I have been thinking about Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human along with Ye-weh-node’s teachings in Language of the Stones and elsewhere. I have been thinking about what Glen Coulthard says about the connection that the Yellowknives Dene feel with the land — that the land does not belong to them, but they belong to the land — and how this is a common belief amongst the various Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. And I have been thinking of the words I heard from a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Elder who said, “We have different languages because we come from different lands. It is the land that gave us our language. We speak because the land gave us speech and different lands speak differently.”
I have been thinking about these things in light of my own experiences speaking with the earth and trees and grasses and rocks and the river, Askunessippi, and I have been thinking about how, occassionally, I hear them speak back. That’s very odd. More often, though, there seems to be a communication that happens in what Derrick Jensen calls a language older than words. There seems to be feelings that are shared. Things that are understood but not articulated or even comprehended in the kind of thought that is shaped by language. And there is music, too, or at least I think there is, but it is not the kind of music one hears with one’s ears. This is also odd.
Not only is it odd, but I found myself wondering if I was falling into the trap of anthropomorphism — assuming that categories that apply to me as a human being can be applied to things that are different, things that are not human beings. This, after all, is a common (and often abusive) practice amongst members of dominant populations. In other areas, it is part of things like partiarchy, heteronormativity, and colonization. It is often a way of assimilating (and denying or murdering) those who Other.
Consequently, in our efforts to be peaceful and not engage in violence, we often seek to emphasize and respect the differences that exist between Us and Them. Any number of pairs could fill out that binary: Male/Female, Straight/Queer, White/People of Colour, Settler/Indigenous, Human/Everything Else. Therefore, we are taught to not project human emotions (sorrow, joy, empathy, assurance, and other things I have felt from the trees and river and rocks and earth) onto non-human things.
However, there is a subtle hubris involved in this supposedly better and more peaceful way. It is the hubris of human exceptionalism which is very deepy ingrained in the violence of our world. Viewing ourselves as Lords over the earth, rather than as caretakers of the earth, justifies everything from deepwater drilling, to nuclear bomb tests, to strip mining and whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing in the tar sands (environmental genocide? the murder of one of the world’s largest river deltas? or what? resource extraction? economic development?). So, here, even in our efforts to escape from violent ways of imaging ourselves and others, we are still making the same fundamental error.
The solution to this problem is to realize that anthropomorphism is the wrong category to impose upon what it means to try and be in relationship with others. The error is thinking that joy or sorrow or hope or wonder or empathy are exclusively human experiences. This is not the case. We already know this about many animal species, but I think these things extend far beyond what we already take for granted in dogs or apes — as scientists are starting to conclude with remarks about bees having feelings, and various kinds of plants having memory and what we would call “intelligence.”
This, along with experiences like mine and those had by many others, points to a rethinking of where we situate ourselves in relation to other things. To say a river was excited is not to engage in an anthropomorphic language game, rather, it is to recognize that we, ourselves, are omnimorphic. That we feel joy or sorrow, empathy or wonder, is not evidence that we are different than everything else — it is evidence that we are like everything else. The earth and the rivers and trees and the wind and the rocks laugh and cry and hope and remember — and we, too, laugh and cry and hope and remember because we are made of earth and water and air and minerals. Things are not like us. We are like them. Because we are of them. We are them and they are us. And if that also sounds odd, then I suggest you do this: pick a tree, or a river, bush, or rock, and spend a little bit of time with it (twice a day, if possible). Talk to it and listen to it. Come back to me after a year of doing this, and tell me what has changed.
How many years have I lived in this land and I have never learned the language? It was only last year that I finally learned the name of the river I walk by every day on my way to work — Askunessippi. This is the Ojibwe name. In English, it is rendered “Antlered River,” but I grew up calling this river The Thames (but the Thames is a river in England [from Tamesa, an ancient celtic word meaning “the dark one”]). Walking by its side, I called out, “Askunessippi! Askunessippi! Askunessippi!” and I thought I felt something stir or leap in the depths of the water. The next day, crossing the Wellington bridge, I said, “Good morning, Askunessippi!” and three large fish jumped out of the water, one after another, “Splash! Splash! Splash!” I have never before or after that time seen fish jumping in that section of the river.