This Is Not About Survival

August 20th, 2019

This project documents an embodied inhabitation of the Southern Illinois canebrake habitat that is quickly disappearing from the landscape.

(It’s about Bringing Your Coracle)

Canebrakes are ecosystems dominated by large stands of giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea), a once-abundant native North American bamboo species. Formerly the habitat of now-extinct passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, its demise is also detrimental for currently threatened species like Swainson’s warbler.

As ecosystem participants, the artists built a traditional Celtic boat from willow and cowhide, known as a coracle, to navigate the Southern Illinois landscape. Named Possibility, this living portal built using non-extractive methods invites us to reenvision ourselves in nature. According to Indigenous historical records, kindred boats called bull boats coursed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers long before Europeans arrived. Visitors may contemplate the canebrake in the coracle, read about the process, study instructions for planting a canebrake, and learn more about participatory ecology.

In This Is Not About Survival (It’s About Bringing Your Coracle), the artists set out to inhabit the landscape of the Southern Illinois canebrake as full participants in the ecosystem. Canebrakes are an ecological community defined by expansive, entangled stands of giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea), a.k.a. “river cane,” a native North American species of bamboo. Canebrakes form habitats that now-extinct passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets relied upon, and on which threatened species like Swainson’s warbler, the golden mouse, and the canebrake rattlesnake still depend. While botanists often overlook River Cane as an unimperiled species, the artists discovered over the course of their work that canebrakes as ecological communities have been functionally extirpated from Southern Illinois, and quite possibly across their entire natural range.

In a pact of ecological membership, the artists built a coracle, or bull boat—a traditional Celtic boat with a frame of willow and a bull’s hide stretched over it—the kind of boat that would have been needed to navigate the landscape of Southern Illinois in the days when canebrakes were abundant. Named Possibility, the coracle is a transformation of living materials harvested honorably from the natural world, using non-extractive methods. Possibility is a portal in the guise of a water vessel, inviting onlookers to switch their view and to see themselves as a fundamental part of nature. Skin- or bull boats are also made with bison hides by First Nations groups on the continent whose English name is North America. According to Indigenous historical records, bull boats routinely traversed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers long before Europeans arrived on Turtle Island.

Viewers are welcome to board the coracle to relax and enjoy a view of the canebrake; to read the eponymous guidebook recounting the artists’ story of dwelling with the canebrake; to study step-by-step instructions on how to make your own canebrake; and to learn more about the epistemological underpinnings of participatory ecology. The artists’ hope is that this collective act of imagination will help people reimagine the canebrake back into existence on the contemporary landscape, actively encouraging Southern Illinoisans to form a relationship with river cane in their daily lives and take action to restore its former geographical expanse and biodiversity.