Notes on Conditions on the Ground

Our last issue, The World Aloft, sketched big plans in the air: maps, theories, and systems. In this issue, Conditions on the Ground, we are providing some counterfactuals. Here are the lived conditions that make us reconsider what we thought we knew. Here are the grounds upon which we break up big ideas, plowing them under. We plant new theories in the tilled soil. 

Both of these issues have ended up being about method. For all our planning, this issue ended up differently than we had anticipated, which only goes to show that conditions on the ground are shifting here as well. We had begun by thinking about reconnaissance and surveillance, about the need to put “boots on the ground” in far-off, unseen places. But we ended up thinking more about the places we already are. This issue is about close looking, being in the body, and attending to immediate surroundings: getting down to earth. We require a more intimate type of knowledge than we had previously imagined. This issue has been illustrated by Ashley Eliza Williams, who has examined each part as a small prized object, a series of rocks picked up off the path.

Carrie Allison begins at home, with “Small Ways to Keep Ourselves Whole.” Sheltering in place in K’jipuktuk (Halifax, Nova Scotia), she has examined the color properties of local plants, encountered on walks with her dog or in her own backyard. These colors are matched with the small colored glass beads Allison uses in her beadwork, her close attention to small things. Allison’s text focuses on small lives in big circumstances: the twenty-two lives lost in April 2020 in Nova Scotia’s deadly mass shooting, the twenty-three Assiniboine lives lost in 1873’s mass shooting (the deadliest in Canadian history), and her own home life. 

“This Bridge Called the System,” Irvin J. Hunt’s interview with Stephanie Morningstar, starts by exploring strategies for BIPOC land ownership used by Morningstar’s Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC). NEFOC uses the legal structure of land trusts to give Indigenous, Black, and Brown people control over land, bending “ownership toward the goal of stewardship.” “Bending the system on its back” is the work of lifetimes, requiring a dedication to deep relationships, the processing of eco-grief, and a “living into the present” that refuses to anticipate future grief. 

N.F. Gregg’s “Dyspraxic Dance,” a .gif show on the dance battle in collaboration with Christine Elliott, shows us how to look at the complex and playful choreography of these performances, breaking down the elements of these quicksilver movements, which, in the heat of battle, fly by with the speed of all things fleeting and intimate. The dancers in these battles seem, somehow, to have, in the dance, a different relationship to gravity, as if they knew a different version of life on the ground than the rest of us. 

In response to a still from Ana Mendieta’s Earth Bodies series, Silvina López Medin’s ekphrasis, “Creek,” balances lushness and starkness, amplifying the fluent fullness of Mendieta’s work while maintaining, always, the sense of working under constraint, as water flows in a channel. The poem’s intricate repetitions and spare armature make it, like Mendieta’s image, a kind of nude (rather like those in Anne Carson’s Glass Essay, “naked glimpse[s] of [] soul”) and also a sweet subversion of the tradition of artistic nudes, a nakedness that refuses to bare its secrets.

Meanwhile, Joely Fitch’s “Mapping Illocality” navigates problems of orientation, location, dislocation, and queerness in the work of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is notorious for its aura of enigma, extravagant and mysterious at once. In Fitch’s exploration of Dickinson’s “illocality,” placing yourself in the world becomes possible only at the moment of dislocation. You know where you’ve been in Dickinson only in retrospect, because to be where you are, really and truly, is to give up insisting on the imperviousness of the self to the encounter with the world. You learn your locality at the moment you forget yourself, like the Drop that wrestles in the Sea, striving to reconcile her individual experience within the ocean of which she, too, is a part. 

In its way, this issue has been an exercise in illocality as much as locality: finding your coordinates sometimes means running up against the vastness of the world, which can so easily overwhelm. How to do that? The pieces we’ve published here offer some ideas. We have learned that to look, truly, at the growing earth beneath our feet is to see that each plant is potentially a pharmakon: a reminder of a past that continuously offers new life while recording past deaths. We have dwelled with dislocation, dyspraxia, dance, and the way it feels to be held in a rivulet of water, flowing with it through the earth, which is indifferent but, nonetheless, can sometimes be, still, a good place to call home. But we would think that: it’s the only one we’ve got.