Artists and Climate Change

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Solastalgia

By Joan Sullivan

Solastalgia is a portmanteau of the words “solace” and “nostalgia” coined by the Australian transdisciplinary environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It describes a form of emotional, psychic, and/or existential distress caused by the lived experience of unwanted transformation or degradation of one’s home environment or territory. 

That must be what’s been ailing me. After spending more than a decade focusing my cameras on positive solutions to the climate crisis, I seem to have lost the wind in my sails. I am, as Susan Hoffman Fishman described in her recent post, in mourning.

Yesterday, I broke down in uncontrollable tears when I found three dead barn swallow fledglings – which I had photographed so discretely just one day earlier – on the floor of our barn. Barn swallows have suffered massive (90%) population declines over the last 40 years here in Canada: hundreds of thousands of these amazing acrobatic aerial insectivores disappear each year, due in large part to changes in agricultural practices such as replacing pasture land with intensive mono-culture crops like soy, maize, and canola. These and other mono-culture crops rely heavily on chemical herbicides and pesticides that severely reduce insect habitat and biodiversity in agricultural regions – the main diet of barn swallows.

Oh, how I rejoiced earlier in the summer when two breeding pairs of barn swallows decided to build their mud nests in the hand-hewn rafters of our nearly 100-year-old wooden barn! Such beautiful creatures! I patted myself on the back for having spent the past 10 years creating a pesticide-free oasis to attract a variety of beneficial insects and birds to our small organic farm. But that was not enough to save these fledglings. Our little farm, unfortunately, is surrounded by large industrial dairy farms with hectare upon hectare of impossibly tidy (i.e., weed-free) fields of mono-culture soy, maize, and canola, swimming in Roundup. My heart is broken.

Note to self: another reason to reduce even further my dairy consumption.

From what I understand, people living in agricultural and other rural regions are more likely to experience solastalgia than those living in urban environments. But city dwellers are not immune; solastalgia can be triggered by a variety of unwanted urban stress factors, including the chronic noise and air pollution from nearby highways and airports, or when raging wildfires or floods destroy homes and communities. 

For me, living far from any big city, solastalgia is due to several inter-related climate change impacts threatening my rural region: a prolonged multi-year drought, the lack of winter ice on the Saint Lawrence River, and the dramatic decline in native bee populations, all of which have caused me so much angst over the last few years. But this week, the sudden death of three tiny barn swallows threw me off the cliff. It’s hard to explain.

Since the beginning of 2020 – pre-COVID – I have experienced a grief so intense that it has completely changed my photographic practice. Will I ever climb a wind turbine again? Will I ever snap out of this melancholy? I’m overwhelmed by a profound sense of powerlessness despite the numerous climate-friendly changes I have adopted over the past decade. Where did my optimism go? I used to be so sure that we, the collective we, would find a way out of this mess we have created…

Just two years ago, I wrote in the text of my Venice photo exhibit: “I cling to the belief, with all my heart [that sapiens are wise]. Perhaps not as wise as we thought we were, but just wise enough to avoid irreversible climate change for generations, possibly millennia, to come.” Today, I’m no longer sure that I can stand by my own words.

And yet…

Somewhere deep inside, I’m convinced there’s still a tiny ember glowing, stubbornly refusing to be snuffed out. I choose to believe that this ember is vivant, waiting for the right moment to burst again into flames of passion and activism. This mental image reminds me to be gentle with myself, to take one day at a time. It motivates me to commit to small daily positive acts, like tending my wild flower garden for the non-human world.

Next month, I hope to write about something positive, something visionary, with a little more renewable energy thrown in: the Solarpunk movement.

For now, I’ll end here with a lovely and uplifting TED-Ed animated poem written by Tom Rivett-Carnac and narrated by the inimitable Jane Goodall. 

Click here to download a free children’s book version of this poem.

(All photos by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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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.

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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 Editor John Freeman

By Amy Brady 

Here in New York City, I’m squeezing all I can out of the last weeks of summer: sitting on my stoop with a good book, drinking iced tea, joining Zoom calls with local climate activist groups. I’m nostalgic for years prior when the husband and I would spend the summer traveling to visit friends and family. But we’re taking small joys where we can find them. I hope you are doing the same. 

Even as COVID-19 continues to wreck havoc on the United States – and elsewhere – climate change brings its own wonders and horrors. Last Sunday, the temperature in Death Valley rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps the hottest day ever recorded on Earth. That’s why books like John Freeman’s recent anthology, Tales of Two Planets, are so necessary. They bring the climate crisis to the forefront of our attention, while revealing just how hard it’s impacting people all around the globe.

John’s book is truly outstanding, which is why I’m delighted to bring you an interview with him this month. The former editor of Granta, current executive editor of Literary Hub, and founder of the literary annual Freeman’s, John is not new to editing or publishing talented and outspoken literary voices. Indeed, Tales of Two Planets is his third anthology on the subject of inequality (and the first to focus primarily on climate change) and features dozens of writers, including Edwidge Danticat, Anuradha Roy, and Lauren Groff. 

Tales of Two Planets follows two previous anthologies: Tales of Two Cities (about New York City) and Tales of Two Americas (about inequality in the U.S.). Why focus on climate change in your third anthology?

Climate change is the biggest problem facing the planet today, and the inequality in who it will affect and when appears to be unfolding in inverse proportion to who did the polluting – as in the richest countries with huge carbon footprints are better off than poor nations across Asia and Africa where the climate crisis is already a reality. Ultimately, and very soon, the climate crisis will severely alter all of our lives. It’ll force us to move, to change every one of our habits, and also question who we are – whether a global “we” is conceivable, as that’s the only way to save ourselves. A massive imaginative leap needs to happen right now – which is that people around the world, but especially in rich English-speaking nations, need to be able to imagine that what they do has an effect on the world, thousands of miles away. To me, the best way to imagine that is through stories. I’ve assembled these tales from all across the globe so readers can see what is happening right now. I hope they’re tales to help enchant people into action – because numbers clearly don’t work. 

Your book includes essays, short stories, and poetry. Why the mix of genres? Can each show us something different about climate change?

When I think of the books I’ve loved, they’re all over the map. For example, would I know how to love without Shakespeare… or Rumi… or Toni Morrison? That’s three genres right there. Form holds us in different ways. Sometimes it’s a close embrace, other times it’s like a chaperoned stroll. We need those varying degrees of intimacy and engagement to look at the world prismatically. 

In your introduction, you write that “To believe in a nation has increasingly meant to believe in a certain kind of person. Increasingly, it means my nation’s citizens are worth more than yours.” Could you expand a bit on this idea and how it may have informed your decisions on who to include in this anthology?

Hypernationalism, like we’re seeing right now, is a fear reflex, it’s an attempt to flee complexity. In recent decades, our governments have failed to create better stories for what they are. Imagine if there were more national narratives tuned to a world of many-sidedness? National identities of compassion, rather than of what – purity? Instead, many governments have chosen to retreat and demonize migrants, to shut up borders, or make certain people illegal. In his piece chronicling people coming from the Middle East to Turkey, Burhan Sonmez shows this to be true even in a nation that needs those very migrants to come to do certain kinds of labor. This is an infernal situation – it’s anti-human, and it’s also anti-literary. After all, where would any of us as readers be without travelers tales, without trade winds? 

The journeys of migrants are so startling – to pick up everything and literally flee – I wanted some pieces in the book to reflect the new realities their undeniably heroic decisions create. I didn’t specifically commission anyone to write on this topic; I only asked the writers to tell me how the climate crisis felt where they lived, and how it intersected with existing inequalities. But some of them did and I was glad. For example, Mariana Enriquez writes about a polluted river in Buenos Aires, but in doing so she has to address why people leaving rural northern villages wind up there and how the city treats them. In his great poem, Khaled Mattawa writes a modern-day calypso around multinational fishing, how it destroys rivers and lakes and seas – only for the people who move as a result to be demonized. 

You also write in the introduction that “We need to create a new language to deal with the scale of the crisis we face.” How did this idea inform your role as editor?

This book isn’t just a compendium of tales – a 21st century Canterbury tales set as we sit, watching the seas rise – it’s a lexicon. In Ligaya Mishan’s essay, you’ll learn a number of Hawaiian words for rain. Andri Snær Magnasson’s memoir about the vanishing of a glacier in Iceland introduces the term “geologic time.” As in, previously the earth moved at the speed of geologic time: our crisis in the climate is spurned along by the fact that we’ve now yoked the planet onto human time. In Lawrence Joseph’s poem, which harkens back to Walt Whitman’s vision of a sinister president, he uses the word “jubilate” next to “cruelty” – as in what happens if those who seize power in a government jubilate in cruelty? Words are not just decoration; nor are they tools to help us say hello or goodbye, ask for a drink of water, conduct business or trade. Words are how we see reality. They enable us to define it. When we’re living at the cusp of a tornadic reality, as we are now, the scale of change we face is so large it’s hard to even conceive. We need all the words we can bring to bear on the present. We cannot afford a species dying off in language too.

As someone who’s read a lot of essays, novels, short stories, and poetry collections about climate change, I recognize that writing on the subject can be incredibly valuable. But I believe that anthologies hold a unique power. As an editor of three, you seem like someone who might agree. Why are anthologies such powerful books? What can they provide that perhaps other types of books can’t? 

Very simply, I think anthologies allow us to see an issue from many sides at once – and from many places at once. There are all kinds of parallels within this book that emerged without planning. Yasmine el Rashidi, for example, describes in her piece having to move out of her family home in Cairo, and beginning to look for a place to live; Ligaya Mishan, whom I mentioned earlier, is watching her mother refuse to leave a family home, which every year floods more and will soon be inhabitable. To think of a place as rainy as Hawaii and one as dry as Egypt having such a shared fundamental issue – where to make and build a home – is very powerful. In this way, anthologies can build or at least reflect a collective we may not have known was already there. In times of political action, that’s potent. 

Many of the pieces in Tales of Two Planets share themes having to do with migration, anger at governments, and sadness over the loss of animals and wildlife. Were you looking to include pieces that have certain themes? Or did these themes arise organically?

They all arose organically. The huge variety of pieces that came in gave me a lot of hope for what is possible in a discussion when we don’t reinscribe the border attitudes so many of us resist politically on what (and whom) we choose to read. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to look for? 

These books on inequality have made it impossible for me to imagine a life in books without a lot of collaboration. I have learned far more from other people than any book. That’s why I love events which are conversations. I have one coming up with A. Kendra Greene, a marvelous young essayist who has a book out about the imaginary museums of Iceland, and then at the beginning of September with Aimee Nezhukumatahil, who has braided an account of her upbringing around a series of appreciations of various plants and fish and animals. 

As for work on the page, I’m not done with anthologies yet. I’m finishing up editing a Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, which has been loads of fun. It’s how I spent quarantine once I got better, reading stories. The best of them can do so much. This fall the Freeman’s issue on love will come out, and not fast enough for me. I think a lot of us are desperate for some tenderness, right?

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 at 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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Visual Artist Violet Kitchen on Creatively Illustrating a Climate Solutions Book

By Peterson Toscano

Violet Kitchen was just at the beginning of her career as a visual artist, illustrator, comic book artist, and graphic designer. Then came a big break: a deal to illustrate a new book, written by Violet’s friend, Solomon Goldstein-Rose, that publishers believed would make a splash. She she got to work and created dozens of illustrations for The 100% Solution. A Plan for Solving Climate Change.

Then in March, when the book finally appeared in print, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. In lieu of live readings and events, Solomon and Violet have begun to speak about the project in virtual spaces, including in Ep 50 of Citizens Climate Radio.

The book is filled with Violet’s whimsical and technically accurate illustrations. This project came with constraints, however. For one, other than the cover art, all of the illustrations are black-and-white while Violet usually works in bright colors. In addition, the illustrations had to display a lot of complex information in an easy-to-digest format. 

Violet shares how she adapted as an artist and discusses the role art can play in change movements.

Next month, writer, photographer, and climate action figure, Princella Talley, talks about her art, living in rural Louisiana, and being a queer woman of color in predominately heteronormative white climate spaces. 

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: Illustration by Violet Kitchen.)

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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Seeing Water

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Krisanne Baker defines herself as a multi-disciplinary eco-artist, water activist, citizen scientist, and educator. In all of these disciplines, she has devoted herself to researching and revealing the condition and beauty of our rivers, streams, and oceans, and to advocating for their protection. 

Baker’s interest in water is a natural outcome of having lived in coastal communities for most of her life, first as a child growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and then for the past thirty years as a resident of Waldoboro, Maine, which is located at the head of the Medomak River on Muscongus Bay. She describes her father as a “sailing fanatic,” who taught her to swim in the ocean with her eyes wide open so she could see the beauty of what lies below its surface. From her mother, a chemistry and biology teacher, Baker learned to closely observe the world through both the lens of a microscope and the naked eye. Her work over the last decade embraces what she learned from her parents as she incorporates her keen observations of life under the surface of the ocean and studies the micro environmental and chemical toxins that affect water quality.

Pawtucket River/Chesapeake Bay Water Column, Green Too: With the Earth in Mind, installed at Ann Marie Garden and Sculpture Park, Dowell, Maryland. Site specific water samples and debris, acrylic bars, screws, monofilament, and acrylic bags, 4’ x 4’ x 14,’ 2010.
WATER COLUMNS

In 2009, after receiving her MFA in Ecological Art, Baker began fabricating large-scale, site-specific installations at venues in multiple states. The installations, which she called Water Columns, contained layers of local water samples. Her goal for the project was to raise awareness about the water quality of rivers and drinking water in the designated communities, and to establish a connection between residents and their water sources, which included the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia; the Saco and Sandy Rivers in Maine; the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the Pawtuxent River in Maryland.

For each site, Baker installed a four-sided, structure comprised of clear, acrylic bars, and heavy duty monofilament. On each of the bars, she hung quart-size, Ziplop plastic bags that contained the water samples, starting with the clearest water from the surface of the river at the top of the installation and ending with the dirtiest samples from the lowest level of the river at the bottom of the structure. The water in the baggies also contained living organisms that represented individual biospheres. 

From a distance, the Ziploc bags, which are tinted blue and reflect ambient light, created a glowing and visually pleasing impression that enticed visitors to come closer and observe the level of dirt and pollutants in the water. The installations were also successful in stimulating conversations among the visitors and encouraging them to become engaged in water advocacy.

Malawi mural completed by local teachers. Acrylic on canvas, 4’ x 15,’ 2018.
MALAWI ARTIST RESIDENCY

In 2018, Baker spent three weeks in the Ntchisi region of Malawi in southeastern Africa on a residency near the top of a rainforest mountain. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The village that Baker visited had no running water, electricity, or source of fuel other than wood. In order to make a fire to heat water and cook, the residents cut down local trees, an action that has disturbed the area’s root systems which normally absorb rainfall. As a result, rainwater regularly runs down the mountain, causing a frequent shortage of available water.

The Malawi residency was sponsored by Go! Malawi, a non-profit organization based in Maine that collaborates with 12 local villages to develop programs in education, health care, commerce, and conservation for their residents. As Baker explained, “my mission was to incorporate art and the local rainforest ecology in a teachable curriculum for the Ntchisi district teachers that would encourage ecological stewardship….” 

When Baker arrived in Malawi, she hired a forest ranger to guide her and the 12 teachers in the program through the rainforest to learn about the connections between water, the ecology of the region, and themselves. She was surprised to learn that despite its proximity, many of the teachers had not actually been to the top of the rainforest mountain. 

In the classroom, Baker taught the teachers about global water systems, weather cycles, and how cutting down trees for cooking fuel would eventually collapse the water system in their locale. Using a digital microscope, she also introduced them to the experience of looking closely at water samples. 

For the culmination of the project, the participating teachers created a permanent mural in one of the Ntchisi school classrooms as well as two murals that would travel from classroom to classroom and school to school. The teachers intend to use the murals to instruct their students on water systems and stewardship. Each mural depicts what they learned about the connections between water cycles, plants, trees, animals, fish, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and people. In the end, all of the teachers expressed their gratitude to Baker for opening their eyes to the world around them and introducing them to water activism. 

Ocean Breathing, installed at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, East Boothbay, Maine. Upcycled, slumped, and soldered glass, monofilament, steel, solar LED lights, strontium and copper wire, 8’ x 8’ x 28,’ 2019.
OCEAN BREATHING:  BIGELOW LABORATORY FOR OCEAN SCIENCES ARTIST RESIDENCY

In 2019, Baker spent six weeks as a visiting artist-in-residence at The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, located in East Boothbay, Maine. Bigelow is a nonprofit research institute that studies the health of our oceans and works to find solutions to the impact of climate change on them. In addition to research areas like ocean warming, acidification, algal bloom, marine virology, and numerous other, Bigelow houses the largest living library of algae in the world. 

A devoted underwater swimmer, Baker has been fascinated by the glowing phytoplankton that exists below the upper sunlit layer of the water. Microscopic plants responsible for sustaining the chemistry of the ocean, phytoplankton also provide a sustainable, breathable atmosphere in the water. In collaboration with Dr. Michael Lomas of the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota, Baker completed drawings of the algae samples, which she used as research for the large-scale, glass installation she was planning to construct at the end of the residency.  

Because diatroms, or types of single cell algae, have natural glass exoskeletons, Baker chose to work in glass to convey their glowing, gem-like qualities for the installation, which she titled, Ocean Breathing. Using recycled glass and upcycled pipettes, she created over 100 different glass sculptures by slumping or melting the glass pieces into molds, and in some cases, soldering them together around LED lights. As multi-faceted and beautiful as the ocean itself, Ocean Breathing is currently installed at the Bigelow Institute.

CITIZEN SCIENTIST

In addition to her work as an artist and a high school art teacher, Baker is a volunteer with two local land conservancies for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. As a result of climate disruption, the temperature in the Gulf of Maine is rising faster than anywhere else in the country. She and her colleagues are responsible for warning the state when water samples contain dangerous levels of toxins or pollutants so that they can close the clam flats and/or oyster beds if necessary. 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Baker is currently planning an ambitious project in the Yucatan Peninsula where she has often gone to explore the Mezoamerican Coral Reef, which runs along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, and is the second largest coral reef in the world. In collaboration with a local community and school system as well as the University of Mexico, she hopes to take students out to the reefs for their first experience snorkeling so that they can understand how their lives are connected to the ocean. She is also proposing to install a permanent outdoor sculpture celebrating the reefs. 

All of Baker’s work, past and future, is motivated by her desire to encourage us all to really see water, for its inherent beauty and, most importantly, for its critical importance to our lives and to the survival of the world’s ecosystems. She is also demonstrating what Dr. Ellen Moyer described in her 2015 article for the Huffington Post when she said that “art allows people to relate to vast and often unfathomable concepts by engaging the heart and the senses. Art compels thought, helps us feel and process emotion, starts conversation and sparks creativity… An observer’s reaction to art can translate into caring, determination and action.” 

(Top image: Gulf of Main: Phytoplankton Breathing III, detail. Oil and phosphorescent pigments on canvas, 48” x 16,” 2017.)

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.

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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.

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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: Melissa Volker

By Mary Woodbury

Melissa Volker’s novel Shadow Flicker (Karavan Press, 2019) took me to beautiful east South African beaches and immersed me into surfing life. Despite the warmth of the novel, it’s also brewing with trouble. Kate Petersen keeps her panic attacks to herself until the day she experiences one in front of her boss. With her personal life in ruins, her job is all she’s got. When an important renewable energy assignment in an Eastern Cape surfing village comes up, she is allowed to take over only if she promises to get her anxiety under control. She decides not to tell her boss that he is sending her to the very place where all her troubles began with a tragedy that continues to haunt her.

Determined to put the past behind her, she arrives in St Francis Bay ready to placate environmental opposition to her employer’s planned wind farm. Trouble brews when she begins to fall for Matthew Sykes, the attentive vet and surfer who is still grieving the death of his wife. Meanwhile, the parochial locals escalate their protests, from peaceful resistance to creepy threats, and Kate is forced to confront her worst fears as well as risk exposing her fragile state of mind to Matthew and her client. Then the violence intensifies and Matthew turns out to have a few secrets of his own. Kate understands that their growing relationship and her job are at stake, but she doesn’t know that her life is also in danger.

I have been on the waves and enjoyed surrounding myself with the surf culture of southern California, where I used to live. I’ve also spent the past couple of decades reading novels and watching films about surfing. When I learned that Melissa was a surfer and a stand-up paddle boarder (SUP), and that she had written a novel near where Endless Summer‘s Bruce Brown and friends had traveled just to catch some wild waves, I knew I had to read her story. Also the author of A Fractured Land, Melissa is a brilliant storyteller and is passionate about the natural world. I find it endlessly interesting that authors like her are so keen to share their thoughts on place, culture, memory, and knowledge of the nearby land (and sea, of course).

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

Before discussing Shadow Flicker, I’d like to learn more about your novel A Fractured Land, first published by Literary Wanderlust in 2018. Like Shadow Flicker, it’s a romance-mystery with an environmental issue at its core. What inspired you to write about fracking?

In South Africa, water is a scarce and precious resource. I grew up in a town that is about two hours’ drive from the Karoo, a semi-desert area that covers roughly 40 percent of South Africa’s land area. A Fractured Land is set in the town of Graaff Reinet, in the Karoo. Different parts of the Karoo have different climates, plants, rock formations, and animal life. The biodiversity is incredible. The landscapes are achingly beautiful in their starkness. Some are rock and shrub; others are home to beautiful succulents and flowers. Sheep farming is common, but the Karoo is arid and water is scarce. The population is very small, and when you drive through some of the old Karoo towns, you get the impression that once they might have thrived when a rural farming lifestyle thrived. But you also get the impression that the life of the majority of people who live in the Karoo is one of poverty. They rely on farming, which in turn relies on rain and groundwater. The Karoo has been identified as a possible source of shale gas.

When I came to understand how hydraulic fracturing worked, how chemicals are mixed with water and then used to fracture rock to release shale gas, it seemed incomprehensible that a water-scarce region like the Karoo could sustain this type of activity. At the same time, if fracking was viable, environmentally and geologically, it might spell the end of the cycle of poverty for the many. However, I found that this difficult conversation was limited to interested parties who are poles apart, either the big oil and gas players or the toiling environmentalists.  I thought that by bringing the issue into accessible fiction, I could reach a wider audience with the problems and controversies posed by fracking.

Your newest novel, Shadow Flicker, also takes place in South Africa and is a romance-mystery. It delves into wind farms, with some exploration into renewable energy vs. ecological impacts. Of course, the audience is probably most steeped in the growing relationship between Kate and Matthew, and the evolving mystery in the story, but the environmental side is also interesting. How do you think contemporary fiction can be a conduit to readers learning more about ecology and environment?

I suspect these days people get “bad news” fatigue. When they hear one more story of humans compromising an aspect of the environment, they don’t always have the emotional fortitude to take the information on board. I hope with contemporary fiction we can take these difficult issues and package them in ways that are more palatable for people to digest and think about. Perhaps inspiring stories with ecology and the environment at their core can make readers more aware, and can either encourage them to stay on their environmentally conscious path or inspire changes in their behavior patterns, for example, reducing their single-use plastic or carpooling, or something like that.

I wanted to also mention the power of anxiety attacks and PTSD as the main character Kate remembers a shark attack that killed her friend in the past. Can you talk more about this?

I suspect we write about topics that we need to make sense of in our own lives at times. There is still shame and stigma associated with mental health problems, and I wanted to explore how this affects romantic relationships. Also, a friend of mine, who underwent severe trauma, learned neurogenic tremors in therapy. I discovered the profound positive effects of these tremors and was moved to include them in Kate’s story.

You explain this in the novel – but for our readers, what is “shadow flicker”?

The term describes the flickering shadow cast on nearby buildings and landscapes when the sun rises or sets behind rotating wind turbines. The effect is as if a light is being flicked on and off, and in the book, shadow flicker represents the possibility of a dark side to green energy.

The novel takes place in an Eastern Cape surfing village. You are also a SUP surfer? I’d love to learn more about that and how your own time in the water has influenced your writing. Did the story take place near or at the beach that Bruce Brown traveled to in Endless Summer? How do you think things have changed on this beach from the 1960s to now? Are there real conflicts there with renewable energy, wind turbines, and impacts on local wildlife? Twenty questions here!

Despite growing up near Jeffreys Bay and Bruce’s Beauties, I only learned to surf in Cape Town four years ago. When I was younger, I was scared of the sea, and popular surf culture influenced my view that it was a gendered space. Men were in the water and women were on the beach. The South African surf culture has since changed and, particularly in Cape Town, is now very inclusive. In fact, surf schools actively recruit women and girls into surfing and SUP.

Because my husband of twenty plus years is a surfer/kitesurfer/stand-up paddle boarder, I had the knowledge of surfers and what it was like to be married to one. My first ever published story was a short humorous piece about the life of a surfer’s wife. I realized I’d found a niche, so I continued to write about my surf learning curve in The Kook Diaries on my blog and subsequent published articles. Since then, I’ve learned to surf a stand-up paddle board, and it’s been an amazing journey: overcoming fear, being empowered by the ocean, becoming strong, and feeling the stoke. I live close to a gentle beach break, Muizenberg, and it is an inclusive, forgiving space with consistent waves for learning to surf. I have had the opportunity to research and write about gender disparity and women in surfing for various magazines and websites, and I’ve carried some of those themes over to my fiction.

As far as the setting for Shadow Flicker goes, my dad visited the Kromme River regularly during his youth in the 1950s, and so, in the 70s, he bought into a share block of fishing shacks near the Kromme River mouth, which opens into the sea at St Francis Bay. He took us there regularly from before I can remember. On the other side of the river is the village of St Francis Bay, and a short distance out of St Francis Bay is a promontory with a lighthouse and an even smaller village, Cape St Francis. St Francis Bay is the home of Bruce’s Beauties, where Bruce Brown discovered the perfect wave in 1966 and featured it in his iconic surf film, The Endless Summer. 

The story of Shadow Flicker takes place in St Francis Bay, and many surf scenes take place at a fictionalized fusion of Bruce’s Beauties and the wave to the left of it, Hulett’s. The beach has eroded so much over the years due to the development of the town, a golf course, a man-made canal system, the introduction of alien vegetation, and other factors. The Sand River (a literal river of sand) used to deposit sand on the beaches and into the ocean. Sand covered the rocks and created banks, but this no longer happens. Bruce’s might have always been a fickle wave, but it is even more fickle now and only breaks like it did in the Endless Summer when a perfect set of circumstances, swell, wind, and tide come together simultaneously.

The government has earmarked Thyspunt, a few kilometers down the coast from Cape St Francis, for a nuclear power station, so the anti-nuke narrative in the region has been loud and clear for years. When large wind farms were proposed, I imagined they would be welcomed. But during the Environmental Impact Assessment stage, many homeowners objected and I started reading and listening to conversations about wind farms and their impact on the environment. I realized that whatever we do leaves a footprint. The difficult questions around the impact of renewable energy developments on small communities invested in tourism inspired the conflict in Shadow Flicker.

Anything else you would like to add about your novels?

I’ve noticed in my own journey in surfing how the ocean empowers women, how surfing teaches women that they are stronger than they ever knew. This inspired my female protagonists: strong women who prevail in the face of waves of adversity. I like to steer away from the usual gender stereotypes. For example, I made the engineer in Shadow Flicker a woman, and the single parent, a man.

Are you still on a book tour, and what kinds of reactions do you have from readers regarding Shadow Flicker?

I have been to a few book festivals. Most recently, we went to Prince Albert, a small town in the heart of the Karoo, named after Queen Victoria’s husband. It’s a particularly arid region, currently experiencing a terrible drought. One of the audience members told me that when he saw the title of Shadow Flicker, he booked a ticket all the way from Port Elizabeth, over 250 miles away. He turned out to be a professor of physics who had worked on the design of the cells in wind turbines. He knew exactly what shadow flicker was and was looking forward to a technical discussion on wind farms. When it turned out to be a bit of a love story, he was neither disheartened nor disappointed. His wife said he was so inspired to see that one could write about wind farms in a way that was accessible to the non-academic public.

We also had a launch event in the surf shop in Cape Town, and my fellow wahines came out to support and celebrate. My publisher approached a local academic, historian, surfer, and writer, Dr. Glen Thompson, to chair the conversation, which he kindly did, and we talked about surfing history, the presence of the ocean at key turning points of the story, and the narrative of overcoming fear.

Our next event is in St Francis Bay, where the book is set, so I am super excited to be going there. Our host is the St Francis Brewing Company, as I set a scene in the book at their pub. They are launching their new plastic free six-pack rings at the same time, and I will give a talk about Shadow Flicker.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I am working on a story that again touches on a character with PTSD, this time the male character. Male depression is sometimes perceived as weakness, so I am working on a strong, kind man who is fighting his way through emotional darkness. The story does again have a seaside surf setting, and the female protagonist is a shark scientist. Cape Town used to have a large healthy, albeit feared population of white sharks, but the numbers have rapidly declined in recent years to almost zero. Shark culling is still practiced along some parts of our South African coastline and I am shocked at a dated narrative in some sectors that continues to portray sharks as vicious killers. Many species on the South African coastline remain unprotected. I want to write about these beautiful, powerful, misunderstood creatures in a way that might start conversations about their plight, their critical importance to ecosystems and their fight for survival. Hopefully, it will inspire some changes in human behaviors, too.

Melissa, I have learned so much from you and I thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Let’s keep in touch. I am looking forward to your next novel!

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 Nova Scotia 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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Introducing our New Series on Indigenous Voices

By GiGi Buddie

Oftentimes, when we think about climate change, we think of it as a distant and “far removed from daily life” issue. Yet, while some of us have the luxury of not being affected by climate change in our everyday lives, others are not so lucky. On the frontline of the climate crisis are Indigenous communities. Whether here in the United States, or abroad in the rainforest of the Borneo jungle, the climate crisis has spread to all corners of the Earth, and has severely impacted the Indigenous groups that live with and on the land. 

This new series will focus on both the experiences and the work of Indigenous artists, and highlight Native narratives, history, traditions, art, and cultures that have been severely oppressed and almost wiped out. There are many mischaracterizations and misinformation about Indigneous cultures and people, and I will attempt to address these as I make my way through the series. As an Indigenous artist myself, I am honored to contribute to this platform and uplift the voices of a people that have long been silenced. 

My American Indian mother raised me to understand the past and present struggles of my people, and as a student very interested in climate justice, I simply cannot ignore the current and future struggles that Indigenous communities are facing. Our people did not suffer through, and survive colonization and genocide, to endure the lasting impacts colonizers had on this land. Understanding how Indigenous communities are being affected, and understanding their devastating histories, might lead us to think more sustainably about ways to repair our Earth and our relationship with those that have cared for it for millennia. Because of the urgency of our environmental crisis, we can neither afford to ignore the people, culture, traditions, and art that we will lose, nor can we refuse to take action.  

Colonization is, arguably, the starting point of today’s climate crisis. Native peoples viewed the land not as a commodity, as something to exploit, but rather as something that sustained them as they sustained it. Indigenous groups cared for the land and those who inhabited it, and worked to live in harmony and balance with their home. Colonization brought not only the removal of Indigenous groups from their native lands, but the exploitation of these lands for capitalistic gain. As societies of the New World were built, and as natural resources were stripped away, the balance that these Indigenous groups worked hard to protect and maintain was broken. 

After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to research and assist on a play that was being developed, written by Isabelle Rogers and James Taylor. This Is A River tells the story of the Indigenous People of the Sarawak region of Borneo in Malaysia. I saw firsthand the detrimental effects of the climate crisis and how it was severely impacting the Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan people. Because of the lack of attention these pressing issues receive in the U.S., it had been easy for me to distance myself from them. But as we made our way downriver, with the beautiful, lush, green rainforest surrounding us and a vibrant soundscape pulsing with life filling our ears, only to then see entire hillsides of rainforest destroyed and stripped in front of our eyes, I felt no longer removed from the issue. It was laid out before me, and I couldn’t look away. And although you may never float down the Baram river, or speak with the incredible Indigenous communities that call that land their home, I ask you to not look away. I ask you to listen to the empowering artists that are part of this series, and to work to create a safe and sustainable world for all.

The artists that will be featured here have not only worked to create a space for Indigenous voices and art, but often address mischaracterizations, retell narratives, and advocate for social and political change. Artists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who has changed the face of hip-hop while using his art as a medium to talk about environmental issues and Indigenous conservation, is a prime example. As he explains in his My Story section on his website:

My music is both a tool for resistance, and a medium to tell my story. My dad taught me that all life is sacred. When I was a little boy, we would always talk about our responsibility to protect our land, our culture, our earth as Indigenous people. These teachings are the foundation of the music I write and the things I fight for.

At just 20 years old, Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organization. He has spoken at the United Nations several times, and regularly uses his voice and platform to talk about the effects of fossil fuels on the Indigenous and other marginalized communities. There are many other Indigenous artists who are creating small waves of change and telling their own stories. They may not be as well known, but their voices deserve to be heard. 

It is my hope that this series will create space for these Indigenous voices – the same voices that are undeniably important for the climate conversation. We may not live on our homelands anymore, but our relationship to the Earth runs far deeper than the land we have been taken away from. It is my belief that we all have something to learn from the traditional Indigenous ways of caring for the Earth, and of creating a safe world for our children and grandchildren. 

Over the next few months, I will be sharing my interviews with various Indigenous artists from around the world. We must listen to learn, and through this process I know I will absorb knowledge that I hope I can pass on to you. Aheeiyeh, my friends.

(Top image: Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Downloaded from CNN.com.)

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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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: Jessica Cory

By Mary Woodbury

Having spent a great amount of time in the Appalachian Mountains as a child (you can read more here), when I came across the anthology Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene, I was immediately convinced I needed to read this book. I wasn’t wrong. I fell into days of remembering the rivers, the coal miners, the pine trees, the isolation, the sometimes loneliness, the echos, the wildlife, the mountain people on old front porches who used to frighten me as a child but whom I am now fascinated by – and everything else I experienced when younger.  You could say that this book transcends time in a way, as it recognizes our current ecological crises, but it also brought me home.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Mountains Piled upon Mountains (West Virginia University Press, 2019) features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia, including Indigenous voices, sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Moving beyond the tradition of transcendental nature writing, much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change.

This book includes a mix of new and recent creative work by established and emerging authors. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries.

CHAT WITH THE EDITOR

I’m so grateful to Jessica, the anthology’s editor, for speaking with me about the book.

Mountains Piled upon Mountains is an absolutely breathtaking collection of powerful poems, fiction, and creative essays that bring a new level of understanding to readers about the culture and placed-based natural landscape – and the environmental concerns – of the Appalachian area. How did this book come about, and how did you find the authors?

The idea for the collection started when I was living in Greenville, North Carolina, actually. Here I was, living in the flatlands and I was pretty homesick for the mountains. So I started reading some nature writing from the region. George Ellison has a couple of volumes that are really fantastic, and there are some other wonderful collections that represent the Appalachian connection with nature as well. But what I noticed was that all of the collections I found were quite regional. And I understand why, because the topography in one area of Appalachia is often far different than the topography in another area, but I suppose, as someone who lived at times in various parts of Appalachia, I wanted to read something that covered the entirety of the region. I was encouraged by a handful of friends and mentors (my husband John, good friend Carrie Hodge, and long-time mentor Amritjit Singh, who teaches at Ohio University) to propose such a book to presses.

In order to find authors, I put out a call for proposals, a later modified call for proposals, and solicited some authors directly. When submissions began coming in, I was floored. So many wonderful, talented writers whom I didn’t even know were trusting me with their phenomenal work! To say I was honored is the understatement of the century.

It’s certainly phenomenal; I’m on my second read. I’m curious about your experiences in the Appalachian region. Can you share some of your favorite or worst times? What about the area speaks to your heart?

I’m from southeastern Ohio, equidistant from West Virginia and Kentucky, so many of my memories are from that region, though I now live in another part of Appalachia, western North Carolina. One of my favorite memories from my current region is when I lived in Spruce Pine, in a little house way back in the woods. We had a deck that wrapped around half the house and the land had a massive coyote population. In the late spring and early summer, the adult coyotes would come up almost to the deck and teach their pups to howl. I stayed inside, of course, so as not to scare them, but I would sit in my living room and listen to them for hours.

In Ohio, I would often hike (and still do, when I visit) the trails at Buzzard’s Roost in Chillicothe, as well as the many trails in Hocking Hills State Park and surrounding area, especially Conkle’s Hollow. There’s something in the air there. I don’t know if it’s the moss in the shade or what, but it just smells differently, almost more pure. I haven’t found that scent anywhere else.

As far as some of my worst times, I often think more of environmental detriments rather than personal challenges, simply because the latter seem less tied to location, as least for me. I grew up hearing stories about the pollution of the Ohio River and other waterways in the area from my dad, who worked on the railroad for about ten years, changing employment shortly after I was born. He used to tell me how the paper mill in Chillicothe would pay to have its employees’ cars repainted after whatever came out of the stacks ate the clearcoat and paint off their cars, because paying to have cars painted was cheaper than changing what they were doing. The air quality has gotten a lot better now, though. And when I read that the Bureau of Land Management had auctioned off part of Wayne National Forest to be used for hydraulic fracturing a couple years ago, I was pretty devastated.

I used to smell something really fresh like that in Eastern Kentucky, and I haven’t been able to find it since. You are the first person I’ve ever come across who has described that.

The book title is in reference to William Bartram’s Travels – early writing about the Appalachians. What about his memoir influenced Mountains Piled Upon Mountains?

For starters, Bartram’s Travels is some of the oldest Appalachian nature writing known, at least by someone of European descent. Obviously the Indigenous communities who first lived here (and in some places, still do) had narratives about the land as well, but those may not be as well known, especially if they weren’t recorded.

Bartram’s work was inspirational in the fact that he wasn’t exploring in order to exploit. Nearly all of the early explorers, especially those from Europe, but also from other areas, came with the goal to conquer, exploit, commit genocide, and claim the land and people for their own. Bartram was a rare exception to that. He was just curious and wanted to pass along what he felt to be the “truth.” I use quotes because, as we know, the idea of truth is always relative, but it does seem that his motives were not self-serving and malevolent.

The book’s stories capture individual and community spirit, emotions, and upsets in the quickly changing face of the mountain ecology – in regards to hydraulic fracking, mountaintop coal removal, deforestation, water contamination, and so on. Environmental concerns include human health concerns, and in this area, it’s been the case for decades. What is the community’s reaction to the anthology?

So far, I haven’t received any hate mail. Overall, I think that even communities whose economic stability depends on degradation of the environment are aware of the impact to the land and the planet. Often, people are just trying to care for their families, and I don’t think we can fault anyone for that. Many of the readings thus far have been in western North Carolina, where mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing aren’t active, so I think that helps. Though readings outside of the area have gone smoothly as well. I think a lot of that has to do with the audiences being open to the ideas in the book.

People around the world will also relate to this book as they find themselves in similar situations, where natural resources are taken out of the ground, despite threatening the health of all living things in the area. What we’re seeing in the Amazon rainforests or the Canadian oil sands, for instance, is similar. Do you have any thoughts about this? In your mind, how does creative literature help culture?

I have lots of thoughts on international exploitation of natural resources, but I think what I’d like to most emphasize is the way in which this exploitation is always intrinsically linked with how the corporations and people in charge view those people who inhabit the lands being exploited. Because it’s never just about the land. This is why Indigenous groups worldwide are some of the most severely affected by climate change and environmental exploitation. We’re seeing this currently with the burning of the Amazon, but we can also look closer to home with uranium mining on Navajo land, and similar crises in other Native communities.

I’m not saying this to minimize the plight of Appalachians, however. After all, it’s been argued before that Appalachians have been victim to a sort of colonization as well, the region’s inhabitants being seen as “other” by mainstream America and discriminated against. While the notion of colonization of Appalachia differs in many ways from other hallmarks of colonization (I’m actually writing an article about this at the moment), the region’s inhabitants have certainly experienced precarity at the hands of exploitation and its associated capitalism.

To address the second part of this question, literature reflects the culture it’s created within, so it can serve as a mirror, which can then cause introspection and eventually, change. Creative literature also typically reaches a much wider readership, spreading awareness in a way that an article in an obscure journal might not, which increases the chances that change can occur. In addition to being a mirror and reflecting culture, it seems plausible that literature can shape culture, or give voice to ideas that have been oppressed or repressed, expanding our ideas of culture and possibility.

I agree. In August, I was listening to a podcast that covered Kentucky coal miners blocking a coal train in order to protest their former employer, due in part to being laid off. There’s sort of the stereotype of the unaware blue-collar worker (backwoods “redneck”), but actually people in the Appalachian areas are often working in the only jobs available. And they’re completely aware of the dangers and not at all the monolith of talking, looking, acting the same (as I read your description from Western Virginia University). How does the book speak to that?

Oh, yes, the Blackjewel miners’ protest! One of the things that really struck me about the protests was the way in which the community rallied around them. People brought food, cornhole boards, lawn chairs, and really just supported the miners in what they were doing.

And you’re right in that people are often working the jobs that best support them and their families. Many people know the dangers, but often that’s the risk they take for the reward. Appalachian people are often known for pride, and these difficult choices reflect that.

One of my hopes for the collection is to highlight the differences in the region, and really to build onto the larger body of work, both creative and scholarly, that strives to break down these stereotypes by letting Appalachian writers tell their own stories in their own words, including portraying Appalachian people in ways that fight against the time-worn caricatures.

There’s quite a bit of literature and music creatively exploring the same issues as this book. For instance, I’ve been fond of the band Rising Appalachia as well as author Barbara Kingsolver. Do you have any favorite artists participating in making this area come alive for others?

I absolutely LOVE Rising Appalachia and got to see them perform a couple years ago with Ani DiFranco at the LEAF Community Arts Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It was magical! I also really enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s work, particularly Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’m always striving to be more self-sufficient and I think she does a great job in that book demonstrating how that can be achieved in a variety of ways. Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is certainly a classic when it comes to farming in Appalachia.

I also often look at intersections of identity and environment. Some wonderful writers who are addressing these intersections of sexuality and environment include the phenomenal poets Savannah Sipple, author of WWJD and Other Poems, and Nickole Brown, especially in her recent chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods. doris davenport and Susan Deer Cloud, who are both featured in this collection, explore the intersections of race and environment in Appalachia, as does, of course, bell hooks. In addition to hooks, scholar Karida Brown in her book Gone Home and Crystal Wilkinson, particularly in Birds of Opulence, bring together environment and race, as does Marilou Awiakta, whose work is just phenomenal.

I’m also a huge Ron Rash fan, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a colleague. I love the way he incorporates environmental issues into his larger plots, for instance in Serena with deforestation and in One Foot in Eden with Jocassee Dam. Ann Pancake, who is in the collection and whom I was able to talk with for some additional scholarly research, is another fave for much the same reason I love Ron’s work. She’s very much an activist-writer who’s quite attuned to environmental issues.

As for music, doris recently invited me to attend a 100 Thousand Poets for Change event that she organized with her friend Joanne Steele. There were several poets and musicians who shared their talents, including Joanne, who wrote and performed some wonderful songs focusing on environmental and cultural concerns, including a song about children harvesting coffee beans, which was heartbreaking. I do love a good protest song, even if it’s not specifically Appalachian or environmental.

That’s interesting about the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event, as Michael Rothenberg (who founded the world-wide event) and I have been good friends for decades, and I have done many similar events in Vancouver, British Columbia. Just goes to show that the artist movement in the Anthropocene is really world-wide and yet so important locally. Thanks for all these great recommendations and for taking the time to provide such insightful answers.

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 Nova Scotia 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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‘The Animal that Adapts to Burning Houses:’ An Interview with Poet Trace DePass

By Imara-rose Glymph

Trace Howard DePass, author of Self-portrait as the space between us (PANK Books, 2018), editor for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, and 2016 Queens Teen Poet Laureate, is a kaleidoscopic wonder to behold. 

I had the pleasure of being a live Zoom studio audience member for the 2020 Climate Speaks performance, a youth poetry event organized by DePass in which 16 young writers embraced nuance to passionately and clearly convey their emotional responses to climate change. Trace initiated this fellowship as the 2018-2020 program coordinator of Climate Speaks with The Climate Museum.

In this interview, we break down Trace‘s unique rhythm, his poetic upbringing in vibrant Queens in New York City, and discuss what eco-poetry truly means. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You enjoy experimenting with the percussive, incorporating beatbox and drumming into the rhythm of your poetry. As a wearer of many hats, how were you drawn to the worlds of environmental justice and climate poetry? 

I’m in an open relationship with poetry: poems are my muse, the thing that gets me through each day. I freestyle them in the shower, write them with pen on paper, though sometimes I let the ideas ruminate for years. There has always been an element of science and mathematics in my poems – those are big drivers for me. I enjoy thinking about how to concretize mathematics and science in different kinds of colloquial and abstract ways. To see how I incorporate beatboxing into prose, check out the video for my piece filmed by Smuggler, “Band-aids & other temporary healings,” which interrogates the supposed healing nature of verse.

I was first influenced by my great-grandfather, Howard DePass, who I’m named after. He wrote a book of poems titled Bridges (1977). It’s the only thing I have left of him; he died before I was born. Howard was a father of three children when he authored this book, so there is a beautiful matriarchal and patriarchal theme present. There is one particular piece that could be considered climate poetry, called “Why Willows Weep,” in traditional ABAB rhyme. The last two lines are my favorites of all time, because he places nature and law into the same note.

But like a forfeiting attorney 
The willow stands and weeps

Ultimately, the poem is about beauty and weeping; the contrast heightens the message. 

While editing for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, I read an essay titled “No Sacrifice People: Ableism, the Climate Crisis, and Dehumanization” by J. Astrian Horsburgh. She broke down the abled and disabled body’s relationship to the climate crisis – highlighting where sacrifice zones for disabled people are designated in the case of nuclear fallout or natural disaster. As a person with MS, J. Astrian would not be able to receive medicine herself during a natural disaster; it would physically harm her to do so. It blew my mind, propelling me to think of the translation to discriminatory design in Black and Brown neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans and Queens. I was inspired to take classes on institutional racism, micro-aggression, intentional branding, and the history of food deserts. I do not separate these issues from climate change. They affect me personally: my grandmother and father have COVID-19, living in planned areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and other tropical storms.

Being raised by my grandmother, I was suddenly confronted with the reality of her mortality. It was extremely hard to get food during quarantine as the grocery lines in our hood were long and densely packed. We ordered delivery for the whole month of April because I could not risk going outside for her health. The same places where the coronavirus hit the hardest are those environmental sacrifice zones intertwined with environmental racism.

Bridges (1977) by Howard DePass

How was your collaboration with the Climate Museum born? How has the shift from in-person to online affected your teaching?

I formed part of a group of three youth poets and three youth climate activists who were flown to Utah to perform a 15-minute poem in choreo-style to get environmental venture capitalists to feel passionate by appealing to the emotional side of the crisis. Our director, Karl, was not able to come with us so I took up the responsibility of caring for the participants. Climate Speaks came out of this work. The Climate Museum took notice of my leadership ability as a teaching artist and realized how much I could do with the right resources. They hired me as an artist-in-residence in December 2018. Miranda, the director, is a former civil rights lawyer who fought for affirmative action at the Supreme Court level. I respect her and the Climate Museum a lot for the fact that they are not just any regular institution; they really do care about the community. 

This is our second year of programming Climate Speaks and if not for the pandemic, the performance would have been held at the Schomburg Library. We adapted to be online. Theatre does not always have the same team-building effect when translated to Zoom because we don’t share physical space. I was able to transition some of the ensemble building but tech does not create the group dynamic that we experienced in person. Despite this challenge, all of the kids really supported one another in their vision.

We spoke about the destruction of Black and Brown neighborhoods, such as the community of Far Rockaway, during Hurricane Sandy by climate-induced flooding, and your personal connection to this event. Why is environmental justice, with the involvement and leadership of BIPOC, so important, especially when it comes to food deserts and inaccessible green open spaces?

I’m from the south side of Jamaica, Queens, where I grew up in an incredibly diverse pivotal voting block, surrounded by Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Guyanese, Indian, and Trinidadian people. Similar to the south side of Chicago, gun violence, drought, famine, concentrated housing projects, and the prevalence of food deserts have wrecked my community. When COVID-19 swept through, people were dying everywhere. The coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter riots affected us in a way not mutually exclusive from the climate crisis. 

Queens, despite being a cultural hub with the highest percentage of Black homeowners and the largest number of spoken languages, is heavily under-resourced and lacking in radical political organizing. Harlem and Brooklyn are far more consistent and well-known for that kind of activism. From the Black Panther era going forward, Queens’ organizers were displaced and political corruption ran rampant. Many poets have migrated away; I am one of the only people still organizing and bringing Council members together with artists. I became tied to a lot of spiritual, poetic, and artistic forms outside of institutional teaching because of the rich African dance theatre tradition in Queens. I feel very confident in my skills and my blackness because of where I grew up, but life is hard out here. When it rains, it floods. I try to focus my work on these parcels of experience. The climate crisis is here. It is urgent to use it to amplify the other social justice conversations – the climate is the one intersection where we all relate.

What is the difference between eco-poetry and climate poetry? 

There is a need for a specific kind of pedagogy around the climate conversation and poetry for further mobilizing. What we aim to do is separate climate poetry from eco-poetics so as to objectively address the roots of the climate crisis. We don’t want to focus so much on being an eco-movement. We don’t want to co-opt environmental poetry but we also can’t have a completely disembodied climate poetic not grounded in the Earth. How can we actually communicate climate in a poem rather than grapple with metaphysical themes? This negotiation is tricky for me as a Black and Indigenous person, having Shinnecock tribal affiliation by way of my great-grandmama.

How do we address the root causes of the climate crisis without being too anthropomorphic? I wrote a climate poem for the American Poetry Journal showcasing how I am struggling with anthropomorphism. It’s called “The animal that adapts to burning houses,” inspired by one of Martin Luther King’s only in-color interviews where he illuminated that he feared he was integrating his people into a burning house. It is written in honor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King, and the south side. 

“The animal that adapts to burning houses” by Trace DePass

How did you use perspective, style, and structure to amplify the message of that poem? Does it relate to the Black ancestral tie to the land, the flora, and the fauna? Is this resonance something that influences your craft?

My poem is a sonnet that reckons with individualism, with “ram” as a metaphysical conceit. There are many definitions of ram: ram as a boat, as a physical act, an image of a goat or satan, or random access memory on your phone. All these definitions within one word carry throughout the entire poem. Ram can be anthropomorphized as toxic masculinity and as the memory of the human race. 

To give more context on the symbolism used, Habakkuk is a prophet from the Old Testament who questioned God – a social justice warrior for his day. There’s a whole chapter in which he questions God but receives no concrete answers, leaving only more questions. That ending was profound for me.

A hypercube is a four-dimensional cube. A tesseract, in other words. Tesseracts can only be perceived within the fifth dimension – they take up that much dimension. Human beings live within it. I see this creation as an interaction with God or whichever divine entities exist out in the universe.

While there are lyrical moments in this poem, I am deliberately saying that there is no metaphor. There is an actual calf. There is no human cheese. It sounds hyperbolic when in fact, I am simultaneously being hyper-literal and meta. I am giving my Black human context through the lens of an animal so that the audience can relate no matter their background. The challenge of climate poetry specifically is to figure out how to rely on clear communication, not solely poetic devices, within the poem to push the conversation forward.

There can be an unnerving nature of pleasantry in many interviews; I appreciate your raw honesty. Do you feel pressure or expectation to write on themes of identity, trauma, and oppression as a Black artist? 

Many black poets – I think of Phillip Williams and Jericho Brown – share a certain queer aesthetic and convey sensuality despite the triggering nature that our prose can take on. There is a consciousness in that. Even my work, rooted in affirmation, alludes to sexual violence, toxic masculinity, and the interrogation of more nuanced abusive relationships that don’t involve only men. 

However, there is so much discussion nowadays around what “the work” constitutes. While I’m happy for people of all races to be doing this supposed “work,” the phrase honestly aggravates me. Black people do not need to be held so hyper-accountable for this all the time. We are not given even five minutes to just exist as human beings without being framed for complicity and perpetuation of stereotypes. 

I have to code-switch. I try to speak in a way where everyone can receive me, which is why I curse less in front of the children. I teach poetic form in a way that can be pulled apart using any kind of intelligence, be it from the street, physical, or within a school. This is why my poems are really long, often presented in weird sonnets that use arrows, dashes, and spaces. I like to come up with more and more ways to reiterate and evolve material. When we focus on certain literary devices instead of truth in meaning, we lose out on a lot of teaching. 

What does the future hold for you? 

I plan on doing the same things I’ve been doing all year: investing in my communities, continuing my work on climate art with the Climate Museum, and collaborating with Urban Word NYC. Before the coronavirus switched up my whole schematic, I was going to be one of Scholastic’s first teaching artists. I am also a part of the Community Word Project, which pairs writers with multidisciplinary artists to educate kids in New York City. I’ve even taught virtually for New York University. That was especially wild because I was teaching at the college level without a degree! I never want to be an academic. Underground grassroots organizations contributed a lot more to my growth as an artist, thinker, and educator. 

Tell the BIPOC and queer kids you know to apply for the Scholastic and Climate Museum art and writing programs. The majority of people applying for these opportunities are young white girls; this demographic needs to change! The Climate Museum, although not incredibly diverse, is definitely dedicated to increasing representation across different sexual orientations, gender expressions, and identities.

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

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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. 

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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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‘Compassion in Crisis’: An Interview with Kailea Frederick

By Imara-rose Glymph

Plant your feet in fresh dirt, breathe deep the gift of oxygen, sense the cool wind tickle your nape; you are, in this moment, rooted. In the midst of the climate crisis, how are we cultivating a tangible, regenerative kinship with Mother Earth in our daily lives? This is where Spiritual Ecology comes in as a framework for healing and bridge-building, making place for oneself in gratitude for the natural world.

Kailea Frederick is a First Nations mother dedicated to supporting individuals in remembering their personal ties to the Earth. Growing up off-grid in Maui, Hawai’i forever imprinted on her the importance of reciprocity and cultivating intimate ties to Honua, our island Earth. In this interview, Kailea shares her work on climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking, and describes how motherhood has influenced her practice. 

Currently, Kailea is the editor for Loam, and a climate commissioner for the City of Petaluma, California. Earth is `Ohana is her brainchild – an online integrative space offering writing, consulting, and the facilitation of workshops focused on our reconnected relationship with Earth to address our environmental reality.

Kailea Frederickphoto by Adam Loften.

What first drew you to the realm of climate activism? How did your experience as a graduate of the International Youth Initiative Program and as a Maui youth delegate to two United Nations Climate Change Conferences enrich and inspire your environmental leadership?

In 2011, when I was 19 years old, I entered into the slow food movement, which became an access point into food justice and ultimately food sovereignty. That year, I started working on a local farm that I would end up being at for the next six years. Most of my friends were young farmers or practiced some other form of subsistence. I grew up in the Hawaiian islands, where there are estimates that 80% to 90% of all food is imported, so the topic of food sovereignty is something you inherently understand due to the fragility of the whole system. Growing up, I would always hear talk about what would happen if the ships were to stop coming. During this time, I saw a huge transition in mindset and awareness around this issue. 

I became politicized through the local food movement. Once you start talking about food, you have to start talking about water. I was introduced to the fight for local water rights that Native Hawaiians have been engaged in. Many streams have had their water flow cut off, which previously fed into their lo`i, the area where they would grow their kalo or taroKalo is one of the main staple foods; the act of growing and preparing it is both a cultural and spiritual practice, as well as a means of survival. This brought me into learning from and supporting the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. I learned that when you fight for Native self-determination, you actually fight for regenerative stewardship practices. Native people globally know how to respectfully manage and tend to land. 

In 2014, I graduated from the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP) and upon arriving home on the island of Maui, a campaign called the SHAKA movement was just getting underway. This was my formal initiation into the world of activism; previously I would never have described myself as an activist. SHAKA had put together a ballot initiative for that year’s elections that would place a moratorium on biochemical companies like Monsanto utilizing our land for experimental testing until we, the citizens, had an opportunity to hire our own scientists to check if their testing was safe. It was a huge community education endeavor, in which I spent time working on the youth arm of outreach and moderated the main Facebook page. We ended up winning the ballot initiative but failed to vote in the people who would defend the bill. That in itself was a huge lesson for me, one I am still addressing today through my work as a climate commissioner in the city of Petaluma. Never overlook or underestimate the power of local politics. 

My experience at YIP was months fresh and directly played into my active participation. YIP, as a program, is focused on project development, collaboration, and conflict resolution. The experience gave me the courage and skills to take an idea, implement it, and learn how to navigate work within complex group dynamics. 

In 2014 and 2015, I was a youth delegate to the UN Climate Change Conferences (COP21 & COP22). These experiences provided my first glimpse into the international climate justice movement, with an emphasis on building solidarity across Native rights and fights against extractive industry. I learned about movement building, media creation, and on the ground action, while getting a taste for what policy spaces hold. 

Kailea reads to her son, photo by Adam Loften.

You were a spiritual ecology fellow with Kalliopeia, a foundation that supports initiatives interweaving spirituality, culture, and ecology. Describe how Earth is ‘Ohana came out of that immersive fellowship.

The fellowship tasked us with coming up with a few projects to workshop as the program was oriented around incubation. I applied and was accepted based on previous ideas, and then went to COP21. It was because of that intensive experience being on the streets of Paris that the idea for Earth Is `Ohana came about. I wanted to figure out a way to bring this experience home for my community. I piloted the project for 10 weeks with a few participants in the spring of 2016 before I started the fellowship in the summer. In nine more months, it was fleshed out even further. In some ways, the prompt of the fellowship supported me in thinking more deeply about what I wanted to create, but the project itself came directly out of other lived experiences and my desire to better serve my communities through grassroots education. 

I’m currently in the midst of broadening Earth Is `Ohana into a space that is about offering my specific services through facilitation, consulting, and writing, while still remaining fixed on addressing the intersections between climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking. 

Drawing on a guiding question from the Earth Is `Ohana workshops, “How do we practice returning home to our landscapes in order to regenerate our relationship with Earth?” Why is this re-imagining of activism so essential?

The practice of placemaking is a core part of understanding yourself as part of a specific ecology and social system. It’s important work that helps to ground us in a story of self that transcends the usual linear notions of success and instead brings us into relational interdependence. This type of placemaking is not generally part of the mainstream environmentalist movement and often leaves us working on a shallow level instead of addressing issues at the systemic level. I didn’t fully understand this having grown up in such a small community, embedded so directly in the landscape that raised me. Naively, I thought that most of us carried this level of personal relationship to land and community. Stepping into climate activist spaces away from Hawai’i was a huge culture shock; one that I’m still learning to navigate. It became obvious to me that we would need to re-imagine how we practice activism so that we are able to sustain this work for the long arc of life. Burnout is a prevalent problem that doesn’t allow our movements to retain long-term investment from individuals, but beyond the logistics of losing people, burning out is also a spiritual problem. When we invite people into a culture of practice that depletes the inner self, we’re mimicking aspects of the extractive industry we’re fighting. 

How do intersectionality and interpersonal communication come into your practice, especially as a person who identifies as womxn, First Nations, and African American – those groups on the frontlines of the climate crisis?

Because I am a mother, because I am Black, because I am First Nations, because I grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, because I have a parent who works in the extractive industry, because I currently live in a predominately white city, my work must always remain intersectional and therefore inclusive. I have known all of my life that I carry within me, just by the nature of who I am, many bridges to often divergent worlds and people. In the course of my 29 years on Earth, I’ve interacted, lived among, and been in kinship with many different types of people. My privilege is intersectionality as a lived experience in my own bones, and I say this because it has made me grow capacity and perspective. It is an ever-expanding lens that allows me to see and hold connections that might not be obvious to most, which also means it’s one of my greatest responsibilities, making those connections for others. My vision is that, one day, our larger social, political, and environmental movements will work in greater cohesion through understanding the intricate ways they are interwoven. Less divisiveness, more nuance, that’s my prayer. 

Kailea and her son amid palms, photo by Adam Loften.

In collaboration with Kate Wiener of Loam magazine, you released your first book, Compassion in Crisisbraiding together interviews and resources for learning to live in the Anthropocene. What was that process like? Has motherhood influenced your perception of life in these times of social, political, and environmental instability?

The process of birthing Compassion in Crisis alongside Kate was a fruitful experience. When we initially started the project, I told Kate I wanted to write about death. I’ve thought about the closeness of death every day since becoming a mother. As soon as you start growing a child, you realize how precious and vulnerable life is. I went through pregnancy half in awe and half in fear over this new life I was suddenly responsible for. This was heightened as a few days after I found out that I was pregnant, a town 20 minutes from my house lost whole neighborhoods to a wildfire. Not more than a month after my son was born, wildfire season started early. This was 2018 and we spent several weeks in the second half of that year living beneath smothering smoke that was incredibly hazardous to my newborn’s lungs. I grappled daily with debilitating fear. I was scared to go to sleep because I was worried a fire would break out in our town at night. My partner and I made detailed plans about what an escape would look like, who would carry the baby’s body, who would carry our dog. 

Compassion in Crisis was created from that place of anxiety. It was a project that helped me re-learn how to breathe again, as through the research and the interviews I really confronted and got intimate with the grief and possibility that surrounded disaster. I draw frequently on those materials as a way to help me keep showing up to the world we’re living in. As a parent, I think that’s all I can do. Keep showing up honestly. 

What are you envisioning and what are you hopeful for in the future? 

Recently I’ve been feeling hope through embarking on new conversations with friends and acquaintances who up until very recently have not considered themselves political. It has been affirming to me to receive questions about where and how to plug in, and even more enlivening when new faces actually show up! I feel like our movement spaces are gaining traction and the greater public is becoming familiar with specific demands being set forth. Ideas that just a few months ago would have been considered radical by most, like reparations, are suddenly catching on. Seeing others around me critically think, and deepening my own critical thinking capabilities, brings me a lot of hope! We’re sharpening our minds and that gets me excited. 

I’m about to have a piece published on the Center for Humans and Nature website as part of their section called “Resilient Future Questions.” The theme I’m working with is belonging. My essay is a vulnerable one, as it touches on some of the thoughts and feelings I had while waiting to find out the skin color of my child while I was pregnant. In 2018, one of my friends challenged me to not “be afraid to write ugly.” I spent all of last year slowly inching my way towards this concept of ugly writing, which I understand as deeper truth writing. This year, 2020, my goal was to fully step into this ugly writing, and this piece definitely touches on those parts of myself that I would consider unpleasant, yet deserve to be seen as much as the more palatable parts of myself. Because I’m mixed, and because my mixed child is white-passing, I feel particularly dedicated to widening space for us mixed people to inhabit. The middle space, which is ultimately a bridge space, is never easy to inhabit, yet we need to bridge people now more than ever. I’ll be sharing it when it goes live on my Instagram, which is the best way to stay tuned to my work and collaborative projects.

In closing, here is Remembering Back Into Ourselves with Kailea Frederick from For The Wild‘s Deeply Rooted, a nourishing poetry reading and guided meditation, cultivating wellness and fostering resilience.

(Top image: Kailea Frederick with her son, photo by Adam Loften)

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

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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. 

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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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In Conversation with Actor, Singer, and Director Velina Brown

By Imara-rose Glymph

I’m delighted to bring you this refreshing interview with San Francisco-based, award-winning actor, singer, director, San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT) collective member, and drama professor Velina Brown. Since graduating with a degree in counseling from San Francisco State University, Velina has combined these skills to develop her life and career coaching services through The Business of Show Biz. She also contributes as a monthly columnist to the Theater Bay Area Magazine.

Velina was a principal actor in the 2013 SFMT musical satire Oil & Water, speaking truth to power about the corporate, extractivism fueled, environmental devastation of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the lives of its residents – both human and nonhuman. In this interview, we explore theatre as a platform for socio-political and environmental activism, the revolutionary ethos of the Mime Troupe, and why intersectionality is at the heart of it all. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for 21 years and been involved in over 27 productions. What first drew you to political satire, which the troupe employs?

What first drew me to wanting to work with the company was a show called Seeing Double (1989). If you heard our recent radio plays, Tales of the Resistance, the song that finishes the first episode, “Jade For Hire,” is from this comedy of errors about the Israel-Palestine relationship and the two-state solution. One of my classmates in the Counseling Department at San Francisco State, the late Emily Shihadeh, was one of the main writers for the show. Her family was forced out of the home that had been in their possession for 130 years when the state of Israel was created. My husband was a lead actor, having joined the troupe in 1988, but I didn’t get involved until 1992. When I first saw the show, I was really impressed by the blend of educational and interactive entertainment.

Velina Brown

I learned a lot about what was going on in the Middle East from this source because at the time, the discussions people were having were simply, “It’s complicated.” It was a huge project; they went onsite to Israel and Palestine, playing both sides of the bank even though it was potentially dangerous (they received threats for presenting controversial material). There were perspectives contributed from Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Americans, and Palestinian-Americans, which represented a broad viewpoint. I was really moved by the powerful combination of witty, humorous scripts, spectacular performance, and music into a holistic package that impacted people’s consciousness and awareness of the world. What started as a one-time experience turned into a thirty-year adventure of mine.

Tell us a bit more about the mission and inner-workings of the Mime Troupe. There is great emphasis on a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multigenerational, democratic vision to unite people across boundaries with artistry and humor. How does this influence the process of making?

People come into the collective with specific skills to contribute. Over time, other talents are developed and expanded to different areas. Our head writer, Michael Gene Sullivan, has 32 years of experience acting and 20 years of experience directing and writing with the troupe. The last head writer, Joan Holden, had a 33-year involvement. With 11 members, the troupe determines democratically what material will function for the next season. Newer member, Marie Cartier, collaborates in writing the clever commercial skits. Daniel Savio, our composer/lyricist, has a lineage of activism through his father Mario Savio – leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. Everyone has a hand in the decision-making process in the sense that collectively, we are all the artistic directors. We decide as a collective. Our process is ever-evolving, discussion-based, writing and rewriting as we act. The troupe creates shows about our burning issues whether environmental justice, elections, racial justice, and economic injustice to ultimately highlight the oppressive profit > people mentality fueled by unbridled capitalism. 

A huge part of our mission is the accessibility of our art. Theatre institutions are exclusive/elitist in that not everyone is allowed into the traditional theatre space or able to afford shows. The majority of SFMT performances are free and we mostly perform in public parks, although we do ask for pay-what-you-can donations to support our craft. We often perform in rugged conditions where we strive to be resourceful. It is exhausting, rewarding work. Even though we are a leftist, radical group, we still get critiqued by liberal audiences for “preaching to the choir.” The truth of the matter is that people go see shows where the demographics match their own and each place has its own specific population. We encourage our audiences to venture outside of their spheres of familiarity as the troupe has performed nationally and internationally. We sometimes speak to constituencies who do not share the same mindset as we do, connecting across differences to find common ground. In this way, it is essential to realize that true listening is not the same as agreeing.

That is what attracted me to SFMT. Many people who come to watch us are active, engaged, intelligent global citizens, who want to be part of actual change. They have this innate understanding that no one is free until we all are free. “Who are we and who do we want to be?” We explore these questions interactively to envision the just society we want to see.

Oil & Water

Oil & Water, the 2013 environmentally-focused musical show featuring dual storylines tackling corporate extractivism, inspired me to reach out to you regarding this series. Did SFMT connect directly with scientists while composing this piece? What investigations influenced the research?

While we did not go directly to the site, we conducted extensive research during the origination of the material. We gathered a resource list to provide the scientific and experiential background for the writing. The list includes literature – The Tyranny of Oil by Antonia Juhasz, and Blue Gold: The Fight to stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke – that feature a relationship between the pursuit of oil, water privatization, and clean water access. 

We are not environmental scientists – we are artists who are progressively showcasing social issues from the perspective of the working class. If we feel that an issue is especially pressing to those who have to work for a living, we reach out to experts in the appropriate fields and ask them to come talk with us. 

We host talkbacks and panels after each show so that the public can interact with experts and organizing leaders, and ask questions. SFMT reaches out to activists to offer our performance space as a platform for publicity and an effective organizational tool. For Oil & Water, twelve environmental organizing groups, including 350 Bay Area and Amazon Watch, had booths set up to give them greater exposure and mobilize interested participants. After watching our shows, people feel motivated to seek out involvement with the subject matter, to become better informed on how to assist with the cause.

Oil & Water

Why was this show different from the traditional Mime Troupe performances? What roles did you play and what did you hope would be conveyed about the climate crisis?

The National Endowment for the Arts, which typically funds us, had been slashed that year as the federal emphasis shifted away from the arts. People in Congress actually complain about us by name! These representatives don’t know what we do; they believe the troupe spends frivolously on tights and makeup. In response, we created a stripped-down show with four actors where I played the devil in the first act, “Deal With the Devil,” and one-half of a lesbian couple, Gracie, alongside Lisa Hori-Garcia, in “Crude Intentions.”

Lisa’s character, Tomasa, is a documentarian shooting footage to capture the exploitative oil interests in the Amazon – a story based on a real whistleblower who was threatened by giant Chevron. Tomasa shields herself as a modest restaurant owner in the Mission District of San Francisco, all the while retaining the investigative side of her nature. The play ends with a catering scene at an exclusive event for oil executives and a mastermind plan to expose the injustice. That’s the interesting aspect of these corrupt, supposedly invincible, entities – they assume that people in service industries will not wield this information against them for social good. Working-class folk are not seen as important enough to care or worry about… 

Poster designed by Lawton Lovely, collective member for 2013.

In “Deal With The Devil,” the given circumstances are that a woman president has been murdered, Rotimi Agbabiaka is reinstated as the new Obama-esque president, and Earth has been totally destroyed after being stripped of environmental protections. The only area that is preserved is Washington D.C., showcasing the class inequities caused by the climate crisis. Those who are on the frontlines of the crisis, BIPOC, are not the ones exacerbating the issue. Yet, though they contribute the least to the problem, they are the most impacted. That is environmental racism in a nutshell. The people in control of making decisions that poison our ecosystems do not have to deal with the ramifications. The problem that my character, the devil, is experiencing is ironic in that she must prevent humans from becoming extinguished by the impact of environmental degradation in order to preserve her mission of temptation. In this hilarious scenario, the devil is a climate activist advocating for the health of the planet. This role reminded me of the prophetic words of Chief Seattle: “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”

In what ways has climate change impacted your life and community personally? 

I guess that depends on what the definition of a community is. The Mime Troupe is affected primarily by how weather fluctuations affect outdoor performances. The weather has changed drastically in just 20 years and the fact that we are performing right out in the open makes it that much more real. The climate conversation is visceral for us because we are working out in the elements. We see what the differences are in real time; they are impossible to ignore or negate, whereas most people can live their hermetically sealed lives in denial. 

As a California resident, it blows my mind that now there is such a thing as “fire season.” That’s not a good season to have. Usually, we think of holiday seasons or cherry-picking seasons but to have a situation where there are constant droughts and wildfires is a frightening sign. The long term impacts of forest fire air quality and pollution are yet to be understood. How is that going to affect us down the line – especially if it continues?

The reality is that this is not just a community concern, it is a species concern. One must have an awareness of that scope. I just finished the audiobook The Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs by Ben Garrett. There is something really poignant about these species that dominated the planet for much longer than homo sapiens have existed. It is humbling to know that this land was once fully inhabited by these prehistoric creatures and then suddenly they were gone. Some might say that this is the ebb and flow of evolution but one thing is for certain: human activity has greatly accelerated the alteration of our climate. If we don’t act now, we will not be around for much longer. The Earth has been around for a few billion years; it will repair itself. It is the survival of living beings that we should be concerned about.

What does the future hold in store for you? 

I am going to be continuously working on the eight-part serialized radio plays titled Tales of the Resistance, presented by the Mime Troupe, in place of doing a live performance. This is the way that we adapted to COVID-19, a symbol of the resilience of theatre. The first episode, “Jade For Hire!” is a half-hour detective noir looking at racial discrimination and class divide in an increasingly gentrified, tech-bound city. The second episode was released on Saturday, July 18 online and through local Bay Area radio stations KALW, KMUD, KTDE, KZXY, and KZFP. Check out the wonderfully bizarre radio plays in the adventure, horror, and science fiction genres on the SFMT website. The episodes continue on into fall 2020.

(Top image: Velina Brown singing.)

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

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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. 

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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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