A Letter to My Niece

Firescape, 2020, Oil on Canvas.

(I wrote this in September 2020 but at the time it felt too emotional and raw to post. I edited it a little today so the sense of time in it is a bit funny but the essence and emotions are still very much present. I am trying to find ways to talk openly about the complex feelings of climate anxiety, grief and rage. For some reason, this is harder to write about and share than anything I’ve ever posted. Please be gentle.)

Dear little one, my brother’s daughter, my sweet, funny, big eyed, round faced, joyful little niece…

During the first months of your life, I wanted to rejoice. I wanted to be there with my family to meet you at the same time as they did, I wanted to hug your grandparents, I wanted to see them beaming with pride and I would giggle at how cute they were until I noticed myself beaming too. I wanted to touch your tiny new hands and marvel at the absolute preciousness of life and share this irreplaceable time with the people who made you. I imagined our first meeting over and over in my mind… I never plan to have my own child and so your birth felt like the closest I would ever come to meeting my own baby, I knew you would not remember me but still, I wanted to be there to see you discovering the world for the first ever time.

Darling girl, I wish I had been there during your first months of life in my childhood home of Aotearoa, surrounded by love and the people who made you but I wasn’t because my world was on fire. I wish this was a metaphor but it is not, my world was literally on fire. My new home where I had lived for 13 years and where a big part of my heart now belongs, Australia, was burning for weeks and then months, the air we breathed was a murky, yellow-tinged fog of smoke and not the sort of smoke I was used to smelling from campfires and candles but a thick, toxic blanket that hid the skyline and the sun and which meant we could not leave our homes over summer, smoke which leaked under doorways, burned our lungs. Rivers were sludgy and thick, full of thousands of rotten fish corpses, birds were falling dead from the sky, kangaroos with scorched skin were escaping into towns, desperate for refuge, brown rain coated our cars and people ran into the ocean to escape the inferno. We learned about things such as “fire tornadoes”, we learned that fire fighters are superheroes and our politicians are often heartless monsters. I wanted to meet you so badly but I couldn’t leave my family here behind, unlike the Prime Minister of this country who callously flew away for a holiday in Hawaii, my heart told me to stay close to home.

Little one, I wish I felt only joy when I saw photos of you but my world was on fire and it filled me with dread to contemplate your future. Children played outside wearing gas masks and then they didn’t play outside at all. Most of these days blur into one another as I spent much of this time lying in bed, paralysed with the nightmarish horror of it, suffocated by the inability to step outside because the air was hazardous and even on the days where the air was a little more clear, I was grief stricken. This was, it felt, the beginning of the end. The climate apocalypse was no longer an abstract concept but a tangible reality. One morning the heat was so bad that it cooked hundreds of the worms in my worm farm so that when I came to check on them, I was greeted with a stinking, toxic sludge.  At social events, all we talked about were the horror stories we were hearing from families in bushfire affected regions, stories of the sky suddenly turning red, then black as people wondered if and when to evacuate, where all we talked about was our collective despair and fury and overwhelming fear. Everything felt weird and wrong, like a dystopian nightmare. I’ve never felt such an omnipresent sense of dread in my entire life.

I celebrated a little boy’s 5th birthday with his mother and brothers. There were gifts and singing and multi-chromatic cupcakes but watching a mother explaining to a 5 year old why he couldn’t play in the backyard on his birthday was one of the most painful moments in my life. I wondered what his 10th birthday might be like. His 20th. His 60th.

And I thought of you.

Baby girl, there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it as an experience. For much of my life, I knew the climate crisis was an existential threat to life as we know it on this planet and I had even been attempting to engage in activism and self-education around this. Suddenly though, brutally now, this was no longer a concept. The climate apocalypse wasn’t a threat in the future, it was here and it was now. The Amazon burned, the Arctic burned, Australia burned, even your land was on fire. They say New Zealand will be safe from the climate crisis but this simply isn’t true. There is nowhere to escape, no country remote enough, no bunker deep enough. What does your tiny country do when it’s swamped with climate refugees? What happens when once fertile regions of your tiny island home become barren? I know this, now, that there is no escape for any of us. The inferno here made so much smoke that it travelled across the ocean to you, and around the world, contaminating and polluting like the microplastics that now come down in raindrops on the top of remote mountain ranges.

In the end 18.6 million hectares of land was burned, an estimated three billion animals were killed or displaced and though the loss of human life was small by comparison, the collapse of the lungs of our land, the loss of pollinators and diverse, complex, irreplaceable ecosystems has us in an increasingly precarious position and things are only due to get hotter, drier. It’s autumn here now and I’m filled with fear about what this summer holds because the more the land suffers, the more we will too. Without the land to nourish and sustain us, survival will only become harder.

Dream Flames, 2020, Acrylic on Canvas.

My darling niece, you darling, perfect, utterly precious creature, I wish I was happy when you were born but I wasn’t. I was horrified, preoccupied and despairing for your future. I was grieving for the fact that your childhood could not be carefree and safe because none of us are. I was violently angry at the forces of greed, narcissism and apathy that were jeopardising your chances at a safe, happy, beautiful life. I was sitting with my despair and rage and connecting to my love for you, for the children of my friends, to all life forms on this planet and I knew that for the rest of my life, I would have to do my best to fight for you, for life.  

I’m sorry little girl, I’m nothing much. I’m just one person, a weird, awkward, emotional artist. I’m sorry little niece, you’re now a year old and I still haven’t met you because now we are in the midst of a global pandemic directly connected to our brutalisation of eco systems, our disconnect with nature… and once again children are trapped inside. This time children all over the world cannot go out to celebrate their birthday. If I’m honest, I’m afraid now that I will never meet you. I will forever regret not visiting you when you were born but I couldn’t leave my new family behind.

Maybe I will never meet you. I hope I will, I think I will, but I don’t think we can take anything for granted anymore and perhaps we never should have. One thing I know for certain is that I love you, and because I love you, I will fight for you. I no longer see activism as a negotiable option but as a necessary and sacred duty. I am an unlikely warrior, an awkward soldier, but I will dream of a better future and fight for a better future in whatever small way I can.

I love you, my niece. I hope you have a good life. I hope you can have children and grandchildren if you wish to. I hope your descendants are gardeners, artists, good, loving, kind, brave people who do not believe that the planet is theirs to plunder and destroy, but to care for and love. I know now that your future is affected by our choices now. By the choices of every adult on this planet. I accept this, as heavy, devastating and terrifying as it is, and I take my place as an imperfect fighter for a better tomorrow. My heart is broken, niece, my body aches from it, but I will limp along as best I can because you, and every child on this planet, deserve a chance at a happy, healthy and beautiful future and it’s us, the adults, whose job it will be to fight, work and dream of it for you.

All my love until the end of time,
Your aunty.

Change, 2020, Acrylic on Board.

Posted in: ArtClimate Crisis

1 comment

  1. Wes says:

    There are so many little people in my life that I have these feelings for.

    Thank you for putting this big impossible thing into words for all of us

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