Following the Salmon: the Mysterious Journey with your Passions

What do you find yourself doing when you time and space open for you, after you’ve rested and when you feel you have choice?

For a number of years I immersed myself in herbal study, thinking, dreaming, experiencing the plants. I still do that, but in a more relaxed fashion — not “by the book,” but following where my sensibilities swim, flowing with questions I ask of myself and directly of the plants.

The fierce studying and grasping for understanding that used to be part and parcel of my herbal learning has ignited in working with languages.  For the past two years I’ve been learning Lushootseed, the language of the indigenous peoples of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, WA), and the language of the island on which I live. I’m still very much a beginner, but certain elements are feeling much more familiar, the sounds, much more natural. I find myself excited when I hear the sounds of the language mirroring the sounds of the landscape: the  glottal voices  of Raven, and the swish and swirl of the saltwater and rivers. I glimpse at times how this rich language is an expression, flow, and outbreath of a people in a place, this place.

Is Bradán mé. – Jane Valencia

And now I’m studying Irish, and finding it similar and different from my other immersions in languages. The water is chaotic as I struggle to grasp enough of the sound of the language, the grammar, and some basic words to feel I have some clarity and calm to surge forward. I wonder why I’m leaping into these waters when I am simultaneously learning Lushootseed, when I could be creating art, or when I could be pulling more stories together. But here I am, on my holiday break, attempting to hurl myself up the  rapids. My drive is fueled by several things — a desire to pronounce Irish more accurately on my radio show, and to sing and say names more accurately,  but mostly because Irish is one of my “mother tongues.” It is one language stream that my ancestors spoke. As someone who has been immersed in Celtic lore and music since I was a teen, it seems more than time to “return home” in this way.

As I struggle with Irish, I find more peace with Lushootseed.  I find myself in some calm eddy with this language, sensing a mystery and magic with the sounds and their meaning. With each phrase or syllable I learn by heart, I feel as if the plants, and animals, the people, and this land, and the activity and movement around me are revealing something more of themselves, and my salmon-self is richer for it.

River – photo by Jane Valencia

And so I follow my salmon, feasting on the nutrients in the waters and in the small beings — sounds, thoughts, new ways of mind — that I absorb. The journey at times feels foolish and cycling nowhere.  Other times it feels heroic: that by catching words that have been suppressed, forgotten, or deemed irrelevant (I include many dialectic and ancestral forms of English in my play with languages) I can help restore other ways of perceiving the nature of our world, ways that make a difference for a better one, and our feeling at home in it.

For a sense of what this may mean, take a look at this article in The Irish Times:
A magical vision is hidden in the Irish language – we need to rediscover it.  A single word can unlock the richness in our lives, landscapes and ways of seeing

And also, take note of Richard MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’ The Lost Words: a Spell Book, written and illustrated in response to noted dictionary eliminating many nature words, such as acorn and wren, from their dictionary for children, deeming these words irrelevant to modern times.  MacFarlane and Morris also have a CD of songs inspired by some of these words/beings, called The Lost Words: Spell Songs. I regularly play these songs on my radio show, Forest Halls Celtic.

In following my salmon, I find new ways to venture into the enormous ocean and currents of meaning that shine forth for me, and to make the vigorous journey upstream, attempting to bring these wonders home in some small way.

What “salmon” are alive in your curious and questing nature? Have languages ever called you into strange and exciting waters? What passions are you now following? What is the journey like for you? What is calling you home?

Jane, bray harp, and birches.

To experience Salmon wisdom in story, song, harp music, folklore and more, you can  listen to Forest Halls Celtic  Show 38: Salmon Return on demand for the next two weeks. You’ll find some lovely and lively waters in which to swim, including a beautiful poem-song, spoken in Irish by Irish singer-songwriter Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola 11:38 minutes into the show.

Pronouns for the Beings of Nature – I’m using Ki, Kin

Spiral Stone - photo by Jane
Once upon a time, Human and Stone engaged in creative conversation with one another – Photo by Jane Valencia

As I’ve become more sensitive to the nature and choice of preferred pronouns, I’ve become more and more agitated about referring to a plant as “it,” or as “she” or “he” (though plants sometimes are monoecious, single gendered). For me, “it” does not convey the deep love and relationship I have for plants (or stones, or insects, or the clouds, the stars …). And “he”/”she” (for the sun and the moon, for instance) don’t convey the fact that some cultures view these beings in the opposite way — the sun as female, for instance, and the moon as male.

Recently I learned about ki/kin to refer to beings of nature, proposed to resolve just this disconnect in our language — a disconnect that reinforces the notion that beings of nature are objects, and it’s okay to treat them that way, to buy and sell them, to be careless, to consume them without thought and regard. In searching for more about these pronouns and their intention, I came upon this beautiful essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer for YES! Magazine:
Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching “It”

If you’re new to Robin Wall Kimmerer, you’re in for a treat. Read this, then pick up her book  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants for more beauty, wisdom, and powerful teachings that, I think, can ignite ideas for many of us around how we individually and on a societal level can engage quite differently with the natural world, the Sacred, and with each other. Ourselves, too, for that matter.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

We don’t need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.

She goes on to write that in her search for a word that would reflect the better world for which we wish, an elder  and guide in her indigenous Potawatomi language shared with her a word  for “beings of the earth.” This word led her to choose ki/kin. Really, read the article to discover the poetry and power of this idea. I can’t really do justice to what she describes. What I can say is that her journey with landing with ki/kin points to true sweet magic, the kind that brings me to astonished laughter or moves the earth of me to tears.

Here’s the magic for me: that the ancient and living word for beings of the earth has “ki” at the end. As I understand from the article, ki is part of the sound that means “land.” I note that ki in Japanese is “life force” (also, chi in Chinese). So there’s a resonance here in this use of that word.  Wall Kimmerer chooses a plural, kin. And that feels to me perfect, forming with ki, a beautiful chord.

Kin an English word that is about family and relationship. It feels right to me that our society which wreaks havok in so many ways can help to breathe respect, delight, and new life into our relationship with the beings of nature with this use of “kin.”

Salish Sea and Shore - photo by Jane
Clouds, setting sun, the shore, and opposite Peninsula, the Salish Sea and kin meeting. Kin. Photo by Jane Valencia

It’s difficult to introduce new words into one’s language. It’s difficult to rewire our automatic responses, woven from years of use and years of immersion in a certain societal mindset. But to me, it is so worth shifting my speech in this way, to speak of ki, to speak of kin: When I give paho to the plants and state my appreciations and intentions to kin. When I watch the deer and how kin move like clouds across the land. When I let the chickens out in the morning and feel our engagement with one another. They are kin. The creek splashing across stones is ki, just as ki is when skimming over sand and entering the Salish Sea. Stones are kin. The forest is kin. The Salish Sea is ki or kin. The sunlight dancing on the water is ki. I want myself to be ki/kin, woven of breath exchanged, with starlight and with salmon, with roots, and with feather. Ki is in my nature. I too am a being of this living earth.

As are you.

What words or language do you choose that celebrates life? That honors relationship and true nature? Please feel free to share here.

For more on the grammar of animacy by Robin Wall Kimmerer read: Speaking of Nature, published by Orion Magazine

And read my follow-on blog post: Adventuring with Ki/Kin

Barred Rock Hen
Barred Rock Hen in the garden. She glances back from California Poppies and Rosemary. Kin are so vibrant. Photo – Jane Valencia