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All Creation is Family

The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis was written during the time of the Babylonian exile when the Israelites were far from home, feeling lost and grieving, wondering where God was in the midst of the despair, hopelessness, and chaos of their lives. This liturgical myth is an invitation to reverence. It reminded the people, and hopefully brought them comfort, that even if they weren’t in their homeland, even if they’d lost their homes and jobs and loved ones, they had not lost God. God was to be found in all of creation all around them. Perhaps it should remind us as well that we aren’t entities unto ourselves, our very survival is intricately linked to the Earth, and all of her creatures.

This story also reminds us that words have power and words make a difference.

In this story we learn that all beings came from Being itself.  God spoke and out of the chaos the world came into being one piece at a time. Light! Sky! Earth! Animals! Plants! People! And they were all good.

The words we use for people and things shows what we think of them and how we regard them – do we care or not care? Do we respect or not respect? Do we like or not like? Do we include or exclude?

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist, an environmental biologist, used to taking her students out in the field and rattling off scientific names for plants for them to dutifully write down and memorize. But, scientific names distance us from the plant or animal or rock because science is a language of distance, reducing something to its parts, or species group. It is a language of objects and while sounding very impressive, is inherently lacking when it comes to speaking of our world.

Kimmerer stumbled upon the lack when she came upon a word in book on traditional uses of fungi written by an Anishinaabe ethnobotanist. The word was puhpowee which translates “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” Wow. What a cool word! She was shocked that there was no scientific word to describe this force, but science is not prone to giving words to something mysterious. This word was just the tip of the iceberg.

As you perhaps know, when white people came to this country they systematically worked to assimilate the natives, taking their homes, their children, their language, their spirituality, their dress, their traditions. Stripping them of all that defined their identity as different.

A number of years ago, at the annual Potawatomi gathering that Kimmerer attended, a language class was held for people to begin learning their native language again. It was very exciting because every single fluent speaker in their tribe would be there as a teacher. There were nine. Nine… most walking in with the help of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Nine in the whole world. The language was all but lost.

What is harder to understand it that it wasn’t just the language that was almost lost, but a way of seeing the world. As Kimmerer began to learn her native language of Potawatomi, she found it to be very difficult because it wasn’t just translating an English word to a Potawatomi word, the new words were changing her relationship to the things around her. You see, in Native culture, their language is “a mirror for the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things.” In Potawatomi, not only are plants and animals animate, but they are imbued with spirit as are so many things that we would consider inanimate: rocks, mountains, water, fire, drums, sacred medicine, songs and even stories. So, if asking about a table in Potawatomi, one might ask, “What is that?” But of a rock or tree one might ask “Who is that?” Or finding animal tracks one might say, “Someone came through here.”

And verbs are not limited to movement. A Saturday, a hill, a color, a bay can all be verbs in a world where everything is alive. Kimmerer explains, “To be a bay holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.  Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.” 

She makes the point that in English we would never use “it” when referring to a member of our family. We wouldn’t say, “it is making dinner” or “it is playing guitar.” That would be disrespectful. It robs the person of their selfhood and kinship and reduces them to a mere thing. And, so in native languages, they use the same words to address the living world as they do to address one’s family because they are family.

This is a huge shift in consciousness. We treat things differently when they are family. If the earth and all that is on her becomes family, it follows that we would treat the living world differently, with more respect.

Think about how we get our food right now. We go to the grocery store, we don’t meet the farmers, we don’t till the land, we don’t plant the seeds or harvest the crops. We get them clean and bug free off the produce shelves, or in cans or frozen. We don’t raise the animals we eat, we don’t feed them or care for them, or watch them carted off to be slaughtered (much less do the slaughtering and butchering ourselves). We get to buy our meat packaged on trays of Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. We are removed from the reality that the lives of these plants and animals were taken to support our own. This is easier when we identify that animal or plant as an it, an object. But when that plant or animal becomes part of the family of creation, taking its life means so much more. At the very least should remind us to be so very grateful.  

I have a garden and I care for the plants gently, I make compost to nourish them, I’m sad when they don’t survive, or if they don’t thrive. I pick the slimy green caterpillars on my broccoli, I sing to them when I’m weeding, but I don’t take it so far as to thank them for vegetables I harvest and eat.

I know many of us may say grace at mealtime, thanking God for our food, but that again sees the plants and animals as objects to be consumed, given to us by a benevolent being somewhere. If we see the plant as a being then we ask permission to harvest, and we offer appreciation for that which we’ve taken. Natives might offer a gift of tobacco in return.

Robin was sharing this concept of animate language while she was out in the field with her ecology students. “One young man, Andy, asked the big question, ‘Wait a second,’ he said as he wrapped his mind around this linguistic distinction, ‘doesn’t this mean that speaking English, thinking in English, somehow gives us permission to disrespect nature? By denying everyone else the right to be persons? Wouldn’t things be different if nothing was an it?’”

Kimmerer comments, “The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a human.” Maybe we'll extend the favor to our pets and a favorite car, motorcycle, doll or stuffed animal because we like the personal connection. I wonder what would happen if we recognized trees and plants and flowers and animals as beings worthy of care and respect?

As I was walking the neighborhood about a month ago and I saw that they had just cut down a beautiful, sprawling maple tree that stood about mid-way up one person’s driveway. I’d always loved it’s long sheltering branches and it broke my heart to see it cut down. There happened to be a woman out cleaning up, she must have been with the crew who took it down, and I asked her why it was cut down. She said the couple had lived there 34 years and love the tree, but it just made too much mess.

As an object to do with what we want, it’s easier to take a chain saw to the tree than if we recognize that tree as a being, Grandmother Maple, perhaps. How do we take a chain saw to Grandmother Maple who has seen decades more of life in that place than we perhaps had even lived? And, what if we consider that the mess she makes every year are her seeds, sent out into the world to grow into her children? It changes things, doesn't it?

Kimmerer points out a fascinating synchronicity in language. The word yawe in Potawatomi means “to be.” How fascinating that the word Yahweh (spelled slightly differently) in Hebrew essentially means “being.” God’s very essence is simply “beingness.”  We are beings interconnected to all beings by beingness! But we’ve forgotten. Our language has helped us forget. Now, I know we’re not going to learn Potawatomi, but I encourage all of us to begin thinking a little differently, to expand our consciousness to seeing the plants, trees, rocks, soil, and water as animate, as beings in which the divine essence flows, as surely as it flows through each of us. And we will see that it is all truly good.

Love & Light!

Kaye