MIAMI — Tropical hardwood hammocks are like the interior of a cocoon, I imagine — mostly dark but lit by errant patches of sun, a little gooey. I’m employing a simile better and first utilized by the artist Onajide Shabaka, who, with artist and forest therapy guide Fereshteh Toosi, led a walk through one of these womblike, canopied forests on November 3rd, part of the Creative Time Summit in Miami, called Creative Time Summit on Archipelagos and Other Imagines: Collective Strategies to Inhabit the World. For a short hour, Toosi and Shabaka suggested how to inhabit a small, insular part of the world: the hammock of Simpson Park, warm and wet, mapped with seashelled pathways. Climate change was a crux of the summit; so was imagining how to live when many of us have been made to feel like our existence is an environmental burden.
One of the summit’s breakout sessions, the workshop “Constellations: Deep Mapping Miami’s Past, Present, and Future,” referenced the term popularized by William Least Heat-Moon in his book PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In its ideal format, a deep map is less geographical than it is multiple — it can be temporal, spiritual, vertical (what’s beneath the map?), though it is most certainly geographical, too. A deep map might refer to the folklore, memories, and earliest inhabitants of one location, or the the geological formations on which it sits: The Atlantic Coastal Plane. The Florida Uplands. The deep map avoids the dubious objectivity of a topographical map and abates the fear of subjectivity altogether by employing it to the max: it has many subjects, all intrinsically connected to the one.
Like the place where caterpillar becomes butterfly, hardwood hammocks are transformative, too, if you buy into the idea that time spent outdoors has a palliative effect (I do). They’re an ecosystem endemic to South Florida, flush with gumbo limbos, mahoganies, coco plums, warblers and, of course, butterflies. Some are home to Florida panthers or diminutive Key deer, and they’re slightly elevated, so they flood infrequently. But they are vulnerable, especially because there are so few left. Hurricane Irma tore the leafed roof off my favorite hardwood hammock forest, Simpson Park, a preserved chunk of forest in the middle of the city; now I can hear the insistent clatter of Brickell, in downtown Miami, through its halved treetops. Against a buzzing forest din, the neighborhood is presumptuous and pesky. Shabaka lamented this change, the noise. He loves Simpson Park.
Constellations promised that participants would “gain some insight about the indigenous history of the land, speculate about ecological futures, and construct their own spatial narrative based on a series of somatic and affective experiences.” Shabaka reminded us to honor the Tequesta, who once inhabited the southeastern coast of Florida, including Miami. Toosi asked the group to close our eyes and listen initially to the sounds farthest away, then those closest to our bodies. “Consider what the air feels like on your skin,” she added. “What smells do you smell? Stick out your tongue. What do you taste?”
Holding tiny clipboards, fake topographers, we drew maps that indicated movement in the park. We hiked through it, deliberately and slowly. “Take your time, really slowly, okay,” she encouraged. On our path, three small boys had tripod-lashed a set of sticks together with palm fronds, like a teepee. “PEOPLE ARE COMING!” they screeched. “Pretend this is the hurricane,” said one, swatting at their structure with a giant leaf. Another boy: “Or pretend it’s coming, but hasn’t shown up yet.” I noted their ingenuity and play as a kind of movement, and the sunlight dappling on the dirt, the wind, the whooshing sound of a nearby train, the mosquito that landed on my leg. In pairs, we enacted what our partners had drawn, becoming swaying leaves and feeding birds.
Guided meditations, even in the form of something like Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening sessions (from which this took cues), are often inherently didactic and a little embarrassing in their performativity. The effect is infantilizing: play pretend, embody a tree, yelp like an animal (Toosi had us “cacaw”-ing). But to think ourselves profoundly separate from non-humans belies the power of kinship; plus, the thing is, I don’t mind feeling small or ridiculous these days. I’m relieved to witness the resilience of storm-torn trees, to risk a brown recluse’s stinging maw. To watch a forest’s steadfast surety. To give in to a dense fatigue, fostered by the day’s length and unamenable heat. I’ve given up on my long attempt to search for hope in simplicity; there’s no allaying today’s sharp, merciless cruelty. Every attack on humanity committed by the current administration, and the hatred it’s helped not create but nurture, is depleting in its own way. The exhaustion accrues. But I like to know that some trees, even in the face of encroaching pollutants, are still standing. Or that my body can tend to the precious nuisance of a swollen bite. Or that something physical tiring, not emotionally draining, can make me want to take a nap.
Toosi’s walks are usually spacious and longer than a hurried hour. Still, there was time for to fill out the most delightful questionnaire I’ve ever received. “Introduce yourself and your ancestors to this place,” read the first prompt. “What are you bringing here?” The second asked for a description of the space, what it might contain beneath and around me; the third was an imagining of its future. Miami, we were reminded all weekend long, is an augur for climate change. Sea-level rise will affect Florida quickly and disproportionately; populations who can’t afford to get out, or who are not being considered at all, will suffer most. In another Creative Time breakout session led by Reverend Houston Cypress, Rozalinda Borcilā, and Gean Moreno, Underlying Miami: Imagining Climate Futures, we were reminded that even climate change resiliency programs are often “racialized, oppressive,” and suspect. They’re banking on our losses.
There’s a real obligation here to imagine the state’s depth, which is deep but fragile, and its ancestry, which is vital, and its future, which is scary. Becoming briefly one with the land felt purposeful and good. The constellations we drew on our maps, Toosi explained, were flitting moments of flux and of life. Perhaps new light, exposed by the broken trees, is not intrusive but illuminating. While I explored, I couldn’t stop thinking about my favorite Edo-era poem by the Japanese poet and samurai Mizuta Masahide. One translation reads:
Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon
Creative Time Summit on Archipelagos and Other Imagines: Collective Strategies to Inhabit the World took place in Miami from November 1–3.