Local Ecologist Dances For Environmental Education

Highlands Live hit the dance floor on Wednesday as Ecotonic Movement Founder and Managing Director at the Alliance for Watershed Education, Dr. Jamē McCray, shared insight, wisdom and expertise gleaned from her experience combining ecology and dance on behalf of the environment. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation.

Benjamin Wagner: What are your favorite places, spots, or vistas here in The Highlands?

Dr. Jamē McCray: Well, one of the practices I have is, every morning, I get outside, and I take a walk by the Brandywine River. It’s the best way for me to start my day. I get to see the light coming through the leaves and the trees. There’s a particularly lovely spot as you sort of as you walk down a giant hill and at the end in the morning the light comes through just so beautifully, golden light filtering through the bright yellow leaves. It’s wonderful.

And I love getting to see some of my non-human neighbors you know, Pete the Heron is out there, and I get to say hi every now and again. And in the in the springtime, getting to see the ducklings and everything. It’s one of my one of my favorite places and things to do in the Highlands community. And I don’t know all the names of our four-legged dog friends that I see. But you know, as you walk and you walk around and say hi to everyone, there are certain folks that you get to know and remember, even if you haven’t had a long conversation with them.

Benjamin: The Brandywine just knocks my socks off for so many reasons. What can you tell us about the sort of ecology of that body of water the world around us here?

Jamē: I really love that it’s so close, and that so many people interact with it right in the in the community. I get to see families walking with their children, older couples, folks out for a run.

The the river and the trees that are there and surrounding us are really part of the city’s life’s blood.

It’s part of we are getting our drinking water. From here in in Wilmington, you have trees that and other grasses that are there to help absorb and purify and clean some of the water. Not that it’s there to do the services for people, but we are the wonderfully lucky recipients. You know that there’s a catchment area that can absorb some of these storms and rainfall that we’re seeing more and more these days and it’s just nice to be able to be in partnership with it.

So not every day, but you know, sometimes I’ll go out and just take a bag with me and you know, if I, you know, see some trash or something that’s floated along the river, you know, just be a part of that system in and help.

Benjamin: How did your journey lead you to this neighborhood?

Jamē: I came to Delaware in 2017 to work at the University of Delaware with Delaware Sea Grant as their environmental social scientist. And that was a blast. I love working with students at the university. I did get to teach some classes.

As a Sea Grant agent, you try and be very responsive to the needs of stakeholders. And so, I ended up doing some work with the Southbridge community, folks up at the Wilmington campus for UD — and then the pandemic hit.

I started my job that I have now at the Alliance for Watershed education, which is a coalition of 23 Environmental Education Centers that are along the Delaware River watershed, and I’m the Managing Director there. You need to be living in the watershed. And when I thought, you know, where in the watershed would I like to live? Wilmington! I had great friends here already. Wilmington has an amazing art scene. It’s really, vibrant. It’s really connected. It’s warm and welcoming. And I can get back to New York where my family is. It’s just well placed.

And Highland specifically, I love the walkability. If I do not have to use my car, I am a happy camper. Because sometimes, you know, I do need to be driving to these different places within the watershed. But if I can walk to the grocery store, and down to the river, and I can get some hiking in locally? Where has all of that? And after looking around and Wilmington for a bit, the energy here, it’s like, yes, this is where I’m supposed to be!

Benjamin: We think so too, Jamē! Now, what is “ecotonic movement”?

Jamē: The way that I came up with that name is I inhabit these two different worlds that are ecosystems. One is that of ecology and science. And there are certain general practices that that go on there: coming up with hypotheses, doing research. And then there is the world of the arts. And for me, it’s dance. And there are also practices that happen there.

When you have a place where two eco systems meet, it’s called an ecotone. And in an ecotone, you can find things from both ecosystems, but also, you’re able to find things that don’t exist in either; they only happen in that place. And that’s really what I’m looking to do. And I feel like when you bring both the science together with the arts, there is this creativity, there’s this visioning that can happen where you can go, ah! Yes, this is the future we want to move forward to, in such a creative, but also fun and grounded way, because you still have that scientific basis. And that’s not something that you would necessarily get if you were only inhabiting science, a scientific space, or you’re only inhabiting an artistic space.

That’s, that’s the world that I like to live in, play in. And that’s where I really try and bring other people into as well.

Benjamin: How did you arrive to synthesizing these two, presumably perceivably disparate sort of disciplines or components of a person?

Jamē: I have been interested in mine since I was a small child. So, if you picture you know, very tiny Jamē, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. So, city kid out running around on my block, but I was a champion for the ants. You know, there were a couple of couple of boys on my block that would really try and disturb these anthills. Not on my watch! And so, I feel like I have felt connected and been a crusader for the plants, animals that are non-human relatives on Earth, and I’ve always been curious about what, you know, what are the behaviors that different organisms are doing? What are those? What are those connections? And I love water. That led me to go into marine sciences and marine biology.

At the same time, I’ve always loved to dance. I’ve always loved to move. And I spent a lot of time doing those things separately because that’s generally how both of those things exist in the world.

It wasn’t until I was in my Ph. D program where if I was dancing, then I was not in the lab. And I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing to get to get the degree done, and to get my research done. Just feeling that pull of the of the two sides, they both exist in me. I’m interested in both. That tension didn’t quite feel right.

And what I reflected on was my experience in the Peace Corps. I was in on the island of Samoa. It’s Polynesian island. Their culture is not Western. Communication and storytelling through dance are just more of an everyday occurrence. Everybody dances because it’s just part of things. You have storytelling the seaweed and about how you can interact and what different organisms do, but also cultural stories, and that is an interesting way to look at things; everything is not separate. And I started to think, ‘How can I put things together? Who in the US is doing something? I have been able to, to find those places and spaces that are integrating the science and dance

Like working with the dance Exchange, which was founded by Liz Lerman, who received a MacArthur Genius Award. [I] help[ed] her found her company. She’s has been interested in taking content and often scientific content and putting it into movement. So, learning with them and those practices. [And] there are groups like the, like Superhero Clubhouse. They’re an echo theatre group. And they work closely with scientists as they are writing musicals. The first one I saw was called “Salty Folk Musical” about the oysters in New York Harbor. It was just so delightful. I knew I had to work with them. And I’ve gotten to help writing, produce and sometimes perform musicals with those folks as well. So, thinking about, okay, how am I going to put those two together? Where can I find other people that are interested in doing this as well and making that happen?

Benjamin: How would you describe your performances and workshops? Give us a sense, please, of what folks are experiencing at these gatherings and how you lead people through the experience.

Jamē: So, if you all if at least some of you all wouldn’t be too frightened to join, I’d love to ask a question. Can someone tell me a memory that you have of your experience with water?

Audience Member: We had a farm pond about a quarter mile half a mile from the house and I used to have to walk through the woods to get to it. You’d be baling hay or plowing out there in the field. And it is super-hot during the summers around here. Dive into that farm pond which was all spring fed, and it really wakes you up! I love the water. We could talk about it all night.

Jamē: Fantastic! I love those memories! And I can I see it [in your] dancing as you spoke about it with us, right? So, you were diving into the water and both your hands and body went like this. [Gestures] And I could just see the splash as you as you dove in. And then driving up the road grabbing crabs.

And so, if we were in a workshop together, that that splash, and for those of you who are not on screen, feel free to move with me. Can we just splashed together? Let’s just do that. [Gestures] Right! So that would actually be the first move to our shared dance. And as we are doing this, it reminds us of [our audience member’s] story. We’re remembering with him, [and] we now have some of that shared experience in our body. And we are starting to remember the relationships that we have with water. Right?

I really love starting and grounding with people’s personal experiences and stories. And then we can go ahead, and we can start talking about the combined sewer overflow and the systems that we have in this built environment in Wilmington. And you’ve already had this positive association; you’re already connected to water. And so, as things are getting maybe a little more scientific, you’re bringing yourself to those things, and you can see that relationship between you and what’s going on in your environment even more because you’ve experienced it. You’ve talked about it. You’ve moved about it. You’ve moved with other people. And so that’s an example of some of the workshops and community building that I like to do.

Benjamin: I love, Jamie, how you said you “moved about it.” Right? You said we “talked about it.” And we “moved about it.” We don’t hear the board moved in that way often.

Jamē: We learn, and we hold so many things in our body that we don’t always know. Or we don’t always know about it and we’re not always intentional about accessing it. And so, when you lay a choreographer dancer frame on top of this science, [that’s] how we can add, here’s how we can connect our brains with our bodies and with our hearts.

Benjamin: I’m always interested in how people experience creativity. How do you experience creativity as a choreographer? And as a scientist? And is there a difference?

Jamē: Creativity in the sciences and the arts are very much. You’re asking questions, and then you go through a process to try and answer them. Sometimes the answer is physical. Sometimes that you know that the answer is through movement. And what that looks like in science, that spark or leap, it feels the same.

I think when you have that aha moment – and I feel like we’ve all experienced aha moments in different venues where you have the “Oh!” You know? “Now I learned how to bake this bread, [or] this recipe now. Make sense? Oh, I am thinking about food systems. The neurons have fired. I’ve made some connection that lights up. I think when we’re combining both science and art. You’re able to step out of the structures that both have.

And so sometimes the connections that you’re making can be unexpected, right? Which I think is fun. Right now, I’m reading a lot about no till farming, how one might go about doing that, and its benefits. I will often be inspired to dance. Or I will get visuals of a dance. And sometimes that will help me understand a scientific relationship a little better.

When you’re thinking about microorganisms in the soil and how they might be reacting to the tillage versus what that community dance in the soil might look like. So, they really go back and forth for me a lot these days.

Benjamin: How do you think about the imperative towards around climate action for us, for the people on this call, and for the people in this neighborhood? would you have us move?

Jamē: So, what I would love to have you guys do is think about your own Venn diagrams, right? What are the spaces that you inhabit? How do they intersect with the environment that we are living in? What is exciting to you? What do you love to do? And where do you think you might be able to make change and make a difference?

I think it’s important that we understand the issue is huge. [We can’t] work through things like a to do list where we must complete one task before we move to the other. Everybody moving and working in the spaces that they love and the spaces and places where they have agency is what’s going to get us to the place that we want to be.

The other thing I will say is “What is your vision of the future?” What would you love for that to look like? I think if you have that vision, it can be energizing as you’re doing somewhat harder work trying to get there and into that into that space.

Join us for the remaining two episodes of “Highlands Live,” featuring these awesome neighbors:

For additional community eventsresources and stories, please visit the Highlands Community Association website.

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