The wind’s song

We walk towards the sea, along a rugged path by the ruins of a fishing station. The beach is a tapestry of time, each stone a story. Colours taken from the surrounding cliffs on their journey to sand. Flint, once ballast, stability for ships who journeyed here long ago. Agate, formed in the heart of a volcano when this land was a place of fire. The wind blows with a soft intensity, moving from sea to stone, touching us, as it continues on its way.

‘The wind is singing me a song’ my son says.  ‘What type of song?’ I ask. ‘One about rainbows and’ he pauses before continuing, making sounds, inventing words, part song, part speech, as he tries to explain the song of the wind. Perhaps the words he knows cannot convey what he feels when the wind sings to him, the stories the land tells.  In the summer, I listened with joy as he described the skylarks singing to the daisies and the daisies singing to the larks. I told him about how through scent, song and colour, the world speaks. I described vast networks of more than human communication, emphasising how much we still have to learn, but I too struggle to find the words to describe the living intimacy of the worlds we inhabit.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the limitations of English for describing the world, a language with more nouns than verbs, named things rather than living beings.

‘A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive’[1]

She discusses what it could mean for our relationships with the world if we consider non- humans as ‘who’ rather than ‘it’.  That such openness to animacy of the world, to intelligences and moralities of other beings, might help us foster kinder relationships with the world.  But when our language helps enforce separation, and when we habitually correct our children when they describe a world of sentience and life, how many of our relationships are being forgotten?

The pony breeders I met in Shetland have deep connections to living worlds that they learn through embodied attention, and most importantly, through love. Love for Shetland, its wild landscapes, rugged coast and barren hill. Love for history, of independence and survival against the odds, and of course, love for the tiny ponies, that allowed this survival, and who continue to connect people and landscapes across time. Pony breeders cultivate attention to the world through their relationships with land and animals, a practiced openness that allows for communication between species.  Where the wind carries stories from the past and hopes for the future. Shetlanders describe the islands as being a part of them, in their blood and that wherever they go in the world they will always call the islands home. The landscape, animals and history are woven into the very fabric of their being. Too often we are inclined to treat such sentiments as metaphor but what if we were to take them seriously?

 It is common in the west to think of people as individuals, self-contained identities housed in bodies and separate from the worlds we inhabit. When we do think of possible connections between bodies, minds and nature, thoughts will often drift to far-flung places, mystical, exotic and Other. But emerging research is teaching us many new things. We now know that within our digestive tract, there are dynamic ecosystems of microbes, the cells of which outnumber human cells by around 10:1. This means that what is contained within us, the physical material that makes us, affect and are affected by lives other than our own. Recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics tell us new stories of the plasticity of our genetic material. Our genes alter in relation to the environments we encounter and these changes that can be passed onto the bodies of future generations. Suddenly the idea of a separation between us and the world begins to unravel, and we have no idea where these threads may lead us.

If we become who we are, in both body and mind, from the places we live and the landscapes we love, then out everyday relationships, moments in time, matter. Through our conversations, thoughts, and actions, we co-create worlds with those we share our lives with[2]. It is through openness that we can connect and reconnect, orienting ourselves to and with the lives of others. By taking time to watch, to feel all that is around us, or by listening with our children as they learn to hear our world.

[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer,Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

[2] Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill

Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the end of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

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