In Langscape Magazine Articles

Language, Culture, and Land: Lenses of Lilies

September 19, 2022
At a pond’s edge, a woman muses about waterlilies as metaphors for mother-tongue languages and their power to anchor story, wisdom, and heritage.

Dawn Wink


A koi fish passes under a waterlily in my neighbor’s pond. Photo: Renee Upston


Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

A waterlily floating in the water. Waterlilies were a source of inspiration for Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s metaphor about the relationship between the mother tongue and additional languages. Photo: Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

Waterlilies hold a special place in my heart. I did not grow up with them, though. I grew up on a remote ranch amid the sand, rocks, cacti, and dry beauty of the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States. I love the intense heat, the plants that thrive on periods of drought interspersed with torrential rains, and the vast open horizons that cup the wide basin of the desert. While I am sure that I knew of waterlilies during my growing up years, they remained something to be read about in books, not anything as real in my life as the towering saguaro cacti, rough bark of the mesquite trees, and treasured green of the rare cottonwoods found near water basins and rivers that only filled and flowed after the monsoon rains. Little did I ever imagine that those read-about and imagined waterlilies would have a profound impact on both my professional and my personal life.

I think of this as I gaze down at the clusters of waterlilies that float atop the glass-smooth surface of my neighbor’s pond. This water basin, nestled within her yard in northern New Mexico, provides a welcome oasis of moisture, greenery, and color amid shades of high-desert tan, ochre, and sand, dotted by dusky, dark forest green of piñon and juniper. Below the surface of the water, an orange-and-white koi fish slides under the waterlilies and wends its way through the slender stems attaching the flower to the tuber root encased in the dark mud below. Each cuplike flower bursts with color, bright pink petals spiraling outward from the center, surrounded by heart-shaped glossy green leaves floating on the water.

The waterlily symbolizes linguistic development, specifically the development of the mother tongue and its relationship with the acquisition of additional languages.

Waterlilies first entered my life with a bang when, as a young adult, I learned of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, an expert in linguistic human rights in education, and of her waterlily metaphor. As Tove puts it, the waterlily symbolizes linguistic development, specifically the development of the mother tongue and its relationship with the acquisition of additional languages. Waterlily flowers on the surface represent languages. A single primary root grounds multiple flowers, which all depend upon that same root to thrive. In the same way, all additional languages depend on their primary root — the mother tongue language — to remain healthy. Spoken language is what floats above the surface of the water, like the waterlily’s leaf and flower. The roots of the language lie unseen beneath the surface, like the waterlily’s stem and root.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

My visual rendering of linguist and educator Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s idea of the waterlily as a metaphor for the mother tongue and its relationship with additional languages. The power of the idea moved me to paint. Art: Dawn Wink


When children learn to speak an additional language, they often become verbally fluent very quickly, to the point that they soon appear and sound as fluent in the additional languages as they are in the mother tongue. A single root nourishes the primary flower (the mother tongue) and the other flowers that will stem from this single plant. This matters, as the waterlily of an additional language can float as beautifully on the surface as the waterlily of the mother tongue, making it easy to mistake the fluency in the additional language as being equally strong as the fluency in the mother tongue. But that impression can be misleading. If the primary stem (the mother tongue) remains deeply rooted and nourished, then yes, all of the interconnected flowers will thrive. If the primary stem of the water lily is cut, however, eventually all flowers will wither. The strength of all the flowers depends on the strength of the primary stem leading to the root.

When story, wisdom, and heritage are conveyed through the mother tongue language — through the original root — they manifest the spirit of their context.

As a lens for understanding mother tongue languages, the waterlily embodies the very essence of reverence, respect, reciprocity, and responsibility. When story, wisdom, and heritage are conveyed through the mother tongue language — through the original root — they manifest the spirit of their context. But try to express them in languages other than the mother tongue of their culture and creation, and integral elements will be winnowed away, much of the biocultural holism and nuance being lost. The waterlily reflects how true reverence, respect, reciprocity, and responsibility toward any culture, people, and environment require revering and respecting each and every mother tongue language, encouraging reciprocal protection of mother tongues in all fora, and taking individual, familial, and collective responsibility for fostering, protecting, and/or revitalizing each.

Later, I heard of Lilyology. I had no idea what that word meant, but by then the mother-tongue metaphor of the waterlily had been a foundation in my life for over two decades, so I naturally brought strong positive connotations to this new idea that I had yet to explore. “Lilyology?” I said, “I love it! Now, what is it?”

I went on to learn that Nerida Blair, an Australian Aboriginal educator and scholar, created this concept as a framework in which elements of the natural world are used to integrate Indigenous wisdom and story, and a sense of relatedness, connectedness, and belonging, into areas of historic marginalization and silencing of Australian Aboriginal Peoples. Such areas include in particular academia and research, as well as various literary genres, which historically have been seen through a dominant Euro-Western lens, to the exclusion of other lenses. Blair asks us to imagine a drawing of a square that frames a waterlily, a brick wall, and a bush (sweet) potato. The waterlily represents stories that convey Indigenous knowings, with the petals of the flower embodying a multiplicity of stories. The brick wall symbolizes boundaries and hierarchy as seen through a Western lens. The bush potato represents a central nourishing core. The spaces in-between reflect the disconnect between Indigenous knowings and Western knowledge, while the transparent, strong threads of a spider’s web make connections across it all.

Nerida Blair

Taking this photo of a waterlily led Nerida Blair, an Australian Aboriginal educator, to develop her concept of Lilyology. Photo: Nerida Blair


The decolonizing framework of Lilyology honors and embraces reverence, respect, and reciprocity, as well as responsibility, by lifting Indigenous ways of knowing and story into arenas historically reduced to Western scientific approaches and metrics.

I lean down to look more carefully at the waterlilies in my neighbor’s pond and peer yet closer to study their stems trailing down into the mud below, envisioning each as a distinct Indigenous language — linguistic expressions rooted in reverence for nature, story, and the often-mysterious wonders of each — and think of the knowledge and way of being in the world embedded in each. Reverence creates a space to respect all languages, and with this comes a reciprocity of responsibilities for the protection and nourishment of all languages and their speakers. Waterlilies embody the rich, full tapestry of nature, culture, language, and story and reveal their interwoven relationship.


As I read about Lilyology, I needed to visualize it, so I picked up my watercolors and started painting. Art: Dawn Wink


As I sit near the waterlily pond, I take in the individual textures and colors of each petal and envision each as a unique story, language, culture, and ecology. Recent centuries ushered in a time that deems only the languages, cultures, and stories of colonial conquerors as worthy and the ecology of the planet only there to serve. I look at the clusters of flowers and imagine a majority of petals ripped from the flowers, cast on the ground, and trampled underfoot. I see the weakened flowers with few petals remaining bobbing on the surface. Gone is the spectrum of rich colors, textures, and vibrance. A monochromatic single hue replaces the tapestry of nuanced colors. We find ourselves here at this time in history, glancing at this impoverished human and natural landscape.

To experience life through a lens of waterlilies holds the potential to weave respect for biocultural richness into our daily and global lives.

David Harmon, a biocultural expert and co-founder of Terralingua, talks about the natural human proliferation of creativity, an urge to create that is a hallmark of human life. “Our creativity,” he says in Biocultural Diversity: Reason, Ethics, and Emotion, “is registered in what my collaborator, Jonathan Loh, has called the ‘second flowering of the tree of life’ — the emergence of human cultural evolution.” What catches my attention is this idea of flowering of the tree of life. My thoughts turn back to waterlilies. In a time of unprecedented biocultural extinction, to experience life through a lens of waterlilies holds the potential to weave respect for biocultural richness into our daily and global lives. We can protect, encourage, strengthen, and cultivate a rich spectrum of petals. Our thoughts and actions can work as a spider web to connect Western paradigms and Indigenous knowings.

All this swirls through my mind as I sit down on the flat stones beside my neighbor’s pond and skim the surface with my hand. Ripples trail behind my fingertips and move across the water. We each cast ripples — the ripples of our thoughts and actions. And, whether intentional or not, those ripples expand around us and impact the whole environment. I trace a circle around a single plant and watch as the tiny movement of the water fans out to touch other flowers. What ripples do we want to cast around us?

Pilawuk White

Waterlily painting by Pilawuk White, an Aboriginal woman artist from Daly River in Australia’s Northern Territory and a friend of Nerida Blair’s. Photo: Nerida Blair


A dear friend and colleague of mine recently exclaimed, “Dawn, you’re a Lilyologist!” I had not thought of this before but immediately embraced the idea. I am a Lilyologist. I invite many of us to wear this mantle. As Nerida Blair puts it, it is vital that we spread the vibrations across the spider webs of our relationship with the natural world, that we create connections, rather than boundaries, respect instead of repudiation, and reverence instead of dominance. A biocultural worldview upholds the individual responsibility of each human being and the collective responsibility of our global community to see the beauty of each distinct waterlily petal of nature, culture, language, and story not as separate and expendable, but as an essential component nestled within the greater whole of the flower. When we think of biocultural diversity, let us think of waterlilies and the wisdom they hold and share.


Waterlily in my neighbor’s pond. Photo: Renee Upston


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Wink, Dawn


Dawn Wink, PhD, is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination. Author of Meadowlark, Teaching Passionately (with Joan Wink), Raven’s Time, and Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language, Dawn is Director of Education at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico, USA, where she lives.


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