The bodies of both disabled/chronically ill people and restored [ecosystems] resist the impulse toward and the reality of monocultures.
—Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection
All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you.
—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
This chapter centers on performances and creative writing projects in open engagement with their environment, in immersion and in contact—opening the body to new watery influences. After the previous two chapters, on participatory performance and video work, respectively, this chapter moves from performance toward writing practices. It charts ways of thinking/feeling with eco soma methods through alignments of bodies, environment, and trace. Part one of this chapter moves to three different sites where I highlight writing and water performances with different kinds of audiences. In the second half of the chapter, I combine participatory approaches and ecopoetics to focus on the Salamander project, where disabled people go swimming together. Throughout this chapter, vulnerable bodies embrace vulnerability, deny both victim and hero positions, and instead learn to live with influence, porosity, in what chronically ill literary scholar Catherine Fairfield calls “perilous ongoingness.”1
Influence: there are no human bodies that thrive independently, and our bodymindspirits shape themselves in multiple ways in dialogue with biopolitical ordering. As Aurora Levins Morales writes:
There is no neutral body from which our bodies deviate. Society has written deep into each strand of tissue of every living person on earth. What it writes into the heart muscles of five star generals is distinct from what it writes into the pancreatic tissue and intestinal tracts of Black single mothers in Detroit, of Mexicana migrants in Fresno, but no body stands outside the consequences of injustice and inequality. (2012, 82)
Many contemporary perspectives on disability’s presence in our world relate human diversity to the speculations of capitalism, ecological change, war, the rupture of disaster, and the different temporality of slow violence.2 Asthma becomes linked to changes in public health and exposure. Attention differences are rhetorically clasped to new communication practices (such as the internet), and chemical sensitivities link to polluted environments. Metabolic changes like diabetes get rhetorically linked to postcolonial food production.
Industrial aggressions and war actions like those at Bhopal, Fukushima, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Palestine, and the deployment of chemical weapons in the Vietnam and Iraq wars have created new ways of being in the world, for both newborns and people who lived or fought in these regions. Radiation and land mines create uninhabitable areas and maimed bodymindspirits.
When disabled people feature in climate and environmental crisis reports they usually do so in tragic positions. This is due to lack of access to evacuation measures during disasters, the negative impact of environmental changes on health, and low prioritization of disabled lives during rescue efforts.3 In the disaster narratives around these sites, people with mental and bodily differences usually feature as victims and rarely as survivors or as people learning to live in new ways.4
In this chapter, disabled people and their co-conspirators remediate shared spaces in a field of interdependency, and reclaim vulnerability as a site of community, creativity, and openness. As disabled people, we live engaged with our world, whatever our world is, and we find an equilibrium with our sensoria, pain thresholds, cognitive differences, neurodiversities, and mobility challenges. We live with change. Artists touch lively and deadly water together in the name of art and press their boundaries. We experience the edge spaces of eco and soma, self and/in/as world: humans in nonhuman environments connecting to the biochemical milieu we are part of, realigning words like “wildness” or “animal” as we dive into places that stress our hormonal system and get our adrenaline going. And we do so in multiplicity and with longing for new futures.
I align my interest with the queer-of-color critique of Joshua Chambers-Letson, who writes in After the Party about Assata Shakur and Nina Simone:
Though ephemeral, when this sense of freedom is generated across the body through performance, the body becomes aware that the rest of the time something’s missing, something better than this is possible, and that something must be done. (2018, 7)
Performances can lift us into the freedom space as time and space shift. In the second half of this chapter, a large group of people literally go and suspend themselves together in water. Chambers-Letson writes in Jose Muñoz’s wake, who himself offered the term “minoritarian subjects” in performance studies as “formations of identity [as] ‘identities in difference.’” For Chambers-Letson:
the minoritarian describes a place of (often uncomfortable) gathering, a cover, an umbrella, expanse, or refuge under and in which subjects marked by racial, sexual, gender, class, and national minority might choose to come together in tactical struggle, both because of what we share (often domination in some form by the major, or dominant culture), and because of what makes us different. (2018, 15, 16)
As usual in the enumeration of minoritarian difference, the crip stays at either the bottom or top of the stairs and can’t get into the club or go to the party. But we are around, even if we get tired too early, can’t be around alcohol, or get overwhelmed. So, I link the crippy spectator to this party imagining: we do come together, engage in juicy disability cultural labor, and experience moments of access intimacy: disability justice activist Mia Mingus’s phrase that speaks to the pleasures of being with people who get you in access terms, and who get what you need to be comfortable and accommodated, physically, spiritually, etc.: to be with.5
In these pages, some of the comings-together remain unspectacular care events, and some are party memories. In any case, sometimes we send beautiful photos back into the wider social world. To set us up, first let’s go to the park and then to the theater. Afterward we’ll curl up with poetry.
Writing in Parks
bree gant is a multidisciplinary Detroit artist who uses the pronouns she/they/slim, and identifies as a nonbinary woman. They also work as a member of Visions of the Evolution, a multidimensional literary, performative, and healing-based project with a focus on healing as artistic practice in Indigenous African ontologies and across Afrodiasporic frameworks (cherise morris, project website, 2019). I encountered gant’s work in the 250-acre Eliza Howell Park, the fourth-largest park in Detroit, as part of Brown on Green, a culture series that focused on Black female bodies’ relationship to Detroit’s green spaces.6 The series shifts the terrain of eco-arts firmly into non-White territory, both challenging and supplementing an ecological tradition that has been shaped by Whiteness and where the exclusion of Black and Brown people was fundamental to the early tenets of environmentalism. Dorceta Taylor writes about environmental racism’s curtailment of Black access to natural space:
For much of their history conservationists and preservationists either ascribed to or promoted discriminatory policies or remained blind [sic] to them. These actions made it challenging for people of color and the working class to engage in environmental activities on an equal footing with the white middle class or to collaborate with them. (2016, 382)
Events like Brown on Green in Detroit’s parks assert Black outdoor activities as civic, public, creative, and agentic, not delinquent or curtailed. Black stakeholders in public park space are makers and users of spatial practices. As Katherine McKittrick makes clear:
Black women’s histories, lives, and spaces must be understood as enmeshing with traditional geographic arrangements in order to identify a different way of knowing and writing the social world and to expand how the production of space is achieved across terrains of domination. (2006, xiv)
As in many other instances in this book, I want to mark my own position as a researcher/participant in social arrangements, and I once again read these lines on Black women’s geography as an embodied subject caught in different webs of power relations.
As a White disabled person, my enmeshment with the medical complex is intense, and I am writing these lines (and transcribed the above quote by McKittrick) in the Results Pending wait area of St. Joseph Hospital in Ypsilanti. Just after I wrote down the quote, I was called to my next procedure: a CT scan. I lay down on the bench that goes into the donut hole and felt the X-ray dye enter my body through the IV in my arm. The dye shifted my temperature and created a strangely metallic taste/sense in my nose and mouth. I looked up, and above me was a park. A light panel above the machine, the area patients look at when undergoing the procedure, is a lightbox, illuminating a calming scene: rhododendrons in bloom, pathways winding between the ordered beds, and two people walking in the middle distance. White elderly people. Or White Elders? Using a description that connotes power and expertise feels like a reading out of step with dominant White relations to older people, and, with my blood shifting sensations, I notice the difference between the two thought patterns.
Having just been sensitized by McKittrick’s writing to racialized differentials in the construction and maintenance of space, and being alienated from my own bodily sensorium by the influx of dye, I was in touch with a spatial alienation that is not mine, and cannot be mine, as a biopolitical subject classified as White. About a quarter of the patients I pass on my way to and from the Results Pending room are Black. I try to imagine what a Black medical subject lying here would feel, how relative calmness and relative distress might play out for them (and I am guarding myself against following that particular fantasy in my writing: the sentence about what I imagine is not here and shouldn’t ethically be here).
gant’s performance, Otherlogue (III), was described in this way on social media as part of the show’s advertising: “Explor(es) the relationship between ritual and mental health for Black womenfolx, in both public and private spaces.”7
In the park in Detroit, gant’s performance piece opened the night. Audiences had assembled: some were on the provided plastic folding chairs, and some (like me) sat in comfy camping chairs brought from home. The row of chairs faced a mowed strip of land, and beyond the mowed area, the grass stood tall, swaying in the evening wind that slowly came up. Large trees framed the vista for us, and the roar of the nearby motorway was audible along with cricket chirps.
Soon, another sound entered the scene: gant, dressed in flowing earth-colored robes, emerged from behind a tree carrying translucent glass jars to a small cupboard set up in the middle of the staging area. Their hands held multiple glasses at a time, so the effort of walking on the uneven grassy ground jostled their hands, and the jars clanked against one another. gant deposited the jars on the altar, and then went to get more. They made this walk many times: from the tree to the altar, laden with glass jars of all sizes, and then back again emptyhanded. Later on in this durational piece, gant held jars in the gathered folds of their garment, and the glass sounds grew louder. At times, the energy of gant’s body moving on the ground created enough momentum to cause a loud clashing of glass on glass, worrying me as an audience member with visions of broken glass and their bare feet on the ground. Every time gant moved away from the altar, they moved the scarf over their shoulders, swirling the air.
Eventually, gant emerged with big containers of water (see Plate 6). Now, two women assisted gant, also carrying water containers. gant and the two companions (who would soon move on to dance their own piece) filled water into the empty jars. Here, the piece ended.
Witnessing these actions unfold over time, many stories and sensation fragments washed over me. That’s the power of durational labor, of repetition: the imagination can open up in these temporal loops (remember the repetitive factory motions in chapter 1). The phenomenology of witnessing durational labor is different from the audiencing labor of seeing a realist theater or cinema performance, where narrative momentum draws me into worlds.
In my writing practice, I dive into my fieldnote fragments, some scribbled hastily and near illegibly into my notebook after the performance.
Where do I hear glass tinkling in public parks? I think about homelessness and alcohol struggles (and in one of the instantiations of gant’s work, a Hennessy bottle is part of the piece).8 In the Q&A that followed the event, gant mentioned alcoholism in their family. Let’s think through this moment in further detail. gant’s piece is entitled Otherlogues (III), and the connections between self and other in dialogues and questioning emerge in my autoethnographic witnessing.
From a phenomenological art perspective, exciting moments happen when actions come to consciousness, enter above the threshold of sensation that normally keeps somatic experience in the background. Many phenomenologists articulate this borderline through reference to pain: humans become aware of their inner somatic worlds when pain raises sensations above the invisible/unthought smooth working of one’s embodied self. Only when my knees scream at me do I think of them as “knees,” as a “them.” Part of my own narrative labor as a painful subject is to create narrative webs that allow me to find a place for this pain. Thus, my own sensorium makes me think of medical imaging machines showing me crystal webs around my joints. In my eco soma imagination of the beautiful/horrific sharp crystal edges in their glittering joint caves, I find some aesthetic release, even if my pain does not go away. But these images of sharp edges work differently for me here, sitting comfortably in the humid summer air and watching glass and grass.
Actions that suddenly rise above (my White, middle-class) normality: in the tinkling of the glasses, I do not (only) hear my familiar back-deck windchimes. I think of alcohol bottles. I think of cut feet, of broken glass ground into back alleys, and of the danger of broken glass in public green spaces. This precarity that leaps into my mind is unequally distributed onto Black and Brown bodies in this neighboring city. Let’s think about the likelihood of finding broken glass, sharp edges, and needles in the parks of the cities that I visit regularly. First, there is Ann Arbor, the home of my employer, the University of Michigan, a wealthy, White-dominated city with civic money for park maintenance. Then there is the smaller city of Ypsilanti, where I live, and a place some (White) Ann Arbor people steadfastly refuse to visit as it is deemed dangerous, an attribution rooted in racist images and investment, housing redlining, the decline of the automotive industry, and other Rust Belt pain patterns that have impacted different racialized groups in different ways. Lastly, there is this big city forty minutes to the east, iconic Detroit, with its heavy pall of racialized precarity and roaring activism. Many Detroit eco-activists point to the failure of White imagination when it comes to seeing Detroit as something else then a ruined city. I have to confront my own racialized internalizations and carceral imagination in the moment that “broken glass” becomes my first narrative layer of witnessing gant’s work.
Where there is danger, there is also power. I see gant’s stride, the thud of their naked feet on the earth. The skill with which gant carries so many glasses at once, one finger in each, clasped together. The carefulness with which gant sets the glasses down. The way they uses the fabric of their dress to swaddle and carry the jars. The ritual action that is unfolding holds strength and attention, an assuredness that speaks of repetition and purpose. In gant’s performance, actions and their repetition sacralize and ritualize their altar and their environment. Behavior shifts spaces.
Then the materiality of the jars themselves focuses my gaze anew. The slow accumulation of jars allows me to see through the glass to the careful mowing of the site, strips of grassland made easily accessible for local children’s activities and for people to walk on. Right behind gant’s performance, the grasses rear high, and cicadas are buzzing louder and louder as the evening progresses. The city of Detroit stopped mowing this and other parks in 2009, adding to the ruin narrative of the bankrupt city. To see this area mowed and made accessible speaks of rejuvenation, reclamation, and a denial of abjection. In the governance of the “natural” and the relative attention paid to these spaces, Detroit narratives of civic neglect play themselves out and offer arguments in their own right. From mowed grass to rubbish dumping sites (and the sharp edges of glass and metal), the presence of coyotes, foxes, herons, and horned owls: all these elements have played a part in the wrangling about ownership and maintenance of this park.
The tending of the altar and the deliberate tending of this grassy strip and its invitation to naked feet come to my consciousness as I witness and weave a new pattern with my precarity imagination.
Then comes the moment that gant pours the water into the jars, and the whole scene changes on this tilting action. Later, in the Q&A, gant speaks about water and women’s healing rituals. But in this moment of the pour, the ritual blossoms into my consciousness. I think of libations, of pouring water on the ground to remember, and a historical dimension of Black survivance crests in my thoughts. Water runs lively into the jars and creates new horizon lines inside the translucent objects.
As not only a White but also a European-born subject, I immediately connect the image and sound of water poured into jars with old rituals in my own lineages: scrying, looking at water in vessels to divine alternative realities in the past, present, and future. But I am aware that I am outside my own located ritual imagination here and that labor is required of me to be in respectful presence. So, my eco soma phenomenological stance is one of sensing, wondering, reaching beyond what is familiar and what rises to consciousness.
Teaching performance in intercultural environments has allowed me to witness this ritual immediacy in different cultural contexts. My witnessing self thinks of Yoruba practices and water, of the Orisha Oshun (a powerful water goddess), of cleansing ritual baths, and of meditating with a glass of water and then drinking it.9 I know that I know too little to feel these connections in my bones. That thought itself is a marker of phenomenological performance witnessing: opening to the unknown and recognizing its presence. My web of references and connections needs to be loose and have holes/wholes to acknowledge agencies beyond my own. Otherlogues. This performance does not allow me to rest in my ignorance of the power that unfolds before me. The actions pull me to acknowledge power’s presence.
Pouring water into jars. Here is another narrative likely open to any inhabitant of Michigan in 2019: the Flint water crisis, and the spectacular presence of plastic water bottles in media coverage of the slow-motion disaster of civic neglect and precarious Black bodies.10 In one image of gant’s interdisciplinary oeuvre, published as a diptych “on vessels” in the Ypsilanti-based Bathhouse Journal at Eastern Michigan University in 2017, gant is lying in a bathtub, with jars of water all around them on every flat surface of the basin and tub rim (see Plate 6).11 gant’s head is turned to the side, and their expression is unreadable. They could be sleeping, immersed in self-care rituals; or they could be dead, a suicide in a bathtub, the latter image just as familiar for women in bathtubs. The jars here could be holding tears, the accumulation of excretions associated with depression12—an association not easily available in the live performance with its lively movement. This kind of association is more in keeping with the life/death status of the photograph and its current liminal status in between art object, crime scene witness, and social media entity.
Which bodies had to learn how to take showers and baths with bottled water? Which bodies toted bottles full of water around the city and had to figure out how to carry the heavy load, deciding whether plastic or glass were the best water containers? These wider Michigan narratives, which also include water shut-offs in Detroit, point to the relative health status and biopolitical location of racialized bodies in our shared environment.
This durational piece with its open invitation to witness jars, glass, mowed grass and tall grasses, naked feet and flowing garments, emerges from bareness. There is the openness of space and the mating sounds of dragonflies that spin all around us, performers and witnesses alike. The grassy field is alive. And there is precarity: glass being carried, precious objects and dangerous material breaking, injury.
One last avenue of Otherlogues inquiry I wish to touch on here emerges from a novelist’s plea for an opening of the imagination and casts bareness in a different light. In 2016 the Indian novelist Amitav Gosh wrote The Great Derangement. In this book, Gosh took the novel form to task for its failure to engage climate change. Gosh explored how the very form of the novel and its bourgeois origins are anathema to the kind of agencies and time scales that pertain to the Anthropocene. Novels, given this individualist capitalist origin story, use time spans more aligned with one (or a few) individual lifetime(s) rather than epochal movements, and forms of realism and relatability demand adherence to “ordinary” human lives and their immediate agents. Gosh uses a perfect crip metaphor, deranged lunacy, to discuss rapacious politics and neglect in addressing changing environmental conditions and their human causes. And in reviewing Gosh’s work, Alexandre Leskanich, in the pages of the LSE Review of Books, calls on yet another crip metaphor, blindness, now via Bohemian-Australian poet Rilke, to understand what is going on:
This admirable book is the latest testament to the limits of contemporary thought and language, to the frustration of human cognitive power over a world we thought we knew. Deranged indeed, but also incrementally dispossessed, we have become the disinherited of Rainer Maria Rilke’s remark, finding that “each blind lurch of the world leaves its disinherited, to whom no longer the past nor yet the future belong.” (2017)
Both “crazy” and “blind” here function as fulcrums to understand the inadequacies of analytic and critical engagement, somewhere in the middle between human and nonhuman (earth) agents.
In the Q&A to their show, gant explained that they had not previously performed Otherlogues outdoors and that the terrain as well as the ethics of such an action required thoughtfulness. On the uneven ground of the park’s grass, clarities shifted, and the appeal of water rituals points to displacements historical and future. Many have (and many will) lose homes and ownership, bus routes and streetlights, and urban and rural infrastructures; and any environmental pressure will be felt unequally depending on the relative biopolitical location of people. The “crazy”—those who are homeless, dislocated, alcoholic, depressed—will see their ranks swelled by the newly dispossessed. Climate migrancy is already a topic in many parts of the world. “Disability” will take on new meaning in sites where the privileging patterns of current medical and insurance industrial complex provisions break down—something that came forcefully to the front in the Covid-19 pandemic and exposed racialized inequity. So, this is one last aspect of gant’s show I take with me: the stripping bare of humanity, the precarity of the need to secure water: and within that, the mutability and adaptability of healing ritual, bare feet on the land, and the new futures the ritual opens toward.
Writing in the Theater
Amitav Gosh’s argument about the inability to imagine climate catastrophe plays out in a very different way, and in a much more bourgeois environment, at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Here, neoliberal choice-driven worlds are riven by water, putting pressure on lives and narratives.
And as I am writing these lines now, I am digesting today’s news, at the end of May 2019, that seven small children in an elementary school in Oklahoma drowned in the basement of their school while a tornado devastated their region.
I am writing this with awareness of the ongoing slow violence of poisoned water in many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. I am writing this in awareness of the saltwater drownings of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea. I also think about Ebo Landing, and African people just landing on St. Simons, a Gullah island off North Carolina, turning around as they came off the ship. They walked into the waters to drown themselves, denying the labor of their bodies to the slavers. Waters. Wakes. Christina Sharpe attends to echoes of the slave ship’s wake, trailing the ship and rippling ever onward in contemporary race relations, a physical/metaphorical movement:
In the wake, the semiotics of the slave ship continue: from the forced movements of the enslaved to the forced movements of the migrant and the refugee, to the regulation of Black people in North American streets and neighborhoods, to those ongoing crossings of and drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, to the brutal colonial reimaginings of the slave ship and the ark; to the reappearances of the slave ship in everyday life in the form of the prison, the camp, and the school. (2016, 21)
To attend to wake work is to stay present to slavery’s grammar and its continued unfolding.13 Old sins and bodies on the line.
All this is with me as I stop writing for a while; I leave the theater foyer and my writing spot and enter the auditorium of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The play begins. In front of me, two women, one White, one Black, are engaged in sun salutations—modified for older bodies (according to the play’s text, sixty-five and sixty-seven). They reach up, then down. They move into plank pose, then into cobra, and then downward dog. A long breath marks each action.
These laboring women are actors, part of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. Lucy Kirkwood is a British playwright, and The Children was a Tony Award nominee in 2018, after successful runs in London (Royal Court Theatre), New York City, Melbourne, Toronto, and Chicago (at the Steppenwolf Theatre, where I saw it in 2019).
This scene, the sun salutations, comes at the end of The Children, as the experienced Hazel draws in the beginner Rose, pulling her into the poses with her breath. In the background, Robin, Hazel’s husband (who is also Rose’s ex-lover), cleans up literal shit. The “house is foul” as Hazel says, shit flowing from the composting toilet, a leakage that heralds the final turn of the play.
As the two women do yoga and the man brooms, the ever-present sound of the sea swells, repeating, becoming threatening. The sound recalls for the audience the narrative from early on that set the play in motion: a tidal wave swamped a nearby nuclear reactor; the reactor failed, and this part of the world (or maybe this world) started its journey toward the end. That is the background of The Children, a very Fukushima-like story, transposed to the British coast.
In the scene, the noise builds to a crescendo, and now the three figures on stage are bathed in the light of the bottom of the green-blue sea. The stage lights create the effect of the sun reflecting downward, a Walt Disney sea bottom from which three souls stare out at the audience.
Church bells ring from the stage speakers, and I remember British stories of bells from villages that fell into the sea long ago, when the ground first became unstable and churches and houses fell from the cliff’s edge. That sound comes to me as a link to many world sites under climate catastrophe: villages drowned for aqueducts and dammed rivers.
But let us stay with the yoga a bit more. Bodily messes, and somatic holding-against chaos are persistent themes throughout The Children. The yoga somatics are the realm of one of the protagonists, the upper-middle-class hardbody White woman Hazel with a blond, perky ponytail, mother of four and nuclear scientist. She and her husband, Robin, live in a farmhouse twenty miles from the exclusion zone, the death zone that is now contaminated.
The audience hears a lot about cows, returning ghosts that stand as a kind of Schrödinger’s cat over the play, a hovering in-between. Miraculously, they were alive when Robin checked on them after the first catastrophe, after the wave destroyed the reactor. But as the play develops, Robin admits that the cows were actually dead and that Robin has been going out every day to dig graves for them. While engaged in this concrete earthy action, he was being slowly poisoned by the fallout from the runaway reactor.
With this mourning action, Robin enacts a slow-motion death wish in this poisoned world. He asks his wife to think about the machines they are becoming—machines that aim to live to over a hundred, perfect and functioning, but dying of boredom. He wants to have the chance to actually die, to acknowledge mortality. He is ready to herald his ex-lover’s call to duty. For the call to duty is also a call down memory lane and a call to party. Before the shit comes running across the stage (literalized in a flood of water gushing out and over the stage’s lip), the three were dancing, reliving an old party at a colleague’s house. Hazel, as befits her yoga mistress persona, was the one who invented the dance then, too: so now she is the one who remembers it, twitching and gyrating in familiar 1980s grooving, assured, sure-footed, sexy bottom twitching, having fun even as it contradicts her words. Her body speaks. Rose and Robin join in, pick up their steps and pace from her, and everybody is having a ball.
Bodily movements bring them together, marking the high points in a drama of speech and memory. Bodies are there, and they are disavowed. But they come back in all their materiality, like the decaying huge cow carcasses off stage. Bodies leak. Hazel gets a nose bleed. Rose, who lost two breasts and her beautiful Afro to cancer, pulls off her wig. Hazel accuses Robin of not having liked his children “when they leaked,” but now it is Hazel who wants to control the aging bodies that are falling apart. Robin needs Viagra to get a hard-on, and Rose takes birth control pills at sixty-five in order to squash her libido.
Sexiness is everywhere, and plenty of chemistry circulates between all three of the stage’s actors. The repressed will return, just like the cows. Shit, semen, and blood mix with the ocean water.
And the overflow is everywhere—the yoga and the dance are familiar and hence infectious. I see audience members’ shoes twitching all along my row.
“Do it for the children” is an abstract concept throughout the play, just like Gosh argues. Even for Hazel and Robin who have biological children, the children are abstract—they are elsewhere, at the end of a phone, but not in the immediate physical reality. When Robin wishes to become part of the last band of retirees, old nuclear workers coming back to the damaged reactor to act as saviors, it seems less about “the children,” either bio or general, than about relevance: something to do, something to recapture, about lost or blunted intensities.
I am still trying to figure out whether I think the play is ageist—but I don’t think it is. All three characters do lead full lives, and their momentary desperations, infidelities, or missteps are just curveballs in what is basically a happy existence. These are not Godot’s waiting people, miserable and disconnected. All three have anchors, deeply shaken by aging and cancerous bodies, by calcified rituals, or by lust, but on the whole they are stable enough. The world, instead, is unstable. And with that, the notion of choice, of what to do and who should do it, might be taken away in one deep roar of the sea.
The Children plays out in front of theater audiences who see, for once, an actual kind of mirror. The night I saw the play, at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the main bulk of the audience was “the usual”: relatively affluent middle-class people, likely exactly in that sixty-to-seventy-year-old bracket, mostly White, some Black. These demographics very much aligned with the categories of the actors.
They are the retirees, and this was a play about them, and about the choices—loss of choices, past choices, and future choices—they likely made. Here are some of the choices the play presents to its characters: career versus family, or both; one partner, or many, with potentially no old-age safety net; jobs that contributed to the global mess we are in; choices about whether to use a compost toilet or recycle; whether to hold on to the computer and email or not; and flying around the globe, or settling in a smaller cottage after the loss of the big family home. All these choices come back to physical actions, to the monitoring of one’s physical functions (like shitting, or drinking noncontaminated water), to the ritual of yoga or the fleeting need for embraces. What can be controlled, and how can one respond to radical, frightening change in the course of a single evening?
The watery immersion here is a call to rethink, redo, refeel, reevaluate old patterns of hormonal flow and sensual engagement just outside the circle of conventional morality. And the beautiful glimmering blue-green light is a release, too, from the repetition of sun salutations. After the party, after death, after one way of life is gone, what happens?
In The Children, eco soma speaks about power and control, about loosening bounds and borders, about decay and flesh, and about the shared patterns humans enact, perform, and repeat to hold ourselves together.
Between gant’s water ritual and The Children, I am writing about different kinds of eco soma sensings and different kinds of memory acts. Water’s relationship to lineage versus catastrophe is on the line and falls into different registers. I am watching water as material reality, as metaphor, as history maker in different ways, in my deckchair in the park or in the tight velvet of a theater seat. Racialization, disability, and gender mark the moments in different ways, creating eddies and whirlpools. Let’s visit with a third performance moment, one that combines the power of storytelling and words with the force of gesture and compression.
Dirty River Girl
Choices about where to live and what jobs to take are not an option for many. To offer a different perspective, outside affluence, here is another performance intervention in a much more activist-framed performance.
Dirty River Girl was performed as part of California’s disability-centered social justice performance group Sins Invalid’s 2009 show and printed as a poem in the collection Body Map (2015).14 In this performance/poem, Toronto-based artist and nonbinary femme Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha speaks of an underground river of queer-of-color youth with bodies that are “all just too sensitive.” Dirty River Girl makes connections between abuse, trauma, and disability. This lived disability experience is central to many contemporary activists who see the uneven medical recognition of malaises in White Western biomedicine (i.e., “You’re too sensitive” as a doctor’s answer to a medical complaint). Activists look to underrecognized injuries and bodily effects that undercut vitality and are often linked to intersectional violences of racialization and forced underclass living.
In this book I have already visited a range of sites that connect somatic discourse, being-in-bodies, with historical trauma, including (in the previous chapter) the Nibi Walkers, Ojibway women who walk the rivers.
In the Dirty River Girl performance, Piepzna-Samarasinha stands in a shaft of light, her/their body clad in a pink/rose nightie, an abundance of curls flowing richly over her/their shoulders. Piepzna-Samarasinha uses “she and they pronouns, alternating” (personal communication, February 2021), and I am reflecting this delicious linguistic mobility in my description. Their hands are at her center, the solar plexus, clasping her hands at their belly. As she speaks, she raises their arms from her side to form a wide T and then brings them back together again, holding, shrouding, giving support to herself, centered in the body’s middle. They speak of “an underground river that whispers /abuse survivors are the ones who get the weird disease.” The experience of trauma is linked to the water bursting: “Our bodies’ walls cave in on the stories they hold that are too much / swell our banks in a flash flood.”
In the next section of their performance, she makes a connection between the tiredness of the poem’s “I,” “like a Victorian wasting disease” and the Blackstone River in Worcester, Massachusetts, their initial home (and here I switch from the poetic convention of distance between author and poetic “I” to the performance’s elision of this distance). The river is personified, a fragile presence in the land. Sensuality, touch knowledge, and sexuality are deeply connected, as land entities, human entities, and their border zones infiltrate and influence one another:
Entombed in cement, she slowly filled up with poison from all
those dyes, all that cement, all those computer chips rinsed with
acid. She flowed under the city, and we never saw her sweet hips
or her cum rushing green and willowy through our beautiful
rust-belt-empty lot paradise. All we knew was she was fucked up
and hidden, locked up someplace where no one would touch her. (video transcript)
That motive “no one would touch her” occurs multiple times throughout this poem/performance and others in the show and has been a leitmotif in Sins Invalid’s performances in general: the loneliness of disabled people, seen as nonsexual, who are now stepping into the limelight and claiming their beauty, their sensuous selves.
Much of the somatic work in the field of social justice labor focuses on this reclamation process: developing a body-center, a fully inhabited and loved self that then can step out into the world. History and herstory mix, as Resmaa Menakem explains in his cultural somatics online course, where he engages with intergenerational trauma and disturbing flashbacks that are not part of one’s personal biography:
You may have flashbacks of some type of trauma that are not necessarily personal. Many times, we may think we are defective, something is wrong with us or we are crazy as the images seem out of context for our own personal experiences. In that case, you may be dealing with historical trauma. If something is hysterical it is usually historical.15
I am intrigued by this reclaiming of “hysteria” discourse, with its heritage in White psychiatric discourse as “woman-out-of-control.” Here, the “out-of-control-ness” of the association remains, but it is now aligned with physical boundary–breaching understandings of memory and affect. From its use as a put down of “irrational” women, the term shifts into the terrain of countersomatics. The personal of memory, the bounded skin sack, becomes porous to all kinds of water, to memories that come from elsewhere and need reintegration, acknowledgment, to allow one to reunite oneself and to allow power to flow through one’s bodymindspirit in ways beneficial to life.
Piepzna-Samarasinha moves on: “In 1983, my mother could recite the thirty-three cancer-causing/compounds in Worcester water.” The world is toxic, and Piepzna-Samarasinha refuses to make a distinction between herself and the world in which they grew up. They resolutely claim kinship and coherence with the river of her childhood, destinies entwined; to grow as a person, the land and water need liberation, too. This is the radical demand and politics at the heart of this somatic work: a somatic that extends beyond one’s self envelope (or skin sack), one that demands a form of personhood and well-being for land and human (and nonhuman) others.
She gets to a point where the entities of the Brown girl and the river intersect: “What would it take for a river that polluted/to be loved?” River and girl move but without fully flowing into an anthropomorphic mélange. The river keeps its own space, its own stanza, and so does the girl. They touch, instead, skin to skin.
What does it take, they ask, opening up the question to a “you” for the first time. “For my body/for your body/to come back from being swept away?” Implication and infiltration are not just reserved for toxic processes but also for healing ones: for reclaiming, for opening oneself toward trust, (including, in the last lines of her performance) the trust of letting herself go into orgasm, an affirmation of surrender to pleasure and unboundedness.
This move, from self to world, is one that many Indigenous activists also focus on. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, in March 2017, the Māori tribe Whanganui Iwi succeeded in having the Whanganui River, the tribe’s tupuna (ancestor), awarded the same legal rights as a person by the New Zealand government. The law uses a Māori truth: “Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au” (I am the river, and the river is me).
Soon after, the Indian government granted the Ganges and Yamuna rivers legal personhood status. Many places now have mixtures of postcolonial, settler/Indigenous rights frameworks for nonhuman entities (O’Donnell and Talbot-Jones, 2018). Water laps at old structures. Water asserts its agency.
For Piepzna-Samarasinha and others who reclaim their space, the avenue toward that open trust in the world and in one’s self is through the experience of sexuality and the joy of self-pleasure. This, in turn, sensualizes the river and acknowledges its agency, its being active in the world.
Reanimation, reclamation, listening to elemental agency. There’s a precarity in mirroring human social justice onto the all-encompassing movements of water and avenging rivers, but it feels great to align with these powers breaking through colonial and settler concrete. That’s the power of speculative work: storytelling practices to change the story. Eco soma methods here offer entwinement discourses, “living with,” assaulted immune defenses and welcoming embraces.
Toward Open Writing at the Site of Sensation
In keeping with eco soma pushes against boundaries and into extensions between bodies, sites, and histories, arguments run through this book in complex and intersected ways. I do not pull up all the strands presented but leave trailing threads for you, the reader, to pick up and run with. Academic writing means writing in a field, engaging in citational practice, and weaving. Community work goes against some of the core assumptions of traditional academia, like individual authority, distancing independence, and concepts of mastering.16 Yet community writing can also fulfill many of academic writing’s functions, as interferences and connections can come to the fore in unusual ways. In the next part of this chapter, I do not wish to make my collaborators and community participants into case studies by dissecting their work. Disabled people are too often the object of stares, diagnostic gazes, and analyses. By offering a section of open writing as a methodological intervention into conventional academic discourse, I try to deflect those gazes and to channel their energy into other paths. With this particular method, this part of my chapter shifts into cultural studies methodologies and away from modes that privilege close analysis as their main mode of generating knowledge. As an eco soma reader of this work, you are invited to feel your own shifts in perspective: what touches you, as glass, as water, as river, as toxic element, as beneficial salve?
Given this awareness of traditional power relations around disability, this writing works in an open pool of power and its deployment, its invisible pulls and effects, trying to think of humans not as pristine biologic entities but as creatures spun into nets of historic injustice and its ongoing effects. In The Transmission of Affect, feminist philosopher Teresa Brennan offers alternatives to an insistence on individual sovereignty, a view of tightly closed borders and pristine spaces of self-containment. Affect transmits and plays on the openings of bodies. Humans (and nonhumans) live among hormone whiffs, touch and substance alignments between sweat glands and nasal passages, the spray of words layering like a veil on someone else’s skin. “We are not self-contained in our energies,” Brennan writes (2004, 6).
Environmentalist Paul Shepard, positing ecology as a way of understanding relationality, wrote that the epidermis of the skin is “ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration” (1969, 2). This echoes with disability studies scholar Mel Chen’s perspectives on permeability, holding against boundedness, using their own embodiment as an experiment to “deemphasize the borders of the immune system and its concomitant attachments” (2012, 196–7), in a form of “toxic sensorium” (2012, 196). In a resonant image in their study, Chen collapses on their couch at the end of a toxic day, and experiences the couch as a lively site, as a place of intimacy and snuggles, support, and sensuality. Queer complex attachments come into the image, too—exhausted, Chen has only a grunt for their homecoming girlfriend and instead snuggles up with the couch. “The couch and I are interabsorbent, interporous, and not only because the couch is made of mammalian skin” (2012, 203). It all gets a bit complicated, just like the issue of love in the previous chapter—here are moments of relation, of use, of being-with, all gnarled up: “What body am I now in the arms of? Have I performed the inexcusable: Have I treated my girlfriend like my couch? Or have I treated my couch like her, which fares only slightly better in the moral equations?” (2012, 202).
These attentions to permeability and influence inspire eco soma approaches: attentions that find artful openings and juicy hesitations in the interplay between skin and skin, skin and surface, eco-world-in-self and soma-self-in-world, care and use, flesh and discourse.
Arguments that stress transmission over boundaries, interpenetration over shells, offer an intervention into how humans conceive of individuals and how humans are affected by others, by the environment, and by nonclosed systems. Words conglomerate within people; they fill me up and color my perception. Words shape and are shaped by the emotional valence with which people make sense of the world. Hence, words are not superseded by hormonal stuff, and the bio contact is not more real than the cultural stuff. Words and hormones, imagination and physiology, work in tandem. They make me permeable.
I dive down into the abyss of my bodily skin sack’s outer reaches. Water rushes in and makes experiential the space between us. There’s me, in water as these words come up like air bubbles, and I try to store them till I get to dry land to scribble; and there’s you, likely reading on land. Water rushes in and cuts off the air that so invisibly sustains you and me. Water rushes in, gravities shift, and eddies stroke my limbs. I am intrigued by the way we can align biologic and linguistic influences, narrative lines, and sentence structures.
This playful engagement drives our ecopoetic inquiry, too, on the edges of science and art. In the collaborative art experiment I am moving to now, we are not using artistic methods to elucidate and make experiential scientific data. I am also shifting pronouns from time to time: moving from the “I” I carefully maintained through most of this book so far to a focus on a “we.” This does not mean that I believe that everybody who participated in the Salamander project would sign off on everything I claim here. But I do want to signal that this is an experience born in community, in collaboration, and that many of the insights I am writing about emerge from the storytelling and chat that accompanied the project events.
We offer alternative ways of understanding relationality. Eco soma: real effects, in real time, in real alignment between living entities. Eco soma: drawing upon the web of sustaining effects that shape how we think of being individual, social, connected, desirous, and responsible. We are conglomerations with islands of stability, self-aware bounded things who receive what there is to be received from a particular angle or a particular web or sieve. To me, this poetics of sedimented instabilities, changed and rearranged through contact, is an eco soma framework.
I write in an engagement with the poetics of myth and our own postcolonial terraforming, aware of the histories and presents of settler-Indigenous engagements. In the Eco Language Reader, Brenda Iijima asks, “How can poetry engage with a global ecosystem under duress? . . . In what ways do vectors of geography, race, gender, class and culture intersect with the development of individual or collective ecopoetic projects?” (2010, i). The Olimpias disability culture collective responds by going swimming.17
The Salamander Project: Disability Culture
In May 2013, a small group of disabled artists in the San Francisco Bay Area began going swimming together as an art project.18 Initially, Neil Marcus, a spastic performance artist and poet, needed to exercise more to loosen his stiffening limbs, and he knew that the neoliberal dictates of repetitive docile exercise as self-improvement just did not work for him. What did work for him, though, was performing for a camera and an audience.
Working out what needed to be done, Neil bought a small underwater camera and invited his collaborators to come with him and take photos of him underwater. At the time, I was his main collaborator, and I led the Olimpias, a disability culture artist collective. Soon after starting, we decided that this project had a lot of juice and created a meaningful experience for many people. So we created a conceptual frame that included but went beyond self-care and called the project “Salamander,” as many of us had strong mythical associations with artful water play and with the myth valency of creatures like salamanders.19
The salamander is a real-life animal, of course, and in our real and local life it works in ecological frameworks as a marker: the presence or absence of salamanders can help mark the toxic load of environments (Davic and Hartwell 2004). But the salamander is also a mythical creature and a border creature, one of the original alchemical animals. In alchemy, the salamander is linked to the elements; it connects water and fire and stands as a marker of transformation.20
As our project progressed, we gathered more and more border creatures, shared childhood stories, and remembered myths. Through this we garnered new myths and new stories to help us focus on what was going on around and within us. We experienced, we created, we were active and happy, at least for moments, among ourselves: a very different image of disability in environmental practice than usually presented in literature and social discourse.
As disabled people, many of us are cut off from the mechanisms of work. We often can’t be economically active, and that makes many feel devalued and worthless in a culture that is focused on labor. These value assignments run deep, aligned with internalized ableism. We are ecosystems under duress, and the treatment of disabled people and elders often offers insights into a particular human ecology and its organizational structures and values. Neoliberal policies seem intent on erasing human diversity, as more and more people experience the snipping away of the welfare safety net. In California, with In-Home Supportive Services and other programs under constant pressure to let people slip through the cracks, many of us find ourselves under assault, required to conform to narrow prescriptions of what being human means.
Floating together in the water, we have had many conversations about this. The shift in gravity allowed for an opening to talk about pressures and sorrows.
Literary critic Lynn Keller sums up how many see the history of nature writing as a genre. The critique is quite stinging. There are many examples of nature writing that shift outside these boundaries; but, even so, this description resonated with many of us paddling in the pool. Keller writes:
Nature writing as it has developed from traditions of the pastoral contributes valuably to readers’ appreciation of the given world and can instill reverence or respect that prompts a desire to preserve the earth’s resources, yet this genre may play a relatively minor role in the conversation around sustainability. Received ideas of nature codified in such writing tend, as many have noted, to position nature as something apart from the human, making it difficult to conceptualize ways for large populations to live appropriately in and with nature. The elegiac or nostalgic cast of much nature writing is likely to be of little use to clearheaded envisioning of an attainable, sustainable future. (2012, 581)
For many of us in the pools, rivers, and oceans of Salamander project workshops, nature is not pristine. We can see the trash of nonreverence all around us, whether we dive under the Mediterranean or frolic among kayakers in Lake Michigan. Occasionally, I have led Salamander sessions in these idealized sites of “purity”—for instance, deep in the Australian bush, or in the Shoalhaven River with the threat of bull sharks very much alive around us. Most Salamanders, though, were in much more “human-shaped” sites: thermal baths in Germany and Sweden, under bridges in Stockholm, in a public bath in Aotearoa/New Zealand, on Barcelona’s busy public beaches.21 All the visits had to do with “attainable, sustainable” lives toward crip futures: most days, we walked and wheeled from these sites to disabled people’s apartments in these respective cities or sites. Or we went to the one wheelchair-accessible restaurant and broke bread together. An offer of economic care access was part of each of these gatherings. My professorial pay allowed me to offer financial support to anyone who didn’t have money for a meal, an entry fee, or a bathing suit. We found out about our respective lives, locations, and support structures. But supplementing this, when we were under, at the heart of our engagement, there was unknowability, boundary zones, and death/life underwater.
Keller writes from a perspective as a critic of experimental poetry, and she sees value in a fostering of aesthetic diversity:
I believe the demanding projects that must be undertaken by a literature toward sustainability will require the literary and imaginative equivalent of biodiversity: different contributions will come from a variety of generic, formal, structural, rhetorical, and thematic approaches, many of them deliberately resisting inherited conventions, and from varied critical and social perspectives. Independently and in interaction with one another, the diverse species in this literary ecology may open up our perceptions and with them our understanding of our options. (Keller 2012, 582)
The Salamander project offers a perspective on how this interdependent, complex, multigenre poetic work may operate on the ground or rather in flotation among many different bodyminds.
I want to sharpen the discussion, too, for I also believe that an emphasis on diversity requires actual contact, collaboration, and outreach; it should be orchestrated not only at the level of editorial or curatorial policy in the assemblage of materials, art, or performances. It needs to also be felt at the level of the street, of bringing people not usually in contact with one another into consciousness of the contact that we always already bear. This is pervasive contact at the level of sedimented affect: how we understand ourselves to be bounded as well as the ways imaginative writing and art undo and loosen those boundaries.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs identifies as a “Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings” (2021). She models a way of engaging new methods at the site of environment/embodiment in a way that speaks directly to inter/active audiencing procedures. She writes in her foreword to the M Archive: “Consider this text an experiment, an index, an oracle, an archive. Let this text be alive as you are alive” (2018, xii).22 And in her readings from her text, she uses her poetic collection as an oracle or divination tool. I was a participant at such an event, a salon talk with Gumbs and a shared meal, part of choreographer Jennifer Harge’s FLY/DROWN event series at the Detroit Artists Market in 2019. The bree gant image in the bathtub I discussed earlier was part of the visual art exhibit of this event. During that evening, and as a part of a performance workshop that had us move and connect with each other, Gumbs invited her audience to ask a question that was meaningful to us together with a number. We were asked to have a stake and to be connected—such a rare way of going about poetry/fiction readings. In the session I participated in, many of us asked a question, and Gumbs took her book, opened it at the number given, and read a passage in response. And then she and the audience member discussed the impact of that phrase, avenues of potential fit. This was not just a stylish feature but a real invitation to connection. This kind of connective web—artmaking with something at stake, writing as a memory of being together—is also at the heart of my wishes for projects like Salamander.
Out there, in public, disability is preferably unseen, politely ignored, a head turner (away). Given the near-instinctive (adult) pull away from disabled people, the politics of Salamander are homeopathic and inoculatory, offering what might be painful so that the pain might lessen over time. Our project needs to be public because the public finds disability abhorrent. So we insert ourselves, if we can (and as much as we can), with a difference, modeling our own grace and hope, our careful and loving play with each other.
In public water sports, bounds are visible, experiential, and under duress, as many writers have noted (including Walt Whitman, who hangs out with the bathers). Literary theorist and poet Michael Davidson begins his study Concerto for the Left Hand in his public pool. He comments on the ungainly yet beautiful addenda and movement patterns on display in the pool: there are people of different ages with varied health statuses and all with different perspectives on whether or not they officially identify themselves with the disability rights movement. These people swim together, lurching about with flippers, goggles, and sun hats (2008, xiv).
In the Salamander project, we make the everyday diversity of the pool into a political field. We acknowledge exclusions and histories, including the racial histories of U.S. swimming pools, segregation, uneven access to swimming opportunities, and lack of nongendered changing rooms. We consciously insert disability into the pool’s framework. Suddenly, we see many disabled people and their friends in the water. Some have extraordinary bodies; some move in unusual ways. Some are White, and some are of color. Others are marked by various forms of transition. Our being in this world, not just incidentally but en masse, inserts a visibility of biodiversity. We are not just the outcome of catastrophe, the embodiment of environmental assaults, or ciphers of victimhood. We are here and we play, aligning ourselves with our worlds. We are holding each other, at least for a short while, but with reverberations that go beyond. These can be care webs, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s term for mutual aid–oriented collective actions that can “shift our ideas of access and care . . . from an individual chore, an unfortunate cost of having an unfortunate body, to a collective responsibility that’s maybe even deeply joyful” (2018, 33).
We open ourselves up to other worlds, to the speculative. In the water, for some of us, things clear up. Magic happens. Visual artist Calida Garcia Rawles writes about her time in water and the inspiration for her well-known paintings of Black people floating deliciously and alive in water:
I found that I felt emotionally lighter after leaving the pool, no matter what issues I was working out before I jumped into the water. This led me to begin using water as a visual language . . . a way to heal and address difficult and divisive issues. When I am in the water and I see the light glistening off of it in certain ways . . . it just looks so magical. The way the body appears to break, splinter, and flow in moving water appears other-worldly to me. (2020)
Otherworldly: this is my experience of our Salamanders, too. A healing magic, in touch with exclusions and denials, with violence and pain, but also a place of power, joy, and reset, outside the bounds of the usual. In touch, in water, we change. Floating, I remember some of my personal movement influences, like Japanese-born choreographer/dancers Eiko and Koma, who are students of Butoh elder Kazuo Ohno. I hear their calm voices, and I found their words again as I researched this passage. The two of them write in their “Delicious Movement” manifesto: “1. Move to rest, sleep, and dream. 2. Move to pass time, bloom, and linger. 3. Move to taste and share. 4. Move to forget and remember” (Eiko and Koma, n.d.). As I twist around myself in the water, I dream and bloom, my painful bodymindspirit inviting movement patterns of other creatures to move me, to share, to forget, to remember.
And writing this down, re-experiencing watery serpentine curvings, I also remember Qwo-Li Driskill, who writes a letter to another ancestor, Chicana activist and philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa described a psychic state of stillness named after the monster/goddess Coatlicue in rich language, as a stasis where the conscious mind rests to process change: “a rupture in our everyday world,” “a consuming internal whirlwind,” “a thousand slithering serpent hairs” (Anzaldúa 2007, 68, 69). Driskill sees strong connections between this animated power of stillness, of rest, of abeyance, and disability: “People with disabilities . . . may be able to more easily access the Coatlicue state . . . because our bodyminds require and experience constant crossings between consciousness. Crip bodies and crip consciousness are part of a larger ‘healing of the wound.’” (2012, 90). The Coatlicue is not part of my personal cultural background, and I do not wish to write too much about a concept that has a rich history and engagement in Chicanx and Latinx thought. But this serpentine abeyance, a power of stillness as a place to process transition, is often with me as I twirl in the water, underwater, as I give the weight of my painful joints to a new gravity, as I rest with others, in mutual care, by the side of the pool.
At the pool, lifeguards tend to tense for a while as we collect our wheelchairs and walkers (and strollers for children). Some of us stiffly enter the pool, an effect that might be partly due to psych meds, autistic embodiment, pain, or other neurodiversity effects. Assuring people that we are safe, both to ourselves and to them, is part of the performance display of Salamander. Here be dragons.
Disability theorist Tobin Siebers offers a framework that allows us to rethink these connections between aesthetics and the environment. He writes:
Works of art called ugly ignite public furor. Unaesthetic designs or dilapidated buildings are viewed as eyesores. Deformed bodies appear as public nuisances. Not only do these phenomena confront the public with images of the disabled body, they expose the fact that the public’s idea of health is itself based on unconscious operations designed to defend against the pain of disability. (2003, 215–16)
So if disability is preferably unseen because it reminds people of projected and repressed pain, let’s offer an alternative. Let’s play, splash, push the boundary a bit. Let’s press the horror button, too, in the scary liminal place of the chlorine soup (and its hints of contagion). Our engagement with public aesthetics happens in public poetics—out there, in the shared social world.
I conceive of ecopoetic work as going beyond the page, of blowing up from the two-dimensional capture of data on white paper toward engaging audiences in an embodied poetics. If the point is to change the world, do we not need to place our ecopoetic adventures in public view? If interdependency and collaboration are at stake, do we not need to invite others, not yet part of our project, to witness and to shift standpoints incrementally? What is activism for aesthetic politics, and how can it find audiences?
Critic Jonathan Skinner points to this impetus to go beyond the page in his expanded sense of ecopoetics: “Landscape artists who write . . . make a compelling case for the extension of writing by other means—as if their landscapes, gardens, and earth works were poems without books, written in the elements and in living matter, merely extended or refracted onto the page of the essay” (2011, 260). In the Salamander, we are writing essays with water, without heavy lifting and earth shifting. This is a collaborative poetics of invitation, one that acknowledges with Siebers that there is always already an aesthetic in space, one that can be tweaked and made conscious through a gentle and seductive play with difference.23
Our Salamander work has many different invitations, opening outward, inviting engagement. Taking a photo in the pool is such a framing device: a poetic gesture that frames a moment as something set apart from the flow of diving underwater. Many Salamander photos come about when strangers are drawn into our circle. They see the camera, see what we are up to, find out what we are doing, and want to be part of it. Chatting about underwater camera technology can be an opening into poetic play. Many give permission for us to take their photos. And there they are in the photos, dripping wet, skin to skin with Olimpias people. Everyone is laughing, blowing out air, the bubbles mixing. All are breathless together in the euphoria that comes with depleted oxygen.
As the Salamander project continues, we go well beyond cameras in pools. We hover, swim, engage in horseplay, and dive in rivers, oceans, and lakes. In all these places, “disability” is an issue, a highly visible unusual presence, not one structured into the aesthetics of the human-nature interface. Our natures are beyond the imagination of “nature.” Queer crip feminist Alison Kafer pulls the rug out from under any theorizing that somehow sees “natural spaces” as “natural” and disabled people as “naturally” outside of them. Here she describes how the human activity of camping mirrors dominant social arrangements:
Disability studies could benefit from the work of environmental scholars and theorists who describe how “social arrangements” have been mapped onto “natural environments.” Many campgrounds in the United States, for example, have been designed to resemble suburban neighborhoods, with single campgrounds for each family, clearly demarcated private and public spaces, and layouts built for cars. Each individual campsite faces onto the road or common area so that rangers (and other campers) can easily monitor others’ behaviors. Such spacing likely discourages, or at least pushes into the cover of darkness, outwardly queer acts and practices. (2013, 130)
In the Salamander project, we foreground alternative erotics, social arrangements, and disability culture ways of doing things. The way that “access” has been inscribed into “nature spaces” has specific assumptions about who is doing what in what way. In one pool, lifeguards were troubled because we were not adhering to the lane swimming that was the “normal” mode of working in that particular water. We pointed out that most of us just can’t swim a whole lane, only bits of one, and that we were careful not to inconvenience linear swimmers. But our nodular conglomeration at the edges was just too aesthetically disruptive, and we were (not unkindly) asked to leave.
On the plus side, going into “nature” does not necessarily mean trekking for miles out into a place where no other humans are (and where a sprained ankle would mean a helicopter rescue). Our “naturalness” might be five feet off the path, helping each other over an uncut curb to touch a tree and sing to it. Others, bystanders who also can’t do the whole trekking thing, can observe us from the picnic areas and join us in our near-edge spaces.
Alison Kafer uses a different Olimpias project to point to our emphasis on nearness rather than distance. She picks up on some core themes of Olimpias’s explorations and sharpens the lens: the joys of academic interdependence. For example:
Cripping this terrain, then, entails a more collaborative approach to nature. Kuppers depicts human-nonhuman nature interactions not in terms of solo ascents or individual feats of achievement, but in terms of community action and ritual. (2013, 143)
Kafer moves then to quote an earlier Olimipias project write-up of mine, a long sentence that readers who made it this far into Eco Soma will recognize in its German accumulation of sensation:
We create our own rhythms and rock ourselves into the world of nature, lose ourselves in a moment of sharing: hummed songs in the round, shared breath, leanings, rocks against wood, leaves falling gentle against skin, bodies braced against others gently lowering toes into waves, touch of bark against finger, cheek, from warm hand to cold snow and back again. (2007, 22, 23)
Unpacking this sentence, Kafer continues:
In this resolutely embodied description, the human and nonhuman are brought into direct contact, connecting the fallen leaf to the tree, or the breath to the wind. What entices me about this description is that it acknowledges loss or inability—she goes on to describe the borders of parking lots and the edges of pathways as the featured terrain, not cliff tops and crevices—and suggests alternative ways of interacting with the worlds around us. Rather than conquering or overcoming nature, Kuppers and her comrades describe caressing it, gazing upon it, breathing with it. (2013, 143, 144)
Olimpias participants change over time, and while some of the people in our loose collective have been with us for more than a decade, others come in for just one project. Thus, our aesthetic politics changes, and the temperature of our writings changes. The Salamander project, while retaining many traces of the embodied writing Kafer comments on, offers a slightly different lens, with the caress and the awareness of boundaries and resistance in balance with one another.
The Salamander Project: Open Pool Writings
The salamander and the natural mediation of amphibians . . . could be an unpretentious signature of the earth, the trace between land, water, and our stories. Consider the stories and memories of salamanders as the natural traces of survivance.
—Gerald Vizenor, “The Tragic Wisdom of Salamanders”
In this section, I share a range of Salamander writings, all emerging out of freewrites and ekphrastic work on the photos of our project. Some people wrote after swimming with us; some wrote in response to the images we post in the world pool of Facebook. Ekphrasis is central to our disability culture politics: acknowledging different sensory experiences in a poetics of translation across forms is a cultural convention providing access for blind and visually impaired people, people with different cognitive processes, and others. When we, in our Olimpias workshops, engage in freewrites about an image or an experience and share the diversity of responses, we can clearly understand that there are many different ways of being in the world, responding to stimuli, engaging with thought.
The writings below were shared on the Salamander listserv or on Facebook. Many of the themes developed in the first part of this section return in these writings, unfolded and deepened. In different forms, you will find water and flesh as connective media; thoughts on the pain of disability and the violence it engenders in public; meditations on inclusion, exclusion, and change; the mythic status of disability and its lean into stories; public performances as politics; connection and wildness; and ways of perceiving ourselves and our relation to the world differently. Presenting these themes in this way, through an assemblage of voices (or, to use Gumbs’s phrase, an oracle) is an enactment of biodiversity: many styles and choices, different distances to and within language frames. Édouard Glissant’s (1990/2006) resonant engagement of the “right to opacity” reminds me that poetry, freewriting, and open-field forms are part of a tactic, a material condition of hyper/in/visibility for nondominant groups. There are many ways to sing and shroud how disabled bodyminds engage in our worlds. See what lines, images, or stories resonate for you—and flip over to the color insert, too, and look at the five color plates of Salamanders under the waters: trace them, describe them, celebrate them, and extend the care web into aesthetic joy.
Sharon Siskin, Berkeley-based visual artist, Ecoart Matters teacher at Laney College
Let’s float together
You and I in the egg of
This world, protected,
Within from the reality of what they/
We have done to our nest.
Andy Jackson, poet, Australia
Squint into this, I would have
said to myself, knowing the key
ingredients and their venom.
A public swimming pool.
A camera. This body. I don’t need
to spell it out. Prose says it’s all there,
always fizzing in the marrow.
The enjambment between us proves
everything blue, all water. This
is a series of dances
we invent as we go, each
the length of a full breath.
One body passes over me, another
winds around my torso, sinuous,
amphibious, tender, muscular,
substantial. Deep animal
play, human mind turned
against itself and for the new human,
submerged in the way we move
together fluidly, or bump
against bone with apologies and
laughter, then dive down again
into the depths where thresholds
blur and the future
opens like lungs . . .
Clouds move in as I climb out
and become singular again,
rubbing the towel against my body,
but leaving a few drops behind.
I know two things—
it’s too cold to stay here all day
and the world is thirsty for water.
Who can feel comfortable in a bathing suit, in a swimming pool, in what is considered a healthful space in our shared culture? These are questions that come into focus as Salamander gets underway, and our workshops proliferate. Barriers emerge: the chlorine in many public pools is a barrier to our chemically injured participants. For many Black children, learning how to swim is an act of defiance of White norms, something beset with historic and contemporary racial tension. Gender images are also an issue for many people in pool settings. Some Olimpias collaborators who identify as trans, either pre-, post- or non-transitioning, are uncomfortable with sharing themselves in public pools, acknowledging the danger of binary “male”/“female” changing areas.
The slides between experiences of hate, shame, and reclamation are complex, and with each email or conversation in these first weeks of Salamander, I feel again and again the power of disclosure, exposure, the toxicity of the public sphere, the sadness of feeling excluded. The privilege of fitting in, or of having assembled enough cultural capital to own one’s visible difference as a place of pride, comes sharply into focus for me as I see and read of people being attracted by and yet unable(d) to join us.
I am writing this a day after I was spat on, in public, by a drunken woman on a public bus. She was upset before we entered the bus. As the bus waited around for the bus driver to strap us in, to “secure” us according to his regulations, she got more and more enraged, mumbled “bitch” at me, and paced in agitation. When she left the bus, she spat at me, and her spit on my skin and hair smelled of booze. I am a half-time city dweller, full-time public transport user, and though used to abuse and bus drama, the intensity of hate pierced my composure.
“Bitch”: I am a large woman, articulate, owning my space. I signal complexly: my skin color, carriage, and German Welsh accent speak of privilege; my wheelchair (strapped in place, unable to move when someone spits on me) makes me vulnerable and easy prey. My femininity is hidden for many by the bulk of my person—in public, many people call me “sir.” Classed and gendered in complex ways, girth hides my pendulous breasts.
In the water, I am a salamander: I am mobile in ways I cannot be out of the water. Nothing straps me down, and I have the privilege of movement, sidewinder, undulating, rolling in the pleasure of my round strong limbs. In the water, pressure deforms. But even though this is a place of safety for my aching limbs, this is not a place free of the constraints of normativity: race, class, gender, and disability very much inform who has access to my place of freedom. Many people we have swum with so far in Salamander haven’t been in pools for a long time—this is an opening, a tentative step, often hard-won, and we shall understand it to be such. To see ourselves in the pool is a political action in its own right. So we shall swim together this summer, trying to be attentive to who is not in the circle with us, not able to float, deliciously, tenderly regarded.
Neil Marcus, artist, Bay Area
it is hard to get to the pool. I mean . . . it has been over the years.
but lately it’s been easier. it’s art. it’s performance. it’s . . . Showtime. . . .
water has always been my comfort. I fall into i.e. jump into it . . . totally. it’s the only place. I can . . . fall. my body be itself. just who I am. me Spastic . . . falling.
turning, twisting, writhing. it’s o.k. water. in water face down. holding breath like an alligator/log. first thrashing as Tarzan gets me in his grip. I thrash in resistance grappling with him. then I am subdued . . . appearing lifeless. though not lifeless at all.
this leads me to theater. the stage. the fourth wall.
I feel also very at home in this world.
the fourth wall, to me is like . . . as I am . . . in water
another element is the audience. in the pool it is the camera. I know this lens. I can work with it. it is capturing new images.
I am egged on. I know what I have to ‘say’ is important.
‘ACTOR’ is such a charged word. I guess it means being seen
and knowing how to relate to oneself onstage in front of an
audience. STAGES are magic places.
Chia-Yi Seetoo, dance artist, Shanghai
Not so much afraid of water now. Perhaps it’s the warm weather, I actually wanted to swim. Not athletic swimming. Just to have fun. Both your bodies are warm. Soft, buoyant, tender, floating in the water. Tried to dive without goggles on. Then tried to open my eyes. Then tried to stay under water longer. Came up with ways to wave my limbs around, snake my torso. Neil can stay under water for so long. Amazing. I kept floating back up. What great fun to just float in a warm but not too hot late afternoon in Berkeley. For a moment we all became like kids. Just a moment of playfulness, being together, beyond words. Dance under water. Work with the buoyancy. Not about defying gravity, nor embracing gravity. Not about erecting or jumping higher, nor ‘sinking’ or ‘releasing’ into the floor, as we might say, when working to inverse a certain upheld aesthetic expectation—of dancing on the ground, dancing on the plane. But water! We are really dancing with it. We are all cuddled and surrounded by the water. We are working in another way. The water lifts our limbs and we succumb to this tender choreography. A tender adventure.
Nor ’Ain Muhamad Nor, student in earth and environmental sciences, University of Michigan
Did i see you flinch as i danced through the water?
The clear blue body embracing every crevice of my skin from the bridge of my nose to the folds of my elbows
i am touched, like i have never been touched before. My lover was never like that.
As i move my body with the water it’s like
a dance routine, those graceful leaves of fire and gold
they don’t stand a chance, not even on windy nights. My bones no longer tremble like they always do, the veins in my arms no longer battle like soldiers, at war.
i am not afraid of myself anymore.
The Sun is gentle with me. It caresses me through
the silence the way mothers caress their sleeping babies
on hospital beds, i am illuminated and rebirthed as the air that keeps me afloat escapes my lungs as fast as you turn away.
I do not listen to dogs who parade their dirty bones, so do not tell me that i can’t do this.
The distance between the surface of the
water and the tips of my fingers spreads as i let
my body sink into peace. Dark locks of hair liberating upwards, denying the existence of gravity.
I am the astronaut, yearning for soft landing,
i am the ripples, moving my surrounding,
I am water, fluid and enchanting.
i am at the bottom, and my heart beats, slow. Here in the dark where light cannot reach me, and noise cannot come for me, i become my own. The water guards me
from the poisons of the norm, i am free. Let me stay here forever.
Let me breathe.
Let me breathe.
Jasmine Pawlicki, Anishinaabe, singer, drum group leader, and powwow dancer
Because the Nibaanabeg and the Nibaanabekwewag live in another realm hidden from our sight in the deep, dark waters, they are feared and rarely mentioned. However, they are beings who share characteristics with us, and they wish for the same recognition as those who dwell on land. Over time, the Anishinaabeg began to forget to offer asemaa (tobacco) to the manidoug (spirits/mysteries) who live underwater. In dibaajimowinan (stories), the Nibaanabekwewag are temptresses, drawing unsuspecting men down through four spiritual realms into the final realm of death. However, it is not out of malice that the Nibaanabekwewag draw these men to their world, but from a desire for these men to understand the underwater manidougs’ need for asemaa and recognition from those in the land of the living.
Salamander falls into the fairy tales. My grandmother walked with me the stations of the cross, strewn across miles of farmland and woods. Near one of these stations was a small wood with a lake and a ruined boat. This, my grandmother told me, was Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I believed this, and I still remember the ruined castle, one of many in the German countryside. Weeds wound through the stones, and the lake was calm, full of water roses. I bet a salamander or two made their home in it, too. Black and gold. In the dark green. Water I do not wish to swim in, scum on my arms and legs, the green sludge accumulating under my breasts. Fertile creatures, half soil, half water, plant animals, clinging to me. I am hugged by these sticky German waters, by the Michigan lakes in their own placid greenness, the sign of overfertilization, the mark of terraforming upon them.
If I were to find the salamander, he might speak of survivance in a colonized land, of habitat loss and of shrinking gene pools. But he is here, a web search assures me: farmers and urban dwellers have not yet succeeded in excavating each dark nook, the crevasses are still hidden, there is still a dark fetid smell of fecundity and of weeds wrapping themselves over stones and breaking their backs.
Denise Leto, poet, Bay Area
The last salamander I saw in San Diego was not at the body of water I was speaking of when walking in the water there and here with the sense of mom in both places now that she is gone. It was not in the ocean. It was not in the uncanny valley. It was in the mountains. It was black with red spots. Or maybe I’m making up that it was black with red spots because I want to be inside the myth of all things wet. Landed, I think of all things wet. In the ocean, you don’t think of wet/dry, hot/cold, alive/dead . . . you think of ocean. I think of not just the sentient being, “a salamander” but just the word too. Salamander. They show up in my poems. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t matter. There they are. I am now in a circle of salamanders. We write and write. They do not look like us. I am grateful that demarcations of wet/dry, land/water, beginning/end do not matter. They are both things at once as are we.
Later I dream: of a phosphorescent salamander singing.
Later still I dream: my friend who is dying sits cross-legged on the floor with a blanket wrapped around her but then the blanket is not a blanket it is an octopus.
I dream these in the same night. The family Salamandridae surround. They have something to do with writing in the near-amphibious rain.
Susan Nordmark, Bay Area writer
Denise and I exchanged gazes, questions. We were otters, diving and twirling below the surface, bodies agile and lithe. The familiar unfamiliarity of each person new to another, her specific features, how her body and brain respond. How she is, is not like me. How I am, am not like her. How we have fish skin, seaweed hair, bright eyes, limbs, porpoise lungs.
It had been glorious. The next day my shoulders were hard and strong, happy I had pulled water. But gut, brain, lymph nodes cried with pain. Don’t punish with chemical-infused pool water, they said. I had to think. Do I want to swim and take an immunosuppressive, blood-vessel-damaging drug afterward? No. A brain-swirling drug? Will they even work? No. Do I want goggles that vacuum-suck? Not if they crush my skull like a vise. Will all this be enough, is there an enough? Was this experiment valuable? Do I grieve? I grieve the loss of water.
Denise Leto, from Lake as Body
The salamander, black with red spots
climbed into her mouth with its pods,
its sticky pods and it pulled
at her lips: replenished, stricken.
Losing the larger frame of sound
she was unable to speak, her voice
seized in grainy rivulets, lesser dams.
The salamander swam beneath her tongue
it was gorgeous and frightened
or frightening—she wasn’t certain.
It kept being a world in there
so she wouldn’t swallow its slick
skin hiding in glottal stops.
It didn’t pretend to be her primal self.
It didn’t pretend to be anything
other than its own body.
Chris Smit, director of DisArt, Grand Rapids, Michigan
I am terrified by water . . . But I wasn’t once. As a child I loved the water, I
loved swimming with my father, I loved the floating and the use of my legs
which during the day were not used because they were tucked into my wheelchair.
In 1989, surgeons cut open my back and put in a Harrington rod . . .
Connected it to my spine. The rod took away my love for the water . . . Simply
made me sink.
I haven’t been in the water for swimming reasons in over two decades.
But the smiles, the bubbles, the movement that I see here in the Salamander
images . . . They call to that child who used to love swimming. They awaken
a sort of mystery that I have not felt in many years . . . Can I find some sort of
rhythm in the water again? Can I pursue movement in a new way?
Stephanie Heit, poet/dancer, Michigan
We came here as a group and met up with some others who drove separately. There are limited spots in the parking area, but we are lucky and get the equivalent of the crip spot (there are no official ones) with close access to the short pathway to the small beach. This is our lake. Petra, Gwynneth, Beth, V, and another queer couple. Along with the growing number of people who connect with this 23-acre refuge of deep spring fed water with squishy life at the edges: cat tails, lily pads, minnows, frogs, pickerel fish, and the occasional water snake. It gets deep quickly. Sometimes we bring little rafts to take turns resting on while we hang out and tread water in the middle. We chat in a drifting way as our bodies move and are moved by water. Our voices interrupted by the prehistoric sandhill crane call as a pair flap across the lake causing a caesura in conversation and movement. This is the above time. I dip below. Under there is water silence. A slur of sound that changes shapes, viscous and comforting. My brain slows a bit from my hypomanic mind, prickly as thoughts chafe against one another in quick succession (a common occurrence for my bipolar being in the summer season). The finite nature of my held breath brings my awareness into focus. I tune into my endpoints—fingers, toes, head, tail, and sense them lengthening beyond my skin in energetic shafts through the water. I’m able to rest as I share my weight with the lake and imagine my nervous system, that often feels raw, now lubricated and insulated by this lake. It is a relief to speak in cellular exchange, contact, gentle strokes especially as antidote to my current hypomanic language cascades. I know the others are still close by, and at one point, Petra and the camera witness me. Yet I experience this underwater space as private, solo, and at times, a dissolve of edges, blur of water bodies.
Xavier Duacastilla Soler, disability activist, Barcelona
Ser Salamandra, ese es la cuestión.
Bajo el agua todo se transforma.
En el agua el cuerpo recibe impulsos de vida, otra mobilidad, otra manera de danzar la vida.
Being Salamander, that is the question.
Underwater everything changes.
In water the body receives life impulses, another mobility, another way of life dancing.24
Salamander Swim off Barceloneta, Spain
The water is turbid: this is near the surf, the most unstable part of the ocean for bipedals. This is near the danger zone for me, where I can’t walk. I am watching Erik struggling into the water, watch Brook standing by, observing him but not helping needlessly: she knows what to do and when not to interfere, when help is unwarranted. But a Spanish man coming by does not know that: he shouts at her, chews her out for “leaving Erik alone.”
Erik continues on this crawl into the water, and eventually, he is through the roughest surf, and I can extend my hand to him. We cradle each other in a mutual embrace. Brook joins us, and she holds Erik, too. We are connected, and drifting. For a while, there are short gasps and stiffness. This is not our natural medium. Then, it’s becoming more peaceful. We turn away from the busy beach and toward the calm, quiet horizon.
Waves roll in, and lift us. We let them, eventually, as we do not fight any more. Lift, roil. Breathe. Skin to skin. We all have bared our chests: here, on the Barcelona city beach, lots of women of all ages are topless. We see few explicitly gender-queer people, though: between us, we have scars, tattoos, blue hair and other adornments that seem a bit unusual on this beach, but it’s fine. Apart from the one guy, no one else hassles us.
The disability scene is fantastic: there is a station for disabled beach goers, and five buff beach guards hang out there and help disabled people. It seems quite the hook-up and hang-out place: in the time we are there, I see a bunch of gloriously naked people with unusual bodies, glistening with oil, boobs to the sky, with entourage, engaged in playful banter with a mixed-gender crowd. One of the crips, a guy with strong arms and no legs, can speak some English, and is helpful to us. This is pretty near heaven.
The guards lend me crutches with big plastic cups at the bottom, so I can easily get down the ramp that leads into the waves, and they keep my powerchair safe while I bob around in the sea. Later, they get Yulia and Erik off the sand with the big yellow crip beach mobile, cheerfully lifting disabled bodies, offering to hose us down, and to tie Yulia’s shoes.
Cheers and laughter, warm skin pressing into mine in the gentle waters, an embrace of more than two, tender breasts leaning into another’s soft tissue. I can see Erik’s lips turn blue, eventually, and the color reminds us that no, this caress is not a homeground, there is danger here. We have to leave. We shout to one of the helpers on the beach, and he comes and helps us get out, get past the surf again.
The sea sucks at me one last time, clasps my feet and tries to hold me back, and I could let myself fall backward, backward, downward, so easily, to give myself to this gravity, to rest in this pressure so delicious to my tissues, to relieve the pain. But it’s time to go. Crip time, in rhythm.
Eco Soma Writing
When I think of Olimpias’s moments of grace, what comes to me are small-time bubbles, crip time (which you will read much more about in the final chapter of this book), blossoming out of time’s usual flow toward new futures. These grace notes are rarely in performance but are moments like this, suspended in the memory amber of writing: for example, a fellow Salamander swimmer and longtime Olimpias participant Katherine Mancuso, meeting me in another niche of the Bay Area’s disability culture ecology, an AXIS dance company dance jam. I find myself moving with Katherine, and we embrace into contact weight sharing.
I do not know about Katherine’s day, and we do not use words. But we sink onto each other’s shoulders, a long-held embrace, a fleeting kiss to each other on the neck. Slowly, we glide over skin, our arms retreating over warm flesh. We find another hold, another point of sharing weight, of counterbalance. We offer anchor points to each other: at one point, my arms are outstretched, and Katherine’s hands are hanging off mine; her body rocks in place beneath our hands, safely anchored between our palms and the ground below, teetering back and forth.
The shape we make feels like an egg in space, limbs tucked in, a rocking. A place of possibility and virtuality, emergence and transformation. There is little dynamic work here; this is not a riveting performance when watched with the judging instruments of audiencing. But it is a delicious place to be in: bones in secure contact, muscles warmly aligning, skins cool and soft against one another. I remember Chen’s couch as I write these words: here are places we find support, sites that leach and influence, different kinds of skin, different kinds of livelinesses.
From here, Katherine and I can each make little starts into movements that might or might not be unfamiliar. We can also rest and prepare for what lies ahead, for the moment when we step out of this time bubble. These are the sites I wish to move from and toward: smooth space, deterritorialized zones, stimming globes to reassemble and self-stimulate toward recognition and emergent new territorializations.
Nonhuman others appear in these pages—and whether they appear as metaphors or as experience remains an open-field question. How does it feel to be disabled and deemed nonhuman and expendable at many different historical junctions? In the open writing, I shared my experience of being spat upon, and many experiences like this structure the lives of people whose voices, bodies, or minds are deemed other. Drawing upon the textual fields of salamanders or eggs offers new textual riches to a human biodiversity that has been painted into a medical corner. The scope of our politics is shaped by the social field that we have access to, and the lift over the uncut curb can be a step into unknown territory.
In Western nature writing, “nature” has so often stood for “nonhuman,” an other to be penetrated, conquered, awed by, or saved. In this ecopoetics project, the methods of textual creation and critical reflection focus on connectivity and interdependence, on multiple voices in vibrational touch with one another. Eco soma methods are here methods of multivoicing, of listening to the silences between voices and to the different textures and genres with which humans and nonhumans come to expression. “We are not self-contained in our energies”: we open up in a field of connection, into a watery realm in which any wave we make can be more consciously felt by others. The waters of pools, lakes, rivers, or seas help us understand what interdependence and connectivity can mean and how we affect and are affected by each other and the world. Who can swim in chlorinated water? What is the toxic load of this river? Where do plastic bags swirl in the surf? What is safe, for whom, in what contexts? The words that emerge, like this writing, can extend the reach of our ecopoetics, local specificity, and nonlocal readerly practice interweaving with each other, touching in the nonspace between words and skins.
In conclusion, I wish to offer three reasons for the creative-writing emphasis of this performance-visual-writing project and for its inclusion in a book on eco soma methods. How do eco soma methods mix and congeal with writing as art practice? The first reason brings me back to Lynn Keller’s perspective on the value of experimental writing in sustainability discourses and to the interdependent webbing that emerges when multiple genres and forms come into contact. Writing, performance, witnessing, extension: these are all moments of deterritorialization, each pointing in turn to a wider field, to meeting on horizons. Each clasps other sensations to itself, always in need of supplementation in a field that always remains open.
The second reason for writing also relates to sustainability and to material practices of making art. Writing can touch, and touch can change. So much of my attention lies within the moment when energy/sensation/intuition/feeling reaches beyond one’s own skin sack toward something other. The project writings and the photos interspersed throughout might offer this emergent quality for a reader, allowing them a way into a very specific/cognitive experience. A few of the texts will glide away without any mark being made. Other ones might well lodge themselves in a readerly hollow. What has remained with you, reading the pattern of texts above? Did you dream yourself into water, and if so, what emotional currency floated with you? The time of reading itself is a gift, an engagement offer, as is the time it takes to write these and the courage to publicly post them to the Salamander LISTSERV or our Facebook site.
The parameters of the Salamander project are easy to grasp: visit with each other, go swimming, dive under, use an underwater camera to take photos, tweak the colors a bit with Photoshop, enjoy your deformed beauty in alternative gravities, and write about your experiences if you want to. But even though the setup is easy, many won’t engage in the work. Engaging physically in art practice is hard, and displaying oneself in a culture that fears, avoids, and hates disability is even harder. The Olimpias collective provides safety in numbers and shared experiences, fortifying against a harsh and dominant world. Writing functions as an extension, a pushing forward of our politics and our diverse perspectives, sounds, voices, and stories. We can share ourselves beyond the local.25
I am writing a first draft of this chapter in summer 2019, and the latest Salamander work is a video, in line with the discussions in chapter 2: a way for a local, site-specific project to travel and to do so without the same kind of pressure that air travel would exert both on my disabled body and on our wider ecosystem. In 2018 I received a commission to mount a Salamander exhibit as part of an international disability culture exhibit in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gwynneth VanLaven, a disabled photographer and videographer who had also swum in our Salamanders, assembled a nine-minute video loop of still images and snippets of our writings.26
In 2019 I led a large group of theater scholars in a keynote workshop for the Canadian Theatre Studies Association in the blue water of the University of British Columbia’s new Aquatic Center. Inviting us to do this offered a break with the sense of “normal” relative locations for scholarly and performance-based knowledge creation in “business-as-usual” White settler–framed conferences. The Salamander workshop for disabled and nondisabled participants tried to respectfully acknowledge Indigenous activists at that conference, artists who shared the long history of water/land protocols and actions in the region.
Other people have asked me for permission to run their own Salamander sessions: go for it. Our little score has traveled far and wide. It has connected many crip-focused communities. This practice isn’t copyrighted or “owned” as an art object. Go swimming, or go socialize in other ways that are accessible and safe for you (and I am revising this chapter during the Covid pandemic in 2020, aware of the physical costs and pain that results from losing access to my warm-water therapy pool). See what intimacy edge spaces create; see how you can play with risk and hate, with love and challenge. Try to pay attention to what rituals, protocols, orderings, and understandings undergird the medium you are immersing yourself in.
In and out of the water, the project travels on via art world waves as well as more liquid formats, and the triad of writing, experiencing, and mediation fuel the circuit.
And this brings me to the third reason for writing’s presence in the project, back to a more intimate moment. When I cannot lead a wet Salamander workshop, we do dry ones, and these contain freewriting or spontaneous audio description in response to the images that emerge from the project. Really seeing others (either in visual practice or through the audio ekphrastic translations),27 sensing them embedded in their environment, describing them and the different waters that surround them, listening to description, witnessing the differences with which we apprehend our world, writing again: these practices allow us to vicariously experience watery suspension and the life-death membrane that we touch when we witness people deformed by water, outside, in elemental engagement. We see each other in the matrix of our world—in the water, in the light, and not as individual skin sacks—we float. I believe that this practice can offer conspiratorial support to Mia Mingus’s call for new kinds of disability activisms: “I want us to tap into the transformative powers of disability, instead of only gaining access to the current system. . . . We don’t simply want to join the ranks of the privileged, we want to challenge and dismantle these ranks and question why some people are consistently at the bottom” (2017, online talk). What is in the water, what is in the air, what presses on the land, on our bones, in our blood? Who is “our” and “we” here? What old stories and new toxic sites, or what inhumanities and countering myths become active when people watch and describe others in magic water realms? There is interaction, a way in which your memory of water, whatever it means to you, becomes activated by the images we share: a call and response, an eco soma widening, opening, listening.
As you read in the second chapter, audio description is a disability culture method of sharing artwork, and in disability culture circles many people recognize that this practice has a lot of creative potential. The act of describing slows down viewing, allowing us to rest with a visual image and to see what happens with it when we take time. When we engage in audio description in the round, everybody one by one adding a line to the description of an image, we look closely at images of the world and acknowledge the differences in the room with us as well as the differences around us in the world: differences in sensory access but also differences in cognitive processing, differences in memories and stories, differences in how we all process our world. And there are differences over time: the effect of humans on nonhuman spaces; the growth of trees; the impact of terraforming on environments; and the changing color, feel, and translucency of different waters in different seasons.
Below is an example of how the act of image description can shift perspectives on seeing and knowing. It is a meditation by Beth Currans, a women’s and gender studies professor at Eastern Michigan University, who also swum and dove into the waters with us. Currans writes about the way that descriptions of the unclear, unbounded underwater images can activate thoughts on how we categorize and how we communicate. Currans wrote this on the Salamander LISTSERV, where participants posted observations, freewrites, and descriptions of circulating images:
Two people underwater, one marked as male by his beard, one ungendered by the water’s visual distortion. Bubbles glisten in the background and create bluish, blurry spots between their faces and the camera/viewer. Reflections from the sun tattoo his arm as it reaches behind him, separating their faces. Their faces are hard to access. Facial expressions are unclear. Eye contact not possible. The visual distortion means I can’t “know” them.
The distortion means that the water, the sun, the bubbles are as essential to the image as their faces. Such is life. Context always affects how we see. Barriers of various sorts partially block our vision, literally and figurative. Our expectations shape what we see. Our own vantage brings some elements to the forefront, while others become peripheral.
Even when we pull back to see as much as we can, we must still make decisions. To focus on the bubbles in the background, or our own obsessions that shape how we see? To explore the barriers that prevent us from fully seeing their faces? To focus on how the sunlight emphasizes his arm, the play of light, the bubbles?
Viewing and analyzing is a dance, a poetic movement among the different facets of an image or idea. Deep focus on a detail provides one type of knowledge; focusing on barriers to our view provides another. A macro-view provides an overview, but the details get lost. Tracking personal responses allows access to affective registers. Sometimes the need to find out more is overpowering: who are these people and why are they under water? What do the seemingly serene looks on their faces mean to them? Who are they? Other times, focusing on the play of light and bubbles allows a different register of engagement, something playful, watery, warm. (Currans, Salamander LISTSERV, cited with permission)
Community writing, audio description, and ekphrastic freewrites all engage Lynn Keller’s vision of a diverse field, in real contact, engaged in a project of hope, and also engage Gumbs’s vision of a new literary practice that combines contact with divination, a casting into (hopeful) futures. These particular writing processes might help us shift the cultural pain of disability toward understanding how we all, disabled or not, approach being surrounded and supported, being in an environment and being the environment. Eco soma methods allow us to make sense of these sensations. Amassed writing at the site of sensation allows for shifts, for re-feeling one’s own affect toward water, words, and images. We can glimpse that things might be otherwise and that our relations to other bodies and to our shared environment might not be stable. This is what I take from bree gant’s water healing rituals, The Children’s catastrophe, and the Dirty River Girl and its somatic experiencing: things change. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror scenarios that surround us are also rehearsal sites for changing grounds. This, to me, is the basis of eco soma methods: undoing certainty, undoing boundaries, shifting into permeability.
Eco soma work imagines new possibilities on the horizon. Alexis Pauline Gumbs ends her “Archive of Ocean” section with the following passage, which also leans into Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. I wish to respectfully cite it as the outro to my chapter and as a release, an assurance, and a promise that calls wayfarer and ancestors into the stream of our labor toward honoring all our survival:
Here the water is not waiting to waste you. here the sun is not stripping your skin. this is the dark water of renewal. offering only one message: begin. (2018, 131)