Crafting Stories at the 2016 Northwest Climate Boot Camp

JAN 23, 2017    by MEAGHAN GUCKIAN

I was a bit taken aback on our third day of training at the 6th annual Northwest Climate Boot Camp (NW CBC), which was held at the University of Idaho’s (UI) McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS) in McCall, Idaho.  During our interactive lesson on producing podcasts using Audacity, we were asked to head into McCall and interview members of the community about what water means to them and, if possible, their views on climate change. Naturally, some of us Fellows, a collection of students and professionals across the U.S., were petrified, while others were eager to tackle the challenge.MOSS field school Photo: M. Guckian

Luckily, the second individual my partner and I approached obliged our request and invited us back to his table at a restaurant in town. He was sitting with two other people, and the five of us chatted candidly about water in Idaho for a few minutes. When my partner bravely asked about climate change, he paused before telling us that it is the number one concern in his life. He went on to detail how it is impacting the various places he lives throughout the year. He spoke about how fire and drought are restricting access for white water rafting in Idaho, of sea level rise and increasing invasive species in Florida, and about his efforts to preserve the Missouri flood plains from mass development. Little did we know, we had sat down with a prominent member of the Anheuser-Busch brewing family.

It was an encouraging and memorable experience. Not solely for whom we had spoken with, but rather because it provided a reminder that listening is often the first step in building trust and understanding in any successful collaborative endeavor (e.g., knowledge co-production or co-management). During the debrief, we heard from many of the Fellows who were surprised by how open people had been to being heard and sharing their opinions and  experiences with regard to the environment (both positive and negative). And yet perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised—after all, storytelling is something we are hardwired for.

Fish hatchery visit Photo: M. Guckian

Turning to storytelling and narrative to engage broader audiences on climate change echoes a recent shift in science communication, from traditional expert-to-audience approaches to more bidirectional and engaged efforts. Many communicators are working to leverage and encourage the use of narratives when communicating about climate change and research to diverse audiences. Why? Because storytelling offers a means to dissolve complex information into digestible nuggets of insight, often by bringing about powerful and relatable characters, providing structure, posing questions and offering solutions. We all know that how a message is conveyed matters a great deal—not just what is said. Building cohesive narratives and telling relatable stories may be critical to the conveying messages on climate change.

Searching for Camas Photo: M. Guckian

I appreciated how much storytelling and narrative was informally and formally woven throughout this past year’s CBC curriculum, which focused on four primary case studies, communication skills, and networking. Lisa Hayward Watts interactively led the Fellow’s through an exercise on Randy Olson’s (author of Houston, We Have a Narrative) And, But, Therefore storytelling framework, a template for structuring narratives in science communication (e.g., journal article, grant proposal, etc.).  Recent research finds that in climate related journals, abstracts with more narrative are cited more often.

Building on narratives, Sammy Matsaw, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and PhD Candidate at UI, instructed us on indigenous methods of knowing through storytelling using the Medicine Wheel. He encouraged the Fellows to set aside our scientific predilection to ask questions and rather spend more time listening and reflecting on nature’s and others’ narratives.

The four case studies we learned about—Bull Trout, water quality, water access and rights, and the edible root plant, Camas—further drew on the use of story, as we heard from numerous local guest speakers and educators to help Fellows explore the dynamics of co-development, co-management and knowledge co-production.

Fishing for Chinook Photo: M. Guckian

Managers of a local fish hatchery explained how the Bull Trout’s high vulnerability to environmental change has situated it as a key indicator species. We learned about the significance and history of Chinook Salmon and river rights for the Nez Perce Tribe while eagerly looking on as two tribe members stood in the Snake River’s current attempting to hook a Chinook using the traditional methods we had just learned about. A panel of speakers from Idaho’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Nez Perce Tribe’s Water Resources Division, Idaho Power, and Dr. Jerry Long, professor of law at UI, provided the Fellows with an in depth perspective on how these disparate groups negotiate, manage, and shape Idaho’s water resource policies.

We even spent a few hours in the shoes of fifth-graders at a local elementary school, engaging in a citizen science project on Boulder Creek. These students examine water quality and species habitat suitability by conducting dissolved oxygen content and temperature readings, and creating their own narratives in response to questions like: ‘If you were a fish, would you like to live here?’

Ponderosa pine Photo: M. Guckian

The last day of the training was my favorite. We learned about the cultural significance, history, and present relationship of the Camas with the Nez Perce Tribe, while canvassing a large field identifying it (check out the Camas prairie restoration project at the Nez Perce National Historic Park).

The NW CBC not only enriched my understanding of the indicators of climate change in central Idaho and how diverse groups are collectively managing for change, it also reminded me of the power of—and desperate need for—storytelling in science communication. Exploring these issues both in the field and in the classroom as we journeyed across the greater McCall area, back in time, and forward into the future, gave me an incredible perspective on how climate is impacting the people and ecosystems of Idaho. I definitely walked away with new tools (e.g., podcasting, storytelling), knowledge, collaborators, perspective and memories (of Ponderosa Pines!). Many thanks to the wonderful 2016 NW CBC staff!!

Meaghan Guckian is a NE CSC fellow and doctoral student at UMass Amherst studying the intersection of behavior/decision-making and environmental conservation.

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