Breath Plastic

By Tali Weinberg
Essay adapted from a paper presented at Praxis & Practice Digital Weaving Conference in Cleveland, OH in June 2023.

The extraction and burning of fossil fuels causes eerily parallel harm to trees and humans. While the climate crisis threatens one in six tree species in the continental US,1 one in six human deaths over the last five years is directly traceable to pollution.2
In the series Memories of Future Fires I explore the inextricability of these crises. I interweave petrochemical and plant-derived fibers into forms that connect fossil fuel extraction, forest fires, smoke inhalation, and the buildup of toxic plastics in our bodies and ecosystems. Each weaving starts with photos I took of dead trees in a fire-scarred landscape.

Fig 1. Trees photographed in Caldera, OR, used as the basis for weavings in Memories of Future Fires. On daily hikes during an artist residency in the Pacific Northwest, I was struck by stands of dead trees that stood like skeletons stripped clean by time, killed by wildfire years before my arrival. I was drawn, in particular, to this grouping, seemingly reaching their arms towards the sky, each other, and fellow trees lying at their feet.

As I reflect on how plants, people, plastics, and pollution shape—and are shaped by—each other, I look to weaving as a relational language that communicates between and beyond a binary understanding of nature/culture.

  • Fig 2. Lungs (2022), 86” x 112”, plant fibers, petrochemical-derived monofilament and dyes, photo courtesy of Rebecca Heidenberg, Dreamsong Gallery. As I reflect on interconnections between life-sustaining circulatory systems inside and outside the human body, I transform the trees into silhouettes that reference lungs and hearts.

Fig 3. Detail of Lungs. The trees are woven as silhouettes of dense, textured threads. These opaque areas contrast with porous, semi-transparent patterned backgrounds that reference cells and flames.

Relational Language

Any number of feminist, Indigenous, postcolonial, and environmental scholars have pointed to the harms that result when we see ourselves as separate from others and from the world around us—including the multitude of harms that add up to the climate crisis.3 Those with power, including fossil fuel companies, benefit when these relationships are obscured—when we instead understand the world as a series of false binaries between self and other or humans and nature. So, part of addressing ecological crises is retracing these intentionally obscured relationships.

Feminist philosopher Donna Haraway says:
“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” 4

The language we use to discuss the climate crisis shapes our understanding and response to it. So why use weaving as the story to tell this story with? Weaving, for me, is one way to sense and make sense of climate crisis—the science, the social-political dimensions, and entangled, multifaceted relationships to the more-than-human world. Retracing intentionally obscured relationships requires a language that communicates beyond binaries. Weaving is a relational language. It’s relational socially, ecologically, metaphorically, and tactile-y.

Fig 4. Most of my work in response to climate crisis has been woven with a similar set of structures. What changes is not the patterning so much as the color, material, and space between threads.

Some consider weaving a binary language, referring to whether a vertical thread passes over or under a horizontal. But weaving, for me, has never been binary. The outcome of the cloth has as much to do with color, texture, the space between threads, and the hand of the weaver as it does with whether a warp thread is up or down. Instead, I think of weaving as a language of relationships between all of the above, and I think of those intersections of warp and weft not as up and down but rather as points of connection and interaction.

These relationships extend outwards. While one might view weaving as an isolated studio practice, for me, weaving is a way to situate myself in the world, dependent on the functioning of complex ecosystems from water, soil, and insects to laborers, scientists, activists, and more. Like the crossing of warp and weft, weaving exists as and at intersections: intersections of domestic, industrial, and agricultural; of injustice and resistance; body and world, cerebral and embodied knowledge, individual and collective, capital and care. The final form and the meaning of the cloth is these relationships.

Fig 5. Detail of Traces 2

Tracing the relationships embodied in weaving is one way to trace relationships between plants, people, plastics, and pollution. 

Image and Material

Memories of Future Fires is a tactile interweaving of corporeal and ecological bodies. While the imagery is a legible entry point for viewers, the relationships between material, color, and structure, and the process of building up the image line-by-line, matter just as much to the story this work tells. The warp threads of the rematerialized trees are industrially dyed black cotton. The wefts are petrochemical-derived plastic monofilament.

Fig 6. detail of Traces 1 (2021), 83” x 88”, plant fibers, petrochemical-derived monofilament and dyes. As I experimented with various ways to rematerialize the images of trees I was drawn to monofilament, in part, because it allowed me to create ghostly, porous bodies—forms that felt resonant as I reflected on loss and the anticipation of future loss in the context of fire and climate crisis.


Trees are vital to human and ecosystem health. They sequester carbon, mitigate pollution, and moderate rising temperatures.

We learn as children that breathing is an interconnected act: trees are counterparts to our breath—inhaling CO2 and exhaling oxygen, as we exhale CO2 and inhale oxygen. When trees die, so do we.5

Fig 7 Breath Plastic (2022), 86” x 109”, plant fibers, petrochemical-derived monofilament and dyes, photo courtesy of Rebecca Heidenberg, Dreamsong Gallery.

Extraction, Plastics, and Pollution

As we and trees breathe, we encounter particulates, including microplastics. As toxicants accumulate in the air, they also accumulate in our bodies, leading to accumulations of illnesses like cancers, endocrine disorders, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

As Max Liboiron lays out in the introduction to Pollution is Colonialism: “You can’t ‘clean up’ plastics because they exist in geologic time, and cleaning just shuffles them in space as they endure in time. You can’t recycle them out of the way… and there is no “away” at any rate… Many of the chemicals associated with plastics, called endocrine disruptors, defy thresholds…  Plastics and their chemicals defy containment… They blow, flow and off-gas so that their pollutants are ubiquitous in every environment tested.”6 

The porosity of bodies intersects with the toxic materiality of air. As blood moves oxygen, it also circulates the toxicants we encounter, whether smoke from fires or microplastics. Woven with petrochemical-derived monofilament, the trees become materializations of this invisible buildup of plastics in our bodies, air, and ecosystems.7

Fig 8 Arterial (2022), 86” x 89”, plant fibers, petrochemical-derived monofilament and dyes
Fig 9 Detail of Arterial. The weavings cast patterned shadows as light passes through their porous bodies.

Fig 10 Detail of Lungs

Underlying Structures

The monofilament weft also serves to reveal the underlying structures of the cloth—leaving the warp threads fully visible. It is the nonbinary, relational qualities of weaving mentioned above that makes this possible. As warp threads are raised and lowered, the weft pulls some threads together and pushes others apart. But it is the space between threads— sett (density) of the warp—that allows for this movement. And it is the transparency of the weft that renders the aforementioned visible.

By tangibly revealing these usually invisible woven structures, I weave a material metaphor for other often unseen, interconnected structures embodied in the work: circulatory systems, the microplastics we breathe, and the systems tethering us to fossil fuels.

Fig 11 Traces 2 (2022), 86” x 92”, plant fibers, petrochemical-derived monofilament and dyes, photo courtesy of Form and Concept Gallery

Fig 12 detail of Traces 2. Traces 2 and Arterial are woven with multicolored monofilament. This subtle rainbow of red, orange, pink, yellow, and blue over the black warp nods to the colors of fire, or an oil slick.

Fig 13 Detail of woven study for Memories of Future Fires.

Looking at the plastic weft pushing the cotton warp back and forth, one could view these weavings as metaphors for how extraction and plastics shape our lives. But there is another metaphor worth considering—another lesson from these weavings about relationships in and to the world: A warp under tension gives the impression of rigidity. But in these pieces, one can see that the warp is less rigid than perceived. The weft—the threads controlled by the hands of a weaver—pushes and pulls the warp at each point of intersection. Woven cloth exists as thousands of points of relation. And at each of these intersections—each push and pull—there is flexibility amidst perceived rigidity, possibility amidst constraint, and futurity amidst grief. At every point of connection in the systems we navigate, there is capacity for change.

Memories of Future Fires was produced with the support of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

1 Sarah Kaplan, “As many as one in six U.S. tree species is threatened with extinction,” Washington Post, August 23, 2022

2 Kasha Patel, “Pollution caused 1 in 6 deaths globally for five years, study says,” Washington Post, May 17, 2022

3 Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Graywolf Press, 2021. p 189

4 Donna Haraway, Staying with The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016. p 12

5 Lewis Thomas, “Exploring Connections Between Trees and Human Health,” Science Findings, United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Issue 158, Jan/Feb 2014. Summary of research by scientist Geoffrey Donavan on the direct link between the Emerald Ash Borer killing of ash trees and a marked increase in deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

6 Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism, Duke University Press, 2021, p. 16-17

7 Damian Carrington, “Microplastics found in human blood for first time.” The Guardian, March 24, 2022

8 Damian Carrington, “Revealed: air pollution may be damaging ‘every organ in the body,” The Guardian, May 17, 2019 + Janice Brahney, “You’re Probably Inhaling Microplastics Right Now,” New York Times, June 25, 2020