Community will be our salvation: Building ties through materials and stories

A few months back, I put out a call for people to send me a piece of their place, which I would then incorporate into a mosaic of crowd-sourced materials. I didn’t want just anything. No, I wanted something that spoke to their experience, their place in the world. I wanted to provide a counterbalance to an increasingly individualistic world where people are out for number one and are disconnected from their fellow humans and from the landscapes and beings that surround them. 

If we’re going to survive the uphill battle ahead of us (read: the seriously apocalyptic shit headed our way), we’re going to need our communities. They are key to helping us draw down our emissions, live lighter on the planet, and weather the literal and figurative storm. What happens when our communities are tight-knit and there’s a high degree of cooperation, inclusion, reciprocity, and caring? For starters, we start sharing things. Just like the classic “borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour” (which helps build social capital—please see this brilliant graphic article for more on this), we might also start sharing things like tools and appliances, a bumper crop of tomatoes, or our knowledge and skills for planting, mending, building, etc. These kinds of communities—where sharing is common and people know, trust, respect, and care about each other—are also more resilient. Neighbours check up on each other, especially the most vulnerable in their community. This is especially important in extreme events, like heatwaves or floods or blizzards. And I’d like to believe they are more equitable and just, because environmental issues are, at their heart, justice issues rooted in colonialism, slavery, discrimination, and inequality. 

So, while your instinct may be to put up walls and protect what’s yours, this is not the time to hunker down and go full prepper. There has been some great writing coming out lately on this. If I could recommend just three things to you, it would be these (because who doesn’t love a little reading for extra credit?):

  1. Chelsea Vowel’s (@apihtawikosisan) epic Twitter thread about “Law for the apocalypse: Kinship out of fracture
    “This is merely one example of the many ways in which Indigenous peoples continue to survive our own post-apocalyptic (and ongoing dystopian) realities. We survive and thrive not because we have become insular and suspicious, though these feelings exist! But rather, we maintain, through all the violence, the firm belief of the importance of kinship as a way to resist oblivion. It is all that has kept us alive, and I humbly assert that our existence as human beings on this planet cannot be assured by any other approach.” 
  2. Tim Hollo’s “As the climate collapses, we can either stand together – or perish alone”
    “At this point in history, now that we have locked in ecological disruption on a scale our species has never known, we must learn the lessons of ecology. And the number one lesson is that resilience is the key. Resilience, not dominance, is the real strength, especially in hard times. And the secret to resilience is connected diversity, cohesion, cooperative coexistence. That means that in many ways our most important task right now is to build social cohesion while learning to live within natural limits.”
  3. Eric Holthaus’ “Climate change is about how we treat each other”
    “But the fix is not simply technical. The too-familiar apocalypse narrative leaves no room for justice or regeneration. We must do better. Somehow, we must also learn to treat each other better. […] We need to know, viscerally, that we can no longer abandon our neighbours in their time of greatest need. We need to relearn our interdependence. There is the alternative. The way to write this story that doesn’t end in apocalypse.”

So this mosaic is about that coming together. About building something together that honours all of us and is better for all our voices. And let me tell you, after making nine pieces in a row about environmental death and destruction, this was a balm for my soul. 

I sat with the title—”Communion”—for a long time. It was the first title that came to me, but my atheist self resisted it because it has a really clear association with Christianity for me. I didn’t want to privilege or alienate anyone or any worldview. That was definitely not what this piece was about! But I mulled it over as I worked in the studio, and I just kept coming back to this one word. Nothing else fit quite right. So the non-religious meaning of communion is the one I’m using: “an act or instance of sharing” and also “intimate fellowship or rapport.” As in “to commune with nature.” And it also shares a Latin root with other fitting (but just not quite title-worthy) words, like communal and community. 

I received 71 contributions from all over the world. The stories that came with these bits of people’s lives and places moved me deeply. In some ways, they were my favourite part of the whole project. I’ve compiled a little book of them, which you can grab as a pdf here. I will also have it available wherever and whenever “Communion” is shown. It was originally going to be much more elaborate and detailed, with names and locations of contributors, and a map of where each contribution ended up in the mosaic. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to focus on the stories and the relationships. To set aside individuality. To encourage a slow, intimate exploration. So the book is anonymous and it’s in no particular order (e.g., not organized by material or continent or anything else).

I put all of these contributions together to make a map of Pangaea, that supercontinent that once existed. I liked how it provided a reminder of how we were all once from the same piece of this planet and are kin no matter which way you slice it. I also liked how it served as a sort of geological bookend to this new era of the Anthropocene. 

One last thing (since a handful of people have asked): I’ve decided that “Communion” is not for sale. Or rather, that I have some strict stipulations when it comes to a forever home for it. Because it was such a collective effort and is meant to be explored and shared, I don’t think it’s fair for any one individual to own it. That would very much go against the spirit of the piece. Ideally, I would like “Communion” to live in a public place, to be explored and experienced by the community. But since that is fairly unlikely, I will be its steward for the time being, showing it when opportunities arise.   

And with that, all that’s left to do is say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed. The generosity of your contributions—the fact that you entrusted me with very special parts of your lives—completely bowled me over, and I hope that I’ve done them justice. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbour. 

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