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  • Melissa Knowles

Concealed Presence

In the English language, we reserve the pronouns of personhood for humans—”he,” “she,” “they”—and not for animals, plants, and landscapes. Yet in many of America’s indigenous languages, such barriers are dissolved, and so, too, is the sense of distance between human and nonhuman. Orion editor Helen Whybrow speaks with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a speaker of Potawatomi and an enrolled member in the Citizen Band Potawatomi, about how to find a language that affirms our kinship with the natural world. Kimmerer’s essay on the subject, “Speaking of Nature,” appears in the March/April 2017 issue of the magazine.

Earth and stone absorb the tone and textures of human and animal experience. The Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue calls this a memory of kinds, or memoria. The camera, instead of solely ‘live’ communication, also lets us engage in different rhythms of approaches...

Memoria is concealed and silent. As a tabernacle of memory, stone embodies hidden presence. Because this presence is concealed, it remains for the most part unnoticed. In contrast, human presence is always a presence of immediacy. But the presence of memoria [in stone] is mediated presence.

What does mediate mean? When you argue with your friend and your disagreement is mediated, that means a neutral person has stepped in to help the two of you negotiate or come to an agreement. Two kids fighting on a playground might need their dispute to be mediated by a calm third person. The Latin root of mediated is medius, or "middle," which makes a lot of sense when you imagine a referee standing in the middle of two angry soccer teams.

Mediated presence is a bridge then. As photographers we can become mediators of sorts by observing and listening to an unfolding conversation, by slowing down and remaining neutral.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is offering ways of reconciling our dispute with nature. As the mediator-photographer find a so-called inanimate object like a stone, which itself is, and embodies the characteristics of, a mediator, and circle it quietly. Take a step, then press the shutter, take another step and press the shutter, and repeat until you have come full circle. Then quietly place your hand on the object and express gratitude in some way.

What do you notice? How did you feel? Did you become aware of something?

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