Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)
Grammar Across Classrooms: “Braiding Sweetgrass”
As I have been learning with my students and revisiting so many interesting language lessons this semester in ENG 320, “Grammar and Linguistics” (a discipline that is definitely not my strongest–just ask my students!), my mind has been more attuned to issues of grammar, sociolinguistics and applications of language. I’ve been sharing with the class (boring them?) these daily (re)discoveries of how amazing words and language systems and dialects and sentences and expressions and idioms and so forth truly are.
And how complex the deep structures of languages can be–even though we are all very well-adapted to many language systems (from our “home” language of informal conversation, to the more formal arena of the classroom and standard edited English or academic prose, or those lucky enough to know elements of other languages (or even luckier, being multi-lingual), to even appreciating some of the intricacies of “texting” language, and plague of “upspeak” and “LOL.”)
So I was primed and pleased to encounter some poignant lessons this week in my “Literature of the Environment Class” (ENG 344) where we are exploring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass (Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants).
Did you know that trees talk? Kimmerer’s Potawatomi ancestors took it as a given–a deep lesson about the complex interrelationships between all life systems in the landscape that surrounds us. A key example in the book is from a chapter entitled “The Council of Pecans” where Kimmerer, a trained botanist, explores the mystery of why the family of Juglandaceae trees (butternuts, black walnuts, hickories and pecans) utilize the strategy of “Mast Fruiting;” a grove will either all flower and produce nuts in a particular season, or none will. Individual trees never go their own way, Kimmerer asserts, perceiving this strategy as a deep lesson from nature, in its own kind of language, of the “power of unity,” and how, when working together, “all flourishing is mutual” for those interdependent beings within a particular ecosystem.
But beyond a lovely metaphor, and an indigenous lesson passed down, Kimmerer outlines how this long scientific mystery is starting to have some possible answers, and that trees really do have a kind of “language.” They “speak” to each other through pheromones cast in the air, which can alert nearby neighbors when there is a threat (a beetle attack, for example), so that the other trees can drop leaves, store sap, or employ other defenses. And, even more amazingly, they communicate underground through “fungal bridges” that are able to link root to root and “weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking.” As Kimmerer writes, “in this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival.” Scientists are still not certain HOW the trees communicate this way, but they know that these linkages of “mycorrhizal networks” help to form some of the largest intertwined living systems on the planet. “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity,” she writes. “Tree conversations are still far above our heads” (20).
Beyond plant language, the book includes a insightful discourse on human language, and how humans relate to the earth around them accordingly. In her chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Kimmerer shares her struggles in trying to learn her ancestor’s Anishinaabe language, “Bodewadmimwin” or Potawatami. This is yet another example of the threatened languages on the verge of going extinct that we have learned about this semester in ENG 320. But Kimmerer is doing her best to carry this language tradition forward–and in her lessons, she has come to see how language can guide the way we encounter the world. She gives the example from Patawatami of “Puhpowee” which not only means “mushroom,” but also the active force that pushes it through the earth overnight. This language system is filled with examples of “animacy,” where verbs are preferred over nouns to describe the landscapes we live in and communicate with:
“In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums and even stories, are all animate. The list of inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects there are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say, “What is it?” And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yyawe. Apple that being is.” (56)
Kimmerer then shows how this structure leads these speakers see the parts of nature not as variations on “it,” but as fellow “beings” or even “people” in their own active ways:
“I have heard our elders give advice like ‘Go spend some time with those Beaver people.’ They remind us of the capacity of others as our teachers, as holders of knowledge, as guides. Imagine walking through a richly inhabited world of Birch people, Bear people, Rock people, beings we think and therefore speak of as persons worth of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world…. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us.” (58)
I love this idea–and the deep metaphors and symbols Kimmerer formulates from her encounters with the natural world–a kind of life language, spoken by the landscape. There are inherent lessons to be learned here as well–beyond the classroom.
A terrific update of this chapter appeared recently in Orion Magazine. You need to encounter these language concepts in Kimmerer’s own words, in how she so beautifully captures the idea of Speaking of Nature.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Press, 2013.
—. “Speaking of Nature” Orion Magazine, 12 June. 2017, https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/ Accessed 30 Oct. 2019.
Matthew Evertson teaches writing and literature in the English and Humanities program at Chadron State College.