“… in a storm people shelter under a bridge, in a tornado they might shelter in a ditch to escape the wind, but where do we seek shelter from our isolation?”
That’s what I said in my artist’s statement when the exhibit video was done. In a snowy, Minnesota winter I had built an outdoor art installation that looked like the rafters of a roof, but with no sheathing. It was open to the sky. The rafters were salvaged deck planks and the bottom of the rafters were buried in the ground. The peaks of the rafters were fastened by white cloth threaded through holes in the wood and tied in a square knot. I had taken over a corner of our yard to create a stage set for performing an act of sheltering — crawling into the symbolic shelter on my hands and knees and laying below the structure. In my sketchbook, I had imagined myself as a prop, drawn from above. I was a kinetic part of the performance for the audience. I hadn’t expected that this performance would change me internally.
As a child, I built forts from sumac groves, felling the thin trunks with my jack knife. From a field of stems under a canopy of dappled green, I made a shelter for myself from the materials around me, creating a sense of safety so that my sense of self would not dissolve into the environment. But it was not just about separation. By enclosing myself in branches, I could rest and be still and feel like I belonged in the grove. There was a place for me there.
Building shelter is a human impulse. Environmental education author, David Sobel, studied children’s special places such as forts and noted how they play a different role in children’s lives across their developmental stages. The stage of building forts in nature, away from the home, to bond with the earth often takes place from ages 7–11, which fits my own experience in the sumac grove. After that, children start building shelters to explore and bond with self, and their forts might use more standard or salvaged building materials. These forts are closer to home, and important as places for socializing with friends. The earlier stages of bonding with the earth are not lost, however. They are foundational places to which we can return as we develop throughout our lives.
As a mom, I watched my boys seek their own place in the earth. Climbing trees or scaling bluffs, just out of reach of parents, my boys found niches in nature to explore and inhabit. I remember my older son climbing the spruce in our yard 30 feet in the air, and then playing all the songs he knew on his recorder. I worried that he would fall and at the same time I felt joy for his dwelling there because I knew from my own childhood that being in the trees was as essential as food and water. I remember family camping where the boys were magnetically drawn to the campsite’s perimeter and beyond, preferably just out of parental sight or sound. If they found a dragon fly or a toad, we were invited to come see. Their distant shelters created a place where they were protected from normal, everyday life at home. Children are not just dependent. They are hunters and gatherers bringing back their fresh experiences to feed the whole family. They didn’t know how hungry I’d been.
I lost my ability to shelter in the earth at an early age. Sure, I could walk in the woods and I continued to love trees, but earth had lost its wild freedom. Before people started using the word ‘Anthropocene’ to describe our new geologic era in which humans are the dominant force shaping the planet, the earth had already become too small to shelter in. I learned that it was earth that needed shelter. You could blame the photographs of earth from space like “Blue marble” or “Earth Rise.” Or the environmental posters that showed our tiny planet in the outstretched hands of man. Or the unavoidable realization of our over-development beyond nature’s limits. The earth had shrunk.
In response, I tried to shrink myself and my impact. Most of my career in sustainable design was about reducing the human environmental footprint, improving the efficiency of buildings, and minimizing C02 emissions. Humanity’s trajectory was too big for our land and water, even too big for our sky. My parallel environmental art practice was going in the same direction, navigating the loss of mother-earth, and trying to mitigate the harm to child-earth. My loss of shelter was both planetary and personal as my own mother was fading too — her heart and lungs weakening until she passed away. I remember losing my sense of gravity, as if I were no longer as tethered to the ground. Death de-materializes the weight of life and the space it takes up, but it doesn’t erase life’s memory.
I can remember curling up in the shelter of my mother’s arms, or dwelling in the branches of sumac. I can remember the feeling of being enclosed. Of being small but growing in a big world. Even though we are meant to grow up, to become responsible, and to care for others, are we really meant to live without shelter? Are we meant to become so large as our story of “Anthropocene?” What are we to do in the face each new report of the climate’s demise at our own hands?
Many disassociate from nature to avoid grief. But I believe it is time to seek shelter from our isolation. At least that is what I am trying to do. I don’t believe we’ll come to many real solutions if we keep separating the fate of the planet from our own fate. So as painful as it can be to give up the illusion of control — standing outside the earth to protect it, I think it is time to reverse the roles, and shelter ourselves. I don’t mean building a bunker and hoarding water supplies to separate ourselves from a harsh environment. I mean recognizing that the earth itself (herself) is our only and ultimate shelter. If we allow ourselves to be smaller again, and work within earth’s generous accommodation, we could thrive. This is not a denial of humanity as a scourge on the planet, but a story of humanity finding its place of belonging within a larger family of life, land, water, and sky.
So in a Minnesota winter I built my shelter without boundaries. No roof, no walls, no floor. I set up the camera and crawled into the space but the real story was happening inside me as I shared in the video.
“And when I lay down and look through the rafters to the sky I feel peace, even if it is cold; the sky is my roof. The walls are the trees and horizon around me. I feel the ground below me, even though it is covered with snow. I feel the weight of my body on the earth; the ground is my floor. I feel my muscles relaxing into the ground and I feel at home.”