Hand on tree

Becoming Kin: An Interview with Gavin Van Horn

By Sarah Boon

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We find our way into belonging because we practice that belonging, cultivating mutual relations of care, honor, reverence, and respect, acknowledging and affirming the agency and wildness of the world.
 

Introduction

Gavin van Horn
Gavin Van Horn.
Photo courtesy Center for Humans and Nature.
In the fall of 2021, the Center for Humans and Nature Press released their five-volume book series about kinship—our relationship with the more-than-human world. Each volume is tied to a different theme: planet, place, partners, persons, and practice. A huge diversity of voices contributed to this series, including J. Drew Lanham, Gary Paul Nabhan, Sharon Blackie, Julian Hoffman, Richard Powers, Daegan Miller, and Alison Hawthorne Deming. Each book in the series builds on the next, with Planet being the overarching theme of our connection to the cosmos, down to Practice which is how we live kinship in the everyday world.

Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations has been a remarkably popular series, taking on a life of its own in book clubs and online discussions. It also speaks to the growing societal awareness that the way forward during this ecological crisis is to place the environment on equal footing with people, to see ecological processes as being just as worthy of existing as humans—as seen in the granting of personhood to the Whanganui River in New Zealand/Aotearoa and to the Magpie River in Quebec.

I interviewed Gavin Van Horn, co-editor of the series with Robin Wall Kimmerer and John Hausdoerffer, to find out why society is interested in kinship at this particular point in time.

Kin is not something static, not something we simply own as a genetic or evolutionary birthright. Kin is a doing—a becoming-with, if you will—because being kin is fundamentally about relationships.

Interview

Sarah Boon: Ursula LeGuin wrote about kinship in her famous poem about a tree back in the 1970s. As Bron Taylor writes in his essay, “Kinship Through the Senses, Art, and Sciences,” kinship has been a recurring theme throughout history, from John Muir to Charles Darwin. What do you think has brought the notion of kinship to the fore in the past few years? Why do you think Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which explores kinship with the natural world, has become so popular now, years after its publication?

Kinship Vol. 1 - PlanetGavin Van Horn: I’m glad you referenced LeGuin, a writing hero of mine. That poem resonates with the Kinship book series, particularly the lines about the human experience of being un-tree-like, “rootless and restless and warmblooded…” yet looking to our botanical grandmothers for guidance and wisdom. The Kinship books ask: How can we become more rooted, more sensitive and responsive to place as one creature among a multitude of diverse, wondrous expressions of life? LeGuin drew deeply from her wells of empathic imagination to conjure worlds, stories, and cultures that provided alternatives to the stories we’ve been told about human superiority and hyper-separation from earth. So much of her work asks what the practice of kinship—of relating well to the nonhuman—might look like. I’d like to think the Kinship series aligns with that.

This “recurring theme” of kinship, as you call it, was reaffirmed by those such as Darwin, who offered an explanatory framework for our deep-time biological relatedness. But, as we tried to emphasize throughout the Kinship volumes, kinship transcends genetics. It’s not merely a matter of DNA. Genetics is one type of relationship. We relate to others, however, in all kinds of ways that go beyond whether someone is an uncle or second cousin once-removed. We find our way into belonging because we practice that belonging, cultivating mutual relations of care, honor, reverence, and respect, acknowledging and affirming the agency and wildness of the world. Currently, we live in a time of consequences based on what I have called a colonial obsessive-compulsive disorder—an extractive ideology that ignores fundamental kinships, that separates particular humans as “owners” of lands, waters, airs, other creatures, and other humans. Divide and conquer. Or just divide. Lifting up kinship as a key paradigm for how to live well reminds us that we are earthlings before anything else; we already belong, and we live into that belonging more fully by recognizing the needs of our fellow earthlings, human and nonhuman.

Perhaps, to answer your question about Robin, this speaks to why the book Braiding Sweetgrass seems to have struck a chord. Her writing is full of gentle wisdom and guidance about practices of engagement with a living world; a world that calls to us, cares for us, wants to be in relationship with us. Her words are full of power yet not abusive or pedantic. There is a humility to them, and she leads by example, bridging Native (Potawatomi) knowledge and Western science, so she’s well positioned to act as a translator between those folks who long for something that goes beyond “facts and figures” and speaks to how we might better cultivate loving relationships with our fellow earthlings.

Sarah Boon: You note in the introduction that contributors to the series were selected because of their “experiences, expertise, diverse backgrounds, and geographical locations, and the way they’ve made kin with other species.” Did you draw up a list of potential contributors and then whittle it down, or was everyone on your list invited to contribute? What was their response when asked to write something for the series? Were there many who had previously been recognized for their work on kinship?

Kinship Vol. 2 - PlaceGavin Van Horn: We hosted an initial in-person gathering of 20 or so people who we thought would be great for the project. Then, the “snowball” method came into play. Basically, after we decided we wanted to do a book, the three co-editors brought names of people we thought should be involved to the table. Then, the people we invited recommended people they thought would be awesome, and I kept my serendipity radar active and invited a few others into the fold. It’s astounding how the books fell into place and sorted themselves out topically. I suppose I attribute that to being open to the process; what started out conceptually as a single book multiplied into five volumes, united by themes but topically separated by the scale of kinship (from the planetary to everyday, close-at-hand practices). Our contributors were very enthusiastic about being involved and a pleasure to work with.

Sarah Boon: What was the germination process for this book series? Were you just chatting with some friends and it came up, or did you decide specifically to do a series about kinship?

Gavin Van Horn: At the organization I work for, the Center for Humans and Nature, I try to keep an awareness of what’s bubbling up in creative nonfiction circles about human relations and responsibilities to a more-than-human world. For a while, I’d been thinking about animism and the perception of nonhuman personhood. In 2017, nonhuman personhood became an international news item when the Whanganui River in New Zealand/Aotearoa received legal designation as a living entity, an agreement worked out between the New Zealand government and the local Maori iwi (tribe) of that watershed. This set a precedent for a number of other countries or Indigenous groups to legally codify the rights of nature. Originally, I thought the Kinship project would be called Personhood, and we would be exploring how “person” (beings recognized as having agency) was a category not exclusive to, or equated with, human personhood. Some of the essays touch on this topic, but in the end “kinship” felt like a much more accessible concept for a general audience to consider relational understandings about living in a wild, entangled world of multiple subjectivities. Kinship also built on the work we did in Wildness: Relations of People in Place, where it was a strong theme we felt could be further fleshed out. Topically, kinship allowed for—indeed, inspired—a wild diversity of contributions.

Sarah Boon: The books have spawned a whole series of book clubs and Zoom talks. Was this the intention from the beginning of the project?

Gavin Van Horn: Absolutely. I need to credit my co-editor John Hausdoerffer here. John has always insisted that a book (or books) is a platform, a launchpad, for creating conversations within community. I wasn’t so sure initially that Kinship needed to be a book. I thought it might be a podcast, a multimedia online experience, a visual arts menagerie. It became all those things, but John was right: the books provided a center of gravity for a constellation of kinship related conversations.

Kinship Vol. 3 - PartnersSarah Boon: What is the best feedback you’ve gotten from readers? What do you hope they take away from this series?

Gavin Van Horn: People have been very kind. I think the Kinship “book club” hosted by Point Reyes Books, in which we devoted one session per month to each of the five volumes in succession, was particularly meaningful. I loved seeing the range of authors on the screen and the spontaneous conversations that rose to the surface during those sessions.

One piece of feedback that stuck with me came from writer Cara Benson. She said, “Reading these books became a practice. I spent all summer with them. I went backpacking with them. I sat by creek sides and read them. I would read and leaves would fall on me and fall on the pages, and the creek would burble by, and I’d pick up some sentences and then put it down again. They wove into my experience of the entire summer. And when I might feel a sense that I wanted to retreat and not to stay radically open to that gratitude and to that connection, these books didn’t let me. They kept opening me further. As with any ongoing meditation practice, I got cranky about it at times and wanted to say, ‘All right, enough already.’ But then the books invited me to go further, to deepen my relationship with them… [The books] are an act of praxis. These books are enacting that kinship that they’re talking about.” Cara’s generous comments helped me realize that when one approaches these books in the spirit with which they were written, the various essays become kinship conversation partners; the reader becomes part of a larger dialogue, the words woven into their lives. I can’t hope for more than that.

I hope the books inspire all sorts of personal and community kinning practice—becoming more receptive to ways the world “speaks,” heightening our awareness of the world’s aliveness.

Sarah Boon: Did you expect the series to be so popular?

Gavin Van Horn: I had modest expectations. It’s difficult to sell books. I mean, I love the contributors involved; I’m astounded by the work they do and the storytelling creativity they bring to the page. But just because one thinks something’s great doesn’t ensure it will find its way into a ton of people’s hands. With this series, I think it is finding its way. Robin’s involvement, because so many people have loved Braiding Sweetgrass, has helped. The excellent To the Best of Our Knowledge radio show about kinship, hosted by Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson, has helped. An amazing course on Kinship, constructed by Hannah Close for Advaya and featuring several of the contributors, has helped. The aesthetics of the series, a collaboration with the wonderful LimeRed design team, catches the eye and lures you in. All these have worked in the books’ favor. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of the volumes finding a reader in the right place at the right time.

Kinships Vo. 4 - PersonsSarah Boon: It’s been almost a year since it was published. Looking back, what do you think went well and what would you do differently? 

What’s gone well is the unpredictable yet totally organic way the tendrils of the essays have intertwined. These volumes highlight what an animistic view of the world looks like from multiple angles and diverse geographies and cultural experiences. They ask how we can reckon with the trauma of loss and the joyful awe of being a creature in the here-and-now. The essays are an affirmation of how we belong in a creature-full world and how our daily practices can reflect that belonging.

What would I do differently? I don’t have any regrets. Well, maybe one. I was hoping we could do a cross-country road trip kinship tour, picking up contributors along the way, caravanning from spot to spot to do readings and host kinship conversations in all different sorts of special landscapes. Kind of a Merry Pranksters scenario with much less LSD and much more nature. But the pandemic threw a wrench in that dream. Or maybe just postponed it. The Magic Kinship Bus may yet ride.

Sarah Boon: What are your plans for the kinship series going forward? Are you working on new projects that tie into it, or developing new ways to promote it?

Gavin Van Horn: One truly exciting thing to emerge out of the writing is a complimentary, extraordinary visual exploration of the kinship themes, which reveals how kinship finds expression in a broad range of artistic work and practice. The books are organized by the scale of our kinship engagements and entanglements, roughly from macro to micro: Vol. 1 – Planet, Vol. 2 – Place, Vol. 3 – Partners, Vol. 4 – Persons, and Vol. 5 – Practice. Two visually based projects have taken that scale as structural inspiration to invite an expansive view of how kinship can be imagined.

The first is a thoughtfully curated (by Kinship series contributor Andrew S. Yang) online art gallery, “Making Kin,” a provocative collection of wildly diverse artwork in various mediums. The second project is an ongoing, public photography effort called the Kinship Photography Collective, a “non-profit community art initiative that helps photographers of all levels deepen their connection, empathy, and intimacy with the natural world and each other.” Not only does this collective have an amazing platform for sharing photos and connecting people in kinship-related discussion, they also host once-a-week online gatherings with guests who speak about how aspects of kinship inspire their own work, practice groups that explore kinship themes together, and a featured project page that is an incredibly inspiring place to witness how photographers are creatively engaging with kinship. It’s really exciting to me to see the variety of ways people are thinking about and making kin through their art.

I mentioned previously the incredible Kinship course, an eight-week online course that featured a variety of teachers and focused on diving deep into various kinship topics. A different iteration of that course is planned for 2023 for those who enjoy a discussion-based learning environment. That’s something to be on the lookout for.

Kinships Vol. 5 - PracticeThe last thing I’ll say in response to the question is that at a certain point in putting together the Kinship book series, John Hausdoerffer, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and I realized something. The word “kinning” kept popping up. The series is about becoming kin, so this makes sense. We were trying to emphasize that kin is not something static, not something we simply own as a genetic or evolutionary birthright. Kin is a doing—a becoming-with, if you will—because being kin is fundamentally about relationships. Like wisdom, good relationships are hard-earned, they are practiced, through failure and misunderstanding, for better or worse, and they are forged in everyday intimacies. Kin is a relational becoming as we enact our kinship with our fellow earthlings. So, while it’s not necessarily a new project, I hope the books inspire all sorts of personal and community kinning practice—becoming more receptive to ways the world “speaks,” heightening our awareness of the world’s aliveness.

One of the simplest ways to do this is as close as a breath, which is a collective experience, a “we” experience, between us and plantfolk, especially trees. Sometimes, while I’m walking outside, I pause and use this “we” language while I breathe, saying with each successive inhalation or exhalation, “I breathe. You breathe. We breathe.” This is an exchange of kinship—a kinning—that goes on without our thinking about it (most of the time) and yet it is essential to our next moment of wellbeing. Why not pay attention? Inhale: “you.” Exhale: “me.” Inhale: “we.” Exhale: “we.” This we-ness of kinning reminds me, with my whole body, that the earth is alive. And we’re part of it. What are the chances? That fills me with gratitude and makes me want to be better kin.
 

Learn more about Gavin Van Horn at StoryForager.com.

 

 

Sarah BoonSarah Boon has published work in Aeon+Psyche, Hakai Magazine, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Rumpus, The Millions, and other outlets. She is currently working on a book about being a woman scientist doing field research who struggles with wanting to be a writer.

Read Sarah Boon’s interview with Margo Farnsworth, “Biomimicry, Loss, and Building Community”, also appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by T.Photo, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.