Apparently it’s a thing now.

The sea exfoliates my spirit.

My practical, logical mind understands the illusory nature of that statement. Yet, I feel the levity of my spirit as it rises and the gravity as it falls in response to the reality of a world filled with ups and downs. And in no place am I more in tune with this oscillation than when I am near the push and pull of an ocean shore.

When I was a child, I would spend most every weekday on Surfside Beach. Each morning I would accompany my mother as she cleaned houses and by lunchtime, I’d have my toes in the sand with a snowcone in my hand; the payment for my hard work vacuuming. My favorite activity was to wait for the tide to go out, then walk up and down the beach shaking the fresh red sargassum seaweed into a small orange bucket. After a couple hours, I’d be exploring the menagerie of collected sea creatures before returning the small shrimp, crabs, fish, and seahorses back to the ocean (generally unharmed, but probably scarred for life).

This experience was just one of many that still flood my mind and inform my creative, scholarly, and vocational pursuits to this day. It is not different for author Jonathan White. At a recent science pub in Corvallis, White told the story of when his sixty-five-foot schooner ran aground during an extreme low tide in Kalinin Bay, Alaska in 1999. After almost losing his boat, he decided that the nature of the ocean’s tides demanded his attention. So began his quest to better understand how the celestial bodies exert their force on the ocean, and how that dance has captivated human culture, in their minds and their myths. His book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, published this year, is a culmination of that inquiry.

“The moon may move our hearts today, but her first love was the ocean, stirred billions of years ago. The attraction may have grown stronger or weaker through time, but the affair has never ended. Like any relationship, it has complexities and baggage. The moon calls out to the earth’s oceans in the form of gravity, and the ocean’s call back, their pulsing energy holding the moon close while also pushing it away.” – Tides

Tides cover everything from the largest tides in the Bay of Fundy, to the power of tidal bores on China’s Qiantang River. White’s conversational style makes the book easy to follow through Newton’s equilibrium theory, semidiurnal inequality,  concepts of fluid dynamics, and the nuts and bolts of tide energy as well as the meditation of monks at Mont Saint-Michel, musseling in tidal ice caves with Inuits, and hanging out with surfers at Mavericks. White also discussed how rising sea levels due to climate change have transformed the tide from a celebrated divine experience to a destroyer of native lands.

Kuna Yala village in the San Blas islands.

The Kuna Yala (Guna) are just one example of the present, and future, reality of climate refugees. Off the coast of Panama, several low-lying San Blas coral islands are predicted to disappear within fifty years, and 3 or 4 of them already have. In Tides, White speaks with the Guna about how they consider sea level rise a spiritual problem and believe that the highest tides bring visitors from other dimensions to check on the people. Among much of the older Guna generation, some believe rising sea levels are a punishment for spiritual imbalance. As a result, many of them feel that strengthening their spiritual balance, individually and collectively, will combat the flooding of their islands. Although many Guna also accept the scientific fact that ice is melting, seas are rising, and there is nothing they can do to stop that. Plans are in place to strategically relocate their communities from the San Blas’ to the mainland. But with that, of course, comes many problems, like how to maintain their history, independence, and traditional ways in the shadow of Panamanian politics.

As I study the sea here at OSU—the social, scientific, political, ecological, and philosophical ways in which we interact with it—I find stories like that of the Guna are not rare. Our physical environment is changing; our ethics need to as well. We can not continue forward with the business-as-usual use of fossil fuels that fulfill the needs of the few and destroy the future of too many. The tide comes in and the tide goes out, and each year that tide will come in further and further encroaching on life as we know it. Even if you don’t live on a coastline, this ebb and flow of the sun and the moon touches you. It touches all of us. Unfortunately some, more than others.

“The sun, moon, and earth don’t orbit in perfect circles. At times they’re closer to one another and at times farther away. They speed up and slow down. They wobble and yaw and dip and veer, and each time they do, it translates into a tidal event on earth. There are hundreds of these eccentricities, each calling out to the oceans—some loudly, some faintly, some repeating every four hours and others every twenty thousand years.” – Tides

An image of red sargassum seaweed invading Surfside beach.

The sargassum seaweed brought in by the tides on my childhood beach adventures has apparently become a problem since I left Texas. For the past ten years, the volume of sargassum has increased exponentially and started causing adverse economic and ecological effects in coastal communities. There is no consensus on why it has invaded the beaches, but it seems to be rising ocean temperatures and polluted, high nutrient runoff from the rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. The Brazos River, which meets the ocean right where I grew up, is one of those rivers and is the most polluted watershed in the nation; it received over thirty million pounds of toxic waste according to a 2012 report.

Now I live in the pacific northwest, and I don’t think the ecology here could be more opposite than the one that created so many of my memories growing up. It may be a different coast I’m exploring now, but it’s the same tide I’m waiting on. It’s the same one that rushes every shore on the planet. And when the gravity of life weighs heavy on my spirit, you will find me on the Oregon coast near a tide pool, seeking the levity that only the sea can bring.

“The tide teaches us to live with mystery and complexity. It lives in the body of a mudshrimp, signaling when to swim and when to burrow. It lives in sandpipers, crabs, and whelks. It lives in the spirit of bores, in the prayers of monks. The tide is vibration, music, time.” – Jonathan White, Tides

Jonathan White has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, The Sun, Surfer’s Journal, Orion, and other publications. His first book, Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity, is a collection of interviews exploring our relationship with nature. White is an active marine conservationist, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction, and lives with his wife and son on a small island in Washington State.
Consumer Trixter (Ceramics by Cannupa Hanska Luger, from http://www.cannupahanska.com)

What is environmental art? Is it art that is connected to site or place? Does it come in a particular size, shape, or color? Medium? Craftsmanship? Is it a commentary on our relationship with the nonhuman world? Is it trying to say something about how we treat the Earth? Or each other? Does environmental art even need to reflect contemporary environmentalism?  What does environmentalism even mean?

These questions are important, some unanswerable at this moment, but still worth grappling with if environmental art is to be part of the work changing the fate of our home and the people who live here.

Art assists us as a society to explore tough questions, the in-between spaces where philosophy and science fall short. Art allows us to learn, to facilitate learning, and to better understand the incomprehensibly complex issues facing us as humans who share a finite planet with one another. There is art that reflects not only environmental thinking but also engages a public to have an opinion about it. Art inspires wonder but also action.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, well known for the mirror shields he created, promoted, and delivered to the North Dakota Standing Rock Water Protectors, is just one of many artists tackling environmental and social justice issues. Luger said in a February 2017 presentation at OSU, referring to the terrible realities of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that “the injustice isn’t happening to them, it isn’t going on over there, it is happening right here.” It is happening right now. To us.

We are a collective of humans on Earth, and when one of our communities suffer, we all suffer. Our shared source of clean drinking water is being ravaged. The morals and ethics we so proudly tout as being uniquely human are being dismantled. Our constant need for more, for better, for comfort at the expense of others’ discomfort, and disregard for the limits of our natural resources, haunts our society as the monsters described in our bedtime fables.

“As living beings, we all have myths and tales that describe our lives being abused by monsters. These monsters are out of natural order and heroes rise from their torment to defeat them. Today, we are once again plagued by monsters. It is time to be the hero, each of us must be aware of what we can do in the place that we stand. So that a far future that remembers this era of monsters can sing the songs and dance the stories of our mystic ability to come together and become Monster Slayers.” – Cannupa Hanska

The monsters that exist today aren’t associated with Standing Rock, or the Missouri River alone. As Luger said, “the river I’m most worried about is the one that flows through us all.” It is a river haunted by innumerable monsters: gluttonous extraction, environmental degradation, social injustice, corrupt politics, and a culture of capitalism.

Fortunately the people of Earth are making art and experiencing it too—those who call themselves artists as well as those who don’t—from the fine artists of academia, to the part-time crafters at home. In far off natural spaces, and in late night sketchbook doodles, we are creating objects, words, ideas, and practices that help us face these demons of despair.

Together we question the monsters. Together we reveal the monsters. Together we fight the monsters. Together we win.

www.latimes.com
“Artists, we live on the periphery. But we are the mirrors.” — Cannupa Hanska Luger Protesters hold mirror shields devised by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. (The UnKnown Collective / From Cannupa Hanska Luger)
Artist and activist Cannupa Hanska Luger, a native of North Dakota who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation, gave a public talk titled “They Need Us More Than We Need Them” on February 16th, 2017 at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center. “Luger creates socially conscious work interweaving his identity as an American Indian with global issues. Luger, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian and Norwegian descent, creates unique, ceramic-centric, multidisciplinary artwork that tells provocative stories of complex indigenous identities coming up against 21st century imperatives, including mediation and destruction. Luger’s studio is currently based in New Mexico.”

What comes to mind when you think of the Oregon coast?

Is it cold? Cozy? Dangerous? Majestic?

Michael Bendixen of Oregon Field Guide (OFG) believes that our special sea is “something to be explored and shared.”  The scientists, artists, industry professionals, business owners and other Oregon ocean enthusiasts that gathered at the recently held State of the Coast conference would probably agree with Bendixen.

These different stakeholders from our community came together with a common goal to understand how we can better communicate the coast using art and science. Several speakers, graduate student presentations, and artist displays revealed the beauty and importance of our murky waters.  The rough waters off our coast are teeming with life, drama, mystery, and stories that demand our attention.

As the keynote speaker, videographer and journalist Michael Bendixen addressed how to connect the public with the science that is shaping our understanding of Pacific Northwest beaches as well as the challenges surrounding how to communicate broader topics like ocean acidification and climate change.  His approach bridging art and science in facing these issues can be applied across disciplines and is just one more example of how the arts and humanities are bringing science to the people. Bendixen spoke of how OFG crafts powerful stories that engage audiences and manage to skillfully balance entertainment and excitement with knowledge and scientific understanding—a noble pursuit that can unite us in our efforts to take better care of this planet we inhabit.

The State of the Coast conference’s effort to together scientists and artists was perfectly exemplified by Kyle Asfahl and Amanda
Salov.  Attendees were inspired by Kyle and Amanda’s love story inspired, and even more intrigued by the romantic story they
weave of their shared passion to marry the abstract concepts found in the pursuits of art and science.  Kyle, a PhD candidate in
OSU’s microbiology department, is also an artist who explores the fundamental multicellularity and cooperation found in all levels of life. His art seems to represent his curiosity with what it is like to be a bacterium.  Amanda, an independent artist, spoke to us about how the ocean changed her practice dramatically.  Since being in Oregon she has transitioned from creating objects ‘outside’ of herself to composing structural art that reflects the understanding that she is of nature; nature and science inspired pieces come from ‘within’ her.  Amanda and Kyle’s relationship and shared journey beautifully reflect how compelling the partnership between disciplines, personalities, and perspectives can be in communicating scientific and environmental concepts.

This year’s State of the Coast conference was a tremendous experience and an impressive addition to the continued efforts to link the arts, humanities, and sciences.