My Body, The Ancestor- Sophie Strand
Charlotte Du Cann talks with the poet and ecological storyteller Sophie Strand, about interstitial thinking, unruly connections and how to hold a ‘deep life’ practice. With mycelial artwork by Graeme Walker.
Poet and writer Sophie Strand lives in a liminal world, at the confluence of a river and a creek in the Hudson Valley. Her ‘ecological storytelling’ taps into the interstitial web of life, where metaphors act as bridges to other dimensions, criss-crossing like the hyphae of fungi, and delve into the microbial underworld. Some of her acute sensitivity to the natural world has been catalysed by trauma and an incurable condition that sends her body into meltdown at unpredictable times.
I wanted to talk with Sophie because she speaks of opening out and connecting in a culture of closing down and control, of merging with others in a time of individualism and constriction. In a series of luminous short essays she writes of a practice of ‘deep life’ whereby we can ‘stitch ourselves back’ into our local territories and feel and think as ecosystems. We spoke across the continents and waterlands one winter’s day.
Charlotte Du Cann: Your writing and Dark Mountain both focus on weathering collapse when the current responses to planetary crisis are to try to save and fix. How do you use this as a metaphor in your writing?
Sophie Strand: Collapse can be the most generative experience. We can’t manage an ecosystem! What hubris to think human beings can enter into millions of interconnected, complicated, refluxing, pricking, stinging, collaborating relationships, and manage it. Just as we can’t organise an ecosystem, we can’t plan collapse. We can’t narcissistically techno-fix a way through this. We have to enter into it.
I’m in a body that does collapse sometimes. I can take all the right medicines, take care of myself and it will still melt. Contracting around that inability to control myself limits my improvisational ability to dance with uncertainty. Collapse is when things that shouldn’t be connected merge. When the river overflows its banks and inundates the soil and washes things away is the moment when materials and elements that would never meet each other, touch. I think there is something inherently haptic (in the sense of meaning touch and also fasten) in this. It’s what hyphae do in the soil when they connect plants and trees: that mycelial interrogative intelligence that fastens things together by touching. For me the intelligence of collapse is in the unruly, funny, uncanny connections that happen by the nature of emergent systems.
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What does it mean to look at your wounding – physical, spiritual, emotional – not as an imperative towards self-healing, but a compass directing you towards the wounding of another species or landscape?
CDC: Mycelial intelligence emerges strongly in your writing. How did you stumble into this teeming world underneath the surface of things and engage in those life systems?
SS: I grew up in the woods and I loved decay and rootlets and mushrooms. I connected them with fairytales and to the magic which isn’t necessarily ‘good’ but chaotic, in the trickier sense of fairies being capricious and unpredictable. But then I became mysteriously ill at the age of 16 and couldn’t be diagnosed. At the same time I became interested in mycorrhizal networks and rhizomatic thinking as a philosophical lens. Then, at the point that these concepts became a key part of my poetic, ecological inspiration, I finally got diagnosed with my condition which was connective tissue disease (EDS). It felt as if I had been seeded genetically with this passion because fungi are the connective tissue of the soil, holding it together, creating highways for bacteria, breaking down dead matter and providing nourishment for other beings. And what I needed was healthier connective tissue.
So for me it’s become a frame: how can we wed our personal wounds with the wounds of something more-than-human? How we look at our physical ailments, our psychological anguish not as something that teaches us about ourselves but that reorients us to something else outward.
CDC: Did your practice to explore ‘deep life’ arise out of your condition also?
SS: My life goes through bottlenecks, and the practice emerged out of an oscillation with going in and out of restricted mobility and illness. The pandemic has been a megaphone for this experience. There is too much information, we can’t hold it all in our minds, and there’s a problematic idea that we feel we need to know everything to be environmentally active. But it is impossible and it paralyses people. What is more interesting to me is to ask: what is happening within a five mile radius of my home, what are the invasive species that live here? What is the Indigenous history, can I go out and walk every single day? Can I find a sit spot? Can I begin to gather a council, a world of witnesses that constitute me relationally?
The air I am breathing is infused with the microbiome: with pheromones, with smells, with pollen, the spores of a very specific place. It is easy to be focused on charismatic causes, old growth forests that are whole continents away, or animals that are very attractive, but the truth is the thing that holds you and metabolically constitutes you is your home, so how can you go deep with a home?
I was inspired by adrienne maree brown and their work on how movements are often very superficial, a mile wide but an inch thick, so the connections are not resilient. Resilient ecosystems have that tight-knit connectivity that make a landscape or environment able to shift and adapt intelligently to ecological pressure, to anthropogenic activity. So I am much more interested in the inch-wide, mile deep movement, where the connectivity is so intense and intimate it actually helps people and other beings survive.
CDC: A lot of our approach to the ecological crisis uses the lens of science. In the sense your writing is an exercise in imagination, what role do you feel imagination plays to help penetrate these deeper levels?
SS: I gained my main inspiration for deep life from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who used scientific facts in his work but infused them with a healthy dose of miracle mind and imaginative poetic sensibility. Bachelard believed that poetry was the closest way to get to the truth, not facts, and this is also how I function. Science is a useful tool, a way of asking questions. But we can also invite more people into these interrogative relationships with their ecosystems, landscapes and local issues, not by creating a sterile language but by infusing this interrogative tool with sensuality, by embodying it. I’m interested in enfleshing ideas rather than shaving them down. Can we use science to root us back into the landscape?
CDC: If writing and art can create a culture that faces crisis, rather than distracting from it, do you feel this poetic imagination helps us navigate what is happening in the world?
SS: We have a problematic cultural aversion to beauty being useful. Poetry is connected to my ideas about beauty. Not an objectified artificial glamour but beauty as being the thing we are attracted to, in the way a bee moves towards a flower and incidentally pollinates it. As you pay attention to what you love and what you are attracted to, it will guide you into your ecological niche, where you are most useful.
So if we pay attention to the poetry in our lives, it shows us where we belong. Acting like an acupuncture needle in a landscape, we will find the beings, the issues, the stories, we need to provide a mouth for.
CDC: You speak about being a mouthpiece for the expression of the more-than-human world and that sometimes the knocks and difficulties we undergo are actually an invitation to open, and allow a wound to be a doorway, and allow other forms to speak through us, to be an expression in words and song and image for the planet. What has been your experience of that process?
SS: I think the dominant cultural paradigm is we must be constantly progressing, integrating, healing, so that we can get back to work, and that for survivors of violence and sexual trauma, and illnesses that don’t have a cure, those narratives don’t work, they don’t map on to our lived experience.
So instead of thinking we are always failing, narratively and physically, what would it mean to recontextualise these wounds as portals? As connective tissue. Although we are more porous how does that porousness allow us to understand microbial life, ‘smalls’, beings that don’t necessarily get our attention? I’ve done a lot of healing and therapy, but I’ve never been fixed, so instead of problematising that incompleteness, that liminality, I’ve tried to think of it in terms of process philosophy, so I am a doorway which matter flows through, and my experiences have opened that door wider. Instead of trying to close it all the time and enter back into a legibility culturally, what if I open that ‘door’ wider and open it so that I can be in service to the general aliveness and not to my particular aliveness?
CDC: You also speak about your work as creating compost or soil for other beings later on. This is a whole different attitude to writing and requires a different kind of generosity.
SS: If we look at the history of storytelling, it was not about individual authorship. Homer is actually a practice, people stepped into the role of Homer; in the same way as when composing Orphic hymns, people became Orpheus. You embodied Orpheus. This is important because of my condition. I have stories I want to tell, things I care about, but I also know that my individual life may not be long enough or hardy enough to complete this work. So what if I reframed authorship and took it out of modernity and said: what if I am making good soil, what if I am beginning the composting process of these ideas, so my particular life is not the only vehicle of its completion? What if someone else can come plant in this soil and sprout something else? So when I make art these days it is about creating space which other people can enter into, it’s not about me as an individual charismatic author.
CDC: You write in one of your essays of perceiving your body as an ancestor, an assemblage of ecosystems, how do you tap into that kind of awareness?
SS: This porousness that was caused by trauma and illness gave me a big sense of myself as an instrument being played – by microbes, by yeasts, by fungi, by other people. So sometimes the music that comes through me is not my own. And then when I read more about the science of the gut-brain axis, and about deep time and the history of our cells, I was given a comforting lens that I am a collaboration. When we focus on an individual sense of ourselves, it can act and feel like a weight. We always have to be an author, to know what the next best step is, and be in control of our lives. But if we think of ourselves as being a kind of ecosystem, we can understand that we are sometimes acting intuitively, in relationship with something else that is authoring us.
So in the essay, ‘Your Body is an Ancestor’, what I was thinking about is that we don’t need to create rituals. Our body is a ritual, our cells are a product of anarchic queer lovemaking whereby mitochondria and ancient prokaryotes fused to create the cells that build our bodies today. We are the product of these fusions.
In relation to confluence, there is a neo-Darwinian idea that evolution is an arrow of time that it is always pulsing forward, but the truth is that just as evolution is about forking, it is also been about fusing: these transversal intimacies, whereby beings and species suddenly and chaotically, unpredictably exchange information and fuse. Lichen is a good example, as it is an algae, sometimes a yeast, sometimes other bacteria, and a fungus, collaborating to create a new being. It is one of the dominant refrains in evolution that life is not just about forking. And I get this from fungi and anastomosis, which is a term from mycology and ecology when hyphae come back and fuse together, that moment of confluence, that anastomosis which means to provide a mouth for. Those moments of fusing, or collaboration and confluence, are about providing a mouthpiece for something else.
Then it is less that we are individual species and more that we are relational. All thinking, all beings are interstitial. Thinking happens between mythic gradients, between beings, between conversations, between those ideas, those relational units where our roles are played out.
CDC: How does this affect us as storytellers and writers in a culture where everything is about the stars shining in the sky rather than the dark spaces in between, the invisible relationships that happen? Do you ever see your writing as acting like a mushroom in the sense of breaking things down, so that another form might happen?
SS: I think the most important aspect of my writing is that it doesn’t happen in solitude. I share my work publicly on social media, and I open it up to critique and conversation, so my writing happens not in me or in my readers but in the spaces in between. It is always being moulded and adapted according to the conversation. There’s an idea that you have to write in secret, come up with your own ideas and publish them in this sterile, finished product. But this is a very alphabetical, textual approach and it is also a recent idea. Stories and myths and scripture were originally oral and adaptive to changing social and ecological conditions and political climate. So I think the main thing about this interstitial space is always inviting my readers in to change me, to risk being changed by our conversation.
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Sophie Strand is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, and ecology. Her first book of essays, The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine, will be published by Inner Traditions in Fall 2022 and is available for pre-order. Her eco-feminist historical fiction reimagining of the gospels, The Madonna Secret, will also be published by Inner Traditions in Spring 2023.