Biosphere & Beyond Making & Moving Somatic Support Uncategorized


Meetings of the Material and Immaterial

A lot of ecosomatic practitioners, myself included, can have a tendency to study the immaterial arts, such as dance. While the body is fleshly, mineral, and liquid material, a dance is itself ephemeral. It may leave imprints upon the place of occurrence, but the dance itself does not end up as something tangible you can hold and give to someone else to touch. It can be felt, but not touched, exactly. As I discussed in this podcast episode, some of my ecosomatic inspirations come from Butoh dance training and practices of “resonating with qualia,” which I would consider to be an immaterial and somewhat spiritual practice, though surely somatic. 

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the material arts, especially earth skills, handcrafts, and plant tending. I think about hands like a spider spinning thread from the most beautiful camel hair or cotton; I think about bending and squatting in a piedmont prairie collecting seeds and smelling leaves to help remember which plant is which; I think about cracking hazelnuts and carving wood. Some of these skills are really new to me and not yet actual skills; I am so grateful to Lyrra Magda and Louise Wheatley for introducing me to the art of making and using a drop spindle for processing fiber, to Lyrra for introducing me to the dismemberment arts and working towards understanding hide tanning (also for always teaching me something new about wild plants), and to Taylor of Wild Altar Farmstead for teaching me about wet felting wool and for geeking out with me about deepening relationships with place through action and art. I am also grateful for the Native Plants Nursery crew at Farfields Farm, as we all help each other grow in our understanding of local genotype plants and plant communities. And encouraging each other in all sorts of strange propagation experiments. 

Feeling into these material arts, I become aware of the immaterial realms which are also always present. Louise talks about spinning as a settling activity; I feel this in my nervous system. Even though I am an extremely clunky beginner, I can taste little glimmers of a shift in state-of-being, as inner landscape merges with the material, mind simultaneously focusing and expanding, hands knowing the fibers and proteins in all their chaos and pattern. Louise talks about the medicinal quality of plants imbued in the plant dyes she uses in her fabrics, and it’s so lovely to imagine the body or a room being enveloped in that spirit…the immaterial dwelling continuously through the material. She talks also of a dream, myth, or story being woven into a tapestry. I am humbled by these masters of the material arts and how they create things that can touch and be touched physically and psychically. Created through hands and hand-tools rather than through machines, the pieces become artifacts of both individual uniqueness as well as the spirits of everyone whose materials are literally woven into the process. 

I recall the first roadkill deer Lyrra taught me how to process earlier this year. I wrote dazedly in my journal:  “No creature’s blood has ever covered my hands like this…effortlessly painting my skin, spirit permeating. This moment will live forever in my body as a bow of reverence.” There was such somatic dynamism in the process, a mix of tenderness and gentleness with snaps, jabs, saws, and tears. I am absorbing anatomical information I could never learn from a textbook. This one was a “trial by fire,” Lyrra said, as the wind blew a putrid gust from the deer’s anus straight into my breathing mouth.  “Glorious, taut, graceful, pearlescent fascia; translucent threads of connectivity.” This seems like a kind of Death Bodywork, or perhaps ecological Death Doula-ing. Reverence is truly the best word for it. Later, we work more intensively with the hide…lots and lots of scraping, soaking, swelling, shaping, and membrane alchemy. I am tentatively dabbling in this art, again in awe of the embodied wisdom of the humans who do this for a living. 

I’ve been gently adding native perennials to the woodland and meadows where I live, scattering pawpaw and milkweed seeds, and imagining into how this landscape will change in the coming years, and what actions I could take that would be genuinely beneficial for various species. I’ve pulled up some bittersweet, but only in small amounts, conscious of the reverberating impacts, questioning motives and outcomes. I contemplate the ecological roles of thickets and brambles. I have learned to wear shoes more often because of thorns. A friend points out signs of stormwater erosion on the creek bank and talks to me about how noticing which species of Solidago are growing gives clues about the geological history of a place. 

Solidago caesia (“Wreath Goldenrod”)

The practice of understanding a plant and ecosystem well enough to clearly imagine the future and past generations (“To See a World in a Grain of Sand,” if you will) seems like an art to me, an art probably well-honed by indigenous people of this region and an art in which I am still a humble and flawed beginner. There is an immaterial aspect of landscape design that involves a visionary capability plus an understanding of the sovereign spirits of each of the beings of a place; yet the practice is rooted in the materiality of biology, geology, and botany. But perhaps in a non-westernized non-colonialist-influenced body and perceptual vessel, there would not really be any discernible split between material and immaterial. 

Planting tiny groundnut (hopniss, Apios americana) rootstalks and vines, I offer them blessings for their new place. I feel the cold autumn soil on my fingers. The vines are starting to die back and I hope the little tubers have enough energy for the winter. I don’t know if my timing is right but I am trying. Perhaps we can make a home here together, caring for one another, listening, feeding, touching; cycling through living and dying. 

“Enter, oh, enter the language of your skins,

where motion mentions silence, and words spill light

over the actual air; let your touch begin

spinning separate souls in one open flight

towards one believed delight.”

Annie Finch, “A Wedding on Earth”
Biosphere & Beyond Making & Moving Somatic Support

Ecosomatics and Singing

Singing is healing; especially singing with others, especially outside! 

First, let’s get into some of the Polyvagal Theory explaining why singing is so regulating for the nervous system. Deb Dana in her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy notes that humming and singing both increase ventral vagal tone. As a primer for those of you new to Polyvagal Theory, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve is the part that serves the social engagement system, meaning the part that responds to cues of connection, curiosity, play, and safety. The other areas of the vagus nerve, which serve the flight/fight and collapsed responses in our nervous systems, are important evolutionary parts of our survival too, but it is key for us to learn how to switch between these various states of shut down, activation, and safety. The more we tone our ventral branch of the vagus nerve, the easier it becomes for us to slide out of states of fear, stress, and depression and into a state of connection and safety.

Singing “exercises the larynx, lungs, heart, and facial muscles, and requires breath control and changes of postures, all of which tone the ventral vagal system,” says Dana, further adding that singing in a group has an added positive effect on vagal tone. Working intentionally with breath control and extended exhalation can block the release of stress hormones and increase immune function. 

An image that barely captures how large and wandering and connective the vagus nerve is

And then, of course, there is the added therapeutic layer of working with the sound of your own voice, exploring any struggles you might have with speaking your truth, being heard, taking up space, etc. I can certainly say that in exploring voice work with Cara Trezise, a Vermont-based singer/artist/educator extraordinaire, I’ve been able to make progress on my own challenges around judging or withholding my voice.  Cara and I have been meeting every so often to explore singing and vocal improvisation outdoors. We will often begin and end with toning together into the forest and being conscious of our intentions. Throughout the session, I become more aware of my capabilities of giving and receiving: paying attention to and letting in the world around me as well as not shying away from giving what I have to offer. At my request we have focused a lot on improvisation; Cara encourages us to do an exercise where we don’t run away from the sounds we make that we think are horrible. If something comes out that we really love or really hate, she invites us to linger there and see how it might transform. When I am frustrated because I am straining to sing higher notes, she encourages me to bend my knees, get closer to the ground, as well as visualize forward and backward into space, and suddenly there is less constriction in my throat as I focus on grounding downwards into the earth and connecting laterally and horizontally rather than trying so hard to reach higher. I let the sounds of the trees and the birds and the heat of the sun influence what might come out of my mouth, and sometimes I wonder if could sing for them, offer them something that might bring them joy of some kind. So I am building relationships with myself, with Cara and her voice, and with the environment as well; these embodied layers of connections make me feel like a real and healthy human being by the end of our meeting. Those who have experienced singing with folks around a fire at night, I’m sure you know the kind of fulfilling connection I am talking about. Resonating reciprocally with others and co-regulating with nature also light up that ventral vagal area in our nervous system.

Through singing we explore range, quality, and texture. What ranges and qualities do we feel most comfortable in? Which ones really stretch us, both in the listening of them and in the creating of them through our voice? Which rhythms can we most easily sink in to? Can we remember the polyrhythms that have enveloped us since our womb days? Singing, like all forms of communication, I think, is so shaped by context and the sounds and types of vibrations we grew up around or spent significant amounts of time around, from humans as well as other creatures and environmental elements. I would expect that climate and geographical biography would have just as much of an influence on one’s voice as does the rhythm of the language they are surrounded by and the melodies of their families’ voices. In my singing explorations, I come to understand my voice both as something uniquely “me” as well as something intertwined with and molded by environment, ancestry, culture. In saying all this, I sense an interesting push and pull between liberation and limitation: which influencing factors do we want/need to peel away in order to reveal deeper authenticity, and which factors are truly integral and helpful to who we are and what we sound like? Just how much choice do we have about our voice?

Singing gives us experiential manifestation of our desires for connection, harmony, beauty, flow, collaboration, play. We hear and are heard, we feel and are felt. It grounds us into our bodies and expands us into our landscape. It tones our vagus nerve so that we become more and more resilient, a quality in high demand for these times. 

My spin on Heather Houston’s spin on Molly Hartwell’s original song; I was first introduced to this song at the Groundnut Gathering, an earth skills event in Western Mass