I recently met Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a writer of American-Indian heritage, and learned about her work. A professor of botany and environmental science at the State University of New York, she is an award-winning nature writer with expertise on moss (briology). With clarity and wisdom, she blends Western scientific discipline with traditional Native American thought.
Robin's teachings about the relationship between people and nature are in the context of America. But I found parallels with many issues we face today in Bangladesh, such as sustainable agriculture, deforestation, habitat loss for birds and wildlife, and balancing development with environmental protection.
It is impossible to summarise all of Robin's thoughts in this short essay. Instead, let me focus on one aspect of her philosophy: the grammar of how humans relate to non-human life.
Robin points out that in English, the word “it” is the pronoun for all things in nature. In other words, nature is treated as an object. This objectification, she argues, leads to moral exclusion – that is, we feel no ethical obligation towards nature - and precludes us from respecting nature.
Use of “it”, the inanimate pronoun is thus a precursor to our view of land as property to be farmed, mined or built upon, and trees, fruits, birds, cattle, fish, etc. as resources to be harvested and exploited.
Perhaps it is easiest to demonstrate the effect of “it” with a counterexample. If you saw your mother cooking in the kitchen, would you ever say, “It is making soup?” No! You would accord her more respect.
In Robin's native Potawatomi language and thought, most things in nature are treated as animate beings, as subjects, not objects. “Birds, bugs and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are,” she says. This respect and gratitude towards all things in nature brings them into moral inclusion.
In today's world, the relationship between humans and nature remains one-way and very broken, with possible catastrophic consequences for humanity. Instead of being thankful to the earth for providing everything, we accelerate our exploitation of nature. Robin argues we must return the favour, starting with respect and gratitude. This, in turn, can lead to reciprocity, for example, by rejuvenating broken ecosystems, or re-introducing plants or animals that we have extirpated from our land.
But this process starts in the mind, with language. Instead of using “it”, Robin proposes we use a new pronoun, “ki” (plural: “kin”) to address things in nature. It is derived from a Potawatomi word for “a being of the earth”. Adoption of this pronoun will strengthen our kinship with the earth, she says.
A deeply personal experience during my formative years taught me to respect nature. During the Liberation War of 1971, my family escaped from approaching Pakistani soldiers to our ancestral home in the remote village of Shilghat. There, we found protection in a world that was, until then, unknown to this city boy. Living on basic food grown on the land, feasting on jackfruits, lychees and mangoes from village trees and playing in the fields, streams and rivers I learned how the earth provides quietly and ceaselessly.
The forests, jungles and rural areas of Bangladesh - including Sundarban - gave shelter and protection to many Freedom Fighters while they carried out their guerrilla warfare during our Liberation War.
Four and a half decades later, on the verge of shaking off the yokes of poverty, it is all the more important for our nation to remember and respect the relationship we have with this earth.
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