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The Omphalos: Navel-Gazing, Deep Time Meditation
By Sophie Strand

Welcome to the flesh-circled hollow of the Omphalos. A bodily valley. An earthly hub. Omphalos means navel or bellybutton. The term navel-gazing usually describes pointless behavior. Reverie. Self-involvement. And ecological embodiment is often articulated as a diminution of self in favor of other. Moving away from anthropocentric species solipsism. Yet, even when we seek to close the fictional divide between nature and human, our ecological imagination and activism unconsciously recapitulates the Christian shame of self-involvement and personal embodiment. We are still seeking to escape our bodies as we simplistically posit that nature must be sought and protected and recognized. It is always external. Always pristine or in need of protection from our pollution. Our blundering touch. But what if your own disabled, glitchy, non-normative body was just as much an Eden as an old-growth forest? Right now, my sit-spot is my own funk, my own skin-silhouette. I cannot travel further, so I choose to sink into my own body. Many of us exiled from environmentalism that favors genetic resilience, wholeness, charismatic species and conserved unpolluted ecosystems, are too disabled to access wildflower and mountain tops and a cultural idea of purity. Many of us need ecological exercises that don’t involve movement. That don’t rely on activity and producing noticeable effects. I’m going to invite you into queering the term navel-gazing with me. Maybe pointless behavior and navel gazing are good activities to give beings who tend to create violence when they are “doing” the things the culture deems productive. Let’s navel gaze and follow the unproductivity. Let us sink into the intractability of our weird bodies that refuse to digest, refuse to do, refuse to heal and move, and exit briefly the ecocidal narrative of human evolution and progress.

So…Omphalos is Greek for navel, but it also doubles as place in the landscape: a natural declivity where psychic energy and actual beings tend to flow and congregate. Cities and sacred spots that attract mythological attention are often called an Omphalos. These ecological acupuncture points magnetize matter. In Greek mythology the Omphalos point was calculated by sending two eagles flying in opposite directions. When they finally met again, dissecting each other’s flight, the intersection was judged to be the center of the world. The world’s navel. The Omphalos, then, curves the circle of evolution and progress into a self-digesting circle. The Omphalos is the spot of ancient reunion, too. Where the eagles, geographically separated by their circumnavigation, are brought together again. The Omphalos is also the stone that the Titan god Kronos vomits up when he vomits and gives birth to the Olympic pantheon of Greek Gods. For those of us with disability we understand that indigestibility is often the ontological ground for new worlds. Fresh, difficult, and possibly fertile futures produced by one world improperly digesting and incorporating the last. Navel then has many meanings. It is a birth place for new belief systems. A place where we acknowledge and transform around indigestibility. A place of reunion. It is the place in the Earth where the Earth remembers it was once tied to its own mother: whatever non-gendered cosmic elements and irradiated dust originally spun and spawned into our planet. It is our own navel showing us that, although we think we are individuals without root systems, able to hop in planes and surface skim across the globe, we did not start that way. Our emergence was contingent. Relational. Rooted in uterine tissue. Dreamed by other bodies into pattern and particularity.

So right now. If it feels right in your body, I want you to rest a hand, or both, hands over your belly, over your bellybutton. So many narratives about fertility and birth center the womb, but those narratives have a habit of excluding those without wombs or working wombs. Those who never had wombs. Those whose wombs have been trespassed, wounded, and shut.

You do not need a uterus to tap into the gestating navel gazing energy. This will not be heteronormative fertility. It is a queering of solipsism, a looping back into your own body. All you need is a belly button and the knowledge that you were born with a flesh rhizome that roots you, not to a fetishized sacred feminine, but to a somatic inheritance that flows well beyond the human and human timelines.

What does it mean to come from this saltwater carnal embrace that predates mammals? What does it mean to navel gaze backwards through extinction events and evolutionary hurdles? Feel your palm against your belly. Feel the inhale and exhale against your hand. That internal tide that flushes oxygen through your body on hemoglobin cellular waves. Feel the ocean of your own body. The intimate orchestration of chemicals and alkalinity, the constant perturbations that create the illusion of stability. Think perhaps of the storms – neuroligical, genetic, autoimmune – that disturb the waters of your ocean. These disturbance flow past simplistic human binaries of good or bad. They create magnificent prismatic sprays and pomegranate-red sunsets while being difficult to actually bear. Feel the space that quivers between your palm and your belly. The in-between of beauty and the discomfort. The bothness.

Your navel remembers ancient saltwater. You are an oceanic being that lives on dryland by the evolutionary gift that created a water sack for ancient amphian ancestors.

Amniotes are beings that generate offspring by way of a membrane that protects the embryo, skipping a larval stage. They include reptiles and birds and mammals. The older Greek word amnion that now means membrane surrounding the fetus, also means bowl in which the blood of sacrificed animals is caught. There is a generative truth in this double meaning. For the birth of every body, other bodies have been sacrificed – be they vegetal, fungal, bacterial, or warm-blooded – to create the building blocks of your physical self. We are all a bowl where other bodies are being mixed together to alchemize something entirely new.

So, breath into your hand. Feel the pocket of absence, your belly button that reminds you that you are not just tied to the womb that grew you, but to an ancient ancestry of amniotes. And think of the ancestors of the amniotes. About 340 million years ago mammals and birds and lizards all slide back into the same shared amphibious tetrapod bowl. Casineria kiddi, resembled a small, lithe lizard. These initial amniotes were still water-bound, forced to lay their eggs in moist swamps and shallow puddles. And then, breathe into the ocean of your own blood, your own belly, and dive deeper. Feel the liquid surges across the padding of your feet, silt flickering across your eyelashes. Blink through spangles of sunlight strained through seaweed and brine.

Our DNA replication, the chemical necessities of our embryonic development were evolved in water and necessitate a watery environs still. Amphibians like Casineria kiddi still couldn’t travel far from the water necessary for growing their children. But amniotes, perhaps due to rapidly shifting shorelines and climatological pressures, were forced onto dryland. This geographical relocation perhaps precipitated the amniotic adaptation. These ancient amphibious ancestors created portable oceans, so they could gestate their children on dry land: wombs gesture to our saltwater origins. You are still an oceanic being. Your eyes and ears and sense of taste all developed in a liquid embrace.

Now. Blink. Breathe again. Exhale. Respirate and loop and remember that scintillas of matter: spores and dust and bacteria and pollen penetrate and change you with each breath. We think of incursions from other species in terms of human warfare. every virus and bacteria is a potential enemy, ready to colonize and digest our bodies. We think of evolution as a solo species, hero’s journey event, forking off into increasing fitness and progress. But what evolutionary biology increasingly demonstrates is that those strange moments of inter=penetration, those incursions and horizontal gene transfers, have created the most biological novelty. Evolution forks, yes, into individuals and differentiated species, but it is most creative when it does something else: when it fuses species and bodies.

Our belly buttons tunnel us into deep time amphibious amniotes. Into ocean water. But they also show us our deep involvement and kinship with a being we most often label as an enemy: viruses. Human placentas developed 200 million years ago when a retrovirus sidestepped into our prehistoric genetics. This virus taught mammals how to develop the protein syncytin that creates the syncytiotrophoblast layer of the placenta that selectively exchanges nutrition and waste into and out of the uterus. Every placental birth, every hand pressed to a navel is the continuation of a viral legacy.

And one stratum deeper lies our great grandparents, leaking well beyond wellness and gender and anthropocentrism. The simple celled prokaryotic bacteria that for 200 million years swarmed and cascaded across the earth. Your very cells are ancestor altars to these bacterial progenitors. Every cell that builds you into multicellular complexity today, is the result of anarchic lovemaking. The organelles in your cells, your mitochondria, originated as single celled bacteria that merged to create more complex nucleated cells. Your multicellularity is a testament to a bacterial lovemaking that happened permanently. Like fungi and algae fuse to produce a new being – lichen – your body, your very brain, is the product of ancient bacterial and viral collaboration.

You are an ancestor altar. A portal. A doorway into deep time. You are an ecosystem. A feral sit spot. No matter how sick and immobilized, you will always be the fleshly center of an ecosystem that remembers the anarchic lovemaking of bacteria, the horizontal dance steps of viruses, the oceanic magic tricks of ancient amphibians.

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