I’ve shared before about the impact of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on me, and how her words sowed the seeds for this project. This excerpt from her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ exemplifies what learning language beyond our own, but nonetheless belongs to us, can help us imagine. Lyrical; beautiful – drink it up!

“Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak a fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world. Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores.

My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by the Anishinaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You’d think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But in scientific language our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed.

In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. I’ve cherished it for many years, as a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. So when I learned that the word for rising, for emergence, belonged to the language of my ancestors, it became a signpost for me.”

From ‘Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Milkweed Editions (2013)
Photo by Slawek K on Unsplash
English (UK)