What if we asked Nature what [its] pronouns are?

Like you, I was taught in grade-school English that only people qualified for proper pronouns of male and female gender. Pets were granted the grammatical privilege and other animals only if we knew their sex. 

Nature and all its forces, creatures and elements were labeled with the impersonal pronoun it along with everything else in the natural and man-made world. 

I never questioned the rule as a journalist. But since I started referring to Nature with a capital N in my writing I have continually tripped over this shallow English grammar usage. And now I’ve fallen down an enlightening rabbit hole. 

Personification of Nature is still human centric

The term Mother Earth is acceptable, albeit considered a bit hippy. Mother Nature focuses on the feminine life-giving aspects of Nature. Countless businesses use the term to show they recognize Nature is not a commodity to be taken lightly. 

The phrase Mother Nature carries more power as a guiding force of creation and especially of harsh and punishing weather. 

Both terms still view Nature from a human-centric perspective. 

When did we start using it for all of Nature?

Some blame Christian Dominion Theology that stems from the language in Genesis supposedly giving man “dominion over” all the creatures of the earth for his needs. That Biblically approved exploitation privilege has been used to validate everything from resource extraction industries to over-fishing to casual littering. 

Others link “dominion grammar” to colonization and central to the cultural and racist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The removal of aboriginal and indigenous people from desired land included abolishing a belief system that revered land as a sacred being and replacing it with the colonial mindset of land as a warehouse of natural resources, says Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Animacy: the quality in a noun of referring to something animate

A professor, author and scientist, Kimmerer started this movement in 2015 with a chapter titled “The Grammar of Animacy” in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” (aff link)

The colonial mindset and its linguistic imperialism allowed replacement of a language of animacy for Nature with objectification of Nature. Not only does English encode human exceptionalism, she says, it absolves us of moral responsibility. 

Kimmerer is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In her search for replacement pronouns, Kimmerer consulted fluent Anishinaabe speaker and spiritual teacher Stewart King. 

From inanimate object to beings of the living Earth

He suggested that the proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living Earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. Not an easy replacement for it in English, Kimmerer suggested using ki, the part of the word at the end that means land.

Ki as the singular pronoun for beings in Nature. 

Kin as the plural pronoun. 

Let me make here a modest proposal for the transformation of the English language, a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun. Might the path to sustainability be marked by grammar? Robin Hall Kimmerer

Kimmerer offers as examples:

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.”

Ancient intersections of meaning for today

Ki shares meaning with chi, often written as qi, from traditional Chinese medicine. Chi is your life force, the vital life energy that flows through you and through everything. Chi is that which gives you life.

Kimmerer’s grammar replacement movement has gained some following since 2015, when the concept of gender-neutral pronouns was just taking root in the zeitgeist. 

Now eight years later, as the climate crisis should be undeniable to every human on the planet, the time may be ripe to push the limits of English to enfold the deeper, more encompassing relationship of belonging together with Nature. 

Ki and kin. Another small change with a ripple effect to reconnect with Nature on a deeper, more personal level. 

Now, go wander outside!



P.S. New to The Unplugged Club? Join us.

3 Resources for You

Nature Needs a New Pronoun  An eloquent, must-read essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Speaking of Nature: Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world  This.

Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (aff link) A fascinating collection of place-words: terms for aspects of landscape, nature, and weather, drawn from dozens of languages and dialects of the British Isles that reflect and animacy and intimacy with the land people share.

2 Questions for You

Reflections, questions and ideas to break the digital spell.

1st Q: Have you ever been disturbed by referring to Nature and non-human beings as it?

2nd Q: Can you see yourself using ki and kin?

Hit reply and let me know what you discovered this week. I’ll use some of your feedback in next week’s newsletter (first name only.)

Reflection Feedback

From Rosemary: (on the Nature Response)
We don’t have a garden but we do have a terrace on the second floor, where we grow our herbs, a few plants and some flowers.  We installed an irrigation system as it’s hot here. Alas it isn’t very reliable and so I have been watering the plants every morning and evening. That means I look at them and fiddle with them and generally work out which plants like what conditions. The poinsettia from last Christmas isn’t keen on the very high temperatures we’ve had this last week and it hates the hot wind that came with the slight cooling of the temperature. The wind has also turned brown the leaves of my two precious lemon trees that I have grown from pips.  Their care is quite separate from going for walks outside but provides an opportunity to turn my attention outside myself and on to the well being of the plants.  It has turned into a very relaxing ritual.
Definitely unplugged.
From Linda: (on favorite Nature books and movies)


“Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver”
“Whispers in the Wilderness” by Erik Stensland
“She Explores: Stories of Life-Changing Adventures on the Road and in the Wild” by Gale Straub
“Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon
“Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks
“Where the Crawdads Sing” starring Daisy Edgar-Jones
“Captain Fantastic” starring Viggo Mortensen
“Into the Wild” starring Emile Hirsch

1 Action for You

One small step to start the change.

Try ki and kin on and see how they feel in the privacy of your own thoughts. Feel different?

Hit reply, let me know how it goes and I’ll include feedback in next week’s newsletter.

Nature View

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” – William Shakespeare