Artist James Aldridge gives a short video tour of his recent Drawing on Water exhibition. This brought together artworks that emerged out of the Queer River arts-based research project he set up in 2020, using an audiovisual installation and his ‘Walking Pages’ to look at his individual, embodied relationship with a range of local wetlands.
“What I have come to realise is that being Queer is not about being defined by others as Other, but refusing to be colonised or domesticated. It is about being yourself in spite of the restrictions you may face, a self that you discover through relationship with others. In this way I see it as closely related to (Re)wilding, whereby if the right conditions are put in place, the land begins to heal itself, bringing health to it and to us.’’ – James Aldridge, A Queer Path to Wellbeing (ClimateCultures, July 2020).
James Aldridge is a visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning.
Queer River uses walking, talking and making with rivers and their human and non-human communities, to research what a Queer perspective on rivers and other wetlands can offer us in this time of climate and biodiversity crisis.
Rather than seeking to capture Queer River in its entirety, Drawing on Water looked more closely at my own individual, embodied relationship with a range of wetlands with a particular focus on the Salisbury and Bristol Avons.
Drawing on Water gathered together artwork I made on walks, at home, or in the studio. Drawings included those I made using inks from plant materials that I gathered along the Salisbury Avon (e.g. Alder cones, Dock seeds and Elder berries). Others explored bodily health and pollution, or began to look at neurodivergent experiences of place.
For the audiovisual installation, I collaged together imagery from chalk streams and chalk downland, with footage recorded both above and below the water’s surface, whilst Walking Pages hanging from the gallery walls recorded my sensory experience of each place.
Artist and writer Ursula Troche showcases a video using washed-up discarded fishing rope, recovered and stitched together, to explore the growing threat of ‘ghost gear’ and the haunting of our seas by plastic waste. Picked Up the First Pieces has become the start of a series of video works using imagination to tell plastic stories.
A surreal theme emerged, as the ghost gear seemed to take on a life of their own: they acquired new characters in their ‘second life’ outside of the ocean, and the backyard behind my house — in which I filmed the first and the middle scenes — began to suggest a good stage for them, before being stitched into new works (their third lives).
Ursula Troche is a visual artist and writer working with space and place and moving between work, text and locations to explore hybrid and ‘intertidal’ spaces and interrogating edges.
My ‘Pick Up the Pieces’ project coalesced from my ongoing work with plastic waste, from stitching up plastic packaging, to my performance art show ‘Reverse Osmosis’, to collecting pieces of washed-up fishing rope from my local beach and up and down the coastline.
The title seemed perfect to refer to both the act of ‘litter picking’ as well as to contributing to restore our ecosystem to a better state in the light of our climate crisis. Discarded fishing rope from the sea is called ‘ghost gear’ — an amazing name that says many things: how it keeps on ghost fishing, and how it haunts them and us: the ghosts of our throw-away society, the ghosts of a kind of colonialism, hinting at the vastness of hidden practices, leaving one to speculate what caused them. Every item of ghost gear washed up will be there, ‘up for grabs’ only for the duration of a low tide, so it is important to grab it right there and then. Looking out for them, picking them up, washing them, then stitching them up into artworks began a process of immersive work. I wanted to show this and so made this video, Picked Up the First Pieces.
The film’s title ‘First Pieces’, was to hint at this being a kind of ‘first episode’ of the overall project. There is more I want to say, and so I am planning to make more ‘episodes’ of this my ‘ghost series’.
A surreal theme emerged, as the ghost gear seemed to take on a life of their own: they acquired new characters in their ‘second life’ outside of the ocean, and the backyard behind my house — in which I filmed the first and the middle scenes — began to suggest a good stage for them, before being stitched into new works (their third lives). I didn’t stitch up all of them though: their life in the backyard stage prompted imagination, thinking, theorizing and stories about them, and so my performance piece ‘Fishghost’ emerged.
Another theme in the film, and in my work, is the railway: it runs all along the coast, and so I reach my destinations with it — an ideal coastal line, and essential because I don’t drive. So, like me, the ghost gear comes on the train.
Once, I found a very large bottle, and I filmed it as it was ‘travelling in the train’. I also had footage of a plastic bag and ball. The International Day Against the Plastic Bag was happening the following week, and so it presented the perfect day to launch this next film. It’s a little-known International Day, but I knew it from the previous year, and so I could highlight the day with the film as well.
Filming on the beach and on the railway on the one hand, and the creation of more and more objects stitched up from plastic waste on the other, led to more video-making. The first series I made for children was made with two of my smiley characters made from plastic packaging travelling with me on the train. I wanted to give my coastline a fictitious name, and the title ‘By the Beeby Sea’ emerged.
All of my films are environmental in some way, even if comical, they advocate train travel for example. And even my so-called ‘Road Movie’ is a kind of anti-road movie, where the road disappears in the end (maybe that’s wishful thinking but it’s actually happening in the film….).
Ecological artist Laura Donkers shares Stormy Weather, a short film that conveys collective collusion in climate change through a combination of verbal message, moving film image, and soundscapes of storm, bird song and dance music that pulls the viewer into the personal and collective experience of Cyclone Gabrielle in Aotearoa New Zealand in February 2023.
Stormy Weather (MP4 4:07min) is a film poem conveying the domestic experience of an extreme weather event on 14th February 2023, as Cyclone Gabrielle tracked across North Island, New Zealand. A pause to reflect on human behaviour and our interactions with nature and weather at a time of climate change.
Laura Donkersis an ecological artist and researcher connecting people with ecology through community projects and outdoor art workshops to inform more creative and sustainable ways to live.
After enduring Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023, which was classed as an extreme weather event in Aotearoa New Zealand, I wanted to create a short film that subtly conveys the theme of collective collusion on climate change. But rather than a climate-disaster thriller, my short film would offer a sensitive portrayal of the impact that an extreme weather event has on everyday lives by combining filming of the actual storm with recordings of public warnings by politicians and subsequent citizen testimony recounting the impact of landslides and flooding.
I created Stormy Weather to be a film [as] poem to express both my personal encounter with the cyclone and as collective experience via the harrowing public testimony that emerged in newsreels after the event. The film poem genre combines three main elements: a verbal message, the moving film image, and a soundscape of diegetic sounds, such as the storm, bird song and dance music, which pull the viewer into the world of the video. This approach presents a compelling illusion to trigger personal associations in the viewer towards their own thought processes and experiences. But rather than imagined, the imagery, sound and text relate to a real, recent happening that further resonates with the audience’s own lived experience.
In the opening scene we can hear the voice of the NZ Prime Minister responding to reporters’ questions about extreme weather events and climate change. A recording of the 1933 sentimental love song ‘Stormy Weather’ (written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) begins to play. Reflected in the darkening windows via shadowy rhythmic movements and silhouetted figures, we witness a couple dancing. At first, their swaying movements are matched by the fern trees outside. As the storm activity builds the trees’ animation becomes more extreme and acoustic tension rises in the audio recording. The dance sequence ends, and the music continues but gets drowned out by the storm’s growing intensity.
At the start, the closed windows shut out the weather, nature and climate change. Yet, the illuminated darkness forces us to observe the wildness taking place outside while the shadows and reflections of the interior action show in some way the bizarre continuation of everyday lives in the face of such powerful forces: a subtle dig at our lack of willingness to face up to climate reality (dancing while the land is sliding).
The sound makes the drama and violence of the storm hit home, which helps us consider the noises we ‘drown out’ with the ones we create for ourselves. By decreasing the volume of the news reports the usual anthropocentric hierarchy is reordered with human voices assigned the ambient sound role to subtly shift the focus onto nature’s sounds.
Eventually, the storm ends, and morning arrives. The sound track transitions into a cacophony of cicada and bird calls. We see that the house is still standing, and the sun is shining. The windows are open, causing the fern trees to occupy the liminal space between house and environment. Peace has returned. Yet in the background we hear a report that others have not been so fortunate: the reporter states that 35,000 residents have been displaced as a result of unprecedented rainfall causing widespread flooding and landslips.
With the windows open a threshold is created that accommodates our appreciation and desire for nature but only in certain conditions. Here the sounds and images provide space for reflection in contrast to the earlier dramatic scenes. Yet the gentleness of these lies in stark contrast to the horror expressed in the selected texts that appear randomly across the screen. The final extract stays with the viewer as the film ends.
Stormy Weather brings a different perspective to discussions around climate change towards a more truthful and helpful direction through its use of a domestic setting and domestic actions which contrast with the world ‘outside’. It reflects back to us some of our behaviours and interactions with nature and climate in a way that makes us pause, think and create space for conversation.
This film poem presents Cyclone Gabrielle as a transformative phenomenon that changes how the climate crisis is viewed by the people directly affected, as well as those looking on. Its domestic proximity evokes a state of suspense that develops into an awesome (and for some) life-changing experience, revealing a world where climate change is acknowledged as present and real, thus concentrating our attention and altering our perceptions towards behaviour change. A pivotal ‘happening’ that will alter the destiny of our current situation.
Rather than aiming at overt eco-fi or cli-fi markets, Rod Raglin‘s novels use romance, action or mystery genres to feature normal people confronting urgent environmental issues. “Preaching to the converted doesn’t enlist new members in the battle to save our planet. I attempt to write entertaining books that appeal to a larger spectrum of society.”
Maggie was beginning to understand now. If she could cure the lawyer with natural medicines from the forest, then perhaps he would see there was more value in preserving this habitat than working on behalf of its destruction. The Ancients didn’t explain stuff but eventually, it made sense. Made sense to a crazy person anyway.
Rod Raglin is a journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues.
Most of the books I’ve read written under the emerging genre of environmental fiction (eco-fi, cli-fi) fall into two categories, a dystopic future of environmental degradation (hopeless) or a heroic undertaking, technological or societal, that will radically change civilization before it’s too late (unrealistic).
My approach is different in two ways. First, the characters are normal people engaged in contemporary life who are confronted by an important environmental issue they must address. Secondly, since the environmental issue is a subplot, I don’t specifically market my books as such, but as popular genres like romance, action, or mystery.
Preaching to the converted doesn’t enlist new members in the battle to save our planet. I attempt to write entertaining books that appeal to a larger spectrum of society.
One of my series, ‘Eco-Warriors’, includes five stand-alone novels, each with a strong element of romance. I chose to emphasize romance because this genre dominates the consumer book market – larger than mysteries and speculative fiction (sci-fi).
As well as being the most popular genre, 90 percent of romance readers are women who can bring about huge benefits for the environment. They purchase or influence the purchase of 80 percent of all consumer goods, including home furnishing and products, houses, vehicles, computers and stocks. A woman that’s sensitive to environmental issues could influence the purchase of an energy-efficient vehicle, products from recycled materials, even stocks in a sustainable industry.
When writing environmental fiction, the choice doesn’t have to be between depression or delusion. In all the Eco-Warriors books, as well as my five-book ‘Mattie Saunders’ series, contemporary characters are addressing current environmental issues and coming up with realistic solutions.
The quote above is from Mad Maggie and the Mystery of the Ancients, the third book in the stand-alone Eco-Warriors series, and a love story between two disparate characters, a brilliant though somewhat anal-retentive corporate lawyer whose personal and career mantra is “the will to power”, and a free, uninhibited spirit who practices natural healing on a secluded island in the wilderness. It’s a story about protecting wild things and wild places as well as the devastating effects of mental illness and the stigma society still inflicts on those affected. It’s a story about compromise, tolerance and understanding and how these feelings spring from love and are nurtured by it. It’s about mystery, secrets and power that abounds in nature and within ourselves.
Maggie talks to trees. Dieter talks to corporations. Maggie embraces mystery and flirts with magic. Dieter adheres to logic and the doctrine of Nietzsche. Dieter’s client wants to destroy the trees. The trees want Maggie to protect them. Dieter has terminal cancer. Maggie is schizophrenic. Maggie says she can save him, if he’ll save the trees. Dieter thinks she’s crazy, but what choice does he have? A week together alone on Deadman’s Island changes everything for both of them. Is it madness? Is it magic? Or is it love?
“Much of my music is composed as a means to encourage others to think about the possibility of world peace.” Stanley Grill‘s four-piece composition expresses the ancient Jain, Hindu and Buddhist concept of ‘ahimsa’ — ‘non-harm’ in our relationship with the rest of the natural world — in his learning not only from great historic figures but from the example of his own grandfather.
We cannot bring harm to other living beings without bringing harm to ourselves — and that makes ‘ahimsa’ not just a concept related to the peaceful resolution of conflict between humans, but a concept about our place in all of nature.
Stanley Grill is a composer of music that attempts to translate something about the nature of the physical world or promote world peace, sparking positive thoughts and inspiring change.
Much of my music is composed as a means to encourage others to think about the possibility of world peace. During the pandemic, undistracted at home, I wrote a large number of works, one of which included AHIMSA — music inspired by that ancient Indian principle of living in harmony with all living beings. The concept is broader than what I believe most people understand ‘ahimsa’ to mean — it is not just non-violence. It is an understanding that all living creatures on earth are connected. We cannot bring harm to other living beings without bringing harm to ourselves — and that makes ahimsa not just a concept related to the peaceful resolution of conflict between humans, but a concept about our place in all of nature.
The music is in four movements. It begins with music inspired by the principles I learned at home from my grandfather, who as a teenager, fled Poland by himself, to make his way to America. His basic philosophy of life was that every person should strive to become the best person they can be, to realize their potential, but without ever imposing themselves on or harming others. The music then progresses to the great guiding lights — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John Lennon — all of whom died while in the pursuit of holding up the candle of ahimsa for all to see. It is hard to think of any who are their match today, but those with their intensity are sorely needed.
AHIMSA extensively uses quodlibets, a technique that’s been used by various composers since medieval times. I researched melodies that were known to Gandhi and Martin Luther King (and in Lennon’s case, several of his songs) and then wove fragments of the melodies into the counterpoint in their respective movements.
AHIMSA (2022) was recorded in the Czech Republic, with Marek Štilec leading the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. You can listen to AHIMSA at Stanley’s own site — where you can explore more of his Music for Peace and Music for the Earth and his many other compositions — as well as on You Tube Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and Tidal.
Stanley previously contributed Remember to our Creative Showcase; his collaboration with choreographer and dancer Mariko Endo serves as a reminder of who we are by nature — part and parcel of the earth and all of the life around us. You can find this here in our archive.
“We decided that what we could do was to let the trees and the space know they were not alone … in community, communicate to them how deeply they are loved, and to be with them through their impending violation. Action in this sacred sense transcends human politics, bypasses it.”
With composite photography and video, Jennifer Leach — Director of Outrider Anthems, and supported by eco-scenographer Andrea Carr, Outrider Anthems Associate — documents and witnesses creative community resistance to the corporate felling of 112 trees and the sacrifice of a city’s green lung for more concrete.
‘They say that in time we will forget. We will become accustomed to the new environment. No. We learn to endure. We do not forget.’ An Outrider Anthems community intervention on Reading Golf Course, where 112 numbered trees, and countless smaller others, are to be felled to make way for a profit-motivated housing estate. We gently bound each doomed tree with a tie of white muslin, thus making visible what the developers and Reading Borough Council wish to keep invisible: a mutual community of powerful trees and all their interconnected ecosystems, earmarked for destruction. Our human community, having had our record number of planning protests ignored, stand in solidarity with the trees.
Jennifer Leach is a poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.
This intervention began with a community desperately trying to safeguard its health, three times resisting a merciless building on one of urban Reading’s few green lungs. It was once agricultural land, then a golf course — until the golfing members handed it over to developers for a princely and undisclosed sum. In almost every way it is an inappropriate development, and yet on the third time of presenting it to Reading Borough Council, and with barely an alteration to the previous two applications, it was suddenly supported and passed. The community had objected with a borough-wide record number of objections, and our distress at the Council meeting was in itself distressing.
The meeting, with its clearly preordained conclusion, was a brazen travesty of the democratic process. The required green links — crucial to the bare survival of species — was, the developer suggested, “hypothetical”. The development, with its 223 largely luxury housing, was going to “improve traffic in the area” and the developers, the Council openly stated “are the ones with the money and they can do what they want.”
“It’s called Capitalism.”
This space is local to me, and in the post-golfing period in which it has rewilded, it has become very special, both to myself and to many members of my community. It is so rich in nature, and in magnificence, particularly in the hundreds of specimen trees that grow in the space. 112 trees are to be felled for the building of the houses, and each tree is unique, each is glorious. They have been categorised by the Council as ‘B – of moderate quality’, ‘C – of low quality’, or ‘U – unsuitable for retention’.
The democratic process was stretched as far as it could be, and appeals were made to central government, but the housing development will go ahead.
Andrea Carr, Associate Director of Outrider Anthems, and I as Director asked ourselves what we could do at this point. Andrea brought her ecoscenographic thoughtfulness and experience to the question, and we decided that what we could do — and we felt it was exceptionally important — was to let the trees and the space know they were not alone. We knew we could and should, in community, communicate to them how deeply they are loved, and to be with them through their impending violation. Action in this sacred sense transcends human politics, bypasses it.
I had the privilege of photographing every one of the 112 trees, and each one of them shared something of their intimate selves with me; they became a gift to me. Andrea came down on the weekend of 1st May and we spent two days measuring out and cutting vast reams of plain white muslin. On 1st May — Beltane in the old Celtic calendar, and a day traditionally associated with the great celebration and honouring of nature — we met with many members of the community and, armed with white muslin and site maps, we spent the day binding each one of the 112 trees to be felled. We stood tall beside them and photographed ourselves standing tall, in solidarity with the trees.
We have conjoined the action of this day with excerpts from the Reading Borough Council planning meeting, to create a composite film entitled Standing Tall. It is currently being screened as a part of the Ecostage contribution to World Stage Design 2022 in Calgary. It hurts to watch it, and it moves. We hope it will be widely shared, and that it will contribute to a changing world in which the sacred spaces and elements of nature become honoured and respected as they once were, and in which the hubris of a capitalist economy finally crumbles under its own insatiable greed. We hope it will inspire others to bear public witness to the non-human victims of human violence, and to stand in love and solidarity with them.
Click on an image to see the full-size series of photographs Jennifer took of the 112 trees.
And you can view more of the intervention with Andrea and watch the videos Jennifer made here at the Outrider Anthems website.
You can find more work at the Outrider Anthems website, and sign up to their mailing list to hear about and support their future projects. And you can explore Jennifer’s work as a writer and artist at her own website.
“The project is a reflection on community and landscape and how these interact in space and within time.”
Art of Shading the Sun, a poetic film from Evgenia Emets, speaks from the perspective of the land 100 years in the future, of a community and a landscape moving from extractivist practices to more regenerative approaches.
My time is not your time My time is wisdom Coiled beneath the roots My time is light The one you know as food My time is seed That knows how long it’s due My time is backwards From the future towards you My time is you The fish within my stream My time is soil The keeper of your dream
Evgenia Emets is an artist intersecting land-art, sound and visual poetry through experiences, forests, artist books, calligraphy, performance, objects and community engagement, and whose ‘Eternal Forest’ integrates ecological thinking.
The film (1 hour 40 min, Portugal, 2021) was originally commissioned by Ci.CLO in Portugal as part of an art installation. The project is a reflection on community and landscape and how these interact in space and within time. The installation and film reflect on the centuries of human presence and the current efforts of the community of Mertola to help restore social and ecological balance in this area.
The film is told from the perspective of the land in 2121, a story of the future, with concrete actions in the present. From extractivist practices deeply rooted in our society to the regenerative approaches — through syntropic agriculture, reforestation, local food production, an education rooted in active participation, and the engagement of the whole community into the process.
The film, photographic prints and an installation based on the film in Portuguese and English in 10- and 14-minute video loops, was exhibited in Porto, Bienal 21 Fotografia do Porto, and the Municipalities of Évora, Figueira da Foz, Loulé, Mértola and with EDIA in Portugal, and Fotofestiwal Łódź 2021 in Poland during 2021-2022.
“I always feel uneasy placing the self at the centre of a piece – the planet doesn’t and shouldn’t care a jot about my own views.”
Julian Bishop‘s poem asks how would the climate feel being messed around in this way – drawing on myths of an evil fairy child substituted for a human baby.
sceptics rubbished me labelled me a mythignored the trickle of microbeads into basins where I washed
Julian Bishopis a former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.
One challenge I consistently come up against as an eco-poet is the use of the first-person ‘I’. Given man is entirely responsible for our predicament, I always feel uneasy placing the self at the centre of a piece – the planet doesn’t and shouldn’t care a jot about my own views.
Coupled to and at odds with this dilemma is the lack of voice for any of the creatures and geographies impacted by our recklessness. Some of the most powerful poetry I’ve read tries to give a voice to the voiceless, e.g. Sue Riley’s fabulous winner of the Ginkgo Prize a couple of years ago, ‘A Polar Bear In Norilsk’. Nobel Prize winner Louise Gluck also writes a nice line from the point of view of plants and inanimate objects, e.g. ‘The Red Poppy’.
My biggest influence though is Alice Oswald, whose 2017 Griffin Prize-winning collection Falling Awake is written almost entirely in the ‘divorced first person’. Oswald shapeshifts changeling-like into dew at dawn (‘A Rushed Account Of The Dew’), a dead body (‘Body’), a shadow (‘Shadow’) and Orpheus’s head floating in a river (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’). I immersed myself (excuse the pun) in her book before writing ‘Changeling’ to try and decouple from the ego – how would the climate feel being messed around in this way?
Which brings me to the poem itself, which was actually born out of a workshop exploring myth and fairy tales. During a bizarre discussion on types of fae, the changeling cropped up and immediately screamed POEM! at me before vanishing up a chimney flue (that’s what they do best, apparently). Of course the link to climate change was obvious and I began imagining how I could personify it in changeling form.
According to the myth, the changeling is an evil fairy child substituted for a human baby just after birth. Putting a changeling in a fire would cause it to jump up the chimney and return the human child – tales of ways to uncover the true identity of changelings vary from country to country but all were horribly cruel.
I decided to give my ‘climate changeling’ plenty of ugly features –
my moods monsoonedI cast spells of rain wept ice melt swept by tropical depressions my skin was frackedorgans fragmented
and the chimney flue obviously beckoned for the end of the poem which ensured an unintentionally apocalyptic end. This wasn’t quite the note I hoped to end on but as so often the poem knows where it’s going better than the poet. I can only hope it’s wrong.
I hadn’t heard about Green Ink Poetry until I came across a call-out on Twitter for poems for an issue on Pyres. It’s a two-year-old press with high production values. I looked at their website which has the strapline “We welcome chaos, calamity and the natural world”. My ‘Changeling’ appeared to have found a home.
You can read Julian’s poem Changeling at Green Ink Poetry – and do explore more of his poems and reflections on his experiences of recent times in the pandemic in his On Green Verges, contribution to our special Quarantine Connection series, in September 2020. You can follow Julian on Twitter: @julianbpoet.
Julian mentions Sue Riley’s ‘A Polar Bear In Norilsk‘, which you can find in the free Ecopoetry Anthology from the 2019 Gingko Prize. And Louise Gluck’s ‘The Red Poppy‘was published as The Guardian’s poem of the week (23/8/2021). Alice Oswald’s collection Falling Awake is published by Penguin, and you can read a poem from it at the link.
“There are more than a million heartbeats … nothing is like mine.”
In her discovery of a remarkable rainforest community of people and animals, Laura Coleman explores the meaning of love and rescue against backdrops of deforestation, illegal animal trafficking and forest fires, and the work of a pioneering charity created by young Bolivian volunteers.
Whiffs of scent slam into me, choking me, before they fade, replaced by others, sweeter, thicker, heavier. It hurts to breathe. To think. The greens grow darker, the smells more sickly, rotten, the trail more overgrown, the sky nothing more than a memory. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place that has its own heartbeat. Millions of heartbeats. I picture people jostling for space on the London Underground that smells of sweat and humans. There are more than a million heartbeats there but they’re all like mine. Here, nothing is like mine.
Laura Coleman is a writer, activist and artist whose memoir shares her life-changing relationships with rescued wild animals. She is the founder and chair of trustees of ONCA, a Brighton-based arts charity that bridges social and environmental justice issues with creativity.
In my early twenties, I found myself living in London, my life a loop of commuting and corporate meetings. Tired of tight, tailored suits and lacking direction, I quit my job and set out for South America. Two months into my three-month trip to Bolivia, I was bloated, sunburnt, lonely, and ready to go home. But a flyer about an animal welfare charity – Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) – encouraged me to stick it out, and soon I was en route to “el parque” in the Amazon basin.
I found an underfunded, understaffed, dilapidated camp, along with suicidal howler monkeys, megalomaniac semi-wild pigs, toothless jaguars, and many more animals who had been sold on the pet trade, abused and abandoned. I also met a timid and terrified puma named Wayra who I was tasked to learn how to “walk” outside of her enclosure. Within days, all I could think about was going home. But after several weeks of barely showering, being eaten alive by bugs, and doing work that pushed me to physical and emotional exhaustion I’d never known, I deliberately missed my flight back to England and spent the next two years learning how to trust Wayra, and the jungle – and myself.
The book is set against a backdrop of deforestation, illegal animal trafficking, and forest fires, and I really wanted to find a balance between exploring what happens when two desperate creatures in need of rescue find one another, alongside the universal context of working on the frontlines of environmental destruction. At its heart, the book is a love story, about kinship and community. In Bolivia, I discovered how the love that exists between humans and animals, and place, and home, can be just as important and powerful as any romantic love. This is what I wanted to share when I wrote the book.
I also, of course, wanted to support the work of CIWY. Over twenty-five years ago, a group of young Bolivian volunteers set up the NGO and created the first ever sanctuary for rescued wild animals in the country. Over the years Parque Machía has provided safe homes in the cloud forest to thousands of rescued animals, and to countless people. However, this year CIWY’s land lease contract with the local municipality is not being renewed and plans for the site are uncertain. The dedicated staff who live there have the painful job of relocating hundreds of animals to another of CIWY’s sanctuaries on the far side of the country, with no financial support from the government, costing over $400,000. Money from The Puma Years has gone towards starting construction in Jacj Cuisi, but it is going to be a long journey, needing global support in order to transfer all the animals at risk by the end of the year.
And this last year has seen devastation on so many fronts. Covid-19 has meant that, due to the cancellation of CIWY’s volunteer programme, a handful of exhausted staff have been doing the work of caring for over five hundred animals – something that would normally be done by hundreds of volunteers. And the fires in 2020 were the worst they’ve ever seen, so I don’t know what the future holds. There are countless small NGOs in the Global South struggling to hold on through devastating times. So any donation to CIWY or another Black, Indigenous, or POC-led project will support people working on the frontlines of environmental disaster and justice. What has been so overwhelming, since my book has been published, is the incredible amount of financial and emotional support that has come in from around the world and I want to thank everyone who has been in touch with either me or CIWY. Your support makes all the difference!
The Puma Years: A Memoir is published by Little A and you can buy it from Bookshop or Amazon or as an audiobook on Audible. And you can watch the online book launch on 3rd June 2021, hosted by Persephone Pearl at ONCA, with Laura reading from her book and discussing the work of CIWY in conversation with Tania ‘Nena’ Baltazar, founder and president of Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY).
“Both books speak to my ongoing need for connection and intra-veloping with the growing world. They explore how I experience what I breathe, how water, soil and grasses unfold from me and I from them.”
In melt and the hispering, Sarah Hymas encourages us to rethink, blur, mix up, remake the stories we’ve been told.
In the unfathomable dark of my closed eyes microscopic life surfaces to feed on digested sunlight
(‘Moist’ from melt)
Sarah Hymasis a poet, performer and artistbook maker focusing on the sea, its ecosystems and its interdependence with people, and the impacts of climate change and pollution.
In the first lockdown of 2020 I was one of many writers wondering how publishing a book was going to work in a pandemic. melt was originally due to be published in the spring of 2020. Eventually appearing in December, it is the outcome of four years of reading, living and writing around my encounters with the ocean, its currents, ice melt, plastic debris and many other of its upwellings. the hispering, by contrast, popped out over four weeks in April / May 2020. Rising from a thirty-year-old experience, it demanded my attention during the world’s rupture, an almost obsessive revisiting, retracing and retelling of what had happened to my twentysomething-year-old self in West Sussex, Donegal and some strange netherbridge strung between the two.
In part the books seem quite different: one poetry, exploring how line, space and image can fold and unfold across oceanic movement; the other a pamphlet of prose-poetry-like glimpses of a dreamt / dream-like meadow. Still, they both speak to my ongoing need for connection and intra-veloping with the growing world. They explore how I experience what I breathe, how water, soil and grasses unfold from me and I from them. Both books play with folklore, social history, a desire for belonging, a fear of disconnection and strive to embrace what is unknown or weird or threatening with an open spirit.
They both play with form, restless in the flat page conventions of a book. As a maker of artistbooks I’ve been playing with how text can break from the dimensions of a page, how it can stretch across pages, and how pages and folds can ask unexpected things from readers. Both books ask for reciprocity: between book as object and reader as subject, or vice versa.
They reflect a life-long fascination with how imagination upholds our worlds, how what we dream, in waking or in sleep, feeds and enriches thinking, doing, seeing. I’d hope that anyone who opens their pages also finds new worlds opening up to them, within and without of themselves; and is encouraged to rethink the stories they’ve been told over the years: the true and imagined ones, the scientific and historical ones, the personal and collective ones, and to remake them, to blur them a bit, mix them up and shake out new possibilities for what might be to come.