It’s not news to write that divisive and exploitative relations — human to human, human to creature, human to planet — are dominating the headlines and bringing earth to a tipping point. What would it look like to preference narratives of mutuality and reciprocity? Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer have answered that question in co-editing the five volume series Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021). Featuring essays, poems, interviews, and stories from around the globe, Kinship becomes for the reader an immersive experience in a complex, intelligent, and virtuosic web of connectedness.
I spoke with Gavin, Robin, and John via video. The conversation has been edited for clarity and flow. The first half of the conversation can be found here.
Cara Benson: I want to talk about anthropomorphism and the idea of personhood. Animism or Neo-animism is definitely running through these essays, and it feels like there’s a great difference between anthropomorphizing the other-than-human and redefining what personhood means. Anthropomorphization seems like a projection of human characteristics onto this other thing, as in the only way I can understand this other thing is to think of it as human as opposed to redefining what personhood means. Would you speak to what you see as that difference?
Gavin Van Horn: First off, I just want to say that I don’t think anthropomorphism is inherently wrong. I think there’s been an aversion to it, because of the abuse of it, for just the reason you were saying. We impose certain thoughts, feelings, states, bodily characteristics on other beings and sometimes value them in terms of how close they are to the human species. And that can be a very negative thing.
At the same time, anthropomorphism is only possible because we share a repertoire of behaviors with other creatures, and emotional states, and mental states, and psychological ways of being that are parallel, if not exactly touching. We can recognize certain bodily cues and other behaviors in relation to our own, and that’s really important. I would never shame someone if they said, “Look at the joy that crow is experiencing by swooping through the air.” There’s nothing wrong in my mind with attributing joy to that state of being, and we limit ourselves if we don’t. In fact, more typically, I think there tends to be a hyper-rationalization or over-mechanization of other beings distinguishing them from humans, putting up that hard dichotomy between humans and other species.
But, now that you’ve said it, I think personhood is probably the more helpful category, and that’s what we emphasized in the Kinship books. In fact, Kinship, in some ways, emerged from that discussion of personhood because there were places and rivers and mountains and forests that were being recognized as living entities, and having the rights of personhood, in the courts. And as Robin pointed out to me when I was working on the introductory essay, the courts are recognizing and affirming what the people that have lived in those places have known for millennia, that these are other-than-human persons.
Some people can easily get confused about the idea of personhood because we often equate personhood only with humanity. It’s a much broader category and an umbrella that includes humans and other-than-human beings and even landscapes. Whole watersheds. Entire mountains. Personhood is a helpful category because it shatters that notion that humans have exclusive claims to rights and morality. So it’s a really helpful category in terms of bringing all of these other species within a much broader circle, and to not assume humans stand alone on top of a creaturely pyramid.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I really like how you thought about “What does it mean to be a person if you’re not a human?” What do we mean when we say “a person”? Something I really enjoyed in the broad scope of the essays in this collection is that there were a lot of insights into who is a person and why are they a person. I think about personhood as a being who is endowed with agency. A person is a being who is capable of reciprocity, who is capable of being in relationship with others. A person has their own gifts, their own responsibilities. We’re not anthropomorphizing, but recognizing a different kind of person. They have different gifts, different responsibilities, but nonetheless they’re sovereign entities as well.
For me, another thing that is really — I guess the only word I can think of is comforting — that in acknowledging and embracing the personhood of other beings, it is comforting to me to know that there are intelligences other than our own out there who can help us through these tremendous challenges that we face right now. The notion not only that these beings are persons in their own right, but that they can be teachers and guides, as well. That makes me feel a lot more secure that we can rely on these other beings to show us different ways when human ways are not working.
John Hausdoerffer: I love the question. I’m glad you asked it because I think a lot of folks may be wondering if we’re anthropomorphizing when we talk about personhood. Gavin’s legal arguments for the personhood of Lake Erie from the city of Toledo is very important. Robin, what you were just saying about the greater-than-human beings being our teachers, our mentors — I think that’s the opposite of anthropomorphizing. When you anthropomorphize, you give human traits to simplify complex beings out of a laziness of not fully understanding them. With greater-than-human personhood, we’re learning how to be persons from the complexity of the greater-than-human world. It’s the opposite of anthropomorphism and it’s a lot harder to do. It’s much more humbling, if that distinction makes sense.
It does, and in fact I would like to read into the record a passage from Bron Taylor’s essay in Volume 1: “For a good reason, namely, epistemological humility, Western science warns against anthropomorphism. I am, therefore, skeptical when I find myself imagining what other organisms might be thinking, feeling, or communicating. Nevertheless, many evolutionary scientists and ethologists are challenging the dualistic assumptions that draw firm boundaries between our own cognitive and affective traits and those of other species. It may be that if we can open up our full perceptual repertoire, affectively and rationally, to an understanding of the exotic intelligences of non-human species, it will be easier for us to grasp our kinship with all living beings.”
Taylor’s skepticism comes out of epistemological humility. Deferring how we know as opposed to foreclosing what we know.
Another thing that comes up for me in that passage is the concept of sentiment, or emotion; as he puts it, affective traits. The feeling of connectedness seems to be an important part of this project as much as the action of connectedness. Even when I’m firmly all in on the thesis, I don’t always feel it. I believe in connectedness with all living beings, and yet I can easily retreat into my individualism at any moment. To not see it, to not shift my head to see the web as Gavin’s opening essay beautifully demonstrates. Or in what I call “the lichen essay” by Andreas Weber. He writes about a moment of achieving the feeling of connectedness.
Which brings me back to Gavin’s point that we need others to come into our own, to come into our full humanity. It can feel that it’s up to me to shift. And it is, to a certain extent, to shift my perspective to see the web, or what Andreas talks about, to sit long enough with the lichen that he says “I achieve” this feeling of connectedness of really seeing the lichen in all its needs and desires and movements and its personhood.
How can we better help each other for when we’re not feeling it? How can we help each other to be with those uncomfortable feelings of disconnect, or even the banality of the daily when we might not be sensing that connectedness?
John Hausdoerffer: I want Gavin to take this one because Bron was his doctoral mentor, but I’ll just say two things. One is that we’re in this logocentric Western epistemology in which we put rationality as central, not only to our decision making while ignoring all these other parts of our being. But also, as Gavin said, we view those species that have human levels of rationality as superior to other species and at the top of the pyramid. Connection challenges logocentrism, and we do not know how to trust connection. We don’t know how to take a leap based on that connection. Whether it’s connection with other human beings or connection with the greater-than-human world. We don’t really have a practice for that. And so, secondly, our last volume is actually called Practice. But, Gavin you do a lot with this. I’ll let you play with this.
Gavin Van Horn: A couple things come to mind, and I’m glad you brought Andreas’ essay into this, which talks about lichen and this wonderful skin-to-skin contact in the sensuousness of his relationship and the feelings. Andreas does a wonderful job talking about how not just human beings, but all beings are drawn together through feeling. He calls it an erotic ecology. He doesn’t mean erotic in the sense of sexual. He means eros. He means the feeling that brings beings together in relation and the mutual transformation that’s possible because of that.
Maybe it’s a little random, so just cut this out if it’s not appropriate, but I was thinking about this time when I was sitting before this Zen teacher. You sometimes have that option of talking with the teacher during zazen. And he said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “Well I think I’m doing all right.” Kind of like, “I’m getting the hang of this. I’m really breathing deeply. I’m letting go of thoughts.” And he looked at me and he goes, “What do you want, a gold star?” Super sarcastic, and it was an arrow through my heart because he really got at something there. As an achiever, as somebody who did well in school, who always tried to excel, to be at the top of the class, all of that stuff. There’s this tendency to want to be the best kin we can be. Maybe that sometimes can slip in there, too.
Let’s go back to John’s invocation of playfulness, joy, flirtation, and also acknowledging that as Graham Harvey says in his book Animism, other beings might be social, but they might not always be sociable. In other words, the world doesn’t just have flowers, it has thorns. So when we’re talking about kinship, it’s not necessarily about fuzzy feelings. It can be, but it’s also a negotiation of relationship with other beings. There’s a deference and a respect to the other-than-human intelligences that Robin was speaking to earlier. We’re in all kinds of different relationships with our kin, hopefully. It does lead to a greater sense of the things that we think about positively, like care and comfort and solace and a feeling of personal growth, perhaps.
But in the end this is about becoming good relatives. And that involves a wide gamut of relations, at the root of which is respect for the lives of other beings.
John Hausdoerffer: Respect, and that you can’t rationally get your way to connection. I think Cara’s asking about that practice.
Gavin Van Horn: Right, you can’t rational your way to connection. I’m thinking about this moment I had where I realized that there are the words that we use to communicate with one another — they’re the words that we use to shine a light on these kinship relationships. But we also need to be willing to let go of the words, to leave the words behind, and that’s the practice piece that John’s talking about.
We might articulate to ourselves and clarify our thoughts and feelings through words. We have to, that’s one of the things we do. But there is also a letting go. Letting go that we think we know the fullness of another being through the act of naming. And letting go of the achievement mindset that we need to do this in order to get from point A to point B to point C to become better persons or whatever. There’s a point at which the words no longer are of service and we need to leave them behind, and just be. Be present.
Be quiet more.
Gavin Van Horn: Listening comes up in a lot of these books.
Isn’t that the interaction that John had with the swami that he referenced in the ending conversation in Volume 5? Be quiet more?
John Hausdoerffer: Quiet is better. Quiet my Jersey boy self. Robin, where’s your mind after everything Gavin just said?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: This is wonderful. You guys are giving me so much to think about. Related to this question of the difficulty of connecting, which I think is where we began, and you all point to some of the reasons for that. One that struck me in particular is that in the Western paradigm there is an assumption that makes that connection to other beings harder — and that is the notion that matter and spirit are understood as different things. This is the dualism that underpins Western thinking. We all have times of not feeling connected; boy, I sure do. For me it really happens when I’m in urban settings and I get all discombobulated. My path back to that connection is the breath. Imagining with every inhale that I am breathing in and nourished by the breath of plant beings. I may not be seeing them or sensing them, but I am breathing in their gifts and I am giving mine back in return.
As a scientist, I can, in my mind, watch those little molecules of carbon dioxide and oxygen flowing here and there, and it makes me feel connected. But it’s more than those molecules, because in Potawatomi ways, in a lot of Indigenous ways, breath is synonymous with spirit. It’s your spirit that is going back and forth in that respiration, in a sense.
So thinking of matter and spirit as always in really tight relationship I think can bring you into that place of connection sooner. It’s as you mentioned earlier, with your kids coming to the farm to learn and recognizing, “Oh, this is where food comes from.” It’s in the material realm and something more, the spiritual responsibility for mutual care is coming through as well when you’re eating that carrot or that tomato. Matter and spirit are connected, and so are you.
John Hausdoerffer: In terms of practice, having gone through a number of mindfulness institutes and things like that, I tend to not hold to the practice unless it’s super easy and accessible to me. And after even going to the Himalayas for a month and this and that, Gavin gave me a practice when he and I co-ran a workshop. He simply pays attention to each of the five senses for about two minutes each, and then just naming in his mind what he’s hearing, smelling, etc. as it happens. He lets a thought come in. “Hi thought.” A distraction comes in and then he goes back to what he’s hearing, smelling, etc. Then all the other senses. I’ve added a poem at the end of the senses in the last two minutes. That’s 12 minutes, and that’s it. I do it each day. That centers me to be present to the place and to the fact that it’s larger than me. As Emerson said in the woods: “I am nothing. I see all.” The more I can engage myself out of my mind into my senses as tentacles into the place, into the here and now, the more I’m practicing this kind of kinning.
Robin, at the end of the Practice volume I interview you and a number of colleagues, and we concluded on this practice with a number of keywords. You got the last word, which I think was important. We were talking about play again. If I might read from it: “Kinship through play. What a great last word. What wonderful practices of kinship: attention, gardening, curiosity, play.” These were what we came up with as practices that are available.
And Robin said, “Can I add a last word to the last word? Out of everything you are all sharing that come from play and attentive care, I think a practice that can help really cement the kinship is to flow from that attention to gratitude. Let’s translate when we see and when we pay attention into the big, radical kind of gratitude for all those gifts.”
Gratitude is a practice of kinship that’s available at every time and every place.
Reading these books became a practice. I spent all summer with them. I went backpacking with them. I sat by creek sides and read them. I would read and leaves would fall on me and fall on the pages, and the creek would burble by, and I’d pick up some sentences and then put it down again. They wove into into my experience of the entire summer. And when I might feel a sense that I wanted to retreat and not to stay radically open to that gratitude and to that connection, these books didn’t let me. They kept opening me further. As with any ongoing meditation practice, I got cranky about it at times and wanted to say, “All right, enough already.” But then the books invited me to go further, to deepen my relationship with them. So I want to ask about the breadth and scope of the project, it being five books, it being experiential. They are an act of praxis. These books are enacting that kinship that they’re talking about. I’d like to ask what you all might hope would happen for the reader who engages with the texts.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I love how you’ve framed that, how all five volumes are about practice. One of the things that I hope for, as people immerse themselves in them, is that we come to a realization that we already know how to do this. Although we don’t always practice it very well, we know how to practice gratitude. We know how to practice reciprocity with each other as humans. And we have compassion for each other. We include one another in our circle of what we call moral responsibility. The key next step is to expand and open the boundaries of who is within that circle, to include our more-than-human kinfolk. This expansion of the realm of compassion, respect, and empathy to include the realm of all beings is to cultivate ecological compassion. Then from that ecological compassion arises that sense of belonging. The kind of work that these essays can do is to make much more permeable and expand our sense of self to include the we, the big we.
Gavin Van Horn: I love that Robin, and Cara thank you. Hearing you say that about the books, it makes all that goes into this worth it. The leaves raining down on you, the creek going by, the way that you would read a sentence — it’s a contemplative participatory act. When a book becomes a conversation, that’s what you want. I certainly got to experience that because we were, as editors, working with all these different people and stories from around the world, which was a really exciting thing about this project.
I almost want to let Robin’s words just lie there because they’re so beautiful, but it did raise for me something that I think maybe others would want to know about. What I wrote about in my essay was this feeling of orphanhood. That’s an existential feeling that a lot of people in our society struggle with, that feeling of disconnection. I think at the heart of that disconnection is a broken relationship with land. That’s what I mean by orphanhood: that we’ve been uprooted. Literally torn out of the ground. And that doesn’t just happen to trees, that happens to people, as well. I shouldn’t say people — humans, if we’re going to use personhood. My essay was really me wrestling with what does it mean to feel orphaned, and how do you work your way back into belonging? How do you practice your way back into that circle of belonging? I tried to address that, but I think that, especially for settler-colonial cultures that experience a fundamental breach of relationship, belonging is what we have to find our way back to, in practice. That practice where we begin to feel once again a part of a larger-than-human community.
John Hausdoerffer: For me kinning is about healing. Not just a wound left on the land by settler-colonial culture, from which I come and benefit, but a healing inside the human spirit. I am alienated. I am wounded by a consumer culture that asks me to reduce myself to a body that consumes bodies in a global economy. For me, kinning is about reigniting a kind of kinship with my inner spirit that can connect with and understand complexity. See my part in it and care for it as part of my larger self in a new way.
My essay struggled with what Gavin’s talking about. I have this yurt on Terrible Mountain. It’s called Terrible Mountain, colonial name. I interview Ute Mountain Ute Leader Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk and I asked her what might have been the Ute name for it. And she said, “Well, John. The name would have been ever-shifting, depending on the time of year and event.” That idea of the flow of even a name gets back to this idea of kin as a verb. She said, “It might have been where my grandmother was born. Might have been where a certain elk was hunted. Might have been where certain berries were collected.”
For me the healing begins, again we get back to where we started, with shattering how you even name things, what to even call things. Then shattering my view of myself as the caller, as the namer. On the other side of that shattering is a potential to have kinship with my own wounded, alienated spirit.
Which brings me to Robin’s essay where she references species loneliness. We are lonely for this connection, this interspecies connection, and might other species be lonely for us. I think about that idea a lot. I walk out my door into lots of undeveloped land and there are times when I can feel my love for everything. For the salamanders, for the trees, for the ferns, for the moss, for the dirt, for the stones, for all the water. It’s pouring from me. I feel it in all my molecules. And I wonder, do they feel my love? What is the science of love? What do you think?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I have on the wall of my office a beautiful poster that artist Molly Costello made in response to a chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass. On the poster it says: “The land loves you back.” I forget which chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass it is, but it is about that very notion and saying, “How would we even know that the land loves us back?” Well, how do we know we love our families? Because we provide for them. We teach them. We shelter them. We give them beauty and food and medicine, and etc etc. Well…that’s what the land does for us as well.
And that notion that our love for the land is not a one way flow, but is a reciprocal bond between us is expressed in perhaps different ways than humans do together, but it’s all about taking care of each other. So I firmly know, in the important ways of knowing for me, that the land loves us back.
Cara Benson is the author of the hybrid collection (made) (Book*hug). Her stories and poems have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Identity Theory, Fence, Hobart, and many other venues. Her interviews, essays, and reviews at Electric Literature, Bookslut, 3:AM, Full Stop, Entropy, Poetry Society of America, and elsewhere. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the bpNichol Award. She lives in the unceded ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans.