A look up into the canopy, where the Dream Puppet looms, with horns and pink and bamboo structure. Sunlight comes in from a wild forest of greens, a forest in Montana's Yaak Valley.
Photograph: Brian Christianson

Animate Earth

Dream Puppet, the poetic knowledges of ancient forests and disabled communities


Video: Brian Christianson Drone footage: Nicholas Kapanke, Ben Weaver, and Strong Buffalo


Part 1
The Suturing of Earth and Flesh

I WRITE TO YOU next to Mespaethes, the waterway the Lenape named “great brook with tide,” and what others now call Newtown Creek—one of New York’s Superfund sites, or “the largest oil spill in the U.S.” I sit on wide descending steps at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, which hold imprinted names of different geologic periods. It’s a cold and clear November morning, and my fingertips are numb as I watch a cormorant take off from wounded water. Actually, this water is brutalized, though “wounded water” sounds more poetic, pulls on our desire to perform the caretaker role of someone who knows how to tend to a wound. But I am learning to resist the impulse that claims to know.

A black and white initial sketch of the Dream Puppet. The puppet has flowers adorning its head and a body with lungs and a flowering lower trunk that meets two wheels.


Designed by environmental sculpture artist George Trakas, the Nature Walk beautifully fulfills the artists’ intention to “not divide the industry and nature between which it is situated, but instead actively integrate this space as a vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities and geologic epochs exist.” Not that industry, culture, and nature can ever really be divided. This waterway remains poisoned even as schools of fish glimmer below the surface and cormorants plunge their bodies into the water’s depths. I imagine their bellies touching the “black mayonnaise” sludge of accumulated waste that lies at the bottom. When boats cut the water’s surface, a stench rises, while a nearby sign warns against fishing here. I’m reminded of what Sandra Steingraber called the myth of living safely in a toxic world. This disabled ecology is loved and not abandoned.


When Orion has the idea to commission you for an artistic work, you pitch them a giant project, and they accept, Dream Puppet comes into existence from conception to execution in four weeks, moment by whirling moment:

1: Dream about circles and strings for a puppet figure, bodymind designed to be permeable with the land. And portable.
2: Order raw organic silk from a woman who sleeps next to her silkworms.
3: Spend six days and nights hand-dyeing raw silk, falling in love with the alchemy of natural dyes that come from bugs, roots, flowers, and bark.


This is the place where I first felt the deep relation between body, illness, and earth, where my disability and ecological consciousness first emerged, joined at the roots. I’ve come here to offer my gratitude to this water for how ki sutured within me the cataclysmic rift between earth and flesh taught to me by aspects of my Russian American cultural lineage. Author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer offered this powerful Anishinaabe word seed—ki—to replace “it” in the English language, in the effort to restore animacy to the living world and braid different ways of knowing together.

My artistic work and thought have been more akin to a practice of unbraiding.

Nearly a decade ago, I lived for a time on a giant boat farther inland, and I began to feel oddly unwell. It wasn’t acute—strange fatigue, body aches, and an ebbing malaise—but when I learned that previous ship dwellers who had disabilities also did not feel well living there, my suspicions were confirmed. Whatever chemical ghosts were bubbling up from the water, they affected me, and with them came a lightning-bolt clarity that burned through me like an illuminating fire. Through my lifelong chronically ill embodiment, I perceived—how, I cannot say—that the water and I are inseparably bound, both physically and spiritually. In disability rights activist Alice Wong’s words, it was a “disabled oracle” moment, an initial mending of that foundational earth-flesh rupture on which the human-centric hierarchy of the Western world depends. This encounter with the water soon led me to realize that I had also been taught to refuse encounter with my illness, to keep a similar separation. And that this separation caused great harm.



I was diagnosed when I was two years old, and I grew up terrified of my disability and my self. I attempted suicide when I was nineteen and remained traumatically disassociated until that moment with the water. Illness can often undoubtedly be scary, but what I felt was terror, a terror absorbed through ableism and how biomedicine teaches relation: place this mechanical other that lacks personhood into a box and bind it, control it, don’t speak to it, don’t let it speak to you. Illness is an object, a machine, without agency, separate from you and not a part of you. It is an enemy that must be fought. Above all, don’t let it affect you. The connection between my illness and me was subjugated into silence for decades until the moment I felt connection to the water and asked, How can illness speak?

Nature in biomedicine is not self-aware. Its underlying philosophical lineage within colonial science has not shifted. “Subjugate living nature as dead nature has been subjected” spoke the father of physiology, Claude Bernard, in 1878. Bernard’s words cleave consciousness from the materiality of human (“living nature”) flesh so that it may be “subjugated” in service to what French philosopher Michel Foucault first termed as “the dream of the disappearance of all disease.” This dream, the defining mark of modernity that refuses the description of a disabled ecology and its ethical attunement, has disabled the earth. Its mythic power denies the insights, value, and creativity of disabled lives and the consciousness of the animate earth, of which illness is a part. This denial is why the majesty of a thousand-year-old understory—quietly dreaming and decomposing in an ancient forest tucked far away—can be so easily discarded. Our embodiments and lives are as foundational, and as encroached, as the remaining gasping wild places.


The connection between my illness and me was subjugated into silence for decades until the moment I felt connection to the water and asked, How can illness speak?


As this realization deepened within me, new worlds emerged. Free from the containment of diagnostic medical borders, I felt these interwoven worlds vibrating, trembling, singing, howling, crying, laughing in relation. You may be surprised to hear how the art of puppetry animation is a practice of deep imaginative embodied listening. How it allowed me to release the biomedical name that claimed a totality of knowledge about my embodiment. I now refer to my Type 1 diabetes as that-which-is-named, not as a rejection of medical treatment (without insulin, I die) but as a refusal of the singular authority of how biomedicine imagines life. The illusion of control and mastery over disability vanished, as did the suffocating suicidal mental pain that haunted me. Removing the name that grows from a medicine that believes it can possess the earth gave me space to encounter the unknowable. It was a resolute reclaiming of the mystery present in crip flesh, cells, and bones made of incommensurable earth. As I opened and turned myself toward that-which-is-named, I asked, What are you? The response that resonated through my bodymind was: I am what I am.


4: Choose to create a collective co-making artistic process that will be accessible to a diverse disability and arts community, across many backgrounds. Listen for how different people perceive and approach the materials, for how beautiful disability access is.
5: Find a large pandemic-safe community garden (El Jardin del Paraiso) that will open its doors to you. Spend ten ten-hour days back-to-back within.
6: Be open to whatever happens. Get the word out, as quickly as you can, across as many channels as you can, in partnership with others. Keep summoning dream into reality, person by person, hand by hand, silk petal by petal.


In time, through puppetry performance, the it of biomedicine transformed to the you of living relation, a being with. The enculturated sludge of Euro-American scientific arrogance ruptured within me; its poison flowed out my eyes as a salted sea.

Some years later, after one of my performances about the reincarnating eugenics impulse in our culture and in ourselves, I bumped into an audience member on the street. She said she had watched with her adult son who had been evaluated since childhood as having “a very low IQ.” Discussing the show, she asked him about the puppet, built to have a green spine for the body and a blue forget-me-not flower for the head. “Do you remember what the head of the puppet was?” she asked. Without pause, he had responded, “Consciousness.” This is the only proof I need that the unbraiding of names and evaluations, of knowledge systems that enact great harm, is occurring. He had the deepest perception of the work of anyone I had spoken to.


You may be surprised to hear how the art of puppetry animation is a practice of deep imaginative embodied listening. How it allowed me to release the biomedical name that claimed a totality of knowledge about my embodiment.


Many of the silk flower petals around the eye of Dream Puppet were made by people from the neurodiverse and intellectual disability community. The bustling and subdued rhythms of people coming and going from the shade of the willow tree in the community garden where we worked stays with me, as do the friendships and relationships that formed through silk, homemade rice glue, and the burning dream of the work. Both disability and ecological justice ask for deep embodied listening to diverse consciousnesses. Crip brilliance would temporarily guard the forgotten brilliance of this ancient forest.

In the pandemic summer of 2021, I started reading Rick Bass’s writing about the proposed Black Ram logging project in Montana’s Yaak Valley, and it awoke urgency in me reminiscent of that first realization I felt on the Mespaethes almost a decade ago. The rolling tide that rushed from those opened floodgates flows directly into the story of Dream Puppet, and our encounter with a different brutalized ecology. Nothing could have prepared me to feel the dissonance of this enchanted and violated forest, on the lands of the Salish and Kootenai people. At its heart, this is a story of learning how to be with the personhood of places and living beings, through practices of consent, embodied listening, and imagination.


7: Boil and blend homemade rice-glue every morning. Bleach rice-glue containers nightly, to minimize COVID risk.
8: Be stunned at how many people come, their generosity and openness blooming the work open, even as a blaring August heat wave arrives in New York City during a pandemic.
9: Wonder how on earth you are going to get all of this to Montana while attaching tiny yellow crescent moons to the tips of the purple silk camas, guided by the adept hands of a baker.


Part 2
Walking a Line of Ecocide

PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN, then, by telling you about that road that we walked on to enter this ancient forest, or how we carried the body parts of the puppet between us, as the handmade, hand-dyed silk flowers and the memory of everyone who helped create them rode on our backs and hands.

By the time we made it to this road, I was floating in delirium of exhaustion from the magnitude of this project. My fingers were swollen from sleepless nights of bending reeds to form the puppet’s body. A deep sense of obligation to the disability community, and to the forest, pulled me forward in this final stretch, my love Miguel by my side.

How my hands ached on that road that transformed its shape when Rick, the man who has poured his life for the Yaak, named it a fire line. How my sensory system was pierced by a shrill dissonance.

Walk on a fire line, ache on the body line, an imprint of the gash that is a logging road disguised. This line pretends to be a protector, claiming to mitigate the risk of a community being set ablaze, but this line instead facilitates preparation for extraction, the looming timber sale awaiting the final bureaucratic nod of approval. The road has left the land gasping. The fraying edge of the forest now parched for water; the risk of fire only increased. “The line never ends at the line” Rick says, his hands clutching dried branches and grasses. In that moment I grasp why my senses have been colliding with the screeching contradictions of this place.

This forest, this project, Rick’s words—they burn in me like a fever dream. With no energy for confusion or defenses, I released my bodymind to trust this path, becoming soft and permeable to sensory observations. I was stepping toward an unknown place, on what I thought was just a dirt road. Hidden cameras watched. Unseen eyes report us to Border Patrol because we are carrying a ladder. The agent with an aching knee photographs our IDs while assuring us we are not the aliens he was looking for. My white skin burns. I look out over a logged stand right before the barricade where a pair of isolated giants—names as yet unknown to me—stand bereft and gaping open over what once was. I did not yet know that these larch were standing dead.

How could I reconcile this clear-cut road with its faint grizzly paw imprint, and the chosen trees numbered with spray paint, with the curated-by-colonialism wilderness landscape my aesthetic sensibility was trained to expect?

Walk a line of ecocide, on the borders of encroachment. My hands were swollen.


How could I reconcile this clear-cut road with its faint grizzly paw imprint, and the chosen trees numbered with spray paint, with the curated-by-colonialism wilderness landscape my aesthetic sensibility was trained to expect?


I pause from the screen and lay my head back, feeling the shifting pace of my rapid heartbeats echo through me. Its sometimes overpowering rhythm can make focusing difficult—bodymind submerged in the flood of a heart responding to the interplay of regularly injected, price-gouged insulin and the relentless attempts to keep a semblance of equilibrium against the pull of death. These are my heartbeat-funnies, who always remind me of the clashing contradiction and gift that is my life. In both people and ecologies, disability is not always visible.

With a deep slow breath, I bore a channel through the pulsing fog in my bodymind. My eyes shift into focus as the overwhelming pulse recedes and the ability to form language returns. That foggy pulsing place is not a place where words live, though it does hold a certain clarity about itself. It is a space of existence that I am brought to encounter, again and again. It is not pleasurable, but it is a texture of my crip-time understory, and learning to listen to these textures forms the depths of what I know about what it means to be alive.

I wonder if the forest is always in a state of such deep body consciousness, an expansive awareness that moves between life, transformation, and death, one that I might imaginatively attempt to feel: the shifting sensations of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, minerals, transforming, moving through root and capillary networks. How ki had to learn to live with the presence of the cut line, struggling to adjust. How this imprinted logging fire line road reshapes the forest’s embodied memory, alters ki’s entanglement with waterways, and how restoration cannot be cure as erasure.

How the forest continues, if we succeed in stopping the chainsaws. The heat of the sun. The croak of bark. All expressions of a quiet awareness. Yet I was not prepared for such silence.


10: Find yourself at Elk River Writer’s Workshop. Make rice-glue in their kitchen.
11: Work in the garden. Work in the classroom. Work in the conference. Work at the campsite. Work at the woodshop. Flowers, petals, strings, reed, structure. Making, writing, dreaming. Finally find the face of the figure. The silk eye-petals will be arranged in a spiral.
12: Transform the back of a rented car into a make shift studio. Barely register the ten hours of winding roads as your love and you, and Dream-Puppet-Body-in-formation, speed from Chico Hot Springs to the Yaak Valley.
12.5: Except for when you lose one of the horns that took over twenty hours to make and make a two-hour U-turn. Miraculously, the horn is found, unscathed, in the middle of a highway.


Part 3
To Encounter Without Possession

HOW DOES THE FOREST ACHE? I did not know how to encounter such memory. My feet did not know how to remember that ground. I would try to hold the awareness that the understory beneath me holds a millennium of death, rot, and renewal. And yet, I could not. To hold this awareness felt like attempting to hold a greased rubber chicken: a state of constant slippage. I did not know how to encounter this ancient hurting, living place, even as the understory seemed to physically pull my body downward, commanding me to get closer. The ache of this unknowing is, on its own, enough of a reason to not cut. To unbraid the floodgates that prevent this ache—what is there to do in a time like ours, but this.

The poetry of this place was unknown to me. The creativity here, as foundational as the frost. As the rot. As the slow burning of an ancient, dreaming forest, whose wakefulness to me feels like a slumber, for I did not quite know how to be awake to ki. What then, of silence?


Author Rick Bass and artist Marina Tsaplina hold up parts of the Dream Puppet amidst a clearcut forest area in Montana's Yaak Valley. The background spears upward with large green trees, and, above, a blue sky. Rick and Marina have their arms raised above their heads, serious faced, in front of two lone trees spared in the clear cut.


I had no tradition to hold me here. No taught practices from my own culture that might have prepared me to encounter the personhood of this place. I had only the practice of calling myself to listen, to feel, to wait. To hold no expectation, to demand nothing, to allow the place to speak on ki’s own terms. I kept my remaining threadbare energy close to my bodymind, feeling both small and much too big at once.

When I asked the eight-hundred-year-old larch if I could place the puppet in front of ki, at first, I did not feel consent. Later, when I was alone, applying silk to the puppet’s face resting on the ground, my mind whispered, Are these imprints of numerous hands on the silk too loud? Said, We won’t hurt you.


I had no tradition to hold me here. No taught practices from my own culture that might have prepared me to encounter the personhood of this place.


When I sawed reeds at two in the morning under moonlight, the rhythmic sound of saw on reed piercing the quiet night, I whispered, This is not a warning for your bodymind, even as the sound pulled my own gut taut. We won’t tarnish your roots. Allow us to honor you, please.

The feeling of encroachment, everywhere. And I mean everywhere: even as I called myself to the forest, to meet ki on ki’s terms, I noticed how my own perception was encroached by an Instagram-curated habit, one that momentarily transformed the forest into a backdrop for human activity—specifically, this artistic installation. As if this forest floor was a green screen for a photo shoot, or “green wall paper” as Kimmerer calls it. I had to consciously shatter this harmful, habituated perception. We are here on your terms, not ours, I reassured the forest.

We spent that night in the ancient woods. In the morning I felt a clear shift in my bodymind toward more of a sense of ease as I listened for whether the larch and the forest had given their permission. But later, after Miguel and I returned to our home in New York, an unsettled longing and uncertainty began to grow. A fear that we had installed a large artwork on top of brutalized land for the sake of some compelling photographs without the land’s consent gripped me.

What is asked of those of us within whom hierarchies of worth, eradication, and dispossession are folded into the foundations of our imaginations and knowledge systems—medical, scientific, legal, ethical, and beyond? For those whom possession is an embodied habit? How do we ask for consent of places on colonized lands, and be honest with what we do and do not receive in answer? What does encounter demand of those of us who bear the legacy of whiteness?



The artist Marina Tsaplina and her partner walk in an overgrown forest in Montana's Yaak Valley. Marina leads, and is highstepping through thick undergrowth and dead fallen trees. The understory is green and verdant, and blue sky appears in the background through thick trees. The artist is smiling and both of them are holding components of the Dream Puppet, which are a structure of bamboo and pink/purple/yellow flowers.

Photograph: Brian Christianson


Right at the moment when doubt had engulfed me, Brian, the photographer, chose to share with me the dream he had that night in the woods. He texted me: “I dreamed of fairytale light spilling through the canopy, illuminating the puppet and allowing the forest to recede into shadow and hug the puppet.”

Brian shared that he, too, had been struggling to find how to tell the Dream Puppet story in that forest—but upon recalling the image in the dream, he “headed into the edit suite and got to work.”


Even as you keep going, let yourself arrive. Realize that everything that is happening, is so much bigger than you. Moving through you. Breathe gratitude and awe into every corner.


The forest had spoken to us after all. Ki had spoken to the person on whom rested the next step of visually communicating this work to the world, had even guided Brian in how to visually describe ki-self! Awe, relief, and reassurance moved through me, but with them came a realization that my mind had started trying to take possession of our experience in that forest. It had begun demanding certainty and clarity of knowing, which led me to doubt my own embodied listening. My burst of laughter crested into a suspended pause.


The Dream Puppet in its final form, installed in a dark and green and yellow forest. The image looks up from the forest floor as Marina, the artist, stands next to it, looking up. The puppets stands over six feet tall and has two large wheels, flowers handmade from NYC, of pink and purple and yellow. The forest is not orderly but thick and tangled.

Photograph: Brian Christianson


I had longed to bury myself in the understory, to cover myself in the thousand-year blanket of the forest’s dreaming. I wanted to stay there for as long as it took my bodymind to learn how to be with and not on top of this place. In my notes I had written, “My grief and longing for this act leads small punctures of pain and sorrow to move through me, the surface of my eyes now damp.” Yet I realize now that in that tearful longing a demand had slipped in, a wish of innocence for the terms of my historical and enculturated white body on this land to be something other than they are. My mind had begun demanding full access to a place that is not mine to have, a being with based on possession. A being with that remains ignorant of the hauntings held by the land, of histories known and silenced. This possessive seed had also overshadowed the gift that a mutual encounter had, in fact, occurred. Brian’s dream was a reminder that our presence is always embedded in relations and impacting the more-than-human world, even if unknown to us.

This kind of embodied listening—where any claims to knowledge and authority by the listener are dissolved—is difficult. This embrace of not knowing and commitment to namelessness was described by disabled sound artist and geographer of ecocide AM Kanngieser as a “dismantling of knowledge as possession.” Though I could not have known this at the time, the beautiful, poisoned water that brought me to my artist calling those many years ago instructed me to begin unbraiding what Aboriginal scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson called “the white possessive.” First within myself, then within those whom my work engages. After a decade of work, there is no end in sight to this unbraiding, and the only way I know how to do it is through what Aimé Césaire called “poetic knowledge.” I had listened for consent within a violated land through the gift of our collectively created Dream Puppet, and all I had to go on was the feeling in my body of whether or not I was given permission to be there, whether our offer of Dream Puppet would be received. To listen to and to trust my body, and to accept with humility the message that came. Nothing more.


The final image of the Dream Puppet, as seen on the Winter 2021 cover of Orion. There is a bright ray of sun angling in from the left side of the image, right on the puppet in the middle, as if a spotlight in an otherwise dark green, dense forest. The puppet is made of bamboo and has horns and is adorned in pink, purple, and yellow silk flower materials. The puppet is installed in Montana's Yaak Valley. Surrounding the puppet are trees and shrubs of green and yellow.

Photograph: Brian Christianson


The mystery of how water, illness, forest, earth can choose to communicate with us is incommensurable, not able to be measured, compared, or known. It is not for me to know. Each encounter with more-than-human personhood is incomparable to another. But perhaps no community is more suited than those of us who have learned to live and listen to the truth of our fleshy crip-time understories, to help restore recognition and care for the consciousness of the disabled ecologies of the animate earth.

Our disabled lands still dream.

This Dream Puppet journey to the Yaak Valley began a multi-year creative environmental project in eastern forests, Soils and Spirit.


The artist would like to thank the following participants:

Special Thank You To: Annabell Allen-Cummings, Elizabeth Axel, Rick Bass, JK Canepa, Brian Christianson, Jonathon Epstein, CMarie Fuhrman, J. Drew Lanham, Miguel Peschiera, Nicholas Triolo, Darinka Vlahek, Carter Walker, Kathleen Yale, the Elk River Writers Workshop, and Chico Hot Springs.

Community Partners

2021 International Puppet Fringe NYC Festival
Art Beyond Sight
Disability Unite
El Jardin del Paraiso Community Garden
Yaak Valley Forest Council

Funding Partners

Orion Magazine
Yaak Valley Forest Council
(2022) Bass Connections project team – Socially Engaged Art and Tech at the Intersections of Ecology, Disability and History
(2022) Story+ – Art as Relation and Repair Across Disabled Ecologies and Histories

Advocacy Partners

Yaak Valley Forest Council
Protect Ancient Forests
Alliance for the Wild Rockies
Disability Unite
Michael J. Schweinsburg, 504 Democratic Club
Assembly Member Harvey Epstein
Assembly Member Emily Gallagher
Representative Carolyn Maloney

Dream Puppet & Silk Flower Contributors:

Annabell Allen-Cummings
Susan April
Everette Ball
Liz Bowen
Susanna Brock
Kishon Buddy
JK Canepa
Brian Chistianson
Kate Cholewa
Christina Rivera Cogswell
Ayanna Coleman
Ella Corcoran
Jessica Cortez
Genna Beth Davidson
Michael Davis
Khaled Axel Djebbari
Ben Dworken
Leslie Eddington
Harvey Epstein
Catherine Flores
Priscilla Frank
Shelby Gamble
Ryngin Garcia
Marina Genina
Allan Germain
Ashley Glicken
Baris Gokturk
Merlene Groome
Rena D.Grossman
Patricia Grumman
Dom Guida
Mana Handel
Ryan Hanna
Langston Hannah
Tiana Harbour
Patricia Harkless
Brianna Harlan
Thomas Hernandez
John Hodgson
Eric Holmes
Jenisa Inoa
Jaevian Jose
Janiyha Jose
Tashia Jose
Hayley Karl
Deborah Kaufmann
Carlos Kemper
J. Drew Lanham
Ilie Lichtenstein
Lily Lipman
Diana Lopez
Gil Lopez
Luis Lopez
Mikey Lorch
Michael Mangieri
Clementine Martinez
Rachel Moore
Amanda Morales
Annie Moran
Elæ Moss
Jessica Murray
Stacy Musselman
Ethan Nelson
Lisa Norris
Eliza Noxon
Christy O’Callaghan
Claudia Orenstein
Siena Oristaglio
Jeanette Ortiz
James Pardo
Geneva Pena
Mallory Perry
Miguel Peschiera
Molly Project Let’s
Olivia Pullara
Pamela Reed
Betty Rivera
Caroline Gil Rodriguez
Angela Romo
Lily Schwarzbaum
Peter Shapiro
Keene Short
Alexa Sisitzky
Nicholas Sparacino
Suzan Sumer
Mason Summerhill
Win-Sie Tow
Trevor Trotter
Jimmy Tucker
Teressa Valla
Kat Wilder and dog Jessi
Carolyn Williams
Anastasia Wittenstein
Nikki Zambon
Jacobie Zaretsky
Robert Zatryb


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Marina ‘Heron’ Tsaplina is a Russian-born, NYC-based eco-artist and disability culture activist who forms participatory poetic enchantments through puppetry performance, site-specific installations and, upon occasion, writing. She is a conservatory trained performing artist under master teacher Kari Margolis, the Ernst Busch School of Puppetry Performance in Berlin, Germany, Sandglass Puppet Theater and Pochinko Clown. Her work has been presented and supported by DukeArts, Carolina Performing Arts, Penn State University, Georgetown University, La MaMa, Dixon Place, amongst many others. Find her via Instagram @bodypoemspuppetry and www.marinatsaplina.com