Even as she watched the smoke from the Pipeline Fire from her studio window this summer, the artist and assistant art professor Debra Edgerton thought of water. What will happen with the monsoons, she thought in June as she watched helicopters ferry water from a reservoir near her home to fight the blaze.
Over the next two years, Edgerton will explore the intertwining of fire and water and issues of resilience. She will follow scientists and land managers to Fossil Creek in central Arizona to explore the effects of the Backbone Fire of 2021 on freshwater ecosystems. Edgerton plans to compare what she learns at Fossil Creek to the research she is conducting into the intentional burning of the African-American district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 and its cascading aftermath.
Edgerton is one of five artists, teachers, and scholars at Northern Arizona University to receive the CEED Fellowship, a two-year grant to support community-based climate change programming. Supported by the Frances B. McAllister Community, Culture, and Environment Program, these Climate Education, Engagement, and Design, or CEED, fellows will work in their respective fields to imagine new ways organizations to engage and educate their communities around the climate.
In a region shaped by and tied to the fate of the Colorado River, it’s perhaps unsurprising that water is at the heart of other CEED-supported projects.
On Saturday, September 24, the eighth annual Rumble on the Mountain will take place at the Native American Cultural Center on NAU’s Flagstaff campus at 2:30 p.m. Hosted by musician, artist, and “edu-tainer” Tewa and Hopi Ed Kabotie and his band Tha’ Yoties, Rumble on the mountain features Indigenous artists, speakers and performers coming together to build solidarity for the protection of sacred lands and spaces across the Colorado Plateau.
“The Little Colorado River is the heart of the Plateau,” Kabotie said. “His health represents the well-being of water systems throughout the region.”
The Rumble kicks off a series of events honoring teaching assistant professor and CEED scholar Kara Attrep helps organize with partners across the region.
“I’m really excited to watch climate action in different forms and lenses over the next two years,” said Attrep, who emphasized that variety is an important aspect of the show. “We wanted to be as eclectic as possible, so if someone isn’t interested in film, there’s a concert or a workshop. They can enter the conversation in a different way.
On October 3, the CEED program, Honors College and Cline Special Collections and Archives will welcome the photographer Dawn Kish to discuss his work documenting the re-emergence of Glen Canyon as Lake Powell disappears. Later in the fall, filmmaker Diné Deidra Peaches will offer a filmmaking workshop for a group of Indigenous students at NAU.
Many of this year’s CEED Fellows are turning to the arts to engage people on climate change. Attrep thinks the arts can open a conversation about climate “which isn’t always possible through a science presentation.”
Like Attrep, Edgerton thinks art has an important role to play in changing the climate conversation. “A lot of times the arts are seen as hobbies,” Edgerton said. “Of course, they aren’t just that, but this social media-driven era may be the perfect opportunity for visual artists to show it off and be on the front end, using their voice to make a difference.”
One of the strengths of the CEED program is that each of the projects imagines community in a different way, said Bruce Hungate, chair of the McAllister program and director of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society. “The work proposed by this group of CEED fellows is so exciting because each researcher takes a truly different approach to the big questions: how do we tackle current and future climate challenges, and how do we bring more people into this conversation?”
The second NAU Climate and Justice Teach-In, scheduled for spring 2023, will be an opportunity to explore these questions. Nora Timmermanassociate professor of teaching in the Sustainable Communities program and CEED fellow who organized the event, said that a teaching prioritizes community building and dialogue over traditional concepts of top-down knowledge sharing.
“We all have a role to play in this conversation,” Timmerman said. “If part of the reason we are in climate chaos is the existing power structures of capitalism and patriarchy, creating a container for dialogue is a way to disrupt those structures and learn from each other.” Timmerman said one of the reasons NAU 2022’s teaching was successful is that it brought together more than 400 students, staff and faculty as well as people from the wider Flagstaff community.
“We are more powerful when we can work together,” she said.
For CEED Fellow and Associate Professor of English K.T. Thompson, the community is built both through the course they will teach in 2023-2024, “The Colorado Plateau Grasslands Documentary Project”, but also in the conversation that is relayed through time through reading and writing . Thompson said the spark for their project came from reading McAllister’s journals.
“McAllister was so specific about what kind of wood was used in the construction of the cabin, for example, or describing the grasses in a meadow where I walk now,” Thompson said. “Reading these diaries was the first time as a settler where I thought, if I work a little harder, I can figure out the land from some kind of primary theft until now.”
The research Thompson will conduct under the auspices of the CEED program will both shape the pilot grassland documentary course and inform a section of their current book project, Contingent love, troubling futures. Thompson refers to this segment, “Core Sample: A Land Acknowledgment”, as a “provocation”.
“Queerness helps me understand the if-this-then-that of contingency: being queer and having a body that is read as queer is an experience of contingency,” Thompson said. “And contingency is always forward-looking. What is the future, and how can it beckon repair? If land recognition is a form that ultimately fails,” as Thompson argues – failing to return stolen land or make real reparations – “then can we use the form to provoke a conversation about ways to do better ?
Robert Neustadt, a professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures and one of the new CEED Fellows, is also interested in sparking a conversation that leads to meaningful action. Along with project partner Shawn Skabelund, Neustadt will invite NAU students to have their photos taken, then post these large-format photos on campus near the climate workshop. The installation will be part of an overall photographic project, Upside downand ask the urgent question: “What kind of world are we leaving to our young?”
“I think we have to keep trying to motivate people to action,” said Neustadt, who has led public art projects with Skabelund at NAU in the past to draw attention to immigration and remember the thousands of people who died crossing the US-Mexico border. “You have to raise awareness to work at different levels. Keep looking to the future and inspiring more and more people to take increasingly meaningful climate action.
For Edgerton, asking more people to take action on the climate is like teaching.
“I try to instill in my students the idea that they could have a broader purpose with their art,” she said. “So that they can not only enjoy this aspect of being removed from the problems of the world, but also use their voice to help others see what is happening.”
Learn more about the CEED Fellowship and the McAllister Community, Culture, and Environment Program on line.
Top photo: Sunrise over Coal Mine Canyon near Tuba City. Credit: John Fowler on Unsplash.
Kate Peterson | Center for Ecosystem Science and Society