Reconnecting Humans to the Earth with Marina Tsaplina’s Soil and Spirit

Headshot of artist Marina Tsaplina standing against a tree.Bass Connections is known for interdisciplinarity, but its 2022-2023 Soil and Spirit project assembled one of the more surprising mixes of collaborators yet. You may have a hard time imagining the common denominator of soils, fungi, puppetry, trees, disability rights, and colonialism. Eco-artist, disability culture activist, Duke 2022-2023 artist-in-residence, and Soil and Spirit mastermind Marina “Heron” Tsaplina would be the answer.

Tsaplina’s compelling pitch to Bass Connections stated that “The future of human life on earth requires a transformation of humanity’s relationship with the living world.” And that “this ‘new ’relationship must engage embodied knowledge and imagination, and it must bring together diverse communities and distinct histories to form an ecological consciousness based on justice and care.”

The team assembled by Tsaplina to pursue her vision was made up of, among others, faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students from engineering, theater studies, biology, art and art history, public policy and other programs and institutes; the classroom extended from the Duke Campus Farm to Duke’s Fungi Lab, to an engineering lab, to Sheafer Theater and beyond. Visiting soil ecologist Molly Haviland, the African American Dance Ensemble, and human rights advocates further enhanced the work.

Soil and Spirit will culminate in a participatory, site-specific performance-installation being created by Tsaplina that will premiere in 2026 in NYC. It will then tour to living and disappeared forests in the northeast and eastern coast through 2030.

A wide variety of community events, lab visits, movement workshops, and engineering and puppetry classes offered a way for students and community members to share their research and creativity. They contributed to the development of prototypes of the performing objects, the visual structure of the installation, the movement vocabularies of the choreography, and a StoryMap of the treaty histories between Native Nations and the U.S. Government in New York State and the northeast.

Known for recognizing the land as a living presence, Brooklyn-based Tsaplina works from the basic understanding that humans have become disconnected from their relationship with the earth, and she seeks to promote healing through her art and activism.

Hands touching soil.

“With Soil and Spirit, I am creating a way for people with diverse lineages to learn how to listen to and reconnect with place, to really feel the break that has occurred between our bodies and the land, to hone our attentiveness and embodied perceptions,” says Tsaplina in a conversation last fall with Julia Watts Belser for a public archive focusing on Disability and Climate Change.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at two years old, Tsaplina is keenly aware of how our culture teaches us to separate ourselves from nature and separate our disabilities from ourselves. But her disability has taught her about the dangers of this attitude.

She notes that we are taught to want to dominate disease just as we have dominated the land and to believe we can control the uncontrollable. “The whole illusion of control is a lie, a dangerous lie. It is why we’re in the climate crisis,” she tells Belser.

“In this culture, we act as if there are no limits. But the earth has limits. The flesh has limits. If we learn to listen to our bodies, it can lead us to listen to the land,” she continues.

Tsaplina sees soil as fundamental to our relationship with the earth, so she invites Soil and Spirit workshop participants to bring a handful of soil and hold it in their hands to feel the texture and use their imaginations to discover associations it may awaken in them.

“The soil is a gentle prompt that moves toward an embodied way of perceiving the world around us,” says Tsaplina. “Soil becomes a portal. I was really struck by one of the students in a workshop who was staring at her soil and asked, ‘Why does this material that is the foundation of life feel so foreign? ’You realize a lot of people simply don’t feel a connection.”

Two dancers in mask lying on the floor

The embodied relationship with the ground that literally supports us in life is a challenge to develop when it has been lost. “That researchers, scientists, scholars, and writers have bodies may seem obvious,” says Johann Montozzi-Wood, assistant professor of the practice of theater studies and collaborator on the project.” However, too easily do we forget the body; we dismember it. In Soil and Spirit, my students had the opportunity to disrupt the pervasive illusion of an ‘objectivity’ that denies the body, and with it our positionality—our ancestry, influences, and upbringing.”

Soil and Spirit was an incredible experience,” says undergraduate Emi Hegarty. “I feel so fortunate for the opportunity to use the skills I learned in Johann’s ”Moving and Sounding Body” class to aid such a talented visiting artist with her project.”

“Marina sometimes feels ‘not of this world ’and I feel like that is because she is holding so many worlds inside of her,” says Jules Odendahl-James, a collaborator from Arts and Sciences and theater studies. “She has a kind of insatiable curiosity and a desire to share that curiosity with others.”

Tsaplina says that the combination of disciplines and venues and specialists made possible through Bass Connections was extraordinary. “To be given an open door at Duke to make all this happen was absolutely amazing,” she says, as she looks toward the future of Soil and Spirit, which put down many of its roots at Duke this past year

A person holding and moving strings of sculpture.Circle of people feet taken from above. In the middle of the circle there is a compass drawn on paper with soil in center.

Photos by Robert Zimmerman