Ecosomatics and Ecological Succession: Choreographies of Disturbance, Disaster, and Possibility; or, Ashes Falling Down

Patterns of ecological disturbance and succession, and their consideration in the realm of human culture, perception, and movement, has been the topic of much rumination personally and collaboratively over the past year or more. This essay represents a work-in-progress compilation of vignettes which may later be edited more thoroughly and/or expanded into a longer project. 

Photo by Taylor Hanigosky of vineways and highways entangling in Rockfish Gap


Succession Ecology: Patterns of change in the species composition of a given place, in relationship to the changing overall context and conditions.

String together the snapshots in time of a plot of previously bare soil. Observe the changes from weedy/ruderal/annual plants to brambles to saplings to thickets to forests. Consider all that is invisible to the bare eye, all the changes in microbial and fungal communities in the soil, all the animal companions inhabiting, using, and changing the places as they change. String together the snapshots in time of a place through the geological scales of epochs, eons, eras, through glaciers, topographical uplifts and river meanders, entire species born and gone–what makes a place a place, throughout so much change? 

The “climax community” concept, the supposed final end goal of the successional process (often imagined as a “perfect” old growth forest), is an outdated myth. Nothing is static and nothing is alone; disturbance and fluctuation are woven into the fabric of life on this planet. 

Check here for lyrics and more information about the origins of this song

Landscapes have adapted to all sorts of disturbances. Cyclical and controlled burning, non-human and human mammals grazing/harvesting/compacting/making homes/etc., flooding/wind destruction/eruptions, and other earth-moving and impactful events all disturb the every-day life of a place. What are the different nuances and trajectories of a place after a given disturbance event? What are the rhythms and tempos of change in the wake? What are the choreographies of the bodies involved in disturbance events, whether on the doing or receiving end, whether single bodies or collectives of bodies making up a larger body? From which scales of perspective do we perceive and move? Who are the performers in the Dance of Disturbance, and do they know the steps–how many times has this dance been danced, and how has it morphed over time? 

Disturbances often involve death. But they are also portals of possibility, change, interruption. Like a beaver felling trees and creating distinct wetlands where there previously were none, your actions open pathways of ecological trajectories. A death here creates an opportunity for a different kind of life there. Involvement orients a path; suppression of involvement orients a different path. Everyone co-creates a place. As large mammals with large scale technologies, we humans have a large impact; our paths are broad, wherever they go. 

Walnut Creek 

In Walnut Creek Park, an unintentional fire burned maybe 6 years ago. There’s a bridge there that I especially love, crossing a wetland in the forest. One on side you see mature Mountain Laurel, tall, curvaceous, creating a thick shade on the ground. On the other side, you see the burned Mountain Laurel, still short, lots of dense sprouts remerging thick and straight from the base, and lots of native grasses along the edges of the trail and in pockets about the Mountain Laurels.    

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Liminal Lots

In the rubble and ruins of Staunton Mall, still being deconstructed, Mustards, Pokeweeds, Tree of Heaven, and many others grow in the cracks in the concrete and among clusters of frayed electrical wires poking out of trash. In gaping holes in the ground, you see a mat of roots dwelling under the surface of the lot. What would sprout again one day if given the chance? What would grow if given long enough to move through the phases of succession again? How long does a viable seed last in the seedbank, anyway? 

This mall lot was once a prairie. Long before that it was under salt water. 

A landscaping client wants me to remove all the Pokeweed in her garden. A different landscaping client wants to plant Pokeweed in her back yard. 

Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven) growing in the mall ruins and trash piles
Members of Liminal Lot dancing in the Staunton Mall rubble

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Barrens and Hellstrips 

Rocky outcrop barrens ecosystems are full of plants adapted to the harshest of environmental conditions. They find their homes in small amounts of soil, growing in cracks and crevices on the swathes of bedrock. They are exposed to intense sunlight and high winds. Rainwater runs off quickly. Trees are often stunted despite their age. Early successional trees like Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Redcedar) which usually get shaded out by canopy species elsewhere in the woods and become leggy and short-lived, in the barrens ecosystem grow wide, old, and laden with berries. Grasses like Danthonia spicata (Poverty Oat Grass) and Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) form a thick lawn between the rocks. Stonecrops, mosses, lichens, and Prickly Pear cacti call these barrens home, thriving on the eroding rock faces and thin soils.

Annual/biennial Appalachian Phacelia in pretty pale blue clumps everywhere catch my eye. I recall another time I saw this plant growing densely in a dappled woods in a campground where the forest and soils had clearly been pretty degraded. Non-native hardy generalist species abounded, opportunistically doing their work of creating biomass in difficult early successional conditions. Phacelia was one of the few endemic species present, growing thickly alongside the other vanguard plants. 

Moss growing in rock crevice

Barrens-adapted plants are often chosen for enlivening so-called “hellstrips” in urban landscaping projects- small beds within parking lots or between sidewalk and street where not much can be coaxed to grow. That is, not much that is deemed appropriate by the standards of conventional landscaping. Bittersweet, Kudzu, Lespedeza, and Ailanthus, for example, can also thrive in the hellstrips, but because of their non-native status are often the target of extirpation.

Barrens assemblages have adapted to harsh conditions in similar ways that the non-native plants demonized in the urban landscapes are adapted to harsh conditions of other sorts. Excavation, soil compaction, strange pollution, heat island effects, and other pressures exert themselves on the urban ecosystem. Like the native plants of the ridgeline barrens, the constellation of non-native species that persist in cracks in the pavement, between civic-minded applications of herbicide, are adapting to this early stage of succession, in the places and times where crumbling concrete becomes a forest. 

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Disaster Taxa

Localized extinction events occur all the time. Imagine: an area of diverse habitat, a mesic oak-hickory forest, say, tenanted by salamanders and mayapples, watered by many little creeks, deep in quietly mouldering leaf duff, is slated for development, whether for exurban subdivision, military supplies manufacturing, or some other function essential to progress, civilization, etc. Heavy machinery rumbles in, shreds, crushes, and rips out every visible green plant, pulps the salamanders, backfills the creeks, compacts the soil, inflicts insoluble erosion problems, and then is put to work making the place fit for human commerce. Later, if non-native early successional Lespedeza or Autumn Olive take root in this difficult landscape of recent localized extinction, people are heard to exclaim, ‘how terrible, these “invasive” plants, destroying biodiversity, taking over and displacing our native plants!’ 

Cities are ecological disasters. I think of all the roads and highways, strips of localized extinction events stretching in all directions. And all the roadkill. A murder zone of speeding vehicles {fueled by greedily excavated millions-of-years-old plant and animal bodies} bisecting what was once a contiguous swath of home for someone.  Not to mention all the salt, pollution, etc. The Ailanthus, Mimosa, and Kudzu lining the highways and hellstrips? Maybe they are a form of ‘disaster taxa,’ those pioneer organisms able to take root and live in the wake of catastrophic disturbance events. Perhaps these hardy newcomers will be the ones to weather the ongoing ecological storms?

Some people think we ought to spray all non-native species with toxic chemicals until they no longer offend our roadside sensibilities, and replace them with the “right” sort of  plants that are “supposed” to be there. The saturation of highly compacted soils prone to erosive runoff with carcinogenic chemicals is a small price to pay for extirpating these noxious weeds, right? Information about which kinds of plants are right for a place and which kinds are wrong is common knowledge, after all, and the sources and proponents of that knowledge have proven themselves trustworthy, right? 

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Novel Plant Communities & Remediation 

On the rocky slopes up towards the ridgeline, there lives a community characterized by Pawpaw, Tree of Heaven, and Blue Cohosh. We call it the Pawpaw Jungle. There are also some Hickories and a variety of other native plants. Tree of Heaven can be an indicator of repeatedly and sometimes harshly human-disturbed soil, and what you would expect in an early successional woods in this area. Blue Cohosh cannot live without microbial symbionts that thrive in older, richer, undisturbed soils. The seemingly mutual coexistence of native and non-native species makes us wonder about the novelty of this plant community, how it came to be this way and how it might change in the future. Belonging is a process of “naturalization” and merging with a place over time. Species assemblages are not fixed. 

Along the South River with Taylor, we find a community of native Horsetail (Equisetum), Sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata), Hearts-a-Burstin’ (Euonymus americana), Blue Bells (Mertensia virginica), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and non-native Multi-flora Rose (Rosa multiflora), Garlic Mustard (Alliara petiolata), and Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). They seem to have formed a stable ecological community. This occurs outside of the zone of officially designated “ecological restoration.” Inside the zone, local plants, native and otherwise, have been extirpated, and plants from nurseries from who knows where were planted instead. New species were selected that, theoretically, might grow there when the place is past an early successional stage- nevermind the fact that the place is in an early successional stage, nevermind the history of toxic pollution being dumped into the river here further altering the successional pattern from a ‘natural’ baseline.  I wonder where all the mercury-laden topsoil scraped off the earth (that was in the process of being remediated by local Mustards and other hardy generalists) was transported. How long does a poison linger in the soil and how do the bodies of beings like fungi, plants, and bacteria digest and change it? 

Vultures are, to me, heroic birds. I love them for their ability to digest, cleanse, and effectively neutralize any diseases a corpse had been infected with. When I learned that they also hiss and utilize projectile vomiting of their stomach acids for self defense, I loved them even more. Visualizing myself hissing and spewing vulture vomit in certain situations has proved to be a valuable coping mechanism. The broader capacity to metabolize and transform sickness- of a culture, for instance- as well as the capacity to spew acidic bile when necessary, are crucial components in the dance of disturbance and possibility in these troubled times. 

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Pond Communication

As the pond fills up over time with leaf debris and sediment, it becomes shallower and shallower. The channels leading to it silt up, the check dams come undone, and the water finds another path through a hill to a nearby creek, where it would go anyway but for the dugout spillway into the pond. I decide to arrest the natural succession of the waterway, preserving the pond’s useful habitat for frogs, newts, herons, and others. I  re-dig the channels, fix the rock structures to catch excess sediment, and move the silt that has already accumulated elsewhere. I carve pathways in the thick muck for the water to flow through the Sedges, Elderberry, Lobelia, and Wapato and to rejoin the pond once again. 

Ashes Falling Down 

Ash trees everywhere in the woods and seep swamp are falling down. Their death some years before was the work of superabundant populations of non-native Emerald Ash Borer beetles. The dead Ashes linger for a time as standing snags, then succumb to gravity piece by piece.

When the Ash trees fall, they bring down heaps of vines (especially Grapevines, Greenbrier, and Bittersweet) and limbs from nearby trees, too. Shrubs and forbs get smashed, pockets of light open up. There is opportunity in this death-opening, but which trajectory will prevail? A trajectory of increased vinescape? Ashes resprouting as shrubby understory? Other tree seedlings finding the light they need to finally thrive? 

Coming home one day, I noticed a very close Ash tree had finally fallen, bringing with it Sycamore and Mimosa limbs, nearly smashing a baby Pawpaw I planted last fall. I wanted to clean it up right away, make it tidy, get limbs out of the creek, reorganize the chaotic Grapevines half pulled down. I see it staring at me every morning from the window. Eventually I’ll sharpen the saw blades and get to it. Of course, this sort of tangled treefall happens all the time further upslope in the seep swamp and elsewhere in the woods. Here feels different. I’ve spent days tending the dams on the creek, adding new plant stock to the water’s edge, actively tending this zone near my dwelling place. 

Tangles of Grapevines brought down with falling Ash trees

 Snags caught and suspended by vines high in the air increase the susceptibility of the forest to crowning wildfire. High kindling, drying in the breezes of another drouthy spring. Ash snags and ice storms have left an abundance of dead wood everywhere. The lack of prescribed fire and ongoing tending at the scale needed in this place creates potential for future hazard. 

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Mapping Trajectories

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Bittersweet and Mutual Benefits

Oh, Bittersweet. Bitter and sweet you are indeed. 

Celastrus orbiculatus. 

Prior to last fall, I was mostly standing up for you, blinding myself to any potential harms you may cause. It was, perhaps, mostly as an abreaction to the spewing hatred from strict conservationists and native plant purists. At the same time, I hadn’t really been interested in getting to know you the way I would with certain native or medicinal plants. I wasn’t open to doing plant meditations/journeys/listening to what you may have to share on a deeper level. This was probably because I had indeed internalized the idea that you were lesser-than, not helpful, a nuisance, an outsider, etc.  I would not succumb to consciously vilifying you or promoting your extirpation, but there was a distance. I did, however, feel fine about cutting back your vines and using them to make wreaths and other crafts.

When I finally did get around to sitting with you and opening the possibility for connection, you pointed out a few things to me: your connection with the “inbreath” – an inhale of preparation and gathering energy, a strong upward propulsion of growth and mass; the way your bright orange roots spread so rapidly and bond with certain arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (characteristic of young soils); a nudge to meander and observe the variations in vine behaviors across the forest. The experience brought shape and shading to my sight, the blindness was, perhaps, healing. Along with noticing your sense of emergency-mode biomass creation and admiring your power and texture, I really began to notice your girdling capacities, observing the deep squeezing indentations you created in trees. It is different than the Greenbrier, Grapevine, and Poison Ivy. The security of the verdant future you create comes at the detriment of seedling canopy trees, and their portended future forest. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a goal to extirpate you completely from this forest, but I have fewer qualms now thinning you out in the service of nearby trees who prefer not to be girdled; I’d like to carve space for an ecological trajectory that includes genetically resilient populations of longer term “native” plants of this place. I know you are thriving in part because of the disturbance events here- the logging roads, livestock paddocks, and the displacement of Monacan people and their methods of caring for land.  I will continue to cut your vines, making use of them whenever possible, and probably also digging up some smaller vines, mindful about how bioturbation affects the balance of organisms within the soil, mindful of the successional dynamics of the place. 

The work of tending through small-scale disturbance provides feedback quicker than I expected. I’ve created small paths and trails through a thickety part of the woods. Simply cutting back some Privet and Multiflora Rose here and there, bringing down dead snags, and thinning native but overabundant Spicebush where appropriate, has clearly been favorable for local populations of Black Cohosh, Stoneroot, Snakeroot, and Pawpaw. Right along the trails that I have cleared and added wood ash and day-old herbal tea remains to, these native plants are coming up very lushly and happily. This is despite the presence of Garlic Mustard and Tree of Heaven in that area, non-native species maligned for their putative allelopathic properties. Allelopathy describes the ability of some plants to suppress the growth of other plants in their vicinity, reducing competition. Beeches and Walnuts are famously allelopathic. Whatever allelopathic compounds Tree of Heaven and Garlic Mustard are alleged to contain, as touted by “invasives fact-sheets” and other propaganda, it really must not be that significant, given what I’ve observed with my own two eyes. The opening in the shrub layer provided by cutting and tending on a regular basis, perhaps combined with input of organic materials otherwise deemed waste (tea herbs and wood ash) seems to improve the conditions for the native plant population here. This is mutually beneficial: I enjoy the paths that allow me to travel easefully through an otherwise thickety area, and the plants are providing excellent feedback about this strategy. 

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Weeds and Relics

Erigeron (Fleabane) is an early successional weedy or “ruderal” native plant that thrives in areas of high disturbance, especially near homes or in agricultural zones

In the garden, as we weed and prep our beds each year, familiar hardy guests arrive with no coddling or effort from us, and despite much weeding of them the previous year: Violets, Chickweed, Plantain, Dandelion, Lambs Quarters, Fleabane, Wingstem, Deadnettle. Some we use for food, some we weed out, but they always come back. One of the beds over the winter we let become a solid mat of chickweed, providing some effortless nibbles of fresh green throughout the season. We must disturb the ground to prep the soil for our annual vegetables, so the area is never allowed to move beyond a certain successional stage.

Every contact leaves a trace, every movement an imprint. Tracking the turkey and coyote scat, the neighborhood dog prints, the hawk’s rabbit kill, the squirrel’s acorn shells, the bear bones, the deer scrapes, the soft feathers, the ants farming their aphids, we get a glimpse of inhabitation, lifestyle, and psyche. I always wonder what the other creatures think of the human tracks and signs, the prints and relics of participation we leave, both material and spiritual, and what they say about our psyches; which signs are codified into meaning and which might they puzzle over?  

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Elsewhere in the woods, where a young Tulip Poplar stand has gotten too dense, and where the Morels used to come up (but no more) we cause disturbance by thinning the Tulip Poplars. A death for some of the trees, it may be an opening for more life for the Morels, and perhaps this area may once again become a prairie or edge-meadow community. We find remnant populations of native Mountain Mints and Monardas that point us in that direction. We listen for feedback, as this landscape tells us what it would like from us.

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Liminal Lots, Again

In one of the liminal lots on a mountain-top near a half-abandoned hotel, we listen for stories. Though we know some history of travel, of dangerous and fatal jobs, of railroad, carving, wind, war, fog, tourism, fire, in this place, for this session we focus on trusting the body to hear the stories we may not consciously remember. Of course I’m also listening to the plant community currently thriving here: Virginia Creeper, Bittersweet, Poison Ivy, Black Locust, Sumac.  Early successional patterns. And the Quince and the Catnip, relics of recent human ornamentation. The wind has brought down more limbs since last time we were here, and many saplings lean heavily under the pressure of wind and vines. Vines envelop the derelict buildings nearby, crawling through shattered windows. Shards of glass and ceramic dot the lot, plus trashcans and some old underwear. At some point I turn off the logical labeling aspect of mind and allow movements and gestures to emerge, body resonating, imagining, remembering, in the language of temporality and space.  Our group researches for a while, shares movements, creates combinations, follows surprising threads and juxtapositions.  I find it challenging to translate the movements into words, for it’s a language of its own.  As always, the Vultures join in. 

Members of Liminal Lot dancing in a liminal lot

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A few minutes before the eclipse, a Peregrine Falcon flies Northwards. In the moment of the eclipse, the sun becomes the moon. We are in the liminal zone, a blink, a page turning, a world between worlds.  Everything is still and quiet, the creatures cease their singing and moving. When the sun is reborn, is it the same sun or a new sun, a new day? Was this just a pause or a shift of trajectory? Another Peregrine Falcon flies Northwards. 

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Olive Groves and Dabke

Ecological and humanitarian catastrophes often go hand in hand. Genocide and ecocide must be met with disruption and demand for an end. Like the most resilient of plants in harsh conditions, people who settler colonialism attempts to erase learn how to strategize and survive.  The embodiment and choreographies of protest take many forms. Creative, therapeutic, and ecological practices cannot be separated from material and political conditions in which they arise or are enacted. Solidarity is an international dance, it’s only in that collective struggle that we have a fighting chance.  

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Fire and Flood, Displacement, and “Invasive Ideologies”

Controlled fire keeps the forest in a mid-successional open state, favoring the development of keystone species such as Oaks. Thousands of species co-evolved with this disturbance regime and the now-keystone species it favors. Colonial settlers displace the indigenous peoples of this place and implement different and alien approaches to land use and land ethic. What happens when there is a disturbance of the effective disturbance pattern?

Low-grade fires that stay close to the ground have a cleansing and opening effect on the land. While death still occurs, many tree trunks and roots stay intact, and the soil is enriched by the ashes from the burnt debris. Certain plant and animal communities are adapted to fire. They thrive with its presence and diminish when fire is suppressed. Some plants even require the presence of fire to reproduce: “Table Mountain pine cones are the only species in the Blue Ridge that requires heat to release seed. Heat as low as 90 F melts the resin that keeps cones closed so seeds fall about two minutes after fire passes, which provides the advantage of falling on nearly bare ground.” (J. Adam Warwick, The Fire Manager’s Guide to Blue Ridge Ecozones).

As we know from watching Canada, Australia, Borneo, California burn, certain high-intensity fires can be catastrophic. They not only burn away the tree canopy, but perhaps more concerningly, their scorching can kill soil microorganisms, and imperil dormant seeds. With roots and soil deeply disturbed, the stage is set for a feedback loop of erosion and continuing depletion. 

Coupled with the increasing volatility of the climate and projections of more intense droughts and floods, extremity is in the cards. 

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Disturbance, disaster, and death often travel together. Their companions are grief and mourning. 

Every ethnic group, religion, and culture has their own unique prescribed set of movements, ceremonies, songs, or other activities that must be performed after a death. These can be rituals for the deceased and/or for the living. To survey the global variety of choreographies relevant to this topic would probably take years.

For now, what remains of your cultural context, as regards death and mourning? Do you know each movement, each phrase? Is it unchoreographed? Or, like a “score” in dance terms, has some fixed landmarks, but plenty of room for improvisation? 

Have you been thrown unwillingly into a dance without knowing the steps? 

Do you remember what shapes your body has inhabited in the moments of tending to the death of another being, whether human or non-human, or a place? How long did you linger in each pose?  What was the landscape of your inner thoughts, feelings, and dreams? 

Think of all the deaths and births, across the spectrum of species, a place has witnessed, held, provided for, and remembers. In the span of a single day, how many individuals died in these woods, and how many were born?  How were they grieved, and for how long? How does their passing leave an absence, how quickly do the materials of their body become earth again? How many unmarked graves have I passed today? 

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Possibility, Imagination, Propagation

In the gaps of light and bare earth opened up in the course of disturbance events, what trajectory will prevail? Culturally and ecologically, where are we going? The possibilities that we can dream or imagine depend upon how imagining itself is understood. 

I am especially drawn to Butoh dance because the training often focuses on cultivating a porosity in the body. Through Butoh practices, the body is available, sensitive, and able to be moved by subtle natural forces and perhaps even the “local and cosmological intelligences” referenced above. If dancing is thinking, and “sensing is always at the interface of movings of a mindful body,” as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone described in Thinking in Movement, then the capacity to think with nature, as Longboat and Sheridan have described, is also the capacity to move with nature, beyond species-specific consciousness.  As Lani Weissbach writes in Decentering the Human through Butoh

I resonate with this description, and also wonder about entertaining a phrasing version like: “The more-than-human becomes me.” Dancing in landscapes, whether in the woods full of falling Ashes or at the rubble zone of the demolished shopping mall, I invite the place and their inhabitants to move or use my body. We move for the practical means of materially tending a place, to act as a catalyst or coordinator for other processes, or for other integrative, playful, or spiritual reasons beyond what is immediately apparent.  We are vessels all the time, even with seemingly-conscious will and agency. For example, when there is a particular plant I become enamored with, I desire to propagate them and ensure habitats for them. Why am I drawn to them? Why do I feel so compelled to understand them?  Is their spirit reaching out to me, cultivating a connection, knowing I have nimble hands that are ready, able, and willing to help their seeds and roots move, spread, and thrive? Medicinal plants have had close symbiotic relationships with their humans for as long as anyone can remember. This is not to erase the agency of the human, but to reintegrate complexity and reconsider the locus of choice within a complicated ecosystem of influence. Or perhaps it’s simpler yet: as my partner describes, “When you drink the water from the place, you become the place, or the place becomes you. The groundwater molecules are absorbed, flow in your veins, become your own body. Over time an amalgamation of selves is possible.” The porosity described in Butoh practices is probably much more ubiquitous than we realize. In quite material ways of day-to-day living, the sacred intertwines with the mundane. 

As we think about the processes of ecological disturbance events, let us consider the minds that design them, drive them, and envision and enact possible futures in the wake of those disturbances. Which ones are driven by human minds that deny the possibility of amalgamation with other beings, seeing them as inferior, beneath notice, simply resources to be exploited? Which are driven by an entanglement of multi-species minds?

Which disturbance events are by design and which are accidental, or perhaps inevitable? What disturbance events, do we participate in on a daily basis? What does it mean, in terms of embodiment practices, to become “porous” and available to be moved by ecological processes that are full of dynamic change, and at times, catastrophe or extinction? Which aspects of ecological succession in the places that we inhabit have we already “amalgamated” with? Who do we choose to conspire with when we imagine the future? 

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On the ridgetop, perhaps where the Peregrine Falcons nest, Table Mountain Pine and remnant American Chestnut live in privacy and hermitage, spared from logging operations and real estate development on their steep and rocky ledges. Perched there, high in the mountains, will you tell us what you see coming, and what you ask of us?

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Biosphere & Beyond Somatic Support

Nature & The Nervous System

This article was originally published on EFTE-Applied Research and Education

Nature is life, and nature is rhythm. Co-evolved and co-evolving with plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, weather, water, and all organic elements, humans are inherently part of the symphony of rhythms and relationships.

It’s no surprise, then, that a number of recent scientific studies tackle the problems of modern indoor-centric life and support the assertion that spending a significant amount of time outdoors improves wellbeing. A robust study in 2019 found that exactly two hours of time in nature (outdoor environments like woodlands, beaches, parks, etc.) per week improved health and wellbeing, as reported by the participants. Jim Robbins recently reported on this topic and included findings that time in nature can “lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune function, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.” A 2017 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health elucidates how the many benefits of nature experience are most likely related to the variety of sensory inputs combined with particular microbes and chemical compounds our bodies contact and absorb. While vision can be an important sense overall, the article affirms that total lived experiences in the environment full of sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile opportunity are crucial for wellbeing.

A walk in the Wissahickon is a multi-sensory embodied experience

Phytoncides, organic compounds usually emitted by plants for defensive purposes, “permeate the air in natural environments and are ingested by visitors [or inhabitants]…They are a popular topic of study in Japan, and widely believed to contribute to benefits experienced during nature walks known as ‘shinrin-yoku,’ or ‘forest-bathing.’”  Several phytoncides have been found to be antimicrobial, to increase immune system activity, and to decrease stress.

Air ions, charged particles resulting from radiation, cosmic rays, solar waves, waterfalls, thunder, and UV light, are “particularly abundant in natural places…and they have been suggested as one of the potential mechanisms for the physiological and mood benefits of natural places.” The negative air ions found outdoors “stabilize mood and increase vigor, friendliness, and ease of concentration,” while indoor spaces devoid of the ions are associated with depression.

And of course, we must remember that many of the hundred trillion bacteria in our bodies come from soil, water, animal feces, and spores. The “gut microbiota” is crucial for nervous system functioning, and decreased exposure due to a sanitized indoor lifestyle hinders our ability to benefit from those relationships.

Deepening Relationship: Co-regulation

The scientific findings on nature and wellbeing are amplified when we invite in dialogue from psychology and the arts. As someone engaged in body-based healing and therapy, I’ve been studying the Polyvagal Theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges and referred to by Deb Dana as “the science of feeling safe enough to take the risks of living.” Polyvagal Theory works with the commonly known idea of “fight, flight, or freeze” in regards to human behavior and nervous system activation, and it adds another category: social engagement. The states of nervous system activation could be envisioned as a ladder–if something has signaled to us that our life is in major danger or that we are trapped, we shut down and freeze. That’s the bottom of the ladder, and the oldest part of our nervous system known as the Dorsal Vagus. When we mobilize in order to fight or run away from the stressor or threat, we’re in our sympathetic nervous system. When we perceive safety, largely through the presence of healthy relationships, we enter into the newest part of our nervous system, the Ventral Vagus (VV). Here, at the top of the ladder, we are able to socially engage and communicate with a sense of curiosity. In order to move from shut down to VV, one needs to move through some sympathetic activation on the ladder.

Co-regulation is key for accessing VV energy. In cases of trauma, it can be difficult to self-regulate. Though it may also be difficult to establish enough trust to develop a healthy co-regulation relationship, that relationship built over time is crucial for regaining resilience within the nervous system. Co-regulation is actually a biological need that all humans have for reciprocal regulation; it’s the way our nervous systems talk to each other, connect, mirror, and help each other feel safe enough as we move through the various states of activation and relaxation. It’s for this reason that I love to see “community care” involved in any conversation about “self care.”

Image by Relational Uprising

Essentially, the research on how nature time and health/wellness are interconnected mirrors the finding that spending time in nature helps people reconnect with the VV state. As described in the book Nature-based Therapy by Nevin Harper, Kathryn Rose, and David Segal, “Nature is filled with an abundance of flora and fauna that help engage people in the present moment and embodied exploration. [They] bring out curiosity in people and motivate a further connection with nature…Encounters with beings that can be climbed, tended, and taken in awe or wonder provide a powerful means to engage in the present moment and begin the process of acquainting [people] to their own nature, their own animal bodies, and specifically their mammalian nervous system.” In other words, outdoor environments stimulate curiosity, connection, wonder, and embodied presence that immediately bring us into a Ventral Vagal state.

In “Performing ecologies in a world in crisis,” (an editorial preface to Choreographic Practices) Robert Bingham references choreographer/performer/professor Merián Soto’s outdoor improvisational work Into the Woods: “She urges readers to ‘just go’ outside and feel the heartbeat of nature through their moving, sensing bodies.” To feel a heartbeat is, indeed, a somatic experience. In your own body, you might find that you are aware of your heartbeat and that the awareness is heightened through touch. Touch, colloquially referred to as “the mother of all senses,” is in many ways our most intimate sense and has the greatest co-regulating capabilities. What would it be like to touch the earth with the open intention of feeling the heartbeat of nature, of life itself? What would it be like to garden and grow food with that kind of touch? What would it be like to move through the world still in contact with that rhythm, to make decisions and develop habits from that place of felt-connectedness?

In terms of co-regulating with non-human creatures, we probably most readily understand it with animals, perhaps through relationships with pets. But I propose that even though plants don’t have a nervous system in exactly the way mammals do, we still enter into a dynamic, responsive relationship with them. Studies show that “plants evolved to have between 15 and 20 separate senses including human-like abilities for smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing.” Plants can remember, sense danger, respond with chemical alterations accordingly, and communicate information to their nearby communities. They’re especially intertwined with fungal communication networks. And there may be much more about their rich internal life that we haven’t scientifically explained yet. All this to say: our plant friends are very much alive, and they have a rhythm and intelligence that inevitably resonates in our bodies, helping to balance us as we grow closer to them. Perhaps we can co-regulate with them, just like we co-regulate with friends, partners, pets, or therapists.

Dancing with rocks at the pier, via the Tree Water Land series facilitated by choreographer Esther Baker-Tarpaga

Deepening Relationship: Reciprocity

As we grow closer to nature, spending more time outdoors, getting to know various species, becoming more and more intimate, we may find that we agree with Merián Soto when she asserts that “we are nature.” The authors of Nature-based Therapy agree, emphasizing that their approach to therapy involves supporting a reunion with nature as opposed to an extraction relationship in which humans take benefit from some “thing” that is separate from them. Importantly, the authors also note that outdoor experiences often include an element of risk. Nature isn’t always soothing or tranquil. And from their standpoint, accepting inherent risk is “both restorative and meaningfully disruptive (i.e. burdensome, tiring, challenging).” The risk and therefore inclusion and toning of quick-response survival mechanisms combined with the overall Ventral Vagal support as described earlier in this article actually helps create a more resilient nervous system.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose environmental work is grounded in the knowledge systems of First Nations, sees human-plant relationships as that of “kin.” The view of being-family supports an attitude of gratitude and togetherness. Sondra Fraleigh beautifully writes that “as we move our senses out towards the world, and a sense of the world returns to us, there is folding reciprocal play in consciousness.” Reciprocity is real depth of relationship, and what is missing from so much of modern postcolonialist life. While I can appreciate the scientific studies about how being outside in “nature” (for just two hours a week!) improves human health, the studies also perpetuate the problematic view that nature is simply something beautiful/useful for us to feel better, and then we can go on back into the broken bifurcated system keeping us separate from our kin, and essentially, ourselves.

When we come into full reciprocity in relationships, we feel the ebbs and flows of giving and receiving. We feel the innate desire to take care of the earth arise within us. We recognize all the ways we are fed, and we wish to give back equally and frequently. We grieve loss of non-human kin the same way we grieve human loved ones. We ask what we can do to help and support in times of need. We are ready to respond in times of crisis, such as now. Whether the response is shifting the paradigm back to connection, supporting and ushering in political systems that will immediately create large-scale energy and environmental protection reform, supporting indigenous people and returning land to them, caring for regional plants through propagation and stewardship, seed saving, reforesting cleared lands, getting to know local ecology and species, learning wildlife rhythms and needs, taking fewer resources, fighting for regenerative growing practices rather than destructive industrial agriculture, offering material tokens of appreciation, or simply feeding a bird, or a bee, or dancing the spirit of a place— whatever the response, the embodied reciprocity is the heart of healing.

As part of the Eating for the Ecosystem crew, I’ve been restoring native groundcover and shrubs to this woodland space.
A moment in Rittenhouse Square, grieving for loss of kin. Collaboration with Halo Rossetti.