The Surface of a Storm

Leslie Carol Roberts


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Intimacy The Surface of a Storm Leslie Carol Roberts Cyanotype

“Is there really such a thing as nothingness? I don’t know. I know we’re still here, who knows for how long? Ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.” – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts


It is Friday, February 10, 2023, and an extreme low pressure is being tracked heading towards the northwest of Aotearoa New Zealand. 

It is ten days until the Performance Arcade in Wellington, the capital of Aotearoa New Zealand, a hilly, seismic city, wet and grungy and graffiti bombed; its cafes and shops decorated with handmade signs: New hours due to staff shortage. This is the cut-off end piece of the global pandemic, to reside in a country that excised others by closing its borders. The gain was very little presence of infection; the loss was very little presence of foreign workers needed to keep the lights on. The famed wind has a peculiar edge on this day, pushing at a wall of peeling concert posters, redolent with a fractured feeling oblique and angular. The weather is about to make a Cubist painting out of towns and farms and forests and beaches and rivers a couple hours north but no one knows this right now. Living things will be flattened into an ontological mess called storm damage. Right now, on this street, humans only know the coffee place is locked up because there is no one to turn on the machine. 

What we also know is that Wellington is a few hours south of where the storm will likely hit. I am in Aotearoa New Zealand as one of a handful of international artists and designers, in my case to produce Ecopoesis, a participatory climate change design project I founded. I have been invited to be part of the Performance Arcade, an annual festival funded by the government and private arts groups. Five thousand people are expected to mill through the four-day waterfront festival, most of which is free. I have flown here from San Francisco, porting the lightweight, easily assembled geodesic dome we use to centre the project. I stay in a pub hotel over a dark wood old-timey bar, a historic place that is both quaint and gross. Quaint in that country cricket teams dressed in cream sweaters march up and down the worn wide carpeted staircase, bound for their matches in the city. Gross in that strange dark stain on the carpet in my room, a stain that looks like a map of an imagined island world – Coffee? Water? Blood? 

There’s an all-night noodle joint around the corner and when I cannot sleep due to jet lag, or general anxieties about the festival, I wander there and get a large plate of greasy noodles laced with a sauce sweet and spicy, carrots, greens, and peppers. The man who runs the place is from Malaysia. You and me, he likes to laugh, while he flips my noodles, we are both pakeha. Then he repeats, You and me! Pakeha is a Maori word for anyone who is not Maori. It means other. Maori as a term literally means normal. Seventeen percent of the Aotearoa New Zealand population is Maori I have read. I find Maori stories inspiring. How they were the only indigenous people to relentlessly ass-kick the British military in their Colonial land-grabbing, culture pulverising ways into a form of submission. How they have hung onto their language called Te Reo and how Te Reo is now being used more fulsomely as place name, descriptor, philosophical way of thinking about ecologies. You can only be Maori by blood. And you don’t need to have a lot of Maori ancestry to be officially Maori. So there are some Maori who look more like me, which is white. All this gives me, an other, something to ponder. I also like the fact that there is a radiant punk rock aspect about being one of the Maori that comes from blood. The others cannot buy their way in.


We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. – Marshall McLuhan, 1964 

The hurricane has a name before a face. We call the storm by the human name Gabrielle. Like it is a boat or a dog. But it is neither. 

Steadily dropping air pressure is a sign a storm approaches. The pressure began to dip on the Coromandel Peninsula in the days before Cyclone Garbrielle slammed into Aotearoa New Zealand. The cyclone, ratcheted up by climate change: Warmer Pacific seas. No one was panicking. It was, after all, a time of weirdly rainy summer months, road slippages, homes cascading down collapsed cliffs. The sliding homes were startling but humans were getting used to it. They said things like, Should not have built there. The humans who live on this island nation have a much-discussed national character trait, which they call “she’ll be right.” To wit: Bad things may unfold but Kiwis, as they call themselves, both pakeha and Maori, as well as Pacifika from the neighbouring island nations, are up to pulling together and fixing things. 

Later, after the storm’s effects left 11 humans dead and hundreds of newly minted climate refugees, displaced, left entire crops ruined, houses munted, bridges destroyed, highways needing months or years of repairs, the question will be asked: How is our psychic view of ourselves as the she’ll be right society limiting our ability to prepare for climate disasters? How can we see and feel the intimacy of weather if we are forever talking about how we can overcome anything that gets thrown our way?


By February 13, the newly appointed Prime Minister Chris Hipkins warns: “Things are likely to get worse before they get better,” Hipkins said. “Extreme weather event has come on the back of extreme weather event.”1 Cyclone Gabrielle formed on February 5 and grew to be a Category 3 severe tropical storm with 10-minute sustained wind of 120 kph (90 miles an hour.) 

I centre Ecopoesis work on language, because words are intimate and we need more of this sense of proximity with our feelings when it comes to climate change. My productions are a scaffolding for group climate conversations that encourage talking about the emotions, the feelings of climate change – events and existentialism, hyperfear and hyperobject. I had travelled to France during the 2019 heatwave and gave a talk about the project to a group of designers, graduate students and start-up entrepreneurs from seven countries gathered in a sweltering room. Some were sceptical: So what does this accomplish? What are the outcomes? How do you measure your success? It’s just talking and little art-making projects. How does that make a difference? 

Good questions and of course fueled by what sounds like a post-modernist inspired data frame that has both educated while hampering emotional responses to shifting ecologies – as mounting depictions of inevitable dystopias are more the norm. Who will eat who, literally, as opposed to the vagaries of capitalism and all of its malicious tentacles: Racism, misogyny, economic violence in the name of, we all had a fair shot, but women, the poor, brown and Black people just blew it. 

I then joined an expedition to the Maldives, ground zero in rising seas to talk about Ecopoesis with scientists and architects there, as well as running a forum in an art gallery in the capital city, Male. The expedition was in pursuit of design ideas to support marine life, to rebuild coral reefs, working with local architects and scientists to create metal frames and structures to support young coral, some generic of which were hybrids. While they did their work, I interviewed Maldivians from a folding table in the art gallery, sipped strong coffee, and snorkelled. The snorkelling had an eerie quality: The show-off reef fish, the sort I knew from aquariums, all dazzling magenta, cyan, lemon, stood out in high relief against the pale ecru, dead coral: Coral dead from a sudden spike in ocean temperature. The fish had not caught up so they were no longer camouflaged by what were once brightly hued corals. Like a Sunday morning walk home after the disco closed at 5 am, and now the sun is up and – whoa! What’s with that get up? No place to hide from predators. 


There is no past, present, or future. Using tenses to divide time is like making chalk-marks on water – Janet Frame, Faces in the Water, 1961 

The Wellington event is a scrappy affair behind the scenes, as most spectacles are, and each artist or group was charged with making their own site alongside volunteers. At the local chain big-box hardware store, I crouched in an aisle comparing plexiglas thickness and size. Charles Koroneho, headliner artist, was in the same situation, wandering the aisles in a beanie and long shorts, looking for needed fixings for his container theatre. He gave me a nod in solidarity. 

My plan was to make cyanotypes each day with whomever stopped by, using fabric and paper, then dry them on the dome frame. I hoped they were going for a feel akin to Tibetan prayer flags, and I was also curious to see how the wind and water would interact with actual cyanotype chemicals, creating a “conversation” between the elements and the art. I also wanted to create a “climate clock” where I could see in a more raw way what happened to treated fabric lashed to the dome and then left to reflect the day’s weather over time. 


A week before the Performance Arcade, the Cyclone made landfall. A national state of emergency was declared by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and the military rolled out across the devastated eastern coastal region of the North Island, Hawkes Bay, the Esk Valley, Gisbourne, and Napier. Winds had ripped apart homes and businesses, and threw cars around like toys. Ferry service between the islands had been suspended and now there was a backlog of people trying to get across via boat. Flights were cancelled across the North Island. People were told to stay out of the affected areas, to keep the remaining roads open to emergency workers. 

The cyanotype is a photographic process developed in 1842 by Sir John Hershel; it was widely used to document flora by field scientists. One of the most famous examples is a book on alga, then a newly identified species, created by Anna Atkins. It is in the British Library and available to view online. Many people know the technology as the blueprint. From flora to being enlisted to build cities, which wiped out the flora. One might even call that ironic. 

Cyanotypes create a magical, slow reveal, as the photographic image becomes clear against a Prussian blue background. This resonated with the climate feelings, both murky and in sharp focus. Cyanotypes invite us to notice Earth’s systems, weather, flora, fauna, rocks, tools made by humans – and invite feelings from haunted to wonder to magical joy. 


The water: Water from rivers that breached their banks, water a thick slurry, slash-choked silt that came roaring down from logging operations in the hills. The silt is toxic: farm chemicals, animal and human waste, dead animals. It was metres thick in some areas, filling structures up to the first floor. The silt, water, and wind knocked out bridges and state highways. It swept up 90 percent of the kumara crop and spewed kilometres of unearthed onions across roadways. People in shelters telling stories of swimming through hallways at night, at home, suddenly filled with water, hand over hand, from light fixture to chandelier, to get to a slim opening at the top of the door. A child swept out of her mother’s arms. 

Even on cloudy days, which were most during the Performance Arcade, sunlight was strong due to the high latitude. So cyanotypes were made in under seven minutes. Then the fabric or paper is rinsed with water to stop the photographic process. Then waiting and watching the image come into focus. 

We printed with foraged local specimens, I had patrolled Aotearoa’s rivers and hiked the Port Hills to collect indigenous and other species of flora. I used a crowd-sourced app to identify what I foraged, to determine whether it was considered native or introduced. This is a murky line depending on when you start the clock and what counts as introduced on an island. Do birds carrying seeds from South America count? Indigenous trees included the delicate kowhai but roses, an introduced species, create a lovely sculptural image. Aesthetics matter, too, I decided. For human tools, I scoured Daiso, a global, low-cost Japanese housewares and accessories chain. It’s a wonder of plastic and metal things, fulsome metal knives and chains, metal clips. The knife turned out to be very popular to capture in a cyanotype. Particularly with children. 


As reported in The Guardian, “On the East Cape, a farmer in Tolaga Bay described enormous destruction as floods carried “300kg logs, huge logs, one after another, rolling off the forestry up above us”.2 

Over four days, retired engineers and school teachers had sat near my dome and talked to me; school children on break wanted to know about the US – everyone has a story to tell and most like a listener. People wanted to talk about Covid, how they got locked out of Burma or locked out of Aotearoa. One photographer missed the border closing by one day and got stranded in an empty apartment in Sydney: All of her furniture and her two cats had been shipped when her partner left to set up house in Wellington. Two French doctors talked about working in Paris during Covid, the empty boulevards, the passes needed to leave home, like a bad smell, in the air. 


The water came “pouring out over people’s homes and farms”, Bridget Parker told Radio New Zealand. “We prepared for the worst. Nothing prepares you for this carnage. Is anybody coming to help?”3 

Cyclone Gabrielle is the costliest cyclone ever to hit in the Southern Hemisphere: The toll is said to be more than 13 billion NZ dollars in damage. Cyclone Gabrielle slammed into Aotearoa, and the news from Aotearoa New Zealand captures in fine detail the economic devastation and the psychic disorientation. 

Yet when I return to California, no one has heard of it. It’s an other, too: Back home the talk is all about fires and local floods. I explain Cyclone Gabrielle in talks and over dinners in economic terms, the billions of dollars needed to fix and restore what was ruined. How the insurance industry is paying out more than in any other previous disasters in Aotearoa New Zealand. How one insurance executive said to me, completely seriously: Big storms are traumatising. 

I don’t tend to talk about the haunted stories people at Ecopoesis told me, refugees from the storm. But the details occupy my mind. How first entire fields of onions were lifted from black soils by surging water and came bobbing along the flooded streets. How the rivers became tangled a material leftover from commercial logging, which was called slash. I don’t talk about the farm animals that could not escape, about the living cows up to their eyeballs in water, nor the dead cows, legs projecting from brown waters like plastic models, nor how the entire area was cut off nor about how the talk of rebuilding the farms and homes and roads became the discussion very quickly, with no time built in to look at it all, no time to mourn and panic and recall Talking Heads asking us each this, My god, what have we done? I tell what I am capable of telling, a story of how the surface is the topmost layer of an object and how an ecology is an object where we make our home on the surface and how new ecologies sneak up offering surprisingly dramatic performances,, either lighting the world ablaze or drowning it with cascading waters, all indifferent, all simply performing an ongoing song. 


[I] Accessed 05.03.2023

Leslie Carol Roberts

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Leslie Carol Roberts has published nonfiction books, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica; and Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest, and contributed to several collections on how we perform ecological activism and thought. Her journalism appears in The Believer, among many others; her honours include a Fulbright Fellowship in Antarctic Humanities (the first in the world); an NEA; and global support grants from governmental agencies. She founded the ECOPOESIS Project, a global design and writing project to address the anxieties and imaginaries of climate change response and has led ECOPOESIS seminars and talks in Laos, New Zealand, France, the Middle East, The Maldives, and the United States. She is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, and has taught at Iowa, St. Mary's of Moraga, University of Canterbury, and California College of the Arts. Leslie is a research member of the UN SCAR-HASS Antarctic Humanities group.


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