The Language of Gratitude

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass discusses various native North American cultures and their wisdom regarding coexistence in respectful reciprocity with nonhuman beings. Kimmerer’s insights of the significance of language systems in defining our perception of nonhumans, and thus our relationship with them, help to shed light on why this relationship is rather unbalanced in the Western culture. This article, through the lens of environmental philosophy, explores where Kimmerer’s ideas of nature and humans intersect with those of Heidegger, Heise and Morton, as well as affect theory according to Seigworth and Gregg. In addition, this article will discuss how indigenous practices of expressing gratitude towards nature provide an example of a more empathetic way of life, and what the Western world might learn from it. My argument is for a multiplicity of epistemologies: there is much for the Western anthropocentric worldview to learn from indigenous cultures and nonhumans. Language being a universal tool for making sense of the world, I will examine the visions provided by an alternative language system of other ways of knowing, and the inextricability of humans and nature. Affect theory and indigenous knowledge will further help to illuminate nonhuman epistemologies and ways of communication, as well as to consider possibilities of inter-species communication. Additionally, I will reflect on the human/nature division, why it was founded on false grounds, and its consequences on nature and the human as a species. With an analysis of Kimmerer and Heidegger’s musings on gratitude, it can be concluded that a shift away from our consumerist mindset to one of appreciation provides a chance to achieve a more peaceful coexistence – whether that leads to the pulling to a halt or postponing of the environmental crisis, or has no effect on it altogether – even if the only argument for it is living well for the sake of living well.

Language barriers

The world as we see it is not only shaped but constructed by language, and the way we perceive ourselves in relation to everything else on this planet is no exception. The anxious separation drawn between humans and the nature is evident in words like the environment – we are uncertain whether it includes or excludes us, if there even is such a thing as environment (Morton 10). Nonetheless, like language itself, the barrier we build with it is artificial. By perpetuating this false assumption of a separation, we are keeping ourselves from understanding otherness, as well as from embracing parts of ourselves. As Ursula Heise muses on the consequences of our speaking habits, “defining nature as in principle separate from humans turns it into an abstract, metaphysical concept with serious limitations for understanding how humans – and others – actually inhabit material environments” (9). This problem materializes in Kimmerer’s example of the English pronouns:

When we tell them [our toddlers] that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object, we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into natural resources. If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice…the arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human (57).

The ‘it-ness’ of nonhuman bodies is so rooted in our subconscious that we do not think of them as alive at all. Grammatical systems change slowly, but what we made we can alter through conscious effort – undoing and rebuilding. There is a need for a change in our language and our ways of thinking, for only thus can we work towards a proper dissolution of the division between what we consider as sentient and valuable life and what we do not, and thereby an improved understanding of nonhumans. As Morton argues, in order to be as “radically open” as the ecological thought requires, we must deconstruct our concepts of what counts as people: “the ethics of ecological thought is to regard beings as people even when they aren’t people” (8). Essentially, this calls for non-discriminative and generous empathy. These lines of thoughts point towards necessary steps we must take in a shift towards a multiplicity of ways of knowing.

The next step is to accept that, as Kari Weil states, “thought, consciousness, and language are not humans’ exclusive property” (23), followed by accepting the limitations of our ways of knowing. As Kimmerer phrases it, “listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own” (48). This view deconstructs the idea that human language is the only valid means of communication. Crucial, also, is an attitude of empathy which Weil juxtaposes with that of trauma studies: one that is critical of our invasive scientific methods and approaches the experiences of nonhuman others with an understanding that they might never be translatable (7). However, some human languages seem to be strides closer than others to understanding those experiences of being which are fundamentally ‘strange.’ Kimmerer raises a fascinating point about the Potawatomi language, in which the verb/noun ratio, which in English is roughly 30% and 70% respectively, is reversed. This results in a rich and remarkably innovative vocabulary:

When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores…Because it could do otherwise, become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things… (55)

Though something about what exactly it means to be a body of water inevitably remains inaccessible, the Potawatomi language acknowledges the existence of ways of knowing beyond our reach. Its speakers have a built-in respect for other experiences of being. Moreover, the mere ability to validate the animacy of ‘others’ in language makes speaking for their rights extremely more accessible. After all, human beings get to make crucial decisions regarding nonhumans, and language is our primary instrument for building bridges from our solitary minds to others’. Being able to relate to the nonhuman other through a more inclusive language system also suggests potentially valuable tools for environmental humanities, especially in comparison to English, which offers no choice but to reduce bays and rivers alike to nouns, and thus standing-reserve, making a compelling case for decolonizing environmentalism.

Kimmerer’s notion of “the life that pulses through all things” is resonant of affect theory, which sets out to describe the ‘forces’ that constantly flow in and out of bodies. As Gregory and Seigworth assert, the nature of affect “blends and blurs” conventional dialectics such as human/ nonhuman (4). Moreover, their emphasis on the fluidity and ubiquity of affect makes one question whether it could become a basis for a newfound empathy for ‘others’ in environmental thought. What Kimmerer calls the “worldess being of others in which we are never alone” (48), recognizes that ‘others’ actively participate in our experience of existence and vice versa, and in this way, the human becomes decentered and human language deprioritized. From the intersection of these views we can infer that our concepts of means of communication are about to undergo a radical de- and reconstruction. The de-prioritization of the linguistic means opens up room to consider all the alternative ways of expression which might help us better understand our nonhuman co-dwellers. Kimmerer articulates it best: “What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? …Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives” (128). Like a potted plant that physically reacts to being placed in a different corner of the living room, all beings tell stories by the way they exist, if one only respects them enough to be perceptive.

Possession problems

Over-consumption, and thus climate change, can practically be stripped down to one human flaw: our obsession with possessing. Morton, drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s thoughts, ruminates:

Our concepts of “faceless generous mother nature” are based on “sedentary” agricultural societies with their idea of “possession”. The myth of the faceless mother provides the very motivation for our exploitation of Earth, seen as “inexhaustible matter for things” Wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows (7).

The ugly side of our embeddedness in nature is that there truly is no barrier to protect it from us. Validating the diverse means of communication discussed above could counteract the idea of this ‘facelessness’ of nature and allow us to see its vitality and vulnerability. But Heidegger’s point still stands: “everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. We call it the standing-reserve [Bestand]…Whatever stands by in the sense of standing-reserve no longer stands over against us as an object” (17). Heidegger shows that our need to tame and possess nature stems from survival instincts, and the fear of something larger, stronger looming ‘over against us’. In today’s society, however, where our natural enemies have been caged or commodified, sticking to the same motifs has become not only futile but hypocritical. By turning nature into a standing-reserve, we have ourselves become that which we accused nature of being and what we used to separate ourselves from it – violent, cruel, unjust, dominating the weaker. This, yet again, proves the inextricability of human and nature: made from the same matter, we repeat the same patterns.

Once in possession of the standing-reserve, we demand to have control over it, to have it on call for our convenience, but also, ironically, we demand for the images in our heads of our possessions to remain “untouched.” As Morton exemplifies, “in the idea of pristine wilderness, we can make out the mirror image of private property: Keep Off the Grass, Do Not Touch, Not For Sale” (5). His example of protests against wind and solar farms on the grounds of them not looking “natural” in the green fields, under which pipes are already running but whose invisibility enables humans to remain ignorant of them, is a case in point (9). False aesthetic values and romantic fantasies of nature are valued over sustainability – or, frankly, and typically for our species, comfort zones are preferred over having to face the difficult truth. But even ignorance ceases to be bliss. Were the modern man capable of appreciating a bird without enclosing it in a cage, our planet might not currently be facing a sixth mass extinction event.

However, if we are serious about humans belonging to nature just as much as rocks and trees, we must consider whether our spiraling-the-drain-at-increasing-speed is merely the ‘natural course of things.’ A thought of Alan Watts’ regarding space and form helps to accentuate this: “they are relational, and in that sense, they are each other, because underneath every inseparable relation is common ground” (61). If we by the same logic accept that we are nature, we can no longer consider ourselves as an outside destructive influence. This raises the question whether the looming destruction was in a way ‘coded’ into the unraveling of history and is thus ‘supposed’ to happen, and whether, had it not been industrialization that sparked the global warming, another human phenomenon inevitably would have. Whether or not we may still alter the ending of our world as we know it, we do have power over the ending of our story as a species.

Gratitude and the Honorable Harvest

What might we, then, do with these thoughts? Heidegger rushes to help, pointing out the etymological link between thinking and thanking:

The Old English thencan, to think, and thancian, to thank, are closely related; the Old English noun for thought is thanc or thonc—a thought, a grateful thought, and the expression of such a thought; today it survives in the plural thanks. The “thanc,” that which is thought, the thought, implies the thanks (qtd. in Purino 168).

Building on this, we might consider that we are required to rethink our ways of thinking about nature with an emphasis on gratitude. Looking around and thinking with appreciation might elevate us to a better understanding of the intricacies of the forms of life we share our planet with – as opposed to looking around with capitalist, commodifying eyes, the consequences of which we know too well. Kimmerer supports this perspective by introducing the knowledge practices of the Onondaga Nation, whose elaborate and frequently spoken Thanksgiving Address is an “ancient order of protocol [that] sets gratitude as the highest priority” and “a statement of identity and an exercise of sovereignty, both political and cultural” (107-8). It is a verbal manifestation of what is considered a responsibility, a duty given to the nation: to “live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things” (107). This seemingly simple idea circles back to affect theory – the tradition symbolizes an unquestioned equality of species: all traversed by the same forces, all essential, and all contributing to the circulation of life in the ecosystem. There is something extremely noble about the way it deprioritizes the human, and in agreement with affect theory, asserts that bodies are all part of each other’s experience, which makes a convincing case for a democracy of species. Calling expressing gratitude a “revolutionary idea,” Kimmerer states that “in a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires” (111). Certainly, our possession-obsessed society is incompatible with this line of thought. To live sustainably and ethically is to consume no more than necessary.

Mindful consumption, however, does not mean regressing to living in caves and living off of tree bark. A myriad of animals leaves constructions behind that outlive them, plants invade and suffocate other plants’ living areas, each being plays a role in the food chain. To cease to interact with nature would indicate the same dichotomy by which we damage nature: insisting on being separate from nature, instead of being it. Rather, we might look to Heidegger, who advocates the kind of building that cooperates with nature instead of trampling and exhausting it. As an example he gives the bridge which, as opposed to a power plant that harnesses the water to its own purposes, “lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants mortals their way…Bridges initiate in many ways” (354). Initiating could be taken to mean that bridges add to the river and the world, but do so without possessing, or turning it into resources. The goal, then, is not to take steps back, but to take them towards nature by ‘doing better.’ Another model for doing better is introduced by Kimmerer: the practices of the Honorable Harvest, “an indigenous canon of principles that govern the exchange of life for life” (179). It emphasizes that as part of the ecosystem, we are supposed to take. Who eats the fruit, speeds up the seeding process: as consumers of the products of nature, we have a crucial role in maintaining the harmony of the ecosystem. But the Honorable Harvest also includes practices of reciprocity – giving back to nature, for as Kimmerer frequently reminds her readers, “all our flourishing is mutual.” As much as we need nature, it needs our input, too. The relationship is merely lopsided because as a modern society we are accustomed to merely taking, and taking too much. Founded in a respect for life almost unimaginable to cosmopolitan city dwellers, the practices of the Honorable Harvest include offerings, ceremonies and a general acknowledgement of the abundance everywhere; taking, yet making a conscious effort to avoid stepping over the line that separates need from greed. They live with rather than off of nature. Reciprocity and respect of this kind speak of an internalized gratitude. The Honorable Harvest is communication with the nonhuman world via actions instead of words; a language of gratitude, if you like.

It is from the realization that everything is interconnected, whereby gratitude naturally arises. Heidegger, meditating on the causes that are responsible for the silver chalice’s “lying before us ready for use” states that “the chalice is indebted to, i.e. owes thanks to, the silver for that out of which it consists” (7-8). It could therefore be argued that everything is in debt of gratitude to the atoms and forces which brought it about, as well as to the aspects (eidos) in which it is ‘admitted’ into appearance. Before we resist this ethical duty of owing thanks by resorting to an existential crisis – “did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mold me man (Milton 1685) – there is a logic behind it. Awareness of one’s place in the world and gratitude go hand in hand, and if we are up to the challenge of continuing to exist, gratitude indeed seems to offer the most ethical way of doing so. To Heidegger, thanking is an essential and natural addition to the list of ways in which humans exist and brings about an optimistic ending: “Wherever man opens his eyes and ears, unlocks his heart, and gives himself over to meditating and striving, shaping and working, entreating and thanking, he finds himself everywhere already brought into the unconcealed” (19, my italics).

Kimmerer, by recounting indigenous knowledge in her sincere way, facilitates her reader’s connecting the dots between gratitude and a sustainable way of life as complimentary and fundamental parts of a human presence willing to peacefully coexist with ‘others’. While keeping in mind the limitations of our methods of accessing knowledge, acknowledging other ways of knowing in our language is a step towards a more just legislation regarding nonhuman beings’ rights and towards a democracy of species. What that may look like in practice is yet to be solved, but a change of mindset is a good place to start. And as the Honorable Harvest shows, actions often speak louder than words, which calls to question our supposed linguistic supremacy. All things considered, gratitude is the language we must learn in order to carry out our ethical duties to the world. Even if the morbid conclusion of our embeddedness in nature implies that our ‘fate’ is to be a self-destructive species, inevitably leading to a resetting and restarting of the planet, we are left with two choices for our remaining time. We can either put our foot on the gas and race towards the end like we have been doing for roughly a hundred years. Alternatively, we can pull over, minimize the damage we do from now on, and melt with appreciation into a kaleidoscope of endless epistemologies.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.” Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge, 1993. 347-63.

—. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1977. Web. 15 Oct. 2020. <https://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PPP566/%CE%A4he_Question_Concerning_Technology_and_Other_Essays.pdf>.

Heise, Ursula K. Imagining Extinction: The Cultural meanings of Endangered Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. EBSCOhost. Web. 15 Oct. 2020.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013. Kindle file.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2018. Print.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Pres, 2010. EBSCOhost. Web. 15 Oct. 2020.

Purino, Maria Marjorie R. “A Revisiting of Heidegger’s Thinking-Thanking and Zen’s Non-Rationality.” Kritike 14:1 (2020) 161-178. Web. 15 Oct. 2020.

Seigworth, Gregory J., Gregg, Melissa. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost. Web. 17 Oct. 2020.

Watts, Alan. What Is Zen? Novato: Publishers Group West, 2000. Kindle file.

Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Google Books. Web. 16 Oct. 2020.


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