An ephemeral public art piece provides an anchor amid climate grief.
Last winter, when I was deep in my habit of late-night, quarantine-depression walks around Madison, I made a friend. We met some time in February, along the shores of Lake Monona, where the bike path runs alongside John Nolen Drive. That’s where I would find him every night afterwards that my wandering gave way to the need for company.
He is quiet, eight feet tall, rounded and soft with white fur. A life-size sculpture of the abominable snowman. Seated, his hands pressed to his splayed legs, supporting the weight of a weary head bent low. He was miserable, comically sad. Someone had placed a flower in one of his hands. It was wilting. He looked in desperate need of a hug.
The pandemic was raging, the slow death of truth gaining pace, the heat and clamor and dreams of summer uprisings muffled by the snow. Forests were burning and glaciers were bleeding. Somewhere, the last ivory-billed woodpeckers were dying. The sculpture’s dejection cut straight through to me. I found a camaraderie in it.
I didn’t know it then, but Sad Yeti was part of last year’s Winter Is Alive!carnival, a series of local events and installations ruminating on climate change, centered around the frozen lakes. The artists behind Sad Yeti, Gail Simpson and Aris Georgiades of Stoughton-based Actual Size Artworks, write that they “chose to portray him as a sad muppet-like figure, searching far off course for the most wintry areas of the globe as they become smaller and harder to find.”
Often that winter, I’d visit him again on my walks, checking in. There was comfort in imagining myself being a comfort to someone—or something—else. Then he disappeared unceremoniously, his habitat gone.
It can be hard to know when the season of rebirth is really here to stay. Anyone who lives in Madison knows spring doesn’t come with the solstice here. The snow outlasts March as often as not, and teases with doubt all through April.
I watch for a number of signs: the first muskrat I see paddling the shores of the lakes; the first grills and frisbees in James Madison Park. Aldo Leopold, writing in A Sand County Almanac, swore by the first geese flying north: “[Their] arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.” The state’s Climatology Office tracks the thawing of the ice—Mendota broke last this year, on April 2.
Sad Yeti’s hibernation is my new metric. My love for the statue has reframed springtime, not as the arrival of something new but as the loss of the winter that, for me, defines each year in Madison.
There’s an undeniable sadness to that change in perspective. By the numbers on lake ice cover, our winters here have shortened by a full month since the 1850s. That sense of ongoing loss leaves me struggling, even as I gladly return to the parks with my books and my beer, with a question: How to celebrate spring at the end of the world?
My favorite character ever written comes from one of my favorite novels, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake. The story is a seesawing, before-and-after account of the collapse of one dystopia into another. The starting point is a society ravaged by climate change, ruled by biotech corporations and their experiments, molded in its entirety by late-stage capitalism. The end is near-extinction from a global pandemic. I read it for the first time in March of 2020. Both worlds in the book were sickeningly familiar.
Jimmy, the book’s protagonist, is a brooding and oblivious kid from the biotech “compounds,” isolated and desensitized by myriad forms of violence. He is so wonderfully self-absorbed that the main tension is not what will happen but if or when he will catch on. The reader is given every clue to the end of the world and is helpless to do anything but watch.
In the “after” scenes of the book, Jimmy takes on the name Snowman—a new persona for his new life as a helpless scavenger. The name is an homage to myths of the yeti: “The abominable snowman, existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, ape-like man or man-like ape.”
My friends and I are all in our twenties. Most of us didn’t have much time between the world’s sugar-coat melting away and the realization that what’s underneath is crumbling, too. I think we are all yetis, the places we were born all melting away in one way or another. It’s awful to dwell on for too long, but it feels good to have others just as sad and afraid as we are.
Some of those buddies have started a tradition of holding open mic nights at our various apartments—making space for the musicians and hobbyists among us to play and encourage each other. A constant favorite at those events is John Prine’s “Paradise,” a lament of the environmental destruction wrought by capitalism.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
It’s a mournful song. But in a crowded basement, with a good friend on the guitar and a chorus of somewhat-drunken shouts chiming in, it can be serene.
Sometime last summer, long after the last patches of snow had collapsed in on themselves and sucked Sad Yeti away into another place, I had a thought that stuck with me. It was a non sequitur, born from the misery of a silly, unrequited crush rather than the state of the planet. This was it: sadness is just the gap between your love for the world and the way things are. It can serve as a reminder of that love, as can the art and community we create from our despair.
So I was sorry last week, when Sad Yeti disappeared from the yard of the Madison Children’s Museum, his home for this winter. But this spring I will do my best to keep that sadness—at losing a friend, at the climate reports, at the fires and storms and political inaction that will come—rooted in the joy it contrasts.
Already, the muskrats are out swimming. The grills are out and will be joined by my own this weekend. Every day I am watching for geese flying north. I’m mourning the winter that I curse while it’s here, just as I delight in new smells and sounds each morning of the new season. Just as I will mourn the many shades of green and the ice cream trucks when it comes time to greet my friend in the snow again, with stories to tell and a gratitude for what is always being lost and what still is.
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