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Exeter gets hands dirty to confront climate change

Climate Action Day, now in its third year, offers a variety of workshops to focus on sustainability and environmental issues.

Patrick Garrity
April 26, 2017
Exeter students Christina Quinn and Elizabeth Williams replanting a white pine seedling

Lowers Christina Quinn (right) and Elizabeth Williams work to replant a white pine seedling. The project was part of the campus-wide initiative Climate Action Day. 

Ari Iacobucci plunged her shovel into the rain-soaked soil surrounding a tiny white pine and pried with all her might. 

SSSSSSSSHLOP!, the mud protested. The seedling barely budged. 

Saving the planet one tree at a time wasn’t going to be as easy as it sounded. 

But Iacobucci, Liam Walsh and the 18 other students who followed Science Instructor Betsy Stevens through murk and mire to dig up and replant the baby pines weren’t to be discouraged. Their chosen workshop on a waterlogged Climate Action Day wasn’t the easy way out, and the cause was worth at least a little mud.

“I like this world,” says Walsh, ’19, rain dripping off his nose. “I’d rather it wasn’t boiling.”

That’s where the seedlings come in. In the thick of the forest, the scrawny trees would be outcompeted by larger cousins and wither. But surgically transplanted to an open area next to Hatch Field, they might flourish — and absorb hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide as they do. 

Stevens has contributed more than just muddy boots to this effort. Three years ago, she was among those who helped recast Community Action Day as Climate Action Day, sharpening the focus of the daylong, campus-wide initiative around sustainability and environmental issues. Earlier incarnations were Clean-Up Day and Environmental Day, a day when dormitory and adviser groups worked around campus to lend a hand to the Facilities Department.

Transplanting seedlings was just one of Climate Action Day’s hands-on learning opportunities. Another group of students and volunteers ventured to the Massachusetts seacoast to restore sand dunes. Others worked to stabilize a logging landing site in the Henderson-Swasey Town Forest, plucked invasive plants and built a bog bridge at a Southeast Land Trust property in Epping, picked through garbage in an audit of the Academy’s waste or toured the campus heating plant to learn how it ticks. 

The goal: Provoke contemplation and thoughtful conversation about climate change and the role humans are playing. Ever a political grenade, the topic demands attention. According to NASA, "the current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia."

Many of this year’s workshops were grounded locally — the waste audit, for instance, or a field trip to the newly deconstructed Great Dam site on the Exeter River. Other workshops offered a broader perspective. 

Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, activist and California rancher, talked about the relationship between the food we eat and climate change. A vegetarian, Hahn Niman once believed meat and the raising of livestock was inherently bad for the environment, particularly its impact on global warming. But she has since adopted a far more nuanced view, one she shared with an Assembly Hall audience. She says she now understands animals raised the right way have invaluable ecological and nutritional benefits. 

“It’s not the cow, it’s the how,” she says. 

“What does food sustainability look like?” Hahn Niman asks. “Complexity. Diversity. And not one cookie-cutter solution.”

Squishing through the mud to dig up seedlings or working in teams to reimagine a more eco-friendly design of 87-year-old Jeremiah Smith Hall, Exonians got a one-day dose of the type of action environmentalists tout as mandatory for the planet. Iacobucci, a lower from South Hampton, N.H., says that students’ taking a day away from the Harkness table and literally getting their hands dirty is critical to their understanding the issues affecting climate change and the impact they can have. 

“A lot of people will talk about the climate here, but unless there are ways it can be demonstrated that kids can actually do something, even something small like this, I think a lot of people are going to think ‘It’s hopeless, I may as well not try.’”