February 27th, 2018

Embodying education: performing environmental meanings, knowledges, and transformations

By José Castro-Sotomayor, Jeff Hoffmann, Melissa Parks, Maggie Siebert, Mariko Thomas and Tema Milstein

Castro-Sotomayor Article Thumb

Table of Contents: February 2018 — Arts, Social Change, and a Vision for Sustainability



“When I say ‘nature,’ I mean…” is the seemingly simple prompt for a pedagogical free write exercise developed by Tema Milstein  (Milstein, Alhinai, Castro-Sotomayor, Griego, Hoffmann, Parks, Siebert & Thomas, 2017) to illuminate and open up for questioning and transforming our cultural assumptions, embodied meanings, and social constructions associated with the idea of “nature.” A free write is an activity that channels one’s stream of consciousness. Once given the prompt, you write without self-editing. Nonstop. No pauses to think. Keep the movement flowing. Feel it going through your fingers up to your wrist. Consciously embody your meaning, if only for a short while —the exercise lasts between three to five minutes. In Milstein’s exercise, participants then read over what they have written, looking for one term they feel answers what “nature” means to them, and they then recite that word aloud each after the other in a river of words. The exercise’s goal is to foster learning about sustainability that starts from within and moves outward. The river of words that results allows participants to identify their own ways of knowing “nature” and then to explore diverse and similar ways of thinking, feeling, and representing “nature,” including those that perpetuate dominant Western and industrial societies’ human/nature and society/nature binaries and those that represent lesser heard but ever enduring and reviving ecocentric ways of knowing.

In an open discussion that follows, learners address the nuances and power of meanings of “nature” by responding to some guiding questions, including: How difficult is it to put “nature” into words? How about one word? How do your chosen words represent our understanding and relationships with “nature”? Would it be different if instead of “nature” in this free write prompt, we used “environment,” “resource,” or “Gaia”? If, you could come up with a different word for “nature” that might relay more sustainable ways of knowing, what word would that be? The free write and the subsequent discussion encourage both awareness and examination of dominant, alternative, and counter ecocultural meanings embedded within ourselves and our societies and also create a transformative space in which to reconsider our relations within what Abram (1996) generatively terms the more-than-human world.

Inspired by and in answer to our experience with this educational exercise, we sought to explore a wide spectrum of current ecocultural relations through the creative methodology and expression of performance. We use compound terms such as “ecoculture,” “humanature,” and “humanimal,” and phrases such as “with/in/as ‘nature’” to discursively enmesh human and “nature” as they are in life (Milstein, 2012; Milstein, Anguiano, Sandoval, Chen, & Dickinson, 2011; Milstein & Dickinson, 2012). This creative scholarly discourse is itself a performance of symbolic action, an ongoing attempt at meaning-making and practice shifting. Accordingly, we reengaged the same free write as our entry point to initiate individual pieces and then interwove these into an intersubjective and responsive 35-minute group performance. Though some of us had significant experience in performance, the majority had none. Creating our performance challenged our beliefs and boundaries within and outside ourselves. In addition to stretching our comfort zones and modes of expression, the process allowed us to reflect in new ways on different environmental knowings, identities, and positionalities that continuously work in tandem, and at times in conflict, in our scholarship and personal lives. After exploring our own —as well as some oppositional— perspectives of “nature,” seeking interactions among our pieces provided generative catalysts, allowing us to develop more nuanced and multidimensional understandings of the ecocultural complexity spawned by different backgrounds, childhoods, access levels, travels, homes, humanature interactions, and the many other infinite layers that make us all multifaceted beings. In the creative process, our ways of dwelling in the world became more exposed and our understandings of humans with/in/as “nature” were challenged.

From this intimate struggle sprouted mutual recognition, albeit not without difficulty or tension. In this performance, environmental ideologies often hidden behind the veil of common sense, political posturings, or disciplined concealments emerge, intersect, and crash. Writing our pieces revealed beliefs and values we did not know we had, and the process led us to explore those ecocultural systems of meaning we cannot extricate from dominant anthropocentric ideologies as well as those we feel may illuminate contours of sustainable, restorative, and regenerative ways of knowing and being.

Below, we first present the script of our resulting performance of “When I say ‘nature.’” We then reflect on how writing and acting transformed us personally, and to what extent the performance was and continues to be essential to our ways of learning and teaching about sustainability, and of knowing and walking the Earth today and in the future. We close with insights on how movements, emotions, and multiple voices and personas coalesced in the learning process of performing environmental meanings and knowledges, and how this embodied education transformed us as Earthlings.

We first performed this piece as a peer reviewed performance at the 2015 Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE) in Boulder, CO, USA, in response to the international conference’s theme that year: “Bridging Divides: Spaces of Scholarship and Practice in Environmental Communication” (you can access the recording here). We then performed the piece outdoors for students at the University of New Mexico in spring 2016 and, with just one of us performing a solo part, in spring 2017. The script is our inquisitive wonders engaging with deeper embodied insights to heal via reconnecting in a communal spirit and fostering imaginations that emerged as radically transformative, thus insinuating the need for a more nuanced and free scholarship. Performing it attuned us with the wider world and showed us the value of art as liberating pedagogic activism.

When I say “nature,” I mean…

[Opens with a performer as a teacher calling together her university graduate class]

Class! Class! We are going to go over a free writing activity right now. So, I’d like everybody just to relax. Relax your brain. Whatever comes in. I’m going to give you about five minutes, and when we are done, we are going to talk about it a little bit more. OK? Whenever you are ready… Let’s start

[Performer enters alone, barefoot, and, facing the audience, dons a blindfold.

Remaining performers begin to move within the audience, sniffing the air, audience members, and their own bodies as they rise, barefoot, and move through the seats]

When I say “nature,” I mean… Scent.

In this time, we center so much of our observations around our eyes, and this ocularcentric world makes us forget our noses.

So when I say “nature,” I mean

The scent of the tangerine that you just peeled, and the smell of wisteria in springtime. I mean

the early morning smell of sunrise on a mountain trail. The smell of geraniums and lilac. The wet smell of an approaching storm, the salt scent of the ocean waves, the sharp cologne of eucalyptus, sandalwood, frankincense, lavender, basil, lemongrass, vanilla; the dry and arid scent of wild sage; the bio smell of seaweed and seafoam and flotsam and jetsam from around the globe.

I mean our smells.

I mean the smell of your garden roses. The smell of freshly cut grass. The smell of campfires and ponderosa pine and decomposing leaves. The smell of rain on the hot asphalt. Overripe fruit and wet dog and brewing coffee and sautéing garlic and grass-fed steaks on the grill. Of onions, of sauerkraut, of moonshine, of morning breath in your lover’s bed, the smell of your nervous sweat after a big speech.

What do you smell at this moment? Can you smell “nature”?

I mean the scent of the compost in the back corner of your yard, the hot wave of aroma from your trash bins on Tuesdays, of dead fish, the scum on bottom of the produce drawer, the smell of coffee scented urine, of sweaty feet and human armpits, of sex, of scabs, of chicken shit and stagnate water and sulfur and spoiled meat.

The smell of me. The smell of you.

[Performer exits. New performer enters stage.]

Can you feel the chemistry between us…?

Our bodies are made of oxygen and carbon, of hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, of potassium, sulfur, sodium…

Too much of any one of these and we die. Too little of any of these, we cannot survive. Only in the delicate balance of each, we thrive.

Iron, fluorine, zinc, silicon, chlorine, magnesium, bromine, lead, copper, aluminum…

Our existence as animated bodies is only a momentary flash of light in the stellar life of our composing parts. We are water, metal, mineral, stone, gas, and our component parts are billions of years old.

Lithium, mercury, tin, iodine, titanium, boron, cobalt, silver…

Each particle of water composing our bodies has at some point traveled through and constituted every other being that has ever come before us. We are decomposing, recomposing, in deep connection with all other living and nonliving things.

Carbon, oxygen, nickel, chromium, arsenic…

[New performer enters. Other performers take on role of “Academia.”]

When I say “nature” I mean, all those… [Academia: ‘Shhh!’]

Things like… [Academia: ‘Shhh!’]

That we… [Academia: ‘Shhh!’]

Can’t talk about in the wounded and stringent of halls of academia where Wu-tang would say “Stats rule everything around me.”

All those words that live on the tip of my tongue and the end of my frontal lobe and the center of my aorta that somehow, like barnacles by a crashing sea, have been able to hold on through the barrage of don’t say [Academia: ‘Shhh!’] and you’re a social scientist how on earth could you say the word [Academia: ‘Shhh!’] and if you ever want to be taken seriously again as a woman or a scholar, you most certainly won’t call yourself [Academia: ‘Shhh!’] or tell anyone that there is the slightest chance there is something out there you cannot run t-tests, plug into Atlas TI, or deduce into a 50-minute lecture leaving you with steps one, two, and three.

Humans! What would happen if the word [Academia: ‘Shhh!’] became valued as another lived truth?

We don’t like words like [Academia: ‘Shhh!’] because they are open ended and up to interpretation, because they are hard to quantify or operationalize, because they lend themselves to what we all already know, to why so many of us commit our souls and bodies to trying to explain it in different languages to different people. And that there is MAGIC…

[Academia: <Gasp>]

There. That’s right I said it. And what’s more, on some days, I might just be a WITCH.

[Academia: <Gasp>]

People! Would you get over it? Not some wrathful version of black shreds, the stuff of patriarchal nightmares (though…it’s tempting) but someone who relegates power to spaces and places.

We say environment is the territory of the scientist, wilderness of the witch, the outlaw, and the bison. But why can’t we just let it in? Because really, how else would you describe the splattering of stars in a black bathed sky.

So, when I say “nature” I mean magic, and I mean being a WITCH.

[Performer is interrupted by the new performer who enters the stage yelling: “BITCH!!”]

When I say “nature,” I mean… Site of conquest.

A site of conquest, contest, contested space, battleground of beauty. When I say “nature” I mean a place for me to plant a thousand million billion rows of soybeans stretching wide into the sunset. Soybeans that I perfected because yours contained mitochondria that attracted bugs, pests that were your enemy, natural killers, and you were weak, susceptible to the sprays that I use to protect you and make you more fertile. Don’t resist. It is for your own benefit. You were imperfect “nature” but I have improved upon your design. Do what I say, obey, “nature.” When I say ‘grow,’ you say [Performers respond: “how much?”].

I say stop with your temper tantrums melting Antarctica and sending those pesky hurricanes and storms. I say behave. Could you please calm down? If it makes you feel any better, I’ll change out my lightbulbs and buy a Prius.

[A performer walks onto stage, murmuring: … oxygen and carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium…]

Don’t forget about petroleum!!

That sweet silky black milk that flows forth from the pastures of God’s green earth, from the blessed country, from the holy land…Texas!

That fortuitous boon graciously bestowed upon man by the bosom of Mother Earth, brewed patiently by Father Time. OIL [Performer audience: <sighs rapturously>].

My daddy was an oil man, and his daddy before him, and his daddy before him, and…

Awww, well, you get the point… We’re Oil People! Always have been, and always will be…

Well I s’pose, uhhh, well, mmm, I s’pose til there ain’t no more oil… uuhhh…

BUT then we’ll go out it in a fiery blaze o’ glory like the good Lord intended!!!!

[Performer enters saying: No! No! No!]

When I say “nature,” I mean…. The space for more.

That thing,

that crevice,

that tiny slip where the space between me and you and

black and white

and brown and

water and skin and soil was not

directional or hierarchical,

but just a space between,

boiling over with the kind of truth

we don’t seem to have words for.

When I say “nature,” I mean the space where things like

race and gender and burgeoning sexualities

and the side of town your apartment is on cease to order the world in the same way.

The place where my father found a way out of the barrage of racism

because, let me tell you, being black and Japanese and poor in 1950s ghettos wasn’t cake

and there were more ways to get in trouble

than to stay out of it.

When I say “nature” I mean where mixed up mixed race aunties and uncles found solace in second hand hiking boots and ripped bandanas,

high above Los Angeles county, where race riots exploded around their home and smog threatened the very ions that sustained their young voices, still weak and cuckholded by EONS of

Performer 1: “Black people don’t hike.” And

Performer 2: “Girls don’t like camping.” And

Performer 3: “Real men don’t like flowers.” And

Performer 4: “The woods are for white folk.”

Because I don’t have time to wander willy-nilly through the dirt paths of John Muir

I got mouths to feed

babies to raise

and no way to even get there.

When I say “nature,” I mean that moment when the boy Reggie felt a Sierra sunrise on his skin and said, “Does the sun rise like this in Watts? Cuz I sure haven’t seen it before.”

It’s your Emerson and Adams

Without forgetting your George Washington Carver.

When I say “nature,” I mean the sensation of snow in Reggie’s nostrils

multiplied by evergreens crusted and set fire with cold and sun heated stories,

the displaced newness of it all

the echo between having nothing matter but the way your feet feel planted on the hillside,

yet the everything of a society hell-bent on constantly politicizing

the smell

of clean


Where you know the greater forces of something close to evil gone ignored shove black and brown folk, my relatives, their homeboys and homegirls, into the center of cities

while making romance out of farmers and whole foods,

12 dollar pickled beets,

and selling candy colored outdoor gear like their lives depended on it,

and forgetting that

right then

all that matters is the solid stare of a tree saying


I don’t care about your

performed masculinity

sexual confusion

racialized lives

2.2 percent queer

12 percent black

7 percent Hispanic

2 percent native

In the forest service

hired stewardship not reflective of how “nature”

gives zero fucks about your stats

because that mushroom right there will kill you if you eat it no matter what kind of private school or foster home you came from

and if you roll sage in your fingers

it will give you the same chills if you are 5 or 70 or have no legs.

Nature gives zero fucks about the sounds our mouths make trying to explain the space in between me to her, and him to them.

Because, when I say “nature,” I mean

the place that could teach us to let go of the labels

if we learn

to dissolve into wonder

to listen a bit better

to not drag our societal bullshit into

its castles and halls

to let it

just be


[New performer enters and, holding the performer’s hand, guides them to a place on the ground. Performer stands like a prophet and others gather around.] 

When I say “nature,” I mean… Surrender

Struggling is nonsense.

Struggling with words.

You might say that I do not have enough words to name what I see. And you are right!

I don’t have even the simple words to explain what I’ve heard, smelled, touched, or tasted. What I have felt.

And even if I had the utterances to turn the unknown into something familiar, words will still be a single truth.

Words used to talk about “nature” refer to a reality that is contingent, fluid, and ostensibly chaotic.

The struggle is with naming “nature,” for I define. The struggle is with pointing to “nature,” for I design.

Nature becomes the spectacle created by the projection of my human desires.

When I say “nature,” I mean surrender.

Humans: Erase yourselves from the center of knowledge! Let’s create, as Jeannette Armstrong said, a language that “describes moving pieces of an ongoing reality that stretches away from the speaker.”

A language that questions the mere existence of a center.

But we, humans, crave a center. Therefore,

we struggle with pointing and naming.

We prefer a fictional center instead of a centerless reality because we, humans, believe that without us —the center— chaos will prevail.

Struggling with chaos. Nonsense.

The wild, dark, turbulent, uncontrollable chaos. Be aware civilization of the wild, dark, turbulent, uncontrollable “nature.”

Chaos constitutes and is “nature.”

But chaos is solely an order humans cannot understand.

Nature as chaos disrupts my human alterity. “Nature”/chaos brings me in and pushes me out.

In chaos I stop being the witness-outside. I step in “nature” to surrender to the chaotic senses.

I feel myself as “nature.”


I am out again with a contemplative and wondered gaze, listening to the cacophony after experiencing the euphony; the orchestration of “nature” as a puzzle of cracks.

Do not focus on the pieces! Delve into the cracks; in the space between the pieces where emptiness is embellished.

To navigate the cracks of the puzzle no more struggles are needed.

When I say “nature,” I mean surrender to emptiness with all your senses to be Earth, land, rock, dirt, and dust; oceans, seas, lagoons, rivers, and puddles; sun and beam; spark and fire; flesh, bones, and membranes. Emptiness grounds our humanity.


[A performer sits as a teacher of young children with the other performers gathered around cross-legged as her young students.]

Teacher: Now now, kids. Settle down. Everyone gather round. I’m about to begin the lesson for today. That’s it, just sit in a semi-circle like a crescent moon. Gather close so you can hear me. Today we will begin our unit on “nature.” Who here can tell me what “nature” is? <Looks around expectantly for an answer.>

Good good. Just raise your hands if you have any ideas or answers. Remember there are no wrong answers only answers. That’s it. Raise your hand when you have an idea.

Student 1: Flowers and trees!!

Student 2: Flowers and trees make me sneeze. I hate it when the flowers bloom.

Student 3: But they’re so pretty. My mom says that if it weren’t for trees we wouldn’t be able to breathe.

Teacher: That’s it, students, keep your answers coming. I’m going to draw everything you say.

<Students start yelling out whatever comes to mind like the sun, our solar system, the milky way, dirt, playgrounds, mountains, creeks, backyards, the Nature Channel.>

Teacher: Wonderful! Yes. These are all things that are either found in “nature” or are made in the natural world! How does it make you feel when you are in “nature”? Where do you go to be in “nature”?

<Students again throw out their best ideas: camping, hiking, skiing, going on adventures, playing, climbing trees, fishing.>

Teacher: Good students. Now how does it make you feel?

Students: Calm … Quiet … Ready for a nap …. It makes me tired … I want to be an explorer and go to all the national parks so that I can see all of nature! … It makes me excited and happy I just want to climb on all the rocks and run as far and as fast as I can.

Student 4: It makes me sad.

Teacher: Why does it make you sad?

[Performers exit. One remains.]

To me “nature” is… Unavoidable.

Birth and death and the reconstitution of all matter through cycles of life, movement, energy, systems of nurturing and disassembling.

The greatest pleasure imaginable and the worst pain unimagined, and everything in between. All animation of matter; never limited to human understanding of the essence of life.

Nature is at once a home for our bodies and the systems that keep us alive and the systems that kill us.

The relationships between all things imaginable, and the systems upon which all things imaginable depend. No one thing can ever be outside of “nature.”

All human endeavors, from the symbiotic to the parasitic, are “nature.”

Nature was my parents and grandparents having to grow up fast, in mines and mills and steel and boiling iron. “Nature” was 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. “Nature” was a job to do and a family to feed.

And “human nature”? “Human nature” was my grandfather one day pulling his friend off the 700-degree iron slag where he had fallen from that broken catwalk in Allied Steel Mill, Chicago Illinois, summer of 1976.

“Human nature”? “Human nature” was Freddie’s screams echoing from tall concrete walls as the flesh, muscle, and bone melted from his body, as they carried him off to meet the last moments of his life, dying for a living wage, dying to build the bridges we walk and the elevator shafts where we will never talk, dying in the liquid iron.

If we truly are so very connected, as we mine and mill these elements from the earth, we are in fact mining ourselves. We are extracting our own life force, tearing our guts out from deep underground. Burning ourselves back into…

carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, uranium…

In our bodies alone one can find everything necessary to split radioactive atoms, unleashing untold quantities of deadly energy…

We find everything we need to cure cancer… or give it to our enemies.

We are biological warfare and biological welfare.

“Human nature” is the lust and desire for carbon, pressure, and time… today we carry intelligence in our pockets that was once no more than a dream of science fiction —smartphones. But there is blood upon the silver, gold, and platinum that conducts the transfer of such intelligence. Blood was spilled for such knowledge. Blood from bodies made up of the same eternal stuff as you and me. Blood from our home. Blood from the only one we have. Blood from the Earth.

But… is “human nature” truly unavoidable, or do we have a choice? What will we make with our choices, you and me?

Can you feel the chemistry between us?

[Performer exits. New performer enters.]

When I say “nature,” I mean… That what is unnatural is somehow a part of “nature,” too.

What does it mean to be “unnatural”? Is it the opposite of “natural”? the “un” negating the suffix? Can you unnature anything? Denature something? Like a GMO, plastic, car parts, concrete, hotdogs, stem cells, electricity, Styrofoam. Many things are made of compounds this Earth never intended to host nor does it know where to put. When we eat it where does it go? When the earth needs to process, to decompose, in order to recompose where will it all go? We live in a world, on a planet, in a solar system, in a universe, that revolves in a bigger complexity of the unknown. Maybe we should jet propel it all away. Where is away? Away from where, to where? Here on this Earth there is water. The source of life. Does life equal “nature”? Do we need GMOs, plastic, car parts, and hotdogs to survive? Must something respire to be natural. Or is existence in this realm enough? Trees, and mountains, and streams, and puppies, and beating hearts, and pine needles, and skies are all clearly natural but we don’t have to go camping to be immersed in “nature.” All of creation, I would argue, is natural; even the tattoo of your name blending slowly into my skin, the plastic grocery bag flitting over the power line to get stuck in a tree, the neon sign beckoning me to consume a moment of time in some shady diner, and even the internet that virtually allowed me to connect with you all today.

[Performer exits. New performer enters.]

When I say “nature,” I mean… Instinct.

The giggle and bounce in a child when a song is played.

The inherent, unmistakable, undeniable, inescapable urge a baby has to dance. I mean the beautiful, natural rhythm that appears in tiny human creatures before they can even stand, before they can don their dancing shoes.

I mean the urge we all have to embrace the pop, the swing, the bounce and bob, the sashay, the sway, the slow sizzle of hips and the barefoot shuffle, the toe tapping, finger snapping, primal need to dance, to move, to feel our muscles, our joints, our deepest sinew, our internal pulse match up with a rhythm that beats beyond us.

I mean the desire, the passion, the grace that we are born bearing, the ingrained excitement that we work to stifle, to hide, to bury, to laugh at, to mock, to ignore, to forget.

When I say “nature,” I mean remembering, rediscovering, unearthing and unabashedly waving humanity in the face of society. I mean the dance of a child, the joy of a child—free, fearless, and fun.

We suffer disconnect from our “natural” selves. Without trying, without considering, without even noticing, we adapt to the version of ourselves that is the most eagerly accepted by others, slowly neglecting and then rapidly forgetting the animal within. We downplay our strength, sheath our claws and muffle our cries and calls and limit our old runs to afternoon walks in a well-manicured garden or an occasional jaunt on a treadmill within concrete walls, using Siri or Google to find our way home.

We forget that we once knew and loved the wild, and we spend our days, instead, in cardboard cubicles under florescent lighting—saving our time in the sunshine for two weeks’ vacation sometime next year. We LOVE only with reserve and manners and guidelines and Netflix, having forgotten the mess and wet and scream of passion.

We have no need to touch the earth because pathways have been built for us and our food comes in on a plane from Chile. We eat what is handed to us without questioning its origin, its effect, its role on the planet, or where the bones have gone. We get by on caffeine and diet Coke and Red Bull and antidepressants so that we can feel normal, so that we can function without providing our bodies the balance of healthy food and sleep. We use alcohol to relax and Aderrall to focus and Ambien to sleep and Coke to wake up and Cialis to PERK UP and Cymbalta to cope and Prilosec so we can eat whatever we want. We vomit up our dinner and we staple our organs so that we can look the way we are expected to, but we refuse to acknowledge the importance of the way we feel about ourselves.

We blame our health and happiness on mom’s genetics, on our bad knees, on the cost of fresh food, on work, on TIME, forgetting that we once thrived in a world where these things did not yet exist.

We forget. [Performers start making music with their bodies and dancing around]

We were once the hunter and the hunted, the forager and the gardener, the nomad or the conquistador, the viking or the shaman, the humanimal who discovered fire, who lived with wolf and buffalo. We forget we were once the runner, the rain worshiper, the witch, the naked and happy, the dirt-streaked offspring of the mountains and the sea, the wild-eyed children of the clouds and the soil.

We were dancers. [Performers reach the zenith of their dance.]

We suppress our urges and we play by the rules and we do what we are supposed to do [All performers suddenly stop embarrassed, ashamed, timid].

And we talk the talk and we walk the walk and when the music plays, when the rhythm hits, when the drum beats, when the jitterbug calls out to us





[Performer exits. New performer enters. Performer is holding the end of a string. While s/he is performing, a ball of yarn is passed and tossed throughout the room until the last lines of the performance.]

When I say “nature,” I mean… [Performer seems puzzled. Then, performer finds the way to start.]

Dissociation is the ‘natural’ state of the world. In these times of constipated senses and shortsighted visions…. [Performer Crowd: Shut up; do some yoga; hippie!]

But still.

My disconnection is not only from the childish, instinct, magic, bitchy, oily, bloody-shiny, schooled, equalized, fractal “nature.”

I feel disconnected from other-selves and from myself.

It’s sad when I realize that, when I say “nature,” I do not mean you. I mean what is outside of my body and beyond those of my kind, my human kind.

I feel pain when the speed of time hinders me to see “nature” in you.

[Stops] Wait. I must answer this [Takes out cellphone. Starts texting. Then s/he realizes the irony. Throws cellphone away.]

You see… dissociation.

These are times of humans’ alienation from the beauty of nothingness, the sound of silence, the beam of darkness, and the orchestration of chaos. I alienate; therefore, You and I disappear.


Aren’t we, humans, part of the discordance and the harmonious? Part of darkness and silence? In fact, we are more than parts. We are discordance and harmony, silence and darkness.

I need to feel you because you are real.

We need to immerse in our natural bodies to feel the alienation, to recompose the fragments, to slow down the frenetic time.

We need to balance the world and the word to feel that our voices are not the only voices.

Cave in and cave out to leave the shadows burning inside.

Try to keep hope by sensing that there is light beyond my heart.

So, I need you to re-learn to listen beyond my own echo/ego.

When I say “nature,” I mean You and Me in balance.

Balance is emptiness in which we surrender to enter the inward path to attain outward connection.

Balance is the nature-in-me recognizing, feeling, and surrendering to the nature-in-you.



Performing empathy for multiple realities by Mariko Thomas

When we started work on this performance piece as a group, we all wrote stream-of-consciousness free writes on how we might define “nature.” I don’t think any of us realized the range of definitions each of us carried internally, all boiling, undulating, and bumping into one another under the surface of our practiced academic lingo. I can’t even begin to articulate how many times my own multilayered definitions have come to fruition, dissipated, and switched in the last few years, sometimes like a flimsy banner being flipped in the wind, sometimes in seismic changes that altered the geology of my psyche. For example, I can remember trying to explain “nature” a year ago like this in answer to Milstein’s free write prompt at the start of our graduate class on ecoculture:

The bark between my toes. I guess those are the moments that deep space in between clock ticks where the universe starts to shiver in a wa waa waaa like a pitchfork tuning itself, to not only your heart but the network of beings in your palms and in your feet. I guess I imagine some green magic a drip-dropping and a stream of moisture rising from lichen laden forest floors but also the dirt soil dirt soil dirt.

And then just a few months later, at the end of our class, like this:

When I say “nature,” I mean the space between you and me and this giant heartbreaking overwhelming over-joyous existence we share with all things great and small, I mean the sensibility of scent and the ethics of survival, the waves of learning what it is to thrive or destruct and the all-everything all the time of being in a mess of connection.

And if you had asked me a few months before that, it might have been along the lines of ‘green stuff, trees, butterflies, mountains, that slug that I stepped on then screamed in an over-the-top manner about.’ It’s not that all of these conceptualizations directly oppose one another, more that each moment that someone can be asked a question like “what is ‘nature’?” is a different conjuncture of space and time, and a different moment in that person’s life, so their way of interfacing with “nature” might be radically different.

Because we used a variety of narratives in the performance that reflected oppositional ideologies; some were contradictory to those we held in our personal relationships with/in/as “nature”. Performing allowed us to embody the vision that many of us had previously experienced as selfish, or one dimensional. When you see a face who you work, study, and perform with embodying a perspective you find foreign, you are forced to re-visit how terribly easy it is to ‘other’ those perspectives that are not your own. This is where I think performance is able to bridge a gap, because as performers tell a story, both the audience and the performer are forced to slip outside their skin for a moment and zip themselves into someone else’s experience. Rather than fighting the discordant sensation of an inability to relate, we instead attempt to find ourselves within that foreign story. To me, the act of finding oneself in a story is learning to empathize, relate, and ultimately find connections in seemingly oppositional tales.

Olfactory communication: Sensual deprivation and the role of scent in humanature communication by Melissa M. Parks

With adrenaline surging through my body in rhythmic waves that made my fingers tingle, I reminded myself to breathe —a nervous, ragged breath— and I stepped into the center of our performance space and lowered a blindfold over my eyes. I began our performance speaking of smells, blind to the audience, blind to light, blind to my fellow performers, listening only to my own voice as I discussed “nature” as scent, reminding myself to speak slowly, intentionally. I was the first to perform and had no idea what the audience was thinking as I stood before them discussing the aromas of rain and sage and hot trash cans, dramatically sniffing my own body and deeply inhaling the room. For all I knew, they had already left. For all I knew, they were wearing faces of disgust or skepticism or horror. They were silent.

Depriving myself of vision was meant to illustrate my point that “when I say ‘nature,’ I mean scent.” But more than an outward performance, it was an incredibly impactful learning experience. I had never performed without my vision before. I had never spoken to an audience without being able to see their faces, read their nonverbals, gain reassurance from their eye contact, miniscule nods, and occasional smiles. My rant on ocularcentrism became very real in this moment; I felt lost without my vision. At the same time, though, I was experiencing what I was preaching. I could smell the sanitized room. Someone’s perfume. My hair. My nervous body. My voice sounded loud. I could feel my fellow performers’ energies come closer as they moved into the space near my body, silent as their bare feet tiptoed across the carpet.

I had, of course, practiced with the blindfold before, but this experience of wearing it and performing with it before an audience of intimidating, academic strangers, while I made odd performative motions and discussed the importance of the scent of rotting meat and coffee-scented urine, was certainly a new and unnerving experience. It made what I was saying very real—embodied, experiential, sensuous—for me. What the audience gained, I cannot say. I lifted the blindfold and surrendered the stage to the next speaker, allowing myself only a momentary glance at the audience. Their faces were serious, engaged, already enraptured by the next moments of the performance. I will never know what their faces showed as I spoke to them, blind and sniffing and exhilarated. I moved forward with the performance and my awareness of scent immediately faded; no longer was the sterile scent of the room important. No longer was I aware of some stranger’s perfume. No longer was I aware of my own nervous sweat as I worked collectively with my peers and reengaged in an ocularcentric world.

I have carried this experience with me, seeking out scents as I walk the earth, sniffing and breathing in both enjoyable aromas and unpleasant ones. I am made more aware of how reliant I am on my eyes—they are my main tool for exploring the earth. They absorb beautiful and terrible sights and help me navigate and enjoy the world. But my vision absorbs my attention as well—too much of it. My emphasis on my vision pulls my bodily connection to the earth into a mind-body separation where my brain processes information and my body remains largely passive. The domination of vision in my ocular body suppresses my other, multiple and overlapping senses, making my senses of smell and taste and sound and touch nearly null as I communicate and exist with/in/as “nature” as well as the anthropocentric world. My reliance on my vision and my ignorance of my olfactory system seem to make me more human than animal, something I believe is problematic. It fosters and perpetuates the human-nature divide that I seek to break down within myself. I thus continue to tell myself what I told our audience that day, what I communicated and learned through my voice and my nose and my hands and my adrenaline and my body: Scent is vital to our bodily understanding of “nature.” Scent is our humanimal way of navigating the planet. The scents of bodies, secreting from our bodies, absorbing into our bodies, emitting messages to the countless bodies of the Earth, are vital to communication with/in/as the world, to our greater understanding of ourselves and our Earth.

Interrogating human exceptionalism: A decolonial prophet for the Western spirit by José Castro-Sotomayor

I have always been puzzled by humans’ hubris. This false pride raises a humanity based on individuals immersed in the delusion of being an untouchable, self-independent species. The conception of the ‘self’ as mainly rational is the Enlightenment legacy we —academics, teachers, practitioners— have not been able to shake from our ways of building knowledge. Granted a God-like “universal” knowledge, we humans walk the world as masters of a reality that exceeds us significantly. The pieces I wrote for the performance were intended to denounce the illusion of the struggle shaping Western humans’ quest for defining a (rational) center of reference. A self-censuring emerged from my realization that I was neglecting my species-ness, a disregard that eventually would strengthen the net of frivolous and anonymous relations with both humans and more-than-humans.

The writing process was an inward journey to try to understand my own discomfort with both the constraints of formal academic writing and a human-centered academia. The process of creating a performance liberated me from arguing ideas and directed me to express emotions. Emotions are highly political for they ground a sense of urgency to act. Further, emotions fuel the impetus to discover how far an action can go and to what extent we are committed to realizing it. In other words, emotions move us to leave an impression (not a footprint) in the world. This movement —from arguing to expressing— shifted my standpoint and allowed me to find a voice that is not merely my own, but the orchestration of many voices enunciated before me by other earthlings.

My performance character expressed my discomfort with a human-centered academia. Performing functioned as a realization of the emotional involvement I have with the lack of consideration of “nature” as a victim of our ideological struggles and instabilities. A human-centered academia shows comprehension and even empathy for racial, gender, sexual, ethnic, able, aged others. However, the same academia seems unwilling to engage with the idea of human relations with/in/as “nature,” which are crucial to understanding our human —all too human— condition. In academia, I have witnessed how knowledgeable scholars, critics of the capitalist system and its means of oppression, conscious of the environmental distress of the world, kept reproducing harmful ecological perceptions and practices. They could question ethnocentrism, or whiteness, or heteronormativity, but they were not able to engage in the same critical way with anthropocentrism. We live within contradictions, but that should not be an excuse for maintaining normalized behaviors (e.g. buying “disposable” water bottles or using harmful chemicals to clean the lawn) that, in my view, are inconsistent with our reflexive and critical position to the discriminatory and destructive consumer capitalist system. Reflexivity does not comprise eliminating these paradoxical ways of living and being; rather, reflexivity helps us better navigate the ambiguities in order to become not solely better humans but also more ethical humanimals.

Acting the piece revealed my insecurities but also allowed room for personal growth. My part in the performance is mainly built on aphorisms. This was not a stylistic choice, but it was responsive to my concerns about pronunciation since English is not my first language —aphorisms were easier to remember and pronounce. The performance was also influenced by my body, as my tongue stumbles when I try to speak fast in English. Therefore, I had to experience a rhythm that allowed me control over the nuances in the pronunciation of certain words like ‘echo’ and ‘ego.’ The embodiment of these dynamics gave my character a prophetic aura I did not intend (my companion performers pointed it out to me, and we ran with it in the performance with my character standing like a prophet and others gathered around). To my awe, this aura matched the critique of Western thought I was trying to convey. Being a “prophet” gave me a mystic stance that is usually ascribed to non-Western spiritual individuals (e.g., shamans). At the same time, this mysticism positioned me “outside.” As a colonized subject, a.k.a. Ecuadorian mestizo, I reclaimed a position of power by enacting the voices silenced by the negation inflicted by colonialism.

The performance became a vital part of a significant shift in how I understand my human existence. It was cathartic as I interrogated a humanity build upon the exploitation of nonhuman sentient beings, as well as more-than humans (e.g., land, waters, trees). Instead, I craved a humanity made in intimate relation with the more-than-human. In performing, I was able to embody a process of dwelling and connecting with the Earth as a living being, which demands a profound recognition of vulnerability. The de-construction of excessive self-sufficient pride in the search for humbler human lives may sprout an existential transformation to embrace intimate relationality, interdependence, reconnection, and regeneration. The interconnections are unavoidable and vastly exceed our human kind. Engaging in writing and performance allowed me to understand and feel that the journey to a radical existential shift is not simple. The co-creation of the performance and our rehearsals showed me I am not alone in this journey. Working through our material and symbolic attachments requires a constant self-reflection if we genuinely want to reach an awakening that will lead us toward actual change. To accomplish this end, I learned, art is vital.

Car parts, GMOs, & tattoos: What is “unnatural” is somehow a part of “nature,” too by Maggie Siebert 

I used this experience to explore the ways our American, and often global, culture asserts control and dominance over “nature” through various forms of logic. Through this embodied perspective, I tried to literally wear the shoes of those with whom I disagree. I did this not necessarily to expose the flaws in certain dominant arguments/narratives but to attempt to see whether there were shared meanings and interpretations about “nature,” and whether, through better understanding these arguments, alternative co-existent discursive frames could emerge that would bridge divides between exploitive practices (such as mining and genetic modification) and our high consumption lifestyle (such as our love of cellphones and disposable culture). I also wanted to expose underlying idiosyncrasies and contradictions in how I frame “nature” and promote non-destructive industries, yet participate wholeheartedly in Netflix binges, social media rabbitholes, and purchasing products of questionable origin. I, too, am a contributor to destruction by my own actions. I believe this inherent contradiction is something many environmental advocates, scholars, and proponents grapple with, and it deserves reflection, a space for teasing out and pondering to find new meanings and ways of existing in “nature” as animals ourselves.

I began to explore questions like, “Can something be unnatural?,” even if it is human-made and plastic? Why do I have associations with leaves, waves, and hiking as natural or as being immersed in “nature,” but the experience of getting in my car, turning on the radio, and zipping off to the grocery store as “unnatural”? I proposed through my free writes that these contradictions are experienced by many of us. I attempted to dissolve those barriers as a method of detangling the complex experience of rejecting commodity culture, destructive practices in agriculture like CAFOs, and having to live, breathe, drive, cook, eat, and have the least impact possible within a wider extractive system. I found through my monologues the real experience of this contradiction and the futility of the feeling of one person, trapped in a train barreling out of control without brakes or a way to switch tracks. I felt trapped in our shared culturally normative behaviors and yet envisioned that in time, hopefully soon, things are shifting, changing, and the pestilence of our own impact on this earth will change.

Through the act of performing, I could feel the repulsive contradictions resonate through me. The act of saying things aloud like, “I will improve upon your [nature’s] design” made me realize how deeply entrenched these ideologies and cultural discourses are buried. I hope I was able to impart to the audience a moment where they could laugh at the ridiculousness of shoddy logic, yet reflect that they carry, enact, and perpetuate the same cultural idiosyncrasies and contradictions. Performance as a method allowed each of us to become shared interlocutors in an acted out drama of thought and action that is constantly being acted, reacted to, reified, and deconstructed in and around us. I feel performance is a valuable tool, not just for teaching in an academic classroom, but also as an individual wanting to do the right thing, and wanting us all to reflect a little longer before making choices, assumptions, and repeating patterns of behavior. It allowed me to step outside myself and ask, why am I doing this this way? Is there another way that is less harmful? And then to choose to perform in a way that is more natural — whatever that means.

Ecocultural metabolism by Jeff Hoffmann

I have always been fascinated with the relationship between wholeness and the particulate. The more high-powered the lens of the microscope, for example, the more simple reality becomes, at least at first glance. At this level, the Western scientific gaze sees everything and everyone in the universe as made of different combinations and arrangements of the same fundamental cosmic materials. For many, these links are a kind of godliness, or spiritual cosmology; they form a deep connection among everything, living and nonliving. Combinations and relationships among fundamental cosmic materials are infinite, and as we zoom out, the apparent infinity of possible combinations and relationships of life is always present. Every process, every movement, whether constructive or deconstructive of such cosmic matter is always related to, effected by, and affects every other movement in the cycles of life.

Yet Western science has, in most cases, increasingly compartmentalized its understanding and treatment of such processes. This performance was a way for me to struggle with some ways in which I am guilty of the same, and also to explore my relationship with industrial practices such as mining and petroleum extraction —practices with which my life is entangled. I critique these practices but simultaneously rely on them for both convenience and livelihood. Performing characterizations of dominant ideology surrounding these practices forced me to make an unapologetic critique of their destructive nature, but to also turn that critique inward to look at how I embody extractionism on a daily basis through my own actions. Finally, I pondered the idea of having a choice in how we orient to more-than-human relationships, a choice that opens my imagination to non-binary, non-compartmentalized, regenerative human-natures. In looking at the scientific discourses I have learned and reproduced, I found that the metabolism of the human body is understood as different from those of other animals, or from smaller and larger organisms, and that the metabolism of the ecosystem is studied, analyzed, and understood differently, and by completely different people, from the chemical processes necessary for the continuance of life in the human body. And the scholars of each may never speak to one another. And, in part, as a result, in our daily lives we continue, for instance, to distinguish the way the apple we just ate breaks down and feeds us from the way the sun darkens or burns our skin but also feeds us vitamins.

Metabolism: The chemical processes within a living organism in order to maintain life.

Most of us understand metabolism through this internal lens. But metabolism is meaningless without the inputs and outputs; the limitations of “within a living organism” are defined rather through Western ecocultural lenses, not a universal Truth. Is my skin the barrier of my body? Moments ago the air that is now in my lungs, metabolizing into my blood and spreading through my body, was outside in “the environment.” Yet, our ancestors’ bodies, whose bodies made their children, whose children’s, children’s, children’s children made me—when “life” left their bodies—they were buried in soil, broken down through complex mycological and microbial life, metabolized into nutrients for the trees that metabolize carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, and I breathe that oxygen, and it makes me keep “living,” helps my consciousness continue “being.” So is that just “air” I’m breathing right now? Are those just “tomatoes” growing in my garden? A brilliant Nuevo Mexicano farmer (or as he likes to call himself, an alchemist) once taught me that rather than harvesting a tomato, we harvest consciousness. The Earth is alive and, whether we are aware or not, we are part of her metabolism, part of her consciousness.

A few years before this performance, when I first responded to Milstein’s prompt “When I say ‘nature,’ I mean,” I wrote about the explosive power and violence of volcanoes, of their incredible destructive and constructive power, ever dissolving and reforming Earth. A few weeks after I imagined “nature” through this volcano, I would walk along human-constructed trails through the Valles Caldera in New Mexico: a breathing, swelling, enormous mass of valleys and resurgent bulge peaks, atop a massive magma chamber that is soon due for another 12-mile wide eruption, a form of Earth’s metabolism, a necessary process for and of life.

I have often struggled and been dissatisfied with my own ability to navigate the tensions between the Western scientific gaze, with its cold precision and technologies increasingly based in war, extractivism, and unsustainable progress narratives, and the alchemy of our ancestors, whose technological practices, deeply based in and aware of the land, were also the basis of their cosmology. I believe that much of this struggle comes from my uprootedness, my disconnection as a colonial subject from the land of my ancestors. It is a struggle with the problematic notion that my own indigeneity was lost centuries ago through processes of colonization, through processes of genocide, cultural and physical.

At a midpoint in the writing process of this performance, I remembered standing in the Valles Caldera, its heart a massive welling pool of magma, and I was transported to the stories of my grandfather’s friends who have died horribly in the steel mills. Death is not the death of consciousness, per se, and it is highly unlikely, and sometimes a privilege, to be able to choose one’s own death. But we must remember that all of the Earth’s descendants will harvest our consciousness, nonhuman and human, to keep living. I found this performance to be a space in which to reflect on struggles to survive in a time when most of us have forgotten that the air we breathe, the food we eat, and even the extraction of iron and petroleum, and the forging of steel and burning of oil through ecocultural practices of colonization, all are part of a larger metabolism of which we are part. We have a choice concerning the kind of metabolizing we would like to continue, the kind of processes for the continuance of life, parasitic or symbiotic, we put our energy into and pull it from. We have a choice to harvest consciousness or harvest oblivion, and we have little time to make that choice. What future do you choose to harvest?

Performing educations, embodying knowledges by Tema Milstein

When these wonderful co-authors told me they were creating a collaborative performance based on the free write activity in our graduate course and submitting it to our international conference, I was thrilled by their creative openness and became aware of self-imposed limits on my own. One inner voice (not one I’m proud of) had some concern and whispered (not to them!), Would they be able to pull it off? I believe this initial protective response as their teacher was rooted in a misguided notion, which I must have accepted and absorbed at some point, that only professional artists with extensive training – experts in the particular creative art of choice – could successfully or effectively use that art as their means of profound expression. Though I actively buck false limitations in other realms of academia and life, in the case of art, I needed my students to teach me this “creative” constraint, too, was a fallacy.

I think of sustainability education as an “inside-out” process (Milstein et al., 2017) , one where we learn by first understanding and accessing our inner selves in order to become more aware of how we connect to wider systems, processes, and productions of ecocultural making. When we start from our positionalities, we are able to feel grounded enough to take what we learn and branch outward in aware, active, and compassionate ways. This process starts with us becoming consciously rooted within the perceptions we bring (through exercises such as free writes) and is nourished by teachers and students intentionally co-creating fertile learning spaces in which those roots can take hold and further synthesize and explore.

My co-authors’ translations into performance of their educational, personal, and political synthesizing allowed not only them but all those who encounter their performance to push conscious roots into deeper, more fecund spaces. What I experienced with the gift of this performance was movement – seeds of knowledge brought and shared collaboratively emerging, intertwining, bursting forth, and co-creating a riotous novel ecosystem in which we all could differently wander and learn – a learning exercise sprouting wings, fins, tongues, and tails to creatively touch a wider audience who became open in new ways typically inaccessible through conventional classes, conference panels, journal articles, or academic monographs.

At the conference presentation (see linked video), the performance’s close was followed by me leading the audience through steps of the “When I say ‘nature,’ I mean…” free write. Cyclic, interdependent aspects of pedagogy and performance became manifest. The performance opens with an impersonation of a teacher leading a class into a free write, flows through graduate students (as teachers) performing their educations and embodying knowledges, and ends with a teacher performing (a significant part of our repertoire as teachers, I realize clearly now) the facilitation of a free write with a new learning community. This artistic pedagogic experience helped me understand inside-out sustainability education as resourcefully seasonal, wherein new forms of learning sprout from creativity that sprouts from learning, and so on.


We ended our performance with a ball of yarn. It was passed and tossed throughout the room during the last lines of the performance. Performers and audience members held on, weaving a complicated web from a single string. We wanted to illustrate the interconnections among us, and the image created a powerful moment of human-human acknowledgement and a mutual understanding that, when we say “nature,” we also mean us. Humans: Dressed and educated, attending to words indoors, existing in an anthropocentric world, but, at our centers and at the centers of our interconnections, still deeply “nature.”

What began as a classroom exercise branched and bloomed into a communal humanimal-art-identity-scholarship creative project. Examining and exploring our meanings of fundamental terms, such as “nature,” is vital if we are to improve understandings and actings of the world in which we all exist. Performance allowed us to grapple with ideas of “nature” in an embodied way, adopting personas and exploring movement, articulating emotions and using voice and motion and silence to express these living ideas. Performance is a particularly effective way to explore and unpack the varying perspectives, definitions, and connotations that sustain the stories we, as humanity, live by and to push and pull within our own ideological, ethical, communicative animal selves and bodies. This performance —one brief collaborative moment in our (academic) lives— changed the very way our bodies engage with the wider world and its mainstreams, and how we perceived and understand what humanity is in the continuum flow of life on Earth.


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