“Climate Change”

May 26, 2022

What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and the community in response to the theme: “climate change.” These stories first appeared in the MOFGA Stories segment in the spring 2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

We do not expect the wind in October. We survive the biting wind that brings arctic temperatures in January. We embrace the March and April winds that are necessary to dry out the fields and gardens for planting. And we know to get off the lake when the occasional summer whitecaps appear. But windstorms in the fall are new; my wife and I grew up in central Maine, and neither of us remember the losses of power that now seem common.

Losing power in the winter is relatively easy: the woodstove keeps us warm and fed; we can put the food from the refrigerator outside if it is going to be awhile; lanterns, candles and flashlights provide enough light; and neighbors check in and help each other a little more than usual. In the fall, though, when temperatures are well above freezing, losing power puts our three full freezers at significant risk of thawing. By then we have freighted them with chickens raised on pasture at a local farm, sweet corn from another farm, beef from a family friend, raspberry jam from berries picked at my parents’ house, and vegetables from our own garden. We have done the best that we know how, and letting everyone’s hard work go to waste is simply not an option.

We eventually got a generator to keep our freezers frozen, and became just a little more dependent on the system that is causing climate change. One problem solved, but what will the next one be? Too expensive or simply unavailable fuel for the generator, or electricity for the freezer? A new raspberry blight that takes out next summer’s crop? No parts to fix the freezer if it breaks, or another year of scrounging for canning supplies? What else are we not expecting?

Those last five questions only hint at the climate change-related uncertainty we find ourselves in. We are overwhelmed and underprepared. The work will be hard, but in “Think Little” Wendell Berry gives us a bit of hope and a place to start (or re-start as necessary): “I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.”

Tom Stone, Veazie, Maine

We stand in the midst of our little garden. My daughter pulls weeds, her hands still soft and dimpled. My son watches a butterfly’s journey through supper, giggling as he toddles after its flight.

“Mom, what is climate change?” My daughter does not look up from her weeding. She is not big on vulnerability. My breath catches. Where to begin?

It is natural that she would ask. Climate change is a constant topic in our home, a fact of life and part of both her parents’ careers. I take a deep breath. I share basic facts. I tell her people are working hard on solutions. And then I pause.

“What do you think it means, sweetie?”

Her eyes don’t lift. “I think the Earth is sick.”

My heart breaks into a million pieces. I want to shout, “No! The Earth is not sick. The Earth is beautiful and strong and it will continue on and on. Look at the leaves dancing in the morning light. Watch the pea tendrils curl — reaching, finding, holding support. Listen to the loons.” I want to shift her away from this ungraspable topic.

But I stay with her. “Well, many plants and animals are struggling as the atmosphere around the Earth warms. It is not what they are used to and it is hard for them.”

I do not add: “And it is our fault.” After years of climate action, I know better. We have been duped. Very powerful, highly invested forces knew exactly what was happening decades ago and concealed information, spread doubt, and entrenched systems that make necessary change more difficult. The blame rests with a very specific few. And I do not want to hand it to my daughter.

Instead, I want to gift her a fierce, resilient spirit, ready to fight for the loves of her life: for the huckleberry buds she welcomes with delight, the monarch caterpillars she watches in wonder, and the fox she tracks through fresh snow.

She is quiet, thinking. I want to rush in with reassurance. “It will be fine.” But I will not lie. I sit with her in silent uncertainty.

Finally, she says, “I feel sad.”

I wrap my arms around her small body. She slumps against me, taking in support. “Me too. I love this world and the beings that live here so much. Feeling sad means we care. And because I care, I am doing what I can to make solutions. We can all do something.”

Because here’s the truth: We are not to blame, my daughter and I, or you, dear reader. But now that we know, we are responsible. We can take our love for this Earth and pour that love into action. We can organize. We can vote as though our lives depend on it (they do). We can pursue systemic solutions in our communities.

After a good long snuggle, my daughter clearly feels better. She stands and chases after her brother. As they wander together, I sit and watch. They stand so straight and strong, tiny beside the towering peas, immensely full of life. My heart balloons in my chest. Tomorrow, I will sit back down at my computer, show up for meetings and participate in building solutions. Tonight, I will carry my children outside to listen as loon calls pierce the evening darkness.

Johannah Blackman, Mount Desert, Maine

As someone who photographs and writes about the coast of Maine for a living, I get to witness innovation at its finest — especially when it comes to addressing climate change in our state. In both adaptation and mitigation, I am constantly impressed by Maine’s business owners, town committees, and even its students when it comes to facing the reality of how climate change affects the state. The Island Institute, my employer, is a community development nonprofit that works along the coast from Kittery to Eastport. We prioritize our impact around three central themes that are intrinsically linked: climate change, Maine’s economy and strong leadership. Stories I have covered include the efforts of islanders grappling with flooding caused by sea level rise, marine entrepreneurs working to decarbonize the marine industry by switching to electric outboard motors, and researchers learning about the impacts ocean acidification (tied to warming waters) will have on the Gulf of Maine’s shellfish populations on which our economy so heavily relies. These stories feature leaders who exhibit the awareness, innovation and engagement that will enable humankind to solve the climate crisis.

One leader who has given me hope for the future is located on the island of Islesboro, in the middle of Penobscot Bay. Gabe Pendleton is the manager of Pendleton Yacht Yard. Growing up on the island, Pendleton absorbed the key values it instilled, such as the importance of community, but he also learned environmentalism, as taught by his teachers at the Islesboro Central School. He left the island for his education in law, but eventually returned to his home and took on managerial roles at the boat yard. The compassion and concern he exhibits are obvious — not only for his community and his employees, but also for the planet. Pendleton prioritizes running an environmentally sustainable operation — from runoff management to clean energy solutions. In 2017, he addressed the yacht yard’s carbon footprint by investing in a 40-kilowatt solar array and battery storage system which drastically reduces emissions and energy costs for the business. 

“By running a business and being involved in the town, I have an opportunity to do more about the issues I care about,” he says.

His commitment to environmentalism goes beyond the family business. In part due to Pendleton’s advocacy as a member of the select board, photovoltaic arrays have appeared on the island’s school, community building and transfer station. Though he has strong feelings about such things, he says he has learned the value of building community support for projects, rather than proceeding fueled only by his own passion. He works to have the community understand the benefits of these projects.

Community leaders like Pendleton are informed and passionate, and they educate and inspire others. This kind of innovation causes local solutions to spread from community to community. This change is long lasting, and it gives me hope that Maine will be a leader as we continue to solve the climate crisis, our generation’s greatest challenge.

Jack Sullivan, Waldoboro, Maine

Blue skies overhead, a wisp of cloud moves slowly with the warm breeze: an idyllic afternoon at a small organic farm in Meadow Vista, California. I was working in corn field, snapping cobs from stalks and shucking the outer leaves. I peeled one for myself and took a bite, gazing toward the trees in the distance. A gray trail of smoke rose slowly from behind the trees, reminding me briefly of smoke from a chimney back home in Maine. I turned away, continuing to work nervously. A moment later a phone rang. My boss answered, listening closely, her eyes widened as she turned toward my coworkers. I looked back through the stalks.

A fire has broken out, she explained, and it was growing quickly. We could see the smoke growing, too, turning dark and thick. We dropped our cobs, leaving the field, all of us contacting our loved ones for more information. I felt my heart rate spiking. I had yet to experience the fires that burn California every year and I suddenly felt very out of place. I had, of course, known about the wildfires in California before moving in January of 2021, and thought I knew what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t until October, when I was nearing the end of my first season at Foothill Roots Farm, that I truly understood what farming in a fire zone is like.

Back at our pack house we got word of the evacuation zone in Colfax, about 10 minutes up the highway from our farm. My coworker, Rachel, was told to leave immediately if she wanted to get any of her belongings before the roads started closing. She hung up, racing to her car with tears in her eyes. My other coworkers began making other plans, deciding the trip home wasn’t worth the risk. I stood helplessly. I wanted to help, but I had nothing to offer — it was clear that nobody wanted to sleep on the floor of my small studio apartment in Sacramento. My boss would house my coworkers. We left work, driving down the foothills to relative safety in a silent panic. In the rearview mirror, the small smoke trail had become a massive, shockingly dark plume. It seemed to eat the sky, blocking out the sun.

The River Fire burned for nine days, scorching 2,619 acres and destroying 142 structures. We were lucky, our farm and my coworkers’ homes were spared. Some farmers from up the hill returned to find that the fire had been contained less than a mile from their property. Many people were not so lucky.

As the fire burned, we continued working. We will keep farming through the smoke as other fires burn across the state. We wear masks when we can no longer see trees in the distance, thankful we still have something to farm. Smoke trails once signaled warm hearths in a cold Maine winter, now I see them as warning signs as I scan the skies for danger.

Michael DuBois, Windham, Maine and Sacramento, California

“How’s the weather?” This was a common greeting in days past, though not any more. Talking about weather is something else now: not casual, not always welcome even.

In 1974, my husband, Dick, walked into the kitchen and told me that the Pentagon had announced a serious security risk in the making, called “global warming” and “the greenhouse effect.” It was easy to understand, and we assumed it could be addressed as we were in an oil shock at the time and needed to reduce energy use anyway. Dick and I moved to Maine to work on sustainability, and set up a small-scale in-town homestead (thinking to avoid driving).

In the mid 1980s, Dick, who was working at the Maine Public Utilities Commission at the time, learned of Jim Hansen’s work with NASA and his warnings to Congress. The PUC actually worked to reduce energy use in that period. In 1989, Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature” came out after a super-hot summer, and Senator Mitchell’s book “World on Fire” in 1991.

In 2006, I realized we were not responding to climate change, and attempted a program with our local Peace and Justice group, assisted by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, but it was poorly attended. The University of Maine’s climate change and quaternary program slowly and reluctantly shifted from predicting a new Ice Age to researching global warming. In 2009 and on, the Maine Sierra Club was working on Cool Communities and Green Sneakers, and we did some weatherization outreach in Rockland and Camden. I worked on population and “growth” education with Larry Dansinger, because our growing numbers and consumption levels matter.

Sharon Tisher (MOFGA chair in the late ‘90s) started her timeline “A Climate Chronology” in 2011. That year, climate change was the Common Ground Country Fair topic, with tabling, a public policy teach-in and a noon demonstration with Unity College. Not long after, a small farmers panel, held at MOFGA, was not completely convinced (weather being normally too variable). Another small farmer climate panel was put on at the grand 2014 multi-organizational Climate Solutions Expo & Summit at the Augusta Civic Center, and the attendance was crushed by weather. By 2016, a later farmer panel was convinced …

That same year I researched and wrote an update on weather and wildlife for “A Natural History of Camden and Rockport,” first published in 1984. I sent questions to local gardeners about weather observations: downpours, more twisting and drying winds with garden and forest surfaces drying up, sudden extreme temperature shifts, insect decline in gardens, bird shifts and decreases. This inquiry later morphed into a local gardeners (mid-Midcoast) Zoom meeting that allows us to share our ongoing climate change vegetable gardening experiences; we’re hoping to open up into garden visits and potlucks as in the old days of MOFGA chapter meetings! Here’s hoping.

Beedy Parker, Camden, Maine 

New Mexico: the land of enchantment. The Piñon trees of my childhood now stand stark against a hazy backdrop, their sap running dry. Orange needles and crackling bark, the rhythmic sounds of beetle mastication. Dust clouds instead of rain clouds. A sandpaper rain leaving eyes as crusted shut as the capped soils advancing between twisted juniper trees. Herds of cattle turned shrub goats grazing pastures turned cactus.

The Rio Grande ran dry last year. A mere muddy path slithering through a burning bosque. Fires fanned by winds that used to signal monsoon rains. Smoke clouds instead of rain clouds. A choking acrid rain leaping from branch to branch in a torrent of red flames. Blackening the sacred cottonwood tree. The flaming heart of a crumbling ecosystem.

Severe drought juxtaposed by periods of flash flooding. Soil once anchored by a network of roots, now free to roam by wind or by rain. Sometimes it’s hail the size of golf balls. The kind that dents the hood of your car and chips away at more than just the roof above your head. This year’s crops mangled in a matter of minutes. Feast turned famine.

Elizabeth Mellady, Chesterville, Maine

These stories was originally published in the summer 2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Interested in sharing your own story in The MOF&G? See submission guidelines here.

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