Somatic Experiment Day 1: Where Do Squirrels Go When it Rains?

SEEDS 2008, In the investigation of the physical components of thought: #1 in a series of somatic nature walks

Daniel Lepkoff, somaticist and Virginia Hayssen, mammologist

Participants: Martha, Jane, Judy, Hannah, Jeremy, Marie, Jen, Melinda

From the front porch:

Ginny talking tails: how she has students observe squirrel tails in her class at Smith College.

Danny talking weight shift: keep a steady image, whatever you are looking at, let your weight shift move the image. Let the body lead your vision, usually it’s vice versa. Walk with this vision into the woods. It helped me to go back to the weight shifting the image when I “lose” the “moving screen” effect. When we got to the forest our instructions were to get down on hands and knees and crawl. It was raining on and off, very wet, but crawling on the bedded leaves was lovely, despite wet circles around knees on sweat pants.

Then we walked backwards through the forest. It’s possible! You don’t get to see where you are going, but you can sure feel it. Because you can’t avoid the underbrush in the same way, I ended up doing a lot more swiggling around and under branches, my spine much more active, my periphery activated.

Ginny started her talk in the forest. The first thing she noticed on her crawl was the vole/mole holes in the forest floor and the nibbles on mushroom caps. WAIT! I didn’t see any of this. Can we start over? My crawl investigated momentum and the shifting scene as I “cantered” hands and feet through the undergrowth.

Ginny Hayssen, mammalogist, with somatic experimentalist Melinda Buckwalter, SEEDS 08, discussing the first somatic nature walk. Photo by Karen Schaffmann.

We don’t go back, we go on, sitting in one place hearing about techniques for observing mammals that involve camera capture, spooling (food tied to thread!), glowing dust, and good old fashioned trapping (ugh). As it turns out, mammalogists don’t walk through the woods because it scares the animals. Stillness is a prime attribute—observation #1. We were still but our attention hopped from the bird calls high up in the tree boughs that might warn of predators, to the nibbled mushrooms and holes in the forest floor. Fresh dirt at a hole’s lip spoke of recent activity as did kicked up leaves. There were stories. A favorite, the three-toed sloth and its ecology of algae and moths in its fur. Not to mention its upside down bathroom behavior. Seems the sloth must poop when it rains or take a perilous journey down the tree trunk. Makes an outhouse at night seem like a picnic.

We ended with a dance suggested by Danny copying squirrel perception. We talked about how squirrels seem to be in a state of constant falling as they run through tree boughs, grabbing branches that are not really strong enough to hold their weight for long, but using them to “bough hop” like one might use a series of rocks to cross a stream. This quick timing of squirrels seems akin to birds, too—a sharp, quick movement of orientation. A result of living in the timing required of tree tops? How does this affect vision? What would it be like to have to gather your perceptions in these discontinuous byte-hops of visual information? We tried it, on all fours along the path. Then we tried moving only when another in our group of six moved.

Afternoon Experiment: Where do squirrels go when it rains?

The idea for this experiment came out of Ginny initially thinking we could work with squirrels and their behavior through observing their tails. In town squirrels are generally around and about. At Earthdance it is hard to find a one.

At one point during the “walk” Ginny put out a possible theory that in town where the food supply is abundant (e.g. the Smith College campus dumpsters) squirrels are abundant. But up in the hill towns their territories for food gathering are larger, so squirrels are more “scarce” (pardon my lay person abridgement). She also said they are probably around, “they’re there,” but hide easily. This led me to the idea for my first experiment, which I ran by Ginny and Hannah. I had developed a desire, sometime while out in the wet of the woods, to “hide” in the habitat of the main house during dinner, a busy traffic time, in a public space, the dining area. By being still, could I hide in plain sight? What was out of the way? Would people see me if I was out of the way, or partially out of the way? Would they avoid me if I was in the way but still?

Ginny had expressed dismay at my use of the word “research” and “project.” Research in her realm has a dependent variable and an independent variable, goals and outcomes. Written up. Hmm. My explanation of “artistic research” seemed vague and imprecise to her. At first I went along with her interpretation, but then took a stand and explained myself. I need to research movement “in situ” so that I can communicate something in the “test tube”—that is “on stage” “in a black box” out of its “context”—and yet create enough connection with my “peer reviewer/audience” that they will get my correlation and feel something. Performance as reality check.

Talking with Danny later while drying out in the sauna: he said this thing about not being so interested in performance except as a means to check himself. In my words “keep yourself honest so, as an artist, you don’t go so far out on an imaginal limb that no one else can relate.”

Danny also said that it is a technique to notice what you notice. Then what you haven’t noticed can pop out of the framework. The “unconscious” can come to the fore. This technique helps in recognizing habitual patterns. I get frustrated by my habitual patterns, but thinking of noticing them as a technique helps a lot as it points a way out of the forest of blur, where everything kind of looks the same.

I decided I would create another somatic experiment for myself to inform my performative evening research. I walked backwards for 1/2 hour, starting in the apple orchard (helpfully guided by Ian, the SEEDS resident 8-year-old) and also through the woods brush and then on the woods path back to the stream, over the bridge logs and up to the top of the ledge where the trail splits. Danny talked about how he had done this with a group for an hour. He talked about feeling the moving field of vision, especially in the periphery. My experience was meditative. It started pouring rain. When I stopped, my equilibrium proprioceptors in my inner ear made me feel like I was being pushed backward by a wave. I arched over almost to the point of falling, following this wave. I fought to stand upright against it. The effect lasted about a minute. I did a little free dance in the woods, looking for places to stay dry under the trees, and got completely disoriented as to which way the trail led back. Finally getting my bearings through a bit of logic and memory, I walked forward on the way home, feeling like I was rewinding my recent experience.

Premise: Where do squirrels go when it rains?

Arena: Kitchen dining area pre- and during dinner

The set up: Wearing the muddied wet clothes I researched in all day, find places to hang out amidst humanity where I might hide, be seen but forgotten, be in the way but disregarded, or *unknown*. I wore a sign that read: SEEDS research in progress (do not disturb). That last part was small so people would have to get up close to read it.

Performance observations: the wet clothes were an interesting choice. If I picked a position too near the porch I got chilly. So my positions were tuned by where I might be warm. I tried to move at a point when there was a natural traffic flow to the next place I wanted to be, or when I noticed a pause or lull in leg traffic (I was on the floor under tables, perched on base boards, squatting in corners, etc. and mostly moved on hands and knees). I had a repertory of 5 or 6 positions and visited them 3 or 4 times each over the hour and a half dinner period. It was kind of easy to zone out of my human context and become a fixture. I chose to be silent and not interact verbally which helped this attitude.

The unknown element turned out to be getting fed. It started with Mark giving me blueberries (I began to feel an empathy with him and his earlier-in-the-festival plight of being ill amidst the bustle, wrapped in a blanket, eyes half closed, over a cup of steaming tea.) Many seemed to take my “weird” artistic position for granted in this environment and ignored me completely. My own somatics started to shift. I felt like a beggar/lower class, ill, or extraneous. The wet clothes accentuated this experience. Being visited and fed warmed me up. Someone brought me a barley tea and I sampled the delicious dinner laid out on the table above me by what people thought to feed me. Funny, one fed me in baby nibbles with the choo choo train spoon. Others, like a dog. Still others joined me under the table and fed me off their plate. I felt like the house elf in Harry Potter. We did an eyes-closed taste experiment. I began to realize I was also becoming a physiological experiment in getting sick: wet clothes, sharing spoons, hmmm. I feel a little iffy as I write. Somatic experiments: Gotta love it.

Where do squirrels go when it rains? answered a broader question about symbiotic relationships in a human-dominant ecosystem and what it feels like to be the other in that relationship.

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