Left: A colorful, active illustration. In the center is a large, old tree with waving branches and roots. The roots spiral and descend loosely around a central textured sphere, within which are shown the words Soils Spirit Forest. From the bottom of the roots grow two dark human arms, colored as the tree bark. They dig into the soil below the tree, with a glowing illumination emerging from the soil and between the hands. Flowers and an amanita muscaria mushroom grow around the tree roots. At the top left of the image, above the tree and somewhat resembling clouds, is shown an old colonial map with names such as ‘New England’ and ‘Nova Scotia’. The map is then obscured by water-color blues, and in the top right, above a vivid burst of bright green tree leaves, flies a vivid blue-orange bird, somewhat resembling a passenger pigeon. The bird wings are open wide, chest blaring, red eye vivid, beak pointing up. Right: Against the backdrop of the textured bark of a tree, a light-skinned woman with buzzed hair on one side and shoulder length wavy hair on the other is standing gently smiling facing the camera directly.
Left: Soils and Spirit cover image by Maya Edelman and Marina ‘heron’ Tsaplina. ©Marina Tsaplina. Cover image includes detail of 1671 Map of America by Ogilby, J. Archived in David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University Right: Marina ‘heron’ Tsaplina

To Remember Amid Dismemberment

A conversation with eco-artist Marina ‘Heron’ Tsaplina about Soils and Spirit

In this interview, we are getting exciting glimpses into the development of a long-term creative environmental project—Orion’s Winter 2021 cover artist Marina ‘Heron’ Tsaplina’s Soils and Spirit, which will premiere in NYC in Fall 2026 and tour to multiple locations in forests across the Eastern Seaboard. Tsaplina is part of a cohort of contemporary eco-artists who pay close attention to intersectional aspects of their work: her experiences of disability, immigration, and settler status deeply inform the ethics of her encounter with place.

A sun-filled vivid moss-green field fills the frame, with two metallic industrial structures protruding at the top of the image. Two human figures are moving through the faintly-visible paths of the green field that is filled with grasses and flowers. They are mid-gesture, moving with flexible sculptural objects.

Indigenous artist moira williams (left) and Marina (right) improvising with
the “soil phrases” prototypes on a NYC green-roof as part of the
Kingsland Wildflower Festival, July 2023. ©Marina Tsaplina

Petra Kuppers: In Dream Puppet, you had a very specific place – an ancient forest in the Yaak Valley threatened by a logging projectthat the piece was in conversation with. How does “place” function in Soils and Spirit?

Marina Tsaplina: First, I’m thrilled to be able to say that the “Black Ram” logging project was ruled as violating multiple environmental laws, and was recently halted! In Rick Bass’ words, “Dream Puppet planted a seed that germinated [and] helped create momentum” in the effort by so many to successfully protect that ancient place.

What we must imagine and work toward for northeastern forests is protecting significant portions of the current “teenaged” forests and allowing them to grow old with minimal disturbance. So that the northeast can again hold – one day, hundreds of years from now – ancient forests and the biodiversity they support.

Imagining future old forests in the region is part of what Soils and Spirit can help communities do. Thus, in Soils and Spirit, “place” is acknowledged as being fractured, moving, shifting, unstable. I am feeling into the fractured forests (both urban and rural) of the northeast, choosing locations that, together, tell a multidimensional story of some of what has happened to a portion of the “Eastern Deciduous Forest”. This means places where Soils and Spirit occurs will be where a community is working to return the land to Indigenous stewardship and working to build momentum around conservation. One place may be within a remaining sliver of an ancient forest that perhaps slipped through the chainsaws only due to a property dispute between two logging companies. One place will be where a deep history of incarceration of racialized and disabled people occurred. The final place will be on or near the U.S.-Canada colonial border, invoking the treaty histories between the U.S. Federal government and Native Nations that divided this land into two countries and through which land dispossession was enacted, while honoring the ecological continuity of the bioregion, and imagining what our future human-land relations may be.

The project is grappling with some of the ways ‘land’ is imagined and organized in the U.S. How strange it is that many of us have to drive for an hour or more to get to a forest, or how cities can obscure the earth from which they grow. I’ve begun imagining that each NYC tree holds a dream of the forest that once was here. The “civilization” vs. “wilderness” binary has haunted the Western world for some 4,500 years. The “wilderness” designation creates “no touch” zones, but it can also create Indigenous erasure. My question is, how do we culturally learn to touch the land without violation? This medley of locations for Soils and Spirit is a challenge to perceive the forests, soils, waters, and cities across the region as being both fragmented yet interconnected—to form an integrated ecological thinking through the locations that the project will engage. Forests, waters, soils, histories, people.

PK: Have specific forests been identified?

MT: Two locations have already been identified, but until all resources and logistics (permits, insurance, rigging safety, etc.) are in place, I can’t publicly share them. Locations will be released before the premier of the work in 2026 in Lenapehoking (NYC). During the installation of Dream Puppet—which was only a 24-hour installation with no performance or audience component— we interfaced with authorities and border patrol, even though theoretically it was on public land, and “the public” has access. Some locations may be logistically easier—for example, a 20-acre preserved forest on “private” land. One of the most important components for deciding locations is whether there’s a community around the forest with whom Soils and Spirit is value-aligned, and does this community want to have the experience of Soils and Spirit to build momentum and deepen ecological intimacy? That’s where the magic happens.

I’ve begun imagining that each NYC tree holds a dream of the forest that once was here.

PK: Marina, take me into a moment of creation in your project and your creative process for Soils and Spirit. What does your life as an artist look like right now, preparing for the 2026 premier?

MT: I fell into the galaxies held within soils, and am yet to emerge. Right now, I am developing one component of the piece called Movement Dreaming with Soils. This is an invitation to move—to dance—with the composing and decomposing life force of soils. It asks you to feel into and reweave the break between land and people. It is a movement meditation, with no right or wrong way to do it. Follow your breath and the living impulses in your bodymind as you invite “the soft animal of your body” to connect to the histories and spirits of place, to find your own ecological intimacy that does not recreate colonial erasure and violence.

PK: At a residency we recently shared at the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York, you handed me a Soil Phrase Objecta delicious strand of fabric bubbles, woven with multiple materials, tactile and inviting. Elastic strings allowed me and other participants to dance with this object, let it stretch between us, bringing us together and allowing us freedom to be apart. The color scheme of the fabric was reminiscent of what you see when you look through a microscope at soil samples. Can you tell me more about these beautiful non-facial puppets?


Left: In front of an illuminated window sit two women, both in rotating white chairs, smiling brightly, feet on an open wooden floor, leaning towards one another and embracing soft sculptural puppet objects. Right: The image is divided into 2 parts: on the left is a large microscopic zooming in on a mound of colorful soils, fungi and organic matter from a forest top-soil. On the right is a translucent magnified fungi hyphae with a clamp connection - a small bump between two cells of long, thin tubular strands that are the fungal hyphae. They feel a bit like long, thin translucent bones. On the top it says Soils and Fungi microscopy - Buttonhook forest and Adirondacks region.
Right: Marina with Nance Klehm, author of The Soil Keepers manual,
holding with delight the “soil phrases” prototype objects at Broadway Stages studio. September 2023. ©Marina Tsaplina
Left: Magnified soils from Adirondacks old-growth forest, NY (left) and
400x magnification of a clamp-connection (mushroom producing) of mycorrhizal fungi
hyphae from Buttonhook forest in Chappaqua, NY (right), October 2022. ©Marina Tsaplina

MT: It was a joy to witness your tactile experience! These “soil phrases” are being designed as enlarged soil clusters – or aggregates – of both top soils and deeper soil horizons. They connect to different parts of your body (your waist, chest, hands, and feet), deepening the kinesthetic connection between body and earth memory as you move, and are moved, by them.

I am developing a visual vocabulary for the  “soil phrases” inspired by the colors and structures of soils from across the region. The northeast is obviously a giant area, and a single pinch of soil already holds a microcosm, let alone the seemingly infinite variations within soil horizons. But that’s part of what I am doing with Soils and Spirit: creating a kind of impression and story of this forest region at every layer of the project. And there’s the immense diversity of urban soils in Lenapehoking (NYC): ever-shifting, moving, transforming, concrete mixing with memories of forests, wetlands, and the glacial terminal moraine. A few of the “soil phrases” will be visually marked by ‘the largest oil spill in the U.S.’ along the Mespaechtes (Newtown Creek) in NYC, others by the mound of coal underneath a forest at the headwaters of the Mahicantuck (“Hudson”) river in the Adirondacks. And so on.

Fluffy cloud-filled blue summer sky reflects on rippling water with forested hills in the backdrop. A woman in red long sleeves is standing in the lake, bent over hands tracing the surface of the water, creating the ripples.
Touching the headwaters of the Mahicantuck (“Hudson”) River, Adirondacks High Peaks, August 2023.
©Marina Tsaplina

As with any story, the stories these “soil phrases” tell will be incomplete and partial—reflecting the fragmentation of our ecologies—yet they are being designed to embody the colors, structures, and memories of places this project traces. In this way, the “soil phrases” (about 200 of them) will collectively hold an embodied memory of place.

In addition to professional performing artists, Movement Dreaming with Soils is participatory—an invitation for people from diverse lineages to movement dream with these “soil phrases,” and contribute their own histories, memories, feelings, and dreamings to the composition. In this way, Movement Dreaming with Soils will form a kind of psychogeography during the performance.

I fell into the galaxies held within soils, and am yet to emerge.

Each of the artistic components of Soils and Spirit involves this kind of multi-layered making process. This is part of why the project has a long development cycle—embodied attunement takes time.

As the opening scene of Soils and Spirit, the vision of Movement Dreaming with Soils is to open the public’s imagination around soil. For soils to no longer be seen as “dirt”, as inanimate matter that we step on, extract from,  enact violence upon and into, but rather the ground of our being that we are born from and return to. So too, the goal is to bring the forests closer—not existing as separate from and outside of us, even as some places may be best kept with minimal human imprint. Many of our soils are tired; many of us are, too.

An early spring forest, with trees and ground still bare without visible leaves, a cold blue clear sky and shining light. Amidst numerous fallen branches there is a pine tree that has exploded, body broken into two pieces: roots and base on the right, with bark exploded around the base, and broken angled tree body and branches at a distance from the base. The photo holds this frozen moment of a break. A small human figure in red sits in the space of the break.

In the exploding generosity of a broken tree. Shenandoah National Park, April 2023.
©Marina Tsaplina

PK: What other components of Soils and Spirit can you already share with us? 

MT: There will be dozens of passenger pigeon puppets that are animated by professional puppeteers and community participants. These birds that were brought to extinction through the brutality of deforestation and overhunting held a deep relationship with specific trees in the eastern forests and with the Haudenosaunee people. And so we enact an honoring, celebration, and remembrance of these birds, animating them into life before they are digested back into the soils—into the soil phrases. It’s an act of remembrance amidst ongoing dismemberment and biodiversity loss.

There is also a large central puppet tree-root, whose cross-sections will mark treaty histories across the region. The goal is to do a root-weaving tour in 2025, holding collective-making workshops for this 60-foot-long puppet root.

PK: In your Orion essay about your previous work, Dream Puppet, you write about asking an 800-year-old larch in the Yaak Valley about placing a puppet in front of ki. Can you tell us more about your protocols for approaching non-human others? How does this communication practice become part of your project planning for Soils and Spirit?

In a dark working theater, a vivid burst of light shines through a door to the outside, illuminating a suspended sculpture made of flat round discs and strings that cast a long shadow. The installed structure is shown from 3 different angles and lighting conditions, one completely dark and silhouette, the sunlight already past the root.

An early prototype of central puppet-root in the spring equinox setting sun at
Sheafer Theater, Duke University, March 2023.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman. ©Marina Tsaplina

MT: I have been thinking with Kombumerri person and scholar Mary Graham lately, who writes that, if there was an Aboriginal equivalent to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” it would be, “‘I am located therefore I am.’” As a Russian-born immigrant and settler here, ‘becoming located’ requires acknowledging Indigenous priority, the (at least) 14,000-year story of peoples on this land that far precedes me. So as I make relations here, in this city, in this region, and as Soils and Spirit invites multiple people and communities to reflect on their relation and belonging amidst ‘the rubbles of empire’ (Barbara Mann), I hold in my bodymind that I am young to this land. This doesn’t mean communication, powerful encounters and belonging to/with place cannot occur, nor is this a claim to innocence. Rather it’s a holding of awareness that my relation to place happens amidst histories and memories that are much deeper. Some that I may not access nor lay claim to. Others that I must be with and attempt to digest.

So as I forage – for soils to look at and dream with, for native plants to dye and generate colors for the “soil phrases” from, for local grasses to weave the puppet root with – before I take, I briefly pause, express my intention and gratitude, leave water or goldenrod (as moira williams, one of my collaborators, taught me). There’s also the ethics of foraging – never take the last plant, in general only take from areas with abundance. In regards to the project as a whole, there may be places where it is inappropriate to bring Soils and Spirit – locations that are deeply connected to Indigenous cosmologies, or places that in one way or another communicate ‘no, not here.’ Each place is a conversation.

PK: What partners and communities are you working with, and how did you make contact with these various communities?

In a dark working theater, a group of people sit on the floor in a large circle underneath a large hollow tree base that is suspended from the ceiling with multiple ropes criss-crossing in various directions, and other installed elements with ropes in the background.

Soils and Spirit workshop at Sheafer Theater at Duke University, March 2023.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman. ©Marina Tsaplina

MT: Right now my focus is on artistic development, partnership formation, and securing resources for the project. On the artistic side, I had a year-long artistic research residency at Duke University with Duke Arts, Theater Studies, and Bass Connections that ended in April 2023. The groundwork for Soils and Spirit was developed during that time in collaboration with local Durham movement artists, students, forest and soil ecologists, Duke’s Fungi Lab, faculty Johann Montozzi-Wood, Torry Bend, and Jules Odendahl James, and residents from the Durham community. I am currently an artist-in-residence with Broadway Stages and NoOSPHERE Arts, as well as the Urban Soils Institute in NYC and their wonderful community of fellow soil dorks – that is, soil ecologists, soil scientists, and fellow ecoartists. In October I’ll be in residency at Split Rock Arts in partnership with the Eddy Foundation in the Adirondacks, and from September 2023 – March 2024, Movement Dreaming with Soils will be developed into a professional performance through the Object Movement Residency and Festival.

On the environmental and conservation side, I am developing partnership agreements with the Wildlands Network and Future Forests Reimagined, a multi-partner coalition for ecological forestry in the Adirondack/Acadia bioregion across the U.S.-Canada border, as well as Plenty Canada, a deep-rooted Indigenous environmental organization who is entering its 47th year of work.

Bringing Soils and Spirit to life requires a network of strong partnerships across the region.

PK: How can readers support your emerging project? 

MT: Is there a location that you feel may be a good fit to bring Soils and Spirit to? Please get in touch.  Are there resources you can provide to support the project’s development? Please get in touch. Are you committed to climate justice and want to participate in Movement Dreaming with Soils? Please get in touch. Would you like to organize a creative workshop to contribute to making the ‘soil phrases’ or the central puppet-root and be a stop on the root weaving tour? Please get in touch! And of course, follow the journey of the work through soilspiritforest.com.

Soils and Spirit is fiscally sponsored by Culture Push and accepts tax-deductible donations.

Marina ‘heron’ Tsaplina is a conservatory-trained performing artist, puppeteer, and ecoartist. Her current work, Soils and Spirit, is a participatory performance and installation to connect diverse lineages to the histories and spirits of ancient, endangered and disappeared forests in the northeast. Find her at @bodypoemspuppetry on Instagram.

Petra Kuppers’s fourth poetry collection, Diver Beneath the Street, investigates true crime and ecopoetry at the level of the soil (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press, February 2024). She teaches at the University of Michigan, and is a 2022 Dance/USA Fellow and a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow.