Climate Notes

by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV

The following article features Climate Notes, presented by Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria as part of Victoria Nature Festival. The exhibition was supported by the Inspiring Victoria Program and Monash University.

Dear Joe,

How I feel about climate change is constantly changing. Sometimes I feel a great sense of frustration at the inaction and misinformation. I mourn for the animals that lost their lives in catastrophic bushfires and the extinct species that no longer are found on this planet. I dread what is coming with the predictions of sea level rise and warming average global temperatures. But other times, I feel a strong sense of hope, thinking about the people championing change, the communities trying to be more sustainable, and the scientists developing ways to reduce our footprint on the planet.

Many of these feelings may resonate with others, including the oscillating emotions. But I hope that the hope lingers – long enough for us to cling on to. The brilliant minds we have and technologies that we can develop will hopefully push climate change itself towards extinction.



Between 2014-2015, Joe Duggan approached the world’s leading climate scientists and asked them to respond to one seemingly simple question: ‘how does climate change make you feel?’

The powerful collection of letters he collected expresses both despair about lack of action and hope for effective solutions.

These Is This How You Feel letters were the inspiration for Climate Notes. Handwritten letters lined the walls of the National Herbarium of Victoria, embellished with native flora, and the installation grew as people added their own thoughts and feelings.

Climate Notes was an emotive, interactive exhibition and performance work that explores how we feel about climate change through music, letter writing and film. The project, developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, commissioned six Australian composers from different cities to write works evoking feelings about climate change and responding to the letters: in essence, to compose a ‘musical letter’.

In a performance to launch the installation, Climate Notes co-creators Anna McMichael and Louise Devenish performed music live accompanied by their past selves on video. The combination of live and recorded music and imagery allowed the musicians to reflect on the climate letters and explore the Royal Botanic Gardens’ collections. They breathed musical life into pressed plant specimens, integrated field recordings of various natural biomes, and drew inspiration from the natural environment.

The first piece, Red Garden by Cathy Milliken, created a magnificent soundscape for Australia’s Red Centre. Filmed in the Red Sand circles at Cranbourne Gardens, the piece gave the impression of a quiet vastness as the wind whistled across the landscape. Music played on a xylophone reverberated in the stillness, then the music swelled as raindrops and bird calls joined – mixed in with the live bird calls audible from outside the hall). The echo of Anna and Louise playing slightly out of sync with their past selves in the recording added to the sense of limitlessness in the red sands.

Natural Instruments

Other pieces took inspiration from nature for percussive elements to add to the atmospheric music. Daniel Blinkhorn’s Unequal Forms 1-3 used field recordings with the live rustling of eucalypt branches and crunching of dried leaves. Kate Moore’s Infinity was played with porcelain tree rings, Dylan Crismani’s A Glimmer of Hope with aluminium bell plates. The ringing of the bell plates was carried by the wind as they continued to sway after being struck. The pieces conjured imagery of being in the solitary yet beautiful outback, or being surrounded by bush.

Anna played a calm, haunting violin solo Bloodwood variations composed by Katy Moore that gradually sped up and became more urgent. Damian Barbeler’s Pressed featured images from the plant archives of the State Botanical Collection. The piece was quite dissonant between the violin and vibraphone, yet simultaneously somewhat harmonious in the discord.

Replica Tree

The centrepieces for the finale, How We Fell by Bree van Reyk, were two custom percussive/string ‘Replica Tree’ instruments. The piece was divided into multiple parts: ‘a sufficient catastrophe’, ‘falling ice’, ‘an uncontrolled, risky experiment’, ‘tipping point, tipping cascade’, and others. They travelled listeners to different places affected by climate change and built a sense of urgency. Perhaps the most striking section was ‘inaction’: Anna and Louise kept poising as if ready to begin playing but made no sound.

Understanding and withstanding a major challenge such as climate change calls for emotional not just intellectual effort: feelings as well as facts, stories as well as statistics. Climate Notes invites us to consider what it feels like to live through a time when climate change affects every aspect of our lives.