The Language of Animacy

The Language of Animacy

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.



Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)

Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)

To quote the late great Marvin Gaye, “Oh, things ain’t what they used to be, no, no. Oil wasted on the oceans, and upon our seas, fish full of mercury.” “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?” Gaye wrote the lyrics for this iconic song in 1971, the year I was born. This song which came out nearly 50 years ago, could have easily been written about our world today.  Marvin Gaye is one of my favorite poets and modern-day soothsayers. Through his music, he advocated not just for the rights of his black brothers and sisters, but for all people, and for the planet. Gaye wrote about things like discrimination, hate, division–the themes of countless generations. But he also spoke of hope, acceptance, love, and unity. I think it’s cool that throughout history many cultural revolutions have been played out through music.   I am a proud product of this generation–born to learn from the mistakes of those who came before me and to speak my mind. 

That said, as a staunch advocate of veganism, I have been accused a time or two of being self-righteous. But self-righteous people believe they are morally superior and often speak in terms of unfounded certainties. In other words, they espouse their own “self-serving” versions of the truth. That is not me, nor my intention. The truths I speak of have been scientifically proven over and over again. These laws of nature are predictable, measurable, and, as it seems–inevitable. But I have learned to be careful when I speak because sometimes passion can be mistaken for preaching. So, I will do my best to walk the line. 

I have written before about the carnage of modern-day animal agriculture, an industry whose practices are protected by “AgGag Laws.”  The Agricultural Gag Laws are designed to silence whistleblowers who reveal animal abuses on industrial farms. Ag-gag laws currently exist in seven states, penalizing whistleblowers who investigate the day-to-day activities of industrial farms. (1). In my state of Missouri, whistleblowing has been criminalized. In other words, if someone exposes the truth of any atrocity, they can be prosecuted and penalized. The State legislature and the lobbyist behind them believe that these “truths” can be damaging to corporate interests and their profits.  

Organizations like the ASPCA and PETA who make it their mission to expose these inhumane practices are often villainized by the mainstream who believe that abusing a cat or dog is horrifying but are unwilling to take action when it comes to the horrors suffered by agricultural animals. Part of this is cognitive dissonance is due to societal conditioning; we do things because that’s the way everyone does it, but also because the atrocities and abuse in our food system are hidden away. 

This abuse leads me to my next point, the conditions that are causing the suffering of these animals. To quote journalist Michael Pollan, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” I read his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” four years ago and have used it as a reference point for many of my meat-eating friends who have questions about my choice to be a vegan. Before reading Pollan’s book, I had watched a documentary called Food, Inc. Prior to becoming a vegan, I had never given much thought to where my food came from. But once I learned where it came from I was appalled. It became my mission to learn as much as I could and to teach others. I am not going to go into all of that because I already have in previous posts here, but suffice to say what we are going through now, is no surprise to me.  

Covid-19 has been referred to as the Wuhan Flu after being traced to a wet market in Wuhan China. These wet food markets sell live animals, without much, if any regulation. Like many other zoonic diseases like Mad-Cow, Swine Flu, Ebola, they are given their names from the animals or areas where they originated. These diseases are passed from animals to humans due to things like “Habitat erosion, which may be one of the biggest factors in how viruses have begun breaking down the walls between us and the animals that originally carried them.” And the most common way they initially transfer to us through our modern-day food system. “It’s the handling that comes before eating — the killing, skinning, and butchering — that is highly risky.” (3)

But that’s China.  Just because we don’t have wet markets here in the US doesn’t mean that we don’t get sick from our food here. Currently, there is an outbreak of fatal bird flu in South Carolina that has people worried statewide about the low pathogenic disease, which has mutated into the more severe version and can be transmitted from “species to species.” For years in neighboring Duplin County, North Carolina, where 20% of people who live within a half-mile of a pig or poultry farm have asthma, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function, and acute blood pressure elevation. Statewide about 900,000 or 10% of the population lives within 3 miles of such farms. And as it often does, it seems to affect mostly minorities and the poor. 

In a 2017 article, The Guardian reported that researchers from the University of North Carolina revealed that most of the state’s industrial hog operations disproportionately affect African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, a pattern, that “is generally recognized as environmental racism.” “They (corporations) fill massive lagoons with [waste], and they take that lagoon stuff and spray it over fields,” said US Senator Cory Booker in recalling a trip to North Carolina late last year. “I watched it mist off of the property of these massive pig farms into black communities. And these African American communities are like, ‘We’re prisoners in our own home.’ The biggest company down there [Smithfield] is a Chinese-owned company, and so they’ve poisoned black communities, land value is down, abhorrent … This corporation is outsourcing its pain, its costs, on to poor black people in North Carolina.” 

Former NC State Representative Rep. John Blust in a general assembly meeting called out his colleagues for protecting big business by “passing amendments to prevent anyone who lived more than a half-mile from the source of an alleged nuisance from suing. The law prohibits lawsuits filed more than a year after the farm begins operation or undergoes “a fundamental change” and bar punitive damages unless the farm operator had been convicted of a crime or civil enforcement action for violations related to the alleged nuisance.  (4) Blust went on to say that the legislation “shields “one giant corporation” from individual neighbors who have legitimate concerns about the stench, the flies, the buzzards, and the dried remains of sprayed and liquefied hog excrement that coated their houses. Blust and his constituents lost as the bill was ultimately rushed through to avoid debate and amendments.

We have reached a frightening precipice in time, a global crossroads if you will. With recent news reports of groceries seeing meat shortages by the end of the week due to hundreds of Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, there will likely be a mad rush to buy up the current supply. If this happens, millions will be forced to find their protein sources from other means. I hope that people will realize what some of us have known all along, ware designed to eat plants. Just because we have evolved to eat meat, doesn’t mean we should. Plants are not only a sustainable resource for human consumption, but they are a viable resource for our planet. Every day I eat the bounty of the plant world, and I am neither hungry or dissatisfied. I am healthy and happy. In the last week, I have had two people reach out to me, wanting me to know that I had helped change their perspective. They are both moving toward veganism. I hope that those two will help two more, who will help two more. Epidemiologists, climate scientists, and countless others have shown through scientific modeling that we don’t make a significant shift and continue to make the same mistakes over and over again; it will eventually lead to our demise. That would be awful. Finally, I am reminded of this great parable I’ve heard for years.  

“The Drowning Man.”

A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”

The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”

So the rowboat went on.

Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”

To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the motorboat went on.

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”

To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.

Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”

To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”