A challenge of conceiving the climate change crisis is that, unlike other events and problems, we can’t directly see or feel it, because there is no position from which to view it in its totality. To borrow from philosopher Timothy Morton, climate change is a “hyperobject,” something that is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans”; that is, it’s happening all around us, all the time, at a pace and scale that defies direct perception. We can experience its effects – stronger storms, hotter heat waves, shrinking glaciers, etc. – but we can’t see or feel climate change, we can only see and perceive it through its effects (and, of course, there are many – too many – who would deny that what we see and perceive is an effect of climate change, but let’s not go there).
In her new eco-parable the fisherman, the butterfly, eve & her lover choreographer Beth Corning has come up with a resonant visual metaphor that niftily demonstrates how a thing can be real, and have effects, even when we can’t see it. At the top of the performance, a small wooden boat with a tiny figure sitting in it rests in the upstage left corner of the playing space. Over the course of the hour-plus performance, the boat moves imperceptibly across the stage, so slowly that even if you watch it carefully (as I did, several times, once I became aware that it had shifted position) you can’t see it move. And yet, move it does, winding up on the opposite end of the stage. Just as with climate change, the cause is imperceptible, but the effect is evident.
You’ll note that I wrote in that last paragraph “once I became aware that it had shifted position” – the metaphor, along with the production as a whole, also captures something about how we’re collectively putting our heads in the sand when it comes to dealing with climate change. Stage left is a platform covered with Amazon boxes where Eve (Jillian Hollis) and her lover (Evan Fisk) live in green overabundance, eagerly and excitedly opening packages so that they can repeatedly try on new things. Surrounded by more than they could ever use, they are distracted by consumption, and we, in turn, are distracted by them – by their romantic, lush movements – and fail to notice that the little boat is on the move. Stage right is the sparse home of the lonely Fisherman (Nathan Keepers), who has nothing but his stories and a tiny pet fish to keep him company. He lives in a world in which sand has taken the place of water; in one of the piece’s most poignant moments, he gives the bulk of a found bottle of water to keep his little fish alive. In the middle is a large sand-covered space where the Fisherman “fishes” and the lovers cavort; it’s also where the Butterfly (Beth Corning) flits and floats, bewildered by the changed state of the world. Is she the apocryphal butterfly whose flap of a wing can change the weather half a world away, or merely another species struggling to survive in a waterless environment? She, too, seems eager to find a way to deny what’s right in front of her eyes, planting a bed of fake flowers in a block of Styrofoam to create a spring garden.
As the boat moves from the lovers’ “paradise” of overconsumption to the ascetic isolation of the fisherman’s world, it also connects the dots: the one (overconsumption, heedless distraction) leads to the other (ecological devastation). It’s a grim parable, and one that we ignore at our peril.