Category Archives: relationships

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”

“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.

“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.

Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.

“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”

I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.

“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?

“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.

Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.

Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.

We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.

We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…

Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”

We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.

We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.

It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.

We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.

The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.

He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.

At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”

That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.

Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.

Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.

As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.

With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.

Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.

Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.

Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.

Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.

“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.

We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.

Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”

I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.

The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.

Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.

Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.

Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.

I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.

Thank you, Bright.

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

 

How do we build the skills we need to live a good life?

My latest post is now up!

It was inspired by the wonderful experience I have had working with the high school students in Granville on their spring musical, Sound of Music!

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

Enjoy!!

 

The Meaning of Milk

IMG_3329As Geoff and I make dinner, Kyra (age 12) carries a stainless steel bucket in from the cow barn, bracing her small frame sideways against its weight. White froth laps at the rim, floating atop two gallons of milk, just pulled from Daisy’s udder by Kyra’s strong hands. I help Kyra lift the bucket onto the counter. She smiles. I smile. Well done! Milk! She goes back out into the evening’s dark, headlight on, to feed the chickens.

I pull a stainless steel pot from the refrigerator that is filled with milk from this morning’s chores. The surface of the milk is firm with cream. I grab a quart jar and our bell-bottomed skimming spoon, and begin to run the edge of the spoon across the yellowy surface. A thick layer folds in front of the spoon, buckling on top of itself, before yielding in a mass to the curve. I lift my arm, spoon the cream into the waiting jar, then return and repeat.

Suddenly, as my arm completes another arc of skimming and spooning, I feel a rush of tears. I haven’t skimmed cream in over two months. We had dried Daisy off before her due date, and had no other cows to milk. Then, on October 19, Daisy gave birth, and so here we are again—back in the milk. Here I am again—skimming—and crying?

Why? How ridiculous! I am just doing my ordinary chore! Yet, I feel relief. I feel gratitude; I feel joy. But most of all I feel love. A large love. A seemingly religious love. While skimming cream? What is going on?

I ponder this strange sensation as I continue to fill my quart jar.

Am I happy to be drinking raw milk again? Yes, I am. I believe in raw milk. I believe that pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well as enzymes that aid in digestion. I believe that homogenizing ensures that those dead particulates don’t settle into silt at the bottom of a carton. This milk is alive. It glows. But that isn’t it.

Am I glad to be eating locally? Yes, I am. This milk did not require any diesel-burning trucking or train-ing to get from cow to kitchen, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t it either.

Is it just that this milk is so delicious? True, it tastes so good. Everything we make from it tastes so good—the ice cream, of course, but also the hard cheeses (cheddar, jack, parmesan), the soft cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco), the butter, yogurt, half and half (for Geoff’s coffee), and the skimmed milked itself. Everyone in our family agrees (though some are less enthusiastic about the sharper cheeses). Now we can make more of these goods again. But that isn’t what is making these tears well.

No, as pearly white milk shines from beneath the cleared cream, I realize that these tears mean something else. As I skim and spoon and stir and pour, making these simple bodily movements, this milk is for me a direct, living connection to the earth.

I helped my son buy this cow seven years ago. We have raised her, cared for her, fed and watered her; built fences for her and hauled bales for her. We have done the work together. Our kids have done the work together. Daisy, in turn, has spent countless hours munching grass from our hillsides and fertilizing the soil with her manure. Year after year she has taken that grass and given it back to us as milk, pulled and carried from barn to house by Jordan, Jessica, and now Kyra.

This milk is more than just milk. It is a one moment of an energy circuit streaming from sun to soil to grass to cow to bucket to child to cheese and back again—back through the movements those milk-fed children make in caring for the cow who fertilizes the earth that supports the sun-catching grass.

Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know. I am part of it. I am a mere loop in the chain, a small but enabling arc of this life-enabling circuit. Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know myself as someone who is participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming, making it real, making myself real as an expression of it. And it feels like love.

This milk is just milk. Yet it is more than just milk. It nourishes our bodily selves. It nourishes more than our bodily selves. Working for it, with it, by virtue of its enabling calories, I am flooded with feelings of gratitude for the abundance—for the family, the farm, and the great green earth—that it represents. This milk nourishes spirit.

I pour the skimmed milk into half gallon glass bottles, wash the stainless steel pot, fill it with warm milk from Kyra’s bucket, and place the pot back into the refrigerator, where it will wait for 12 hours—until the next skimming time.

*

I can’t stop thinking about this skimming moment from over a week ago. It was so unexpected! And the fact that it was so unexpected is itself revealing. My surprise was indicative of our cultural perceptions of pleasure, especially around food. I offer three thoughts.

First. Our processes of food production and distribution—from far away farms to supermarket shelves—have so narrowed our sensory experience of food that we associate the pleasure of food primarily with eating, and then again, with taste and amount. It is what we know. It is what we can buy.

Pacing the supermarket aisles, we are met by row after row of distilled substances pressed ‘free’ from the bran, the chaff, the skin, the seeds, the crust, the meat, the fiber, the bulk, and then processed with copious quantities of sugar and salt. Seeking more taste and larger amounts, we opt for foods that have been stripped and sliced, whitened and washed, juiced and refined, even already cooked and served.

Once these distilled substances blast through our sensory selves, we who consume feel full and empty all at once. Our pleasure is partial; we assume we need more of the same. And so, shopping and consuming, we become addicted to foods that train our sensory selves to ignore the spectrum of possible pleasures that making food can provide.

While grabbing a plastic gallon from the refrigerator compartment enroute to the checkout, we forget the pleasures of calf kisses, chin scratches, and fuzzy winter cow coats. We forget the sounds of milk pinging the pail, or of baby bleats and mama moos. We forget the smell of grass growing and cut, wet and dry; or the vivid splashes of sunset and sunrise.

When pulling a block of cheese from one shelf and a carton of frozen dessert from another, we forget the resilient stretch of a newly made mozzarella, or the melting sweetness of freshly cranked ice cream.

Sure, there is muck and mess to remember as well. Cows poop. Calves slobber. Buckets topple. Milk sours. Cheeses mold. Ice cream clots. But somehow, having a personal experience of everything that can go wrong serves to amplify and expand that feeling of pleasure when it all goes right.

This line of thinking pulled into view a second. The sensory training to taste and amount that we receive not only teaches us to forget the pleasures of the food-making process, it teaches us to forget that pleasure itself requires a process, else it does not fully engage and satisfy our capacity for it.

Pleasure is an arc, a rhythm—not a one-stop shop. It unfolds in time, over time, through the movements we make, and especially in relation to food. The waiting. The watching. The growing. The picking. The making. The baking. The bonding. The stopping. The beginning again.

Finally, as our experiences of buying and eating food narrow the range of known pleasure, it become possible to imagine that pleasure, even as a process, exists for its own sake, for personal use. It does not. This idea is an ecological hazard.

What is lost when pleasure narrows to the question of personal satisfaction is not simply sensation. We may actually experience quite exalted states from our refined food substances. Rather, what is lost is an internal array of sensory experiences that can guide us in making earth-friendly decisions about what to eat, when, where, and how.

We forget that food is our primary connection to earth. We forget that food is earth making more of itself. We forget that we too—in how and what and when and where we eat—are part of that process through which the earth becomes what it is.

Alternately, the channels of pleasure we can open through our participation in the food making process provide us with the surest guide we have for giving back to the sources of what pleases us. Pleasure points us and propels us to do what we can and must to enable its sources to grow and thrive. In so far as we know that the pleasure of food comes from participating in the earth’s bodily becoming, then, we will do all that we can to give back to the earth what it needs to continue giving to us.

We come to want the health of the soil and water and air; of the animals and plants, of our children and of ourselves. And we are willing and able to persevere in pursuit of it because we know what that health feels like.

Am I saying that everyone should own a cow? No, of course not. But everyone can find some point in relationship to food to cultivate sensory awareness of how he or she is participating in the ongoing life of the earth.

Does having a cow protect our family from making choices that addict us to unsustainable resources? No. We are not immune. But it is my hope that, because of our milking connection—and the pleasure we feel in nurturing it—we will be more apt to notice what we are doing, more likely to be troubled by our own actions, and eventually, more willing and able to make a change that brings those aspects of ongoing life in line with what we are learning matters most.

Also posted on: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201310/the-meaning-milk

A Seasonal Sadness: Letting Go

I am sad. I am not only sad. Not forever sad. Not stuck-in-a-rut or despairingly sad. But nonetheless, sad.

The farm is changing, or so it seems. Autumn is pressing upon us—a season of dropping off and falling away. A time of shedding and losing and letting go.

Last week I hugged our two oldest children in their newly appointed college dorm rooms and drove home. Without them. Back on the farm, I heard the silence. Within hours of returning, I removed a leaf from the kitchen table. I took chore clothes from the hooks, towels from the racks, and stuffed them into the washing machine. I moved boots, cleared clean laundry boxes, and boiled far too much pasta for our remaining three children. I noticed: less mess, less noise, less laughter. The house is no longer bursting. There is slack. Sag. Sadness. They are gone.

It is not just, however, that I am missing two of our own. Their departure marks the end of an arc in our journey as a farm family. Eight years ago, when we moved to this place, Jessica was 7 and Jordan 9. Ever since, their passions and their willingness to work, their concern for the world and their visions for how to make it better, have driven our farm’s development. Jordan wanted a cow; we bought our first heifer. Jordan wanted to train oxen; we bought a pair of bulls. Jessica wanted to ride; we rescued Marvin. Jordan and Jessica planted seeds, our garden grew. And when Kyra was old enough, she joined in.

So it was that in June of this year we were milking 4 cows; fetching firewood with a homemade sled pulled by Jordan’s oxen; rotating 9 cattle and 1 horse through 12 fenced pastures; tending 14 hens, feeding 4 cats, and weeding our largest vegetable crop to date. I was making cheese every day—hard, soft, and in between.

We knew it wouldn’t last. We couldn’t keep it all going without the oldest two. By the end of July, we sold three of our milkers, keeping Jordan’s first cow, Daisy. This week, we are drying her off too, as she is due to calve in October. This week, for the first time in years, we will need to buy milk. We have stored pounds of cheese and butter in freezer and fridge, but our half-gallon glass bottles lie side by side on the shelf, clean, dry, and empty.

Then again, it is not just that the kids are leaving and our milk flow ebbing. This summer I finished my book—the third in the series that I moved here to write. While the manuscript is still under review, I sense it slipping away, and with it the vision that drew me here in the first place—the mission that has constantly, daily animated and energized and guided me through whatever else was happening.

In writing these books I was asking questions that my previous years in the academic world had convinced me were vital to our ongoing health as humans on earth: how does bodily movement matter, why does bodily movement matter, and how and why can and should bodily movement matter in our relationships with our selves, with others, and with the natural world? And on every page, what I wrote about dance and movement was funded and formed by the vibrant life that these children have been creating with us here, on the farm. Now I wonder: what is next?

All around me, as I ponder these leavings, I see fronds browning, stalks shriveling, and seed pods falling. And I wonder. How do the plants feel—letting go of each carefully cut leaf, each red firmed round?

I go for a run on a hard packed dirt road, feeling the sadness. A couple of miles from the house, a deer bursts from the bushes, landing yards before me. I stop short, heart pounding, and remember not to forget. Life will never cease to surprise.

At home I lie down on the hard wood floor and let go. I breathe deeply and let all effort and energy drop away. I stay there, shedding, until a small smile forms in my heart, pulling at my cheeks, nearly breaking through onto my face. But not quite. Beneath it all, I know, there is love. An irrepressible spring of ongoing creation. A rhythm of bodily becoming. A bottomless pool of possibility, Geoff says, that is cooler and more refreshing the deeper you go. I yield to it.

I listen again. In reality, the house is not quiet at all. Three more children await their turn to reach for the sun. Another arc of ten years awaits before two more will leave for college, and then another four years before the youngest goes. They too will have their passions, their stories, and their adventures. What will they want from the farm? What will they pull from me? What will we create together?

Outside, in the garden, the harvest is in full swing. The plants aren’t simply dying; they are giving themselves up. Day to day, we are picking, processing, and putting away the kale, green beans, zucchini, corn and tomatoes that will sustain our bodily selves through the winter. It is abundance, in full force, in all its glory. Concrete. Real. Given and received.

I examine the apple tree on the hill overlooking our house. With every year, its branches gnarl and its bark thickens. Wrinkles form and furrow. Every fall it lets go and gathers inward, only to burst out again in the spring, with ever more crinkly green leaves and newborn blossoms of apples-to-be.

The tree, I imagine, is feeling relief. After all that effort spent reaching to meet, greet, and transform the beating of summer rays and rains, it is letting go of work well done. Perhaps it is smiling.

I sense in my sadness a willingness to let go. It is a season to let go—and even to let go of the sadness of letting go. There are young calves in the barn, and one more soon to come. Pounds of sweet greens are filling the freezer. Seeds are falling upon fertile ground. Kai and Leif are locked in an ongoing love battle. Kyra calmly watches.

Besides, the apples are not falling far. And my deepest wish is that they roll far enough that their seeds find their own upward path to the sun.

Did Humans Evolve To Dance, part 4? The Movement of Mirror Neurons

Today I return to the question I asked in my May post: what would neuroscientists say about the idea that dancing evolved as a practice for helping people exercise the very capacity that enabled them to survive their early births—namely, the ability to learn to make new movements?

I do so by way of an anecdote.

On Sunday, my family and I gave a concert. As part of the concert, Geoff (my pianist/partner) and I did a dual open improvisation. I had no idea what he would play. He had no idea how I would dance. Our only rules were that he not watch me (so as not to worry about what to play for that movement) and I not listen to him (so as not to worry about what music was coming next). Our task was to meet somewhere beyond the mindly chatter, at that place where life is being given to us in the present moment.

Before we began, I asked outloud: Why do such a thing? I answered: Isn’t that what life is all about? In every moment, as it is given to you, you need to figure out what moves you are going to make. How are you going to move in ways that relate you to those on whom your survival depends?

*

The 1996 discovery and naming of “mirror neurons” catalyzed a revolution in how neuroscientists think about the relational capacities of human beings. Mirror neurons are a class of brain cells that fire in various parts of the brain when a person observes another person making a physical movement. This firing creates in the observer the very pattern of neural connections that the observer would need to activate in order to make the same movement.

For many scientists, this seemingly innate human ability to make an internal image of observed movement provides the biological template for empathy. As V.K. Ramachandran argues in The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us, mirror neurons “appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full culture” for the way in which they allow humans “to adopt each other’s point of view and empathize with one another” (2011: xv-xvi; chapter 4).

The description of these neurons as “mirrors” suggests that their mode of operation is passive, visual, and individual. It is a matter of seeing. However, a closer reading of how these neurons work suggests that more is in play. As scientists describe it, the path to empathy opens through an observer’s experience of making a movement. As I watch what another person does and mirror neurons fire, I know what it feels like to make that movement, even though I am not myself making it. It is this ability to move with that enables me to infer what kind of mental or emotional state impelled that movement. I can move with and thus feel and think with the person who makes that movement.

In this reading, bodily movement is the medium through which mirror neurons operate. In this example, I would not be able to see movement at all—my mirror neurons would not fire—if I had not already moved my bodily self in ways that quickened a sensory awareness of myself moving. I need not have made the exact same movement in the past, but my mirror neurons, in making a pattern that corresponds to the movement I am seeing, will use the sensory awareness I have previously activated as the material for making that kinetic image.

The implications here are several. For one, there is no movement that is simply there for us to observe and reflect. We learn to see movement—we train ourselves to see particular kinds of movements—beginning in the womb based on the movements we ourselves are making. Every visual sensation we receive appears to us by way of patterns of movement we have already made and the education we have received and remembered by making them.

Second, this reading also suggests that the firing of our mirror neurons is not simply given to us. Whatever bodily movements we make and have made affects the ability of those neurons to fire. How we move, the degree to which we practice moving and doing so consciously impacts the kind of movements we are most able to notice, recreate, and move with.

Third, this reading suggests that those people who do engage in practices of bodily movement can expand their sensory awareness in ways that will make them more successful in moving with others. As Alan Fogel confirms in The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness, mirror neurons can “generate efferent signals to the muscles that lead us to make similar, imitative movements.” He adds that, “Via practice and continued observation, body schema self-awareness can expand” (2009: 207). In other words, humans can cultivate an ability to sense and respond to movement patterns. Humans can cultivate a vulnerability to being moved by certain kinds of movements that have proven life-enabling.

In sum, as a descriptor for these brain cells, the term “mirror” is misleading. It serves to conceal the constitutive role played by bodily movement in our ability to relate empathically with others (and thus create a distinctively human culture). It conceals the cultural and social forces at work shaping the sensory patterns through which that movement is noticed and registered as meaningful. Finally, it conceals the role that dance may continue to play in our formation as ethical, empathic human selves.

If mirror neurons are critical to our capacity for empathy—and thus to our survival as early-born, slow-maturing primates—then humans who are able to sense and respond to movement patterns better than others would be at a distinct advantage in meeting the challenges that, as we have seen, are associated with the cooperative breeding and increasingly complex social relations of early humans. In so far as dancing represents an activity in which humans practice learning new movements—practice learning how to move from others, with others, towards others—then dancing may be an activity that evolved in tandem with the ability of humans to move empathetically with others, and done so as the enabling condition of that empathy.

The practice of dancing, as it arose, may have propelled the development of brains that were better able to make new movements in all registers—whether cooking, hunting, child rearing, and general relating. It is possible that “dance” is the activity that evolved to exercise and educate the movement-making capacity for which human brains grew big. And thus, homo sapiens evolved as those creatures who are uniquely capable of learning to make new movements from one another as well as from the animals, plants, and elements circulating in their environments.

*

I think back to my dual improvisation with Geoff. Both of us are trained in our respective art forms. Both of us have had years upon years of lessons in particular techniques. This training has not only taught us how to move, it has educated our senses such that we are willing and able to notice movement patterns—in sound and bodily form—and respond in ways that align with our ongoing health and well being, further exercising our capacity to move.

Said otherwise, our practices have cultivated in us not only an ability to deliver specific patterns, but an ability to make new ones, where that creative act is not mediated through thinking, but through the act of making movements that we have learned. The act of making these movements of hands on keys or of limbs through space, for each of us, opens us along the surfaces sensory awareness we have cultivated so that we can and do receive new impulses to move as they arise in the moment, in response to the moment, as an expression of whatever is happening. Dancing and playing, we practice staying in touch with that very quality that enables us to relate with one another at all.

*

Could this example and analysis of mirror neurons provide clues to how and why dancing is a vital art? Is there support for this reading in the anthropological record of how people have actually danced?