I soaked up the landscape, the rocky shorelines, islands thick with pines, the smell of low tide, a chilly breeze off the water, and the sailboats dodging the working lobsterman hauling traps.
Ahhhh … vacation in Maine!
“This is why I do what I do,” I thought as I dodged lobsterpots in my aunt’s little 16-foot sailboat, and Kava – my dog –barked excitedly and threatened to jump ship each time I sailed too close to a brightly colored pot. Though strikingly obvious, it didn’t dawn on me until I was back sailing the waters around Mount Desert Island, Maine, how my personal connections to the environment here have profoundly influenced my life’s course.
Growing up, I spent summers escaping suburban boredom and my brothers’ tormenting by heading to Southwest Harbor Maine to stay with my grandparents. The rules were simple:
1. you had to get a job, or volunteer – anything productive that put you on a disciplined schedule;
2. no sleeping in; and
3. no loafing around the house.
Stay busy and stay outside, essentially.
So, I spent my time hiking in Acadia National Park, finding tidal pools that were only exposed during low-tides, cooking up sailing adventures around the island, plus the handful of bad ideas that got me “the stern talking to.” I volunteered at a marine lab. I worked on a dairy goat farm for a couple summers, but my allergies to hay and shoveling out the goat barn each week cured me of any romantic notions of being a farmer.
My forays on the water were much more successful. I was a mate on a schooner that took tourists sailing, and which gave me the first opportunity to sail offshore – something that immediately resonated with me and that I ended up doing professionally a few years later. And one summer when jobs were tight, I even worked at a lobster pier. The smell!
And unbeknownst to me, while I was trying to have fun and stay out of noticeable trouble, I was all the while developing a great respect for nature and the importance of communities sustainably managing their resources – the balancing of an economic reliance on nature and conservation. I had no idea at the time that I was surrounded by one of the best-managed fisheries in the U.S. – the Maine lobster fishery.
As a kid growing up, it was just how it was; this is a place where lobstering and boat-building go back generations and closely follow family lines. Part of the job was always managing each season’s catch with an eye toward keeping the fishery strong in order to eventually hand the business over to the next generation.
Back in this familiar landscape this past summer, and away from the urgency of each new work email, my circuitous-seeming career path seemed to make a lot more sense to me.
As part of the Climate Change Program at The Nature Conservancy, I work in different parts of the world to help develop strategies to manage landscapes to reduce carbon pollution while also increasing economic development. This means looking at the different economic forces that shape the landscape – like agriculture, timber and ranching – and identifying ways to lessen the impacts of these practices on carbon-rich forests and soils while maintaining and even improving profits. Within this, I spend a lot of time working on how to engage local communities (like mountain clans in Papua New Guinea) in land use decisions and how to support community enterprises that are environmentally friendly and bring in new sources of income. Suddenly, that idea doesn’t seem so distant from the lobster fishery in Maine.
And as part of the climate change team, I inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about how the heck we are going to get the U.S. to take more serious action to do something about reducing carbon pollution and tackling impacts from climate change. All summer in the office there had been an undercurrent of disappointment at the seeming disinterest of Americans to combat climate change. How do you get people interested and engaged in climate change solutions? – it’s a daunting question when the economy, healthcare, and two wars easily trump everyone’s concerns.
“This is what we need,” I thought as Kava and I sailed along toward Greenings Island.
To be honest, I do what I do, not because of the facts or the economics, not because of the statistics about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide or the logical arguments – even though I have published some of these analyses myself.
The truth is, I do what I do because deep down I understand the importance of managing our natural resources to ensure we can continue to sustain our way of life now and into the future. I know what it looks like, what it smells like, what it sounds like to achieve that balance, and I care deeply about preventing a natural disaster of other worldly proportions that would irreparably knock that balance out of whack and destroy this wonderful place that is a part of who I am. I want the lobster fishery in Southwest Harbor to continue to form the backbone of this working waterfront; I want my neighbor Sam to continue to run the lobster pier in town.
But I know that it is not just local decisions that will affect the places I care about. In order to protect the systems and communities I care about, we have to stop clearing forests in Indonesia, Brazil, and across the tropics, and we need to reduce global carbon pollution, starting in the U.S. It’s all connected.
“Maybe we need to get people out here, build people’s relationships with natural places, to motivate them to take action to stop the climate crisis,” I said to Kava. It turns out it is not such a crazy idea.
A new survey released by the Conservancy shows that kids need more experiences in nature to better connect to and care about the outdoors and the environmental challenges we are faced with. Specifically, the survey found that kids who had meaningful experiences in nature were far more likely than other kids to express concern about air pollution and global warming and other environmental issues.
Stay busy and stay outside … a simple message from my grandparents that helped me develop a deep connection to our planet and an appreciation for those who use it sustainably. It’s a message that we all can take to heart and act on!
Well, I vow to do my part and spend my vacations outside, staying out of (noticeable) trouble.
Erin Myers Madeira is a forest carbon senior advisor for The Nature Conservancy
Photo by Josh Madeira (Erin and her dog, Kava)
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