The arrival of spring in the city along with the 190th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted (the man who built New York’s Central Park) has prompted me to look to the parks, the garden, and the backyard for story ideas. After thoroughly enjoying In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, I thought this would be the perfect time to explore author Michael Pollan’s perspective on gardening in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education.
The significance of narrative in non-fiction is easy to overlook. There is traditionally an emphasis on content: Are there enough facts? Does the author get the information right? Does he/she make a logical case for his/her argument(s)? But delivery matters too. A strong narrative, conveyed through a unique and authentic voice, has the ability to linger in the minds of readers long after they have put down the book. When it comes to exploring the relationships between nature and culture, Michael Pollan is an excellent storyteller. Second Nature, despite being one of his earlier and less consistent works, is no exception.
Continuing with the theme of visual storytelling from my previous post, I would like to share an Orion article looking at artwork created by the Beehive Collective.
Where Narrative meets Activism, by Susanne Antonetta
On the power and prevalence of visual narratives in modern advertising:
“Anyone who has been to a medieval church understands the shivery power of visual storytelling: the spires stretching up to heaven, gargoyles whose ferocity wards off the ever-present threat of evil. Nowadays, we’re steeped in the seductive visuals of advertising, like the images of nature that sell us unrelated consumer goods: breaching whales for insurance; canoe rides between cliffs for a herpes drug.
As imagery from all media feeds our imaginations, it grows more and more controlled by those who have a vested interest in how it’s perceived—government, mainstream news and entertainment, the corporations that want us to buy their products and ignore their transgressions.”
A description of the artwork – True Cost of Coal:
“The visual power of the banner offers a clear and intricate story that draws the eye everywhere at once, fascinating in its detail—the perfectly rucked cap of a morel, hairs on the legs of a woodwasp—and overwhelming in its breadth. With its symbolism and visual density—a family of frogs drinking black water from a poisoned well, European starlings migrating to Appalachia with Bibles, babies, and bluegrass guitars—it feels like the artwork Hieronymus Bosch would have created if he had been an activist. It sweeps through time, moving from prehistory through early mining and reform to the present-day dynamiting of mountaintops. Human characters are represented by birds, animals, and insects, many endangered, drawing together all of our struggles to survive in a degraded landscape.”
Viewing art as a dynamic experience:
“I find my skepticism gone by the end of the presentation, replaced by the excitement of viewing artwork that feels more like an experience than an image, communicating time, change, story, and possibility. As disturbing as some images are, the dynamism of the whole suggests no single ending to the narrative arc is inevitable.”
Over the years, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate the power of art, especially in its ability to deeply resonate with people. Several years ago, a colleague of mine put together a fascinating presentation about the environmental themes of art commissioned during the Industrial Revolution. During this period of immense change and upheaval, several artists sought to contrast industrialization and urbanization with romantic pastoral images of sky, rural life, and nature. Each of the paintings in her presentation were affective and provocative, each conveying a richly detailed but wordless story.
Recently, I came across a series of pictures that reminded me of that presentation. They originate from a book called The Changing Countryside by Jörg Müller. In it there are seven murals which detail a steady progression of natural and human induced changes of a landscape over time. To me, they worked together to tell a story rich in environmental themes, ideas, and connections. Click on the pictures if you want a more detailed look:
These pictures can all be found on Jörg Müller’s Facebook page.
Instead of writing about what I think, I thought it would be more appropriate to let the art speak for itself. I have come up with a few questions of my own that may prove to be interesting for discussion.
- What kind of story do these pictures tell?
- What environmental ideas, themes and connections do you see?
- What element(s) throughout each of the pictures do you feel most attached to?
- Which frame are you personally MOST comfortable living in or living with?
- What should the next picture in the sequence look like?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading, and have a happy 42nd Earth Day.
Next up: Finding wisdom in the garden.
Müller, Jörg. The Changing Countryside. Heryin Books Inc, 2006.
I came across a blog post from Quirks and Quarks, a popular Canadian science program, speaking of the benefits of outdoor play for children, and thought it relevant for sharing after my exploration of My Neighbour Totoro.
On the detrimental effects of being disconnected from nature:
“Statistics in the UK, which are similar to those from North America, show that children are spending twice as much time indoors as previous generations, usually sedentary, in front of television or computer screens. And this is having a negative effect on their health, leading to things ranging from obesity, through nutrition, to mental health problems.
And we can’t blame technology. Children are being held indoors more frequently by fearful parents who are less willing to allow their kids to run free in the woods, walk to school or even play in the local neighbourhood.”
On the benefits of unstructured outdoor play:
“The remarkable thing is that the cost of solving this problem in very low. All they need to do is be allowed to climb trees, chase each other up woodland trails, splash in creeks – in other words, play the way children naturally play with each other, not just in highly structured, overly competitive, adult-supervised, organized sport.
Studies have shown that children exposed to nature find more things to do, which makes them more physically fit and reduces attention deficit disorder. They learn to co-operate with each other when finding their way through a forest or crossing a stream. They naturally interact when one child discovers an interesting plant or bug, which is a great lesson in social skills.”
“I don’t believe there’s a climate change. I know there’s a climate change. [chuckles] Because I’ve lived off the land most of my life, and I see what’s happening out there on the land, especially in the northern region of the Yukon. I see how the permafrost is melting, how lakes are going dry, how the water’s low…”
- Gentleman from the Yukon Territories in Canada, Climate Voices
We can encounter compelling stories in the most unexpected of places. I stumbled across Climate Voices on a flight home from a long and emotionally draining trip. Unable to sleep after watching an entire season of No Reservations, I noticed the short film while flipping thorough the documentary section. Initially hesitant to watch an educational film in my sleep-deprived state, I decided to give it a chance after realizing the hours of insomnia that lay ahead of me. What I discovered was a remarkable series of personal stories from people across the world.