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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Shann


I went out location scouting and found a clearing. It was a dry autumn day and the ginger carpet of leaves on the ground was new and perfect. The light and the temperature of the air were gentle, and inviting, and like an excited kid I just got into the space and started moving around. It was joyful for any body, but especially having been starved of studio space for almost an entire year I was thrilled to just get in there and get involved, hear the leaves’ hushed crackle under me, hear them rush past my head as I rolled over, feel the whole beautiful scene of shining sky, russet treetops, under-storey, and leaf-covered ground turn over and over, sliding and spinning in every direction like a Rubik’s cube.

I leaned and rolled on a big tree and then came to a stillness where I was just hugging it and it was bliss. It sounds ridiculous because it is so cliched, but, what is a hug? OK a gesture that communicates affection, but what else? Isn’t a huge part of it feeling the life of another living thing? Finding something other than yourself and encircling it somehow. Pushing yourself up against its border, bringing your attention right to the boundary, existing right there, insistently pressuring the boundary, daring the space in the atoms to align and allowing you to pass into each other, being the closest you can be, as two separate lifeforms. The tree is older than me. It has seen more seasons, it has quietly witnessed more of my own species than I have. The tree is going through its own cycle, and minding its own business, and pursuing its own agenda. It is clear, with your arms wrapped around a tree, that it is a fellow lifeform. That it is not just inconveniently placed outdoor furniture. It’s not even just furniture for animals, although it does that too, it’s not EVEN just a key player in an eco system that since the dawn of our species (though perhaps not for much longer), keeps us all fed, watered, and oxygenated. It is its own thing.

I am starting with “Treehugging”, a theme to which I’m sure I will return, because it is, I think, my nemesis.

I don’t know how to make environmentalist art, let alone celebratory, nature-based art, without becoming victim to the trap of the Treehugger label. While relatively inoffensive it will perhaps prove to be one of the most significant branding exercises in history, helping to suffocate the tide of resistance to the omnicide before it even began. Even now, even in the jaws of death “the environment” “the planet” “the eco-system” is discussed as a disposable inconvenience, a burden, something too weak and pathetic to take care of itself and as such undeserving of any serious consideration. To do something for the sake of the environment, or animals, is to be either a sanctimonious bore or a hopeless dreamer, indulging in the kind of bleeding-heart anthropomorphism which we only tolerate from children.

There is a reason - several reasons - why the idea of tree-hugging is so revolting and off-putting to people. The idea of self-congratulatory privileged NIMBY white folks is a relatable ick.

But deeper than that, I believe, are broader and more familiar feelings from the usual suspects.

Capitalism and colonialism insist that everything is there to be exploited. Nature is there to be plundered, scraped from the face of the Earth to make space for a pet project, or ringfenced for one’s personal enjoyment. Patriarchy and toxic masculinity cannot abide acts of love and sensitivity without gain, or violence.

To respect the rights of humans, let alone other lifeforms to merely exist and take up space for their own reasons, is anathema to these regimes.

To respect the right of other living things to live, for their own purposes and not yours

To pass up a money-making opportunity

To allow something to get in your way when it can be easily overpowered

To express gratitude, love or even acknowledgment of others’ contribution to your wellbeing

To be gentle, empathic, loving

To have any humility before nature, to think of co-existing rather than conquering,

are all cardinal sins. Except they can’t be called cardinal sins because that sounds too sexy and exciting so they become other things to make them targets for contempt, loathing and revulsion: Sentimental, delusional, effeminate, weak, cowardly, defective.

How do we overcome this?

I feel very sure that dance’s focus on movement and the body, presents a unique opportunity to connect the physical body and bodies of the world, to those of dancing bodies, to those of an audience. But my challenge will be how will I do this?

Both the worlds of dance and of environmental activism are (often justifiably) accused of being white and elitist. We cannot afford to miss the mark on this, there simply is not time.

As an audience member, I can generally be quite jaded and cantankerous, (which I think is handy because I think this also describes many people

And I know, pretty much for a fact, that if I went into an installation, live or film piece which was merely people hugging trees, it would annoy me.

It would annoy me because it does read as an over-simplified solution, and it can read as sentimental and self-indulgent.

Quite honestly it would also annoy me because I just don’t like watching other people hugging. I get jealous. I love hugging! I want to be hugging! If I’m going to be happy for someone else then either one of the huggers has to be a very happy animal, or i am going to need a LOT of investment in the participants beforehand. Family members? Yes. Close friends? Yes. Eleven, Dustin and Mike after Eleven saves Mike’s life in season one of Stranger Things? Yes. Of course. But that’s the limit.

Show me a beautiful shot of a dancer hugging a tree and quite honestly, my heart is going to say “Oh, sod off.”

And so herein lies the technical challenge of this project. I can recommend you hug a tree, and I absolutely, absolutely do recommend this. I’m not being cute, I mean it. But what can I do beyond that? How can I, as someone who makes performance, really create this experience?

Feeling like a third wheel while witnessing this embrace of person and tree as a performed gesture, is a totally different thing. A world away from being the one. From doing the thing. From feeling it.

And this feeling, of pressing your heart into another living being… A giant, telepathic, life-giving being which, if you think about it, is more strange and miraculous and magnificent than anything dreamed up in our most celebrated science fiction… I can’t give up on this feeling. It seems so completely and utterly key to what it is I’m trying to achieve. To breach the border between the “human world” and the “natural world”. Reawaken that connection between us and the “other”, to stir that sense of belonging, all of us together on the planet, of sharing space and sharing our fate. I want people to feel immersed, indebted, connected, and in love, and feel that this love, this mutual survival, is worth working for, and fighting for.

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