Artists and Climate Change

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Olivia Oguadinma on Storytelling and Shane Petzer on Artful Recycling

By Peterson Toscano

For Olivia Oguadinma in Nigeria, storytelling has become central to her life. Though she is studying to be a chemical engineer, it is her passion to promote the UN Sustainability Goals among her peers that has led her into storytelling through her podcast, Gems on Earth. For the Art House, Olivia discusses the role of storytelling in motivating her peers toward meaningful action.

While in university in Nigeria, Olivia joined Enactus, the world’s largest experiential learning platform. Through the projects she helped organize with fellow Enactus members, she was able to put into practice some of her ideas about storytelling and social change. She then decided to form a learning community. Now, in this time of pandemic lockdown, she has turned to the internet, and through her Gems on Earth podcast, she reaches young people throughout Western Africa and beyond. 

Artist Shane Petzer in Barrydale, South Africa talks about turning trash into art. Through the Magpie Art Collective, he and fellow artists create breathtakingly beautiful chandeliers all made from trash. Two of these hung in the White House in Obama’s private quarters. During this time of coronavirus lockdown, members of the Magpie Art Collective have partnered with the Quakers in the Western Cape to create #QuakerPeaceDoves. Find out about how you can take part in the collective remotely and turn your trash into art.

Next month, illustrator and comic book artist Violet Kitchen talks about the role of the artist in taking on big issues like climate change. She also talks about creating art with constraints as she collaborated with Solomon Goldstein-Rose for his new book, The 100% Solution – A Plan for Solving Climate Change.

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: Magpie Flower Ball by the Magpie Art Collective.)

This article is part of The Art House series.


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 @


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 Actor, Director, and Solo Performer Rotimi Agbabiaka

By Imara-rose Glymph

Welcome to the first installment of our new series, Black Artists and Storytellers on the Climate Crisis! As a newcomer to the climate storytelling space, I am inspired by artists who highlight intersectionality in their practice. Prominent Bay Area actor Rotimi Agbabiaka is no stranger to crossing genres and pushing socio-political boundaries in neon-drenched, immersive environments that challenge the exclusivity of theatre and the status quo (see his solo show Type/Caste). His acting has taken him to a number of places, including the San Francisco Fringe Festival, historical musical venue Beach Blanket Babylon, and the American Conservatory Theatre, among others. Equipped with breathtaking poise and eloquence, Rotimi is an artistic force to be reckoned with. 

Rotimi was a principal actor in San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2013 environmental musical satire Oil & Water, which tackled the extractive practices of corporatocracy. He was also one of the head writers for the troupe’s 2018 show Seeing Red: A Time-Traveling Musicalwhich transported audiences to 1912, when socialism was on the rise and popular among the working class. When not on stage or writing plays, Rotimi teaches theatre at institutions such as Middlebury College and the San Francisco Shakespeare Company.

In the wake of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the social consciousness, and its interlinked nature with environmental justice, Rotimi and I discussed how the art of storytelling plays an integral part in motivating people to reflect on pertinent global issues, the experience of being a queer artist, and what enviro-activism really entails. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rotimi Agbabiaka in Type/Caste. Photo by Cabure Bonugli.

You were a writer and actor for the troupe’s 2018 show Seeing Red, and you’ve been a collective member of SFMT for ten years. What first drew you to revolutionary, satirical theatre?

Several things. I was born and raised in Nigeria which, in my lifetime, has undergone multiple coups, military dictatorships, and transitions to a civilian government with various levels of corruption causing a really stark gap between the wealthy and the poor. Even as a child, the impact that decisions made in the political arena had on everyday people was clear. Politics was always a subject I was aware of and interested in – such that I studied economics to understand the ways in which financial and socio-political issues affect how people live. In my final year of study, I was hired by the San Francisco Mime Troupe after a general audition to perform in the 2010 show Posibilidadan original musical about the take-back of factories by workers in Argentina. We really engaged with communities around issues of worker ownership and the exploitation carried out by corporate entities. This introduction to the great potential that theatre has to address political issues in a way that is accessible to non-typical theatre goers fostered my growth and my passion for it.

As a core member of the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience and as a prominent Bay Area theatre maker, what role do you see art and storytelling playing in motivating people to think more deeply about social and environmental change?

Art is powerful in that it presents a narrative that helps people understand and make sense of their own situation. So much of how we, as individuals, approach and think about environmental justice and politics is shaped by the prevailing narratives surrounding us – narratives that we have heard and adopted. Art can be very effective in telling a story that illuminates the struggle tangibly and, in the simplest way, highlights the protagonists and the villains to show what is at stake. It allows us, as audience members, to envision a better world through our own emotional response and a way forward out of the present predicament. Through the very act of bringing people together to share space in mutual experience, art reminds people to see the world in a new light. 

Velina Brown, a fellow SFMT member, recommended that I speak to you about your roles in the 2013 SFMT eco-musical satire Oil & Water. Walk me through your inspiration and process for embodying the characters. What research was done?

In Act 1, “Deal With The Devil,” I played the Obama-esque presidential figure and in Act 2, “Crude Intentions,” my main role was that of a villainous Chevron executive. With a stripped-down crew, I had a variety of ensemble roles as well. There were many aspects to playing these roles, especially within the context of SFMT’s stylistic roots in agitprop and Commedia Dell’Arte. I thought about the physical manifestation of the characters and how the physical life of a person conveys to the audience their role in events. For the president, there was a sense of wanting to emulate Obama’s characteristic speech patterns and establish the character as a person who wants to be a hero but is not. With the Chevron exec, I took on the vocal and physical characteristics of a heavy, threatening, evil archetype often present in mystery thrillers. We amplify these character traits for comedic effect so that these ideas linger in the minds of observers. The creative exaggeration is intentional as the humor makes a point about the perpetuation of greed driving social issues.

To color our portrayal of the fossil fuel industry and inform our creation, we researched the activities of Chevron in the Ecuadorian Amazon. One book about climate justice that I highly recommend is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She really spells out the magnitude of the problem and the kind of changes that are necessary in relation to consumption, our use of land, and the ways in which our current systems are set up to perpetuate environmental devastation. It is written not from a place of nihilism or pessimism but from the belief that we can all do something to combat climate change.

Looking at your solo works, the fast-paced, subversive Type/Caste and Manifesto, which draws on creative ancestors Fela Kuti, Grace Jones, and James Baldwin, are you inherently perceived as an activist because you identify as queer and Black?

Theatre can be an ally and a tool for activism. Anything you put on stage is “political;” it presents or advocates for a specific viewpoint on reality. In that sense, there is always a political element to theatre and to what I do. However, my idea of activism is shifting from the performativity one sees on stage, or on social media, or even in street protests. 

Effective activism also consists of coordinated, strategic actions that are much less glamorous. I have been reading Bayard Rustin’s, From Protest to Politics, which talks about the kind of targeted political work that would improve conditions for all people, not just African Americans. He understood that after the landmark Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s, further progress would be connected to larger systemic changes that addressed the upward movement of wealth. Adolph Reed is another organizer and thinker who I’ve been greatly influenced by. He has an insightful perspective on the kind of organizing required to achieve quantitative differences in peoples’ lives. I am trying to connect more to this sort of activism in my ongoing work.

Since you were raised in Lagos, do you have a sense of what the conversation on the climate crisis is in Nigeria?

To my knowledge, the official position of Nigeria as a country in development doesn’t include mitigation conversations because the primary national industry is oil. In terms of the devastation caused by oil production, that is very much at the forefront of many Nigerian communities. Many tribes along the Niger Delta region, which is where much of the oil is extracted, have seen their livelihoods destroyed and their rivers polluted while receiving virtually no compensation. Multinational oil corporations bribe local officials and reap the benefits of extraction without facing any consequences for the destruction caused to these areas, which are deemed expendable. In their pursuit of natural resources, these major drivers of climate change contribute to the unequal distribution of oil wealth, increasing mass poverty. When local activists have tried to speak out about the injustice, they have disappeared, been imprisoned, and murdered. That is the reality.

Rotimi Agbabiaka in Manifesto. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Within the environmental movement, why do you think there has been a lack of queer, BIPOC, trans, and frontline voices in the mainstream conversation around climate change? 

In the United States, many voices at the forefront of conversations about climate justice are not amplified or highlighted. That is a manifestation of the way our public discourse about politics is heavily managed by a media apparatus entwined with corporate interests. Discussions about race, policing, healthcare, and systemic inequities are restricted by the dominant media narratives. This has led to a situation where the main authority on climate change is Al Gore, who proposes solutions that are corporate-friendly and wholly inadequate. Our news is designed to sell ideas that are not threatening to the neoliberal ruling elite so it’s really important that anyone truly interested in these issues seek out sources that are not MSNBC, CNN, or the New York Times.  

Reflecting on Green Voices of Colora compilation list of BIPOC climate activists by essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, and the advocacy of marine biologist and policy expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, do you hope to see the emergence of more voices of color in the climate conversation?

It is wonderful to have people of all backgrounds and identities in the conversation. However, the most important thing is to have voices that are educated on the topic and who are not aligned with corporate interests. From my perspective, if you have BIPOC figures like Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas speaking, that is not particularly helpful to achieving climate justice. Beyond looking for a certain hue or sexuality, I am looking for a certain awareness that includes everyone, including marginalized voices. 

It is essential to realize that the injustices people are railing against – be they racial, gendered, or what have you – are linked directly to environmental justice. They are all connected to the exploitation of labor and of the planet. These ills are the product of our capitalist system –constantly generating products to profit the small percentage of people who control the majority of wealth.

I’m interested in how we build a coalition of people who recognize that this is their collective issue. How do we resist a ruling class (the Jeff Bezoses of this world) that is upheld by pitting people against one another through the myth of separation based on skin color, gender, sexuality, national origin, etc.? We need to rise united against the global elite. That is what will ultimately save our planet.

In the majority of online lists of American climate artists, there is usually only one person of color mentioned (such as Allison Janae Hamilton). Boundary-pushing visual artists Tavares Strachan and Torkwase Dyson are not even mentioned. I would love to arrive at a place where Black climate artists are sufficiently represented and don’t need a separate list for recognition. 

Yes, there are certainly layers and levels of access that have historically been more available in this country to white artists. This access leads to greater institutional resources such as funding and presence-making, often for worse. In our context, it makes sense that these lists are dominated by people of European descent.

There is a tendency to silo different kinds of oppression. To say, “oh, I’m working on racial justice right now, I can’t focus on climate” when these topics are intrinsically linked. We need to foster a greater understanding of this phenomenon to expand our view of intersectionality’s impact. The larger the movement we build, the more of a chance we have to have more diverse voices involved in environmental justice, and a greater opportunity to effectively enact the change we need.

What’s next for you?

I am working with Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience, currently gestating a piece for the fall titled Black To The Future. It was going to be a staged performance but with the pandemic, it will now have a digital component. It is a collective original piece exploring what the future will look like, while interrogating the notion of Black identity with the premise of a separatist Black American nation. We are going to channel a multitude of perspectives on Black identity and “Black future” in a humorous, satirical, zany, in-your-face production. This might build up to a live performance sometime in the next year.

Relatedly, I am also conducting and writing journalistic interviews. I had a piece published last week on the Theatre Bay Area website focusing on the perspective of Black Bay Area theatre makers who have been engaging in outsider art for decades, and how they are responding creatively during the pandemic. 

(Top image: Rotimi Agbabiaka in Manifesto. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.


Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 


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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Emerging a Strategy During Crises

By Julia Levine

This month in Persistent Acts, I reflect on my growth since the development and production of my undergraduate thesis in theatre five years ago and on how, in light of the current crises, this led me to develop an emergent strategy curriculum to build authentic relationships.

When I set out to write this piece in April, the U.S. was in a different place. Since then, the country seems to have traveled back in time; the racism pandemic is manifest once again, and calls for police abolition are the norm on my social media feeds. I stand with Black environmentalists, including Mary Annaïse HeglarLeah Thomas, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, to demand an end to police brutality and a flourishing of intersectional environmentalism. The fight for climate justice must also be a fight for racial justice.

I too have been traveling back in time to unlearn my white supremacist tendencies, like holding onto perfectionism or my sense of urgency, and to reconnect to my past work. About five years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis, Existing on Earth and Stage: Exploring Human Relationships with Ecosystems Through Performance, and developed a production, GAIA: an eco-theatre project. In my research for my thesis project, I met Jeremy Pickard of Superhero Clubhouse and Chantal Bilodeau of The Arctic Cycle. That fall, I moved to New York City, and soon after started writing for Artists & Climate Change. I’m realizing now how much of an emergent time these past five years have been for me – how much I was growing, learning, changing.

I’ve also been finding solace in podcasts like Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us. Brené is a social worker and researcher, and each of her podcast episodes ends with her sign off: “be awkward, brave, and kind.” Through the various crises I’ve encountered over the past five years, I’ve come to lean into courage, vulnerability, and resiliency, so my own tag line these days is: “be courageous, vulnerable, and resilient.”


When I wrote my thesis, I was surrounded by friends. It was the end of college, a tumultuous time for me, and a threshold from one phase of my life into another. Around the same time, my nuclear family as I knew it fell apart. My parents divorced after about twenty-five years of marriage, my brother graduated high school – all “normal” life events that happen in families over time. Add to these events chronic mental illness, and there was a seismic shift in my family dynamics that I could not have prepared for. I had to figure out how to support at one point my mother, and at another point my brother, from a distance. The rupture of my nuclear family as I knew it was part of my emerging experience in New York City – and feels reminiscent of this emergent time of the novel coronavirus and the racism pandemics.

When I was healing from my parent’s divorce and settling into a hectic New York City schedule, I started seeing a therapist. This mental health professional supported me in finding tools to manage the crisis that my family was going through. I harnessed my courage to take on family responsibilities and wade into uncharted territory as a child of someone with bipolar disorder. These days during the pandemic, I’m drawing on my courage to encounter each new day as an opportunity, a fresh chance to make a better world from my corner of the city. These are also vulnerable times, and just as I faced uncertainty during my family’s crisis, we are facing uncertainty in this year’s global and national crises. Add to that the climate crisis, and my existential antennae are a-flutter.

Chart by David Hillis

Fortunately, my friends in the climate theatre community have been holding space for me and for one another. We’ve checked in on each other, offered opportunities for paid work when possible, and have generally held space for our mutual existence and understanding of how unprecedented these times are. I’ve also been spending more time in organizing spaces, particularly with Sunrise, the movement of young people for a Green New Deal.

Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, and a visual interpretation of the phrase for the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Right now in the U.S., we are all living with many problems, from the oppressive, systemic forces of capitalism and racism, to the isolation, anxiety, and depression that impact folks individually, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In “The Negro and the American Promise,” a conversation that aired on Boston public television, James Baldwin sums up the moral dilemma of Black people in America:

that one is a little bit colored and a little bit white, and not only in physical terms but in the head and in the heart, and there are days – this is one of them – when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.

This brings me back to my role in the arts, the theatre, where I feel moral dilemmas on a regular basis: Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? Do I have what it takes to “make it” in theatre? These questions remind me of why I love theatre in the first place: community and collaboration. I started out as a stage manager in middle and high school, supporting a team of artists on a collective vision for a production. Big shoutout to my public school education in the Parkway School System of suburban St. Louis, Missouri for having drama departments (and fostering arts education in general)! I so loved working as part of a team, and listening to the different needs of each artist on a production. By the end of high school, I wanted to try out directing, which I spent my college years experimenting with. I could not have done what I did in college without my advisor William Fisher, who understood my eagerness around environmental issues and encouraged me to take anthropology courses. My curiosity about the study of culture has been expanding ever since.

My undergraduate thesis production was a culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation as a theatre artist. At the same time that my production was going up, was organizing the People’s Climate March around the world. It felt like fate. I have realized since that all of the sources for my production itself are white men – every piece of found text that made it into my script was written by white guys. How could my environmental show, in which I ask big questions about humanity, have such a narrow focus? I was young, which is no excuse, and I make it my mission now to make work that gets to root causes of injustice and that is intersectional. I work to decolonize my work in the theatre.

GAIA: an eco-theatre project. Photo by Madeline Carey.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I spent time with adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. This workbook, subtitled “Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” has led me to Octavia Butler – creator of some of the most lush and nuanced world-building I’ve ever encountered in sci-fi/cli-fi. From adrienne maree brown and Octavia Butler, I’ve continued my process of unlearning colonized behaviors and language. I’ve been finding the vocabulary of sustainability, of what is possible when we, humans, remember our inherent nature: to strive for survival. To thrive, to be resilient, to move through the world with courage and for me, to return to the goal of my thesis: cultivate a better world with people I love.

In the early days of the pandemic, I set out to reflect on my creative output, and ended up generating a structure for how I make my work – for now that’s my writing, my social media posts, my facilitation of groups of people in my workplace. I’m working on adapting my curriculum to be a tool for others who may be feeling stuck when it comes to leading with clarity, transparency, and authenticity. I’ve seen a number of guides coalesce in response to the pandemic, and my offering seeks to support leaders to be courageous, vulnerable, and resilient, and to build authentic relationships. May we all remember our authentic humanity as we continue to navigate these turbulent times.

Photo from GAIA: an eco-theatre project. Credit: Madeline Carey.

Additional reading:
Theatre Post-Pandemic by Chantal Bilodeau
Covid Artist Activation Guide from The Center for Cultural Power
Creative Responses to COVID-19: USDAC Listening Shareback from U.S. Department of Arts & Culture
Mapping Our Social Change Roles in Times of Crisis by Deepa Iyer
If you care about the Green New Deal, we need you to join the Movement for Black Livesby Sunrise Movement

Recommended Listening:
Yikes Podcast
Mary Annaïse Heglar’s Hot Take Podcast

(Top image: Gaia, photo by Madeline Carey.)

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


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


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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River Mourning

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Joan Sullivan, Canadian photographer, organic farmer, and core writer for Artists and Climate Change, is in mourning.

In January of 2020, while walking along the shores of the iceless St. Lawrence River – which should normally be covered with thick ice that protects Quebec’s coastal communities from harsh winter storms – Sullivan had what she describes as an emotional “melt-down.” She was overwhelmed with grief about two dramatic environmental changes that were happening simultaneously on opposite sides of the planet: the lack of winter ice in Canada and the apocalyptic bushfires in Australia, where her daughter lives. At the core of her emotional distress was her realization that the world was never going to go back to the way it was and that “we all needed to find a new way to live with the non-human world.”

Sullivan ultimately accepted that taking highly realistic, factually-based photographs of the energy transition as she had been doing for many years as her way of addressing climate disruption, no longer worked for her. She admitted to me in our recent conversation that she felt as if she had been “shouting into the wind for the last 10 years” and needed a different approach to her photography that expressed her grief and sense of loss about the changing environment.

Wind Turbines, 2017

Sullivan came to photography as a career through a circuitous route. With degrees in nutrition and international public health, she spent the first half of her life studying and working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, mostly in Africa. At the age of 50, she moved back to Canada, purchased an abandoned farm, and became an organic farmer and professional photographer. She regards her body of photographs on renewable energy as photo-journalistic and documentary. In order to ensure that the images she produced were crystal clear, she spent countless hours perfecting them. Her hard work led her to become the only female photographer/videographer in Canada shooting the construction and expansion of renewable energy in the context of the climate crisis.

Restless with her long-standing, renewable energy work, Sullivan signed up for a master photography class in October 2018, sponsored by Culture Bas Saint Laurent in collaboration with the Centre d’art de Kamouraska. The theme for the weekend class was the St. Lawrence River. The students were instructed to use the river as a metaphor for rebirth and new beginnings. Sullivan’s photographs captured the river without winter ice in her usual photo-journalistic manner. In June 2019, a number of these photographs were chosen for a group exhibition as part of the 10th edition of the Rencontre photographique du Kamouraska that was to take place in the summer of 2020. The exhibition was planned much before the COVID-19 pandemic led to closures of art and cultural venues across Canada, and was postponed until the summer of 2021.

Then, in the fall of 2019, Sullivan enrolled in a two-year course entitled “The Study of Artistic Practice” at the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). Her UQAR professor, artist Danielle Boutet, encouraged Sullivan to consider that she was at a critical crossroads with her work and to use this opportunity to experiment and grow as an artist. Working from a gut level and in the late afternoon light, Sullivan abandoned her tripod and began experimenting with long exposures and deliberate jerky camera movements. The images that resulted from that process were out of focus but luminous, ethereal, and poetic. With the St. Lawrence as her principal subject and muse, Sullivan had captured the colors of the winter sky reflecting on the open water at a time when there should have been thick ice. Enormously pleased with the result of the images, she sensed that she had found a new direction for her work and a new language with which to express her grief.

From the series Grief, 2020

Twelve of Sullivan’s photographs from her new series, which she titled Grief, are currently part of a summer group exhibition at the Centre d’art de Kamouraska. For the purposes of the exhibition, her work is called Fleuve Fragile / Thin Ice. (Sullivan explained that in French, there are two words for “river.” “Rivière” is a smaller river that empties into another river; “fleuve” is a river that enters into a bay or ocean, like the Mississippi or, in this case, the St. Lawrence.)

In spite of the pandemic, the Centre’s co-directors, Véronique Drouin and Ève Simard, were determined to host a portion of the original exhibition that had been planned for the summer of 2020 in their former courthouse building from July to September, 2020. In order to create a walking path that would allow visitors to pass through the exhibition safely, the co-directors built temporary open walls upon which the photographs are secured. These temporary curved walls mimic the waves of the river and add another dimension to the exhibition. Sullivan’s new Grief photographs replaced her older documentary images of the river and occupy the Centre’s second floor overlooking the St. Lawrence River itself. She describes the afternoon light bouncing off the river and spilling through the windows into the space as “magical.”

Installation view of Grief, vinyl on aluminum, 2020

During our conversation, Sullivan admitted to me that her current evolution towards a more abstract artistic practice means that she will likely stop creating documentary images that focus on scientific or technical aspects of climate disruption, claiming that the world doesn’t need any more facts to substantiate what is happening to the environment right now. Paraphrasing Timothy Morton, English professor at Rice University and author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, Sullivan says that we are, in fact, “drowning in soul-crushing factoids.” As an artist, a farmer, and a mother, she is focused on a return to life’s basic elements – to the air, water, and land that sustain us. She is hoping that her new work will provide her, and perhaps others, with a sense of real healing from the fragile and vulnerable state in which we find ourselves.

From the series Grief, 2020

(Top image: From the series Grief, 2020)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption 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.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received many grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores –trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.


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: Gila Green

By Mary Woodbury

This month, we look at another young adult fiction novel – and yet another novel set in South Africa. Thanks to Stormbird Press and author Gila Green for the interview and essay. Stormbird Press, one of Dragonfly’s affiliates, is a new publisher in Australia. As an imprint of Wild Migration, Stormbird is deeply connected to the global environment movement. Wild Migration is a not-for-profit conservation organization that has worked around the world for years to build participation capacity among wildlife scientists, wildlife policy experts, and civil society to secure international wildlife conservation.


Read an excerpt at the Dragonfly Library.

In No Entry (Stormbird Press, 2019), Canadian teenager Yael Amar signs on to an elephant conservation program and comes face-to-face with violence, greed, murder, and the taste of a very real danger for all of us: elephant extinction. The story takes place in South Africa’s famous and breathtaking Kruger National Park.

Yael vows to devote herself to saving the planet from human greed and is set to learn all she can about ivory poaching when she accidentally encounters a murderous poaching ring taking place below the surface of her newfound paradise. She receives a second blow when she discovers that her idol, Clara Smith, the prestigious and well-respected program director, profits from blood ivory while preaching about the sanctity of wildlife. Yael is forced to decide on a new mission: expose this poaching ring to the police or return to the safety of her normal life – before she becomes their next victim.

On her journey, she is accompanied at times by her conservative, naive boyfriend, David, and at other times by her new brash best friend, New Yorker Nadine Kelly. She is inspired by her African guide, Sipho, a poverty-stricken artist, professional park ranger, and ultimately, her partner in risking her life.

As Yael is forced to confront the ugly face of elephant slaughter, she grieves the loss of her brother Ezra, who was murdered in a terrorist firebombing before the novel begins. It is this grief that gives her the strength to confront the evil men who would empty Africa of every last elephant to fill their own pockets.


Stormbird: Tell us a little about yourself, including your interests and hobbies.

I am very proud of my children, and my greatest pleasure is to spend time with them. That turns out to be a lot of time, but it’s well worth it. After my family, my second love is, of course, writing. In addition, I love power walking, yoga, pilates, nature, travel, hiking, cooking, and I’ll never say no to a day off at a Dead Sea spa.

StormbirdHow did you become involved with the subject or theme of your work?

Before I wrote No Entry, I searched for something to take my writing away from the Israel landscape. There’s plenty to write about Israel and the Middle East, but after writing three books playing with those settings, I wanted to expand my canvas.

I have a writing partner who once told me that writers are really just writing the same book over and over again with different characters. I didn’t want to be one of those writers!

At the same time, I have always known one of my writing strengths (I have plenty of weaknesses too, structure anyone?) is location. I believed changing location would immediately alter my characters. Characters derive from location and not the other way around; though many writers begin with characters, I always begin with location in time and space.

And it worked! As soon as I delved into Kruger National Park, got caught up in the trees, birds, and animals, my characters changed too, and the expansion I was looking for took place. It gave me a breather from what I’d been writing about for years, and I loved it. I’m looking forward to the sequel. Yael will be back, and Clara’s not too happy with her or Nadine!

Stormbird: Who are some of your favorite authors and how do you feel they impacted your writing?

As an ex-literature major, I admit I was once snobby about books. I only read what is known as literary fiction for decades. It took me a while to realize that was a big mistake. Now I read everything, well, almost everything. I’ll never be a big fantasy or science fiction fan, but I’ve learned to really enjoy writers like Neil Gaiman, someone I wouldn’t have looked at when I was twenty.

As a Canadian, I grew up on Canadian literature and love the Canadian writers we all know, such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Atwood was also born in Ottawa, by the way, three years after my mother was born there, so that might be one of the reasons I enjoy her. She grew up in the same place and time period as my mother. Alice Munro grew up not far from Ottawa, too, and in a similar time period.

Both of these writers influence me to this day. I honestly couldn’t list all the writers I love and who influence me, but some of them are Leonard Cohen, Truman Capote, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, and Joyce Carol Oates.

I was once published in Fiction Magazine alongside a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, and I was thrilled to pieces. To this day, I wonder if she ever read her courtesy copy and noticed my story. It’s hard for me to believe she would, but I can dream. Joyce, if you’re reading, please let me know.

Stormbird: There are some scary moments in No Entry. Did you struggle with how graphically to write the discovery of the poached elephant scene or the violent scene with the poachers?

Yes. I wanted the book to be aimed at young adults because I believe they are the generation that needs to know – and most in the West don’t seem to be aware that their grandchildren might not see elephants, except in the odd zoo. They will be the most affected by animal extinction and we, as adults, have a responsibility to tell them.

I believe a novel with an admirable heroine and a little romance thrown in will reach more young people than a non-fiction book. So, yes, there is some violence, but it’s very tempered because I definitely took the audience age into account.

The truth is I believe less is more. There’s no need to sensationalize the scenes. Elephant slaughter in plain language is enough. In addition, there’s a sub-theme of terrorism in the novel because violence is universal. I purposely made the terrorist event happen in Canada because I wanted to get the message across that senseless violence doesn’t just happen in Africa or the Middle East. That attitude might allow some of us to feel off the hook. It happens everywhere, and we all have to make sure we are part of the solution or there won’t be one – and that thought is too devastating to imagine. I refuse to go there, and No Entry ends on a victorious note for a reason.

Stormbird: Thank you so much, Gila. It has been a pleasure spending time with you. All of us No Entry fans are looking forward to meeting Yael again in your sequel.


My fellow Ottawans, residents of the world’s seventh coldest capital, accused me of having an affinity for “hotspots” after I’d lived among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel, and spent six months in South Africa, all by the age of 23.

At the time, I hadn’t appreciated how challenging my “coldspot” worldviews would serve me as a writer.  My senses savored scenes I couldn’t have imagined; a ride on a downtown bus with strangers who thought nothing of asking you to hold their babies while they paid the driver; delicacies like halva (gourmet sesame bars), silan (date honey), and tehina (sesame paste) in the grocery store; the tribulations of trying to pay a bill in a different country (in Israel, it is unfathomable to me how many people sit for hours at the post office to pay their monthly utility bills); or the shock of trying to renew your Canadian visa in South Africa.

We traveled to a government office in Soweto that had every window shattered. We would have phoned ahead to make an appointment, but the phone cables had been dug up and stolen long before we arrived. Despite being the only one in the queue for Tourist Renewals, I waited hours to be informed I had to come back tomorrow.

For all of our wealth and education in the West, there’s a concerning stereotyping of other parts of the world. Since I completed my journalism degree in the early nineties, negative news has increased in both intensity and frequency. Studies show news outlets worldwide have become gloomier from the late 1970s to today.

“As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents,” laments psychologist and author Steven Pinker.

That’s bad news for all of us and for writers in particular. If we avoid the Middle East and Africa because of the negative stereotypes (death, war, hunger), or write only from those points of view we see presented in the major media outlets, we betray the truth. We are guilty of neglecting the warmth, development, and the positive conservation efforts that are being done to preserve the globe for all of us. For more of this to happen, more of us from coldspots need to warm up.


From Dragonfly and news sources: Just recently, new export laws proposed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) mandated limits on the export of wild African elephants. According to National Geographic:

The capture and sale of live elephants has come under increasing criticism as scientists have learned more about the complexities of elephant behavior and intellect. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick or dying behind. They’re smart, social creatures with family bonds that last a lifetime. And in recent years, evidence has stacked up that they use tools, work together to achieve common goals, mourn their dead, and are capable of empathy. During certain times of the year, African savanna elephants are highly gregarious, with hundreds gathering together.

The ban limits the capture and sale of wild elephants; Chinese and American zoos can no longer buy them. Though the sale of elephants from some African countries was already banned, it was easier for South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to export to overseas zoos. The new measure protects wild elephants even more.

According to World Wildlife Magazine:

In 1930, as many as 10 million wild elephants roamed huge swaths of the African continent. But decades of poaching and conflict have since decimated African elephant populations. In 2016, experts estimated that Africa’s elephant population had dropped by 111,000 elephants in the span of a decade. Today, there are just 415,000 elephants across Africa. While elephant poaching is trending downward, with significant declines in East Africa, poaching continues to steer the species dangerously nearer to extinction.

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


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, 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 Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


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.

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Introducing our New Series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education

By Clare Fisher

I don’t know about you, but when I try to think about climate change, my head hurts. Maybe this is because it’s what ecocritic Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject:” a thing too spread out in space and time to be comprehended from the point of view of the human, and human-centric narratives of cause and effect. Maybe it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe I should drink some more water.

As a writer and researcher, I am just starting to probe this hurt, both in my fiction and as part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leeds. My project looks at how formal experimentation with failure in fiction opens up new ways of thinking and feeling through the structural failures in which we all live – a phrase which has taken on a whole new layer of meaning in the wake of COVID. Sitting at the same desk, staring at the same screen, reading the different (but somehow also the same) news stories about the UK government’s latest failures in managing the situation, I ride a “coronacoaster” of emotions with which you are no doubt familiar, trying, and frequently failing, to resist the conclusion that nothing will change.

But things will change and already are; the trick is learning to see it. Seeing what we don’t see about climate change is exactly the focus of Jenny Offill’s novel Weather, which I spent the first few weeks of lockdown writing about for Alluvium journal. My article examines how the novel centers the ways in which climate change, and our inability to both think and feel it, intrudes during seemingly trivial moments in our lives. Writing it while stuck inside felt strangely appropriate.

It is within this context that I’m particularly excited, as both a writer and, well, a person, to be working with The Arctic Cycle, the organization that runs the Artists & Climate Change initiative. As explained by Thomas Peterson in this post, we are compiling a database of university programs, courses and syllabi which integrate the arts with climate change. While we are still very much at the beginning of this process, the response to our call-out for participants already demonstrates the depth and breadth of interdisciplinary learning taking place in this area, with programs bringing together theatre and sustainability, social justice and activism with artistic practice, fiction and the environment, to name just a few. The finished database will, we hope, be a site where researchers can share and exchange knowledge, as well as a source of information and inspiration for students, activists, artists, or anyone wanting to find new ways of learning and teaching climate change across and between disciplines. 

Over the next two months, I will be investigating the philosophical, pedagogical and epistemological underpinnings of these programs in more detail. What sorts of knowledge are they aiming to produce? How are they grasping at what falls into the cracks between disciplinary boundaries? How might their graduates contribute toward meaningful action around climate change? Through engaging in open-ended, non-judgmental interviews with program directors, tutors, and students, I’ll tease out what makes each program distinctive. I’ll share my findings through regular blog posts, focusing first on individual programs, and second, on drawing out patterns, comparisons, and contrasts between them. I’ll not shy away from moments of mess and uncertainty, both in my own research process and in those on which I’m reporting. In doing so, I hope to stimulate further debate and ideas amongst those working in this exciting, if undoubtedly messy, area.

This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.


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.

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An Interview with Poet Susan Barba

By Amy Brady

Happy summer to those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, and happy winter to those of you in the South. 

What a strange few months it’s been. Here in New York City, we are still largely on lockdown, though some businesses are starting to re-open with new safety protocols in place.

This month I had the great pleasure of speaking with Susan Barba, a poet and senior editor at New York Review Books. Her latest collection, geode, is a gorgeous meditation on humanity’s relation to the earth in a time of climate change. In our interview below, we discuss what inspired the collection, her thoughts on what poetry can teach us about “deep time,” and what draws her to the subject of climate change in her work.

Let’s start with the title of your collection: geode. For those unfamiliar, a geode is a spherical rock with a hollow center lined with crystals. How do these geological objects characterize your collection?

I think of a geode as a sculpture made by the earth. It’s so unlikely and so beautiful. The idea for the title came to me early on in the book’s conception, nearly three years ago, late summer. I was walking around the reservoir in the city I live in and thinking about the poems I’d written that were coalescing into a new collection, and the word just came to mind: geode. It fit. It had that sense of rightness that you strive for with every word in every poem. It worked metaphorically, visually, aurally, and it contained within it another facet beyond its definition, another layer of meaning. A geode is a geological object shaped by the earth over time and resembling the earth in its spherical shape and hidden wonders but the word also houses within it “ode,” which is a praise poem. It’s not etymologically related, rather it exists as word play, as a pun. Like the crystals inside the rock, in this geological term is a hidden poetic term. It was important to me that this sense of the book as an ode to the earth, with all the “exaltation” an ode implies, come through.

Your collection brims with thoughtful meditations on the natural world and all that’s at risk because of climate change. What drew you to the subject of climate change, and why do you explore it in your poetry?

Going back to the book as an ode to the earth, that impulse to praise is at the root of the poems and at the heart of any anguish over climate change. It’s like that wonderful quote by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” And let me just add that I think our own senses can teach us this understanding, but we need to keep learning, keep paying attention, to guard against exploitative tendencies. So I didn’t set out to write about climate change per se. One of the reasons I write poetry is because the language I use daily to express appreciation for the natural world – what a beautiful sunset, look at those trees – is so inadequate and I feel the need to respond more thoroughly, to express as best I can what the world communicates to me. It’s the repayment of a gift. At the same time, I also need to address the anguish that the climate crisis brings to any awareness of the world, the sense of endangerment, of encroaching peril, so what would otherwise be an ode is also sometimes an elegy, and sometimes a protest poem. The poems aren’t aesthetic responses alone, they’re also calls to action. 

Many of the poems in geode evoke a sense of deep time – of how the earth has changed over eons. What do you think poetry can reveal about this sense of time that perhaps other kinds of writing can’t?

What a good question. I’m not sure poetry holds the key to understanding deep time; it’s such a difficult subject really, but I think poetry’s reliance on the individual word rather than a summarizable “message” is part of it. As John McPhee in his remarkable study of North American geography, Annals of the Former World, recognized, geologists speak a kind of poetry already, in the sense that geological terms are so remarkably resonant. Yet they can be abstruse too. A poem depends on precision, so any specialized language is useful to poetry, but it also depends on making that word come alive for the reader. So the poet must go through the work of re-embodying those terms, not employing them as markers of specialized knowledge but as blazes, as symbols of the experiential, sensorial knowledge of the geologist, of all the time in the field those scientists have spent in order to understand the earth. Maybe it’s a kind of re-wilding that occurs in the space of the poem, when the scientific and poetic converge.

I’d like to ask you about your poem “Dispersal” specifically, because I found it very moving. To avoid over-analyzing it (or giving too much away), I’ll just say that I identified with the feelings of worry and isolation that it seems to explore. What inspired this poem?

“Dispersal” is one of the more personal poems in this book, despite the third-person point of view. It was inspired by the UN’s major climate report of 2018, by personal conflict, and by trying to find a way out of an emotional impasse. In writing the poem I was trying to figure out how to live with unresolvable questions, with anger, judgment, guilt, fear. The poem doesn’t solve these problems, but it resolves them in the sense of holding them momentarily in suspension, in a shape and relation in which they can be seen more clearly rather than felt inchoately. It strikes me now, in hindsight, that “Dispersal” is like Pandora’s box, all of these terrible realities coming out of the present moment, and only hope remaining.

“River” is another of your poems that I love. It finds overlap in the language of science, poetry, and law. What kinds of writing do you enjoy and/or study beyond poetry? And how does it help you to think about the climate crisis?

In writing “River” I read broadly and learned a great deal, especially about how climate goals might be approached not only through policy and legislation but through shifts in thought effected by the language of the courts. As “River” touches on, the health and rights of natural objects are inextricable from the health and rights of all people, which is why it’s crucial that the environmental movement has evolved into the environmental justice movement. In terms of my reading, the history of science fascinates me, books like Martin Rudwick’s Earth’s Deep History, or books that approach the climate crisis through the intersection of cultural studies and science, like Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble. I was also influenced while writing geode by particular books of American history like Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; books that have been my touchstones for years, like John McPhee’s and Annie Dillard’s, entered the writing, as well as more recent books that have been added to that list of touchstones, like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. I was also influenced by the writing of visual artists, especially Robert Smithson and Agnes Martin, by the work of the land artists of the 1970s, including Walter de Maria and Nancy Holt, and by resources such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation and its remarkable archive of photographs, all available online.

What’s next for you?

Well, for the moment I’ve put the rocks aside and taken up flowers! I’m interested in native plants and wildflowers, and I’m working on an anthology of literature about them. I’d welcome suggestions from readers of their favorite poems or prose excerpts about these at-once hardy and threatened species. You can reach me through the contact formon my website. Thank you!

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.


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 at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 


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.

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Dancing with the Wind

By Joan Sullivan

A short midsummer night’s post.

Back in 2017, I wrote about three musicians who climbed to the top of a wind turbine in Québec, Canada, to perform a magnificent sunrise concert – a world first. 

Last month, another world first was achieved by the Austrian extreme performance artist Stefanie Millinger, who hand-balanced without security ropes on the blade of a (non-spinning) wind turbine.

Millinger’s electrifying performance was sponsored by the Austrian Wind Energy Association to commemorate Global Wind Day 2020. She was invited by IG Windkraft to Lichtenegg, in eastern Austria, to perform an acrobatic wind dance 70 metres above the ground on an Enercon 1.8 MW turbine.

As a renewable energy photographer, I have climbed dozens of wind turbines over the past decade, and I know how difficult and dangerous it is to work at those heights. It took me several years of training and experience before I became comfortable moving around on top of the nacelle – always attached via my security harness! But I never imagined walking out onto a blade – no way! I am simply in awe of Millinger’s strength, confidence, and grace to perform flawlessly at such dizzying heights without security equipment. Speechless! 

All I can say is “Brava, Stefanie!” I hope that the Cirque du Soleil will be inspired to follow in your footsteps… 

And kudos to photographer Astrid Knie for these beautiful images.

(All images reprinted with permission from IG Windkraft. Photo by: Austrian Wind Energy Association / © Astrid Knie.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a long-term, self-assigned photo project about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.


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: Sita Brahmachari

By Mary Woodbury

This month we look at Sita Brahmachari’s novel Where the River Runs Gold (Waterstones, July 2019), which takes place in an everyland, according to the author. But Sita told me that Meteore mountain – meaning “between earth and sky” – was inspired by Meteora in Greece, and that the Kairos Lands also take their name from Greek mythology.


Shifa and her brother Themba live in Kairos City with their father Nabil. The few live in luxury, while millions like them crowd together in compounds, surviving on meagre rations, governed by Freedom Fields – the organization that looks after you, as long as you opt in.

The bees have long disappeared; instead, children must labor on farms, pollinating crops so that the nation can eat. But Nabil remembers before, and he knows that the soul needs to be nourished as much as the body so, despite the risk, he teaches his children how to grow flowers on a secret piece of land hidden beneath the train tracks.

The farm Shifa and Themba are sent to is hard and cruel. Themba won’t survive there, and Shifa comes up with a plan to break them out. But they have no idea where they are; their only guide is a map drawn from the ramblings of a stranger.

The journey ahead is fraught with danger, but Shifa is strong and knows to listen to her instincts – to let hope guide them home. The freedom of a nation depends on it.


Chatting with Sita about this novel (and she writes other children and young adult/teen novels that are environmentally based!) was a pure delight. I thank her so much for her time and in-depth discussion.

You seem to be a prolific children’s and young adult author, and your previous stories include a series following young teen Mira Levenson, as well as a dozen other novels that cover real issues that teenagers face when they grow up. Can you talk about your favorite experiences writing these novels?

Young people inspire me. As part of the process of writing, I always include a research period or time when I share the ideas and a few chapters of whatever I’m writing with potential readers. When talking about the inclusion of a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds in my story Red Leaves, a young woman with cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair, came to me and asked me to include “someone like me” in one of my stories as a central character. The next year was spent holding writing groups with this young woman to find a story she was proud of. The character that emerged from this interaction was Kezia, in Tender Earth. Similarly, consulting with a group of students from Somali Refugee backgrounds allowed me to build the character of Aisha in the same story. It was such a magical moment when that group of young women came to the book launch (set in an ancient wood in North London) and read from the story.

When you immerse yourself in a world, things in the real world are constantly chiming with your stories. When I wrote Kite Spirit, in which owls are featured, I started seeing owls everywhere, even on an early morning run through a city park. It’s as if, in reaching for a story, the real world keeps offering you gems to keep you inspired. For me, writing is like a constant treasure hunt of the imagination. I think if you open yourself to tune into the times you live in, then let your imagination roam, stories grow in you.

Where the River Runs Gold is a story set in the future. Is the location fictional, and if not, where does the story take place? What is the age group of the children in the book?

It’s set in the near future. It’s up to readers to decide how far in the future.

Shifa and Themba are eleven – the age at which children are sent away to farms until they’re sixteen. I tend to write inter-generational stories that can be read on different levels, so I have late teen characters too, who are hardened to the system. The book is also populated by Freedom Fields recruits and adult workers propping up or resisting the system, and an ancient old woman who is hidden away on the farm.

The future I evoke is one I hope never comes to be. Horrifically, though, there is nothing that is happening to the characters in my story that is not happening to children and young people somewhere in the world today. Right at this moment, there are children pollinating crops by hand because of the loss of bee population, or harvesting cotton for the textile industry because it is less “damaged” by small fingers. Devastating storms are hitting countries all over the world. If climate change is “over there,” it is also “over here.” This is why leaders of nations who want to operate unilaterally deny climate change and refuse to accept the benefits of alternative forms of energy, even in the face of unprecedented flooding and disasters in their own countries. I work in a refugee centre in London, and so many of the people from all over the world speak of their lands being devastated by climate change, pollution, or corruption as they are denied access to land to grow food for themselves.

The story is set in an everyland! But Meteore mountain (meaning “between earth and sky”) is inspired by Meteora in Greece – a place that ignited my imagination long ago. The Kairos Lands also take their name from Greek mythology. There are two portals of time in operation: chronological and Kairos Time. In Kairos Time, all possibilities for change, re-wilding, and the regeneration of nature still remain open – and in that time, as in ours, it is the young people who are saying enough is enough and change must come.

In the story, children labor on farms, pollinating crops so that the nation can eat. What has happened to the bees?

I can’t tell you exactly because it would be a plot spoiler! But there are clues based on what’s happening in our world today. Worldwide, there is a crisis in the decline of bee populations, pollinators, and insect life. It is frightening to see how fast this decline is taking place. Chris Packham and campaigners at the People’s Walk for Wildlife have been highlighting this in their manifesto presented to UK parliament by young people in 2018. Just recently I read that in the UK alone, “Around a third of bee and hoverfly species across the country have experienced population crashes since the 1980s, raising concerns about food production and biodiversity.” (Independent, March 2019)

What’s happened to the bees is that their habitats have shrunk and been destroyed. Farming methods and mass use of pesticides causing infection and hive disruption appear to have caused their extinction. I started to look at food production and the way in which societies are structured, and I asked: What would a future world look like without bees? We would survive, but our diets would be so depleted, the colors of our world dimmed, and the beauty of natural habitats and the wild flowers and trees would all be depleted. In the tradition of dystopian fiction, I have pushed this bleak picture further and asked: How would the world work without bees? A few Paragons in the Kairos Lands have bee drones, but they are a poor substitute for wild bees. Food production and the sharing of food resources is a big theme in the story. It asks: Who is benefiting from clinging on to old methods?  Shifa and Themba are often hungry in the story – and, as is the case with so many children are in our times, they are forced to seek the charity of food banks.

But in our times, the giant Wallace Bee, thought to be extinct, has been discovered in the jungle in Indonesia! Sometimes, as they say, truth really is stranger than fiction.

The class divide in the story is strong, with a few rich people living in luxury and the rest of the population crowded in compounds, just barely surviving. Freedom and escape rest on the children, Shifa and Themba. Do you foresee this story empowering the younger generation, and how so?

I’m sad to say that everything I’ve written in the story is happening to a child somewhere in the world. I wanted to bring home to the reader that the plight of Shifa and Themba in the story is our plights too. Most children in The Kairos Lands work for Freedom Fields Corporation. Only the children of Paragons are spared from being sent away to pollinate the crops at the age of eleven. There is another group of people, too, who are deeply invested in defending the natural world. These people are ones that the state labels Outlanders, but they prefer to be named Foragers. They believe there is another way to live based on sharing resources rather than the few hoarding them all for themselves. When I set out to write the story, the fire twisting in my gut (which is a real spur to all the stories I’ve written) was driven by an outrage about economic inequality and unequal access to opportunity. Subjects I’ve explored before in my stories but never in an environmental context. In my notebook, I was scribbling facts like:

  • 260 million children are in employment around the world. 11% of the world’s children are denied an education because they are working. (UNICEF)
  • 26 humans own the same as 50% of humans on the planet. A 1% tax rise on these 26 humans would be enough to give all children in the world an education.  (Oxfam 2019)

I’m an ambassador for Amnesty International. November of this year marks 30 years of the universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In writing Where the River Runs Gold, I wanted to explore how intertwined environmental rights and the universal rights of the child are. So many of Themba and Shifa’s rights are taken from them in the course of the story. They are brave and true and have to fight hard to hold onto them, but they should never have been placed in such extremis and danger.

I hope that the story will empower young people to learn what their universal rights are and to add their voices to human rights organizations, like Amnesty, who is fighting to uphold those rights.

Sobering facts. Do you think that climate and other ecological changes in the world are on youth’s minds now, and what is the best way to address this in storytelling?

I was proud when my own daughter attended the school strikes for action on climate change recently. It’s taken me two years to write this book, and even in that time, I have been so heartened and inspired to see how young campaigners like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg have stood up to the powers-that-be and engaged in international mobilization, inspiring young people in countries around the world. This, coupled with Sir David Attenborough’s timely intervention at the World Economic Forum – highlighting how small the window of opportunity is before the damage we are doing to our planet becomes irreversible – has spoken loud and clear to young people. The question is: How do young people get their voices heard, and what influence can they have on governments? In my story, there is an emergency government and no opportunity to vote. I wish young people could have the vote younger so they could have their voices heard through governments as well as activism.

I attended The People’s Walk for Wildlife last year with my fellow author and environmental campaigner for #authorsforoceans Gill Lewis. There, I met an inspiring young activist, Mya-Rose Craig (also known as “Birdgirl“), who called for greater involvement of all young people from diverse backgrounds in the protection of our wildlife. She spoke of what can be done personally and how influence can play a role locally, nationally and globally.

I hope that the imagery, characters, and the world I have built will stay with young readers long after they have read the story, and that they will lead them to question further. In living with Shifa and Themba in Where the River Runs Gold, I hope readers will care deeply for them and their struggles, and be outraged by the fact that young people are forced to pay the greatest price as a result of lack of action in protecting our planet. I hope that readers’ deep feelings for the characters and their struggles might lend support to young environmental campaigners so that young people never have to face what Shifa and Themba do.

What stories with ecological/dystopian themes did you read growing up that made you think? And did they help to inspire your novel?

We are living in an increasingly fractured world at a time when our planet, rivers, oceans, woodlands, plants, birds, bees, and insect life are being threatened, and air is being polluted, by the way we live. We are globally connected thanks to the advancement of technology, but its use is as yet unregulated. As we’ve seen in recent global environmental activism by young people, this power can be mobilized for good.

Stories, too, can carry a powerful force; the imagery and characters can lodge in readers’ minds and stay with them for a lifetime, influencing them in myriad ways. Sometimes, when it seems impossible to untangle the complexities of the ways humans behave and organize themselves, it can be enlightening to step outside of our time, as I have in Where The River Runs Gold.

When I was growing up, I read 1984 by George Orwell and it had a profound impact on me; back then, it was a near-future novel for me! Many of the predictions about the Big Brother state and surveillance proved to be true. The surveillance state also features in Where The River Runs Gold in the form of Opticare surveillance. I also read Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’ Brien, which has recently been made into a film. In that setting, too, ecological disaster has taken place and young people must find a way to survive and create new models of living. I am a huge lover of wildlife poetry and wild landscapes, and lived in the Lake District as a child. One of my favorite times of year was spring, when the grassy banks were covered in primroses, violets, lady’s fingers and soldier’s buttons. It’s no coincidence that Shifa is a collector of wildflowers and determined to re-wild her environment.

Poetry has continued to be an inspiration;  two poems were pasted to my wall as I wrote this novel. One was Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Binsey Poplars,” where he laments the felling and loss of his favorite trees. To think of living in a city with no trees is too awful, and the idea of it led me to create a movement among Foragers, who painted Graffitrees on the walls of the city in protest. The second poem was “Shut Out” by Christina Rossetti, in which great tall walls were built to stop the children having access to a garden and all the beauty that it contained. The narrator of the poem is sitting on the outside of the gates, longing to be allowed in. Shifa and Themba, in my story, know that waiting is not an option.

Something that Margaret Atwood said resonated with me when I was writing: “There’s a difference between describing and evoking something. You can describe something and be quite clinical about it. To evoke it, you call it up in the reader.”

What else are you working on now?

I’m working on my second stand-alone book for Orion Children’s Books. I’ve started scribbling and doodling in my notebook. It shares a watery theme. But instead of tracking forward in time, my contemporary characters will be led back into history to discover hidden stories and characters whose voices I feel really need to be heard today.

You do such incredible work and have offered our readers a lot of good information. Thanks so much, Sita!

Quote from Amnesty Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo:

Climate change is a human rights issue precisely because of the impact it’s having on people. It compounds and magnifies existing inequalities, and it is children who will grow up to see its increasingly frightening effects. The fact that most governments have barely lifted a finger in response to our mutually assured destruction amounts to one of the greatest inter-generational human rights violations in history. Children are often told they are “tomorrow’s leaders.” But if they wait until “tomorrow” there may not be a future in which to lead.

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


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, 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 Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


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: ‘Moist earth cascading through nimble fingers’

By Barbara Bryn KlareGeof KeysImara-rose GlymphSurina Venkat

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


Beyond the last post
a virgin pathway bisects
an empty golf course
see blue, grey and gold
where waters meet and dusk falls
birdsong fills the air
witness the sunset
through silhouetted branches
defying the dark
time to hit the pause button >>>
supermarket maze
becomes a one-way system
for the contactless
overtaking with care
an old man in reverse gear
afraid to turn round
I curse two women
blocking with idle chatter
the aisle of my dreams
habits die hard in the void

— Geof Keys (Hexham, Northumberland, United Kingdom)

(Top photo: Dusk in Hexham.)

* * *


Next to my downtown condo is a large parking lot for the city workers. Overnight, when COVID hit and the workers started working from home, the lot went from being filled with cars to nearly empty. Instead of seeing drivers circling to find a space to park, I looked out one morning to see a lone roller skater circling the concrete lot: each round a graceful arc toward a car-less world.

— Barbara Bryn Klare (Athens, Ohio)

Out of my window.

* * *


“My body, my choice.” A rallying cry for the pro-choice movement, repurposed to fight against the oppressiveness of masks. I wonder where we in the United States would be if our government had told us to wear masks not to protect others, but rather our own selves. Our own families. Would we still find the piece of cloth, this simple solution, this near-infallible immunity for those in our vicinity the object of so much controversy?
And if we didn’t, what would that say about us?

— Surina Venkat (West Melbourne, Florida)

The object of dispute.

* * *


Moist earth cascading through nimble fingers. 
A melody enhanced by the spicy fragrance of lemongrass and turmeric remnants lingering on dew-kissed skin.
Content joy radiates from the pair of us, eager to absorb the intimate sun
nestled in Green mountains.
We are the lucky few.
Fortunate to not have been uprooted in disarray.
Spring blossomed and we never lost trust.
We never learned not to touch or to inhale through masked fabric.
Isolation symbolized our boundless expansion of being still, intertwined, close.
Cloaked now in misty fog cityscape, I remember the freedom of our lungs in the refuge we built.

— Imara-rose Glymph (San Francisco, California)

Vessels of friendship runneth over – dusk setting on hot Vermont streets.


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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