Foragers Week 2: On Witch Hazel and Animacy
By Allie Smith
This is my second blog post for our Foragers 1 course, and I’ve already been confronted by lots of uncertainty around–of all things–my grammar. It’s a muscle that atrophies easily for me, and my days in life’s current iteration involve little to no writing beyond Gmail. This doesn’t necessarily worry me. “Perfectly” constructed sentences are besides the point; however, second guessing my English grammar has led to more interesting questions. How do I write about the plants we meet as beings? Do I needlessly gender plants for the sake of not othering them? How do I imbue them with animacy without just recentering human-ness?
According to Wikipedia, my first time distinguishing between animate and inanimate probably occurred when I was about six months old. Soaking in English as a first language, I was taught a hierarchy of animacy in which everything is related to being a human. This was made explicit when using the word “it” for nonhuman beings and “things,” but was communicated implicitly too. I’m reminded of the tendency to anthropomorphize. I can’t help but assign human thoughts, tendencies, needs, and wants to other beings as a way of making sense of the world. But for every Giving Tree there were 500 anthropomorphized animals in my storybooks, and this communicated an additional hierarchy of beings. Now I assign very human thoughts to my cat every day, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
As we learn in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, most indigenous languages including Potawatomi can help move us towards a different way of thinking:
“In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (p. 55)
While my thoughts on this were already swirling, we met witch hazel at Fox Haven, and I reread Kimmerer’s “Witch Hazel” chapter. The name and its etymology are enchanting to me, so I’ve been particularly excited to dive in. I honestly can’t remember encountering a flowering one during the colder months growing up in the Adirondacks, whether for not paying close attention or just not being at the right place at the right time.
Not having my own mental picture, the first thing that jumped out at me in Kimmerer’s description of the plant were eerie words like “ragged,” “snagged,” and, “torn.” Soon after, we readers are introduced to Hazel Barnett, a formidable, aging Kentucky neighbor who has prepared witch hazel medicine for decades. Because of my recent preoccupation with animacy, I paid close attention to the way my human-biased understanding of Hazel as a person necessarily informed my understanding of witch hazel. Hazel becomes a symbol of everything the plant is, and for everything it’s not: a craggy, powerful plant with an uncanny blooming cycle. Hopeful in its spirit, but ultimately not able to heal all wounds.
At Fox Haven–after we spent time with poplars, sycamores, black cherry trees, and black walnut trees–I was eagerly anticipating our encounter with witch hazel. When we arrived at its spot on the creek bank though, we found a tangle of poplar that had fallen on top of the large witch hazel shrub. It seemed likely the tree wouldn’t survive the damage. After some pangs of sadness, it seems as though one (of many) reasons we don’t conceive of plants as animate so readily in English is that it’s one more thing to mourn. It takes strength to let beings into your conception of family because then you need to contend with the possibility of losing them. We contend with the loss of so much in a changing climate, and thinking on a micro scale about that loss does make it feel even heavier.
But in my world this month, at this moment, I am the lucky recipient of a gift from witch hazel: a portion of a large batch of witch hazel decoction made from some small, cut branches of younger growth. We shaved some outer bark, cambium and phloem (pictured above) as well, which can be used similarly in place of newer branches. Each time I use this medicine, I will use it as an opportunity to unlearn a bit more of the hierarchy of animacy. How we speak and write shapes our world, and grammar shapes/is shaped by culture. It’s a very (too) small gesture, but at least I can thank witch hazel sincerely and deeply.