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Singing for the Whole: The Power of Song


by Beth Champagne

Heidi Wilson, at 35, does the best Pippi Longstocking imitation in Plainfield village: Striding erect, long braids down her back, and a short, flouncy skirt layered over warm trousers, she radiates joie de vivre.

Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s fictional heroine, being a Swedish lass of exceptional gifts, carried her horse into the shed by her house. Heidi, a Vermonter by choice, comes from Wisconsin, has Swedish heritage, a spouse, a house — and a shed that’s full.

Heidi moves people, not horses.

She offers her voice, in song, and invites others to join in. Whether it’s at a community sing, an outdoor celebration, a “sacred sing” or a social justice action, people respond to Heidi’s presence and to her voice.

As her colleague, Avery Book, observes, “She’s a cultivator of collective song. I’ve witnessed her in social movement spaces, mostly around climate justice … She brings an incredible ability to create and hold space through collective singing. She is warm and incredibly attentive … able to move a group of people from the moment of learning a new song to minutes later being lost in the singing.”

“Oh, remembering, deep remembering/Beyond, beyond, and beyond … /Oh remembering … ”

Heidi remembers how she “caught a lot of songs as a kid,” and how, at six, she wrote her first long song—then, as a teen, wrote “angsty” songs “about how our world was all messed up and what are we going to do?”

Eventually, Heidi would study sustainable agriculture “because I thought it was the end of civilization,” and move to Vermont to teach and manage the garden at Sterling College. She kept on “catching songs fresh from the universe” when she became head mentor at EarthWalk Vermont, in Plainfield, spending full days outdoors on the land.

“Good morning, Earth! Good morning, sky! Good morning waters, flowing by … ”

Last summer, after 11 years together — many of them mentoring EarthWalkers — Heidi Wilson and Erik Gillard held an outdoor wedding celebration, with a dozen or so friends as readers.

“We had written a gratitude poem,” Heidi recalled, “with the intention of acknowledging and remembering everybody, all the beings and all the forces who were there with us … there were many beings and pieces and forces to thank.”

“Remember the water. Remember the land. Remember the future: Take a stand … ”

“I love songs that are doing their work in the world — that is, with everybody singing,” Heidi said, “bringing it to life.”

In a room full of singers, Heidi tunes in to social dynamics, to the sound of voices — to all that’s at play then and there, in the moment.

She calls her practice “singing for the Whole.”

“It’s really important to me that I listen in, to know what’s going to be of most service to the well-being of the Whole. I have a practice to get grounded and upright, and tap into a big perspective. I can have faith in the great unfolding,” she affirmed.

“Perhaps what inspires me most about Heidi,” said Lauren Akin, another colleague, “is her constant commitment to situating herself and her creations within the web of the Whole. Her creative process is so fused with this commitment that her songs are immediately liberated to do the work they’re meant to do!”

“Go, wind, carry us now like milkweed silk and send us out, and send us out!”

Like other exceptionally attuned, spiritually receptive individuals, Heidi has a light-heartedness and inner strength that radiate as warmth.

“My relationship with singing at actions is singing for strength, and beauty, and the love,” she said; “the song can carry a message in a way that is powerful. Without escalating violence, it can share a message of truth.”

At a singing action in the campaign to stop the Vermont Gas Pipeline in Addison County, 40 people came into an eminent domain hearing in Montpelier, where homeowners were facing state officials and corporate lawyers who wanted to take their land.

Book recalled how, “A few minutes in, Heidi stood up and broke into song: ‘We have got the power … it’s in the hands of all.’ Her voice cut clearly and powerfully through the proceedings. After the first round, the whole room joined in, with the four-part harmonies that we had taught earlier. We sang constantly for the next half hour. More than one state trooper came up to us afterwards to say they were glad we were there.

“To me,” he said, “ that epitomizes Heidi: Full of courage, humility, and the ability to draw out the beauty in others.”