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A Tree of Life Amid Climate Chaos

Rae Abileah Sep 12

"The coastline of Manhattan,” said one participant, reading the handwritten phrase off a green ribbon.

“We are with you!” said the entire group in unison. They were gathered around a tree on a Utah ranch earlier this summer.

The speaker, Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, tied the ribbon around her wrist. “I am with you,” whispered Nagle to the colleague concerned with the vulnerability of Manhattan’s coastline. Another participant stepped up.

“The future of my children’s children,” he read aloud, and tied that ribbon to his wrist.

“Clean air and water,” read another.

“The park I play soccer in,” said another.

“We are with you!” said everyone.

And so it went.

This ribbon exchange was an attempt to name and witness what each person loved in the world that climate chaos could take away, or is already taking away. By tying each other’s ribbons around their wrists, the participants made a proverbial treaty, vowing to support each other to beat back climate chaos, so that their hopes, not their fears, would be fulfilled. It was the start of what would become the Climate Ribbon project. 

The Climate Ribbon

The Climate Ribbon aspires to be “an AIDS Quilt for the climate justice movement,” says Andrew Boyd, a longtime artist-activist and one of the project’s organizers. He’s on the edge of his seat, a couch at Mayday Space, the People’s Climate March’s artist convergence space in Bushwick. 

“It’s a question, why up till now has there been so little public action on climate change?” asks Gan Golan, one of the project’s co-founders and a lead organizer of the arts hub at Mayday. “It turns out, it may not be from a lack of awareness, but in some ways, because of it.”

“Grief. Loss. Fear,” chimes in Boyd. “Massive species die-off. Neighborhoods washed away. Our children’s children’s future at grave risk. Harvests ruined. Livelihoods destroyed. These are some of the things we stand to lose — and in many places are already losing — to climate chaos. It can be overwhelming.”

“When we try to absorb the full consequences of what is now happening — and the enormity of what is yet to come — we can easily become paralyzed. When we experience these feelings alone, the issue feels too big, the costs too difficult to grapple with,” adds Golan. “Instead of being spurred to action, we often turn away.”

“But,” says Boyd, “when we create a safe container to go through these feelings collectively, together with others, something different happens. Instead of holding the feelings in, we let them out. Instead of isolation, we can find solidarity. Instead of powerlessness, we find empowerment. Instead of resignation, we pave a way toward action.”

“In short, it’s about moving us from the me to the we. Sometimes art and ritual can do that in ways that conventional organizing and protest don’t do as powerfully,” says Golan. 

From this central insight the Climate Ribbon was born.

Rising from 11th Avenue

On September 21, a massive tree will rise up from the middle of Manhattan’s industrial 11th Avenue, its branches entwined with hand-dyed fabric stretching out above the streets. Imagine thousands of people gathering around the tree’s colossal roots as they come to the end of the People’s Climate March. They each unwrap a handwritten ribbon they’ve carried with them across Manhattan and tie it to radial lines emanating from the sculpture, forming long multicolored roots that stretch out in every direction.

As the theme of the march tells us: It takes roots to weather the storm.

One by one, marchers tie their ribbons to the tree, then search through the thousands of others, each inscribed with a message, and the ritual of loss and recommitment begins.

This massive “tree of life” is being built by Brooklyn-based artist Swoon and her cadre of artist-engineers. It’s the same tree — just re-worked for the outdoors and public ritual — that stood at the center of Swoon’s celebrated show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Submerged Motherlands,” which flooded the museum with beautiful wreckage, lifelike forms and painted characters inspired by the artist’s own experience of Hurricane Sandy and beyond.

The tied-on ribbons will become the tree’s roots and leaves, an apt symbol of how we are bound up with the Earth; how we are both the root cause of climate chaos and together have the power to change it; how we are the ancestors and the future generations; and how, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said so eloquently, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.” Together, these collective commitments will weave a giant tapestry among all of us for a healthy and sustainable planet.

According to Betsy Richards, an advisor to the project since its birth-moment and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the ribbons will “compose a kind of ‘people’s treaty,’ inspired in part by Northeastern Native American quahog and whelk shell wampum belts that signify the mutual exchange of trust that takes place when commitments are made between peoples.” 

This treaty-making doesn’t end on 11th Avenue. Golan and Boyd hope to inspire activists in Lima and Paris, the sites of the next major U.N. summits on climate change, to organize Climate Ribbon and Tree of Life projects in their cities. They’re also assembling an instruction kit so the ritual could easily become a neighborhood activity around a living tree or an exercise taken up by religious congregations, union halls, classrooms and beyond. One of the early enthusiasts, the Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz, a “community catalyst” at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, believes that rituals like the Climate Ribbon “have a power, beyond words, to connect us through our grieving into new ways of being and relating to one another and the world.” 

Rae Abileah is a social change strategist and a co-organizer of the Climate Ribbon project. Find out how to submit your own climate ribbon and join the ritual at theclimateribbon.org.


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