A Day with EcoArt Matters: Nature Deficit Disorder
by Andree Singer Thompson
As some of you know, in 2005 I founded and still team teach with Sharon Siskin, a class at Oakland’s Laney College called EcoArt Matters. In this 6 hour class, we have noted guest speakers in the morning: scientists, activists, environmental artists, poets, community organizers; artists who teach at San Quentin, specialize in water issues, run local garden and food programs, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and many more. We show TED talks, films, and videos and make site visits to the Bioneers Conference, Recology Artist in Residence Program, the Rosie the Riveter Museum to hear 98 year- old Betty Reid Soskin, PLACE (People Linking Art Community and Environment), and collaborate with artists at Creative Growth, among others. We learn about organic food and share a homemade, potluck, locavore, organic, vegetarian, communal lunch, researching healthy local food sources and sharing recipes. We do hands on creative projects in response to research about specific environmental issues. We teach research-based artmaking. At the end of the semester, we create major artworks for a public exhibition and performance. By the end of each semester, we have grown to know and care about each other as individuals, creating a communal identity unique to this particular group of humans. Every class has its own communal personality.
This semester we have one of the most inspiring, gifted and amazing group of students, eager to learn and create works that inspire others to learn about and help create positive solutions to these urgent environmental and social justice issues. Even though we have only met together 4 times for 6 hours each day, It seems that this group of individuals has a unique quality of caring deeply for each other and our need as a species to survive, to create hope in the face of a growing communal despair about unprecedented mass species extinction, planetary degradation, and the possibility of the end of human life. They are enthusiastic to see and learn more from those hopeful speakers we have shown and heard, and to help create that hope to share. We are all excited to see what happens next.
One of the issues I am personally concerned about is the lack of understanding of our human connection to and dependence on nature. Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book about the need of children to be in nature, called Last Child in the Woods. I believe that as more people move into densely urban communities, we are losing our understanding and appreciation of our dependency on nature…our connection to dirt, to the earth, to our need for healthy food, clean drinkable water and fresh air, our connection to other animals and plants and our own animal nature…as well as the psychological and health benefits of being in the sun, walking in the woods, hearing animal and bird sounds, smelling the fresh aromas of flowers and green growth.
I live in the city of Berkeley, but I have a large garden where I grow fresh greens and I raise live chickens. Several times, visitors have asked the urban question: “I see you have chickens who lay eggs, but where are the roosters?” Once I asked the audience at a lecture I was giving, how many knew how chickens lay eggs without roosters. Half the audience did not know. And when I taught as an Artist in Schools, in Richmond, CA, at an elementary school, we brought a cow and farmer to the playground to show the second graders how a cow is milked. As they watched, some of them said, “That’s not where MY milk comes from! It comes in a clean bottle from the grocery store. That’s NASTY!” This is “Nature Deficit Disorder.”
One of the most important connections to nature we have lost in our urban lives, is our place in the universe, which becomes clear when looking at a starry sky in the country, away from city lights. It becomes apparent why indigenous cultures learned about the world, where to build their villages, where to find food, learn how to care about each other, from looking at the cosmos, reading the stars. When you experience the AWE and wonder of that spacious universe, you know how little you really are.
So one of the first assignments we give the students is to spend time alone in nature, without phones, friends, even pets. To pay attention to the sounds, aromas, textures felt, creatures that live there, patterns in natural forms, learn to be still. Then we ask them to make a creative work in any media that is inspired and informed by this experience.
Before looking at or listening to their artworks, we showed a short TED Talk and a short video about two brilliant and inspiring artist/scientist/philosophers, community organizers. Both are worth looking at and sharing with your friends to help spread their inspiring work. We often suggest to our students to have a potluck dinner with friends, show the new TED Talk, film, or videos they have seen and have a discussion.
The first is a ten-minute TED Talk given by Nalini Nadkarni, an Indian-Ukainian-Jewish American woman scientist, ecologist, environmentalist activist, professor who collaborates with artists and has pioneered the study of rain forest canopy, and has initiated public outreach programs with creative thinkers and incarcerated people with wit and humor. https://www.ted.com/talks/nalini_nadkarni .
The second is a short very moving video: Serotiny: The Story of Lead to Life, documenting a community-engaged creative project of Bronte Velez and Kyle Lemle, in reaction to gun violence, by melting guns down to create unique artistic shovels that are used for planting fruit trees in ceremony with community members whose loved ones were lost to gun violence, creating new communities based on democracy and communal sharing of life, loss and grief.
After our communal lunch, the rest of the day was spent sharing the students’ work and continuing the thoughtful dynamic dialog among these 21 unique creative people, ranging in age from 20 to 70, including those from 4 different countries, different heritages, and backgrounds. I can hardly wait for the next class!!
PS. If any of you have the interest and find the time to watch the two short visuals, let us know your thoughts, and please consider join us for our Spring 2020, EcoArt Matters class, at Laney College, in Oakland, CA, https://www.facebook.com/EcoArtMatters.
- Andree Singer Thompson
WEAD Board Member 2019