A Year on a Bike: Collecting Stories About Water and Climate Change

A Year on a Bike:
Collecting Stories About Water and Climate Change
by Devi K. Lockwood

Two and a half years ago, as a result of my studies in Folklore & Mythology, I began a long-term commitment to documenting stories of water and climate change––to listen deeply to some of the biggest issues facing my generation. In this project, which has so far taken me from the New York City People’s Climate March to #BlackLivesMatter protests in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri––from the Mississippi River Delta to Los Angeles––from Fiji to Tuvalu––and, most recently, by bicycle along the length of New Zealand, up the east coast of Australia, and across the Tasman Sea twice by cargo ship––I wear a cardboard sign around my neck that says: “tell me a story about water” on one side and “tell me a story about climate change” on the other. 

My search for stories of water and climate change began on an 800-mile solo bicycle trip I took from Memphis, Tennessee to Venice, Louisiana in August 2013 with support from Harvard’s Artist Development Fellowship. Along the way, I recorded fifty hours of stories from people who call the Mississippi riverbanks their home. In my senior thesis, I wrote poems inspired by the stories people told me. I love working with the raw material of others’ words––oral histories have proved to be a river of inspiration. I am a sound artist and a poet who wishes to elevate human stories through the art of sound mapping. 

*     *     *

I met 57-year-old Franny Connetti eighty miles south of New Orleans. When I stopped in front of her office building to check my bicycle tires, Franny invited me to get out of the sun. Over a shared plate of fried shrimp, she told me how 2012’s Hurricane Isaac washed away her neighborhood. 

“We fight for protection of our levees. We fight for our marsh every time we have a hurricane.” Despite the lack of attention state officials afford the area, Franny stands by her hometown. She and her husband moved back to their mobile home a few months after the disaster. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said. 

“Do you think there will come a time when people can’t live here?” I asked.   

“I think so. Not in my lifetime, but you’ll probably see it.” To imagine the road I had been biking on underwater was chilling. Twenty miles from there, I saw where the ocean laps over the road at high tide. 

After witnessing the impacts of climate change so intimately on my first bike trip down the Mississippi River, I couldn’t turn away. 

Our voices, our stories, matter. I’m out to document the beautiful and terrifying complexity of this time of transition. The solutions are as vast as the problems and the questions themselves. If I can be one tiny piece of forging a better world, then I will have done something worthwhile. 

In cycling and in listening I found a way that I could to contribute to the wellbeing of the planet, to act in service of this gorgeous world I call my home. 

And still, doubt creeps in. I have recorded 453 stories to date, but the issues aren’t getting any smaller. 

And still, I listen. 

*     *     *

My wheels crunched over the gravel entrance to Muru Raupatu Marae. I leaned my bicycle against a pole by the door and walked inside to where five people were unfolding tables and chairs, readying for the fifty environmental activists from across Aotearoa New Zealand who were on their way to New Plymouth for a climate justice hui (a gathering). 

“How can I help?” I asked. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon organizing tables and chairs and mattresses on the floor in the body of the marae, where we would all sleep next to one another. 

That night, my body was held by the breath of those sleeping around me. I dreamed of my bicycle, silhouetted against the rising sun. In the morning we awoke and began to listen to one another in the form of large sessions, slideshow talks, and discussions over salads and lasagna and tea. I could feel the pulse of the energy in the air. I absorbed an endless stream of sobering facts, some ricocheting off of my body, others soaking in. 

“New Zealand’s current national government wants the country to become a net exporter of oil by 2030,” one activist told us, pointing to a map of the country. “To accomplish this goal, big corporations have to carve up the land and the sea. There are block offers open for companies to bid on and exploit the resources.” 

She zoomed in on Taranaki, the eastern peninsula of the North Island. “The area we are sitting in is covered in oil and gas fields. Companies have the ability to drill multiple wells within close proximity to each other, which intensifies the impacts and risks. Wells fail. All of them leak over time. The oil and gas industry doesn’t rest; they operate 24/7.” 

A collective sigh fell across the room. Sometimes, environmental degradation seems inevitable. Valuing profits over people and landscape is dangerous to the health of all beings––this much I know. 

“People living near the well sites suffer light pollution and can’t see the New Zealand sky with its bounty of stars,” she continued. “Pollutants and contaminants also work their way into the air. There are hundreds of hazardous industrial sites in Taranaki, not to mention the entire infrastructure that goes along with them. With the industrialization of the area comes heavy transport; massive vehicles carry dangerous substances and equipment near school sites.”

Perhaps most egregiously, profits from this exploitation do not benefit the communities affected. Oil and natural gas sites, then, become an environmental justice issue; the most socioeconomically deprived areas are those that stand the most to lose and the least to gain from exploitative practices.  

“It’s outstanding that we have dairy and oil and natural gas and we are this poor,” a local activist told me. “The money isn’t coming back here at all.” 

Issues around waste, air pollution, land pollution, and water pollution are attached to every step of the drilling process. All aspects are toxic. Households deemed effected parties are not informed until after the consent is issued. Council has given consent to put wastewater into streams. 

Listening to these facts, my soul hurts. New Zealand profits by making a big deal of its “clean green” image through tourism, but that reputation is based more in illusion than reality. 

The government’s plan is to roll out the Taranaki model to other areas across New Zealand. All the issues with regulation, monitoring, and social issues will be replicated elsewhere. And that’s without even talking about climate change. 

What can I do in the face of this destruction, this violence? I listen, time and time again. I make an effort not to turn away from the stories that I would rather not hear. I must bear witness. 

But is listening enough? 

Sarah is a schoolteacher who stood in the last general elections as a Green Party candidate. TAG oil started drilling 400m away from her home in 2011. There is little systematic regulation and monitoring of these well sites. Officials visually inspect for contamination but do not conduct any water sampling or biomonitoring. 

Sarah told a typical story from her community that I couldn’t shake from my mind’s eye: “This family bought a house by Inglewood and moved in. Two weeks later a well site appeared right behind their house. The people didn’t give approval for it. TAG oil couldn’t keep to the noise limits. Matters got so desperate that the family had a council member come and stay with them for three nights. Only then were they able to prove that the well site was over the noise limit, and it stopped operating. Previously the noise would go down right when the district counselor came.”

Throughout the hui I did my best to listen from a place of love. Listening is a form of activism. A few times, though, I had to walk out of the room––to wash spoons in the conference kitchen or take a brief walk around the building to quiet my mind. Over and over, the same questions surfaced: 

How can I help? What power do we have to overcome an exploitative system? What am I doing here? Am I enough? 

On the last day, a farmer spoke to us in the center of the marae, where images of the iwi (tribe) ancestors looked on at us from every wall. “The Maori worldview of climate change is quite different to the commonly held view,” he said. “For us, we think the word climate change is a misnomer that actually portrays something different. We prefer to call it destruction. In the beginning we had a perfect world, and the introduction of humans and the demands we place on the environment has proceeded to destroy the world about us.”

The farmer cited the Maori creation myth: “If we go back to the beginning, Ranginui and Papatuanuku were together, locked in an embrace. The children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku wanted to see the light, so they forced their parents apart and brought in the light that made things grow. We are now disturbing that balance. 

“The difficulty for pakeha (white people) is to understand how Maori think––the holistic view we have of things that are important to us: land and people. People cannot exist–– anything cannot exist––if the environment is not right. So, what does farming, according to this worldview, look like? It means understanding what’s around you, where we have come from, and where we are going. All things are important to us. 

“In my perfect world I wake up in the morning before it is light and I feel the rays trying to peep through. I ask that my thoughts become reality. As the sun rises to the heavens, I exact that reality on the day and I bring us all together so that we are strong and that we are one. 

“Unfortunately, I have to deal with an imperfect world. I like my TV. I like my car. I like everything the world brings to me. It’s about bringing a balance back. We farm with zero fertilizers because we see the danger that comes from putting chemicals into the land. Nitrogen is the biggest danger that our farmers spread on our land—on Papatuanuku. 

“Tino rangatiritanga––to live freely; to do what I want to do without imposing upon anyone else. Raising my own animals that we eat is my expression of rangatiritanga. Tending my own garden that grows my food is my expression of rangatiritanga. 

“Our old people cultivated the grounds. I remember the huge gardens they had. I had an old uncle who had one leg, and every year he would dig an acre of ground for his potatoes using a spade. My ancestors left ground fallow. They would give it to Maru, the god of plenty. It’s about putting back balance into our world. 

“The petroleum industry imposes on us. We have two major pipelines going through our land. We have an impact every day. They come. They impose. While we do not have fracking on my property as of yet, it’s one of the most dangerous things that could happen to us, to our land. However, even fracking will not stop how we look at the world or manage ourselves in our worldview. 

“We’ve introduced a honey business as part of the iwi and hapu, and we’re finding that exciting and very close to nature. If you can understand bees, you can understand what goes on in your own community. We have workers and we have drones, only most of them are in parliament. 

“If we don’t try to protect our way of life, no one else will.”

*     *     *

Eight months later, I ran out of water in Seacliff, a small town in the South Island of New Zealand. Pulling my bicycle off the road, I crossed the train tracks to a small cluster of houses, hoping that someone would be home and willing to fill up my water bottles. I was in luck. Two neighbors stood at their fences, talking to each other across the road. I walked up to the man on the right and introduced myself. 

“Can I fill up my water bottles?” I asked. “I’m running on empty.” 

The man gestured to his garden hose. “Why are you cycling?” 

“I’m traveling the world to collect 1,001 stories from people I meet about water and climate change,” I said, unclipping my helmet and handing him both of my bottles. “Do you think you might have a story to share?” 

The man took his time filling my bottles, carefully sealing each before handing them back to me. “I have a story, but you might not like it,” he said. “Can we do an interview anonymously?” 

I nodded, and he gestured inside to where we wouldn’t have to battle the wind. A sinking feeling settled in my stomach. While I have learned to trust strangers in my year plus on the road, the weight of a story can be hard to shake. What could be unsettling enough to warrant the warning? I followed the man inside. 

We took adjacent seats in a lounge warmed by the afternoon sun. His wife, a woman with paint splatters on her blouse and a halo of silvery hair, set a plate of apple cakes between us. I let the sweetness fill my mouth as the story began. 

“When I was a kid,” he told me, “I dug a hole in my father’s vegetable garden and put a pole on the shovel handle to make it deeper. I have been in love with the layers of the earth ever since. I’m a geologist.”

He folded and unfolded his hands in his lap. “I worked for forty years in the oil and gas business, managing fracking in Taranaki.” 

I thought back to the times I have protested fracking––I and twenty others carried signs and marched in front of a drill site, blocking trucks from passing. We shouted out about the dangers of contaminating local water supplies, not to mention the toxicity and increase of heavy traffic in the area. 

Why was this man taking the time to tell me his story? I cast my eyes down to the floral pattern on the carpet, willing my mind to quiet. 

Listen, I told myself. Everyone has something to teach me.  

The man forged on. “In the early days, the public attitude towards oil and gas was completely different than what it is now. I just retired from my work in the North Island, but I haven’t yet told anyone in this community where I used to work. I plan to keep it that way. Fracking inspires passion and fury.” 

That’s an understatement, I thought, struggling to keep my expression neutral. 

“The things that really upset me environmentally are packaging and waste of fuel for leisure. We have ladies’ cosmetics where one milliliter of liquid is packaged in a glass jar that weighs a kilo. But I have to wear the mantle of being a fracker. I am loathed by many people.” 

I wondered what it would be like to know that you are hated for your job. The reality was sitting before me in gumboots. He gardens. He lives a quiet life with his wife on the coast. He keeps his professional past a secret. 

“What would I say to somebody who thinks that fracking is a dreadful thing? The potential of damage is huge. The attitude of industry is amazingly strict because you’re dealing with huge quantities. When things go wrong, it’s awful. I sleep better having designed a frack in the earth than I do when I was given a bottle of cologne.” 

“Can you explain the layers of the earth to me?” I asked. “I’m interested in how water interacts with all this, but I don’t know how to visualize it.” 

The man folded his fingers across his stomach. Dust motes floated lazily in the sunshine above his head. 

“The upper crust contains surface soils and soft things, down to depths of six kilometers. By that time, the rocks are no longer soft; they become solid like building stones. In between the soil and the solid rock is something lighter and less compacted that you can crack with the tap of a hammer: soft-ish rocks. These rocks have tiny holes that fluids can seep through.” 

I noticed the places where the flowers on the carpet came together in knots and flowed forth again. Every flower is born from a place in the soil, this earth. I closed my eyes to visualize the many layers of earth beneath the fracker’s home, stopping when I could feel the tug of story once more: oceanic, salty.   

“The potable water in Taranaki extends to about 200m below sea level. Groundwater flushes through that depth over hundreds of thousands of years. Deeper than that, things are much more sluggish to move. The water hangs around for millions of years and dissolves the rocks. This water picks up potassium and sodium and chlorides and carbonates. It’s no longer potable. Water gets to the salinity of seawater by the time you’re about a kilometer of depth in this sedimentary basin. That’s the zone where fracking is taking place.  

“Obviously you don’t want to mix the deep layers and the shallow layers. The concern would be that a frack would create a place for salty water to leak up into the potable aquifers. When we undertake a frack, there’s engineering and a lot of care and monitoring that goes into it. We measure the rocks so that we can be confident that the frack will be accurate. If it went out of control, we would instantly see that. We’re not fracking in the dark. We are fracking in a very controlled way. We can calibrate and work out how the frack moves according to plan.”

I was left dubious, not reassured, by his assessment of the industry’s safeguards. Eager to keep the conversation moving, I asked: “What happens to the gas once it is brought to the surface?” 

“Most Taranaki gas is used as conversion to electricity and for sale as liquefied petroleum. Sometimes it is exported. The gas is principally for keeping homes warm and for powering anything that needs a lot of energy. Lighting. Factories. The timber and milk industries use a lot of electricity generated from gas.”

Electricity and industry––of course they are intertwined. 

“What do you think about climate change?” I asked.  

“I’m a climate change believer. I’m angry at arguments put forward by climate change deniers. I’m a scientist. The pace at which man has changed the environment is on the scale of some of the great geologic changes, but it’s happened over hundreds of years rather than over a million years. It’s really scary. Humankind will not be able to forestall anything. We can’t. Nature will have its way with us.”

The man’s logic perplexed me. How someone can make a living from fracking while also understanding the mechanics of climate change? 

The fracker is a climate change believer, but he’s also fatalistic. Nothing we do can help, he thinks. I can sympathize with this viewpoint. I don’t agree with it––I spend my life fighting. But I hear his voice. I fear that he might be right. 

I am so, so small in this world. Sometimes I feel that I am fighting more for myself than for anyone else. I recognize my own fragility. Listening to stories reinvents me, daily––my ideas of wrong and right are blurred and redefined. To the extent that I can listen to others and let someone know that their fears are valid––that they are not alone––I can heal. If nothing else, it makes the world a slightly better place to know that someone else cares. Listening is an act of love. §

 
 

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Devi K. Lockwood is a poet / touring cyclist / storyteller currently cycling around the world to collect 1,001 stories about water and climate change from people she meets. At the moment she is cycling through Thailand. You can read more of her writing at devi-lockwood.com