Atlas of Mud: A Cautionary Tale

Mud (Natalie Kropf), surrounded by maps of a world that no longer exists. Photo: Courtesy Working Group Theatre

A young girl emerges from the darkness on stage. She is awakening, deep in the belly of a vast, wooden ship, reminiscent of Noah’s Ark. I listen intently as she vividly recounts a dream:

I was in the sky…

I was flying…

And there were people – so many people. They were all moving towards the water. They didn’t notice me so I swooped low over them looking for you. There were boats – just like this one but hundreds and hundreds of them. And around every boat were soldiers. People were crowded onto the decks of the boat and all of them had suitcases and boxes. There was no room to move and still more people kept climbing on.

Her dream is frightening and the event confusing. Who is this child? What prompted her nightmare? Who is she talking to?

This is the Working Group Theatre’s production of Atlas of Mud in Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre. The audience is in rapt attention as the scene the young girl describes gets worse, horrifyingly so. The images are chilling:

Then the horns blew and the boats started moving and the people on the land pushed towards the water. Some of them fell and the crowd moved over them like a wave…. Parents were pushing their children into the arms of the soldiers and the children were screaming and holding onto their parents’ necks.

We hear gunshots in the distance, and it’s soon clear that the soldiers in the child’s dream would not tolerate anyone climbing aboard their vessels.

The lights go dark, and the girl disappears off stage.

It’s a chilling prologue — and a gripping one.

Suspending Disbelief

Act 1, Scene 1, and we’re now in a bedroom, minimal in its set design, a sheet spread on the floor to represent the bed. Two people are chatting amicably, and I feel as though I’m listening in on a real conversation between lovers.

The actors, Kristy Hartsgrove as Elaine and Brandon Bruce as Marcus, are so natural, so convincing in their dialogue and their connection to each other that I can’t recognize this as acting. They’re that good. I lose myself in their hopes, their dreams, their conflict. The play has pulled me in, and I suspend disbelief.

What unfolds turns out to be much more than a drama between two people, though human aspirations and disappointments are clearly central to the story. Marcus and Elaine are scientists, glaciologists, to be exact. Marcus is headed to Antarctica to do research, and — for reasons we soon learn — Elaine is struggling to decide whether to join him there.

Impending Crisis

Jennifer Fawcett, playwright and actor, THE ATLAS OF MUD. Photo: Courtesy Working Group Theatre

Here’s an important note before we proceed: Playwright Jennifer Fawcett (who is convincing both as Miriam and as a Bird Keeper) cautions that this is not a “scientific” play; she calls herself a “non-scientist writing scientists for a non-scientific audience.”

Marcus does his best to persuade Elaine to join him in Antarctica and, as a relentless thunderstorm rages around them, we begin to see that the theme is much more global than an intimate relationship.

The storm continues for days, and Elaine finds herself forced to evacuate, missing her flight and losing her only chance to escape. The parallels with Hurricane Katrina — and with heavy flooding elsewhere, including Iowa City — are clear. Through Elaine, the audience experiences grief, loss, uncertainty, violence, and fear. We inevitably ponder how we might respond to a crisis, to losing everything and everyone we hold dear. And we think about responsibility and guilt, privilege and despair, faith and reason, right and wrong, cruelty and kindness.

And, as all these emotions roil inside us, we also begin to be aware of a larger calamity looming. The play becomes a warning of what may lie ahead for humankind. Yet, Fawcett doesn’t badger us about the selfish behaviors that may lead to our ultimate demise. She lets us come to that conclusion on our own.

Faith and Reason

In Act 1, Scene 2, Elaine, the scientist, meets Elias, who later becomes known to us as the Reverend.


Ice is history told in water.  It’s the most complete — the most perfect record of the earth’s climate that we have.  And it’s suspended in deep ice cores in Antarctica.


Like a time capsule.


Right, made one snowfall at a time.  If we study what’s happened before, and what’s happening in Antarctica now, then maybe we can get a sense of what’s coming.


And stop it?


Probably not.  But find ways to slow it down maybe, so we can adapt.

But adapting won’t come soon enough for humanity, as we will learn. Elias, sensitively played by Martin Andrews, gently tries to share his faith with Elaine. She’s not buying it.


I’m not really into the whole God thing.


You don’t have to be to have faith.

Did you know that almost every ancient culture, from all over the world – Inca, Egyptians, Aborigines – they each had a story about the world being destroyed by a great flood. … [I]n each of those stories, mankind got a second chance.


So this is our second chance?


Yes.  It could be. …


It’s a dangerous way to think.  We don’t take any responsibility – we just wait for the “gods” to figure it out.  Besides, in those stories, only a few people are saved.

From Myth to Reality

As the play progresses, the entire world is flooded, validating the myths of ancient cultures. And, as we later learn, only a few people are saved this time around. At some point, it’s no longer a question of faith versus reason, but of waiting — long years of waiting — for the waters to recede.

Act 2 takes place on a modern-day ark, a striking and impressive set designed by Shawn Johnson, but one that carries a precious cargo far different from Noah’s in the biblical tale.

I don’t want to spoil the play by telling more. It’s enough to know that the child, whose name is Mud (artfully played by Natalie Kropf), is the thread whose existence weaves the story together, and that the ship’s precious cargo is humanity’s only real hope for the future.

Does humanity get a second chance? And do we deserve one? Perhaps. And maybe. But the latter is not the province of the playwright to decide for us. She leaves us to determine that for ourselves. A heavy responsibility to be sure, and one we cannot afford to ignore, as we have pressing environmental problems of our own.

While the flooding of the entire world may be a bit of a stretch to modern-day scientists (What? Not even the Himalayas are above water?), a cataclysmic event of some kind is not outside the realm of the public’s imagination. Are we headed toward a climate-change-induced apocalypse? Can we stop it? Or will we simply close our eyes to the signs of our inevitable demise?

It’s a question worth pondering — and Atlas of Mud is a play well worth seeing.

More Information

Working Group Theatre company: Josh Beadle, Martin Andrews, Jennifer Fawcett, and Sean Lewis. Photo: Courtesy Working Group Theatre

Additional cast members — who all deserve more than just a mention — include local favorite Tim Budd as the Boatman who takes advantage of other people’s misfortune.

With just a change of wardrobe, Andrews brilliantly morphs offstage from gentle Elias to become the steel-hearted Captain of the modern-day ark.

Bruce reappears, along with Budd and Fawcett, as Bird Keepers, charged with nurturing the creatures who will be sent to seek land, like Noah’s doves. The three keep more than birds, however, as they harbor a stowaway who may lead to the salvation of humankind — or not.

Kayla Prestel and John Kaufman play Evacuees, hunkering down in what resembles the Louisiana Super Dome during Hurricane Katrina. Kaufman also makes an appearance as a duty-bound soldier, forcing order where none exists.

Atlas of Mud was commissioned by Union Eight Theatre in Canada (Toronto/Owen Sound) and received the 2008 National Science Playwriting award by the Kennedy Center ACTF.

Masterfully directed by Sean Christopher Lewis of Working Group Theatre at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Atlas of Mud has four performances remaining:

Thursday, December 9: 7:30 p.m.

Friday, December 10: 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, December 11:  7:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 12:  2:00 p.m.

Adults: $15

Students: $12

Working Group Theatre

Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, Iowa

Facebook: Working Group Theatre

A Springboard for Conversation

In keeping with the troupe’s conviction that “theatre can be a springboard for conversation,” several performances are followed by panel discussions, interviews, or other events for which the audience is invited to stay after the play.

This past Sunday, Blue Planet Green Living‘s co-founder, Joe Hennager, moderated a panel of local environmentalists, including Kelley Putman and Kate Giannini, Johnson County Conservation District; Fred Meyer, Backyard Abundance; and Chris Vinsonhaler, Iowa River Call. A portion of ticket sales for Sunday’s performance was donated to Iowa River Call, an educational outreach sponsored by the Iowa Environmental Coalition.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Karmic B.S.™ Sanitized Bovine Excrement – A “Greeting Jar” with Laughter, Bite, and Good Karma

ReDeMa products keep tons of bovine excrement out of rivers and streams while spreading laughter with a novelty gag gift. Photo: Mara Cole

“Hand someone a jar of Karmic B.S.™ sanitized bovine excrement, and their first reaction is likely to be confusion,” says ecopreneur Joe Hennager. “They see the bull and the yin-yang in our logo — and the pile of bull poop — and they usually look up with a question in their eyes.

When people tip the jar to see the top, they suddenly get the joke. Photo: Mara Cole

“But the second they tip the jar to read the punch line on top, they burst out laughing. They get it. The person giving them the jar is saying, ‘This is full of B.S. & so are you!’

“The idea of karma is that you get what you give,” says Hennager, who also happens to be my husband and the co-owner of Blue Planet Green Living. “The yin-yang symbol in our logo represents the idea of ‘what goes around comes around,’ which is another of the punch lines we use. After all, this is real, sanitized B.S. (and you know what that means). When someone gives you B.S., you can give it back — literally — with our adult novelty gift.”

Joe and I are the principal owners of this, um, somewhat unorthodox, ecopreneurial venture that turns poop into product. When we began talking about his unique idea, we both had a passion for rivers and for Iowa’s rivers in particular, but not a whole lot of expertise in how to go about implementing it. Today, thanks to Joe’s ingenuity and some heavy-duty research by scientists, what I thought was a “crazy idea” has become a full-fledged business called ReDeMa, LLC (short for Research, Development, and Manufacturing).

Prevent Pollution

Yes, it's really what we say it is. Photo: Mara Cole

“One of the definitions of the word redeem means to improve something,” Joe will tell you. “We’re working to improve the environment by using animal waste to make useful products.

“When I was a child growing up in Iowa,” he adds, “it was safe to swim and fish in the creeks and streams that meandered through our farms and neighborhoods. But today, many of these waterways contain such high levels of bacteria, it’s not safe to even touch the water, let alone eat the fish. Much of that bacteria comes from the runoff of manure from the nearly 118 million farm animals raised in the state.”

So that’s the first goal of ReDeMa products: to prevent pollution by reducing the amount of farm animal fecal matter that gets washed into Iowa’s waterways. Not an easy task, considering Iowa has more farm animals than any other governmental body in the world except China. And that means we have a whole lot of poop. You can read statistics about just how much poop Iowa produces at

Get a Laugh

The second, and most obvious, goal of this new kind of greeting card — a “greeting jar,” as Joe calls it — is this: to get a laugh. And, boy, do we all need a good belly laugh in these tough economic times. Giving a gift of Karmic B.S.™ or Karmic Bull Shit™ (our “adult” version) or any of our other sanitized bovine excrement products causes almost everyone to burst out laughing.

As a gift to a friend or family member who tends to exaggerate, tells lame jokes, or talks you under the table, the passing of a jar of actual bovine excrement is a friendly way of saying, “Gotcha! I’m onto your B.S.” That’s all in good fun, and it’s a great stocking stuffer. Joe adds. “Hey, it’s better than a piece of coal.”

Call Out the Liars

Our third purpose is more pointed: to call out the corporate liars who put profits before people and then try to trick us into thinking they’re doing us a favor, the bloviating windbags in the media who foment hatred and anger among the populace, and the politicians who forget their promises the minute they’re elected. Now we can give them back the B.S. they’re spouting.

“We have a trio of political products that voters can send to their elected officials with a personalized message, telling them exactly why their votes or their campaign promises are B.S.,” Joe says. “It doesn’t matter which party you support, or whether you’re in the middle. There’s always someone who deserves to be called on their B.S..

If you think American politics is B.S. (even some of the time), pass it on to the politician of your choice. Photo: Mara Cole

“This will be good for elections for the rest of eternity. For the 2012 elections, we are printing display boxes that say ‘American Politics is B.S.’ The punch lines on the bottles announce, ‘This is full of B.S. and so are the Democrats,’ or ’This is full of B.S. and so are the Republicans,’ or ‘This is full of B.S. and so is the Tea Party.’ You can choose the politician you want to send them to, along with a personalized message that tells the recipient exactly why you sent it. Bullshit is blind to party lines,” he adds.

In fact, we’ve been attending rallies across the political spectrum, handing out samples of Republican B.S., Tea Party B.S., and Democratic B.S. We’ve talked with Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, and Tea Partiers, and they’ve all admitted that even people in their own parties occasionally spout B.S. “It’s time for us to speak out,” Joe says. “We need to let our politicians know that we’re onto their games. We don’t want their lies and false promises anymore.

“The Tea Party sent thousands and thousands of tea bags to Washington in protest. But what happened to all those tea bags? Their elected officials get to drink free tea for the rest of their lives. Message lost. Imagine what will happen if we send thousands of jars of sanitized bovine excrement to Washington. That doesn’t go so well with their silver tea services,” Joe adds.

Cleaner than Broccoli or Spinach

But is it safe to send bull poop (and most of it is, literally, from bulls, by the way) through the mail to your Congresspersons?

This product is a novelty, and though it's as clean as some food products, do NOT eat it. Photo: Mara Cole

It is, if it’s a ReDeMa product. Our sanitized bovine excrement products have been evaluated and approved by the U.S. Postal Service.

“If you send raw fecal matter through the mail without proper approval and precautions, you might get arrested as a terrorist,” Joe says.

“But not with Karmic B.S.™ sanitized bovine excrement or any of our other products. You can send them through the mail with confidence — or we’ll even ship them for you.”

Why are ReDeMa products so safe? “We’ve taken out almost all of the bacteria,” Joe says. “It’s a trade-secret process that makes this bull poop cleaner than the broccoli or spinach you buy in the grocery store. That’s why we can call it ‘sanitized bovine excrement.’ It really is sanitized.”

“So if it has less bacteria than broccoli or spinach, are you saying that people can eat it?” a reporter recently asked Joe.

“Of course not. It’s fecal matter,” Joe told him. “Achieving food grade levels of bacteria just tells the world that our products are perfectly safe for our workers to handle, safe for stores to sell, and safe for consumers to live with in their homes.”

In addition, the jars are sealed shut so that customers can’t open them. And the label contains two warnings: “Do not open,” and “Not for human consumption.” It’s a novelty gag gift, after all.

Economic and Environmental Benefits

“We have another goal, too,” Joe says. “That is to give farmers a new income source for their bovine manure, so they can sell it to us rather than over-apply it on their fields.

“Today, animal waste is worth $6.40 per ton to a farmer as fertilizer. When the waste fits our criteria, we pay farmers $30.00 a ton. Bovine excrement has many chemical and fibrous qualities that make it the ideal material for the products that we are developing.

“Once we figured out how to remove the bacteria, dozens more environmental and economic benefits became evident. For every ton of animal waste we capture, we’re lessening the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere; this lowers our carbon footprint and slows the depletion of the ozone. We’re reducing fecal runoff to our rivers, which is saving fish and waterfowl, and making rivers safer for recreation. We’re also reducing contamination of deep-water aquifers, which will improve the quality of drinking water.

“And,” Hennager adds, “by providing jobs, we are employing the unemployed. We’re helping families put food on the tables, doing our small part to improve the economy, and helping our country get back on its feet.”

Good Karma

Good karma is the best kind of "payback." Photo: Mara Cole

The concept of karma includes doing good, of course, and ReDeMa takes that idea very seriously. It’s not a religion, but a way of life for us. Because we’re commited environmentalists, one of our most important goals has been to have as little negative impact as possible in producing our product. One way we do that is to source as locally as possible. “ReDeMa products are entirely made in the USA, from bull to bottle, so to speak,” Joe says.

“And both the contents and the jar are completely recyclable. When the novelty loses its appeal, all the owner has to do is to break open the jar and dump the contents onto their garden. Voila! Compost! The jar itself – plastic label and all – can be recycled at a local recycling facility. We want to insult the recipient – not injure the planet,” he adds.

Or, if you don’t want to do the job yourself, ship the jar back to us. We have a take-back program that gives you a 10 percent discount on a new jar of our product for every jar you return to us for recycling.

“But we don’t stop there,” Joe says. “When you buy any of our Karmic B.S.™ or Karmic BULL SHIT™ or political B.S. sanitized bovine excrement products, a portion of those sales goes directly to environmental product research, clean water projects, and humanitarian charities worldwide.”

Our current charity focus is Tagum City Food Bank, a charity that is close to my own heart, as it is largely funded through the efforts of David Wasson, my cousin, who feeds malnourished children in the Philippines.

The First-Ever B.S. Mechanical Pencil

The first-ever mechanical pencil made from bull excrement. Don't worry, it's sanitized! Photo: Mara Cole

If a novelty gag gift doesn’t get your attention, our latest product should. We’ve been working with a local woodworker who has developed a process to make mechanical pencils and (coming soon!) pens out of ReDeMa’s sanitized bovine excrement.

The first-ever mechanical pencil made from sanitized bovine excrement is for sale on our website. “You won’t believe how beautiful it is until you see it,” Joe says. “It looks like a fine marble, but it feels like sculpted wood.”

So who would ever want to write with a pen or pencil made of bull excrement?

“This is the ideal gift for an attorney, whose clients constantly feel they are signing documents that are B.S. Soon, the attorney will be able to hand them a pen that’s befitting of the documents they have to sign. And I just wish I could be there to see the reaction!” Joe says.

Me, too.

Julia Wasson, Publisher

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


On the Web:

Facebook: Karmic B.S.

Twitter: KarmiceBS

My 5: Joe Hennager, Blue Planet Green Living

January 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Iowa, My 5, Slideshow

Comments Off on My 5: Joe Hennager, Blue Planet Green Living

What can we do to save the planet? We are just a few billion people, and it is such a big planet. Earth has been around for a few billion years, and we humans for only a blink of an eye.

Some say we’re not killing our planet, we’re just killing ourselves. We pollute, we poison, we kill each other, we die. A few hundred years after we have all disappeared, the planet will be clean again. It will start over without all us pesky humans to deal with. We lose, Earth wins. We get what we deserve, and this pretty blue planet goes on spinning.

Joe Hennager, Blue Planet Green Living

Joe Hennager, Blue Planet Green Living

The simple notion that we are not smart enough to keep from killing ourselves overwhelms me. In our arrogance and greed, we have lost sight of how small and insignificant we really are. We may be at the top of the food chain, but we do not own the planet. We rent. And the landlord is kicking us out.

So, before some radical nukes us all, an egotistical CEO pollutes away the ozone, or a gazillionaire wakes up to find he is the last person left on the planet, let’s do something.

MY 5

Julia and I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of incredible people in the last month. They are intelligent people, caring people, ecopreneurs, grassroots activists, and people trying to leave a tiny footprint on the planet. They are also strong, gutsy, persistent, resilient humans who didn’t necessarily stop to ask themselves, ““What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?” They just did something. They acted. They got off their butts and took control of one thing the best they could. They knew they couldn’t answer every problem, but they each could answer one.

So, here they are, “My 5” things that we can do to save the planet.

1. Do one thing. It’s that simple. Just do something. Pick from the catalogue of the millions of things we have harmed, broken, injured, and screwed up. Pick one thing to fix, and go for it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the numbers. Focus on that one thing and study it. Read everything you can about it. Become an authority. Do it with passion. Do it better than anyone else in the world. Take pride in it. Fight for it. Scream it at the top of your lungs. Invite others to help you. If we each, and I mean all 6.7 billion of us, do one good thing, and do it well, we might still have a chance.

2. I know this may sound like a typical tree-hugger, but we have to teach the value of love. Okay, our education system is already overburdened with too much to teach, but why can’t we have a course or two on Love? Leo Buscaglia did it. We can do it, too. Call it Love 101: Love yourself. Love your spouse. Love your family. Love your planet.

On TV we teach hate. We teach violence by watching something as peaceful as a baseball game. Witnessing a bench-clearing brawl, we are teaching our children to fight. “Friendly competition” has become “win at any cost.” We go to war so quickly, and kill each other so easily. We have forfeited the love of life for oil, gold, diamonds, money, and power. Buscaglia said it best, “Love always creates, it never destroys.” Why can’t we teach love?

We are afraid of the word love. Throughout the whole election process this last year, I never heard a single candidate, even the winner, mention the word love. Yes, Mr. Obama said his wife, Michelle, is the “love of his life.” Sure, all of the candidates love their families, and they love their country. But what if one of them had said publicly, before a crowd of thousands — what if he or she had looked straight into the television camera and said to the American people — “Thank you for your support. I love you”?

Imagine what the media would have said: “We can’t have a president appear to be weak.” Weak? We equate strength with hate and weakness with love? I think we have something turned around here. I want a president who is not afraid to express this one, rare emotion. I want a leader with heart, a leader who hesitates before pushing the big bomb button, before invading another country and sending our youth off to die in the name of hate or fear or vengeance or oil. I want a leader who has the strength to be different. I want a leader who has compassion. And once in a while, at just the right times, I want a leader with the courage to say the word love. It takes a strong person to say, “I love you” to a nation and a planet. It takes an even stronger one to mean it.

3. Stop all lobbying. Let’s make it a law that influence peddlers cannot buy our senators and representatives, or our President, for that matter. Let our elected officials represent the people, not the large corporations. For every person in government, there are hundreds of lobbyists who want to influence their actions or their votes. Washington is a system that is broken. It needs to be fixed. Profits before people has been the only true bipartisan theme for as long as I can remember. At the very least, stop voting for candidates who accept money from the oil/coal/anti-planet lobbying machine.

4. Our “greed mentality” has got to stop. Let’s gauge success by the number of children we save, not by how many cars, or planes, or homes we own. Last year was the year of the fool. He who invested the most, lost the most. Greed built the stock market; greed took it down.

Maybe there should be a cap on personal and corporate earnings. Everything over a billion dollars of profit goes to feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide health care for the uninsured, clean up toxic waste, save endangered species, or invest in alternative energy. We’ll let you choose. As a species, we were designed for better things than counting money.

5. The last of My 5, I mention with extreme caution. We must control the birth rate. This does not mean killing female babies so you can raise a son. We live on a finite planet, with finite resources. We cannot continue at this rate of growth. War, disease, and starvation should not be cures for the high birth rate.
Have fewer birth children, but adopt as many as you want. We can make that possible by lowering adoption costs so regular families can afford to take in another child — or two, three, maybe even four. There are 200 million orphans under the age of 16 in the world today. We bailed out the banking system and the auto industry, but we didn’t save the world’s orphaned and forgotten children. Not surprisingly, they don’t have lobbyists.

When I first sat down to write My 5, I got up to 23 before I stopped. I had thought I’d be lucky to get 2. We want you to send us yours. Don’t get stressed. There are no wrong answers. Maybe, just tell us what you are doing in your home or in your town. If you are afraid to tell us, then you will be afraid to do. Don’t let fear stop you. We have all been afraid too long.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post:

Five Things We Can Do to Save the Planet