Artists' Role in Environmental Activism

As I sat down to write this, I scrolled through facebook to get a general snapshot of how my friends were feeling, and I saw articles posted with headlines stating that our president has allowed elephant trophy imports and mining waste to be dumped in our waterways. Every time we look at the news or social media, we see outrageous things -- signs of war, political buffoonery, environmental catastrophe, social inequity. The news paints a fragmented picture of us. The weight of just hearing about any one of these issues and finding ways to stand up for what we believe is right is immense. It can feel paralyzing even if we don't think we are directly involved in these issues. But, in fact, we are all connected.

Perhaps one of the most abstract issues - climate change - is also one of the most pressing issues of our time. Changes in our natural environment threaten not only the health and safety of every species living on the planet, climate change also threatens to tear apart the fibers of our communities. Even though human involvement in our warming climate has been suspected since as early as the 19th century, why has it been so hard to take steps to mitigate the damage we cause, and what can we do about it now?

For centuries, art has functioned as a release from everyday life. It distracts us, takes us to magical places, helps us feel connected with one another. Art gives us hope. But it is more than just that. 

The arts play a powerful role in raising awareness about issues. 

In Richard Heinberg's opinion article titled "As Climate Chages We Need the Arts More Than Ever" published on Ensia last month, he says that "As we move closer to what surely will be unprecedented ecological, economic and social disruption, meaningful art can and must express the turmoil we encounter and help us process it intellectually and emotionally."

He says, " Everything will be up for negotiation, redesign and change. And artists will have the opportunity and duty to translate the resulting tumultuous human experience into words, images, and music that help people not just to understand these events mentally, but also to come to grips with them viscerally... Art can help us cope with the implications of our collective challenges. It can help prepare society for a possibly traumatic future. It can give voice to suffering and loss, helping people deal with life’s inevitable stress. And it can also offer beauty, which can be especially important in hard times."

But art is more than a coping mechanism or an escape. Although I thoroughly believe in the capacity for art to serve as a method of individual and collective healing, art can also help us reach deeper understanding of environmental issues through different and multidisciplinary approaches. 

Art has the power to catalyze powerful movements.

The Earth Issue vol 1, editor Elena Cremona states that, "As a catalyst for change, art should not be ignored or underestimated." Through their craft, artists advance environmental awareness, comprehension, and change.

Since the late 1900s, artists have documented the natural beauty across this country, most significantly in our National Parks. As examples, the Hudson River School painters and Ansel Adams captured images of landscapes that have been used in conservation efforts, showing through photographs and paint the importance of preserving the last remaining wilderness. We can now compare these images with the current landscape, extending a viewpoint longer than our own lives. The award-winning documentary Chasing Ice chronicles photographer James Balog's quest to capture time-lapse images of the world's glaciers and ice sheets. Artists like these help to document ecological changes and relay them in ways that are beautiful, stirring, and troubling. Seeing changes through their eyes raises our own environmental awareness.

Other artists educate us in ways that reach us at the core of our understanding. Artist Zaria Forman creates monumental-sized drawings of glaciers from photographs that she has captured during various polar expeditions. By the time each drawing is complete, the glacier has either changed beyond recognition or has completely disappeared altogether. In a different work about ice, for the art installation of Ice Watch Paris, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing installed 12 blocks of ice from glaciers, which melted away in a public square during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in 2015. The public could directly interact with the ice, and was faced with its ultimate demise of melting away. These kind of works give us a deeper understanding than what is possible for scientific data alone. 

Yet, other artists ask us to reflect on our actions and make change. For his 2017 exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, David Hamlow's Mirror Stage confronts us with our own massive consumption, highlighting our personal contribution of waste within the larger issue of climate change. Agnes Denes makes us think about natural environmental cycles and stewardship of land with her groundbreaking environmental work, Wheatfield: A Confrontation (1982). Over the course of six months, a wheat field was planted in downtown Manhattan. The work produced 1,000 lbs of wheat, which was toured worldwide and eventually planted in locations around the globe. 

There is no question that works of art offer beauty, connection, and a way for us to process emotions. In addition, however, artists working with environmental issues have the opportunity to make a larger impact. It is up to all of us to create the world we want to live in, and artists and creative thinkers are best poised to design and re-design what that means. Now, perhaps more than ever, we live in a world that needs artists, creativity, and imagination in tandem with environmental and social activism. Let’s do this, together.

Natural history of the backyard foxes

It turns out that the best feature of our backyard is not the vegetable garden or the array of bird feeders. It is a hole.

A couple of years ago, we removed a dying ash tree from the center of our yard. Its roots must have been rotting away in some places, creating a small sinkhole just big enough to twist your ankle.

Summer before last (or, maybe two years ago) bumblebees nester there, creating endless entertainment watching the bumbling around pollinating our wildflowers and flying in figure-8 patterns in and out of their nest. 

After they moved out, moles or voles moved in. Sometimes at night, we hear desperate squeaking noises. Which, up until this morning, I usually assumed that these noises are made in response to the prowlings of our neighborhood cats. Now I'm wondering if these foxes have been coming around more frequently! 

Last time we saw them was maybe 7-8 years ago. Sorry, tiny burrowing mammals, but I can't wait to see what other life this hole brings to our yard. 

Taking time to look

Originally published October 1, 2017

I thought I was so badass yesterday on my hike. The miles were flying by, and I felt like I was keeping a good pace. I'm trying to get in shape for some epic hikes in the Arctic next year. But, clearly, the best things only happen when we're paying attention. 

On one of the trails closest to the water, I almost stepped on a baby snapping turtle because I was trying to fly through this walk as quickly as possible. So, of course, I stopped and checked out these new little friends - I saw at least four of them on the grassy path, some still with their egg tooth.

I realized as I watched them climbing over the grass that I so easily have my blinders on to things in the world around me. I stopped and watched them for a while and slowed my pace. The way back seemed almost magical. The setting sun, deer jumping from the path, a band of coyotes yelping. What else do we see when we take the time to look?


Superior hiking dreams

Originally published September 15, 2017

I spent a couple of days taking day hikes and exploring the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) along the northern-most part of the Minnesota Arrowhead.

The SHT is nearly 325 miles of footpath along the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior on Minnesota's North Shore. Modeled after the Appalachian Trail, the SHT initially opened in 1987 with continuous expansion during the 90's and 2000's. And the final section from Jay Cooke State Park to the Minnesota/Wisconsin border was built between 2014-2017. Now, the SHT is continuous from the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to just short of the Canadian border. 

What an incredible dream to do the whole thing. I can't wait to come back.

Changing location, elevation, and latitude

Originally published August 29, 2017

We took an impromptu trip out west through some of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. This trip reminded me that it's good to change your location, your elevation, and your latitude from time to time. Seeing different parts of our land makes me remember that we're really very small, yet we can accomplish so much. We must work together to save this incredible land.

We stayed at a primitive campsite south of Telluride and got to witness a bit of gorgeous alpenglow. This video doesn't do it justice, of course.

Chasing sunsets

Originally published July 30, 2017

I've been studying up in order to catch tonight's sunset. I learned that tonight in Minneapolis, it will set at 8:41pm at 297 degrees Northwest. 

I know of this hidden little 'bench' off of the beaten path in one of the parks where I hike frequently. It's actually just a couple of logs put together on the side of a deer trail. But, it sits on a ridge that overlooks the northwest, so I'm going to go sit and watch the sun go down. Sounds relaxing, right? 


Post hike: Well, it turns out that this bench will make a great spot to catch a winter sunset, not a sunset in July. It faces too far south and is much more overgrown than it was earlier this spring the last time I visited. So, unfortunately, I missed the best part of tonight's sky. At least I caught a sweet look at the moon, though. 

I started a log to record the direction of potential viewing spots so that I'll know what times of the year will be ideal to watch the start or end of the day.

Why Mono-tasking is the new Multitasking

Originally published July 17, 2017

Bill Nye may be best known for his PBS children's show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, but has also been an incredible champion for science and involving the public in discussions about climate change.

In a recent article, here, he shares his thoughts on multitasking, information overload, and getting things done for real. "...If you want to be an effective agent of change, you also need to filter your sense of urgency." Nye talks about his new book, Everything All At Once, and using relentless curiosity to help solve not only climate change but any of society's future problems.

Read the whole article here. It's worth your time. 

...If you want to be an effective agent of change, you also need to filter your sense of urgency.
— Bill Nye

And, if you want some fun home science demos, check out his website at