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Bird Wings and Puppet Strings: Puppetry, Ecopsychology and Story

Published onMay 19, 2021
Bird Wings and Puppet Strings: Puppetry, Ecopsychology and Story
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ABSTRACT

This article examines Bird Wings and Puppet Strings, a practice-led research project that offers a creative response to the constantly evolving environmental movement, by exploring principles of ecopsychology through developing puppet characters and performance script. Aimed at exploring ecological identity from the perspective of a non-Indigenous Australian, this work has evolved from a personal relationship with the South West, Western Australian landscape, and the imaginative dialogue that developed. The project includes the creation of six Bunrak-inspired puppets based on archetypal characters, and symbolic hybrid forms including local flora, fauna, and human elements. The main Bird Woman character emerged as a symbolic response to perceiving the land as an interrelated aspect of self, and led to understanding how living reciprocity between humans and nature can take an imaginative form and be communicated through artistic methods. Bird Wings and Puppet Strings provides a new creative approach to implementing puppetry as a method of communicating ecological perspectives. Puppetry offers the capacity to serve as a distancing technique, which allows alternative views to be presented in a non-threatening way. The imaginative use of puppetry and narrative enables an alternative exploration of the human experience, can question limiting Western perspectives, and encourage a sense of belonging to the more-than-human world.

Keywords: Puppets; Puppetry; Ecopsychology; Ecological Identity; Storytelling


HOW CAN A NON-INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIAN EXPLORE ECOLOGICAL IDENTITY?

Bird Wings and Puppet Strings (BWPS) is a practice-led research project I developed during 2017-2018. As a puppet and theatre maker who lives in Western Australia’s South West, a unique biodiversity hotspot facing exceptional habitat losses, I am acutely aware of the damage wrought by anthropocentric attitudes. BWPS comprises of puppets and a performance script that explores ecological identity from the perspective of a non-indigenous Australian. In response to a constantly evolving environmental movement, this research shows how imaginative engagement with the landscape can actively influence a shift in Western cultural perspectives when expressed through art. The research draws upon an ecopsychological framework while implementing puppetry and mythology as a means to communicate different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The puppet characters combine the human form and elements of flora and fauna, found in Western Australia’s South West landscape, representing my reciprocal relationship with the natural world. During active exploration of ecopsychological perspectives, I developed a story containing archetypal plot motifs and symbols to support a non-linear, nature-inspired narrative, including the hybrid features of the human/nature characters. Bird Wings and Puppet Strings explores how puppetry performance can communicate the relationship between humans and the natural world in response to limiting cultural beliefs, and encourage social change.

Re-establishing the connection we share with nature has become a significant focus across the ecological-based disciplines, with environmental themes currently flooding the art world in a variety of creative ways. Cambridge clinical psychologist Sarah Conn states that: “The Earth hurts; it needs healing; it is speaking through us; and it speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us” (1995, p.171). It is in response to the Earth’s voice that my research emerges. Whilst such a perspective may be at odds with the usual discourse of scholarly thinking, it is increasingly pervasive. I consider two modes of thought understood by the ancient Greeks: mythos and logos. The logos relates to logical thinking, reason and facts, while the mythos is based in story, emotions, dreams and imagination. Historically, there was knowledge that both ways of thinking were important; however, today Western society is driven predominantly by scientific logos, and the importance of myth has become lost (Armstrong 2009, pxiii). BWPS develops a contemporary story that draws on the core of mythic understanding to communicate and re-think how Western values can impact our relationship to the natural world.

Most indigenous cultures share a view that the living world, including elements such as rivers, stones, seas, animals, plants, and dirt, is alive (Blackie 2018, p.18). According to indigenous Australian writer Bruce Pascoe (2013), “Earth is the mother” and the way people relate to understanding their connection to the land is a primary difference between Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal people (p.145). Gammage (2014) notes that Australian Aborigines see ‘country’ as a “communal and spiritual landscape of the mind”, a landscape alive with beings from an ongoing Dreamtime, present in site-specific features and “mapped by stories” (p.43). Pascoe says Aboriginal stories about mythic beings and the eternal actions they perform, such as those set in the night sky, generally inform the law of the land (p.144). I respect and am interested in the Dreamtime that guides indigenous Australian knowledge; however, as a non-indigenous Australian, I was not taught to see the world through an interrelated cultural lens. Whilst I am aware of these perspectives, they have not informed my research due to cultural limitations. Out of respect for the 48,000 years that Wadandi people have cared for the Margaret River region where I live (www.noongarculture.org.au), the puppet show begins with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land as referenced at the beginning of the script. During an informal discussion with Wadandi custodian Josh Whiteland, he confirmed that, as I was not telling indigenous stories and the story I told was my own, then it was not culturally inappropriate (Whiteland 2018, personal communication).1 Wadandi elder Vivian Brockman and Wadandi custodian and co-ordinator of the Wardan Centre, Mitchella Hutchins, were also invited to attend a puppet show rehearsal and discuss my project. Both offered enthusiastic support of my work in sharing land care through storytelling and puppetry (Hutchins & Brockman 2019, personal communication). The Dreamtime is acknowledged in my script as alive in Australian country, with reference made to ‘old stories that aren’t mine to take’. The use of local indigenous language when referring to some animals, such as Djitty for the Willy Wagtail, also acknowledges and respectfully integrates an indigenous presence into my story, as does the inclusion of didgeridoo music in the land scenes. It is from this sensitive crossroads, as a non-indigenous Australian, that my research offers an original puppet-based story as a method to teach land care, question anthropocentric perspectives, and promote a sense of belonging in contemporary Australia.

The Western worldview, from the moment we begin to learn language, teaches us to label and categorise the world into a dualistic perception of ‘us and them,’ creating a forced sense of separateness between the living human and the rest of the world (Blackie 2018, pp.17-18). Detachment from the world can be traced to early philosophy, as intellectual and rational knowledge became increasingly promoted over the physical senses – as seen in Descartes’ clear distinction between the body and mind (Descartes & Cottingham 1986, p.7). To question these cultural assumptions and support my process of consciously reconnecting to what David Abram terms ‘the more-than-human world’ (1996), I employed the theoretical understanding of the emerging field, ecopsychology, to examine and assess the way human suffering is intertwined with ‘dissociative alienation’ from the Earth (Metzner 1995, p.64). Roszak, who coined the term ‘ecopsychology’ (1995), addresses sanity in modern society by repositioning the notion of mainstream psychology to emphasise a shift of personal awareness, asserting that “at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence” (Roszak et al., p.5). An ecopsychological perspective supports a belief structure that the human psyche expands beyond the separate idea of self and is embedded within the more-than-human world.

Accounts of ecological identity shift, and the promotion of non-anthropocentric focus can be examined through literary sources and the developing field of ecocriticism.

Ecocriticism expands the notion of ‘the world’ to include the entire ecosphere. If we agree with Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else,” we must conclude that literature does not float above the material world in some aesthetic ether, but, rather, plays a part in an immensely complex, global system, in which energy, matter, and ideas, interact (Glotfelty & Fromm 1996, p.xix)

Although texts such as Thoreau’s Walden (1954), Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) explore human relationships within an environmental context, I needed to personally experience my own sense of widened ecological identity. This required more that an intellectual understanding gained through literature or academic texts; I needed to engage in a regular active practice. To develop my relationship and reciprocity with the animate world around me, and truly experience being embedded in the more-than-human world, required my physically experiencing it.

A PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF ECOPSYCHOLOGY

I began walking a recently-opened section of the Wadandi track, a manufactured track carved through the Margaret River landscape, between paddocks, vineyards, peppermint trees, a running brook in Winter and a massive granite outcrop. For years I have walked daily through the bush surrounding the Margaret River region. Walking this new track, however, coincided with my conscious attempt to integrate an ecopsychological perspective and dissolve my perception of separateness from the surrounding natural world. My practice-led research consequently evolved in response to the intimate relationship I formed walking through this stretch of ancient land for over two years. Listening to frogs and birds, walking through flowing rain, watching moss turn green and then transform to shrivelled brown clumps in heat, became regular sensory and somatic experiences. Through walking, writing and engaging my imagination, I began developing a perception that includes the living land as an extended sense of self. My project aims to share the sense of awe which stems from my solo pondering in the natural world, to promote a shift in ecological identity and communicate an understanding of belonging to a wider sense of self.

Although part of me was preparing to use my human/land experience to write a script, when given space and time to interact and re-immerse myself with the natural world, I did not want to simply contemplate a linear narrative; instead, I allowed my imagination to run wild with the interrelated natural world. From this experience rose a creative dialogue, formed when in communication with the landscape – an inner narrative that interacted with my perceived voice of the land. In his book Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia, mythology teacher and storyteller Martin Shaw describes how, for thousands of years, humans would “wander freely in a wider psyche”; experiences such as the stars in the sky and earth under your feet were direct forms of self-knowledge and relatedness (Shaw 2016, p.102). It was through engagement with imagination that I was able to experiment with ecopyschological ideas and see myself as interrelated to leaves, sky and rocks. This practice began to dissolve the illusion of an inner and outer self. These non-linear experiences informed my creative script writing as I experimented with contrasting narratives, nature writing, interrelated stories, sounds of the land, and the inclusion of non-anthropocentric life.

It was from this creative space of imaginative reciprocity with the land that I began to form the characters that would inspire my puppet-making and script development. According to Jung, the psyche or nature cannot be defined as we can merely describe belief and function: “Our psyche is part of nature, and its enigma is limitless” (Jung 1964, p.23). Jungian analyst and ecocritic Susan Rowland claims that literature and the use of symbolism can express the viewpoint that human creativity is embedded in nature (Rowland 2012, p xi). My characters and story have evolved from my exploration of these ideas. Rather than directly describing the inner dialogue I would share when walking the land, my creative writing and art-making are the result of my communicative relationship within the natural world. Through close reciprocity, breathing, walking, observing and imagining within the more-than-human world, my experience revealed that the language of my imagination provided a way to develop my ecological identity. A mythic voice of character and narrative arose in response to my relationship with country. Sean Kane notes a similar voice in Wisdom of the Mythtellers, claiming “[m]yth, in its most ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear” (Kane 1994, p.50). After many months and changing seasons, I walked the land, listening, looking and dreaming up a way to personally express the voice and image that emerged through me from the land. The process behind my puppet making and story is consequently a reflection of my inner/outer psyche and an active attempt to understand my human self as part of the wider ecosystem.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

A symbolic-based story evolved in response to my relationship with the South West environment. Ethnoclinical psychologist Pinkola Estés reaffirms that “story is far older than the art and science of psychology, and will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time passes” (1992, p.18). Embedded within the framework of myth and stories are archetypal patterns, such as recognisable characters, familiar plot structures and symbols, developed to guide and support transformation (Estés 1992; Campbell & Moyers 1988; Vogler 2007; Tater 1999). The most predominant of these symbols in my story was the old Bird Woman, who I imagined to live behind the rocky granite outcrop on my walk. Jung describes a symbol as an image that implies more than an obvious meaning, claiming a symbol has an element that lies beyond reason and cannot be explained (Jung 1964, p.20). The Bird Woman evolved as a symbolic form through my exploration of the ecological self, and resulted in a blurring of the lines between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The Bird Woman character evolved whenever I would visit the granite outcrop, and is my personal experience with what Estés describes as a fleeting moment of mysterious knowing; a “taste of the wild” (1995, p.5). Rowland states: “The symbol can lead to healing of one of the greatest wounds of our age: our split from non- human nature ... the symbol is a reciprocal portal to nature, and a means of psychic evolution” (Rowland 2014, p.82). As I regularly engaged in inner dialogue with my natural surroundings, the symbol of this ancient Bird Woman was becoming a well-fed element of my psyche; an untamed aspect of my imagination.

The role of the old oral storyteller has been lost in my contemporary Australian heritage, so I have drawn on the wisdom of the ‘old storyteller’ archetype, ‘the keeper of stories,’ to inform my developing character. The old hag woman is found in many fairytales, such as the witch who lives in the woods, the crone, the old creator known in Gaelic tradition as the Cailleach, or the Russian Baba Yaga, who holds the wisdom of life and death (Blackie 2018, p.136). After my own personal land-based interaction with my hybrid Bird Woman, I discovered other examples of the same symbol. Psychologist and teacher of Celtic mythology, Dr. Sharon Blackie, discusses her relationship with an old bird woman who had presented herself in the Irish landscape. Blackie claims that, while she was walking the land, a being, part woman, part bird, “emerged in the only way that is meaningful: not just out of my head, but directly out of the place itself, and the creatures that inhabit it” (Blackie 2018, p.225). Blackie describes her Old Crane Woman as “an act of co-creation. This is how the land draws us into relationship with it. This is how we build belonging” (Blackie 2018, p.225). Theatre maker Catherine Diamond also adopts the bird woman as the symbol for her Kinnari Ecological Theatre Project. The kinnari is a mythical hybrid bird woman found in the Kinnari Jataka, stories of Buddha’s previous births (Diamond 2013, p.577). Diamond states that the half bird, half woman “seemed an appropriate symbol for the imagined human/nature connection that has become attenuated in modern life” (2013 p.577). These examples offer interesting correlation between my own Bird Woman, who rose from my imaginative relationship to the Western Australian South West landscape, and validate my experience as belonging to a larger archetypal response (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Bird Woman puppet, created in response to my imaginative response to the land. Photograph by Fran Gronow.

PUPPETS AS A METHOD OF COMMUNICATION

The method I have chosen to communicate my research-based shift in ecological identity, and the character-driven story that arose from my response to the land, is puppetry. This project builds on over two decades of personal experience in theatre-related practices, including ten years as a puppet maker and the creator of three environmentally-inspired puppet shows.2 The puppets created for Bird Wings and Puppet Strings are a modification of the traditional Japanese bunraku puppet, and explore a widened sense of ecological identity through hybrid characters such as the Bird Woman and Possum Boy (Figure 2). They have physical traits that resemble humans, yet wear distinct elements influenced by the South West landscape, such as local flower species, cattle horns and animal features in the form of leather masks to function as symbolic representations of the wider ecological self (Figure 3). The environmental impact of constructing these puppets has also been considered, and materials have been sourced in an ethical way with recycled options used when possible.

Figure 2

Possum Boy puppet and Sky River with ‘Boxtown’ suitcase house. Photograph by Bradley Fergusson.

Mythology and puppetry have both been successfully explored in performance over the years to promote cultural and social change, as demonstrated by Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater (Bell 2005, p.101) and William Kentridge’s collaboration with Capetown’s Handspring Puppet Company (Blumenthal 2010, p.45). A growing body of research also supports the effective nature of puppetry as a communicative tool with children in therapy and education (Bernier & O’Hare 2005; Gendler 1986; Steinhardt 1994). Puppetry is an ancient art form with traditional roots in many cultures (Bell 2005, p.7), and was originally used to give voice to ancestors during sacred rituals (Gross 2011, p.425). Puppet educator John Bell notes: “We choose to believe that this combination of wood, clay, cloth, metal, or plastic is capable of telling us something about ourselves and others” (Bell 2005, p.11). Puppetry creates an impression of bringing something inanimate to life, and is an art form capable of building a bridge between the material world and the imagination (Ahlcrona 2012, p.172). When implemented as a therapeutic tool, Steinhardt (1994) describes how puppetry provides a ‘projective distancing technique,’ creating a safe way to express and identify feelings or ideas that might otherwise be uncomfortable (p.205). The use of this ‘projective distancing technique’ offers me, as a puppeteer, a vehicle to address cultural issues and alternative ways of perceiving the natural world without being a direct threat. Through adopting my archetypal puppet characters, I can provide what Steinhardt observes as an increased ability to communicate with children, enabling me to present a different, non-direct example of the human experience.

For thousands of years, stories have been a way for humans to make sense of their place in the world while passing on wisdom about how to create healthy reciprocity with the land. My research stems from applying theories of ecopsychology to an active Earth-based practice that led to recognising the binaries of Western perception and realising my own ecological identity. This shift in awareness facilitated an imaginative myth-based dialogue with the landscape and forms the basis of my creative response. The emergence of my wild Bird Woman, living behind the granite outcrop, blurred boundaries between my psyche and the more-than-human world. This symbolic language I shared with the land has developed into an archetypal narrative and been represented through constructing a cast of South West landscape inspired puppets. The intention underpinning this practice-led research is to use my creativity to respond to the Earth’s voice and shift the toxic untruth embedded in Western culture that separates humans from nature. The Bird Woman symbol aided my understanding of how living reciprocity between humans and nature can take an imaginative form and be communicated through art. My work adopts puppetry and story as communicative tools to explore contrasting perceptions that can reignite positive connections within a community. Bird Wings and Puppet Strings provides a new understanding of how puppetry can be applied as an ecological performance practice and promotes a shift in ecological identity.

Figure 3

Sky River and hybrid nature puppet featuring elements of local flora and fauna. Photograph by Fran Gronow.


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