Stories of environmental resilience, resistance

Illustration of forest with wildlife
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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Rachel Carson changed the face of environmentalism with a single book, “Silent Spring.” Its release contributed to the termination of the use of DDT — a destructive pesticide — and the natural world sprang back; populations of birds such as California condors, peregrine falcons and bald eagles recovered with gusto.

Today, scientists are finding ways to combat climate change, such as working to selectively breed for corals that are resistant to bleaching in warmer waters, which would make it possible for climate change to aid coral reefs rather than hinder them. Economists, businessmen, and computer and data scientists are finding ways to afford and integrate more sustainable business patterns, using data technology such as blockchains to match supply to demand, which would reduce food and product waste. 

The 2019 climate strikes saw over 4 million people all over the world participate and strike against the climate crisis. People are mobilizing, affecting, working together. In history and in the present, stories of resistance and resilience can give us small rays of hope that our actions matter and that life is stronger than we think. 

180 feet up: Aerial resistance

At 23 years old, Julia “Butterfly” Hill found herself in Humboldt County among activists including the radical environmental group Earth First! in 1997 during a strike against the Pacific Lumber Company. The tension between the loggers and the activists was violent and tumultuous, and the young activists were participating in tree sits to prevent the lumber company from cutting down old-growth redwood forests — majestic temples of environmental sentiment and ecological importance. 

Hill volunteered to sit in one of these mammoths, dubbed “Luna,”  located in an area the Pacific Lumber Company was aerial logging with helicopters. Hill had no experience and no deep connection to the activist group, but she felt compelled by the cause. So compelled, in fact, that she spent 738 days (over two years) with Luna, braving emotional and physical abuse from the lumber company, who attempted to starve and intimidate her, as well as massive El Niño storms that ripped through the web of branches Hill had built her treehouse among. 

Without any worldly possessions, barefoot and 180 feet in the air, Hill was wholly committed to the sit. An extraordinary resilience and dogged determination kept her from picking up the harness and making her way back down the long stretch of trunk to the comfort of the forest floor. 

Reflecting on one of the worst storms that she had to endure, Hill revealed that the way she survived was by letting go of attachments: “You gotta bend, you gotta flow. That’s the way to make it through this storm, and that’s the way to make it through the storms of life. (At this crucial moment) I started hooping, and hollering, and laughing and crying. If there was a hidden camera, they would have said, ‘She’s nuts.’ ” 

Without any worldly possessions, barefoot and 180 feet in the air, Hill was wholly committed to the sit.

Hill may have gone to extreme lengths, but her passion and true love for Luna had a herculean impact on environmental activism. She finally departed from her rickety post among the canopy, and in return for evacuating the tree, the Pacific Lumber Company preserved a 200 foot buffer zone around Luna, protecting dozens of old-growth trees. Money raised during her sit was given as a settlement, and $50,000 was donated to Humboldt State University for research in forestry. 

This story teaches us that any action can have a profound impact. Hill may have saved a handful of old-growth trees, but that one act of rebellion and resistance made ripples around the world, inspiring people like me who heard her story and strengthened their own resolve to combat environmental ruin, pessimism and passivity.

Protecting the Golden Coast

Proposed developments in and around California’s Marin and Sonoma counties’ coasts, including a four-lane freeway, a pipeline leading from the Russian River to Marin and housing developments loomed threateningly over these important coastal wetlands in the early 1960s. An instrumental figure in the prevention of these developments was L. Martin Griffin, an alumnus of UC Berkeley, who raised money in order to buy out key lands and impede the construction processes.

His conservation efforts were chiefly focused on preserving Bolinas Lagoon, a beautiful portion of wetland prominent along the scenic Shoreline Highway leading into Bolinas. It is an integral habitat area for shorebirds, waterfowl, seals and salmon and is a fundamental player in the watershed of the surrounding area. 

Through grassroots organization and communication with his community, Griffin was able to raise the money necessary to prevent large corporations and moneymongers from using the land for commercial development.

Predating Griffin’s contributions, two women had already left a legacy on the stretch of beautiful coastline. One of these women was Rose Gaffney, who refused to sell her land to PG&E so that it could build a nuclear power plant. Now, 327 acres of this land is home to the Bodega Marine Laboratory, a UC Davis hands-on education center that is home to invaluable research regarding these sensitive marine and coastal environments

Caroline Sealy Livermore was another champion of conservation in this area, working to preserve well-known Bay Area landmarks, such as Angel Island, Stinson Beach, Point Reyes and Tomales Bay State Park beginning in the 1930s. Because of the dedication from these local conservationists, ordinary people who would not give in to the pressure from commercial developers, the northern coast of the Bay Area retains an endemic natural beauty. 

The commercial developers laughed these people off, saying that they wouldn’t be able to raise the money necessary to take back the threatened lands. But their love for the land, and incredible efforts of mobilization, fostered a movement for the preservation of open, wild spaces that we often take for granted. Now, much of the land along Marin and Sonoma counties’ coasts is safeguarded in a permanent trust for the county, preserving a richly diverse ecosystem that is unlike anywhere else in the world.

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Life in a radioactive landscape

Thirty-three years ago, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Five million people are currently living in areas that have some level of radioactive impact from the event. The immediate disaster area covers a little more than 1,000 square miles of land in northern Ukraine, which is known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The area essentially became a dead zone, referred to as the Red Forest because the surrounding trees turned a bright orange with dead needles. 

Despite the toxicity and contamination, the area is not as lifeless as people assume it to be. Radiation levels have dropped significantly in many areas of the exclusion zone, and greenery is  overrunning the dilapidated houses affected by the initial explosion. Currently, the area serves as a refuge for wildlife, hosting species of large mammals such as elk, wild boars, brown bears, roe deer and even Przewalski’s horses, an endangered species of Mongolian horse. 

Biological surveys also show evidence of smaller life forms: spiders, rodents, fungi and songbirds. Although these smaller species are found in fewer numbers, their mere presence in such a radioactive environment is promising. Biologists, such as Timothy Mousseau, have been working in Chernobyl for the past decade and have noticed that certain songbirds are adapting to the high radiation levels, and those with less pigment in their feathers show higher survival rates. 

Although there is still a long way to go in terms of total recovery, which may not be possible in an area so affected, the life that has sprung up in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is an astounding example of life’s resiliency and ability to adapt. It provides hope that no matter how much damage human beings have caused in the past, life will find a way. We removed ourselves from the Chernobyl zone, assuming that it would remain an inactive and depressing site of human folly. Instead, there is an incredible display of the organic world rebounding against all odds.  

Rekindling hope

This last summer, I spent two weeks in southeast Alaska. While staying in Skagway, my sisters and I decided to backpack along the Chilkoot Trail, a three-day trip that followed the journey of gold miners during the Klondike Gold Rush. 

These miners devastated the local environment and indigenous peoples. Deforestation and overhunting generated sterile ecosystems where there had once been rich biodiversity. But walking along the trail, more than 100 years after the gold rush, the land was humming with life. Green moss carpeted the forest floor, and fresh streams rolled past with thunderous bellies. Fireweed poked out from rich soil, and I could hear birdsong overhead. 

In a moment that especially stands out to me, we crossed over a quiet section of the river. We were hiking with a friend of my sisters, who worked on the trail crew, and he was telling us about the months of effort that had gone into rebuilding this section of the trail that summer. Tools stood waiting in small sheds along the banks of the river, and an elevated system of rough-hewn, sturdy planks led out across the water. They had been forced to rebuild after a beaver dam had flooded the previous trail.

It was worth it to see the shy beavers poke their heads up from the water during the long work hours, to see the beautiful wilderness that had once been so threatened rebound and sing in all of its glory.

It felt ironic to me that the trail that had once given gold miners access to the land they had decimated was now a habitat for beavers — a keystone species that was on the brink of extinction 200 years ago due to decades of the fur trade. Today, because of the discontinuation and unpopularity of such practices, as well as the efforts of conservationists who realized the importance of their role as builders of ecosystems, the beaver population in North America is about 15 million — a recovery if I’ve ever seen one. 

The trail crew was more than happy to renovate: It was worth it to see the shy beavers poke their heads up from the water during the long work hours, to see the beautiful wilderness that had once been so threatened rebound and sing in all of its glory.

It is stories such as these that give me hope, that should give all of us hope. Oftentimes, conversations about the environment end bleakly, with resignation and distress. But while a lot of negative information about climate change and climate apathy is truthful and harsh, focusing on this information is only conducive to a defeatist attitude. We cannot forget positive examples; these have the power to renew and restore hope that the tides can change.

Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected].