Climate Anxiety Counseling and Future Mapping with Rejin Leys on Governor’s Island, NY: 7/13/19

Weather: hot and bright and muggy; not bad in the shade

Number of people: 9 stoppers

Pages of notes: 20, but a smaller notebook than usual, so ~12 normal-sized pages

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 1

Pictures taken with permission: 3

Pictures taken without permission: 1

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 0

Money raised for Tooth and Nail Community Support Collective: I didn’t collect money this time.

Observations:

This was during a scheduled, arts-and-culture-related time, in front of a house where artists were gathered to make art about water (the link goes to a record of last year’s residency) and where other organizing and informational efforts related to climate change were going on in the houses nearby. The island is a slight, though not huge, pain in the ass to get to—you have to make a point of it, and some people were making a point of getting there to see the arts-and-culture-related things; some people were also there mainly to picnic and have a good time. Many of the people who spoke with us were residents or participants in the houses.

In that post, I’ll also write more about the way that Rejin Leys (artist-in-residence, collaborator, and friend) and I planned this collaboration, what actually happened, and what we learned from that. For now I will say that either before or instead of talking with me, people who stopped by our table were being invited (by Rejin) to draw a “blind contour” map of the continental US in order to think about borders, coastlines, and change. Here are two:

[IMAGE: two drawings of the map of the continental US, drawn while looking at the map but without looking at the drawing, on paper handmade with Poland Spring labels.]

The upcoming post will include more and better examples of the maps. Because of this exercise, I started many (but not all) conversations by asking, “How did it feel to do that drawing?” Note that in the conversations, italics are me, plain type is the interlocutor, and R (also in italics) is Rejin speaking.

Some conversations:

How did it feel to do that drawing?

I liked it actually. I already knew starting out that it was going to be totally inaccurate. I wanted to draw in the shapes of the places. It was a chance for me to practice nonattachment–[attachment] makes my life more difficult. It’s nice to feel like I didn’t need [the drawing] to be anything.

Does attachment affect the way you think about the future?

Yes. I have really severe anxiety and depression and they [contribute to] an inability to live in the present. I’m always looking to the future—not just 30 years from now when everything is horrible, but little things that are happening in the next few days, and every mistake I’ve made in my past. It’s obsessive and it’s bad—I can’t sleep. So having a moment to let go of all that is really nice.

What are some ways that you look for moments to let go of it?

That’s a hard question to answer, because when you’re so deep in it, any attempt to get out of it results in feeling guilty for taking time—like, “I need to rest, but do I deserve that?” I know that, I do recognize that, and I try and hold that but I don’t know how. I’m here and I’m recognizing that [moment]. But I think more to the point is the acknowledging that it’s happening–”This is a moment when I felt this—how do I keep this moment?”

What’s a change in the world that would free you?

Knowing that people cared more about, in particular about things like climate change but in general that you could count on people for more empathy. … So many people are all, “I have mine and screw you, unless it actually impacts me—my sister, my mother, my brother.” And maybe not even then. It’s hard to get people to care if they can’t personally go, “It affects me,” yet.

How is caring about it part of your day?

You have of course your little things that you do, like recycling—

I’m gonna stop you for a second. We can come back to the things that you do, but I also want to know how it feels. How the caring feels on the day-to-day.

I think about it a lot, especially because I’m from Florida, which will be underwater. I mean, the form it takes is anxiety, because I start to be very anxious about the loss. It kills me. It absolutely kills me. I’m so stymied by the fact that people don’t care. I feel so impotent to do anything. It’s very frustrating. I’m just this one little person, and I do what I can, but I’m not always doing what I can.

What are the things you do with other people that have to do with this?

I make art with other people a lot. I’m a big fan of collaboration. When I make art it’s generally to impart something to people about stuff based in the environment. I love to teach and to make things entertaining but also hopefully make people think about stuff more than they would have. My sculptures are all made of garbage, I try to have as little impact as possible—art can be super toxic too. 

Can you tell me more about Florida?

There was just a bad red tide. There are dead things washing up all the time, and it stinks. And then you contrast that with the constant need to be pristine for the tourists—there are trucks that come and pick up the seaweed. It feeds itself. I’d love to see less attachment to the idea of perfection, this ideal. They keep replenishing the beach—they dredge the waterways, and there are all these beautiful shells, but it’s because we’re killing these creatures. But nobody says anything and they keep doing it because people want their beautiful shells.

R: It seems like they see the coastline less as a part of nature and more as someone’s garden.

As a theme park. They want to be able to use it an unlimited amount, then they leave and don’t ever think about it again. That’s something that I try to deal with in my work. I want people to care. If the world were a smaller place– It’s cheesy, but the Mad Max apocalypse, something like that is the direct consequence that will cleanse the Earth. We’ve been here for nothing, no time.

How does thinking about that play into your trouble with attachment?

Cataclysmic change is actually comforting to me. When I get really crazy it helps me, to think I’m nothing. If you’re watching an animal documentary, it’s like, “This blue-footed booby doesn’t give a shit about me.” It helps me to zoom out and go, “We’ll be gone and that’ll be the best thing that could’ve happened.” Because we’re such a speck, such a small kind of meaningless speck.

So it sort of sounds like—a lot of people, with climate change, they feel like they don’t matter enough, and you said some stuff like that too earlier, but with this it seems like you’re trying not to feel like you matter too much.

If we matter too much then we think, we follow this Great Chain of Being…we think everything else is here to serve us. I get so frustrated alone in my house: Why do we think we’re more important than this grass?

So with that in mind then, you said you like to collaborate. How could you collaborate not just with other humans but with the rest of the living world?

Cultivating the wild, cultivating wild spaces. This is really hard for me. There’s a value in being uncomfortable. We can have less and we can survive. That’s something that everybody, that a lot of people, myself included, could benefit from, is accepting less in the way of comfort. You’ll get used to it, you’ll get over it.

*

I work in environmental policy and I am dealing very frequently with having to be very aware of the very terrible forecast. Climate anxiety is very real for me and my colleagues. Office conversation in other places, you think of it as light and easy, and it might start out that way but then it’ll take a turn toward some article that someone saw. It’s strange having conversations about terrible things in this casual way. I think you’re forced to ignore it to a large extent.

Can you leave it at work?

Not really. I try not to take it over into too many of my conversations with my wife and other people.

Have you seen any motion while you’ve been doing the work that you’re doing or does it mostly feel like spinning your wheels?

There’s been some motion in that there are different ways to think about these things. It’s hard to feel that something productive is happening—there are sometimes small victories, but they’re a drop in this ocean.

How about the literal ocean?

Obviously some of the changes that will happen will be in the ocean. I’ve only been a handful of times, but scuba diving was amazing—to see all those amazing things, but then I think, “Is this the last time?”

What if it was the last time?

There are times where I can sort of take that, like, “This is a fact in the world,” and then there are times when it’s incredibly depressing. It depends on whether I’m in a situation to talk about the sadder parts of these things or not.

*

[Person 1 and Person 2 came up together. Person 3 came up toward the end of that conversation.]

How did it feel to do that drawing?

Person 1: I was extremely confident when I was drawing it, and now I’m kind of amazed at how inaccurate it is.

R: What makes it correct or incorrect?

Person 1: I was trying to replicate [the map]. I can see places where I did that. I like the way it looks, but it was not what was intended.

R: Of course the coastline is always changing.

Person 1: My aunt lives down in southern New Jersey on a barrier island, and since Sandy—there’s a nature preserve there that’s all dunes, and since Sandy the sand is collecting much further out and forming a new island. They were thinking about dredging it, but they just left it there to be a new island.

R: We’re always thinking about what we’re losing, but this is just something that changed.

Person 1: It’s just further down. What’s interesting is that no one has a claim to it—it’s not part of any township.

R: It’s a truly free space.

Person 1: Well, and on the rest of the island, they’ve got the Army Corps of Engineers pumping sand back onto the beach. They can only [leave the new island in place] because it wasn’t developed. My aunt works for an arts and science foundation, and people just developed right up to the water, but the place where she works was less affected by Sandy and it’s because of the preserved wetlands around it. So she gives tours and explains how wetlands are supposed to be a natural barrier.

How does this idea of letting it go, just letting the island form, play into your anxieties about change?

Person 1: What if letting things take their natural course—things might get a little bit unwieldy, there might be blowback. But…if I don’t have awareness of what’s happening, that vulnerability is scary to me. My reflex then is to try to exert control, which I intellectually know is futile, to have control over all possible outcomes or even have awareness of all possible outcomes. My instinct in that case is to use mindfulness to come back to right now, see what’s actually present. Things that are maybe going to happen but haven’t yet—what are the things I do have control over in this moment? I can pay attention to the breath. If I’m in an activated, anxious state, that might be valid but I’m probably not going to think about things clearly.

What are the coastlines that are important to you?

The Jersey Shore. My grandfather built a house on Long Beach Island, and my aunt lives there full time. Her husband is a fisherman, a bayman. And we just moved to Cobble Hill, so we’re right near Red Hook and Buttermilk Channel. Red Hook feels like a little seaside town. And the Hudson River—I grew up in Northern New Jersey up where the Hudson gets a little bit narrower. And [to Person 2] you’ve got Florida.

Person 2: Yeah, but I don’t claim it. I don’t feel connected to Florida. It wasn’t my choice to live there, and as soon as I had a choice I left.

Person 1: Do you want to feel a connection to it?

Person 2: I prefer rivers. Rivers with mountains or cities—they give me a sense of scale.

What are some ways to take care of the rivers in this city?

Person 1: … I’ve been learning about the Billion Oyster Project–not only are they using oysters to rehabilitate the waterways, but they’re creating these community reefs, where people can be involved in rehabilitation in their neighborhoods. I look at something like the Gowanus Canal—it’s so polluted, what can an oyster reef do? But people now have a relationship with the waterway. There’s also the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club–you can sign up to go out and take trash out of the water … But I think with the canal, a lot of people are like, “It’s too gross to think about.” So anything that changes that—I haven’t signed up with them yet, but I’m trying to make it a priority … I’ve been holding a weekly climate grief support group Wednesday nights, and it’s good to have that time, but one of the other people involved pointed out that we could also be using that time to be doing stuff.

Can you tell me more about the support group?

Person 1: For two months we were having it every Wednesday. There’s a core group of three, sometimes it grows to seven, and we’re open for drop-ins. I try to combine contemplative arts and talking about climate change, because I noticed that if I just start talking about it, I start talking faster, and then the people I’m talking to pick up on that. So we start with contemplative practices and share some of the physical tools of slowing down. If we start getting breathless, slowing the breath down a little bit. We try to keep it casual, make it a little bit informal. People have such a wide variety of responses. Getting together in one place lets us not feel so alone. Climate change is something I’ve been concerned about for years—when I was at Hunter College taking an [environmental studies] class, my teacher cried in class and said, “I’m so sorry your generation has to deal with this.”  … For me, knowing that other people are concerned about it instead of being at home by myself and stewing about it is important.

Do you feel like the support group has affected the way you deal with it or talk about it outside of the support group?

Person 1: Yes. I don’t want people to be—I want people to care about climate change and be curious about it. I don’t want people to be so panicked about it that they [DIDN’T WRITE DOWN THE END OF THIS SENTENCE]. I turned to Buddhism because of climate change, and a lot of that is about preparing for death. … A teacher, a Buddhist chaplain, has talked about how when someone is dying, they might forget, and start making a plan for the future—I vacillate between, “Oh, these are the facts of things,” and going back to my planning. How do I internalize the reality so it isn’t so jarring?

We knew about each other and were in touch before this, so: is there anything that you hoped to talk about during our conversation that we haven’t yet?

Person 1: Somebody was saying that the way that we respond to climate change comes from templates that we established as children. …  Things always feel more manageable when I’m talking about it with someone else—it’s like, “Right, people do care.” I want to seek that out as I try to internalize it.

[Person 3 came and sat down at this point.]

[To Person 3] What would you like to say or hear in the work that you’re doing?

Person 3: I’d like to hear more and more interest in saying, “Yes, I’d like to become involved.” Today, there were quite a number of people who wanted information about our next meeting, and I hope they’ll come to see what it was like and then get more involved. I’m very optimistic. There was only one person who came in, and I couldn’t do anything about it: I asked, “Are you involved at all?” and he said, “ I read about it,” and I asked if he wanted to be involved and he just [mimes a shrug]. And I wanted to say, “We’re not talking about climate change, we’re talking about a climate crisis.” But there was nothing that I could say to him. That’s sad, and it feels not great. I’d like to be able to say [things like that], but I think you can’t go directly, you have to go through something else. I give talks, and something I’ve tried is starting with bamboo. [HERE SHE SUNG THE PRAISES OF BAMBOO FOR A LITTLE WHILE.] I want to be able to talk about that—it’s best to go through something positive if you can, to get to the issues.

Person 1: I feel that too. Like, “Why don’t you care about this, are you crazy?!” What’s the other way besides that—mostly questions and mostly experiential. Can I be communicating safety through my voice and body languge, even when I feel like I should be raising my voice?

Person 3: I’ve been involved with a [Project] Drawdown group—we just had our last session. One guy in the group lives part of the year here, part of the year in New Zealand, and he’s going to India to help farmers there with their soil,* and he’s begun to get on the subway and when there’s a long enough distance between stops, he gets up and says, “I don’t want your money, I just want two minutes of your time to talk about climate change.” And people ask him for literature. People say thank you. I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I want to, but I don’t know if I could.

[Person 3 went back to her station in one of the climate activism houses at this point]

Person 1: I would just say that I felt my breathing start to slow while I’ve been sitting here talking with you. When I feel alone with it, I feel like I have to be responsible for so much. Sometimes I feel resentful—why did these instructors at Hunter College burden me with this knowledge?

R: What [Person 3] was talking about might not be what I think of as the priority, but I’m glad that people are dealing with different aspects.

Person 1: I’m accepting that I’ll never be able to think about all of it or do all of it. When I’m trying to get people activated, there’s no one way—if you want to chain yourself to a pipeline, I can connect you with people who will help you do that.

*If you’re making a slight face about this guy, I am too. I would need to know a little more about him, his work, and how he’s behaving toward the other people on those trains before I could comment well on how this fits into the question of how we carry out our responsibilities to the world we share.

*

How did it feel to do that drawing?

It felt like I was not doing a good job. I was trying to sort of like get the shape, but I was getting anxious because I knew that the paper was finishing. 

Also, the coastline changes.

I don’t know how fast it changes. I mean, you can’t really tell unless you really go to the coastline. My family lives on the Mediterranean, in Greece, and I spent a lot of time in the northern islands. A big problem there is pollution—boats unloading their graywater in the harbor. There have been changes because of erosion and earthquakes that you can see from year to year. I’m now 30 years old, 32, and I see rocks that have fallen off. My grandfather had a little hut near the edge of a cliff, and this is leaning now—there’s a crack on the cement, and this year, everything is falling off. It happened slow—there were rains, there was hail, this corrosion is just natural. It was just like this forever. Nature takes its course, I guess. In a different place, it could be different. A few days ago, it rained so much in a place in Greece —when they built the city, they didn’t think about how if there’s [much] more rain it’s gonna be mayhem, it’s gonna be like the world is ending.

It’s not spontaneous, it’s just just earth’s moods anymore. We’re affecting it a lot. People don’t know what to do to prepare for seasons. It’s also about survival in some places. We [in the US, I think they meant] have other people growing our food for us—in other places there are more wars and famine, places that rely on a really tiny source of water. It’s crazy. I get goosebumps. And it’s a global phenomenon.

… I think for now, people know better, but rectifying those mistakes is very hard. People don’t generally react well. When you try to do work with the environment you will always get some resistance. It’s more difficult to convince older generations—they’re not used to thinking long-term or thinking, “What I do affects how other people live.” Individualism is hurting people.

… My grandfather has a garden and trees, fruit trees and olive trees, and he was loving what he was doing, so the things [he grew] were always delicious. When you grow something with love it always tastes better. I’ve been lucky to witness how to work the earth with your hands—you love it as a kid and it’s something normal, it comes out instinctively.

How are you feeling about all of this?

Emotional. But I can only just keep doing what I’m doing. I have scientific knowledge to share, I work with biofuels, and through my relationships around me, family and friends.

Are there ways you could give back to the place you’re living now?

People can’t change. If you live in the countryside, you don’t get enough information. I would change the mindset—maybe be selectively insensitive, maybe it’s the first step to people realizing they need to change.

*

I do this climate storytelling project and I’ve been working on it for the last few years. How do you actually engage people in a deep way? The organization is set up as a public engagement tool, and it’s tapped into something that isn’t really available to people: how to express yourself on climate change, but also how to make this kind of work matter more—to build an ecosystem for it. I’m very connected to the practitioner community and the traditional climate community—less so in terms of climate art … My life is totally different than it was before. I’ve had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, how do you raise money. I used to work in climate spaces, but it was the kind of thing where there was a paid staff position, you’d establish a position and get funding for it. Entering into creative spaces has a personal hesitancy for me. 

What’s your desire for these stories?

I want them to help transform people’s thinking, and to provide people with an outlet for expression. If I actually spend the time reflecting on climate—because I’m a parent, because I’m relatively young and I’ll be living in the future, because I care about my community—I need to deepen my competence [in communicating about it]. On the cultural level and the bigger picture, people need to talk about climate more. Giving them these tools has potential to unleash action at a much higher level. I see this as part of a series of projects that shifts or changes our cultural understanding of climate change. The personal hesitancy is so much more for me than—not in all cases, but in some cases, the letters [we collected] are so beautiful and personal that I want to do [them] justice. I feel like I’m holding people’s feelings and emotions and there aren’t that many other places where that can happen. I feel a deep sense of responsibility toward them that it will be beautiful and it will be moving and it will be helping other people to transform their thinking. I feel the weight of their concerns and I want to do a good job. … It’s so overwhelming, I’m already doing so much on it—I’m trying to build the parts that I’m good at and that I can do, and to farm out the parts I can’t do to people who are good at it. But there’s also a lack of resources to get [projects like this] attention, to fund the project in its entirety. Every piece or component is a full-time job. … How does a whole body of work get attention and funding? There are organizers, artists, social entrepreneurs doing this work—how can they get the support to sustain it?

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Climate Anxiety Counseling: Sankofa World Market/Knight Memorial Library, 10/10/18

Weather: 83 degrees Fahrenheit in October in New England; sunny

Number of people: 1 stopper, no walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Dogs seen: 2

Dogs pet: 1

Empanadas (from the store across the street) eaten: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.00
Observations:

Only one person talked with me today. My friend Rani made this beautiful henna pattern on my hand at a time when she didn’t have any customers either.

unravel henna

Nonhuman visitors and passersby: hornet and ant on the notebook (at different times), monarch butterfly in the library garden, carpenter bee, honeybee, tiny grass moth.

 

A conversation:

What do you think can be done on the civic level?

[I spoke about cities making room for climate migrants and refugees, and increasing food sovereignty; didn’t write down what I said.]

Our system don’t think about even half of what you’re saying. The way that democracy work, things go from the top to the bottom. We don’t have the infrastructure—we need to create more. We see the problems with the house, but the rules are set by the landlord, so if you wanna change the room—you have the idea, but it’s frustrating, because the people who can make the change will not do it.

What appeals to me is having some representative here, because what I’m telling you has no weight. We can talk, but as nice as that is, it doesn’t change things. You can’t act on something that you are not allowed to act on. Having representation here—someone with influence in Washington who can get things done.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Sankofa World Market/Sowing Place, 9/1/18

Weather: sticky heat underlying coolness, then hot bright sun

Number of people: 3 stoppers, no walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 3

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.00

Observations:

I asked two of the teenage market helpers to write on the map. They wrote “Cranston” on top of “Smithfield” very neatly in the top corner. Later, they were doing gymnastics and one walked a few “steps” on her hands.

I had a long talk with one of the other vendors about adjunct teaching and dealing with her elderly father’s care. We know each other a little now, so I was familiar with both situations and able to ask about them. When does something cross over from counseling and into just knowing each other, though not well?

During a conversation that I didn’t get permission to post, I think I argued too much/got too defensive.

Spotted: big carpenter bees flying together; big brown dragonfly; ladybug hitting my wrist, falling on my thigh, flying away; cabbage white butterfly; two flies landing on my money jar. There were also tons of wasps and yellowjackets, and lots of humans reacting to them: “I got stung by my first bee like two weeks ago so I’m just not agreeing with anything that’s happening right now.”

The DJ played Aretha Franklin all through the second half of the market.

A conversation:

When politicians don’t accept the fact of climate change. Politics tries to interject itself into science. Evidence and theory directly affects policy. Science as an institution is being ignored recently. And also for children growing up, if science is dismissed as a discipline, if it’s something you can ignore—children in their nascent years should be growing up based on evidence [sic], as opposed to political influence in voting and decision-making.

That’s a hard topic. I have a degree in psychology, so when I saw your sign—I have an interest in counseling.

Do you see a psychological connection?

 Maybe on an individual level. It mostly deals with the individual. Maybe a child in school, if you’re studying the effects of climate change—under the present administration, if you’re getting an engineering degree, or something in the sciences, then your funding might be affected by a political body. If money is taken away, that particular person might be affected, or that might affect their decision-making process, but I doubt that it would create any high level of anxiety or discomfort.

Climate Anxiety Counseling with the Manton Avenue Project, 6/29/18

The students and teachers of the Manton Avenue Project did me the honor and kindness of inviting me to do a guest workshop with them. As part of that, I did this model climate anxiety counseling session with one of their teachers, and some students asked her questions too.

They’re writing plays about climate change and “saving the world” this summer: you should go see them, on August 2nd and 3rd at 7pm at 95 Empire Street, and on August 4th at 6pm at the Waterfire Arts Center, both in Providence.

*

I look at weather patterns and I start feeling like, sad to the point of angry, because I feel like we’ve known [about climate change] for a long time, but there’s a large population of people that keeps insisting it’s not real, just because they want to keep driving cars and making money the way they’ve always done. I can’t believe we’re so shortsighted, with no sense of [how it will affect] the next generations. Our policies aren’t generous—it’s the policymakers. They have access to experts. They have control over how much information goes out, especially with social media. They should know better, but they’re on the side of a small population of very wealthy people who are probably not grounded in a lot of fact…

Do you talk with other people about this?

Yeah, but all we do is just voice our worries. I talk about it and then I try to get quiet. I try to think: how much space do I personally take up in the world? Even if I’m just one person, how can I pull back on fossil fuels, not live a live full of disposable things? I can write to companies and be like, “I love your product because it uses recycled material,” or whatever. When I talk to people, we’re complaining, but nothing gets done.

What would you like to see happen?

I’d love it if someone could tell me it was going to be okay, like, “Don’t worry.”  … It would be nice to be able to talk out plans and to be encouraged by actions we’re taking so that we can do more.

Can we go back for a second to what you’re feeling?

Sure. Especially about things I can’t exclusively control, I start feeling very alone. … It affects my energy to do things, my energy or willingness to try. I’m an anxious person anyway. When it gets really depressing, like a thing in the news makes me feel sad, I try to be what sometimes people call present. Petting my dog helps me do that—she doesn’t care, she doesn’t have an opinion other than, “Uh, it’s hot.” All they want to do is be with you …

I’m okay for the moment, I’m alright. I’m comfortable, I have clothes, I have food, I have a community of friends, and I realize that I can talk to them.

A student: How are you feeling right now?

I’m enjoying—it’s nice that it’s a nice day. Also the fact that it became summer. It was chilly earlier. I’m always feeling a complicated mix of feelings about that, but the smell of the air and the vitamin D make me feel good.

A student: What do you do to help with anxiety?

I try to look at the things that I feel I’ve been trying to do. After Christmas, for the New Year, I tried to get plastic bags out of my life, see how much I could use paper bags. I have cloth bags I keep in the car. I got compostable waste bags for the dog. So, what have I done [that is helpful]?

A student: What’s the connection between plastic bags and climate change?

It all gets bundled up to how our relationship to the world is. Plastic doesn’t break down when it goes in the garbage. And petroleum products, mining petroleum, those are unsustainable resources, just like the gas we put in our car, the fuel we use to heat our homes.

Me: What’s your takeaway from this conversation?

Taking it and keeping track of some sort of progress will encourage me to keep on with it or to explore different practices.

Sankofa World Market at Southside Cultural Center, 5/5/18

Weather: Bright, breezy, a perfect day to be outside

Number of people: 7 stoppers, 1 walkby, 1 bikeby

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 6.5

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 1

Photos taken with permission: 2

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 0

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.10

 

Observations:

The Sankofa World Market will be at the Southside Cultural Center on the first Saturday of every month as part of Sowing Place. This was the first of these; the next will be June 2nd.

I count someone as a “stopper” if they have a multi-sentence conversation with me, whether or not it functions as a “session” and whether or not they give me permission to post our conversation here (I only post conversations if I ask for and receive permission). A “walkby” or “bikeby” comments but doesn’t stop. This time, I only had two postable conversations, but a lot of people marked the map of Rhode Island with places they’d like to protect (see below).

A theme of the day was isolation—which is both a reason I started the booth and something it’s only medium-good at responding to—and the need to practice communication.

Nonhuman animals spotted: mockingbird, bumblebee, someone singing whose voice I should know but didn’t, pigeons in various configurations, cabbage white butterfly, a small flying insect (not biting) unknown to me, a couple of swallows high up at the very beginning.

 

Some conversations:

My main anxiety about climate change is related to sea level rise, and what it means to live in a coastal community that’s already had major sea level rise in the past. In Olneyville, you get a perfect storm of high tide and full moon and rainfall and the banks of the Woonasquatucket just wash over. I get some hope from the way people pull together when these things happen, but we shouldn’t need a crisis to pull together.

How do you feel when you think about these things?

I don’t want to keep thinking about it. You know you need to, but you don’t want to, so you push it away. I try to sort of stick my finger in the wound every once in a while so it doesn’t close up—answers may emerge over time if you don’t let it disappear.

And what do you do when you think about it?

Some of the smaller things. I take small actions to mitigate my own impact. Even if it’s not appreciable on a seismic scale, it makes you feel better, like, “At least I didn’t drive today.”

Is it also part of the stuff you do with other people, have you made it part of the collective stuff you do?

I feel like in the collective stuff I do it’s more of a constant undercurrent. Like on the board of the public library, we’re talking about how the building could be underwater, and how do you build all the systems that go into a building so they’re not destroyed? I feel like it’s moved into a place of acknowledging the inevitability and doing new thinking about how to respond to it, rather than denial. But denial is a comfortable place to be in, in some ways … How in the things I’m involved with with racial justice does climate justice play a part? How does that always have to include the injustice of climate change? Like this LNG facility, and whose neighborhood is most at risk. It’s not one of the things that you’re always gonna hear me bring up, but I’m always excited when someone else does.

… I think the shift from “global warming” to “climate change” is helpful. And I think that creative people have an important part to play in our conception of the terms, to put pressure on how we’re thinking about it. That’s what I admired so much about Holly Ewald’s work [with UPP Arts], how she’s like, “I’m an artist but I’m also a researcher and I’m a convener. How can I bring other people to this and not just bring it into my [artistic] practice?” … And then as someone with access to resources and how they’re dispersed, how can I support, spot, amplify what others are doing? Contribute to the thing, whatever the thing looks like?

What are some things you’d like to contribute to?

I think–people coming together in intergenerational spaces to build trust and vulnerability. It’s hard to find an affinity around a negative, like fighting something we don’t want—what are we fighting for that we do want?

What would you want to come out of these spaces?

I guess policy is the thing, but local? I feel really paralyzed by a lot of what comes out of the national level, like if the EPA decides it’s just going to take all the regulations off polluting vehicles. And like, what California does on the local level has a much bigger effect than anything we could do. But if we could be part of a groundswell in New England—that’s another kind of collectivity. These nested scales, like people thinking about these questions together, then taking that to the civic and municipal level, the state level—I’m more and more drawn to going block by block than trying to make change in Washington.

*

I’m worried about the soil. It gets more and more acidic all the time. I’m worried about neighborhoods in low-lying places, and I really worried that people are sort of isolated, so if disasters happen we won’t be prepared to take care of each other. If the communication technology that we use gets broken down, especially, I’m afraid we won’t know how to work together. I’m also worried about drought. When I’m farming, my anxiety has to do with what I’m seeing on the farm—unpredictable weather patterns stress me out more. I always thought the longer I farmed, the better I’d get at knowing the pattern, that I’d become someone who can predict weather. Now I’ve been farming for ten years, and it’s more like I’m just more in touch with the chaos. I have a bigger record of how much things have gotten wacky. I started out thinking that farmers were kind of a repository for climate patterns, but we’re just repositories for climate anxiety.

… I have found that paying that close attention also results in observing lots of moments of resilience. Seeing plants under insane conditions thrive—I’ve become more sensitive to wild plants that live in the city. And I know that a lot of them are medicinal, so that makes me happy. There are a few plant buddies that inspire me in particular. Mullein—it’s good for the lungs, and it often grows along the highway, so it’s like it’s the lungs of the highway. And St. John’s wort is abundant in the city, and that’s for depression. I’ve been learning a lot about plant medicine lately and the idea that plants pop up where we need them—partly because my dad is depressed, but also, there’s a pervading sense of anxiety on the planet, and I’ve been realizing that it doesn’t work to cure depression by saying, “It’s gonna get better.” We need a different set of mantras, and plants suggest some—the way plants grow in community.

…Right now I’m my dad’s main connection to the world. And as much as the farm teaches me about the compassionate end of things, it’s different and almost criminal to apply that to my own father. But another thing I do at the farm is let plants and animals pursue their own life cycles, and just try to create conditions that hopefully allow things to thrive, or mitigate the pressures—if it’s a drought, I try to water things. One of the big lessons that plants have for us is reciprocity—there are no sacrificing plants, or martyr plants, although when a tree is dying it shoves its resources down through the mycelium layer so that other plants can use them.

I’ve been learning, when I’m feeling a need, to ask for help. This is kind of what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation, having the communication patterns in place to support each other. If we practice that in our major or minor crises in our private lives, maybe we’ll be better at it in an environmental crisis. I’ve also been trying to receive care by creating the gatherings that feed me, and going to the gatherings that other people create. I always forget that because I think, “Oh, I need quiet time.” … I’ve been yearning for clarity on what the role of artists is in the moment. I feel in myself that poets have an essential role, in documenting, in mitigating, in envisioning—but it’s not everyday-obvious to me.

20180505_143308

Description: This (somewhat impressionistic) map of the state of Rhode Island says, “Put your worries on the map,” at the top, and “Is there a place in Rhode Island you’d like to protect?” at the bottom. People have written:

I wish the water in Roger Williams Park was clean enough for wading/swimming by the bandstand

Trinity Sq Neighborhood!

SCC [Southside Community Center] RI

Waterman St dog park

Sabins Point

Scituate Reservoir

Lincoln State Park

Little Compton

Two children have also drawn on the map, and one of them has written, “No LNG in PVD or anywhere. Take care of our ancestors.”

Alternate Histories: 6/13, 6/13, 9/14

[These are anxieties from three different people; here’s an explanation of why they’re together.]

6/13/15

Him: My big anxiety is that if you look back 65 million years, when the temperature jumped, it jumped in a span not of 100 but of 15 years, 8 degrees Celsius. We couldn’t adjust for it.

Her: The sea level rise from that–

Him: Basically if you melt all of [the] Greenland [Ice Sheet] you get 8 meters of rise. If you melt East and West Antarctica, you get an automatic 300 feet. Countries other than the U.S. are gonna push for geoengineering, but that has massive negative consequences. And the other thing is methane. There’s a tipping point with methane release as polar ice melts, and it’s greenhouse gas with 27 times the power of carbon dioxide. That’s really the thing that’s gonna put us over the edge. No policy can stop that. Barring geoengineering, this will happen.

Her: Based on the models.

So if this is definitely happening, what does that mean–

Him: For civilization?

I don’t think you know that. For you.

Him: It would be very sad, because we’re of the generation that actually had a chance to have an engineering impact for future generations. Cheap agricultural production is gonna collapse, and there’s gonna be an expansion of people who are denied their basic human rights.

Do you think there’s structures we could set up now that would reduce the chance of that?

Him: When I was younger, I went to Cuba and I looked at agricultural reform that was part of the reaction of the government to Russia’s collapse. All the imports of things like grain stopped. So they had to move from an agriculture that was focused on producing coffee, sugar and tobacco to a diversified local agriculture that could feed the population of the island. They were overall able to adapt the food supply, shift away from state-run agriculture. If we could facilitate such a shift–but agriculture runs off fossil fuels and glacial meltwater … I got burnt out on international development. Now I’m just trying to make money enough to make sure my family is safe. I’m building nonmilitary drones–they make 3D plans of buildings … I don’t see a total extinction event, I just see a very rough period for human rights. We have a tendency to hunt till there’s no more, drill till there’s no more. I personally think that humans are awesome, because humans make awesome things–humans are grasping the fundamental nature of reality in a way that no other creature has.

6/13/15

More storms. But it doesn’t feel personal to me, not like a personal fear. It’s more like the collective weight of an increasing level of disaster. It feels like a heavy weight, a collective weight of too much–too much happening at once. I have some sense of the fallout of that kind of [event]. I think there’s a lot of people that would vanish, would fall away, would die, and then the few people who are left would have to sort it out.

*

9/14/15

G sees history, and N feels it, looming above them, poised to fall. Let’s entwine not what they imagine, which is similar, but how they imagine it. When G is frightened, they gather data–names, relationships, likelihoods, projections, things that seem to them incontrovertible. When N is frightened, they register emanations–feelings that they share with other humans, with the strain that will show later in the year as blight on the edges of maple leaves, ground turning sour under heavy, sudden downpours, edged jokes about the Ocean State.

G can help tell us what structures we might put in place, what resources we might make available. Will we need new ways to balance what we permit with what we object to? G can seek out ways that people have handled this in the past, all through storied time, and correlate them with our coming needs. They can weigh the effects of different methane-capturing technologies and paces of reforestation. N can tell us if what we’re doing is working. Is the weight lighter? What does the air taste like? Which excuses do the violent try to make, and do they fly?

This happens–they tell us these things, and we listen, and act–and people who think like G go to places where that kind of thinking is needed, or wait where they are for people who think like N to reveal themselves. They come to recognize that data describes them, that history is something they are in, that the fundamental nature of reality is not something we grasp. It operates through us–we are among its tissues and its elements.

Through conversation, through proximity and through shared effort , people become better at each other’s kinds of thinking. Of course there are more than two; there are more than ten, or even a hundred; when we look away from all the different ways that people can see and understand the changes, we’re faced with the ways squids “understand” them or the way rocks “feel” them. And as we know this–as it’s expressed in numbers or in sounds–we may change what we do. This seems abstract, semantic, but history in us is as palpable as a dash of cool wind, the taste of bananas, a neck muscle easing.