This is the question Mary Oliver poses at the end of her poem ‘The Summer Day’, which luxuriates in the wonders of nature: the swan, the black bear, the grasshopper, the grass. Anyone who is familiar with Oliver’s oeuvre will know that this is only a small subset of the wonders that Oliver celebrated in her spare but elegant poems and essays —her words inspiring readers not only to value the natural world in its own right, but also to appreciate its ability to help each of us find purpose in our own place in the universe. Her carefully selected words open a door and invite us through, to the new understandings awaiting us on the other side of the threshold.
Profundity is not the exclusive domain of poets, of course, and even the most casual and unrehearsed words can change the course of a life. Another sort of nature interpreter —the sort that guides you through the wilderness on foot rather than through the pages of a book — had this effect on me when I was a young girl. Leading a small group of us through Appalachian woodlands, he translated the song of an ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) into an English-language mnemonic, ‘teacher TEACHER TEACHER’. In hindsight, this was unintentionally poetic in its own right, given that the word applied not only to his actions on the day, but also to what they eventually inspired me to become — someone who could carry on that same tradition of bridging the gap between people and nature, choosing the right words to persuade people to value and conserve the planet’s other inhabitants.
This, then, was my answer to Oliver’s question. Knowing ‘what’, however, doesn’t guarantee an understanding of ‘how’, and I have spent years exploring different methodologies. Throughout that time, I have frequently revisited another element of that fateful day in the Appalachian woodland. Pointing to a sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), the guide invited us to note the three different types of leaf that can be found intermingled even on a single branch: some that are elliptical, like an eye; others that are two-lobed, like a mitten; and a third variety with three lobes, like the footprint of a large bird. As if this unique foliage pattern weren’t memorable enough, the guide further cemented the sassafras tree in our memories by recounting a captivating Native American tale explaining the origin of the leaves’ diversity.
I have repeatedly come up empty-handed when attempting to verify the authenticity of this legend. I have found several renderings of the story online, but all, like the version I heard, are recounted by white people. Each of these versions has also been noticeably lacking in detail — including any signature elements of genuine Native American legends — and has included certain language or characteristics much more reminiscent of European tales. My suspicion is that the myth is heavily bastardised, at best, and completely fabricated, at worst.
I do not think my guide was intentionally complicit in this; I imagine he was acting in good faith, using his remarkable oratorial skills to share an enjoyable and educational narrative that he himself had been told at some point in the past. The problem is that stories are influential; words have resonance, and power. His forever shaped the way I respond to the sassafras tree. To some extent, they also helped create a (probably false) understanding of how Native Americans perceive the tree, the natural world in general, and the relationship between humans and wildlife.
What might an indigenous guide have said about the sassafras? What stories might have been told, what cultural practices described, what unique native words used to convey characteristics overlooked by English-speaking settlers and their descendants? Might a native guide have focused on a different species altogether? How might those views — the culmination of thousands of years of human-nature interactions pre-dating the arrival of colonists — have changed my understanding of and relationship to that environment?
These are not idle queries. They are the sorts of questions that are increasingly being asked in support of decolonisation — the process of examining, challenging, and ultimately removing the remaining legacies of coloniality. Everyone can engage in decolonisation, but it is particularly important for teachers like me, since we can influence (among other things) whose knowledge is valued; which information is taken as ‘fact’; and how people interpret various aspects of life experiences. An important part of decolonising your teaching practice is understanding when to take the lead on teaching versus when to cede the platform to others; ensuring that when the platform is ceded, this facilitates the amplification of the right voices; and knowing that when those voices are speaking, it is time to listen and learn from them.
As part of my work towards the third goal, I recently attended an event called Nature Writing: Finding Words to Face the Biodiversity Crisis, featuring two authors who are both women of colour: Jessica J. Lee and Amanda Thomson. Though their works differed substantially in both style and content, they converged in one notable way: exploring how language can bring us closer to nature by offering us precise and sometimes poetic terminology for describing the environment and our responses to it.
Lee, born in Canada to immigrant parents, noted the contrast between her own descriptions of her mother’s native Taiwan and those of earlier Western colonists, whose field guides used terms that ‘mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust.’ This begs the question: Whose voice is a better advocate for conserving the local ecosystem? Thomson, a native of Scotland, describes the ways in which learning traditional Scottish natural history terms altered her understandings of places, their features, and herself within those spaces. She notes that losing such language from our vocabularies reveals the changing nature of our relationship to the environment. This forces us to ask: How can the preservation and use of such terms — from other dialects and languages as well — provide a more nuanced and impactful connection with nature?
Both authors recognised that some people and cultures will have a particularly strong connection to certain places, forged from long experience and evident in the very language used to contemplate and describe those locations. Their messages highlight how much is to be gained by immersing yourself in the native ways of capturing the spirit of a place, allowing you to explore new ways not only of verbalising, but also of seeing and feeling. Doing so could help upend colonial hierarchies, requiring the outsider to approach as a learner and receiver, rather than a teacher. This could foster respect and cognitive empathy for the indigenous keepers of knowledge, and provide greater impetus for supporting the preservation of native languages.
Such efforts could lead to multilingual dialogues comprising the multitude of descriptions we humans have devised over the centuries to accurately describe nature’s intricacies. Not only could this facilitate conservation, but it could also help us better understand and appreciate what we have conserved. This seems a laudable goal for our wild and precious lives, and one that Mary Oliver would surely have commended.