Reflections on the Felt Qualities of Living Entanglements by Anna Dako
This is a peer-reviewed preprint of an article for upcoming publication. For citations please contact the author at: email@example.com
Forest Within[i] is a site-specific movement production filmed in autumn 2020 in Aberdeen’s Countesswells Woods, in North-East Scotland. It is a project ignited by a massive cut down of trees in the forest that used to provide the feeling of safety and rescue to the local communities while on regular walks but which turned into a site of impenetrable loss caused by human activity and the need of progress. In search of finding some resolution to a sudden confrontation with the irreversible devastation caused by corporate logging like that, the project has been treated by me as a starting point to dialoguing about the sense of selfhood linked to the environmentally contextualized being and/or not being. What is it that one can learn from a lost habitat like that in the immediacy of experiential reflection? And what is the relational brutality of such loss communicating?
Both in media and literature, one is constantly reminded that we live in times of the Anthropocene, the time in which, as Tsing describes, ‘human disturbance outranks other geological forces’[ii]. Now, I have seen all kinds of devastation within the local forested landscapes, those caused by heavy storms and those caused by human intervention. Both can have similarly destructive effects.
The ‘outranking’ then, dwells to me in the timeliness of action. After a sudden storm the fallen trees would normally lie down on the ground in most entangled ways that the process of falling has brought upon them. A planned deforestation activity, on the other hand, reminds more of a dental surgery, while the immediate removal of trees is never performed without leaving the mess behind. The mess of broken branches, twigs, foliage and sticks covering everything in between the endless numbers of exposed and inert stumps.
The brutality of the view at forests like these puts existential belonging to human kind in question. I imagine all the lost movement that normally comes from the tree tops and I feel that I need those lost trees to function. Now, the place feels motionless and breathless. The stumps are so stationary, as if belonging to a different time-space. A time-space that I do not understand, logically.
To me, as a mover, our ecology-driven human attempt to comprehend the external world in experiential terms calls then for learning about different time frames first. Every life on earth and every species lives its own dynamic, and the embodied experience of the living landscapes around helps us comprehend just that. Human kind is fast by its own nature, or by choice perhaps. Forests, are best understood in slower tempos of long term entanglements. Think trees, and your quick gasping for air, as a common habit in automatic breathing, might naturally slow down. Exhale does not feel like ‘losing’ air if you allow it time and space to shape. On the contrary, it gives us an opportunity to sink-in deeper into the experience of the self in the process of open exchange. Forests encourage that.
Being with the forest, in the open experience of the self, is always more than a two-channelled dialogue, if one allows time to be the guide into the sensuous alertness. When you invite yourself to resonate with the dynamics of your own breath as ongoing movement that provides carbon as food to the living surfaces of the leaves on the trees, your perception of time might grow in dimensionality. Indeed, offering time is what the forest needs, and walking into a forest when you begin to appreciate time as shared and co-created, not just taken or owned, is exactly when the story of Forest Within begins.
The site reminds me that life is an ongoing dance of creation and destruction, that calls for our acceptance first. The urgent need for facing centuries of capitalistic over-production of goods and the painfully visible disorder embedded within the human-nature relationship, makes me feel that the ‘better good’ might just reside in offering compassionate presence instead of immediate action, and that human entanglement within the life of the forest is there, whether we do or not do anything. Eco-somatic ‘being with the forest’ begins with listening and noticing. Who are we here within the lost forest?
Breathing alongside the forest is already a lot. Relationality dwells in mindful skill of co-presencing. Taking time helps one realize that fixing the forest by planting a new one is endlessly impossible, as the life of the forest takes its own time, and its own complexity. It takes more than the human clock-time of linear reasoning based on faster replacements. The environmental ethics of the good and the bad have never been less straightforward, and informed reflection on the life of the forest, as in Elkin’s book on Plant Life for example, suggests that planting a tree can either be one of the ultimate offerings to thriving on this planet, or one of the most extreme perversions of human agency over it[iii].
There is little need for action then, only willingness to slow down, to open the senses, and to feel alongside the thinking[iv]. How can we, human beings, be and not be, more evenly? What is the healthy dynamic?
Well, from being with the breath, I begin to move with the trees, or what’s left of them. Then, moving with other movers follows. In gentle explorations, guided by self-enquiry, memory joins the imaginary very quickly, while the senses keep track of ‘the here and now’.
Releasing purposefulness of action is the next step. In free movement, the need for action feels like a fabricated concept. There is enough room for all movement dynamic, when one respects the balance between being and letting be. This cut down site reminds that maliciousness of human action is rooted in selfishness, while moving in tandem with experiential openness to other life, human and more-than-human, can help to grow the possibility for more balanced multispecies futures. Decolonizing the mind and expanding on the ‘humanity’s axiological relation to nature’[v], as Brown reminds us in his chapter on The Real and the Good, can happen only with letting the body move in open relationship to the felt, as opposed to being in a tight relationship to naturalistic ‘causality’. There is no meaning to our own existence if we do not nurture the feeling for the body of nature that is alive itself.
Quiet, melodic chanting in reflection, is another way of connecting to the land. Abram calls it ‘the lived affinity between the language and the land’[vi], and I see it as a simplest link to the polychronic nature of co-presencing. After all, it is the human noise that often prevents us from hearing the multitude of life around us, the sounds that fill and move all woodlands. Listening may begin with the hearing apparatus but real attunement to the living environment takes whole-bodily presence that is definitely expressive and ongoingly responsive.
To me, arriving at reflective answers about who we are in the presence of the trees begins with offering our authentic presence first. Silence is precious but respectful expression in movement, touch and pacing helps our sense of self in transitioning from the invisible margins of rationality to the more heart-felt exchange in weaving the spirited life web together with the forest, while ‘embodying and morphing multidimensional spacetime that is primordial and elemental’[vii] in our shared struggle for uprightness, as Fraleigh describes Butoh. Noticing life, other than our own, takes time. It takes a change of perspectives that guide towards active involvement.
This is also why I like to be in the woods that I know a little already, as being open to diversions that the forest offers on a day, following the many cues in sound, smell, touch or sight, come with the feeling of safety and trust. I do not want to feel lost, but I do want the forest to provide guidance at the same time. Countesswells woods guiding the movement definitely recalibrates a bigger sense of self as that ‘submerged in the sea of time’[viii] and helps me recognize that our own experience of self is possible only in relationship with the planetary biotic web which the Earth has been weaving for the past billions of years and keeps weaving today, with me, with us, moving through and with these forested lands.
The rich history of Scottish Caledonian forests era, the era that remembers pre-human times adds to my contemplations in movement. How can I offer myself more fully to this place today, in this day and age? And how do we re-find ourselves if we are to feel think alongside the forest as a living kind?
Not knowing the answer to that is a perfect place to stop gliding beyond sense perception. Embodied, life-constituting intuition guides the ways we sit, we walk, we touch, and engage with the world. Willingness for such a relationship not to be instrumental, causal or conclusive opens the gate to more inclusive and more co-creative communication that fosters immersive belonging and trust.
The feet can understand the attitudes of the mind, and they can amend them as well. They can learn the gentle trod, and the flexibility in reacting to the unevenness of the ground. The skin on the hands can grow in openness to different kinds of touch and pick up on the versatility of meanings that live in textures. The eyes adapt to ever smaller scales of focus on what is moving alongside such open paths, shaped by the depths of foliage and ferns. The weather too becomes the partnering mover, just look up. Getting to know the inhabitants of the landscapes, attentively, definitely adds dimensionality to our own understanding of the intricacies of wellbeing, not to mention it becomes the practice of wellbeing itself. The sense of care in the forest feels omnipresent.
The lost habitat at Countesswells teaches me then that life is possible in most hostile places. It is guided by the spirit that never gives up. And that humanity’s current crisis is the punch back from the mistakenly alienated natural world which has been affected too much by our inducive presence that we now have to take onboard and adjust accordingly. Friction and disturbance play a vital role in being able to move through the landscape using effort and time. Moving with the landscape, on the other hand, takes a subtler set of skills of ‘making time’ that becomes the quality of living itself. Both are necessary to be able to fully participate in shaping what feels real and what is indispensable to live without.
[i] Forest Within is a site-specific movement production on Selfhood, Sanity and Intangible Treasures within Human Kind(ness) by Dunami – Movement Arts Wellbeing, premiered at DanceLive Festival, July 2021. For more information on the project and to see the film, please visit: https://www.dunami-somatics.com/forest-within.
[ii] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015), 19.
[iii] Rosetta S. Elkin, Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
[iv] The phrase to ‘feel think’ relates to the methodology of eco-somatic movement education called Felt Thinking in Movement as developed and taught by Dr Anna Dako and further described in her forthcoming book on Dances With Sheep – On RePairing Human-Nature Condition in Felt Thinking and Moving towards Wellbeing (Intellect Books, 2022).
[v] Charles. S. Brown & Ted Toadvine, 2003. Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself (State University of New York Press, 2003), 3.
[vi] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous : Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1996), 173.
[vii] Sondra Fraleigh, “Spacetime and Mud in Butoh”, in Performing Nature, edited by Gabriella Giannachi & Nigel Stewart (Peter Lang AG, 2005), 330.
[viii] Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), 127.