“The world has a mortal fever. I am a witness to this sickness.” –Inuit hunter, Greenland
There is the story and there is the body. The body is where we feel things. The body takes in the information and records it as sensation and responds with an action—a smile, tears, a handshake, a standing up, a sitting down, a refusal, and acceptance.
In Paris, I’ve been hearing the stories and seeing the bodies and feeling the feelings and recording the reactions.
The artist Mel Chin came to Paris to make a film “The Arctic Is Paris” about an elite subsistence Inuit hunter from Greenland who wakes up on his dog-less dogsled in the middle of the city. I heard Chin speak about the film-in-progress (and saw excerpts) at the Gaite L’yrique, a theater not far from La Republique and the headquarters ArtCOP21.
In the film, the hunter wanders the streets pulling the sled himself (reminding me of the Greenpeace/Radiohead project with the polar bear in London) until he sees a French standard poodle and soon falls into a dream in which a team of poodles helps pull him. The dream sequence Chin showed was funny and poignant and sad and adaptive and provocative and funny again.
The film project was truncated by the Nov. 13 attacks, Chin explained, but Chin turned the camera on the “atmosphere of emergency,” and started to work on story about the link between climate change and global terror. “Dreams are crushed on a daily basis,” Chin said. “But new dreams are made.” This is the kind of artist resiliency I love.
After Chin’s presentation, two subsistence hunters from Greenland Jens Danielsen (who is featured in Chin’s film) and Mamarut Kristiansen were invited to the front of the room, where they sat on Chin’s movie sled, sandwiching their interpreter. Thick, stoic men, they wore shiny blue tops and shorn short hair.
“We can no longer read the signs,” Jens said.
We look out the window in the morning for the weather. Our ancestors taught us how to read the sky, the clouds to predict the weather because of changes to the ice. The tracks we used to use are no longer there. We can’t go as far as we used to. In early 90s we hunted and fished in the sea ice. We would drill down 2 meters. Not this way today. These years the thickest is less than 1 meter. Scientists come and tell us what is happening, and some say no it isn’t happening. It’s hard to be in the middle. But we are the ones who see the changes and live under them.
“I have an opinion,” he said. “Our ancestors never experienced this rapid change. It’s us, people, making the pollution. The use of oil and powering things we use is polluting our world.”
He sat still as he spoke, stoic. Like a block of ice.
“Our biggest challenge is when darkness comes. Ice used to come two months earlier, in October. We can’t go out hunting or by boat now because the ice comes in darkness. This is the hardest period of our lives.”
The hunter holds the microphone and says these words and does not move his body very much. I imagine him standing at his window far to the north looking at the sky. I imagine the movement inside him as he searches for the signs and does not find them. I feel the stirring inside myself.
This is what empathy feels like. To feel in myself on behalf of someone else. This body at the window, looking. This body with his dog bodies. The body moving across the snow. The body searching. These are bodies at the coastlines, bodies at the forest fires, bodies at the floods. These are the bodies gathering up the belongings. The bodies migrating. The bodies untethered. The bodies without belonging.
When you see people on the frontlines of climate change, you begin to really understand, if you didn’t before, how place is inextricably tied to culture. You begin to understand how there aren’t words for the things that are happening this, but that silence isn’t acceptable. You begin to feel the thing rise in you, like fire, like sea: an anger, a certainty, a resolve. You hope everyone around you feels it too.