An Orange County Almanac – Collection of Essays

Language is one of our greatest art forms. Language is not only a tool of communication and persuasion but it is also a cognitive tool – saying things or writing about them helps us understand.

This collection of essays uses language to its full force to examine issues related to our environment. Many of the essays are literary in style; others more logical.

From the Preface: Environmentalism Refreshed

We need new ways of thinking about issues that affect how we interact with our environment. The authors whose work is collected here make some powerful calls for change. Some make them emotionally and metaphorically; others make them rationally and logically; but all make them passionately.

Comments about the book

“These essays are fresh, unconstrained and thought-provoking. They bring new, sometimes quirky perspectives to the environmental debate.” David Pilling. Asia Editor, Financial Times

“There’s no single “right” answer to the challenges that we face in the world today. The assembly of citizens gathered in this volume takes strength from its dynamic polyvocality: its attention to more perspectives – and therefore, its access to more possible approaches – than any conventional environmental text could offer.” Randy Malamud, Professor and Chair of English, Georgia State University

Download a free eBook in pdf format here          Kindle Edition can be accessed here


The World is Made of Local Lives – Catherine Nelson

Catherine Nelson has created some remarkable images.

Her digital images made from combinations of hundreds of photographs create a globe on which are superimposed constructed images of local landscapes and habitats.

The statement “Think Global. Act Local” has become such a cliché that it has lost all meaning. Yet Nelson’s images bring it back to life. She describes her work as “a contemporary pictorial mythology that subtly reminds the viewer of a profound truth: that it is in the flourishing variety of the local that the fate of the world resides.”

We hear so much environmental rhetoric that is focused on ‘changing the world’ or ‘saving the planet’. It all sounds grand but ends up being little more than hot air. Constructive action depends much more on the success of local initiatives than it does on endless global conferences where little agreement about anything can be achieved – and when agreed, little is implemented.

Nelson’s work reminds us that the globe is made up of gardens, parks, forests, wilderness areas, rivers and mountains that are all local to some community. It is in all our local areas that the miracles of nature on which we all depend are happening. We can all contribute by making our local area – even our back garden – better without waiting for someone else to set up that next large protected area or nature reserve somewhere else.

Nelson’s work reminds us that it is the local that, brick by brick, builds the world we live in and we should create our local environment in the image of the type of world we’d like to live in.

Nature Through Kids’ Eyes – Der Spiegel Competition

The German newspaper Der Spiegel recently ran a competition asking kids to submit photographs related to nature and the environment. The winning photographs are interesting for many reasons – as is the framing of the competition itself.

The full gallery can be seen online. For this short commentary I have picked three images which, to me, relate to the most important issue there is in the environmental debate – co-existence. How do we learn to co-exist comfortably with the non-human part of the planet? This is a skill we have not yet mastered. Yet the images I am showing here speak to that theme.

The image above shows children happily playing in the river with cattle. Such an image has, unfortunately, become unimaginable in many Western countries where even domestic animals are treated with suspicion, kids are encouraged not to pet dogs in the street and any live creature – be it an insect or anything else – it something that children are encouraged to view with disgust. This does not make for accepting the non-human as part of our social fabric.

This image for me shows today’s reality – that ‘nature’ and our industrialized lives are now inextricably intertwined. How do we make that work? In my opinion, not by trying to create some kind of separate ‘nature’ to be protected but by finding ways to make it all work better together.

The image below shows bees coming out of a hive in a honey farm. These are ‘domesticated’ bees being farmed for their honey. Yet it’s strange how we don’t think of bees as domesticated in the same way as a dog or a cat or a cow. Again, to me this image is just another example of our dependence on natural processes for our living.

One interesting point is the framing of this competition. The kids were given two themes: “I Love Nature” and “I Fear Pollution.” To me this illustrates another weakness with the environmentalist’s mindset. Why not simply give themes like “Nature” and “Pollution” and let the kids give us their own interpretation, their own thinking, their own feelings. No. The environmentalist has to tell us all exactly what to think. The dogma is “I love Nature” and we must all fall in with that.

We need the courage to break out of this dogmatic approach and start allowing people to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions. We might learn something and get more people on our side.

Squirrel Suicide by Maurizio Cattelan


In this blog I usually review an artist’s body of work rather than a single work. However, Maurizio Cattelan‘s squirrel installation shown above struck me as worth reviewing as a single work on its own.

The installation shown above is from 1996. It shows a squirrel slumped dead over a kitchen table in what is a bare and basic kitchen. A gun lies at the squirrel’s feet. What are we to make of this installation?

This kind of surreal tableau has a disturbing emotional impact; enough to keep me looking at it for a while. It also sends me on all sorts of thought processes. First it is just sad to see a dead animal – even sadder to think that he might have been specifically killed in order to create this artwork. Is being sacrificed for art the highest calling or the lowest one?

Then we have the incongruity of the animal in a humanized setting – and a very bare, stark, almost de-humanized, human setting. Does this speak to how we have domesticated everything around us – even supposedly ‘wild’ animals? Does it speak to how most animals these days can only live in what are essentially human-created – or at least human-managed – environments rather than ‘natural’ ones. Does the spartan austerity of this kitchen reflect the degraded, depressing environments that we have left for animals?

If we weren’t killing them all ourselves, would animals in a human constructed world actually prefer to kill themselves?

It is probably that Cattelan never intended any of these messages – but that’s neither here nor there. The title of the piece Bidibidobidiboo – the Fairy Godmother’s spell to transform Cinderella, does not give much of a clue to the artist’s intent. Others have questioned whether it’s a comment on social mobility. Who knows? We take from artworks that which we want. They are simply experiences that allow us to feel and think.

Cattelan has constructed other works featuring animals (below). Who knows what those could mean?


Giuseppe Penone – Nature and Culture

Giuseppe Penone is a renowned Italian Artist who works in the Arte Povera tradition. He has long been interested in exploring the inter-relationship between nature and culture. A tree within a tree (above) shows us a tree form carved within a real tree trunk leading us to question what is natural and what is artifact in this sculpture. Is this a tree or is it a representation of a tree – or is it both? Where are the boundaries?

This bronze tree sculpture (left) is sited in Rotterdam and consists of a bronze tree trunk encircled by five living trees. What is the relationship between the bronze and the ‘real trees’?

In this sculpture, the bronze tree is fixed at a height of more than one metre above ground. The ends of the bronze roots pass through the living trees leaving a mark in the bark as the trees grow. Over time, the relationship between nature – the real trees – and culture – the bronze sculpture – becomes inseparable. And are the trees real trees anyway? Or are they also artifacts – cultivated trees placed in a park by humans and having very little to do with ‘nature’?

This sculpture brings back ideas found in Penone’s first work – a steel hand holding a tree trunk and asking us to think through the relationship – or the many relationships – between the human and the natural. (Video interview with Penone and commentary on his work).

Penone’s most recent work Spazio di Luce (Space of Light) is on exhibit at the Whitechapel gallery in London and will remain on exhibit until next year. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian describes the work like this:

“In his installation at the Whitechapel, Giuseppe Penone shows a huge bronze tree, hollowed out and exhibited in sections that rest on their branches like strange insects on spindly legs. You can look through the tree as if it were a telescope. Inside it is covered with gold whose rugged texture reproduces that of tree bark. Penone made the tree by casting a real tree: in the process of lost wax casting, the tree was chopped up, destroyed, to leave its trace in art.

This implicit violence gives the sculpture a melancholy undertow. The result is eerie and magnificent, a gnarled, complex, strange object. Life’s ramifications are suggested by proliferating boughs.

Penone stops the rush hour for a moment and reveals the enormous power of the life around us, the magnificence of biology. Art can do this – it can show the natural beauty that is constantly endangered by ruthless human action. Penone’s haunting tree may not save the world. But it’s a start.”

The artist describes the work in this video.

When he started his work in the 1960s, the relationship between art and culture had more or less been forgotten. Today, much of the art that we see is activist art trying to tell us how to think and trying to change our behaviours through guilt about the damage we are doing to our environment. It is refreshing to come back to art like Penone’s. Art that skillfully shows us the magnificence of nature while also recognizing that it is now inextricably linked with our cultures and irreversibly altered by them. Penone does not embark on shrill activism but draws us into feeling our relationship with nature as it is rather than as some would like it to be.



Fantastical Scenes – The Digital Art of Erik Johansson

All our civilization is built on the back of nature and natural processes.

This is the thought that came to mind when I saw the above image by photographer and digital artist Erik Johansson.  Johansson describes himself rather modestly: “I’m a photographer and retouch artist from Sweden. I use photography as a way of collecting material to realize the ideas in my mind.” Yet the personal work that he produces is visually arresting and can be thought provoking.

The arrival of digital imaging and the opportunities for digital manipulation have opened up the opportunity for photographers and to break out of the cage of realistic reproduction of the visible, allowing them to create digital art that both uses and captures the imagination. To an extent, such images created out of photographs have a greater impact than do painted images because they can strongly juxtapose the seemingly real with the imagined.

Johansson is a master at this genre. It does not seem that he has an activist or political agenda with his work, yet it is thought provoking. The images above and below cannot help but be interpreted as depicting the ever-growing obliteration of natural spaces by human development.

Our ever-growing influence on everything around us also leads us to try to ‘manage’ everything we come in contact with. In the image below, a couple is humourously giving the tree a helping hand in shedding its Autumn leaves. It reminds me of the laughable label of ‘natural spaces’ given to national parks and other so called ‘wilderness areas’ – spaces highly managed by ecologists, conservationists and others – including the tourist industry. In the words of Kareiva et al, these spaces are “no less human constructions than Disneyland” are no different from a nature-based Disneyland – and valuable and wonderful as such. But by no stretch of the imagination can they be described as ‘natural’ in the sense of not manufactured by humans.

The continuing transformation from the rural to the industrial to the urban is shown in the powerfully dynamic image below. Besides showing this inevitable progression, this image also reminds us that there is no going back. We can only move forward. The question is how.

And that is, so often, how we end up. With more questions than answers.

Man and Landscape – The Photography of Jean-Paul Bourdier

What is our Human relationship with the Earth and with the landscape?

The visually stunning and varied work of Jean-Paul Bourdier leads us to wonder about this question. His images of body-painted models in stark landscapes are striking and generate many different emotions. First of all there is no doubt that the images are creative and beautiful. Some, like the one above, have a power that causes a degree of discomfort. We are not sure whether, as humans, we dominate the earth or are insignificantly small.

Do we blend as an integral part of the earth or do we stand out like something that does not fit into the harmony of the landscape? The images above and below suggest a little bit of both.

Other artists previously reviewed in this blog raise similar issues about our place in the world. The amazing images of Arno Rafael Minkkinnen leave us with the impression that Man is an intruder upon the earth. Some of Boudrier’s images, like the one below, leave us with much the same feeling. Somehow we don’t seem to belong here and our imprints are everywhere.

The work of Dean Fidelman, on the other hand, suggests a much more harmonious relationship with the earth – even if we are dwarfed by the majesty of some natural spaces. Some of Boudrier’s work (below) also suggests that we may fit better within our own world.

Most of Bourdier’s work is dramatic rather than uplifiting. The images capture us with their strong visual impact. mainly they make us uncomfortable and, if we’re that way inclined, they cause us to reflect. One can look at these images for long periods and go through many emotional swings. The occasional image (below) even suggests a cheerful and enjoyable relationship with the world around us. This mood is, however, unusual in this portfolio of images.

I would strongly encourage you to take time to go through all the images in this extensive body of work. Overall, I am left with the feeling that we have choices. We can elect how we interact with the earth – as intruders, as owners, as a harmonious part of what surrounds us and in many other ways. Our footprint can be heavy or light. We can enjoy or use and destroy. As humans we have evolved to such an extent that all these options are open to us. Which will we choose going forward I wonder? Our actions are merely a reflection of who we are.

The Surreal Sculptures of Myeongbeom Kim

Surreal imagery has some kind of irresistible attraction for most of us.

Myeongbeom Kim’s sculptures are surreal. They combine elements that don’t normally belong together and, in doing so, often grabs our attention. Having trees as immense antlers make the deer above look majestic. It takes us a couple of seconds to work out that this is not ‘real’, though somehow we would like it to be.

It is not clear whether Kim has an environmental agenda but many of his images can be interpreted in this way – largely because of the juxtaposition of the natural with the man-made. A sunflower in a light bulb raises many questions. Some basic (is this a real sunflower) others more conceptual: what is the relationship between nature, the sun, energy and life? Kim has a number of these light bulb sculptures, some thought-provoking, others visually intriguing.

A chair that is an integral part of a tree reminds me that all that we do, all we produce, all we consume ultimately comes from some natural source – as does the energy that we consume to produce it. Maybe one of the biggest tragedies of modern life is that it has broken our basic understanding of this intimate link between natural resources and every single aspect of our modern lives.

Have we imprisoned nature in our modern man-made world as this giant sculpture suggests? Will our imprisonment allow nature still to flourish and provide us with the essentials of life or will we stifle it and cause it to wither away?

But perhaps my favourite sculpture is the simple one shown below – a power car plugged into the wall. To me it shows the reality of modern life – we are happy to make token efforts  to help the environment – plugging into electric power – but we are unwilling to give up our luxuries – we still demand our power car. This is the reality today and is likely to remain so. Environmentalists need to accept the reality and work with it rather than live in some dream world where this can be changed – except out of necessity when stuff eventually runs out.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin

Magical realism is brought to the cinema in this recently released, haunting and captivating movie that I watched earlier today.

Much of the impact of the film is purely sensory. Cinematography that creates beauty out of misery; a 6 year old actress who is as captivating as the most accomplished Hollywood diva; enchanting  music that envelops the whole performance.

But questions are raised.

As this dirt poor, Bayou community living outside the levee is hit by a hurricane, homes and livestock destroyed, imagined images of global change flood the screen. Melting ice-caps, the re-incarnation of primeval creatures – as far as this small community is concerned, a whole universal transformation seems to be happening – a transformation they are determined to resist in their little patch of land barely above water level and affectionately known as The Bathtub.

But, as with the environmental debate in general, we are left with more questions than answers. Once again we don’t know which side to take. As the twin tragedies of abject poverty and environmental disaster grind on this community, what should we feel?

Should we admire their  resistance and determination to remain at home in the face of Government imposed mandatory evacuation? Or is that just sheer stupidity and irresponsibility?

Should we rejoice in the humanity that this community reveals or should we be consumed with indignation that such living conditions still exist in the wealthiest country in the world?

And, when it comes to the fantastical imagery that links the local disaster to broader environmental degradation elsewhere, should we understand that literally or as the fevered imagination of a child’s brain?

Is it tenacity and strength of character or is it foolishness that convinces the protagonists that they can resist the forces of nature and maintain their life in the bathtub?

Should we admire a society that cares nothing for social advancement or consumerism or should we be shocked that in the US of A there remain such isolated, almost feral, communities?

This movie is not worth missing. It feeds both the mind and the spirit. And it leaves us in a state of almost suspended animation where we are overtaken by emotions as well as thoughts but we’re not quite sure what they are or what they should be.

It leaves us confused – about life, about our society, about the environment, about our own feelings. And that’s as it should be – because confused is indeed what we all are today.

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” – noble sentiments expressed by our heroine Hush Puppy. But it is clear that we have no idea what ‘just right’ might be.

The Meaning of Nature Photography

Endless Flow by Peter Lik

I am in the final stages of touring round the Western part of the United States. One thing has been very noticeable during my trip – the large number of galleries selling nature photography and seemingly doing well at it.

Nature photography has not changed in its nature for decades. People have got better at it and there is a noticeable difference in quality and visual impact between different images on offer. Some photographers like Peter Lik have created a series of striking images that are sold through his own galleries in far and wide – from Aspen to Las Vegas to Miami and beyond.

"Passing Through" by Rodney Lough Jr

Other photographers like Rodney Lough Jr and Thomas D Mangelsen have similar businesses.  Galleries such as those of Lik and Lough present large scale images printed on reflective surfaces and shown with lighting that makes the experience of looking at these images truly amazing.

And nature photography also serves as a way of getting people out and about hiking and photographing. Outfits such as Visionary Wild organize exciting expeditions with instruction by some of the world’s leading nature photographers.

"Druids' Frosty Morning - Grey Wolves by Thomas D Mangelsen

Does nature photography have an impact on our conservation sensibility? This question remains largely unanswered. There is probably little doubt that those who do nature photography have a love for nature. Many purchase these images and clearly want to live with images of nature in their homes. Whether that enhances their desire to protect nature or whether it reduces nature to a purchasable product that can be tamed and put in one’s living room we will probably never know.

However, there is little doubt that, in the past, nature photography was a powerful tool to bring the beauty of nature to the attention of politicians and urban dwellers. Photographers like Ansel Adams were instrumental in working for the creation of national parks. Such activist photography remains alive and well today through organizations like the International League of Conservation Photographers.

"Pristine" by Peter Lik