Field notes from the 2020 EcoSomatics Symposium
An assemblage montaged by Petra Kuppers, with Syrus Marcus Ware, Naomi Ortiz, Stephanie Heit, Lori Landau, Carolyn Roy, Christina Vega-Westhoff, Michele Minnick, Denise Leto, moira williams, Catherine Fairfield, andrea haenggi and bull thistle leaf, DJ Lee, Megan Kaminski, Charli Brissey, Bronwyn Preece, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Rania Lee Khalil, and Madeline Kerslake.
In September/October 2020, the EcoSomatics Symposium took place at the University of Michigan — online in COVID times, reimagined from a three-day in-person meeting at a Michigan nature center on a restored prairie. Over three weeks, ten practitioners shared hour-long sessions with international participants. I was one of the codirectors of this event, alongside Catherine Fairfield, whose graduate research includes feminist experiential learning in environmental sitework. Here is how we introduced the field of our work together, and charted an orienting citational frame:
Engage full-mouthed messy matter and fleshy multispecies engagement across and beyond boundaries. We hope to shape a complex tool-set for living in a changing natural world which impacts people differently, dependent on histories of violence and their attendant environmental effects. The symposium invites creators/critics of performance, movement, somatic training, writing, and visual/social practice related to emergent genres such as solarpunk, climate fiction, eco-arts, and interspecies dialogue, and their relationships to social justice organizing and experimental practice. The academic aims of this project make interventions into disabled futurities, kinship networks, and organizing, and extend the discussions begun in the Movement, Somatics, and Writing symposium (University of Michigan, 2010) and in the collection Somatic Engagement.
This montage essay assembles participant writings from the symposium along with original workshop descriptions, attendant responses, and practitioner biographies. Each person wrote about a workshop not their own, letting themselves drift with the particular echoes of the sensations and politics each session activated. My hope is that this archive allows you to gather a flavor of the wide scope of ecosomatic labor today, of work on the edges of immersion and criticality. Our sessions touched the revolutionary 2020 shifts in social and cultural landscapes, cohabitation with nonhuman others and their homesites, and our human biodiversities. For each session, I have shared the initial description provided by the practitioner followed by participant response writing. Some sessions were closed and intimate (and hence have few write-ups); some were public; those that invited freewriting as part of the hour-long session have more write-ups. All sessions were laboratories to try out new approaches.
Welcome to this creative ecosomatic archive, writing at the site of creative somatic encounters in Zoom land. I invite you to dip in and out of these traces of writing at the site of experience. See what resonates — how do writing, embodiment, enmindment, and ecosomatic sensation mix and merge for you? What new memories and connections can reach into your own ecosomatic practices? How do we hold on to memories of altered states?
This ninety-minute workshop will explore key concepts of abolition and will explore new ways of taking care of each other. Be prepared to do some writing/drawing and imagining futures full of love and freedom and justice. We will do some breathing and self-reflection exercises to find and to feel and root out where carceral logics and ideas of punishment to solve problems sit in our bodies. We will also explore where abolitionist ideas inhabit our body/minds. Together we will create a soundscape of a freer world using our bodies. We will embody the sounds of a world rooted in liberation and self-determination. Please bring paper and drawing/writing materials and wear comfortable clothing/a movement-friendly outfit.
How does talk of abolition feel in your body? This is the core question of Syrus Marcus Ware’s workshop with us. I am listening within and feeling a loosening in my belly, the knot of low-level anxiety that has grown into a permanent presence just above my diaphragm, ever since the forces of sexism and ableism bundled themselves into a sexual assault against me, naked, vulnerable, on a massage table. This personal sensation of a White cis queer disabled woman feels far away from the project of ending slavery’s long reach, I know, and I feel immediately the concern of projecting my own sense of unfreedom, being denied access to my range-giving wheelchair, onto the experiences of people racialized as Black. But that’s what Syrus is offering to me here: charting my experience, my sense, from wherever I come from. Grounding a sense of justice in a personal felt, lived experience, in connection. So I let it stand, that moment of loosening the armor, and I touch into it to be present.
Syrus quickly channels us into the presence of BIPOC people whose freedoms have been curtailed both historically and personally. He does so through a powerful medium: the sound archive, the freedom archive, sound clips of voices lifting bodily to speak. The voices immediately shift me from my personal reflection, so easily stuck in myself, to touch: a voice touches me, an affect, not just words, but breath, vibration, in my bones and on my skin. We are hearing from Arundhati Roy, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur. We hear the words Angela Davis spoke immediately upon release from prison. She speaks of this as her happiest day, of how she now has all of this out of the way in order to be able to push. Her voice soars, the arc of energy is palpable. I make my marks in her voice’s umbra, with Syrus’s invitation to depart from the straightness of linear writing and its emphasis on linear writing. On my notebook page blossoms a star shape, exploding outward with words like freedom, joy, and energy. Her words remind me, her listener through time, about how to get energy to stay in the struggle, to touch my own moments of sensed unfreedom with the long histories of unfreedom.
Syrus asks us to move to the words, to feel them in our body, to let them move us, touch us, infuse us. “Abolition: feel the joy of freedom for every being.” We write a collaborative somatic poem in the chat, like starlight falling in from the wide constellation of participants, drawn out and in by Angela Davis’s voice.
Syrus invites us to rest collectively, to rise collectively, to listen to music and words, to dream, and to instantiate: “We can win.” “We are going to survive beautifully.” In breath, words, emotion, affect, energy, we collect ourselves to the joyful task.
This poem is based on movement descriptions which flowed onto the page in the moments after Syrus’s workshop. It was inspired by my own experiences working alongside elders from Tucson, Detroit, the Bay, and other places. I was struck by the elders’ optimism within the quotes Syrus shared, and it reminded me of offhand advice and wisdom I’ve gleaned through day-to-day conversations with movement elders. This all fed the poem, along with my guttural response movements, and the gestures shared with me by my group partners. This piece documents the integration of these thoughts, experiences, and wisdom in my bodymind.
majestic disabled/queer/people of color elders instruct how to dance in the struggle
drag that chair out to the dance floor
find your own damn beat
the one that brings chin, shoulders, hips, wrists alive
with palms open, grasp air abundant from sky, pull down into lungs, embrace
sit, sway, take a minute, before arms emboldened
cross, to caress chest, spirit, soul
The lyrics might steam with desire, cumbia with done me wrong, but what they really say is, when there is struggle, there also must be a tending of joy
how do we tend joy?
there’s no secret
you can’t, with just the power of your mind, actually will things to change
yet, every ancestor who came before, seasoned that shoulder pump and jut with optimism
fingers will always trace where you end and the world begins
the mistake is to not understand movement
is sensuous love, exalted joy, a return to the singular pain of being alive
movement smells like salty sweat sobaco
the cataclysmic sulfur of creation
blessed juniper smoke drenching space from bundle lit
grrrl, you can’t pound the floor with clenched jaw
you gotta open that mouth to sing
to determine the taste
to chew up and spit out
digest truth through body, to soil
it all goes back to the soil
with those hands waving up — reach out
touch what lives at your side, your other side
shimmy weight from hip to hip to balance
own those spastic, rhythmic vibrations to unearth
the foundation underneath which was tolerated before
destabilize the expected
endure surprise, the soft punch to the gut
pause, in the middle of everything,
then, return fist to center, ribcage, breasts
twirl heart need between fingers
wrist rotate to catch the stem
pull it up towards light
with a swing, thrust
This poem is a finalist featured in the upcoming dance/video/art installation and live performance (home)Body with Cid Pearlman Performance.
In this hour-long workshop, we will explore and tune into the water in our own bodies, using this element to become aware of, hone, and sometimes shift our states of being. We’ll choose water forms to embody from saliva to oceans through movement, sound, and writing/drawing. Hydrate yourself with this practice that offers bodymind support, care structures, creative inquiry, and fluid intelligence vital to thrive in our changing world. This workshop originates from my personal experience as bipolar and the grounding/altering properties of water. The ability to change energetic/physical/spiritual states and to move or flow between feelings is a resource that water in its many forms models as a way to navigate present/future uncertainties. This practice is offered as a portal to embrace and explore a full range of water and bodymind states, acknowledging that water can be a vehicle and site of violence, ancestral drowning, division as well as an arbiter of connection, buoyancy, joy. Please make a Zoom space nest with room to move and rest. Have on hand water and writing/art materials you desire (journal, pen, colored pencils, etc.). Dress in comfy layers to support movement and stillness.
I participated in the EcoSomatics Symposium because I was curious about other people’s ecosomatic practices, and I was also interested in what it would be like to be guided instead of working solely with my own ideas. I wanted to expand on my preoccupation with relationships between people, and between the human and nonhuman world. I wanted to build on my powerful desire to immerse myself in the liminal spaces between the body and beingness.
In the first workshop that I participated in, I considered what it might be like to be water with facilitator Stephanie Heit. In this workshop, I found unexpected inner expansion by envisioning myself as a river. With eyes closed, Stephanie led me through a meditative contemplation of the relationship between a river and its banks; a somatically satisfying inner journey that connected to my own profound interest in the things of this world that serve as containers for formlessness. Though I have worked extensively with water (doing yoga in water, doing water meditations, writing about water), Stephanie’s suggestions offered new ways to find my own sense of flow. As someone who teaches writing, I appreciated the subsequent writing prompts, and though I often don’t feel moved to do writing exercises in workshops, I was inspired to write several pages.
Responding to Stephanie Heit’s prompt, “What water form embodies your current bodymind state? The water body and its landscape? What thrives there? What needs more support?,” I lay under a blanket on the floor, sensing the fluid content of my cells dispersing into the watery landscape of my imaginary.
My eyes attuned to the deep green light as I lay observing from its bed the rivulet’s flow above and around what remained of my material body. I experienced release from the restraining structures of skin, flesh, bone, tendons, ligaments, habit, and will that hold my body in its physical form. Later, in answer to the prompt, “note what the water shared with you,” I recognized that I had experienced a shift in the fluid density of my body, a sense of permeability. With this came the possibility that, like water, my body might become transparent.
My water body seeks invisibility
In murky green-grey water my fish skeleton shuffling towards a shore. Rapid, unruffled movement through currents swirling beneath the surface. Sun glints white through green light diffused from high above. I ride the algae cells, surf the debris of tiny lives broken, of shattered weed that colors the water, mixing their sediment with earth. They are on their way home. Returning to the sea, these fish fry particles of weed-green algae, amoeba, phytoplankton, spirogyra — simple life forms. They pass in a bid for diffusion, for freedom, to reach the salty purity of ocean, here to transform, here to become transparent. Particles seeking their own invisibility, these small unintelligent life forms with the nous to survive, sense, as they meld with H2O that to be carried so far will save them. I wait. I sense sound spill the vibration of water flow in my body, trembling. I sense the urgency to reach immersion. I sense my tumbling, stumbling, yielding to flow. I sense the pressure of my container, push through the constraint of this eddy’s walls.
In “Water Bodies States of Mind,” Stephanie Heit guided us through considerations of our watersheds. After establishing a place to return to, she invited us into states of water (frozen, liquid, gas) and movement with waters inside (cells, vertebral fluid, brain) and outside (travel through water bodies then “rippling to shore”), with gratitude and drinking of water. Towards the end, Heit asked what the waters shared with us and how we might document bodymind state shifts. Here is what came then and after:
The echo of sounds of brain water echo into a workshop I teach the waters flowing into another time and space recirculating waters
as a creek in my body I am feeling futon impeding roll/movement/meander
I am also in the kayak in the creek named after the surveyor (or or) creek filled with motorboats after engine cruisers ask us why we wear masks and I say scream science even as that answer feels inadequate and then try to attend to my nervous system remember my whole class is together in kayaks and we desire not violence and how can I respond in another way but that was before where I am in the Niagara watershed class in the desire meander realizing wall even with rivets even less damaging than a flat surface while we speak of conversations with community and plantings along shoreline remediation sacrifice zones settler solutions turn back to individual action policy
I did not interrupt while staring at the wall asked for “solution” ideas, conversation ideas
I have heard again and again of the native plants planted again along shoreline and what they nurture and mitigate I want to know how they are cared for not just planted to stand against to the subdivision built behind
I thought of all the names this creek has had swim inside it I thought any desire to care must include all who care are cared for land back
I am encountering the meander in and against and rolling over on top of futon up and over and through under sometimes and struggle
I wrote when asked what waterform embodies current mind/state — landscape — thrives there — needs more support: “creeks I can think feel most like meander wall block the shoreline capacity care block rising over is and against felt most assured My pathway search as in also time of pandemic of uprising against to letters overflow call most power Belonging to and endangered shore + sacrificial zones + thriving is algae is cattail when without industry of wall ocean feels like its ownness finds fullness shapes and cannot be shaped
twist spine roll over”
depth that can be returned to renewed ways of learning watershed
how does it shift our relationship open it deepen it
We are about three quarters of the way through Stephanie’s “Water Bodies States of Mind” session — I think. Water has a way of so very kindly letting me let go of time, letting me go in circles. She’s asked us to find the body of water that most represents our current state. Having been water before — oceans and waterfalls, lakes and rivulets — ice, I am surprised to find that the body, my body’s body of water, the body of water that most embodies me at the moment, is barely water at all. A very brown puddle, in the middle of the path in the middle of a forest. It’s mostly mud. Hmm. Taking a breath, I concede. This feels both strange and correct. And so, I wallow. Sensing each squish as mud gives over to the weight and shape of my body, I explore this small boundary place on the edge between earth and water. I notice that my body is too big for this puddle. I wonder what lives in here? Tiny organisms? Insects? What small animals might take a drink from this body? Like Alice I grow smaller. Or does the puddle grow bigger? No matter who started the magic, sooner or later we’re sloshing and oozing around together, but very slowly, exchanging warmth and coolness, dryness and wet. I emerge feeling that I could have used another few hours in there …
In “Amoeba Dances,” we listen to and move with sounds we are making with our own breath, in our own home, while being comfortable on a mat on the floor (or in a similar comfortable position for yourself and your particular bodymind). Our practice is informed by Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening work, by Continuum Movement, and by Olimpias disability culture practices. We use our breath to channel sounds through our body, and respond in movement — tiny or large, whatever is appropriate to us. My practice is born out of experiences of physical pain, and it is designed to be accessible to people who live with (different kinds of) pain. Our breath tunnels link us to new and old worlds, to moments that allow us to experience ourselves in difference, in hope, in joy, toward aliveness. We encounter ourselves and our microworlds, response-able to minute shifts, desires, and sensual states. I use this practice as the basis for movement/writing workshops in Turtle Disco, a disability-led somatic writing studio in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Immediately following Stephanie’s workshop, I was in a receptive state for Petra Kuppers’s unique sourcing of the work of Mexican artist Martín Ramírez. It caught my intellectual interest without pulling me out of my body. Petra’s work is densely sourced, referencing Kandinski’s “Klange” work, as well as the deep listening scores of Pauline Oliveros. Petra’s offering had me tunneling new pathways between my inner and outer experience by tracking my own experience interacting with a stone I had chosen as a “guide” for the exercise. Ironically, I came to this session with back pain, and Petra’s suggestion to both internalize and externalize my focus alleviated the pain I was in. It reminded me of a “middle way” meditation I often do to work with the pain of migraines, but had the added bonus of embodied movement, which no doubt reset the body/brain messages being sent. I find that this exercise has become a part of my own thoughts and practice and have since replicated it with a piece of bark, a branch, and a leaf. In following the lines of the stone inward and envisioning my own interior lines and then making linear movements, I was able to access my own connection to nature in a way that would not have occurred to me otherwise.
Early in the session Petra shared an image of work by Martín Ramírez. This image of arches, lines, tunnels, and tracks touched the spaces of my body and continued to resonate through these three explorations of attention shifting between inner and outer awareness, which raised the possibility of tuning to both at the same time. The first dive was dancing with a small natural object brought inside from the wider environment, a meeting with the form, texture, patterning, the story and potential of this other element of our ecology. The second, emitting a hum, a sound projected outwards while at the same time resonating through the body, produced the sensation of release, of being transformed and moved at a cellular level. The third, allowing an O to drop into the cavern of our mouth, tunneling deep into the spaces of the body, turned attention to the interior of my bodymind. I struggled with the sensations arising through this, as if it were an assault on my inhibitions, an intimate invasion.
My Lucky Stone
Switch touch switch watch. Wait switch touch switch wait. Shuffle scratched moving marking scratch. Turn circle single swirl. Mark cut incising shattered core. No center. Hard surface marked cracked internal strain. Stretched weather beaten smooth surface. Insidious explosion shattered core. Inside a surface shines a jewel. Smooth scored incisor violence. Cut diamond.
I touch this rib that is not there whole. Palm flat and HMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmm. You see, it shakes. Subtle rib vibration mobilizing the palm of my hand. I pause for breath. I hear the sweet song of another. Whole words I hear. HMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmm carries two songs. My breath. Elders hum deep and deeper in caverns, my rock. What arises? Ancestral spillage, calls of cells that fall apart. My ribs sigh. I hear them speak, vibrating through the palm of my hand.
An O drops into the cavern of my mouth.
This shook me right up from the floor. In spasms as if I would throw myself off the spectrum that I inhabit. A family trait, speaking of outside and outsiders. Inside my mouth the dust motes settle. Through the rounded O orifice, I cough. I say I see the vault of my mouth, my teeth biting down, arresting O, captured in the depth. Traveling deep in the cavern of my skull I follow tracks of a tiny train riding right back there dodging those terrible teeth. The term “bridge and tunnel” comes to mind.
I attended the “Amoeba Dances: Tunneling Open Turtle Disco” workshop with Petra. We were invited to work with our breath and to create a variance of sounds. One of the exercises involved asking us to chant a sound that resembled or moved toward that of an “o.” We were invited to dive deeply into the internal and external sound wave in whatever way we chose or in whatever way worked for our own bodymind.
I have a neurological disability called laryngeal dystonia that sometimes constricts or breaks my voice and speech production. For me, vowels are particularly vexing. I can’t really ever chant as in incantation or celebration within normative vocalization — and sometimes it physically hurts to try.
In my own art practices, I have cocreated many collaborative strategies and aesthetics to work with these experiences and to generate a space where my body and my voice can be more fully present in shared beauty, fluidity, dissonance, and curiosity.
In response to the exercise, and in the spirit of a crip-adapted disability poetics, I decided to revel in whatever participatory practice might move me outside the norms of a vocalized chant. I wanted to find a way to bring the vibration or the song of an “o” into close proximity with my body. I looked around my apartment and began to gather objects in the shape of a circle. I then wrote a poem, as my participatory mode, to enter into our collective somatic experience within the generous gift and pulse of amoeba dancing.
The O Poem
The shape of an “o”
in the palm of my hand.
I sense the words with curving lips.
They are finned and scaley
they are old and sea-licked.
Symmetry has edge in my mouth.
Portal, reflex, sphere.
Delicate, muscled neck.
The quickened breaking folds
plume then scrape, carve then kiss.
Sign of lair, of resonant surrender.
The familiar voice-ghost:
wet choir of pores.
Phonation forming, forming.
Hello, my sea anemone, my oracle,
my specter, my coiled membrane.
Salutary pain as ancestor to hum.
It lives in the throat of a crawling tide pool.
I see its round head bobbing.
(I feel the word “pool” with its watery navel.)
The circle it makes, the ripples.
When I know you this way, in my hands,
barely on the surface because
joining the bellow hurts,
you become roiling, under
and this is the most animal
we’ll ever be.
The most known.
O O O O O O up, up
from deep messy edges of intestines
through twists and tangles, abdomen muscles. Circling,
bone to eyelash
O deeply shaped body sounds
entangled with bodily waterways, expired air, atmospheric fungi, waterways,
Gulped mixtures across viscera,
soil breathes, geological songs, star decay, oak rings, estuary multiplicities
OOOutside, Between bodies
Disability somatic practices vary from body to body mind/body body/mind and mind. Our messy edges blur time, movement, and space whether physically, intellectually, spiritually in a multitude of ways. In blur-some similitude, somatic practices may trigger disabled people from their past traumas, aggravating current pain, ways of breathing, moving, and thinking.
The somatic processes of “Amoeba Dances” led us to centering and opening our bodies loosely in multiple ways; moving us from inward body-focused moments to outward somatic entanglements with other ecological bodies like bark, soil, and water. Connecting our bodies to tunnels, which may be visible or invisible traveling in unlimited ways and amoeba unicellular organisms, which have the ability to alter their shape, speaks to adaptive crip ways of being.
Acknowledging ancestral disability-movement creatives, access-support practices, plus offering multiple ways to move and/or access movement generously made room for disabled bodies during the online movement workshop. For me, many of the mixed spaces have become uncomfortable and ableist due to a continued dismissal of the disabled people who have facilitated, made use of, ritualized, and opened online spaces for disability community building for quite some time. Petra Kuppers’s “Amoeba Dances” online workshop and practice leads with disability while shaping online disability methodologies for inclusive somatics.
For Petra’s workshop, we were invited to bring something from our outdoor environment into the session. I chose a long and crooked stick to sit with in our tunnelings. The following poem explores how the stick became a site for making sense of a painful body and a detached mind.
The branch roughs across my skin
Creaking growth and shed
Bark lengthening and fraying
Not smoothly, but disjointed
Knobs and cracks
I am disjointed
But through the branch is a point of growth
Leaf wrap around knobby outgrowth.
This Bull Thistle leaf was foraged for the workshop “Amoeba Dances: Tunneling Open” by Petra Kuppers as part of the EcoSomatics Symposium on September 26 and brought back to their habitat (40.723389, -73.956273) on October 11, 2020.
Furry. Hairy. Spiky. The image is a close up of a leaf with no fresh juice in their tissue; the veins curl, twist, folding towards the leaf center creating up-and-down hills. The spikes on the margins point towards and away from the mid-rib vein path.
The lower left corner shows a dirty thumbnail and index finger holding the leaf diagonally towards the upper right corner hovering over a blurred background of an urban tree-pit. The general affect of the leaf is dusty hairy dull greenish grayish blue brownish with spikes on their margins that appear shiny yellow glamorous spears in the sun. The leaf body heaviness is like a clump of hair and starts very narrow, expands in the middle, and spirals to a narrow tip. The fuzzy background suggests a white sharp edge of a wood piece, two green bull thistle plant rosettes, and diverse shady brown colors of soil patches. The smaller plant rosette at the bottom left of the image is the habitat of the dried-out leaf. The photograph is taken outdoors in the late afternoon.
Two weeks earlier. Lunchtime. Soft wind from the head to tail makes you dreamy even cars loud sweeping by, not for your concern. But when you find yourself looking into a tree-pit, you perceive something rougher and harsher, and you choose the darkest, thickest green leaf, the most dangerous looking, asking you to be careful; you must take time. When you find yourself ready to make the decision to go for it, you hold your breath — to break the leaf off the rosette plant. To know you have the leaf that can sing on your skin like a violin, you move the leaf slowly with one pull along your skin. Then, if you are patient, pause and more pause, two hours later in front of the Zoom screen you are entitled to the delicacy. The music of the leaf spikes in rhythmical patterns on your skin, their data in moving resonance, received through an intricate cable system that stretches around the globe; the transmitting high-pitched vibrations there for leaves and ears in their homes to be mixed into a symphony.
This experimental workshop explores the mask as vehicle for performance, ritual and ceremony, so-called “illegal” actions, medical purposes, artificial self (Carl Jung famously coined the term “persona,” Latin for “mask”), and, in this time of ecosickness, as political tool and key component for public health and community well-being. We’ll consider the vulnerability of the face with reference to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who says at once: “the skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute”; “the face opens primordial discourse whose first word is obligation”; “the face presents itself, and demands justice”; and “the face is a source from which all meaning appears.” How can we (re)imagine masks/masking to meet the ecocrisis of COVID-19? We’ll perform breath work — with and without masks — honoring the vital role of oxygen and lungs for COVID-19 patients, as well as engage in creative visualization exercises that lead to making our own ecomasks. It would be great if participants could assemble materials like their current mask of choice, recycled paper bags, paints or markers, ecotrash or found items from the natural world, etc., and paper and pen to write with.
What I immediately noticed upon joining the Zoom meeting was the intimacy of the small group of us present. I shared my screen with my wife, Petra. I knew everyone and had shared past spaces, dances, and/or poems in nonscreen, non-COVID settings. Already, there was a dropping of guard, a layer gone.
DJ Lee’s workshop “Face/Mask/Breath” began with a layering of the etymology of mask and its many ritual and cultural uses. She linked masks and protection of breath during the pandemic with antiracist activism and Black Lives Matter protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” during the ongoing revolution. She wove in psychologist Carl Jung’s reference to the mask as a persona and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s use of the face as its own vulnerable mask.
Squares of friends. Squared with my beloved. We breathed together in exercises recommended for recovering COVID-19 patients from the Johns Hopkins website. I felt my instinctual gut balk at a medical-complex resource, having my own riddled history of bipolar treatments in similar so-called top-notch research facilities. But that quickly subsided. My mind landed on DJ’s invitation to exchange breath with the planet — water and air to the plants. I thought about leading my own workshop the day before where the embodiment practice of different water forms and bodies was going to end with evaporation into a resource for plants but instead ended on a sandy shoreline. I felt that gesture, that energy line, extending into today and complexing the web.
Craft time. The workshop announcement asked us to have on hand “recycled paper bags, paints or markers, ecotrash or found items from the natural world” in order to make our own masks. During our making time, DJ ran a slideshow of photographs of her handmade paper masks. Evocative of white medical masks, they were strung by natural twine straps like ornaments in the branches of trees along a river. The delicacy of the paper evoked the fragility of breath, of life. Their texture and the way they held their form also reminded me of plaster casts. I felt a ghost-like quality, a haunting, as if the bodies these masks once shielded might not be alive. Traces. Cycles.
I used brown paper grocery bags for the basis of my mask. There was a playfulness as I cut out a shape and used the bag handles to go around my ears, using another bag handle taped to the crown, cut and unraveled to make antlers. There was a dangling curve as a 3D snout and an erasure poem out of the local coop text. When we returned to the screen to share our projects there was a delicately sewn leaf mask, a gold-sparkled textured one, and one with eye holes and red marker in what appeared to be blood dripping down. I noticed that despite the earlier content of the workshop and the gripping images of DJ’s masks, I’d forgotten for a short stretch about masks and COVID-19. My own mask had no eye openings; I could only see out of one eye if I turned my head sharply to the side. There was a freedom in stepping away for a moment from a practical virus protection mask. No nose clip or good fit needed. This was an opportunity to become something else, not out of a need for survival but from a choice to shift and transform. Still, the pandemic awareness was with me whether I was aware or not; I blocked out letters in my erasure poem to form the word “live.”
To end, we put on our “current mask of choice” also on the workshop list of things to bring. I donned my pinky-purple swirl-design cotton mask with its complicated tie going around the head and then knotted at the base of my neck. This was purchased when elastic was hard to find. I probably should get another easier one, but I’ve been resistant to embrace this pandemic’s probable duration. Either that or my coping mechanism is to try not to project too far into the future.
With our whole Zoom group masked up, we did the Johns Hopkins exercises again. Hand on heart and belly, expanding into the fingers with the breath, inhale and exhale for a minute. DJ read the stats on the number of cases to date in the world: “And we also travel with those whose breathing has been affected by the coronavirus, 33 million in the world, and in the US alone 7.3 million.” I’ve become numb to these figures (which will be much higher when this is published, these stats being accurate on the day of the workshop), out of information overload, protective mechanism, or both.
As we all sat and breathed in our masks, there was a space between inhale and exhale where I felt the breaths and the missing breaths of those numbers, that became people I was breathing with and for. Perhaps it was the mask play and information about covering and uncovering, the rawness of skin, the “I can’t breathe” activist slogan of Black Lives Matter taken from Black people killed by police violence — but these deep breaths released some grief at the base of my lungs. The distancing, the masking fell away for a minute to let accumulated sorrow held down for all these months get some air.
In this session we’ll spend time breathing with and listening to our more-than-human neighbors. Informed by plant studies and philosopher Michael Marder’s call to “shed [our] humanist camouflage” and “join plant life in a self-expropriating journey towards the other,” we’ll learn from the plants with which we share space and collaborate with them and each other in this hour-long practice of breath, contemplative practice, and poetry. It would be lovely to set your Zoom-space for this session in proximity to plant life of some sort (whether near a houseplant, close to a window from which you can see plants, or outside amongst plants). It would also be great to have something to write with/on.
In Megan Kaminski’s laboratory-workshop, we learned about the places we live and from which we were participating. Megan introduced the idea that in COVID times, we have the opportunity to become much more intimate with plants and find practices of care for the nonhuman persons in our environment. Before the workshop began, each participant had built a “habitat,” a space to recline or sit to do breath work, stocked with a notebook to write and draw in, and a laptop, iPad, or other device with Zoom enabled.
We were a small group on a Sunday afternoon in early October. My habitat was built inside my cottage in Moscow, Idaho, a town on the edge of the Palouse — rolling hills now agrifarmed but used traditionally by the Nimíipuu and Salish for camas digging and milkweed gathering, as well as fishing and hunting. It was warm that day, sun shining through the skylights.
Megan presented guiding texts such as adrienne maree brown’s emergent strategy, Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Timothy Morton’s Humankind, and Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books. The one that stuck with me was Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. The passage Megan read aloud had me drifting into ideas of pruning and growth, proliferation from loss, plant generosity, and plant silence.
With these works and words under our skin, we then introduced our places to the group. Megan was in Lawrence, Kansas, traditional territories of the Kaw, Shawnee, Delaware, and Osage peoples. She informed us that Lawrence is also in the Kansas River watershed. The rest of the participants were in Michigan. I felt for a moment the “Westness” of my place, but this quickly disappeared through the everywhere/nowhere of Zoom space. The Zoom squares didn’t feel confining but freeing as I sat cross-legged on my yoga mat doing an opening set of breathing exercises and acknowledging the geography of our bodies. I liked seeing the participants but having my body to myself, exploring and learning in the presence of the human others but also in the seclusion of my room with the door opened a crack onto my forested backyard. As Megan led us through observations and practices, I saw my backyard as never before.
In different ways, Megan invited us to be childlike. As a youngster, she told us, she spent time wandering alone in the wetlands of Virginia, forming connections and making friends with the more-than-human world, an anecdote that resonated with me when she later read from an essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer about how children see and hear the animacy of the natural world. I felt myself open to the imaginative play that my own child-self had in the pine and fir forests of the Pacific Northwest, a sensibility that has been mostly trained out of me by institutions, parents, peers.
Megan’s practices, she told us, run counter to the extractive and exploitive values she grew up with and that are around her as a professor at a university. She urged us to engage with the plant world not as resources or as means to ends but as sentient beings. The shelter-in-place and lockdowns of the pandemic had her thinking about caring for, listening to, and learning from vegetal life. She encouraged us to explore outside our homes, inside our homes, or in the tunnels of our memories. Other participants, as I learned later during our sharing session, communed with an Eastern Hemlock thick with moss and lichen, an old oak and a young oak surrounded by ferns, a cacti houseplant in bloom, and purple aster and white heather aster.
For my part, I stepped onto my back deck and observed two quaking aspen. I had Megan’s questions about how the plants were living in the world jotted in a notebook: how they sheltered others and how they were sheltered, who they interacted with on a daily basis, who they sustained and how they were sustained. I had her prompts, too: listening to the aspen trees, asking what I could learn from them and what they wanted to teach me about how I could be in the world.
I tipped my head skyward. The aspens had grown taller since I had last carefully observed them. The aspens were strategically planted on each side of the deck when the cottage was built twenty-five years ago, but it had never occurred to me how the trees sheltered the cottage, which was itself my shelter. As part of my noticing, I recalled how I looked at these trees often, but not often enough, and I felt newly alive to their beingness, how they played with the light that pours through my windows, how they danced with the wind, how rooted they were in movement, vibrating, making sounds, flapping with their hundreds of thin, firm leaves, catching and creating mood.
I felt oneness with them. Their chalky aspen bark like human skin. Their round, charcoal eyes and eyebrows — places branches had voluntarily fallen off to provide the tree with light. Their arms and wildly waving hands. I hadn’t noticed before how blue spruce grew on each side of the aspen, how one of the aspens was intertwined with a Ponderosa pine, how these beings supported one another, shared a complex, intertwined, rhizomic relationship under the Earth and yet maintained crown shyness.
When the workshop participants came back together after our noticing and listening sessions, the phrase came to me: “You don’t have to move to grow.” I read later in a paper by a University of Colorado professor of ecology and evolutionary biology that quaking aspens favor disturbed habitats where such things as avalanches, mudslides, and fires occur, or where humans have troubled a landscape. I added that knowledge to the wisdom imparted by these two lovely beings sheltering my cottage, sheltering me in the disturbed world where all of us dwell.
This workshop explores embodied investigations of phasing, or the relationship between the timing of two or more events, within our own bodies and between our Zoom bodies. Common examples of phasing in the world include the rhythms of windshield wipers, traffic lights, moon cycles, and eclipses, and we consistently work with or against a complex matrix of human and nonhuman rhythms, cycles, and patterns. For this workshop we will explore how to hold and maintain rhythms in our bodies and voices while developing strategies to fall in and out of sync with one another, working through the sensations of discomfort and pleasure that can come from both deviating and aligning with others and within ourselves.
Moving my arms side-to-side like windshield wipers phasing with a full screen of Zoom boxes filled with workshop participants from across the country, I felt a giggly fullness — a sense of being one of many together in a moment, for the first time, perhaps, since the pandemic started. And then I struggled, as I expect we all did, to keep my right arm in phase with an internally felt windshield wiper rhythm, while my left arm ventured into another, asynchronous phasing. Through various incarnations of movement, voice, and other embodiments, we moved in and out of phase with each other and with our bodies’ various internal rhythms — and through that process, to an embodied recognition of the connections we were making and make as we align (or fail to align) with each other. The pull to move into synchronicity and the sensations of asynchronous phasing. I can’t remember whether Charli specifically invoked Sara Ahmed’s concept of “queer phenomenology” — I’m pretty sure that they must have — but my felt sensations in the workshop connected to my previous thinking with Ahmed’s work and my bodily knowledge of queerness, of disability, and the other inhabitances that have felt out of sync, or “out of line.” I felt deeply into my own phases — not as out-of-phase-ness, or a self-perceived awkwardness (which might be my default mode on Zoom or in a movement practice with which I am unfamiliar) — but instead as a pleasurable resistance, beautiful in their elliptical alignments. Moments of connection and departure and return again.
Shark bite drip with the overhead fan oscillation keeping time. Underwater creatures have multiple ways and sometimes appendages to say goodbye. My lips fall out of sync with each other, drool on the pillow the dogs lap up.
This gathering session is an invitation to meet and cocreate a collaborative and dynamic working space during which we will experiment with collaboratively writing a poem using Zoom.
This session became a place to write in community, as Bronwyn wasn’t able to join us for the first half. We took up her instructions in absentia. Some of the writings in the wider document here found their beginning in this session. In future symposia, we will structure in a communal writing session: it was a great gathering space.
In the second half of Bronwyn’s session, she facilitated a collaborative poem-building process.
This workshop explores forms and rhythms of skin-hearing (or hearing differently) across Zoom, between sound and captioning, and in relation to the other-than-human, such as bees and bamboo, through the collective creation of a set of performance scores. Zoom sets the stage for certain hearing practices — typically connected with sound. Zoom with captioning shifts the “hearing” modality to an auditory-visual one. How can we explore/expand forms of skin-hearing (or hearing differently) available to us? Since I am hard-of-hearing, this workshop is in part a certain type of imaginary one. It relies on the collective exploration of a set of partially not possible exercises, as well as the collective translation processes across our spaces of hearing differently. So, I propose a kind of Zoom leap into a vibrational realm as follows: bees “hear” through a process called vibroacoustics that involves sensing sound vibrations with their whole bodies. We will explore the potential for generating a kinship with the bees and/or our own forms of vibroacoustics. Bamboo, a highly responsive material with complex vibrational potential, activates a different type of touch-sound-air rhythm. We will explore the potential for tuning into bamboo (or another type of wood) as a way of expanding what vibroacoustics might be. From there, we will create a set of performance scores that chart and replay the journey across Zoom, Zoom-captioning, bees, and bamboo so that we can devise (new?) forms of skin-hearing that can link us across the multiple Zoom spaces. Please bring paper, drawing materials. A space to move. I will provide visual equivalents for us to work with. (Please feel free to collect your own vibrational reference points in response to the above proposed structure.)
Kanta draws our attention to the somatics of Zooms, and to ghost letters, ghost words, that escape or go beyond the live audio transcription that is part of all of our symposium workshops. She takes her cue from new forms of imagining interspecies communication, when she tells us that
Afro-Asian musician and critic Fred Ho has noted that ‘Developing the musical empathy and deep listening abilities needed for effective free collective improvisation perhaps may lead to innovative capabilities for telepathy … inter-species musical communication’ (cited in Price, 59). Contrary to standard opinion that bees are deaf, they actually ‘hear’ through vibrations.
She invites us to hear across human/technology/human spaces, across Zooms, in telepathies. We imagine ears all over our body.
At one point in the workshop, Kanta asks us this: “What might that mean for our human and nonhuman relations that can radically upend what we mean by hearing spaces? How do we hear that which has been silenced, i.e., the voice(s) of Sycorax and the bees, who tune in through vibrations that allow them to detect air particle movements?”
Each in our own home spaces, we commune with bees, using the Zoom space and our ambient atmosphere to sense vibrations, to sensitize ear and skin membrane to finest shifts and movements. Kanta invites us to respond to our sensing with words and images. Here is how I responded — one of the many ways in which we are creating somatic memories, in between gill creatures, skin sensing, bees, carapaces, echolocation, and vibroacoustics.
(Image description: Pink and blue swirl, with a blue creature hovering in the web, gills slits. Words: Ear Gill Neck Hairs. Hearing Surfaces. Echolocations. Bees. Vibroacoustics: how do we hear what has been silenced (Sycorax, bees in The Tempest). Blue ink of the hexagons of a beehive, with pink ovals orienting in different spaces. Words: Bzzzz bones. Bzzzz carapace. Dance orientation. Chess. Classic French dance steps. Wriggle your butt. Hormonal directions. Pheromones. Scent track left in the air. Desire and excretion. Shedding of self.)
In this workshop, we take time to experience our embodied connection with our planet. Moving through various layers, fluids, and states that exist within our earth and within ourselves, we widen our link with our large living home who sustains us. Combining movement in depth (also known as authentic movement), practices of mindfulness, and nondominant-hand writing/ drawing, we sense and listen for our connection. In this workshop, we make space to be with and grieve all that has and is being lost on our earth, across species and ancestors, opening ourselves to new futures. Please wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes, no prior experience necessary.
In a very sensorial echo of the water workshop with Stephanie, Rania Lee Khalil suggested in one part of her workshop that we move like sea plants. There was something so somnambulant about mimicking the movements of a white seaweed type plant in Egypt that she showed in a sensual video clip that I found myself performing a motion that literally no one (until now) knows that I do before I go to sleep, where I lie on my side and use my forearm to create very gentle rocking movements, that make me feel both anchored and relaxed.
In Rania Lee Khalil’s workshop I wrote down that we were being led through new vehicles for care (self and earth), with earth as source of strength (for all?). Khalil shared additional sources with us. (I jotted Ericka Huggins’s meditations, Butoh finger dance, and death dance of the eyelid.)
I recall exploring in movement elements such as seed, plant, sea, soil, dirt, leaf. Something about empathy extensions of earth, underlayer branch in body surrounded/connected by sea. I recall feeling soil moving, rising to, being pushed/pushing/emerging, earthworm. My toddler waking up wanting leche somewhere in the middle, and so with my camera off I tried a smaller dance (one hand?) while breastfeeding in bed lying down, and there was a resonance with flow of milk (from ducts to brain, active interaction and adaptation of components in milk that taught me something about soil I don’t yet know how to articulate.) And drawing soil pictures with my toddler in collaboration at close. I was thankful to be together while together.
In the tangled history of multispecies life on earth, moss was one of the first plants to make the jump from water to land, approximately 470 million years ago. They are still here — we will take slow time to listen to them! Our bodies, cells, fascia, muscles, and bones will explore the boundary layer where earth and atmosphere meet, encountering urban moss’s habitat and intelligence, language, and presence. We will start with micromovements and with the breath and touch of our hands to awaken our substrates and move into new territories — becoming vague and firm, moist and patient, sensual and ready. Exploring the range of possibilities in space, attempting connections we have never tried before — Bartenieff Fundamentals Movement and Improvisation are underlying support systems to connect our bodies in motion to moss teachings about waiting, surviving desiccation, and thriving. The ninety-minute class will have two breaks of approximately ten minutes each for “reflection writing as hydration” using the shared chat feature to expand each other’s being through written language. To prepare for the class, please take the time to meet a neighborhood moss and attune with them. Go here and follow the prompt and instructions.
Moss. 470 million years of life, perpetuating itself. In the morning, I follow andrea’s prompt to spend some time walking with Moss in preparation for our afternoon session. It is actually this alone time with Moss I remember most. I discover that it is everywhere, right under my nose. To commune with Moss, I need go no further than my backyard. Moss lies quietly underneath the fallen leaves. Undisturbed. Who knows how long it’s been there. Moss is the edge of a bed that fern, clover, dandelion, have made for themselves between two stones. A rich, thick, boisterous canopy on top of the carport. Sometimes spreading horizontally, looking like emerald crystals of ice, sometimes poking up vertically, in a goofy, muppet-like display. Is anything as velvety shimmery green as Moss? Growing at the edges of a stone with a Nautilus carved in it, fractals upon fractals, repeating and repeating … slowly, quietly, insisting on life.
Then, in the afternoon with andrea, after exploring different strata of Moss with very slight movements, and writing in between, letting our own mossy layers spread out on the page, we lie on the ground. We are invited to explore these accumulated depths of possibility. I find the moss in me that can crack rock, create canyons with slow, steady, barely rooted, and continuous persistence. … I found that in my tired state I could suck water into my body through every surface, and grow, and become more vibrant, awake. I am inspired by Moss’s ability to find home almost anywhere, and its ability to survive. Today, Moss was what Robin Wall Kimmerer would call Ki, perhaps what Donna Haraway would call oddkin — others we might never know, but with whom we can, respectfully, dance.
Reflecting on Moss and Puddle/Mud now, I remember the childhood slip sliding of mud and moss on rocks at Loon Brook on Utowana Lake in the Adirondacks, and in the giant backyard puddles that became a playground in the middle of a downpour, where I’d run and slide barefoot, with as few clothes on as possible. Speed was joy, sliding on the surface of the earth almost like flying. Now, at almost fifty, I want to lie as still as possible and just be, just sense, and listen, and let these cool, accommodating friends teach me how to ease seamlessly from water to land and back again.
In the last workshop I participated in, I had a chance to build on the practice of working with pain by visualizing the pleasure boundary layer with andrea haenggi. Invited to interact with moss, through the screen of a computer, or my own piece of moss, I somehow ended up outside under a tree. It was a deeply green and temperate northeast autumn day, and something about the way that andrea made the moss seem so alive connected me to my own practice. In a deeply intuitive response, I ended up stripping off some layers and taking some photos of my body in nature. Her invitation to consider the relationship that moss has with soil was layered, and her direction to keep dropping to another layer, and another, stopping to document our experience through brief writing exercises, augmented my own intense interest in how humans shape earth and how we can draw on the shapes of earth for our own wellbeing.
Each workshop tapped into a different aspect of either self-soothing/self-regulating movement, or subtle, imaginary spaces where nature and human experience meet. Each workshop brought about a sense of self and self-to-other connection, and each ecosomatic artist offered ways to explore the mind/body connection in the name of healing. I was particularly interested in how specific each workshop was, yet how personal my responses were.
I am interested in continuing to explore and experience the ecosomatic work of Petra and the others to expand on my own poetic practice, discover new ways of thinking about my work, and develop my own articulation of how working with the body and nature can create healing.
I have produced a Symmathesy as a development of a number of workshops that I have attended during EcoSomatics 2020.
I am on a continual journey of embodied learning, engrossed in the process of understanding Nora Bateso’s concept of “Symmathesy,” “an entity formed over time by contextual mutual learning through interaction.”
Figure 1. “An Inky, Reticulate Seam” (2020)
Image description: This is an image of handwritten poetry. The poem is written on brown manila-colored paper, with the text in italicized black ink, white gel pen, and metallic gold felt tip. The text goes from the top of the paper to the bottom. The text reads:
Break the rules, cutaneous tools
Fire and heat Pain
Liquifies my structure
Unstable creeping cricks
G r a i n y flow, vessels for vessels
Weightless heavy loose l o o s e knot
Droplet of fresh
Ocean of contamination
Salt rocks crunching in limbs
Swirling (text swirling)
DRIP (text downwards)
Flow Slow (end of “w” merges with downwards-facing drip text)
Round and round — to the ground
Hydrate, again (in small nib fine-liner pen)
S A D — Intrigued
Tender knobbly j-o-i-n-t
Turbo devils dry eyes ,, SOOTHE (in white gel pen)
Balloooooooooooooooon mouth C A V E (in the shape of cave opening)
Unforgiving S T R A T A (letters vertically placed on the page)
Toosh clicks — meet bum
Re-find s q u i s h y (letters placed in a wobbly line) currency
This particular work emerged from andrea haenggi’s workshop, Pleasure Boundary Layer — Bryophyte Moss Movement and Improvisation Practice. In this workshop, we explored movement derived from andrea’s explorative and interdisciplinary practice, “Ethnochoreobotanography.” Inter-relationships were cultivated during the somatic and embodied exploration of moss.
haenggi provided strikingly sensual guidance through the course of the workshop, which I continue to experience and reflect on. I practiced swelling microinvestigations between the substrates of the moss, participants, the Zoom screen, my environment, my body, my pen, the paper. These inter-relating properties, which, in Bateson’s terminology can be described as “Vitae,” were funneled through my queer eco-body experience. This created a Symmathesy, An Inky, Reticulate Seam (2020). The flavor of language, senses, sweeps, and contours of the poem is both a reflection and part of the experience of embodying, exploring, and playing with the moss and its properties.
This was the end of our symposium — and from there, we began the assemblage of this essay, first through a collection of open notes, then as an open Google doc that anybody who was part of the symposium could write into, and lastly in this version, which I worked on to unify and make easier to navigate.
I love this collection, this web of responses: translations, telepathies, memories, and experiences intertwined, drifting close and far to the somatic experiences we shared at the heart of our time together. In the new “with-COVID” world many of us will need to challenge ourselves to create connections in unfamiliar spaces, including online meetings. This collection of writings incites in me melancholy pain for what we are missing, what touches are out of reach, and yet also hope and joy in contemplating what is possible. In the rhythm of multiple collaborative entities, we can sense how creative creatures in energetic fields and with dreams of more just futures can reach out and be with each other.