The Overstory: The Climate Strike
Season One, Episode Seven
Episode 7 opens with a dispatch from the historic climate strike, as we follow youth climate organizer Daphne Frias while she navigates the New York City march from her wheelchair. We also take listeners to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where we feed Oreos to a bear (in the name of science, of course!) and learn about the latest findings on animal intelligence. We hear from a West Virginia woman who is using her singing voice as a vehicle for environmental activism. And we say a fond farewell to our longtime advice columnist, Mr. Green.
Jason Mark: On Friday, September 20th I woke up and like most mornings and like a lot of people, the first thing I did was reach for my phone, and I started scrolling through Twitter. And immediately what popped up in my feed was these amazing pictures and reports from all over the world of people out in the streets striking for climate action. There was like 300,000 people in Australia. There was more than a million people across Germany, including massive, massive crowds in Berlin and Hamburg. The photos from Dublin showed the entire city center packed with people. And I'll admit that I got really choked up in that moment because as someone who's been covering the climate crisis for more than 15 years, this felt like the moment we've been waiting for this felt like finally global civil society standing up insane. We need to fight for a future that's worth living.
Annabel: I'm here because I want to help stop climate change.
Nazir: I really think it's really important to know what's happening in all over the world and to make decisions for the good of the humanity.
Annabel: I hope in the future, maybe, I don't know, a hundred years from now after we solve this problem, which we will, the kids who take history classes and learn about what is happening now and can prevent it from happening again.
Jason Mark: Estimates say that a quarter of million of those climate strikers were in New York city.
Nazir: My name is Nazir, I'm 11 years old and I'm from Brooklyn.
Annabel: Annabel and I'm 12.
Shawn: And my name is Shawn, I'm 22. I'm from Malaysia.
Barbara L: My name is Barbara Lackson. I'm here from Pennsylvania.
Sangni: My name is Sangni Phriam, I'm 21 years old and I'm right in the middle of Foley Square getting ready for the New York City climate strike.
Jason Mark: Marchers from infants to the elderly, packed the streets of lower Manhattan with the original climate striker, the Swedish young woman, Greta Thunberg headlined an impressive lineup of speakers.
Greta T: Right now, we are the ones who will make a new difference. If no one else won't take action than we will.
Jason Mark: The energy was defiant, it was joyful, it was urgent. It was full of hope and righteous anger.
Greta T: We are not just some young people skipping school.
Jason Mark: Yeah, it was a protest, but it was also a kind of giant uninterrupted hangout. In which a critical mass of young people could reach up, pass a giant beach ball painted like earth over the crowd, and see they weren't alone in their fear for the future.
I'm Jason Mark and on this episode of the Overstory we'll hear from a young woman who's helped to organize those climate strikes all over the world, but who faces major obstacles to participating in action herself.
Daphne F: With my battery and my chair, I don't think I'd make it the whole route.
Jason Mark: And we'll hear from another woman who's fighting a proposed natural gas pipeline with her actions and her voice.
April: I was probably born an activist.
Jason Mark: And we're going to feed Oreos to a bear named Squirty.
Ben Kilham: Hi old Squirty.
Jason Mark: We're back with a fall mini season of The Overstory. Three episodes over the next three months, taking you from the streets of New York City to the wilds of Patagonia. We're traveling all over the world to bring you the stories of outdoor adventurers, in-depth reporting on today's biggest environmental threats, and portraits of some of the people who are doing their part to fight for change. These are stories that connect people to each other into the wild world that's all around us. This is The Overstory. Come explore with us.
(3:24) The Climate Strike
Jason Mark: Daphne Frias is a 21-year-old climate activist and a college student. She was one of the official spokespeople for the September 20th climate strike in her hometown of New York City. She also helped youth strikers across the country organize their own events. Daphne's climate activism comes from a direct and personal sense of urgency. That was the first thing she told producer Riva Goldberg when they met up in New York's Foley Square on the morning of the strike.
Daphne Frias: My family has lived in West Harlem for over 40 years and my community there's a bus depot and my community there's a water treatment plant. And being disabled, also this winter as storms have gotten significantly stronger snowstorms, there's days on end where I'm not able to leave my house. I feel extremely compelled to speak up for the injustices that my community is facing.
Jason Mark: We've got Riva Goldberg on the phone from New York city to tell us more about the time she spent with Daphne. Hey Riva.
Riva Goldberg: Hey Jason. How's it going?
Jason Mark: So as someone who requires a wheelchair to get around, how does Daphne access and navigate something like the New York city climate strike, which is kind of free form.
Riva Goldberg: Yeah. Well something interesting about Daphne is that she's so connected all the time to other young people across the country and across the world really just by her phone and she uses WhatsApp. But when it comes to being able to physically participate in events that she's helping to organize, she often really has to kind of hang back or find an alternative way from A to B. So luckily because she's one of the organizers, she was assigned a marshal to start strategizing with her about how they might get her down to Battery Park.
Riva Goldberg: But as the crowd got bigger, her chances of being able to kind of navigate the streets to get anywhere she needed to go were reduced. And she was actually supposed to get down to Battery Park because she was supposed to be doing a press junket there and giving interviews.
Daphne Frias: Cabs are probably going to get caught in the same traffic as the march. Unfortunately, only 30 percent of the New York City subway is accessible. So I'm going to march for a little bit. But then I think just feasibly, like, I don't think I'd make it the whole route with my battery and my chair. I just don't think I'd make it and I don't want to chance at getting stranded.
Jason Mark: So what are they end up doing? How did they get her to Battery Park for this press availability?
Riva Goldberg: Well, they decided to just kind of start moving through the crowd and see how far they could get. And Samara just happened to be extremely tall. I think he was maybe six foot four, and he also had this just really long, amazing arm span. So he turned out to be kind of a superhero at just clearing a path for Daphne's chair.
Samara: You've got to move back, excuse me, you've got to move back excuse me. Am I going too fast?
Daphne Frias: We're making better progress than I expected. Oh, so many people. It's so good. It's so beautiful.
Riva Goldberg: It was kind of a miracle. We ended up proceeding down Nassau Street almost to Wall Street, and we suddenly realized we had reached the front and we could see the other youth leaders and they were standing there in their green tee shirts and they were psyching up the crowd with their megaphones and starting the chants and all the adult marshals had started to link arms and form a protective barrier for them. The march started almost right away and Daphne found herself really at the lead of the march.
Daphne Frias: Look at this coordination. I love organizing, which is a wild perspective of life, and how big and small you all are at the same time. It's so insane. In times of despair, you really need hope. And I hope this brings that to people to know that we aren’t just a self-absorbed generation on our phones and Twitter, you know, and in a three-by-five screen, that's where the world happens. That's where change happens. You know, I always tell our moms, she gets mad at me for being on my phone all the time and I was like, I'm changing the world. And she, she looks at me like, how can you fight that? You know, we're not perfect, but we're pretty good.
Jason Mark: So when you and Daphne later connected after the March was over, how was she feeling about it all?
Riva Goldberg: Here's Daphne reacting to the march experience
Daphne Frias: Yes. And so I got here and I rushed straight to the media tent and I've done about 15 interviews by now. I just finished one up with the New York times and it's like, wow. I hear though the rally in the distance, but after this it's really about how do we use the momentum that we've gained to create tangible, solid change. Wake up tomorrow and be equally as enthusiastic. Wake up tomorrow and be equally as angry as how you were today. You aren't going to get something that you really care about without putting any of the work in.
Jason Mark: Riva, thanks so much for talking to us and thank you for bringing us this story.
Riva Goldberg: Thanks for having me.
Jason Mark: That was Riva Goldberg bringing us the voice of Daphne Frias from New York City. Daphne Frias recently joined the global outreach team of Zero Hour where it's her job to oversee the creation of high school and college chapters. On top of climate advocacy, she also works on gun violence issues as the New York State Director of March For Our Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @frias_daphne.
(9:01) Feeding a Black Bear Oreos
Jason Mark: Now we're headed to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Ben Kilham: This is my property.
Jason Mark: It's evening and naturalist and researcher Ben Kilham is driving his truck up to the woods. He's going to see an old friend named Squirty.
Ben Kilham: Squirty, were you waiting for us?
Jason Mark: And as always he brings Squirty's favorite snacks. Oreos.
Ben Kilham: Hi old Squirty.
Jason Mark: You see, Squirty is a black bear. She's probably about 300 pounds and she and Ben have known each other for nearly 25 years. In that time she's taught Ben a lot. She's changed almost everything he thought he knew about bears and in the process changed a lot about what scientists in general believe they knew about bears, especially about their mind and how they work. Brandon Keim has got the story for us.
Brandon Keim: Plenty is known about bear biology about where they move and what they eat and how long they hibernate, but science is just starting to pay attention to what goes on inside their heads.
Ben Kilham: Squirty, she doesn't hold anything back and I've learned from her you just keep going. How did everybody miss all this stuff? You know, these aren't the animals that I'm reading about.
Brandon Keim: And Ben's research highlights an intriguing possibility. Could it be that much of North America is populated by hundreds of thousands of exceptionally intelligent non-human beings? For Ben, it all started in March of 1996 a logging operation had run across some other bear in Northern New Hampshire.
Ben Kilham: Loggers weren't willing to leave the bear alone and they tried to catch the mother and the cubs and move them, but that wasn't successful and the cubs were brought to me.
Brandon Keim: They were three cubs in all, each no more than four pounds. Ben bottle-nursed them and fashioned a basket den in his guest bedroom. He also named them.
Ben Kilham: Squirty was a little small, so she was the squirt and her sister had curly hairs on her forehead and so she was Curls and the male was the Boy. It's hard. You name these cubs when they're this big and then they become this.
Brandon Keim: As the bears grew up, Ben was protective and also curious. Dyslexia had stifled his academic dreams of studying animal behavior, but his passion for wildlife remained. Fifteen months later, Ben released the orphans into the wild, Curls and the Boy left the area, but Squirty stayed. And nowadays nearly every evening when and is entire breeding hibernation season, Ben still drives up into the White Mountains to visit Squirty and her extended family.
Tonight he has brought three buckets of dried corn, which he takes from the truck bed. He is tall and slab-framed and, though it's a cliché, he kind of moves like a bear. He pours the corn in small piles and returns to the truck to take notes. The corn isn't nearly enough to sustain the bears, but it is a reliable snack and it gives Ben a chance to observe. Note, don't try this yourself. Ben has a permit to feed bears and he's built up their trust over decades.
Ben Kilham: You don't come out until I get here. Now you can be sure that it's me.
Brandon Keim: Before long, bears began to emerge from the woods nibbling at the corn.
Ben Kilham: She likes to go from pile to pile until other bears can hear.
Brandon Keim: Although some of them get the Oreo treatment too.
Ben Kilham: I haven't seen you up here in a long time, and you.
Brandon Keim: Such as the bear named Demi.
Ben Kilham: Come on Demi.
Brandon Keim: Demi is Squirty's daughter and most of the other bears here, in fact, are also related to Squirty.
Ben Kilham: That is Lightface, that's Squirty's first daughter.
Brandon Keim: But there is a bear from another clan, a descendant of a nearby matriarch named Moose. This was one of the most surprising things Ben discovered about black bears. Far from being solitary as they're usually described, they're actually quite social and their interactions are governed by long-term relationships. They form social contracts with other bears, which is really sophisticated animal behavior
Ben Kilham: But the bears, you know, on a regular basis are planning what's going on. I've watched him climbing Oak trees in August to see what there are for acorns for the coming year.
Brandon Keim: It involves thinking ahead.
Ben Kilham: So they're taking a mental inventory as they travel around their home ranges.
Brandon Keim: And they share. Squirty controls the ridge of Oaks. Her neighbor's territory is ridge and beach. In a year that's flushed with acorns but poor for beach nuts, Squirty will share her surplus, and when fortunes are reversed, Squirty's neighbors return the favor.
Ben Kilham: As humans, if we're invited out to dinner by our neighbors, we feel obligated to invite our neighbors back over for dinner.
Brandon Keim: Ben says that bears evolve to take advantage of these social contracts over time. So they don't just exchange a favor today for some help tomorrow, but actually keep tabs across seasons and years. As far as we know, this is something that no other animal does.
Ben Kilham: The bears are the only non-human animal that exhibit this type of social behavior.
Brandon Keim: The bears also have rules. Ben found this out the hard way.
Ben Kilham: One of the infractions are interfering with the social contacts that she has. She had a bear up, another bear up a tree and there was a lot of noise going on, and I went up to film it and, again, I stepped on a stick and the other wild bear bailed out of the tree and Squirty came down and track the bear off and then she came back to me and approached me with a soft repetitive moan, which was saying everything was okay.
Ben Kilham: And then she stood up and greeted me nose to nose and then she pinned her ears and bit me, right here leaving a scar that still exists. And then she dropped to her knees and went into a moan of reconciliation following me around until she repaired it. But she was deceptive when she approached me saying everything was okay, and then she bit me. And deception is a sign of cognition. You know, there's a long, long list of cognitive behaviors of these black bears.
Brandon Keim: Other behaviors like recognizing themselves in a mirror. Something that scientists say shows an especially human-like self-awareness. Ben wrote about this in the thesis that earned him a Ph.D. at the age of 63. In the thesis, Ben described bears interacting with a mirror he set up in the clearing. They licked and sniffed the mirror to determine whether the reflection belonged to a stranger, looked behind it, mind their reflections, repeating the same actions over and over. And finally, as recognition dawned, the bears inspected themselves.
Ben Kilham: And they can use the mirror. I've pictures I took of bears looking at me through the mirror. Bears do fit into that select group of animals like chimpanzees, elephants, magpies, dolphins that do recognize themselves in front of the mirror.
Brandon Keim: Now this is a big claim, and though Ben's work has been praised by several highly regarded anthropologists and ethologists, it hasn't yet passed through the formal peer review gauntlet.
Ben Kilham: Unfortunately, you know, getting there and getting scientific acceptance is still going to take a while. I'm, you know, in three years trying to get papers published. And they will get published. But it's a long and drawn out process.
Brandon Keim: For most of human history though Ben's claim wouldn't even have seemed like such a radical idea. Of course, animals were self-aware and bears were held in a specially high regard. Salamis in Northern Scandinavia spoke of the old man with the fair garment. The Yakuts of Northeastern Asia called Brown bears ‘beloved uncle and grandfather.’ The Abenaki tribes of Southern Quebec and Western New England, they would have called Squirty ‘cousin.’ People regarded bears with a kinship that suggested respect, not only for their physical power, but their mental prowess as well. In modern times though, scientists downplayed animal intelligence, and, while that's changed in the last decade, bears still haven't been much studied. It's been more common to travel to Africa to study primates than to ask questions about the bears outside town.
Ben Kilham: Hi guys. Hi there. How are you guys? You remember me?
Brandon Keim: Squirty isn't the only bear Ben has cared for.
Ben Kilham: Hello little guys
Brandon Keim: In all he's nurtured and released 285 orphaned cubs into the wild. Last year, he officially formed a nonprofit, the Kilham Bear Center which he runs with his wife Debbie and his sister Phoebe. Last winter, they cared for more than 60 orphan cubs. It was basically the most bonkers slumber party ever. Right now they're taking care of 14 and back at the center, we go pay them a visit.
Ben Kilham: Oh, these are all the bottle fed cubs.
Brandon Keim: These cubs are not shy.
Ben Kilham: They want attention.
Brandon Keim: They're especially curious about microphones.
[bear moans near microphone]
Ben Kilham: Hi guys.
Brandon Keim: They're all so cute, in fact, that it's easy to forget the reason they're here is the sad one. Something happened to their moms. And the looks in their big soulful eyes could really make a person think, what do we owe to bears, especially in light of what Ben's research teaches us? Now, there is an argument that intelligence alone shouldn't determine how we treat animals, that compassion shouldn't be dependent on smarts. And fair enough. Yet it does seem that intelligence adds to the moral calculus. Few of us would mourn a stranded jellyfish the way we would a beached whale.
In this regard, Ben plays his cards pretty close to the vest. He doesn't even come down one way or the other on bear hunting. But what if, what if we replaced our culture's fear of bears with a spirit of understanding and respect. And there's also the question of how to live with them. So many bears die because someone felt scared when a bear walked in their direction or because someone didn't secure their trash. What if some of our billions of infrastructure dollars went to bear-proof dumpsters? We could probably solve most of our bear problems for the price of a few miles of interstate. And what happens when that's not enough and we accidentally harm or kill bears? We then have an obligation to care for the casualties, to show them compassion just as the Kilhams have done for decades.
Ben Kilham: All right guys. We better start walking back.
Brandon Keim: Ben walks the walk. One cub at a time.
Ben Kilham: Come on guys.
Brandon Keim: For The Overstory, I'm Brandon Keim.
Jason Mark: That was Brandon Kim reporting from New Hampshire. You can read his text version of the story at sierramagazine.org.
(20:59) Bite Podcast
Jason Mark: We don't usually promote other podcasts, but I do want to give a quick shout out to the good folks at Bite. Bite is a podcast from the people of mother Jones and it's for people who think hard about their food. Tune in to hear food and farming blogger Tom Philpott, Mother Jones' editors, Kiera Butler and Maddie Oatman and a guest list that includes writers and farmers and scientists, restaurant tours and chefs who are exploring the politics and the science of what you eat and why. Bite uncovers surprising stories behind what ends up on your plate. Check them out.
(21:34) Mr. Green is Retiring
Jason Mark: And now it's time for ask Mr. Green. After 15 years as Sierra Magazine's advice columnist, Mr. Green, AKA Bob Schildgen, is retiring. We're going to be announcing his successor in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that. I'm really excited about it, but first I wanted to bring Bob in the studio one last time to wish him well, and to find out what he had learned in his decade and a half as Mr. Green.
Mr. Green: I am retiring and I like retiring.
Jason Mark: Retirement is good work if you can get it. Well, I do. Just before we go any further, Bob, I want to thank you for all the long service to Sierra magazine and to our readers and now our listeners for all the great work you've done over the years to provide them with sustainable living tips.
Mr. Green: Oh, thank you. I hope that some of them have sustained their sustainability.
Jason Mark: I hope so as well. How did Mr. Green get started?
Mr. Green: Well, the editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton at the time, this is in 2004, she noticed that there were a few advice columnists floating around, not very many, and she thought we had to start an advice column.
Jason Mark: And then 15 years. And probably what you think of that. Is it possible to say thousands of questions? Maybe?
Mr. Green: Oh yeah.
Jason Mark: Hundreds for sure.
Mr. Green: Yeah. No, definitely thousands. Some of them repeat, but you know the there were, yeah, many thousands.
Jason Mark: And what's like a repeat question?
Mr. Green: Oh, usually something about what your dog is doing. You know, where to put his candy [chuckles] and other material. Yeah.
Jason Mark: Basically how did you author excrement? Yeah, a recurring theme and environmental circle.
Mr. Green: Very frequent theme. Yes.
Jason Mark: Have the questions changed over time?
Mr. Green: I think they have in the sense that it used to be at the beginning, what can I do? Later, it became, how can I convince my neighbor? It became more of a missionary goal to convert other people by people who had been converted to some degree or other. I think that, that was a big difference.
Jason Mark: You're basically an environmental evangelist.
Mr. Green: Yes, I am. Yeah. Hallelujah. Yeah.
Jason Mark: Hallelujah, there's something really deep there. I mean, in a way it goes to show that people who have sort of understood that simply changing one's own personal behaviors to have a lighter footprint on the planet is good, but that's really just
Mr. Green: Yeah
Jason Mark: Really just additional and what we need is multiplication.
Mr. Green: Yeah. That's a very, that's a very interesting way to look at it, I think. Yes.
Jason Mark: What do you think, where does personal responsibility fit in especially in the age of climate change and the sixth mass extinction? We know these problems are far bigger than any one person certainly can address and yet it seems to me that personal responsibility for our own actions does fit somewhere in the overall scheme of things.
Mr. Green: Well I think that unless you perceive the bigger picture, you're less likely to act on a personal level. In other words, if you really don't get why you should put your garbage in the right receptacle, then you don't understand the bigger picture and vice versa. If you understand the bigger picture, you become rather picky about almost everything because you see how everything fits together and how everything is related. And so I think that that holds for many environmental issues, I think.
Jason Mark: Because all, I mean there's almost not to get to Sierra Club navel-gazing about it, but there's almost a kind of through line there from Muir and the line where we try to pick out anything in the universe, we find it hitched to everything else.
Mr. Green: I think Muir was dead right about that.
Jason Mark: Yeah. I think, I mean that's the sort of central insight of ecology, but it does then cascade from, there is a connection between Trump wanting to clear cut the Tongas Forest to how much paper I use.
Mr. Green: Exactly. Exactly. And you cannot separate those things, I don't think. Yeah.
Jason Mark: Well Bob, thank you for injecting so much levity and bringing so much wisdom and fun to these big issues over the years. I appreciate it.
Mr. Green: You're very welcome. It was a great run, and I wish my successor well.
Jason Mark: That was Bob Schildgen aka Mr. Green. One last time. We're going to miss you Bob. Take care.
Jason Mark: And If you are curious that John Muir quote that I mentioned there it goes like this "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." It's from his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. John Muir, by the way, in case you didn't know, he's the founder of the Sierra Club. He's also on the California quarter, check him out. Cool guy.
(26:13) Upshur Indivisble Fights for West Virginia
Jason Mark: In the middle of the night, sometime in 1961 the musician, Iris Bell woke up with lyrics for a brand new song in her head. A few years later, this song of West Virginia and spirit became one of the state's official songs. The song conveys a resilient state of pride for West Virginia's people and for its land, but the songwriter's daughter April Pierson Keating, she didn't always feel that way. When April grew up in West Virginia she always dreamt of moving away, but eventually she found something worth fighting for. Here's April, reflecting on the West Virginia roots that connect her to land.
April Pierson Keating: I'm part of Upshur Indivisible, which sprang up after the election, but I've been an activist and an educator for much longer. I was probably born an activist. My mother was a rebel and she taught me that you don't have to follow the rules if they're wrong. That you have duty to stand up to do what's right even if it puts you in a bad position sometimes. My mom was a pianist and a singer, and she performed jazz and rock and roll. She also wrote our state song, "This is my West Virginia."
[April sings This is my West Virginia, home of all my family…]
April Pierson Keating: When I was seven I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is a super progressive place. And my mother was a musician, so I was hanging out with crazy, goofy artist people. And it was just a hell of a time. And it opened my eyes and my mind and my heart. And when I came back to West Virginia, I felt closed in. I mean, even in school, I wasn't getting what I had been getting up North. And I felt like I was being choked and I didn't want to live here, but I had to, and I finished out my education here and I was going to leave. I was going to go to New York and be a journalist and write for Rolling Stone magazine, but then I met my husband and fell in love and I wanted to have his babies and so I stayed here.
[April sings We will stand behind our principles as in 1863. Her pride will live...]
April Pierson Keating: When the election happened Upshur Indivisible formed and I joined that because I saw that it was a group of people that were really concerned about making change. My environmentalism work is around not just environmental justice, but the social justice aspect of that. So this is a long lesson that's happened for me over the years of my organizing.
I started out getting in people's face and saying, no, no, no, this is wrong, this is wrong. And I got a lot of pushback. People would either laugh or run the other way or ignore me. I've tried to tamper the way I do things here in the small community so that I can get people to, to let me into the conversation because I don't want to be seen as an adversary or I can't be effective, but I can't get them on board with environmentalism because it's really got a bad name here. That's why our organization doesn't have the word environment in its name.
[April sings indistinguishable, then clears throat]
April Pierson Keating: Okay. I'll give you the second verse.
[April sings This is my...]
April Pierson Keating: And you know, I think about leaving all the time, but in this work I have made so many very close friends. I have found my people here in West Virginia, the place that I wanted to leave.
[April sings Where-e'er I go she will call...]
April Pierson Keating: As long as I'm here, I'm going to stay and fight and fight for these people. Not just for the people, but for justice.
[April sings Here in my West Virginia, my land my home.]
Jason Mark: That's April Pierson Keating in West Virginia. Her mother, Iris Bell, wrote the state song, "This is my West Virginia."
Notes and Thank Yous
The Overstory is produced by Josephine Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum of Future Projects Media with help from Danielle Roth, additional reporting by Riva Goldberg. Our theme music is by Jeff Brodsky. This episode was mixed by Merritt Jacob. I'm Jason Mark, and you've been listening to The Overstory.
Explore the lovestory that preserved Patagonia with us in the next episode, Episode 8: Rewilding Patagonia. We'll also introduce our new advice columnist, Ms Green - aka Jessian Choy.