A silhouette illustration of a beautiful gnarled tree, with windswept leaves and a twisted trunk. An elegant line curves near the base of the trunk, while the tree roots nestle against the earth.

Encountering Place: Disability, Art, and Anticolonial Enchantment in Endangered Forests

Marina Heron (Tsaplina) in conversation with Julia Watts Belser

October 25, 2022

A photo of Marina, nose to moss. The feeling is intimate: a diverse community of mosses, with various textures and leaf patterns, cover the forest floor. It is daylight. Just above the surface of the earth is a human face in profile, head parallel to the ground, eyes closed, inhaling and gently smiling. She is wearing a colorful cap, whose rim is dark and in shadow. Against the rim of the cap -towards the camera lens - is a small 2-leaf sprout growing upwards, a future tree. In the distance are blurry trees pierced by light, suggesting the presence of a larger forest.
Marina Heron (Tsaplina) (she/her) is a Russian-born, Lenapehoking (NYC) based disability performing artist, writer and independent scholar who forms participatory poetic enchantments. She co-founded and was the Lead Artist of Remagine Medicine at Duke University where she refined an artistic training curriculum for clinicians, Embodiment, Disability and Puppetry. She was a Kienle Scholar in the Medical Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine, and the Strategy and Action Lead of New York #insulin4all. Her 2021 Dream Puppet installation, created for an endangered ancient forest in the Yaak Valley, Montana, was featured on the cover of Orion Magazine along with the article Animate Earth: the poetic knowledges of ancient forests and disabled communities. Marina is a visiting artist at Duke University, where she also holds a research residency to develop her current work, Soil and Spirit.

Julia:  Marina, one of the things I’m really drawn to in your work is the way you recognize the land as a living presence, the way you honor and listen for the spirits of the land.  Your artistry asks us to explore a different relationship with place, to make connections between the body of the forest and our own human bodies.  What drew you to this kind of work?

Marina:  My work with Orion Magazine – Dream Puppet (2021) – taught me how profoundly my body hungered to learn to encounter – to attune myself – to the specificity of place.  With my current project, Soil and Spirit, I am creating a way for people from diverse lineages to learn how to listen to and reconnect with place, to really feel the break that has occurred between our bodies and the land, to hone our attentiveness and embodied perceptions.  But our dominant culture offers no guidance for this kind of remembrance.  

Yet Dream Puppet – a piece that emerged after years of artistry and scholarship – showed me how closely the habit of possession lives next to encounter. Soil and Spirit asks all participants to stay with the hauntings of domination, the struggle for memory, the attempt to learn consent and reweave embodied relations with the more-than-human living world amidst so much loss. There is no rushing past how within the embodied impulse to ‘encounter’ also lives colonial domination. This must be reckoned with. It has marked all of us, in distinctive ways. 

The spirits and histories of place – the animacy, intelligence, and memory of the Land – is at the center of Soil and Spirit.  The spirits of the land, the spirits of the forest – they cannot be extracted, but they can be destroyed.¹  

In Soil and Spirit, I am working with puppetry animation that functions as a form of participatory choreography – in order to find ways to open possibilities for communication and imagination.

Julia:  The questions you’re asking call us to pay such close attention to our own bodies, to really listen to what the body knows.  I imagine that’s an orientation that’s been shaped by your own experiences with disability.  Could you say more about that?

Marina:  When I began my environmental activism in 2011, I didn’t identify as disabled.  I treated my life-long chronic illness as a separate medical thing – the disease model.

As I was doing grassroots work against fracking in New York City, my mind and imagination started growing towards water. At the time, I was living on a boat on top of a superfund site, on this profoundly polluted creek. I started to feel unwell.  And I began to realize, to really tangibly perceive that the water and I were bound.  That there is no separation.  The water out there is not separate from me.  It’s not an object.  It’s not something I can sit on top of or hold myself distant from.  We’re in relationship, a relationship that is absolutely inescapable.  That opened up a vast spiritual awakening toward my own illness and embodiment.

This is where my professional artistic work took a sharp turn into disability artistry. That was 2013. I think my practice has at times struggled for legibility, because I am working at the edges of fields, pushing performance practice into radical directions and contexts, while firmly resisting deeply embedded philosophical dogmas.

Julia: That’s such an intense recognition.  The dominant cultural narrative insists there is a clear separation between body and spirit, between body and land.  I think it’s so rare for us to really feel how thin our own skin is, to see so clearly that the toxins in the water are also in our bodies.  There’s no refuge. 

Marina:  It felt like that separation was being burned away.  It’s a deeply spiritual process, and emotionally devastating. So much is held in the separation – terror and creativity and sorrow and trauma and insight.  Quite literally, the history of what colonialism has done lives in that separation. After that experience on the Newtown Creek, I cried daily for two years.

Through our dominant culture, I was taught to keep everything separate, to hold my illness as something distant from the rest of my life.  But, you know, I live disabled embodiment.

Disability teaches me limits.  In this culture, we act as if there are no limits.  But the earth has limits.  The flesh has limits.  There are boundaries for where to go and where not to go. If we learn to listen to our bodies, it can lead us to learn to listen to the land. And vice-versa. 

Julia:  I’m curious about how you approach that kind of embodied listening, as an artist. How do you tap into that practice of attention?

Marina:  All performance – including puppetry performance – is incredibly fragile. You can end up dominating the puppet really easily.  If that happens, you’re still holding the object of it, but the life is gone.

There’s this body of breath that holds embodied memory, feeling and imagination.  That’s the world of the puppet character.  And when you’re animating a puppet, you’re riding that breath, both guiding it and allowing yourself to be guided by it.  But if you push too hard, you’ll have dominated the life of the puppet instead of invoking it. It’s exquisite, actually, to train yourself to be able to perceive when the life of the moment has left.

Julia:  That’s so beautiful, the way you describe that attention to the breath, to the body and life of the puppet.  As someone who’s never animated a puppet, who’s never really thought much about puppets, I feel like there’s so much I don’t know about this art form.  If you were teaching me how to work with a puppet, where would we begin?

Marina:  We wouldn’t start with a puppet.  We’d start with your bodymind.

I’d lead you through exercises that will begin to connect your body, emotion and imagination to your breath.  I would invite you to guide your breath downwards so that it’s rooted in the earth.  Part of the work is about permitting yourself to stay present. We’d practice holding, breathing and moving with the puppet, while connecting your breath to imagery.  Are you gripping?  If you’re holding too tight, you’re cutting off the connection.  The breath has to flow all the way from your core, up your spine, into your shoulder and your arm.

In Soil and Spirit, I’m blending this essence of puppetry animation with developing a participatory choreographic vocabulary. Through a 12-hour choreographic assemblage, we will create a large-scale kinetic figure that will be installed within chosen endangered forests.

Julia: It’s really about releasing that sense of dominance and mastery, isn’t it?  It’s a practice of flowing with the breath, rather than trying to bend it to my will. 

Marina:  Practicing releasing the illusion of dominance, yes, while also learning to guide one’s energy.  An artistic performance has specific energetic, emotional and dramatic demands that it asks the artist to create – to manifest, as my great master teacher Kari Margolis always said. That’s the craft and skill of a performer. 

Julia: I feel like there’s a powerful kinship here with disability and environmental politics, a recognition that we need to let go of this idea that we can dominate the earth or triumph over our bodies.

Marina: That idea of control is such a deep part of how I was taught to think about my own disability.  It’s that language of “control your diabetes.”  We want to dominate the disease. We want to control the disabled body.  But it’s uncontrollable. Biomedicine is a medicine born of a philosophy of science that believes it can possess the earth. That whole illusion of control is a lie, a dangerous lie. It’s why we’re in the climate crisis.

I think the clash between artistic surrender and systems based on control is part of the reason why artistic practice sits awkwardly in institutional frameworks.

Julia:  Marina, there’s such a profound political sensibility at the core of your artistic work. As someone who has also done front-line environmental activism, how do you see the relationship between art and other forms of political action? 

Marina:  I lean towards what dance artist Miguel Gutierrez wrote: “maybe it’s just that I think that the politics can be braided into the thing itself.”² Art can be deeply intertwined with activism, but I don’t collapse one into the other. The core of Soil and Spirit is the development of a visual and collective movement vocabulary which will embody a commitment to anti-extractive and anti-colonial land relations, and anti-ableist ethos. 

We need many different kinds of action in this moment.  We need people taking apart the pipelines.  We need land defenders.  But we also need to do the cultural and spiritual work that often happens at a different pace and a different rhythm from the legislative clock.

My artistic work isn’t the same as direct action.  It’s not only “don’t cut the forest,” it’s also about recognizing the deeper origins of environmental violence.

Sometimes that deep work happens in the very midst of direct activism.  John Seed tells a story about locking hands with others against the bulldozers that were coming to clearcut a forest.  He says that his own deep rooted ecological consciousness was born in that moment. Standing there, arms locked with forest defenders, he realized that he was a part of the earth.  That he wasn’t separate from this forest. 

Julia: One of the things that’s central to your work is a commitment to listening to the land and its people, to being present in a way that honors Indigenous sovereignty.  When you work as an artist, you’re also always working to ask permission from the place where you’re about to work.  I’d love to know more about what that means for you.  How do you go about asking permission from the land?  What does that look like?

Marina:  The first thing is to recognize that it’s possible.  To recognize the sentience of the living world, you first have to allow that it’s there.  Whether the land speaks clearly to you or not, that’s not the point. We have to release our arrogance, our assumption that something has to declare itself to us.

This communication is different for everyone. But a practice of establishing non-extractive land relations begins with a clear indisputable fact: My body is here on colonized land. As an immigrant, I am young to this land, and the terms of my relation with this place are indelibly shaped by this.

These consent protocols are not primarily individual: they should be generational and systemic, informed by a deep ecological attunement to the patterns of place. But we have to begin somewhere.

Julia:  That resonates so strongly with me, both in relation to the land and in terms of disability politics.  Because dominant culture privileges speech, we’re taught to only value people who can express themselves in a particular kind of way.  All too often, dominant culture refuses to recognize nonspeaking disabled people, denies them agency, and rejects alternative modes of communication.

Marina:  Exactly.  Who gets to lay claim to personhood?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in relation to my work with a disabled artist who’s non-verbal and who needs physical support for her artistic work.  A lot of our work together has been built around finding ways to open communication.  I am learning how she communicates. I am listening to her breath, to her pauses and shifting energies. Sure, there’s a communication board and eye-gaze technology that is at times very helpful, but so much of our communication happens through the rhythms of our bodies. Meanwhile, I am aware how illegible it may seem to the ableist gaze, as none of the dominant systems of education or evaluation are attuned to how expansive communication is. That’s the tragedy.

And I don’t think that’s separate from the work I’m doing to learn how to listen to the land. That is: forming relationships where diverse intelligences and ways of being in the world are normative, not marginal.

It’s a slow, attentive, process, and it’s something that can’t be rushed.

Buttonhook Forest in Chappaqua, NY – where Soil and Spirit is beginning – is an Indigenous Ceremonial Stone Landscape.  I am carefully navigating the spiritual and cultural protocols – including what’s absolutely hands off – with Nohham Rolf Cachat-Schilling, Mohawk-Nashawe Nipmuk, a Medicine Elder and Culture Keeper who is an advisor to Soil and Spirit. Nohham carries disability due to ongoing colonial violence and removal from their ancestral homelands, working towards “cultural recovery and preservation in the space of our unrelieved holocaust.”

Julia:   I’m really moved by the way you’re working through these questions of permission and consent.  I also know it takes time to work in this way, to work with appropriate care.  How do you approach that?

Marina:  I made a very clear decision that this work will not be done on colonial time. And it won’t be done on ableist time.

It’s still difficult.  It’s demanding a patience of me that I am consciously trying to cultivate. There are also a thousand external pressures, with funders, with publicity, with the struggle for attention. The tension is immense.  It’s a constant friction, between the needs of the rhythms of the work – and what Soil and Spirit needs in order to unfold with integrity – and the absurdity of institutional clocks. As Leslie Marmon Silko said so acutely,  “The clock has replaced the whip.”

If we lived in systems that were honest to the needs of embodied, diverse life, everything would be slower.  Everything.

Julia:   That kind of slowness is something I yearn for.  That’s one of the things that draws me to your art, the invitation you offer to sink into a different kind of rhythm, a different quality of sensory experience.

Marina:  My first impulse in any forest is to bend down and smell, to wake up my sensory perception beyond the visual sphere.  Recently I was out on a multi-day hike, I saw this beautifully diverse arrangement of mosses.  So I bent down toward them to really get close.  Of course, I had this giant backpack on my back.  It slid into my head and lower back and pressed me closer to the ground. And as I inhaled, I felt this vibration through the forest and through my own body.  Just then, the wind woke up.  It had been completely still, but a breeze started moving through the treetops.  The scent was incredible. And, there it was, the presence and spirit of place.

It’s not like these moments can ever be recreated, and that’s not my artistic goal.  But I can create the potential for encounter.  I can facilitate that possibility.  I can open up spaces that make it possible for people to come into a forest and begin to cultivate their attunement to the enchantment of the land. At the same time, we will also grapple with the immense violence that every place holds – the hauntings – and ask: what are our responsibilities and commitments at this time?

The enchantment and the hauntings of violation are inseparable from the encounter.

¹ This insight has been powerfully articulated by Brazilian scholar Maria Fantinato Géo de Siqueira, in conversation with Ana Laíde, a social educator in the Xingu region in the Brazilian Amazon who speaks about the loss of the encantados (spirit-presences) in the wake of extraction and environmental harm from large-scale dam projects.  Maria Fantinato Géo de Siqueira, “‘We Are Losing Our Encantados Because We Can’t Hear Them Anymore.’ Silence, Extractivism, and Politics of Listening in/to the Brazilian Amazon.”  The World of Music 10:2 (2021), 21-50.

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² Miguel Gutierrez, “The Grant You Wish You Could Write.”  Dancers Group. January 13, 2022.

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Credits:

Mariana Heron (Tsaplina) and Julia Watts Belser, “Encountering Place: Disability, Art, and Anticolonial Enchantment in Endangered Forests – Marina Heron (Tsaplina) in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. October 25, 2022.

Curated and edited by Serena Korkmaz and Julia Watts Belser

Image description: A photo of Marina, nose to moss. The feeling is intimate: a diverse community of mosses, with various textures and leaf patterns, cover the forest floor. It is daylight. Just above the surface of the earth is a human face in profile, head parallel to the ground, eyes closed, inhaling and gently smiling. She is wearing a colorful cap, whose rim is dark and in shadow. Against the rim of the cap -towards the camera lens – is a small 2-leaf sprout growing upwards, a future tree. In the distance are blurry trees pierced by light, suggesting the presence of a larger forest.

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