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Earth and Nature: On Integration and the Power of Place

Mbali Marais
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Angelique Michaels,

Return To Origin Leader, writes from her internship in Finland.
Feb 27 2020

For repatterning to occur, a certain unraveling is required, and most essentially, a period of conscious vegetation. Appropriated from the Latin vegetatus, to vegetate refers to the act of imparting energy to something. As such, it is to enliven and imbue with vigour and potency. In the same way that prenatal development requires a period of wombed gestation, and eggs necessitate a process of incubation; in the same way that bread dough requires a certain covering to rise and a seed requires embryonic germination beneath the earth surface to take root and grow, so too, do we need our womb-like darkness within which to process and assimilate, to moult and birth and to integrate. This is Nature’s way, earth’s work, fire’s teaching, water’s conciliation and mineral’s message.

I was reminded of my mentor’s insistence on sit-spots and the importance of integration when I unexpectedly fell ill with flu and fever. I recall seeing a weather alert notification indicating a yellow warning of a southern wind, and when encountering it, feeling enlivened by the element and what felt like a cleansing anger in the air that moved things and moved through them with forceful charge and impulse. And it moved something in me. I felt vital. Then came the chills, the swollen neck glands, the fevered aches and the gritty pain behind the eyes. The body has a compelling way of articulating the concerns of the spirit and giving expression to matters of the heart. Amidst the wildness and magic of these experiences, the provocative architecture, heartfelt exchanges and deepening connections, the pull of the Baltic Sea, the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures, I had forgotten to breathe out. I had forgotten to sit still… to slow down and to begin the process of integration so essential to transformation. In this way, the affected sensory faculties serve as messengers and teachers, drawing roots into the earth and calling the self to consciousness and embodiment.

This feverish and fiery charge fuelled by a culture of consumption, elemental provocations, restless stimulations and nightly diversions make it difficult to switch off and wind down. When people speak of seasonal depression, they speak of emotional and social withdrawal, sapped energy and the fatigue that accompanies the dark of winter. Many attribute this cyclical affective disorder here, to the darkness itself, to the damp and in predominantly rainy winters like these, to reduced activity, indoor confinement and social withdrawal. But there is also something deeply provocative and fruitful about this darkness. Something that calls for wakeful attendance and presence. Something like a womb, and a tomb and an earth bed… Something that calls for germination, digestion and integration. “Cool down and reconcile with water”, the fever warns. “Retreat for a while”, the dark cautions. “Remember”, the southern wind howls. And allow the gifts and teachings and experiences to take root, through self-care and consciousness of all things consumed. This is an Earth year. I am reminded to make offerings to the lands that bless us with so much. I am reminded, once more, as I was during my vision quest in the Cedarberg mountains to lower myself and lie with my weight on the earth to feel held and supported. I am reminded of the healing in labours of love, and in community work propelled by a shared vision and a collective dream.

My antennas are quivering with attentive receptivity to ancestral messages, messages from the land; messages in the rocks, contained in the clouds and the mist and carried on the winds. In this responsive sensitivity, I feel connected to others, to myself and to my environment in ways that remind me of the importance of earth work and my work here.

In the architectural design of buildings in Helsinki, and with my sensory responsiveness to the materiality of spaces, I practice deep listening to the places themselves and the materials constituting them. I am reminded, as I once was in Leon Lewis’ crystal room and in the boulders of the Cedarberg mountains, that there is power in place and messages being transmitted through every object, artefact and material. Every article in Leon’s room had communicated to him where it wanted to be placed. The bushmen listened to the rocks and engraved images in them that they had already seen in visions before they were manifested. In the same way that herbs and plants communicate their medicinal properties to the indigenous healers who work with them, so too, did the rocks communicate to the bushmen which images needed to be manifested on them.

A great part of my work is to learn the earth’s language and listen to the stories that need to be told through the built environment. There is an intimate relationship between place, practices and the social worlds and realities they reproduce. Spaces, through design and materials, can either challenge existing narratives or reproduce them. With an understanding and a consciousness of the symbolic potential of place, the aliveness of space, the stories inscribed in designs and transmitted through their materiality, comes a certain power, and not unexpectedly, a responsibility, to consciously create our worlds with a responsive attentivity to the earth  and all things constituting it.

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