By Shalin Desai, ATC Vice President of Advancement
From Anxiety to Hope: How the A.T. Changed My Perspective on Climate Change
August 20, 2021
Climate change is real, it’s accelerating, and — for the past several years — it’s made me and everyone I know exceptionally anxious. I suspect you feel the same.
Climate anxiety, which used to be a low hum in the back of my brain, is now a deafening thump. For starters, the science is clearer. Perhaps the most disquieting news was delivered only a few days ago in the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The headlines are scarier, with mainstream articles and op-eds using phrases like “an uninhabitable nation” and a “hotter future.” Even the vocabulary has changed, with climate change giving way to climate crisis and climate emergency. It seems, without drastic and widespread action, we may be heading toward climate disaster.
I could ignore these dire warnings if the situation wasn’t hitting close to home. Growing up in the Boston suburbs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, summer days above 85 degrees were rare. Having moved back to Boston a few years ago from Maryland, I looked forward to the cooler summers of my childhood. But I’ve rarely turned off the air conditioning since Memorial Day of this year. Every day I walk out from the artificially-cooled confines of my home office onto the sun-sizzled balcony, trying to revive the wilted basil and parched begonias that have succumbed — even in partial shade —to a warmer, drier New England summer.
Frankly, climate change — the way I read about it and understand it, the way I see it impacting the world around me, and the way it shapes my life – has become paralyzing. The scale of the problem at hand exceeds my imagination. And the media doesn’t help. The range of doomsday scenarios I’m presented with only further erodes my hope. Worse, my climate anxiety is situated within the context of other anxieties — the pandemic among others. The multi-front battle of trying to understand, act, and remedy the problems around me seems unwinnable.
So, instead of asking myself what I should be doing, I constantly ask myself: Is it too late?
What I Did Not See
Before I worked for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), I was a thru-hiker. Several times over. It began in 2015 when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Upon completion, I spent a few weeks living with my parents. After a bout of excessive boredom and restlessness in the Boston suburbs, I decided to drive to Vermont and thru-hike the Long Trail. Reaching the Canadian border, I knew I caught a bug. Over the next two years, I completed the Pacific Crest Trail, the Oregon Coast Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. If asked, I struggled to explain why I decided to keep hiking trails end to end (or even why I started). At the time, the motivation to hike and the meaning behind it was less important to me than the simple fact of being out there.
But, with each successive hike, I realized the exceptional access trails provide. It came down to one, simple fact: trails connect humans to nature. And to so much more. During my thru-hikes, I found connection to myself, to people, to communities, to resources, to landscapes, and to experiences that belied any experience I had before. I often hear this mirrored in the experiences of other hikers, whether they are out on trails for a few hours or a few months. Knowing the privilege and the power of this access, I sought to find meaning in the connections the A.T. (and other trails) allowed me and millions of others to build.
I began with photos, attempting to re-spark my memory. First and foremost, the iconic one, McAfee Knob. There I stood on the precipice: in the first snapshot, looking tentatively at the camera, and in the second snapshot, looking mesmerized at the Catawba Valley below. At the time the photo was taken, what I saw was an endless green carpet splayed out before me. A beautiful, largely uninterrupted view.
What I didn’t see then was the work it takes to ensure forests surrounding the A.T., which seem endless from the ridgeline, remain healthy and intact. Years later, as a member of the ATC’s staff, I’ve learned of efforts like the 243-acre Hogan Hollow purchase, which ensures that those who walk in my footsteps are able to see the same uninterrupted sea of green I saw from McAfee Knob in 2015 (and which millions more saw before that). I also know now that purchases like Hogan Hollow create large tracts of connected forests that are critical to keeping the A.T. landscape resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Combing through my thru-hiking albums, I found another photo, this time of my Trail family posed shoulder to shoulder with their arms held tight to their hips, mimicking a flock of birds sitting side-by-side on a branch. Little did we know that these same birds might as well have been mimicking us. We were, in fact, on the same journey. While we think of the A.T. as a hiking-only footpath, it’s also an avian skyway. Countless bird species use the A.T. corridor as an essential migratory pathway, moving north to south seasonally, with habitats and nesting grounds found up and down the A.T. landscape.
The key word is movement. While in annual terms bird migration is a seasonal journey, the longer-term adaptation strategy for thousands of species (not just birds) is to move northward and to higher altitudes as the climate warms. This is only made possible when these new habitats are found among protected lands. The ATC’s landscape conservation work, primarily accomplished in partnership, has value that extends beyond the human need for gorgeous vistas. This work is vital to the thousands of species that call the A.T. landscape home, and the species that use the long corridor of land the A.T. passes through to adapt to climate change.
These are just two examples (among many) of what I could not see while I was on my thru-hike. I forgot, but later re-learned, that the A.T. has always been a solution to problems. In 1921, when the Trail was first envisioned, Benton MacKaye viewed the Trail as the solution to the problem of living. In 2021, the Trail continues to be a solution to the problem of living, but in a completely different context. The rapid industrialization in 1921 has been replaced by overwhelming and alienating technologization in 2021. The flu epidemic of 1918 has been replaced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The smog in the industrializing cities and towns of the early 1900’s has been replaced by the climate crisis which puts the natural world at existential risk in 2021. The A.T. and its surrounding landscape can be a solution to these newly-contextualized problems. In the words of conservationist, Harvey Locke, “The Appalachian Trail is a solution already to a problem that we recognize.”
In learning about the work of the ATC and hundreds of other people and organizations that are banding together to combat the climate crisis, I remembered that anxiety doesn’t have to be paralyzing. It can lead many to double down, come together, and get to work.
Convening: Scale Meets Scale
The climate crisis is a problem on a grand scale. The sheer complexity of the problem means there is still much to unravel and to learn. More importantly, no one government and no one organization can tackle it alone. Even several dozen governments or several organizations working together can’t advance a workable solution. The climate crisis requires convening at an unprecedented scale.
Fortunately, the ATC, like the Trail, is centripetal — meaning, it moves things inward toward a common purpose. Since it was founded in 1925, the ATC has convened dozens of Trail maintaining clubs, thousands of volunteers, over 80 land managers from Georgia to Maine, and hundreds of partner organizations all for a common purpose: to build, protect, and continuously manage and advocate for the Appalachian Trail. The ATC has become, in short, an organization expert at convening.
The ATC – in co-convening the Appalachian Trail Landscape Partnership (ATLP) with the National Park Service — has leveraged this expertise to advance a common principle: all life depends on conserved and connected lands. The ATLP, comprised of over 100 agencies (federal, state, and local), conservation groups, and land trusts, has worked together to not only advance this vision but pool together their collective scientific and policy-making expertise to find landscape-level solutions across the A.T. corridor. It is clear the partnership is driven by a “think big to act big” mindset — precisely the mindset required to tackle the climate crisis.
Operating across the Appalachian Mountains, the partnership sees in the A.T. landscape a variety of values to protect – not only recreational access but also climate resiliency and migratory pathways. The ATLP finds in the landscape abundant natural resources with uncertain futures in an era of climate change. And it sees, in the communities alongside the landscape and those farther-flung, a corps of potential stewards who, when activated, can ensure the A.T. corridor, and all who call it home, thrive.
To paraphrase MacKaye’s original vision for the Trail: what is found in the Appalachian Mountain range are not only the solutions to the problem of living, but the key to protecting the very sources of life.
In writing this essay, I took a few pauses. To make some ginger tea and, once again, to water the plants wilting on the balcony. I couldn’t shake off the anxiety even as this essay turns toward optimism. Anxiety is a trunk emotion branching into a dozen secondary responses. From anxiety is born paralysis (what can I do about it?). But also, curiosity (why do I feel anxious?). It can also lead to learning and action.
In my most recent sweep of the news, I came across a rare, solutions-oriented article on climate change on NPR.org. The article quoted Allison Crimmins, head of the National Climate Assessment, stating that climate crisis solutions require “action as a combination of standards, investments and justice.”
Easier said than done. But, to bring things squarely back to the A.T.: Crimmins’ call to action is similar to the one that led to the creation, management, and protection of a simple footpath, stretching from Georgia to Maine, for one hundred years. Each time a wave of anxiety stops me cold, I remind myself that if a community of millions could build the Trail and protect it for a century, then we can certainly band together to take on the next grand project of combating the climate crisis.
Simply put: There is hope yet.