Representational Art Can Reveal Unique Climate Change Solutions

Artists in the Service to the Environment

Robert Chianese – presentation at The Representational Art Conference 2015  Published in As It Is, ed. Michael Pearce, TRAC 2015, Cal Lutheran U., 2016

Representational art focused on the natural world can help us understand the personal and social impacts of human caused climate change. The most valuable artists in this regard are those that help us move beyond the worry and fret we may feel but not acknowledge about the ecological disaster we continue to cause and then offer clues about unique ways to solve it.

The very human and usually personal element intrinsic to handmade painting, prints, or sculpture makes this possible. Photography, particularly news photos and documentaries, often lack this human dimension. Not only does everything in the hand-made work derive from the hand, eye, mind, and imagination of the artist, but the artist’s concentrated and extended focus on this massive problem will often prompt actual insights and half-realized ideas about reframing problems and suggesting solutions. We may thereby find both implicit and explicit solutions to our global dilemma unexplored by scientists and ignored and dismissed by politicians. Some artists, eco-artists, actually implement them.

A few radical critics insist that nature artists who avoid our climate crisis by continuing to produce spectacular unspoiled landscapes are making art they label “obscene.” The counter argument that such splendid views of nature give impetus to saving it has some weight obviously, or we would not find celebrations of earth’s glories in calendar after calendar of environmental organizations. They use them as inducements to join and contribute to preservation. But it’s those very alluring calendar pictures that critic Lydia Miller denounces as  “eco-porn:”

Tarted up into perfectly circumscribed simulations of the wild, these props of mainstream environmentalism serve as surrogates for real engagement with wilderness, the way porn models serve as surrogates for real women.[1]

Much scenic photography and representational nature art these days would qualify.

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I offer one of my own photographs as a salacious example. Kelso Valley Vista 2015, near Lake Isabella CA, with its southwest pastel tonalism, gives no hint of extreme drought wiping out swaths of vegetation, killing unnumbered pines, enabling beetles to kill even more, and driving wild animals in the area to break into houses for water and food. Climate calamity never looked so alluring, teasing clouds and all.

A recent New Yorker cartoon by P.C. Very comically remarks why we’re attracted to such imagery. A doctor holds up a painting and explains to his somber patient that, “Studies show that people who allow art into their lives can substantially reduce their dependency on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”[2] Rx–Art as anti-depressant.

But what about this photo? Not much anxiety-reducing vibe can be felt from it.

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Corey Accardo, 35,000 Walruses come ashore for lack of Artic Ice, Point Lay Alaska, 09 13 2014. Digital aerial photograph. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

First of all it’s almost incomprehensible, until we notice the title: 35,000 Walruses come ashore for lack of Artic Ice, Point Lay Alaska 2014. This image of desperate walruses stuck on the shore because their Arctic ice has been melted by global warming is overwhelming. Its expression of calamity is so strong that I cannot respond to it; it’s beyond anything I can comprehend or have any way of remedying. I can cut back on driving and using fossil fuels but how will that rescue these desperate creatures who’ve already lost the environmental feature their lives depend on—ice.

Even in my local area, El Niño waters off southern California are so warm now that sea lion mothers with pups on the Channel Islands have to swim further north for food, many leaving their pups to fend for themselves. Hundreds die or wash up on shore, weak and starving. No matter how many painters and photographers splash splendid color over the islands, sea, and shore in their works, the nearly invisible tragedy still floods in. Iconic California beaches now become depressing places.

The American Psychological Association measured human reactions to environmental disturbance and catastrophe and found many experiencing an “ecoanxiety” that depresses to the point of “helplessness, fatalism, and resignation.” [3] In order to understand and communicate as well as reverse or slow climate change takes personal energy—the very energy that eco-despair can diminish. How might we treat the often unvoiced eco-despair the APA study found in American life and avoid becoming bitter, cynical, and frozen in place, or simply disengaged?

As I have suggested[4], art can help here, but such art must have two somewhat obvious components—it must be representational enough to convey a recognizable subject and also have content that expresses in some way the environmental drama the world faces. Great technique, however exacting, may depict a scene of climate calamity, but without a story, a subtle tale to tell, it offers few consolations. We need to be invited by the artist to explore what we might call a saving narrative, a potential way out beyond the immediacy of the depressing eco-tragedy. Like all narratives, it shapes, colors, and re-orders the bare facts in order to clarify. Art itself can be defined as the distortion that clarifies. In so doing it can free one to re-examine, re-frame, and re-define the problem in potentially manageable ways.

This suggests something of a return to an earlier aesthetic, a prime classic one at least in some circles, that the function of art is to teach and delight, or in more acceptable terms, both to offer insights and engage us through form with the content. As Aristotle would have it, dramatic art can purge the emotions of pity and fear and point the way to a catharsis, an emotional freeing up of the viewer to move on to a somewhat more balanced and rational outlook. While it never became obsolete, such an aesthetic nearly rules out most abstraction and conceptual art, and its ancient purpose in the visual and plastic arts can address our very contemporary global problem.

Eco-art in two exhibits with the same title—Environmental Impact[5]–provide ample material for exploring how art can relieve our “ecoanxiety” and suggest solutions to remedy the sources of it. I have drawn art from other sources as well.

This representational painting of another ocean disaster might evoke less depressing reflections if we give details of its images full attention.

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Robert Bateman’s Driftnet: Pacific White Sided Dolphin and Lysan Albatross exposes the terrible consequences of massive fishing nets on ocean wildlife, while the albatross likely died from ingesting floating plastic debris. The quiet, static, tonally subdued painting seems elegiac in its depiction of what we would call the pathos of these noble creatures caught unintentionally in the nets of human carelessness. What positive can be said about this painted image? Not much encouragement here.

However, I find it important to notice that these creatures have a special relationship to human beings. The dolphin and the albatross are often characterized as helpers and guides and rescuers of human beings. This may seem fanciful, and the tale of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner exaggerates the role of the albatross as a potential savior of the men freezing on the ship in that famous romantic poem. When the mariner “unawares” shoots it with his bow and arrow, the fate of him and his shipmates slides into disaster, but we should remember that main part of the poem traces the effort of the mariner to convince ordinary folks about the need to love all creatures great and small, famous lines of course, which articulate a radical and early environmental ethic. When he understands his transgression against the albatross and the natural world, the bird drops from his neck. Through suffering intense alienation and grief, he finally becomes an itinerant crusader for respecting all life.

As for the dolphin, deliberately brought together with the albatross by the painter, it has a cultural history as a rescuing animal, one that is not too farfetched. There are numerous ancient legends and contemporary stories of the dolphin saving people from drowning and from sharks. Francois Boucher’s 16th century painting of a mythological rescue nonetheless reflects documented examples of dolphins aiding human swimmers.

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A website “Dolphins Rescuing Humans” [6] actually catalogs these uncommon but remarkable events, typically involving these ocean mammals intercepting sharks from attacks on human beings.

Bateman’s painting Driftnet deliberately unites these two real animals with a curious relationship to human beings in a net of ecological damage. Its obvious upfront protest changes as we tease out a background narrative of animal support for human life, whether intended by Bateman or not. This entrapped dolphin and albatross cannot offer rescue. But together they symbolize what we are missing: a lost awareness of what the nonhuman world can supply us besides food, beauty, and entertainment.

Our destructive ways result in a one-way focus, limiting our openness to potential cooperation and even help from all creatures great and small. Animals not only comfort us but control harmful insects, become resources for medicine and bio-medical research, and some literally guide and see for us. The painting alerts us to the potential and unforeseen contributions of other creatures on the planet to coming to our aid. There is some consolation and sense of connectedness in that insight.

Certain animal life will change, adapt, and perhaps provide unforeseen human benefits under the influences of global warming. Habitat and migratory shifts for instance, in insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, are lamentable and frightening, but these could provide new sources of needed pollination, habitat repair, speciation, and, obviously, food sources, though one cannot foresee how such rapid transformations might be benign.

And that is the point—our future under climate change is unforeseeable, though we have plenty of evidence of the disastrous results of flooding, heating, melting that add up so far to drought, displacement, hunger, and social upheaval. But can we predict the course of this unique human-caused calamity? We should not rule out what Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan calls the “impact of the highly improbable.”[7] Black swans are those metaphors of unpredictable events—conceptual birds we cannot notice even when they show up since we are so habituated to seeing white swans. Who knows what might show up?

Gina Phillips’s Tree No.2, a work of fabric art in the Weisman exhibit, offers a clue.

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Two vultures inhabit a tree that seems at once dying and reviving—it is leafed out but gnarly and spare. Vultures typically symbolize darkness and decay, while the tree could embody both struggling and enduring life. However a native Chumash story characterizes the vulture as a savior animal who, when other animals fail, pushes the lowering sun back into its orbit in another period of global warming, losing its head feathers in the heroic effort.

The mythical vultures as climate change rescuers serve as emblems of those metaphoric black swans—the unpredictable, which our habitual vision and environmental worry blind us to. Such a narrative leads to imaginative speculations. Are we so one-dimensional as to be blind to the binaries in all aspects of life? that creatures defined by darkness can bring light and comfort as well? that actual vultures as much as metaphoric swans can be harbingers of radical change and unforeseen transformation? that rescue can come from unexpected places and creatures?

Other animal figures serve as spokes-creatures for the planet—Smokey the Bear being the most famous, though he might now revise his pitch about preventing forest fires, since too much prevention yields out of control conflagrations. What about spinning out this native American lore in Phillips’ art work to bring new environmental consciousness—what message will Vickie the Vulture impart, or better, Vic and Vickie, since vultures mate for life. Would children and parents balk at the idea of a vulture figure revising some of our primary assumptions—that decay imagery easily morphs into clean up and renewal imagery?

This is a foundational idea we need to remember—out of darkness, damage, and chaotic disorder, new light, repair, and cosmic order can emerge. Chester Arnold’s painting Miracle of Frogs brings the dark/light binary together.

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At the side of a degraded street, frogs emerge from drain water and face off a man’s leg. Is this a miracle of amphibian endurance despite human damage, or a modern manifestation of biblical plague, or a man vs. nature stalemate divided by the white line? Frogs themselves embody radical metamorphosis and were once thought to emerge from slime itself. Like other amphibians, they are early victims of climate change, suffering extinction, large die offs, and malformations.  Culturally, they are seen as having human characteristics, and in the fairy tale, a frog rescues a golden ball for a Princess—her soul/ psyche, or the earth itself returned to wholeness– and transforms into her Prince Charming, the great restorative cosmic marriage.

The tale dramatizes the union of water and air, the lowly and the elevated, and the earthbound and the celestial. The fogs in the painting rest in an imperfect circle, divided by the line, entered by man—the great reunion or metaphysical conjunction seems anticipated but unsure. Nonetheless this striking image portrays the planet and its living creatures as parts of a dynamic system with the potential for transformative energy at the core of it. It poses the proximity of disintegration and reintegration and hints more philosophically to the grand notion that order and disorder, Chaos and Cosmos, are interdependent phases of existence.

In fact, while natural destruction can ultimately yield healthy results, even human reckless damage, such as the frequent fires set by human beings, may play out in the long run as helpers in restoring the forests. Ventura artist Hiroko Yoshimoto reveals this beneficial need for fire in her painting, Coming Back #1, which shows the forest floor greening up after a tree-scorching wildfire. This simple imagery conveys very elegant ideas.

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Trees remain one of our prominent symbols of patient and endurable life. But we havedone our best to level and uproot them. Settling early America required clearing the forest. American painters recorded this transformation with unwavering attention.

In Sanford Gifford’s Hunter Mountain, Twilight of 1866 the stumps signal triumph over nature, with the ruddy golden light aglow with glory. We should note however an external narrative– that this land was owned by James Pinchot, a New York lumber baron, who was so disturbed by what he saw in this painting that he bought it, named his son Gifford, who then became the first head of the newly formed US Forest Service, dedicated to the preservation of forests[8]. Art works in mysterious ways– celebrations can become indictments can become inspiring memorials, here of our relationships to trees.

Some eco-artists use the environment itself as their medium, reviving denuded landscapes like the one in Hunter Mountain with form and content that unites the aesthetic and ecological.

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For Agnes Denes in her Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule (1996 to the present) her basic medium is earth itself, and trees and people, in a long lasting piece of living art. Near Ylöjärvi, Finland she filled in a massive gravel pit and built a nearly million square foot artificial mountain in the shape of a cone over it, and had 11,000 people plant 11,000 trees on it. The people will be able to bequeath the trees to their heirs for twenty generations.Tree Mountain is planted in an intricate mathematical pattern (right) derived from both the golden section and the structure of a sunflower. The work itself evolves as the 11,000 trees grow and eventually become virgin forest.

Denes offers a new post-natural aesthetic: human- and nature-made beauty linked to the utility of eco-restoration. She helps define the post-natural itself–abstract design and individual creative expression in the service of the living environment. This must be a quintessential example of positive effects that our era of human control, the Anthropocene, can yield under artistic guidance.  Representational eco-art was never so real or fascinating. The opportunities for fixing the planet are only limited to the human imagination, a very consoling thought.

However, Scott Green’s UV Celltree 2013 painting exposes how we continue to degrade the environment with tacky borrowings from it. These barely camouflaged cell phone evergreens blight the landscape and fool no one except nest-building birds, which, Green suggests, bend the poles with their weight. Gunshots pepper the pole and antennas, and a fake owl sits there, evidence one suspects of utility company attempts to drive the birds off. The birds too look fake. What’s the positive takeaway narrative here?

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There’s a indirect one—adapt technology to accommodate nature. Why not provide nesting pads on the poles to allow birds to use them? Stealth cell phone trees are not the tall communication towers that some claim kill seven million birds per year and may emit harmful electro-magnetic rays (EMRs). These poles are closer to the ground ugly, but could play their part in harboring life.

But why connect birds to cell phones? The cell towers are parts of a communications system that has replaced a very early feathered one–passenger pigeons, billions of which flocked together in the early twentieth century, when deforestation, habitat destruction, and hunting led to their extinction. For a while they delivered messages as far away as a hundred miles. Birds today happily nesting in cell phone trees might mark an historic, symbolic, and synergistic connection to such systems. Our technology might not just accommodate the natural world but help revive and sustain it.

We might go even farther.

 These are the Singapore Super trees, recently opened as part of Singapore’s “Gardens in the Bay” in June 2012. They look “artificial,” almost theme-park fantastic, if you do not know how they function as eco-structures. We are told that, “at one-hundred-fifty feet tall, the 18 super trees act as vertical gardens, generating solar power, acting as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collecting rainwater. To generate electricity, eleven of the super trees are fitted with solar photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight into energy. . .”[9]

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What do we call this? The bio-tech sublime? Surely calling them artificial misses the point—they are artful bio-mimetic sculptures emulating natural living things and presumably bird friendly. Their abstract, mathematically-conjured shapes evoke organic life–coral, jellyfish, fibrous bundles, even neurons and a brain stem. They should dispel our fears that contemporary technology must be intrusive and toxic. They offer the promise that combatting climate change might actually be fun—and beautiful as well, as long as we deploy art and technology to re-enforce each other.

Here is another quasi-fantastical image of the evolving future of artificial structures. Entitled Noah Oasis, recalling Noah’s rescue of earth’s animals after deluge, this oasis sits on and under re-purposed oilrig platforms. Environmentalists now want oil companies to remove the superstructures and leave their bases in place since they become productive artificial marine habitats.

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Four Chinese artists/ designers/ technologists depict these operational structures as hybrids of living and non-living environments. Notice their inclusion of dolphins and albatrosses, signaling their awareness of western myths of rescue and renewal that they wish to revive in contemporary life. The structures absorb spilled oil, provide habitats for migrating birds, and provide refuge for all life after sea level rise—the “oasis” of their title. Their techno-mythic focus is global society. Such manifest multicultural and interdisciplinary consciousness changes our notion of representational art itself, fusing as it does mythology, ecology, technology, and creative imagination in one overwhelming image of climate change remedy.

The image itself seems a hybrid of realistic art, illustration, and fantasy. We see actual growing super trees, energy producing ocean generators, a human swimmer or diver, and animals thriving in this artful bio-habitat. The oilrigs that once produced the fossil fuel that polluted sky and sea, warming the planet to critical levels, now support a new environment of renewable energy and renewed life. The ecological negative shifts to the positive.

What we witness here through the techno-focused, eco-imagination of these representational artist/illustrators is a post-natural synergy, the ultimate folding of the natural with the technological. Representational painting may be essential for any of us to envision this new worldview. This is our era, the Anthropocene, our age, our extended period of dominance over nature, and repairing it ought now be a prime value for artist, ecologist, and scientist alike.

We have to admit we’ve done a wrecking good job on most of it, and whatever remains “natural” does so at our command and pleasure. Even re-wilding projects require our protection and care. Parks, preserves, conserves, and even vast areas such as the western prairie depend on our conservation as do all of the land, sea and sky on the planet. It’s a daunting responsibility and we are all asked to accept it. This could depress us as much as inspire us. We know what we must do and that we have the means to do it. But what about the will, the drive, the commitment and excitement that it requires?

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As I have claimed, most photography trained on scenes of environmental degradation tends to bleak depressing reportage. Edward Burtynsky’s photo from his Oil series, Oxford Tire Pile #2 Westley, California (1999), captures mounds of tires overpowering small hills. The indictment from this famous photographer could not be clearer—we’ve trashed the place to the point where our discarded products replace natural features; they become virus-like, a macabre infestation, a gross synergy. We’re despoilers, pure and simple. There’s not much beyond holding our head in shame and disgust as we contemplate our anthropogenic influence. The large white tire trailer shows off its clean boxy magnificence.

A painting in the Wagner exhibit, also featuring a tire, has a quite different impact. Walter W. Ferguson’s Save the Seashore 1993, places a very young girl making castles with dribbled sand near a large truck tire almost buried in sand. She’s caught up in her playtime building, her back to the tire and a ring of debris washed ashore right behind her. Will she save the shore with her industrious impulse for focused creative play, or is she a sign of our obliviousness to our polluted surroundings? Her innocent attention to her little task can charm us, while the tire frightens us with its hidden size and threat.

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These are the dramatis personae—the young girl concentrating on creative pursuits vs. instruments of industrial, oil-based society. A large plastic bag splays out in the foreground just to weight the conflict in oil’s favor.

Ferguson designs the scene to stress the contrasts–the arrangement of girl, tire, and castles evokes a circle, while a circular puddle of seawater frames the castles. Are we stuck in these uncharmed circles of ever-encroaching social debris, or do art and play offer constructive ways out? Our meditations on this carefully crafted ambiguity could lead to despair but through this painting we are invited to take a more philosophical look at our predicament—our cherished childhood can be a source of alternative forms of living by using the environment creatively and carefully. Artist Ferguson makes damage and potential recovery coincident in the work and thereby allows us to ponder remaking our future without denying present realities.

It is that inherent, rich ambiguity of much hand-made representational art that can provoke new questions. Each viewer can be invited to ponder complex meanings, and shift the discussion of climate change from environmentalism and science to the untapped interdisciplinary perspectives of arts and humanities. We need new eyes trained on what we have wrought.

There is really nowhere else to turn. Our eyes and mind define what we see and comprehend, and they reflect our inherent human impulse for control and dominance. Apparently that’s the kind of creature we are or, more generously, the creature we have become.

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Here’s painter Mark Tansey’s striking work about the cage of ideas and language in which we have imprisoned ourselves, much to the natural world’s detriment. This detail from his surreal panorama, Constructing the Grand Canyon, 1990, shows miners working the rocks in the canyon, as if to remove them for human use. It’s a destructive or deconstructive process, but what would prompt us to dismantle one of the great wonders of the world?

Covering the layers of rock are words and phrases, indecipherable but significant; perhaps we pick, hammer, pulverize in order to locate some kind of buried essence they indicate. But these are the ideas and language with which we construct the idea of the canyon and of nature itself. Our cultural concepts construct the natural world and at the same time blind us to it. And those words and ideas are what we must abandon or modify so that our image of the world and its relationship to us can change. Deconstructing the canyon’s cultural significance reveals our core assumptions–nature’s otherness, our ownership of it, and our obsession with utility.

We can never see nature plain and pure, with Emerson’s “ transparent eyeball,” detached and objective. We are part of it. As philosopher Kant says, there are no percepts without concepts. Our destructive actions grow out of our imperious anthropogenic concepts. They ultimately contribute to near-catastrophic outcomes. But again, chaos is part of the universal pattern of change, with cosmos or order its other phase.

Can we find the language and imagery and artistry to express that? Can we learn to represent this model of the universe as phases of chaos and cosmos in ways that accept but not encourage more of our disorder and damage? Painting, art, science, technology can help discover and promote those new ways of seeing and looking.

This Chinese entwined brother and sister pair are makers and fixers of the universe, a profound image of what we might be searching for. Nuwa and Fuxi seem to have come into being after an apocalyptic war in the cosmos or perhaps a natural catastrophe, such as a flood, and now address their talents to recreating original wholeness. The square Fuxi holds represents both measurement and creation, while the compass Nuwa holds represents repair. They are often interchangeable in their genders and roles. [10]

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This suggests life goes on beyond widespread disaster and renews itself–and we help. The pair are clearly changeable creatures, healthy serpentine energies we in the west do not see or acknowledge. The female/male duo shift from brother and sister to husband and wife, signaling a blending of principles and genders we are only beginning to understand. That in turn signals to me that our Anthropocene era has come to an end in one respect. Creation and destruction are recognized balanced energies. The cosmic symbols of earth below and sky above which they seem to connect and encompass indicate that. Creation and repair are synonymous somehow, an outlook we have yet to gain.

One thing is clear, that artists depicting and representing such novel ideas in communicable, accessible form through any kind of content are key. Artists thereby can help shift attitudes and consciousness about our new roles as protectors and restorers of our threatened world, and in the process, lift our grim moods and point ways forward to recovery.

And we must at the same time see and accept our transformative damage as a part of universal process that we too are being shaped and changed by. This is more difficult and tricky. It should not excuse our environmental disruptions even while we learn to see them as the unfolding drama of our species as it plays out its destiny in what may be the twilight of our human-dominating era. What emerges next from its collapse is too unpredictable to contemplate.


[1] Lydia Miller, High Country News, September/October 2004: reprinted in the Utne Reader.

[2] P. C. Vey, The New Yorker, October 26, 2015. p 40.

[3] Clayton, Susan, Christie Manning, Caroline Hodge. Beyond Storms and Droughts: the Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, Washington, DC: ecoAmerica and American Psychological Association, June 2014. 22.

[4] R. Chianese, “How Can Art Move us Beyond Eco-Despair?” American Scientist. May–June 2015, 176-179.  The previous essay focused mainly on emotional issues.

[5] David J. Wagner. Environmental Impact.  traveling exhibition, various US venues: September 2013 to January 2016.; and

Billie Milam Weisman and Michael Zakian. Environmental Impact: Selections from the Weisman Art Foundation. August 6-November 30, 2014, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA.


[7] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007. Random House. p.xxxii and subtitle.


[9] Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Solar-powered ‘supertrees’ breathe life into Singapore’s urban oasis. June 10, 2015.

[10] Nuwa and Fuxi in Wikipedia: Nuwa:{4287dcde7669a293e3747754d6abec10264b55d2aa7ed92229bdc04d73efc41e}C3{4287dcde7669a293e3747754d6abec10264b55d2aa7ed92229bdc04d73efc41e}BCwa; and Fuxi: