April 2015, Issue #2




Jan Clausen

“This Moment the World Continues”: Writing under the Sign of Species Suicide

Robin W. Kimmerer

When Earth Becomes an ‘It’

Kathleen Dean Moore

The Rules of Rivers


Cynthia Travis

The Music of Grief

Megan Hollingsworth


Ruth Wallen

Cascading Memorials: Public Places to Mourn

Joan Kresich

Letter to a Yellowstone Wolf

Susan Marsh

Elegy for the Cranes
The Hunters

Karla Linn Merrifield

William Bartram Triptych

Dana Anastasia


Gillian Goslinga

To Witness


Deena Metzger

Dreaming Another Language: She Will Not Kill

Alexandra Merrill

Homage to Bees

Sheila Murray


Judy Grahn

Dragonfly Dances

Laura D. Bellmay

A Call from the Edge

Carolyn Brigit Flynn

Grandmother Squirrel

Nora Jamieson

Fleshing the Hide

Sara Wright

Cardinals at the Crossroads

Valerie Wolf

Dreaming the Future

Robin W. Kimmerer

When Earth Becomes an “It”*

Let us begin with gratitude, for we are showered every day with the gifts of the Earth. Megwech to one another as people, for the privilege of being in one anothers’ company, for this beautiful day, for being whole and healthy and surrounded by the companionship of oaks and grasses, butterflies and fog. Gratitude for the Coast Miwok people in whose homelands we meet. And for the gifts, the everyday miracles with which we are showered every day.

At a literary conference, it is important to honor together the deep roots of the oral tradition and so let me start with a story, an old story.

In the beginning, there was the Skyworld, where people lived much as they do here on Earth, raising their families, raising their gardens, walking in the forest. And in that forest grew the great Tree of Life, on which grew all kinds of fruits and berries and medicines on a single tree. One day, a great windstorm blew down the tree and opened at its base a huge hole in the ground where its roots had pulled up. Being curious like all of us, a beautiful young woman whom we call Gizhkokwe, or Skywoman, went over to have a look. She stood at the edge and looked down, but could see nothing for it was entirely dark below, so she stepped a little farther and the edge of the hole began to crumble beneath her feet. She reached out to stop herself by grabbing on to the fallen tree, but the branch broke off in her hand.

She fell like a maple seed pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. But in that emptiness there were many gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them.

The geese nodded at one another and rose as one from the water, in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath and broke her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers.

And so it began. From the beginning of time, we are told that the very first encounter between humans and other beings of the earth was marked by care and responsibility, borne on the strong wings of geese. The world at that time was covered entirely by water.

The geese could not hold Skywoman much longer, so they called a council of all beings to decide what to do—loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in the watery gathering, and he offered to let her rest upon his back and so, gratefully she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of the Turtle. The others understood that she needed land for her home. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to retrieve some. The loon dove to get a beakful, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help, the otter, the beaver, the sturgeon. But the depth, the darkness and the pressure were too great for even these strongest of swimmers who came up gasping for air and their heads ringing. Soon only the muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His little legs flailed as he worked his way downward. He was gone a very long time. They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative. Before long, a stream of bubbles rose from the water and the small limp body of muskrat floated upward. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.”

Skywoman bent and spread the mud across the shell of the turtle. Moved by gratitude for the gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth with love. As she danced her thanks, the land grew and grew from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back. And so, the earth was made. Not by one alone, but from the alchemy of the animals’ gifts and human gratitude. Together they created what we know today as Turtle Island.

This is a fragment of the creation story told by both Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people in my homelands. Our oldest teachings remind us that reciprocity is the thread that binds us together. The animals were Skywoman’s life raft at the beginning of the world, and now, so much closer to the end, we must be theirs.

Whether her name is Skywoman or Spider Woman or Changing Woman, the Goddess Ki or Gaia or Eve, our origin stories, the stories of who we are in the world and how it is we might live, often have a cast of characters which includes women and the land. The bond is deep and enduring. We know these stories, for isn’t the world shifting under our feet, too? Aren’t we all at some time falling into a new place? And trying to make a home?

In an era of accelerating climate change and the Sixth Extinction, we know we too stand at the edge, with the ground crumbling beneath our feet. Like Skywoman, we ask: what can we grab onto to stop the fall? What gifts do we carry to make a new home? How do we care for the beings who have cared for us from the beginning of time?

This time we live in—one of great change and great choices—has been spoken of by our ancestors, in the teachings of the prophecies of the seventh fire, and I will share just a tiny fragment this morning. After the long migration of our Anishinaabe people, after the arrival of the newcomers and after all the losses—of land, of language, of sacred ways, of each other—the prophecy and history converge. It is said that the people will find themselves in a time where you can no longer fill a cup from the streams and drink, when the air is too thick to breathe and when the plants and animals will turn their faces away from us. It is said in that time, which we will know as the time of the seventh fire, that all the worlds’ peoples will stand at a fork in the road. One of the paths is soft and green and spangled with dew. You could walk barefoot there. And one of the paths is black and burnt, made of cinders that would cut your feet.

We know which path we want. The prophecy tells us that we must make a choice between the path of materialism and greed that will destroy the earth or the spiritual path of care and compassion, of bmaadiziwin, of the good life. And we are told that before we can choose that soft green path we can’t just walk forward. The people of the seventh fire must instead walk backwards and pick up what was left for us along the ancestors’ path: the stories, the teachings, the songs, each other, our more-than-human relatives who were lost along the way—and our language. Only when we have found these once again and placed in our bundles the things that will heal us—the things that we love—can we walk forward on that green path, all the worlds’ people, together…

These are the questions we face today at the crossroads. What do we find along the ancestors’ path that will heal us and bring us back to balance? What do we love too much to lose that we will carry it through the narrows of climate change, safely to the other side? For there is another side. The prophecy of the seventh fire teaches that the people of the seventh fire will need great courage and creativity and wisdom, but that they will lead us to the lighting of the eighth fire. It is said that we are the people of the seventh fire. You and I… As writers, we mark that path with our stories, we mark the path with our words…

Our Potawatomi stories tell that a long time ago, when Turtle Island was young, the people and all the plants and animals spoke the same language and conversed freely with one another. But as our dominance has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely on the planet and we can no longer call our neighbors by name. If we are to manifest the values of the Skywoman story, we have to learn once again to call each other by name. And by name, to call on each other for help. It is said that Skywoman went back to the sky, and looked over the land with the visage of Grandmother Moon. It is said that she left our teachers behind us, the plants. In this time of the Sixth Extinction, of coming climate chaos, we could use teachers.

We don’t have to figure everything out for ourselves.

Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We’ve forgotten that we are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget. Even the language we speak, the beautiful English language, makes us forget, through a simple grammatical error that has grave consequences for us all.

Let me share with you a poem by one of my heroes of women and the land, the Cherokee writer Marilou Awiakta:

When Earth Becomes an “It”

When the people call the Earth “Mother,”
They take with love
And with love give back
So that all may live.

When the people call Earth “it,”
They use her
Consume her strength. Then the people die.

Already the sun is hot
Out of season.
Our Mother’s breast
Is going dry.
She is taking all green
Into her heart
And will not turn back
Until we call her
By her name.

I’m a beginning student of my native Anishinaabe language, trying to reclaim what was washed from the mouths of children in the Indian Boarding schools. Children like my grandfather. So I’m paying a lot of attention to grammar lately. Grammar is how we chart relationships through language, including our relationship with the Earth.

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, at the same time that we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as “it.” Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. “It" robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing.

And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way, as “it.” The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth. In English, a being is either a human or an “it.”

Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an “it” we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. “It” means it doesn’t matter.

But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it’s impossible to speak of Maple as “it.” In our language there is no “it” for birds or berries. The language does not divide the world into him and her, but into animate and inanimate. And the grammar of animacy is applied to all that lives: sturgeon, mayflies, blueberries, boulders and rivers. We refer to other members of the living world with the same language that we use for our family. Because they are our family.

What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We’d be less lonely. We’d feel like we belonged. We’d be smarter.

In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants. By learning from other species, we might even learn humility.

Colonization, we know, attempts to replace indigenous cultures with the culture of the settler. One of its tools is linguistic imperialism, or the overwriting of language and names. Among the many examples of linguistic imperialism, perhaps none is more pernicious than the replacement of the language of nature as subject with the language of nature as object. We can see the consequences all around us as we enter an age of extinction precipitated by how we think and how we live.

So here, today—among a community of writers and readers, of storymakers—let me make a modest proposal. Just a small thing: the transformation of the English language. Let me invite you to join an experiment, for a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun. Might the soft green path to sustainability be marked by grammar?

Language has always been changeable and adaptive. We lose words we don’t need anymore and invent the ones we need. We don’t need a worldview of earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.

To consider whether animacy might be shared with English, I sought the wisdom of my elders. English is a secular language, to which words are added at will. But Anishinaabe is different. Fluent speaker and spiritual teacher Stewart King reminds us that the language is sacred, a gift to the people to care for one another and for the Creation. It grows and adapts too, but through a careful protocol that respects the sanctity of the language. If sharing is to happen, it has to be done right, with mutual respect.

I was pointedly reminded that our language carries no responsibility to heal the dominant society that systematically sought to exterminate it. At the same time, other elders have taught that “the reason we have held on to our traditional teachings is because one day, the whole world will need them.” It’s a complicated path to navigate.

Stewart King suggested that the proper Anishinaabe word for the beings of the living earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. I wanted to run through the woods and along the river saying it out loud, so grateful that there was such a word in the world.

But I recognize that this beautiful word would not find its way easily into English to do its work of transformation, to take the place of “it.” We need a new English word to carry the meaning offered by the indigenous one. I wonder if that final syllable, ki, might be the key. Inspired by the concept of animacy, and with full recognition of its roots in Bemaadiziiaaki, might a new English pronoun come into use?

Ki“ to signify a being of the living earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of the Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh, that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those earth beings. English already has the right word. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”

Language can be a tool for cultural transformation. Make no mistake: “Ki” and “kin” are revolutionary pronouns. Words have power to shape our thoughts and our actions. On behalf of the living world, let us learn the grammar of animacy. We can keep “it” to speak of bulldozers and paperclips, but every time we say “ki” let our words reaffirm our respect and kinship with the more-than-human world. Let us speak of the beings of the earth as the “kin” they are…

We are gathered here to tell a new story, to imagine how writers, as people of the seventh fire, can mark the path, the many paths. To ask, as women, the descendants of Skywoman, how can we use our gifts to tip the world back into balance? In a new world, how shall we make a home?

In the face of our fears, we will ask ourselves: what do we love too much to lose? And answer each other: what will I do to protect kin? For in the words of the respected Onondaga Nation Clan Mother Audrey Shenandoah, who would have so loved this gathering: “Being born as humans to this earth is a very sacred trust. We have a sacred 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 the other living things on earth. We are able to take care of them.”

Robin W. Kimmerer

Robin W. Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her first book, Gathering Moss, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants appeared in 2013. She lives in Fabius, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her literary essays appear in Whole Terrain, Adirondack Life, Orion and several anthologies.

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