Book Corner 2021.10

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a spiritual nature book. I don’t normally do well with nature books; and when this one devoted an entire chapter to lichen, or the different sizes of drops of water depending on their tannic content, I was glazing over. I read it for the Native American spiritual aspect, which offers some beautiful perspectives.

The best one of all came right in the introduction:

“Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun.” Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.

Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.

Then there is the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”. Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses “he/she” pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the “it” pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees “he” or “she” instead of “it”? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as “it”. “It is making soup. It has gray hair.” It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It’s wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an “it”! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things “he” or “she”?

The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There’s a verb for “to be red.” “To be a hill.” And her favorite, “To be a bay.” Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.

It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, “I wish I could photosynthesize… doing the work of the world.” Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are – without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants… seems very, I don’t know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the “work of the world.”

I find myself taking this to heart, the ‘gift economy’ that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana… thank you, apple and grapes… And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I’m sure I will see them with new eyes.

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