Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass

I have spent most of January with my nose in a book and as someone always trying to reclaim some of the animist ways of perceiving the world that humanity rose up with, this book provided me with a little awakening last week.

In animism, from the Latin word anima meaning 'breath, spirit, life', everything is believed to be sentient. Although I truly yearn for that world, portrayed beautifully in the film ‘Avatar’, we don’t live in a society that lights up the human spirit in this way. I wonder a lot about how we ended up here?

So as I was reading said book called ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, a eureka moment occurred. The author was reflecting on the indigenous language of her tribe, Potawatomi, now nearly eradicated with only 9 elders still able to speak it fluently. These elders are trying to teach the younger members so that it doesn’t get lost forever.

But it is proving to be really challenging because inherent in this ancient language, millennia in the making, is a completely different way of perceiving the world. One built on animist principles. So she can’t just swap corresponding words because the older language offers a completely different way of speaking about the energy of life.

She uses the example of the word Pulpowee which translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the Earth overnight”, one simple word to encapsulate the life force of mushrooms, one that doesn’t have any corresponding word in English or most modern languages.

In delving deeper, she finds English, her primary language, to be a noun-based language (no wonder we love things!) and only 30% of English words are verbs. Whereas in Potawatomi, that proportion is 70% because verbs provide the grammar of aliveness and sentience.

She uses the example of a bay, a noun in English used to describe ‘a broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inwards’. In Potawatomi, the word wiikwegamaa is a verb meaning ‘to be a bay’. She reflects that a bay is only a noun if water is considered ‘dead’ as once considered ‘alive’, the living water has decided to shelter itself between shores, choosing for the time being to be a bay rather than a stream or an ocean or a waterfall. Astounding!

English doesn’t give us many tools for exploring such a way of perceiving the world, our grammar reducing most non-human beings or things to a lifeless, soulless ‘it’. Imagine how different the world would appear to us if nothing was an ‘it’? For ‘it’ allows us to treat nature as separate, to reduce what is worthy of our honouring, to turn from the wisdom that surrounds us.

In that moment of realisation, how the language we are born into dictates how we interface with the world, something profoundly shifted within me. The power our language has to control and squash our experience of life into neat little boxes has gone largely unnoticed. It is real food for thought. So for now as I roam around the land where I currently live, I try to see its beauty in verbs not nouns and feel all the richer for it. 

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