July 31, 2016: For the past month, I started each day by sewing an improvised block with the goal of making a quilt from scraps leftover from other quilting projects. In the beginning I though the blocks would just be random arrangements of fabric, but within the first couple of days the fabrics started to take on meanings and form relationships, and a story began to emerge. Or rather, a commentary. The theme became the environmental issues that are today affecting our health, our politics, our very survival on this planet. I had some fabric with penguins on it and one day when I realized that I would quickly run out of penguin fabric I thought “What happens when we run out of penguins?” And so I started referring to the quilt as “The Penguin Project.”

The stories of each block turned darker and darker during the first half of the month. The military coup in Turkey, the presidential race in the USA, the terrorism attacks in Nice and other European cities, these all took on a very personal meaning as I sewed their stories into the blocks each morning. And the blocks became darker and darker. At the end of the third week, I sewed a block that I called “When Even the Fire Is Gone” meaning ‘What happens when we run out of oil, when all the wars have been fought over the last of it, when we have been so foolish that we didn’t take time to find a better way?’ This block is broken and black. I really was feeling pretty hopeless about humanity’s prospects for survival.

And then, on July 26, an amazing event occurred: two Swiss pilots (who surely will go down in history as the Wright Brothers of the 21st century) completed the first around-the-world journey in a completely solar-powered plane. The trip included one leg from Japan to Hawaii over the Pacific ocean that was 5 continuous days — and nights — long. Yes, they flew the plane through the night. I cried as I read the news of their final landing in Abu Dhabi.

For the last week, instead of getting darker and darker (I had started thinking of calling the quilt “Fade to Black”), the blocks became lighter and lighter. Hope and exigency combined. We must — and we can — develop clean, renewable energy sources that will bring us and our technology into balance with the natural processes of the earth. And so I have named this quilt in honor of that first solar-powered plane: Solar Impulse.


RaNae Merrill Improv Block Light July 31, 2016July 31: Universe of Light. Today is the last block for the month. I finally made that yellow-and-white block I’ve been thinking about, and put our beautiful earth floating right in the middle of it. When we see pictures of “The Universe” we always see the sky as black, because it has to be in order to see the stars. But actually, that space is full of light traveling in every direction from stars near and far. Here’s an interesting question: Why does light exist? It could seem as though all that light does nothing unless it strikes an object — like our earth. For eons, sunlight has been the energy that fueled the engine of the earth. Doesn’t our learning to power our technology with that same sunlight hold the promise of being able to come into balance with the natural order of things?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block A New World Order July 30, 2016July 30: Fundamental Shift. For the past two days, I’ve started piecing my improv block with yellows and whites – they feel like sunlight and health to me. Today’s block includes reds and blues — red, white and blue mixed with sunshine becoming orange, yellow and teal. A fundamental shift in who we are. A fundamental shift in how we relate to each other and to the earth that is our home — hopefully for many generations to come.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 29, 2016July 29: Ubi Caritas. Clean energy, healthy world, environmental balance, political peace. Today as I sewed, the music of a piece by Maurice Durufle that I sung with my choir a few weeks ago kept running through my mind. The words are, in Latin, “Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est.” Where there is care and love, God is there. Quantum physicists have found that consciousness and intention are essential to creation. If so, then thoughts are as much a causative force of nature as E=mc2. It’s science: Love creates. Hate destroys. For the sake of everything we love, let’s create this world.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block FIre & Ice July 28, 2016July 28: A Clean World. Trees, water, clear blue sky, and among it our buildings and homes, powered by sunlight and clean, renewable energy. What other option is there, really? Fight over oil, pollute the hell out of our environment and kill ourselves and everything else off in bloody wars over who gets the last drop of oil? Which future do you want to live in?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Future is Clean July 27, 2016July 27: #Future is Clean. Today I’m borrowing the hashtag from Solar Impulse. Can we create a future where energy sources are clean and renewable, basing our society on the energy pillars of solar, wind and other renewables? Can we recycle our materials resources? Can we create a world where at the heart of it we understand that we are the penguins — that preserving a clean environment is preserving ourselves? I believe we can. I know we must.

RaNae Merrill Imrpv Block Solar Impulse July 26, 2016July 26: Solar Impulse 2. Today the Solar Impulse 2 completed the first around-the-world flight by a completely solar-powered plane. The implications are huge. If we can build a solar-powered plane, then we can build solar-powered cars and other forms of transportation. As the efficiency of conversion from light to electricity improves, we will eventually — soon — be able to power our whole world with free, clean energy from the sun. Icarus laughs for joy.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 25, 2016July 25: When even the fire is gone. I woke up with the idea to use the fire fabric as “fissures” in my block today. When I looked through my scrap drawer this was all I could find. It has run out. What will happen when we have depleted all the oil we can possibly wring out of this earth? What happens when the fire that fuels life as we know it is gone? Can we be wise enough, foresighted enough, to learn to use the unlimited, renewable power of the sun before then?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice Balance July 24, 2016July 24: Balance. Ancient peoples believed that the world was composed of four elements: fire, water, earth and air. They believed that the balance of these four elements was essential to their life on earth. If they were out of balance, chaos was the result. In our modern world we may consider this an oversimplification and outright wrong. But perhaps not. Perhaps there is still something useful about seeing the matter of survival in these most simple of terms. Fire, water, earth and air. Do our choices and our actions keep them in balance? Our lives are in the balance.

RaNae Merrill Improv Bloc Fire & Icew July 23, 2016July 23: Extinction? At the New York Botanical Garden, a corpse flower is about to bloom. It takes 10 years for this plant to gather up the strength to make one single giant flower about 8 feet high, which lasts for one day (curing which is smells like rotting flesh, hence the name) and then dies. The last time a corpse flower bloomed at the NYBG was 80 years ago. The expected bloom date is this coming Monday, July 25, 2016. I plan to go see it. It is probably the only opportunity I will have in my lifetime. What if it’s the last time it will ever happen — at all??  We see the signs and hear the warnings about declines in populations of animals and plants, but do we act to reverse the process and to bring our way of life back into balance with the earth? We are accustomed to thinking that even if things go extinct it will be them not us. But what if it’s not? Aren’t we seeing signs and hearing warnings about ourselves? Diseases like cancer and diabetes and depression have become commonplace. Yet even as we fight them, we’re creating new causes for them at an ever faster rate: carcinogens and pollution and breakdown in our families and social structure. What if we are the ones who become extinct first?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 22, 2016July 22: Without thought. I woke up late this morning because I stayed up too late last night watching videos. Then I listened to an audio book all the time I was sewing this block. I did not have one single thought about what this block might mean as I was sewing it. And to be honest, I find nothing interesting about it at all. It’s devoid of thought and meaning to me. Is that what we are doing when we put on our earphones and shut out the world? We passively allow — or even expect — someone else to fill our minds with entertainment that has no value. We no longer hear what’s going on around us or inside us. We abdicate our own thoughts. And in so doing we lose touch with our world, with each other, with ourselves. Mediocrity, apathy, inaction are the result.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 21, 2016July 21: Fade to Black. It’s a movie/TV script term: Fade to black. At the end of a scene, or the end of the movie, the picture fades until nothing is left but a black screen. This morning I selected several pieces of fabric with dots. I was thinking about rain, and acid rain; the different colors of dots seemed to become more and more toxic. Does anyone talk about acid rain any more? In the end, only the green dots made it into the block, and they came to represent leaves, not rain — clean or acid — but the idea of toxins leaching into the soil stayed with me. We talk a lot about animal species going extinct, but we tend to ignore plants dying out. But if the soil becomes too toxic for things to grow — for the plants that create oxygen for us to breathe and food for us to eat — what then? Fade to black . . . . . .

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 20, 2016July 20: Glug, glug – there goes Tahiti. This morning, stumped for a starting point, I picked up a quarter-Log Cabin block left over from a previous project. The colors reminded me of the tropics. All batiks. I grabbed my rotary cutter and sliced it up. Grabbed a strip of blue batik. Water. (Too short, so I stretched it with penguins. What are penguins doing in Tahiti?) Ocean levels rise. Tropical islands disappear. Glug, glug, there goes Tahiti. (And the penguins, too.) What will we tell our kids and grandkids some day? “There used to be this amazing tropical paradise, but we drowned it.” Let’s not. Please.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Resourcefulness July 19, 2016July 19: Resourcefulness.  “What is hate?” I wondered as I pieced blue after blue after blue this morning. And the answer that came was: In a world of declining resources, it’s the story someone tells himself to justify why s/he deserves to have the available resources and someone else does not. It is a nasty survival instinct that causes us to turn on one another — but the twist is that hate ultimately destroys us all (people and penguins alike).

The key word here is RESOURCES. Our resources are finite. Or are they? The world existed for eons, constantly renewing itself, until we “smart” humans came along to use it faster than it could renew itself and pollute it to death. Going deeper, the fundamental principle of our existence is that energy and matter are indestructible (but interchangeable). Do you know that America invented the phrase “to make money”? Can we stop fighting over who gets to use up what’s left of the resources we are depleting, and instead use our intelligence to be RESOURCEFUL and work together to bring it all back into balance? To me the blues in this block today stand for honesty, hard work and resourcefulness. And that beautiful turquoise triangle right in the middle is the balance upon which rests the well-being of us all.

RaNae Merrill improv block Fire & Ice Be Nice July 17-18, 2016July 17-18: Be Nice.Yesterday morning at church people were talking about “Nice.” Somehow over the weekend, amidst the news about the coup in Turkey and the workshop I hosted all day on Saturday, I missed the news about the Bastille Day attack in Nice. As I was walking home after church the bottom part of this block came to mind, and I felt so strongly about it that even though I had already made Sunday’s block, I went to my studio as soon as I got home and sewed this block. As I sewed I kept wondering what would motivate someone to do what this man did, what people all over the world are doing. These seem to me to be acts of desperation. What are they feeling so desperate about? It seems to me that the only thing that would generate the level of desperation that would motivate someone to kill other people is a fear for their own survival. Have we reached such a level of economic, moral, and environmental threat in our world? When I went online to look up more information about the events in Nice, I learned of the police officers shot in Baton Rouge this morning. And there is so much more, like the more-than-daily mass shootings that are occurring in our nation. We are in a storm.

I actually had done something different with the top of this block, but it didn’t seem to work so I took it off  and began to improvise. The penguins and trees showed up, and then the fire and climate-change fabrics. The path of the truck is there, breaking apart the social structure — the “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” of the French flag — but it also looks to me like a lightning bolt. This morning (Monday), I re-made the part right above the vertical blue stripes again, as I felt it needed something more chaotic to convey a sense of panic – not only of the people who were hurt or killed in Nice, but a growing sense of panic around the world about what is going on . The question is: What do we do to change this?

Remember the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” adopted by supporters of freedom of speech and freedom of the press after the 7 January 2015 shooting at the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo? Well, all the time I was working on this block, the phrase “I Am Nice” kept going through my mind. That seemed to almost express what I was feeling, but not quite. And then I heard my mother’s voice – the voice of all our mothers — saying “Be Nice.” Remember when you’d get into a fight with a friend or a sibling and your mother would break it up and say “Be nice!” She was telling us to be kind and respectful to one another. I think we all need a collective “Be Nice’  to both express solidarity with the people of Nice, and also remind us to be nice to one another. Ultimately, isn’t simply being nice what we need do in order to stop all this craziness? Be nice to each other. Be nice to the earth. Be Nice.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 17, 2016July 17: Chill Out. I didn’t get the story of this block until I started adding the top half. As I sewed I thought about the military coup in Turkey. I thought about the upcoming U.S. election. Such divisions, such polarization. The bottom has the “corporate” argyle fabric, and the fire fabric, and the pollution fabrics, and the war fabric. And then I pieced the top section and thought: “We need to take a lesson from the penguins: CHILL OUT!”


RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 16, 2016July 16: Today’s block turned into a forest landscape. Ocean, river, rocks, land, trees, a bit of sky. And in the background the chaos we are forcing nature to deal with. Unfortunately, no penguins.
Epilogue, July 17: i used the fabric from my brother’s Air Force fatiques to represent soil in this block. But looking it now, after learning of the military coup in Turkey, I once again see this fabric as representing war. Here we are, humans poised between earth and forest, and despite being the most intelligent animal on this planet, we are destroying it and fighting amongst ourselves.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 15, 2016

July 15: Since so much of my past work has involved spirals, I decided today to see if I could improv-piece a spiral. And it didn’t go too badly up to this point. As I was nearing the end of today’s session, the phrase that went through my mind was “a rare balance.” Our world is a rare and delicate balance of temperature and resources. We need the sunlight, the water, the hot and cold zones in order to grow plants — the essential base of the food chain that feeds us all — people and animals alike. Thinking about this block later, the thought hit me: Where did all the people go? July 17: It also makes me think of a hurricane.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 14, 2016July 14: Are you fracking nuts?! I started this block not having any idea where it was going, but the more I worked on it, the more the bottom section made me think of fracking. Here we are, planting trees and manicured flower gradens to make our cities more livable, while at the same time we are allowing oil companies to inject toxic chemicals into the ground and break it up to extract a few barrels of oil that we will burn up in a very short time. And then what? We’ve created a permanent and irreversible toxic mess for a few minutes of electricity? And areas that have been fracked are reporting frequent earthquakes. Would you allow someone to dismantle the foundation of your house? The earth is our foundation. Dismantle it, poison it, and we’ve poisoned ourselves. Let’s get some common sense and stop this madness.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block fire & Ice Penguin Blues July 13, 2016July 13: I Love Penguins.  I was kind of extravagant with the penguin fabric for this block, because I wanted to pay them a visit, as it were. After doing that Summer Fun block yesterday I wanted to do an all-blue block today. Of course this one has to be called “Penguin Blues.”The “blue” in the title really has two meanings: one is the color of the fabric and the ice and water of the Antarctic region. The other is sadness. But let’s not go there yet. Let’s think about those amazing creatures. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth. The average annual temperature ranges from about −10°C on the Antarctic coast to −60°C at the highest parts of the interior. Near the coast the temperature can exceed +10°C at times in summer and fall to below −40°C in winter. (Source) How can anything survive in those temperatures???? But they do. You know how you feel when it’s 90 degrees outside? Well, that’s how penguins feel at 0. And sled dogs, too. Did you know that during the Iditarod, dogs were suffering heat prostration at -10F or -20F, because they are adapted and accustomed to -30 or -40? (BTW, -30 is the same in Fahrenheit or Celsius.) So maybe let’s stop delighting over the fact that it doesn’t snow as much where we live any more, and realize that that lack of snow here means a lack of snow and ice for other creatures that really need it to survive. Oh, and guess what? That means US too! Because without the evaporation that purifies our water, and the snow pack in the mountains that stores it for us during the summer, our rivers dry up and we end up in a drought. We’re in this together with the penguins.

July 12: This morning I just didn’t want to think about gloomy possibilities. It is a gorgeous summer day and that’s something to celebrate! The sunshine and the cool shade, the intense colors of garden-fresh vegetables and fruits, a backyard barbecue. This earth we live on is so good to us and to all the creatures (like penguins — see them in there?) we share it with. Let’s thank it by appreciating its bounty and by treating it (and them) with respect and joy!

July 11

July 11: Today’s block looks so much like a landscape to me — perhaps it’s the “sky” fabric at the top. There’s a mountain with fall colors, meadows, dirt, and yes, some ice. The ice is getting thin in this block. There’s a city, paired with the penguins — after all, we have got to realize that we’re in this together with them. And then, on the left and bottom are the argyle “Corporate CEO” fabric, the fire fabric, the “temperate zones getting hot” fabric. But when I look at this block I see a kind of balance, with us and the penguins in the middle. Perhaps there is hope.

July 10: And They All Came Tumbling Down. Another block with city fabric in it today, but the penguins didn’t make it in. I tried, but they just didn’t work somehow. When I look at this block I see a skyscraper breaking, crumbling backward into the sky, fire all around it. The flower fabric above it looks more to me like billowing clouds of smoke than flowers. Rising seas. Black skies. Today is Sunday. Thinking about the Bible again, the language used in the KJV of the Creation story was that God gave Adam and Eve “dominion” over the earth. What if we had translated the word as “stewardship” all these years? And paid more attention to the instruction to “tend and keep” the garden?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 9, 2016

July 9: The other day I caught a glimpse of a piece of camouflage fabric in my scrap bin. It was from a pair of fatigues given to me years ago by my brother, who was in the Air Force. That fabric was at the front of my mind this morning when I woke up. I also remembered seeing a piece of a city skyline fabric in there. When I pulled out my scrap bin this morning, I found them both right away and I started with those. The shootings this week, more ISIS attacks…I guess war was on my mind. This block really started telling its story to me: The Space Needle half submerged by oceans rising. Temperate zones becoming too hot. War breaking out over dwindling resources. Polluted water. Is all the gun violence we’re experiencing a symptom of something larger than racism? imag0915_1.jpgMy mind raises an alarming question: Is it all a sign that we’re beginning to funda-mentally question our ability to survive, and we are starting to turn on one another?  And all the while, the penguins stand helpless and watch.

RaNae Merrill Improv Block Fire & Ice July 8, 2016July 8: Working on this block I realized that I’m planning the design more than when I first started. Certain fabrics and combinations of fabrics are beginning to “tell stories” and I find myself selecting and arranging fabrics to tell the story that is developing in my mind. The swirly blue fabric that showed up today makes me think of the sea. The cool green is beginning to signify “temperate zones”. The oranges are fire. The white is ice. I wanted to protect the penguin in its ice. Planning: can we learn to plan the use of our resources better, so we don’t burn ourselves off the planet?

July 7, 2016

July 7: As I pieced today I thought about the biblical writers who saw the world ending in a huge fire that wipes out pretty much all of humanity, and wondered if perhaps that was a metaphor for what we are doing to ourselves: heating up the planet to the point where it is too hot for us to exist on. Ultimately, isn’t saving penguins saving ourselves?


July 6

July 6: Last night I got a donation request from Environmental Defense Fund. In the envelope were four notecards. The one on top had a picture of an Emperor penguin with the caption “Advice from a Penguin”. The next one down had a picture of a glacier with the caption “Advice from a Glacier.” Hmmm…..interesting coincidence imag0910_1.jpgthat these should show up when I’ve got penguins and glaciers on my mind in a big way. All the time I was sewing this block today, I thought “What happens when we run out of penguins?”

July 5, 2016 what happens when we run out of penguins?July 5: Today as I was sewing I realized that I probably will run out of penguin fabric before I reach the end of the month. And probably the bluish green too. For a second I wondered what I would do — stop making blocks early? — but then it hit me that running out of these fabrics is like seeing these animals go extinct. The quilt will change. The world will change — and not in a good way.


July 4, 2016 corporate greed using up the worldJuly 4: There almost wasn’t a penguin in this block, then he popped into the upper LH corner at the last minute. Ice breaking. Argyle socks of corporate CEOs using up the world. The orange fabric: Fire vs. Ice. Tonight as I was finishing the “I Love You To Infinity” bed runner, I watched a movie called Into the Cold. Two guys walked to the North Pole over the sea ice while there still is sea ice. Which won’t be the case within a perhaps a year or two. Or perhaps it is already gone — they made the movie in 2009.

July 3, 2016 when ice turns to violets, what will the penguins do?July 3: Today’s block again reminded me of global warming. The two blue fabrics – penguins and violets – the violets next to the warm gold, like sunshine. And I thought “what will happen to the penguins when ice is replaced by violets?”

I’ve come up with an idea for a sashing of sorts between the blocks when I set them into a quilt.

July 2, 2016 glacier calving please don't leave meJuly 2: I like this block a lot. And it feels right that it continues the color scheme of the May 31 block. As I was making it, the colors and the penguin fabric made me think of ice breaking up, glaciers calving, global warming and how our world is melting away. I popped onto YouTube to see videos of glaciers calving, and as I watched a one-line haiku came to mind:

glacier calving please don’t leave me

RaNae Merrill Improv block "Fire & Ice 1" July 4, 2016

July 1: Today’s improv block – I don’t like it so much. Something about the colors feels wrong. There’s no connection to yesterday’s block. Why does that seem to matter?

RaNae Merrill Improv Block #1, May 31, 2016

May 31, 2016: It began with this block. Actually, it began with a book by Rayna Gillman that my friend Maria del Carmen from Argentina bought for me when she visited NYC a few months ago. The book is about creating improvisational blocks and building a quilt from them. It sounded like fun. I started making blocks now and then — it is fun! Today I made this block out of fabric leftover from a project in my latest book (Sideways Spiral Quilts). I liked it a lot, and then, for some reason, I thought “Why don’t I make a block a day for a month and make a quilt out of them?” So that’s what I’m doing.

Click here to hear I Love Penguins by Lyle Lovett

Click here to watch Into the Cold

Click here to watch March of the Penguins

Donate to Environmental Defense Fund here

Donate to World Wildlife Fund here

Some simple things you can do every day to make a healthier environment for yourself and for the planet:

Turn of the air conditioner and open the windows, especially at night when temperatures fall. Use a fan

Use your scraps instead of buying more fabric. Make scrappy quilts and improv blocks. Donate scraps too small to sew to a charity that uses them to stuff  animal beds.

Buy organic vegetables from local farms.

Buy organic fabric produced locally.

Walk. Take public transportation.

Donate to organizations that protect the environment.

Turn your own back yard organic.