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Seeing and Connecting in a 10 Percent World

I recently gave a talk at IGNITE Waterloo 12 on the topic of environmental change and how it relates to my artwork. Of all the questions I answer regarding my practice the vast majority fall into one of 3 streams: 1) How do you do that? (i.e. the practical and technical aspects of the work); 2) What’s it like to work as an artist? (i.e. the pragmatic and business aspects of my practice); and 3) Why do you paint what you do? (i.e. the thematic aspect of my imagery). For my talk I chose to focus on the latter—what I’m thinking about as I paint—illustrated by works from my recent “Interrupted Horizons” show.

IGNITE talks are based on the core idea of “enlighten us, but make it quick”. Every IGNITE talk is exactly 5 minutes long, being composed of 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds, ready or not. The content of my talk “Seeing & connecting in a 10% world” has been transcribed below. Please note: that this is the talk as it was written, not necessarily as it was given—there was some minor divergence at the actual presentation in terms of phrasing, but the gist is the same.

The talk was informed in great part by “A 10% World” by writer J.B. MacKinnon (The Walrus), Emerson’s essay “Nature”, the work of the transcendental Emersonian poet Wallace Stevens: “The Anecdote of the Jar”, the photography of David Liitschwager’s “One Cubic Foot”,  and “Apocalyptic Planet” authour Craig Childs, (the final two as showcased in Alternatives Journal).

As a landscape painter what I’m interested in the sense of connection you feel when you take the time to quietly observe nature. Those fleeting “zen” or “holy moments” when you understand that you have an inescapable connection to the nature around you.




Nature is a slippery concept. In his article “A 10% World” writer J.B. MacKinnon explains that every generation defines “nature” anew by it’s experience of it’s contemporary environment. What’s already been lost is invisible—if you never experienced it you have no idea what is gone. Consequently, we have come to think of conservation areas and the countryside as “nature”.


Emerson wrote his essay “Nature” at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In less than 200 years we have gone from a concept of nature that is vast and scary and something we fence out to preserve ourselves to something small and fragile that we fence in in order to protect it from us.


Think of the beaver. When was the last time you saw one? By some estimates, at one time there were enough for a beaver dam every 1 and 1/2 miles on EVERY river in Canada. The demand for its fur financed the settlement of our country. Now, only 10% are left.


No matter which metric you use—large fish left in the ocean, prevalence of large animal species or the amount of arable land under the plough—when you examine the historical record only 10% is left. 10%.


Can we see these long-term changes as they occur? Photographer David Liitschwager’s “One Cubic Foot” project documents habitats at a human scale, cataloguing how many species you can find in 1 cubic foot of space.


The top half shows the number of species from the previous enviroment—a natural grassland in S. Africa. The bottom the pitiful number of species “Apocalyptic planet” author Craig Childs found after searching for two whole days in an artificial grassland—an Iowa cornfield.


Our simple presence changes nature. Any evidence of our passing removes it’s wildness. There is now nowhere on the planet where evidence of our effects cannot be observed. Even the most remote locations have been disturbed. Think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the middle of the ocean.


Here’s a typical view of southwestern ontario. To the left is Luther Marsh, a 10% natural wetland created by the damming of a river. The rest is the imposed artificial grid of agriculture. Only 10% of the original forest remains.


Here is another typical view of our local landscape you may be unfamiliar with. There is an intentional and wilful deception regarding our conversion of nature. We hide such activity behind berms so that we don’t have to see the destruction as it happens.


This map shows all of the gravel pits within about 10km of the Kitchener-Waterloo in pink—almost 100 of them. As we replace fields and the last 10% with concrete and asphalt remember that for every city block you need a block’s worth of raw material.


I take mental photographs of what I see. I pause and take the time to intentionally bring what I know to what I’m seeing—biology, geology, history—to create memories that are vivid and that last—so that I will recognize and be aware of the changes occuring in the landscape.


Parks are sadly often as close to nature as city dwellers get. Here’s how I see the lake at Victoria Park—a body of water so inflated and removed from nature we recently had to dig it up to better manage the issue of accumulated waste.


Victoria park is a beautiful space, but it’s instructional to see the same deflated creek less than 100 feet away. It has become a concrete drain, an engineered overflow channel for rainwater in which barely any life can survive—a 10% shadow of a natural river.


Elora Quarry is another peak experience of transformed nature. Paradoxically it is one place you can get close to the 10% world as you swin within arm’s length amongst of the fish and alongside the frogs that take refuge there.


Mt. Trashmore. This is a view of McClennan Park—a delightful retreat from the city that has been crafted from our accumulated garbage. It’s an improvement but it’s a 10% shadow of what was there before we farmed the land or created the landfill.


As we replace natural ecological systems with our simpler man-made ones it’s important to realize how susceptible to change our industrial ecosystems can be. Our impressive landmarks are only temporary.


It’s not all lost however—nature does have the ability to re-establish itself. This is how I see the staff parking lot at the former Budd Automotive plant. It is green and alive with new, more sustainable growth.


In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with this thought. Be more aware of the nature that’s left around you. Be intentional with your choices and the impact that you make. Take your own mental photographs. Connect intentionally and more meaningfully with your 10% world.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 17th, 2013 at 11:05 am and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.