Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Backyard Odyssey

(Here is the piece of writing I wrote in response to the Shortcourse/UK expeditions for the Hevva! Hevva! exhibition at The Eden Project)

A drop of sweat runs down my cheek. I track its progress, the cool trail formed as it winds down my neck. I resist the urge to swipe it away. I am surrounded by strangers, exposed, but the black dark protects me. I sweat and yet I feel clean.

I am not an artist. I am barely even a writer. I am here because in my heart I am a scientist, an environmentalist. ‘Here’ is a sweat lodge. ‘Here’ is expedition one, SHORTCOURSE/UK Cornwall. A collaboration of Cape Farewell, University College Falmouth, the Eden Project. A collaboration of artists and scientists, of environmental thinkers. ‘Here’ is the beginning of a journey.

Journey: a process of travelling from one place to another. A voyage, an expedition, an odyssey.
SHORTCOURSE/UK was designed around three small expeditions, three backyard odysseys, but my journey has turned out to be much longer and more fulfilling than I could ever have predicted. More than the physical act of moving through time and space. Even this piece of writing is a part of it. I came hoping to meet other scientists, like-minded thinkers, but I was skeptical: What does art have to do with science, with climate change? And what are artists likely to teach me?

The environment ⎯ the state of the environment and humanity’s relationship to it ⎯ is often a controversial subject, especially when people choose not to listen, or worse, choose to listen to those with the wrong information. The only controversy over climate change is that created by the media, propagated by a very small number of individuals with loud voices. Climate change is real; it is here and now; we have the data to prove it.

But it’s not only climate change that concerns the environmentalist. There’s a bigger picture: our relationship with the world around us, the things we choose to do in our daily lives and how this impacts the environment we live in, both locally and globally. Climate change is just one side effect ⎯ there are also piles of waste, pollution of air, earth and water, destruction of the landscape and of habitats big and small. But the biggest part of the picture is, perhaps, the disconnection from our local environment. Do we hear the birdsong? Do we see the insects roaming beneath our feet, the whales in the ocean? Do we associate our daily actions ⎯ the food we eat ⎯ with the soil and the rivers? Do we remember the stories of where we came from?

How can we remind people of these things? How do we make them see? How do I remind myself?

Exiting the sweat lodge, I am transported from the spiritual to the material; from the crackling of hot stones, tears, and the warm smell of sage to pens, paper, and laughter. Expedition one is a journey of contrasts. We walk through land reclaimed from industrial scarring, along paths both well-trodden and of our own making. I see areas bordered off and inimitable acts of nature breaking through what humans have attempted to corral. I see nineteen other students, still strangers to me, each looking at and interpreting their surroundings in unique ways.

Expedition two takes me back to my roots in the most literal sense: a trek around The Lizard Peninsula, land of my childhood home, a place familiar and comfortable. And then expedition three, the contrast, a giant leap outside my comfort zone, from land to water, to rocky island outcrops; to a tent, a freezing one this time, alone in the dark, almost physically homesick I’m so full of nerves. But: great things happen outside the comfort zone. The immersion technique. I lie and listen to the waves that slosh a hundred feet from this green piece of canvas, and wake to new friendships. To new connections, new creative thinking and new creative practice.

Until SHORTCOURSE/UK, I had forgotten that science is inherently beautiful, inherently creative and artistic ⎯ the mapping of veins in a leaf, the to-and-fro flow of ocean currents, the intricate dance of DNA’s double helix. Images of these natural art forms hang on walls in museums. Science is, essentially, observation of nature, and since the beginning of this human need to explain the world, scientists have drawn their observations, representing their thoughts and findings on paper. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical sketches; think of Robert Hooke drawing the tiniest details of a flea as he looks through his microscope. But these images are not just observation; they are proclaiming the beauty of what they observe, they are announcing it to the world: look here, this is what I see. Now I can put my skepticism in a bottle and throw it out to sea, for this is how art and climate change can work together for me.

Ultimately, SHORTCOURSE/UK has introduced me to the connections around me, reminded me how to see those things, things I hadn’t seen since my halcyon childhood days. In the sweat lodge, feeling the earth and grass under my toes, I am transported to a different place, a different world, a different mindset. I am asked ⎯ and ask ⎯ the question: On a journey, do you look where you’re going, do you look behind you, or do you simply look around you?

I learn that journeys can be continuous, constant and everlasting, as well as small, local, and focused on the detail. I am introduced to ‘Wabi sabi’, the Japanese world view that nothing is finished, perfect or permanent, that the journey itself is the value. And this is what encapsulates my personal SHORTCOURSE/UK experience: a set of small journeys that began in my backyard but have the potential to be everlasting, that have changed my worldview, that have shown me how to make the invisible visible.

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