16 TITANS: Reflections on Presenting at the Boulder Climate Symposium

A Fusion of Climate Science and Storytelling

 

Although I’m an artist, I’ve been an amateur student of environmental disruption since 1985.

Witness the two Virginia tulip poplars thriving in my New Hampshire back yard for a decade now, where I planted them as tiny saplings in hopes they’d survive our harsh winters. They’re now eight feet tall, growing in a place they shouldn’t be. When they mature, long after I’m gone, they’ll be seventy feet, taller than the red oaks and maples living there now. Thirty years ago, the first winter would have killed those little saplings, but the winters are no longer so harsh.

Why did I plant them? Call it worry. Call it knowing that in another thirty years my back yard may be too hot a world for the sugar maples I love so much. Call it knowing that if there’s a die-off of maples and oaks, at least these tulip trees from a southern biome will survive to help build a new forest for New Hampshire. Our state is 80% woods.

Curious why the seasons where I live have been shoved back a month, I set about studying climate dynamics and Gaia Theory in earnest about eight years ago. My early background studying science at Duke helped a lot. Biology. Statistics. Geology. Calculus. The sorts of intellectual tools that allow science to make sense, even to a non-scientist like me. Gaia Theory is a bundle of sciences that looks at earth as a vast, self-regulating organism. It combines every science, from chemistry and physics to botany, biology and geology. And all the disciplines in between. It’s not a religion.

Since for thirty years climatologists have been warning of what’s upon us now–– despite members of Congress holding snowballs in Washington, D.C. and asking, “What global warming? Hell, it just snowed.”––the message hasn’t gotten through to the American people. With hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in our recent past, however, it may be sinking in. Our local Caribbean paradise has been destroyed this fall. And there’s no guarantee that next year, more superstorms won’t come and scour off the last untouched islands. Not to mention more of the Gulf Coast.

Snowballs have never been the point in all this anyway. It’s not that it doesn’t still get cold. It’s simply the changing patterns of cold. And heat. And the same old things humans have known for millennia. Storms. Droughts. Thaws. Downpours. Heat waves. Forests. Deserts. Beaches. No, it’s the trend lines that the people who pay attention to climate are most worried about.

Ever boiled an egg? On medium heat, thin streams of bubbles begin to drift upward from the bottom past the egg. Keep the heat on and it will take a while, but eventually your egg will cook.

That consistent stream of bubbles reminds me of the Holocene Epoch, the last ten thousand years of climate history. A time during which a consistent rate of boil on earth provided monsoons and seasons, snowpacks and standard sea levels for our coastal cities. A time when rain fell and ancient glaciers melted, providing reliable river flows down to the coasts. A period that allowed human populations to grow from a few hundred thousand hunter/gatherers wandering around following game to the billions of us living in mega-cities today. Most of our greatest cities sit at the edge of the sea.

Now, put a lid on the pot and watch closely. Without the steam escaping the open top, the same amount of incoming heat is trapped and the bubbles become larger and less uniform. Your egg cooks much more quickly, too.

Of course, the metaphor is this: the pot is the earth and the lid is greenhouse gases. The bigger bubbles? More extreme weather events, since that’s all weather really is. Bubbles. Just big ones, drifting around under our thin skin of atmosphere, which, even though it seems so immense, is a closed system. A pot with a lid we ourselves have put on it.

With all this in my mind I went to Boulder this past mid-September with an idea I developed over the summer along with David Takahashi, a producer out there, and a committee of climate scientists who helped jury the concept. Called 16 TITANS, it’s a grassroots effort to turn climate scientists and activists into good storytellers. Good enough to explain to congressmen about snowballs in winter. Not by using graphs and data, but instead by turning that hard-to-grasp truth into stories anybody can understand.

A young woman scientist from NCAR in Boulder (National Center for Atmospheric Research) in one of my workshops described her work. She studies cloud cover and mentioned how water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas in and of itself. It traps heat close to earth’s surface, too. The problem is not just CO2 and methane. “How do I tell a story about that?” she asked.

As I was thinking, she mentioned an interesting theory about the planet Venus. Planetary scientists theorize that at some point in solar system history, Venus entrapped so much heat that its water seas boiled off, releasing even more vapor and leaving Venus in a permanent state of super-heating with a surface temperature of 864 degrees, hot enough to melt lead. This could potentially happen to earth, she worried, if we don’t get a handle on the heat feedback loop. The clouds she studied would play an increasing part in such an awful scenario.

“Begin your story on ancient Venus,” I said. “Place your listeners’ POV (point of view) at a beach, only the sea before you is boiling. The air is noxious and the heat is unbearable, and you’re a human. In the few seconds you have before you lose consciousness, the pain is horrific and you can smell ammonia everywhere. This is the end result you worry about. It’s scary and sad. So once you’ve described this atmospheric end game, then move to earth today, and tell your listeners that no planet is exempt from change like this. Not if you know physics and chemistry and how matter behaves in the presence of energy. It all depends upon heat feedback loops. Point to the trends. That gives you an opening to describe your research more fully.”

Other Coloradans in my workshop were worried about fracking, the first extractive industry ever to dot people’s back yards. They are wildly and desperately against it, mostly due to the fouling of groundwater. They presented another case in point.

“Do you know how amazingly creative a technology fracking is?” I asked. “Do you know everything about the process?” I’ve researched it quite a bit for books, and frankly marvel at the engineering involved. That’s wholly different from wanting to keep it out of my back yard, or my neighbor’s back yard (since that means it’s essentially under my back yard, too), poisoning my well water.

Even if you hate its effects, you can’t escape the elegance of the technology. And if you’re trying to keep it out of your own town, don’t demonize the people who invented and survive on it (wouldn’t it be nice, geopolitically, to no longer need oil from the Saudis?), but instead praise their ingenuity and be honest about it. That might do far more to convince them to sit down and compromise here and there than to scream in some intersectional crowd, holding up an obscene placard. In other words, honor thine enemy. Better than getting everybody’s backs up in a fury of competing economic visions. At least among Americans. Despite our warts, we’re still the greatest republic on earth.

And so the workshops went. People told stories and came to the conclusion that “climate deniers” have just been better storytellers than we Cassandras. Climate activists see the future and fear the long term. Deniers want to survive in the short term and live in luxury. Both groups see the short term. It’s in the news every day. But to imagine the long one, well, that takes a solidly skilled imagination.

Somewhere between those two perspectives, in a democracy, there has to be common ground.

More on the 16 TITANS project to come.

 

 

 

 

WHEN MOTHER NATURE DECLARES WAR: Houston and Hurricane Harvey

It’s simple. As the planet’s air warms it holds more water vapor. That means that when it rains, it pours. For three decades, climate scientists have tried to get their message out and much of the world has ignored them. They predicted storms just like Harvey, and here it is, along with Sandy in New York. But giving storms human names diminishes what they are. In truth, they’re weather monsters. They should be named Godzilla, or Hurricane Frankenstein.

Science can be hard to understand, but stories aren’t. If you want to help those climate scientists convince the public and learn to tell science-based stories about climate disruption yourself, come to Boulder, Colorado this September.

Living Beyond Hope and Fear: Warrior Principle, Climate Action, Boulder’s climate symposium, takes place Sept. 15-17 at Shambhala Center. This year there’s a new emphasis: climate storytelling. Join us.

Science Storytellers in Boulder

How do we reach the many Americans who, despite abundant facts everywhere, deny that man-made climate disruption is real and increasingly dangerous to humankind and earth’s creatures? Some believe it is God’s plan and there’s nothing to be done, nor should anything be done. Others are paid to call the science into question by business interests, despite the fact that the CIA and American military have been sounding the alarm for years. Our current president either believes that it’s not real or that adapting to the tipping-point nightmares in our near future can be done with sea walls and immigration walls.

The national conversation about climate we’re having today may well be the most important one we Americans have this decade, and to help with that, I’ll be journeying to Boulder, Colorado to join others this coming mid-September to lend storytelling skills to climate scientists and activists.

Composed of measurements and numbers as much of science is, it can be lost in the noise of entertainments we Americans so love. Climate stories, however, written and spoken by growing numbers of informed citizens, have a chance to break through to an inattentive public.

Living Beyond Hope and Fear: Warrior Principle, Climate Action Symposium takes place Sept. 15-17 2017 at the Shambhala Center in Boulder.

Saturday night I’ll be performing Gaia: Fall of the Titans, the Greek creation myth, followed up with a StoryScience presentation.

Saturday morning and afternoon I’ll be offering a special DOOR TO IMAGINATION: HOW TO AWAKEN YOUR INNER STORYTELLER workshop for climate scientists and activists.

Join us for this important conversation. You can register and purchase tickets for the Symposium here.

Please join us!

 

Odds Bodkin

 

iPhone Heat Alert from Odds Bodkin/For Folks Under the Heat Dome

Just outside in New Hampshire. In the 70’s. Left iPhone on the picnic table in the direct sun. Worked a while, picked up the phone and the screen read “Emergency” in red with a thermometer’s red line three quarters of the way up. Never saw this before. Took it inside and stuck in the fridge. It survived and is playing “On Point” on NPR at the moment. Host Tom Ashbrook is reporting on today’s heat dome in the Southwest and climate change in general.

Maybe everybody in the Southwest has learned this long ago, but if you haven’t, keep your iPhone in your pocket. Unless, of course, even your pocket gets too hot.

https://www.wbur.org/

 

Kids in the Treetops

I was about eighty feet in the sky. Up here, the tulip tree’s two giant trunks, which split off from each other about twelve feet from the ground from a single bole, were only a couple of inches thick, still growing. Around me were big, mitten-shaped leaves and bursting tulips, orange and green. Not really tulips as you might know them, but flowers anyway, the amazing blooms of liriodendron tulipifera, a term I didn’t learn until much later. At the moment I was nine years old, having climbed my favorite tree with Andy McKemie, a kid my age. This was Virginia in 1962.

 
We both knew not to climb any higher. This was the perfect place to rock the two treetops, flexible as they were this high up. The tulip tree towered above all others in the woods by the creek. We could see the old house on the hilltop in its abandoned, dilapidated glory. The meadows, too. At least today, the feral horses that lived in the untended barn and grazed the grass around the collapsed chicken coops weren’t chasing us off. In the old house we’d found blue ribbons from horse races long ago. Somebody had left the property in a sad hurry. I’ve never looked into who the family was.

 
My parents had no idea I’d learned to do this. All we kids had. There were no limbs close to the ground around the trunk in the clearing. To get up there, we tossed a rope tied around a thick stick over the lowest bough, sat on it and hauled ourselves up. From there, once we’d pulled up the rope so no kids from Jefferson Manor could follow us, it was an easy climb along the dusty, evenly distributed limbs to the top of the tulip tree.

 
Andy’s perch on the twin crown was about ten feet from mine. “You ready?” I probably said, since we both knew what we were about to do. He probably said, “Sure,” and we both pulled back, bending our treetops away from each other, then, like kids do on swings, we rocked forward, working our swings to eventually pass each other, getting those green twin treetops to bend back and forth.

 
By the time we were done with this game, the exhilaration was always worth the climb. I guess if someone had had a drone with a camera, hovering above us, it would have captured two little boys, laughing and swinging two treetops past each other in deep arcs, better than a ride at the carnival. Wind. Light. Trust in the tree and in our hands.

 
The reason I bring up this true story is that here in Bradford, New Hampshire, far north of their normal range, I’ve planted two tulip trees my sister Lindsay gave me as tiny saplings four years ago in my back yard. She lives in Maryland. They’re budding again, one of them now a head taller than me.

 
Hopefully, long after I’m gone, they’ll be eighty feet tall, too, helping to replace the forest of red and white oaks, pines and sugar maples that currently surround my home. The poplars have survived thus far. The climate’s changing. Remember the chestnuts. Things come and go.

The Helpless Sky

In the last line of a story I’ll be telling at the Climate Symposium in Boulder next fall, Gaia, the original Earth Mother, reflects on how uncomfortable anger makes her feel. Bad things happen when she senses injustice and she’s been implacably rough on her husband Ouranos and grandson Zeus during the story. What, she asks herself after she goes into hiding now that the Titans have fallen, could ever make her that angry again?

 
I guess the time has come. Our atmosphere is definitely angry nowadays. Basically, it’s drier dries, wetter wets, windier winds and hotter hots. Fire seasons continue to lengthen. Whether rain or snow, precipitation is heavier, hence floods in new places. When they do begin to spin, hurricanes and tornadoes are more destructive than before. Insurers are desperate for forecasts. For thousands of years, farmers and herders in Africa, South America and the Middle East counted on rainy seasons to avoid famines. Slowly drying out now, those lands are forcing migrants to flee what are essentially climate wars. We haven’t even mentioned our own great population centers, built at the sea’s edge.

 
Ever cooked spaghetti in a pot? You turn on the heat and wait for the boil. Long ago I learned that if I cover it with a lid, it boils twice as fast. Instead of letting heat escape out the top, I trap it in a closed system. Smart, right? It might be hard to imagine, but Earth’s atmospheric pot had no lid prior to the Industrial Revolution. Over the last 150 years, though, we’ve installed an invisible one made of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels. It’s not anyone’s voluntary doing. We only figured this out a few decades ago. Up until then, all that exhaust was progress. As vast as it is, we’re slowly closing off Earth’s heat release system, high above our heads. Not completely yet, but we’re getting there, busily tossing tiny carbon footprints by the billions up into a helpless sky.

 
There has to be a way to figure this out before the thing boils, with us in it.

 
I’ll also be conducting a workshop designed to turn climate-aware people, including scientists, into The Cadre of Science Storytellers.

Wednesday Nov. 9th in Boulder, CO: StoryEarth Debut Performance!

Have you ever heard of a performance that combines live storytelling of earth myths with multimedia and provocative new philosophy? Philosophy that tackles the challenge scientists face in telling the true story of climate change? If you haven’t, we’re not surprised, but nothing like StoryEarth has been done before and we want you there.

With Gaia theorist, scientist and naturalist Martin Ogle, I’ll be in Boulder, CO this coming Wednesday night to swap center stage back and forth, moving between ancient story and modern science. Why? To engage the audience (and a further ongoing conversation on Facebook here) with the question: “Do our ancient beliefs about our and earth’s origins serve us any longer?” Yes, it’s controversial, but then again, how humans envision our place in Nature determines how we treat it. Considering global weather, one could say that the Earth is annoyed with us these days. Everyone sees it. Mass migrations have begun as people flee drying regions.  Sea levels are rising. Storms are dumping unprecedented amounts of rain on places that used to be safe.

Serious as the topic is, the show is also going to be highly entertaining. I’ll be performing The Elf of Springtime on Celtic harp and Fall of the Titans, an epic piece with giant voices and a full score on 12-string guitar. And the event will be emceed by Kendra Krueger, nano-materials scientist and Colorado public radio personality.

Even if you’re not in Colorado, if you have friends in Boulder, Denver or nearby places, please share this blog post with them. If they go, I’ll bet they get back to you, excited at what took place.

StoryEarth and is sponsored by the Parent Engagement Network and Entrepreneurial Earth. Tickets @ $15 general admission and $12 for students are available at: https://www.parentengagementnetwork.org/odds-bodkin

Storytelling Meets Science: StoryEarth with Martin Ogle

“Do you wish to be King of the Cosmos, my son?” she asks, angry at her husband. “Oh, mother, you know I do,” answers Cronus. “Then take this sickle,” Gaia replies, handing it over, “and wound your father so he can no longer be king.”

 
These two are Titans, the early half-giant, half-elemental builders of the world, at least according the Greek poet Hesiod, who set down his beliefs circa 700 B.C. In the Theogony’s fantastical world, Gaia is the original Creatrix, the Earth itself, who in her underground womb of Tartarus gestates the mountains, sea and sky. It’s the sky she marries, birthing 12 perfect Titans with her husband Ouranus. But when she starts giving birth to monsters, he grows fearful and locks them away. While her Titan children bring day and night, rivers and streams, even prophecy into the world, Gaia grows furious with her husband for demanding only perfect offspring. The Golden Age soon ends as betrayals haunt this first of first families and a baby named Zeus is hidden away, like Moses in the reeds.

 
Theogony means “birth of the gods” and it’s the Greek gods of Mt. Olympus we’re talking about. Those perennial favorites at the movies. Hera. Poseidon. Hades. Demeter. And not least of all, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who turns out to be the eldest of them all, born in a horrifying way. They’re all pre-scientific human projections, of course, who existed in the Greco-Roman imagination for a thousand years or so, but their thoughts and actions are entertaining nonetheless. We still fancy their mythic escapades to this day. For gods who are supposed to be immortals, they’re as human and fallible as the people who dreamt them up.

 
Jealousy. Ambition. Love. Betrayal. Imprisonment. Sleep potions. Monsters. Creation. Castration. Swallowed children. Rebellion. Just of few of the themes in this epic story I’ll be offering as part of StoryEarth with Naturalist Martin Ogle (pictured) on November 9th, 2016 at 7:00 pm at the University of Colorado’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex in Boulder, Colorado.

 
Come listen to this first Game of Thrones-style story. It’s adult and very fun, told with character voices and an original score on 12-string guitar. Then Martin will contrast the myth with modern-day science’s discoveries of how Earth came to be, a little more accurately, as far as we know at the moment. Serious attention will be paid to climate change and whether our stories about the Earth need a science update.

 
The show is called StoryEarth and is sponsored by the Parent Engagement Network and Entrepreneurial Earth. Tickets are available at: https://www.parentengagementnetwork.org/odds-bodkin

StoryEarth: Naturalist Martin Ogle and Odds Bodkin Live

When our kids ask about life’s origins, what do we tell them? What do we tell ourselves?

 

Few peoples or tribes on Earth have lived without an origin story. The Algonquin Native Americans believed that North America was created on the back of a giant turtle in the sea with some magic cloud soil. Many people in our own country believe that God created the Earth in six days, about 6,400 years ago, and that men walked with dinosaurs. Meanwhile the ancient Greek poet Hesiod was of the opinion that the first being was a Titan named Gaia who abruptly appeared and with her 12 Titan children set about creating the stars, the moon, day and night and all the other features of Nature.

 
Since ancient times, humankind has come a long way. With science and technology we’ve evolved immense new eyes and ears such as telescopes and seismographs. No longer do we think Thor in Asgard is hurling thunderbolts during thunderstorms because we understand electricity and use it every day. When a hurricane slams us we don’t think a sea god is angry; no, we can see the tropical depression swirling toward our coasts from our satellites. When volcanic pressures build toward an eruption, micro-quakes swarm across our seismographs to warn us of the danger. We can even listen with radio telescopes to the throbbings of deep space. Still, despite all this science, if we forget the mysteries and needs of the human spirit––and that means a story folks can understand that squares our faith with what we’re seeing around us––we may neglect what needs to be done to sustain life on Earth. We’ve been doing that for quite some time. Maybe all we need to do is update our old stories with some solid science. Sacred Stories 2.0.

 
Up until now, we’ve been looking up at the mysterium tremendum––the “tremendous mystery” in which we live––but for the first time ever, we humans can look down upon our planet. You can now go online and see all the winds circulating around the Earth, or the ones that were doing so about an hour ago, since it takes that long to update the Earth Wind Map software. It’s pretty close to real time. You can see the coastal storms, the typhoons, the giant circulations of wind around Antarctica, how breezy it is in your neighborhood, all of them updated from sensors floating at sea and the work of land-based weather watchers. Tell me I’m crazy but looking at this makes me feel religious. It gives me a sense of my planet in a way the ancients could not perceive. NASA has done the same beautiful thing with ocean currents, the drivers of climate. Whether you think humans are causing global warming or not, at least here before your eyes is the vast convection mechanism that is, for whatever reasons, heating up like a pot of boiling water.

 
On November 9th, 2016 at 7:00 pm I’ll be onstage at the University of Colorado’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex in Boulder with a dear friend, Martin Ogle. Using some storytelling on my part and some science on his, we’re going to explore whether we humans need to update our basic story about the mysterium tremendum. And how we might do that.

 
The show is called StoryEarth and info and tickets are available here. We hope you’ll join us for a fun show and a fascinating discussion, you included!

 

StoryEarth is sponsored by PEN, the Parent Education Network and Entrepreneurial Earth.

 

Odds Bodkin