Recognizing Gaia for Who Gi Is

I read the below prayer recently and added it to my list of quotations where the speaker seems to be talking about God but could easily be talking about Gaia:

Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass – among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field –
all grasses, trees, and plants –
awake at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer
so that my prayer and speech are made whole
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
―Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772 – 1810),
Prayer for Nature, from Monday Note from Nature.

The One to whom I belong. Yes. Gaia, the living Earth.

It seems to me that long ago (about five thousand years) people got confused. They confused God with Gaia.

The way our brains evolved led us to being mystical. As the anthropological exploration of religion Faces in the Clouds argues, we evolved to look for an actor behind an action. Imagine two people walking in the forest on parallel paths. They both hear a twig snap. One turns and picks up a stone. The other shrugs his shoulders and keeps walking. Now, if it was just a squirrel, then the latter saves a calorie of energy by not reacting (but also doesn’t get a chance to kill the squirrel). However, if it’s a mountain lion, the former is ready to defend himself or run away, and most likely survives to pass on his genes to the next generation. The latter helps only in ensuring the reproduction of the mountain lion.*

What do we see in the clouds of Hurricane Dorian (NASA)

Needless to say, the benefit differential is significant (from a human perspective at least). With that in mind, the author argues that attributing an actor to an action became hardwired into our brains—like the grammar of language. So it became natural, as we became more able to explain the world beyond immediate events, to attribute an actor to lightning strikes, to earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, even the occasional meteor that falls from the sky and kills someone (how else could ancient man explain that shocker but by intervention of supernatural beings!). But that attribution needed a rationalization—why would these gods or God hurt us? And out came wrath, sin, karma, and other ways to explain suffering (aka theodicy).

And this isn’t even just a phenomenon of human brains. Even rats and pigeons exhibit “superstitious behaviors.” I remember learning this in psychology class. Rats can train themselves to do all sorts of strange behaviors if food pellets come out delayed rather than immediately after they push a lever. If one happens to walk in a circle after pushing a lever, and then the food comes out, and then he tries that again—push, circle, food—it will develop a superstitious behavior that it’ll do every time.

Many, if not most people, exhibit superstitious behaviors as well, even in this so called scientific age** (that is, they attribute unrelated causes or actors to their experiences, whether from conditioning or cultural teachings). These range from not crossing the path of a black cat and throwing spilled salt over one’s shoulder to breathing down one’s shirt when hearing something bad and knocking on wood when hearing something good. Generally, these behaviors seem quaint, harmless, though once life-disrupting, they are called obsessive compulsive disorders. Ultimately, it’s all just part of how our brains evolved over millions of years.

But then we overdid it. We redirected the mysticism of nature (lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, oh my!) to a magical man in the clouds that sets the rules and demands obedience. That might have been a good idea for the ruling class—to keep people in line. But it led us to dominate creation, to disconnect from nature, to see ourselves, foolishly, as separate from the larger biotic community. It almost feels natural to do this.*** As humans, we like to anthropomorphize things. I’m sure if we were foxes we would have given God a fox-like face. But that suggests a key lesson for me: we must not repeat this mistake with Gaia by anthropomorphizing [Her].

Gi Not She

Since I’ve written these reflections, I’ve referred to Gaia as “Her,” which reinforces the anthropomorphization of Gaia. I struggled to find a better alternative: certainly not the impersonal, objectifying “It.” And definitely not Him—then we’d be back at square one. But the list of nongendered pronouns I found was lacking. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests we use the term Ki for all living creatures. Derived from ‘aki,’ which in the Anishinaabe language means land and “bimaadiziaki” means “a living being of the Earth.” As Wall Kimmerer explains, this would be a “respectful pronoun” to replace the objectifying “it” and acknowledge the “being-ness” of that organism, so that, “when I’m tapping my maples in the springtime, I can say, ‘We’re going to go hang the bucket on ki. Ki is giving us maple syrup this springtime.’” Further, as Wall Kimmerer notes, Ki sounds like the French word qui (who) and Qi/Chi, the Chinese word for the life force animating all living beings. Further, according to Kimmerer the plural would be kin (using Anishinaabe grammar****), which further reinforces our relational connections to the other species of the planet.

So Ki is a powerful term, one worth utilizing instead of “it” when we refer to living beings, particularly when they are genderless or multi-gendered (or we cannot easily tell their gender), such as dual sexed oak trees. Though many animals and plants are specifically male and female and if we know what they are, should we not use he and she? (And if they switch sexes—like the Striped Maple does—we can switch pronouns, which might help us embrace gender fluidity in humans too, and help us pay even closer attention to the natural world we are part of.)

And yet, Gaia is not just a living being, Gaia is all living beings. Gaia is the whole. This suggests Gaia needs Gaia’s very own pronoun, one that cannot be confused, or anthropomorphized. (This sentence shows the value of pronouns!) Fortunately, the word Ki reminded me that another form of Gaia is Gi. Why not utilize that short form for Gaia’s pronoun?

Gaia is the whole. From the edge of the atmosphere to the molten core at Gi’s center. (Earth Enveloped by Airglow, NASA)

Of course, there’s some irony here that I should not ignore. I named this philosophical way after Gaia, the Greek Goddess of the Earth—a She. And Earth is also the name of the Germanic goddess for the planet (Hertha/Erde), and Terra/Tierra, also meaning Earth, comes from the Latin for Mother Earth—but I did that indirectly, drawing from the scientific Gaia Theory rather than these ancient roots of deified Earth/god beings.

Organization Earth’s logo (can you find ΓH?)

But going back to the roots, Gaia had a synonym, Gi (Pronounced Gee not Gih or Jee or Jih). I came across that term when working with Worldwatch’s Greek partner called Organization Earth, where the word Gi (Γη or ΓH in capital letters) was cleverly drawn right into their logo. It’s similar to Ki, and nice and short. And as it is unique—as Gaia is unique—this word would work very nicely as a short (pronoun-equivalent) form for Gaia. For example, “Gaia is not just a living being, Gi is all living beings. Gi is the whole.” And of course, as Gi is unique there is no plural.***** As for possessive pronouns, that’d be Gi’s (or perhaps even Gis) for short, and pronounced Gees, such as “Gi’s future is threatened.”

Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but a thousand years from now, as civilization is re-forming after a great die off and the trees, plants, and insects have adjusted to the new hotter reality and formed new ecological webs—or even in 20-30 years as we’re fully enveloped in the horrific Great Unravelling—it is very important that we don’t create a cult of Gaia, praying to ‘Her’ to save us or look after us. That is not who Gaia is. Gi is the source of all life—one that will care for all but only if treated with respect. We failed to do that, and now Gi will have to reboot (yes, kind of like your crashed laptop—one you kept postponing the update for) and form anew. It is unclear what role, if any, humans will have in that new order, but rebooting a respectful relationship based on reciprocity with Gi certainly would be a good start.

*Not a bad thing in the holistic Gaian perspective but probably not the intention from that individual’s perspective.

**So called, because if people don’t understand the difference between magic and science, or basic scientific principles like greenhouse gases and their effect on warming, then it’s hard to see this as a scientific age—or believe that our understanding will increase as the collapse leads to chaos and disruptions around the world.

***From today’s perspective at least. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass, it’s clear that Indigenous belief systems integrated humanity deeply into nature. We were the youngest sibling and needed to listen and pay respect to our elder brothers and sisters: plants, trees, deer, buffalo, and bears to survive and thrive. A good reminder that we don’t have to live anthropocentrically, and that if we don’t, we’ll be much better off (in the sense of being connected to Gaia and obeying Gi’s rules).

****I’m grateful to the author of The Birchbark House series, Louise Erdrich, who so expertly introduces her readers to Anishinaabe vocabulary, plural forms included. It has been an education for this Chimookaman.

*****There are surely other living planets in the universe. It is sheer hubris to think otherwise. But they will have, and deserve their own names. Perhaps if we ever reach a point where we are in contact with other living planets, we will create an aggregate name for these beings.

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6 Responses

  1. Brennan

    Beautifully said, Erik.

    My gut impulse to this reflection was that any pronoun creates a third-person reference. As a result, we are once again removed from being Gaia, and are suddenly observers talking about Gaia.

    One possible pronoun cheat for this could be the use of Wi (said just like We, but made distinct (and made more aligned with the great reasons you’ve stated for Wall Kimmerer’s aki and your Gi) by the spelling). In referencing Gaia, then, we’d be including ourselves. I’m aware this is an English-centric solution with limited potential for inclusivity, but wanted to offer it as further discussion . . . possibly a path to an additional idea that gives rise to something new.

    Thanks for all you do. Brennan

    • Erik Assadourian

      A great point, Brennan. And you’re right, Gi does still separate us from Gaia. Wi certainly would remind us that we are part of Gaia. Would it be too similar sounding to We though? And not distinct enough? And does using Wi overly prioritize people (that part of we) once again creating an anthropocentrism problem? We are a very small aspect of Wi but the word ‘Wi’ might suggest otherwise. More to think about here, that’s for sure. Thanks!

  2. wornsmooth

    Hi Brennan and Erik,
    Though I am not exactly adding to your thoughts on how we speak of Gaia it did remind me of how our speech influences our thoughts and attitudes. I hadn’t considered that perhaps a different name could enter in, and hence influence us. (“different words make different worlds”; Owl Listening of Shawnee)
    One of my faults is that I can be too quick and too casual with words. This reminds me to slow down and be more thoughtful, especially when it comes to a Name.

    Both your responses speak of our relationship with Gaia. How do we think of being part of, rather than thinking yet apart from, “the source of all life”? I suspect partly how the religious training of my generation and culture affects us. Aside from the Abrahamic “…given dominion over all…” concepts, at some point I was taught that “God is inside me”. Many, many years later (long after I had accepted that the God of my childhood wasn’t real) I had a slow awakening to the idea that we carried God inside us was completely backwards.
    It seems so obvious that we are inside God….or more accurately Gaia….or if preferred, Wi.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Yes, perfectly said. We are inside of Gaia. Part of, dependent on, impossible to be apart from Gi. If we learn that we will live. If we don’t, we won’t.

  3. Tom Read

    Thank you, Erik, for a most interesting essay!

    I’ve always thought of our planet home as female – you know the old phrase: “Mother Earth and Father Sky.” You make an articulate and logical case for a gender-neutral Gaia pronoun. My head might agree with your logic but my heart is not persuaded.

    A few questions:

    — Why and how would a female Gaia, a true Goddess of All Life, turn into a commandment-issuing, obedience-demanding God, as you imply? If you’re merely afraid this “might” happen, how do you suppose one “might” overcome such a fear?

    — What is the role of your personal feelings (emotions) in your relationship to Gaia?

    — Are these emotions felt more strongly with an anthropomorphic or a neutral pronoun?

    I just can’t get passionate about a neutral Gaia pronoun. But my imagination and emotions definitely can get excited about visualizing and interacting with a metaphorical yet real Goddess of All Life. There might even be a hint of eroticism involved here : ) [anything wrong with that?]

    Humanity uses symbols such as words to communicate, to think and to express feelings. The emotional power and content of a symbol increases, it seems to me, as the symbol comes closer to representing human form. Gaia as female seems entirely natural to me, so I must ask: what’s wrong with reaffirming Gaia as having a symbolic female identity for a life-sustaining planet, especially if by doing so our species could become more emotionally motivated to protect and heal Her?

    Also: I am concerned that we focus too heavily on Gaia as a planet (like I did in my previous sentence). My practical reality is that I can’t take meaningful action to protect and heal Gaia on a planetary scale. But I can relate to my local home place within the concept of a planetary Gaia.

    As a male who was brought up in the 1950s to be protective of my younger sister and other females (quaint, perhaps), I can easily transfer that lifelong spirit of protection to helping heal an omniscient yet very tangible Goddess who surrounds and pervades me locally. But my heart just doesn’t sing with a newly-invented, gender-neutral pronoun which seems designed for global-scale symbolism.

    With respect and affection,

    –Tom

  4. Bart Everson

    Gaia is genderqueer! Indeed, how could it be otherwise? She contains all genders within her. And yet, oops, I just used the feminine personal pronoun. Adopting new words is a tall order. I share some of the feelings Tom articulated above. I came to Gaia through the goddess movement and ecofeminism. We discussed “the gendering of Gaia” (inspired by an article by Danielle Sands) in my local guild a few weeks ago; the upshot was that although problematic we also found value in the female metaphor for numerous reasons. Beyond gender, anthropocentrism is a problem, but anthropomorphism is a solution. The value of allowing Gaia a face that resembles ours would seem to be clear, as it fosters biophilia, but perhaps any metaphor should be a gateway to embracing reality.

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