We Belong to Each Other

by Marina Ingrit

“What if rather than saying, “The garden belongs to me,” you said, “I belong to the garden.”

– from my book, Grow Curious

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the years and have picked away at it in big and small ways [see No More War in the Garden]. As a young university student I took a few courses on semiotics, culture, and language. We were taught that language reflects our reality, but also constructs it, and that naming can be a way of exerting and asserting hierarchies of power. How does how we speak about the garden reflect and inform how we see and relate to the garden? And if each of our gardens, wherever they may be, are tiny, yet significant pieces of this big earth — connected to and not detached or separate from — not a place of ownership (as our common use of “my garden” suggests) but one of stewardship… Then how does shifting our language and consequently shifting our perspective change us? What is the potential to be found there?

Case in point: when I was writing the intro to Grow Curious: Creative Activities to Cultivate Joy, Wonder, and Discover in Your Garden, I said about my relationship to the garden, “I think I am its mother, but in truth it is mine.” That was a powerful line for me to write as it succinctly encapsulated the weight and depth of gardening’s importance and place in my life. I wrote that sentence and then I spent about a month agonizing over the pronouns. In the english language, the use of “its” suggests an object. Plants, insects, and gardens are living subjects, yet we refer to them as inert things as if they are a shoe or a spoon or some other item to be possessed and unworthy of our respect. Things that are beneath us rather than beings that we can share a relationship with and even belong to. It’s common to substitute “it” for “she” when speaking of nature, i.e. mother earth, but I was uncomfortable with that because to me, nature feels above and beyond gendered pronouns, and frankly, women and the feminine are not respected or valued in this culture anyways. I thought about using “them”, but I was new to making such a stark shift in my language usage and I felt awkward if not a bit insecure about it. I worried it would confuse readers or that I would be judged as a weirdo and my words overlooked and not taken seriously as a result. I still feel all of these things, but I am committed to making a very direct and concerted effort to consistently alter my language until I no longer feel hyperaware and insecure about it. And in turn, until my readers also come to expect it. I can’t do this when writing for paying publications, but I can when writing here and elsewhere for myself.

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Along this journey I have found the work of botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer to be both inspiring and reassuring. In an article entitled, Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching “It”, she makes the argument that language is evolving and that shifting the pronouns we use for the living world in the age of climate change and mass extinction is what is needed to subvert the culture of colonialism and imperialism that dominates our ways of being and allows us to keep exploiting the earth. She suggests the words “ki” and “kin” (singular and plural). She derived “ki” from the ending of an Anishinaabe word, “bimaadiziaki,” which translates to “a living being of the earth.” I’m a little uncomfortable with the possible appropriation related to using “ki,” but have taken to using “kin” or “them” where appropriate. I don’t think we all have to agree on a specific language, but rather it is the meaning that matters.

“The language of objectification and possession is deeply rooted in the english language. We consume and we own, therefore we are. My garden. My soil. My plants.”

All of this is surprisingly hard work. The language of objectification and possession is deeply rooted in the english language. We consume and we own, therefore we are. My garden. My soil. My plants. Our relationship to the world around us as one of ownership is an easy written shorthand. Moving away from that is not always as simple as changing “it” to “kin.” It can also require restructuring an entire sentence, making it wordier and even somewhat confusing. I’ve also found that the expectation of possession and hierarchy in relationship to non-human beings is so deeply ingrained that it feels weird to order language around equality and kinship. For example, I ran into this the other day when referring to the soil in the garden. I would have had to switch from, the soil in my garden, to, the soil in the garden of the place where I live or something equally convoluted in order to avoid speaking possessively of the soil, the land, and the home. Making this transition has been an eye opener for me as it calls out my own inherent, deeply entrenched bias.

I look forward to finding out where this shift in language takes me and hope you will consider coming along and trying it out yourself. I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences with this. Please comment below.

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