Yearly Archives: 2019

Wild Authors: Morgan Nyberg

Morgan Nyberg grew up in farming country in southern British Columbia. After graduating from the University of British Columbia he worked as a laborer for a decade before finally settling into teaching. For most of the last 30 years he has lived abroad, teaching English as a Foreign Language in Ecuador, Portugal and the Sultanate of Oman.

His first book, The Crazy Horse Suite, a verse play, was performed on the stage in New York and was broadcast on CBC Radio. Soon after that a memoir won the CBC Literary Competition. His first venture into book-length fiction, a children’s novel, Galahad Schwartz and the Cockroach Army, won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award. Since then he has added a further children’s novel, Bad Day in Gladland; two literary novels for adults, El Dorado Shuffle and Mr. Millennium; and the post-apocalyptic Raincoast Sagacomprising The Fixer, Since Tomorrow, Birds of Passage and Medicine. He currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada.

interviewed Morgan Nyberg three years ago. We talked then about his Raincoast Trilogy, and at that time I had read the first two novels in the series: Since Tomorrow and Birds of Passage. Since then, Morgan has added Medicine to the series and also bumped up the order as he wrote the novella The Fixer later. We recently chatted, and Morgan explained that The Fixer is an introduction or a prequel to the trilogy (parts 2, 3, and 4). The Fixer is also free on Amazon, and as Morgan notes about this series of books, they might allow the reader “to see the very plausible effects of climate change and our reckless economic policies, as well as the ever-present threat of international pandemic.” The saga takes place mostly around futuristic Vancouver and north of there, and is a multi-generational, post-apocalyptic novel.

I think what Frederick Brooke at Goodreads wrote is a great intro to the books, particularly volume 2, which leads into the saga:

I read this book slowly on purpose, revelling in the beautiful, spare descriptions, and was totally caught up in the story from the start. I could have been reading Faulkner or Hemingway, the writing was so powerful.

The time is two generations in the future; the place is Vancouver. But you wouldn’t recognize this blasted landscape as a city, let alone as that thriving metropolis in the Pacific Northwest. Gone entirely are modern essentials like computers, cars, telephones, airplanes and electricity. Buildings are abandoned. Roads are overgrown with weeds. The world as we know it has been destroyed by a series of calamities and plagues, leaving only a few hardy bands of survivors. They go around in the mud wearing sandals made from cut-out pieces of auto tires and subsist mainly on potatoes and whatever meat they can raise or hunt.

At the center of the story is Frost, a grandfather who is a leader and a fighter and a thinker. Frost and his group of refugees and survivors conduct a war of wills against the enemy, Langley, who wants to take away his farm for its good strategic location and solidly built stone farmhouse. It is a simple story, a struggle between good and evil.

The story presents a bleak, Ballardian sense of place on one hand, and the characters’ hopes and joys on the other. The story is chilling and well-crafted, the characters highly memorable and vivid, which makes the Raincoast Saga stand out from the glut of modern-day apocalyptic fiction. I was also attracted to the saga because it’s set in a city that I consider home. Hardly recognizable in the Raincoast Saga, Vancouver and the areas north exist in a wildly altered reality. This can be tough to wrap our heads around because it’s tough to see places we love crumble, with perhaps only the sky, water, and a hint of infrastructure remaining as artifacts. I recall a scene of a bridge over the Fraser River in Since Tomorrow, and it seemed familiar, but not. When writing about place, Morgan said:

Two factors influenced the way Vancouver is represented in Since Tomorrow. One is obviously a transformation caused by economic, technological and societal breakdown as well as a major earthquake. The other is the impossibility of presenting an up-to-date picture of a rapidly changing metropolitan area. So I simplified, altered, removed, exaggerated and generally bent the setting to the demands of my narrative. Nevertheless, I assumed that local readers would recognize that “Town” is a post-collapse version of Vancouver, so I added an introductory proviso that “Some features of Greater Vancouver have been altered, removed or exaggerated.”

Morgan writes with such detail and mood that I recognized hints of home in the fractured landscape and became saddened by Vancouver in a futuristic state of collapse. I caught a glimpse of such disaster when the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup playoffs game in game seven in 2011. At that time I worked near Gastown, a historic area in Vancouver, which is near the stadium. I had hopped on the skytrain to head home before the game, at Chinatown, and saw hundreds of fans gathering for the game that night. I watched the news in horror later, as crowds, upset by the loss to the Boston Bruins, stormed the streets surrounding the stadium, rioting, looting, and breaking shop windows. They pushed and pulled; a few were injured. In one scene a couple good Samaritans tried to help a guy who was being beaten.

The riot was unexpected and consisted of what we think of as “regular” people mostly. The fine line crossed in one’s ability to be peaceful and completely destructive frightened me more than anything else. I was saddened by the collapse and the broken frames of familiar places where I worked, ate, and played. Morgan’s saga gives the area a much bigger shake-up. In the Raincoast books, the Fraser River serves as that fine line in a way, between peace and destruction. Morgan explained, about his novels:

The Fraser River (nameless in the story) has become a barrier between the relative civilization and benevolent atmosphere of Frost’s farm at the south end of Frost’s Bridge (today’s Oak Street Bridge) and the horrors of Town just north of the river. Through a kind of nostalgia for the “Good Times” the young men of the story have been given the names of old streets and districts: Granville, Oak, Pender, Steveston, etc. The young women have been given names from nature: Fire, Snow, Willow, etc. Birds of Passageis set mainly north of Town in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. Medicine plunges deep into the darkness and endless dangers of Town.

In this case, the collapse was brought on by something much larger than a lost hockey game – our destructive acts that have led to mass global warming. When I asked Morgan about writing fiction about climate change, he replied:

I imagined climate change to be one of the causes of the collapse inasmuch as climate change feeds a self-destructive economic process based on greed that, combined with a global pandemic, finally brings everything down. In my mind the major causes of the collapse are overpopulation, the rampant depletion of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems, and the production of waste, e.g. CO2, beyond what the planet can safely carry. The more marked effects of climate change, e.g. the disappearance of fish from the river, happen after the collapse. When I wrote Since Tomorrow I did not know that post-apocalyptic was a literary genre. I was simply writing a story set in a world that seemed to be a plausible projection of today’s trends, i.e. what is waiting for us at the end of the primrose path. It scared the hell out of me and still does.

In our previous interview, I asked Morgan:

Having read a lot of novels wherein something has caused a collapse in economic systems (and ecological ones), I’ve seen all sorts of aftermaths play out. In some cases there is a dystopian sort of central governance. In others, characters are on their own and trying to adapt and survive and work together to do so. Your novel seems credible and likely: community/familial groups form and do what they can. There are a couple main leaders in Since Tomorrow: one is good and focused on survival and helping others. The other is akin to an evil overlord drug type taking advantage of others.

I don’t think we could argue against good vs. evil being a major element of any future society since it is and has been a major theme in past and present societies. But I think that in many futuristic ideologies there is almost a romantic notion that by then we will have learned from past mistakes and all work together to create some sort of more utopian society. Your book definitely seems more realistic and almost brutally raw. Can you comment on how you decided to form this post-collapse continuance of good vs. evil?

And his reply was:

Beyond what Frost and a few others are attempting to do as individuals, there is no possibility of larger social action. Everything we think of as civilized is gone. There is no government, no education, no medicine, no law, no modern technology. People live by subsistence agriculture, by bartering and by scavenging. In such a future, in every possible future, as has been the case in every epoch of the past, both good and evil will thrive. There is no reason for what started in the Garden of Eden to change simply because circumstances change.

And it is this story of the human condition that plays on, and will continue to do so, throughout the future, as long as we survive as a species. Like other authors in this series, Morgan Nyberg deals with climate change and storytelling well, presenting readers with a story that will not leave their minds any time soon – one which makes us think about our path to the future as we deal with collapse brought on by “self-destructive economic process based on greed.” Morgan is working on a fifth book currently, and I’ll be in touch about that as it comes into being.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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From One Island to Another

The new year brought major breakthroughs and inspiration for the 2018-19 Superhero Clubhouse Fellows who shared their progress last month at the SHC Salon. Spoken word poet Shy Richardson and climate scientist Karina Yager traveled from New York City to Puerto Rico to explore the resilience of the island during and after Hurricane Maria for the performance they are currently developing. With the help of a NET/TEN travel grant, the generosity of El Puente LCAN (Latino Climate Action Network), and Shy’s family, the team spent six days on the island and met up with David Ortiz, Program Director of El Puente Puerto Rico.

A sister hub of El Puente in Brooklyn, this branch of the social and climate justice organization had an important role to play in the aftermath of the storm. David explained that money was raised to buy and distribute thousands of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans, many of whom had to wait months for power to be restored after the hurricane. These seemingly small and simple tools became beacons of hope in the darkness.

In addition to El Puente staff and volunteers, the team conducted interviews with Shy’s family members, climate experts, and other residents of the island. The team asked each one of their interviewees the question: What is your hope moving forward? They heard answers ranging from wishes for a more sustainable Puerto Rico as a whole to the very personal desire for family members to be alright in the aftermath. From the big picture of the island to the health of individuals, these hopes are connected.

What does this kind of collective wellbeing look like? For David, it wasn’t an image, but a sound. He said he first knew that everything was going to be okay after the storm when he heard balls bouncing in the street. Kids were outside playing again. Breathing, rebounding, yelling – sounds of life. “The hope brought back the sound,” David remarked. Soon, neighbors were coming out of their homes, sharing resources, and in some cases, meeting each other for the first time.

Shy and Karina are now in the process of taking the materials collected on their trip (hours of interviews and hundreds of pictures) and mixing them with their own text to create a performance piece. Shy is filtering the experience through her poetic skill, creating a series of poems capturing the displacement one can feel after a loss, whether it be of a home or a loved one. Much of the work has been colored by the recent passing of Shy’s beloved grandmother, Maria. In the poem “How to Make Pasteles as Per the New York Times,” Shy mixes the traditional recipe with memories of Maria preparing the dish. When the narrator remarks that you “assumed you’d have forever to learn,” it aches with love and regret. It also drives home how the loss of a matriarch can shift your position in your family and your worldview.

Karina is embarking on an additional trip that will also inform the piece. She’s traveling to the Andes region of South America, where she studies the social and ecological impacts of climate change on mountain environments, to conduct glacier research. Rapidly melting tropical glaciers affect pastoral agriculture and local indigenous communities. Though the glacier is literally thousands of miles away from Puerto Rico, Karina sees a connection through the global water cycle. As she continues to unlock the narrative potential of water moving through this system, she will examine larger themes of loss and change over time.

Shy and Karina left those who attended the last Salon sessions with a wealth of material from their travels.

The sound of a ball bouncing
The sound of a glacier melting
The sound of a story told
A recipe recited
An island honored
For every loss, a hope

What will Shy and Karina create from this thoughtful and intentional investigation? A work-in-progress of Trés Marias was performed on March 23 at The Tank in New York City, marking the culmination of Superhero Clubhouse’s six-month paid Fellowship for environmental justice and performance. Weaving personal stories of loss and resilience that bridge New York, Puerto Rico, and the glacial Andes, Trés Marias is a love poem to the communities that emerge from the wreckage of displacement. Associate Fellows Aya Lane and Imani Dennison also showed a work-in-progress of Drexciya, an underwater mythical resistance story honoring the black diaspora’s complicated relationship to water.

This is the fourth of five blogs in our Building Bridges series about the intersection of environmental justice and performance. These blogs will be responding to a monthly Salontaking place at The Lark in New York where our FellowsAssociate Fellows, and others in the Superhero Clubhouse community are exploring this intersection in their own ways.

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Megan McClain is the resident dramaturg for SHC’s series of Planet Plays, Flying Ace, and other projects and co-leads The Salon. As R&D Program Director at the Civilians, she’s guided the work of over 70 writers, composers, and directors creating original works of investigative theatre. She is also the Accessibility Manager at The Lark. Additional dramaturgical/literary work for Goodman Theatre, Disney Theatrical, Hartford Stage, PlayPenn, Playwrights Realm and more. M.F.A Dramaturgy: UMass Amherst.

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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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Writer Elizabeth Rush Distills the Stories of Communities Affected by Sea Level Rise

Author Elizabeth Rush talks about her award-winning book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Elizabeth spent time in nine different coastal communities. She explains, “Each chapter opens with a monologue from a resident. The idea is to give them a microphone; I don’t want to give them a voice…Any amount of essaying or writing that I could do felt not important at all. Just listening to those stories was most engaging to me; I wanted to give readers that.” Elizabeth reads a section from her book about the coastal community in Miami, Florida.

Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award
A Chicago Tribune Top Ten Book of 2018
A Guardian, NPR’s Science Friday, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal Best Book of 2018

Hailed as “deeply felt” (New York Times), “a revelation” (Pacific Standard), and “the book on climate change and sea levels that was missing” (Chicago Tribune), Rising is both a highly original work of lyric reportage and a haunting meditation on how to let go of the places we love.

Coming up next month, artist and engineer Michelle M. Irizarry talks about her paintings and how climate change has altered her art.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Barbara Kingsolver

From Barbara Kingsolver’s official site: “Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, and has worked as a freelance writer and author since 1985. At various times in her adult life she has lived in England, France, and the Canary Islands, and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America. She spent two decades in Tucson, Arizona, before moving to southwestern Virginia where she currently resides.” See her complete bibliography here.

An award-winning author, Kingsolver has a vast amount of experience, including writing and traveling as a child, entering college under a piano scholarship but switching her major to biology, working as a lab tech and teacher while in grad school, scientific writing and journalism after completing her Master’s, farming, further travel, gardening, raising poultry and Icelandic sheep – and, of course, her many years of writing poetry, novels, and nonfiction. Her world-wide experiences are nothing to scoff at, but what is most appealing about the author is that she is a humble world citizen, concerned about the planet and social justice. Like many great authors, Barbara Kingsolver’s lifelong wonder of the world comes through in powerful stories. I encourage readers to check out all her books, as they are significant works dealing with nature and justice in various places she’s lived, from the Arizona desert to the Belgian Congo to the Appalachian Mountains.

Kingsolver has been mindful of the environment all her life. Her books are seeped heavily in themes such as local farming, wilderness survival, the great outdoors, and natural places. In this article, I’ll look at her novel Flight Behavior, which was applauded for being a contemporary fiction dealing with climate change, whereas many other novels in the same vein are futuristic. And even though there is always imagination in fiction, Kingsolver’s novel reflects the actuality of Monarch migrations. She explores the here and now.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Flight Behavior is personal. It’s no secret that I research how climate change and fiction interact, but not all novels I’ve read are ones I feel very moved by. This one, I was. The novel is set in Feathertown, Tennessee, a fictional town that would be near real places I’ve spent a great deal of time in, especially as a child and teenager. I recently watched a YouTube talk with Jeff VanderMeer and Lorna Crozier(I’ve been fortunate to chat with both authors in the past), and they discussed how childhood places inspired their writing. I was motivated by that conversation, and think Barbara Kingsolver also did well with Flight Behavior when it comes to the matters of place and memory.

My childhood place was an area of the world where many people in my family came from – they had settled in Virginia after coming over from Scotland and Ireland, and then scattered into the eastern Kentucky and Tennessee hills. From the time I was a baby, this area of the country was our “home” to travel to, since my parents both had roots there; though Dad came from Louisville – his ancestors were Grayson County farmers – Mom was a bonafide child from the hills of Kentucky. She was born in a log cabin in a holler, and when I was a child I hiked by the cabin often. It was next to a rushing creek, and leading over the creek from her cabin to the holler was an old rickety bridge from which she had fallen once and broken her arm.

We took a trip back to that holler a few years ago, and everything had changed. The holler was no longer a dirt path. Now it was a modern road, and the old homes had all been torn down to make room for new modern houses. Mom’s cabin was gone. Even the cliffs edging the mountains and flanking one side of the holler were gone. Kudzu, an invasive vine, now covered hillsides everywhere. The precious wildflowers were gone in the holler, and so was the old woman at the end of the road who used to let us pick black walnuts in her yard. Her simple country house was gone too, and in its place a fancy modern house.

It was a sad moment for our entire family, as we hadn’t been to that area for a long time, ever since Mammaw and Pappaw died, both fairly young. The mountains had been flattened, though I’m not sure why. It seems to have had to do with housing development instead of mountaintop coal mining. But I recall the sweet wonder of the old Appalachian mountains: The southern way of speech, the long tales my pappaw told while we sat on his large and summery front porch, the best food on the planet (shucky beans, cornbread, apple cake), the lonely sounds of distant highways and trains echoing through the hills, the surrounding pine-covered mountains that were wild with foliage overflowing to the old hollers – where on cliff sides, icicles formed in winter and tiny waterfalls in summer. These things are my strong memories of place, and I summon them quite often in my own fiction.

Looking past the personal experience I felt when reading Flight Behavior, I wondered how others were affected. One question that I often have to authors I interview is: Do you get much feedback from readers who say that your novel changed them in some way? The answers vary, but most authors agree that readers say they have an increased awareness of various ecological crises, including the climate catastrophe we are undergoing. Can this effect real change? One can only hope. In a “Climate Change and Storytelling” panel that I participated in on Earth Day 2017, at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, one of the questions was: Can fiction really change people’s minds? Among the panelists, we agreed that:

When we read fiction, sometimes it speaks to us at a level in which our heart gets involved. That emotional reaction is important. The type of fiction that has impact does so without necessarily the intent of the author. If the author writes a story that the reader likes, it can change the reader, in a small or large way.

So the emotional reaction is personal among readers, but some authors are superb at affecting the reader deeply. Kingsolver is an effective writer, not only for someone like me, who has history in the same place as where Flight Behavior takes place, but for others as well, regardless of where they’re from. I think readers are affected so much by this story because she makes characters and situations real, without the glossy coverup meant to romanticize them – in other words, she builds an ordinariness of life to which we utterly relate.

In the novel, Kingsolver’s heart-warming scenes are marked with lively and often humorous dialogue in circumstances that some might think of as mundane: a baby’s antics in a high chair, a conversation between two friends texting, the marital ho-hums between two adults. These everyday happenings that speak to the reader’s heart take place under the umbrella of a fabulous event, something that seems like a miracle: hundreds of thousands of beautiful orange monarch butterflies landing in Feathertown.

According to the New York Times:

Her subject is both intimate and enormous, centered on one woman, one family, one small town no one has ever heard of – until Dellarobia stumbles into a life-altering journey of conscience. How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation? And make no mistake about it, the stakes are that high. Post-apocalyptic times, and their singular preoccupation with survival, look easy compared with this journey to the end game. Yet we must also deal with the pinching boots of everyday life.

The main character, Dellarobia, is a young mother in a shaky marriage. She’s on the edge of tradition, lost and lonely, wanting to have an affair, unsure of where life is leading her. Like a butterfly, she transforms beneath the auspice of this miracle of monarchs – but that umbrella is really climate change, not a divine event. The reason the butterflies have migrated to Feathertown is that, due to global warming, their normal winter habitat in Mexico has flooded and they need to change their traditional route in order to roost and survive. When scientist Ovid Byron arrives to the mountain to study the butterflies, Dellarobia is fascinated by his exotic appearance as well as by his different world view, something she increasingly latches onto.

The New York Times points out:

Do global warming and intimations of doomsday tax the storytelling at times? Yes. But they share these pages with smaller-scale, deliciously human moments. Without overreaching she delivers line after line that can be at once beautiful, casual, wry, offbeat. Whether she is describing Dellarobia’s malcontented, ambitious in-laws or the environmentally earnest rubberneckers or Feathertown’s rumpled young preacher, she never employs, as she says of one character, the “ordinary tools of contempt.”

Kingsolver beautifully explores the conservative culture existing in some pockets of rural southern America, without pointing fingers at climate change deniers. Instead, she underscores the difficulty of a culture in transition. The New Yorker has a wonderful piece about Flight Behavior, which discusses a changing world as science and religion contradict each other but can learn to coexist:

“We all take information from sources we trust,” Kingsolver said. “Church communities are extremely important in the area where I live, and they’re not necessarily what outsiders picture when they say ‘Bible Belt.’ The Green Church movement is one of the rare places where the environmental conversation is successfully reaching across these difficult cultural divides.”

At one point in the book, Dellarobia tells her farmer husband, Cub, that “a lot of things are messed up” because of climate change. “Weather is the Lord’s business,” he replies. And yet it is Cub who puts up a fight when his father wants to log the forest hollow in which the butterflies have taken shelter.

This reminds me of a story Mom recently told me. We occasionally chat on Friday nights over red wine, and I learn incredible things from her, like old memories she has of the Kentucky hills. When I told her about how much my cousins and I loved climbing one mountain range after another when we were kids (the adults were usually occupied with their own things), Mom said she had done the same thing as a child. I had never known, until recently, that my dad’s mom belonged to a sorority in Louisville that opened the elementary school house my mother went to, years before my parents ever met, and started a tree-planting program for the school children, which Mom took part in. As a kid, she and her schoolmates planted pine trees on hills that had been environmentally devastated. When I was older, I remember Dad showing me the hills with those now-grown trees – but at the time I didn’t know his mother had helped start that program.

Mom was raised in a somewhat conservative household, though her mother was religious and her father, not so much. I still remember the dirty-eye Mammaw gave him when he didn’t go to church on Sunday. I have no clue what my grandparents would have thought of global warming if they were alive today, but they lived close to the land, so respected the land and ensured that trees were planted, water was clean, air was clean – as much as possible. The desperation of needing a job, in my pappaw’s time, however, meant he worked as a coal miner. But when I  listened to Pappaw Collins’ stories, I knew he was deeply in awe of nature. He helped me with numerous 4H projects that focused on wildlife. He knew the behaviors, appearances, and many facts about flora and fauna native to the Appalachians.  It felt right that Kingsolver addressed this fundamental issue of climate-change deniers, but put them into the light of real people going through, well, a metamorphosis.

The title Flight Behavior, and the practical metaphor of butterflies in a novel about people resisting, or adjusting to, climate change, is perfect, really. Monarch butterflies in diapause make a 3,000-mile round-trip migration only once. They go to the same areas, and sometimes even exact trees, that their parents and grandparents went to, without, of course, ever having been there before. A monarch has an innate sense (due to shorter days and changing light, fluctuating temperatures, and healthy host plants populations – and research has explored how antennae help keep time) of when to begin migration and where to go. Compare this journey to that taken by people who have learned information passed on from generation to generation, involving a slow-moving ideology, in a drastically changing world. At some point, they will transition too, and Kingsolver’s novel explores how while telling a wonderful story.

(Top image: Photo by Steven Hopp, downloaded from KCRW.)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Susan M. Gaines

by Mary Woodbury Comments

This month’s spotlight is on Susan M. Gaines, who wrote Carbon Dreams, her first published novel – and she has just completed another. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as the North American Review and the Missouri Review, and in the anthologies Best of the West V and Sacred Ground: Writings About Home. She studied chemistry and oceanography before a love for literature lured her away from the lab, and her book, Echoes of Life: What Fossil Molecules Reveal about Earth History (Oxford University Press, 2009), employs narrative and literary prose to report on research in organic geochemistry. Currently she holds a post as writer-in-residence and co-director of the Fiction Meets Science program at the University of Bremen in Germany. Despite having spent much of her adult life abroad and found homes in Uruguay and Germany, Gaines regularly returns to her roots in northern California.

Carbon Dreams was published in 2001 and is set in the 1980s; it is one of the earliest works in the canon of contemporary novels dealing with climate change. And though the novel is now out of print, it is still available via Amazon from third-party bookstores. As I chatted with Gaines about this novel – and she provided a lot of in-depth thoughts about her writing, for which I’m grateful – she noted that she didn’t set out to write a book about anthropogenic climate change:

In the early 1990s, when I started thinking about the novel that would become Carbon Dreams, I wanted to write about someone for whom science, in particular organic chemistry, is a way of seeing – of understanding, rather than manipulating – nature. I wanted to tell a story about “doing science” as a creative process, about the beauty of deciphering biogeochemical cycles. At the same time, I was interested in altruism – the kind of altruism that makes an environmental activist, for example. Out of that combination of impulses, you get Tina, who is obsessed with esoteric knowledge about the origin of life and the state of the carbon cycle two hundred million years ago. And you get Chip, an organic farmer who is reading the newspapers and worried about the future of the planet.

She went further to say:

Ironically, when I started the book, I didn’t realize how controversial the science of climate change had become. I’d studied at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the mid-1980s, and as far as I knew, the anthropogenic build-up of CO2 was already established science. Revelle and Seuss had shown in 1957 that CO2 exchange between atmosphere and ocean was much slower than previously assumed, so that a greenhouse effect was likely, and Charles Keeling had been documenting the rise in atmospheric CO2 for decades – and they were all Scripps scientists.

When I went to the newspaper archives to see what Chip might be reading on the subject, I was shocked to find that the papers quoted a couple of scientists who cast doubt on what I thought was established knowledge. I tried to track down the scientific studies they referred to and found they had either never been published or had been quickly discredited in the same journals that had originally published them. That’s when this politicization of science, and the problems and responsibilities scientists have in speaking to the media, became the book’s major themes.

I set the story in the mid-eighties, a pivotal point in the history of this politicization, when we might still have done something to change the future we are now irrevocably committed to. Carbon Dreams is just a fiction in which I dramatized these issues, based on a random reading of newspaper archives and scientific papers – I didn’t realize how close I’d come to reality until the book was in press, when I stumbled on Ross Gelbspan’s journalistic exposé The Heat is On, which documented the oil industry’s media campaign to confuse the public’s understanding of climate change science.

It’s interesting to find earlier examples of the topic of climate change in fiction, before the current decade when so many authors have set out to tackle environmental catastrophes. New labels have come about to describe climate change in fiction – some fiction speculative, some literary. But before this time period, a few stories, like Gaines’s, went along with the climate science of the day. (See American Institute of Physics for a timeline of scientific convergence about global warming.) I have spoken with Arthur Herzog’s widow, for instance, who pointed out that when her late husband published Heat in the 1970s, it was after conferring with climate scientists who had been correlating carbon dioxide with global warming.

I have pointed out in this series that if we want to think of a powerful novel (in terms of negative impact, unfortunately) about climate change, we can look no further than to Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which played heavily into the climate denialist movement. The Union of Concerned Scientists debunked the science in the novel. Further, and this is why I say the novel had such impact, Crichton met with President Bush in 2006, two years after the novel was published, and, according to the New York Times:

In his new book about Mr. Bush, Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush, Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, State of Fear, suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat…fueling a common perception among environmental groups that Mr. Crichton’s dismissal of global warming, coupled with his popularity as a novelist and screenwriter, has undermined efforts to pass legislation intended to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that leading scientists say causes climate change…Mr. Crichton, whose views in State of Fear helped him win the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ annual journalism award this month, has been a leading doubter of global warming and last September appeared before a Senate committee to argue that the supporting science was mixed, at best.

Crichton’s State of Fear sold 1.5 million copies and reached number one on Amazon.com and number two on the New York Times Best-Seller List in 2005. It significantly helped to put into motion the climate denialist movement. Now that most people have come around to realize that climate change is a fact on the ground, there are numerous authors writing about it in fiction. Gaines was among the pioneers of this fiction, and I think that those of us hoping for another impactful novel – but one that reflects real science – could help turn the world away from fossil fuels. However, according to Gaines:

I think we need to be careful when we start thinking of the novel as an overt tool for activism. First, we run the danger of perverting the art and we get bad literature. And second, a novel is not transparent. It’s supposed to make you feel that it is true – it may even be true, if not real – but it’s fiction and has no responsibility to be real, or true. By definition.

There’s a natural tension between our responsibility to our subject matter – our duty to reveal the world as it is or may be – and our mandate as storytellers, as artists who use facts to make meaning however we see fit. I run a program that supports novelists who are writing about scientific concepts and issues, the idea being to give them access to the scientific worlds they are writing about so that they can balance those tensions responsibly and consciously. But the moment we lose track of that balancing act and start using our novels as polemics or educational devices as Michael Crichton did in his latter works, we are in trouble.

When Crichton started framing his thrillers as carefully researched works of investigative journalism by an expert – not as a metafictional literary trick, but as a literal background – readers started relying on them for information about scientific issues. He effectively turned his imaginative speculative fictions into powerful lies, as we saw when Congress invited him to give an “expert opinion” on climate change research, about which he was entirely unqualified to comment.

T.C. Boyle’s raging environmental novels, on the other hand, don’t masquerade as anything other than the artfully told tall tales they are. They invite readers to think about environmental issues in new ways precisely because they were not written, or framed, or presented as polemics. In A Friend of the Earth we simply empathize with this crazy old environmental activist who finds himself surviving in the world he’s failed to save from itself – and we can’t help but think about what we might do differently.

As we move into the era of actual climate change, struggling through the mayhem and trying to keep step with the ludicrous out-of-control experiment we’ve wrought on the earth’s biogeochemical systems – to paraphrase the final lines of Carbon Dreams – novelists can’t help but write about climate change even if they are not writing about climate change. The novel I just completed, The Last Naturalist and the Terrorists’ Daughter, is not about climate change. It is set in the recent past, not speculative. But it is narrated by a 22-year-old at the turn of the millennium, and climate change and biodiversity loss inform his character on every level: his perception of nature, his relationships with his parents and grandparents, his hopes for the future and his emerging understanding of the many ways in which history shadows and limits it.

As climate change becomes our daily reality, one might think that this whole discussion about a genre of fiction about it would become moot. And yet, even as I write this, the American media reports the devastation wrought by the latest rounds of weather mayhem without addressing climate change, and I have to marvel at our capacity to ignore it. So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this discussion about the novelist’s role in reflecting on climate change is not moot at all. Perhaps we should all be heeding Amitav Ghosh’s highly visible but somewhat belated call to arms.

I have to agree with Gaines here, that it’s good for authors to pay attention to our world – specifically to injustice and neglect and abuse, whether economic, social, or environmental. Climate change is a condition of crisis in which we find ourselves, and authors will rise to the occasion to meet this reality in fiction. But good fiction is not preachy or didactic. I am reminded once more of a great piece in Slate Magazine, by John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer Prize (and Grammy) winning composer. He writes, in Making Music in the Anthropocene, that nature compels him to make art – in his case music:

As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.

REVIEWS OF CARBON DREAMS

“Gaines, who has degrees in chemistry and oceanography, has boldly built the novel around challenging scientific theories…her use of complex concepts and true-to-life practice is inspired.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] story about the devastatingly serious issue of human-induced climate change…. A remarkable job of conveying what it’s really like to be a scientist, and to make scientific discoveries – not in the blink of an eye, as television or movies would have it, but with gradually shifting insight.” —C&E News

“When the heroine is a Latina organic chemist doing research that leads her inexorably into the politics of global climate change and the hero is an organic farmer who happens to be a Sierra Club member…it is difficult to resist.” —The Southern Sierran, Sierra Club Newsletter

“This remarkable book rewards us with a deeper appreciation of geology and oceanography at the same time that we’re engaged with a young woman scientist’s personal and ethical dilemmas…. With this particular blend of fiction and science Susan Gaines comes thrillingly close to inventing a fascinating new genre.” —Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest

“At last, a book that integrates authentic scientific inquiry with the character-driven magic of good literary fiction….  A captivating story that places romantic love side-by-side with the love of sublime ideas.” —Frederick Reiken, author of The Odd Sea and Lost Legends of New Jersey

Carbon Dreams is more than a novel, it’s also a profound education in earth science. To read it is to be carried deep into the mind of a young scientist, and just as deep into the mysteries of global warming phenomena past and future.” —Louis B. Jones, author of Particles and Luckand California’s Over.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

Imagining Water, # 18: Writing the Future of Water

Science fiction writers create stories that take place in the future and include inventive settings and imaginative elements such as new universes and societies, time travel and extraterrestrial beings. American writer Robert Heinlein (1907 – 1988), often considered the “dean of science fiction writers” and author of classics, Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, referred to the genre as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” Effective science fiction challenges us to examine the physical, moral and political consequences of new technologies and scientific inventions as well as aspects of governance, society and human behavior. As global warming and climate change have become an increasingly important part of our collective consciousness, a number of science fiction writers have imagined how future worlds will function without adequate sources of water, the fundamental requirement for life.

Frank Herbert: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) is the classic story of a society where water is almost non-existent.Often considered to be one of the best science fiction novels of all time, Dune is seton an inhospitable desert planet called Arrakis. The planet is populated by the Fremen, a species of human-like people who, in adapting to their arid environment, have developed behaviors that revolve around the conservation of water. Access to water is so critical to their existence that they consider the acts of spitting and shedding tears to be signs of extreme reverence to the receiver, since those who respond in this way are willingly releasing what is desperately needed to live. The Freman have even designed clothing that captures and recycles perspiration, and they regularly make what we would consider to be cruel life-and-death decision based on the needs of their whole community: they do not waste their limited supply of water on the wounded or fatally ill.

Rereading Dune recently while severe drought conditions were occurring over large areas of the Earth was an eerie experience and has reinforced my admiration for Frank Herbert who, as early as 1965, anticipated the aridification happening today.

Emmi Itäranta: Memory of Water

Interview with Emmi Itäranda, The Daily Quirk, January 2015

In her 2014 novel Memory of Water, contemporary Finnish author Emmi Itäranta has set her story of a near-waterless future society in a military state called New Quan, located in the far north of the Scandinavian Union. Residents of New Quan receive monthly water quotas, which are strictly enforced by water guards who execute those caught building illegal water pipes. Water is so valuable in Itäranta’s world that it is used as currency for food and other daily necessities.

Noria Kaitio, the book’s main character, is a young tea master. A “guardian of water and its servant,” she is responsible for maintaining a secret spring that has served the tea masters in her family for generations. Noria has found a series of discs from “the past world,” which tell the real, hidden story of what happened to the earth. They tell of “ruin and devastation, of oceans reaching towards the centres of the continents, swallowing land and fresh water. Millions fleeing their homes, wars fought over fuel resources revealed under the melting ice until the veins of the earth ran dry. People wounding their world until they lost it.”

In addition to water, a central theme running throughout the story is the moral dilemma many of the characters must face when they are given the option to betray their friends and neighbors in exchange for water rewards. The characters who make the choice to become informers of water violators must witness the dire consequences and live with their decisions for the rest of their lives.

I was very moved by the poignant passages in the novel that describe the yearnings of a people for a time when water flowed freely and snow and ice existed in their land. Noria described how:

I once did an experiment. I filled a bucket with water and emptied all the ice I found in the freezer into it, sneaked it into my room and locked the door. I pushed my hand into the icy wrap of water, closed my eyes and summoned the feel of past-world winters about which I had read so many stories. I called for white sheets of snow falling from the sky and covering the paths my feet knew, covering the house that held the memory of cold in its walls and foundations. I imagined the snowfall coating the fells, changing the craggy surfaces into landscapes as soft as sleep and as ready to drown you.

In another passage, Noria relates how tea masters have always told a story passed on from previous generations that described how water has “a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that has happened in this world from the time before humans until this moment.” Other artists in other disciplines who are working with the topic of water have considered this concept, including spoken word artist, Roni Horn, whom I’ve highlighted in a previous post. Horn imagined how the Thames River contains “not just the rats and sewage but the viruses and bacteria like hepatitis, dysentery, E. coli, biles and even a remnant of the plague.”

Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta’s powerful science fiction novel, ultimately refers to both water’s memory of everything that has already occurred and the memory of what the world was like when fresh water flowed freely and abundantly.

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi

Another speculative, contemporary version of a future society without enough water, American author Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 science-fiction thriller The Water Knife, is set in the American Southwest of the near future. States experiencing life-threatening drought are fighting over access to the limited waters of the Colorado River. Texas is uninhabitable; Nevada and Arizona are competing for water rights; California is plotting to take all of the water; water refugees are seeking sanctuary, and; Las Vegas stands as the model community where water is constantly recycled.

The Water Knife reads like an updated version of the classic western with gun-slinging bad-guys-for-hire protecting the water rights of corporations. Angel Velasquez is the Water Knife, whose job is to find and keep as much water as he can for Las Vegas through whatever means possible. Angel feels no remorse for the lives he has taken or the work that he has done. In a 2015 Kansas City Star interview, Bacigalupi describes his fascination with how people in dire circumstances make moral choices that they otherwise would not make. As in Itäranta’s Memory of Water, characters in The Water Knifemust decide how far they will go to survive.

Frank Herbert, Emmi Itäranta and Paolo Bacigalupi have written three chilling versions of societies where the once-fertile land has turned to desert, water has become a valuable commodity, corporations and governments use access to water to control populations, wars are fought over water rights, and individuals are forced to betray their friends and family in order to survive. As effective science fiction writers do, they have provided us with a realistic warning of what is at stake. We would be foolish to dismiss their predictions as simply stories that are meant to entertain us when the real world tells us otherwise. In just the first two months of 2019, journalists from the New York Times have reported how India has threatened to “cut back on water flowing through its rivers to arid Pakistan” as a weapon of retaliation for a suicide bomb attack, how “In the face of a prolonged drought, the federal government could step in and reduce water use in the Southwest” and how “around the world, vanishing glaciers will mean less water for people and crops in the future.” Just as visual artists, musicians, playwrights, poets and other creatives have used their art to call attention to the predicted impact of climate change, so do these science fiction writers appeal to our love of stories in order to help us understand what could be the future of water.

For more on Emmi Itäranta, see our previous article by Mary Woodbury.

This article is part of Imagining Water, a 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, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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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, our new plastic seas 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 towns.

#GreenTease Podcast: Can experiencing fiction and the unfamiliar help to change the way humans act and relate to the climate crisis?

Our second podcast looks at how ‘Climate Fiction’ or ‘Cli-Fi’ can help us to experience and connect with the climate crisis in new ways.

The latest episode “Can experiencing fiction and the unfamiliar help to change the way humans act and relate to the climate crisis?” comes from our Green Tease ‘Cli-Fi: The New Weird’. It’s available on Itunes, Google Podcasts (on your phone), Spotify and a bunch of other platforms. We welcome your feedback on the podcast as we’re aiming to produce recordings of more of our events, to allow a wider audience to benefit from the information and to ensure that there’s a means of participating when environmental or other considerations mean people choose not to travel.

This event was the A+E’s Collective’s eclectic and thought provoking response to the Green Tease Open Call, in collaboration with UNFIX Festival. The festival audience were taken to space and the far flung corners of their imaginations, through a multimedia exploration of the genre Cl-Fi (Climate Fiction) – as a way to rethink how we engage with the climate crisis.

Cli-Fi: The New Weird

A+E have provided an overview of what the session covered, and what can heard in the podcast:

Titled Cli-Fi: The New Weird, our special edition of BIOSYSTEMS aimed to explore the problems, pleasures and potentials of using speculative genres to help understand our positioning as human subjects in the context of the climate crisis. We began the two-hour session in Glasgow’s CCA with an exclusive screening of our film, From Mull to Mars, developed in collaboration with local filmmaker Winnie Brook Young. Drawing on new materialist philosophies and the eerie aesthetics of novels like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, From Mull to Mars challenges what ‘presence’ means in the context of an unknown world within our world, which we are calling the Zone, after Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

After the film, Dr Rhys Williams from the University of Glasgow gave a presentation on the history of Cli-Fi (climate change fiction) and the New Weird and the challenges these genres pose to familiar understandings of ‘nature’. Glasgow-based science-fiction novelist/poet Oliver Langmead performed extracts from his recent publications and gave an overview of the environmental themes within them, including terraforming and posthumanism.

A+E member Maria Sledmere then joined Rhys and Ollie to deliver an original visualisation script, designed to help workshop participants ‘enter the Zone’. Following the meditation, participants were asked to respond with writing or drawing. Questions asked of the groups included ‘were you human or did you adopt a nonhuman form at any point in the Zone?’ and ‘What is the value of ‘slow’ forms of attention in the context of ecological crisis?’

Individual groups then fed back their discussion to the room with verbal, written and visual descriptions – touching on ecological ethics, emotional reactions, empathy and storytelling, the difference between reality and fiction, dreams and film. We are collating some of these responses and intend to create a publication, as a companion to the film.

You can find out more about A+E Collective here: www.instagram.com/a.e.collective

The post #GreenTease Podcast: Can experiencing fiction and the unfamiliar help to change the way humans act and relate to the climate crisis? appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.

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Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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Lessons on the Anthropocene from Dionysus and Mushrooms

As the International Day of Forests dawns, Persistent Acts reflects on American and human questions in the face of climate change, through two authors grappling with conventional notions of growth, prosperity, and progress. I call on The Mushroom at the End of the Worldfor cues we can take from plants, and discuss inspirations for Madeleine George’s latest play Hurricane Diane.

Earlier this year, I finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. With the tagline “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins,” this book called to me, and is a beautiful portrayal of “arts of noticing.” Through anthropological study, Tsing highlights the matsutake mushroom, and the biology, economics, and socio-politics which make this mushroom possible. Despite only growing in human-disturbed forests, matsutake is integral to a global commodity chain from Oregon, US to Kyoto, Japan, and beyond. The book zeroes in on this one type of fungus, weaving ethnographies from the places where it’s grown, eaten, and treasured as a gift. Tsing asks provocative questions for this age of the Anthropocene: “What kinds of human disturbances can we live with? Despite talk of sustainability, how much chance do we have for passing a habitable environment to our multispecies descendants?” Her arts of noticing remind me of my human perspective, however limited.

By exploring some very particular mushrooms, Tsing traces alternative ways of being, producing, and consuming in our world. All the while, she maps our current climate situation:

We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.

Tsing looks at patterns of matsutake growth (the environmental conditions for optimal mushroom growing), harvesting (who are the people picking the mushrooms, and how did they get to where they are), selling (what are the systems that sustain a matsutake economy and how do they function in relation to mainstream commodities), cooking (how do cultures cherish matsutake and bring about optimal flavors), and beyond. Throughout Mushroom, I felt called to slow down, take notice, and dig past my cultural constructs of how the world is supposed to work.

Image: Unsplash.

Climate changes everything, as Tsing highlights through mushrooms. She utilizes climate change as an opportunity, an implication to expand our individual and collective imaginations. Earlier this month, I experienced a play with a comparable mission: Hurricane Diane, presented at New York Theatre Workshop and co-produced by WP Theater. Featuring a world where Dionysus – the Greek god of fertility, nature, and theatre – returns to earth, the play employs specificity to pinpoint societal questions about climate change. I had the privilege to chat with playwright Madeleine George about her latest play, which Vulture calls a “Tragicomedy of Eco-Collapse.”

Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead in Hurricane Diane presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Our conversation began with mushrooms, our cultural revulsion to fungus, and the life-affirming qualities of the species in its role as a necrophage. The origins of Hurricane Diane rest with a different organic matter, apple trees, as described in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. For Madeleine, questions arose out of Pollan’s description of Johnny Appleseed as the American Dionysus: “What if Dionysus actually came back today? What would the god’s agenda be? What would a bacchanal in a suburban backyard look like?” In the play, Diane (Dionysus, disguised as a permaculture gardener) returns to the modern world to gather mortal followers and restore the Earth to its natural state – starting with four housewives in suburban New Jersey. The play is set in the specific New Jersey suburb where Hurricane Diane was commissioned. This town was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy, and Madeleine spent time with residents talking about what has changed for them since the superstorm almost ten years ago.

Rooted in the theatre tradition of Greek tragedy – Madeleine considers the play to be “a sequel to The Bacchae” – she also utilizes the American tradition of sitcom. Though there’s no laugh track accompanying Hurricane Diane, the play is deeply hilarious, and had me laughing from Dionysus’ opening monologue, through the introduction to each of the housewives. While sitcom has particular associations (like being reactionary), Madeleine utilizes this “stealthy American tradition” to drive mainstream thoughts and hook us, as “ideas can move from edges to the center.” I felt a certain level of comfort, because I’d laughed at and with the characters. The end of the play exemplifies a certain notion of comfort, in the context of “how we handle our thoughts and feelings about climate change.” What Hurricane Diane offers is “not a play to tell us what we should do,” but time and space to hold questions like “how are we tolerating what we’re doing wrong.”

Mia Barron in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tsing summarizes: “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival.” Hurricane Diane reminds me why I make theatre about climate change, and highlights the potential for theatrical spaces to shift consciousness. Madeleine offers an example of a climate play that tackles nuanced questions without relying on doomsday images. By the end of the play, we see an individual gripping onto her remnant notions of consolation. Her outburst reminded me of how easily our culture forgets the limits of our individualism; what Tsing calls out as the potential dangers of fantasizing “counterfactually that we each survive alone.”

As a species, and as part of a larger ecosystem, we need each other to sustain the conditions for life on earth. Through specific narratives, characters, and geographic location – like with Mushroom and Hurricane Diane – I’ve found some universal questions for our current era, about what kind of world we want (and are able) to live in. I’m taking the optimistic route, because we can’t go it alone, agreeing with Madeleine that “from wherever we’re standing, we can make a difference.”

Danielle Skraastad in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(Top Image: Becca Blackwell, Danielle Skraastad, Kate Wetherhead, and Michelle Beck in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

Black Light Talk and Tour of Bowman exhibition on April 20th

 

On April 20th at The Landing gallery in Culver City, Patricia Watts invited astronomy curator Jay Belloli and physicist Dennis Harp to give a black light talk and tour of Richard Bowman’s fluorescent paintings of scientific imagery. The selection of twenty works were primarily from the 1970s when the artist was making his Dynamorph series. It was revealed by a family member during the talk that Bowman had indeed held a black light party of several paintings with his students in Palo Alto in the 1970s. This aspect of the work seems intriguing today, however, as a serious student from the Institute of Art in Chicago, and a Bay Area abstract painter, black lighting his work was only experienced on the down low. Many critics got that Bowman was a good painter and this his use of fluorescent pigments was not simply a gimmick, but a provocation of the deeper concepts he was exploring with regard to nuclear physics. It was a great turn out and the audience had lots of questions for Jay and Dennis as they got to know his work through the lens of science rather than art for art sake. Some people felt that they did not like looking at the paintings for very long under the black light, and that it was a relief to enjoy the paintings as they are in daylight, which also changes hues as the light changes throughout the day. Bowman felt that the fluorescent pigments emitted an actual energy, which was confirmed by Harp as fact, if only on a very low frequency. Bowman’s work is about making the invisible visible, what artists today are doing to illustrate climate science in aesthetic terms. The artist was definitely ahead of his time, and offers artists today a pioneering take on exploring the sciences through painting.

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ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.

A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999

Go to EcoArtSpace

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Ben’s Strategy Blog: What exactly is the Overton Window?

It has felt a funny couple of weeks here at Creative Carbon Scotland HQ. For the first time in our eight-year existence the climate crisis has been top of the agenda in the news: everyone’s been talking about Extinction Rebellion and the idea of the UK getting to zero-carbon by 2025. Meanwhile I’ve been stuck in the office.

Instead of gluing myself to North Bridge, I’ve been working on long-term, slow stuff: developing strategic relationships, planning training for later in the year, discussing projects about adaptation to flooding. I’ve found it a bit discombobulating: is Creative Carbon Scotland on the right track or should we be advocating direct (cultural?) action?

I think I have to hold my nerve. Addressing climate change is a long game as well as a fast one. We need all of the above, not the fast stuff or the slow and steady, but both.

The Overton Window

One reason for this was mentioned by Chris Stark, the Chief Executive of the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change, in a good speech he gave back in March:

It is worth reflecting on how the public discourse has shifted to permit these moments. It feels very much that the ‘Overton Window’ has moved – and rapidly in recent months.’

Richard Dixon, Director at Friends of the Earth Scotland, mentioned the Overton Window the other week at an event I was at. I hadn’t heard the term before but my understanding (thanks Wikipedia, amongst others) is that it refers to the realities of policy making and politics. Policy options within the Overton Window are those that are considered within the bounds of legitimacy: those outwith it are options that just aren’t considered publicly acceptable. Chris Stark is suggesting that ideas and policies that would have been considered outlandish a couple of years ago are now in the realm of the possible.

So what exactly is this window everyone’s on about?

A note of caution here: Joseph P Overton, who invented the term, was a Senior Vice President of the Mackinac Center, which is a free-market think tank in the US. Such right-wing pressure groups have been very successful at applying the concept and deliberately shifting the window so that previously unthinkable policies (marketisation of the health service in the UK, privatising prisons in both the US and UK, Brexit etc) have become areas that are considered acceptable for discussion. It’s important that the climate crisis is not perceived as a left/right issue and perhaps it’s good to see a successful approach being applied to what in my view are more useful areas. But I do find myself a mite uncomfortable about adopting techniques associated with the Koch brothers.

Richard Dixon used the term to argue that Friends of the Earth Scotland welcomed the more radical Extinction Rebellion’s existence and demands, even if FoE didn’t necessarily espouse them. XR made what might have previously been considered FoE’s unreasonable views more mainstream, so when Richard is arguing for the Climate Change Bill to be more ambitious, politicians are more likely to listen.

Is it an age thing? I just had my 57th birthday!

I think I’m in the same camp – and I’m aware here that I have a history of working from within existing structures which are arguably the establishment, but trying to change things from the inside. As a Board member of the Scottish Arts Council I was certainly an insider, but succeeded I think in arguing for some different approaches. (I didn’t succeed with everyone: I was once told that I was the second most unpopular person in Scottish theatre – which was a bit of a worry since that was precisely where I was trying to earn a living.)

I’ve long been quite interested in change and, because at the Scottish Arts Council I was chairing the committee that distributed National Lottery funds, and there was a requirement that the funded activity was ‘additional’ (whatever that meant), we were always working with the future, rather than continuing the past, and that meant that we could explore new ideas, some of which became mainstream. I think something similar can be said for working on climate change and sustainability in the arts: because it’s a new topic and no-one’s particular responsibility, you aren’t dealing so much with existing stuff, you are constantly breaking new ground.

So although I find it a bit uncomfortable not to have joined the protesters, we can benefit from it while continuing to work in slower and steadier way. I’m currently planning some workshops for cultural organisations and the officers from the main distributor of Government funds to the arts in Scotland, Creative Scotland, and it’s clear (viz Chris Stark and others) that I can make the case for much more ambitious plans than would have been thinkable even a year ago. The window has moved and perhaps particularly in the last few weeks.

Some examples: while you might expect us to have Declared Emergency along with many other cultural organisations across the UK (including Jerwood Arts, the Royal Court TheatreBattersea Arts Centre, even not particularly radical Theatr Clwyd, for goodness’ sake ), perhaps more unexpectedly, Aberdeen Performing Arts and the Traverse joined in the Letters to the Earth project and the Edinburgh International Festival this summer is hosting the Royal Court in an International Climate Crisis Residency (note that’s a ‘climate crisis residency’, not even just a plain old ‘climate change’ one!). None of these projects would have happened, or been so overtly focused on climate change, even a year ago. The slow and steady stuff is working.


Main image: Diagram of The Overton Window, taken from https://voxeu.org/content/moving-overton-window-let-debate-continue

The post Ben’s Strategy Blog: What exactly is the Overton Window? appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.

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Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

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Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

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