The tenth in a year-long series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Although Uncí (Grandmother) Carole Bubar-Blodgett is not trained nor does she self-identify as an artist, her Water is Life Walk, now in its 8th iteration, has all the characteristics of a site-specific, interactive public art project paying homage to the water that sustains us all. From May 15 through June 13, 2018, Uncí Carole walked 220 miles, the full length of the Howsatunnuck (Housatonic) River beginning at its source in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and ending where it spills into Long Island Sound in Milford, Connecticut. Each day as she walked, Uncí Carole conducted indigenous ceremonies, leaving colorful sacred bundles that offered respect, gratitude and healing to the threatened waterway and invited the public to participate with her. On June 3, I did just that.
I met Uncí Carole beside the allotted trail for the day in Kent, Connecticut. She had just completed a sacred ceremony at one of the five confluences of the Housatonic River. There were six of us walking with her that stunningly beautiful day: Pam – a resident of Kent – and her 8-year-old daughter Lena; my friend, Felicity who had joined me; Uncí’s granddaughter Gwen; Gwen’s other grandmother, Lou-Ann; and me.
UncÍ Carole told me the outlines of her life during the course of the morning: Uncí (then simply Carole) had been raised without the knowledge that her mother’s family were members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. At 35, when she discovered this information by accident, she began a personal quest to “decolonize her ways of thinking and being” and learn as much as she could about her Native heritage. Carole studied with many teachers and danced the Sun Dance at Chief Leonard Crow Dog’s Paradise Grounds on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 2011, the spirit guided her to Walk the Sacred Water in order to “heal what had been contaminated” and to rebuild a vital connection that has been lost between human beings and the water that nourishes them. Uncí Carole is now a traditional Pipe Carrier and Bundle Keeper. As such, she feels a grave responsibility to The Seven Generations who will come after her. According to the philosophy of many Native American nations, tribes and other indigenous people around the world “in every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Protecting and healing the water that they need to survive is part of that sacred duty. As Uncí spoke about her Seven Generations responsibility, I thought sadly about how different our global environment would be today if we all practiced that gracious philosophy.
The Howsatunnuck (Housatonic) River
To the naked eye, the Housatonic River flowing through Kent seems idyllic. Waiting for Uncí, Felicity and I sat on a stone outcrop overlooking a lovely waterfall that spilled rushing water over a series of granite rocks. Behind us, to complete the picturesque scene, the river flowed under Bull’s Bridge, one of the last surviving covered wooden bridges in New England.
Before we began the day’s walk, Uncí Carole and her granddaughter, Gwen, conducted a smudge ceremony. Using dried sage and sweet grass, which was set on fire in an abalone shell and which represented earth, air, water and fire, Gwen “bathed” each of the walkers with the smoke in order to turn any negative energy that we carried in our bodies into the positive energy we required for our journey. Our tasks ahead included “Feeding the Water,” and placing bundles in specific locations along the river: in areas that were known to be polluted; above and below obstacles that impeded the natural flow of the river (like dams and buildings); at graveyards; at sacred spaces where confluences occurred; and on bridges, which afforded the best access to the water. All along the way, Uncí Carole carried the Sacred Water in a vessel, which she had collected from the river’s source, and which she would add to with water from the confluences where it entered the Housatonic.
Uncí’s explanation for “Feeding the Water” was as follows: We feed the water with rice, berries, dried meat and corn because it feeds us every day. We use wild rice because it symbolizes the medicines and foods that grow in the wetlands. When we use wild cranberries, we are remembering the tart foods, without which, we would not understand the meaning of sweetness just as we would not understand the sweetness of life without its hardships. When we use dried meat, we are acknowledging the four-legged, winged and finned ones that give their lives to sustain ours. And when we use the corn, we are remembering the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) that are traditionally planted together and like a community, lean on each other in order to grow.
Each of us was handed one of the foods to toss into the river at one of the bridges crossing the Housatonic in homage to the sacredness of the water. At this same bridge, we also hung a healing bundle that consisted of seven bunches of tobacco knotted by seven individual colored cotton ribbons. The bundle was tied loosely to the structure of the bridge so that it would eventually fall into the river where its healing blessing would enter the river’s flow and then biodegrade.
Uncí’s project was a moving experience that left me with a number of powerful feelings and observations. The slow, intentional pace of the walk created a sense of slow-motion – just as Uncí Carole was hyper-focused on the significance of each of her actions, I too was pulled to pay closer attention to the individual features of the natural world as I passed through them. I was also reminded of how little attention I normally pay to procuring water (and appreciating it) when it flows easily from a faucet and I am not required to fetch and carry it for my daily use (as Uncí was doing over 220 miles). And I was newly conscious of how hard it was to actually access the river when the built environment prevented us from walking close to its shore in many areas along the way. Although Uncí Carole may not have known this, her clear intention to create an interactive experience at a specific site for participants that (1) reconnected them with the Earth using colorful and meaningful artifacts that served as an ephemeral installation; (2) called attention to the pollution that was destroying our sacred water sources; and (3) built a sense of community among those that came to the Water Walk, are all characteristics of a interactive public art project that is highly effective.
(Top image: The Water is Life Walk ended on June 13 when Harbormaster Ross Hatfield took Uncí Carole Bubar-Blodgett out on a boat so that she could mingle clean source water from the headwaters of the Howsatunnnuck into the salt water of Long Island Sound. Photo courtesy of Water is Life Walks.)
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.