Create, Communicate, Celebrate Through Solar Power
The Greenheart of James Dean Conklin
James Dean Conklin is a beautiful human being who cares about the Earth and all of us crazy creatures on it. I have met many activists but few who make each breath consciously count as much as James does. James uses his music, art, film and video -making skills to advance the health and the sanity of life on the planet.
My wife, Julia, and I met James at an outdoor festival along the banks of the Hudson River. His group Solar Punch was not only performing, but also provided the PA amplification for the instruments and microphones at the festival, all of which were solar-powered. Not only that: while they played, James’ wife Elisa Zazzera used one of the band’s solar cookers to make Nepalese food so we could actually taste the difference a little sunlight technology offers.
Over the years, we have had the pleasure of being with James in many musical settings. His gentle manner and good humor instantly put you at ease. James is humble but, if you are paying attention, you become aware that he is not only a talented musician, videographer and artist but is actively making a difference around the world.
At the turn of the century, James was working at MTV as an animation producer/director/ character layout artist for shows like Beavis and Butt Head, The Maxx and Black Scorpion and Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues. It was a fun job (especially in the beginning), but the TV industry’s drive to make programs strictly for profit got stale for James. He felt he was becoming limited creatively and his natural need to find clear challenges that resonated with his humanity caused him to seek a larger purpose outside the box (or the tube) but outside of the country.
He joined Circus Guy, a rock review playing mainly 70’s and 80’s anthems that was touring different Middle Eastern countries. The twist was the group threw in various Arabic pop songs, which created good will and tremendous enthusiasm. James came along as their videographer but soon was grabbing a guitar and singing in Arabic along with the group. Circus Guy also eventually became focused on environmental issues and used their performanes to share ideas and demonstrate green technology.
James described singing in countries that many Americans would consider frightening, or hostile, as places where the locals consistently insisted the band come to join their families for tea and biscuits. James said everywhere he went, (Syria, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt) people were friendly and grateful.
By 2013, James had his own band, Solar Punch for six years, and was embarking on a solar trek across Nepal. During that trip, he became friends with Maarten Olthof. Maarten was a Buddhist monk and co-founder of the Vajra Foundation, a veritable font of benevolent outpouring which provides earthquake relief, builds schools, medical centers and cooks at refugee camps with solar cookers.
The following year, James was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after starting treatment, James remembered his friend Maarten Olthof, who seeing James with his cameras during Solar Punch’s Solar Trek the year before, had suggested they make a documentary about a unique walking pilgrimage that Maarten had experienced in 2003. Maarten had written a book about literally walking through the life path of Buddha, concentrating on the four places the Buddha said his followers could gain insight into his life- namely his birthplace, where he became enlightened under the Bodhi Tree, the place where he first taught, and where he died.
James, instead of staying at home in despair, decided to start what would become a documentary, called Go Without Fear.
In the beginning of the film, you can hear James, out of breath, ascending to a clearing on a Himalayan plateau, as if to say, “I don’t know how I am going to carry on, but here I am.” His wife Elisa, also a filmmaker, accompanied James several times and is a co-producer of the film.
You can see Go Without Fear here.
James returns to Nepal and India, sometimes twice a year, not only to finish up the film but to carry on his environmental quest to clean up a landscape chocked by plastic waste.
His new group, The Greenheart, is an Eco-Folk-Rock band whose mission is to identify creative solutions to climate and environmental challenges with art and music and to share them passionately and vigorously.
One of their videos, Tie the Trash, documents an effort started in 2014 by the principal and students of the Vajra academy, the first green school in Nepal. The goal was to recycle the plastic trash filling the streets and create 27.5 kilometers or 17.3 miles of plastic rope. Originally the idea was to have students and activists hold the rope around the Ring Road circling Kathmandu to make a statement that raised awareness of the need to manage the trash creatively. At the time Katmandu was going through infrastructure changes and there was too much pollution in the air to do it. It is now an on-going project being passed from school to school.
“What will you do with 27.5 kilometers of plastic rope when the project is completed?” I asked James. He said there are many things that can be done. One of them is to use reverse engineering to convert the plastic back into oils, or methane gas, “but better than that is to create stuff.”
By using a T-shirt press as a thermal press, the plastic rope can be made into geometric shapes that can be converted into solar cookers, which are covered with the inside of chip/cookie mylar bags. The mylar is shiny and is perfect for creating the solar surfaces.
James is interested, not just in the science of an environmental issue, or its solution, but in innovation. His friend Deepak Gadhia, a solar innovator, told James the story of him and a group bringing a solar cooker into a tribal village. They explained how the cooker could help them and how to use it. The villagers were excited. Deepak’s group left feeling good about themselves. They came back three to four months later and could not find the cooker. One woman took them behind her hut and showed them that she was using it as a thermal dryer for her clothes. Now, it’s a thing; an innovation that has spread across India. The point James gleaned from this story is that people often understand their needs better than those coming to lend a hand.
To that end, The Greenheart learn local languages, culture and music to be able to allow for greater trust and interaction. Here is a video of them singing a traditional Nepalese song:
In singing this song, not only do The Greenheart bring together several generations but the spontaneous dancing celebration that springs up is truly amazing.
Last year, The Greenheart was invited to a river cleanup in Kathmandu, along the banks f the Bagmati river. There was a temple behind them, with colorful flags. There were monkeys everywhere. They start playing and an army truck rolls up. Fifty soldiers piled out, all in galoshes with bags for collecting trash. The police also showed up, put away their guns and assisted the army in cleaning up the river. And their efforts have paid off. This particular section of the river is clean and flowing!
This inspired James. This year The Greenheart will be part of a multi-year effort called: We Are River, ( In Nepali: Hami Nadi Ho), which will connect Nepal and New York as sister cities to help clean up and raise awareness for rivers in a mindfully creative way. “A very clear example of our universal interconnectedness- Water is Life.” James told me.
The Greenheart will personally visit five rivers this summer in Nepal in a big trekking bus filled with art supplies and sound gear. “Our team includes musicians, photographers, journalists, illustrators and educators,” James said, “All of our work is informed by this mantra: create, communicate, celebrate.”
They will help relay the stories of the rivers. The stories will be told in layers. A scientific layer, which will include school groups testing the waters, collecting environmental data and sharing with their counterparts in New York. There will also be a cultural layer. In 2020 in New York, that will include stories of Henry Hudson’s journeys and the Native Americans’ experiences before Henry’s “discovery” of the Hudson. Nepal has a rich spiritual Buddhist/Hindu cultural history that intertwines with its rivers.
Post cancer, James is continuing to heal. He moves and talks a little slower; more mindfully, more intentionally. He told me that he consciously plans to keep making a difference with every breath he is fortunate enough to have.
Even with the news that places like Mount Everest are having to close entry points because they are overrun with trash, people like James, inspiring Green Hearts everywhere he goes, make me feel there is hope for our home-rock yet.
www.JamesDeanConklin.solutions — (as James describes it, this site is an artography exhibit.)
Originally published at www.streamoflightblog.com on February 28, 2019.