Ecological Artist Basia Irland and Her “Ice Books” Engage Communities and Restore Rivers

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for thirty years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship.

I first met Basia more than a decade ago when I was invited to speak at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where today she is professor emerita. What I remember most from that first meeting was how her artistic thinking and work crossed just about every discipline present on the campus.

Water, Basia shows, is the great connector and integrator. The creative impulses infused into her sculpture and community projects – including the Ice Receding/Books Reseeding project she describes here – transform art into civic engagement with the Earth and inspire action to save the planet’s rivers.

Text Below by Basia Irland 

All photos courtesy of Basia Irland

In 2007 I carved a 250-pound sculptural “book” out of a huge block of frozen river water near the Arapaho Glacier, an important source of drinking water for the city of Boulder, Colorado. I engraved the ice book with “text” comprised of seeds from mountain maple (Acer spicatum), columbine flowers (Aquilegia coerulea), and Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), all native to the riverside habitats of the region. Four people carried the heavy book into the current of Boulder Creek and laid it between two large rocks.  As the ice book began to melt, the seeds would disperse into the river and flow downstream.

Thus was born my project Ice Receding/Books Reseeding, an effort to draw attention to climate disruption and glacial melting, and to connect communities to their local rivers and the importance of their watersheds.

For the people of Boulder, the question was: when the Arapaho Glacier melts away, to what source will they – and local fish and wildlife – turn for their water?

Ice Receding/Books Reseeding represents a shift away from art as commodity and toward new creative possibilities of art in service to communities and ecosystems. It emphasizes the necessity of communal effort, scientific knowledge, and poetic intervention to deal with the complex issues of climate disruption and watershed restoration. Through the release of seed-laden ephemeral ice sculptures into rivers, creeks, and streams, the project not only connects people to their watersheds, it attempts to repair these watersheds by re-vegetating riparian (river-side) areas with native plants and trees.

Each “book launch” is an energized gathering of community participants, many of whom have not physically been to their river before the event. The project provides a hands-on educational experience by encouraging interaction with the river and demonstrating how specific native riparian seeds can help restore a watershed. Seed packets are gifted to the participants so they can continue the planting process.

Each project begins by carving frozen river water into the form of a book.  Some books are large and weigh as much as 250 pounds; others are the size of a pocket book. Each is then embedded with an “ecological language” or “riparian text” consisting of local native seeds. The book is then placed back into the stream.

Closed books have seed patterns on the covers, while open books have rows of seeds forming sentences and paragraphs. These seeds are released as the ice melts in the current. Where the seeds choose to plant themselves is serendipitous, replicating the way seeds get planted in nature.

Ice book with seeds of wild Iris (Iris missouriensis), Big Wood River, Idaho.
Ice book with seeds of wild iris (Iris missouriensis), Big Wood River, Idaho.

In future book launches, we plan to attach a probe to monitor temperature, light, and dissolved oxygen, as well as a micro-cam to gather data about where the current takes the seeds and how they get deposited along the banks. A GPS will also be installed to pinpoint locations.

On each project, I work with stream ecologists, river restoration biologists, and botanists to ascertain the best seeds for each specific riparian zone. When the plants regenerate and grow along the riverbank, they help sequester carbon, slow erosion, build the soil, filter pollutants and debris, and provide shelter and habitat for riverside organisms.

The variety of participants in an ice book launch depends on the location. Along the Nisqually River in Washington State, for example, participants included Nisqually Tribal Members, salmon restoration specialists, musicians, fifth graders from the WaHeLut Indian School, students and professors from Evergreen State College, and forest rangers.

Participants on the Rio Grande in New Mexico have included artists, farmers, acequia majordomos (irrigation ditch bosses), hydrologists, Pueblo members, and hundreds of interested watershed citizens.

Several months ago, two Ohio academic institutions, the University of Dayton and Antioch College, invited me to create a series of ice books with the involvement of the local communities. My residency was supported by Antioch College and the University of Dayton’s Departments of English and Visual Arts; College of Arts and Sciences; Rivers Institute; ArtStreet; Environmental Education Center; Arts Series; SEE (Sustainability, Energy, and Environment) Initiative; and the Women’s Center. The University of Dayton’s Rivers Institute enlisted a fleet of kayaks from which the books were launched into the Great Miami River.

With supporters and collaborators, I have launched ice books into rivers in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and across the United States and Canada. Riparian seeds have been released into spring-borne streams in Missouri, languid creeks in North Carolina, and rust-red acid mine drainage in West Virginia’s Deckers Creek.  I have documented many of these launchings in my video, Ice Receding/Books Reseeding, which I began producing in 2007 and continue to update as new projects develop.

The ice books can be read as a universal invocation of and for the Earth. The tongues of the glaciers are receding, the voices of our rivers are being dammed and clogged with toxic debris. We need many diverse scribes writing about our rivers, and both real and virtual libraries to house their stories.

Book launch from kayak into Great Miami River, with help from the River Stewards Institute, Dayton, Ohio.
Book launch from kayak into Great Miami River, with help from the River Stewards Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

Basia Irland is an ecological artist, professor emerita at the University of New Mexico, and creator of the Ice Receding/Books Reseeding project.  She has focused her art on rivers for the past thirty years. Irland’s work appeared in the March-April issue of Orion magazine and was highlighted in the September 2013 issue of Sculpture magazine. For more information, visit Irland’s website.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Beverly Naidus

    It is so important to see art works that connect us to our rivers, and the importance of clean water ways. Thank you for sharing the powerful projects created by Basia Irland.

  • Cameron Davis

    I love Basia’s work and this project in particular as her integrative thinking weaves ideas across climate issues, lived relationships with our places and waters, and the book form as a way to share information. The photograph of the child “reading” looks more like a child in meditation, hands open, “receiving” knowledge or guidance. There seems to be a circular process in the concept and practice of this project with that as well. .. receiving the gift of waters , giving back to the community the gift of seeds, community planting seeds and gifting back to the soils, etc. What a beautiful project, Thank you,

  • Chris Fremantle

    Basia Irland’s work on rivers is a model of art practice that doesn’t just make beautiful things in the landscape but goes much further involving communities and working with the ecology and biodiversity in ways that contribute to eco-cultural well-being. You can find more examples of artists working this way at http://www.greenmuseum.org and with a Scottish focus at http://ecoartscotland.net

  • Aviva Rahmani

    I’m delighted to see my esteemed colleague, Basia Irland’s work here, on the world’s premier platform for exquisite images of the natural world. We need to see images that are more than powerful photographs and that expand how we think about our natural world. Thank you for opening this door on new paradigms.

  • Fern Shaffer

    It is very rewarding to read about your projects and how you work with ice, water, seeds and education. Because I know that as you work on your ideas you share them with those you are connected to and that is a very powerful way to education about echo art.

  • ana leonor madeira rodrigues

    A very beautiful and moving project.
    So poetical.
    Ana Leonor

  • Lisa Roberts

    Wonderful work! I agree with Chris Freemantle that this work goes beyond simply making beautiful objects by actively engaging people with the environment, and with concerns being shared between scientists and artists. More examples of art arising from conversations between artists and environmental scientists can be seen on the Living Data website:

  • Don Krug

    Stories of place are an important way to understand the earths holistic and interdependent complexity. Ice Books engage people of all ages in multimodal experiences that prob both artistic and scientific knowledge associated with these relationships. Bravo Basia!

  • Martina Doblin

    Seed dispersal and connectivity of plant populations is a fascinating branch of science, and critical to maintaining the ecological integrity of both farmed and natural species. Here it is interwoven with the interest of an artist and a collaboration with the community, and is a powerful way to communicate that sustainability involves human stewardship.

  • Patricia Sanders

    What inspiring work! It focuses our attention on our most precious resource and creates beautiful, tangible reminders of our natural systems.

  • roger frank malina

    its great to see this !! as you know in the last decade or so a whole new generation of science and technology savvy artists have been at work- in art science collaborations.
    our leonardo organisation did a project called “lovely weather’in ireland
    and two works shops on water is in the air
    its fascinating to see artists appropriate the science and technology of water- both redirecting the science and technology and embedding in in meaningful cultural ways
    roger malina

  • Karin Bolender

    Basia Irland’s work is a clear, profound, and beautiful illumination of interconnectedness. Thank you for featuring her wonderful ice books on this site, and I recommend visiting her website to see her many other inspiring projects.

  • Vincent Wong

    Thanks for your good work! Talking about rivers;the two major rivers,among others, in China are in the state of ecological disaster! Because of random tree cutting along the banks to make way for building factories, indiscriminate dumping of toxic chemicals into the rivers, and worst of all ,the damming of the big Yantze River, which has forced the neighboring homes and heritage sites to be relocated, millions homes and precious land flooded…..Please look at the situation there!!

  • mita chatterjee

    Excellant amalgamation of art and nature.Thank you for sharing this wonderful project of Basia Irland.

  • Yasser arfath

    Great Job !!!!

  • Reinhard Reitzenstein

    Basia this is awesome… what a lovely process seeds in ice books the ephemeral gardener…

  • Bi Veronica

    Great mark of creativity, putting art and nature together to bring out and instill sense into the world. You see how connected and related nature is with everything that exists. Thanks Basia.

  • Hiten Shah

    Excellent !!!

  • J Stoneking

    Thank you for inspiring all of us to care even more for our Earth.

  • Vasantkumar

    In a world of don’t care upper crest, we are having angels like you who lived a life of serving the earth while showcasing the need to preserve our rivers and its flora. May God bless you!

  • Tom Powers

    Gives “book launch” a whole new meaning…

  • Erika Blumenfeld

    “Ice Receding/Books Reseeding” is such an elegant and poignant project! Thank you, Basia, for bringing the importance of respect and stewardship of our water systems into focus through your work.

  • Dominique Mazeaud

    Thank you National Geographic for opening your blog stream to art, and what kind of art. Doing art FOR the Earth is a profound calling and Basia Irland is a leader of this path.

  • Jennifer Heath

    This is SO important and I am overjoyed that Nat. Geo has had the foresight and insight to put Basia on this project. N one better. Thanks. Have spread the word far and wide through various channels via our traveling new-media art exhibition (in which Basia has two films), Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource and linking the blog on our website.

  • Lea Anderson

    Thank you Basia Irland and National Geographic: a perfect example of why the Arts/creative practice go hand-in-hand with Science- it is only through awareness and applied practice that progress is possible. Any channel through which this is supported deserves to be championed!

  • David Williams

    It’s wonderful to see your work in this context, Basia, thank you. The ice books are exquisite. All wishes to you, Basia, for your continuing endeavours, which are invaluable x

    For anyone not familiar with Basia’s huge body of water-related work, I recommend unreservedly her beautiful book ‘Water Library’ (University of New Mexico Press, 2007).

  • Bobbe Besold

    This is Brilliant work by an inspired and inspiring artist. THIS is how positive change happens. Thank you.

  • Anne Cooper

    The ice books are poetic and beautiful calls to tend our fragile waterways. To draw attention to the power of a seed and the life potential therein.
    Lovely project!

  • sharon kallis

    How fabulous to see Basia’s work though the lens of the National Geographic! Basia so thoughtfully and poetically draws together the threads of environmental science and local stewardship. I hope this is just the start, and that we will be seeing more environmental based art projects in National Geographic down the road.

  • doug wayfarer cohen

    Beautiful piece with many messages and images that speak to my heart. On behalf of the sustainability education and leadership needed to develop the next generations of eco-stewards, this multi-media work speaks volumes. As they say in New Zealand – ‘Love your work, Basia’

  • Colleen Cummins

    Thoughtful and inspired collaboration carries with it the only real possibility for healthy innovative change. This, obviously, is Basia’s gift. Be inspired to change.

  • Jill Powers

    It has been the year of finding out about the power of water, here in Colorado. It is so poignant to see the work of Basia’s water art. The depth of your creative projects among people and waterways helps us to understand what is happening to our planet. Exquisite and meaningful art is such a good way to make it visible.

  • Mike Bilan

    I first met Basia when I was a student and having seen her work evolve over the last 30 years has been inspirational. As an educator myself, I know that her way of involving communities, and especially young people, will have a powerful effect on the attitudes toward and awareness of the importance of water and watersheds in those communities. Great to see the work in National Geographic. Thank you Basia!

  • TIm C

    Superb work and really inspiring to see Basia’s work. Thanks for highlighting the artistic approach to connect people to their local waters through a beautiful and thoughtful artistic approach.

  • Judy Tuwaletstiwa

    Beautiful work, Basia…it is always good to see collaborations of art and science, visions intertwining.

  • Danielle Ferreira Beckner

    It’s wonderful to see this work continue.

  • Tricia Wilson

    Bravo to the National Geographic for showcasing this artist’s beautiful and thoughtful work, never more relevant than now with our precious water facing so many threats.

  • Matthew Chase-Daniel

    It is great to see NatGeo becoming a forum to “shift away from art as commodity and toward new creative possibilities of art in service to communities and ecosystems.” Thank you NatGeo and Basia Irland.

  • Amy Nelson

    Art is an incredibly powerful tool in ecological restoration and conservation! So great to see this addressed in this blog. We featured Basia and other contemporary eco-artists in our “Art & Ecology” issue of Leaf Litter: http://www.biohabitats.com/newsletters/art-ecology/#basia-irland

  • Pam McBride

    This is very important work that I wasn’t even aware had taken place along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque! Thank you for posting this especially at a time when there is discussion about damming the last wild river in New Mexico-the Gila.

  • Claire Cote

    I am thrilled to see Basia’s important work featured here on National Geographic’s Water Blog; a perfect fit. To me, Basia’s work is a superb example of site specific art as protagonist, crossing and connecting people, disciplines, places, ideas and borders and poetically increasing awareness, inviting dialogue and instigation conversation. Keep going Basia!

  • Mary Daniel Hobson

    What a fabulous article – so excited to see National Geographic focusing on such important work that bridges art and science. We were delighted to honor Basia’s work last year with an Arts & Healing Network award:

  • Erika Osborne

    In a time where science, technology, math and engineering are getting the bulk of our attention and funding, it’s important to see an institution such as National Geographic acknowledging the roll of art in creating a more environmentally aware and community centric world.

  • Ann Savageau

    As a resident of California, where we are experiencing a record drought, I find that Basia’s work resonates with special urgency. Her work speaks more profoundly of the fundamental role that water plays in our lives than anything I have ever seen. Keep up your powerful work, Basia.

  • Jacqueline Bishop

    Brilliant Blog!! National Geographic. Featuring Basia Ireland and her meaningful work opens the audience, the discussion, the information to the issues for more understanding. When so many forms of communication seem to fall short, what better way than through visual art for reaching other depths.

  • Gay W

    So much comes together in this article – concern for the environment, art , research, skill and heart. Thank you Basia.

  • Diana Theodores

    Basia Irland’s work, vision and passion has inspired me for many years and continues to inspire, intrigue and uplift me.
    Hers is a unique interdisciplinary voice of the poet, artist, ecologist and social activist. As well, her works are beautiful and compelling in their own right as site specific art.
    Her blogs have found a rightful home at National Geographic.

  • Mary Lance

    I am delighted to see Basia Irland’s work on the Nat Geo blog. The ice book launch in Albuquerque was an inspiring event.

  • Eva Sidonie Hayward

    I have long been inspired by Basia Irland’s amazing artwork. So glad the National Geographic is featuring her projects!

  • Terryl Shouba

    A moving witness to changes taking place, which would be silent were it not for her art, and we would hardly notice them. Beautiful.

  • Patty Bittner Black

    (Babs – remember when…) You are doing such impressive and worthwhile work and constant research. Think Jane and I were very fortunate to be present for your project on the Boulder Creek. Brought back a good memory. pb

  • Sally Bowler-Hill

    Beautiful work! Glad to see this posted on a site like National Geographic.

  • Mark Feldman

    What a nice overview of a terrific project! Terrific that National Geographic is helping share this work.

  • Ana MacArthur

    My colleague Basia has been an embedded ecological and water activist for many years, thus it is highly appropriate to see her ‘water engagement’ featured in this forum where it can be demonstrated that artistic thinking and process, engaged in community, can be a special catalyst for change.

  • Doris Hellinghausen

    My husband and I remind ourselves almost daily what a luxury we enjoy by living within walking distance of the South Platt River. So if Basia had done nothing more than tempt people to visit their neighborhood river, I would think she deserved the highest praise. But she went SO much further, giving even us river huggers the means to a novel and creative perspective on their value. I am reassured to live in a world where people like her will undertake – and National Geographic will support – a project of this magnitude and delicacy.

  • Jerry Wellman

    Truly inspiring mix of art, science, and the community we all take part in. Enhance the wonder. Thank you Basia Irland

  • Stanly Steinberg

    I met Basia when we were both appointed Faculty Scholars at the University of New Mexico for the Spring semester of 1993. This allowed us and four other faculty to do whatever we wanted for a semester. I followed the writing of her book Water Library which was a wonderful experience. Her current project on Ice Books is equally fascinating and beautiful.

  • kawtar

    I like so much that it is good thank you

  • Vicki

    I really love how the seeds are imbeded in the ice and how the ice is carved from the glacier and involving community support.

  • Tatiana Benally

    Basia’s work is amazing. Excited to see what more is to come. 🙂

  • reuben hersh

    amazing, wonderful work

    thank you!

  • Dr. Jackie Damrau

    Dr. Stanly Steinberg shared Basia’s blog with me. After reviewing it, I find that her project should continue on. As a writer, I believe this is one unique form of sharing our country’s culture and nature. Basia should be commended for doing something so fantastic that will enliven and enlighten anyone’s life who happens upon her work.

  • Kenneth Ingham

    In New Mexico, water and rivers are essential for life. I am glad that Basia is bringing more attention to the rivers.

  • Jenny Balfour-Paul

    What a beautiful way to draw attention to such an important topic. I love Basia’s work and the ideas behind it.

  • Larry Akers

    This is a lovely concept, not only on its own merits but also in its philosophy of art as an active service agent rather than a commodity.

    Did the artists consider alternatives to ice as a delivery vehicle in rivers which had no ice-bound origin?

  • Elena varbanova

    What a fantastic project! Such a creative work, such a deepness! And so long lasting dedication and devotion of Basia Irland to a cause of greatest importance: the water on Earth. When Prof. Stanly Steinberg informed me about the Nat Geo blog the first thought that came to my mind was: „Water, thou has no taste, no color, no odor; cannot be defined, art relished ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fills us with gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.“, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
    Thank you Basia Irland and National Geographic! Keep going together!

  • Cathy Briand

    Beautiful, informative work!

  • Dragomir

    Great article!

    “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash.”

  • Elinor Alexander

    Amazing work! For someone from Australia, water is as critical as it is in the SW but we don”t see it frozen very often! It’s marvellous to think of how the works melt and leave only seeds. I love how interactive they are. It is reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s London snowballs but these scultpures are different objects created to fit in the natural environment.

  • Cleve Moler

    I would love to see one of these live!

  • Katya Dishlieva

    Very interesting project, a combination of science and art. Thank you for the pleasant moments – feast for the eyes and soul! Thanks a lot and good luck!

  • Krisanne Baker

    The inclusion of Basia’s work in National Geographic is most fortunate. More than ever, we need to connect to the earth and it’s waters in sublime stewardship to ensure the health and well being of all. Thank you for showing us ‘Receding Ice:Reseeding Rivers’ – I feel hopeful seeing the arts and sciences together.

  • Diana Hartel

    The ice books are exquisite, the community launches a joy, powerfully educating all involved. It was fortunate for me that my travels coincided with such a launch on the Rio Grande, a river sorely in need of a greater active, caring community. It was an unforgettable experience, etched in my memory like a prayer for the river.

  • Mac Hyman

    What a wonderful gift of art. Thank you for sharing.

  • Leigh Fanning

    Nat Geo: can you regularly report updates on this work as it continues to progress? The photographs and ideas convey our shared need, and our shared responsibility, better than human environmental footprint statistics.

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