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The Thing with Feathers: On mountains, climate science and hope

[The following story was commissioned as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign organized by the Columbia Journalism Review.–Ed.]

A broad-tailed hummingbird at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.[Photo] Jimmy Lee

A broad-tailed hummingbird at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul…

–Emily Dickinson

MY MOTHER can’t breathe on her own anymore, but she says that as long as she is attached to a tank of oxygen and doesn’t cavort above sea level, she feels fine. She is in the advanced stages of pulmonary fibrosis, which means the scarring in her lungs is expanding and blocking her capacity for breath, the final constriction of which is now inevitable.

This is not a metaphor.

My mother is a conservative, evangelical Christian and an avid environmentalist. My siblings and I were raised foraging on an empty mountain, taught to love and care for the land while taking up arms against Satan, who she told us is the Earth’s ruler. The dichotomy of devoutly caring for an earth–which we’d been told was governed by the devil–is inherently interwoven into the fabric of my relationship with my mother. Her perceived purpose took her many places faraway from us, but she taught us the navigational skills to survive her absences. In my late teens, I ran as far as I could from that mountain, from religion and from the survival training that formed the skeleton of my childhood. But I never stopped climbing mountains.

As a child, I saw my mother as invincible, as a woman beyond need. Learning to care for her now requires me to reenvision myself as a protector, rather than as a vulnerable child. In a capitalist culture, the tremendous labor of caregiving and maintenance is often ignored or devalued. Our relationship with the Earth suffers from this hierarchy. Maybe learning to provide care for a planet that has consistently sustained us, a planet that some of us once worshipped as indestructible and beyond need, is a paradigm shift we can learn to manage, rather than a problem we will resolve.

The Milky Way as seen from the meadow at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

The Milky Way as seen from the meadow at Rocky Mountain Biological
Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

I work as an adviser of student media, so when the Dean of Math and Sciences at my college offered me a “scientist pass” to report on research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado this summer, I was surprised. But there was no question whether I would go.

You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

The basin of Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Michelle Dowd

The basin of Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Michelle Dowd

A month later, I am sitting with over 100 guests on a wooden pew in the billy barr community center* at RMBL (residents pronounce RMBL “Rumble”) when Janneke Hille Ris Lambers begins her evening wildflower talk. Nearly every one of the flannel-clad audience members is a student or faculty researcher residing, for a portion of the summer, at this field science station that was built 91 years ago on the remains of an abandoned mining town. (*billy barr does not capitalize his name because, he says, he is “not that important,” and the community center named after him follows his wishes.)

On the large screen is a picture of a snowy mountain surrounded by dramatic purple wildflowers with the title, “When do flowers flower? Impacts of climate change on high mountain wildflowers.” Lambers describes the relationship between the timing of when the snow melts each year and the height of flowering. She explains how climate change influences flowering and seed dispersal, how the period of availability of certain plants as a food source for wildlife is altered, and how certain species interact with each other. She provides descriptions of neighborhood species that co-flower and questions whether these will shift in sync, or go extinct, as climate change progresses.

I look around. I recognize several faces in the audience. Many of these people I have shared meals with since I arrived a few days ago, conversing across from one another in this same room reconfigured as a dining hall. This community center is intentionally devoid of walls, and when we convene to eat, it’s nearly impossible not to share the experiences of our days.

This kind of intimacy feels familiar to me. During my childhood, I spent time foraging nettles, rosehips, Jeffrey pine nuts and acorns to prep survival meals in the mountain mess hall, where my family and I ate communally as guests with Mennonite families, sharing food they grew on their land.

Here too, at RMBL, there are no locks on the bedrooms in the cabins, nor on the offices or laboratory doors. No one locks their bikes. It’s not difficult for me to see why so many of the scientists return year after year, why so many of them call this place home.

When I introduced myself to the grad students sitting next to me, they laughed. They said they already knew who I was.

“You’re the one who took Uber!”

It’s true. In Montrose, I found a driver who would take me three hours through the winding mountain roads up to Gothic. It seems I’m the first RMBL resident who has ever shown up in a commercial rideshare. No one up there with whom I spoke thought it was possible to find one.

Like all of us, they are less isolated than they think they are.

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at sunrise. [Photo] Michelle Dowd

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at sunrise. [Photo] Michelle Dowd

WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED, I was invited to a small cocktail party at the director’s cabin. Everyone else there was a research scientist who had been coming to RMBL for many years. We talked casually about the beauty of the landscape and the recently sighted den of red fox pups on the hill, and I asked the scientists about their research at the site.

Researchers at RMBL study various natural phenomenon: the changing sex ratios of Valeriana Edulis plants; what triggers flowering in the Frasera Speciosa; the timing of Red Tree squirrels’ mating in relation to the rate at which snow melts at the end of spring; or how various plants defend themselves from being eaten. Each of these phenomena in this particular biotic community has been directly affected by temperature changes and by the ensuing shifts in snowmelts and water availability.

Some of the scientists utilize experiments with field manipulation, in which they constrain a specific area and add heating devices to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees to simulate global warming. The scientists compare the flowering, mating, reproductive and survival patterns that occur in varying degrees up and down the mountain, and they adjust the data for temperature variations. They create mathematical modeling to show the relationship of weather patterns on the specific plant and animal life in each of these manipulated bioregions. These experiments allow a direct comparison of bordering spaces affected and non-affected by simulated climate change. The scientists co-investigate each microclimate and strive to understand the nature and causes of specific patterns in the rising and falling numbers of each species. They record the extent to which the responses of these ecosystems to simulated climate change can potentially ameliorate or exacerbate global warming trends.

Everyone I interviewed studies some form of the interdependence of human well-being and the health of ecosystems, including the effects of human actions on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and climate.

Even if you believe in humanity’s dominance over the globe, our species’ survival is contingent not just on efficient resource use, but on the maintenance of a delicate web of relationships that sustain our well-being. There is an observable interplay of reciprocal attention between species at RMBL that looks, to me, like a wider interpretation of “family.”


On the large screen in the community center, Janneke Hill Ris Lambers is talking about how the tremendous variety of species in ecological communities has motivated a century of research into the mechanisms that maintain biodiversity. She explains patterns of coexistence that emerge only in diverse competitive networks. Despite the potential for the loss of one competitor to trigger the loss of others, we often underestimate the importance of their coexistence in sustaining biotic communities.

Lambers shows the audience image after image of wildflowers, most of which I recognize. I have seen these flowers before. Because of my mother’s extensive scientific research and self-guided studies, I know their names. This bioregion is not altogether different from the one I grew up in.

Checkerspot Butterfly on a Goldenweed flower at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

A checkerspot butterfly on a Goldenweed flower at Rocky Mountain
Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

As a child, I was primarily out of doors. Between nomadic months travelling in tents across the greater North American landscape, my family lived on a 16-acre undeveloped camp in the Angeles National Forest that my grandfather began leasing in 1947, decades before I was born. When I was eight, our family moved into a camp mess hall, where I grew up without showers or toilets. My self-educated botanist mother led nature talks for the Grassy Hollow Nature Center. She explained to visitors how warming temperatures were allowing bark beetles to infiltrate Jeffrey Pine trees. She taught drought awareness, and she spoke of the need for humans to make changes in how they interacted with the natural world. She warned that unless we took action, we could lose almost all our forests in California. She would tell us, “If we lose our pines, the entire ecosystem goes and so do literally thousands of species in this ecosystem.”

My mother saw the destruction of ecosystems as the Biblical apocalypse, and she prepared us to survive the harsh conditions Armageddon would bring. She taught us to sleep on the bare earth, to forage for food, and when water wasn’t available, to syphon dew from leaves with minimal tools. She taught us to trust the layers of sustenance hidden in places humans hadn’t yet appropriated as their own. And to join in with a conglomeration of species that play well together.

We all adapt.

Until there’s nothing left to adapt to.

Red Fox in the meadow at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

A red fox in the meadow at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

Decoupled Cues

Dirk Van Vuren cooks his meals in our communal cabin rather than eating in the dining hall. When Lambers left the cabin, a room opened up, and Dirk moved in for his 38th summer at RMBL.

Though Dirk is a prominent professor in Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis, when he talks with me about the integrated systems of the squirrels here, he insists that I call him by his first name.

He tells me about decoupled cues, which is a phrase to describe something that no longer accurately represents what it once did. For example, marmots might have been using April air temperature as a cue for initiating reproduction, based on the notion that temperature predicts the date on which snow melts and food becomes available. Climate change could decouple the April temperature/May snow connection. According to Dirk, a team found that marmots don’t emerge from hibernation to mate based on the height of the snow, but rather on an ability to gauge temperature. Our survival is bound up with the ecologies in which we are embedded, whether or not we pay attention or give credit to these biotic communities.

I ask him if he thinks it’s too late for humans, if the levels of extinction we’re witnessing in the animal world will eventually extend to us. I ask him if we’ve passed the tipping point, or if there’s still hope we can curtail destruction. He says even if we can’t make up for all our past mistakes, even if there’s a certainty that we will reap some of what we have sown, we know what is at stake, and we’re responsible for that knowledge. But it will require a sort of Copernican shift of no longer seeing humans as the center of things.

“We know our fate is linked to the fate of all living creatures, and we have to take responsibility for the complexity of our complicity. We can’t unknow what we know,” he says, “We have to try to fix things. We have to try.”

He tells me he went in for a check-up the other day, and his physician asked him what difference it makes if the planet gets warmer. “We’ll set our ACs higher, and we’ll adapt, as we always do,” the doctor said. Dirk explained to him what I thought every doctor knew–that climate change is global, not regional, that globalization isn’t just about shaking hands over trade agreements. While many of us have become desensitized to reports of climate extremes, all of us will be impacted beyond the temperature settings in our homes. Economic challenges combined with climate-related natural disasters will disrupt infrastructures, forcing evacuations and more mass human migrations. Like the patterns we see in other interdependent species, there will be increased competition for reduced resources, and the trauma will certainly be greater on those who can’t afford the expenses of synthetic adaptations.

Frogs in New York, red squirrels in the Yukon, wolves in Yosemite, riparian birds and numerous other species experience shifts in their food supplies from changes in the ecosystem. Many factors determine outcomes of species’ populations. Animals use seasonal cues in anticipation of food availability to know when to migrate, when to hibernate, when to emerge from hibernation and when to mate, all of which are informed by climate. The borders of bioregions are porous.

“Decoupled cues,” I say.

It takes a new way of looking to observe the web of human and nonhuman reciprocity, but the connection is palpable.

The Unofficial Data Collector

The next day, I am honored to visit with the legendary billy barr.

The author with billy bar at RMBLA. [Photo] Michelle Dowd collection

The author with billy bar at RMBLA. [Photo] Michelle Dowd collection

Although barr doesn’t have the post-graduate education of any of the other researchers working up here or any publications of his own, conservation biologist David Inouye credits barr and his detailed data in many of his published studies. Barr began writing down detailed temperature and snowfall measurements and robin sightings more than 40 years ago, for fun, and he was surprised when the data became useful. I ask barr if he has ever regretted not continuing his education, if he ever wanted more credit, more exposure, more prestige.

“I’m not good at it,” he says, and he offers me a candy bar.

He tells me a story from a psychology class at Rutgers College, when all the kids in his psychology class played a game. Each student was given an equal number of chips. The purpose of the game was to hold out your hand to another player and to begin bargaining, trying to collect more and more chips until someone bargained their way to the top.

“I held my hand out to this girl and I was totally mesmerized with her, so I gave her everything. And then I went with the other students who were also bad at this game and we sat around together and hung out while everyone else played, and we had a good time.”

I laugh.

“So no,” he laughs back, “I wouldn’t want any advancement at this place. I like doing stuff, but not being in control. Except, you know… I want to be in control of my own life.”

I watch barr struggle to pull a rubber sheath onto a cricket handle because it needs a better grip, and the wood gives him splinters. I offer to help, trying several different ways of widening the sheath so he can thread the handle through, but it keeps getting stuck. He’s impatient, even though the Gothic Cricket Club, which he founded, won’t play tomorrow because of the annual costume-making party, an event in the community center named after him, at which students and faculty prepare for the Crested Butte Independence Day parade. But barr won’t go. “It’s too crowded.”

We chat about cricket. He is still frustrated by the cricket handle, and as he works on it, he tells me how colonization, racism and hierarchy inform our perception of the natural world. “I hope we are the last gasp of white men holding onto power,” he says.

I ask him what we should be doing about climate change that we’re not doing, and he says there are many things, starting with renewable energy. He outlines the ways that our current energy systems are financially motivated, and soon he’s back to talking about the high school he attended and the unofficial segregation and bias that were embedded in the social system of that microcommunity. He tells me the Earth can collaborate with human growth, if we learn to recognize her natural intelligence. As he interweaves his personal stories into the power of this bioregion, he emphasizes our need for biological, cultural, political and technological recuperation and recomposition. He suggests our unwritten social contract is intertwined with climate policy, and our investment in environmental legislation will impact the most vulnerable populations in our communities.

“Of course, I don’t even know what you’re writing about,” he says, “maybe this isn’t connected?”

I tell him I think everything is connected.


“Love and Appreciate All Creatures”

For the next few days, I make a practice of popping in when Dirk cooks, listening to his stories.

One evening, he comes in late, covered in layers of dirt. I suspect he has followed a mama squirrel back to her den of pups and found where she burrows in. I think that he has spent the afternoon trapping, tagging and releasing the litter.

“You found one!” I exclaim.

His body lights up, like that of a deity. I tell him he looks like a person who has been saved.

“Of course,” he says, “I found what I was looking for.”

Dirk is excited to talk about the litter of nine and about the tenacity of a mama squirrel that can feed all those hungry mouths–all 27 ounces of their growing mass–from her own 13 ounce body. Statistically, only about 40 percent of the babies will survive long enough to breed.

We both have a beer, and we talk about hope.

He tells me, “We might not yet be ready to admit our interdependency, but this year is the first year more electricity has been generated with renewables than with coal. And the coal companies are seeing the writing on the wall…”

I think about this phrase, “the writing on the wall,” from Daniel in the Bible, a story my grandmother told often: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, we are numbered, weighed and divided. Daniel told Belshazzar God had weighed his kingdom, had found them wanting, and would destroy them.

“We are all found wanting,” I say.

He nods. “But wherever we are knotted, we have the capacity to loosen.”

There are so many institutions, companies, governments and societal norms responsible for climate change, Dirk says it’s hard to know who to hold most accountable. We don’t know where to point our fingers, he says, and in our arrogance, we’re afraid to admit we’ve been going about building our world in an entirely destructive way.

I tell him my mother believes in a literal moment of conversion, a moment when we are saved from our errant nature and go out and sin no more. Since she was “born again” 67 years ago, my mother believes she hasn’t sinned.

Talking about my mom is like walking through a constantly shifting illusion in a culture of complicity. Despite the world not yet ending, she believes her religion is robustly right. If she’s ever been wrong, it would mean her moment of salvation didn’t hold.

I tell him my mother says climate change isn’t verified, despite the likely consensus of more than 99 percent of scientists that global warming is occurring and that it is caused by humans

Even if it’s real, my mother thinks that laws aren’t the answer. She says we just need to appreciate and love all of God’s creatures.

We look at each other quietly, and I think he’s about to laugh. But he doesn’t.

“Yes, that would work,” he says softly, “if we could teach that kind of love.”

Baby ground squirrel at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

Baby ground squirrel at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. [Photo] Jimmy Lee

Shifting Paradigms

Before I catch a ride down the mountain, I climb the hill one last time to observe the den of foxes. I sit alone on a rock, watching the pups play, thinking about my siblings, our mountain, my community, my exodus, and where any of us go when we can’t go home.

Maybe the end of all our exploring isn’t knowledge, but kinship. Joe Whittle is a journalist who writes about outdoor recreation and Native American issues as an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation. In Alpinist 65, he explains “recognizing the sovereignty of other elements in the world–including rocks, plants and water–can weave sustainability into a culture. When people stop assuming a right of possession and begin to receive what most call ‘resources, […as] ‘life sources,’ as gifts from living relatives, then an equitable relationship with the planet can evolve.”

In the past 50-some-odd years, the human population has doubled, while wild animal populations are down, on average, to less than half of what they were. We are losing species at up to 1,000 times the natural rate, with dozens going extinct every day. According to The Conscious Club, “species diversity creates ecosystem resilience and gives ecological communities the scope they need to withstand stress,” yet many of us continue to privilege human consumption, disregarding the interdependence of decoupled cues.

The bad news is obvious. The good news is that we know these things, and humans have the capacity to cooperate well enough with each other to change that trajectory, whether or not we are ready to make it a global priority.

Maybe learning to provide care for a planet that has consistently sustained us–a planet we once worshipped as indestructible and beyond need–is a paradigm shift we can learn to manage, rather than a problem we will resolve.

When I return to the Inland Empire of Southern California, I am dazzled by the reflection of the sun glaring off the sea of metal in the already full parking lot. I feel a million miles away from the biodiversity of RMBL, but I suspect the real voyage of discovery isn’t in seeing new landscapes, but in acquiring new eyes.

As human dominance has grown, many of us have become alienated from other life forms. Immersed in the aggressive monoculture of this parking lot, virtually devoid of plant and animal life, I experience a sense of acute loneliness.

I step out of my vehicle into the summer heat and pull my hair off my neck. With or without her religion, I am still my mother’s daughter. And I want to believe there are ways to be born again. And again.

I stop to watch a squirrel clamor up a tree and I think of my new friend Dirk. He’s right, of course. We have to try.

This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.

This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.