Getting to Know Our Non-Human Neighbors

I definitely would not claim to have a green thumb. My main issue with the plants in my life is that I forget about them. I forget to water them. I forget to add fertilizer. Honestly, I think I expect them to thrive and grow all on their own. Nature is resilient, right?


Even though I have worked on berry farms and have grown vegetable gardens, I still don’t quite have the instinct to fully know and understand the plants around me. I have a neighbor who can tell you the name of every plant species on the block. She can look at a leaf and tell you the type of tree. She can look at a weed and tell you what it's called and if it will flower or not. She even explained to me the different types of grass in my yard, even though I still can’t see or tell the difference.


But for me, memorization has always been a struggle. I can’t remember the names of trees, weeds, birds, or flowers. This is true even though I have the field guides, looked on my plant identification apps, and have been told many times. I just can’t seem to remember their names. I have often wondered if that is because I don’t fully know or believe in their importance.


In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s fantastic book Braiding Sweetgrass, she talks about her experience as a Native American scientist. She talks in depth about humanity’s role in the environment and uses the language of “non-human neighbors.” As I read her deeply personal and beautiful book about how humans interact with nature and how we work together—human and non-human—to have proper balance, I was encouraged and challenged to think about the non-human neighbors that I have a relationship with every day. She describes deep and intimate relationships with non-human neighbors in a way that is moving and beautiful.


Her perspective has caused me to adjust the way I look at my non-human neighbors. I think about the birds that eat the black currants from our yard, scattering the seeds throughout the neighborhood. I think about the moss on the big oak that is home to millions of small beings that are not quite animals but not quite plants either. I think about the edible weeds that we cut and dispose of without truly understanding their complexity. And I realize that I need to be a better neighbor to the non-humans around me. I need to know their names, their stories, their beauty.


In Rachel Held Evans’ book Wholehearted Faith, she talks about a hemlock tree she saw in Montana. She meditated on that tree and thought about the tea that Native peoples would make from the needles. She thought about the animals that lived in its trunk. She thought about resting under its shade. She thought about the bugs that are only found on that type of tree in that environment. She reminds the reader that we are part of a beautiful ecosystem of human and non-human beings, working together to grow and thrive.


Our family has pledged to be better to the non-human neighbors around us and one of the ways we try to do that is to know their names. We have an Illinois birding guide that we take around with us to help identify the birds we see. We have a plant identification app on our phones that will tell us the name of any plant. We encourage our children to look, touch, and question as we walk through the neighborhood. We are coming to realize that we have millions of neighbors around us that we need to get to know more intimately.

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