Cultural Keystone Species: Piper Methysticum

Stepping off the plane into the humidity of Hawaii, we arrived at someplace that resembled more of a tiki village than an airport. Somehow, tension in my body dissipated, an experience I would never have associated with an airport. The lack of friction between my sandals and the rainkissed ground facilitated a fall that almost appeared like an intentional lunge, except for the evidence that I clumsily scraped my toe while regaining my balance.

The only piece of advice I had been given before coming to Hawaii was to steer clear of cuts because of the prevalence of staph infections, but here I was, immediately raw, exposed, and vulnerable. Friends insisted that I keep the wound protected and to apply either goldenseal powder or fresh turmeric. Though the phytochemistry of both plants are different, both have essentially evolved to protect themselves against invading pathogens, an adaptation that our own species has flourished from.

From what i understand, this ability for plants to protect themselves is linked to their secondary compounds. Simply put, plants have primary and secondary compounds. Primary compounds in plants correlate with things like metabolism and basic function to keep the plant alive, but it has not always been widely accepted in the scientific community that secondary compounds have an ecological purpose. Secondary compounds include the curcumin found in turmeric that is widely known for its antiviral, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties. But it also includes things like the sedative and relaxing properties of other plants that I have encountered.

It’s easy to imagine why a plant might produce these properties for its own protection from invading pathogens, but I wondered about plant constituents that impact the human brain.

What could be the ecological function of plant properties that are stimulating, sedative, that relax the nervous system, or that produces a feeling of euphoria? There is not a consensus about this question, which leaves a lot of room for imagining.

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After driving down a coastal Hawaiian road in the most timeless meander, I found myself at what locals called “Uncle Robert’s.” The main hub was comprised of a diversity of local entrepreneurs selling locally crafted food & art and to the left of me appeared something like another tiki-hut, but as we moved closer, it was clear that this was a kava bar. Carl, a playful character showed me a small ritual or prayer he does before drinking the kava.

I sipped on the bitter and earthy root extraction, and within a few moments, I felt a refreshing presence in my body and the world around me. I was relaxed, but not drowsy. For someone who is constantly challenged by social situations with my own species, this moment made being human feel so easy. The world in which I was engulfed felt increasingly like kin.

Kava bars are a relatively recent phenomenon, springing up just in the 21st century.

This was not my first encounter with kava and oddly enough, despite this plant thriving in tropical regions, my first meeting of this plant was at a kava bar in North Carolina.In my own Kava bar at home, there is a map of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, where many believe the plant originated.  

Kava, Piper Methysticum, or ‘Awa in Hawaii was introduced nearly 1,500 years ago by Polynesian voyagers. This plant gained such a bold prominence in the culture that it was integral to all aspects of life. In ceremony, Kava was a tool for communicating with the spirit world, but it also helped to navigate the social and political realms. The significance of this plant is so strong that some use the term, “cultural keystone species,” as a reference to its cultural salience, as it collaboratively molded the identity of these people. With colonization of Hawaii in the 1820s, the suppression of what Christian missionaries deemed to be “Pagan” resulted in a decline of kava usage, traditional knowledge, and ultimately culture. Though the link between humans and kava has been irreversibly transformed, this relationship is still alive.

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Ecopsychologists see environmental and psychological imbalances as having a common root, which is our severed connection to our larger ecological community. As the multilayered process of human development continues, not only are ecosystems being degraded, but our psyches also suffer. There is research to show that living in an urbanized world correlates with higher levels of stress. So with the rise of this kind of development, there is a simultaneous rise in the need to alleviate anxiety. Anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 18.1% of people every year. This percentage does not account for the numbers of people seeking alternatives to mainstream treatment, like herbal medicine to support well-being and reduce stress. Kava’s most alluring psychoactive compounds are a group of kavalactones that have been widely studied for its potential to calm the body and mind. Though not considered to be endangered, rapidly shifting Earth is increasing the demand and popularity of this plant. Either way, this bond between Kava and humans is one that deserves recognition before it’s too late. Our own species’ entanglement with this plant is so strong, that the plant itself is sterile, meaning it no longer produces seeds and depends on humans for propagation. Essentially, humans and Kava have co-evolved together.

So back to the question about why plant constituents can influence our brains or nervous systems. Could it be said that medicines that allow humans to cope with stress allow for greater diversity in our own species? Without being able to cope with a world that is overwhelmingly engulfed in crisis after crisis, it’s possible that a more tolerant and insensitive kind of human would dominate. Perhaps that is where we are-in a desperate leap to save not just the life around us, but to rekindle and support sensitivity in our own species.

 

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Ecstatic Dance: Embodying Self as Animal

It is not often that sustainability solutions prioritize reclaiming of ourselves as animal, but this shift in identity is essential to strengthen our connection to the more-than-human world. Remembering that we are animal is more than an intellectual act; it is a felt experience of dissolving boundaries between humans and “nature,” to become entirely part of the animate world we are engulfed in. Though a variety of experiences can facilitate this sense of dissolved boundaries, ecstatic dance deserves recognition, as it is not typically perceived to be an activity that connects people to the Earth. However, in my own experience, and others I have encountered, ecstatic dance is a process of rewilding, and ultimately remembering what it means to be animal. This challenges many current environmental solutions because to experience ecstatic dance allows room for our solutions that expand beyond consumption. Even though this video is technically consumed by our senses, the intention is that the viewer will feel inspired to explore their own ecstatic movements.

Why this is relevant? Without recognizing our own capacity to tune into the part of ourselves that is still wild, still part of “nature,” sustainable coexistence with other life is not possible.

 

 

My first encounter with ecstatic dance was nearly two years ago at 3rd place in downtown Boone. In this small space, a group of about 10 individuals gathered and sat in a circle. Megan Kelley, a proponent of the ecstatic dance movement in Boone opened the circle by introducing newcomers to the concepts and underlying intentions of ecstatic dance. She expressed that this space would be safe and non-judgemental, and even encouraged us to close our eyes to fully allow for spontaneous, non-choreographed, and ego-less movement. We were encouraged to interact with others if we felt inspired, but our only limitation was to avoid verbal communication. After an hour of participating and moving in a multitude of ways, we gathered in a circle once again to share our intermingling of movement and emotion. Over the course of my time participating in a diversity of ecstatic dances in North Carolina and Hawaii, descriptions of what people have felt have reflected a sense of feeling more connected to one’s own sense of being wild, as well as feeling more deeply sensitive to the world around them.  I noticed these experiences in myself, but I felt supported by hearing that others were experiencing this simultaneous ego-dissolution and felt sense of connection that accompanies ecstatic dance. This is poetically reflected by Jacqueline Murphy, when she proposes that dance enacts relationships between people, but also between people and what philosopher Val Plumwood referred to as “earth others,” which are non-human animals, plants, minerals, and other beings.

The importance of shifting one’s identity has been recognized by deep ecologists who aim to facilitate greater emotional bonds between people and the planet. Though this identification may be seen as perceiving commonalities between living things, some deep ecologists suggest that this identification is not merely metaphorical of one thing resembling another, but that there are literal implications within common statements, such as, “being one with nature”. This sense of identity allows for the notion of self to incorporate other forms of life by perceiving the evolutionary past and the future. With this perception, there is a realization of the transient nature of things, in which all things on this planet have a material past and future, including humans whose bodily atoms can be traced back to before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago.

The sense of wildness that can be evoked through dance can be experienced in a multitude of environments. This in itself can help to deconstruct current dominant perceptions of what nature is and what it is not. Though many perceive nature to be a place that excludes human intervention, such as forests or protected “natural” areas, many, like William Cronan are critiquing what he deems to be a mere illusion. Cronan boldly reminds his readers that this perception leaves no room for humans to exist as part of the natural world, and worse, it privileges some parts of nature, while oppressing others. Accepting ourselves as natural or as animals does not give us permission to continue to degrade the planet that sustains our lives. Cronan says this remarkably well when he states,  

“The point is not that our current problems are trivial, or that our devastating effects on the earth’s ecosystems should be accepted as inevitable or “natural.” It is rather that we seem unlikely to make much progress in solving these problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we ourselves cannot inhabit.”  

Historically, dance has been an integral part of various cultures around the world.  Five phases of the evolution of dance are recognized, including courtship practice to emulate sexual desire, communal ceremony, dance as a tool to alter states of consciousness in shamanism, calendrical ceremonies for agriculture, and finally, professional and choreographed dance.  A performance studies scholar Diana Taylor argues that performative practices such as dance, theater, music, ceremony, and other ritualized activities transmit social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity from body to body, across time, to form social bodies.

In the same way that these various stages of dance can transmit the social knowledge of that time, participating in ecstatic dance transmits the identity of oneself being animal and inherently part of this wild Earth. This is a solution that necessitates experience; the perceptual shift cannot occur in watching a video alone, but it can inspire one to explore one’s own capacity for movement.  Kimerer LaMothe poetically reflects this when she states, “Every movement “we” as individuals make expresses an impulse to connect with whatever movements have enabled and will enable our ongoing participation in the rhythms of bodily becoming.”

Sources:

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Garfinkel, Yosef1. “The Evolution of Human Dance: Courtship, Rites of Passage, Trance, Calendrical Ceremonies and the Professional Dancer.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 28, no. 2 (May 2018): 283-298. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2018).

LaMothe, Kimerer L. 2015. Why We Dance : A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2018).

Shea Murphy, Jacqueline, and María Regina Firmino Castillo. 2016. “Dancing the Pluriverse: Indigenous Performance as Ontological Praxis.” Dance Research Journal 48, no. 1: 55-73. SPORTDiscus with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2018).

Milton, Kay. Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. London: Routledge, 2006.

William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

An Invitation to Dream

“If I wake from a dream that I am a butterfly, am I a man who has dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” – Chüang TzutempImageForSave (1)

Though the dominant Western worldview is that dreams are an insignificant flickering of neurochemicals, many cultures see dreaming as an insightful gateway into that which we do not ordinarily perceive.

Insight into our own toxic patterns, messages from the non-physically living, and precognitive glimpses of future events are just a few of the potentials that the dreamworld offers.

Imagine being human before the comforts of modernity. Imagine life so richly entangled with demands of survival, that every cell in your body recognizes that you are animal. This comes with great joy, but also the responsibility to be alert at all times, even when the body is sleeping.

I imagine great advantages of lucid dreaming for our ancestors, of being able to elusively detach from the physical body to receive a macrocosmic view of the environment, scanning for threats.

The dreamrealm is a place of serious matters across various cultures. Some South American cultural significance of dreams include: being the place of shamanic initiation, being a means of directing a soul into a woman’s womb for conception, and as being a potent therapeutic tool for healing (Cultural Aspects of Dreaming, Kracke).

In this way, the reality of dream life bears an equal significance to this reality.

Though I have always felt myself to be a strong dreamer, a recent encounter of a book titled “Conscious Dreaming,” (recommended by a friend, Sydney) has rekindled my fire for exploring that which is typically unseen.

Taking notes of my dreams, recognizing the patterned recurring themes, and accessing the non-physically living are the content of my current dream work.

Being able to communicate with the “dead” seems morbid, but it’s actually comforting. My mother left her physical body about 3 years ago, but the boldness of her presence demands my attention in dreams.

When she first died, I had been wrought with guilt about not understanding her conditions of diabetes & depression more deeply. In her presence, my energy was constantly drained from my own helplessness, but I ultimately had to accept that her state was of her own manifestation.

Within a few days of her death, I received a dream of reading an e-mail from her…in the most angelic expression of her forgiveness and absolute unconditional love. Now, she appears in dreamworld almost on a weekly basis, more frequently than I saw her when she was “living.”

This is a such a rich topic..and one I will certainly return to, but for now I am so curious about others’ process with dreaming, so please feel free to share!

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Courageous Tiptoes Toward a Changing Earth: Ecotherapy

Finding solutions that confront our ecological crisis can be overwhelming, but Eco-therapy offers an often overlooked approach.

Many think that when I say, “Eco-therapy,” that it is some sort of Earth-based psychological healing modality, specifically for humans.

It is that, but the medicine is not solely for our species.

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Eco-therapy does not separate the states of the psyche from the conditions of our environment. Eco-psychological perspectives see that these two seemingly separate phenomena have a common root, thus a common solution. The common root is a lack of practices that facilitate a dissolved boundary between humans and “nature.” This perpetuates a feeling of alienation and a perceived separateness from the ecological communities that sustain our lives. When we feel disconnected, we may feel anxious, or even depressed. This may foster habits that are individually fulfilling, motivated by profit, and ultimately environmentally destructive.

This is not a solution for everyone and it is merely one root in a myriad of complex webs.

Is there really an all inclusive solution? I’m not sure, but for those who are in places of power….for those who may see the planet as an infinite well of resources solely for human consumption…for those who value profit over ecological well-being….maybe Eco-therapy could spark insight into alternative ways of being…

Here is a video/creation that reflects these sentiments:

Courageous Tiptoes Toward a Changing Earth: Ecotherapy

Stay tuned for a post that explores the various modalities of practices that facilitate connection, dissolve boundaries, and help to develop the ecological self…

 

 

Alternative Service Experience (Protecting Our Parks)

I’m a little baffled at how smooth this program unfolded.

For a week, 8 of us, some of which barely knew each other, said yes to an alternative spring break. We traveled to the Chesapeake bay, specifically Kiptopeke State Park–a sanctuary for migratory birds to learn about conservation and gain insight to the work of those within state parks.

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Surrounded by cotton fields and a ghostly downtown dominated by art galleries, the town displayed an interesting contrast that sparked curiosity. Locals spoke of how difficult it was to merely get a cup of coffee because of the infrequency of shops being open.

One of our first days grocery shopping, we noticed a lack of fresh foods, particularly tropical fruits. There were no bananas and a few rotting avocados. Our sense of privilege immediately dawned. Why did we expect to find tropical fruits in a non-tropical climate?

It was windy and more frigid than I anticipated. My fingers experienced a numbness most days, but moving our bodies kept us warm.  Work was unpredictable at times. Some moments, we would clean up camp-sites or leaf blow roads, and others we were fixing bikes and removing fences. After fixing the bikes, we were able to ride them to deliver trail maps to kiosks. This was definitely my favorite task.

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during our free day we explored a place curiously named Savage Neck Dunes

Both my co-leader, Cherokee and I had never facilitated a program before. Our personalities, perspectives, and passions were different, but somehow it worked.

Cherokee and I can’t take full credit for how smooth things unfolded because we were quite lucky with the group of participants + our learning partner, Robin. All were mature, willing to take initiative, and open to uncertainty.

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I was nervous about maintaining authenticity as an introverted leader, as well as driving an enterprise van, but both unfurled effortlessly!

I did my best to integrate moments of stillness, inviting others into quietness on beach walks, reading Osho cards, as well as allowing space for recharging during our breaks.

My favorite part was our ritual of nightly reflections. We thought deeply about what conversations and emotions we wanted to spark. I love thinking critically about the work we do.

Sure, conservation sounds good, but are there times when it is not?

Yes-there are many examples, but we read an article and discussed the 20 million indigenous, eco-wise peoples displaced for the mere creation of parks.

Service also sounds inherently beneficial, but even this we attempted to detangle. Good intentions without skills and knowledge of the community’s needs might demand one to question the extent that one’s motivation could be stemming from a place of self-fulfillment. This is not to perpetuate the belief that service is selfless; it’s mutually beneficial. You are always receiving, but the community may not be.

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Savage Neck Dunes

I felt asked to understand the feelings of others in every reflection. In the “Privilege Step Forward Game,” people were asked to be vulnerable about their life experiences. Equally, I allowed myself to speak through tears to process emotions to normalize expressing our authenticity. Participants later expressed that they were nervous to cry or were holding it back, but it felt important to dismantle the taboo against simultaneously being a leader and being vulnerable. 

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Sea foam

Through this program, we gained awareness about sea foam. Being on the coast, we were intimate with the consequences of unsustainable practices, like the excessive use of fertilizers which may indirectly catalyze sea foam through eutrophication + algal blooms.

Ultimately, I learned how to be a better facilitator. It’s an interesting balance to not be dominating, yet have my voice heard. I have a dream of facilitating healing experiences for people, through wilderness immersion, plant relationships, and ritual.

This feels like a subtle leap toward that dream.

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Cosmovision of the Kogi ~

Processed with VSCO with m3 presetin one of my classes I have learned a little about the cosmovision of the Kogi, an indigenous group of Columbia whose primary deity is the ~mother goddess~ who created the “cosmic egg”
This cosmic egg is situated in the midst of 7 directions (north, south, east, west, zenith, nadir, and center)
It is also stratified between 9 worlds, which are represented by daughters of the mother goddess.

Each daughter reflects a type of agricultural land, ranging from pale and bleak to flourishing fertility.
What I find interesting about the directions is that each is correlated with a predator and a prey. South, for example corresponds with Puma (male) and Deer (female). Yes-the dominating animal is male, but the nourishing sustenance is female. There is an interesting taboo against women who are perceived to be polluted in this culture.
Selected men (which may be communicated by a dream) undergo 18 years of training, in which they are segregated from females, become nocturnal / kept out of the sun (which they consider feminine), and abstain from sex.
These people see in dualities of good and evil, and the ultimate goal is to find balance between the two polarities of “man’s demands and nature’s resources.” The Earth is seen as one living body, of which the Kogi feel responsible for caring for our current sick & dying world that “younger brother” has alienated and disconnected himself from.
These are people who understand the relationships of ecosystems not through research, but through generations of observation and experience.

In the ethnographic film, Aluna, members of the Kogi group suggest that not only do processes effect each other from top down (from stream to river) but that they influence each other reciprocally and in a reversed manner.

The anthropologist is skeptical of their claim and seeks out validity from scientists. Turns out, they’re correct…..~~~

Rise of Healers~

This is something that inspired me today.

In Down to Earth Massage & Wellness in Boone, I met Emily for some tea and conversation about a documentary project I am doing. It is meant to explore perceptions of Appalachia, while simultaneously being conscious to not further perpetuate myths of the region. So often, there are the polarities of the portrayal of Appalachia as being a pristine and remote place of simple living, or it is deemed a place of environmental degradation & poverty. Across nearly 420 counties from New York to Georgia, there are a lot of experiences excluded in the framing of Appalachia.

With a particular interest in healing modalities, I wanted to explore some alternatives to Western medicine, but with an awareness to not solely capture “folk medicine”, though it too is an authentic part of the region.

Upon our meeting today, we immediately connected over the Bromeliad (pink & green plant pictured above) in her space. She offered some tea and we dove into conversation.

I was curious about the roots of her approaches of her healing practice and she shared her desire to cross-culturally merge the worlds of Western thought with the almost esoteric nature of Eastern practices to bring together the science & the sacred.

Emily reminded me that with the rise of planetary crisis, there is a simultaneous rise of healers to support each other as we process our dynamic experiences of being human.

Yes, there is trauma & devastation, but there is equally so much joy!

She shared her awe at the daily transformation she bares witness of through her practice and how this can ripple outward, being a catalyst for planetary change. Yes!!!

This encounter left me feeling hopeful and so deeply inspired.