JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float, a “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey) novel about family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine. Karen Ristuben is an award-winning artist and educator whose work is environmental advocacy at its core.
JoeAnn and Karen, who both live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, recently talked about their work and their passion for environmental awareness.
Q, from KAREN RISTUBEN: JoeAnn, when did you become aware of the problem of marine plastics, and how did you get inspired to write about it?
A: JOEANN HART: Living in Gloucester, where I have lived for over thirty years, you can’t not be aware that the beaches are lousy with plastic washed up from the sea. During the summer, beach crews arrive at dawn to groom the sand, taking away the plastic debris with the seaweed, so tourists are spared the unsightly mess. For those of us who are here year-round, we watch marine plastics wash up, and we watch them wash back out, twice a day with the tides. So when I started writing Float, I realized that if I was going to write about life in a coastal town, plastics were going to play a part, because they’re all around us in increasingly menacing ways. Float begins when the protagonist, Duncan, rescues a seagull choking on a plastic six-pack holder that the bird tried to eat, mistaking it for food. Plastics are not just an issue of unsightly litter on the shoreline, they’re a killer.
Q, from JOEANN: Karen, how long have you been focused on plastics and the ocean? What was the moment when you said to yourself, I want to follow this thread of ocean pollution in my art and my life?
A: KAREN: In 2010 I was in graduate school and, in the midst of a tough critique, one of my very wise professors said, “If indeed we are interested in nature, we need to seriously consider what that means today. The illusion is that we have access to unspoiled, unpolluted ocean. But our relationship with nature is so tenuous. When we romanticize nature, we re-inscribe the illusion that everything is fine, that nature is a contemplative space, a nurturing space. But we can’t undermine the urgency of the moment. So be careful, he said. Ask what the community needs. Ask: What is at risk? What is at stake? What is urgent?”
This was a watershed moment for me, as I’d been using the ocean as an aesthetic subject rather than considering what it needed from me. When I started picking plastic off the beach and researching the complex, global issue of marine plastic pollution I realized that I could try to do something about it.
Q, from KAREN: How did you go about researching the plastics issue for Float, and were you surprised by anything you learned?
A: JOEANN: Once I began to explore the issue of marine plastics in books and articles, online and off, I was stunned by the enormity of the problem. Not just the sheer amount of plastics in the oceans, estimated at billions of tons annually, but the toxicity of it. There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. It never goes anywhere; it just continues to break down into smaller bits, eventually to the size of plankton. The fish eat the plastic and incorporate the toxic chemicals into their flesh, including endocrine disrupters. Then we eat the fish. Or we feed fishmeal to our livestock. Plastics are so new—the soda bottle was only invented in 1977— that it is only in the past few years that the scientific evidence has emerged about their danger to human health, including infertility and a host of other problems, even obesity.
Q, from JOEANN: Tell me about your art before you became interested in environmental themes. For example, what was your medium and subject matter?
A: KAREN: I worked in glass for a long time, combining it with other materials, like rusted metal, into sculptural forms. Then I began to look at the properties of glass—reflectivity and transparency—and thought about those properties coexisting and interchanging as the light source changes. And I realized that water does the same thing, so with photography and video I studied the refractions and reflections generated when water and glass meet. Living on the ocean, I had a constant visual source for wave patterns and shifting light.
The cover of Float came from that body of work. I have a collection of car windows, and I would take them out into the watery places of our environment here on Cape Ann—vernal pools, ice patches, ponds, the beach—and photograph how they reflected, distorted, and inverted the surrounding landscape. Multiple windows would produce multiple dimensions of sky, water, whatever. And sometimes a breeze would move the water surface so the photograph would catch that one moment of a manmade object obstructing a wave or a ripple.
Q, from KAREN: The phrase “God Help Us” is forever stuck in my brain now that I’ve read Float. Do you hope for the book to inspire change and if so, how?
A: JOEANN: There are all different ways to inspire change. I have been to your program, “Just, One Word …,” where you share what you discovered firsthand on a research vessel in the Pacific Gyre. You make it visual and personal. You tell your story, and people connect and are able to better understand the problem. I tell a story, too, in Float, only mine comes from the imagination in fictional form. Having said that, in fiction, it is death to proselytize. All a writer can do is tell a good story, bringing in environmental challenges, and let the characters wrestle with the issues. It would be great if readers were then inspired to change their behavior and use less plastic. It would be even better if they lobbied for funding to invent a truly biodegradable plastic. Recycling is good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We can try to use less plastic, but in the modern world, it is almost impossible to live without it. The computer I’m writing on is mostly plastic. New cars have 300 pounds of plastic in them. We need safe alternatives to what we use now. When I realized that, invention became the moving force in Float (think plastic made out of jellyfish). Now we just need smart science to make it come true.
Q, from JOEANN: I know you’ve developed a presentation called “Just, One Word …” to bring attention to the Pacific Gyre, where you travelled to see the mess we’ve made of the oceans. Where do you bring “Just, One Word …,” and what’s been the reception?
A: KAREN: I’ve presented “Just, One Word …” to a few thousand people over the last two years and yes, many of the images and information came from my voyage across the North Pacific Gyre with Algalita Marine/5 Gyres scientists in 2011. The presentation covers the issue of marine plastic pollution through the lenses of industry, science, politics, and economics. I’ve presented it in colleges, high schools, middle schools, art venues, community centers, and marine science conferences all over the country. The reception has been incredibly positive, I think, in part because it presents the issues clearly, in lay terms, and based on an accessible narrative. Also, its multimedia components of video, photography, sound, music, charts, and diagrams are presented as a performance/lecture rather than a straight didactic lecture.
Q, from KAREN: Can you talk about the role of humor and irony in your writing? It’s a great window into the gritty subjects you tackle!
A: JOEANN: While characters are wrestling with the dangers of marine plastics, readers must be entertained and totally involved if they are going to keep on reading. Humor is one way of doing this. It helps us deal with our own absurdity. Laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves, whether individually or as a species. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.
Q, from JOEANN: What do you see in the future, in terms of how your art will evolve, and what are you working on now?
A: KAREN: I believe that art is a representation of our human response to the world, so I expect that my art will continue to evolve as I respond to events affecting our natural world. I’m currently working on the Synergy Project, where eight artists are linked with eight marine scientists from MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. We are making work that will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science from February to June 2013.
I’ve collaborated with Sophie Chu, a marine chemist studying how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting the ability of pteropods—shell-bearing plankton—to survive. One-third of the excessive carbon dioxide we dump into our atmosphere—coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, cars, air conditioners—is absorbed by the ocean. This causes a chemical reaction resulting in lower pH, which means that the ocean is becoming more acidic and causing shellfish to corrode.
I’ve acidified 350 white eggshells and will show them in a large sculptural installation with a video component. The work demonstrates the effects of ocean acidification of calcium carbonate structures (eggs and shellfish). And there are 350 to signify the 350 parts per million in atmospheric carbon that most scientists agree we need to strive for so as not to face a major marine extinction. We are now at 390 ppm and rising.
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).