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Feature - Issue #11

When Seeing the World As Alive Is Called Madness

How silent observations and deep kinship with the non-human world aids in the understanding of ecological and Indigenous grief and ancestral ties. This text is an extract from the book Nature is a Human Right: Why We’re Fighting for Green in a Grey World, edited by Ellen Miles, published by DK.

Content warning – this feature discusses attempted suicide.

After immigrating to Turtle Island, North America, aged eight, I became cognisant of my difference from others, and I felt alone. I was experiencing culture shock on multiple levels. I had been rotating through different primary caregivers, and I did not know English. The human world was coming to seem chaotic, concerning, and difficult to understand - I felt it needed to be monitored and studied. I didn’t speak much for a few years and spent a lot of time watching people and listening. I also watched the non-human world, which felt much less threatening and more familiar. In kinship with cats in particular, I sensed a shared experience of studying humans with curiosity and a little wariness.

Silent observation was a survival strategy, especially as an autistic kid. It was also humorous. There was an absurdity I found in human interactions and cultural and social norms that helped diffuse the culture shock and social discomfort, and I grew to love people-watching. I learned how to mimic the baselines of the world around me, which helped me conceal things about myself that were seen as “weird” or unusual. I also read people’s body language to discern whether I would be safe, since I had been abused by some of my caregivers. Most youth who grow up in one culture don’t really know what culture is when they are that young, but for me, as a “third culture” kid, the cultural shifts I experienced were a crash course in human culture - like how we gain a fuller understanding of what grammar and syntax are when we learn a second language.

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