In her 2002 book, On Writing, acclaimed American short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty noted the importance of establishing a strong sense of place in a story when she famously said, “One place can make us understand other places better.”
Most of the artists whom I’ve highlighted in this “Imagining Water” series over the past two-and-a-half years have created work on water issues attributed to the climate crisis that are affecting a particular place, while at the same time, illustrating a global trend. For example, while Xavier Cortada’s participatory community street-sign art project in Miami specifically indicated where sea waters would eventually rise in his hometown, it also called attention to a phenomenon that will certainly occur in other coastal cities around the world as climate disruption worsens. Similarly, when ten prominent musicians from Cape Town, South Africa created 2-minute shower songs to help limit water use during a severe local drought, they were also contributing to a global conversation on creative solutions for critical water shortages everywhere in the years ahead.
Canadian poet, writer and essayist Alice Major is a master at using references to the history, geography and geology of her place – Edmonton, Alberta in Canada – to evoke a sense of alarm about the future of our planet. When we spoke recently, Major called Alberta the “epicenter of climate controversy” in Canada. With both a heightened awareness of the changes occurring in their own environment and also a dependency on the economic rewards of the area’s oil and gas industries, Edmonton residents are conflicted, as are many communities around the globe, between environmental stewardship and economic prosperity. In her poem, Red sky at…, Major references the growing strangeness of winter in Edmonton, the ability they still have to put their concerns about climate disruption to the side and the ever-present need for fossil fuel to feed their furnaces.
January. Grey dawn sky.
The air is warm, unseasonable
softening the snow that seemed invincible
just yesterday. The ravens kronk
in mild surprise, as if to thank
the god of thaw. The furnace stops
and in its wake of silence, thoughts
sift and stir, like cat hair
shifting in the quieted air.
Thoughts, of course, of gratitude
for ice’s release and the beatitudes
fluted out by chickadees –
“Blessed are we
who have survived the minus-twenty
of the last harsh weeks.” But, gently,
the sky turns red – and that means ‘warning.’
Not right now, not on this soft morning.
Danger is not so imminent
as that. But there are incidents
and auguries that show how change
is in the forecast. The winter’s getting strange.
The future’s birth-cord is being twisted
into being and we are complicit
in the spiral, the furnace starting up again
In many of her poems, Major refers to the North Saskatchewan River, which runs from the Canadian Rockies, through Edmonton and eventually spills into Lake Winnipeg. Although the city currently benefits from a sufficient supply of water from the river, which is fed by glacial ice melt that flows down from the Rockies, the land itself is dry. Fires in the vast Boreal Forest to the north are an ever-present threat. Home base to the tar sands industry, the forest is vulnerable to the tiniest spark, which can set thousands of acres ablaze. The following excerpt from Major’s poem, Mundus, addresses the city’s conflicted relationship with the oil and gas industries, located downstream of the city.
The city’s hearth burns red
as the blood of trapped animals.
Downstream, Refinery Row
creeps to the lip of the river. The countryside beyond
dotted with gas wells flaring. We send back
tributes, commodities, we need
their open purses.
In addition to poetry, Major has had a life-long interest in science and math, especially cosmology and physics, which she says “have that poetic mystery,” as well as neuroscience and botany. Constantly exploring the meaning of humanity’s place in the universe, she has often applied her scientific knowledge to the work she has published, which includes eleven collections of poetry, two novels for young adults and a collection of essays about poetry and science.
In her latest book, Welcome to the Anthropocene (2018), Major moves from her own personal locality and world to an exploration of the Anthropocene itself, the era of human impact on the planet. The collection’s title poem/essay is written as a ten-part contemporary response to Alexander Pope’s 1731 “An Essay on Man.” In an excerpt from part three of the poem, Major challenges us to consider the possibility that the corvids (birds of the crow family) or invertebrates could have developed intelligence first and dominated the planet rather than primates. Would the world’s cities have been built at the bottom of the sea? Would the planet be in such a state as it is now if this had happened?
Perhaps it could have been the clever corvids
who got here first, heading up the scorecard
of cognition, using their nimble beaks
to master tools, learning new techniques
for modifying their environment,
working the muscle of intelligent
cooperation. The ravens, who already call
in croaking protolanguage, could evolve
the broader pattern of symbolic speech
Or perhaps our niche
might have been filled by the invertebrates
(who started long before us), and the gate
pushed open by a suckered tentacle,
a smarter cephalopod. Chemical
riffs and rattles, changes, might have loosed
cascading adaptation and put to other use
the scintillation of chromatophores.
Imagine colours used for something more
than flares of anger, urgent camouflage.
Imagine a vivid, silent language
sweeping over skin, instinct’s dictation
translated into willed communication.
And then an ocean floor built up with cities,
herded fish-flocks, the patternicity
of gardens, turrets, standing stones, machines –
all jointly engineered. It might have been.
In part five of the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” poem, Major begins with a witty dismissal of the animal extinctions occurring at a rapid pace throughout the world, then moves to a serious acknowledgement that fear is “growing in us that we have passed some threshold,” beyond which the bubble sustaining the planet will burst. An excerpt from part five is below.
Atoms or systems into ruins hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
To all you entries in the global data base
of life: welcome. Welcome to this hyper-space
during which humanity has hacked
into the planet’s history. In this tract
of ad-hoc coding, we’re running trials
like half-assed systems analysts whose files
have never been backed up, reckless geeks
who don’t know when we’ve pressed ‘delete’
once too often.
Still, we might be content
on a planet with no great auks or elephants,
polar bears or pandas. How often do we meet
Sumatran tigers on our city streets
(or want to)? We could simply look
at legendary beasts in picture books
or videos. They’re nice-to-haves, not musts
for daily life. As for rhinoceros,
white shark or Orinoco crocodile,
who’d care for living with one, cheek by jowl?
We don’t mourn the passing of the mammoth
every morning, nor the vanished giant sloth,
even if our weaponry inventions helped
to push them off extinction’s sharp-edged shelf.
In fact, we’ve benefitted from the cull
of evolution. We’d not be here at all
if dinosaurs had not turned up clawed toes
and left. Yes, it’s too bad about the dodos,
but there are many other lineages
of pigeon. The earth still manages
to maintain its total biomass. That bulk
may shift from balanced muscle to a pulp
of sagging flab around the waist; it matters
not the least. There are as many creatures
living on the planet as have ever been
– even if a lot them are hens.
But fear is growing in us (like a gas
after too rich a meal) that we have passed
some threshold – that we may be rendering
earth derelict, a disaster ending
not just giant pandas but ourselves.
A fear we’re blocking earth’s escape valves
and bio-sinks. Many will dismiss the question –
they say it’s just a touch of indigestion,
we’ll be fine. Besides, they say, it isn’t us –
one good fart of forest-fire exhaust
dwarfs all the output of our vehicles.
Still, doubt’s sour odour lingers in our nostrils
like effluvia wafting from our garbage dunes.
Our conurbations spread their plumes
of carbon far beyond the city limits,
and our roaring engineering mimics
volcanic-level belches every day.
Major is a keen observer of the river and natural environment around her hometown of Edmonton and the way it is changing as a result of climate disruption. She has the dual ability to engage us in this particular locale as well as transport us to a universal place where we can examine the bigger questions of our time: Will we give up some of our worldly comforts to preserve our planet? Will we come to value the other living beings in our world as much as we value ourselves? And how will the era of human dominance over the Earth, the Anthropocene, ultimately end?
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.