Interviewsand Articles


Introduction, Newsletter #40: Living on Earth

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 20, 2017



In #40 we return to the environment. We begin with Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien who describe their work as remedial environmental art. This takes some explaining. In spite of the multiple challenges they face with each project and the fact that their work “disappears” as their interventions blend into the landscape, these two have lost none of their passion for the work they do.
     I first heard encountered McCormick about ten years ago at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. Large drawings and photos were on display showing examples of their interventions in the landscape designed to restore a stream in Marin County. This was a subject I knew nothing about and was fascinated by all the facets involved. I still remember the feelings of hope his gallery talk inspired in me.
     Speaking about a project on the Truckee River McCormick says: “You get a hydrologist on your team, a fluvial geomorphologist, a wildlife biologist and an ecologist, and they’ll give you the information.” Such elements are always part McCormick’s and O’Brien’s projects. A lot of scientific know-how is required for restoring the environment. And Daniel and Mary have absorbed a great deal of this kind of knowledge over the years. With the necessary understanding in place, Daniel and Mary design their interventions with an eye to beauty.
     But all this is preparation. The actual installations needed require a lot of physical work and this is where the community involvement comes in. Both children and adults are recruited for hands-on participation. In the work, not only are new social bonds established and old ones strengthened, but a great deal of learning takes place, especially for the kids—and a new feeling appears among all who are part of the project. This part is impossible to quantify. And yet it strikes me as one of the most valuable aspects of their work. It extends beyond the restoration of damaged natural places and flows out into the communities in the areas affected.
     Of course, conserving and restoring the natural environment always extends beyond the specific area affected and brings benefits into communities. The work of Mark Dubois began from his deep love from many happy hours spent in the foothills of Northern California. When I try to tell people about Mark, I always stumble. As Audrey Lin put it, “Listening to Mark Dubois is like watching the constellations of a night sky light up around you. There’s a quality to his voice that cuts to the core, a delicate balance of humility and strength that unearths a deep surrender, an awed reverence, for existence, the environment, and the rhythms of nature that pulse through the depths of rivers and oceans and, ultimately, our own internal veins.”
     Dubois' passion was most deeply shaped on the Stanislaus River. Co-founder of Friends of the River and the International Rivers Network, over the years his advocacy broadened. In 1990 and 2000 he was the international coordinator for Earth Day. He also coordinated lobbying efforts at World Bank/IMF annual meetings, and founded WorldWise, a grassroots campaign for international development bank reform.
     After something like fifty years of struggle to help people wake up to the urgency of our situation, Dubois now looks for a way to close the oppositional divide that so routinely appears around advocacy for the environment. He asks, how can we find a way through this terrain we’ve never faced before?
     In his sobering reflections, Rajesh Shah speculates how the vision of a 16th Century ruler led to the creation a city with natural air-conditioning (Bangalore, India), and how that is now a thing of the past. Lakes have been drained and replaced by buildings devoted to commerce with their attendant “calakes” (concrete and asphalt areas—roads, parking lots etc.). These heat sinks are one of the causes of Bangalore having become “an oven city today.” As Shah puts it, “The first climate transformation for Bangalore took at least three centuries; the second transformation for Bangalore took only a few decades and has been entirely man-made (made-in-Bangalore).” Shah is not optimistic about the future. Yet in this trenchant essay he makes an eloquent case for the possibility of positive climate change.
     Quite a few years ago I visited a famous garden in Santa Barbara and wrote a small piece about my experience. It was part of works & conversations #3 which focused on unusual gardens. This remarkable garden is the best-known remaining echo of a flamboyant original, Ganna Walska. In its beautiful excess, Lotusland speaks of a large spirit, now gone.
     We complete this edition with a piece from Ronald Hobbs, a poet and writer living in San Franciso. In “Half Mile from Taos” he shares an exquisite moment that shifts our focus to the mysterious and unbounded environment closest to us, the inner world of our experience.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.   


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