Artists and Climate Change

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Wild Authors: Brian Adams

By Mary Woodbury

In this spotlight on climate change authors I talk with Brian Adams, who has become a prolific fiction writer covering various environmental themes for teens and young adults. I first talked with Brian in November 2014 after the publication of his novel Love in the Time of Climate Change. 

Meet Casey, a community college professor with OCD (Obsessive Climate Disorder). While navigating the zaniness of teaching, he leads a rag-tag bunch of climate activists, lusts after one of his students, and smokes a little too much pot. Quirky, socially awkward and adolescent-acting, our climate change-obsessed hero muddles his way through saving the world while desperately searching for true love. Teaching isn’t easy with an incredibly hot woman in class, students either texting or comatose, condoms strewn everywhere, attack geese on field trips, and a dean who shows up at exactly the wrong moments. What’s a guy to do? Kidnap the neighbor’s inflatable Halloween ghost?  Channel Santa Claus’s rage at the melting polar ice caps? Shoplift at Walmart? How about all of the above!

Who would have thought climate change could be so funny!  Actually, it really isn’t, but Love in the Time of Climate Change, a romantic comedy about global warming, is guaranteed to keep you laughing. Laughing and thinking.

After our previous chat – a portion of which follows – Love in the Time of Climate Change won the 2014 Gold Medal INDIEFAB Book of the Year in the Humor category.

You are a professor of Environmental Science at Greenfield Community College in western Massachusetts, you are active in the climate change movement, and now you have written a romantic comedy about something similar involving a climate change activist teacher. How did your real life experiences inspire your novel? Any funny anecdotes to share?

As a professor I have struggled for years with how to present the issue of climate change to students without them resorting to substance abuse, slipping into profound depression, sending me poisoned chocolates, or, worse case scenario, doing absolutely nothing. The teacher in my novel undergoes the same sorts of struggles, many of which are based on my real life teaching experiences. The process of guiding students to the abyss and then gently pulling them back, giving them hope, and motivating them to get off their asses and do something, is incredibly challenging. If anyone has figured out how to do this please contact me!

Funny anecdotes…being the awkward fool that I am, I have so many I could share! One of the scenes in the novel takes place during a field trip to a solar home, and the love interest (Samantha) is attacked by geese and falls into a farm pond. Her teacher (Casey, our hero) lends her dry clothes, which makes for an awkward moment when the dean shows up. This is based on an incident I had when teaching and I had my students in the Green River doing aquatic insect sampling. One of my students fell in, I loaned her dry clothes, which led to, wait for it, awkward moments. I have a great deal of awkward embarrassing teaching experiences that I embellished (or not!) and used in my novel.

Can you tell us more about your background in climate change action and environmental science teaching?

I have been an activist all of my life around energy-related issues, and a teacher most of my professional life. This is my 20th year at the community college where I teach. I’ve found activism to be an effective and productive way to deal with climate change angst. There is great joy to be found in the struggle, and to be surrounded by active young folk who want to change the world is incredibly inspirational. On campus, I am active with our Green Campus Committee as we work to reduce our carbon footprint. Off campus, I am increasing my activism with Climate Action Now, a local western Massachusetts node of 350.org.

Love in the Time of Climate Change is about a serious subject – climate change – yet you use humor to address it. I think comedy is a great way to tackle dire subjects because laughing is good for the soul and helps us put this overwhelming crisis into an identifiable and human perspective, which might be more motivating than the scary facts. Yet it takes a special skill to treat subjects like this with humor – without making light of the facts – and you seem to have succeeded. How did you accomplish this?

I’ve attempted something that I think is rather unique in that I’ve tackled potential world catastrophe in a fictionalized form through humor, drugs, social awkwardness and sex while being uncompromising about the science of climate change. I have found that many people avoid climate change nonfiction given how depressing and absolutely paralyzing it can be. I mean, seriously, how many people read climate change nonfiction? It can be an incredible downer! Extreme weather, food insecurity, drought, famine, melting glaciers, drowning polar bears, out of control wildfires, rising sea levels… My thought is that humor, silliness and love present an ideal opening not just to climate activists but to a larger audience as well. I love awkward romance and relationship angst, so it was a lot of fun to write.

Quite a few novels are being written today about climate change. How do you think fiction can address this subject in ways that other literature cannot?

Fiction can clearly go where non-fiction can’t, and draw readers deeply into stories and drama and relationships where they get hooked while getting educated. My novel is very didactic and quite preachy, and I make no apologies about it. But if it wasn’t for the awkward romance and silly adolescent antics, I’m not sure people would stick it out. I love stories where you’re laughing while saving the world!

Are there any inspirational authors you grew up with who inspired you to tackle environmental issues through fiction? And, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Gabriel García Márquez?

I love Edward Abbey (all of his writing) but particularly his The Monkey Wrench Gang. That was a great revelation to me. Activism can be fun! And that’s the take away here: How do we bring humor into the most serious of topics without trivializing the gravity of the situation? How do we make climate change an issue people want to take on and have a good time doing it? How do we foster the sentiment of the great anarchist activist Emma Goldman who supposedly said “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”  How can we dance while saving the world?

And yes – Gabriel Garcia Marquez rocks!

Back to your book, the teacher in your novel suffers from OCD, or Obsessive Climate Disorder. Can you describe this?

There is a scene in the novel where the hero is in the midst of “fooling around” with a very attractive woman who is clearly interested in him, and he is simply unable to free his tortured self from the energy no-nos in her apartment: inefficient light bulbs that are all turned on; the open windows and the cranked heat; recyclables in the trash can, etc. I can’t tell you what happens (read the book!) but, when climate change rears its ugly head in the midst of foreplay, that is clearly and unmistakably obsessive climate disorder!

Well, I just got your book in the mail, and can’t wait for this scene! Your book audience is probably all ages to an extent, but your main characters consist of a youngish teacher and his young, college-aged adult students. Young adult fiction is growing by leaps and bounds, even in climate novels. Why is this audience so important?

Youth will save the world! My goal was to promote activism among younger folks and get them psyched and motivated to get out there and make change. For anything good to happen, the younger generation must be active! I’m working on a novel now that features a 15 year-old protagonist battling mountain top removal in West Virginia, sort of a coming-of-age to activism novel.

Bill McKibben, of 350.org, said that you are “funnier than most of us environmental types” and that it was a pleasure to meet you. How did that feel to be acknowledged by such a well-known activist and author?

I was SO flattered to be blurbed by him! I believe, however, that he meant it was a pleasure to meet the main character in my novel, not me. If I met Bill McKibben, I’d probably do something really awkward and make a complete fool of myself! Bill is a hero to so many of us in the climate change movement, but his dig at those “environmental types” is quite revealing. While there is absolutely nothing funny about climate change, we do need activists to take joy in the struggle and have fun in their activism. My goal was to bring humor and hope into a genre that is noted for dystopian despair.


Since then, Brian has come out with KABOOM!, and his third novel, Offline, came out April 22, 2019. Brian recently told me about his second novel:

KABOOM!, my second novel, is the story of Cyndie and Ashley, two spirited and spunky teenage girls living in the heart of coal country, West Virginia, who discover that their beloved mountain is to be blown sky high by the coal company. It’s a young adult romantic comedy that focuses on first love and finding your voice through environmental activism. While KABOOM! (Kids Against Blowing Off Our Mountaintops) is fictional, mountaintop removal is definitely not. It’s a horrendously destructive and extreme method of coal extraction and it’s heartening to know that there are many true-to-life committed activists in Appalachia intent on fighting it. The times we live in are tough, so rather than dwell in dystopian nightmares, I try to use humor and romance as tools to promote environmental issues and move my story along. KABOOM! won gold medals at the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Literary Classics Book Awards.

It’s great to see youth activists taking on fossil fuels, one of the leading contributors to global warming. Brian’s stories are an example of how humor can be used to shed light on serious issues, without demeaning those issues, and how youth can be empowered to take on Big Things.

He also was excited to discuss Offline, coming soon:

Offline is a young adult romantic comedy about two spirited and spunky teenage girls. The novel’s focus this time is on cell phone and online addiction. Meagan, the heroine, is banished by her parents to her gay grandfather’s farm to deal with her “netaholism,” and a lot of the novel’s humor is Meagan and her bestie’s bumbling forays into the offline natural world. The inability for so many people to disconnect from their laptops and phones and get outside is driving me crazy, so I wrote a novel about it. It’s timely, it’s funny, and I hope it gets people (not just kids!) thinking about going offline.

Brian and I also talked about what’s been going on in the five years since Love in the Time of Climate Change.

Feedback from my first novel, Love in theTime of Climate Change, has been very positive. Published in 2014, the novel chronicles one semester in the life of my community college professor hero (mot me!) as he muddles his way through saving the world while desperately searching for true love. I tried to tackle potential world catastrophe in a fictionalized form through humor, social awkwardness and sex while driving home the essential science of climate change. Once again, silliness and a love story can hopefully entice readers into picking up my novel who might otherwise shy away from reading anything to do with such a paralyzing, mind-numbing issue.

In my non-literary life, my wife and I have inherited quite a bit of money, which we are using to install photovoltaics on non-profits whose mission we agree with. It’s an exciting project that allows us to put our money where our mouth is and help tackle climate change on the local level while allowing wonderful organizations to use more of their resources to do good work in the world. Climate action now!

I appreciate Brian doing the good work he does and taking the time to chat with me again about his novels. He tells me he is also working on another…stay tuned!

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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On Late Style Ecotheatre

By Karen Malpede

“There’s a wilding inside that connects with a wilding up there,” Uncle, the elderly environmentalist, says in my 2014 play Extreme Whether. That is what it feels like when creation takes hold of one. Necessity flaps madly in the gut like a free-flying bird that will dash itself to death or find release. This is why poetry is wild nature produced by human nature, a song between a living cosmos and an ever-emergent self. This is why preservation of life in all its sentient forms is the work of the dramatic poet and why the poet must be fiercely engaged in the exploration, creation and manifestation of justice on this earth and for earth’s creatures.

I had written ecofeminist theatre all through the 1980s and mid-90s. In Better People, 1987, a rare beast wanders into a geneticist’s lab, and rather than be cloned, she swallows him; he emerges an animal-rights ecologist. But, I was sidetracked by the Iraq war and the US torture program so it wasn’t until 2012 that I turned my attention to the warming climate. As I did the research necessary to begin to understand, I came, of course, upon the resistance to scientific truth from the fossil fuel industry, a Republican Congress and successive administrations. Extreme Whether is about this conflict within a family (à la Ibsen). One twin is a renowned NASA climate scientist being censored by the government, the other, a publicist for the fossil fuel industry, married to a Republican lobbyist. I came to view climate scientists as visionaries and altruists, ill-suited to the public battle forced upon them but fighting for truth in the face of falsehood. The relationship between a deformed frog, Sniffley, who exists in the minds of the characters and the audience, and an Asperger child, who is also a fierce environmentalist (prefiguring Greta Thunberg), and Uncle provides the play’s subplot.

The Beekeeper, Sybil, (Evangeline Johns) from the 2016 revival of The Beekeeper’s Daughter. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

Extreme Whether is the last of my mid-life ecotheatre works. Now, I have found my way into cli-fi futurism and at the same time, the dictates Edward Said outlines in his last book On Late Style seem particularly apt. I am calling my new play Other Than We, a Late Style work. Writing now, at the “end of the world,” (at very least at the end of the stable climate we’ve known since writing began), and closer to the end of my life than I’ve ever been, I think about Edward Said’s concept of Late Style in both ways, personal wisdom on the edge of singular mortality, and the madness of unthinking ecocide.

Said writes: “Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.” Lateness, according to Said, includes the facility to rip through one’s own style, arriving at dissonance and resonance, surprise, entangled themes and variations, a strange sort of buoyancy, ending in irresolution, and mystery.

Said died in 2004, the year of the invasion of Iraq. (His daughter, Najla Said, would play three roles in my play Prophecy, about the costs of the war.) If Said had lived, he, too, could not help but become increasingly obsessed with the climate crises. In her Said memorial lecture in London in 2016, Naomi Klein focused on the environmental themes already present in his work. I have never before set a play in the future and doubt that I could have done so were my own future not becoming short. While I had thought about and researched the play for several years, I wrote most of Other Than We in the months following Trump’s election. In part, a debate about the origins of consciousness, “from a glob of flesh thought, think of that,” in main, a thriller about the creation of a post-Homo sapiens species, Other Than We is preternatural, outside the known order of things. Its final transformative moment represents, simultaneously, the death of Homo sapiens and dawn of a new species’ consciousness.

The Beast in Better People dances with the geneticist, Edward Chreode (George Bartenieff). Puppet designed and animated by Basil Twist. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

In the middle of the night, working from 3:00 am to 6:00 am, literally shocked out of sleep by an image or thought, I wrote. This futurist cli-fi play takes place after “the deluge,” when the survivors live in a surveilled and increasingly unsustainable Dome. The two women scientist-lovers, joined by a physician refugee from Africa and an elderly linguist, knowingly sacrifice themselves in order to birth a new and finer species that will run on four legs or two, tolerate temperature extremes, be able to go for long periods without water, be androgynous, and, most of all, be capable of language and rational thought BUT no longer have a head separate from a heart. Every thought henceforth will be felt through.

These characters exhaust their own bodies in a daring escape, creating, birthing, nursing, nurturing the new beings, without knowing if their experiment will be a success. It’s a metaphor, of course, a fable, for what we do anyhow when we give birth, if we dare, in this harsh new world. There’s an unforeseen transformation at the end. No answer, but a glimmer. The play inhabits the liminal space between knowing and not knowing. Late Style supposes clashing feelings, tonalities, and resolutions that devolve into rising crescendos again. The climate crisis moment we inhabit imposes, like Late Style, the impulse to rework, rip up or revivify old structures, transform social systems, to dare in face of the imminent end of species and habitats.

To rewild our intellects.

Other Than We will have its world premiere at LaMama, NYC, Nov. 21-Dec. 1, 2019 and be published by Laertes Books.

(Top image: Uncle (George Bartenieff) and Annie (Emma Rose Kraus) construct a frog pond for Sniffley and others, Extreme Whether, 2018, LaMama production. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.)

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Karen Malpede’s earlier ecotheatre works include A Monster Has Stolen the Sun (1984), Better People(1989), the adaptation of Christa Wolf’s ecofeminist novella Kassandra (1992), The Beekeeper’s Daughter (1995) and the short Hermes in the Anthropocene: A Dogologue (2015). Blue Valiant, scheduled for production in 2021, continues her fascination with animal-human communication. She is author of 19 plays produced in the U.S. and Europe and of the anthologies: A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays and Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether;  her plays and essays on the environment have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Dark Matter, Transformations and elsewhere. She is co-founder of Theater Three Collaborative and Adjunct Associate Professor of theater and environmental justice at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, CUNY. National McKnight Playwrights Fellow, NYFA Fellow.

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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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Sean Dague Invites Us to Envision a Fossil Fuel-Free World

By Peterson Toscano

In this episode of the Art House, we use the power of our imagination to experience the future we desire. Right now, we need to reduce localized pollution and global heat-trapping greenhouse gases. How do we build the political will so that the public clamors for legislation and policy that will change how we get and use energy? We need to communicate to the public what success looks like.

But envisioning success in our climate work requires imagination.

To help us with this task, Sean Dague, the group leader for the Mid-Hudson South chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, leads us through a powerful exercise. He asks us, What does a decarbonized world look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?

Once you hear Sean’s vision of a successful future, we invite you to continue the exercise. Try some creative writing. Write a short story or a letter from the future about what you see, smell, and hear. Maybe create visual art, a drawing or painting. If you can’t draw or paint, get images from magazines or online then create a collage. Write a song, create a map, choreograph a dance. Use art to capture a vision of a decarbonized economy.

Even if you don’t see yourself as an artsy person, just try it.

Towards
the end of his life, writer Kurt Vonnegut would say, “Everyone should
practice art because art enlarges the soul.”

Please feel free to share your art with me at radio @ citizensclimate.org and let me know if I can share it with listeners, on the podcast, Facebook, and Twitter.

Coming up next month, poet Catherine Pierce crafted the extraordinarily moving poem, Anthropocene Pastoral. It was published in the American Poetry Review. She reveals the creative process from the original inspiration, through the many choices and changes she made, to publication. Then she reads her poem for us.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Podbean, Northern Spirit Radio, Google Play, PlayerFM, 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.

(Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash.)

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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Adapting to a New Normal in Jeune Terre

By Gab Reisman

In bed at night, my partner scrolls through Instagram and sends me memes and headlines, even though I’m lying right next to her. A few weeks ago it was an article from the Onion: “Average American Must Have Life Ruined By Natural Disaster Every 6 Minutes To Fear Climate Change.” I guffawed and sent it to my brother in New Orleans.

For the last three years I’ve been working on Jeune Terre, a play about climate change and disaster in south Louisiana. Due in part to rising sea levels meeting the ten thousand miles of oil and gas canals that crisscross its marshy coast, Louisiana is currently losing a football field of land every hundred minutes to the ocean. In an attempt to slow this land loss and protect coastal communities, the state has a Master Plan of multiple projects, everything from building new levees to elevating houses to diverting sediment from the Mississippi River. Every five years it updates the plan based on what currently seems feasible and fundable.

Louisiana coastline canals. Photo: Giovanna McClenachan.

The play tracks residents of a small bayou town as they learn they’re no longer getting the levee they were promised in the previous Master Plan. The state, essentially, will give them up to the water. The story also follows a theatre troupe that comes to town to make a musical about local pirate legend Jean Lafitte, weaving pop-inspired songs about the pirate’s murky history into the uncertainty of the present. Act II of Jeune Terre is set ten years in the future when the imagined town is underwater and its inhabitants have moved up the road. In 2030, town residents, state scientists, and theatremakers alike have blithely adapted, and we hear about the last decade’s hardships only in passing. Characters’ discussions of a marriage or job promotion are intercut with mentions of Miami being flooded or the fallout of the Pence administration.

While the play’s town of Jeune Terre is a mash-up of bayou communities, it is most directly influenced by Jean Lafitte, Louisiana. Jean Lafitte sits twenty-two miles south of New Orleans. In the past fifteen years, it’s been battered by over half a dozen hurricanes. Though many coastal towns are shells of their former selves – weekend fishing camps up on poles but not much sense of community – Lafitte keeps rebuilding, maintaining a school, a community center, and a grocery store. When the state’s 2017 Master Plan removed a levee previously set to surround the town, Lafittians raised hell, packing community input meetings and demanding state legislators have the plan restored. With the maneuvering of longtime mayor Tim Kerner, they’ve secured a smaller tidal levee around the town and an open-ended promise to raise it higher when the time comes. If Jean Lafitte eventually goes the way of the fictional town of Jeune Terre, it will not be without a fight.

In wrestling with what my play is saying around climate change, I’ve been wrestling with the ways theatremakers and audiences alike might similarly shift our narrative of adaptation—from a continued acceptance of a new “normal” to a collective model of accountability and civic action.

Climate activist Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote an essay for Vox earlier this year where she talked about the way this sort of collective involvement must take priority over individual environmental action. While, sure, Heglar says, recycling is important, being focused only on our personal eco-sins becomes a bait-and-switch for holding corporate damage-doers, such as the oil and gas industry, accountable. Framing the fight against climate change as only a fight of individual consumer choice will lead to a sense of isolation, then helplessness and apathy.

50-year Flood Risk Scenario by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

This is not to say the inhabitants of Jeune Terre or Jean Laffite are fighting primarily for climate justice. They are fighting to stay living where they live, even as those places become less and less viable. When it comes to holding oil and gas accountable, many Louisianans’ relationship with the industry is deeply complicated, both in the play and in real life. While oil and gas provides jobs for thousands of coastal residents, the industry’s canals cripple the marshes that protect many of those same residents’ homes from hurricanes and increased flooding.

My meme-sending partner, Giovanna McClenachan, is also an ecologist who studies the role these canals play in Louisiana’s shrinking coast. A 2018 paper she co-authored points out that almost a third of the entire canal network leads to oil wells no longer in use. If oil and gas allowed the state to knock down, or backfill, the banks of these abandoned canals they would no longer act as conduits for storm surge, slowing coastal land loss considerably. Calls to hold oil and gas accountable have been quashed for years by sympathetic state and local governments. The industry has historically resisted canal backfilling because they’re worried that any environmental restoration they allow on their land could be seen as an admission of guilt.

In Jeune Terre, a scientist employed by the state begins knocking canal banks in on her own. Her officemate who works closely with oil and gas is terrified of the potential blowback. But before we can see what comes of her work, a hurricane blasts through the play and we jump forward into the future.

Playwright Erik Ehn has a theory about writing further and further into the middle of a play – of ramping the action up higher and higher and then leaping to the moment right after the end or resolution. In this leap, Ehn says, is a space where the audience can be lifted out of their seats and into potential collective action. Similarly, my plays will often race towards a climax only to jump to a sudden moment of stillness, a “sandwich-sharing” beat where characters split a drink or a story or a song or a sandwich as they wait, inevitably, for the future. In the final moments of Jeune Terre, the theatre company, now on tour with a musical about the town’s past and present, resets their show-within-a-show to the beginning and we see the musical’s opening number, “Watch it Come Back.” Composer Avi Amon wrote the score to resemble ocean waves – a wash of concerns for the future from both long-gone pirates and current town residents at once. The song exists simultaneously both inside the musical and in the minds of contemporary Jeune Terrens, a coda of shared concern amidst the forward march of climate change adaptation.

Residents of Mandeville, LA after Hurricane Barry. Photo: AFP

Working on Jeune Terre, I keep coming back to the idea that, as theatremakers, our greatest weapon in the fight against climate change may ultimately be this sliver of audience-lifting space. In this space comes an expanded capacity for empathy and, perhaps, the ability to be more collectively accountable. As humans it is our forte to blithely adapt to current circumstance – to one new normal, then the next and the next. But we needn’t have had our lives just ruined by disaster to be able to empathize and organize with those who might be next. That we will be affected by climate change is inevitable. How we share our sandwiches is our narrative to shift.

(Top image: Jeune Terre workshop production at Barnard College in 2018. Photo: Stephen Yang/Barnard College.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 29, 2019.

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Gab Reisman is a New York / New Orleans-based playwright and immersive performance maker with a history of making theatre in non-traditional spaces. Gab’s playwriting explores the relationship between cultural geography and individual identify – the ways place writes itself on our bodies. Interested in the liminal and irreverently political, her plays often queer time and space, sometimes using history as a prism to expose our current zeitgeists.

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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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Cutting Water

Susan Knight is a painter and installation artist based in Omaha, Nebraska, who has focused since 2002 on the aesthetic and scientific qualities of water. What sets her apart from other visual artists with the same interests, though, is the presentation of her subject matter. Using an X-Acto blade as her implement of choice, Knight hand-cuts her interpretations of water out of Tyvek, paper, plastic and Mylar, concentrating on the negative spaces that the cutting process creates.

The resulting pieces contain intricate patterns, many of which reflect water’s archetypical movements, such as the “vortex action” and the “fat triangle and egg shape,” that take place under the surface of all rivers and in ocean currents. Knight admitted to me in our recent conversation that she will never understand the molecular science behind these movements but that they do guide the shapes she makes.

Origins of Cutting Water

Knight did not always use the X-Acto blade to hand-cut works of art, nor did she always consider water to be her chosen subject matter. In fact, prior to 2002, she was a realistic figurative painter who had been dependent on photographic references to guide her work. That year, however, she was
determined to participate in an exhibition on rivers that had been organized to honor a friend who had recently died.

Initially unsure how to proceed, Knight was eventually inspired by a show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, which had been comprised entirely of hand-cut paper imagery. She decided to hand-cut a representation of the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan as her contribution to the river exhibition. She had grown up alongside the Grand River and knew its contours. Although Knight had originally thought of this project as a one-time effort, she soon realized that the process of hand-cutting and the subject of water were artistically liberating to her and offered endless imaginative possibilities.

Water Action, detail, hand-cut paper. Based on the Papillion Creek and its tributaries. Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney, Nebraska, 2008.

Wanting to learn more about the science of water and what was beneath the surface, Knight began studying the bodies of water near where she has lived. She gathered information on the breakdown of the ecosystem in the Great Lakes as well as the quality of groundwater in Nebraska and then
translated the research data into visual patterns that reflected these environmental conditions, most of which had been impacted by climate change. Her earliest work focused on the visual patterns found in Zebra mussels and Spiny Tail Water Fleas, two species that have invaded the Great Lakes through the ballast water that was illegally discharged from ocean-going vessels traveling through the St. Lawrence River. As the water of the Great Lakes has warmed, the Zebra mussel (and other alien species) has found a habitat suited to breeding. The proliferation of the species has contributed to the decimation of the local fishing industry, and the spread of its shell fragments has transformed the sand on local beaches.

Since 2002, Knight has also examined the riparian habitats (the wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams) of the Yampa River in Colorado, mixed-use issues in the Hudson River in New York and preservation efforts in the Amazon. For all of her projects, Knight used the book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air  by Theodore Schwenk, as her go-to reference guide on “the laws apparent in the subtle patterns in water movement.”

Materials and Method

Knight’s earliest pieces were cut entirely out of paper. Over time, she began to experiment with Mylar, a polyester film, for its translucent, ethereal qualities. In a 2014 interview in Sci Art in America, Knight admitted that “I like engaging in an ancient technique common in many countries with a contemporary product that reflects my contemporary approach.”

Eventually, when she wanted to apply color to her cuttings, Knight incorporated Tyvek, a material made from high-density polyethylene
fibers that is stronger than paper and is commonly used as a protective sheet underneath the finished exterior of buildings. She discovered that the material absorbs acrylic ink beautifully and being water-resistant, remains flat when exposed to the paint.

As part of her working process, Knight draws on the surface of her designated material before she cuts but edits as the piece progresses.

Lucky Links, Tyvek, Mylar, acrylic glow-in-the-dark paint, 5’ x 13’. Installed at Eureka Springs School of Art, Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Project Gallery, Omaha, Nebraska, 2019.

Lucky Links

Knight’s most recent installations are entitled, Lucky Links and Water Bank, Boogie.

Knight’s intention with the 2019 installation Lucky Links was to “link” the opposing and divisive forces in our society today with the opposing forces existing in nature that have led to positive outcomes. The example of positive natural forces she uses in the installation is the formation of crystal, which occurs when the dissimilar elements of water and rock are combined over time. As she states on her website,

Over millenniums (sic) opposing forces and cycles in nature cooperated to support continual growth and creation. Is this unique phenomenon of cooperation in nature a link to our own culture’s successful survival?

Lucky Links visually represents my reflections on our polarized American culture, and the natural world. Suspended, hand-cut, Tyvek crystal patterns represent early interactions between water and rock that produced crystal. Camouflage components are hand-cut with faces and painted with the colors of human skin and portray our culture.

Water Bank, Boogie, II, hand-cut paper, Tyvek and acrylic ink, 39’ L x 20’. Kaneko Gallery, Omaha, Nebraska, 2016.

Water Bank, Boogie

Knight is currently working on a sixth iteration of her installation, Water Bank, Boogie. Previous versions have been installed in The Nordstrom Gallery, Wayne State College, Wayne Nebraska; The Kaneko, Omaha, Nebraska; the Garrison Art Center, Garrison, New York; Mid-America
Arts Alliance, Kansas City, Missouri; and Artprize, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The installations are based on Knight’s 2012 experience in the field with Nebraskan hydro geologists who were testing the ground water in soil samples to determine the health of the water. The red, yellow, gray and
green in the installations are the same colors used by the geologists to color
code the samples according to the categorization of clay, gravel, sand and
silt. The highly porous nature of the hand-cuts components alludes to the wide buffer zones, soil remediation and water bank erosion and remediation.

When I asked Knight to describe the reaction of the scientists to her large-scale installations based on their work, she responded that they were struck by how people outside of their discipline cared about what they were doing. She added that they were also delighted to see a super-sized, artist’s interpretation of the science.

Knight’s hand-cut works and installations are remarkable for their aesthetic beauty, for their inventive presentation of an age-old artistic discipline using contemporary materials and for their allusions to the scientific nature of water in our current, precarious world.  As she readily admits, Knight feels as if “she has no choice” in focusing all of her work on water, that “it is directing her,” rather than the other way around.

(Top image: Water Pods, hand-cut paper components, Tyvek and acrylic ink. Gallery 72, Omaha, Nebraska, 2016. All photos courtesy of the artist.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing 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.

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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: Edward Stanton

by Mary Woodbury

In this feature, I cover the novel Wide as the Wind, by author Edward Stanton, who landed on the idea for his award-winning book during a trip to Easter Island, situated 2,300 miles west off the Chilean coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. He conducted much of his research for Wide as the Wind on Easter Island itself. He is the author of eleven books, some translated into Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. He has published fiction, poetry, essays and translations in journals throughout the U.S., Latin America and Europe, where he has lectured at universities and cultural centers. Stanton has been a Fulbright fellow in Argentina and Uruguay and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education and the government of Spain. He was named the A.R. Sánchez Distinguished Lecturer at Texas A&M International University in 2003 and Distinguished Alumnus at UCLA in 2007.

Rapa Nui

Imagine the earliest days of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) – an isolated Chilean island surrounded by the infinite blue waters of the southeastern Pacific and the gentle nods of tall palms waving in the wind. The first settlers, who arrived on the shores from AD 690±130, were Polynesian, and a look at their and other settlers’ history reveals a microcosm of planet Earth’s destruction – at least according to the suggestions in Jared Diamond’s article “Easter’s End” in Discover Magazine, 1995. By 1500, craftspeople had built up to 900 or so moais – monolithic statues – which represented family status and power but also symbolized sacred spirit. According to Diamond, early resource grabs went into the production of these statues. History.com states:

Averaging 13 feet (4 meters) high, with a weight of 13 tons, these enormous stone busts – known as moai – were carved out of tuff (the light, porous rock formed by consolidated volcanic ash) and placed atop ceremonial stone platforms called ahus.

The island, originally full of tall palms, also suffered deforestation. As William and Mary University reports:

When Polynesian explorers first arrived between 800 and 1200 AD, the island landscape was lush with palm forests. The prevailing theory holds that settlers’ slash-and-burn farming practices led to extreme deforestation, explained [paleoclimatologist Nick] Balascio, an assistant professor of geology at William & Mary.

Diamond’s theory suggests that such deforestation caused serious erosion of the volcanic-rich soil around the island. Famine, in-fighting, cannibalism, and lack of fresh water and food resulted. Eventually, the island’s great palm forests vanished, and the population dwindled. In 1772, on Easter Day, Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen navigated to the island – his contact was followed by Spanish sailors in November of that year, and later the French. By the mid-19th century, Peruvian contact stole nearly all the remaining population and made them slaves, resulting in just a little over one hundred islanders left. Smallpox had also been introduced.

In 2011, Scientific American rebutted some of Diamond’s previous studies with newer studies showing that a second set of hypotheses dealt with a possible massive impact of past climate changes, like prolonged droughts, on an already unstable island environment and society:

In the end, the most intriguing questions remain still unanswered: Did the former inhabitants destroy completely the island’s dense subtropical forest, causing their own demise? Was Rapa Nui since the beginnings of human colonization a poor environment, covered only with local spots of forest and was it a drought, maybe in combination with human impact, that finally triggered the extinction of the already rare plant species? Did the natives realize the impending change – did they even care?

Environmental Stress and the Cult of the Birdman

From Zegrahm.com:

Worship of the mythological half-man, half-bird figure appeared on Rapa Nui sometime during the 1500s, emblemized by its giant stone guardians, replacing the ancestral worship typical throughout Polynesia. Believers toppled many of the ancient statues and destroyed smaller ones. While there are more than 1,800 petroglyphs and stone houses in the ceremonial village of Orongo, where the Birdman cult was centered, Hoa Hakananai’a was the only moai to survive – and only after the winged symbolism was added.

So what caused this seismic shift in sacred beliefs? The general consensus is that the avian adulation grew from environmental stresses. Located nearly 3,000 miles off Chile’s coast, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on the planet. When Polynesians first arrived there, it was as verdant as the Hawaiian archipelago; but after hundreds of years of deforestation, the island was barren by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722. With their gods and earthly rulers seemingly failing them, inhabitants abruptly abandoned moai carving and turned to their warrior class or matatoa for guidance.

The birdman cult was taken over by Christian missionaries later in the 19th century. Prior to then, it is suggested by History.com that the cult of the birdman had been a way of recognizing the destruction of the environment with the birth of a new ideology that would better balance power versus resources. The sooty tern (and its eggs) remained a food source.

Wide as the Wind

Edward Stanton’s Wide as the Wind is inspired by the history of such islands as Rapa Nui. Library Journal states:

This historical novel centers on a little-known chapter of Polynesian history – no island is specified, but the narrative conjures up Easter Island and others. Many of these islands were impoverished because of deforestation, so their best and brightest were sent on ocean voyages to obtain seed stock for trees in distant places. (In 1947, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl tried to replicate such a journey with modern boat-building technologies and found building the boat difficult. The voyage itself was harrowing.) Protagonist Miru is a valiant hero, sailing into the sunset and bringing back trees and plants that are essential to the viability of his close-knit community.

And National Geographic reports:

Wide as the Wind portrays Polynesian voyages across the Pacific Ocean in canoes with no metal parts or instruments: the greatest adventure in human prehistory, as bold as modern space voyages.

The novel was awarded the 2018 Feathered Quill Award for Teen Fiction and was the winner in 2017 of the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Young Adult Fiction as well as the Moonbeam Award for Young Adult Fiction.

I was thrilled to chat with Edward Stanton. Our conversation follows:

Can you tell us how you were inspired to write the book?

When I read Jared Diamond’s famous article about the collapse of Easter Island’s habitat, titled “Easter’s End,” in Discover magazine (August 1995), I wondered if anyone had ever written a novel about this momentous event that is a cautionary tale for our times.  I could not find such a book in any language.  Years later, after reading everything available and traveling to Easter Island, I realized that ecological disaster could be a powerful subject for a novel.  With a great sense of responsibility, I began writing.

What’s it like on the island?

Rapa Nui has an austere beauty of its own.  Imagine a place that somehow combines the Black Hills of South Dakota, the prairies of the Midwest, extinct volcanoes on an island whose coasts are dotted with monolithic moais or ancestral statues, all of it surrounded by the bluest ocean you can imagine. It’s unlike any other place in the world. Although it’s Polynesian in its location and in the culture of its people, the climate is subtropical; it can be cold and rainy, and there are no tiki bars.

Can you tell us about the novel – what takes place, the main characters, the young adult/teen heroes?

Wide as the Wind is above all a story of love and adventure, but it also deals with deforestation and the collapse of a natural habitat on a prehistoric Polynesian island.  It could be compared to the Disney film Moana, but there the environmental destruction is attributed to a cartoon monster; people, not monsters, were the real cause.

When his island is ravaged by war, hunger and destruction, Miru, the fifteen-year-old son of a tribal warrior, must sail to a distant island in order to find the seeds and shoots of trees that could reforest their homeland. If he decides to undertake the voyage, he must leave behind Kenetéa, a young woman from an enemy tribe with whom he has fallen deeply in love. And if Miru and his crew survive the storms, sharks and marauding ships that await them on a journey over uncharted ocean, an even greater mission would lie ahead.  They must show their people that devotion to the earth and sea can be as strong as war and hatred.

Miru and most of the other main characters of the novel are teenagers, but the novel has also appealed to older readers and been chosen by adult reading clubs.

Wide as the Wind has a beautiful book trailer which will help your readers have a sense of the novel.

The trailer looks like a movie trailer, and is so gorgeous. It’s a movie I would go and see. The trailer is also how I first found your book.

You’ve traveled quite a bit throughout your life, and you also wrote about your long walk on the Camino de Santiago, from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Doing such a walk is my personal dream, so I’d love to hear more about your travels, including that journey.

After following the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago, one realizes that all of our travels are pilgrimages of one sort or another, that we are merely passing through our lives the way a walker moves toward Compostela, Rome, Mecca or the Ganges. I’m very happy to learn that doing such a walk is a personal dream for you. I hope that you will make all efforts to realize it, because it can only change your life for the better. I’ve never met a pilgrim for whom the walk was not a memorable and transforming experience. As people tell pilgrims on the road to Santiago, “Buen Camino!”

Well, someday I hope to write to you about my own journey!

What sort of changes have you seen around the world that could be attributed to climate change and other ecological collapse? And, getting back to Wide as the Wind, how have such islands as the fictional one in your novel actually been affected in real life?  What are you seeing as you travel there?  How have rising seas and the intensity of storms threatened people, landscapes, cultures?

After being deforested some 600 years ago, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is still mostly bare of trees.  In other words, what a people does to its habitat at a given time can have enduring consequences. In Wide as the Wind, I give the island another name – Vaitéa, which means “white water” – in order to expand the book’s imaginative reach to all of Polynesia. In addition to Rapa Nui, numerous other Pacific Islands have been deforested, depleted, fished out and seen their habitats decline: the Cooks, Wallis and Futuna, parts of French Polynesia and Hawaii. Rising seas and climate change will harm many more islands in the Pacific and other oceans.

How important do you think it is, in fiction, to tackle such issues, and how do you think fiction can reach the heart (unlike data, news)?

A good question that contains part of a good answer. It is one thing to read an article, essay or nonfiction book about environmental disaster, and another to see how it shatters a person’s and a people’s lives. Good fiction may seem more real than our everyday existence, and we may come to know a novelistic character better than we know ourselves, our family or friends.

What are you working on now?

Sir Richard F. Burton, the great British explorer and writer (for whom the actor was named), used to work on a dozen or so books at a time. I’m only working on two: a travel memoir based in Mexico and Spain, and a literary thriller set in the aftermath of the “Dirty War” in Argentina.

Sounds great, Edward. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

A Cautionary Tale

Today Rapa Nui (now owned by Chile) is a World Heritage Site and has around 6,000 inhabitants. It’s a big tourist destination, bringing in 80,000 visitors a year. If this isolated paradise hadn’t first been devastated by Polynesian culture, modern crises resulting from waste and plastic would still be in store. According to the BBC, tourists produce 20 tons of rubbish per day, including 40,000 plastic bottles per month. While these can be recycled, much of the island’s garbage ends up in landfills, which attracts mosquitoes, dogs, and rats. Waste has to be fumigated to mitigate dengue, a mosquito-borne virus. With more people wishing to make the island their home, mostly in order to start new tourist shops and restaurants, over-fishing has also become an issue.

Stanton’s tale imagines early Polynesian island culture and how things might have been different today if a young adult hero, such as Miru from the novel, decided – with the help of a priestess – to reforest the island, which would have led its people down a different path. The story is well-written: a coming-of-age hero story with love as its essence. One can sense that even though this haunting tale is beautiful and immersive, we can infer from it a modern perspective on how cultural expectations can be broken in order to achieve something positive and fair. For instance, when Miru’s uncle gives him permission to sail to another island for seeds, he allows Renga Roiti (Miru’s sister) to go, when girls would not have been allowed to go on such a boat journey. After all, Renga Roiti’s totem sisters were the sooty terns that produced such sacred eggs. We also can look at the novel as a drawn-out fable, something we can learn from. But such a lesson is one we should already know, one we have not abided by. So, reminders are good, I think. We may look at the island of Vaitéa as a microcosm of our present Earth, and if we zoom out, it’s easy to wonder: what have we learned in the last few centuries? 80% of the world’s forests have been destroyed, according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment (2010). We are still destroying them, even though many modern-day Mirus exist.

Climate change also makes islands vulnerable, and Rapa Nui is not exempt. According to How Stuff Works:

The nearly 1,000 moai, erected between the 10th and 16th centuries on Rapa Nui (also named Easter Island by an 18th-century Dutch explorer), are being battered by rising sea levels, high-energy waves and increased erosion, as detailed on March 15, 2018, in The New York Times. Ancient human remains are buried beneath many of the works, which appear as giant faces gazing over land and sea.

“Some of the moai have been knocked over in the past – including by tsunamis – and they have been restored. So not every site is in pristine condition,” says Adam Markham, deputy director of climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The difference now is that the danger is even greater. The rate of change is faster than ever.” As Markham points out, all of the world’s islands have been made vulnerable to erosion with rising ocean levels. Some climate models predict that increased melting of the world’s ice sheets could cause oceans to rise by 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 1.8 meters) by the year 2100. Higher sea levels mean shores face flooding and inundation by crashing waves.

It seems that islands like Rapa Nui were doomed from the beginning, from long-ago locals destroying natural resources and now also from the world at large doing the same, and either of these scenarios fares badly for the island. In the global eco-novel, there is a chance, I think, to speak to all readers’ hearts, no matter where we live, with the pure imagination of storytelling that reminds us of things and people we love, and how we can save them. In the novel, Muri has a quest to save his island. Perhaps we should go on the quest to save our world. Thanks to author Edward Stanton for looking at a delicate area in the world and engaging in its historic culture in order to bring such an imaginative cautionary tale.

(Top image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. William Hodges, Easter Island.)

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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Eliana Dunlap Explores the High Stakes of Climate Change Through Circus Arts

by Peterson Toscano

This month’s podcast features circus artist and podcaster Eliana Dunlap. She is using circus arts to raise awareness about climate change. Eliana was not born into a circus family; instead she learned circus arts at a circus school in the province of Quebec in Canada. Her circus skill set is impressive and includes acrobatics, juggling, dance, and her specialty, the German Wheel. She has been performing circus arts in non-traditional spaces. She is also someone who is creatively responding to climate change. Through her podcast, “Changing the World and Other Circus Related Things,” she is connecting with other concerned circus artists. She is one of the founding members of the Circus Action Network.

Eliana likens the high-stakes world of circus arts to the challenges we face with climate change. She sees examples in the circus world of how we can get people from various backgrounds to work together. This summer she and a friend will do street performances of a new circus art show called High Stakes – What’s the Plan(t)? In addition to lots of juggling and acrobatics, the show features a live plant as part of the action.

In this fascinating interview, Eliana opens up about the world of circus and how she and other concerned artists are creating avenues for a deeper conversation about climate change.

Coming up next month,  Elizabeth Doud takes on the role of Siren Jones in her one-person performance, The Mermaid Tear Factory. She also explains why she sees Miami as a city of the future.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Podbean, Northern Spirit Radio, Google Play, PlayerFM, 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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An Interview with Scientist/Game Developer Dargan Frierson

This month I have for you a fascinating interview with Dargan Frierson, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, and head of the EarthGames group. Frierson and his colleagues recently published a video game for smart phones called Climate Quest. The game follows a narrative arc of collective action: people of various backgrounds come together to help mitigate the worst of the climate crisis. In our interview below, Frierson tells me what inspired the game, what he hopes players take away from the experience of playing it, and his plans for a new video game based on the Green New Deal.

You’re an Associate Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. What first drew you to this field?

From an early age I was quite interested in mathematics and computers. As I learned more about the climate crisis, I realized I wanted to apply those mathematical tools to help understand the future of our planet.  

What inspired you to make a video game based on climate change?

We need more ways of talking about the climate crisis that people can actually engage with. This is why I love Cli-Fi and think it’s so important for all kinds of artists to help get the word out. Video games are a great medium in particular for so many reasons. They’re deeply immersive for storytelling experiences. They can visualize invisible or slow processes with ease. And it’s expected in a game that the player will take on difficult challenges but eventually succeed, while learning along the way.  

Climate Quest. Credit: EarthGames/Dargan Frierson

What I love most about Climate Quest is that it focuses on collective action. Scientists, urban planners, and nature and animal lovers alike become the “heroes” of the game by working together. What do you hope players take away from this narrative?

The theme of the game jam we made Climate Quest in was “adaptation to climate change,” which is how we change infrastructure to help prevent harm to built and natural environments. It’s a topic that’s not discussed too much, but can prevent significant harm. We want players to learn about the hazards of climate change, and all the measures we need to be taking to prepare.  

Not everyone is able to adapt to a hotter climate, of course, so we need to be eliminating fossil fuels as quickly as possible, too. Some of our other games attempt to address how to transition to a 100% clean energy world.  

Tell me about the team who helped you build the game.

We made the game primarily in just 48 hours, during a Climate Game Jam sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House, and the Smithsonian. We had a University of Washington site for the jam and Zuoming Shi (a computer science grad student) and I worked on Climate Quest during the jam. Ben Peterson (Information School undergraduate) created the art in the weeks following the jam, and the whole EarthGames team helped to test and revise the game in the following months.  

One of the things I love about game design is that it requires so many different talents: art, writing, programming, sound design, and science. It’s fun to make things that none of us could have done individually.  

What has the response been like to the game so far?

The response from players has been terrific! We won first place in the country in the game jam, and Zuoming got to display the game at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. We wrote a teacher’s guide so the game can be easily used in classrooms. That original game jam was a great catalyst for our EarthGames group, which was just forming at that time. We’ve since evolved from a small informal meeting in my office to an official UW class, and have released over 15 games. Your readers might be most interested in A Caribou’s Tale and Life of Pika which combine simple gameplay with a narrative-based approach, or Cascadia and Drop, which involve text-based branching narratives .  

What’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to keep an eye out for?

We have a new game about the Green New Deal coming out very soon that we’re quite excited about! It’s an election campaign simulator. We’re also working on a strategy game about the future of the planet with Eric Holthaus, a climate journalist. Finally, we have a very talented student, Andrew McDonald, who’s working on incorporating location-based and augmented reality concepts into mobile games about climate.  

(Top image: Photo by Eric Michelman/More than Scientists)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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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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Women of the World: Sing the Algonquin Water Song

by Susan Hoffman Fishman

I recently came across a 2018 YouTube video entitled, Sing the Water Song. Its inspiring message and plea for women everywhere to become Keepers of the Water so as to express gratitude for and bring attention to our endangered waters, has prompted me to share the video/song with the readers of this blog.

History of the Algonquin Water Song

In 2002 Grandfather William Commanda, an Algonquin Elder, asked Irene Wawatie Jerome, an Anshinabe/Cree, to create a song that women attending the Circle of All Nations Gathering at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg near Maniwaki, Quebec could learn and then spread throughout the world. As the history section of the song’s website explains:

Our water is under siege from pollution, climate change, mismanagement and corporate environmental disaster. Without clean water, we cannot live. In Native American, and many other Indigenous cultures, women are the Keepers of the Water, and men are the Keepers of Fire. In recent months, many brave women who are Water Protectors have captured the attention of the world whether at Standing Rock, attempting to stop the pipelines, or Flint, Michigan, demanding clean water for their children, or ever-increasing battlegrounds of environmental disaster. The Elders have understood since the beginning of time that clean water is essential for the survival of all living beings, and they continue to fight for Mother Earth’s most precious resource. Now, they are asking women to join them for one minute a day to sing to the water. It is incumbent for all of us, especially the women, to help them raise awareness and protect the water for future generations.

At the 2004 gathering on the grounds of Grandfather William Commanda’s retreat at the Kitigan Zibi Reserve, Grandmother Louise Wawatie taught The Water Song to Grandmother Nancy Andry and other women from seventeen countries around the world. There, Grandmother Andry was tasked with spreading its message everywhere. And so, for over sixteen years, she has been teaching The Water Song wherever she has traveled.

Of Algonquin and French heritage, Grandmother Nancy is recognized as a Sundancer and Sacred Pipe Carrier, an Elder and a Grandmother. She is also a storyteller who shares Native legends in schools, health centers and at pow wows. In the past, Grandmother Nancy was a facilitator for 17 years of a Native Women’s Circle in a federal prison as well as a member of the staff of the Joined Nations of Connecticut, an organization for young people of Native heritage. Most recently she owned and operated an equestrian business in Connecticut and is now using Horse Medicine at lectures on Native culture.

The Video

Sing the Water Song video

In 2017, as she saw the increase in fracking, the draining of aquifers and more and more destruction of the waters, Grandmother Nancy approached the Elders with the idea of producing a video that could be distributed through social media and reach a much broader audience. With the Elder’s approval as well as permission to use the song from the Wawatie and Commanda families, Grandmother facilitated the creation of the 2018 Sing the Water Song video.

As Grandmother Nancy explained, the women and girls portrayed in the video come from “all four continents” and include June Sun, a Buddhist nun from Japan, a Nigerian woman, a group of Lenni Lenapi 10 year-olds and Grandmother Nancy herself, who is 83. The video also features Grandmother Clara Soaring Hawk, the Deer Clan Chief of the Ramapough-Lenape and her granddaughter as well as Grandmother Margaret Behan, an Arapahoe-Cheyenne, fourth generation of the Sand Creek Massacre.

1527783722742-1.jpeg
Grandmother Nancy Andry. Still image from Sing The Water Song video.

The Podcast

Grandmother Nancy was interviewed in 2018 by Judith Dreyer for her podcast The Holistic Nature of UsDreyer has featured a broad range of guests who are “deeply concerned about the environmental issues of our time.” During the interview, Grandmother Nancy explained the purpose of the video and pleaded for action. Here is a sample of her heartfelt and powerful words from the podcast:

So, our only intent with this video is to get that song out for the women to pray every day for the water and to see that when this happens there are actually healings. Not only for the water, but for the women themselves who sing this song every day it’s, you know it’s magical and it’s almost hard to explain it because we are living in an era where we no longer believe in magical powers and they’re out there…

You know the words to the song literally mean, water is the life’s blood of Mother Earth, water is the life’s blood of our own body. And what this song and what so many activists, I mean environmental activists, it’s a call to sacred activism really. And you know people say, oh I’m just one person I can’t do anything. That’s not true because if every one person did something, it would be so amazing. We’re seeing that particularly with the youth’s march, with this young girl from Sweden who is up for a Nobel Peace Prize.

And you know, what we need to fight is the privatization of water. I refuse to buy water in a bottle. I’m very fortunate that I have good drinking water here in my house and I understand that some people don’t and have no choice but to buy bottled water. But can you imagine, I think a bottle of water probably costs $1.25, $1.50 – I don’t know because I don’t buy it. Imagine if that bottle of water was $20 or $30 because if the supply is dwindling and it won’t be accessible, can you imagine the loss of human life?

We’ve already seen it with animal species when dolphins are washing up on the shores of France and what have you. So how can we do this? Well first of all ladies out there please sing the water song. Teach it to your daughters, to your daughter’s friends because we’re stealing from our children. Every time we destroy another piece of Mother Earth we’re stealing from our children. There are species of animals, birds, plants that our grandchildren will never see because they’ve gone. They’re simply gone. It has to stop – the madness has to stop. And we do have to turn to different alternatives, get away from fossil fuels. Wind power, solar power, there are so many options out there, but you see the 1% money-making, greedy people, they are so shortsighted. Don’t they understand that when the water is gone, their money won’t buy them the water either. I mean you wonder where their heads are sometimes and they’re stealing from their grandchildren.

Sing the Algonquin Water Song

So, women of the world, here are the instructions and phonetic lyrics for singing The Algonquin Water Song. Have a go.

Sing four times, each time facing one of the four directions in this order: East, South, West, North.

Nee bee wah bow
En die en
Aah key mis kquee
Nee bee wah bow
Hey ya hey ya hey ya hey
Hey ya hey ya hey ya ho

(Top image, left to right: Grandmothers Nancy Andry, Margaret Behan and Clara Soaring Hawk. Still image from Sing The Water Song video.)

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 appearing 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.

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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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Democratized Ecosystems

With the advent of modernity, the balance of nature has been disrupted by the lightning speed at which human-engineered technologies have ignited.

In my telescopic paintings and mixed media artwork, I investigate societal constructs and existential narratives of equality, hierarchy in nature, and human interaction within the physical world. I examine the juncture between industry that sustains humans and the condition of the Earth that nurtures all forms. Through the looking glass of my fascination with alternative universes and mystical states of mind, I create ethereal worlds fertilized with dichotomies. Whether tension or coexistence reigns in each of my pieces, all are ripened for renewal. Cultivating conversation about biodiversity, environmental sustainability, planetary stewardship and purposeful progress are territory that I navigate. It is a precipice where I imagine sitting down with Albert Einstein, Martin Buber and Plato. Legs dangle on the edge ready to leap into a science and philosophy mind-meld.

2 He:Sustaining. (2017 National Award, Best in Show.) Oil, acrylic, charcoal on canvas. 84″H x 84″W.

From this viewpoint, I experiment with varied viscosities of acrylic and oil paint, grittiness of sand paper and luminosity of stand oil representing water, air and land. By design or accident, systems of saturated greens, reds, oranges and violets change with intensity and texture. Layers of dripping and oozing abstraction become melting moss and floating fauna.

With the collision of content and materials, I aim to stimulate the experience of movement in my hybridized ecospheres. Constellations of natural imagery and human-made technologies that I pattern, weave in and out of existence like a game of celestial hide and seek. Clouds are the dominant playgrounds in which my deer, bulls, cement plants and water towers orbit. Their anomalies in scale symbolize every Alice who shrinks and expands in an unpredictable wonderland, as she/we navigate environmental dualities of harmony and tension, and political and social control and chaos.

Bonding with nature took root in my youth. The seemingly ordinary became extraordinary and the mundane transformed into mystery. Hidden ecosystems emerged as I became increasingly aware of the beauty of flourishing plant life, rugged rocks and minerals, and cool rippling streams and lakes of upstate New York and western New Hampshire. A bevy of rabbits, turtles, fish, dogs, salamanders and lightning bugs became adopted family and a supplementary classroom teacher as they ceaselessly entertained and enlightened me.

18 Ar:Sustaining. Oil, acrylic, charcoal, graphite on paper. 18″H x 24″W.

At 11 years old, I ritually climbed a 60-70-foot scrub pine in the woods behind our upstate New York home. Covered in the tree’s sticky honey-colored sap, inhaling the tantalizing scent of evergreen, swaying in the wind in the top bough, I created an imaginary world in which I could dance with the white billowing clouds in the baby blue sky. In one meditative moment, I realized that everything in nature was interconnected and all that existed was of equal importance. There was, and is, no hierarchy in our universe.

What did a small 11-year-old do with such a big concept? I dreamed. I dreamed of what could be if other people felt this universal connection to one another and all of nature. Two years later, on April 22, 1970, the birth of the twentieth century environmental movement known as Earth Day emerged in the midst of a tumultuous political and social climate that had cracked open the dangers to democracy and individual rights of United States citizens. Voices of college students decrying an ill-conceived Vietnam War and the sickness of racial and gender discrimination rang across our nation from coast to coast. Advocating for a sustainable planet, people from all walks of life and political persuasions banded together to create a united force. The public health epidemic caused by unregulated pollutants that permeated our nation’s air and water was exposed. The first major victory was the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 1970. Environmental protection thus became intertwined in our national consciousness.

19 K:Sustaining. Oil, acrylic, charcoal on canvas. 84″H x 84″W.

That momentous movement connected me with a like-minded community. It seeded the activism that had been cultivated in my generation and had germinated in me. As an adult, my environmental voice, along with other political and social issues, were heard and seen predominantly through my art. Nature imagery inspired by my travels to Israel, Europe and in the United States illuminated the beauty and promulgation of ecological diversity worldwide. Other avenues for expression included volunteering in democratic political campaigns and the written word. For example, when living in Scarsdale, NY in the early 1990’s, I wrote about the health dangers to pets and people from spraying harmful pesticides on lawns and trees. Pursuit of perfection and display of economic status in the form of a weed free front and back yard was not a risk that I was willing to accept.

In 2016, I was invited to a month-long artist residency at Sun Peaks Center for Art and Sustainability, Colorado Springs, CO. Focused on environmental issues, this experience was transformative. My artwork grew larger in scale and the concept expanded in scope. Sourcing my Jewish/ Christian/ French/ Armenian/ USA multi-cultural background and trans disciplinary professional and academic experiences, I connected seemingly disparate ideas. Developing iconography from science, architecture, industry, language and religious text with environmental relevance, I layered symbolic narrative threads in the body of work I entitled, Democratized Ecosystems. More recently, borrowed imagery from the urban landscape of New York City and the tropical paradise of southwest Florida, and the Everglades in which I live, has entered my work. Coming full circle, with concepts grounded in my youth, I continue to plant new seeds of thought, grow awareness and cultivate conversation about contemporary clashes concerning climate change that impact the global community today and into the future.

(Top image: 20 Ca:Sustaining. Oil, graphite on canvas. 30″H x 48″W.)

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Renée Rey lives and works in New York City and Naples, Florida. Rey studied painting, art history, performance art, and interior architectural design on the undergraduate level and film and computer art on the graduate level, holding an MBA in Management and an MA in Jewish Education. Awards include Best in Show, Art Encounters National Competition 2017 by Jurors Jade Dellinger, Director, Bob Rauschenberg Gallery and Alejo Benedetti, Curatorial Assistant, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Curators selecting her work for numerous exhibitions include Dr. Julie Sasse, Chief Curator, Tucson Museum of Art and Erin Wright, Curator at LACMA.

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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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