The world is experiencing a time of extraordinary loss: of species, habitat, ecological connectivity, and personal connection to the natural world. An increasing number of individuals and communities are struggling with grief and other health effects surrounding these losses.
As environmental degradation accelerates across the globe, so too do the emotional impacts on people, causing anxiety, stress, depression, as well as manifestations of violence and aggression. Environmental grief can be triggered by the loss of a favorite childhood swimming beach due to erosion, or an entire island community from rising waters. These losses may, in turn, result in a loss of identity, perhaps associated with declining income from an occupation, or the disappearance of that occupation altogether. What will a lobsterman call himself when there are no more lobsters to be trapped in the waters off the coast of Maine? Cultural distress results from a loss of place value or community identity.
With my Index series, I draw upon my past experiences as a field biologist to process grieving around the losses we are facing as the result of climate change. These photograms serve as a record for what once was: the flora in a small patch of intertidal marsh of the St. George River, where I live and work. Reminiscent of herbarium records, the flora are memorialized and serve as a baseline against the impending change caused by increasing temperatures and rising waters. My small area of intertidal marsh will not be spared; it will bear the impact of these changes.
Each piece is unique, printed on fine printmaking paper, with the trace of each individual plant fixed in perpetuity. These images are produced through gum bichromate, a photographic process dating to the mid-late 1800s, which uses gum arabic, watercolor pigment, and a sensitizer.
Memento mori is an artistic or symbolic reminder of death’s inevitability and the fragility of human life. Authors, artists, and philosophers have worked with it since the days of Plato. With Index, the reminder of life’s fragility and the idea that all life ends at some point is visible in the plant’s memorialized state as a photographic trace on the paper.
In an interview in Cabinet regarding memento mori, photo historian, curator, author, and teacher Geoffrey Batchen noted, “…Such objects seek to remember a loved one, not as someone now dead, but as someone who was once alive, young and vital, with a future before them. In this kind of object, they will always have that future, a comforting thought, perhaps, for those who have been left behind.” The plants that I collected were alive at the time I collected them, and were still alive as they became imprints on paper – an index of these beautiful lives. And while the photograph-objects remind me of their life and perhaps their future demise, I am comforted by their existence in this moment and even in the fact that they existed at all.
After completing Index, Dr. William Hafford, a then colleague of mine, and I began a series of conversations about our shared experience of loss and grief. We suspected that we were not the only people living with this experience. Surely others felt something similar – the loss, the sadness. Could we join forces to work with our communities in Maine?
Our conversations led to a few working sessions and to the idea of creating a resource for our Maine communities, which took the form of a zine titled A Guide to Loss & Grieving in the Anthropocene: a low-budget booklet, which could be mass-produced and shared widely. We received several grants for the project that we used for printing. The zine contains several psychological models of grief paired with images from Index, along with further resources for individuals who may want more information or need assistance.
In addition to the zine, we were curious to learn if others in our communities would be interested in talking about their own experiences surrounding climate change and related loss. We scheduled a number of events in public spaces, such as libraries, across the state. We had no idea if anyone would show up. And what we found was that people did want to talk about this. There is a common feeling, a common experience of mourning, guilt, helplessness, defeat, but also of hope and resiliency. Our aim was to reduce isolation, to bring people together in community so that they might continue to support each other, even after we left.
In 2020, it could not have been clearer that the world was grappling with loss related to climate disruption and its associated impacts from (un)natural disasters, pandemics, migration, and food insecurity. As the year unfolded and losses were felt so deeply on so many fronts, I started work on a video/performance piece to continue my exploration of the phenomena of grief. This two-channel piece is titled The Haircut… or Learning to Let Go. In my research about mourning and grief, I found a number of references to the cutting of hair; in many cultures, cutting one’s hair is an expression of grief. I had envisioned this piece prior to the pandemic, but as the early days of the pandemic wore on, it seemed an even more necessary act – cutting my hair as an expression, as a physical response to my psychological state and concerns regarding everything that was being lost, and that we continue to lose.
At some point, I hope to turn my attention to resiliency and hope. I continue to ask myself big questions such as: “How do we carry forth in our daily lives and stay hopeful?” “What can I do to help others connect more deeply to their surroundings?” Perhaps there aren’t any straightforward answers and what I am looking for in resiliency is more of a process than a desired outcome. I look forward to continuing my investigation and explorations to see where it all leads me.
(Top image: (left) Pontederia cordata, 2018, unique, 25.75 x 19.75 in.; (right) Sium suave, 2018, unique, 25.75 x 19.75 in.)
DM Witman is a trandisciplinary artist working at the intersection of environmental disruption and the human relationship to place in the Age of the Anthropocene. Her creative practice is deeply rooted within the realm of the effects of humans on this world using photographic materials, video, and installation. DM is affiliated with Klompching Gallery, New York and Cove Street Arts, Portland. Recent interviews and publications include The Guardian, BBC Culture, WIRED, Boston Globe, and Art New England. She actively exhibits her work and has been recognized with grants from the Maine Arts Commission, The Kindling Fund, and the Puffin Foundation.