Earth’s Aunties

We are often exhorted to protect our rapidly warming planet in parental — capitalist — terms. What if, instead, we cared for the world’s future inhabitants like aunts? As if the people-to-be and the more-than-human are not ours — because they are not.

Musubu Hagi for Noema Magazine

In the early days of our third pandemic spring, as tempers frayed and the impatience to return to something resembling “normal” spiked ever higher, I spotted my niece’s icon in the row of tiny circles at the top of my Instagram feed. I’m not a mother but I am an aunt six times over. My two sisters did the procreating. My decision not to have children was a mixture of choice and contingency. Then again, I never played with dolls. I didn’t dream of progeny. I’ve always longed to live close to the other-than-human.

Across the country, my niece was studying for a new degree. I clicked on her Instagram story, hoping for a glimpse of her. These were the days when a convoy of trucks had set off across Canada, originating from the restless anti-vaccine right-wing in Canada’s west, gathering numbers as they barreled into Ottawa, where they blockaded downtown streets, blaring horns for days. 

News organizations unearthed anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim statements made by convoy organizers, along with some protestors’ traceable ties to white supremacist groups. Though I’d known of my niece’s vaccine hesitancy, I did not expect to find the hashtag #Isupportthetruckers splashed across her Instagram story. 

I startled. We’d lived in the same city for a few years and are intimate, if intermittently since the pandemic began. I clicked away, returned. It was the political implications of the protest that shook me, the strain of libertarian populism whose cries for freedom had mounted to calls for government overthrow. How was I to be a good aunt in this moment? Say something or not? And if so, how?

In these days of pandemic waves, viral and military invasions, ongoing ecological breakdown and ever-escalating climate threats, I’ve been pondering models of care. I’ve been considering the aunt relationship and how it might be a helpful frame for thinking through our interconnections, not only with other humans but our broader kin, and even the land itself.

“‘Mother,’ ‘father’ and ‘parent’ can be verbs in English, but ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ cannot, as if these roles hold no powerful agency. But they can, they do.”

The postwar years of the latter part of the 20th century brought the nuclear family into ascendance, at least in middle-class urban North America. Extended families were displaced by this tight little aspirational unit of care, consumption and ownership. And though our ideas of who can parent have recently expanded, the nuclear family keeps most of us tied to its individuated bonds. In the last 50 years, as family units have fractured ever smaller, the number of people living alone has doubled. Women and those who identify as female now spend a great deal of time grappling with whether to be a mother, and how to mother. But the not-quite-maternal question of how to be an aunt isn’t a prominent one.

In cultures where the extended family has never been fully displaced — or, conversely, where family bonds have been violently ruptured by social inequalities and colonialism — aunties still hold sway. Black American vernacular strives to reclaim the term from its plantation history. Elders, knowledge keepers, role models, community watchdogs, bullshit detectors — Indigenous aunties step up in all these ways as caregivers in the wake of the institutional family-wrecking of the residential school system. “‘Auntie’ is a mode-of-being one rises into irrespective of biological relation,” the poet Liz Howard, who grew up with a single white mother in northern Ontario without knowing her biological, Indigenous father until she was an adult, wrote to me.

Mid-20th century white culture gave us the freewheeling, cocktail-swilling cool aunt — the anti-mother of the nuclear family script. Yet it’s the incipient altruism of the role that interests me. There are uncles too of course, but I’m focusing purposefully on the feminized version of the role, to emphasize the connotations of care, and to argue that anyone can take on the role of aunt, regardless of sex or gender. 

It strikes me that “mother,” “father” and “parent” can be verbs in English, but “aunt” or “uncle” cannot, as if these roles hold no powerful agency. But they can, they do. I want to override this lacuna. Nor do aunts figure in the European fairy tales I grew up on; they are populated instead by mothers who when they die are replaced by stepmothers, usually dangerous to children. 

When it comes to biological kin, you don’t choose to be an aunt. Someone else has a child, and the role is thrust upon you. You are invited to care for the children of others and to choose the nature of this care. I’ve carried my oldest niece as a baby close to my chest, taught her and her sister to skate, traveled to Newfoundland with one, pointing out meteors in a wild night sky; I’ve listened and offered a non-parental portal on extended family dynamics, fed books to my literary-minded nephew.

Aunt care centers those who are not your own. Aunts reach out interstitially across gaps and generations.

Three weeks after the Ottawa street protests began, the Canadian government invoked the Emergencies Act, which allowed it to compel towing companies to remove hundreds of vehicles from the Ottawa streets while police made arrests. Ten days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Meanwhile, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change meetings continued their virtual, arduous progress, gathering delegates from around the world, including one of my sisters: She was co-chairing a session with a Ukrainian climate scientist who had to withdraw when bombs began falling on Kyiv. 

We are often exhorted to address the crises of our rapidly warming, carbon-overloaded, ecologically friable planet for the sake of our children. And our children’s children. The care invoked is genealogical, biological, parental — capitalist. We should care about the children of the future because they are ours, our relationship to them possessive and therefore protective. 

Of course, parents don’t own their children. They may create them, and ideally they nurture and support them. Yet parental care is deemed to have particular depth, ferocity, agency. 

Mothers have long come together to take up the mantle of urgent environmental activism, mobilizing in response to the climate crisis. One Brooklyn-based group took their toddlers to the Westchester lawn of Larry Fink, the chairman of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset management company, demanding divestment from coal, oil and gas stocks, while their children played on his lawn. 

“What if we cared for the world’s future inhabitants like aunts? As if these people-to-be are not ours — because they are not.”

The queer theorist Lee Edelman critiques this focus on making the future better specifically for children, rejecting the perceived heteronormativity of what he calls “reproductive futurism.” More younger people are refusing parenthood out of climate fear or as a climate-conscious choice. The activist Naomi Klein has dismissed the idea that she should care about our climate future because she is a mother, contending that familial models of care are neither expansive nor radical enough. But Maggie Nelson, in her recent work “On Freedom,” argues from a queer perspective, as a queer mother, for the centrality of children and their rights in the climate fight, “which is partly being led by children themselves”: “As often happens when adults must listen to actual children rather than hide behind the pabulum of reproductive futurism (or the punk bravado of its no-future antithesis) the real difficulties of intergenerational conversation come to the fore.”

Perhaps, without ditching the role of caregiver altogether, we should search for inspirational models other than parental care. Here I’m leaning on the theorist Donna Haraway’s ideas of “making kin.” Haraway acknowledges the ongoing work being done in the human realm by queer folk and others to create intentional and non-biological families, while she extends “kinship” well beyond the human: “By kin I mean those who have an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-inconvenient, enduring relatedness that carries consequences.”

What if we cared for the world’s future inhabitants like aunts? As if these people-to-be are not ours — because they are not. Care like aunts who are impelled into altruistic relationships with those with whom we form communities (whether we like it or not), those both near and far, whose discomforts may or may not be ours, including those who don’t agree with us, while we attempt to navigate this human and more-than-human world of porous and penetrated borders.

A year ago, in our second pandemic spring, it failed to rain in eastern Ontario. That is to say, it rained in March, before the risk of frost was gone, before it made any sense to set out the large rainwater totes that I use on my small rural property. Then the rain stopped. The grass grew eagerly, then browned. Disoriented crickets sang in May. The hard ground cracked and fissured. A once-in-a-century drought, I read, a historical record that does nothing to help us reckon with new weather unpredictabilities. 

One afternoon after a week away from home, I set off across my neighbor’s much larger property, following my usual path across the fields, dog sniffing at my side. We went past his ponds toward the woodlot and scrubby back acres where, with his generous permission, I walk daily. In return, I tend in small ways to the land, cutting back invasive species like dog-strangling vine and wild parsnip. I’ve introduced my neighbor also to the green leaves and white roots of ramps, the year’s earliest edible bounty.

Always on his land I am aware that I am traversing territory that isn’t mine. Under our current economic system, the fence around my property marks the legal borders of my care zone. Thus my love for the pond ringed with cattails, the creaking branches of the cedar trees that rise up the slope of an ancient drumlin, the fields and flowers, feels fugitive as well as elemental. I can make no claim on these places. And yet I care a great deal for them. 

On this particular afternoon, as I walked across the browned fields, something felt off. When I got home, I texted my neighbor. He said the fields, which had always been cut for hay or left to go to weed during the seven years I’d lived beside them, had been sprayed. A city lawyer, he had decided to rent his fields to a local farmer who would crop them in soy. 

No, my neighbor didn’t know what had been sprayed. No, he hadn’t thought to tell me. I assumed that the herbicide was Roundup, though the young farmer, when queried, didn’t respond. 

Of course, this was no different than what happens on other fields in the vicinity — has happened on many, many other fields. But it was so much closer: His land surrounds mine on three sides, one field mere feet from my windows, with nothing in between except a gravel drive, a bed of rhubarb and black raspberries and a strip of lawn. On the other side of my property, I’ve cultivated a small pollinator meadow, planted to attract and sustain beneficial insects. 

The despair I felt stemmed in part from being slammed against the borders of people who don’t care for the land in the same way I do, whose behavior I have no jurisdiction over. But I also mourned the nonhuman, relational loss. The wild strawberries nestled beneath the grass in the field beside the pond that, one year, my former partner and I had gathered in our hats. The field where spiders had spun constellations of webs now gone lifeless, no longer a complex microbiome, leaving my own small meadow an insect island. At least spring azures still flitted through the animated air beyond the cedar wood. 

“I can make no claim on these places. And yet I care a great deal for them.”

I had no right to be upset, my neighbor yelled at me, and in a sense he was right. I had tried to bring an aunt’s care to his land. It is not mine … and its borders are porous. What happens across the imaginary boundary line affects me and all that lives on “my” land. Air, water and whatever they carry flow where they wish. 

In Toronto, where I live part-time, anyone who uses herbicide on their lawn must post a sign indicating what kind and when it has been applied. Not so for land zoned agricultural in the province of Ontario, even if the rural environment is decidedly mixed-use. 

In my immediate vicinity, there are conventionally cropped fields, an abandoned orchard, meadows, a former alpaca farm, a sheep farm, a cat rescue and the market garden of an organic farmer. There’s a spread-out cluster of residences, some of which have stood for over 150 years. A Muslim family keeps peacocks on the grounds of their mansion that was built by a former car-dealership owner. My home, a former schoolhouse, might have been the hub of the long-ago community whose name is but a ghost on the map, on glacial hills once inhabited by Anishnaabeg.

Old-order Amish live on the concession roads to the north, their horse-drawn buggies clipping past my door. I know a woman who refused to sell her property two roads north of mine to anyone but the Amish because they would preserve the living vitality of the hedgerows. The Mennonites here dress traditionally and farm conventionally; the Mennonite farmer on my road ripped out all his hedgerows, leaving nothing but a pile of stone and tree carcasses heaved up beside the road. 

All this to say that we live constellated among a competing range of land uses and epistemologies. This is pastoral life now.

Legally, we exist in a zone where extractivism holds sway, according to the University of Guelph professor of environmental stewardship Nicolas Brunet. “You chose to live in an industrial landscape no matter what it looks like,” he told me. “Farms are intensive extractive industries, at least for now or until we engage in a systemic change in the sector.” 

Even my asking my neighbor and the farmer to whom he leased his land what they sprayed on the fields risks being seen as a nuisance complaint, according to Brunet, despite the known toxicity of long-term exposure to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. When I called asking for information about spraying practices from local companies, no one would talk to me. Ontario’s Farming and Food Production Protection Act sets out the process for resolving complaints against farmers arising from “odor, noise, dust, light, vibration, smoke or flies,” but as Brunet pointed out, the process exists primarily to protect farmers engaged in what is deemed “normal farm practices,” hence the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board, which deals with complaints. 

In my restless searching during the weeks after the first spraying, I located an interview with Jason Devaux of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (and @spray_guy on Twitter) who notes best pesticide practices: “Downwind neighbors (residential and agricultural) can take actions based on your spraying schedule,” he said. “If there’s a possibility of chemical trespass, it’s a courtesy to let them know your plans, or at least make spray records available and be prepared to answer questions.”

Restrictions on spraying exist, like mandated buffer zones for nearby sensitive areas, including aquatic habits. A ministry fact sheet, authored by Devaux, introduced the idea of a 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) “spray drift awareness zone.” Devaux was adamant that “this is NOT a buffer zone” but a way of identifying “any sensitive areas that could be affected by spraying: e.g. neighboring sensitive crops, endangered native flora and fauna, waterways and wetlands, foraging bees and sites of human habitation or activity.”

This kind of awareness is an essential starting point, an opening attunement. But then: Shouldn’t awareness of sensitivity lead to sensitivity of response? 

“Aunt care plays a long game. Has to. It is by its nature durational.”

Stewardship introduces the idea of ongoing ethical responsibility, yet renders the Earth more inert than I desire. When I bring an aunt’s perspective to the land, I’m engaging in possibilities of mutual relationship, acknowledging both the old Indigenous ways of knowing this land and forms of land responsiveness that have long, mycelial strands in other cultures as well, even as extractivist industries have for centuries worked to eradicate them. Yet these ancient forms of land relationship have never vanished. In the U.K., the land of my ancestors and where my maternal family still lives, there’s resurgent attention to the year’s seasonal passages through a revival of the old festivals Imbolc, Beltane and Samhain.

Aunt care plays a long game. Has to. It is by its nature durational, as the writer Carrianne Leung wrote when I asked her about her relationship to aunthood. In her familial Cantonese culture, she said, “Everybody who was a woman and older whether related or not related were called aunties. There is an expectation of seeing someone grow.”

Likewise on the land, we need to hone the ability to think durationally, of relationships that develop over long spans of time. If the spraying were a one-off, it would be upsetting, but it too must be encountered temporally: A second, later-summer spray occurs after resilient and adaptive milkweed, among other plants, surged up among the soy, a spray that desiccates the wanted plants themselves before harvest. These are annual practices that will continue as long as this form of farming does. 

I asked my neighbor for at least a heads-up. Meanwhile I noticed and pointed out a new stand of invasive European phragmites growing among the cattails encircling one of his ponds. Phragmites have tall, fringed tassels and a massive underground biomass that will take over biologically diverse wetlands, and in time, without action, may prove impossible to eradicate. 

The ongoing labor of aunt care may require steering through intense differences, as happens across many borderlands of care. “This is work that is often devalued or discounted,” Leung wrote to me. “It may very well be a labor of love. Aunties make the world go around and their effort is intentional, hard, committed work.” 

How do we navigate altruistically across differences both searing and potentially irreconcilable? We are unlearning how to listen to each other, how to debate, stuck in our self-reinforcing zones. Cooperation must endure nevertheless. Some ideologies, resistant to narratives of altruism, are more destructive than others, and through their actions and inactions may yet destroy us all. One person’s freedom to bashes into another’s freedom from. Populist discussions of rights and freedoms inevitably center on the monocultural freedoms of those doing the demanding, not the possible freedoms of others.

What, I wonder, does freedom mean in the context of ecology? Refusing to believe that we live amid a biospheric web of relationships doesn’t unmake this interdependence, any more than refusing to believe in a vaccine affects its efficacy or a refusal to believe in the physics of the internal combustion engine influences the physical processes by which cars drive and airplanes fly.  

Aunts create constellations of kinship. Aunties are both free to care and obliged to care, the role inviting us to toggle between freedom and responsibility within the web of human relationships and those beyond. We can learn from cultures in which aunties remain preeminent, sustaining an ecology of intergenerational care, wisdom, skepticism, humor and perspective.

In an email, I explained to my niece that I felt compelled to reach out because of my fear of what the truckers’ convoy represents politically. A day later she wrote back. She described how important the idea of consent is to her when it comes to vaccines, and how the social pressure to vaccinate may be triggering for those who’ve suffered sexual or bodily invasive trauma or feel vulnerable to the medical establishment. She needed to advocate for the boundaries of her own body, she said, and argued that not all those who were protesting held the same extremist views. 

I read the links she sent me, fact-checked them, told her how crucial I believe it is to track sources. In the aftermath of the truckers’ protest, she said she wanted to listen to all the voices and offer compassion to the emotions that arose on both sides of the conflict.

I responded that I believe altruism to be a necessary survival energy of these times, and that I see agreeing to be vaccinated as protection against COVID-19 — through a vaccine that may not be without side effects but has been used globally by millions — as a way of entering into a social body, an act not only of protection for one’s porous self but equally of protection for others, particularly the more vulnerable among us. Vaccination, I said, is an action that only becomes meaningful when many do it.

She wrote back of the dangers of scapegoating, regardless of who is being scapegoated. I agreed with the heightening of this danger in our polarized and fear-amplifying world. “It seems like we share a lot of values. … Perhaps coming together around these values would meet our needs for togetherness, and discussing strategies to meet all of our needs could be a next step forward,” she wrote. With every exchange, we signed off with love.

“I feel a need to advocate on behalf of my meadow and the insects it sustains, enact gestures of care toward the fields beyond and the multispecies life that knows nothing of capricious human borders.”

I do not know if our positions will converge, but I trust that we will keep sensing our way forward. Nor do I know if I will be able to convince my neighbor and the tenanting farmer to change their farming practices. But I reached out, offered to meet, living as we all do amid heightening uncertainties. Aunting is a process ongoing.

From its introduction in 1974 until 2014, 19 billion pounds of glyphosate have been sprayed worldwide. It is everywhere: in our food, our bodies, our forests, our fields. Our current global food production systems depend on it. Yet because of its ecologically destructive capabilities, I feel a need to advocate on behalf of my meadow and the insects it sustains, enact gestures of care toward the fields beyond and the multispecies life that knows nothing of capricious human borders. This, to me, is the act of being an aunt to the land. 

This spring, I noticed the sprayed fields were full of chartreuse and emerald blankets of moss, the most ancient plant of all, different species of which have lived on this planet for billions of years. Because mosses are such primitive life forms and, being rootless, don’t process water and nutrients as more recently evolved plant life does, they are more resistant to conventional herbicides. Survivors of deep time, they are potential harbingers of the world to come.

Just as I can be an aunt to the land, the land can be an aunt to us. The stalwart, tentacular, 150-year-old oak that towers behind my house in Toronto can be imagined as an auntie. So too the planet itself. Our planetary aunt reaches out through the webs of the biosphere, unpossessive, durable, tough, modeling how to be, calling us on our myopias and contradictions and reflexive certainties, engendering us to care and care more, be more sensitive, listen, listen harder, enwrapping us all in inescapable love.