Languages of Nature, Languages of Art

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Photo Credit: "WEB-2" by puliarf is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What might be a mode of communication for our human kinship with Nature? And given that there is a greater number of people living in urban rather than rural places, what might that exploration be about for folks in a city?

Just such an exploration took place at the Frick Environmental Center at Frick Park, which is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—one of several urban parks in the Pittsburg Parks Conservancy. This exploration is a movement-based, eco-art program—Languages of Nature, Languages of Art (LNLA). Eco-art is an arts genre that seeks to expand and practice ecological consciousness through various art expressions, often in the form of arts interventions or actions. These are intended to remediate human ideologies and practices concerning the ecological world. I have been teaching LNLA since 2010. This workshop process arose out of my master and doctoral studies as a dancer, movement-based child developmentalist, and educator, as well as from my own childhood immersion in natural worlds evoking rich experiences of kinship.

As an eco-art action, LNLA is a site-specific, community-based performance process that contributes to the re-experiencing and re-envisioning of human relationships with Nature. In the workshop process, we delve deeply into common bonds of communicative interrelationship on equal footing with the myriad beings of the natural world. We move away from the modernist doctrine that separates humans out from Nature as categorially different from and superior to other life forms and ecological processes. This modernist ideology justifies the objectification and exploitation of Nature as mere “resource” that serves humans, in contrast to a kinship relationship grounded in and sustained by respect.

Senses surrounded by the physical infrastructure and cacophonous movements and sounds of the urban core—asphalt and concrete, sharp corners and straight lines, traffic lights and the rush and staccato of machinery—the urban park provides a sanctuary for quietening, slowing, and revitalizing our senses while opening our perceptions.

Photo credit: "Frick Park Pittsburgh" by lemonad (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

With this intent, in mid-spring, a small group of various folks—including a naturalist educator, computer programmer, healer, cancer patient, dance educator, and library director—gathered at the environmental center to explore a different kind of movement and sound immersion—what I am calling primary language. This primary communication has something to do with the old mythological adage, “When humans and animals spoke the same language.” And something to do with, for instance, the way trees communicate through fungal networks at their root tips. Such forms of communication, in general, have to do with biosemiotics—the interpretation and communication of meaning by way of signs and codes throughout the biological world. For humans, primary language begins with the perception of movement and sound, beginning in utero.

In an open studio-like room with wall-length windows, we lie on the floor on blankets and yoga mats. We begin by quietening our bodies, our senses and perceptions; quietening our minds. Through guided imagery, we allow the pull of gravity to flood our senses, for this is the ground for our felt-sense of embodiment. We immerse in the in utero processes of cellular breath, breathing at once through all cells throughout our whole body; we sense tissue and muscle tone, both their physical and resonant qualities. Gestures based on in utero movement result in an immediate resonant quality of sound throughout the uterine world—such as the movement of the mother’s heart—and the vibration of resonant qualities in turn evoke immediate movement gestures matching the sound gesture.

In utero, our first perceptual systems to develop—the vestibular along with the eighth cranial vestibulocochlear nerve—register movement-sound-resonance as one perception; and this is directly integrated and oriented through the gravitational field of Earth. This first perception—movement-sound—is our first capacity for communication and meaning-making. It lays the foundational organization and integration for all of our other senses through which we communicate—our first language—with the world.

Through further guided imagery of in utero perceptions, we play with the felt-sense resonance of differing phonetic tones—consonants and vowels. With full body movement response, we experience how the shape of a sound, say the sharp structure of the “K” phoneme, conveys qualitative meaning. We experience how the open flow of vowel shapes, like the “O” sound, differs from the structured qualities of consonants. Through this play, we form a baseline experience for the meaning-making that arises from the unity of gestural-resonant qualities: the shape and tone of primary language communication.

Emerging from in utero, we further explore this baseline. What is this process? What is operating here through the felt-sense of our motor-sensory-perceptual being in the world?  We play with different sensory translations, such as visual color translating to a shape gesture, or an imagined scent to a sound tone, or an emotional feeling to a movement phrase. We experience how these processes are about making resemblance in qualities that express across-sensory-modes. Through this we recognize that we are making embodied perceptual metaphor—meaning-making through felt resemblances.

From here we emulate the prototype of this primary, cross-sensory, metaphorical process—infant-mother languaging. This is a dance and song of communication expressed in body, facial, and voice gesturing. We role-play with partners, face to face in deep presence. By interacting, we experience, for instance, our spontaneous response to raised eyebrows in our partner, lifting our shoulders and voicing contour to resemble her felt-sense of gesture. Emulating the infant-mother dyad is an intensive encounter of continual attunements and adjustments of movement-sound gesturing—primary languaging.

Since processes of cross-sensory, perceptual metaphor are at the very heart of art-making, we see that primary languaging is inherently aesthetic in organization. This bears out, for example, in the understanding that the first human speech was poetic in form; mythtelling was oral poetry, and poetry was originally sung and moved—performed. And also, in the idea that the sign and code communication of biosemiotics has been thought of as “living poetry.” This intrinsically aesthetic organization of primary communication leads me to understand that art-making first arose within human relationship—kinship—with Nature. Art is a mediator for this languaging. And hence the name for this workshop—Languages of Nature, Languages of Art.

We have two goals: 1) encounter languaging with Nature, and 2) translate this through languages of art, specifically through movement-sound art. The movement-sound art is to be expressed in ceremonial form, marking an act of reciprocating kinship in acknowledgement and gratitude for this gift of belonging.

We spend some further preparation time with what I call perceptual sequencing of art-making. We begin with each participant purely sensing their chosen movement gesture, then perceiving that gesture’s feeling-emotional tone; from this, we allow an image-story to arise, and this image is painted and then translated into oral poetry. With these poems, we make group mini-dances. This is a structured improvisational process, and a cross-sensory, perceptual-metaphorical process.

With each poem, each participant becomes artistic director of, as well as dancer within, their own structured improvisational piece. This practice provides a template for the making of a ceremonial performance—a gathering of mini-dances expressing and marking our “encounter languaging” with Nature. With this we are finished with preparation. And now enter into “immersion languaging” with the natural world.

To prepare for Nature immersion, we return to guided imagery processes for deep embodied sensing, slowing and opening our perceptions. In this immersion state, we attune ourselves to the immediacy of the continual ebb and flow of motions and sounds of the natural world. The processes of the natural world are improvisational within a certain overarching structure, such as a spider weaving her web. One Fall, a garden spider took up residence in an outside window frame of my house. I watched her daily rebuild the geometry of her web within the dynamics at her disposal. These dynamics are the structures of her inherited web-building code, of natural forces, of the materials involved, and of changing weather conditions. The go-between of these structures is her creative intelligence—her moment-to-moment sensing, gaging, and interpreting of signs, and improvisationally adapting to and balancing the many factors at play as she rhythmically weaves her web.

Photo credit: "spider web" by Andrea Kirkby (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is not a mechanical process as the tenets of modernity dictate. Dualistic tenets that separate body-mind, and Nature-human, deem the material body and Nature to be inert, dead, and operating mechanically. That is, without having internal intelligence and agency, active knowing, and intention in the world. Biosemiotics refutes these tenets by entering into the world of vast interrelationships, the languaging through interpretation of signs: gestures of meaning and agency—throughout the biological world, from single cells to ritual ceremony.

The dynamic of sign interpretation is that the receiver of the sign supplies half of the meaning. It is an interpretation, not a dictate, not a tenet. Negotiating the meaning of the world is a collaborative, improvisational, creative process between relating animate-intelligent beings.

Relating, animate-intelligent beings are more than their biology and extend to habitat and biosphere. This calls in notions of the Gaian Earth as a multiplicity of intelligent and communicative beings, and is reflected in holistic and animate views in science. And these reflect ideas of “philosophical animism,” in which all things are Persons and have communicative agency. As such, we all are participants in a world alive with presences, such as that of stones, plants, animals, humans, and elemental forces such as wind, rain, mountains, and lightning.

All things have resonance and quality and process, existing in a multitude of changing interrelationships. We all connect through making and interpreting signs—meaning making. This is an ecocentric view of being in the world. Ecocentrism displaces the human mind as the singular center of all value, meaning, and agency (otherwise known as anthropocentricism). In this respect, ecocentrism represents an openness to the presence of the World and its Beings as “minded” and as collaborators in communicative process. It is within this ecocentric perception that we immerse ourselves. We match the improvisational processes of the natural world with our improvisational processes of primary languaging.

Each of us, on our own, enters into the extensive woodlands surrounding Frick Environmental Center. We are primed to receive and respond with the many languaging gestures of the beings of place—movements, sounds, textures, volumes, weights, shapes, colors, intensities, forces, feelings, moods, intimations, depths, and more. As with the infant-mother dialogue, the flow of call and response with place is spontaneous, immediate, and improvisational. After our immersion languaging, in our own time, we all gather on a spacious deck in the middle of the woods. Here we relate our experiences, tell our stories. We return here for three more sessions in the following days to make our ceremonial piece. On the last day, we are joined by an improvisational guitarist.

We distill our stories into themes. To contain these themes, we structure general group movement patterns. These are mainly patterns to and away from the center of the open deck. Within this patterning, we structure the individual themes. Within these themes is our individual improvisational freedom as we inter-dance with each other. At times we use the notion of “flocking” when intentionally improvising in unison—using our peripheral body sensing—as with a flock of birds or a school of fish.

Our improvisational musician is given our themes before meeting with us on the final day. This gives him a sense of what is to come. Our process together is essentially a moment to moment reciprocal sensing between dancers and musician, within themes. Together we enter into the aesthetics of making sensory experiences felt through the medium of movement and sound.

We dance Day’s calm, relaxed, quietness. Wind’s subtle touching within movements of Atmosphere’s heaviness. Deep giving over to Gravity’s pull, ponderous slow movements. We dance Sun’s penetrating radiance through the counter movements of dispersing Haze.

We dance the felt sense of the innerness of Tree-root-trunk-branching-leafing; the unique presence of each Tree’s gesturing of character. We dance growing-to-fullness gesturing, stationing-in-place gesturing, coming-to-stillness gesturing.

oto credit: "First Day of School" by CaptPiper (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We dance the sense of deep Roots hidden in Earth dialoguing with surrounding aliveness of Soil; sensuous strength of Trunk; quiet Screech of Limb against Limb in Wind’s gust;

Leaf’s unfolding of symmetries, overlapping in layers overhead; accents of Birds’ calling, heavy somberness of Bee dance, distant auto traffic, shuffle of Wind.

We dance an encountered process of interacting vibration-collapse-reaching. We dance the contrast of the distant but direct, accelerating motions of a bike-trail-riding person and the direct, abrupt motions of a trail-walking-cell-phone-talking person, with the meandering attuning motions of a family of three exploring the woods.

We dance our embodied heart sense of presence and inner connectedness—kinship—of embeddedness with Place; our gratitude for this simple gift of belonging.

Being immersed in this deep ecological languaging while still contained within an urban environment—the distant sound of traffic—brings to the forefront of our awareness and experience an older nucleus of identity and belonging, an older aesthetic—artful—way of making meaning, and an older ceremonial way of making community. These ways of being and doing belong to us all; they are patterned in our souls; they arise from our relationship with the natural world. In an urban setting, we can become more and more oriented and attuned to the predominance of the human-built world. The take away of LNLA in an urban setting is the deep embodied experience of this older allegiance that can daily enrich the meaning of our lives, while still in the midst of on-going techno-industrial-engineered infrastructure.

Participants over the years have expressed appreciation for many aspects of the LNLA process. These include wonder of the deepened and enriched awareness of the natural world that arises from a simple shift in focus and perception; a sense of returning to a childhood way of being in Nature; the immediacy of gestural movement-sound as primary language; surprise for the feeling of safety and inspiration that overrides self-consciousness and reserve in participating in the LNLA process; a sense of wholeness in the process of community ceremony-making; and the sense of art as intrinsic to being human and a part of Nature.

Lastly, LNLA, as an eco-art process, can be a kind of “slow activism,” which can mean a consciousness-making process whose influence goes beyond the original event that inspired that consciousness. This influence is natural and arises from the stories that participants tell about their experiences and meanings. This subtle spread through folk can impact the ways we choose to manage urban environments by contributing an ecocentric core to our relationships with all kinds of places and species—our kinship.

  • Rebecca R. Burrill

    Rebecca R. Burrill, Ed.D. is a movement-based child developmentalist/educator who seeks to renew human engagement with the primary creative intelligences of movement, sound, feeling, imagination, and ecological conscious and their natural healing capacities. Her website is

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