As I noted in The Changing Countryside, art can be a powerful platform for conveying environmental messages and raising ecological literacy. Most of us have been touched by a particularly poignant painting, a soulful song, an intricate sculpture. In instances where the written word seems insufficient to describe the essence of an idea or a concept, art can bypass our rational centers to evoke resonance and convey meaning. Instead of thinking, we first feel it deep in our core, in our soul.
I felt the message when I first flipped through Belonging, a wordless picture book by Jeannie Baker. An artist and an author, Baker specializes in the creation of intricate shallow-relief multimedia collages. Primarily used as illustrations in her books, the collages have also been part of public art collections displayed in London, New York, and Australia. Each wordless double-page spread in Belonging is an astonishing depiction of a setting through time; each panel is packed with details and textures rich and subtle, providing a visual feast for the eyes and an experience for the mind.
In this entry, I’ll be exploring two of her books. Window speaks of urban encroachment into the countryside. Belonging is a story about the revitalization power of nature and the role an individual can play in the community. These two wordless books combine to create a complex and engaging narrative suitable for people of all ages.
Synopsis of Window
Window begins with a mother holding an infant (Sam) and looking out at a lush countryside with a rich array of flora and fauna. Several years pass by with each turn of the page. Small visual cues hint at these time jumps, usually in the form of birthday cards to Sam that decorate the windowsill. We see Sam gradually grow up: At four, he plays Superman in the backyard. At six, he walks to school with his friend. In his teenage years, we see him play baseball through through a broken window. Near the end of the book, we see Sam moving out with his significant other.
During the two decades of Sam’s childhood, the landscape seen from the window changes irrevocably. At first, they are subtle. A house is built across the street. A paved road appears. The first signs of agriculture emerges when Sam is six; patches of land are cleared for farmland. It is at this time that changes accelerate dramatically. Dozens of houses suddenly spring up at the flip of a page. The green landscape gives way to exposed soil; trees are cut down and sold as firewood in the lot across the street. A billowing smokestack and towering condominiums add the finishing touches to the new landscape. With the appearance of the golden arches, the creation of a full-blown suburbia is complete. By the time Sam moves away, personal backyards, a patch of lawn with a “keep off the grass” sign, and a painted mural of trees on the side of one building represent the only signs of nature left in the view through the window. The countryside has disappeared.
The last image is of Sam holding his own child, looking out of the window of his new house in the countryside, staring at a housing subdivision sign.
A sense of solastalgia
Window represents an interesting approach to raise awareness about the impacts of urban sprawl on the rural landscape. It effectively conveys images of deforestation, species extirpation, and pollution that are typically associated with the creation of a suburbia. I was reminded of the visits I made to my friend’s house in a newly created suburb as a teenager. Constructed on the side of a mountain, I still vividly recall being shocked at the extent of the deforestation necessary for the construction of large luxury homes and a golf course.
Window is effective in conveying a sense of loss and sadness for a place that has been irrevocably changed. That, more than anything, resonated with me and my personal experience. When I first came to Canada, we lived in a relatively rural farming area. When I returned two decades later, I found that the area is now located near a major bypass and dominated by big box stores. The places I remember and felt connected to no longer exist. The same feeling washes over me as I flip through the pages of Window.
Glenn Albracht, a professor at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle, coined this sense of loss and distress caused by environmental change solastalgia. He describes it as the distress within an individual or a community about “a loss of endemic sense of place” and the associated feeling of losing control of its destiny.
In its attempt to highlight the problems of urban encroachment, Window reinforces the notion of inevitability of the situation: The pressures of land development is simply too great. The last image has Sam starting a new family in another newly created suburb. With this final conclusion, Window becomes a tale mired in despair and impotence; it doesn’t provide any solutions for the problem of urban sprawl. In my opinion, its depiction of declining nature and increasing human presence only serves to reinforce the notion that humans and nature are incompatible with each other. As the reader, I came away from the book with a heavy heart and a feeling of hopelessness for the future.
- Sam didn’t seem particularly perturbed by the change in his landscape. Why do you think that is?
- Do you have any examples of solastalgia you can recall in your own life?
Synopsis of Belonging
Belonging begins with a window looking out at a grey and dreary part of the city. A couple is seen doting over their newborn girl, Tracy, in their barren and grey backyard. Like Window, several years pass by in between each collage in Belonging. A notable moment in Tracy’s life occurs when she is six years old; she receives a seedling from her next door neighbour. Over the next several years, she takes up the hobby of gardening. We see Tracey grow up much like Sam does, and she eventually gets married in her twenties. The last collage shows Tracy sitting in the backyard of the same house with her parents, her husband, and a new baby.
Like in Window, the landscape evolves during Tracy’s life. Initially, advertisements, logos, and graffiti were the sole sources of colour in the deliberately drab collage. But over the years, living things begin to add more and more colour into the pieces. The neglected space across the street, once occupied with dilapidated cars, becomes a safe communal space for the neighbourhood. Decrepit buildings are demolished, giving way to a beautiful lake view in the distance. Thanks to a local initiative to reclaim the streets, the road becomes closed off to vehicle traffic, transforming into a garden and play space for children. Because of active efforts to replant native species, indigenous plants and animals return to give the area character and colour. Towards the end of the book, all of the ads and logos in the beginning are hidden behind a diverse mix of greenery.
Nature as nurture
The narrative of Belonging is much more hopeful than Window. Through its visuals, it was able to convey a story of hope and renewal that provides inspiration for action and change. It is a celebration of character, uniqueness, of home and place. A key theme I took away from Belonging is the role of nature in the creation of a safe and prosperous neighbourhood. An appreciation of nature was the catalyst for the creation of a thriving and happy place full of thriving and happy people. Over time, the area transformed from a grey decaying cityscape to a lush and vibrant oasis. Baker elaborates on the important of nature in this renewal process:
“Belonging celebrates using local indigenous plants to give a sense of place and regional character. And through the use of local plant species, the local native birds, animals and insects that had long since left are attracted back. This community then becomes a nurturing home not just to people but to the larger community of life.” (Jeannie Baker, an interview about Belonging)
The power of the individual
Another theme in Belonging is the difference one individual can make in environmental education and action. Tracy’s neighbour was only one man, but he was instrumental in the transformation of both the space and the people around him. He gives Tracy a plant that helps her shape her understanding of nature within an urban context. From that very first seedling, Tracey began to develop an appreciation for gardening and other living things. Tracey’s neighbour also was the one who first started campaigning to take back the streets. His modest actions exemplify the notion that each of us is capable of making tremendous differences to others and the community as a whole.
- Do you have any connections to a specific place or home? How much of it is related to nature?
Stanzas of the same picture poem
Window and Belonging are great companion pieces to each other; each story complements the other, stanzas to what Baker calls the same “picture poem”. Much like Flower, these two stories portray the various relationship humanity has with nature. We see the negative aspect of the relationship in the form of the urban sprawl at the end of Window and the barren cityscape of Belonging; the dismissal and suppression of nature becomes an impoverishment to both the landscape and the people. However, when we recognize and appreciate the importance of other living things in our lives, we see the emergence of a more harmonious and sustainable way to live with nature, like by the end of Belonging.
All Images on this page are copyright © Jeannie Baker.