Crows make directional lines—vectors—between each other in flight, shapeshifting askance geometries in the sky. Three of them now make a moving triangulation, black tricksters over the white expanse of field, taciturn sky and cedar standing sentinel along the salt marsh banking. It is a newly fallen snow. The limbs and trunks of scrub trees are trimmed with the soft and gentle stuff.
The turf of the marsh grasses is the color of dung. White takes turn with beiges and rusts. The slate waters mirror the silent movements of single birds. Early morning sounds—the muffled roar of the ocean beyond the marsh and inlet dividing the spit of outer beach is punctuated with the cacophonous harmonies of crow and gull, heron and mallard. The atmosphere is heavy and moist holding still the reverberations.
Following northward along the marsh edge you enter a side path through a wood of cedar—once a deer path we children, fifty years ago, began expanding in secret explorations. Now it is a human path and adjunct to the main public trails at the Fort Hill Rural Historic District in the Cape Cod National Seashore Park.
Dusted in the snow are wood—cedar—sculptures, ten of them spaced along the pathway forming a hypotenuse connecting two main trails. These sculptures were made by ten middle school students from a local charter school in an afterschool arts program. The cedar wood came from the very site that these sculptures now inhabit. This menagerie is here to honor the trees and landscape of this place where a historical and cultural landscape restoration is in process, and many trees have been cut down. The ecological intent is to reestablish edge environment for those creatures requiring multiple habits to complete their life cycle, and because open grassland is becoming rare on Cape Cod and in New England in general. The cultural aspect of the restoration is to give the public an understanding of how the area was used by people in the past and return the look of the area back to when the National Seashore Park was established in 1963, when I was eleven years old.
This collaborative project—school and art teacher, Seashore Park, wood historian/artist, local sculptor, and students—was organized and directed by me, motivated by an indigenous sense of place as an animate, subjective presence. Since I had grown up in this surround, my sense of relationship with place was at first startled and wounded by the tree cut, hence the improvisation of an idea.
The ten sculptures, set on trunks of cut cedar boarding an eighty-foot pathway, are marvelous presences, installed for a year in this enchanted hundred acres of woodlands, kettle-hole wetlands, salt marsh, red maple swamp, and old farm fields crossed by low-lying stone walls cast along the dipping and rounding lay of the land, mostly unchanged since the glacial ice sheet receded twelve thousand years ago. The sculptures are simple, rustic, natural forms, all between eight and fifteen inches high, carved free standing or in relief, intimating their subject: Sitting Fox, Whale, Mushroom, Heron, Fire, Turtles, Hiding Duck, Seashore, Wood Flower, Bufflehead. They are presences, for me, of deep companionship. This place, and the many thousands of people who pass along these pathways in a year’s time, will miss them when they are gone.
I am a dancer and movement-based child developmentalist, and as part of the sculpting process of honoring the trees and landscape, the students and I have come to the Fort Hill site to move—to dance place. We open our perceptions to relate directly to the gestures of place—sounds, tones, colors, rhythms, shapes, contours, intensities, weights—that are communicated to us by simply being present. From this receptivity a gestural response is evoked and reciprocated, spontaneously as in any conversation.
Students move with the sound of the wind’s rhythm of changing intensity; with the stance and gesture of the upward movement of trunk and limbs of a lone tree; with the sparseness and entangled fullness of vegetation; and with glides of gulls riding air currents. One student dances with the whole feeling of being in this place with lifting chest and torso in a rising and soaring movement to express the sense of “being out of the common world”; another with movements of encircling, enclosing, and descending in what she calls “melting into Nature”; another with a graceful, deep, curtseying gesture with arms rising and gathering to express that everything in this place “all seems to fit together.” And another student dances with the distant sound of ocean with somersaulting gestures extended to one side at far reach of his body to express the farawayness of the sound.
My student’s far-reaching body gesture of distance brings to mind the linguist Mary LeCron Foster’s work on primordial language, which indicates that original human speech was a dance of the mouth. In the same way that the students dance meaning and communication with full body, original speech articulated body-based meaning and communication with the gestures and sounds of the mouth, tongue, and voice box. Therefore, a phoneme expressing far distance would take place at the periphery of voicing in the manner of the “l” sound, which is placed at the tip of tongue and mouth, compared to the “g” phoneme, which is a guttural sound made inside the throat.
The gestural reciprocity of our world, with which our moving-sounding-dancing animal bodies can be so attuned and responsive, is nature’s willingness to relate to us as animate, subjective, intelligent beings—despite the fact that we humans in Western culture have been in blatant denial of the animate, subjective, intelligence of the Earth for at least four hundred years. Stephen Harding writes in Animate Earth that “We need to allow ourselves to be open to the subjective agency at the heart of every ‘thing’ in the world so that we can speak and act appropriately in their presence and on their behalf.” David Abrams references poetry from indigenous oral cultural that speaks to the Earth, not about the Earth. Here is an example from my own experience.
I am three days into a two-week artist residency taking place in a one-room dune shack overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Provincetown Dunes of outer Cape Cod. My proposal is to make art of place though dance and poetry. It is early October and the Indian summer weather affords me a sweet and spontaneous mixture of settling in with the natural rhythms of time, sensation, and conservation of water, food, and energy while beginning my dancing-poetic quest. And it suddenly occurs to me to reread my proposal, written eight months earlier, to get the specifics of what has been promised. I have forgotten one very specific intention—the discipline of sensory immersion, a deliberate shift from mental states to sensory/perceptual receptivity—a kind of meditation—of place. I had already written a poem of a hollow in the dunes, and so decide to return to that place and immerse there in an altered state of communion.
This return has to wait, however, since the grace of Indian summer is the calm before high gale winds that keep me mostly inside the shack for three days with shutters dragged out from storage and inventively secured and blankets tacked up over the creviced and disjointed door to keep out the northwest wind, leaving only the low horizontal south window through which to exit and enter the shack. When we—Shack and I—did emerge from our sequester into the cast over and preponderate stillness, I then stepped off the shack’s four-foot wide deck into the deep, overgrown pathway of salt spray roses that winds up past the privy and onto the open dune, a 360-degree presence of unfathomable expanse of space. I descend the dune and weave around another to enter the dune hollow and begin my communion.
I don’t remember the actual experience of the sensory and extrasensory immersion. It is a non-verbal, non-thought experience, and when finished I stand and dance it. And from that body communication with surround and body-dance gestural reciprocation comes a poem (“Dune Hollow Immersion Dance”) very different from the first poem of this place (“Dune Hollow”). The two poems follow:
Hollow of beach plums
Rising to the sky
Of low western sun
A single penetrating eye
With concentric circles
Lifts above the rise—hovering
Cutting to the east
Riding the full damp strength
Of North East wind
Dune Hollow Immersion Dance
Wind bound and free rhythms
Wind playing amongst
The grasses and seaside goldenrod and bayberry
Roses blooming in the 1st week of October
The mother the womb
Mother holding—strong, unmoving
Mottled grey cloud puffs
Low lying next to you
And beach plums
My womb your womb
Closing in on the central fire
That never dies
Carried quietly in the ember pot
Holding in me—I die I close up I rest
No sign of life
The womb carries
Suddenly ready; suddenly change
The womb growing
A new one
A new child
A new womb
To grow and become
A wise women
Who releases more
Two poems, one about a dune hollow, one speaking to and with Dune Hollow.
In my experience extrasensory means delving deeper into the senses to reach what my regular consciousness does not perceive, but my body intelligence does. David Abram writes: “that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.”
From my movement-based developmental perspective, it is our moving, perceiving body that foundationally structures imaginative process through the encoding of prototypes or archetypes of concrete sensory experience as meaningful gesture. If I face you with an arm extended directly forward with my palm also facing you directly forward, you experience a much different gestural meaning than if my arm is raised forward, curved at the elbow and opening to the side. These gestures are communicated to us though body-knowing in reciprocal participation with each other. In the immersion dance poem, I open to the subjective agency at the heart of Dune Hollow through body-knowing communication, and I speak on her behalf, as well as on your behalf and mine.
The winds across the field herd gusts of snow, lifting, churning, spreading, and evaporating like ghosts in the bright, clear morning light. Place—Fort Hill—you are regal, open, and born to the sky. I feel my chest expanding and lifting like my student’s body gesture of feeling “out of the common world”—and into an enchanted one. Morning light glad my physical being becomes you.
Freya Mathews writes that the root meaning of the word enchantment is to be wrapped in chant or song or incantation. “A land or place is enchanted if it has been called up, its subjectivity rendered responsive to self by self’s invocation of it . . . and self is in turn enchanted by its engagement with such an awakened world.” At the age of nine, I had already been living a life of natural enchantments when my family moved to the Fort Hill House, an old farm house whose history goes back to 1742. It is supposed that the name “Fort Hill” goes back to an act passed by the Plymouth Colony court in 1653 ordering that every town of the Plymouth government shall designate and make a place for self-defense. In the town of Eastham, this location is very likely Fort Hill. I don’t remember how, but we children—my many siblings, neighbors, and cousins—got wind that before there was a fort on the hill, there had been an Indian Burial Ground, which is plausible considering the long-term Native American presence here and the hill’s animate intensity. But there is nothing in written records stating this—there is just the oral tradition of children.
Living in Fort Hill’s invocation of enchantments, it is Horsechestnut Tree who engages me most profoundly, since it is through him (masculine) that I have an epiphany that influences my whole life. I have a roost in this tree where I ride windstorms and compose poetry. Here is one:
Free Free is what I wish to be
Free in a grand old Chestnut Tree
With leaves as wide as the Earth itself
And chestnuts that hold all my wealth
Here is another:
In Autumn when the leavers are falling
And the whispering winds are calling
Then the place I most like to be
Is high up in a Chestnut Tree
From this high roost can be glimpsed, through the blustering wind song of Earth-wide leaves, the far distant ocean—blue—past fields and salt marsh. My epiphany is about my four-year struggle with school. The contrast between the feeling of myself when I was there compared with the feeling of myself roosted in this wind abode enchantment informed me that the wrongness was not in me, but in the system of school. With my distain and distrust of school, I never intended to go to college, let alone earn a doctorate, but as circumstances unfolded, I did. And I discovered some fascinating things about who we humans are, how we learn and develop, where we fit in the great evolution of things, and finally understanding what such things have to do with elementary school, always carrying the deep, animate love of Horsechestnut Tree inside my heart.
Movement and sound are the fundamental. We must move first to perceive our world. This patterning begins in utero. At twenty-three days after conception an embryo is primed to respond to the movement-touch vibration of sound, which rouses more movement. This movement begins to form sensory nerve nets of experience—the building of sense perception—as well as to lay patterns for the integration of the different sensory pathways, to reflect a unified world. The babe in the womb exists in a rhythmic bath of movement and sound—mother’s voicing, heartbeat, breath flow, and the coursing of blood—all triggering movement and the beginnings of nerve-net building and integrating.
Stimulated by movement and sound resonance, our first sensory system to fully develop in utero at five months is the vestibular of the inner ear. It registers the pull of the gravitational field of the Earth, the orientating foundation for all motor-sensory integration. The first perceptual nerve to send signals to the brain—the vestibular-cochlear—registers our bodies’ movement in the gravitational field, velocity, vibration, and tone of both muscles and sound—especially the tone of mother’s voice. In the beginning, sound and movement are perceived as one thing by us in our watery womb. Sound is movement and movement is perception.
The vestibular system is evolutionarily ancient. It is housed in our earliest brain, called the reptilian brain, where massive motor-sensory integration takes place. It was evolved by early fish in a need to better orient their moving bodies in gravity, space, speed, and sound. And this neat tool is little changed from our fish ancestor’s design. The vestibular is the vestibule—entryway—to the brain. This means that movement and sensory information entering the brain is first oriented to the gravitational force. All of our other senses—hearing, taste, smell, and, last to develop, vision—are built on the movement/vibrational sense in the gravitational field of Earth—our Gaian grounding. One of our first and most influential movement-based child developmentalists, Jean Ayres, wrote that we bond with the Earth first, then with our mothers.
The movement-sound unity is nowhere better exemplified than in the gestures of a newborn. Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford writes, “The newborn hears and moves to the mother’s voice in the first minutes of life. There are no random movements; every movement of the newborn has meaning, with particular movement being linked to particular sounds.” She is referring to a 1974 study done in the field of kinesics—non-verbal communication. This study of the microanalysis of sound films, and others like it, revealed the entrainment of body gesture and sound in speech both within the speaker—self synchrony—and between speaker and listener. And those self and shared gestures slow on the consonants and speed up on the vowels. This makes sense because all consonants stop air flow, while vowels open air flow through the voice track. So there is a relationship among body gesture, the shape of sound, and meaningful experience. What is your body-based, felt-sense-meaning-when-you-move-sound: “oooo” or “aaaaa” or “t” or “b” or “l” or “g”?
Infant and mother attune with one another though a felt-sense of emotionally imbued, analogical meaning making through rhythmic body and facial gesture and melodic and harmonic sound. Baby’s high-pitched voicing is attuned with mom’s raising of her eyebrows, shoulders, and upper torso, and her harmonized sound. It is a reciprocal, non-verbal continuum of movement-sound rhythms, intonations, contours, textures, weights, qualities, intensities, amplitudes, frequencies, colors, shapes, volumes, durations, and more. There is a lot going on.
Cosmic Mother and Child
Colwyn Trevarthen, child psychologist and psychobiologist, whose work continues in the vein of anthropological kinesics, writes that a key ingredient to this “communicative musicality” between mother and child is “a polyrhythmic time generator in the brain built to track and make productive use of proprioceptive and visceral dynamic throughout the body.” This is a body-based process. Proprioception is an aspect of the vestibular sensing that specifically registers body positon in space. Visceral dynamics refers to sensory-feeling states from our internal organs that contribute to our experience of emotions, i.e., gut feelings. With respect to an infant’s capacity for immediate communication of themselves with another, Trevarthen writes: “It turns out that a newborn infant has a clear expectation of human sense and is active in starting a personal quest for meaningful stories in good company.” Horsechestnut Tree and I have this same personal quest.
As children we first develop through body movement and sensing our world. This builds internal prototypes, archetypes, or gestures that match the gestures of the world. And like our direct experience that builds them, these internal structures are imbued with feeling, emotional tone—that is, they have meaning. This is the human psychobiological reality—a body state or gesture has a meaning. The three-dimensional experience in space, weight, and time, such as up-ness, provides us with analogical meanings, such as feeling positive, confident, or inspired. Direction up embodying inspiration is a vestibular/proprioceptive and visceral cross-sensory-modal communication. Communicative musicality between mother and infant, or you and me, crosses the sensory modes of movement-sound, viscera, hearing, and vision.
These concrete, internal prototypes accompanied by emotional meaning structure the internal sensory images that make up memory and imagination. Very early on, children use these internal structures of felt sense in cross-sensory-modal, analogical ways. One of my sons, who had just turned three, asked when seeing another little kid wearing sandals: “Mom, sometime could you buy me some shoes without roofs?” This is an analogical correspondence involving concrete experience. “Roof” does not symbolize “top of shoe”; it is not an abstraction. My son kinesthetically empathized and imagined the experience of being a foot in a shoe corresponding with being a kid in a house (Abram’s going beyond what is sensed). Empathy is an isomorphic, feeling identity: inside shoe/inside house, what happened to the roof?
Here is another story from another son, a bit younger: We are out back rummaging around in the unmowed grass and pucker brush where there is a pile of old lumber with rusty nails. I say not to touch the nails, that they are rusty. He asks what is “rustied,” and I say it means it has gone bad. Later at dinner, my son, sitting on a small chair encased in a larger captain’s chair, suddenly stands up, brushes his hands of crumbs, and jumps down to the floor saying, “All done.” In surprise, I ask, “Aren’t you going to eat your chicken?” He says, “No, that keyney (chicken) is rustied,” and trots off with never a doubt about the truth of the concrete analogical correspondences of his world or the moral justice of his assessment based on them.
This is artful thinking—a play with the ingredients of life’s experiences. Like a cumulative tale, artful thinking is a capacity based in concrete motor-sensory integration. This integration informs emotional-relational life, image making, memory, imagination, cross-sensory-modal meaning making, and aesthetic intelligence. Ellen Dissanayake writes that art making is the play of “making special” living aspects of everyday life. This psychobiological process is evolutionarily imprinted and developmentally unfolded. But it is also happening all at once, as we see in the play of communicative musicality between newborn and mom.
This natural life process feeds and grows critical developments of the right or gestalt hemisphere of the neocortex in our first years of life. The gestalt brain contributes to the regulation of movement, rhythm, emotional and relational communications, and integrative thought. It is about being-present-with-awareness, getting the whole picture, subjectivity and spontaneity, intuition, sensory and extrasensory perception, and analogical, metaphorical artful thinking. It is part and parcel to that through which we “Bond to the Earth First.” It has an immediate hand in the perceptual receptivity with which we engage in communicative musicality with the animate, natural world.
Our human perceptions co-evolved in immersed relationship with Animate Earth. In order to know the plants, animals, landscapes, and weather that our lives were so dependent on and entwined with, we needed to be able to attune with nature’s many communications. David Abram writes that a native hunter had to empathize with the ways in which his wild prey sensed and experienced the world; “Nothing was more integral to this practice than learning the communicative signs, gestures, and cries of the local animals.” As indigenous, small-band, oral people we evolved to attune with the many intelligences of nature by becoming them through moving, sensing, sounding, empathizing, and imagining—right-brain specialties.
Evolution grew human perception to be organized aesthetically—that is, empathically, cross-modally, imaginatively. These are structures that reflect the very character of the animate world in which we find ourselves. The attributes of art making are the same attributes underlying language making. They are communicators in the vernacular of our lived lives.
What we have come to call “art” is implicit in our world, and we humans have always made art to organize and communicate—make special—important aspects of our relationship with the animate world, one another, and our biological, social, and spiritual lives. Dale Guthrie writes that the qualities and attributes of human artfulness arose in the Paleolithic: the ecological lifeways of small-band hunter-gatherer people required a fine-tuned empirical and reasoned attention with the natural surround combined with flexibility, improvisation, intuition, and creative imagination—all qualities reflected in their art making. Guthrie also reflects on this in relation to childhood: “The fecund imagination and individual ingenuity that show through in Paleolithic art forcefully point to an upbringing that encouraged creativity.”
Guthrie proposes that art in the Paleolithic was the specialization of a new kind of play dedicated to exploring and sharing new perceptions and insights. Art from those times reflects an art-making process that was playful, improvisational, and emotionally pleasurable. It was about sensing body expression of felt experience involving the subject matter of natural systems. This way of art making Guthrie contrasts with the art making in the Neolithic, which was more concerned with human systems and ideologies and was more formal, geometric, and symbolic in nature.
Playful experimentation, improvisation, and sensing body expression are qualities found in modern children’s art making. It is gestalt-brained oriented. Gestalt-brain orientation is foremost in development for school age kids up until the ages of seven to nine, or older depending on the individual. This is a throwback to what, as an educator, I term our ancestral Paleolithic homeschooling—that is, creative freedom and exploratory living “among a complexly interacting complement of plants and animals, resonate with diverse powers and meaning,” as Guthrie put it.
In my childhood I immerse in the diverse powers and meanings of creatures, elements, and forces—my close comrades in nature. I immerse in dynamic motion and sensual richness and protean enchantments of the landscape that ever spark imagination and invention and discovery. I immerse in made up games and contests and theatricals with the collection of kids in my surround, and more. I am sincere about school, but am in shock from the sterile Formica and linoleum, the long, straight, lined hallways and sharp corners and lines of desks and children, and the formal, detailed, and exacting skills-based tasks, the segmentation of time and subject, the regimentation of movement and sound.
Our school systems orient around a left or logic brain objectivism in environments and in learning processes. And because we attribute intelligence to verbal language and literacy ability in our hyper-literate society, we push the logic brain’s decontextualized, categorical, and isolated skills-based learning on children at younger and younger ages. Add to this the use of disembodied mechanisms of electronic and digital media and cellular devices, and that children experience less and less spontaneous self-created play and movement-sounding out of doors, let alone in the wilds of the natural world. In these practices we create a stress-based developmental and learning environment, which defeats access to the very processes of creative intelligence that our Paleolithic human nature has given us—we violate the natural intelligence of being human, of being animal. For what?
As moving, sounding animals, we humans in the Paleolithic greatly expanded our mammalian heritage of play, especially in art making. So considering those two very key aspects of what evolved our particular human style of intelligence, combined with recognizing that those traits were honed and tempered in the movement and sounding of wild animate nature, I have a program for you:
Be audacious and throw out that “rustied,” disembodied specter of objectivist separation. Put on your shoes without roofs and go down to the pond’s edge.
Open your perceptions, both focused and peripheral, and feel the core muscles of your body, which are directly connected to your inner ear vestibular.
Bring in all movement and sensory and extra-sensory reception to reverberate in these core intelligences of your pelvic floor and deep abdominals, along the pelvic basin walls and up the lumbar and thoracic and cervical spine.
Feel the holding and lengthening of your embodied vestibular roots spreading into the animate, resonate Earth—Gaia.
Bring what you see and hear and are touched by into your core.
Allow the language of these things to begin to move you, ever so subtlety at first, then incrementally amplifying until your movements translate to you the shared meaning of your intersubjective comradery, voicing the reciprocal musicality of being.
Bring your children into the forest to simply be with the languaging of the winds and rains and waters, sound of the heat of the sun, shaping of clouds, character of plants and animals, and lay of the land.
Explore giving gesture to the sound of a crow’s call and giving sound to the gesture of a fern unfurling; make stories of the felt sense that the wind makes and of the rain falling, of the squirrel’s scampering and the fox’s aloofness.
Play with phonics and make primordial language games. Make sketches and paintings and oral poetry. From ingredients gleaned, make dances and songs, make ceremonials, make theater projects. Let this be the opened-ended play of creations by kids—entirely their works.
This is a fecund basis of immersion-knowing and story-orientating for the ecology of nature, part of an aspect of what Stephan Harding calls holistic science, the feeling-imaginative and the empirical working together. It is part of a teaching and learning process I call Arts with Literacy Integration™, the opposite of the way it is thought of and taught in standard curriculum. It is part of the quest for meaningful stories in good company. It is about the enchantment of a moving triangulation of black tricksters over the white expanse of field as an encounter into the deeper soul of life undefined in human terms. For as Freya Mathew’s writes, “encounter rather than knowledge is the appropriate primary mode of relating to the world.”
The clear, crisp light of this day passes. The white over the fields and soft, deep color of rose fringing the horizon and grey-black silhouette of trees along Hill’s crest fade. Full Moon rises, her light reflecting and splashing down Hill’s side like a waterfall—accept a lightfall—making horizontal dips skipping to and fro, tumbling and cascading in the snow—the crows roosting.
Photo credits: Rebecca Burrill.