Embracing Nature as Our Kin

Learn how to connect with nature not as a ruler, but as a member of its family.

I was closing the blinds on our door to the deck for the night when I saw her — the mama toad. As she stared right at me through the window, I had no doubt it was her. Earlier that afternoon, my husband, toddler, and I rescued a tiny toad from the bottom of our outside stairwell, relocating him to our garden. Not knowing much about toads, we were not sure if he was just a small variety or an actual baby. Yet, as I looked into the larger toad’s eyes that night, I could feel her spirit, her motherhood, and her gratitude. I spoke to her as a sister, thanking her for the visit and wishing her and her family the best. We were now kin. 

What is a kinship model of creation?

Kinship is about belonging to one another, understanding another in a deep, authentic way that cultivates a desire for the other’s good. A kinship model of creation centers nature — humans are part of that nature, but do not hold dominion over it. Rather than rulers or landlords, we are siblings with non-human beings. In a kinship model, our care for creation comes from an integrated and internal place of love, not an external expectation.

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer delves into relationship and kinship with nature in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. As Kimmerer describes, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” In that moment I saw the mama toad on my deck, I felt that sacred bond.

Kimmerer further explains that establishing kinship with someone creates a community in which “all flourishing is mutual.” My ability to see, care for, and defend the best in you, enables your  ability to do that for me and for others. This occurs inherently in the natural world and at times when human hands help. For example, planting The Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash) together creates mutual flourishing. This mutual flourishing is what we aim to participate in when we embody a familial love with nature. This is how we can leave the world better than we found her.

Calling our non-human siblings by name

We cannot establish the depth of kinship without an understanding of who it is we are with. We struggle to find connection and care for things and people that we do not understand, especially those that we call “it.” Kimmerer mentions that the only way to be animate in the English language is to be human. Therefore, for us English speakers it is a radical act of kinship to personify all of our non-human beings — to learn their names and use personal pronouns when talking about them and addressing them. This is a critical step of joining the community of creation fully. 

The morning after I met the mama toad, I told my husband and toddler about her. They were so excited to hear that our rescue mission the day before was even more successful than we thought. We have done some research to try to determine which type of toad our neighbor is. Now, mama toad is sometimes lovingly called “mama Eastern American toad” in our home. We hope to continue to grow in kinship with her and our other neighborly visitors. 

Tips for beginning the journey of a familial relationship with nature

There are a lot of ways we can deepen and expand our relationship with the natural world around us. Learning about, especially the names of, your non-human siblings is a great first step. If you need ideas for where to get started when it comes to embracing this kinship model, here are a few more places to start:

  • Use technology to your benefit. Android phones come with Google Lens — take a picture while in Google Lens mode and it will show you search results for the plant or animal. Newer Apple products have a similar feature called Visual Look Up. There are a variety of similar apps you can download as well. Take screenshots of the results for future reference. 
  • Draw on knowledge in your local community. Does your locality have a group of master gardeners? Are there Parks and Rec programs that introduce you to local flora and fauna? What resources does your library have about local non-human beings? Do not be afraid to look into resources for children as sometimes they are more exciting and relatable. 
  • Grow in kinship with your human and non-human neighbors at the same time. Start conversations with neighbors as they do yard work or tend to balcony plants. Ask them why they chose those plants and what the names are. Be prepared to share your answers in return. 
  • Visit a garden center, plant nursery, or farmer’s market. Take a notebook or camera with you to document the names of plants that catch your eye. Greet the plants as you come to them, thank each plant for the gift of their life as you pass by. 
  • Welcome the power of sibling language. Do not be disheartened if you do not know or cannot find the specific name of a non-human being. Greet them with familial love. “Sister flower is pink” shows more kinship than “It is a pink flower.” Saint Francis of Assisi gives us an example in The Canticle of the Sun. Calypso, the teacher in the animated series, Bluey also gives us an example in The Gnome Song. We can follow their lead in including elements, not just plants and animals, in our family of creation. 
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