Question

Respectfully

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6 minutes of reading

I have no idea how to arrive and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the person to weigh in on that, since I’m on my father’s side the granddaughter of refugees who arrived in East L.A. and on the other, the great-granddaughter of immigrants (arguably also refugees) who settled in Brooklyn. They landed on asphalt, in places full of other new arrivals and transients like them, and they set about forgetting where they were from because it was so full of misery. The sense in which they knew where they were was surely not as deep and rich as I’d like to see in people who have the good fortune to stay in one place or even one continent for one lifetime or many. But I do have a few ideas about how people like me and mine, the uprooted, displaced, ungrounded, and lost, might set out.

Knowledge is not love, but it’s the beginning of it: paying attention is everything. When we fall in love with someone we begin by getting deeply interested in them, in wanting to know them and know about them. The very word respect in English has multiple meanings, and in the question we were asked—“How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another?”—respect means to regard something or someone as having rights, value, dignity, as deserving of good treatment. What that might consist of is present in the other meaning of respect and its etymology—to look at, regard, consider. The Oxford English Dictionary states that respect comes from respectus, “the action of looking round or back, consideration, regard, in post-classical Latin also respite, reprieve.” 

Attention itself comes from attend, which means to not just show up but to stay, and attention is at least the beginning of respect. Disrespect is often coupled with the assertion that there is nothing to know or nothing worth knowing; amplified, it becomes annihilation. I grew up in California—specifically about thirty miles north of San Francisco in Novato, named after a Coast Miwok chief or at least after his baptismal name for St. Novatus, according to the old stories, but maybe it was just the Spanish word novato for novice, inexperienced, which the Spanish would’ve been when they went about flinging names onto places they’d just arrived in, which, like the chief, already had names. It was the era in which schoolchildren were still being taught that California Native people were all “Diggers,” a term of maximum denigration—and that was about all you needed to know. The hundred languages, cultures, and cosmologies of California were thereby erased.

That is, I grew up in a place where the emptiness was palpable and no one was around to fill it with stories. The blankness was in us, not the place. One of my brothers had a teacher who was enthusiastic about botany, and he learned some local plant names from her and somehow I picked up others and read about edible plants, how to leach acorns, and other bits and pieces about the landscape I loved because it was the kindest and most stable part of my childhood. We roamed the hills and got to know the creatures there, though the coyotes and mountain lions hadn’t yet returned to the area, and nor had the elephant seals and otters to the coast. Most of the people around me didn’t have much of an idea of where we were, or a sense of lack, because there were so few people asserting there was more to know, or why you might want to.

I would propose that the beginning of living respectfully with the land comes with knowing it. Knowing it as a place with a human and a nonhuman history and how those two are intertwined, as a place whose rocks, soil, plants, wildlife from the least spider to the largest raptor, seasons and weather, hydrology and maybe agriculture all have something to tell us, all work together to make it what it is, and make it something worth knowing. This might sound academic, but I’m more interested in, for example, hydrology as in knowing where the water coming out of the faucet originated, or what floods in the rainstorms and where it drains to.

In how the rains might bring up mushrooms or how the milkmaids are the first flowers in the Bay Area spring, or how the star-shaped soaproot flowers open in the afternoon and dip under the weight of the bumblebees that land on them in the evening. In a sense, to know the neighbors in the neighborhood (and wildlife and native plants are present even in our urban areas, if you pay attention). That knowledge is like learning the language of the neighbors so you can hear what they say. It’s to see that a place has its order and pattern and sequences. Even if you don’t see much, it’s to know enough to know that something deep and complex and alive is there. To have a sense of the pattern and rhythm of the place, to hear its music. To know that you exist within natural, social, and political systems.

Bay Area writer Jenny Odell writes about listening in her book How to Do Nothing, and about deep listening as “a heightened sense of receptivity and a reversal of our usual cultural training, which teaches us to quickly analyze and judge more than to simply observe.” She talks about how she realized that she did this as a birdwatcher. “I personally think they should just rename it ‘bird noticing,’” she wrote, since she heard birds more than saw them, and also “the sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to identify them; they register instead like speech.” She realized that birdsong was very often present outdoors, and each was like a language she could now understand to the extent at least of knowing who was singing. What she says is a reminder that we mostly live in layers of silence that come, not from lack of speech or song or story, but from our lack of listening and learning the languages. 

Living respectfully with other people also comes with listening. The mainstream of American society has, from its inception, been built on silencing and strategic exclusion, on not hearing who and what mounts up to the majority of us. At its most intimate it’s this learned non-empathy that says that what happens to you doesn’t affect me, that we are not connected, that you don’t matter. At its most systematic it does this categorically: dictating that these people are not to be believed, not to be admitted as equals or participants; that they are to be laughed at or mocked or roughed up or erased.

One of the noxious fictions of recent years is that this person or that “found her voice,” rather than that she found people willing to listen. There was nothing lacking in the speaker, no voice lost and unrealized, except to the extent that she realized that no one would believe her or she would be killed, mocked, or otherwise punished for speaking up (as women still are when they testify about crimes against them). The same, of course, goes for BIPOC who were excluded from the legal system, treated as less rational, reliable, capable, honest, and deserving. This great majority was silenced by lack of respect, and with it a thinned-out narrative became the official story, of the history of this country, but also our entertainment full of straight white male protagonists, whose travails and woes and victories we were supposed to identify with and care about, more than our own. A conversation became a monologue; a chorus a solo.

I wrote earlier this year, in a piece about how Harvey Weinstein got away with four decades of sexual assaults, even against women who were supposed to be powerful and famous, that “Facts circulate freely in a democracy of information that results from a democracy of voices. We have something else instead, from personal life to national politics: a hierarchy of audibility and credibility, a brutal hierarchy, in which people with facts often cannot prevail, because those who have more power push those facts out of the room and into silence or make the cost of stating those facts dangerously high. That’s how the oil industry turned the science of climate change into a fake debate full of fake uncertainties.” Those who are equally respected have equal audibility and credibility, and their words have equal consequences. We can extend this beyond the human and the auditory or verbal to imagine listening to many kinds of beings and systems and processes and to recognize listening, so often portrayed as passive and receptive, as at its best a conscious imaginative embrace and incorporation of what is heard.

I’m writing this on the day of Congressman and Civil Rights Movement hero John Lewis’s funeral; Barack Obama, there to, as he put it, “pay my respects,” declared: “And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him… He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.” Those two forces, the silencers and the listeners, are counterweights in this country’s history. Respect for listening itself, as an engaged and creative act, even a talent that can be learned and fine-tuned, is part of the project of building respect for the land and each other. And that’s a start.

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

  • Rebecca Solnit

    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at the Guardian and sits on the board of the climate group Oil Change International. 

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