Noticing and Negotiating “Alive”

Nicole Land thinking with Maria Wysocki, Selena Ha, Andrea Thomas, and Alicja Frankowski

We have been thinking about the non-innocent choices we make about what questions to live and follow, and what questions/lives/trouble we choose to ignore with the playground. While I was with C and Z in the corner of the sand, C was telling us how he watched a documentary on sand and oceans. He mentioned that sand in the ocean is very alive because there are crabs and waves. This made me wonder if sand in the sand pit was alive – I shared this question with C & Z, and C thought that sand in the sand pit wasn’t alive because it didn’t go as deep as sand in the ocean. Z suggested that sand here might be alive. We thought about why and wondered how the worms were alive. I asked if we could keep thinking with this question together: how is sand alive? How do we know? How do we notice what lives in sand?

Z noticed some blue chalk buried in sand, which she crushed in her fingers. We wondered what colours live in sand and why, as we found brown roots and sparkly flower glitter pieces and the blue chalk pieces became mixed with sand. I was thinking of our conversation from Wednesday where we were thinking about how we want to be with sand together, and it made me wonder about this idea of “alive” and how that connections to how we want to move together with sand. If we think of sand as alive, how does that shape how we want to be with sand? If we think of the logs as having a life, what relations might we create with the logs? If we think of leaves and roots and water as lively and living, why might we choose to move with these in particular ways?This question of “aliveness” feels urgent – what “counts” as a life in sand? How? Why? How does relating to something as alive mean we move differently than understanding something as dead or inert? Is the plastic slide alive? Are the trucks and diggers and their wheels alive? Are the rules about climbing alive? Is the water tap alive? The water? How do we know, as a collective? Are things that were once alive always alive? Are things that were once dead always dead?

More acutely, this makes me very curious about how our ideas of if something is alive (or not) shape how care, responsibility, ethics, ownership, and mastery influence our moving with a life (or an object)? How do we move with things that are alive? Can we own things that are alive? If sand is alive, can sand be “mine”, as we negotiate tight spaces and multiple bodies and ideas in a place? How do we move with things that we understand to not be alive? Can we own things that are dead? How does ownership shape how we move and protect and cover and transport sand?

I have a photo of Z’s hands burying the blue chalk and a beanbag in sand, that I want to think more about. If I want to attend to the liveliness of sand in this moment, what do I notice? What do we pay attention to? If I think sand is inert or dead, what do I notice more? Why does this matter for thinking with how we move in sand?

Some of the children started gathering the bright green leaves in sand and putting them in the bucket of a tractor. There was some disconsensus. R mentioned that he was collecting leaves because they were trash. M was less sure they were trash and carefully pulled the leaves from the tractor’s bucket. I shared a question kind of entangled from our question from earlier: how do we know what belongs in sand? How do we know what is trash? What happens if we disagree?

“How do we know what is trash”, is, for me, an unsettling question because the “answer” does not come to me readily. I, as a person with only certain connections to sand and this place, feel like I don’t have grounds or footings or histories for being able to dictate what “counts” alive or dead – also, there’s something that feels kind of arrogant in me making such a decision. This reminds me of Affrica Taylor’s (2019) writing on the arrogance of asserting we live in a human-centered world, or that humans dictate the grounds of liveliness. To think of ‘objects’ or ‘things’ as inert is always to ignore or obscure their liveliness, yet this question of “is it alive” is one that feels necessary to ask with the children. How are liveliness and inertness negotiated as a collective, as a world? The truck and its plastic looks out of place to me (where does this plastic come from? Where do our relations with trucks and diggers and buckets come from? What about the backhoes that ripped out all the tree roots just on the other side of the building from us?). The roots look buried and covered in sand, but I do not know the stories of these roots in this place. I do not know how they came to be in this sand. This makes me wonder how we can think with this question of alive or dead without “deciding” or knowing for certain. How do we live questions of alive or not with sand as an ongoing question? 

One child said that they could tell the leaves were trash because they were on top of sand, but that things buried belonged in sand. This, I think, for me connects to C’s suggestion that sand in the sandpit isn’t alive because it isn’t deep: maybe there’s something about roots, about longevity, about being embedded within an extended, subterranean world beneath sand that links to how we understand if things are alive or dead? Maybe liveliness needs connections that are deep, that are not superficial or surface level? What might this mean for how we move with sand? The question “what lives in sand” really stuck with us – R often returned to it and I asked if it was a question we could keep thinking about together. I’m curious to think more with the children and as a group about what lives in sand and how do we move with what lives in sand.

Taylor, A. (2019). Countering the conceits of the Anthropos: scaling down and researching with minor players. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-19.

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