Year 5, Piece Thirty-One: 46. Black White Green

A rather long one about living beings and language, quoting heavily from Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Rabbi Arthur Waskow 

I don’t always have a clear visual when I draw the week’s colors, but with Black White Green an image that strongly came to mind was plants growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Black White is Gray and concrete is Gray, and leaves are Green, so it's obvious enough. But not only the colors but their meanings track here too.

Black White is transcendence and interconnectedness. Green is love and family. And so Black White Green gives plants growing out of the sidewalk another meaning: how true interconnectedness transcends human relationships, how plants and so many other species must be included in the notion of family.

I am finally reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a scientist, professor, mother, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In the section of the book titled, “The Grammar of Animacy,” Dr. Kimmerer makes it compelling and clear that what you consider family or indeed what you even can consider family starts with the words you use, and the very language you speak: 

English is a nounbased language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered. 

European languages often assign gender to nouns, but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine. Nouns and verbs both are animate and inanimate. You hear a person with a word that is completely different from the one with which you hear an airplane. Pronouns, articles, plurals, demonstratives, verbs—all those syntactical bits I never could keep straight in high school English are all aligned in Potawatomi to provide different ways to speak of the living world and the lifeless one. Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive.

I’ve known and felt the ways that English and so many other languages are limited by gender, but I’ve only thought about how that affects humans. I didn’t quite realize that gendered language limits our relationships with the natural world, making “it” the standard pronoun for singular non-human entities. Dr. Kimmerer says:

Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family. 

I have to admit that I have a complex and even intimate relationship with the pronoun “it.” Each time I was pregnant we chose not to find out the sex, and so I referred to the fetus as “it.” I was taken aback by how much that took some people aback. “How can you call your baby an it??” they would demand, aghast. 

“Well, it is an it!” I would shoot back. “And it’s not a baby, it’s a fetus! It’s basically a science experiment at this point.” Was that not sufficiently reverent? Maybe. Sure, I delighted a bit in making people squirm, but that isn’t why I chose that language. Using “it” just felt right, even more so than “they,” which still evoked the idea of gender. “It” captured some of the mystery inherent in the whole experience of hosting, well, a thing inside of me. Reflecting now, perhaps it was precisely the slight dehumanization of “it” that felt right to me, politically correct even. Living in a culture that clearly devalues the lives of pregnant people, calling my fetus “it” allowed me to stay an “I.”

Outside of reproductive politics though, what about the rest of the natural world?

To whom does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate. 

So yes, the grass that defies city planning to burst out of the sidewalk is a living being. And maybe even the sidewalk itself: concrete as a substance is cement plus lots and lots of tiny rocks. How many degrees of human intervention strip the animacy from objects, turn then from beings to things? Dr. Kimmerer says:

The list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say, “What is it?” And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is. 

Yawe—the animate to be. I am, you are, s/he is. To speak of those possessed with life and spirit we must say yawe. By what linguistic confluence do Yahweh of the Old Testament and yawe of the New World both fall from the mouths of the reverent? Isn’t this just what it means, to be, to have the breath of life within, to be the offspring of Creation? The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world. 

The linguistic confluence that connects these words is indeed the breath of life itself. That is what “Yahweh” means, though ironically calling it “Yahweh” strips this meaning.

I actually first heard the name “Yahweh” in a high school social studies class. My teacher (who was not Jewish) said something like: “Jews believe in one god, a god they call Yahweh.” I was like, excuse me? Who’s that? 

Throughout the Torah, God is referred to with a four letter word with no vowels, equivalent to Y-H-V-H or Y-H-W-H. This name is sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, or the four-letter unpronounceable name of god. “Unpronounceable” is important there: the idea of anyone casually trying to say it outloud was totally jarring to me. I finally raised my hand and told the class that no Jewish person ever refers to or even talks about their god as Yahweh. I said that when we see those letters, we say them outloud as Hashem (meaning “the name”) or in prayer as Adonai (meaning “the lord”). To his credit, after my intervention this teacher stopped saying “Yahweh” and then referred to the Jewish god as Adonai for the rest of the unit. This name is also not one that Jews say casually, but I’ll take it. I will always remember the way he pronounced it: saying “ah-doe-nay” instead of “ah-doe-nye.” 

My discomfort at having my culture botched in school is nothing compared to the mandatory government schooling that ripped apart Indigenous families in North America, often violently, including Dr. Kimmerer’s own family. Indeed, that “schooling” is responsible for Dr. Kimmerer having to relearn Potawatomi today.

That schooling can also be traced back to “Yahweh,” or more specifically to the idea of the god that the name refers to. Even the very act of naming god was used as a tool of subjugation and ultimately domination. 

The best way I have heard Y-H-W-H explained was actually in the last book I was reading, Dancing in God’s Earthquake, by long-time activist and venerated Jewish Renewal rabbi, Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow. Rabbi Waskow explains:

I invite you to pause and try to pronounce this word, this Name. It is not “Yahweh,” for it has no vowels. It is not “Jehovah,” for it has no vowels. 

For about the last 2,000 years, Jewish tradition has taught that we should not even try to pronounce it, but instead substitute the word “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” This teaching passed into the Greek of the Christian New Testament, where it became “Kyrios.” And then it passed into Latin as “Dominus.” But in the beginning, as the flame wavered in the wind and Moses shook in awe, it was certainly not these words of domination. 

What was it then? Modern grammarians have pointed out that it weaves together the letters that make up the Hebrew for the past, the present, and the future of the verb “to be.” So they have suggested that it is a kind of Moebius strip of Being, time turned and twisted to come back upon itself, beyond itself: Eternal. 

This is one aspect of the Name, rooted in the intellect of words, that is both profound and attractive. Better than “Lord.” 

But let’s go back to trying to pronounce it. When I first, on the spur of the moment, decided to break the rule that said never to try pronouncing it, what came from my mouth was—YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh. Breathing. Simply a breath. 

And when I invited others to “pronounce” these four letters, almost everyone created the same experience: Breathing. 

For me, that first moment of saying, “YHWH,” by simply breathing—that first moment was transformative. My first thought was that this made good sense: Surely one of the real Names of the real God should not be only in Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Greek, or Latin, or Chinese, or Urdu, or Swahili, or English. It should be in all of them. And there is no sound that vibrates every human tongue except the sound of breathing. 

My second thought was that it is not just human languages. Every life form on this planet breathes, and indeed we breathe each other into life. We humans, and all other animals, breathe in what the trees breathe out. The trees breathe in what we breathe out. We breathe each other into life. What could be a truer Name for God? 

I so appreciate Dr. Kimmerer linking the Potawatomi language back to a transliterated name of The Western God. Though it registered for me the instant I read the word “yawe” in her writing, it isn’t a link I would have otherwise felt comfortable writing about. There is just so much destruction that comes from capital R Religion that it is hard to look beyond the history of pain to see the wisdom at its core. Rabbi Waskow’s work is to help us remember that wisdom, to unlearn some of the horrible clutter on top of it. As he continues: 

Pronounce the Name that could not be pronounced, and it instantly became apparent that this Name, the Breath, this Wind, this Hurricane, this Spirit was universal. The Jewish people had no patent on it. If the Name could shatter Pharaoh’s power, it could endanger any domineering social structure that subjugated any people, every people. Even a structure that lorded it over the Jewish people. 

How clever then—not wise, but clever—centuries later, to replace the Breathing with a word, “Adonai,” that meant “Lord.” It’s convenient to borrow the controlling social symbols of the Roman Empire to control this somewhat maverick community within the Empire. 

Even more appropriate when Christianity took over/was taken over by the Empire to translate “YHWH” with “Kyrios” in Greek and “Dominus” in Latin. If you want to dominate, name what is most sacred “Dominus.”

And my second thought, I realized, was yet more dangerous. Does this Name of Interbreathing mean that not only human beings count? Does this Name mean that frogs and ferns, rabbits and redwoods, bugs and bacteria, also count? Could this Name dislodge the centrality of Homo sapiens and make us a thread in the great woven prayer shawl of the universe, the One, Echad?

Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so. If we are to be truly interconnected, it starts with recognizing our interconnection. To truly regard the living world as family, the way we talk about and to that world has to change. It’s no small feat to transform a language, but none of the feats of transformation before us at this time are small. But it does happen bit by bit: with every use of a singular “they,” we transform the English language. May we find more and more ways in the future to speak with true recognition and love. 

I took these photos while walking early in the morning, two-year-old E strapped into the stroller. He was mostly patient as I took 300 photos of the ground, though he didn’t have much of a choice. Occasionally he called out, “Let’s go to the playgrouuund,” urging me along as I found yet another specimen, yet another angle, lining up my phone’s camera just so, stepping and clicking. 

The tables turned the next day when the two of us were walking together again, this time without a stroller. I was the one then urging him along as he stopped to examine every speck along the way. Eventually we encountered some wild fennel, which is pretty plentiful in the Bay Area. We stopped to greet it, handle it, smell it. (Have I learned nothing?) We stopped to greet the fennel, handle the fennel, smell the fennel. “Hello Fennel!” E declared loudly, as I have taught him to do for plants, animals, waterways, woods. To him, even dump trucks and diggers are living beings. After a while, we had communed with the fennel or Fennel for what I felt was long enough. I tried to get him to move forward, to keep walking, onwards. “Come on, E! Let’s go!”

E looked up from the green stringy leaves and yellow seedy flowers he was rubbing into his face. “I’m fennelling!” he said, and he didn’t move. That wasn’t something I taught him. E turned fennel not just into a proper noun, but a verb.