Payson R. Stevens
Speaking on India and his Himachal; the Global and Local Environment; and his Artwork
Trained in both art and science, Stevens is a San Diego resident who divides his time annually between the Indian Himalayas and Del Mar, California. Originally trained in molecular biology at the City University of New York and in oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Stevens studied at the Arts Students League and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Stevens founded two award-winning companies, InterNetwork, Inc. and InterNetwork Media, Inc. and was a 1994 recipient of the Presidential Design Award for Excellence from Bill Clinton. Stevens was lead author of Embracing Earth: New Views of Our Changing Planet (Chronicle Books, 1992), which appeared in four foreign-language editions.
Since 2000, he has advised on environmental, sustainable livelihood and ecotourism issues for the Great Himalayan National Park (www.greathimalayannationalpark.com). He is a founding member and Board Advisor of My Himachal (www.myhimachal.com), a US non-profit and Indian NGO. Formed in 2006, it is dedicated to uplift the lives of rural Himachal Pradesh villagers and protect the environment.
His artwork focuses on energy flow in the natural world, resulting from extensive time spent in Nature, including California Mountains and deserts, Baja Mexico, the Southwest, Alaska, Antarctica, and the Indian Himalayas. www.energylandscapes.com. Recently, Marjorie Fox and Steve Hays talked with him at his Del Mar home. We covered so many topics it was easier to leave out our questions and group the conversation into areas he covered.
Global warming and global change is happening in India. Theres enormous recession of glaciers; weve been seeing that with satellites for decades now. I mean when I was working with NASA in the early 80s, that data started coming in. I have books filled with imagery from pictures taken over a series of yearsyou can just see, both on the ground and from space, the recession of the glaciers. Theyre basically retreating in most parts of the world. But there are also ways of measuring them with radar: theres synthetic aperture radar, there are sensors that send down radar beams, and they can measure sea ice, for example, in the Arctic and Antarctic. Were showing, for the first time this last two seasons, that the retreat is so extensive that the Northwest Passage is openingits never been open in recorded history!
Weve been watching this from space and on the ground. I have a global perspective because thats what I did for 25 years: I worked on global issues, working with NASA on remote sensing. My whole daily life was looking at these images and working with other scientists and communicating this information to policymakers and to educators. Thats what my companies did: InterNetwork and InterNetwork Media. We basically took all this dense information and tried to reach both policymakers and the community at-large, the educated colleges, high schools.
NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey they saw all of this happening and said, Part of our charge is to make everyone aware of whats going on. That was part of my work and my training; what my companies did was to try and bring this imagery to both the scientific community and the general public. I worked with Al Gore and we did conferences and I presented at conferences; in the late 80s, Robert Redford put the first greenhouse gas conference on with the Russians and we were all together.
We did a lot of stuff and there was a lot of noise that was made. People who had the ability to get the publics attention, like Redford and Gore and the environmentalists, if they had been listened to, even in a small way, we wouldnt be in the serious situation that I believe were in.
You know, its very complicated. Its very cold right now in India on the plains; its bitter cold one of the worst. And theyre saying, Wheres global warming? People dont understand, its not the temperature in any one placeand this is the way the whole argument gets distortedits the planet, its the whole planet. So in any one or ten places, theres going to be a lot of variability. We cant predict what the temperature in San Diego is going to be, but there is a general pattern of increasing temperature of the ocean because there are more greenhouse gases, which are heating up the planet. And the oceans this big thermostat that absorbs the heat. As the heats absorbed, it gives back the heat. And thats why we have more intense storms, for example.
In India were seeing a lot more variabilitythe monsoon is not as regular. Thats a very critical thing because India depends on the monsoon for its agriculture, the natural rains. Theres recession of the glaciers, which means the flow of water is going to be changing. There may be more flooding because its warming and melting. And theyre building dams, which is based on having so much water ten years from now and who knows whats really going to happen.
All of these things are very complicated. You cannot make some simplistic geographic statement, other than say, Yeah, its getting warmer. The monsoon this year was late; the storms before the monsoon were severe and they destroyed the apple crop in Himachal Pradesh. Everything is kind of haywire. So it is happening.
Ive also seen it on the treks that Ive done. Ive been to all the major sources of the rivers coming out of the great Himalaya National Park. Ive been to them multiple times, and Ive seen the recession of the glaciers. So thats just one aspectwhether therell be more drought in India, its hard to predict what exactly will happen. The general patterns are there.
One of the things that I can see happening from the warming, thats taking place is that in the beginning, when we were living in our valley, there was never even a concern about malaria. Malaria is a very big problem in India and the worldtropical areas, warm areas. Well, last year the Anopheles Mosquito got to 6,200 feet and were at 6,700! That was a wake-up call.
And it was obvious, because I knew from my work and working with doctors, physicians that were concerned about the epidemiology of global change, what was going to happen. As things warm, disease vectors were going to spread both into northern and southern latitudes and elevationthis way and this way. And what else: pests that affect crops: as it gets warmer, theyll start spreading.
Its all interrelated. Its just hit me, talking to you, that when you study the ocean, especially the period when I studied, in the 60s, we didnt know anything about anything. The ocean is still a big mystery. But to get your graduate training, you had to study four disciplines in oceanography: biological, geological, chemical and physical oceanography. They had recently identified Seafloor Spreading and Continental Drift when I was at Scripps in 68, which was a major shiftone of the great scientific revolutions.
So even our whole understanding of the way our climate worked was just being revealed; it was the equivalent of Darwinism 100 years earlier. This explained a lot of what we saw on our planet. So the education we got then was like you had to see the big picture. Now more and more in all disciplines youre being forced to specialize, specialize, specialize. So that big thinking, which was part of my trainingand what I learned from Roger Ravelle, who was my mentor there, because he was a big thinkerthe things Im doing now, all these different pieces, which might seem very disparate, theyre sort of the way I think. I think in relationships and patterns, whether its in my painting, my artwork, or in trying to see how to put things together. Its a big puzzle.
Relationship with India
My wife Kamla is Indian. I met her 13 years ago when she was teaching at Grossmont College; shes a writer, and teaches literature and mythology. She wanted to spend more time in her home countryher parents were aging. So we started going every year. When it looked like she was going to retire from teaching, we decided to build a house and look for land. I did not expect that. I mean if you had told me even 15 years ago, before I met Kamla, Id be living half my year where Im living now, Id have laughed; I mean I would have said more likely I would have ended up on Mars. I feel like Im from another galaxy anyway, so Im waiting to go home.
I feel like now Ive moved into my elderhoodIm mentoring people in India, young men in India and some young men here. And because Kamla and I dont have children this is a way, sort of, for us to have a larger family. But living in India, in a rural area, you cannot, if youre half alive and come from this privileged culture, you cannot fail to be affected by the poverty and the experience. That has had an influence on my approach to living and what I want to do.
I knew, when I moved back to India, that I was going back to serve, in some way, the concept of Seva the Indian concept of giving back, but I thought it was just going to be in terms of me and the work I had been doing in the Great Himalayan National Park almost since its opening in 2000. Ive basically been an advisor on sustainable livelihoods and nature conservation in Indias newest national park, where theyve set aside 760 square kilometersthe only protected part of the western Himalayas. (You can learn more about it at greathimalayannationalpark.com.) But at the same time it excluded poor people who had been living there for centuries, if not millenniapeople who were dependent on the resources of the forest for their livelihoods: the animals that were endangered, the birds that were endangered, the herbs that were endangeredall of this stuff: the trees. And so in a poor country, much more so than here, you have to help people also; theyre together.
So that was the work I did for a number of years. And then when we started building a home the poverty thing started. I wasnt just going in and trekking and interacting; I was living there. And it was a very different experience. Thats when the whole engagement with childrenchildren were getting very sick; they were dying from basic childhood diseases. A woman died from a breach birth in front of where we were building and we could do nothing. There were no doctors. And theres still basically no decent medical health care.
From working with the National Park
to working with the people
Ive been doing this ten years, first with the park and dealing with those issues, and since 2006 with the health issues. It was all part of an evolving process of realization. I shifted from just the environmental aspect to the whole issue of sustainable livelihoods for the peopleyou know, give people jobs, help them so that they dont have to go into the park and exploit those resources.
Thats where I startedthat was the issue. But then were living there and all of a sudden Im seeing these very serious health problems. And I thought to myself: How can I expect that these people to be concerned about our environmental concernswhat arrogance! Theyre going to give two hoots about not going into the park when they need firewood, when they need food, and on and on and on and on! And that was like the epiphany: seeing whats really needed here, and that the kids are very sick and theyre malnourishedthats the core issue.
So I shifted some of my time I still advise and do work with the park, but I shifted to the issues around health and education, gender issues. And that was the transformation for me in terms of my focus.
Founding a Non-Profit: My Himachal
My Himachal was founded in 2006. In 2005, when our home was finished, Kamla and I had made a vow that when that was done I would start figuring out how to help the community and the child health careI mean it was in our face. I knew basic first aid and people were constantly coming, when they found out what I did for health problems. And I knew that I wasnt in a position to do anything, other than antibiotic cleaning or this or that, or diagnose: Go see the doctor, you have the measles, you have the mumps. Kids were going to school with measles and mumps and then spreading it around.
So in 2005 there was a little rural clinic in the next village that was only being used once a month by a major mission hospital three hours away. So we went on the day that it was open and I spoke to these two Indian doctors and asked them, I said, I want to help what can I do? And they said they gave me a list. Just on our own, with the community, we organized a traveling health fair, in which we went to the villages. This is the issue: its all mountainous and its very hard for the women, since they do most of the work, to bring their kids in, to go to a doctor thats three or four or five hours away with hiking and buses and what-not.
We went to that, and thats what weve been doing. Over the years weve worked with doctors, Indians and foreigners, New Zealanders, going into the villages so that its easy for them to get some basic health care issues taken care of.
In 2006, I was contacted by a young Indian named Adnish Katosh. Hes from the state of Himachal Pradesh, where we live. He found me on the internet through the work in the park, which is in Himachal. And he said, I want to get back to my state alsohes here in America. Hes a young IT guy with a family and he works in Pennsylvania. And he said, What can we do? I said, Well lets see if we can start an Non-Governmental Organization with the people you know. So we founded this NGO: My Himachal.
It has now taken over some of the work I was doing as an individual, and its focused now on organization, nonprofit here in the U.S. and in India. The work that I was involved in has expanded out with more people in it. Other people from Himachal who are here in this state wanted to do education, so theres a small scholarship fund. Its all very small-scale, sort of Schumachers small is beautiful philosophy has been the operating paradigm for the most part. 100% of whats been raised has gone directly for whatever is needed. Only this past year, as weve expanded, has there been a little bit of salary set aside for people, Indians, because you cant expect Indians and India to work without getting some kind of compensation.
Weve trained women to be health care workersthats a really good thing. Theyre from the villages, and they go into this mountainous area, and they understand what the nutritional issues are, they can see theres a tremendous amount of malnutrition. They can talk to the mothers about breastfeeding or about one or two good meals a day, or whatever the issues are.
Training women provides them employment also, which is a good issue, and raises their status in the villages. The issues around womens needs are pretty important in the rural areas, where theres a lot of poverty. They work the hardest.
In India, they dont say, Im from, they say, I belong to. When I first started doing this work, I didnt quite grok, I didnt quite get it. But now I understand: we have our ego and Were fromwe take New York or San Francisco. But the way people think there is that theyre part of a community, and they belong to it. And its a very interesting sort of linguistic difference. There is a sense of community thats different. And these people, these mountain people, have taught me a lot. They dont have the education I have and they dont have the material comfort and resources that I have, but they have a dignity and inner core that is really impressive to me. Ive made new friends in India. I have more friends in India than I have here.
What works for me now is being on the ground and having the one-to-one relationship with people. My strategy for My Himachal and the mission is that we really build strong ground teams, because many organizations come: World Wildlife or whatever, they want to comethey work, but without a good ground team, where youre integrated and youre known in the community and you have some cache, its very hard to get anything done. You have to have the trust and the respect of the local people. So thats the model that My Himachal is developing and hoping to develop more. And what Im doing while Im on the ground there, for part of my time: advising and directing and putting things together and using my network in the States. I have a good network in Himachal now, in terms of the issues that were working on.
Being an Artist
Even in the years that I ran my businesses, I never stopped doing art. I would get up 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. Ive always done art. Its almost like I dont have any say in the matter: it does me.
Ive always done it. When I was in Baja in the early 70s, all the way through now in India. Less so in the heat of my career, you know, professionally but when I went out on research, like in 96 a friend of mine was studying glaciers and global warming and he needed some help with field work and I went up to Alaska with him. He was the top glaciologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. He needed help and it wasnt in the budget, so I went up and worked for two weeks for free. I worked eight, ten hours in the field, measuring glaciers and potholes and sinkholes. And Kamla gave me these little black notebooks in the morning and at night, because everything was white, against these little black notebooks I made drawings. And Id go do my work and Id come back and make more drawings.
And when I came back to Del Mar, even though I had a ton of work to do, I did a whole series of paintings, which youll see in the exhibit on the Bering Glacier work. So its always been there, it just its what it is.
The first painting I did, in 1964, which my brother has in New YorkI mean I can look at these India paintings from September, before I left Indiaits the same guy. Even though theyre really different. And whats the same? Ive been preoccupied, in the artist state, with understanding the energy of the natural world. And thats what my work is about, and why my website is called Energy Landscapes, and why the exhibits that Ive had in museums in India have titles like Energy Flows or Dark Forest.
I consider my work as an artist, as a painter, as important and as meaningful as anything Im doing with my life right now. The way my parents brought me up, I was taught that I had to give back, to give back to society.
Im fulfilling that in various aspects of my career-all along in my career. And the painting is part of that also, for two reasons: one, when Im in balance by doing what is important in my inner soul life, as a painter, then I feel from a spiritual perspective, there is one more little piece of the whole pictures thats in harmony. Thats the way, on an energetic level, that we bring about a little more balance in the world.
I encourage everybody, whatever it is you really want, as Joseph Campbell said: Follow your bliss. Try and find that bliss, where youre in your bliss, whatever it is youre doing, whether walking down the beach or finding that time. That balance that you create for yourself helps the resonant energy of this dimension that were in this sphere. So the painting is very important for me because thats where I sort of connect up to the Great Beyond, or whatever you want to call it.