photo above: Loucks Farm: bike, chickens, and greenhouse…looks like a liberal lives here! 🙂
One winter morning while prepping for class I realized I was on the verge of becoming a hypocrite. I stared at my computer screen and the rubric for a cultural interview that I was crafting for my Interpersonal Communications course. The assignment instructed students to step out of their comfort zones and engage in a conversation with someone from a different culture. They could talk to someone from another gender, race, country, religion, generation, or political party. This assignment was inspired by current headlines and a conversation I wanted to have with my grandfather about global climate change. I shook my head. I was a hypocrite. I was an environmental studies instructor, a climate change activist and public speaker, but I’d never asked my grandfather why he didn’t believe in what I consider to be our world’s greatest challenge.
Although of the same bloodline, my grandfather and I belonged to different cultures. Moving my pen down a copy of the rubric, I highlighted three areas where we differed: generational, gender, and in our political views. When did climate change become classified as a political view? Why are environmental issues woven upon a political web? I already knew the answers to these questions, but nonetheless they rushed through my mind: Resources = Capital, Development = Advancement = Prosperous Nation, and big money from lumber, oil, beef, corn and coal support political campaigns. There was a lot beneath the surface when it came to these issues and it fueled my desire for conversation. Taking a deep breath, I added to the rubric: I will post an example of an interview to Moodle. The example would be with my grandfather, and on a blank sheet of scrap paper I began scribbling the questions I’d avoided for a whole decade.
Why did I avoid this topic with my grandfather? Did I have a contentious relationship with him? No, I loved him very much. He taught me how to shoot a basketball and cast a fishing line. Did I have a hard time handling conflict and avoid situations that could become confrontational? No and no. I love a good debate and I’m a practiced mediator. My grandfather can be described as a difficult and stubborn man. Most people don’t go up against Robert Loucks. But legend has it that when I was four I asked him to quit smoking, and he stopped cold turkey. So, to sum it up: I loved him, had a good relationship with him, and didn’t have a good answer as to why I’d avoided bringing up this subject – one I cared so much about. I did have an answer, but it wasn’t a good one. Years ago, I’d made the decision that I’d focus on the youth of the world. I’d help mold minds that weren’t set in their ways. I saw my grandfather as a vote I wouldn’t change. And so, I’d put my energy elsewhere.
Before the interview, I spoke with my mother. I told her what I was going to do.
“Oh, Bethany, you’re not going to change his mind,” she sighed.
At this point, I realized the flaw in my strategy for so many years. It went back to the principles of executing a good debate, or good defense on the basketball court. The better you know the other side, the better you can formulate your own views and strategy. My mother’s remark resounded in my mind. How many of us never had a conversation because we’d already chalked it up to being fruitless? Although this is what I’d been guilty of, now I realized that changing his mind wasn’t even one of my intentions. First and foremost I wanted to hear his story. I wanted to understand him.
A few days later I called my grandfather.
“Good afternoon,” he answered.
“Good afternoon Grandfather.”
“Well, it’s Bethany Garretson. How’s Paul Smiths?”
“Good. Sunny.” I said, turning my head towards the window.
Yesterday I’d left a message on my grandparents’ answering machine explaining the interview and how I wanted to discuss environmental issues he’d observed throughout his lifetime.
“Is this a good time to talk?” I asked.
“Yep,” he grunted. I heard a chair move across the floor and a second line picked up. “Your grandmother’s listening in.”
“Hello!” She chimed and it felt like she waved to me over the phone line. This was a common practice when I called my grandparents—a three-way conversation that could certainly be confusing at times, but always left me smiling.
“Hi Grandma,” I added and shuffled through my notes. I tapped my pencil against the countertop and set my phone audio to speaker. I was a bit nervous and cleared my throat. I could picture my grandfather sitting in the kitchen with his elbows on the table. A wood stove would be churning behind him, and chickadees flocking to the feeder. I knew their house as intimately as my own. My grandmother babysat me and my sisters after school and for two decades I worked every summer on their vegetable farm. I knew where the signed Christmas card from George W. and Laura Bush was propped. I knew where his high school sporting albums were tucked behind his gun case. I knew he read the Rush Limbaugh Letter, watched FOX news, and thought Al Gore was a “God damned idiot.” Even a stranger could walk into his house and easily identify his political views.
My grandfather, Robert Loucks, was born July 4, 1938 and was the first of three sons born to Robert and Ada Loucks. A part of the “silent generation” (people born between 1925-1945), he worked for Agway for 38 years and served as the Town Supervisor of Cherry Valley 36. During high school, he was a three-sport athlete and was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers. But instead of venturing to Vero Beach for training camp he chose marriage, and started a family. He married my grandmother in 1957 and my mother was born in 1960.
For this cultural interview, I had told my students that they were to capture the voice of their interviewee verbatim and could use a recording device if necessary. With my grandfather, I figured the best method would be sheets of scrap paper, a pencil, and my version of short hand. I’ve provided the entire interview and not a summation of what I heard because maybe you will see something I didn’t. Today, I feel it’s unfortunate how a news article can lure a reader by a quote taken out of context, and influence a reader’s judgements without providing the full story. What follows is only the beginning of a conversation I hope to continue.
Bethany: What are some of your early memories as a child? What was the era like?
Robert: Well, the era was WWII. My dad couldn’t get drafted because of a bad stomach – stomach ulcers and surgery – so he became the town’s air warden. He’d go around at night and make sure everyone’s lights were off in case of an air raid. I remember the summer of 1945 when the war ended and the town’s sirens went off in celebration. During winter, I remember sliding down the hill right into the street. It didn’t matter because there was no traffic.
Bethany: Could you describe the house you grew up in?
Robert: Oh boy, I grew up in one, two, three, four different houses. The first one was on Lancaster. Then we moved and rented an apartment. Did I ever show you the house Dad built?
Bethany: No, I don’t think so.
Robert: It was in Perth. Oh God, Stanley [younger brother] broke a kerosene lamp there and Dad gave him hell when he got home. Then we moved to Cherry Valley and bought a house. We had cows and milked them by hand. Mom churned butter and sold it. Dad raised hogs and sold those too. We had horses and I broke my leg sledding on that hill.
Bethany: What did your father do as a profession?
Robert: Dad worked at an A & P store. Sometimes he was desperate for money and picked beans and peas on nearby farms. During the war he had a good job with GE. I don’t know why he left that. Mr. Thompson helped him get a job at Remington Arms and he retired working there.
Bethany: What did your mother do as a profession?
Robert: Well, she raised three boys and there was a little shop in town that sewed baseballs. Ma worked there a bit. Though it was a tough job and her hands got sore.
Bethany: And, what did you do for a profession?
Robert: I started the summer after I graduated from high school working at Glensfoot Farm, where they bottled milk. One day Dad came by and said GLF [Grange League Federation, an agriculture cooperative composed of farmers and stock holders that would become known as Agway] was looking for a hard worker and he told them I was a hard worker. So Dad told me to get my hind end up there. I got the job and we took a Cornell driving course to become drivers for the big trucks. The first week we got our licenses, and then Kim [first child] was born and I was transferred to Fonda. We moved around a bit, living in Amsterdam and Johnstown. Then in 1963 I got transferred to Fort Plain and worked in hardware, feed, and fertilizer. I retired in 1995 after 38 years.
Bethany: Living on a small farm as a kid, working in the feed industry for 38 years, and currently being a farmer – what changes have you seen in Agriculture?
Robert: Production. Oh God, fertilizer helped a farm go from 40 bushels an acre to 80 or 90 bushels, easily doubling the production. Same with dairy cows and milk. The change in food and crop production has been tremendous—ungodly.
Bethany: What environmental issues have you observed during your lifetime?
Robert: As a kid I liked to fish streams and now in those streams there are no more fish. I don’t know why—maybe fertilizer or manure runoff. I know one crick a silo collapsed and ran into, and then there were no more trout. Judd Falls for example: the river running in to it used to have trout. Nice trout. I guess if fertilizer is not put on right, it could do that. Cars, I think the amount of cars and exhaust contributes. The roads are a lot busier today than when I grew up.
Bethany: Have you noticed a change in global population?
Robert: No, not drastically in Cherry Valley. We’ve gone down in population since the time Grandma and I were in high school. I noticed an increase in the city when I’d go down for Yankee and Dodger games. We’d take a train for two dollars to Brooklyn and walk to the stadium.
Bethany: Have you noticed a change in climate? Let’s talk about climate change.
Robert: (Chuckles) Huh, well, I can’t say I’ve noticed a change. Every year is different. For example, last year we had no snow and this year we do. I think the topic of climate change is overblown tremendously. Personally, I haven’t seen climate change. I think tree population is more of a concern. We need to focus on having healthy forests and streams. Personally, I don’t think climate change deserves the amount of time it’s talked about. For example, in high school – during the Cold War – I had a history teacher and she was a good teacher but she really tried to scare us each day about the state of the world. And don’t get me wrong, the Cold War certainly wasn’t a good time but I guess I’m a different thinker. I feel if you look at all sides of history it isn’t as scary. And I feel that’s what the liberals try to do with climate change—scare us. The world will always change and I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.
We passed a few more exchanges and talked about the Cold War and how fear can motivate us to act or avoid action. We talked about the news cycle and how it has gotten out of control and toxic on both sides. I thanked him, we exchanged goodbyes, and hung up. I tapped my pencil against the counter and looked over the multiple pages of scribble. A part of my grandfather’s story lay before me. I chuckled. It had been a very enjoyable conversation. I tabled the notes and grabbed my coat – I was going for a walk. On the trail, on the road – that’s where my ideas brew and there was something here. I could feel it; it was like the missing piece of the puzzle I’d been searching for.
I strapped on a pair of snowshoes and headed for the old growth forest. A few things stuck right out for me. To begin with, there wasn’t much that I disagreed with my grandfather on. However, he’d noted that, “Every year is different. For example, last year we had no snow and this year we do.” In that statement, he’d referred to weather patterns instead of climate patterns, which is a common misunderstanding and can make this topic hard to explain.
Beech leaves fluttered in the afternoon breeze. It was my grandfather who’d taught me about the woods. My grandfather might not label it as climate change, and he won’t categorize himself as an environmentalist, but he cares for his fields and hunting grounds. As climate change believers we cannot scoff at people who do not “believe,” and call them uneducated fools. Many of them are blue-collar farmers, hunters, and fishermen: men and women who know the cycles of nature much better than some hybrid-driving, NPR-listening hipster whose never dug their fingertips into the soil. And these non-climate-change-believers are vital in the protection of our environment.
I came back to the house with a fresh mind and lay the notes before me. Then, over the course of three months, I whittled my findings down to the following highlights:
- First and foremost: Acknowledge your own bias towards the “other” side. We all have one and you are not helping the political climate if you think you know it all. No one does, and a lot can be learned by having a conversation with someone with a startlingly different viewpoint.
- Want to get someone like my grandfather to believe in climate change? Follow these steps:
- Move away from the fear tactic! It’s not working. The intense instrumental music so painfully common in opening of climate change documentaries implies that the world will end. In fact, it probably won’t. Climate marches and chants, also, do not work to reach people like my grandfather.
- Rename and rebrand it from Global Climate Change to Local Community Wellness: I know this would be a big undertaking, but I fear the term has become too politically charged. My grandfather’s focus is a local one: family, church, and community. An image of a starving polar bear doesn’t impact him. But, let’s talk about the streams of trout he used to fish. Let’s talk about something that he can emotionally relate to. This is a big issue and we need to break it down to a community level.
- One epiphany I had from this interview was: We don’t have to agree that climate change is happening. Think about it: just because people are polled and say they believe in climate change certainly doesn’t mean they are doing anything to lower their carbon footprint. The issue of belief is not the real battle. The battle should be about consumption – we have to reduce our levels of consumption, and there’s many arguments for that, many that don’t invoke global climate change, but do relate to more local problems.
I’m beginning to see climate change more like that elephant in the middle of the room that seven blind men touch and describe differently. Just like religion: we don’t have to agree there is one God. The fact of CO2’s parts per million increasing in the atmosphere should be broken down to directly address the issues a growing population will have on natural resources.
- And another epiphany was: How many conversations had I missed out on because someone was afraid to talk to me? Because of my rants about lawns being the dumbest thing in the world and Christmas being a superficial materialist holiday that produced too much trash? Gosh, I must have sounded so self-righteous. My family went to Nascar races and I certainly expressed a few times how it was a colossal waste of gas. Recently, I was in my cousin’s house and looked at a picture of her taken with a famous Nascar driver. She saw me looking at the photo and her body language changed from upbeat and confident to shy and timid. She said softly, “I know it’s not sustainable, but we enjoy going to the races. You know, as a family.” I felt like such an asshole. Because of a soapbox rant I’d given in my college days, I could see my cousin was uncomfortable around me when it came to environmental issues. It was a mirror reflection to how I felt talking to my grandfather about climate change. We’ve got to cut down these communicational walls that are fortified with personality and emotions to find the common ground.
After the interview with my grandfather, and reflection on similar discussions, I no longer believe in human-caused climate change. Haha, just kidding! But seriously, let’s laugh a little, lighten up, and let the tension in our jaw ease a bit. Jeeze…we’re wound tightly these days!
In all seriousness though, upon much reflection, I have changed my perspective that climate change is the greatest challenge of the world. I now see the far greater challenge – the one we really need to focus on – is in our and methods of interpersonal and intercultural communication. In a world where the fourth estate has become a business, luring consumers with purposely polarized headlines, I feel our salvation will be found in face-to-face conversation. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and maybe it’s a little naïve of me to believe we can change a global climate with words. But, on the flip side, show me a more powerful weapon than words. Just like the cure for cancer might lie somewhere in the biodiverse thickness of the Amazon, our answer lies somewhere in that political color wheel, where red combines with blue to make a brilliant purple. It starts there and where it will lead, well, let’s find out.