Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations
Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, John Hausdoerffer
Publisher: Center for Humans and Nature Press (September 2021)
Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations is a powerful, multidimensional work of extraordinary vision and reach whose overarching theme of humans sharing encounters with our other-than-human relations presaged a project out of the ordinary. For starters, the Center for Humans and Nature sponsored a gathering of some twenty participants that gave rise to the initial vision of a single-volume. Co-editors Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer subsequently ¨reached out to people of various expertise, asking them to share their perspectives and stories of kinship¨. As new participants suggested additional themes, it became increasingly clear that the project could not be contained in a single volume.
Faced with a difficult situation, the editors dared to ask, What if? What if we let form follow function? What if we let this book become what it wants to become? What if this book should be a series?
The desire to publish Kinship as a series presented new challenges, yet obstacles happily gave way to innovation. In a very real sense, the series embodies the relationships that are the essence of Kinship, and the early collaboration of participants lends a light touch to individual pieces — each distinct but evincing a subtle veil of shared experience. In light of this, perhaps it isn´t surprising to learn that the Center for Humans and Nature agreed to publish Kinship as its first publishing venture, which it then followed up by sponsoring a second smaller gathering of contributors at the conclusion of the project (the full story is told in Acknowledgments).
At first glance, the resulting five-volume series can feel intimidating, but closer inspection reveals a friendly, highly accessible anthology of essays, interviews, poetry, and stories of solidarity gathered on five scales, or levels — Planet, Place, Partners, Persons, Practice (more on them below). Notably, each book in the series is presented as a stand-alone volume. The original contributions plus author notes and profiles come to about 150 pages, which are bookended at the front by the Introduction and at the back by the Acknowledgments.
Van Horn begins the introduction by describing a spider´s web visible just outside the window above his desk. It is first viewed fleetingly and lost, then viewed again in various angles of sunlight created as he moves his head ever so slightly this way and that.
Reading Kinship, he tells us, presents a similar experience. The series of books that make up the Kinship series are rendered
¨as a web, a meshwork whose strands gather, crisscross and link together a vast variety of subjects and experiences. Each book reaches beyond its pages, spinning silk filaments through the others; turn your head at the right angle and an intricate web appears — functional, sensorial, and artful¨.
Repeatedly, in describing one or another of the various facets of the Kinship series, Van Horn relies on the metaphor of the spider´s web. Consider the section titled ¨Three Threads in the Web¨:
nonhuman personhood leads off, followed by humans as relational participants in local ecologies, and wraps up with the care expressed when we humans address and engage with our kinfolk through language.
The first thread, Van Horn writes, is a cosmovision — and increasingly, a legal acceptance — that recognizes nonhumans — watersheds, forests, mountains, plants, animals, fish, birds, even rocks! — as persons. As early as 2006, governmental references to ¨rights of nature¨ began to show up, then Ecuador and Bolivia both included ¨rights of nature¨ clauses in their new constitutions (2008 and 2010, respectively). But in 2017, New Zealand captured the international spotlight when it granted legal status to the Whanganui River as a living entity with the same rights of personhood as a human being. Maybe the concept can be traced all the way back to Charles Darwin who scribbled in his notebook, “We may all be netted together.” (Duly noted is Darwin´s oblique reference to the web!)
The second thread, Kincentric ecology, is a phrase coined by ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón as a practical guide for understanding kinship as ¨an intertwining of the social, mythological, and practical¨. As Salmón puts it, ¨life in any environment is viable only when humans view their surroundings as kin; [recognizing] that their mutual roles are essential for their survival¨. A review of recent scientific insights in support of this view concludes with these words:
¨…human communities and cultures can be good kin, salutary ecological collaborators alongside and with our nonhuman family members¨.
The third thread, Van Horn tells us, inspired the Kinship series and comes from co-editor Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose work draws from her scientific training in forest botany and her indigenous knowledge as an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In her seminal work, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom and the Teachings of Plants, Wall Kimmerer relates how Indigenous perspectives can transform engagement with a living world. As a striking example, she contrasts the ¨grammar of animacy¨ embedded in the Potawatomi language with the ¨objectifying pronouns¨ embedded in conventional English; to wit, the pronoun ¨it¨ explicitly defined as ¨inanimate thing¨. Finding ways to properly and respectfully acknowledge ki (the pronoun Robin proposes using for our other-than-human kin) gives us a good starting place.
Turning next to the contributors, each volume features fifteen to twenty essays, poems and interviews provided by scholars, writers, poets, filmmakers and producers, performers, activists, even a farmer-seed keeper, among others. A wide range of ethnic backgrounds is represented, including Native American, African American, Indigenous Hawaiian, Raramuri (Tarahumara) Indian, Indigenous Pacific Islander. Contributors come from all parts of the globe, including Alaska, Australia, Ecuador, Hawaii, India, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales.
Contributors were invited because of their experiences, their expertise, their diverse backgrounds and geographical locations, but also because of the way they´ve made kin with particular species. Not least, they were invited because of their abilities to tell a good story. As Van Horn puts it:
¨We all lean in closer, when someone says, ´Do I have a story for you.´¨
The request obviously impressed contributors because several mention it, with one even commenting, ¨I´ve never told this story before.¨ Their stories work as intended to engage readers at a personal level.
As guidance, the editors positioned each of the five levels, or scales, with a brief description and key questions.
Volume 1: Planet — Every breath, every sip of water, every meal reminds us that our lives are inseparably connected to the natural world we cohabit. What, then, are the sources of our deepest evolutionary and planetary connections, and of our profound longing for kinship?
Volume 2: Place — For millennia, human evolution and culture have been profoundly linked to territory, that is, to traditional indigenous lands. To what extent does crafting a deeper connection with Earth´s bioregions reinvigorate a sense of kinship with the place-based beings, systems, and communities that mutually shape one another?
Volume 3: Partners — Partners are beings who work together to further a common interest or endeavor. How do cultural traditions, narratives, and mythologies shape the way we relate, or not, to other beings as kin? How do relations between and among different species foster in us a sense of responsibility and belonging?
Volume 4: Persons — Kinship is perhaps most life-changing when experienced directly and personally. Which experiences expand our understanding of what it means to be human in relation to other-than-human beings?
Volume 5: Practice — From the perspective of kinship as a recognition of nonhuman personhood, of kincentric ethics, and of kinship as a verb involving active and ongoing participation, how are we to live? What are the practical, everyday, and life-long ways we become kin?
The five scales that make up the Kinship series support the concept of kinning, understood as kinship-in-action. It is less that we humans are born kin as it is about how we humans can intentionally learn to become kin.
The Kinship series is a powerful place to begin the learning process. Depending on readers´ unique backgrounds and perspectives, pieces will appeal differently, such that some will be passed over on a first read, while others will stop readers in their tracks and prompt additional reflection ranging from a few minutes to several days or even months.
Today we humans are faced with a planetary crisis that has the potential to render Planet Earth inhospitable to our species. The series Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations has arrived just in time to extend both a profound invitation and provide practical guidance to support humans everywhere intent on engaging with the planet´s other-than-human beings in a life-affirming and life-sustaining way.