Kith and Kin
January 15, 2020 6:44 AM   Subscribe

"I have had the privilege of spending my life kneeling before plants. As a plant scientist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am gathering medicine. These two roles offer 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 beings were objects, and, for that matter, as if I were too. Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.” Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?" Robin Kimmerer writes for Orion Magazine on animacy, language, science, and indigineity.
posted by ChuraChura (14 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Great article, thank you for posting. Robin Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent read and I also intend to read her book on moss.
posted by wicked_sassy at 7:16 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I loved this. It reminds me of and expands on Martin Buber's I and Thou and the nature of relationships and objects.
posted by Gorgik at 7:44 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

What a great article! Its given me a lot to think about for something my own field is starting to struggle with.

I am no longer really an academic anymore, but getting to insist on the importance of inclusivity with language and cultural perspectives in scientific publishing one of the reasons I still peer review and edit regularly. For the last hundred years, my narrow field of bacteriophage biology is lucky enough to have always benefitted from scientists sending reports of findings from a much broader array of backgrounds than most in the natural sciences, and our current renaissance is truly global in a way that few fields are.

So I think that it is especially important that, for example, when our journals get papers with cover letters that reference religion or the divine to emphasize the sincerity and motivation of the effort being reported, the dignity and appropriateness of that is respected. In the same way, when we get papers that have non-standard English, the only standard by which it should be judged is clarity in communicating the concepts that the authors wish to convey, and I've never encountered a justification for making authors pay for editing when they can be understood just fine that didn't strike me as fundamentally bigotted.

Science does have a culture with language and practices that are important to it, but neuter pronouns for plants in English are not part of that while maybe cultural authenticity should be.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:50 AM on January 15 [8 favorites]

This is a really interesting and thought-provoking article, thank you for posting it.

A version of this (ie, reconciling both indigenous and western/scientific language) has been something I have had to grapple with for almost all of my working life. Tribes in this region almost always frame their natural resource goals and priorities in language and concepts that are based on tribal culture and tribal relationships with the ecosystem, and supported by normative scientific language and concepts. The state and federal agencies (who provide funding, regulatory oversight, and technical review), on the other hand, speak a language entirely devoid of those tribal concepts and worldviews; meanwhile, the non-tribal public tends to speak neither the language of tribal culture nor the scientific language of the agencies.

Developing and implementing natural resources work (eg reports, plans, engineering designs, workshops, ecosystem restoration, etc.) in this context means needing to be able to speak to the full audience and bridge those conceptual and linguistic gaps . It's something that is easy to talk about, but not easy to do; a lot of times what you end up with is an introduction that partially frames things in terms of tribal values, followed by the technical sections which are entirely in the normative scientific language. That's better than nothing, but falls far short of what is needed and what the author here is talking about.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:04 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]

I also want to point to Stoneweaver's post from a few days ago, which I missed - a conversation between Robin Kimmerer and Krista Tippet about sustainability as a shared responsibility, and the intelligence of all sorts of life!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:08 AM on January 15 [8 favorites]

Thank you, this was a fantastic read.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:07 AM on January 15

NOW I'm ready to be asked what my preferred pronoun is.
posted by amtho at 10:21 AM on January 15

ki is singular subject third person animate: 'ki loves the sunshine, especially in winter. As for my brother, ki really likes sports.'

Ker makes sense as a singular object pronoun: "My neighbor Mike likes sports, so sometimes I go to a game with ker." "Kay all like to read, but Mel has excellent insights, so I always like to discuss books with ker."

I suggest 'kay' (subject) and 'kim' (object) for plural. These can flow as easily as the pronouns we're used to, partly, I think, because of articulator positioning.

Kim is easier to pronounce than kin because of the 'm' at the end - the 'n' phoneme is in a difficult position.

Try saying "I saw kin running to the store" versus "I saw kim running to the store" for example. Especially try using it at the end of a sentence: "I can't imagine life without kin" versus "I can't imagine life without kim" (make sure you intone it like a pronoun rather than a person's name). It's a little like "them".
posted by amtho at 10:53 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I really appreciate this. I've had some hesitation about animism because I've been exposed to (predominantly white, predominantly male) philosophy about object-oriented ontology and remember thinking: "oof, (white) people are more likely to give power to physical things before they do to black and brown people."

Or: as much as I do like their ideas, how come other people who are interested in actor network theory or non-anthropocentrism (Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour), barely discuss race or gender in their work? Racism and sexism are part of the ways with which people are "objectified" framed as if without power and anti-animated.

But as I've been slowly exposed to Robin Kimmerer's work, I wonder if I'm seeing a different way - one in which a respect towards people is also learned from a respect towards nature. It's something I will mull upon.
posted by suedehead at 11:08 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Or: as much as I do like their ideas, how come other people who are interested in actor network theory or non-anthropocentrism (Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour), barely discuss race or gender in their work? Racism and sexism are part of the ways with which people are "objectified" framed as if without power and anti-animated.

Marisol de la Cadena's work on "Earth Beings" is one great place to start when it comes to looking at the intersection of indigenous politics and environmental activism based on the idea that nonhuman entities are also deserving of rights/consideration. (I first read de la Cadena in the same class that introduced me to Kimmerer, a class on environmental literature and climate change.)

(And cosmopolitics has been on Metafilter previously)
posted by Jeanne at 12:02 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Love this.
If the tree is ki, what about the acorns? They agree that the acorns are kin, a whole family of little beings. The ground is also littered, in this unkempt portion of the cemetery, with fallen branches. “Are these dead limbs considered kin too? Even though they’re dead?” Evelyn asks. “Looking at the dead branches on the ground, I found myself thinking a lot about firewood,” she says. “I’ve always spoken—and thought—as if I was the one who made firewood. But when I thought of that tree as ki, as a being, I suddenly saw how preposterous that was. I didn’t make the firewood. The tree did. I only picked it up from the ground.” In just one sentence Evelyn experiences a transfer of agency or capacity for action from humankind to the tree itself. The grammar of animacy is an antidote to arrogance; it reminds us that we are not alone.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:05 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]

!! So excited to read the interview. Thank you Jeanne!
posted by suedehead at 1:29 PM on January 15

There's a hell of a lot of Sapir-Whorf going on here.
posted by 256 at 4:43 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for posting this, a very valuable and thought provoking article.
posted by unearthed at 1:09 AM on January 16

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