Robin Kimmerer in Orion:
A CEMETERY SEEMED AN ODD PLACE to contemplate the boundaries of being. Sandwiched between the campus and the interstate, this old burial ground is our cherished slice of nearby nature where the long dead are silent companions to college students wandering the hilly paths beneath rewilding oaks. The engraved names on overgrown headstones are upholstered in moss and crows congregate in the bare branches of an old beech, which is also carved with names. Reading the messages of a graveyard you understand the deep human longing for the enduring respect that comes with personhood. Names, names, names: the stones seem to say, “I am. You are. He was.” Grammar, especially our use of pronouns, is the way we chart relationships in language and, as it happens, how we relate to each other and to the natural world.
Tiptoeing in her mud boots, Caroline skirts around a crumbling family plot to veer into the barberry hedge where a plastic bag is caught in the thorns. “Isn’t it funny,” she says, “that we think it’s disrespectful to walk over the dead, but it’s perfectly okay to disrespect the other species who actually live here?” We have a special grammar for personhood. We would never say of our late neighbor, “It is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.” Such language would be deeply disrespectful and would rob him of his humanity. We use instead a special grammar for humans: we distinguish them with the use of he or she, a grammar of personhood for both living and dead Homo sapiens. Yet we say of the oriole warbling comfort to mourners from the treetops or the oak tree herself beneath whom we stand, “It lives in Oakwood Cemetery.” In the English language, a human alone has distinction while all other living beings are lumped with the nonliving “its.”