But How Do You Feel? July 10, Ganges, France

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***This is the third 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?

We are in Ganges as the huge heatwave (round 1) begins to abate. But. It is still stifling and so most days we work in the early hours, thinking largely about large-scale, participatory design projects — from edible forests, to refugee resettlement, to urban food systems. My own contribution to this conversation is ECOPOESIS.

My own thinking about this movement is being nudged along by the brilliant John Thackara and Kristi Van Riet, who once ran Doors of Perception out of Amsterdam. A lot of their insights will serve to up-end my internal gyroscope about how people come together.

They are at home now in Ganges, in a 17th-century manse with many nooks for gathering and talking. The idea of ECOPOESIS is to create dialogue around climate change — and what we are finding is that people are eager to share their feelings about this. There are so many feelings to feel. There are so many ways to come at this — philosophically etc. One evening in Ganges, I presented the project rather informally to a group that included Danish technologists. The group was quite intent on trying to understand what ECOPOESIS is — and really helped me learn that I need to use words like “process” and “solution” (we are a process, we are not trying to be a center for creating solutions) — and I felt a moment of almost cartoonish “DOH!” Why? Because it is so easy to get caught in the rabbit hole of the process, entangled in larger aspirations, and to use language that does not necessarily warm and draw in the listener. Which is particularly odd because the project is about dialogues, which means hearing. How did I not hear the lack of accessibility in our language? I also started to think about, based on John and Kristi’s insights — that we might be slightly off our mark in how we initially designed ECOPOESIS. That is, how can we have more events with fewer people — rather than one event, as we did April, 2019, with a few dozen people and a specific intellectual “thought leader” — offering us guiding principles? We have an opportunity to better understand what it means to have feelings about ecologies — and climate change — across smaller-scale events, largely located outside, en plein air. This shift fascinates me, as a writer. One of our goals is to have publications emerge from our work — so if that is the case, then why not meet more frequently, in a more scaled way?

One fascinating thoughts  we all share and come back to — how we can get to talking about ecologies and all the tentacles, economic justice, misogyny, racism, outside of the halls of privilege — like the Academy, like San Francisco, like a design retreat in a small market town in France? Back in SF, we are being crushed by gentrification and economic warfare against all but the extremely wealthy. Gentrification cannot be “conquered” but we need to look at the bizarre irony of being in a place long known for its innovative and discursive cultures and what we have now.

So. One of the insights is that in order to make this movement, this ECOPOESIS, we need to stay in motion, we need to stay vulnerable, and we need to stay close to the edge of hope. And we have to deliver better words. We need better words to better describe what it means to be human (and non-human) in these times.

 

ECOPOESIS Goes Global in the Maldives, July 2019

 

Dhangeti Island, The Maldives
ECOPOESIS at MALDIVES NATIONAL UNIVERSITY – my talk starts around the 8 minute mark
Hiiiiii — As many of you know, I founded the ECOPOESIS Movement with my colleagues from California College of the Arts, Adam Marcus and Chris Falliers (both teach in Architecture). I was invited, as part of the Architectural Ecologies Lab (Adam is a founder at CCA, with faculty members Evan Jones and Margaret Ikeda) on the 2019 expedition/site visit/research trip to the Maldives. Margaret and Evan teach an Architecture studio at CCA that prototypes buoyant housing and non-human habits as solving towards rising seas. Rising seas are at the front of the mind in the Maldives, where the 1,000-mile long string of atolls all sit at sea level. As they say, there are no hills in the Maldives. 
On July 24, we were invited to the Maldives National University to give talks about our respective projects — ECOPOESIS and BUOYANT ECOLOGIES.
It was a beautiful evening — more than 150 people attended, including the “Island President,” the brave and inspirational Mohammed Nasheed, who was elected president of the Maldives after years as a political prisoner and life in exile. President Nasheed played a crucial role at the Copenhagen climate talks. His brilliant mind and presence are beautifully portrayed in the documentary, The Island President (2011.) The former president continues to work towards climate solutions for his country. At the end of our lectures, he was invited to the stage and you can hear his electrifying discussion of how the Maldivian people will fight on and survive. Let me know what you think and where the ECOPOESIS Movement might pop up next. We are happy to travel to your place to share this dialogue, making, and writing about climate change.

 

 

 

 

Antarctica: Historic Boy-town Imaginary

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I like how the Adelie penguins are spaced out in their walk and how they act like I am not there. 

What is it about Antarctica?

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.

Q & A with LCR: Michigan Alumnus magazine

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.

December 2018

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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 Secret to Good Health: A Good Walk

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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.