He, She, It: Animacy and a Chainsaw

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Animacy is the word that describes the reason for why we call a tree “it” and a dog or cat or person he or she or them. It is based upon the subjects perceived level of sentient character but only from a human perspective. Thus, animacy has quite a lot of semantic principles involved with it as well.

From birth, I would wager that most of us learned to refer to trees or most animals as “it” for the lack of two pieces of information. One, we cannot tell the sex of a tree from one to the other so applying he or she to it would seem a mistake. Two, we do not all know the true names of the trees so the “White Oak beside the stream” becomes “that tree beside the stream” or “look at it.” As we grow older and continue using these general names for other forms of life around us, it creates a culture of human vs everything else in which everything else is not sentient and thus do not deserve the respect of he, she, or them.

In many indigenous cultures, the trees and rocks and mountains and flowers all received the latter titles and it’s said that by assigning pronouns to perceived inanimate things, it gave these cultures a much more profound respect for the land around them.

It feels to me like a form of detaching oneself from a situation. If I cut down a tree, it’s not going to care right? But, if she is an old tree with many nests in the tops of her branches, it becomes harder to dig into her flesh with a chainsaw. While you could argue that it doesn’t make any sense to apply pronouns to an organism with the characteristics of a tree, it’s difficult to say that not doing so won’t create a culture who easily disrespects the land they have.

Enter modern America. I have not once heard a fish or a tree or a plant or animal referred to as he or she unless that animal has been domesticated. Somehow, the he/she pronoun is only applicable to other people and our possessions.

It has everything to do with human perception. We decide what is respected as long as it makes sense to our lives and us regardless of the actual subject. To cite an example, sailors commonly referred to their vessels as “she” although they contain less animacy than a living tree. Why? Because the boat was the sailor’s property whom he respected and worked with enough to assign it pronoun identifiers. If someone were to see a dog, they may ask about the sex, “is it a he or a she?” but to ask the same of a snake or a lizard would be a strange extra step beyond using the all-encompassing “it.”

Only those people who truly understand and respect the land around them see the life in everything they do. Giving life to all forms of material in the world help us to see the world not in only people and resources but living and non-living beings that all deserve the respect of a level playing field of animacy.

The stages of animacy are, in order, humans, animals, plants, natural forces, concrete objects, and abstract objects while humans have varying distinctions within that “human” level. It’s not crazy to think that we can assign all things within the human sphere of being. It’s only a matter of how much we wish to respect not only the life but the land around us as well.

Mother Nature is not going to wait for the respect she deserves. It’s up to humankind to decide we are not above all life and land but a part of it as the standing trees are a part of the forest.


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