The last time I left New Zealand, I flew to Tonga, which is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to swim with humpback whales. There, I learned two things: that it’s possible to get vertigo from snorkelling in water so clear and deep that the sea floor is visible far, far beneath your feet, as though you’re standing on the glass floor on a skyscraper. And that when a gigantic creature emerges out of the dark blue sea-gloom, awe overrides fear.
Beneath it was a calf, nestling its head underneath its mothers chin—and that’s where I have to pause, because it seems wrong to describe a whale as “it”.
We don’t have words to confer personhood or importance on things of unknown sex. So a whale is an “it”, the same word we use for objects like spoons or tyres or tennis balls. I often wonder if the lack of distinction in English between living and unliving things leads to a blindness in how we perceive the natural world. Whales are lumped in with the miscellany of “it”. But whales have sentience, culture.
Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer points out that we confer dignity to people in the way we use language. Imagine if I wrote about edmund hillary or kate sheppard; Kimmerer feels the same discomfort about the natural features of her home not receiving the same level of respect. “It would be laughable to write ‘Mosquito’ if it were in reference to a flying insect, but acceptable if we were discussing a brand of boat,” she writes. “This seemingly trivial grammatical rulemaking in fact expresses deeply held assumptions about human exceptionalism.” And so Kimmerer capitalises Maple, Heron, Sweetgrass. Those species represent qualities she wants to embody, lessons she wants to learn.
This is connected to a question we often ask: what is the natural world good for? Does it cost us to reclaim a wetland, or does it better serve us as pasture? Which endangered species should we spend money on saving? Which species should we let die? Should ancient trees automatically be protected by law?
Usually, we characterise the importance of nature in one of three ways: in terms of its beauty, its similarity to human intelligence (consider the kākāpō), or its importance to our wellbeing. Wetlands were once looked down upon as swamps, until we discovered they were effective filtration systems.
In Tonga, I read a book called How to Do Nothing, in which American artist Jenny Odell makes a case for turning one’s attention to useful, nourishing parts of the world. Living things, like birds, rather than inert things, like phones.
Odell began birdwatching as a way of alleviating the anxiety she felt about the United States presidential election, learning to tell her local crows apart.
“Even after years of observing the same crows,” she writes, “their behaviour is ultimately inscrutable to me, as much as mine must be to them. Nothing indicates that something exists beyond you as much as its departure in to the sky, as sudden and unceremonious as its arrival. All of this makes for a being that cannot be ‘understood’ or ‘interpreted’. And that which cannot be understood demands constant and unmixed attention, an ongoing state of encounter.”
And so, as New Zealand welcomes in a new government, I’d like us to think about the natural world less in terms of the benefits it provides, but rather in terms of other lifeforms that live among us.
It’s easy to dismiss this approach as a bit spiritualist, a bit woo-woo, but it’s just a shift in perception. A reminder to see the living parts of the world as living, even if our language does not remind us that they are so.