The subtle art of climate storytelling

GRAPHIC BY SAMANTHA CADENAS-ARZATE/GRAPHICS CENTER

Julia Hall is a junior environmental studies major.

The conversation around our climate crisis is often submerged in a swirl of incompatible stories. We’re presented with the mainstream “doom and gloom” narrative represented by fatalistic statistics; the technocratic optimism which invests faith in new, expensive technologies, like geoengineering; or a hopeful portrayal that seeks to change the hearts and minds of people through comfort and community. 

Yet, few people in this world have the gift of articulating our climate crisis with such clarity and artistic inspiration as the poets who spoke at the March 3 event put on by USF’s English department titled, “Wildfire: Poets Respond to the Climate Crisis,” at which 17 poets read and reflected on their poems in support of the remarkable California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology published in March 2020.

The panel of poets featured Devi S. Laskar, Susan Browne, Rafael Jesús González, Judy Belebaar, Claire Blotter, Susan Cohen, Phyllis Klein, Maxima Kahn, Amanda Moore, Bia Lowe, Joan Baranow, Kim Shuck, Molly Fisk, Alan Soldofsky, Susan Kelly-Dewitt, Rooja Mohassessy, and USF English professor and poet Dean Rader

The natural world has long served as a poignant source of inspiration for writers. Several poets spoke about finding solace in nature and the importance of appreciating the landscapes we have left. In her poem “Bared,” Rooja Mohassessy wrote about sitting on the back deck of her porch in the Sierra foothills every day in the summer, observing the way the dry brush and landscape steadily changed: “The small falanx has returned, bustling over dandelions. I put off mowing for a third morning and listened.”

For the poets who grew up in California, “wildfire season” wasn’t a part of their childhood — there’d be an occasional wildfire or drought, but it was nothing like it is now. Wildfire season has become such an inevitability that it’s spoken about like it’s just another season — as if there’s winter, spring, summer, fall, and… oh right, wildfire season. 

To remember the Oakland firestorm of 1991, a wildfire that killed more than 25 people and burned more than 3,000 houses to the ground — one of which belonged to her parents — Susan Cohen recounted the harrowing experience of driving up to the evacuated house with her husband and having to call her parents to tell them there was nothing left. In her poem, entitled “On the Anniversary of a Firestorm,” she wrote, “Not one? My mother on the phone. / Not one wall, not one floor. / Not one painting left? / Not one chimney, not one plate. / How to draw a picture of not.”

Molly Fisk wrote her poem about the Campfire of 2018, the deadliest, most noxious wildfire in the history of California, which ripped through Paradise, CA and nearby communities. Fisk said that as she watched the flames devour the horizon, she couldn’t stop thinking about what was in the smoke. In her poem, “Particulate Matter,” she wrote, “How many miles of electrical wire and PVC pipe swirling into the once-blue sky: / […] hearts and all the tame, their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones, their final / cries, and our neighbors: so many particular, precious, irreplaceable lives that despite / ourselves we’re inhaling.”

While each wildfire is unique, the nature of their destruction manages to smulder together into a blurry image distorted by heat haze. Commenting on this destruction, Joan Baranow writes in her poem, “Dear Future:” “We tried, really. / […] We could never agree on which death / was best for the country. On whose terms. / Clearly humans had become immune to irony.” 

In times of uncertainty, it falls to poets and artists to remind us of the compassion, empathy, and humanity necessary to make sense of the decimating nature of our world. Though each poet told an idiosyncratic story, the event’s discussion of each weaved their poems together into an extremely moving collective narrative, revolutionizing certain aspects of the way that I think about climate change and the way I communicate about it.

In times of uncertainty, it falls to poets and artists to remind us of the compassion, empathy, and humanity necessary to make sense of the decimating nature of our world. Though each poet told an idiosyncratic story, the event’s discussion of each weaved their poems together into an extremely moving collective narrative, revolutionizing certain aspects of the way that I think about climate change and the way I communicate about it.

While informative and educational, mainstream media portrayals of climate change overlook the ambiguous, emotional concerns attached to the environmental crisis. We’re taught to care about the state of our climate crisis, but we aren’t taught how to cope with the unprecedented loss, suffering, and grief (or anticipation thereof) that climate change inflicts upon the people in our lives and the places we call home.

For too long, the narrative around climate change has been hyper-focused on the scientific. While climate science tells the truth, it is extremely academic and practically inaccessible to the public, causing misinformation, polarized American attitudes on climate change, and a large gap between what climate scientists know and the action (or lack thereof) that governments, industries, and citizens take.

We need to humanize climate change; put names, faces, and anecdotes to the crisis, for the single most distinctive aspect of the human species ultimately lies in our ability to tell stories. That’s not to say we shouldn’t hurt for the extreme loss of biodiversity caused by an extreme weather event like a wildfire, but we, as humans, empathize more when it becomes personal — when we visualize and experience the loss of homes, photographs, memories, and human lives.

As I listened to how each of these remarkable poets have responded to climate change through their work, I kept thinking about the power a well-crafted artistic response has to change our collective response to the single most pressing issue facing humanity today. 

For those of us who haven’t already experienced suffering and setbacks due to our climate crisis beyond what we could have plausibly imagined, it’s almost inevitable that at some point, we will. So, we must ask: What type of response will we commit to at the global, community, and individual level? Will we choose to provide care for one another and our communities, or act in the name of self-interest? Will we hold our governments accountable and use our voices to mobilize mass movements? Will we choose to focus deeply on our interactions with the people and places in our lives, to listen closely and respond intentionally? 

When climate change becomes a conversation about more than how much carbon dioxide exists in the atmosphere and, instead, taps into the part of our psyche that deals with climate ethics, social justice, and human values, we are much more likely to spur societal shifts in how we respond. 

Telling stories about climate change through poetry frames it in a way which forces us to realize that as much as we like to separate ourselves from nature, we are nature. We haven’t conquered nature, we’re not beyond nature, and we can’t reverse the climate change we’ve already inflicted upon our one home: planet Earth. We must acknowledge both the state of our reality as well as the whirlwind of emotions which come with it, so we can create and sustain a revolution necessary for the prospect of our future.

Telling stories about climate change through poetry frames it in a way which forces us to realize that as much as we like to separate ourselves from nature, we are nature. We haven’t conquered nature, we’re not beyond nature, and we can’t reverse the climate change we’ve already inflicted upon our one home: planet Earth.

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