Artists and Climate Change

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What Happens When You Take a Poet to the Arctic

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Since the 4th century BC, explorers, geographers, archaeologists, cartographers, navigators, sealers, whalers, miners, scientists, artists, writers, and others have traveled to the Arctic to observe, document, research, explore, and exploit its beauty, its ecosystems, and its natural resources. They have described being awed by its grandeur, diminished by its scale, mesmerized by its stillness, and scared by its awesome power. Many have reported being changed in fundamental ways by the experience. 

In 2010, when British poet, screenwriter, and librettist Nick Drake was invited to join a three-week trip to the Norwegian Arctic by the international climate/arts nonprofit Cape Farewell in order to investigate the changes brought about by the climate crisis, his personal journey of exploration was added to the long list of others that had come before him.

Cape Farewell’s 2010 route around Svalbard. Photo by Cape Farewell.

Cape Farewell’s 2010 Art and Science expedition sailed around Svalbard, an archipelago 550 miles north of Norway, on the two-mast vessel Noorderlicht with five marine scientists and ten artists from around the world. Prior to embarking on the voyage, Drake had never thought deeply about the climate crisis nor addressed it in his work. When he first accepted the invitation from Cape Farewell, he thought he would be encountering a wild, pristine land that had not been spoiled by human intervention. With the help of the expedition’s scientists, he soon learned about the devastating acceleration of glacier melt, pollution, and human exploitation. In his first written piece documenting his impressions, Drake describes in poetic language the millennia-old memories embedded in the ice as well as the vestiges of industrial activity that were melting the glacier in front of his eyes: 

It’s good to know this vast frozen beast, born of the last Ice Age, is still here; suddenly it’s strangely comforting to think of it as a world library of snow – for it’s true if fanciful that the snow of the winters of all our lives is somewhere in here, crushed down to ice; so is that which fell during Shakespeare’s winter’s tale, on the ice-fairs on the Thames; and the snow that fell when Breughel’s hunters were returning home; and the snow that fell long before anything human was really here. And now, the warm breath of billions of lives, and the CO2 from the stacks of foundries and factories, and worldwide traffic jams, and the collected vapour trails of all the flights that have ever flown, is melting away the monster, little by little.

Drake also recorded himself reading a poem based on the blog entry above while he was still onboard the Noorderlicht.

Two particular incidents that occurred during the 2010 expedition impacted Drake in a visceral way and informed the content and format of The Farewell Glacier (2012), his book-length poem, which he wrote when he returned to the UK. The first event happened as the Noorderlicht was traveling down a passageway through pack ice in the northern part of the archipelago. Suddenly the ice closed around the ship, which became instantly trapped. After many tries by the ship’s pilot to disengage from the ice, the passengers were instructed to prepare for an evacuation by helicopter. Ultimately, the pilot was able to extract the ship without the need for a sea rescue. 

The dramatic experience left Drake with a very real understanding of how, within a split second, one’s life can become endangered in this harsh environment. He also developed a strong sense of connection to the young men who had come to the Arctic in previous centuries aboard whaling ships and on other expeditions without the advanced technology that provided the crew and passengers of the Noorderlicht with an immediate lifeline. Drake later incorporated the voices of these untrained and vulnerable young men in The Farewell Glacier. Over the following year, he used other human and non-human voices to tell the Western, and especially European, story of the Arctic. 


The second experience that impacted Drake was a real-time visual example of the climate crisis in action. Sailing towards a large glacier, the expedition scientists indicated the area in the water where the glacier had once been. It was a full 40 minutes before the ship reached the edge of where the glacier was currently located. From this and other “aha” moments, Drake felt an immense responsibility to write something about the extreme acceleration of climate change that would appeal to the hearts and minds of the general public. 

The Farewell Glacier is a chronological account of the Western, and especially European, experience in the Arctic told through the voices of the humans who encountered it, the chemical elements that have polluted it, (including methane, PCB, POP and DDT, etc.) and other non-human actors, such as a sea-shanty, the sun, pteropods, and an ice-core sample. He calls it “a story about wonder and consumption,” of “exploration and exploitation.” 

Drake wrote The Farewell Glacier in stages. The first section of the poem that he composed after he returned from the Arctic was the voice of “The Future,” which is both a tale of warning and a call to action. In 2019, Fleabag star, Andrew Scott, and his sister Hannah recorded “The Future,” which was then posted on the twitter page Culture Declares Emergency and can be found on Drake’s website

In 2012, the National Maritime Museum in London commissioned Drake to write a poem that would tell the story of the Western experience in the Arctic as part of a major installation developed by United Visual Artists, in collaboration with Cape Farewell. The result was the full text of The Farewell Glacier.

Drake describes the book as a “collection of monologues or arias” from “the deep past, and into the near future because as Inuit say,‘we are the people who have changed nature.’” The excerpts below are just two of the voices in The Farewell Glacier that are part of this powerful Arctic story. 

When I was twelve
To win a bet
I walked across the thin ice of the frozen Severn
And never looked back.
Later, I resolved to walk
From Alaska to Svalbard
Across the thin ice
Via the Pole of Inaccessibility
And the North Pole.
My Inuit friends left a map
Pinned to the hut door
Marked with the places they thought I would die.
It was 3,800 miles;
We left in February,
Four men and forty dogs. 
And in July we made camp
Because the ice was not drifting 
In our favour.

When the sun returned
We continued through the next summer
To reach 90 degrees North.
I telegraphed the Queen.
Trying to stand on the pole 
Was like trying to step
On the shadow of a bird
Circling overhead.
Two weeks later
A man took the first step on the Moon
And by the time we got home
We were forgotten.
You couldn’t walk it now,
Even if you wanted to –
Why not?
Because the sea is melting,
And no one can walk on water.

— Wally Hebert (1934 – 2007), British polar explorer, writer and artist

We were born in your dream of the future – 
Released by fire
We ascended the winding stairs of the smoke stacks
Until we reached the orange sunrise
And the blue sky.
No one waved goodbye.
No one saw us go;
We were uncountable
And invisible.
One way or another 
We were carried north
In the hands of the winds,
Through the stories of the rivers,
By the generosity of the oceans;
And when we arrived at the cold
Top of the world
It felt like home, sweet home;
And we waited in the long darkness
Until at last
The first light of the year transmuted us
Out of thin air and we came to rest
In ice and snow and black water.
Now we accumulate
And magnify
In the cells of fish, in the eggs of birds,
Inside the warm coats of seals and bears;
And in the wombs of mothers
We concentrate so the faces of the future
Take on our features,
And we sing our names into the ears
Of the unborn:
Cesium, technetium;

— Mercury, chemical element also known as quicksilver

Since his voyage to the Arctic, Drake has written other poetic works on the climate crisis. Most notably, he wrote the libretto for a choral work entitled, Earth Song, in collaboration with composer Rachel Portman. The piece premiered on September 27, 2019 at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge and was broadcast on the BBC in October of 2019. As Portman described it, Earth Song is an expression of how “humans are as one with the earth and inseparable.” Drake’s libretto incorporates lines from Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech at Davos in 2019. 

Additionally, in 2018 Drake created the libretto for The Cave, an opera on climate grief, in collaboration with composer Tansy Davies. The Cave follows “a grieving father’s quest for survival in a world devastated by climate change” and was produced in a cavernous warehouse space in London.

Ten years after his expedition, Drake still speaks passionately about the Arctic and its extraordinary light, stillness, silence, and ancient landscape, but mostly he is on a mission to expose his words about the climate crisis beyond the poetry world to create awareness and inspire change. He disagrees with Auden’s oft-quoted line, “poetry makes nothing happen” but sees his poetry as a signpost for the way forward. His commitment towards that end is what happens when you take a poet to the Arctic. 

(Top image: Poet Nick Drake in the High Arctic. Photo by Deborah Warner. Poetry excerpts by permission of Nick Drake, The Farewell GlacierBloodaxe Books, 2012.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Amy Barker

By Mary Woodbury

Thanks so much to Stormbird Press‘s Donna Mulvenna for allowing the reprinting of this interview. She talked with Amy Barker about her new novel, Paradise Earth, published by Stormbird Press in early 2020. Amy was the winner of Australia’s 2008 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author. Her stunning debut novel Omega Park won the 2012 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Ena Noël Award, and was shortlisted for the 2009 FAW Christina Stead Award.

The aftershocks from 1996 continued, year after year, often in the life of the individual more devastating than the Port Arthur massacre itself. Yet always the subsequent tragedies could be traced back to that unspeakable Sunday.


Coming home to Tasman Peninsula with her Northern Irish partner, Ruth journeys into her own psychic trauma as well as that projected onto the raw, monumental coast. When Ruth’s brother, John, helps his fourteen-year-old son apply for a firearm permit – almost two-and-a-half decades after Port Arthur – they risk condemning those who do not remember the past to repeat it.

A Port Arthur survivor, Marina has returned to the Peninsula with her brother Moon to pack up Doo-No-Harm, the family holiday home, after their mother’s death. Marina’s personhood was so violated by her early life experience that she has been left an angry she-wolf about to set out on the hunt. In a convoy of duck rescuers, the siblings head for a confrontation with shooters on the wetland.

In these lives choreographed by trauma, damage, and the ramifications of willful forgetfulness, transformation can only occur after an extremely painful lesson.


Donna: Hi Amy. Paradise Earth. It’s just fantastic. I pushed many aspects of my life aside so that I could keep reading. One of the things I loved most was the powerful way in which you introduced readers to issues that divide communities throughout the world today. Can you tell us what motivated you to write about the events surrounding the Port Arthur massacre and how you are able to write with such profound empathy for each character?

As a writer, there is really no higher compliment you can receive than a reader telling you they felt compelled to continue reading your book so I appreciate that. I certainly felt compelled to write Paradise Earth. I found myself uniquely poised to write about the events in a work of fiction. While not at Port Arthur on the day of the massacre, I spent my formative years on Tasman Peninsula, with both victims and members of the gunman’s family. If I had been more directly affected, I imagine I would not have been willing, nor able, to explore the events in a novel. At the same time, without the personal connection to the subject matter I would not have found the courage to approach it. One of my main motivations to write Paradise Earth was to explore the unanswered questions – those of the community, survivors, and all those affected – that still surround the massacre.

Regarding issues that divide communities, as one of my characters says in the book, there are a lot of good people who own guns. In Australia, we’ve determined that there’s no place for guns that are nothing but human-killing devices and after Port Arthur these were banned. The novel examines the genuine reasons for private firearm ownership (including self-loading and pump action rifles and shotguns) that remain, i.e., recreational hunting and primary production.

As a work in progress, Paradise Earth won the 2013 DJ ‘Dinny’ O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship, the judges commenting that the narrative “is deeply inward and managed with a keen eye”. It is due to be released in April 2020. How long has it taken to write the book and why?

I began writing Paradise Earth in July 2009, during the week leading up to the release of my debut novel, Omega Park. In all the excitement, I sought sanctuary at Varuna, The National Writers House in the Blue Mountains, where I found time and space to write the opening 15,000 words of a first draft. So it has taken me essentially ten years to write the book. The best way I can think to explain the process is that during that time I didn’t only write one book but a series of books. With each new book, while things like the main setting and core characters remained, there was always a completely new plot, certain characters were killed off and others introduced. Even the core characters grew and changed from one book to the next, for example, entering different professions or becoming parents.

The reason for a constantly evolving novel is so that it remains connected with the outside world. That means while you are writing you are monitoring important events or news relevant to your subject matter, collecting this information and then reflecting it back within the world of your novel. With a major project like this, you have to be able to adapt.

You hold degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing. I have to ask… can anyone learn to write like this or do you possess an innate gift?

I was writing from a very early age. I have “work” from when I was about five years old. I remember in my final year of primary school winning a competition amongst all of the students in my grade to create the dust jacket of a novel. It was the cover art and a blurb for the back cover. Then in high school, my English teachers would tell me they would “be first in line to buy the bestseller.” Personally, I consider it a gift but such a gift is not much use without discipline, commitment, and sacrifice. Anyone will learn valuable things by doing a creative writing or related degree but knowing what I do about the life of a writer, I wouldn’t advise anyone to pursue it as a career unless they felt they had no other options, that it was their calling. If you love something as much as you love writing, and you’re as good at it, then don’t write. Choose the other thing. As the author Hubert Selby Jr. put it, “Being an artist doesn’t take much. Just everything you got.”

I believe you were well on your way to becoming a lawyer, when you had a drastic change of direction and pursued writing instead. What initial steps did you take to become a writer?

I did in fact re-enroll in law, right before my credits were due to expire for prior studies, my last chance to get my degree, with the sole aim of practicing animal law. A few weeks into the semester, I was offered an internship with a film producer (the first money I ever earned from writing was having a feature film screenplay commissioned and optioned), so I quit again!

The initial serious step I took to becoming an author was to apply for an elite course, a Fine Arts degree that only accepted twelve creative writing students each year. As part of the application you had to submit a folio of your work. I used this as a test for myself, to see if someone qualified might think that I possessed potential and/or talent. As it turned out, I was ranked first amongst all the applicants that year and I graduated with distinction after three years of study. In my final year, I began work on what was to be my debut novel, Omega Park, working with a supervisor. Five years later, Omega Park was published.

Amy, you have won multiple awards and received wide critical acclaim for your first novel, Omega Park. What has that early acknowledgement meant to you? And did it change how you wrote Paradise Earth?

The kinds of acknowledgements you’ve mentioned certainly help to increase your confidence. After the publication of Omega Park, probably the most meaningful thing I read from a critic was a comment about me being a courageous author who is not afraid to tackle confronting issues of contemporary Australian life. When writing a book like Paradise Earth, you reflect on this kind of feedback time and again, particularly during trying periods. It provides ongoing encouragement.

What do you like most about Paradise Earth? Do you have a favorite moment, character, or line? And when you began writing were their moments when your inspiration surprised you?

This is a difficult question for me to answer. Honestly, what I like most about Paradise Earth is my personal connection to the subject matter. To have felt that I not only ought to write this novel but that I must write this novel, that this was my novel to write, to have completed this long and often times challenging mission (“task” just doesn’t do the journey justice), and to have found it the absolutely perfect publishing home. The existence of this novel gives extra meaning to my past and adds value to life experiences. It really is much more than just a work of fiction to me.

Stormbird Press is a relatively new press whose mission it is to defend nature and empower communities through the power of story. Why is it important to you to align yourself with an organization that is trying to make positive change in the world?

Stormbird’s mission is one very close to my own heart. I consider signing with Stormbird Press to not only be a great opportunity but an excellent investment. As an author, my success is Stormbird’s success and as a publisher whose mission I deeply care about, Stormbird’s ultimate success is my success. In my view, this is true partnership and the kind that is difficult, if not near on impossible, to find as an author in the publishing world. I can’t imagine any other existing publisher that would have been the right one for Paradise Earth so I am very blessed.

What do you hope people will learn from your portrayal of the Port Arthur massacre, its effects on individuals and community, the legacy of violence, and the suffering on the physical landscape?

I would hope that a reader might learn that the Port Arthur massacre is in many ways still an open wound – in the lives of individuals within the Tasman Peninsula community and beyond, as well as on the place Port Arthur and its surrounds. As such, the massacre remains an event deserving of our attention, understanding, and compassion. Most of all, I hope that readers might be provoked to ask questions about aspects of the current state of the world and what Port Arthur can still teach us about the reality that hurt people do hurt people and so not only our compassion but our common sense should tell us that to do no harm should be our ever present goal if we don’t want cycles of violence to continue and the past to repeat itself.

Have you found it particularly challenging having factual events and such a notorious figure as a key focus of your novel? How do you find that balance of fact and fiction, particularly with such sensitive subject matter?

Everything in the novel surrounding the gunman and the massacre is based on facts and the real historical events. My characters are the only fictional creations, as well as a couple of locations on Tasman Peninsula: a local cemetery and a fishing spot. Writing about this, or any other real world tragedy, is always going to be an ethically charged process. As an author you must listen most carefully to the voices of those affected, particularly those directly affected by the event. If you do that, it won’t be easy but you will have a constant guide throughout what might otherwise be a perilous journey.

One of the reviews of Omega Park stated: “Despite a cast of memorable characters, the real hero in this debut novel is the setting, a uniquely Queensland environment, but one sadly underexplored in fiction.” The same might be said of Paradise Earth. Why is the strong evocation of “place” such an important aspect of your work, which in some respects, could be seen as a central character?

When I think about it, I did begin Paradise Earth simply with place rather than a story. The time I spent living on Tasman Peninsula as a child affected me deeply and continues to affect me now. There is no other place quite like it. When it came time to write my second novel, I wanted to capture, or at least represent this place, in a work of fiction. What I soon found is that it is impossible to write about Tasman Peninsula without writing about Port Arthur and once you begin writing about Port Arthur, the events of 1996 in particular, this is such a vitally important subject matter that it subsumes any other potential narratives. I know that at least one of the reasons I feel such an affinity with the Peninsula is its unique geology. The coastline is stunningly beautiful and yet this unique beauty is the result of damage: millions of years of wind and wave erosion. This appeals to me as a powerful metaphor of the human psyche, that it is possible our own personal damage can result in a beauty that makes us unique, who we are, if you like. It’s a question of embracing it. I would challenge anyone to spend a significant length of time on Tasman Peninsula and not be affected by it in a profound way. As an author, I feel much obliged that I have a medium to be able to share my deep and lasting impressions with others in what I hope is a meaningful way.

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


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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We Become the Place: Making Climate Change Digestible

By Rose McAdoo

How does a New York City pastry chef get involved in addressing the climate changes affecting our planet’s most remote locations? Albeit necessary, the “doom and gloom” messaging of climate change can feel overwhelming, leaving us confused about how to interact with our home. I am a fierce believer in using the excitement and attention around cakes to redirect conversation and inspire connection. Through desserts, we can literally consume science and information – and redirect our fears about climate change toward joy and celebration.

After making high-end cakes for luxury events and celebrity wedding clients, I tired of the blinding diamond rings, the over-the-top first birthday parties, and the pretty white cakes with flowers. I realized that while cakes captured the grandness of celebration, unity, and creativity, I craved the telling of larger stories: the international refugee crisis, women’s rights, and the ever-reduced support for environmental protection. I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Brooklyn and start celebrating those protecting our public lands and wild spaces.

On New Year’s Eve in 2018, our chartered military C-130 landed in Antarctica and I immediately began my work as a sous chef for McMurdo Station, the largest research base on the continent. After-hours, scientists explained their work at public science lectures where their vivacious passion for microscopic diatoms, atmospheric photon counts, the sex lives of prehistoric fish, and satellite sea ice measurements only made sense to me by reformatting their data as cake layers, tiers, and fondant decorations. I saw their science in sugar, and I was enraptured. 

After my seasonal contract ended, I flew 10,000 miles north to Alaska and set up a makeshift art studio in an Antarctic janitor’s log cabin, which I had to myself while he worked on the North Slope. There, I shipped hundreds of dollars of fondant, tools, and cake decorating materials, and spent a full week researching paleontology, microbiology, glaciology, polar operations, and aerospace engineering. After reading scientific blogs, watching educational videos, and digging into Antarctic outreach articles, I began creating the cakes I had originally sketched out on the ice. By reimagining the images and personal stories shared during science teams’ lectures, I was able to make the vast abundance of research taking place at the bottom of the world completely edible. These cakes joyfully captured the attention of a national audience with the support of NPR, Forbes, and the Mystic Seaport Museum

But cakes are frivolous. Unnecessary. Easily done without. And, of course, the same arguments have been made about our environment. As political leaders push for greater access to oil, lumber, and profit, I wanted to dig deeper – to use desserts to celebrate the need for, and abundance of, our public lands – to make environmental conservation literally digestible. My friend and fellow pastry chef Rose Lawrence flew north from Los Angeles to meet me in Alaska, and we packed our backpacks and started hiking.

Making and burying ice cream in the snow overnight while camping atop Alaska’s Harding Icefield.

It’s one thing to make desserts in a kitchen or a restaurant. While I had doubts whether it would work, I felt my edible art would have greater impact if it was crafted on the glaciers and in the forests that were being affected by climate change – using the earth as an ingredient. With a combined 100 pounds of butter, sugar, flour, heavy cream, eggs, tools, and fresh local sourdough starter strapped to our backs, we spent a week trekking into the wilds of Alaska to film the creation of our desserts in their “natural environments” – aiming to merge pastry arts and climate change, and using video to bring people around the world on this visual journey with us. We stopped to forage along the way: wild salmonberries, fireweed blossoms, watermelon berries, pineapple weed, and late autumn blueberries littered the bright red tundra.

Foraging fillings, making wild herbal pastry cream, and frying barley brioche donuts in the world’s northernmost temperate rainforests.
Biodiverse donuts in their natural habitat and making hard candy from freshwater glacier runoff in the Chugach Mountains.

Butane canister ablaze, we simmered three colorful jams and whisked together an herbal pastry cream, using everything we had foraged along the way. We infused sugar with wildflowers and fried brioche under the thick canopy of America’s northernmost temperate rainforest. Hot donuts burst open with the diversity of flora among the ferns and accumulated biomass.

Following our brilliant 23-year-old female glacier guide, Jordan Campbell, I ignited my JetBoil, cooked sugar, and made hard candy atop Matanuska Glacier to demonstrate the valley’s crevasse breaking patterns. Transparent raindrop cakes – made with nothing but freshwater glacial runoff and seaweed gel – encased the plants we collected along the way, showing the succession of regrowth after glacial recession.

Japanese raindrop cakes encase samples of plants that grow in succession as glaciers recede in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley.

 We pitched my tent above Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, made and buried ice cream in the snow overnight, and whipped egg whites into stiff meringue as a storm rolled in overhead. Our attempt at a flaming Baked Alaska on Harding Icefield was designed to illuminate the state’s wildest forest fires and record high temperatures.

In Denali National Park, I accepted an offer to return to Antarctica. This time it would be a full year – a summer at NASA’s atmospheric research camp and then spending the long, dark winter forklifting hazardous waste shipped from the South Pole and learning rescue techniques on our Search and Rescue team. Again, I started the five-day journey south, this time filling my backpacks with cake decorating supplies and fondant to supplement my “extreme cold weather” gear.

The story we’re told about Antarctica is one of absence, of nothingness, and of harshness. But really, it’s a place full of life: human life, yes, but also bacterial life, wildlife, fungal life, deep sea life, glacial life, and volcanic life. It is a fiercely dynamic place. After nearly 500 days on ice, I felt Antarctica’s influence on my journey as a human, as a creative, as a woman, and as a friend.

I wonder what would happen if we changed Antarctica’s story? What if we ended the narrative of it being an inhospitable place incapable of supporting life? Instead, what if we become the place? We need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from our surroundings, and start considering the ways in which we become entwined with our environment – the crevasses etched into the wrinkles on our faces, our pale skin mirroring the frozen sea ice stretched out before us. On my last day in Antarctica, before entering a world newly ravaged by a global pandemic, I carried a four-tier cake up onto the ridge line and created a sugar self-portrait – my own wind-whipped hair becoming the topographic lines of the Ross Island Peninsula.

Cakes that tell the stories of Antarctic science: (clockwise from top left) from Weddell seal tracking devices and deep water arthropods to glacial ice cores and future star formation in our galaxy.

If we become the place, then we protect the place. Because in protecting the place, we protect the things that have made us who we are.

Through cakes – by finding unique ways to create art – I’ve learned nearly everything I know. As I create, I learn about places and about the threats to those places. I learn how interconnected we are as a human species. I learn how we are tied to our planet. I learn about the way glaciers form, move, and retreat. I learn about endemic and invasive species. I learn about human impact. I learn about Indigenous groups and systemic environmental racism. I learn personal stories. I learn ways to tell these stories through edible art: how to depict the loss of a specific habitat, or the miraculous expansion of a protected area, or the interconnectedness of an environment visually, on cake. I learn who I am: both my responsibility to my planet and my responsibility to encourage others to spark new ways of interacting with our world.

(Top image: Using desserts to document the environment by crafting pastry in the wild backcountry, Harding Icefield, Alaska. Photo by Rose Lawrence.)


Rose McAdoo is a visual artist using cake to raise awareness around global issues. Her unique edible art centers around environmental protection and leads her to make cakes with remote populations in the world’s most extreme environments. By making sweets with Kenyan tribespeople and Congolese porters, on glaciers across Alaska, with scientists in Antarctica, and behind bars with inmates at LA County State Prison and NYC’s Rikers Correctional Facility, Rose makes big ideas literally digestible. Her work has been featured by NPR, Forbes, and Saveur, and her recent Antarctic short We Become the Place can be viewed at


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: Christiane Vadnais

By Mary Woodbury

We’ll begin 2021 on a positive note with a look at the lyrical novel Fauna by Christiane Vadnais. Here, we travel to the Arctic Circle (as indicated by Ursus maritimus), but the novel’s setting is fictional and inspired by places more than it is specifically set anywhere on the map. In my reading, I felt as though I was teleported to a futuristic forest somewhere in northwestern Europe’s Arctic Circle. The author tells me that she was inspired by the atmospheric forests in the Québec province, near the American border. If anything, Fauna invokes a wild imagination, and readers will find themselves anywhere that drips with cold water beneath a wild and dark canopy of trees.


Originally published in French, Fauna was translated to English this year by Pablo Strauss. It is Christiane Vadnais’s first work of fiction and it won the Horizons Imaginaires speculative fiction award, the City of Quebec book award, and it was named one of 2018’s best books by Radio-Canada. From the publisher:

A thick fog rolls in over Shivering Heights. The river overflows, the sky is streaked with toxic green, parasites proliferate in torrential rains and once safely classified species – humans included – are evolving and behaving in unprecedented ways. Against this poetically hostile backdrop, a biologist, Laura, fights to understand the nature and scope of the changes transforming her own body and the world around her. Ten lush and bracing linked climate fictions depict a world gorgeous and terrifying in its likeness to our own.

In a recent article at the Chicago Review of Books, I wrote: “Vadnais’s writing is raw, erotic, and dream-like. She’ll take you deep into the foggy, haunted woods and tantalize you to the core.” Some of my favorite stories have a wildly entertaining and sometimes mysterious landscape at their nucleus, with biology and ecology central to characters’ motives and how plots unfolds. The physical environment of Fauna is so ethereal that it’s entirely palpable.


Before and after Fauna, what has your life been like?

What Fauna changed for me is the way I approach writing. The freedom, the recklessness I felt while writing my first book – not knowing if it would be published – have been replaced by a more conscious work. I demand more from myself. Every day, I sit at my desk with both the desire to understand this weird thing that we do, telling stories, and the feeling that it’s really mysterious. I have a lot to learn about my art, I am at the beginning of a journey: it’s challenging but exciting.

I opened Fauna and didn’t stop reading until the end. It’s that addictive. What led you to write this novel?

The idea came from an article I read about dreams. I am fascinated by their symbolic logic and the way they make us see things differently. The article said that neuroscientists, when they study them, find a lot of people still dreaming about wild animals, about being chased, etc. It seemed strange to me: how can we dream about this, considering that most of us have never seen a bear outside a zoo? Could that be a reminiscence of our animality, a primitive signal sent by our brain to tell us that we are cut from our own materiality? The poetry I saw in this thought inspired me. I wrote what became the first page of Fauna. The book is inhabited by this dreamlike spirit, by a wild imagery, by a desire to be connected with our animal instincts in a positive way.

That’s pretty fascinating. Can you talk some about your thoughts and direction when writing this book? What were your intentions for reader impact?

I wanted to make the reader feel how beautiful and powerful and vivid nature is, even in its darkest moments. For a long time now, we – humans – separated ourselves from nature, thinking that we will always find a way to control it. But we are part of it, for better and for worst. To see it, we don’t have to look far: just see how pregnancy can take over our body, how a parasite can make its nest in our belly, or how we have to manage snowstorms and floods. We are living an ecological crisis due to our arrogance and violence against other species, so I think we need to remember that: we are not everything. We are part of a bigger system, of something powerful and magic. To dilute our ego is a key to engage our civilization in a better relationship with our environment. We should always care about sensitive beings, not because they are pretty or useful but because we share a frail balance, a unique world. That said, I didn’t want to write a political book, but something intimate, poetic, where not only humans would have their place, but also animals and insects and forests. They are all characters in the book.

I thought Fauna was a unique approach to life in a weird, climate-changing future. What is it about eco-horror that appeals to you?

Literature is always written from a particular place and time, and writing about nature today is unfortunately writing from a terrible ecocide. To be honest, I wasn’t conscious I was writing eco-horror while doing it. It came naturally, because this is the world we live in, and also because of this primitive imagery I talked about.

An important motive that links Fauna to the genre of horror is hunger. In the book, bears are hungry, Heather is hungry, Cathy’s mom eats her rabbits… Every life kills another to survive: if this is natural to animals, when it comes to humans, it turns into violence. Their appetite to consume others, to consume the earth, has no end. Since I have been a vegetarian for many years now, this is a striking image for me.

It’s interesting to see a biologist featured in these short, connected stories. In fact, a few of my colleagues have expressed interest in Laura’s role in the story. What inspired this character?

Science is at the same time a figure of progress and a figure of domination. I find this fascinating. It’s the tool we use to injure the Earth (to dig for oil, for example) and the environmental knowledge we need to follow if we want to solve the ecological crisis. I wanted Laura to be solar, to represent the “caring” side of science, but at the same time to embody its failures. Laura’s science is unable to save humanity as we know it. But she tries, and tries, and tries, and shows curiosity for the new forms of life emerging. Laura is a character driven by an intellectual quest, and that’s what I find interesting about her.

Is Shivering Heights and its environment inspired by any particular place? Have you been there?

While I was writing “Diluvium,” the first story, I wanted to create an ambiance of “noir” movie. I thought about the south of Québec province, near the American border, with its dark forests (which inspired a lot of Québec crime writers), and built the world of Shivering Heights from there. I also put in it a great deal of my love for gothic literature and atmospheric movies.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I am writing a novella for a collective project, inspired by the French genre of “merveilleux scientifique” (“scientific marvel”) and, at the same time, another dark eco-fiction (I can’t help it!).

Oh, sounds interesting, so I will be following that! Thanks so much, Christiane, for your time and insightful thoughts about your novel.

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


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Coexistence of Cultures and Species: An Interview with Lin May Saeed, Part II

By Biborka Beres

This is the second part of a two-part interview with the Berlin-based visual artist, sculptor and animal liberation activist, Lin May Saeed. You can read Part I here.

You depict and reference both imaginary and real environments in your pieces. There are typical Berlin scenes (for example a punk with a hound, or people promenading with dogs in Nelly-Sachs-Park) along with events and characters from the Bible and Quran. What is the place of your pieces, and what do these places and spaces represent to you? 

Gilgamesh is the oldest known narrative and it begins with a parting of an early man from nature. The beginning of this tale, even before the character of Gilgamesh is introduced, is what has engaged me the most. Grane is a horse from the German Nibelungen legend. I made a paper silhouette about it, in which I tried to depict a specific moment from the perspective of the horse. I am interested in leaving behind the anthropocentric perspective. It is probably not entirely feasible, but it might be possible to at least relativize the human view in favor of animals.

Berlin appears in some of the works because I can imagine so many things in this city. When I moved here in 2001, I saw Berlin as very diverse. As a person with a migration background, I felt I was in the right place. In this city where intercultural coexistence works relatively well, I wonder if another form of interspecies coexistence could take place. I see certain places within the city as spaces of possibility, and these sometimes emerge in my pieces. For example, the relief Asylum/ the Liberation of Animals from Cages VI, from 2009, depicts an interspecies scene in the corporate compound of a Berlin car rental company, Robben & Wientjes, in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. This site, which does not exist anymore, was a democratic place, known to everyone who moved around in Berlin or wanted to take something from A to B for little money. On the roof of the company building were seal-shaped light boxes serving as the company logo.

However different these fictional and real places are from each other, I am interested in the mental journey through time, following a common thread, the relationship between humans and animals. 

ASYL – The Liberation of Animals from their Cages VI2009. Styrofoam , acrylic paint, aluminum foil, and wood.  59,44 x 39,37 x 7,08 in. (151 x 100 x 18 cm)

Often we see a mixture of non-Western subjects in Western environments in your works. It seems like animal liberation has a greater connotation to you than lifestyle choices, for example, becoming vegan. You depict a range of social and political issues from social classes or pollution to war in your work. Do you see animal liberation as a subject on its own, or as a piece of the larger whole?

Definitely, animal liberation is part of a larger fight, against climate change and for social equality. It is part of a left-wing movement. To me, veganism feels so self-evident and widespread today that it’s almost pointless to continue to address it directly. In the context of my work, this would be an unnecessary repetition. Also, I don’t necessarily want to link my personal lifestyle to my art practice. I usually try to avoid making direct appeals to the viewer although I certainly have my ambivalences: I like Agitprop and Comic culture, since they tend to be very direct in their statements. It is a constant balancing act; it’s impossible to accomplish everything in a single piece. 

The way I first perceived the relationship between man and nature in a larger context was influenced by the environmental disasters of the 1980s, such as Chernobyl in 1986. This was 1,200 miles from the city where I grew up. People were told to stay at home. I was personally not affected or frightened, but it made me think. Why do we call what animals do natural, and what humans do or make artificial, be it plastic bags or nuclear power? This thinking process turned into an alienation from the concept of humanity and from the results of human labor. Then, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Later, I did a sculptural piece about this, Cleaner/Reiniger, a figure holding an oil-smeared animal in her arms.

Cleaner/ Reiniger, 2006. Steel, Styrofoam, plastic watering can, paper overall, acrylic paint, and wood. 40.15 x 27.55 x 21.65 in. (102 x 70 x 55cm) 

There are at least two kinds of humans depicted in your work: cruel, militaristic, and kind, peaceful. Do you see people differently based on how they relate to their environment?

The way people treat weaker creatures such as animals certainly affects how they are perceived by others. To avoid falling into black-and-white thinking, I look at temporal processes of change, and assume that the omnivores of today are possibly the vegans of tomorrow. Whenever someone mentions their meat consumption, I try to keep in mind their freedom to make choices. As for the future, there are several reasons why people would change their attitudes towards animal consumption: they might decide, out of a process of reflection, to live non-violently, i.e., to become vegan. Or they may adapt to new ethical standards embraced by society. Or one day, it may be prohibited by law to eat animals and use them for other purposes. Which of these possibilities will be the reason for shifting to veganism has yet to be seen. The main motive will probably be the fight against the climate crisis… In any case, I expect that the use of animals will end. 

Your use of Styrofoam as material makes me think of functionality with aesthetic purpose. With your sculptures, you create new, organic spaces out of artificial material. Do you see a role for artists in promoting material sustainability as well?

Yes. Art is no more exempt from the necessities of sustainable production than other professions. Styrofoam is an absolute prime example of a material that should simply not be. As I started working in figurative sculpture, it turned out to be the material that allowed me to work in large sizes. Since Styrofoam is imperishable, I considered it suitable for my works, which I hope will outlive me. I use as much found Styrofoam and other found materials as I can get. 

In all other areas of the studio, like art handling, I act as sustainably as I can. I try to minimize air travel or avoid it altogether. When I got a commission for the Skulpturenpark in Köln, I wanted to work with aluminum casting, as it seemed more contemporary and a more adequate translation of Styrofoam pieces. However, after doing some research, I learned that bronze is less environmentally damaging to produce than aluminum. So when I cast outdoor pieces, I work with bronze.  

Nagheoleed, 2011. Cardboard, transparent paper, wood, and fluorescent lights.
108,2 x 157,4 x 19,68 in. (275 x 400 x 50 cm) 

What’s your relationship with texts, history, and philosophy? On your website, there is a wide selection of texts on animal liberation. 

My homepage is basically one long entry from 2008, which was written shortly after I decided to fully dedicate my work to the human-animal relationship. I have often engaged with theoretical texts in exhibitions too, such as Nagheoleed/Neolith, a lecture by the Italian philosopher Marco Maurizi on the supposed beginning of capitalism in the Neolithic period.

I have included other texts in my exhibitions that I found particularly relevant. For the show at Lulu in Mexico City in 2017, I used an excerpt of an essay by the social scientist and activist Melanie Bujok, that visitors of the exhibition could take home.

In the last exhibition at Jacky Strenz, my gallerist in Frankfurt, Germany, I was able to include a text by Birgit Mütherich, which curator Rob Wiesenberger also published in the catalog for the exhibition Arrival of the Animals at the Clark Art Institute. 

Lobster, 2017. Steel. 4,3 x 9,4 x 5,7 in. (11 x 24 x 14,5cm). Stack of text excerpt: 
“The Enlightenment must (…) be fully thought out” by Melanie Bujok.

(Top image: Grane, 2013. Cardboard, transparent paper, wood, and fluorescent lights. 128 x 224.5 x 19.68 in. (325 x 570 x 50 cm))


Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, studying dance, drama, and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for Artists & Climate Change, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices, and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.


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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Coexistence of Cultures and Species: An Interview with Lin May Saeed, Part I

By Biborka Beres

As a senior at Bennington College and a multimedia performance artist, I have been exploring potential ways to engage with the climate crisis in the arts without succumbing to the danger of creating all too reductive and didactic pieces. One September afternoon, while doing some research for my upcoming senior show – a dance piece about our alienation from nature – I read that an exciting exhibition was showing in the neighboring town. It was Lin May Saeed’s Arrival of the Animals at The Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Seeing the exhibition, I was captivated by the depth and clarity of her call to animal liberation. 

Lin May Saeed is a German sculptor, painter, and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, and the U.S. Through her art, she embeds the issue of animal rights and human-animal coexistence into a deeper frame of how we, humans, treat our environment and each other. Inspired by historical events, mythological and spiritual sources such as the Quran and the Bible, contemporary events and present-day urban spaces, Saeed creates a microcosm of the human-animal imaginary. Through problematizing human greediness and cruelty, which lead us to gobble up natural resources with no end and abuse our “animal brothers,” we arrive at imagining a peaceful state of coexistence between humans and their environment. 

A text excerpt from Saeed’s website illustrates the human cruelty problematized in her work:

Hello to you all, how do you live?

Rabbit :
We live in small groups, have no fixed partnerships.
Build widely branching tunnel systems,
in which our young are born, naked and blind.
We still reproduce when imprisoned.

Hare :
I live solitary. Sleep in a shallow hollow.
My offspring are born with fur and open eyes.
I have never been domesticated.

Humans :
We don’t quite know.
Until we have found out, we wage wars.

What follows is the first part of a two-part interview with the artist about the ecological implications of her dedication to animal liberation, and her vision for the climate should animals “arrive” and take back their territories from human-made destruction. 

Can you tell me more about the origins of your art? How did you come to make work about animal liberation? What made you turn to the topic of injustices towards animals, and their arrival to reclaim the world from humans?

My first idea after graduating from high school was to study stage design. After I had already worked for some time at the theatre in my hometown, Wiesbaden, Germany, in several theatre and opera productions, I went to the Düsseldorf Art Academy to study stage design. In my first year at the Academy, I discovered sculpture, basically by accident. At the same time, I started to deal with issues around animal rights and became active against animal abuse, starting with the topic of fur. Despite my great love for theatre and opera, it became clear that these performative art forms were centered around  man: there are no animals in theatre. 

In contemporary visual arts, the topic of human-animal relations was not so welcome either, but at least it was possible to make work about  it, since in a field like sculpture I could choose my own themes. I was astonished by the works of artists concerned with animal rights at the time, but they often revealed the everyday horror of slaughterhouses and experimental laboratories and I could not imagine depicting cruelty against animals and manifesting it pictorially. Also, animal rights as a positive notion is an abstract concept and I couldn’t imagine what it would look like. 

The injustices towards animals mentioned in your question, especially in their systemic institutionalized forms, were of great concern to me. After initial sculptural attempts in this direction, I found that I would rather use my work to imagine what the ideal treatment of animals might look like. During this time there was also a shift in language: the animal rights movement changed its name to the animal liberation movement. This change opened up a new space of thought for me, and I got an idea about the form in which I could make an artistic contribution. It allowed me to think of images of the liberation of animals.

What role do animals play in your work, and what kind of creatures are they? I noticed that they are both anthropomorphic with their own will and power, but also symbolic of a larger world order. What do animals mean to you?

That is a good question! I face a puzzle when I look at animals. They are so much like “the Other,” especially in man-made, predominantly mono-speciesist urban environments. When I try to grasp the space between me and an animal, something opens up like a journey through time; the space stretches. Being so close to animals, such as those with whom I share my studio, feels fantastic. These are rabbits saved from slaughter, and they rarely appear directly in my work. They are just too perfect, too Disney-like. However, I make observations on them, such as symmetries and perspective foreshortening, which flow into my work. 

The Cave of Ashabe-Kahf near Amman, Jordan. Downloaded from The legend of the Seven Sleepers tells the story of seven young men who were accused of belonging to the Christian community and escaped to a cave where they slept for centuries.

About the Seven Sleepers cave installation at the end of your exhibition at The Clark: Is this optimism for the future? What is the significance of sleep and dreaming in your work? Is climate change a nightmare, and climate utopia a sweet dream? 

The narrative of the Seven Sleepers defies plausible interpretation, and the fact that it could not be made subservient to any ideology is perhaps the reason why it has remained largely unknown to Christian-influenced culture. I first learned about the legend when visiting the Seven Sleepers cave close to Amman, Jordan. The fact that the legend is mentioned in the Quran, but not in the Bible, piqued my interest. Also, one of the Seven Sleepers was a dog. These two aspects seem to make it a story that is both trans-religious and trans-species. The blurring of the narrative in the legend made it easier to deal with it sculpturally. This stretched moment of sleep seems to articulate waiting, powerlessness, non-violence, and perhaps a form of silent protest. Sleep seems to me to be an everyday, or rather an all-night “being in another world.” I am less interested in analyzing dreams than in the very opacity of sleep. Dreams are a cross-species phenomenon, as animals also dream. That alone would be enough of a reason for me to not eat animals.

Thank you, Lin.

* * *

In the second part of this interview, we discuss mythical and urban spaces and interspecies utopias, Lin May’s views on animal liberation as part of a larger climate imaginary, and the importance of material sustainability in the arts.

(Top image: Seven Sleepers 2020. Styrofoam, acrylic paint, steel, jute, fabric, paper, plants, glass, water, cotton cord, wood, and cardboard. Overall: 84 5/8 x 177 1/8 x 39 3/8 in. (215 x 450 x 100 cm))


Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, studying dance, drama, and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for Artists & Climate Change, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices, and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.


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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Lindsay Linsky: On Parables and Creation Care

By Peterson Toscano

In the Art House this month, you will meet Lindsay Linsky. A Bible-believing Christian in Georgia, she is the author of the book, Keep It Good: Understanding Creation Care through Parables. With her book, she seeks to break through environmental apathy and partisan noise to show Christians God’s simple yet beautiful message of creation stewardship.

As a teacher, Lindsay Linsky understands how challenging it is to correct misinformation, and she recognizes the power of stories to engage people with new ideas. In this episode, she shares practical insights and a very powerful Bible verse that highlights the call to creation care.

Lindsay Linsky has been featured in panel discussions at theology conferences as well as podcasts and webinars on Creation Care Radio, Yale Climate Connections, and RepublicEN’s The EcoRight Speaks podcast.

Lindsay earned her PhD in Science Education with a focus on environmental education and ocean literacy from the University of Georgia, and lives with her husband and children in Suwanee, Georgia.

Next month: Marissa Slaven talks about her novel, “Code Blue,” an eco-mystery.

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 by Flora Westbrook from Pexels)

This article is part of The Art House series.


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Oil as Art Material

By Ariana Akbari


Materiality is one of the key components of a work of visual art. It changes the way that we interact with a piece, adds dimension to what the artist is trying to say and how, and can even have a voice of its own. Classic examples include Jackson Pollock’s “drip technique” of painting, which creates a sense of sick and visceral emotion with its swirling, thick, humanly inhuman globs of paint. Diane Arbus’s flat and highly contrasting photography creates a thin portal between the everyday normal and the everyday abnormal. Alexander Calder’s mobiles, made of delicate cuts of sheet metal suspended and attached to mechanically-activated mechanisms, are careful forays into an industrializing modern world in which man and nature were becoming increasingly intertwined. 

Contemporary artists engaging with environmental concerns would do well to employ the vernacular of the climate crisis by incorporating petroleum into their repertoire of materials. While there are artist collectives, like Liberate Tate, that have utilized oil as a means of performance art activism, there are, at present, only a very small number of artists using petroleum as an art material beyond an explicitly activist context.

When they do, their approach speaks to more abstract powers than fossil fuel corporations themselves: concepts like colonialism, life and death, family and immigration. It is also worth noting that all of these examples, like the demonstrations of Liberate Tate, were originally shown in London. I have yet to locate pieces featuring petroleum as art material elsewhere, beyond some amateur works being produced by a Russian craftsman.

The first crude oil piece that I encountered, and the only one that I’ve seen in person, is Kader Attia’s Oil and Sugar #2 (2007). It is a four-and-a-half-minute video that details the collapse of a large cube of stacked smaller sugar cubes after black crude oil is poured on. I found it quite emotionally impactful, and it first catalyzed my thinking about petroleum and its unique potential as an art material. The piece, however, does not critique petroleum companies per se. Rather, it is to be read as criticism of two of the main drivers of colonialism – sugar cane and oil – and is a visual representation of a global dance that propels domination and subjugation.

Richard Wilson, 20:50 (1987), Saatchi Gallery. The surface of the oil is so reflective that it appears like a mirror in this image.

Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987) is the most art-historically famous petroleum work. In the piece, an entire floor of the Saatchi Gallery in London was flooded with used “sump oil.”The work displays the balance between that which is toxic and that which is beautiful, evoking the failings of the human condition. Visually, the piece is stunning and smooth. It beckons not only the gaze, but also the touch of the viewer. However, sensorially, it emits a terrible stench and the glass-like depths of its darkness, when touched, are sticky and stain.

Shih Hsiung Chou, Oil Paintings, (2012-2013). 

Shih Hsiung Chou’s petroleum-plexiglass sculptures fill clear receptacles like domes, frames, coffins, television screens, and pillars with sump oil. Chou’s works were, initially at least, were less a remark on human nature than they were on the state of being human. The pieces seek to emphasize the connectivity between people and the ancient animals and plants whose bodies form the oil that we use to construct and power our society.

Soheila Sokhanvari’s Fall on Our Knees (2016). 

Soheila Sokhavari takes inspiration from her family photos of pre-revolutionary Iran, and captures them in petroleum. Her oil works are blurred sepia portraits, with details and faces painfully missing, suggesting that these memories of Sokhavari’s are painfully and incompletely recalled. Her pieces comment, then, on the trauma of a forgotten past and a painful present, a present created by international and domestic disputes over the most valuable commodity of her homeland: oil. 

All of these pieces demonstrate the complexity, the nuance, and, ultimately, the power of petroleum as an art material. It is up to future visual artists, however, to utilize petroleum more boldly and widely. There is a great opportunity for artists in more countries, especially countries in which oil has more profoundly wrecked environments and propelled economies, to utilize this material language. At the same time, there is more opportunity for visual artists to speak more directly and powerfully to the perpetrators of petroleum-based violence – to its safekeepers, to the willfully ignorant, to the blissfully unaware.

(Top image: Kader Attia, Oil and Sugar #2 (still), 2007. Single-channel video (color, sound), 4:30 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler, and Lehmann Maupin. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.)


Ariana Akbari is the founder of Climate Justice Texas, an environmental advocacy program based in Southeast Texas, the heart of the oil and gas economy. She studied the History of Art & Architecture and the Comparative Study of Religion at Harvard College, with side jaunts at the University of Houston Hines College of Architecture and the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about corporate transparency, effectively-built spaces and community programs, and regionally-rooted art & design. 


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 Doug Parsons

By Amy Brady

Happy New Year! So much has already happened this year, and it’s only February 1. After an insurrection at the national capitol, there’s a pending POTUS impeachment trial. Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on and vaccine roll-out has been, well, less than ideal. With so much to rally and advocate for, climate change can get lost in the shuffle. But it isn’t going away. That’s one reason why I asked Doug Parsons, creator and host of the podcast America Adapts, to be my first interview of the year. 

Doug is a climate adaptation specialist who’s worked in Queensland, Australia and as the first Climate Change Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Knowing that storytelling is key to climate action, he launched America Adapts. Every episode features a conversation with a different kind of adaptation professional – professors, journalists, urban planners, and even yours truly, have made appearances. The podcast gives narrative shape and fascinating insight into the nuanced and often scientific work of climate specialists. More recently, Doug has taken his storytelling and media expertise to Cimpatico TV, a San Francisco start-up, where he hosts a live talk-show on their climate channel. 

I spoke with Doug about why he launched America Adapts, what he thinks the future of climate podcasting looks like, and what he hopes listeners and viewers will take away from his creative media projects.

What inspired you to launch your podcast? Was it a climate-related event? Or perhaps something more personal? 

Since I joined the climate workforce, a long, long time ago, I’ve been obsessed with trying to communicate the issue of climate change. I quickly went into the field of climate adaptation. In case you’re not familiar with the topic, it just means how society is going to adapt to all the impacts of climate change no matter what we do to reduce our carbon emissions. That said, we need to reduce those emissions! We’re going to have impacts like sea-level rise, extreme heat, drought and much more, so we need to prepare to adapt to those changes.

That’s the area I’ve spent most of my career on and I’ve become obsessed with trying to communicate this huge issue to the public. It’s become politicized, so communicating the issue is that much harder. That’s why I started the podcast. If you’re a podcast listener, you recognize that it’s a great way to learn things.

What kinds of guests do you have on, and what do you discuss?

My typical guests have backgrounds in adaptation. I’ll talk to professors, journalists, practitioners, urban planners, you name it; if they are doing work related to adapting to climate change, I’m interviewing them. The goal is to share their expertise and experiences with my listeners. I’ve talked to climate activists of color working in the New Orleans area. That was truly an eye-opening experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Quentin Bell, a Trans-man, and learning how his community is uniquely vulnerable to climate change. I’ve interviewed prominent politiciansclimate scientists, among many others. I feel very lucky to talk with those folks. On occasion I go somewhat off topic. For example, you (Amy Brady) have been on three times to talk about climate fiction! I’ve also spoken to a professional climate skeptic, which was a bonkers and enlightening conversation.

I also like to talk more broadly about climate communication so I might have someone on to talk about that. Those are always fun conversations. I also have journalists on because they’re doing really important work. Sometimes I get sponsored to go on location. The podcast has taken me to AfricaAustralia and all over the U.S. Obviously, because of the pandemic, I’m not doing any travel now, but I’m hoping by the end of 2021 I’ll get back to it. I did an episode on urban forestry in New York City that was super fun. I was taken all over the city and got to learn how their urban forests are helping the city adapt to climate change.

What do you hope listeners take away from America Adapts?

America Adapts is not a doom-and-gloom podcast. I want my listeners to feel like there’s something that we can do. Even though the challenges of climate change are going to be severe in the coming decades, there are things that we can do today to get ready for it. There’s warming baked into the system, so as I said before, even if we reduced our carbon emissions – which we have to do – we can expect rising seas, extreme heat, and many more unpredictable impacts. We have to adapt our society. I want my listeners to know that the people I interview are doing things today to deal with these issues (and I hope some of my listeners join the fray!). Adapting deals with issues like managed retreat (we’ll have to abandon some cities near the coast, but hopefully in a managed way), maladaptation, and nature-based solutions. There’s a lot of exciting work going on and the people I interview are doing it! I want my listeners to feel empowered that in the face of climate change, which typically has such a negative narrative around it, there’s stuff that we can do. 

Why is the podcast format a good venue for climate storytelling? 

A lot of people are audio learners, so podcasts are are great medium for that. I think each of us gets comfortable with our favorite podcasts because of the style of the host or the show format. It’s like an old, comfortable blanket. And so if we can learn a bit about climate change on such a platform, then all the better. Since it’s so easy to record these podcasts with people all over the world, that accessibility makes it easier to share this knowledge. It’s not like making a good TV show or a movie, which usually requires a lot of people and a lot of resources. Podcasts can be developed by a single person (I guess some movies can too). It really is empowering to know that you can produce something on your own, get it published relatively cost-free, and if it’s great content, people around the world are going to find it and find value in it. That is just an amazing thing. I’ve had a listener in Mongolia contact me and tell me she really enjoys the show. Didn’t see that coming.

Photo by Jeff Parsons

Please tell us about your work with Cimpatico. How does it extend the work you do on America Adapts, and how does it differ?

Cimpatico is a new tech startup out of San Francisco. Think Twitch meets LinkedIn. They recruited me to be their first host and partner. They’ve created a whole climate adaptation channel where I get to interview people from around the world working on climate issues. It’s a bit broader than the podcast in that I talk to people engaged with a wide spectrum of climate-related topics like renewable energy, carbon reduction, and other areas of climate mitigation that I don’t cover in the podcast. It’s been interesting to expand the spectrum of experts I get to talk to. I’ve done over 170 interviews with a lot more planned. We’re looking at building a community around these issues as we do these interviews. At the moment, we’re focusing on being more like a TV production studio but looking to expand the community in the coming year. I thought the podcast exposed me to some really cool work but the team at Cimpatico has been recruiting guests from around the world. Its goal is to expand into all sorts of different topics like robotics, public health, insurance and much more.

What does the future of climate podcasting look like from your perspective? Is this a space that’s growing? Is there a growing audience for these kinds of podcasts?

I recently had a conversation with Amy Westervelt of the Drilled podcast about this topic. We both observed that there are a lot more climate podcasts that have come around in the last year. (Staying home during a pandemic drove some of this). She and I are old-timers in that we’ve been doing it for three to four years. I think you’re going to get a lot more diversification in the type of podcasts out there. Maybe we’ll get some regional podcasts that focus on climate impacts in a particular area. Maybe we’ll also get an urban planner starting their own climate podcast, a farmer focusing on the agricultural sector, or an artist starting their own climate podcast. Climate change is going to touch us in ways we can’t even predict, and I think podcasts are flexible enough to allow new voices to come online. I think with the Biden administration coming into power, there will be more focus in general on climate change, so we’re likely to see a lot more people coming into the climate podcast space to talk about what’s going on. I think that’s all very encouraging because we need more voices out there. The reality is that very few climate podcasters make it to a huge audience, just because it’s a complex issue and can easily turn into a doom-and-gloom topic. Hopefully, we’ll see some more voices come online who can make the issue relevant to people while also inspiring them.

What’s next for you? 

As with everyone, I’m looking forward to the end of the pandemic so I can start traveling again. I publish every two weeks and it’s always kind of exciting to see what things pop up out of the blue. I hope to have you on again to update my listeners on the latest climate fiction! Having a new president who cares about climate change will inevitably influence the content of my podcast. I’ll also be doing interviews on Cimpatico and looking forward to how that expands. I encourage your readers to check out the podcast on their favorite podcast app and let me know what they think!

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


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Yun Ko-eun

By Mary Woodbury

This month, we virtually travel to South Korea and to a fictional island off the coast of Vietnam as we explore The Disaster Tourist (Serpent’s Tail in the UK / Counterpoint Press in the US, 2020). Thanks so much to author Yun Ko-eun and translator Lizzie Beuhler for their time in this interview, and to Counterpoint Press’s very helpful Megan Fishmann.

An endlessly surprising and totally gripping read, The Disaster Tourist is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. It questions every aspect of life we so often take for granted, smashing apart any easy distinctions between natural and artificial, normal and abnormal, peaceful and violent, personal and political. There could not be a more prescient moment for this too-real fiction about how we create our own disasters on every scale and what resilience might mean in the face of catastrophe.

— Elvia Wilk, author of Oval


When it comes to approaching ecological devastation in the world, fiction authors employ a variety of approaches to tell their stories. Yun Ko-eun’s is unique in that it scrutinizes how the privileged have a choice when observing environmental catastrophes – and can do so, usually, at a safe, curious, and often almost pathological, happy distance, as if watching an animal in the zoo. Often, observation is not a choice, and the human experience is more harsh – such as at ground zero where it is likely not the rich getting richer but the poor getting poorer. Disaster satirizes the casual observer and makes us think about who we are and how we are affected by and react to ecological crises happening in the world today. It also looks at the dark underbelly surrounding the capitalization of such events.

Welcome to the desert island of Mui, where a paid vacation to paradise is nothing short of a disaster in this “mordantly witty novel [that] reads like a highly literary, ultra-incisive thriller (Refinery29).

Jungle is a cutting-edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday.

When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position? An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist introduces a fresh new voice to the United States that engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.


Before you wrote a novel, you wrote a blog that included your travel experiences. Can you tell us about that as well as how those experiences inspired The Disaster Tourist?

I used to write short travel essays for my blog, and now I post photos from my travels on Instagram. They’re just photos and brief musings, but all posted for one reason: I want to capture these memories while they’re still fresh, still alive. When we can’t capture a living moment forever, we make a record of it.

My trips and personal experiences tend to find their way into each of my novels, with modifications of time and place. The trip that influenced The Disaster Tourist was one I took to Vietnam several years before writing the book, but if you look for moments from my travels reflected in the novel, there are a lot of elements beyond Vietnam as well. Thailand, France, Italy, Japan, England, Spain…memories of all those places have been reorganized, and made stateless, throughout the plot.

I do like to start new projects when I come back from a trip, but it’s not my ultimate goal as a writer. To be more specific, all types of “movement” give me inspiration: whether it’s crossing the street to go to the park or walking to the supermarket. What’s different about travel, though, is the psychological preparation for change. Travel makes you feel like you’re going far away to meet something, or someone. You’re ready to react to the unfamiliar – you wait to come across it – and then afterwards, you worry about the return to daily life. This is the mixture of feelings present in my blog and Instagram posts. It’s like putting air in a Ziploc bag: at first the memories seem well contained, and then after you return home, when you finally let them free, they forget about the bag and get all mixed up with the air outside – real life.

The Disaster Tourist is described as an eco-thriller, and it’s a uniquely woven story that engages with various kinds of disasters, including climate change, sexual abuse, and dark tourism. How did these themes come to you when deciding to write your novel?

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post for the Waterstones website, titled “What Makes a Great Eco-thriller.” Writing the post was a really new experience for me, because I’d never thought much about the eco-thriller genre before. In fact, I only came across the word after publishing The Disaster Tourist, so I worried the post might be difficult to write. I realized, however, as I wrote, that I may not have placed the label “eco-thriller” on my novel, but the ideas present in the genre were very familiar to me.

I’m very interested in plastic, and sometimes I begin and end the day with images of the world’s plastic waste flashing across my mind. One of my other novels discusses the horrors of animal experimentation and illegal waste dumping, and my newest project deals with climate change and the planet’s capacity for life. I feel much closer to the “eco-thriller” genre now than when I wrote The Disaster Tourist. Maybe The Disaster Tourist was the seed of this sort of discomfort.

The main character, Yona, is sexually assaulted at work and then sent to Mui, a fictional Vietnamese island. The company that Yona works for, Jungle, specializes in holiday packages that give tourists ring-side seats to ecological disasters – only Mui’s sinkhole is now turning into a lake and is not quite the disaster that visitors want to see. This is a very unique approach to exploring climate/ecological disasters in fiction. But it works – and reminds me of something that author Ilija Trojanow told me once: “We have had an enormous amount of dystopian narratives in recent years, not only in literature but also in the movies, on the TV screen. We lean back, munch popcorn and delight in the apocalypse. That’s pathological.” It seems that your novel exposes, satirically, this weird tendency of ours. What are your thoughts on this, and in your own experience, have you seen disaster packages like the ones offered in Jungle?

When I was young, I didn’t realize that even in dystopias, the rich manage to grow richer, and the poor stay poor. Some people have the option of taking in only the amount of dystopia that they want. But others don’t get that choice. This is true in real life as well, not just fiction – just look at how coronavirus has affected people of different social statuses. In The Disaster Tourist, too, some people can choose, and others can’t. The vacationers in the book think that they can witness disaster from a safe distance, and then they wander between sympathy and voyeurism. They mistakenly believe that they have their seatbelts on, but I wanted to change that. I wanted a story where, instead of the travelers looking down at apocalypse, we’re looking down at the travelers. I wanted to talk about disaster in a superimposed manner.

I’ve never seen disaster tourism packages like Jungle’s in real life, but I’ve thought about the opposite situation a lot: a crisis at a comfortable resort, in a safe place where natural disasters are rare. The safety that everyone trusts crumbling before them. When I consider travel destinations, I look up each location’s potential dangers, even though I know that very few places are truly free from disaster. I don’t only visit places without fires or floods or war or terrorism, but I do try to keep my own travels and disaster as far away from one another as possible. So it’s a bit ironic that I’ve written a novel with both these themes in its title.

At Bookanista, you described your creation of Paul and how it was similar to Big Brother in 1984. Can you explain more to our readers about this Orwellian power figure and Paul, the faceless corporation, and how, perhaps, this is not really science fiction anymore but reality?

One way to look at the world is to divide it into big cities, and everything else. Before The Disaster Tourist, my novels had always been set in dense urban areas. But by my criteria, The Disaster Tourist’s rural island setting of Mui is, in fact, like a city. It moves along the financial orbit of a city. Mui’s residents can’t survive without having a product to sell, which is why they end up packing disaster to survive in the world of capitalism. It’s terrible enough to imagine disaster as a consumable commodity, but Mui’s situation is even more serious – its people create a disaster to package and sell. Paul functions as the centripetal point in this process. Other than the ethereal Paul, almost no one knows about the plan to orchestrate a man-made disaster on Mui and then market it to tourists as an attraction. Even the screenwriter who helps plan the disaster only knows part of what is about to happen. Everyone on Mui says that they are simply following Paul’s orders, but no one knows who Paul is. Paul is like Big Brother, but he (it?) is also an excuse for indifference.

Just like on Mui, people in big cities don’t know the origins of the products they consume. But the further they are from factories and fisheries, the more they need to know about the processes that bring their purchases to them. What at first may be a simple lack of information can become the deliberate exclusion of information, and even though the consumer isn’t aware, he or she can become an unwitting accomplice to grievous crimes and abuses of power.

I think we can all relate to this nowadays. Once Yona is on Mui, she continues to run into a cult-like culture – like she experienced when working in Jungle’s office – and corruption that plagues capitalistic tourism. She must make some choices and face her own paradoxes and ethics. Her journey reflects a lot of people’s experiences, yet most of us feel ordinary, like Yona. How do you feel readers can get inspired by such characters?

Starting when Yona suffers sexual harassment at work – and really, even before that – she stands at a crossroads. Readers can count the number of times in the novel where she’s forced to make a choice; each reader will end up with a different number. One might say that Yona is forced to take certain action; another might see this action as an active choice. What, to some, doesn’t seem like a door at all could be a perfect escape hatch for others. It’s not that we choose different paths at each crossroads, it’s that the points where we make choices differ. We’re all different people. Yona’s life contains many moments of choice even before she leaves for Mui: her attitude towards a Jungle customer asking for a refund, or her response to calls for solidarity from other victims of sexual assault at work. To some people, Yona’s actions are typical, but to others she’s fearful or selfish, or naïve or spontaneous. There are as many iterations of Yona as there are readers.

How do you feel that climate change in fiction can impact readers?

Recently I’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries that deal with this issue, and I’ve been learning more about the topic. My next novel partially deals with climate change. I’m much more aware than I was when I wrote The Disaster Tourist seven or eight years ago, and because the environmental situation has only gotten worse since then, I feel like I can’t avoid writing about climate change. The coronavirus makes an appearance in my next book, too. There’s no way to avoid these topics in my writing.

Are you working on any other novels or projects right now?

Like I mentioned above, my next novel. I talked about how it deals with climate change, but another theme in the novel is the concept of marriage insurance – policies that you can take out when you get married to protect against damages incurred during the relationship. So, climate change and marriage insurance – it’s the overlap of these two worlds, one real and one made-up.

Thanks so much for this insightful chat, and I’ll be watching for your next novel!

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


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


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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