Is “It” a Dirty Word, and Should We Reclaim It?

A lot of herbalists have taken to calling plants “he” or “she” in an effort to acknowledge and honor that plant as a living, sentient being. While I love that sentiment, I stopped referring to plants in this way a while ago.

Why? Well, for one, because most plants are monoecious. Monoecious refers to plants that have both male and female sex organs present on the same plant specimen. Dioecious on the other hand, which translates to “two houses,” refers to plants that are either male or female. I’m a bit of a botany nerd, and I’m not a fan of using incorrect terminology when I can help it. So why don’t I refer to dioecious by their “correct” pronouns, “he or she?” Well, I do sometimes. But let’s take the conversation deeper than strictly scientific definitions and take a look at the pronoun phenomena as it applies to plants.

We westerners have made the grave mistake of believing that things with the pronoun “it” are not alive and sentient. By using the pronouns he and she, are we perpetuating the idea that we get to decide what’s living and what isn’t? When we do, we tend to only choose things that feel most like us. For most people that’s mammals (and scientifically, those pronouns make sense in the context of mammals). For some herbalists and enthusiastic plant people, plants fit into this category too. "Plants are are people too," has become a cherished adage within the herbal community. But we tend to leave out all the other living things on this very alive planet- things on the phylogenic tree, like bacteria, archaea, algae, insects, fungi, lichens, slime molds, amoebas, etc., as well as all the things absent from it that are also living, like rocks, rivers, the heavens, moments. It was not so long ago that scientists believed that plants could not possibly be intelligent, and entirely too recent in history (unfortunately, still to this day) that people of color were considered by some to be lesser than white people. We colloquially compare people to “beasts” or “wild animals” when we wish to demean their behavior.

As an antidote, we’ve taken to anthropomorphism. I have no judgement for anyone who refers to plants as “he/she,” and appreciate the sentiment it incurs. And for those versed in alchemical principles, you may recognize the predominance of male or female energies within a plant and feel called to acknowledge that. And those versed in folklore may choose to refer to plants by honoring the spirits associated with them, such as the Elder Mother spirit of Sambucus. Of course, what is most important is being a student of the plants and learning through our relationships with them, instead of viewing them as resources to be used. However, I do wonder if through this type of language, are we widening the dualistic gap?

Referring to anything non-human as a “something” as opposed to a “someone” is a very English language (and colonizer) oriented viewpoint. Animism is a common belief in indigenous cultures, and their languages and ways of living reflect that.

From Anishinaabe author Mary Siisip Geniusz’ Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask:

“Some of the things created by humans are combinations of many beings. But the beings whom Creator made are all alive. They are different life-forms. They reproduce and grow differently than humans. They talk differently than humans. They Pass Over differently than humans. Rocks are a good example. Their life span is so very much longer than ours; it is no wonder we are such different beings. The rocks are the bones of our Mother the Earth. Their language and ways of being are very much different from ours.”

Instead of ethnocentrically differentiating the things we deem to be living and or not living, based on our very narrow minded parameters for life, let’s make space in the very limited English language for all the “its” to be alive. In this way, we act in reciprocity and reverence for all the land, not just a few curated phyla within it. It opens us up to move beyond dualism, beyond ego, and reintegrates us as part of this land, as opposed to separate- and often passive- observers of it.

Language is important. Action is important. In many ways, the way we speak defines the way we see the world and therefore the way we interact with it. As a lover of words and taxonomy and science and the land, it is my constant endeavor to find ways to be impeccable with my word, while never letting it hold back my mind’s propensity to keep exploring and expanding. Science and language are two worlds of boxes and labels, and they need never be separate from all the other facets of living awareness; to do so perpetuates a commodification and objectification. And so while I don’t feel I’m just being stingy in wanting to keep these in alignment, the alignment of these facets does not mean that one should limit the other. Like all things in life, they synergize each. I cannot limit my definition of life by scientific standards, or by the standards of the modern English language. Instead, I choose to reclaim them. So unless I know a plant is dioecious and I know the sex of that plant, I won’t be referring to it as he or she. And for all the “its” out there, I see you.

Located in South Central Pennsylvania
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