Language of Animacy
In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the use of pronouns in our culture.
To quote, “In the English language, we reserve the pronouns of personhood for human—he,” “she,” “they, “and not for animals, plants, and landscapes.” Animacy is the characteristic of a noun, dependent on its living or sentient nature, which affects grammatical features (it can modify verbs used with the noun, affect the noun’s declension, etc.). Simply put, animacy or animate translates into “the state of being alive.”
In most indigenous languages, such barriers between human animals and everything else do not exist. They believe we are all from the same creator and there is no hierarchy, only equality. Most lifeforms exist harmoniously, even intentionally, to sustain the whole. Trees send nutrients to other ailing trees via an underground network called a “mycorrhizal network.” The wetlands created by beaver dams hold an astounding amount of carbon dioxide. The existing beaver ponds in America store an estimated 470,000 tons of carbon a year. Butterflies and other creatures help pollinate 80% of the world’s plants.
And to those who say that other animals are not intellectual, IQ tests have shown that a pig has the same intelligence as a three-year-old human child and often scores higher than dogs. We have given cats and dogs a special place only because they have been appropriated as our companions. Don’t even get me started on dolphins or whales.
And sadly, in a meat-based culture, when we talk about a baby pig, cow, or chicken, we use the inanimate word “it” and not “he or she” to describe the animal. Imagine calling another human being an “it.” It reminds me of a book I read years ago, Dan Pelzer’s “A Called It.” Calling a living being an “it” is dehumanizing and demoralizing, making it easier to destroy.
There is a reason most of our meat comes from hidden places. The CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, operate in the middle of nowhere. Companies like Tyson refuse to let the public see what goes on inside. Hidden cameras captured thousands of chickens suffering from untreated injuries, illnesses, and crippling leg deformities at this Tyson contract farm. The video shows countless birds crammed into filthy, windowless sheds and forced to live for weeks in their waste and toxic ammonia fumes.
And don’t even get me started on the environmental issues of eating meat. Tyson has been found guilty of criminal pollution on multiple occasions. For example, in Missouri in 2003, Tyson pled guilty to 20 felonies and paid $7.5 million for Clean Water Act violations. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Animal testing is also animal cruelty. You can make a difference when you buy products to ensure they are cruelty-free. Money is power. And where we choose to spend our money is our power. Just ask the rapidly declining dairy industry. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit working to accelerate vegan alternatives to animal-based products, plant-based milk sales reached $1.9 billion in 2019. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy producer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last November after a yearslong decline in consumption.
We can make a difference, but first, we must recognize that there is no difference between humans and other animals. This is a flawed and selfish viewpoint that may well lead our planet to its sixth extinction.
What’s causing the sixth mass extinction?
Unlike previous extinction events caused by natural phenomena, the sixth mass extinction is driven by human activity, primarily (but not limited to) the unsustainable use of land, water, energy, and climate change. Currently, 40% of all land has been converted for food production. Agriculture is also responsible for 90% of global deforestation and accounts for 70% of the planet’s freshwater use, devastating the species that inhabit those places by significantly altering their habitats. It’s evident that where and how food is produced is one of the biggest human-caused threats to species extinction and our ecosystems. (1)
We must shift our way of thinking. We must do it soon. It’s only the first week of March here in Missouri, and the temperature will be 75°F today. My magnolia will bloom almost a full month early this year. It’s been warm all winter, and we’ve broken several weather records while other parts of the nation have experienced relentless and drastic episodes of snow or rain.
Sometimes I fear it’s too late, and we are lost like sheep heading off a cliff. We consume but give back very little. We take it because we think there is more. I am grateful to Robin for her beautiful book. To me, every day is Earth Day. And to Dr. Kimmerer, I will never look at a tree the same way. I will also promise to never take more than my share, never take more than half, and never the first or the last of anything in nature. I will continue to plant trees and flowers to attract pollinators. I will pick up trash and stop using plastic. I will continue to share the gift of veganism with the world. And finally, I will plant sweetgrass and braid it like it is the hair of mother earth.