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Ecological Artist Basia Irland and Her “Ice Books” Engage Communities and Restore Rivers

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for thirty years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship.

I first met Basia more than a decade ago when I was invited to speak at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where today she is professor emerita. What I remember most from that first meeting was how her artistic thinking and work crossed just about every discipline present on the campus.

Water, Basia shows, is the great connector and integrator. The creative impulses infused into her sculpture and community projects – including the Ice Receding/Books Reseeding project she describes here – transform art into civic engagement with the Earth and inspire action to save the planet’s rivers.

Text Below by Basia Irland 

All photos courtesy of Basia Irland

In 2007 I carved a 250-pound sculptural “book” out of a huge block of frozen river water near the Arapaho Glacier, an important source of drinking water for the city of Boulder, Colorado. I engraved the ice book with “text” comprised of seeds from mountain maple (Acer spicatum), columbine flowers (Aquilegia coerulea), and Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), all native to the riverside habitats of the region. Four people carried the heavy book into the current of Boulder Creek and laid it between two large rocks.  As the ice book began to melt, the seeds would disperse into the river and flow downstream.

Thus was born my project Ice Receding/Books Reseeding, an effort to draw attention to climate disruption and glacial melting, and to connect communities to their local rivers and the importance of their watersheds.

For the people of Boulder, the question was: when the Arapaho Glacier melts away, to what source will they – and local fish and wildlife – turn for their water?

Ice Receding/Books Reseeding represents a shift away from art as commodity and toward new creative possibilities of art in service to communities and ecosystems. It emphasizes the necessity of communal effort, scientific knowledge, and poetic intervention to deal with the complex issues of climate disruption and watershed restoration. Through the release of seed-laden ephemeral ice sculptures into rivers, creeks, and streams, the project not only connects people to their watersheds, it attempts to repair these watersheds by re-vegetating riparian (river-side) areas with native plants and trees.

Each “book launch” is an energized gathering of community participants, many of whom have not physically been to their river before the event. The project provides a hands-on educational experience by encouraging interaction with the river and demonstrating how specific native riparian seeds can help restore a watershed. Seed packets are gifted to the participants so they can continue the planting process.

Each project begins by carving frozen river water into the form of a book.  Some books are large and weigh as much as 250 pounds; others are the size of a pocket book. Each is then embedded with an “ecological language” or “riparian text” consisting of local native seeds. The book is then placed back into the stream.

Closed books have seed patterns on the covers, while open books have rows of seeds forming sentences and paragraphs. These seeds are released as the ice melts in the current. Where the seeds choose to plant themselves is serendipitous, replicating the way seeds get planted in nature.

Ice book with seeds of wild Iris (Iris missouriensis), Big Wood River, Idaho.

Ice book with seeds of wild iris (Iris missouriensis), Big Wood River, Idaho.

In future book launches, we plan to attach a probe to monitor temperature, light, and dissolved oxygen, as well as a micro-cam to gather data about where the current takes the seeds and how they get deposited along the banks. A GPS will also be installed to pinpoint locations.

On each project, I work with stream ecologists, river restoration biologists, and botanists to ascertain the best seeds for each specific riparian zone. When the plants regenerate and grow along the riverbank, they help sequester carbon, slow erosion, build the soil, filter pollutants and debris, and provide shelter and habitat for riverside organisms.

The variety of participants in an ice book launch depends on the location. Along the Nisqually River in Washington State, for example, participants included Nisqually Tribal Members, salmon restoration specialists, musicians, fifth graders from the WaHeLut Indian School, students and professors from Evergreen State College, and forest rangers.

Participants on the Rio Grande in New Mexico have included artists, farmers, acequia majordomos (irrigation ditch bosses), hydrologists, Pueblo members, and hundreds of interested watershed citizens.

Several months ago, two Ohio academic institutions, the University of Dayton and Antioch College, invited me to create a series of ice books with the involvement of the local communities. My residency was supported by Antioch College and the University of Dayton’s Departments of English and Visual Arts; College of Arts and Sciences; Rivers Institute; ArtStreet; Environmental Education Center; Arts Series; SEE (Sustainability, Energy, and Environment) Initiative; and the Women’s Center. The University of Dayton’s Rivers Institute enlisted a fleet of kayaks from which the books were launched into the Great Miami River.

With supporters and collaborators, I have launched ice books into rivers in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and across the United States and Canada. Riparian seeds have been released into spring-borne streams in Missouri, languid creeks in North Carolina, and rust-red acid mine drainage in West Virginia’s Deckers Creek.  I have documented many of these launchings in my video, Ice Receding/Books Reseeding, which I began producing in 2007 and continue to update as new projects develop.

The ice books can be read as a universal invocation of and for the Earth. The tongues of the glaciers are receding, the voices of our rivers are being dammed and clogged with toxic debris. We need many diverse scribes writing about our rivers, and both real and virtual libraries to house their stories.

Book launch from kayak into Great Miami River, with help from the River Stewards Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

Book launch from kayak into Great Miami River, with help from the River Stewards Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

Basia Irland is an ecological artist, professor emerita at the University of New Mexico, and creator of the Ice Receding/Books Reseeding project.  She has focused her art on rivers for the past thirty years. Irland’s work appeared in the March-April issue of Orion magazine and was highlighted in the September 2013 issue of Sculpture magazine. For more information, visit Irland’s website.

Comments

  1. Diana Hartel
    Ashland, OR
    April 17, 6:19 pm

    The ice books are exquisite, the community launches a joy, powerfully educating all involved. It was fortunate for me that my travels coincided with such a launch on the Rio Grande, a river sorely in need of a greater active, caring community. It was an unforgettable experience, etched in my memory like a prayer for the river.

  2. Krisanne Baker
    Coast of Maine
    March 21, 11:25 pm

    The inclusion of Basia’s work in National Geographic is most fortunate. More than ever, we need to connect to the earth and it’s waters in sublime stewardship to ensure the health and well being of all. Thank you for showing us ‘Receding Ice:Reseeding Rivers’ – I feel hopeful seeing the arts and sciences together.

  3. Katya Dishlieva
    Sofia, Bulgaria
    March 21, 5:43 pm

    Very interesting project, a combination of science and art. Thank you for the pleasant moments – feast for the eyes and soul! Thanks a lot and good luck!

  4. Cleve Moler
    Santa Fe
    March 18, 2:14 pm

    I would love to see one of these live!

  5. Elinor Alexander
    Adelaide South Australia
    March 18, 5:36 am

    Amazing work! For someone from Australia, water is as critical as it is in the SW but we don”t see it frozen very often! It’s marvellous to think of how the works melt and leave only seeds. I love how interactive they are. It is reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s London snowballs but these scultpures are different objects created to fit in the natural environment.

  6. Dragomir
    Sofia, Bulgaria
    March 13, 6:16 am

    Great article!

    “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash.”

  7. Cathy Briand
    Albuquerque, NM
    March 12, 11:59 pm

    Beautiful, informative work!

  8. Elena varbanova
    Sofia, Bulgaria
    March 11, 7:15 pm

    What a fantastic project! Such a creative work, such a deepness! And so long lasting dedication and devotion of Basia Irland to a cause of greatest importance: the water on Earth. When Prof. Stanly Steinberg informed me about the Nat Geo blog the first thought that came to my mind was: „Water, thou has no taste, no color, no odor; cannot be defined, art relished ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fills us with gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.“, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
    Thank you Basia Irland and National Geographic! Keep going together!

  9. Larry Akers
    Austin Texas
    March 10, 1:39 pm

    This is a lovely concept, not only on its own merits but also in its philosophy of art as an active service agent rather than a commodity.

    Did the artists consider alternatives to ice as a delivery vehicle in rivers which had no ice-bound origin?

  10. Jenny Balfour-Paul
    UK
    March 10, 1:03 pm

    What a beautiful way to draw attention to such an important topic. I love Basia’s work and the ideas behind it.

  11. Kenneth Ingham
    Albuquerque, NM
    March 9, 4:06 pm

    In New Mexico, water and rivers are essential for life. I am glad that Basia is bringing more attention to the rivers.

  12. Dr. Jackie Damrau
    Plano, TX
    March 9, 12:08 pm

    Dr. Stanly Steinberg shared Basia’s blog with me. After reviewing it, I find that her project should continue on. As a writer, I believe this is one unique form of sharing our country’s culture and nature. Basia should be commended for doing something so fantastic that will enliven and enlighten anyone’s life who happens upon her work.

  13. reuben hersh
    santa fe nm usa
    March 9, 7:45 am

    amazing, wonderful work

    thank you!

  14. Tatiana Benally
    Shiprock
    March 6, 2:46 pm

    Basia’s work is amazing. Excited to see what more is to come. :)

  15. Vicki
    NM
    March 2, 11:30 am

    I really love how the seeds are imbeded in the ice and how the ice is carved from the glacier and involving community support.

  16. kawtar
    Maroc
    February 25, 11:49 am

    I like so much that it is good thank you

  17. Stanly Steinberg
    Albuquerque NM USA
    February 21, 2:32 am

    I met Basia when we were both appointed Faculty Scholars at the University of New Mexico for the Spring semester of 1993. This allowed us and four other faculty to do whatever we wanted for a semester. I followed the writing of her book Water Library which was a wonderful experience. Her current project on Ice Books is equally fascinating and beautiful.

  18. Jerry Wellman
    Santa Fe NM
    February 16, 12:28 pm

    Truly inspiring mix of art, science, and the community we all take part in. Enhance the wonder. Thank you Basia Irland

  19. Doris Hellinghausen
    Denver
    February 12, 6:45 pm

    My husband and I remind ourselves almost daily what a luxury we enjoy by living within walking distance of the South Platt River. So if Basia had done nothing more than tempt people to visit their neighborhood river, I would think she deserved the highest praise. But she went SO much further, giving even us river huggers the means to a novel and creative perspective on their value. I am reassured to live in a world where people like her will undertake – and National Geographic will support – a project of this magnitude and delicacy.

  20. Ana MacArthur
    Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
    February 12, 1:53 am

    My colleague Basia has been an embedded ecological and water activist for many years, thus it is highly appropriate to see her ‘water engagement’ featured in this forum where it can be demonstrated that artistic thinking and process, engaged in community, can be a special catalyst for change.

  21. Mark Feldman
    Portland, OR
    February 10, 12:30 am

    What a nice overview of a terrific project! Terrific that National Geographic is helping share this work.

  22. Sally Bowler-Hill
    Albuquerque, NM
    February 6, 4:31 pm

    Beautiful work! Glad to see this posted on a site like National Geographic.

  23. Patty Bittner Black
    Lafayette, Colorado
    February 6, 4:09 pm

    (Babs – remember when…) You are doing such impressive and worthwhile work and constant research. Think Jane and I were very fortunate to be present for your project on the Boulder Creek. Brought back a good memory. pb

  24. Terryl Shouba
    St. Charles, IL
    February 6, 10:27 am

    A moving witness to changes taking place, which would be silent were it not for her art, and we would hardly notice them. Beautiful.

  25. Eva Sidonie Hayward
    United States
    February 5, 4:45 pm

    I have long been inspired by Basia Irland’s amazing artwork. So glad the National Geographic is featuring her projects!

  26. Mary Lance
    Corrales, New Mexico
    February 4, 6:35 pm

    I am delighted to see Basia Irland’s work on the Nat Geo blog. The ice book launch in Albuquerque was an inspiring event.

  27. Diana Theodores
    United Kingdom
    February 4, 4:38 pm

    Basia Irland’s work, vision and passion has inspired me for many years and continues to inspire, intrigue and uplift me.
    Hers is a unique interdisciplinary voice of the poet, artist, ecologist and social activist. As well, her works are beautiful and compelling in their own right as site specific art.
    Her blogs have found a rightful home at National Geographic.

  28. Gay W
    Devon, UK
    February 4, 12:46 pm

    So much comes together in this article – concern for the environment, art , research, skill and heart. Thank you Basia.

  29. Jacqueline Bishop
    New Orleas, Louisiana
    February 4, 10:41 am

    Brilliant Blog!! National Geographic. Featuring Basia Ireland and her meaningful work opens the audience, the discussion, the information to the issues for more understanding. When so many forms of communication seem to fall short, what better way than through visual art for reaching other depths.

  30. Ann Savageau
    Davis, CA
    February 4, 12:03 am

    As a resident of California, where we are experiencing a record drought, I find that Basia’s work resonates with special urgency. Her work speaks more profoundly of the fundamental role that water plays in our lives than anything I have ever seen. Keep up your powerful work, Basia.

  31. Erika Osborne
    Fort Collins, CO
    February 3, 10:50 pm

    In a time where science, technology, math and engineering are getting the bulk of our attention and funding, it’s important to see an institution such as National Geographic acknowledging the roll of art in creating a more environmentally aware and community centric world.

  32. Mary Daniel Hobson
    San Francisco Bay Area
    February 3, 3:48 pm

    What a fabulous article – so excited to see National Geographic focusing on such important work that bridges art and science. We were delighted to honor Basia’s work last year with an Arts & Healing Network award:
    http://www.artheals.org/ahn-awardee/basia-irland-2013-ahn-awardee.html.

  33. Claire Cote
    Questa, New Mexico USA
    February 3, 3:03 pm

    I am thrilled to see Basia’s important work featured here on National Geographic’s Water Blog; a perfect fit. To me, Basia’s work is a superb example of site specific art as protagonist, crossing and connecting people, disciplines, places, ideas and borders and poetically increasing awareness, inviting dialogue and instigation conversation. Keep going Basia!

  34. Pam McBride
    Albuquerque
    February 3, 12:05 pm

    This is very important work that I wasn’t even aware had taken place along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque! Thank you for posting this especially at a time when there is discussion about damming the last wild river in New Mexico-the Gila.

  35. Amy Nelson
    Baltimore, MD
    February 3, 11:01 am

    Art is an incredibly powerful tool in ecological restoration and conservation! So great to see this addressed in this blog. We featured Basia and other contemporary eco-artists in our “Art & Ecology” issue of Leaf Litter: http://www.biohabitats.com/newsletters/art-ecology/#basia-irland

  36. Matthew Chase-Daniel
    USA
    February 3, 9:58 am

    It is great to see NatGeo becoming a forum to “shift away from art as commodity and toward new creative possibilities of art in service to communities and ecosystems.” Thank you NatGeo and Basia Irland.

  37. Tricia Wilson
    Toronto, Canada
    February 3, 9:52 am

    Bravo to the National Geographic for showcasing this artist’s beautiful and thoughtful work, never more relevant than now with our precious water facing so many threats.

  38. Danielle Ferreira Beckner
    Christchurch New Zealand
    February 3, 3:42 am

    It’s wonderful to see this work continue.

  39. Judy Tuwaletstiwa
    Galisteo, New Mexico
    February 3, 3:37 am

    Beautiful work, Basia…it is always good to see collaborations of art and science, visions intertwining.

  40. TIm C
    Scotland
    February 3, 2:54 am

    Superb work and really inspiring to see Basia’s work. Thanks for highlighting the artistic approach to connect people to their local waters through a beautiful and thoughtful artistic approach.

  41. Mike Bilan
    Beijing, China
    February 3, 12:16 am

    I first met Basia when I was a student and having seen her work evolve over the last 30 years has been inspirational. As an educator myself, I know that her way of involving communities, and especially young people, will have a powerful effect on the attitudes toward and awareness of the importance of water and watersheds in those communities. Great to see the work in National Geographic. Thank you Basia!

  42. Jill Powers
    Boulder Colorado
    February 2, 11:09 pm

    It has been the year of finding out about the power of water, here in Colorado. It is so poignant to see the work of Basia’s water art. The depth of your creative projects among people and waterways helps us to understand what is happening to our planet. Exquisite and meaningful art is such a good way to make it visible.

  43. Colleen Cummins
    Albuquerque, NM
    February 2, 6:24 pm

    Thoughtful and inspired collaboration carries with it the only real possibility for healthy innovative change. This, obviously, is Basia’s gift. Be inspired to change.

  44. doug wayfarer cohen
    High Desert, Albuquerque New Mexico
    February 2, 6:02 pm

    Beautiful piece with many messages and images that speak to my heart. On behalf of the sustainability education and leadership needed to develop the next generations of eco-stewards, this multi-media work speaks volumes. As they say in New Zealand – ‘Love your work, Basia’

  45. sharon kallis
    Vancouver BC
    February 2, 5:12 pm

    How fabulous to see Basia’s work though the lens of the National Geographic! Basia so thoughtfully and poetically draws together the threads of environmental science and local stewardship. I hope this is just the start, and that we will be seeing more environmental based art projects in National Geographic down the road.

  46. Anne Cooper
    Los Ranchos, NM
    February 2, 4:21 pm

    The ice books are poetic and beautiful calls to tend our fragile waterways. To draw attention to the power of a seed and the life potential therein.
    Lovely project!

  47. Bobbe Besold
    United States
    February 2, 4:19 pm

    This is Brilliant work by an inspired and inspiring artist. THIS is how positive change happens. Thank you.

  48. David Williams
    London, England
    February 2, 4:17 pm

    It’s wonderful to see your work in this context, Basia, thank you. The ice books are exquisite. All wishes to you, Basia, for your continuing endeavours, which are invaluable x

    For anyone not familiar with Basia’s huge body of water-related work, I recommend unreservedly her beautiful book ‘Water Library’ (University of New Mexico Press, 2007).

  49. Lea Anderson
    Albuquerque
    February 2, 3:59 pm

    Thank you Basia Irland and National Geographic: a perfect example of why the Arts/creative practice go hand-in-hand with Science- it is only through awareness and applied practice that progress is possible. Any channel through which this is supported deserves to be championed!

  50. Jennifer Heath
    United States
    February 2, 3:58 pm

    This is SO important and I am overjoyed that Nat. Geo has had the foresight and insight to put Basia on this project. N one better. Thanks. Have spread the word far and wide through various channels via our traveling new-media art exhibition (in which Basia has two films), Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource and linking the blog on our website.

  51. Dominique Mazeaud
    Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
    January 30, 3:10 pm

    Thank you National Geographic for opening your blog stream to art, and what kind of art. Doing art FOR the Earth is a profound calling and Basia Irland is a leader of this path.

  52. Erika Blumenfeld
    Doha, Qatar
    January 25, 10:11 am

    “Ice Receding/Books Reseeding” is such an elegant and poignant project! Thank you, Basia, for bringing the importance of respect and stewardship of our water systems into focus through your work.

  53. Tom Powers
    Waynesville, NC
    January 23, 2:03 pm

    Gives “book launch” a whole new meaning…

  54. Vasantkumar
    Manama
    January 18, 11:36 am

    In a world of don’t care upper crest, we are having angels like you who lived a life of serving the earth while showcasing the need to preserve our rivers and its flora. May God bless you!

  55. J Stoneking
    Richmond VA
    January 17, 8:31 pm

    Thank you for inspiring all of us to care even more for our Earth.

  56. Hiten Shah
    Mumbai
    January 17, 7:32 am

    Excellent !!!

  57. Bi Veronica
    Bamenda, Cameroon, C. Africa
    January 17, 5:22 am

    Great mark of creativity, putting art and nature together to bring out and instill sense into the world. You see how connected and related nature is with everything that exists. Thanks Basia.

  58. Reinhard Reitzenstein
    Buffalo
    January 16, 10:33 pm

    Basia this is awesome… what a lovely process seeds in ice books the ephemeral gardener…

  59. Yasser arfath
    Nilgris,India
    January 16, 10:36 am

    Great Job !!!!

  60. mita chatterjee
    January 16, 9:40 am

    Excellant amalgamation of art and nature.Thank you for sharing this wonderful project of Basia Irland.

  61. Vincent Wong
    Vancouver,Canada
    January 16, 8:03 am

    Thanks for your good work! Talking about rivers;the two major rivers,among others, in China are in the state of ecological disaster! Because of random tree cutting along the banks to make way for building factories, indiscriminate dumping of toxic chemicals into the rivers, and worst of all ,the damming of the big Yantze River, which has forced the neighboring homes and heritage sites to be relocated, millions homes and precious land flooded…..Please look at the situation there!!

  62. Karin Bolender
    Corvallis, Oregon
    January 15, 6:31 pm

    Basia Irland’s work is a clear, profound, and beautiful illumination of interconnectedness. Thank you for featuring her wonderful ice books on this site, and I recommend visiting her website to see her many other inspiring projects.

  63. roger frank malina
    Dallas
    January 11, 1:31 pm

    Basi
    its great to see this !! as you know in the last decade or so a whole new generation of science and technology savvy artists have been at work- in art science collaborations.
    our leonardo organisation did a project called “lovely weather’in ireland
    http://www.olats.org/fcm/artclimat/artclimat_eng.php
    and two works shops on water is in the air
    http://www.olats.org/studiolab/eau.php
    its fascinating to see artists appropriate the science and technology of water- both redirecting the science and technology and embedding in in meaningful cultural ways
    roger malina

  64. Patricia Sanders
    Portland, Oregon
    January 11, 11:38 am

    What inspiring work! It focuses our attention on our most precious resource and creates beautiful, tangible reminders of our natural systems.

  65. Martina Doblin
    University of Technology Sydney
    January 10, 7:34 pm

    Seed dispersal and connectivity of plant populations is a fascinating branch of science, and critical to maintaining the ecological integrity of both farmed and natural species. Here it is interwoven with the interest of an artist and a collaboration with the community, and is a powerful way to communicate that sustainability involves human stewardship.

  66. Don Krug
    Vancouver, BC
    January 10, 5:05 pm

    Stories of place are an important way to understand the earths holistic and interdependent complexity. Ice Books engage people of all ages in multimodal experiences that prob both artistic and scientific knowledge associated with these relationships. Bravo Basia!

  67. Lisa Roberts
    Sydney
    January 10, 4:38 pm

    Wonderful work! I agree with Chris Freemantle that this work goes beyond simply making beautiful objects by actively engaging people with the environment, and with concerns being shared between scientists and artists. More examples of art arising from conversations between artists and environmental scientists can be seen on the Living Data website:
    http://www.livingdata.net.au/content/visualisations/visualisations.php

  68. ana leonor madeira rodrigues
    January 10, 4:37 pm

    A very beautiful and moving project.
    So poetical.
    Ana Leonor

  69. Fern Shaffer
    United States
    January 10, 12:32 pm

    It is very rewarding to read about your projects and how you work with ice, water, seeds and education. Because I know that as you work on your ideas you share them with those you are connected to and that is a very powerful way to education about echo art.

  70. Aviva Rahmani
    NYC
    January 10, 10:45 am

    I’m delighted to see my esteemed colleague, Basia Irland’s work here, on the world’s premier platform for exquisite images of the natural world. We need to see images that are more than powerful photographs and that expand how we think about our natural world. Thank you for opening this door on new paradigms.

  71. Chris Fremantle
    Ayr, Scotland
    January 10, 7:50 am

    Basia Irland’s work on rivers is a model of art practice that doesn’t just make beautiful things in the landscape but goes much further involving communities and working with the ecology and biodiversity in ways that contribute to eco-cultural well-being. You can find more examples of artists working this way at http://www.greenmuseum.org and with a Scottish focus at http://ecoartscotland.net

  72. Cameron Davis
    Charlotte, Vermont, USA
    January 10, 6:54 am

    I love Basia’s work and this project in particular as her integrative thinking weaves ideas across climate issues, lived relationships with our places and waters, and the book form as a way to share information. The photograph of the child “reading” looks more like a child in meditation, hands open, “receiving” knowledge or guidance. There seems to be a circular process in the concept and practice of this project with that as well. .. receiving the gift of waters , giving back to the community the gift of seeds, community planting seeds and gifting back to the soils, etc. What a beautiful project, Thank you,

  73. Beverly Naidus
    Seattle
    January 10, 1:44 am

    It is so important to see art works that connect us to our rivers, and the importance of clean water ways. Thank you for sharing the powerful projects created by Basia Irland.