Artists and Climate Change

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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘New snow has fallen’

By Harriet ShugarmanKristjan UrmMaggie ZieglerSara Bir

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

Letter from far away

The email is from Bangui, steamy capital of the Central African Republic. I’ve been twice to this suffering place, wrecked by French colonialism and corrupt leaders. Alain writes that patient zero is an Italian priest returning from leave in Italy and that panic grows: westerners leaving and the wealthy emptying supermarkets for their pandemic hibernation. The rest dread confinement, fearing hunger more than the virus.

Looking up, I see my garden, my comfortable shelter-in-place life and an image, blurred by tears, of Alain, activist-citizen who loves his country. Then I reply that I will share his news.

— Maggie Ziegler (Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada)

Above Bangui.

* * *

Pandemic Phone Boyfriend

In art, it’s called continuous narrative. That’s the chat window blipping on and off throughout the day. He messages me about his dog. I text him a photo of my lunch. We discuss artificial intelligence and humans becoming obsolete.

We met before the pandemic and had plans to see each other, but of course had to cancel. Now our weekly FaceTime dates go on for hours. Are we assigning too much significance to this, I wonder? Is it mostly an escape from the leaden impossibilities that drag down our days?

“I’m glad we met,” he says. I am, too.

— Sara Bir (Marietta, Ohio)

Herb windowsill.

* * *

The Other “C” Word

Once you know the truth, it’s devastating. The mental anguish of the reality at hand can feel paralyzing and overwhelming. The storm is upon us. Understanding clearly that the outcome may not be okay – for me, my community, and my family – is both angst and grief-provoking. It is incredibly frustrating to see friends, colleagues, and those “in charge” downplay the facts; particularly when science and mother nature are telling us we must act with urgency and that we are out of time. A lifetime of climate emergency warnings and lessons – momentarily overtaken by another “c” word – Coronavirus.

— Harriet Shugarman (Wyckoff, New Jersey)

Just before the fog lifts…

* * *

Clean Territory

The virus was transmitted to humans from bats. According to scientists, the pandemic could have been prevented by letting the bats have their territory.

On Easter Day, new snow has fallen. Everything looks open and clean, like new space has been created outside.

Let’s consider corona as nature’s warning. Ever since the spread of agriculture, man has been conquering new territory, at a terrible cost at times.

Snow symbolizes hope. We can still reconsider our relationship to each other, to land, and to other creatures on Earth. Let’s leave to each one the territory they need and deserve.

— Kristjan Urm (Turku, Finland)

(Top photo: Clean territory, view from the artist’s window.)

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘I never wanted to be here again’

By Caridad SvichCecil CastellucciGary GarrisonSally Moss

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

WINDOW

this is how it started the rush of feeling the quick disdain the aching bleeding thingness of being seeping through all, all this now is different, deferred, but here, and in this here we wonder what here is this, blanketed in anxiety, stirred in its own fear, stoked by unease, yet also here, still, the ever present solace of you, still here, and you on the other side light on wondering how you manage these days to get up. perhaps we will gather here like this for a long time. window to window. a look passes through us. still. here.

— Caridad Svich (New York, New York)

A look out the window to other windows.

* * *

ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS

All possible worlds have come a-courting…

Hell is visiting the dying or bereaved, tapping shoulders in medical wards and theatres of war. Despair is bedding in where abusers sleep, and in quarters missing houseroom or headspace.

Meanwhile, heaven swears blind we still have options – a chance of world-neighborliness, and a shot at jamming ecocide back in the box Pandora cracked open.

For now, I live a scaled-down life and give thanks, bonding and blending with the girl who read alone in her bedroom decades ago, trying to tell what she makes of it all.

— Sally Moss (Liverpool, United Kingdom)

Distanced.

* * *

THERE’S LIFE IN MY KITCHEN

I’ve been a lifelong plant killer. But riding this shelter in place solo as I am, I have turned to cooking and not wanting to waste anything. Somewhere deep inside me, an ancient almost witchiness arose. Looking at my kitchen scraps I see potential. So, making use of abandoned pots from plants I’d previously killed, I clear a space in the garden and start nurturing seeds and regrowth. With all this time to really care for them, and plenty of sun, life springs forth. There is growth, as much for them as for me. We are saving each other.

— Cecil Castellucci (Los Angeles, California)

(Top photo: The seedlings on my window sill.)

* * *

HERE AGAIN.

I never wanted to be here ever again. I never wanted to give terrifying power to the words negative and positive again. I never wanted to feel that fear again when you heard a friend was positive, was isolating away, was not being seen, was frightened for their future. I never wanted to see doctors or nurses at a loss again. I never wanted to see a President turn his face away from all that was fact again. I never wanted to experience so much loss. I never wanted to be here again, but… here we are.

— Gary Garrison (Provincetown, Massachusetts)

To begin.

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

———-

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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘The gaps feel smaller’

By Grace GelderKristina HakansonMadeline Snow TypadisMark Rigney

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

A CENTURY LATER, WE UNDERSTAND

Her grandchildren complained when their YiaYia nagged them to wear a sweater and socks, even in the summer. “You’ll get cold,” “be careful,” and “stay home,” she would say worriedly.

She was four when her mother and a quarter of her village in northern Greece died of the “Spanish Flu.” She was with her mother when she died, begging her to wake up.

For her, there was a direct link between catching a cold and potentially dying.

A hundred years later, when a cough or sneeze fills us all with dread and fear, we finally understand.

— Madeline Snow Typadis (Newton, Massachusetts)

YiaYia Nia’s handiwork.

* * *

DRIVE TIME

I begin a three-day road trip from Evansville to Rochester (and back) in order to retrieve my older son (and all his collegiate stuff). Along the way, I stop to visit my parents. I refuse to go inside their house. I insist that we not hug. We visit via a long walk, instead. The Hampton Inn I stay at that night, three stories high, has all of five cars in the parking lot. Overhead interstate signs read “Stop the Spread: Save Lives” and “Stop the Virus: Stay Home.”

— Mark Rigney (Evansville, Indiana)

Even highway signs have their transitional moments.

* * *

REMOTE TEACHING

Week four of the quarter and I’m teaching remotely because of the virus. But today I’m driving to school to retrieve my office chair. I could drive this in my sleep and that’s the problem – we’ve all been sleeping, all been profoundly disillusioned. Empty parking lot. Keycard, hum, greenlight, in. Mild disinfectant. Floors! Shiny blue, like the sky in the wrong place. Here’s 204, my eerie empty classroom, and my black office chair. I should go but I don’t. I linger, staring at my posters of Shakespeare and Jack London, literary terms in a row above my whiteboard: metaphor, irony, paradox.

— Kristina Hakanson (Scottsdale, Arizona)

Home office with cat.

* * *

FARAWAY FRIENDS ARE CLOSER

I call my new Indian friends on WhatsApp. We aren’t all busy like we said we would be, and we didn’t expect to still feel so close to each other. We anticipated distance after I finished my residency, but now we know where each other are; all sharing an experience – a common fear. I tell them about my walks, how I swapped peacocks for pheasants and vampire bats for buzzards, how I have to wear jumpers to go outside now. They laugh. We have different concerns, but we can all agree that it’s a good time for making art.

— Grace Gelder (Ironbridge, Shropshire, United Kingdom)

(Top photo: The gap feels smaller.)

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

———-

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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘What will the next generation say?’

By Carol DevineJack MapstoneJulia LevineMelissa Kaplan 

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

GROWTH

This morning I was working for a long-time client, an elderly widowed woman. A breezy, uneasy day. Usually embraced by a hug and a “glad to have you back,” today I stood at the edge of the driveway and yelled a quick “how are you,” but no sign of embrace, physical or emotional. A sadness rushed over me as I pulled last year’s rotted stems from the recently thawed tundra, the same rush we’ve all felt in many parts of our lives, a disconnect. Underneath, as layers of leaves were removed, budding stems. Underneath, hope.

— Jack Mapstone (Stillwater, Minnesota)

Gloomy lilac skeletons come once more.

* * *

WHAT MATTERS?

My family’s tradition, second-night Seders. No family this year but the Seder plate is prepared: lamb bone, egg, charoset, bitter herbs, karpas, lettuce. Salt water. Three matzoh. Wine. And…the Haggadah? Not the simplistic Maxwell House. Not the Manischewitz version with more God mentions than this agnostic can handle. The one my dad and I carefully edited, maintaining the essential meaning, allowing all gathered to thoughtfully, joyfully participate. Two years since he died. Three since a family Seder. What matters? I hear him questioning, challenging us. Freedom. Freedom from slavery matters, for all creatures and for our planet.

— Melissa Kaplan (Lansing, Michigan)

The family Seder plate

* * *

WE ARE WE AND THE DRC

My colleague asked if anyone had an empty home for a medical couple and their baby returning from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, so they could do two weeks quarantine. We circulated a callout. I didn’t know who was coming or where they’d stay. But on a virtual work call they appeared and told a harrowing story – shortage of personal protective equipment, causing moral distress for humanitarians wanting to respond, tensions rising, planning for palliative care versus survival for a number of coronavirus patients. They also told of gratitude for colleagues, home, and hope – local mask-making, grit, the human drive to help heal, anywhere, everywhere.

— Carol Devine (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Congo River. Courtesy: NASA, International Space Station, June 6, 2003.

* * *

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS

We greet each other at the virtual Seder table – in turn, as the video chat allows.

“How are you? Who’s in New York?”

Four generations gather with food and wine, in celebration of our freedom as Jewish people.

An imperative that we continue imagining and building a world where all are free.

Unique meaning in this current crisis, a rehearsal for the climate crisis.

We say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” nodding to the Israelities who wandered the desert for forty years after Moses led the liberation.

Now we say, “Next year in person.”

What will the next generation say?

— Julia Levine (New York, New York)

Top photo: A Cohen/Levine Virtual Seder, photo by Rich Cohen (Lanesborough, MA).

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

———-

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: Loranne Vella

By Mary Woodbury

Today, we travel to Malta with Loranne Vella to discuss her award-winning novel Rokit (Merlin Publishers, 2017).

It’s 2064, and the European continent is disintegrating: walls are up, and communication structures are down. A car crash in Croatia leaves Rika Dimech, world famous fractal photographer, dead. Her 21-year old nephew, Petrel Dimech, the war photographer, decides to travel by sea to Rika’s country of origin, Malta, now occupied by the Italian regime for the purposes of space exploration. He intends to spend two weeks in Malta to find the remnants of Rika’s past. 

Twenty-three years later, he is still there looking for clues about his own roots. Employed as a photographer at the space center for most of this time, Petrel discovers not only Rika’s past, but also his own future. In his inability to move around spatially (the island is divided into sectors, each heavily guarded), Petrel discovers a way of moving in time. His son, Benjamin, is one of the main revolutionary figures fighting for Malta’s freedom. Petrel, who prefers to look at the world through his camera lens, is caught up in a different kind of revolution – a time-loop which links his future to his past to his future. Rokit is a story about time, space, photography, roots, geometry, revolution and ultimately hope. The rocket, itself a symbol of hope, is forever present in the background.

Following is my chat with Loranne. I was honored to talk with her about this magnificent novel.

Rokit takes place in a climate-changed, dystopian future. This is a genre-bending novel that is speculative but also realistic and literary, and uses the elusive perspective of photography to explore how a rocket can propel someone to a distance from which a fuller picture is more clearly seen. I’ll get into some of the perspective talk later but for now, I wonder if you took the route of fiction to partially expose our world now, the hyperobject of climate change, and how we cannot take a still photo of it and find focus?

Yes, definitely, because stories have a way of driving the message home more than any headline news – at least that’s always been the case for me. Rokit is my way of commenting on what is happening in the world today. It’s a cautionary tale, if you will: if we persist in what we’re doing now, this might be the result in half a century’s time. One possible result, of course – there could be many others. But this is the image of the future that I wanted to present, to explore. The comments are there, between the lines, whispered or hinted at by the characters, at times spelled out. Climate change is both the backdrop of this story as well as the driving force of the plot – things would have happened very differently had there been no tsunamis and heavy rains ravaging this little island in the middle of the Mediterranean in 2064.

However, there are other ways of looking at this story, depending on which angle we take, or which detail we decide to focus upon. It’s about photography but also about space and time. It’s about geometry (circularity versus linearity) as much as it is about physics (light, shadows, darkness). It’s about a revolution in all the possible senses of the word. It’s been described as a coming-of-age novel where the teenage Benjamin discovers he has an important role to play in liberating his country. It’s about the search for one’s roots, one’s identity and purpose in life.

You might recognize the Azure Window before collapse, from the Game of Thrones’ Dothraki wedding. Photo by Felix König, CC BY 3.0.

What is the reality of the island of Malta and the rest of Europe in 50 years according to Albert?

I created this image of the future of Europe and Malta by asking a basic question: what if we’re actually moving toward a future where we lose, or even give up voluntarily, the very things we hold so dear today? Democracy, a unified continent, independence, telecommunications, freedom of movement, freedom in general. What if we actually dismantle all we’ve been building this past century to reinstate that which we spent decades striving to liberate ourselves from; what if we once again opt for borders to open territories? What if we were to find comfort, once again, in isolation? Albert Cauchi, the fictitious historian in the novel, comments in detail about this phenomenon is his work titled “Min jibni u min iħott” (“Those that are busy building, and those that are busy dismantling”). History, according to Cauchi, proves that time moves in circles, spirals even, and that man is bound to repeat past mistakes, making them even grander next time round.

And Malta, in 50 years’ time, will once again lose its independence (2064 would commemorate 100 years since the island gained its independence from the British Empire). In a time when the island is slowly succumbing to the wild sea and crumbling at the edges, the Italian regime lends a seemingly helping hand and lures the islanders into accepting its harsh terms. Malta falls once again under foreign rule (history repeating itself), and slowly starts being evacuated. 

This results in an underpopulated Malta (the other extreme of the reality today), where the islanders have to escape their country and seek refuge some place else; here is where I have created another inversion in order to make a comment about the intolerant approach some Maltese people have towards refugees and migrants who regularly arrive on our island seeking refuge. Under the Italian regime, the few thousands of Maltese who remain on the island are segregated into sectors, thereby making the size of the island even smaller. Eventually a group of these are transferred to shelters underground, where everything becomes unbearably small and dark.

I am mesmerized by the concept of illusion, or maybe more succinctly the photographs that lack shadows or that were taken shortly before someone died. Or photos that are slightly out of focus, or where a person was always trying to be in the center. Can you talk some about this and how the science fiction film La Jetée played into it?

It was important for me to introduce the world of Rokit to the reader as a fictitious one, as a world where the rules of physics do not fully apply. It is for this reason that right from the start we encounter little details that seem to belong to a world other than our own. But I was not interested in high fantasy or science fiction. Just a slight distortion of the world we know. Because this will help us to imagine another world, very similar to ours, but not quite. It’s like tilting one’s head to get a better view of what’s in front of us. I’ve always had this idea of fiction, which is why I am particularly fond of literary works that flirt with the fantastical or science fiction but are not outrightly so. It is all an illusion that distorts and yet reveals what would otherwise remain hidden. Much like the way photography works. 

Rokit makes heavy use of the principles of photography, in form as well as in content. The main character is a photographer. His son, having lived his entire life in captivity in one single village on this small island, has a limited sense of perspective. To bring about the revolution that could lead to the liberation from the tyrannical Italian regime, the son has to learn about the history of photography – about light, detail, perspective, focus – from his father.

Chris Marker’s La Jetée has been a major influence in my work, not only when I was writing Rokit, but also with my previous novel MagnaTM Mater, mainly because of my fascination with the idea that the future can hold a solution to the crises of the present. And only by traveling in time can we hope to find the answer to our problems. 

In MagnaTM Mater, the 15-year old Elizabeth writes a short story about a woman, V (who is no other than her own mother Veronica), who travels to the future to bring back home an answer to all our problems that are a direct result of climate change. In Rokit this idea is taken up again – also because both Elizabeth and Veronica reappear in Rokit – this time round not to tackle the problem of climate change but to bring about the revolution that will set the islanders free from their oppressors. Some characters do travel in time in Rokit. However, the novel is not about traveling in time. Rather, it’s an exploration of what would happen if that kind of temporal jump were a possibility, as well as an enquiry into whether time is linear, circular, spiral or other.

I find all this fascinating. You introduce many central metaphors and other concepts in this novel: the maze, the minotaur, the cathedral. Care to elaborate on any of these ideas?

Petrel perceives the world around him in conceptual terms. Geometry: he tends to see everything, both objects and ideas, in terms of lines, circles or spirals. Greek mythology: when he ends up in an underground shelter he cannot but make the connection with the minotaur’s maze; he compares himself to Perseus, holding the head of the Medusa to represent the role of the war photographer as he captures images of atrocity to present to those who are not aware that it exists; he compares Veronica to Calypso (she seduces Petrel to keep him from leaving the island) and to the shape-shifting Proteus; and he sees Italy’s coming to Malta’s aid as a Trojan horse to conquer the island. Petrel’s associations are always grandiose. The underground shelter reminds him too of the bizarre masterpieces of the great visionaries such as Piranesi, Gaudì or Escher.

On the other hand, Benjamin is also being exposed to grand concepts in order to help him make sense of the limited reality he is trapped in. His “teacher,” Mirelle, uses quotations from philosophical and literary works to help the young generation born in captivity imagine a world much greater and more significant than the one they know. She compares the coming revolution to a cathedral. The foundation of the cathedral lies in the past, in the revolutions that have taken place decades and centuries before; the building itself represents the present, the daily actions that each one of them take in order to bring about the eventual downfall of the oppressor; the bell, then, will chime victory in the future. The image of the chiming bell haunts Benjamin because his greatest fear is that, no matter how much he fights for the island’s liberation, he will no longer be there to hear the bell chime. The only way he can be present to hear it is by making a leap in time.

What are your overall thoughts on the way the destruction of the natural world is handled in fiction, and do you have any favorite authors that made you think more about it?

It seems to me that stories – written these past 30 years, at least – which are set in the future, tend to tackle, directly or indirectly, the consequences of climate change. One of my favorite authors, David Mitchell, sets the last section of The Bone Clocks in 2043, where natural disasters have resulted in a depletion of resources. This last chapter is perhaps one of the most touching endings I have ever read. Yoko Tawada, in The Last Children of Tokyo, presents a devastated Japan one hundred years from now. We are confronted with an unlivable Tokyo where water, air and soil are so heavily polluted as to be poisonous. What we take so much for granted in our everyday life – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we cultivate – is that which usually becomes scarce in dystopian literature.

Thanks so much, Loranne. I can’t wait to share your thoughts and the novel Rokit with readers!

* * * 

Loranne also shared an article from the Times of Malta, which describes what effects global warming has already had, and will continue to have, on the small island in the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Italy’s southern tip. The article says that in the next thirty years, the island could become an “arid, thirsty, overheated rock.”

Moreover, “the predicted sea level rise could transform the landscape and affect buildings that are close to the sea in low-lying areas”, an impact which “would be further compounded by strong winds and storm surges battering the coast.”

Similarly, Loranne said that in Rokit, there are crazy weather conditions and the Sirocco wind.

(Top image: Loranne Vella at the broken Azure Window in Malta, which collapsed due to storms in March 2017. Photo by Jonathan Page.)

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: Rick Hodges

By Mary Woodbury

For this post, we travel back to the continent of Africa, this time with author Rick Hodges; we talk about his visits to Kenya and his new novel To Follow Elephants (Stormbird Press, March 2019). 

ABOUT THE NOVEL

To Follow Elephants is an enchanting coming-of-age story that switches back and forth among its main characters to build a breathtaking journey involving a young elephant, a teenager from the United States traveling to Kenya to look for his imprisoned father, and a young Kenyan woman studying wild elephants. Hodges’ remarkable debut novel left me longing to visit the dry season of East Africa, where wild elephants, among other wildlife, freely migrate and are a part of the scenery and life of many people. Hodges’ chapters flip through the perspectives of a few individuals, but my favorite is the elephants growing older and learning about First Grandmother.

On his 18th birthday, young American Owen Dorner travels to Africa to meet his father for the first time. Plunged into the corrupt underworld of Colonel Mubego, a conniving prison warden and former revolutionary fighter, Owen seeks friendship amongst unlikely allies and finds meaning in the world of elephants.

Biologist Wanjeri Mubego, the colonel’s niece, who is happier among the wildlife in her native Kenya than with people, helps Owen discover the truth about his father, Karl. A U.S. Army captain, Karl Dorner has lived in a dusty African prison cell since Owen was a small boy. Could Karl, accused of helping a local rebellion, be a hero, and not a traitor?

Karl isn’t telling.

But when Karl escapes from prison, Wanjeri helps Owen find the truth about his father – and unveils her own family’s secrets – as a young elephant learns the ways of the world from his herd’s matriarch. In a moving portrayal of elephant civilization, parallel tales of intrigue and survival unfold, masterfully enriching our understanding of what it means to be human.

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

I was happy to talk with Rick about the birth of this novel and his travel in Kenya. What I learned was haunting in some ways but uplifting in others.

Can you explain to readers your time in East Africa and what you experienced there that inspired your novel?

Many years ago, my wife and I traveled to Kenya and Tanzania. She had traveled a bit, but I had never been overseas, so I figured I would make the most of it and go somewhere exotic and exciting the first time. The immersion in a very different place affected me, and when I returned, the story in my novel, peppered with the details I had observed, took shape. To Follow Elephants roughly tracks our itinerary in Africa and contains some specific scenes from our trip.

Many of the themes in the book also come directly from my experience on this journey, such as the wonder of seeing wildlife up close, observing animals co-existing with people in a way I rarely see in the United States, the mixture of wonder and anxiety of suddenly dropping into such a different place from my secure world at home and the sense of being among, rather than above, wild animals and their world.

I noticed in To Follow Elephants that your characters come of age – in the sense that they learn to let go of fears (some of them extreme) and notice the bigger world around them, including the natural world. Can you talk about this?

Owen’s struggle with anxiety has its roots in my own culture shock caused by picking such a different place to go in the world for my first foreign trip, and my own general anxiety issues.

One good technique for dealing with anxiety, whether justified by the events at hand or an overreaction, is to distance yourself from the here and now and switch to the big picture. You can look out into the distance and see the mountains or the sky and stabilize your viewpoint, much like you might do on a rocking boat to steady a queasy stomach. The larger landscape of the natural world feels more eternal, fixed, steady. It was there when you were born and it will be there after you die. The elephants feel that deep connection to the land, too, because they believe they sprouted from the soil, and they even consume soil and touch and feel the bones of their dead as the bones become soil again. It’s something bigger than they are that gives them comfort and confidence, like a parent, or God, or First Grandmother.

This is how I began to imagine the story that became the book – I looked outside at the landscape and conjured something larger than the immediate reality around me. I drew energy, if you will, from the natural world and rolled it up into a story with more excitement and meaning.

The people in my story seek the same kind of grounding, whether they realize it or not. On the bus ride, Owen seeks to calm his rising anxiety by looking out toward the horizon and seeing all the people and animals and trees and mountains and sky. They’re all calm, not bothered by his immediate reality, and he borrows from that.

Wanjeri has her own issues rooted in being unsure of her place in her family and the world. Her struggle is with other people, and she retreats to the world of elephants. She does the same kind of musing when she is on the safari about how she is lucky to live in such an amazing, important natural place that infuses her life with value beyond her daily existence and frayed family relationships.

The elephants sense that Wanjeri watches them to learn from them, since they are, naturally, superior beings to humans and have more knowledge. And they are on to something. Wanjeri would probably be happier as an elephant, and she wishes she had life all figured out like they seem to. When she finally completes the process of doing what’s right and making a choice of where she stands, Wanjeri has the option of going out and living with elephants in the wild forever (and perhaps she does).

Owen’s anxiety is driven by separation from his father, much like people create anxiety as they build cities around themselves and separate from the natural world. There is scientific research supporting the idea that people need exposure to nature for mental, and even physical, health. It is like a nutrient, and we are not getting enough of it.

As part of relieving his anxiety, Owen goes on a quest to reunite with his father just as the elephants go to the soil. For the elephants, the soil is literally a nutrient, but also the substance they believe they sprung from, so it is a spiritual nutrient as well.

One of the many elephants Rick and his wife, Elenor, viewed.

Your book beautifully portrays elephants and gives them dignity. Yet, many are endangered. Have you seen this first-hand? What has your research shown?

Yes, they are, and it’s sad and frustrating. We went to Africa in part to see things that might disappear soon.

I wanted to convey a deep sense of caring and respect for elephants in my book. I believe that too much negativity can depress people or turn them off, making them shut down instead. I didn’t focus on the threats to elephants; rather, I showed how they are fascinating, dignified, intelligent, sensitive, caring, loyal and strong – characteristics we admire in people. We can identify with them and their struggles, especially when we hear them “talking” to each other like people, as they do in To Follow Elephants. By revealing the internal thoughts and beliefs of elephants to the reader and depicting them as similar to ours, right down to their creation myths, I wanted to foster a feeling of kinship with them.

My wife, Elenor, has a background in environmental science and education and runs an environmental non-profit group, and I’ve learned from her about the principle of starting with the positive. Instead of a hard sell – “The animals are dying!” – it works better to first say “Isn’t this animal fascinating and beautiful?” That approach is more likely to bring a deep caring. I saw that sort of outlook in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and modeled my book on that.

Once someone has a lasting affinity for something, a threat to the thing they love makes them angry and feel empowered to help. I want my readers to feel dismayed by endangerment of elephants, but to turn that anger into action instead of despair.

Rick’s wife Elenor, next to the pile of burnt tusks in Nairobi National Park mentioned in the book.

I agree that turning despair into positive action is a great outcome. I learned that you are a beekeeper and have an affinity for the natural world. What kinds of things do you do outside of writing?

Actually, I used to keep bees as a teenager. I was stung many times, which is part of the job, until one day one of my bees stung me and I ended up in the hospital in anaphylactic shock. I had developed a bee sting allergy. That was the end of my beekeeping career.

But they stayed with me. Honeybees are amazing. They have a complex social structure that involves specialization – different bees do different jobs – sophisticated forms of communication and construction, and communal living. They’re just insects, but they create their world around themselves. A beehive is like a city. Learning about bees knocks homo sapiens down a peg. Maybe we’re not as special as we think. Wanjeri muses about that when she talks to Owen at the tusk memorial. She tells Owen her thoughts about how evolution isn’t a straight line and humanity may share the top of the tree of life with other species…including elephants.

As for other things l do, well, I write all day for my job, which means I know how to sit and write, but sometimes I’ve had enough for the day and can’t sustain it at night when I write fiction. I try to do interesting things as best I can while living a fairly standard life with a wife and two kids. I’ve performed in an improv comedy troupe. I’ve home-brewed beer. I wrote a stage play and, when it was performed, I experienced the magical moment where I forgot that I had created the characters on stage. I came up with an idea for a federal law to allow people with disabilities to save money like others can, and with lots of help, got it passed into law. Did I mention beer?

I try to incorporate the outdoors into everyday life when I can. I commute to work by bicycle when the weather is nice. I build all kinds of whimsical decks and furniture in my backyard, which I’ve landscaped entirely with native plants.

Being outdoors is always either a thrill or a source of peace, depending on what I need at the time. It connects me with space and time far beyond my own life. I am privileged to have the ability to sense that by going inward as well as outward without having to travel all the way to places like Africa. I find fascination in even the smallest of natural things as close as my own backyard.

What are your thoughts in writing fiction that combines the human story with the animal story? While there are particular genres for this, such as eco-fiction, what if every story did this?

There are pitfalls to avoid when writing this way. If the animals sound hokey or juvenile in adult fiction, it could turn readers off. My elephants speak in a sort of noble, formal language that distinguishes them. It’s a little like the version of English that many Africans speak – more formal and British than American English. My elephants also never speak to humans. After all, they don’t in reality either. The dialogue is among elephants only, and elephants and people are both left to only wonder about what the others are thinking.

I loved Watership Down and read it several times as a kid. That’s the book that gave me the confidence to speak in the voice of animals. Ultimately, though, animals are characters like any other, and require the same process of writing as human characters. Any story could do it, and wouldn’t it be great if they did? Stories about animals don’t just introduce new characters, they bring up entirely new worlds – their home, their way of life, their social structure, their challenges. Writing about animals brings great freedom for an author, much like science fiction or fantasy does.

Of course, my book has human and animal characters with different worlds that intersect and influence each other. I blurred the artificial barrier between people and nature, and not just by comparing elephants in parallel. Wanjeri’s longing for freedom among elephants, her rare ability to learn knowledge from them the way the elephants believe isn’t possible for people, father and then son’s connection with the bull elephant through the prison window, Wanjeri and Owen following the herd as if they were part of it – those are times when a sort of portal between the two worlds opens and reminds us that we were once as much animals as any other.

In any event, I think my approach of incorporating animals as characters helped to achieve one of my goals – writing an eco-fiction novel for people who don’t yet know they like eco-fiction.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

The ideas never stop coming, but my best is going to be my next novel. I’m working on a story about a fictional town in coastal Virginia where white and black people lived in harmony and intermarried, their extreme isolation allowing them to avoid the poison of racism that prevailed elsewhere and to live off the land and sea, almost as a part of it, for a century. That all changes, though, when a young minister comes to the town and introduces some new and unsettling ideas about how they live, and spurs a personal tragedy that sends the town on a path of decline and destruction. I am drawing heavily from my knowledge of the natural world (and Virginia’s racial history), which I developed growing up on the Virginia coast. I was inspired by a real ghost town on the coast that now consists of nothing more than a few gravestones a few feet from the sand dunes.

Please keep in touch and let me know when your new novel is out. I have a personal affinity for the South and also write and think about my time there a lot. Thank you so much for sharing your story here, Rick.

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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Care for the space between us’

By Alex WakimDavid VasquezTessa GordziejkoZosia Dowmunt 

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

PILLOW, BLANKET AND MATTRESS

I love quarantine. I am doing yoga, cooking new recipes, talking to friends more often, jerking off at the slightest contact with myself, washing dishes non-stop, learning about the 40,000 virus-carrying droplets in a sneeze. What is there not to love about quarantine? I will tell you: crying myself to sleep while picturing my loved ones dying alone, my boyfriend’s high-risk-related impaired heart valve, he, living on the other side of the city, me, seeing that side of the city from my window. Oh, and me pretending he is my pillow, my blanket, and my mattress.

 David Vasquez (Medellín, Colombia)

The other side of the city, where my boyfriend lives.

* * *

ESSENTIAL SHOPPER

Today’s a red letter day. A trip to Lidl! There’s a kind of courtly dance being performed spontaneously in the aisles, people politely keeping two meters apart. The middle aisle has a special poignancy. Oh the illicit pleasure, the lingering gaze over non-essential items! Sofa throws, car washing gloves, planters, marble runs, thermal leggings, gardening trugs, hand blenders. What is in my trolley? A nuclear bunker’s worth of courgettes, wine, and smoked salmon. A Himalayan salt lamp, a set of storage baskets, and two pairs of fluffy socks. It felt good. These are all things we need in lockdown, yes?

 Tessa Gordziejko (Hebden Bridge, United Kingdom)

(Top photo: A supermarket can make you giddy.)

* * *

A CAT

There is no greater enjoyer of a home, no more fanatic champion of laziness, no more eager and voracious glutton (though often uninvited), than a cat.

There were times when we mocked the cat’s capacity for sloth and gluttony, when we glorified the resilience of the human spirit, the ability to move, work, love, feel, and exist towards self-actualization. These are key skills of a domesticated dog, yet to go out every day is more or less frowned upon now, as is peeing on fire hydrants.

So, teach us, cat, your mysterious ways.

 Alex Wakim (Wichita, Kansas)

The King.

* * *

MINIMAL DISTANCE

I was walking on the grass, bored of the same path through the manicured wildness. I cut the corner and it surprised her—not a predictable trajectory. We went left and right, trying to anticipate the other. We bounced side to side for a brief while and I smiled, acknowledging the awkwardness, expressing gratitude for her care for the space between us. The tension broke, we found a way through and past and I wondered, as I walked on, what little or large stresses had made her face so hard until it broke into the warm smile that answered mine.

 Zosia Dowmunt (Cardiff, Wales)

Roath Park, April 6, 2020.

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Medical tent in hospital parking lot’

By Jessica LitwakPatricia BasileRob Weinert-KendtSue A. Miller

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

CRAVINGS IN CLOSENESS

Among myriad what ifs and gratitudes – realizing how much worse I and my family could have it, as we drive each other mildly bonkers in a small apartment – I find it fascinating to imagine what a quarantine would have been like in my 1970s childhood, sans internet, Zoom, even a VCR. Would our family have been closer? Crazier? Would I have developed my craving for city life and live performance, which led me where I am? My life, my very brain, may be rearranged by this crisis. But it’s my kids I look to, not un-anxiously, for the real change – and the future.

— Rob Weinert-Kendt (Queens, New York)

(Top photo: Back to school.)

* * *

ANOTHER MORNING

Another morning, another hundreds sick, another hundreds dead.
Another day I am alive, healthy, privileged to stay home.
The sun is shining, but the streets are empty.
Today, I run.
I run to release the anxiety I feel listening to the news.
I run to grapple with my powerlessness in the face of a pandemic.
I run to cope with the pain and suffering felt throughout the world.
I run to randomly smile at the few strangers I cross at a distance in my path.
I run because there is nowhere else I can run to at this moment.

— Patricia Basile (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

Another run.

* * *

ISOLATION EXPLORATIONS

Crawling out from the rubble,
Trying to celebrate the struggle,
Life is in a muddle,
Always living in a bubble.

Working alone is not new to me; however, when everything else around you seems dormant when it is supposed to be vibrant with life, and when the future is uncertain, it is a challenge to stay creatively motivated. Instead of my usual process, I’ve been pushing through this block by using different materials and making marks that are pure expressions of the moment, then playing with words that pop into my head to accompany each piece.

— Sue A. Miller (Creemore, Ontario, Canada)

Peering Out.

* * *

THE TENT

Medical tent in hospital parking lot. Sprayed with sanitizer, given a mask, led to a tent. Doctor in hazmat suit, plastic face guard, riot gear: “We think you have COVID-19 but we don’t have tests.” I say: “My celebrity friend bought one: $3,000.” Nods. A secret back door, X-ray room covered in plastic. After, I stand outside tent, it’s windy in my paper gown. Doctor: “Hospital at home.” Hospital, a new verb. Stoplight next to Paramedic. Honk, gesture, “roll window down!” “What do you need lady?” “THANK YOU!” I shout. His face reconfigures into a grin.

— Jessica Litwak (Petaluma, California)

Selfie in the waiting room tent.

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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An Irish Novelist Who Wanted Nothing to Do with Climate Change

By Peterson Toscano

Irish author Shirley McMillan wanted nothing to do with climate change. A busy mom with a young child, she did not deny the reality or seriousness of climate change, but it all felt too much. She was also uninspired by the many suggestions for how women can do all the hard work to lower the family’s carbon footprint.

Then something changed. Shirley began to see climate change as something more than just an environmental issue. She realized it is also a human rights issue. Still, creating good art that addresses climate change is often challenging. Climate-themed art pushes artists to expand their skills. Many sincere efforts fail. Being concerned about an issue does not immediately mean you can produce art about it.

Hear a lively conversation with Shirley as she explains why it took her a while to warm up to climate action. Learning about her reasons may help you better understand why your own friends and loved ones switch off when you start talking about climate change. Discover how, over time, you can influence your friends to embrace climate action.

Coming up next month, the Climate Stew Players present an original radio play, Survivor Generations 2145.  

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.

(Top image: Peterson Toscano and Shirley McMillan.)

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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Marooned midway, on a tiny island’

By Adam SébireAnsel OommenKristy GordonSunny Sun

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

BETWEEN SEEING AND BEING

April 8, Sydney: We watch the world suffer as we wait for local suffering to unfold. Waiting is a void approached with fear and residual gratitude for the living. As we reduce our worlds to domestic and familial, the forced stillness of waiting feels unbearable. My art practice seeks to communicate the liminal space between ‘seeing’ and ‘being.’ I record in layers of marks the fleeting glimpses of the expansive, brutal, exquisitely beautiful Australian landscape and my sensory responses. Now, the marks also record a visceral sense of waiting for devastation. The repetition of mark-making forces order, slowness, calm.

 Kristy Gordon (Sydney, Australia)

Acrylic paint, metallic pigment, and ink on Hahnemuhle, 29 x 21cm.

* * *

NOTHINGNESS

Sofa, family room, home. Closest spot to the windows. Wifi works best. Legs on the footrest, I crawl into a soft blanket. Morning light pours gently onto the marble floor.
WeChat… family texting about how it’s still not safe to go out. Exit. Weibo… scrolling down real-time trending keywords: “Beijing will be in epidemic control for a longer time.” What does “epidemic control” even mean?
Soon, the thought that I have done absolutely nothing startles me. The sunlight shifts closer, and in my long contemplation of the nothingness, I fall into a daydream.

 Sunny Sun (Dalian, China)

Some light.

* * *

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Oftentimes, clinical laboratory technologists are out of sight and, as a result, out of mind in the public realm, even though we are just as impacted by this pandemic as our other colleagues in healthcare. The paradox of being a technologist is that our patients are physically present, but not entirely, and they are psychologically present, but not entirely. Despite this ambiguity, when dealing with hundreds of samples per day and viewing the results before everyone else, we feel the brewing storm looming over the horizon just the same.

 Ansel Oommen, MLS (ASCP) (New York, New York)

Two technologists processing SARS-CoV-2 samples during the night shift.

* * *

SLOWING DOWN

Borders snap shut ahead of me in Greenland and behind me in Svalbard. I find myself marooned midway, on a tiny island in the North Sea. Kindly locals let me stay in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and ask me to self-isolate. I’m guessing the light’s former custodians would laugh at the imposition. Through the (now-automated) lantern’s fresnel lens the world is turned upside down. But there’s no sense of anything amiss, other than a sky curiously free of the usual trans-Atlantic contrails. I redraft my neglected PhD. Maybe Slow Travel is just what the doctor ordered?

 Adam Sébire (Utsira Lighthouse, Norway)

(Top photo: Traveling at speed may shrink the planet, but we begin to learn its true cost.)

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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

Powered by WPeMatico