IN KINSHIP: A River and Recovery in Many Acts

Oh silky salt flat of muck
you hide the mercury methylating
The crickets don’t care
—Cheri Domina, Participant
IN KINSHIP “Penobscot Estuary Great Migrations Writing Tour”

In the winter of 2015 I began spending time with the Penobscot River, the heart of the largest watershed in Maine, while meeting and conversing with folks who are connected to it. Working closely with several artists and community advisors, we initiated a series of collaborations now collectively called IN KINSHIP. A multi-year performance project, this river-driven community dialogue is made up of many discrete nodes in a variety of experimental formats. They function as individual performative events with their own dramaturgies and smaller audiences but also come together to make up a larger, cohesive dialogue. The IN KINSHIP Visioning Group is Eric Green, Jennie Hahn, Gudrun Keszoecze, Bonnie Newsom, Ian Petroni, Kris Sader, Rory Saunders, and Cory Tamler; many of these central collaborators appear in the text below.

Maine rivers once supported hundreds of millions of migratory fish returning from the ocean each spring. Now several critical species hover near extinction. The Penobscot River is in recovery, like many rivers in North America, from two centuries of industrial abuse. Penobscot Indian Nation, indigenous to this watershed for at least 10,000 years, is at the forefront of these recovery efforts. The Tribe has consistently implemented the highest environmental standards to protect their ancestral homeland. The State of Maine is currently challenging Tribal sovereignty, and attendant rights to determine stewardship practices, in multiple federal court cases. Residual pollution from historic paper mills, corporate efforts to secure groundwater extraction rights, landfill expansion, and metallic mining round out a series of threats that are echoed in river systems around the globe.

Challenges are plentiful. Nevertheless, water quality has improved greatly in the past generation and swimming in the river is once again possible. Three years ago, two hydroelectric dams were completely removed, returning a portion of ancestral habitat to the twelve diadromous fish species native to this system.

IN KINSHIP is not designed to address a single facet of environmental harm or manifestation of climate change for this river. Rather, it is an arts-based effort to help increase the resiliency of the system and everyone who is a part of it, to tell its many stories, to invest in recovery, and to shift the consciousness of its communities toward justness. The project employs three guiding principles that apply to theatre in a time of climate change: reducing remoteness, dispersed leadership, and partnership with nonhumans.

Reducing Remoteness

Remoteness allows a high level of dissociation between costs and benefits, between elite consumption benefits and ecological damage.
Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture

Val Plumwood, an Australian eco-feminist philosopher, offers many useful distillations regarding how activists can focus their efforts to move societal consciousness away from anthropocentric plunder. Among them is the idea of “reducing remoteness.” Manifestation of remoteness from environmental harm can be spatial, temporal, consequential, and communicative. What we can do is reduce this remoteness through any means necessary: by telling the stories, building the bridges, and revealing connections.

Our earliest conversations in the watershed led us to the fisheries. In our first IN KINSHIP collaboration, writer Cory Tamler and I shadowed Maine DMR biologists for four days and co-wrote a collection of scores for performance in response. We launched a deeper partnership in 2016 that paired three artists each with a biologist and a community organization to co-create a small group public event. These six- to eight-hour dialogues included fisheries science education, a group creative process in the discipline of the artist, and site-specific outdoor experiences on the river. Some of the excerpts included here provide glimpses into the experiences that were created.

Working closely with biologists over the last two years we learned that efforts to support migratory fish populations historically focused on the species of greatest value to human communities. But research conducted a decade ago argued that to restore Atlantic Salmon, the best hope lay in improving conditions for all of the other fish that call the river home. The interactions among participants in the system enable a thriving life for all.

Each of the biologists we worked with last year chose to thematically focus their material on connectivity. The term has physical implications: lakes and streams in the headwaters must be physically connected to the Atlantic Ocean and free of human-made barriers for salmon to successfully spawn. But the less tangible interpretations of connectivity, and their applications among human communities and between and among all life, are just as critical to successful recovery of balance within our ecosystems. How do we increase our awareness? How do we see the connections we are blinded to?

I encourage people to think of self as a kind of spiritual, ecological life force. And every one of us shares that same thing with the fish, with the trees, with each other and when we acknowledge that connection, that same life force, that same energy that connects us, we treat each other better…it gives us a common relationship. If you walk through life and think of what your spiritual ecological life force (self) can do in this world, instead of what life can bring to you…if you can practice the value systems of our ancestors and walk a little more humbly through life, you will help heal the world.
—Bonnie Newsom, Archaeologist
IN KINSHIP “Songwriting, Archaeology, and Fisheries Restoration Site Visit”

Eric Green, artist, Dan McCaw, fisheries biologist, and Alexis Ireland, dialogue participant, view construction of a new lake outlet designed to improve passage for migratory fish in Penobscot Nation territory. Photo by Jennie Hahn.

Dispersed Leadership
When I began working on IN KINSHIP, I knew that choosing the Penobscot River as an anchor and a guide would require me to seek creative relationships in Maine’s indigenous communities. My family has lived in Maine for twelve generations; the first of my ancestors to settle here arrived in 1632. The violence of early settlement and the ongoing cultural genocide it unleashed unquestionably live in my blood, along with a fierce love for my homeland and an unshakable commitment to the communities she nurtures.

Correcting course in a time of environmental crisis is going to require us to nestle in the most uncomfortable sticky places we can find and wait for guidance. The inequity inherent in my relationship with indigenous people, the necessity of placing myself to actualize its repair, and the intersection of racial justice with the environmental protection I hope to address require a form of leadership that disrupts and replaces the largely colonial and patriarchal models I have inherited.

As the instigator of IN KINSHIP, I have spent a fair amount of time sitting with the paradoxes of how to lead by following, how to initiate with listening, and how to make concrete choices while maintaining an expansive openness to redirection. The goal for IN KINSHIP and the culture it creates is genuinely dispersed leadership. This does not mean that there is no leadership, or that all decisions must be collectively made. Rather, it means that no decision is made in isolation, and that everyone is invited to assume a leadership role when they feel called to take it. In the hope of creating these conditions, we have recently implemented two new structural mechanisms: the first is a Visioning Group, managed with rotating leadership, that includes many of our cross-sector partners from previous initiatives. The second mechanism diversifies the initiation process. Individual members of the IN KINSHIP community (artists and non-arts partners) identify new collaborations according to their personal interests and expertise, and are supported in development efforts by the broader group.

It is also possible for IN KINSHIP to bolster other like-minded initiatives outside of itself, not by drawing them in to IN KINSHIP activities but by standing alongside them. Several months ago, in a personal effort to prioritize indigenous cultural narrative by learning from and directly supporting the vision(s) of indigenous leaders, I volunteered to help coordinate an event called Healing Turtle Island. Four days of healing and prayer organized by Sherri Mitchell and led by spiritual elders from around the globe, this event was open to all. We sat together, accepted deeply relevant offerings of story and song, and worked to heal the wounds of violence between and among people and the earth. While this event was in no way affiliated with IN KINSHIP, its objective is similar, and my participation in this parallel work is likely to inform IN KINSHIP creative processes and partnership approaches.

Did you lose your way?
Propel yourself around the globe
I’ve had a heck of a ride
From the sea we came
I’ve been here and there
Farther than you think my son
Like we always were
Now you show
—Collectively written lyrics
IN KINSHIP “Songwriting, Archaeology, and Fisheries Restoration Site Visit”

Artist Cory Tamler holds a river herring she has pulled from Blackman Stream with her bare hands. This unexpected moment of cross-species interaction took place during a three-day job shadow of Maine DMR biologists in migration season. Photo by Jennie Hahn.

Partnership with Nonhumans
Olfactory: A Score for One Performer

Recall the dominant smell of your childhood home. Find it.
—From IN KINSHIP Performance Scores, co-written by Cory Tamler and Jennie Hahn

Melded with efforts to reduce remoteness and establish naturally dispersed leadership models is a need to more accurately see our human place in the natural world, particularly in relation to the nonhuman inhabitants we share it with. We must actively labor to adjust our consciousness, personally and collectively. Both individual practices and community performance can help unravel our assumptions, revealing the information necessary for culturewide behavioral change.

IN KINSHIP aims to consider this in practical terms: how might we expand our partnership development strategies to incorporate nonhuman partners? If we view the river and its nonhuman populations as both characters and participants in our dialogue, how might it help us strategically care for the needs of an entire ecosystem?

This impulse has found awkward and fledgling expression. Sometimes it manifests in a startling moment of increased collective awareness, arrived at by curating a rich and layered community experience. Sometimes it emerges as a formal collaborative writing process. Sometimes, it is simply a message of love.

‘I’m going to give everybody a piece of this lightweight paper, which is made of the inner bark of the mulberry bush. It’s biodegradable and nontoxic. You’re going to write your wish (for the river) on one of these.’
‘I don’t know how to spell.’
‘That’s why your other person is going to help you. And you know what? The river doesn’t care. Right? As long as the thought is there?’
‘And you’re going to put it inside of the mussel?’
‘You bet. We’re going to roll it up like a little secret scroll message, after you write it…I want you to take these home and you throw it in the river sometime… The first thing that will happen is the wheat will dissolve, and this will come off, right? And it will fall to the bottom of the river and it’s bark, really. Right? What happens? It will decompose. The clam will be able to open up, and your message will come out, and flow down the river for as long as the paper lasts. Okay? Does that sound like a cool thing?’
—Kris Sader, Artist, with participating children
IN KINSHIP ‘Pushaw Paddle: Art & Fisheries for Families’

To understand the scope of our planet’s health crisis and to visualize its healing requires hefty imaginative capacity. Individually and collectively, that capacity can be strenuous to summon. I find some gritty kind of comfort in the particular magic of the theatre to make worlds manifest. I wonder, in a time of climate change, can our theatre succeed in sculpting the reality that we want to enter? In what it reveals and in how it functions, can theatre enact the balance, the equity, and the environmental vitality we fervently hope for in our world?

(Top image: Building a web of connections: after a two-hour canoe paddle and discussion led by biologists, these children and their families link painted beaver sticks according to the ecological connections they have observed. Photo by Jennie Hahn.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 19, 2017.


Jennie Hahn is an interdisciplinary theater producer, director, and performer with a focus on community engagement and civic dialogue. Deeply committed to the vitality of community life in her home state of Maine, Jennie’s work explores the impact of economic, demographic, and land use changes on rural identity and culture.

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