Water is Life
by Krisanne Baker, Eco-Artist
Two basic concepts have shaped my creative work and continue to inspire me. Most people I know grew up with The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and with Jacques Cousteau. Putting myself in another person’s shoes shaped my sense of empathy for everything — not only for people, my cat, dog and the inhabitants of my home aquarium. As a child, even though the horseshoe crabs that often got stranded at the high tide mark gave me the willies, I would pick them up by the tail and tiptoe them back into the water. My nickname was ‘Fish’ because I spent so much time in the water — not just in, but underwater — seeing, feeling, and observing life.
As a child growing up in a coastal community, Jacques Cousteau’s work opened my eyes to the mysterious depths and life contained within the ocean. Back in the 60s, watching his television ocean dive show was a big highlight of my week (it even rivaled Walt Disney night!) and gave me the courage to learn to swim with my eyes open, to witness firsthand the mysteries of the underwater world. I was drawn to the unknown, the science, the possibilities to discover; and the distortions and fluidity of movement shaped my way of seeing as a painter and artist, my way of thinking about the world.
With the rise of sea levels, sea temperatures and ocean acidity, I cannot help but think — what about the world of ocean creatures? What would it be like to be a fish, a sea urchin, coral, or a whale in these changing times? Would swimming in an acidified ocean feel like swimming in a vinegar solution? Because we can’t actually see climate change, many people (mostly Americans not wanting to give up having what we want , when we want it) are in denial of what is happening. Every thing we purchase and throw away, each trip we take requiring fuel, the foods we eat that are not local or seasonal — all of these changes that were seen for decades as ‘progress’ without seeing the consequences to the environment and our life sustaining oceans, we have been and still are wreaking upon our Earth’s biosphere.
The biosphere depends upon the cycles of water and breathable air that flow continuously around and through the Earth’s crust. That balance no longer exists, thrown off by population increase, consuming to our hearts delight, and doing so with abandon. We are currently in this planet’s Six Extinction — an age of the Anthropocene: the changes wrought upon life on Earth by human activity. An eye-opening book I recommend is Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I also recommend the 2016 Documentary of the Year nominee Racing Extinction by longtime National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos.
Upon returning from college teaching at the University of Maine, Farmington to my local coastal high school, I decided the best way to reach people would be through a combination of art plus science equaling a type of learning that matters to this community, that develops a sense of empathy and caring — not for ourselves as humans removed from the environment, but as humans directly connected to the environment with eyes, minds and hearts wide open. If we cannot care for the environment, then we cannot care for ourselves. What goes around, comes around. What we do upstream, or inland, or anywhere for that matter, matters downstream. The sea connects all things.
With caring as my premise, and education and art as my two professions, I created an afterschool Environmental Art and Science Club from students who were most touched by the Environmental Art & Science curriculum I’d created for my entry-level art classes. We learned about species on the endangered list; what stressors caused imbalances to happen; habitats; food sources as part of the ocean food pyramid; migration routes for food or mating; illegal or unsustainable fishing practices; and how all the carbon we produce by simply being a human being in the 21st century affects the symbiotic relationships of the ocean. In this, we looked not only at the big picture, but at the little things that matter — and make life possible for us: microscopic diatoms, specifically the phytoplankton that produce about 50% of the Earth’s breathable oxygen. At the end of the semester, I asked students to write about a meaningful experience they had had in their art class. 90% of them responded that watching Racing Extinction and making art about endangered sea creatures opened their eyes to this very important problem and how it affects all lives on the planet.
I grew up knowing about the importance of trees and plants on this planet and their relationship to the air we breathe. These earliest forms of plant life actually created the planet’s biosphere. They have been a food source since Earth’s oceans formed billions of years ago. Not only do they support the air that we breathe, they are a major food source in the ocean’s food pyramid. Imagine an inverted pyramid with phytoplankton in the base — it supports the entirety of that food system. Take away those phytoplankton or stress them into only half of their original numbers and you will find that life above the water line has less breathable oxygen, and the food chain below the surface has been radically altered.
How does climate change affect phytoplankton? The ocean is a carbon sink, meaning the carbon that we put into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean. We’re talking about that symbiotic biosphere again. But we know that saying, “too much of a good thing . . .” and too much carbon absorbed by the ocean affects pH, making the ocean more acidic. Water must be a certain pH for consumption. The same goes with the ocean and the creatures that live in it. And the same for phytoplankton: too much acid affects their reproduction, lessens numbers, lessens breathable oxygen for us, lessens food for fish, whales, and all manner of various ocean creatures. Who wants to drink or swim in vinegar?
What’s in your water?
Ten years ago, during my graduate work toward a Masters of Fine Arts in Ecological Art, I began to comb the Internet for water quality reports with analyses that revealed the chemical contents of municipal drinking waters. This research — from cross-referencing the water quality reports from large cities, small cities and towns, to private wells that had been contaminated by nearby mining or fracking processes — revealed that there were 33 chemicals prevalent and common to these drinking water sources. Water facilities do the best they can to eliminate or mitigate things in the drinking water that we are locally knowledgeable about here in Maine: all residents are familiar with radon and arsenic being present in many drinking waters. Today however, analyses of umbilical cords of newborns show over 300 chemicals present in their newborn bodies. Knowing this makes us question why we need all these chemicals to manufacture food, clothing, daily goods, electronics, etc. when we are poisoning ourselves by consuming these goods? The leftover chemicals from manufacturing runoff into streams, creeks, gutters, rivers, and then the ocean. Environmental cancers, illnesses, and learning disabilities abound, and no wonder. Knowing this, living through this, we must learn to lessen our grip on consumerism, and be knowledgeable of the processes with which products are made. It embodies many practices of reading labels for chemical awareness; reading articles on safe agricultural processes; reading articles on sustainable fisheries — making sure we are not purchasing endangered species or purchasing inexpensive fish from slave boats. To care for this planet requires all of us to educate ourselves through the science that has been available to us for decades.
Once we know there is a problem, we can then make changes in our lives. My high school students are being encouraged to lessen their carbon footprint: to learn ways that use less energy and put less carbon into the atmosphere — simple things like turning off unnecessary lights to eating less meat; reading labels for education and health; being aware of politics and the workings of the world in relation to the environment. We are learning to use art to create visuals based upon what we are learning so we can spread the importance of caring for this planet. We are recycling at home, and in our schools and towns. We try to purchase goods using less plastic and we do beach and riverside cleanups to keep plastics out of water sources.
I’ve introduced my students to one of my heroines, Sylvia Earle, also known as “her deepness.” Earle is the world’s first woman oceanographer and skin diver. Through her work with Mission Blue, she is helping to create Hope Spots around the world based upon her 2007 TED Prize Wish.
My students and I are currently investigating a proposal to designate the entire Gulf of Maine, an area historically rich in sea life, as a Hope Spot. This protects the awarded ocean area from illegal fishing, bottom trawling and dragging (which destroys marine habitat faster than it can ever possibly regenerate) while helping to maintain traditional, sustainable, and historic methods of fishing and lobstering.
To many, climate change is ‘the unknown.’ Accepting responsibility for what we have unwittingly done is scary. Such a tangled mess we’ve created. Few are willing to give up their creature comforts. However, we must start somewhere. But where? Can an individual person make a difference? Yes. Start with one small thing. More will follow. Can a movement be created? Yes, it already has begun and is growing. My dream is for that knowledge, caring and action to become exponential.
Not only are our bodies mostly made of water, but each drop of water on the planet is in constant motion — being consumed by all creatures and revitalized by the environment for the uptake of the next consumer. For quite some time, humans have assumed that great expanses of ocean and rivers were capable of renewing and refreshing all that we could dump into them. As our planet’s population has risen exponentially, we have pushed the waters passed their capacity, as well as our land-based environments. The ocean breathes — it feeds the clouds that rain upon us, plants, soils, aquifers, springs, down the river and into the ocean again. We are made of water. Every bit of life on this planet is connected through the water biosphere.
About Krisanne Baker
“Water is life.” and “What goes around, comes around” form the bases for Krisanne Baker’s approach to her work with water. Baker calls herself ‘watercentric,’ creating work to specifically convey care and action for, rather than exploitation of, the ocean. Whether swimming in it or observing drops of water under a microscope, her work focuses upon water quality, water availability, and water rights.
Baker is an art educator at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Maine. She is formerly a Professor of Art at University of Maine, Farmington, and is a multimedia artist with a BFA in Painting from Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Visual/Ecological Arts. She was a recent Monhegan Island Artist Residency recipient; a visiting eco-art speaker at Princeton University, and is currently a visiting eco-artist educator and solo exhibitor at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. She is connected to an international ecological art dialog, and exhibits her eco-art nationally and internationally. Her most recent exhibitions were at the Flomenhaft Gallery in New York City at ‘Earth SOS’, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratories ‘Art Meets Science’ summer/fall exhibition.
KRISANNE’S ENVIRONMENTAL READING LIST
The 6th Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
The World is Blue, Sylvia A Earle
Ocean Country, Liz Cunningham
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein
The Once and Future Ocean, Peter Neill
A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson
Learn more about Krisanne Baker by visiting www.krisannebaker.com.