I left Salida 12 days ago, headed for the Central California Coast, and returned last night after driving 3,300 miles through parts of five states, six Indian nations (I may have missed some–my apologies), five national parks, and seven bio-regions.
It was too much driving for twelve days, but that was the time I had to make the trip, and I did my best to use the windshield time (and the fossil fuel Red consumed) well and thoughtfully.
Along the way I camped and stayed with friends (thanks, Doris & Bill, Terry & Steve, Sharon & Jeff, and Laura & Sarah); interviewed people who work with, write about, and think about plants for the next book; spent time with Molly and her sweetie Mark in San Francisco, and in one very long day, Molly and I drove to Monterey and south along the Big Sur Coast with friend Laura, spreading some of Richard’s ashes in two spots he loved on our favorite stretch of ocean coast.
As I do when I drive anywhere, I thought about the landscapes I passed through from the perspective of a plant ecologist who considers and writes about the relationships that interweave humans and the rest of the community of the land–nature.
For instance, while crossing the Mojave Desert, I wondered how the native bees know to find those annual wildflowers during the two weeks they bloom every several years. (It’s an important question, especially in light of how global climate change could break these critical natural relationships: no bees, no pollination and thus no seeds, which provide food for the desert songbirds and other lives as well as flowers the next time the winter rains come, resulting in an impoverished desert.)
I am still cogitating about what I took away from the conference, which included talks and panels by some of my favorite writers and thinkers, including Potowatomi scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (Gathering Moss), philosophy professor and author Kathleen Dean Moore (Holdfast), poet Robert Hass, eco-feminist writer Susan Griffin (Women and Nature), filmmaker and author Gretel Ehrlich (a fellow Wyomingite), author and cultural geographer Carolyn Finney (Black Faces, White Spaces), eco-literature scholar and professor Priscilla Solis Ybarra, among others.
Robin Wall Kimmerer responded to the conference question “What does Earth ask of us?” (especially related to the crisis of climate change) with the idea of reciprocity, working at restoring both our relationship with the earth and restoring the planet itself.
As a beginning to restoring our relationship, she talked about the troubling grammar of the English language, which refers to Earth and the other beings we share this planet with through the dehumanizing “it.” (Read more of Wall Kimmerer’s ideas around that question, and also of Kathleen Dean Moore, here.)
Wall Kimmerer proposed a new word from a Potawatomi root, ki, which she pronounced “chee.” (With a hard ‘ch,’ so maybe closer to ‘key’ or somewhere between the two.) Instead of calling the chickadee I just watched flit by, “it,” for instance, I’d refer to the small songbird as “ki” and the plural, she suggested, as “kin.” I wanted to stand up and clap right then. I’ve always struggled with having to refer to other beings and the Earth itself as the de-personal “it.” You can trash an “it,” but it’s harder to lay waste to a planet or being you call “kin.”
It seems to me that it’s more than time for a reciprocal relationship with the earth, for a radical rethinking of our bonds with and our gifts to our mother planet and its web of lives, starting with language. I’m resolved to abolish “it” from my lexicon related to living beings and the earth, starting now, and adopting ki and the plural, kin.
This could make for interesting conversation with my editors, but that’s okay. As Richard would say, it’s a teachable moment. Any crisis is.