Shells in Gardens

For a few years now, I have increasingly thought that art could be a powerful medium for science communication, capturing the minds of people who will not absorb the messages of traditional science communication for whatever reason (not interested, not typically seen, writing too dense or full of jargon). With a song in a pub pulling on the heartstrings, the consequences of not taking climate action may finally sink in. Certainly the scientific urgency means it’s time to try and communicate about climate change in whatever way possible.

I was therefore delighted to join the ‘Climate Stories’ program and excited about having a go at using art to try and communicate climate. When I was younger I did some singing and drama and a lot of music; I continue to play music but mostly my creative side goes into my science, with free time spent outdoors. So it was a little daunting to start thinking like an artist again!

The three days we as scientists spent together with some local artists at Dartington Hall in Devon were tremendously enjoyable, and not just for the inspiring grounds and good food and weather! Within a few minutes of starting the poetry session, discussions revealed the fascinating research tales we had and it started to become clear that there would be some fantastic climate stories we could show. Poetry also presented my first challenge; show don’t tell. For years, writing scientifically has taught me to focus on telling the reader what the data means. As scientific data is often complex and not easy to understand, as the expert in it, it is helpful to be very clear about what it shows to prevent misunderstanding. Instead, in the creative arts, the power of a piece can be a little hint, showing the reader an event or object and letting them take away their own message. It was certainly a change of mindset for me, and I do still often end up erring on the side of telling, but I certainly try to avoid lecturing.

Next, printmaking. Inspired by the huge banner depicting a river the group before had made, we eagerly started planning a series of prints that could be animated. It was relaxing to be making something with the hands, until time ticked by and we had to rush to get all the prints done in time! Seeing the film made of all the printmaking together at the end of the workshop revealed, incredibly, just how much environmental education could be encapsulated by simple prints.

Theatre took us out discovering the gardens at Dartington Hall and really for me, on a journey of the senses. In such beautiful settings I realised how I could tell the story of the changeable ocean using the garden as a metaphor. For successful communication, relating to your audience is key, and of course, many of the things we talk about in climate science are hard to understand or relate to. Again, it was a joy to see the different ideas everyone came up with, and I think we all learnt a lot from each other. Indeed, the workshop was a great chance to meet scientists from different disciplines; despite working in the same city, it can feel hard to forge links. Over a shared love of communication, I’m sure many future productive relationships have been born.

Finally, songwriting. I was initially nervous (it seemed a puzzle for me where to start!) but we were taught simple techniques, and somehow, two hours later, our two groups produced two (in my opinion) great songs! So it may not always be that quick and simple, and I went along to the songwriting community workshop weekend to find out. This time, two partial songs, but some great ideas and discussions with songwriters interested in singing about climate change. I think the power of a song cannot be underestimated, but what really struck me here is the attention to detail of the songwriters I worked with in combining the words, rhythms and music into something magical. Of course, as a scientist, attention to detail is really important, but I tend to move on when something works and is technically right as I have so much to do. Instead, the tinkering really turned the existing message into something powerful and memorable.


I’ve also really enjoyed revisiting drama and poetry in the community workshops. Showing teenagers the shells that I use data from, and watching them create a beautiful piece of theatre using them, reminded me of the power of romance in communication. They told the story of an old woman who lost her husband to sea and who collected shells from the shore to connect to him, recollecting stories of the past from the shells when asked by the local youths. A powerful, emotive, piece of drama, it reminded me that people care about stories about people. As earth scientists, we don’t do this. Instead, as science communicators, we can present the healthy love we could have for our planet and all its species, to inspire moving away from the toxic relationship we have now.

At another community workshop, working together with another scientist from the Met Office and an English literature student from the University of Exeter, I was delighted to co-write a poem. This time we merged our interests and ideas to create a powerful tale about the inequality in accessing drinking water across the planet, worsened by climate change.  Throughout the project the power of collaboration has been truly inspiring. Together, we have co-created great pieces of work, supported each other, listened with awe and praised, and inspired each other to new creations, and reminded ourselves of the critical importance of our core science day jobs. It feels like a great model for productivity and I am looking forward immensely to seeing the outputs of the project brought together on the 19th September at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.


Dr Freya Garry

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Exeter

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