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The Enriching Nature of Kinship

Noël Zia Lee, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten from the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

Here on the High Plains, we can forget that some folks live lives separated from animals. I have two dogs, which I am obsessed with, and every so often my work finds me on a gravel road, chatting it up with curious cattle gathered along a fence line. My evenings in town are abundant with squirrels and rabbits. My husband and I watch a family of raccoons watch us from the roof of an empty building across the alleyway. Last night, a great-horned owl sat on top of the utility post and surveyed all of us from above. I marvel at it all.

I was reminded of this bounty of beasts during a recent trip to Chicago. My friend Bob and I were hurrying to a theater when suddenly he exclaimed, “Ha! Bunny!” I looked over and gave a quick “cute!” But I never slowed my stride. We were running perilously late for the start of a play. But when I stopped at the intersection, I realized Bob was not with me. City-weary, always-hurried Bob. Bob who barks at me for walking too slow. I looked back and there he was, still peering into the bush, looking at the bunny, a smile of delight and wonder on his face. He was completely enchanted.

And this is the part of Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall that so pleased me: the studies and research that show that kinship with our animal co-habitants lessens our stress hormones, heals our traumatic wounds, and often just makes us happy. For the most part, anyway—I will say that some of McDougall’s goats would certainly increase my stress levels. But they do make for good stories once the fence is mended.

We see animals doing this emotional labor, more and more. A kitten in the room can ease anxiety and provide comfort in a host of settings. My children’s high school had a beloved therapy dog who was formally photographed and included in the faculty page of the student yearbook.

Even just yesterday, I felt the calming power of a box turtle. Driving home through a wetland area, I had been ruminating on everything wrong with my week: my long work hours, my torn knee ligament, a few family frustrations. But as I turned a curve, there it was: a small turtle, working its way across the busy, paved county road. I pulled over, looked both ways, and picked up the small creature and ferried him to the other side. As I set him down, I looked inside his shell and saw his small, skeptical eyes looking directly at me, measuring up this strange experience. His face made me chuckle—and magically, my spirits lifted. Just like that.

To me, this is what Robin Wall Kimmerer means by kinship. The term our books have been exploring this season. Kinship with plants, kinship with the mysteries of the sky and within our own minds, and kinship with beasts. There is an unexplained but known magic here, a reciprocity that will enrich us all when we change the course of our storytelling. When we stop believing in the linear myth of progress and instead see the world in these cyclical relationships in which we are all connected.

This is Leslie VonHolten encouraging you to read Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall. This story of a donkey with the heart of a hero will lift you up, I promise. Find more at HPPR.org and on our Facebook page.

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Leslie VonHolten explores and writes about connections between land and culture and particularly on the prairie spaces she loves to walk. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in The New Territory, Literary Landscapes, About Place Journal, Dark Mountain Project, and Lawrence.com, among other sites. Leslie has served as a board member for the Garden of Eden art environment in Lucas, Kansas; was a founding member of the Percolator Artspace in Lawrence, Kansas; and has been a book commentator for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas, since 2015. She was honored with a Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2022. (https://leslievonholten.com/ or https://tallgrassartistresidency.org/leslie-vonholten/ and Matfield Green Works https://matfieldgreen.org/ )