Climate Resolutions

I am generally not a big fan of making New Year’s resolutions, but the more I learn about climate change, the more I’ve been trying to cut back on my carbon footprint. Each year (and not necessarily starting on New Year’s Day) I have focused on just one thing I can do to reduce my environmental footprint. The first thing I focused on after starting my research for The Witness Tree in 2010 was my driving. I teach on Long Island but live in Brooklyn. For the first few years at my job, I commuted 60 miles a day (return-trip), 4 days a week, 9 months out of the year. This equaled driving almost 9000 miles a year –  just for my job. Some days I took the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), but getting to and from the campus was problematic and frustrating and this deterred me from taking the train. Early on in my research I had learned that one gallon of gasoline produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (diesel produces 22.38 lbs.) so I was determined to find a way to cut back on my driving. I bought myself a second, used bike for $25 which I keep at the train station in Long Island. (I keep my other 25-year-old bike in Brooklyn to use for general usage.) It’s not a pretty bike, thus no one bothers to steal it, but it gets me where I need to go. And since global warming has meant milder winters (this year being the exception) I have been able to ride nearly every day.

me_bike_ncc copy

My commuting now takes longer (about 1:45 hour each way vs 1 hour for driving) but I am much happier knowing I have significantly cut back on my carbon footprint. I actually prefer the train as I can read, answer emails, grade student projects, or just look at the passing landscape. I am also happy to be getting in a little exercise. It’s only about a 15-20 minute ride each way but that’s more exercise than I got sitting in my car. I don’t claim to be a saint. I still have my car which I sometimes use for other purposes – transporting large artwork, getting to sites to photograph for my project or freelance jobs, and occasional weekend escapes. But I have cut back my usage by at least 85%. I feel pretty damn good about that.

An unexpected side-benefit is that I have inspired some of the students. One student saw me bringing my bike into my office one rainy day and asked incredulously, “You rode your bike to school?” I explained how it’s only part of my commute, that I don’t ride all the way from Brooklyn. “That’s cool,” she said. “And you’re a professor?” I nodded. “That’s really cool!” she added. “Thanks. I think it is too.” In the four years I have ridden my bike to school I have noticed more and more bikes locked up along the railing where I often put mine. Although I don’t know if I’ve influenced any of those riders, it’s nice to know more people are joining me. Will you?

It is often said that one person can’t make a difference, but I believe otherwise. Recently I picked up a book of essays about the influence of Rachel Carson. I have enjoyed reading about her life and her influence on the environmental movement but it made me realize I never read her seminal book Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it drew attention to the harmful use of pesticides, primarily DDT. She is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement and although DDT was not banned until 1972, her book and subsequent appearance in Congress clearly brought needed attention to a terrible matter.

Although I am no Rachel Carson, I do have a voice and am also using my camera to draw attention to the critical issue of global climate change. So my first “resolution” or goal of this year is to read Silent Spring. And the second is to start sharing more of what I have learned about climate change on this blog and via more presentations with school and community groups. I want to share more of the stories I’ve collected from the people I have interviewed and photographed. And, as clichéd as it sounds, every journey does begin with a single step. I encourage you to think about what you can do this week, this month, this year to lower your own carbon footprint.

Happy New Year!

Welcome to The Witness Tree

Many of you reading this are already familiar with The Witness Tree, my new project photographing landscapes that are being affected by climate change. If this is your first encounter with my work, thanks for stopping by to take a look.

If you are interested in supporting this project – today, September 9th, is the last day to make a tax-deductible donation and get a great thank you gift via my crowd-sourcing fundraiser on If you are reading this after that campaign has closed – you can still make a tax-deductible donation via my fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas.

So far I have only photographed a few of the many locations I hope to document.  As I will be on sabbatical from teaching this year, I will be able to pursue this project in a much more in-depth manner.  I decided a blog, rather than a traditional website, would be the best avenue to let people know what and where I am currently photographing and also to share some stories from the road. Although I am focusing primarily on landscapes, I have already met some very interesting people whose stories and portraits I will also share.

Glacier National Park, Montana, August 2011 – Part 1: The Glaciers

My cousin Theresa admiring the view of the mountains at Lake McDonald

My cousin Theresa admiring the view at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

view of Ptarmigan Lake in Glacier National Park

View of Ptarmigan Lake

I will begin this blog with images from my recent trip to Glacier National Park. Not to dismiss the beauty of Yellowstone or Yosemite, but I think Glacier is my new favorite national park. It’s not the easiest or the cheapest place to get to, but perhaps that extra effort made it that much more worthwhile and memorable of a trip.

By now most people know that global warming is causing glaciers worldwide to melt at increasingly rapid speeds. Of the 150 original glaciers that were in this park when it was founded over a 100 years ago only 25 remain.  Initially climatologists predicted these 25 would be gone by the year 2030, but now some predict their demise could come as early as 2020, less than 10 years away.

view of the Salamander Glacier through some trees

View of Salamander Glacier

I was there for a week in early August with my cousin Theresa and we were surprised to see some snow still lingering on some of the trails and hillsides. Like many landscapes, Glacier is being affected by a variety of changes in the climate, not just higher temperatures. Thus that still-existing snow was due to an unusually heavy snowfall in the North and West this year. A few areas of the park experienced almost 40% more snow this year which delayed the opening of the famous Going to the Sun Road that runs through the center of the park. Although in some ways this extra precipitation is welcomed as it provides necessary water for plants and animals, it points to the unpredictable patterns in the climate that are emerging as the amount of carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb. (more on this in a later post)

View of Old Sun Glacier from Ptarmigan Trail, Glacier National Park

View of Old Sun Glacier from Ptarmigan Trail

Although I felt very blessed to be surrounded by the beauty of this park, it also made me very sad. When my now 4-year-old niece Magdalena asked if she could come on this trip with me I said, “No sweetie, you’ll be celebrating your birthday at your grandparents’ house then. Don’t worry, you can go see the glaciers another time.” And as the words came out of my mouth, it really hit home. There is a very good chance she won’t get to see the same Glacier National Park that I did.  And it made me wonder, after the glaciers are gone, will they rename the park?

Swiftcurrent Glacier at sunset, seen from Many Glacier Lake

Swiftcurrent Glacier at sunset, seen from Many Glacier Lake