what resonated most with me was the issue of climate change. Because even though Kimmerer never explicitly says so—the words “climate change” never appear in the article—I think she rightfully underlines the importance of mindset, perspective, and values in environmental issues at large.

Consider why we lump living beings and non-living objects into the same category. Doesn’t that say something about how we interact with nature? Don’t we take nature for granted? Doesn’t such objectifying language make it easier to neglect, ignore, exploit nature?

I think it does. I think the article aptly illustrates the dominant western worldview (DWW), a set of common beliefs in Western culture which suggest that people are fundamentally different from and better than all other animals—and I think these beliefs are the most long-term, root cause of climate change. If we assume that humans are most important, then we can justify doing whatever we want to achieve our goals. If we need to kill entire forests, then we can (and have). The human exemptionalism paradigm (HEP), a perspective in environmental sociology, built on this assumption by determining that the physical environment—rivers, forests, oceans, mountains—is irrelevant to society and human affairs, and so should not be studied sociologically. In fact, humans are exempt from all laws of nature. We aren’t part of nature; nature is nothing.

No wonder we keep drilling into the earth and polluting the atmosphere, right? If we aren’t part of nature, if we won’t ever face consequences for our actions, why not continue burning fossil fuels or cutting down trees?

And so the article makes us aware of our own assumptions—beliefs that underlie environmental destruction.

How do we fix this? Kimmerer advocates grammar as a tool of revolution, suggesting that we replace “it”with ki and kin: Ki to signify a being of the living earth”, and kin as the plural form. Like kinship with all living beings on our planet. However, I don’t think such a linguistic change is particularly realistic, at least not in the short term. Kimmerer’s essay was published in 2017; three years later, I have never heard these terms used, and the effects of climate change persist. Changing language alone isn’t enough. It’s the assumptions behind the language that need to change.

We need to change our collective mindset, our values, our beliefs about nature. If we believe that nature exists merely to serve humans, that its resources are free for unlimited taking…well, we’ll never stop destroying it. If we keep prioritizing economic growth over socio-environmental sustainability, we won’t have the natural resources needed to maintain our economy. If we as a society do not value or respect nature, then we will do nothing about climate change. How can policymakers create environmentally-friendly policies if we don’t believe environmental degradation is even a problem? What can we do if we don’t believe that we are part of nature, not superior to it, not exempt from natural laws or consequences?

The article’s potential to inspire such awareness and change is limited. Kimmerer never actually mentions climate change or its specific effects. The causes of climate change are not merely abstract assumptions about nature—they very much include concrete choices, but Kimmerer doesn’t highlight that. And referring to trees as “it” does not mean we all actively disrespect nature, or that we can do much about the problem. Much of climate change was caused and maintained by policies and the entire socioeconomic system, which individuals can’t easily alter. Most of us don’t control the fossil fuel industry, military, or distribution of electricity.

That’s where policy comes in. But Kimmerer doesn’t give practical, concrete policy solutions. The article focuses on abstract beliefs, and even the proposed suggestion of a grammar revolution tends towards the abstract.

Still, I think the article’s fundamental suggestion has important implications for policy—all policies are guided by cultural values, so if we want improved policies, we need to change our values and priorities. And to this end, I think the article raises awareness of environmental problems and can inspire people to take action. It’s only through seeing the beauty in the natural world, and recognizing that we are part of that world, that we can preserve it. So I think it helps that Kimmerer writes with beautiful language, language that reflects such beauty:

 “Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze”

Here, ki doesn’t have branches or squirrel feet, but ki is still beautiful

It’s debatable, the extent to which language can change the state of the world, but I felt captivated by the poetic beauty. Grants and policies are also proposed in written or verbal form, so changing the language that we use to speak of nature could potentially lay the groundwork for real policy changes—assuming that policymakers and other bureaucrats are among those who are exposed to and agree with the ideas in this article.

It’s a little long, and the paragraphs are a little dense. But if you do read the article, you may become lost in the beauty of language and life. Maybe you’ll be touched by Kimmerer’s story. Maybe you’ll share it. And maybe you’ll feel inspired to protect the natural world that feeds and shelters us.

Maybe we can cross out climate change.

– Teresa

Sources: https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/

http://environment-ecology.com/environment-writings/114-environmental-sociology.html

9 thoughts on “The Language of Nature

  1. Hi Teresa,

    As a communications major, I found myself really moved by this discussion on how language both reflects and reforms how we view beings. I think that you and Kimmerer are correct that by positioning the human world and the natural world as two distinct things, it becomes harder for people to view climate change as an issue that should concern them. I also agree with you that changing how we talk about nature is unlikely to have much of an effect if we don’t also change the way we relate to nature as well.

    With that said, I do wonder to what extent current influential policy makers would be moved by the language in Kimmerer’s article. It seems like a lot of people in power are devoted to prioritizing profit over all else. Is it realistic to expect them to change their mindsets when human superiority and capitalism have been dominant ideologies for centuries now?

    Considering how people already view themselves as above nature, it may be easier to convince people to preserve nature for selfish reasons (like self-preservation), rather than get them to alter how they view the natural world.

    Thanks for this piece. I look forward to hearing a lot more of your thoughts!

    – Brandon James

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  2. I had never thought about the implications of using “it” to refer to non-human beings before reading this article, and I find the idea of changing the pronouns to “ki/kin” interesting and welcome. As I went through the article, I was reminded of the Romantics, who saw nature as “the sublime” – both majestic and terrifying. For example, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” after describing the mountain in sweeping detail, the speaker says “Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee/I seem as in a trance sublime and strange/To muse on my own separate fantasy” (34-36). If modern-day people thought nature was as divinely awe-inspiring as Shelley’s speaker does, they would be more inclined to treat nature and its creatures with the respect kin demand and deserve.

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  3. Having last read Kimmerer’s article in the month that it was published, it was nice to return to it a few years later, especially through your analysis of how it ties to climate change. I wholeheartedly agree that our use of language contributes to how callous we are to both nature and each other.

    On a similar note—especially as Kimmerer writes of how English-speakers forbade native children to speak Potawatomi—I wonder how cultural practices tie into our treatment of nature. Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, revolves around the belief that kami (gods or spirits) exist in everything, including wind, rain, plants, and fish. In turn, Shinto monks in Japan hold some of the world’s oldest data on climate change; the monks have been documenting the ice levels at Lake Suwa since 1443 to honor the kami Takeminakata. Scientists today now make use of these records to observe the effects of the Industrial Revolution on climate change, especially as the data from Lake Suwa is concerning.

    Cultural burning, an Indigenous Australian practice, is another example of the ties between culture and climate. For thousands of years, traditional fire practices protected land by reducing undergrowth that could fuel bigger blazes—blazes like the ones Australia faces now, after decades of colonizers forbidding cultural burnings. Given cases like the Australian fires and ice breakup of Lake Suwa, Western governments could benefit from listening to non-Western cultures on how their traditions serve the environment.

    —Alice

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    1. Did you see that today’s (Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020) NYT had an article about the return to indigenous Australian fire practices and their parallels with Native American practices today in California and the Pacific Northwest?

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this piece and I think it was very well-written. I appreciate the honesty and reality of Kimmerer’s article and I think that the message is an important one. I would echo your observation that although this piece was published some time ago, these terms Ki and Kin are not used to describe animals or other living things on our planet. I think this is some what related to Brandon’s comment that policy makers are interested in policies that directly benefit a human being rather than other living beings on our planet or in our country. I also think that the lack of adoption of these terms has to do with the natural in-group and out-group behavior among humans. In-group behavior or bias usually occurs within a specific group of humans who share one common identity that separates them from others around them. However, I think you could argue that humans practice this in-group bias as a whole when it comes to other living beings on our planet. Although we are all living, humans identify themselves in a group very different and even superior to all other living things, making it essentially unimportant to worry about them. While I recognize the necessity of acknowledging animals as equally alive as humans, I am not convinced that this belief will ever be held universally.

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  5. This gave me major Pocahontas vibes. That being said, this brings a beautiful humanities-based perspective to our views on nature and how detached we are from it. I so often see people speak about nature scientifically, as is only natural. As a species, we have learned to trust in facts and even then it can be hard for some people to believe in the evidence. So much emphasis is placed on the statistics of climate change and the big changes that need to be made, such as cutting down on carbon emissions or using biodegradable materials, that we forget about how the small things can affect us. This is a truly beautiful picture of how a new, if somewhat peculiar, habit of calling plants and animals by names and pronouns can change our attitudes and foster respect for our environment.

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  6. This reflection on Kimmer’s article raises a point I have not thought of in reference to nature and the way we speak of it. I often feel quite connected to nature, but upon further reflection, realize that the language I choose to use referring to the natural environment around us bears no more significance than the built environment that we live in on a regular basis. The tragedy in our human condition is that we struggle to differentiate between the two, believing that as the built environment was produced to serve human needs and provide convenience, that the natural environment is meant to serve the same purpose. It is a curious idea to ponder what could happen if we differentiated the laguage we use to describe a tree versus a lamp-post, or a mountain versus a building. Would we give these beautiful natural wonders more respect? Should we treat them with dignity because they are alive? This question eventually leads to the challenging question of why humans believe we are the superior life force on this planet. Perhaps, could we have got it all wrong? Great job inspiring thought, Teresa

    – Shannon

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  7. What an interesting take! It’s so fascinating to me how language helps shape our world view, or at least how we express that world view. It’s also disappointing that the words we use do not always reflect what we originally might be feeling, but it is nonetheless the tools we have to describe it, and it comes back around to then shape our thoughts, too.

    The point you brought up about how humans consider nature irrelevant to daily life reminds me of modern-day eating and physical activity patterns, such as widespread sedentarism and consumption of highly processed or unnaturally grown agriculture. We do all these things that go against what nature intends, which hurts the environment, and then are surprised why we are so sick as a species.

    It’s almost like a Greek tragedy, in which the humans with hubris end up dying at the hand of their own selfish actions because of how they are poisoning the hand that feeds them.

    -Deniz

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