The Personhood of Rivers

In the essay on the meaning of animism, we spoke of rocks, plants and animals as being persons. It is a notion that has caused some controversy, as some readers have remarked to us that they considered ‘personhood’ to be a notion which by its very definition is restricted to human beings alone. And so in this article I would like to explore this notion and its implications a bit more.

Let us start by consulting a ‘neutral’ authority. The Oxford English Dictionary  does indeed define a person to be ‘a human being regarded as an individual’, and so this would seem to confirm the validity of the above criticism. Yet, at the same time, there are other definitions of the word that are in direct contradiction to this assumption. For instance, Merriam-Webster gives as one of its definitions that a person is ‘one (such as a human being, a partnership, or a corporation) that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties’. And this is where things start to get a bit more interesting…

What is ultimately the criterion we use to give an entity the status of a person? One criterion would be how closely we feel ourselves to be connected to them, and that would make the human family to be the natural first fishing ground for closeness. On the other hand, to all those among you who have pets: could you truly, hand upon your heart, state that you do not regard them as persons? To the close observer it would be very clear that they are all individuals. They all have their own personal quirks. While all cats share the common characteristics of ‘catness’, at the same time no two cats will behave in exactly the same way.

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And so I would like to argue to drop the word ‘human’ from that first definition, and change it to ‘a being that has a unique individuality, which we accept to have inherent value’.

Let us now look at the second definition. One who is recognized to have rights and duties. How does one come by these rights? There are two possible options: one might claim them and one might be given them.

Now, in the case of entities like corporations, it is most likely that we are in the first case. Those are not beings that require our protection, but rather ones that are powerful enough to assert their own existence in such a way that nobody can possibly ignore it. For these, it is important to note that the definition speaks of duties as well as rights. They may claim existence, but if law is fair, it will also hold them accountable for their actions, by pointing them towards their duties. Those with greatest power hold greatest responsibility as well.

And I would argue that this last observation extends to the human race as a whole. We have claimed a place of power upon this planet. We are the species that has little to no natural predators left. We are the ones undisputedly at the top of the food chain. So let us remember that this position comes with duties, with responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to protect the rights of those who are weaker than ourselves, those who do not have the ability to speak for themselves, yet are seen as deserving of protection because they have a claim to personhood in the sense of the first definition. They have inherent value because of their unique individuality.

And so it is in this sense that we should then interpret ‘laws of personhood’ with regard to nature. For instance, in New Zealand, the Te Urewera National Park as well as the Whanganui River have been recently granted the status of legal persons.

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Whanganui River (Kathrin & Stefan Marks via Flickr)

Some would argue this to be absurd, as just by itself this might appear to be nothing but meaningless words on a piece of paper. How could such a thing provoke any real-world change? This is not a magical shield against pollution, is it?

And yet, it changes everything. It changes the way we see things, and it changes how we define relationships. By accepting to be bound by this law, we are forced to begin to see nature as our family, and treat them likewise.

Moreover, it has the effect of recognizing the fundamental interconnectedness of things in different ways as well. For a river is far more than simply the water that flows through it. It is a complete ecosystem, that does not stop at the riverbank, but includes the land around it, along with the plants, animals and people that live along it. As the ancient teaching of the Iwi tribe that lives along the Whanganui River teaches:

Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au. I am the River, and the River is me.

And so I would encourage you to take this lesson home to your own lands of birth. Go for a walk, then take some time to sit on your favourite spot in your local landscape. Then sing this song (which I learned from JJ Middleway: you can hear him sing it in the intro of the video interview)

I am the land, that is all that I am.
I am the land that is all around me.
I am the land, that is all that I am.
I am the land, that is all that I am.

What does that mean to you? If this land were to be given legal personhood as well, which changes would that have to provoke in the people living upon it and interacting with it? Could you, from now onwards, live as if this were already law?

Beith is a druid who likes to wander through the forest, inviting the trees to be her teachers in life. She also runs a personal blog about her druid journey, that can be found at wandering-the-woods.com. In real life she’s a mathematician, trying to walk the boundary between the rational and the irrational.

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