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.