You know one of the things I have always avoided in my 30-year love affair with the place? The “I always wanted to go there” story. This story, which has a sub-genre big in the UK that begins, “Since I was a young boy…” and then proceeds to the end where the speaker/writer winds up dead of cold and hunger on The Ice (the poles are littered with the bodies of British naval officers who failed to learn from Inuit wisdom about staying alive in extreme cold), is woven into most of the Boy Books about Antarctica. And if you do research around the Heroic Age of Exploration — yes, some English Boys made that moniker, too — as I do, you are reading Boys’ Life accounts, from letters to diaries, etc. And they all weigh in on this idea that when they were five, they got it into their heads that they wanted to go to Antarctica.
This is weird. You know why this is weird? No? Then I shall tell you: When these chappies were five, no one had ever been to Antarctica. It was more mythos than “place” to “go.” So it would be like your five-year-old son saying, hey, I want to go to this Exoplanet that NASA is writing about on the JPL blog. Maybe we will go there one day, but no one has been there yet so why would someone who is five dream of it? Were these English households so packed with conversation about terrestrial exploration, of the unknown, of the last great continent to be colonized. Maybe. But maybe not.
Why do I muse about this? Because I am writing my next Antarctic book and I am rolling over in my mind what we say when we talk about The Ice — both now and then. It has changed in very few ways, the whole gallantry and hero vibe. I wonder what that means for us as it continues to melt and break up? There are 26-million gigatons of ice in Antarctica, give or take a few.
File this under late-night pensees, in re new book, Antarctica Poetica.
***This is the second in a series of posts tracing some thoughts and notes from my July 2019 trip around the world. I stopped for two weeks in France followed by two weeks in The Maldives. Very different ecosystems, very different vibes. Many moments of clarity and feelings — about ecologies, climate change, life with other humans and non-humans. One of the best things I heard came from a Swedish designer at the residency in France, as our group, up late, talking, talking, talking in the still (heat-wave) night: “But how do you feel?” What do we feel as we head deeper into the sixth mass extinction, sitting in a very old market town in the Cevennes, in baking heat? How do the rest of us talk about being ecological — away from theory, science, philosophy, technological solutions, ecological artists? What does it mean to be human in these times? Is it a scream? A dance? A long, loud laugh?
7 July, Ganges, France
This is the night of the Women’s World Cup Final and we watch the match on television in the Thackara home — Autourdethackara on Instagram — a 17th-century construction that invites many comments about all of the humans and their lives before us — the births, the celebrations, the deaths — it is also said to be the locus of a Dumas novel. So the place reverberates with the noise of history.
It has been deadly hot in France, the red map of the country projected across Twitter feeds to show the temperature. But the color red does not help with understanding the feel of the heat. The heat feels like my afternoon nap, the 20 minutes I need to get my breath back — or the feels of sliding into the River Viz each afternoon, the cold mountain water stinging the skin as this mountain water offers a respite for hot skin.
We sit on couches and the fans blow and the windows are open and we are from the Netherlands, England, Sweden, and the one non-human, Rita, is an Italian breed whose instinct is to herd. Everyone, save me, is on the side of the Dutch team, who arrives in Lyon to face Rapinoe et al as the 24 teams winnow down to two. They are tall, these Dutch footballers, and they play a physical game. Rapinoe had noted in a much-earlier interview, casually, while tying her shoes in a locker room, that if they won it all, she would not be going to the “f***ing White House. This comment was picked up, the viral thing, during the actual competition. The only piece of this that I take exception to – because it was such a powerful, informal moment that resonated for so many Americans — is that we not allow the symbol of the White House to stand in for the person who currently makes his residence there. I would prefer that we name him and say, we do not want to visit with him, rather than making the architecture — an important one symbolically — part of the problem. But that’s not my point.
My point is that we are all women watching the game and we are all talking about equal pay and dirty hits and engaged with these two squads as they slam back and forth across the field. We are in different fields, from medical, to engineering, to web development, to writing and we all know about unequal pay and what happens in the workplace. In one exchange, we watch players’ heads bash together trying to get to the ball. Both of the players appear to be knocked out on the field. Someone says: That’s life for you.
We sit and eat tapenade and salads and the heat is omnipresent. This is the time when we are coming off the 40-degrees days. I imagine how things must feel on that field in Lyon. And as the game ends, with the American side victorious, the crowd does this remarkable thing, they start chanting about equal pay. Then someone — I don’t recall who – says, “There is another way to fix this wage problem. Pay the men what the women are paid and with the savings, fund some climate change initiatives.”
***This is the first in a series of posts tracing some thoughts and notes from my July 2019 trip around the world. I stopped for two weeks in France followed by two weeks in The Maldives. Very different ecosystems, very different vibes. Many moments of clarity and feelings — about ecologies, climate change, life with other humans and non-humans. One of the best things I heard came from a Swedish designer at the residency in France, as our group, up late, talking, talking, talking in the still (heat-wave) night: “But how do you feel?” What do we feel as we head deeper into the sixth mass extinction, sitting in a very old market town in the Cevennes, in baking heat? How do the rest of us talk about being ecological — away from theory, science, philosophy, technological solutions, ecological artists? What does it mean to be human in these times? Is it a scream? A dance? A long, loud laugh?
1) 2 July, Ganges, France
Writing is a series of marks on a page. Climate change prompts me to want to make more marks – not in the spirit of *holy sh*t!* — here’s another revelation from Antarctica of our imminent doom! Or here is another revelation about the biology and ecology of our world, some hideous mutation that we all need to stare at before we go back to hacking out our existences?
I am attending a Design retreat in the Cevennes, in the town of Ganges, with John Thackara and Kristi Van Riet, they of Doors of Perception. (They continue these intimate Design meet-ups in their 17th-century home over the next year and I highly recommend.) There are designers from across Europe and North America who have traveled to spend a week talking about diverse projects — the edible forest, how to better address refugee needs, urban food systems, and my own work, ECOPOESIS.
Each morning, we meet with John for 30 minutes solo and then all together to crit and review work. I am here to test some ideas about how to grow ECOPOESIS, a movement and project I founded at California College of the Arts with Adam Marcus and Chris Falliers, designed to build dialogues, messaging, and forms about how people feel about the world in times of climate change — as ecologies change and how ecologies are changing us, as humans and non-humans — changing our relational identity to places that once felt more familiar.
Gathering people to talk, to create a process for talking, messaging, and form making around climate change is the mission of ECOPOESIS. Our first gathering of 36 humans came together in April, 2019, in San Francisco, and we centered our discussion on the work of ecological philosopher Timothy Morton, who crystallized a lot of our thinking; his brilliant idea of hyperobjects, these inchoate but massively distributed things like plutonium and Styrofoam, these ideas of otherness and uncanniness, these ideas of weirdness.
However, there has been an issue with the Ganges gang around the language I use when I talk about our movement. I am stuck a bit in the “straight outta Compton” speak of Academia. Thackara is teaching me how to make this less mind-boggling and more focused on our goal: To get all people talking, regardless of age, discipline, politics — to get away from less-accessible theory and into more legible contemporary discussion. To have a process for looking at how we feel about climate, racism, speciesism, misogyny, and economic justice. We want to create a dialogue that does not require a lot of “pre-knowledge” of Heidegger et al.
We are part of the zeitgeist of these 21st century philosophical ideas and yet we need to be a tendril that explores in the way we think as artists and designers and architects — through prototyping forms.
When this work with Thackara ends each morning, the de-Academizing of this ECOPOESIS chat towards more accessibility, I find myself sitting in a large book-filled room, hearing my next Antarctic book. It has a name, Antarctica Poetica, and it has a form, a series of Signal Years. It pours out of me — after many years of slowly whispering its goals and intentions to me. I don’t know now but what I will learn is that there are about 12,000 words that will emerge in France. And I will share some of them here.
ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF: LESLIE CAROL ROBERTS, ENVIRONMENTAL AUTHOR
This is an interview I did with the University of Michigan Alumnus magazine in December, 2018.
Leslie Carol Roberts, ’83, is a professor and chair of the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Recently, she shared advice on how listening to her U-M professors inspired her to be an activist and helped shape her career as an environmental author. In her work, Roberts concentrates specifically on place, ecologies, and the implications of climate chaos. She is the author of “The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica” (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and the soon-to-be-published “Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest” (University of Nevada Press, 2019). Her latest book traces her wanderings on foot through San Francisco’s Presidio National Park as well as in Tasmania, Australia; Antarctica; Italy; and Indiana and Michigan.
Find your passion. I learned about the role of activism in shaping policy and fomenting social change while I was at U-M. I studied political science and art history and had amazing professors who were doing research all over the world. They taught me how to think about complex problems more creatively. I wrote each of my books from the perspective that most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change. I have thrown my whole self at this topic during my career, which started in journalism, from covering Greenpeace as a reporter in Antarctica to my time spent as a Fulbright Scholar at Gateway International Antarctic Centre in New Zealand.
Know your skills. I don’t have the discipline of the field botanist. I don’t need to know the taxonomy of nature. Instead, by using the forms of the essayist—reportage, reflection, exposition, imaginative flights—I like to think I travel in creative nonfiction writing. My books are a collage, reflecting my curiosity for both Earth’s systems and the essential role of creativity and curation in civil society.
Think for yourself. I am forever grateful to my Shakespeare professor, who really gave it to me for blindly following the literary critic Walter Pater’s interpretation of “Richard III.” I still laugh at that young me who thought quoting other’s ideas was the same as generating ideas. That professor taught me to have the courage to create new knowledge.
Travel Around Michigan. I wish I had explored the state more. Ernest Hemingway was captivated by Michigan. There are all these lakes, big and small, around Ann Arbor and Detroit. Find classes with field trips, or visit with your friends. Places create relationships.
Engage with your professors. Now that I am a professor myself, I know how committed we are to office hours, to working with our students one to one. That is why we are here. We want to help you get traction in our fields through individualized readings and discoveries. We want to help you learn better. I used to be so terrified to meet with professors. “Get over it!” I would tell the young me.
Just do it. I also think about how we stand and sing the “Leaders and Best,” and it is really both a simple statement of fact and a throwing down of the gauntlet. Our times raise difficult questions, including how our species is apparently incapable of acting to stop our own extinction. In the end, I want to change the narrative because I want ecologies, as we know them, to survive. What U-M gave me is a healthy critical lens and the pragmatic good cheer to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
The view north from Emigrants Point to the Marin Headlands; photo by LCR
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
I was curled into bed on a cold San Francisco morning, reading The New York Times on my phone when I scrolled down and found Jane Brody’s article: “The Secret to Good Health May Be a Walk in the Park.” In this piece, she interviews Adrian Benepe, senior vice president for the Urban Land Institute and former New York City Parks commissioner. They then set out on a very engaging discussion of why people benefit from even short walks (10 minutes) in a park. I put my phone down and stared at the Monterey Cypress tree outside my window. It’s an old tree — many of them are here in the Presidio, having been planted via an Army and Federal government scheme to forest these dunes in the early 20th century.
Then I am up, making my bed (yes, I concur that all good days start with a made bed) and pulling on jeans and the simple barn boots and old fleece I wear for my morning walks.
(As I head out the door and up the hill to road and then trail, I see all sorts of exercisers in stretchy tights and flash jackets. Don’t know when we decided a walk required stretchy bits and coordinating hats on the body. But. Who cares what you wear. Just walk.)
When I first moved into the Presidio, I was so captivated by these trees and this place the story of the Presidio that I started taking daily walks and writing down what I saw and heard. Many days, these were just a few, scant sentences. I imagined this might be a longer work – an essay? – and over the four and a half years I worked intently on writing and shaping this material, I found it wanted to be longer. The trees had a story to tell and it needed to be a book. So. Here we are.
I sometimes hear from other urban dwellers in San Francisco that they find walking to be out of their reach — no time, no general inclination — and I always think what a pity it is to start and end each day without the solace of one’s own feet walking steadily, even for very short periods, in the company of trees. This is particularly perplexing when you learn that almost 100 percent of us in SF live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
At any rate, the sun is beginning to stretch its long arms my way from the east. Come to me, it says, and let me wrap you in my light. Time to join the raptors and coyotes on the dawn patrol, good company indeed. Here is where I walk.