Updated: May 12, 2019
WEEK ONE OF "INITIATION INTO A LIVING EARTH: AN ESSAY JOURNEY"
BY SHANTE' SOJOURN ZENITH
A wordless longing for emotional expression invites a journey into the poetic imagination. Deeper forms of relationship with ecological beings ignite an ancestral memory of belonging to the experience of a Living Earth.
Listen to the audio version of this essay here: Soundcloud link
Read the pdf version of this essay with footnote citations here: PDF Download
Do not be afraid to name what is inside you,
to cry with the full force of your belonging.
You will not disintegrate, you will only grow.
Inside you also are the deepest roots of trees,
the undercurrents of rivers vast and swirling.
Inside you also the memory of mountains,
the deep time of ancestors layered into the strata of your bones.
The thread that you hold is not broken,
for this is the story of living things, and you too are alive.
Poetic Expressions of Belonging
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
—John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
We are born holding onto a thread—a curiosity for us to follow, our own way of creating beauty—the connection to something bigger than ourselves. Growing up, we longed to be seen for the thread we carried, for the people around us to acknowledge our creativity, our playfulness, our deep emotion. But so often, we found ourselves in a world that was moving too fast to notice, with no community to support us in the living of our gifts. And so we exiled the thread we held, we pushed it away to the edges of our consciousness so that we could function in a world disconnected from belonging. But our bodies still remember. The thread lingers there at the edges of our awareness, haunting our steps, waiting to be woven back in.
As a child, my own thread called to me as a wordless longing, an ache in the center of my chest, the hollow feeling of an absence needing to be filled. The first time I felt that ache transform was in a theatre. I was fourteen, sitting in the darkened audience of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, when I witnessed an opera singer in a black dress, voicing out of the vastness of her grief, throw a bundle of dark red roses into a vividness of pale blue sky. The fierce anguish of her song hung in the air as she disappeared into the wings.
The moment was intoxicating. Before then, it had never occurred to me that the dark emotions I felt roiling inside of me—the rage, the loneliness, and the despair—could ever be anything other than destructive. But in that performance, I witnessed those same emotions expressed as acts of opening, transmuted into poetic offerings of beauty. And I realized that perhaps the longing wasn't meant to destroy me, perhaps that ache was the immanence of something waiting to be born.
I found my first homecoming in performance, studying with mentors who used their imaginations to gesture towards emotions that could not be fully contained by language, the actor a living vessel for imaginal presences too wild to be defined. My teachers were "architects of the inner life,” trained in the performance pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq to draw on embodied expression as a tool for transforming the inner experience of an audience. The Lecoq pedagogy makes a crucial link between imagination and embodiment, explaining that "outer movements resemble inner movements, they speak the same language."1 Lecoq describes this shared language as the “poetic awareness” that “brings us into contact with the essence of life.” 2
The transformative possibilities of the poetic imagination were vividly illustrated in a clown workshop I attended with master-teacher Pierre Byland. During the workshop, performers were offered the following imaginative exercise: you enter the stage to discover there are 4,000 people watching you, waiting in anticipation for you to do the most moving, beautiful thing they will see in their lives. As each actor performed this exercise, what they experienced in their imagination began to transform their embodied presence on the stage. They opened to a power that didn’t appear to fit inside their bodies—their self- protective postures peeling away, their breath deepening, their bodies relaxed and alert at the same time—expanding into a luminous quality of presence as they imagined themselves fully supported by the witnessing of their audience.
As an adolescent, my studies in performance were deeply nourishing, drawing on my gifts in a way that challenged me and invited me to grow. But as I matured, I began to notice all the ways in which my teachers themselves were not growing. In observing the people I looked to as elders, I began to actively encounter the contradictions of being human, observing both my teachers’ deep vulnerability in performance and at the same time their inability to hold space for personal emotion. They put up impenetrable walls protecting me from their own heartache, while my emotions filled in all the empty space like water, a rain that would never end. "You're so emotional you could drown in a glass of water," one of my mentors said to me. "But in theatre a glass of water could be an entire ocean," my heart replied.
In search of the poetic imagination, I discovered the book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property in which Lewis Hyde compares the role of the artist in modern culture with the gift-oriented communities of indigenous cultures. In both cases, Hyde describes how imagination expands identity beyond the isolated self, creating a larger collective organism composed of many beings. Drawing on The Gift as inspiration, I began to direct small groups of actors in imaginative explorations of witnessing, searching for the poetic state of expanded presence. We looked for the moments when the silence would thicken and deepen, the listening itself becoming a palpable tension. I began to discover the moments of aisthesis, the feeling when a soul essence would pass between performers and audience, merging them into a single organism conjured out of shared breath.
When I brought these explorations into my daily life as solo experiments in nature, I realized that this soul essence didn't just pass between humans. I felt the same energy move through me when I encountered an orchard of trees or a body of water—the elemental presences were listening, collaborating with me, helping me expand into the full power of my emotion. I found myself drawn to the earth, to the edge of rivers and the roots of trees. I began singing for the water, a flow of sound originating so deep inside me it seemed to come from someplace else. My body became a vessel for the imagination of the earth, opening to a flow of expression far beyond the limits of an isolated self.
Stephen Harrod Buhner, a plant healer and earth poet, precisely describes what I experienced: "one day, when you reach out with your sensing and touch some living part of the world, suddenly there is some sort of response. Sooner or later, often when you least expect it, something will touch you in return."3 As I began to make the link between the poetic imagination and my encounters with ecological beings, I realized that performance was the place ritual went to hide when people stopped seeing the earth as "alive," when our imaginations were no longer allowed to be "real." The poetic imagination I had been tracking was my culture's refuge for animistic relationships with nature, with elemental presences, with the vastness of our own emotions. I wondered if the expanded belonging I perceived in peak moments as an artist could once have been the daily lived experience of my ancestors.
The longing inside me reached out to re-member a time when my European ancestors were themselves indigenous to land, in deep relationship to the earth, a time when their presence was necessary to “sing the moon into the sky every night and dance up the rising of the sun.”4 I began to see that the ache I carried inside my chest originated in the absence of those animistic relationships, in the way my settler-colonist ancestors had separated themselves from the awareness of a “Living Earth.”
Inside me, the longing began to transform, revealing beneath it the depths of a grief so old it didn’t have a name. This grief is the loss of belonging the dominant culture takes for reality. It lingers in the shame-filled loneliness that pervades so many lives. And rests unsettled in the asphalt pavements covering the roots of old-growth forests. It is the grief that hides in the existential longing of young people whose gifts have not been nurtured. And aches in the memories of the displaced ancestors buried in our bones. Through the poetic imagination, I began to witness this grief not as an ending, but an expression of dark beauty, the fierce initiation into our belonging.
The expression of our grief resonates along the thread we were born with, the thread that connects us in relationship with all that we love, transmuting emotion into that which feeds our belonging. The knowledge of this thread is embedded deeply into the experience of being human—the Kalahari Bushmen, a culture closely descended from our first ancestors, describe the threads as “songlines” that make “connection between living things...indistinguishable from the songs that are voiced in ecstatic emotion.”5 In this time of ecological unravelling, the singing of our threads of belonging is potent medicine to weave ourselves back into a Living Earth.
1. What is the thread you are following?
2. When in your life have you experienced a sense of belonging expanding out beyond the boundaries of your skin?
3. When have you experienced an emotion transform from a destructive force into a poetic opening?
1 Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body (Le Corps Poetique): Teaching Creative Theatre. A&C Black, 2013, page 22
2 ibid, page 14 3 Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth. Bear & Company, 2014, page 481
4 Shaw, Martin. “Myth and Ecology: Wedding the Wild.” Short Course at Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon, England, 2017.
5 Bradford Keeney quoted by Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth. Bear & Company, 2014, page 533