Sybille Palmer

Alphabet of Life Scroll- The Backstory

I was only 10 years old when I fully encountered the impact of commerce and industry on the environment. Our family left behind suburban New Jersey and returned to Germany. My father worked as a chemist for Bayer. We moved within sightline of this enormous chemical plant. It was 1966. All the fish were dying in the Rhein. The air was so polluted you could see it as well as smell it. It was shocking.

I was horrified.

I left Germany behind in my twenties and moved to Hawaii. Lived off the grid, explored an alternative lifestyle. We grew our own organic food and I realized how much more alive it tasted. How deeply nourishing it felt. I became aware of the healing power of food and began to study the Healing Arts.

In 2006 I read the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. This book changed my life deeply and forever. I began to understand the larger context of food-systems. Pollan showed me how highly political food really is. How much Big Agriculture impacts our environment and thus the quality of our lives.

I began to read all kinds of texts on ecology. “Deep Economy” and “The End of Nature.” by Bill McKibben, “Cradle to Cradle” by Michael McDonough.  Books by Carlos Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. Of course I became a Slow Food member. I realized that voting with my fork is important. The way I spend my food dollars matters.

Pollan’s writing on “The Ark of Taste” showed me the importance of preserving our heritage, starting with seeds. This preservation effort also extends to protecting the ways of ancient cultures – their farming methodologies and ethnic foods. Without seeds we have no future. 

In the same year, and meanwhile living in Los Angeles, I met a woman named Amory Starr. She is a political economist and social movements scholar. She was exploring  using food to build community. She was inviting her class to dinner in her Venice loft. She had also started a monthly event called “The Viand”. After I attended the first time, I immediately asked to join as a chef.

The concept was simple:

5 chefs- 10 courses-20 guests-byo wine.

We handed out invitations both to friends and strangers. Specifically we made sure to include our favorite farmers and vendors, cheese mongers and such. We created maps of food sheds. We wrote a Zine every month, introducing guests to the concepts of Slow Food. Seasonal. Local. Organic. Letting the ingredients shine. Sharing food in the company of others. A small plates feast. It was an exploration, an experiment, and a joy. A new way to grow a community.

Amory went on to write a book about it:  “Underground Restaurant- Local Food, Artisan Economies, Creative Political Culture.”

Then- in 2009 the first Seed Show opened in Taos. I had moved there the year before and asked if I could submit work for the next show. I took part twice.

The show is based on the book “Seeds- Time Capsules of Life.” by Rob Kessler & Wolfgang Stuppy. It is a most inspiring read with amazing photography. I learned so much. It made me aware of the importance of Seed Banks.

The “Alphabet of Life Scroll” is a 34’ long piece, featuring the 9000 names of plant species facing extinction worldwide. To tie it in locally, I featured the images and names of the 13 plants endangered in New Mexico.

I also created a handout addressing the Holocene Mass Extinction. On it I included websites and suggestions on how to get involved and become informed citizens. It is my sincere hope that we will wake up and begin to make better choices. May it never become an Extinction Scroll. It would be such an immense loss.

Sybille Palmer, Taos New Mexico

Sybille Palmer Alphabet of life scroll installation
Detail of the Alphabet of Life scroll

Cu Lao Cham Marine Park


Building solutions while strengthening economies

Fishermen on the Cham Islands off the coast of Danang in Central Vietnam were recently motivated to implement an effective program to address plastic pollution which has plagued waters in Southeast Asia. The designation of Cu Lao Cham Marine park as a UNESCO biosphere preserve in 2009 provided the impetus needed for the community to take an interest in clearing plastic from the waters around their islands and maintaining plastic free environments which in turn has provided them with increased income from a growing tourist industry.

The reefs that had been shrouded in plastic bags were cleared and have since started to thrive. The improved habitat encouraged the growth of fish populations. The tourists have followed in suit with boats providing snorkel and dive tours shuttling people out from the UNESCO Heritage site of Hoi An as well as the booming city of Danang. Part of the tours include lunch and beach time on the islands, which provides added income for the families who run the businesses there. Although illegal fishing continues to be an issue within the preserve, the efforts taken towards environmental preservation offers hope in a place that has not historically demonstrated a strong concern for the environment. In this case, money talks. For the first time since the recession following the American war, Vietnamese have developed a strong enough economy to embrace the luxury of environmentalism.

After spending time in Vietnam over the past 25 years and seeing a dramatic economic transformation of the country, I delighted in the opportunity to participate in environmental recreation in the islands with old friends Hoa and Nga. Nga was not familiar with swimming, but we suited her up with a mask and took her out amidst numerous flotation devices so that she could discover the wonders of coral gardens. She was deeply moved by the colorful marine landscapes, saying she had never imagined such worlds. It was an inspiring reminder of how important it is to cultivate environmental stewardship through direct experience. It’s encouraging to see Vietnam reach a point where this kind of experiential opportunity is available to people there.

Fish Sauce bottle
Even as local Cham Island fishermen and dive boat guides recognize the importance of keeping the sea plastic free, currents carry pollution into the sanctuary. This bottle was picked up on a free dive of the corals surrounding the islands and is used in the Debris Project as a tile interspersed with diatom forms.

There is a long way to go in shifting attitudes towards plastic pollution from the wider population. This Cham Island youth makes a show of cleaning up the plastic left behind by the swimmers in the water. We can sense his frustration at this routine which has become all too common.