My mother passed away in the summer of 2011, and I miss her just as much today as I did the day I got the gut wrenching news that she had died in her recliner 2 hours after coming home from the hospital where she had been treated for a stomach ulcer. She had beaten cancer against all odds and was doing very well, so her death from a stomach ulcer was a shock. There was a time when I didn’t think I could survive without my Mom, but I had to pull myself together because I am a mother too. I tell myself I’m lucky to have had her love and advice for more than 50 years, but it doesn’t cure the sadness that comes from being motherless.
The idea of the survival of humanity without mothers is almost inconceivable. Babies need someone to provide them with attention, affection and stimulation. Research shows that without parents, babies fail to develop normally - the wiring of their brain circuitry goes haywire. Children who are adopted and nurtured by the age of two can recover from neglect, but for many, the psychological effects last a lifetime. Mothers are crucial for the survival of most organisms, but all too often, western culture takes mothers for granted.
Forestry science has come to understand the fact that trees have mothers too. When old growth trees in forests are cut down, young, orphaned trees suffer, struggle to survive and often die. When old growth trees are felled, forests lose biodiversity, and perish.
Old growth, “Mother Trees” recognize their kin and protect their offspring through an underground network of fungal mycelium which connects all the plants and trees in forests, exchanging nutrients and information. Native cultures call these old growth trees "Grandmother Trees”, reflecting their longevity and role as wise, old nurturers. Mother trees even change their root structure to make room for baby trees. While Mother Trees do favor their own offspring, they don’t just share their resources with family members - they share them with trees of different species as well. Suzanne Simard, Ph.D - a leading forestry ecologist, and Professor of Forest Ecology in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia says “… when fungal networks are intact they allow a greater diversity of trees, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, to survive in the forest.”
The lumber industry’s practice of clear-cutting forests has traditionally exploited and ravaged old growth forests, targeting the oldest and largest trees because they are the most valuable. While industry practices are slowly improving, attempts at sustainable forestry practices are still questionable, and there’s a lot of greenwashing going on in the forestry business. Business practices are slow to change. Old growth forests are still suffering and being depleted just as we are beginning to understand more about their complexities. We're just beginning to understand how they can help us solve many of our environmental problems, and how important global forest recovery programs are in combatting climate change.
Trees are highly evolved, sentient life forms with sophisticated communication networks and a sense of community. Animals (including humans), plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago, and we humans share a surprising amount of DNA with our very distant plant cousins. DNA studies show that our DNA is more similar to plants than different from them - we share about half of our DNA with the banana plant.
Every moment we are nurtured, nourished and blessed by the gifts that Mother Earth showers on us. Western civilization has given little or nothing back to the Earth, and in fact, the English language impudently addresses the Earth as an “it”. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer, author and Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, “Using ‘it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation… “It” means it doesn’t matter.” Professor Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and she combines traditional indigenous knowledge with science in her teaching and writing. She has been learning the Anishinaabe language.
According to Kimmerer, ”…The language (English) allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the planet. “But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it’s impossible to speak of Sugar Maple as “it.” We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family… The proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living Earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. I wanted to run through the woods calling it out, so grateful that this word exists. But I also recognized that this beautiful word would not easily find its way to take the place of “it.” We need a simple new English word to carry the meaning offered by the indigenous one. Inspired by the grammar of animacy and with full recognition of its Anishinaabe roots, might we hear the new pronoun at the end of Bemaadiziiaaki, nestled in the part of the word that means land?
“Ki” to signify a being of the living Earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.
Language can be a tool for cultural transformation. Make no mistake: “Ki” and “kin” are revolutionary pronouns. Words have power to shape our thoughts and our actions. On behalf of the living world, let us learn the grammar of animacy. We can keep “it” to speak of bulldozers and paperclips, but every time we say “ki,” let our words reaffirm our respect and kinship with the more-than-human world. Let us speak of the beings of Earth as the “kin” they are.”
What a change in attitudes Kimmerer’s small word adjustment would bring about. In a world where too many influential people refuse to acknowledge the fact that we’re destroying the planet, it might take a while before this kind of language shift can occur. It’s a beautiful, transformative idea. When we begin to think of all of life as family - kin - we will learn to respect our Mother Trees and our Mother, Earth.
To learn more about forest networks and Mother Trees, here are links to three Suzanne Simard videos: