NEIL YOUNG cut a record called On The Beach nearly 40 years ago. For half of that time period, my own appetite for music has been scrambled and insatiable. But lately I’ve been coming back to that record’s title track, drawn by a simple (but gigantic) lyric: The world is turning / I hope it don’t turn away.
This forlorn idea escaped Young’s brain and body after 20-odd years of gestation, let out by his gift for the guitar. He poured his song into grooved circles of vinyl, like a message in a bottle. Eventually it would reach my ears as an intangible audio file, completely out of context. Sometimes art creeps up on you like this – the grip of synchronicity reverberating through time, matter and circumstance.
Back in the mid-70s, Young’s turning world included the tragic deaths of friends and feeling alienated by fame. It had also been spun by a decade of fierce social unrest and protest, and an environmental movement that was just rising to take on widespread air and water pollution, urban sprawl’s explosion (fuelled by cars filled with leaded gas) and the lingering idea that smokestacks meant only progress. Four decades later, overshadowed by crippling political dysfunction and the terrifying abyss of climate change, Young’s lyric is perhaps more relevant, urgent and poignant than ever.
It’s startling when 10 words from 1974 seem to grapple so well with what’s happening in 2013. And while it’s oddly comforting to feel something resembling a younger Young’s despair in my bones, I’m not sure how much his song actually moves me. Listening to “On The Beach” is more palliative than catalyzing.
Often the most powerful messages about the realities of the world around us are delivered without a word, even without a sound. Sharing space with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs comes to mind. I recall being transfixed by his large-scale images of tar sands extraction, knowing in the first seconds of their nauseating, fascinating spell that what they exposed would factor into my political decision making forever after. The mountainous clumps of discarded tires from his Oxford Tire Pile series, their eerily organic shapes full of menacing ridges and emotions, urged me to keep getting around without a car. Burtynsky’s eye helped spell out my lifestyle choices with no alphabet.
Last fall I had the chance to watch Burtynsky discuss the inherent power of imagery with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, with whom he’s collaborating on an intriguing new documentary called Water. Alongside four other projects I discovered at Toronto’s Planet in Focus film festival, I was struck by five essential strategies for communicating our environmental challenges to a broader audience. I’ve tried to distil them in one of this issue’s feature stories.
We also asked seven great Canadian visual artists, each immersed in a different medium or approach, about what environmental art is and does. Likewise, we profile two immense talents who aim to encapsulate our relationships with the ocean in completely different ways – Jason deCaires Taylor by revitalizing coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea, and David Blackwood by immortalizing Newfoundland’s past. And we present excerpts from two important new books – a visual essay by the indefatigable Franke James, who dissects how the Harper government tried to censor her creative criticism, and an historical riff by Giles Slade on how the progression from gramophones to iPhones has only made us more solitary and disengaged from our surroundings.
What I take away from all of these artists is that our world is turning into uncharted territory. I hope we don’t turn away.
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