by Rae Abileah
“The coastline of Manhattan,” said one participant, reading hand-written words off a green ribbon.
“We are with you!” said the entire group in unison gathered around a tree on a Utah ranch earlier this summer.
The woman, 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,” went 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 of them loved in the world that Climate Chaos could take away, or is already taking away. By tying each other’s ribbons around their wrists, they made a proverbial treaty with each other, vowing to support each other to beat back Climate Chaos, so that their hopes, not their fears, would come true. It was the start of what would become The Climate Ribbon project…
The Roots of Inaction and Action
The Climate Ribbon aspires to be “an AIDS Quilt for the climate justice movement,” says Andrew Boyd, a long-time artist-activist, and one of the project organizers. He’s on the edge of his seat, a couch at MayDay, the spacious, make-shift artist convergence space for the People’s Climate March 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 co-founders, and who, as a lead organizer of the arts hub for the People’s Climate March, is practically living out of MayDay in the lead up to the march. “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 towards 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.
Tree of Life: Embodying a Movement
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 its colossal roots, as they come to the end of the People’s Climate March. They each unwrap a hand-written 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. Indeed it does.
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 re-commitment 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, bio-morphic forms and painted characters inspired by the artist’s own experience in 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. It begins. 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 a Climate Ribbon and Tree of Life in their cities. They’re also assembling a little kit so the ritual can 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.“
Let’s hope he’s right, because that’s exactly what the world needs.
This article first appeared in the Indypendent‘s special issue for the People’s Climate March.
How you can participate in the Climate Ribbon:
Add your own ribbon to the Tree.
Support this grassroots arts project by making a donation (and getting cool stuff in return, like a laser-cut leaf from Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands exhibit or a Beautiful Trouble book edited by Other 98% cofounder Andrew Boyd).
Join us in NYC.
Organize a Climate Ribbon ritual in your own city following our simple ritual guide.
Who’s part of it? The project’s Advisory Circle includes indigenous leaders, clergy, and representatives of myriad sectors of the Climate Justice movement, as well as a growing list of partner orgs, including AVAAZ, 350.org, Movement Generation, Rainforest Action Network, Rebuild the Dream, The Other 98%, CODEPINK, The Opportunity Agenda… and you!