Pathway to Paris: An Interview with Jesse Paris Smith & Rebecca Foon

ttcflowerApril 2015

Hello dear friends,

So far, the TTC year ahead looks like it will be a sweet and potent one. This week nine women are on our way from around the US to Yelapa, Mexico for the 11th annual Women’s Sacred Circle Retreat – “a secret treasure”… And just last month we started a new Seattle Tween Girl’s Circle, which will be led by a collective of outstanding TTC facilitators, including Heather Wolf, Christine Castigliano, and Nora Harrington. We are planning a regional facilitator training in Oregon, and looking ahead to TTC trainings here at home and a super fundraiser in November again. It is hard to believe this is our 21st year!

In January, we were invited to support the annual benefit concert for Tibet House US, in NYC, by donating 38 handbooks to the stellar line-up of presenters, and 500 brochures went to audience members. In March, we were honored with a $1000 award from the Bainbridge Island Women’s Club, which will be augmented by the funds we will receive from One Call for All. If you’ve wanted to donate to TTC, doing it through One Call nearly doubles what we receive. It’s easy. Just click here. All funds go to scholarships.

In this blog post, I’m honored to be able to introduce Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon, who are clearly doing exactly this. They are on fire, giving themselves fully to the world in myriad creative ways. In the interview below, you’ll learn about their important project, Pathway to Paris — a powerful movement to bring together art, music, and attention to what Bill McKibben, founder of, says is THE most important world issue we face daily — climate change.

Recently, Christen Lien sent me a link to a powerful video on Youtube, which has gone viral — I want to share it with you.

This video is evidence of why TTC exists. We need each other. We need to hear ourselves being heard. We need to know that we are not alone and not the only ones who go through all these things that come with being alive. This is the way to solve conflicts and work together to create ingenious ways to address the many issues we face on the planet. Together, we can shift the paradigm and bring attention to what needs attention in order to evolve in the most conscious ways.

plum trees blossoming in our yard

plum trees blossoming in our yard

The evidence of climate change is clear. Even here, in the Pacific Northwest, in my own backyard, spring sprung in  early February. Our plum trees were in full bloom, while the bees slept on dreaming of the honey nectar they were not going to find this year in our trees. Another example of climate change’s “inconvenient truth?” Everywhere we look we see an intensification of weather and climate extremes. Climate change is making hot days hotter, flooding heavier, hurricanes stronger and droughts more severe. It’s causing dangerous and damaging changes to the landscape of our world, affecting wildlife, and it is increasingly getting worse.

In Paris, this year in December, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference will be focused on achieving a legally binding and universal agreement between all nations to cut carbon emissions due to burning fossil fuels, which is a big part of the cause of greenhouse gases and climate change.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben in Beijing             Photo: Linda Wolf

I remember meeting Bill McKibben in Bejing while on a sustainability tour with Global Exchange in 2005. He was briefing a packed room of Chinese journalists about this crisis back then. Today he says, “The future is bleak and there is no room for speculation, wishful thinking, or doubt.” Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and founder and director of Kumu, says it is more correct to call this the climate catastrophe or climate crisis.


In 2005, with Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, I went on a Sustainability Tour of China. While in Beijing, I visited the Graveyard of Extinction at The Milu Park.  What a chilling experience. There were approximately 145 tombstones in the cemetery, toppled over on each other like dominoes that cover a space of 100 meters. I wonder if the hand has been moved further back towards us, at the end of the line, before rats?


Graveyard of Extinction, Milu Deer Park, Beijing China                                      Photo: Linda Wolf 2005

It’s crazy serious and yet we can’t allow ourselves to be flattened by a conclusion that we are all doomed. Over a decade ago, I interviewed Maya Angelou and asked her what she would tell young people who were scared that things were so bad there was nothing that would fix them. Here’s what she said,


Maya Angelou handing the world to girls, Seattle 1998. From Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun: Young Women and Mentors on the Transition to Womanhood, by K. Wind Hughes and Linda Wolf                                  Photo: Linda Wolf

“It seems terrible. There’s racism and sexism and ageism and all sorts of idiocies. But bad news is not news. We’ve had bad news as a species for a long time. We’ve had slavery and human sacrifice and the holocaust and brutalities of such measure. We can’t imagine what Attila the Hun did or the cruelties of the period when the church, the great Inquisition, sliced people open from their heads to their groin and gutted them. And women were burned at the stake and stoned to death, as were men. We can’t imagine it. Today we say, “Ah, how horrible.” But the truth is, we have had bad news a long time. Yet, amazingly, we have survived. And while on the one hand we have the brutes, the bigots, and the bullies, at the same time we have had men and women who dreamed great dreams. We’ve had Galileo and Aesop, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois. We’ve had Sholem Asch, and Shalom Aleichem – great dreamers. We’ve had women who stood alone, whether it was Harriet Tubman or Mother Jones. We’ve had Margaret Sanger. We’ve had women who have stood in the gap and said, “I’m here to try to save the world.” You have to think who we are. If you made a map five miles long and five miles wide of the universe, Earth would be smaller than a pin-head. I think it may have been Durant who said if you make a model the size of the Empire State Building, and flat on the top of the spire you put a postage stamp, the model would represent how long Earth has been here, the spire would represent how long life has been here, the thickness of the stamp would represent how long human beings have been here, and the thickness of the ink would represent how long we’ve been sentient. So we’re the newest group on this little blob of spit and sand. This is what young women and men should know. They should know that we are carnivorous, yet we have decided somehow not only to not eat our brothers and sisters, who may be delicious, but to accord them some rights and to try to love them and look after them. I don’t want young men and women looking around and saying, “Oh my God, oh mea culpa, it’s so awful.” It’s bad but it’s also good, and it’s up to each one of us to make it better. Every one of us. We deserve our future.”

I feel deeply honored each month to write these posts and share the people who inspire me and help me make it through the hard times and the painful thoughts. I am so grateful to my friends who give me space to grieve and to return to love that much more deeply. Thank you for being part of my world.

Love, linda

photo: Chris Jordan

photography by Chris Jordan, used with permission

“…The interconnected network in an old-growth forest is thousands of millions of times larger and more complex than any human brain. Isn’t it strange how we mow those forests down, calling them “overburden,” so we can get to the coal underneath to burn for electricity so we can chill our beer by a few degrees and watch “the game” on our plastic television screens. We are collectively missing the real game so badly that anyone watching from a distance would have to be laughing hysterically. Or crying their eyes out for the tragedy of it…” Chris Jordan


Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith                                                                Photo: Bobby Singh

The following interview took place on Skype, February 12, 2015.

Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon are world-renown musicians, who are deeply passionate about conservation, climate change, and social justice issues.They are currently focused on the project they founded, Pathway to Paris, which is a series of concerts and events to draw attention to the lead up of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris in December, 2015. They are planning two nights of concerts during the talks in Paris, to help build awareness and dialogue around the importance of coming up with a legally binding agreement. The concerts will also serve as fundraisers for, the leading organization dedicating to building a global movement of climate change.

189140_1599548273092_7972737_nJesse Paris Smith is a composer, pianist, and multi instrumentalist. She performs globally in multiple configurations, and her compositions have been commissioned for art installations, book soundtracks, and live film score performances. She is a graduate of the Sound and Music Institute, trained in integrative practices of music and sound therapy. She is on the Associate Board at Tibet House US, curating a weekly event called Mindful Music and Sound Series and is a regular participant of the Tibet House US Annual Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall. She also co-curates and hosts Talkingstick, a monthly true storytelling and music event at the Rubin Museum of Art. In September 2014, with cellist, Rebecca Foon, she launched Pathway to Paris, a year long event series and online portal, focused on innovative solutions for climate change.

beckRebecca Foon is a Canadian cellist, vocalist, and composer originally from Vancouver, BC. She currently records under the alias Saltland and is a member and co-founder of the Juno Award-winning modern chamber ensemble Esmerine. She is an environmental and social activist, yoga teacher, produces musical and artistic events, and performs and records with many world-renown musicians, artists, and poets. She is a member of Sustainability Solutions Group, a sustainability cooperative that works with cities and municipalities to create climate change action plans.

Linda Wolf: So, how did the two of you actually meet?

Rebecca Foon: We met in London at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown Festival. Both of us were playing there and got talking. I was living full time in Montréal and Jesse in New York. It was clear to us both that we had a lot in common and we stayed in touch. We both care deeply about environmental and social justice issues, as well as being musicians ourselves and loving world music. I could tell that Jesse was a very open person with a vision and passion for making positive contributions to this planet. That kind of vision, positivity and inspiration to create on-the-ground change through art and hard work is so important to me. I was very grateful when we began to imagine weaving art and music together for Pathways to Paris.

Linda: What exactly is Pathway to Paris?

Rebecca: Pathway to Paris is about building a movement of thinkers, academics, activists, artists, NGOs, and government people who come together to imagine ways to bring attention to climate change issues, especially now in the wake of the UN Climate Change Conference happening at the end of this year in Paris.

Linda: How are you doing this?

11150249_431001670406982_7657141607190801584_nJesse Paris Smith: We’ve been producing events leading up to our final concerts which will be in Paris during the first weekend of the climate conference in December.  We just had our second event at The Greene Space in NYC on April 8th. The event was live streamed so anyone in the world could watch and the link is still live to watch, and the show will also be aired this month on David Garland’s WNYC/WQXR radio show, Spinning On Air.

It was such an incredible evening of speakers, poets, musicians, all sharing in this discussion of climate change under the umbrella of this theme of April, which is Earth month and Poetry month. We had May Boeve, the Executive Director of 350, and it was such a wonderful evening of positive energy, with education, activism, and celebration.

Rebecca: The objective of the conference is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement between all the nations of the world. The overarching goal of the talks is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There are a lot of people and organizations also working to bring attention to the conference. We are working in partnership with as well as other sustainability organizations and groups.

Linda: The whole issue of climate change or climate crisis is hard to get our minds around. It’s so huge. I read on your site, Pathways to Paris, about the lead up and what’s at stake. I also read on the site that a big part of the crisis is that right now we’re at 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and we add 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. According to, unless we are able to rapidly turn that around and get back to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering irreversible impacts (tipping points) that could send climate change spinning truly out of control.

Recently, in my interview with Noam Chomsky, I asked him whether objectively he had any hope for us. He said, “No.” I said, “Really? Wow, that’s terrifying.” He said, “You asked the question objectively do I think there’s hope. Objectively, probably not. But it doesn’t follow that we have to give up hope, we don’t know.”

Rebecca: It’s something I think about a lot. It’s something I think about when I imagine having children. I have to ask myself, do I want to bring a child into this world? What’s going to happen to the next generation and the generation after that? What will this world look like in 100 years? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to these questions. Science speaks volumes and says a lot but nobody really knows what’s going to happen and what the impacts of climate change are really going to be, so, yes, it is terrifying for sure. But I think what keeps me inspired is that I really believe in humanity, and I believe in this planet, and I believe in beauty, and there’s so much beauty in this world in every moment, and when you can tap into that — really living moment to moment, being awake in that moment as fully as you can, life is truly spectacular. The more love you can bring to your relationships and the way you interact with your environment is what’s important. I think for me living each moment fully gives me the courage to take in the next moment. I can’t really think too far beyond each moment in terms of the impacts of climate change.

Right now, red alert lights are flashing emergency with regards to the future of our lives and all life on this planet. There’s an enormous amount of urgency to take action now.  It is incumbent upon the united nations of the world to come up with a binding agreement that will impact behavior changes, by-laws, policies and best practices. For sure, I’m terrified of the future when I think about the long-term possibilities if we don’t act fast, and yet we can’t live in that fear. For me to stay inspired and keep allowing myself to enjoy this life as much as possible with the people that I love means I can’t allow myself to live in paralyzing fear.

groupshotwindLinda: Working with young people in teen talking circles, I’ve seen countless times how when we share the ways we feel, especially what hurts, we are reminded that we are not alone. We can also map how the issues we face are inextricably tied to global issues and vice-verse. Then, the feelings of despair go away and our life force returns so that we become empowered to make a difference by taking action on what matters to us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve the more capacity we have to love and the more energy we have to give.

Jesse: The first time I learned about climate change, I was in high school. I was in 10th or 11th grade and I was in a history class where we had to do a current event assignment. It was very late, the night before school, and I hadn’t done my homework, so I went to the deli to buy a newspaper. I was looking through the paper for something to do my homework assignment on and I found an article and read the words ‘global warming’, ‘fossil fuels’, and ‘greenhouse gasses.’  I didn’t know what any of these phrases meant but being a lover of nature and earth science, I was intrigued by the words ‘greenhouse’ and ‘fossil.’ But the tone of the article wasn’t a lighthearted article about gardening, or an archeological dig. I had AOL instant messenger up on my computer, and since it was very late, there was only one classmate online who I barely knew, and I wrote to him, asking what these phrases meant. He explained everything to me about global warming, as it was  commonly called back then. I became very panicked also very upset that I hadn’t been taught about this in school. For hours I wrote back and forth with this classmate, as I delved deeper into the subject, reading more about it online, and quickly looking for books and articles to brush up with. I really couldn’t believe we hadn’t learned about all this in school, and was upset about that, as if they had been hiding the topic from us.

So, I wrote my paper and the next morning turned it into class. After that, climate change was it for me. At that time, I wanted to abandon music and any artistic endeavors, because suddenly they felt to me to be so self centered when the planet was in so much trouble. So, I ended up writing hundreds of letters and signing petitions, and for the last year of high school I volunteered and worked with environmental organizations based in NYC and also with Ralph Nader.

But like any other vocation, there is a dark side to activism. Working with activists and politicians I saw so many people completely rundown, feeling defeated by these overwhelming topics so much bigger than themselves, that I actually did my final project in 12th grade on activist burnout. I realized I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted to find some sort of balance between the passions of music and the arts, and environmental activism.

Linda: You’re one of the busiest people I know, Jesse. How do you deal with that kind of stuff now?

CandlesJesse: The most important thing is self care. Before you can successfully tackle climate change or any environmental or social injustice issue, you have to take care of yourself first. You need to make sure you’re okay first. If everyone just took better care of themselves, the world would be a better place. Find different things that work for you, and make them habits. Eating healthy, drinking healthy drinks. Things you do every day that keep you feeling your best. Whether its a sport, or meditation, talking walks, yoga, playing an instrument, listening to a certain kind of music, reading a book of inspiring quotes, any rituals or routines you can have that help you to feel good.  And last resort things too for when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. A teacher of mine taught us to have a ‘safety kit’ for moments when we feel overwhelmed. Like a box you have in your room where you keep different things that make you feel calm and happy, like some music you love, or a tea you like to drink, a book that makes you smile, photos, anything. The second thing after self care, is talking to and connecting regularly with other people, and connecting with others when you feel overwhelmed. It is so important to have people around you that are your tribe, that relate to you, are of like mind, share in your passions, inspire you, and help you to feel encouraged and hopeful. And people who you believe in, and want to help in the same way. People of all walks of life and ages.

For example, I live next door to a family of creative and socially conscious artists, including Anne Waldman, a poet, activist, and amazing role model and inspiration. She always seems to be full of so much hope and optimism, always looking towards the future. It’s so important to be surrounded by that kind of energy. She is so supportive of Pathway to Paris, and so encouraging to younger generations.

Rebecca: One way I take care of myself is through yoga and meditation. Personally, I’ve felt somewhat sad and depressed, and I knew I needed to talk to somebody about how I was feeling. I knew it would have to be someone who inspires me. I found out Julia Butterfly Hill does life coaching and contacted her. She’s the woman who lived in a tree for two years to draw attention to the destruction of the Redwoods through cutting down the forest.

bookcoverLinda: Yes, Julie wrote one of the stories in my second book, Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century – Stories from a New Generation of Activists.

Rebecca: One thing I got out of all our wonderful conversations is her philosophy around problem solving, which is what I’m all about — creative problem solving, innovation and doing things that haven’t been done before — rethinking approaches to messy problems. Now, I see problems as awesome opportunities and get excited instead of seeing them as huge weights that take all the life force out of me. Instead, I can dig into the problem and try to figure it out and brainstorm it with others, which is so important. I’m a big believer that one person doesn’t have all the answers. It’s about collective brainstorming to come up with the best solutions. That takes the weight off you as an individual.

Jesse: It’s difficult to imagine being 14 right now and being able to go on the smart phone or computer and see all the overwhelming information and news this is constantly being put up. That’s another thing I think is super important for young people – not to be on the internet so much. Not to live in this world of screens where its hard to know whats reality and what is false information. Get out in nature, go on a little hike, go to the woods, go to the beach, go outside and be with your friends. It’s so important even as an adult, to alternate between being in the city, being on the computer, and on the phone and getting away from all that stuff to be in nature, be creative. It’s so important to make sure you’re paying attention to balancing it out.

Linda: Speaking of inspiration, how have your families inspired you? What qualities have your parents instilled in you?

Rebecca:  I’ve grown up in a political arts family. My dad and my mom started Green Thumb Theater, a theater company known for political children’s theater in Canada and the US. After leaving Green Thumb, my mother ran a number of arts festivals and over the last 20 years has been the director of Inner-City Angels, which is an innovative arts education organization that brings artists and musicians into inner city schools to work with mostly immigrant kids.

innercityangels-photo-1My mom’s passion and devotion to these kids and commitment to bringing the critical issues of our time into the public education system through art has been very inspiring to me. And as a person, my mom is an incredibly generous, compassionate person and cares deeply about her family and the people around her. I try to emulate all those values that she has, of compassion, love, and generosity.

Linda: And how has your father inspired you?

Rebecca: My father is quite brilliant as a writer, has a very creative

Becky & Dad

Becky & Dad (Dennis Foon)

mind and his writing alone has definitely been the source of inspiration for me. He is completely supportive of me and loves and adores his family. I think of him as my best friend. He, too, weaves critical issues into his art to make change and that has been very inspiring for me.

Linda: Jesse?


Jesse, mom (Patti Smith), and brother (Jackson Smith)

Jesse: One thing that is inspiring about my mom is that she’s 100% true to herself. If she wants to do something, she just does it. She lives her path and her purpose 100%, so everything she puts her energy into and devotes herself to is coming from a genuine place. I think she just is herself and can’t imagine being any other way. She knows who she is and she follows her own path. She doesn’t act out of a place of fear, or because anyone else convinced her of what to do. She’s not driven by money, success, or fame, and I think she has probably always been that way. It is inspiring to see her follow through with everything she wants to do, with anything she thinks is worth seeing through.

Linda: I have so much respect for your mother, Jesse, and her work. I knew her when I was young. We met in NYC when I was on the Joe Cocker Tour. And you have a very talented brother, Jackson. All three of you play music together. What fortune! What a family! What about your father, Jesse, I know he died when you were young?

Jesse: He died when I was seven. He was a musician; a guitarist and songwriter. Throughout my life I have had times of getting upset when I wished I could play music with him, or wondered what he would think about me, and if he would approve of my life choices. Most of what I know about him is pieced together from listening to his music, talking with my mom and brother, hearing stories from others over the years, and doing my own research. The other day, a friend was reading a book about the Black Panther party and I told him that my dad was involved with the White Panther Party in the 1960’s in Detroit. I pulled up some videos of him on the computer. Watching the videos, I was reminded how eloquently he spoke, and how politically active he was when he was very young.  As a teenager, his band was deeply involved with political issues. They were very radical. I was watching an interview, and he was speaking so clearly and passionately about the political problems of the 60s. His band was using music as a way to communicate with the people. They were doing what they loved, and using their talents as a vehicle to spread awareness and to increase the power of their voices. That’s very inspiring, and similar to what we are trying to accomplish with Pathway to Paris.

Linda: Listening to you two, I’m just in awe of your gifts and your beauty. I just want to have you two come here and live in my little cabin and work in my veggie garden with me; introduce you to everyone I love, and play music together!

Jesse & Rebecca

Jesse & Rebecca

So, what words of advice would you give a young person?

Rebecca: Dive in and learn about the issues. Challenge yourself to find ways of exploring the issues, whether it be talking about them at school or building movements inside or outside school with your friends or community to raise awareness and foster dialogues and imagine solutions.  Create concerts or café sessions, getting speakers to talk or starting petitions, writing letters or measuring your ecological footprint and challenging your friends to measure theirs. There are tons of really great ecological footprint calendars online, so just getting a sense of your own impact on the planet and creating fun ways of trying to reduce it, and inspiring others to reduce theirs. Thinking about the modes of transportation that you use and ways to move towards the end of fossil fuels because that’s basically what we’re trying to do  — to move to the end of using fossil fuels by mid-century. Find out what that means and brainstorm creative ways to get there.

Jesse:  I would say to take the time the find your passions, and then seek out and create opportunities to explore them. For me, two of my passions are music and environmental activism specifically focused on climate change. These are things I discovered as a teenager. When I was a teenager and I got interested in this stuff, I found both the internet and actually meeting up with people in real life to be equally important. My favorite environmental organizations had websites with petitions and letters, articles and book suggestions, and sections that listed meet ups or group activities and easy ways to get involved. It can be overwhelming, because there is so much out there, and seemingly endless possibilities. My advice is to identify what matters to you and do what you love, because if you’re doing that, you’ll be able to do a great job. I also want to say how important it is to find and identify mentors and older more experienced people in the field you are passionate about who you can learn from.

Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith

Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith        Photo: Bobby Singh

Rebecca: I’m so happy to have been able to do this with you guys and to share the story and so grateful to be a part of this with Jesse. I feel like it’s just such a beautiful time for Jesse and me to link different parts of our passion — our music and our love for the world and our passion for climate change solutions and to bring all this together. That’s the most inspiring thing — being able to reach out to people that inspire us and see their reactions as we share Pathway to Paris with them. Being tapped into a common mission and vision with others is such a powerful transformational tool. If anything gives me hope, it’s that. And so my advice for young people is to band together and tap into a collective power, because there is so much opportunity for action when you’re part of a powerful energy committed to creating positive change.

Linda: Thank you so much for this interview, both of you.

“It’s not that we need to save the Earth, we need to save the systems that make the Earth compatible with human existence and the existence of other life forms” Naomi Klein, Author

“What if there were just one being looking out through all the eyes in the world, what would that being be seeing? There is a challenge to try to wrap your mind around.” Chris Jordan, Artist

Each day, we still turn at warp speed around the sun and the seasons follow one by one. We have no idea what our best thinking can achieve, what possibilities we can imagine and manifest, when each of us is willing to face and frame the crisis we’re in as an opportunity. The fact that we love is miracle enough to keep on a path with heart. Choose one and all the rest intersect. There are many organizations with helpful websites. Here are a few more links to follow:

The Nature Conservancy
The Union of Concerned Scientists

Pathway to Paris – Click here to learn much more and get involved!

Pathway to Paris on Facebook – LIKE!!! LOVE!!!

Interview with Chris Jordan: father, husband, son, photographer / cultural activist, musician and all around astoundingly beautiful person

Happy New Year Everyone —

Each month, we bring you with an interview with a muse, someone not unlike ourselves who faces the same existential questions and human experience we do.  This month, we present an interview with photographer and cultural activist, Chris Jordan.

I cherish Chris. In every way, I see  him being willing to be here now, to see the world without blinders, and live from his big heart.  Chris is what I call a willing participant in life as it is  and  as it can become. He doesn’t shy away from looking straight at the tragedies we humans inflict upon nature and living beings, as in his astounding upcoming film, Midway: a Message from the Gyre. Chris has spent years traveling to Midway Island with his wife, poet, Victoria Sloan Jordan, and film crew, to document the tragedy of the albatrosses who are dying en mass from burst stomachs due to eating and feeding their babies pieces of our plastic detritus, which ends up being swept in currents to what is called, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – (7 million tons of plastic spanning an area twice the size of Texas). Chris is not afraid to face these horrors, or that of poached elephants in Africa, mutilated and killed for their tusks. Chris walks his talk when he asks us in his film if we have the courage to face and feel these realities. 

Victoria Sloan Jordan, in her poem, Kaleidoscope, read at the 2010 TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch Conference, cuts to the core when she says, “How painful it is to be seento be called out of the darkness, cut from layers of sleep that hold us together, to have our eyes opened forever” The parallels are deeply apparent It is us, you and me, we, who have to face the pain of being called out of the darkness as well as the dead albatross, it is our eyes that are opened forever when we look at Chris’s work.  In the following interview I ask him how he lives with all that he sees and photographs.

Deep thanks to Chris for this great interview… Enjoy

Chris Jordan “I think of all the problems of our environment, whether it is the destruction of our oceans, or the damage to our atmosphere, or the cutting down of our forests or whatever as the symptoms of a greater disconnect that’s happened inside us, on a collective, global level. To me that is where the truest healing can really happen.” Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan (born 1963) is an artist based in the Pacific Northwest who is best known (so far!) for his large-scale works depicting the consequences of mass consumerism, garbage, and our love affair with plastic. His passion for conservation and awareness, and his love of nature have brought much attention to the inevitable consequences of continuing our unconscious habits and behaviors, and instead, as Joanna Macy says, contribute our energies to this time of the Great Turning– a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” His work, while often unsettling, is a bold message, and one we need to face.

Linda: Chris, your artwork confronts so many tragedies and ills in the world today. I wonder how you deal with facing so many of the horrors in this time of “dire beauty,” as Caroline Casey says? How do you face it all and take care of the inner soul of Chris Jordan in the process?

Chris: Well, that is the big question. It’s the question I’m trying to live, because I want to face it all. I don’t want to turn away from the smorgasbord of horrors in the world, because that would be to live in denial. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to dwell only on the horrors because there is so much beauty in our world, as well. There aren’t even words to describe how beautiful and miraculous every moment of our life is. I want to learn how to hold these two extremes as fully as possible, and I don’t know how exactly – but I’ll tell you one thing I’ve made a practice of this over quite a few years now going back and forth to Midway Island, and to places like Kenya, being with elephants who were killed for their tusks. And just recently, I had the experience of losing my mother. I was with her over the last couple months of her life, and was with her for her last weeks, days and minutes. It was the most profound experience of my life by far. I’m only beginning to make sense of the question of how we grieve the loss of our mother. I can’t even fathom that my mother is dead. It’s been two weeks now and I just broke down yesterday as it hit me on another level — that my mother is gone. I’m trying to figure out what that really means for me, it’s like the bottom just dropped out, and yet at the same time, on a global scale, we are losing our mother. I want to learn how to hold this all, and grieve it, and it just seems so huge and overwhelming.

Linda: What a metaphor…I know. It’s so painful. My mother is still alive and I think about having to face losing her one day in the not too distant future and it’s going to be harder than I imagine, I know. I sit with teenagers all the time who are just beginning to face the horrors of the world, and the many losses. I feel for them because they live in a world that has been systematically and a purposefully desensitizing them, especially the boys. I see you as a person in an ongoing process of re-sensitizing yourself all the time. I don’t see you distancing yourself from the pain of being alive, but going towards it. So, what do you do to take care of yourself — what feeds you with whatever it takes to remember that sense of awe and beauty that also exists to help balance out all the horror that you see?

Chris: It’s a weird thing — it doesn’t feel to me like there are “bad” feelings that have to be balanced out with “good” feelings. To me it’s a continuum. On one side are all the feelings we think of as “bad,” like grief, sadness, despair, hopelessness, anxiety — all the feelings that come up when we face the horrors of the world. And on this other side we have all the feelings we think of as good feelings, like joy and love, and happiness. For me it’s like this spring-loaded continuum that can only exist in both directions at the same time.

What I find is the further I allow myself to experience the horror, the despair and grief the more the other side opens itself up to me in equal measure. They’re completely related to each other.  I don’t have the experience that the further I go into the sadness and grief, the sadder and more despairing I’ll become. It’s the opposite experience. The more I grieve for what’s happening in the world, the more I experience being happier than I’ve ever been in my life.  I don’t feel like I have to somehow compensate for all the sadness by doing something that produces happiness. They come in unison. So, whenever I am at a gathering where grieving happens, spontaneously there’s a tremendous amount of laughter and joy and celebration. These hard feelings don’t last forever. It’s counterintuitive to me and I think counterintuitive to our culture as well.  I think we all live with this feeling that if we face the horrors of our world or our lives, we’re just going to be sad forever. A friend of mine said, “I’m afraid if I start crying, I’ll never stop.” It’s like we hold back all those feelings because if we let ourselves feel them, we just might be depressed forever. But, it’s not like that, it’s the other way around – it’s the holding back that is causing our depression and paralysis and anxiety. Once we let ourselves feel, it’s like the hurricane comes through, it comes through and it moves on and then there’s clear sky on the other side.

Linda: Have you ever felt suicidal?

Chris: Yes, many times.

Linda: When those feelings come up for you, what gets you through that moment and keeps you from killing yourself?

Chris: There are a few things. The main one is the love and responsibility I feel for my family. It would just be such a terrible thing to do to them. And the other thing is that I have this intuitive sense that something good is going to happen later and I don’t want to miss out on whenever that is.


Chris Jordan and his wife, Victoria, at home

My wife, Victoria’s father committed suicide. I can totally relate to what happened for him in that moment, but what he’s missing out on now is just so incredibly sad. He has missed out on so much all these years. He wasn’t there for our wedding, he wasn’t there for so many wonderful things.  We have a nephew recently who committed suicide and I feel the same thing. It is just too final. When I’m feeling really down and I start thinking about suicide, I think about the finality of it – it’s just too final — and so I think, ‘Okay one day at a time, I can still choose to do it tomorrow, let me just get through today and see if I still want to tomorrow,’ and then I wait one more day and if those two days were just absolutely hell, I think, ‘Well I can still do it the next day… just give it one more day.’ But something inevitably happens, and everything shifts. And then I look back and think, ‘Man, am I glad I didn’t do that.’

Linda: OMG, me, too, I love you so dearly, Chris, and you mean so much to so many. But, I do understand those moments of great despair…I’ve felt them and had the same thought. But thankfully, these feelings pass for me, as well. My mama used to say when I was very upset, ‘Linda, let the world turn; everything will be different tomorrow.’  Sadly, just last week, another teen here on Bainbridge Island committed suicide. It’s usually the boys who succeed.

Chris: So tragic. The other tragic thing is that the vast majority of suicides are accompanied by some kind of substance abuse: too much alcohol or too much marijuana or taking too many prescription painkillers. Those things can really mess with our minds and they mess with the parts of our minds that would otherwise be self-reflecting.

Linda: Teens and adults both need to be very careful with what they ingest in terms of substances, plant medicines, etc. There are many times I’ve seen great benefits for someone having taken a plant medicine in the right situation. It’s been an awakening experience.

Chris: Yes, there are a lot of things that can take us into an altered space. But, I would put chemical substances, whether it’s marijuana, or ayahuasca, or MDMA or whatever, into the same container along with things like witnessing elephants who have been poached for their tusks, or being with someone who is dying. Any of these experiences can be transformational experiences. They can be incredibly powerful experiences that can either lead someone into a newly self-realized place or totally crush them. They can do deep healing and/or deep emotional and psychological damage. It is all about how that substance or experience happens and the container in which it happens.

I think a great deal of substance use today happens in an unconscious or unintentional way, like using substances like MDMA at a party. It can be incredibly harmful. Then, of course, there are a lot of other substances such as meth or heroin, and a whole category of drugs that I think are harmful no matter how they’re used. I wouldn’t say I’m against substance use across the board. But the effect of marijuana, for example, when it smoked every day and abused as a way of escaping the world versus used in a Native American medicine ceremony is very very different. Each way is equally powerful. But powerfully destructive or powerfully illuminating.

Linda: Sometimes, as an artist, I think if I took more drugs, I’d be more creative and I would see and know more profoundly what it is I really want to create and I’d do it. You know? I look at all the artists and spiritual leaders who have gone into different states of consciousness and think to myself that maybe I’d learn something more about being human or have a greater understanding of this and other mysterious planes of existence.

Chris: I know, it’s very seductive. All those musicians like Coltrane, sometimes I think, it must be all those hard drugs that made them into geniuses! I think each substance, or plant medicine has different affects on each person. For some people, they increase creativity, and other for people their creativity is decreased.  I know a lot of musicians who don’t touch substances because they’re afraid it will mess their minds up. And others who use them and say they’re not fully there until they have the substance in them. People have their own personal relationship with substances.

I think it is very important to look really deeply into why we do any substance because I know for myself when I use a substance, alcohol or whatever, on an impulse, I have to look at the impulse and ask myself if I’m trying to escape something. Am I medicating a feeling I don’t really want to have? When substances are used for that kind of purpose it inevitably backfires because we still have the feeling we were trying to evade. We want to feel more deeply and yet we don’t want to feel the pain. It’s a paradox. I think it is really important for young people, and for us as leaders of young people, to help them learn how to have these feelings and to process these deep feelings in community.

Linda: Yes, I agree completely. I know many young people are want to get out of their heads, so to speak. We sure did in the 1960s in my generation, but having a community to hold us as we feel that which we are ashamed to let anyone know we feel and to process these feelings is the ultimate high! You do that with Joanna Macy. Her grief workshops must be extraordinarily valuable.

Life in balance

Life in balance

Chris: Yes. Joanna Macy is one of the most respected teachers and practitioners of Buddhism in our hemisphere. Her website is amazing. There is a wealth of information there. She’s also written many books worth reading.  She looks at this very issue of how we bear the horrors of our world. She believes as I do, and much of what I believe I learned from her, that when we face the horrors and when we honor our pain and allow ourselves to really feel it, it is actually a doorway back to ourselves and our connection to the world.  It is not an exercise in pain, not a self-punishment kind of experience at all, it is a doorway, perhaps THE doorway, back to a deeply centered, deeply connected, deeply self-loving, sacred relationship with the miracle of our world and the miracle of our own life.

In her workshops, she takes people through a 4-step process. It starts with gratitude, and then gratitude moves into honoring the pain of the world. When we experience gratitude, we can’t help but face the destruction and feel the pain. Through facing the pain we realize that the only reason we feel sad that our forests are being destroyed or species are going extinct is because we love those things. And that that’s what grief actually is: Grief is not sadness, it is love. It is a bodily, felt experience of love for something we’re losing or have lost. Maybe at no other time do we feel our love as strongly as when we’re grieving. Love may be the most powerful of all our feelings. We protect what we love, we advocate for what we love. So, then, the 4th step in her process is going forward into the world, newly empowered, deeply feeling warriors for the earth. I love Joanna and have immense respect for her and for what she has been doing for so many years.

Linda:  What a human being you are, Chris: authentic, honest, courageous, loving, talented, open…

Chris: Thank you, you’re so kind — right back atcha, baby!  You’re just looking in the mirror, Linda!

Linda: Thanks, Chris – I have my days when I have no idea who the heck I am or what good I’ve done in the world!!! Let’s talk about your Running the Numbers Series, which is one of the most important and easy to understand ways of continuing to help people become aware of what’s happening. You keep coming up with so many more.

Plastic Bag 1

Plastic Bags, 2007, depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the amount used ever 5 seconds in the US, from Chris Jordan’s series, “Running the Numbers.” Go to Chris’s website, click on specific images to zoom from the wall size mosaic to the specific pieces that create it. This project visually and stunningly demonstrates such dismal statistics as the numbers of American incarcerations, plastic consumption and oil use.

Chris: That’s one other thing I’ve been wrestling with lately — how to stay with it. There’s not an on or off switch where one day you become enlightened or whatever thing we aspire to be and then you’re like that forever more. I saw this quote from Thoreau in Walden that I really love. He said, “It’s not enough to merely awaken, we must reawaken and continue awakening.“ It’s a cyclical thing that takes a tremendous amount of discipline and patience with oneself. I mean, one moment I feel in connection with the world and feel my love for the world and I’m doing new artwork and I feel like I’m on it, and the next moment or the next day, I’m drinking too much alcohol or wasting too much time feeling really lost and frightened and thinking about committing suicide. That’s one thing I think young people should really know. It takes work to stay awake and not only to stay awake but to keep reawakening. From Sunday night to Monday morning we can suddenly lose ourselves and be filled with anxiety. Even after 14 years of therapy, I can fall right back to calling myself a loser.

Linda: Oh, thank you for saying this. You are not alone!! I go through the same thing. It’s so human. It’s actually refreshing to know I’m not the only one who puts myself down so… and knowing that you don’t deserve it sure informs me that I don’t either! I recently heard that one way to see the idea of discipline is to become our own disciples. Be our own disciples! Everyday for the past year, the minute I get up and see myself in one of my mirrors, I go close to it and say, “Good morning, beautiful, Linda, I love you.” It helps a lot!

Chris: I have a friend you have to meet, Kurt, he is a deep practitioner of Zen. He goes on 28-day meditations, where folks meditate 16 hours a day, in total darkness. When he comes back, he’s just the same guy as when he left. One day, I asked him if there are any insights that happen for him there, or things he’s learned or something he can share, and he said in a beautiful kind of honesty, “I don’t know, I just do it.” A couple weeks ago, we were sitting around a campfire and he came forth with this insight that was the sum total of all his years of meditation. It was such an incredibly astute insight. He said, “Have you ever been doing something, like doing the dishes or just sitting around, whatever, and you suddenly go, “What is happening? What is this?” And on the deepest level, you’re just thinking, “What is happening?” Victoria puts it in a beautiful way. It’s an idea she’s been working with in her poetry, for quite some time. It’s preverbal. The real question is just WH? She writes it as WH with a question mark. Like WH?  It’s just pure WH!

Linda: Wait, do that again – I’m using Capture to take photos of you as we speak! I want to capture you doing WH? That’s hilarious. It’s so true. Yes! WH? It’s short for what the fuhhhh, right!?


Linda: Got any favorite poems or music right now?

Chris: I love that Rumi poem, the one that goes “Out beyond notions of wrong doing and right doing, there’s a field, I will meet you there.” I mean, what deeper wisdom can there be than that. And as for music, oh my gosh, I just discovered a new musician, Mike Stern, and I’m completely in love with his playing. Do you know him?

Linda: No, I don’t.

Chris: I just saw him twice at Jazz Alley. He’s a jazz guitarist. His playing is just wicked! I’ve been a Pat Metheny fan for many, many years, and Mike Stern is on that level, but his playing doesn’t have the kind of sweetness that Pat Metheny has. Mike comes from rock, funk, blues, that kind of background. His playing is so incredibly hip and hard driving and cool. I’m all about Mike Stern these days.

Linda: Sweet, I’ll do a Pandora Mike Stern channel. Ok, here’s my last question. What is your favorite question interviewers ask you?

Chris: Pretty much the questions you ask. I always think it’s interesting when people start an interview, or introduce me as an environmental photographer. I don’t think of myself as doing environmental photography. What I’m really interested in is not making artwork and talking about what’s happening out there, but what’s happening in here, inside us. I think of all the problems of our environment, whether it is the destruction of our oceans, or the damage to our atmosphere, or the cutting down of our forests or whatever as not being the actual problems. These are the symptoms of a greater disconnect that’s happened in here, inside us, on a collective, global level. To me that is where the truest healing can really happen. I’m interested in questions like how can we face the pain and bear it, and transform ourselves. We need to heal the disconnect that caused the problems we have in the first place. That’s why I like to call myself a cultural activist, because that’s the place where we can change. We might not be able to do anything really meaningful about saving the elephants. But, one thing we can do, where we are all empowered, one place where we can really be an activist and make a big difference is right in here. This is one place where we can take complete responsibility and transform. What if there was more activism around that subject?

Linda: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s an inside job, right?

Chris: Yeah… Being around my mother in her last weeks and days, I became more interested than I’ve ever been before in energy — interpersonal energy — attuning to it. My mother became incredibly attuned to my energy. It was almost telepathic, near the end of her life, there were very little words but she was so tuned in to my energy. I realized that that’s the place where the most powerful activism can happen, shifting energy — on a cultural level, interpersonally, and individually.

Linda: I know you have to go to another interview, Chris, and I feel we’ve only just started to talk about this. Just one thing more: what are you up to for the future with your work? I know the Midway film is going to come out.

Chris: Well, yes, someday soon. What I really want is to get back behind my camera. I’d like to go back into Washington’s rain forest again. I have a way to photograph really big trees, that, as far as I know, hasn’t been done before. It’s a super cool idea I’d like to experiment with.

Linda: Well, I know whatever you are going to do, is going to be great, Chris.Thank you so much for this special time with you.

After this interview, I went out with Chris to photograph one day. Here’s a few from that experience.

Chris photographing reeds in the pond near his home, December 2013.

“Let the beauty we love
be what we do
there are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground” Rumi

Linda's shot

Here’s one I did that afternoon using Chris’s 18mm Fisheye lens… reminded me of how much we need to reach out to each other….

Important Organizations to research and support:
Plastic Pollution Coalition   Plastic Pollution Coalition is a non-profit, global alliance working to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals and the environment.

5 Gyres  Their mission is to conduct research and communicate about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the 5 subtropical gyres.

Iworry  The iworry campaign was created by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) and exists to raise global awareness to the devastating impact the illegal ivory trade is having on elephant populations.