Fulbright scholar interviewed people living close to the land in Northwestern Ontario.
An Agate Original
Minnesota activist and scholar Kelsey Jones-Casey lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario for six months in the winter and spring of 2017. Based at Lakehead University, she conducted interviews with hunters, trappers, farmers, herbalists, and other people intimately connected to the land and waters of the region. Her Fulbright Fellowship enabled her to travel the back roads of this part of the boreal forest to learn how people who depend on the land are observing and reacting to climate change. The boreal forest is a huge ecological zone that covers much of northern Canada, and parts of the northern United States, Russia and Scandinavia. Scientists say it is particularly sensitive to climate change, and is expected to experience the earth’s most severe temperature increases. Kelsey is in the process of transcribing the recorded interviews, both to post on her web page, Boreal Heartbeat, and to write an academic paper analyzing what she learned.
Agate: How did you get involved with this work?
Kelsey: At the time I applied for the fellowship, I was living in Seattle, working for an organization that helps secure land rights for the world’s poorest folks, usually farmers but also people who live in the forests and depend on the forest for their livelihoods. As I was doing that work, I kept thinking about the connections between land and place and belonging, and how land is more than just a commodity, a product, or something you can buy and sell; it’s really something that defines people’s relationship to each other and to themselves. It helps define their identity. It got me thinking of climate change and how that intersected with land rights, and I stumbled on the work of Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, a researcher in Labrador, who studies climate and well-being. She was borrowing this idea of “solastalgia,” which is a homesickness for a place where you already live, and the homesickness is due to the fact that the world is changing around you. Dr. Cunsolo was interviewing people in northern Labrador, Inuit folks, about their relationship to the land and climate change, and she was thinking mostly about physical health, but what many people wanted to talk about was their mental and emotional health. When I heard that, I knew that was the kind of work I wanted to do. So I initially thought of working with her, but my husband Ryan and I recently moved from Seattle back to Duluth, and I didn’t want to leave this bioregion. It was really important to me to be grounded in doing work in the region that I care about and love. I cold-called a faculty member at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and said, “Hi, I have this Fulbright grant, would you be willing to host me in Thunder Bay?” And from day one the people there gave me a welcoming and open-armed reception. It was an incredible experience to be part of that community for a short time.
Agate: Did you have any trouble finding people to talk to?
Kelsey: I was lucky because a local news reporter, Gord Ellis, an accomplished outdoorsperson, interviewed me about my project. As a result of that story, I got phone calls from all over the region from people who wanted me to interview them, so that part ended up being really easy. My sample, the pool from which I was drawing, was much bigger than I expected: it’s a very rural area, so when I said, “people living close to the land,” there were more people who fit into that category than I was expecting. I talked with all kinds of people, from trappers and hunters, to farmers and herbalists, some of whom were indigenous or Metis [people who trace their descent to First Nations peoples and white settlers]. My sample of participants represented a pretty wide spectrum of land-based activities and land-dependence. I visited their homes so I could really see how they were living, making audio recordings of our conversations.
Agate: You met people all along a huge swath of the Lake Superior coastline. Was it like exploring a new place for you?
Kelsey: It was. I don’t even want to give away the secret, but the north shore of Lake Superior is the most beautiful, incredible place I’ve ever been, and I say that having grown up in Minnesota. I’m talking about the true north shore, the northern rim of Lake Superior. It’s almost completely undeveloped; there are so few people, it’s a really magical place. I went as far east as the Pic River First Nation, just east of Marathon, and the nearby community of Heron Bay. And I went about an hour west of Thunder Bay to a community called Nolalu. Nearly everyone I talked to lives in the Lake Superior watershed.
Agate: How did you decide what questions to ask?
Kelsey: I really had just three primary questions: first, have you observed what you consider to be climate-related changes in the area you live in, and if so what are they; second, have those changes impacted your livelihood or lifestyle; and third, how have those changes impacted your mental and emotional well-being? Naturally the responses elicited further questions, but those were the three primary ones I asked of my interviewees.
Agate: So what kinds of answers did you get?
Kelsey: I should say that because people came to me to be interviewed, they were people who wanted to speak up on climate change and who had some observations to share—this is not a representative sample of any kind, but a qualitative study that’s really trying to understand some “how” and “why” questions about people’s lived experiences. I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the changes people were seeing. The one that surprised me most was wind. I had so many people tell me they observed windier days, more days with winds, windier seasons, wind at different times than before, and they felt wind was one of the biggest changes they had experienced. I found that really interesting. And of course the changes impacted people’s lives in a myriad of ways. I interviewed one couple who lives on an ice road across a lake. They use this road to get to their home in the winter, and because the ice was not dependable anymore, they were having to cut a new road in the bush to get to where they live. That’s a really big impact on someone’s life. Other things that are a little more nuanced or subtle include the changing plants people are seeing in places they’re intimately familiar with. For example, a trapper who’s lived in this area for a very long time, he said he knows that Labrador tea [a low shrub that thrives in acidic soil] grows in this place, he’s known that forever, and it doesn’t grow there anymore. What happens to people when the plants they love and appreciate disappear? I could go on and on and on.
Agate: You asked people how they were adapting to the changes, and one of the examples I found interesting was a farm family that was giving up on hay and switching to silage for animal feed.
Kelsey: Very interesting! This couple has a CSA [Community-Supported Agriculture] farm; they grow veggies and cattle for meat. They said that because of the unpredictable and volatile seasons, they and neighboring farmers couldn’t count on a good stretch of dry summer weather for haying, so they are converting to making silage [high-moisture, fermented fodder] instead, which doesn’t require so many dry, sunny days in a row to harvest. Some of them are starting to invest in equipment to do that instead of making hay.
There was another couple I met who was farming and selling products of the woods, such as chaga tea [made from a mushroom that grows on birchbark], wild berry jellies and things like that. They owned a property that flooded a couple times, and after losing a lot of their infrastructure in the big flood of 2012, they ended up selling that property and moving to a different location. They were actually very positive about their personal experience; they said they felt good about their capacity to adapt to these coming changes.
Agate: What struck you about people’s reactions overall?
Kelsey: There was definitely a range of what people experienced. I would say the things that came up most often were some kind of sadness, a sense of loss about what they had as they grew up or in their young adulthood, and what they were not going to see in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. There was also a sense of anxiety, a fear of the unknown, a sense of not knowing what was going to happen and what those changes were going to look like.
After each interview, I asked people to write a one-word description of their primary feeling about climate change on a blackboard and I took their picture holding the blackboard. One woman said she felt “despair.” Another woman said “overwhelmed, paralyzed, heartbroken.” Those are pretty strong feelings. One man said he was deeply sad, but his spouse said she was excited for new opportunities. I think part of it comes down to personality: she is a very optimistic person, so she sees it as an opportunity for people to come together and create a new future together. I wouldn’t say she was excited about climate change, but excited about the possibility of what people could build together.
Agate: There were a couple of those that I found very surprising. One said “hopeful.”
Kelsey: Yes, and sometimes what they wrote on the board didn’t match what they had said in the interview, and I suspect that’s probably about what you want the world to see, or maybe even a desire for a more hopeful outlook, or not wanting to sit in despair or other sad emotions. So these are the emotions they chose to be photographed with, and I wanted to honor that. One woman mentioned being hopeful about being able to grow new species that they were unable to grow before, and about living in a less harsh climate for farming. Like all human beings, we experience a wealth of emotions about a particular thing. It’s not just sad, or excited about opportunities, there’s a lot more underneath that.
Agate: How did you find yourself feeling as you were talking with these folks?
Kelsey: Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the warmth and openness of my experiences working with people, and that warmth overwhelmed any other emotion I was feeling at the time. My experience in the Thunder Bay area was amazing, and I would move there in a heartbeat if I could, it was such a positive, positive, positive experience. Of course, it’s hard not to feel sad about loss, but I think it’s also important that we find a way to move beyond grief into something else on the other side, and that’s what I felt this project was for me. One way to shift your emotions is to do something, and this research was my doing something. I couldn’t help but feel really excited about all the possibilities I was seeing, the possibilities of connection and bringing people together and having conversations and building something.
Agate: Building something like what?
Kelsey: Well, two things are on my mind. One is some kind of collective grieving process, because I think people really are in a stage of grief about losing something, and especially people in rural areas don’t have a lot of ways to process that with other people. That’s not necessarily a positive move forward but I think it might be a necessary, shared experience before being able to move forward. And then a lot of folks expressed frustration and a sense of hopelessness about their own ability to impact change, especially policy change at the government level. I think it would be great if folks like that could come together and have a collective voice for whatever it is that they want to change. It can be a lot more powerful than an individual phone call to a government official, for example.
Agate: Speaking of that, what will be the product of all these interviews?
Kelsey: The quick summaries on my web page, and what we’re discussing today, are preliminary observations from my data, not the final findings. It was important to me to make the research accessible, so what’s on the web page is a snapshot of what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been in a big life transition: my previous job with CARE [a global anti-poverty and social justice organization operating since World War II] had me traveling to sub-Saharan Africa a lot, and now I’ve just started working locally as the new climate justice program manager at TakeAction Minnesota [a group working on racial and economic equity]. So I’m hoping to dedicate more time to writing up all these interviews, and then hopefully publishing an academic paper this summer. I might go back to Thunder Bay to give some presentations about the work. I just learned there’s a student at Lakehead University interested in continuing this project in her own vein, and of course I’m interested in doing similar interviews here in Minnesota.
Agate: Thank you for sharing your experience and some of your preliminary results, Kelsey. Let’s wrap up today with some quotes from your interviews.
Tom Morriseau lived in the bush for his entire childhood; he is a trapper, fisher, hunter, canoeist, and holds knowledge of medicinal and edible plants. Tom says, “On the trapline I have noticed a difference in the thickness of ice some years. It’s very unpredictable now… you’ve got to be careful. And on the moose hunt, it used to be cold enough to preserve the meat, but now we have to bring huge totes of ice with us to keep it from spoiling.”
Esther Huibers and Carl Norlin are farmers who recently moved to higher ground because of extreme flooding. Carl says, “We’re hopeful that extreme weather won’t impact us. We’re going to adapt and make the most of it. We have to. We’re forced to adapt.”
Brenda and Dan Baughman operated a fishing camp on Red Lake for more than 30 years before retiring recently. Benda says, “I shut out all of the arguments or discussions or articles that have to do with ‘is it really happening?’ because to me, that’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic… So then, when I get to the part about what are we going to do about it, it comes down to what am I going to do about it? As an optimist, I am excited for the opportunities for transformation that climate change will bring our society and economy.”
Find more at Boreal Heartbeat.