This post was written by Bethany Garretson, Environmental Studies Professor at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondack Park, New York State.
I believe in the power of storytelling. Think of all the places a story has taken you: The savannahs of Kenya, the sand dunes of Egypt, the bayous of the Mississippi delta, or the battlefields of Gettysburg. We are made of stories and these stories want to be told. I’m a professor of Environmental Studies at Paul Smith’s College, a small liberal arts school in the Adirondack Park. I’ve included an interview assignment in every class I’ve taught because I view story-listening and interviewing as one of the greatest skills for students to develop. Our stories are a part of history and I find the skill of listening to be incredibly valuable and very often overlooked. Many of the storytelling projects in my classes focus on interviewing elders, as it is vital to bring young and old generations closer together. Simple interview questions, such as Describe Your Childhood, can reveal how elders’ values and perspectives were shaped. I do not agree with the popular culture sentiment of villainizing the process of aging in America. On the contrary, older people’s lifetime of observation and experience brings wisdom. In a Haudenosaunee longhouse during the long winter months, the elders would tell stories around the fire and give them meaning for the younger generation. Today, we need to talk about the changes we’ve seen in our environment. And it is time to sit and listen to our elders.
I met Jason, the director of Climate Stories Project, in 2016 at the Youth Climate Summit in Tupper Lake, New York. I’d just attempted to be the first woman to thru-hike all 46 High Peaks (mountains over 4000 feet) in the Adirondack Park without any outside assistance. It was a hike of over 200 miles with 90,000 feet of elevation change. I’d dedicated my climb to climate change awareness, dubbing it “Climb It 4 Climate.” Although I was maintaining a record pace, the temperatures soared to 95 degrees on the fifth day of the hike, and with the fear of heat exhaustion, I stopped at 132 miles and 23 mountains. At the Youth Climate Summit I spoke about human energy and the power that lies within each and every one of us. I shared the lessons I learned on the trail and from organizing a national campaign. What I found at every phase of my adventure was that human kindness is abundant and we yearn for reasons to come together and be resilient. Jason’s Climate Stories Project table at the Youth Climate Summit stood out to me because it was about sharing our own stories of the changing climate. Using his educational workshop format, my Environmental History and Social Justice Class interviewed locals and presented their stories in a short video entitled, “Adirondack Climate Stories.”
Today, I’m a PhD candidate at Antioch University and I’m focusing my doctoral research on collecting climate stories from the mountainous regions of the world. In February 2019, I’m taking “Climb it 4 Climate” to Argentina. While our team hopes to reach the summit of Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia, my mission is twofold. Again, I’m interested in the stories of local people about the changing climate. I plan to ask questions such as: What changes are you seeing in the mountainous environment? How have these changes impacted your livelihood? I feel it is paramount to tell these stories, as climate change is impacting mountainous regions at a faster pace than most places on earth.
I am dedicating my life’s work to caring for the natural world. Today I climb, write, teach, and hope to inspire others to tell their stories. While it’s relatively easy to raise awareness about our changing climate, it’s much harder to inspire a transformation in our relationship to the planet. I know it’s ironic to travel the world to collect data on climate change, leaving a large carbon footprint behind. In the end, I hope the stories justify this harm and lead to changed behavior. Even if we cannot see past the politics of climate change, everyone wants a safe future for their children and grandchildren. So tell your own climate story, or interview someone else about theirs, and you will capture a valuable piece of history. And in the end, that may give us a greater understanding of our current reality.
If you’d like to follow or participate in Bethany’s Climb it 4 Climate campaign, you can reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the Facebook group Climb it 4 Climate.
By Jason Davis, director, Climate Stories Project
This blog post originally appeared on the Artists and Climate Change site.
I write and perform music that features the recorded voices of people speaking about their responses to climate change. When I tell people this I normally get a response like, “That’s really interesting!” I usually relate a little of my background, as they are probably thinking “What the heck are you talking about?”
For most of my adult life, I have been alternating between working as a jazz bassist and an environmental educator (with a fair amount of English as a Second Language teaching thrown in, but that’s another story). I realized I wanted to engage with environmental issues through music, but I’m not a singer, so writing lyrics about climate change wasn’t an option. For a long time, I kept my music and “environmental” work separate, but continued wondering if there was a way to combine them.
I started to figure out how when I paid attention to my own responses to the changing climate. I noticed that the seasons I knew as a child growing up near Boston have changed a great deal. Winter, which used to be in full swing by Christmas, now often doesn’t get going until mid-January. Springs are shorter, and shift suddenly into 90-degree weather. The summers I remember, with gradually increasing heat and humidity swept away by dramatic thunderstorms, seem to have been replaced by long, oppressive heat waves which dissipate with barely a drop of rain.
I’m sure that others are bothered by these changes as much as I am, but people (including myself) don’t discuss them very much. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation about how the weird weather is probably caused by the changing climate, I bet it trailed off awkwardly. There are a host of reasons for this phenomenon, discussed at length by author George Marshall in his book Don’t Even Think About It.
People don’t usually talk about the Holocaust either. However, musicians have found ways to help audiences access their charged emotions around this difficult topic and sometimes even talk about them. In Steve Reich’s harrowing piece, Different Trains, he integrates archive recordings of Holocaust survivors speaking about their traumatic experiences, including being transported on “different trains” to Nazi death camps. After listening to Reich’s piece, I realized that I could do something similar for the issue of climate change by integrating people’s stories of their experiences with the changing climate into original music. Maybe listeners of this music would relate to climate change in a more direct way than reading reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or wading into the distracting political “debate”?
The first step was to talk to people on the front lines. In 2015, I traveled to Shishmaref, Alaska, a village located on a small barrier island on the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref is rapidly eroding from a combination of rising sea levels and melting sea ice, exposing the small town to the full force of winter storms. Members of this largely Iñupiat (western Inuit) community have vivid stories to tell about the ways in which climate change is destroying their home. I worked with a group of local high school students who interviewed adults, including their grandparents and parents, about the impacts of the changing climate in Shishmaref. One of the most vivid stories was told by Iñupiat elder John Sinnok, who related his intimate knowledge of the natural environment around Shishmaref, and how it is being impacted by the dramatic shifts underway. Sinnok described details that most of us would miss, including how the sound of people walking on winter snow has changed as the climate has warmed. I was touched by his very personal observations, and immediately recognized that his words could form the basis of a piece of original music. The following year I wrote and recorded John Sinnok, a piece for jazz quartet and string quartet which is built around excerpts of Sinnok’s interview.
Since visiting Alaska, I began a doctorate in music at McGill University in Montreal and have started recording climate stories from around Canada. In 2017, I traveled to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve in eastern Québec with a group of Montreal-based artists. There I recorded an interview with park ranger Guy Côté, who described how his childhood activities were structured around natural cycles. He related that “There was a right time to pick blueberries, there was a right time to hunt, a right time to do [all these things] …” With changes in the climate, it has become harder to predict the timing of these activities. He described how he used to tell visitors to the park that a good time to see arctic plants in bloom was late June, but now by that time most of these plants no longer have flowers. I also recorded Côté singing some traditional Acadian songs, one of which I included in a sound montage along with excerpts of his spoken narrative and environmental sounds I recorded in the park.
My work making music from climate narratives has grown into a larger initiative called Climate Stories Project. In addition to recording climate narratives from people around the world, I lead educational workshops in high schools and colleges for which students interview local community members or remote interviewees via Skype about their responses to the changing climate. Lately I have come to see the various facets of my work as an inclusive artistic practice, and I am excited to help people connect with our changing environment through education, storytelling, and music. The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced that, whether or not we can “solve” climate change, we urgently need to engage with it.