Transforming Oceans: WOW 2016
Written for Tofino Time Newspaper in honour of World Oceans Week, June 1-8, 2016
The truth of our times involves many losses; it’s important to recognize this reality, whilst understanding that our unfolding path is not all doom and gloom. Stop and look around you, spin 360 degrees, dance a little..or a lot! If you’re reading this in Tofino there are trees filling your periphery and the ocean is a walk away. These elements are everything, from the air we breathe to our creative inspiration. While this is something to celebrate, we may take it for granted, and forget that the beauty we are held by is a result of Nuu-chah-nulth Nations who have been cultivating biodiversity here for thousands of years, and in recent decades, allies who have stood in solidarity with these Nations to protect the environment from resource extraction. We are not passively observing a pristine wilderness, no, we are in fact active co-creators of the planet. This piece is a testament to that sweet truth: we can use our agency to become engaged in positively transforming the planet. In honour of World Oceans Week, which starts today, June 1st, and International Surfing Day on June 20th, the following words highlight individuals who are cultivating awareness and regenerating the livelihood of the ocean, and are having fun in the process!
Featured on TED Talks in 2015, Jason Decaires Taylor is an artist who creates living underwater sculptures, that double as a form of marine conservation. His work generates environmental awareness and the wise lesson that humans can be a positive contributor to our ever-evolving planet. He crafts sculptures out of earth friendly durable concrete, which comes to life in the ocean as microorganisms colonize the hard porous surfaces. This becomes the foundation of a coral reef, creating new habitats in areas that were previously void of life. In his TED talk, Taylor explains, “the really humbling thing is that as soon as we submerge the sculptures, they aren’t ours anymore, because as soon as we sink them, the sculptures they belong to the sea. As new reefs form, a new world literally starts to evolve”. I called Taylor over in Spain and asked how dealing with the ecological challenges of our time expands our creativity. He explained that the sense of urgency motivates him, “If there wasn’t such necessity, I wouldn’t produce so much […] We are reaching a critical stage. At art college, I felt I was just creating more stuff, then I realized I could use it for conservation and environmental issues. I felt good creating again.” Take his piece, The Anthropocene, a human figure curled up on the hood of the car asleep against the windshield. A diversity of flora and fauna live on the outside of the sculpture, while the inside has become a habitat for crustaceans like lobsters and sea urchins. These sculptures cultivate new life, promote healthy oceans, and work to divert human attention away from existing stressed reefs. No wonder people, and the creatures of the sea, are stoked on Taylor’s underwater artwork that is transformed by into new coral reef habitats for everyone to enjoy.
Our daily lives are filled with the ability to network with people all over the globe, which strengthens our pursuits as we stand together across continents. Our global network truly speaks to a quote used in a book on ocean conservation and neuroscience, Blue Mind, “we are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep”. While working on Surfrider’s Straws Suck Campaign this spring, I learned online about local and international youth in Bali who are behind Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a nonprofit organization determined to eliminate the use, sale and production of plastic bags in Bali by 2018. The two founders and sisters, Isabel and Melati Wijsen, are some audacious little characters, driven to inspire millions of youth to act on their passions, and spread the action of eliminating plastic bags in their home countries. I asked the sisters how creativity has manifested in their campaign, they told me, “We as the youth, as young change-makers, like to keep things fun and exciting all the time! We are always coming up with new ways to do things, we have done flash mobs, street campaigning, we make fun videos where we get everyone involved”. They also spoke about the Plastik Tidak Fantastik Festival they recently organized, held at the Green School in Bali. The festival held workshops to teach kids how to make rubber jewellery, turn recycled goods into crafts, and threw in some healthy competition with trash sorting challenges. The culmination of these workshops was the Trash Fashion Show, the height of excitement at the festival, which showed off all of the pieces made entirely out of trash by the kids. This festival attracted a ton of attention, raised funds for the campaign, and helped gain the support of the Bali government. They explained to me the importance of thinking outside of the box, and for the younger readers, they left this advice: “Kids can do things. We do NOT have to wait until we are older to make a difference, the time for us to act is now. Whatever it is that you are passionate about, go for it, make it happen. Start with one thing. Us kids may only be 25% of the world’s populations, but we are 100% of the future.”
Embodying the adage that “there is no such thing as trash, just things in the wrong place” is Tofino’s local flotsam artist Pete Clarkson, who makes art from the marine debris he collects off the west coast of Vancouver Island. He recently completed “Swept Away”, a debris installation at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, which is a memorial for the Japan Tohoku Tsunami of 2011. To discuss ocean regeneration and creativity we went to his ‘Washed Up Workshop’ studio space, a cornucopia of visitors from near and far, much like us who live here. Pete told me the story of his arrival to the Pacific Rim, and how working for the parks he was astounded by the amount of trash washed up on what are considered pristine beaches and shorelines. At first he found this depressing, a global issue that would be impossible to solve. Then, his perspective took a 180 degree as he realized what was one day garbage, another day was a resource to be used artistically and to spark dialogue. Clarkson explained to me the key of this: the ocean transforms. Clarkson articulated the details of this to me under the shade of his wide brimmed hat, “when I find an object along the shore that’s been out in the ocean, it feels transformed to me already. I prefer to use it being ‘cleansed’, or ‘freed’ from its previous connotation. If I find a fishing float, I do not see it first as that, I see it as a raw material with no previous bounds, and can be used in any way shape or form”. The flotsam art Clarkson constructs brings awareness to the issues facing the ocean, while contributing to the global effort to clean up the ocean, beaches and shorelines. His artwork reaches people’s humanity as they observe a piece and then understand its composition is a result of the pollution we have tainted the sea with. To make something beautiful out of what is largely considered a burden speaks to the enduring spirit of humankind, one of many lessons Clarkson teaches us. On the ocean being a wild teacher, Clarkson shared “I never would have imagined I would learn so much, and be taken on such a journey through debris on the beach. There’s a lifetime of lessons, and a lifetime of art to be made. It’s constantly refreshing for me, even the tiniest object has a story and something to teach me.”
Now to bring this story full circle, I want to draw your attention to a beautiful examples of ocean regeneration and the arts which continues today in Tofino, which is the Nuu-chah-nulth art of making dugout cedar canoes. Tsimka Martin’s business T’ashii Paddle School takes visitors out on dugout cedar canoe tours around the Tofino inlet, which teaches them about the environment, stewardship, as well the worldview of “heshook-ish tsawalk” – everything is one. Dugout canoes exemplify this worldview: cedar trees grow to gargantuan sizes from being fertilized by nitrogen rich salmon carcusses that are brought into the forest by a diversity of west coast fauna.These trees are then harvested and shaped into canoes that return to the ocean to unobtrusively navigate the waters. This is the embodiment of how the land and water systems are weaved together, which continues to inspire Indigenous cultural arts worldwide. Tsimka explains how revitalization of her Nation’s culture and environmental regeneration are one in the same, which depends on reverence for the environment. This speaks to the instructions given by environmental icon Rachel Carson many decades ago, “the more we live to see the wonders of the planet, the less taste we have for destruction”. This statement has rippled through time and continues to resonate as strongly as it did in the 1960’s. We can live to see the wonders of the planet, as many people come here to do. Moreover, we can engage whatever forms our talents, passions, skills, and creativity take to conserve these wonders, and as Indigenous cultures of the coast teach us, to cultivate these wonders. As the people above show, the fierce obstacles that define our time provoke us to grow our creativity, transform ourselves, transform the oceans, improve our local surroundings and global whole. Now ask yourself, what do you love doing?
Thanks to Isabel and Melati Wijsen, Jason Decaires Taylor, Pete Clarkson, and Tsimka Martin, and the millions of others who continue to inspire and renew the planet through creative endeavours !