Dancing With The Beach. A sensory field trip to The Catlins, New Zealand.

wild catlins
Curio Bay. The Catlins.

Age: 21. In my final year at Otago University, New Zealand I participated in a dance field trip to the wild and remote Catlins, located on the south east corner of the South Island. If you travelled in a straight line, across the choppy Pacific Ocean, you’d bang straight into Antarctica.

We spent a week dancing on the beach, in the forest, alongside sea lions. We = our professor, 4 others from my class and myself. It was the middle of winter, the coast was deserted and we moved. In/with nature.

We interspersed dancing with writing: impressions, feelings and academic snippets. I recently found these field notes, prudently filed on a Donald Duck USB that has survived 6 moves with me since I wrote them. I think I knew that one day these notes would come in handy, would speak to me.

Here are some of them.

A ‘participatory consciousness’ is:

…a way of attending that is characterised, […] by both the totality of the act of interest, and the participation of the total person. It involves a temporary eclipse of all ego-centric thoughts and strivings, of all pre-occupation with self. One does not want or need anything from the other. One does not want to achieve anything (Lous Heshusius, Freeing Ourselves From Objectivity, 1994).

This is difficult – how to completely get rid of all preoccupation with self? I achieve this for small periods: I stare at all the different colours in the sand, filtering grains through my fingers, absorbed by the thousands of different shades of white/gold/black/grey/brown/yellow/ochre.

I wonder at the trees, permanently bent to one side and swept by the Southland wind. Although today is calm the trees look full of wild energy. In their windswept stillness there is so much movement. I wonder: how am I growing, bending to flow with forces I have no control over? If a tree were to observe me would it be able to see clearly what I’m growing around? How much movement is in my stillness?

Windy-Tree-near-Cannibal-Bay
Surat Bay, Catlins.

I wade into the sea, knees receiving salt water lapping. Feeling: water temperature (freezing), rushing and strong as the tide rolls in and out, pulling my feet deeper into the squidgy sand.

For more than seconds I am absorbed in my relationship with nature. I am participating with my sensual body, I am not watching myself participate. I am not self-conscious in these moments.

“Water connects us to the rhythms of the natural world; it is a gathering place for animals, people, and plants. As we observe crashing waves, tumbling waterfalls, or a drop of rain running down a pane of glass, our bodies respond” (Olsen, Body and Earth, 2002).

I feel an affinity with water, and maybe this is why. Water feels right. I embrace the idea that my body is made of water and that I move in fluid rhythm with the water on this planet. Like: if I tumble in the waves, the water in my body also tumbles, the air in my lungs pulling me back to the surface. I find these thoughts – paradoxically – anchoring, knowing that I can/am moving in a natural state of fluidity, sliding over this earth.

To paraphrase Georg Simmel, it is via the hands that we ‘pull the world into ourselves’. Specifically, it is the sensitivity of our hands that is responsible for relaying so much of our knowledge of the world around us. Tactile navigation- the kinaesthetic moving/touching of the body- is the total embodied awareness of a body in an environment (Macnaghtan & Urry, Contested Natures, 1998).

Given the freedom to practice this, I find it true. We’re walking in silence through dripping bush, looking for a place that calls to us to study. I find myself using my hands, my sense of touch to explore the environment. I touch all the different textures of plants, bark, wet, dry, rough, soft- navigating my way through the bush with my hands. I lie on the trunk of a felled tree and spend a happy half an hour ‘pulling the tree environment into myself’ through touch- really feeling the smooth, slippery bark, how it is rough against the grain, covered in minute bumps, lines, cracks, how it feels weathered, warms to my touch, the solidity of it.

Later, on the beach I lie on my back in the fine sand, staring at the wind whipped clouds. My fingers are exploring the sand, sifting, concentrating on its fineness, how soft and silky it is I can barely feel it, how it gently filters through cracks in my hands, how individual grains stick to me, how it warms in my hands, heaviness and lightness at the same time.

I love that the sand, the tree both warm in response to my touch. We are in relation. My body leaves in imprint on both, a warm, slightly crushed shape where I’ve been lying. A thinking, reflecting, feeling body. A watery body.


Now. Age: 28. Writing on my balcony in Parkdale, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

I sought out these field notes because I have been thinking lately about the deep relationships I have with place: land, trees, water. Particular forests and beaches. I know these places intimately, as I would a lover, and as I close my eyes I can taste the salt on the wind, hear the boom of the surf, smell the manuka. (Like I can sense the taste of his mouth, his voice, his scent).

The three big questions that I’m going to end on. Maybe the answers will be another blog post, when my thinking has crystallized enough to put into words.

  1. Do I/must I/can I prioritize my relationship with nature as much as my relationship with people? What role does it play in my decision making? How much weighting does it have? (I think: more than I suspect).

2. How does it feel to view my life as a partnered dance with my environment? As if everyday the world holds it’s hand out to me, “May I have this dance?”, and I reply, “Yes.”

3. How do I feel about living in a world/environment/planet that is being destroyed, and I am implicit in this destruction? (Awful. Guilty. Overwhelmed. Frozen).

Maybe this is easier to ask: If I accept that I have intimate relationships with place, that I dance daily with my environment, how do I also care for these places and this environment as I would a lover? I feel a lack of power when I contemplate the enormity of climate change, deforestation, peak oil – to name a few – but reframing it like this feels like I have more agency. I don’t know what the answer is yet, but it feels more accessible, you know?

4. Will I create new, intimate relationships with place here in Canada, as I have done with people? I dance with this city, but does this relationship feel as intimate?

Or does my current relationship with Toronto The City lack the poignant, evocative tinge of nostalgia, homesickness and the wild, isolated beauty of the New Zealand coast line?

(Yes.)

beach dancin
Back Beach, Taranaki. Jan 2016. Photo: Katyana Kowalchuck-Horn.

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