Some months ago, I was sitting in a meeting with several of my peers and the conversation wandered to the topic of pets and the, in my opinion, ever-exasperating debate of dogs versus cats. As we went around the room declaring our stances I was met with the usual appall at my calm pronouncement that I don’t like either and that my preferred relationship with animals is that we each stay in our separate corners. One of my friends, in an effort to redeem me in the eyes of our dismayed crowd, asked if I at least have plants. I replied negatively and was met with a response I had never before considered in all of my experience with the perpetual pet debate. It was something along the lines of, and I paraphrase, So you’re the only living being in your home??
That was something I had never considered. I pondered that idea for a moment, but a fleeting one.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains that Potawatomi culture (and many other Native North American cultures) holds human and nonhuman life in similar regard. In Potawatomi language there is a distinct pronoun for nonhuman living beings, parallel to he or she for human beings. Plants, trees, lakes, etc. are honored for their contributions to daily life just as we honor the people who add to our lives.
I was intrigued by this paradigm that ascribed to nature a value I had never imagined. I always appreciate a new perspective, but again, I filed it away.
Then, some weeks ago, I was introduced to the word “ecocide.”
Ecocide, noun; destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action. (Google).
I heard this word from Yoalli Rodriguez, scholar of environmental racism, ecological grief, and other equally impressive disciplines. In her interview on the For The Wild podcast, Rodriguez delves into the collective grieving of a particular Indigenous community in Oaxaca as the lagoons in their ancestral lands slowly die due to ecocide enacted by the Mexican State. I was struck by the word’s conspicuous similitude to the more common (at least in my line of work) “homicide,” “femicide,” and “suicide.” I was also struck by her explanation of a people grieving for their nonhuman community members, the lagoons.
This time, I reflected for more than a fleeting moment. This community in Oaxaca, and many others all around the world are grieving the loss of loved ones, nonhuman loved ones, but loved nonetheless. And, as Kimmerer explained in her book, these natural beings that are disappearing are not strangers, but family members with whom many Indigenous peoples have had reciprocal, life-sustaining relationships for generations.
I don’t consider myself a participant in this grieving. How can I be when I am only just now learning of the higher value of these dying natural beings, their value independent of my use of them? However, I too know grief, as many of us do. And I don’t believe that empathy is worth much without action.
So, I began to think of what I can do, and here’s what I came up with: 1) learn more, the obvious step one to any change-making. I’ll strive to learn more about the long-held and cherished relationships between earth and people, specifically Indigenous peoples. And 2) I bought a plant. I figured it was time to make some space in my home and heart for another living being.
Many cultures have traditions or rituals of paying respects to those that our grieving. These are my small offerings.