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Robin Wall Kimmerer:

The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction—not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.

Note that she says “we think twice”—because we do in fact sometimes take up the chainsaw.

I believe this is what a truly functional animism offers over generic environmentalism. The latter too often drifts into the idea that the world would be better without humans. It’s too cause and effect—rooted in dead materialism—where animism is more relationship focused.

When I was a vegan, I came across that sort of environmentalism. To clarify, I’m talking about ethical, animal rights-style veganism—not the sort that seems to be a current diet fad.

What ultimately turned me away from ethical veganism was the realization that it is utterly unnatural—that predation is at the heart of the living world. In short, the ethical veganism I was familiar with at the time needed a strong dose of animism.

Back to the chainsaw, one of the questions that first confronted me when I started woodworking was how to square it with my values. How can a self-confessed tree-hugger build things from intentionally killed trees? I believe the answer has to do with the long-standing relationship between humans and trees and humanity’s role as a beautifier and craftsman.

As with humans eating animals, there are two opposing but complementary mistakes with regard to trees. One is that humans must never cut down trees and the other is that trees are “natural resources” that must be “managed.” The mistakes are complementary because they forget relationship, in opposite directions. Humans and trees, however, have had a long, mutually beneficial relationship.

What would an animist woodworking practice look like? I have a few preliminary ideas, which I will continue trying to integrate into my life. Such a practice might:

Early on in my gardening experience (2020 or 2021, probably), I was working on something in the raised beds and worried about killing some creature as I worked. At the time, the pendulum was obviously swinging a bit too far in one direction. The thought occurred to me, “We cannot be precious about death.” This arrested the swing of the pendulum.

Death is a part of life; in fact, it is necessary for its continuance. A healthy perspective–whether it’s animist or whatever perspective is most meaningful to you–takes this into consideration. There is no standpoint of purity; we’re all guilty of violence, one way or another. In a properly constituted relationship, however, the violence is not psychologically repressed. It is understood, and made whole by reciprocity and sacrifice.

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