TUPPER LAKE — Astrid St. Pierre picked up a phone at the Wild Center’s new “Climate Solutions” exhibit on Wednesday and heard her own voice on the other end of the line.
The 2022 Lake Placid High School graduate is one of 12 Adirondackers the Wild Center is putting a spotlight on for their environmental work to protect, heal or restore the environment and combat climate change through science, art, architecture, activism, business, education and old-fashioned hard work.
On Wednesday, several of these locals gathered at the Wild Center to talk with museum members as they got a first-look at the new exhibit. The 3,000-square-foot exhibit opened to the public on Thursday morning.
Again and again, the word Wild Center employees came back to to describe the exhibit was “hope.”
In the face of irreversible climate change, natural disasters, resource scarcity and destruction of the environmental world, Wild Center Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe said times are scary and that can make people “shut down.” But she said she wants to reverse those feelings, because she said there are “real solutions” out there, and they’re being developed right here in the Adirondacks.
“We have the solutions to climate change. We just need to scale them up,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s not as if something new has to be invented.”
Immersed in compost
Three years ago, St. Pierre and classmate Ellen Lansing started Placid Earth, a student-run composting nonprofit run out of the Lake Placid High School.
St. Pierre said she and Lansing sort of “fell into” the composting trade. At a Youth Climate Summit at the Wild Center several years ago, an instructor realized they don’t mind the smell — that’s rare, she said. They were recruited to start composting school food waste and now, St. Pierre said she is “fully immersed in composting.”
At school, St. Pierre said she and Lansing were known as “The Compost Girls.”
The two found investors and purchased an industrial composter they’ve named “Joel” and given a pair of googly eyes.
Placid Earth collects food waste from businesses and the school district — between 200 and 450 pounds of food waste a week. In total, the Placid Earth website estimates they’ve diverted nearly 30,000 pounds of food waste so far — which St. Pierre worked out to around 27,000 pounds of carbon.
St. Pierre and Lansing just graduated from LPHS just a few weeks ago. Now, they’re training younger students in the business and St. Pierre is hoping her younger sister will help take over the organization.
She plans to attend college for art and wants to use her art for environmental purposes.
Building for the future
Jesse Schwartzberg, who owns Black Mountain Architecture in Saranac Lake, said he was “thrilled” to be included in the exhibit.
“Every decision we make in a building relates to the climate in one way or another … and there’s thousands of decisions that go into designing any building,” Schwartzberg said.
His firm’s focus is sustainable architecture — from design, use of space to sourcing of materials.
Schwartzberg said he’s been interested in environmental issues since early on because he grew up in Saranac Lake. He moved away to study sustainability and returned to work as a carpenter for five years. That’s when the “light bulbs” went off about combining sustainability with local construction.
“If it wasn’t for sustainable architecture, I probably wouldn’t be into architecture,” Schwartzberg said. “Sustainable architecture is just good architecture in 2022. That’s a better way of putting it. … I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
It’s a developing field. Recently, he said the discussion has been about “embodied carbon” and reducing carbon emissions from the production of building materials. Before this, the discussion was about reaching “net-zero energy” in buildings by producing energy onsite.
But in creating these buildings, a lot of carbon was released.
“If you produce something that doesn’t use energy but all the materials that went into it used a ton, who cares?” Schwartzberg asked.
One area where this is changing is insulation. Schwartzberg said the field is replacing spray foam with cellulose insulation made from shredded newspaper.
Exhibit Developers Hanson and Sam Pierce said they filtered all their decisions through sustainability, using green materials, and repurposing thrift shop finds into interactive features. Next to each photo of a featured environmentalist is an old wall-mounted corded phone. The Wild Center interviewed all 12 individuals it features, and through these phones, people can hear their voices and listen to them talk about their work.
The nuclear option
Sue Powers is a Clarkson University professor with a focus on energy production. She’s a popular workshop leader at the Youth Climate Summits. Powers said she is encouraged over recent attention nuclear energy is getting by governments around the world.
“New York state is putting all its eggs into solar and wind,” Powers said. “It’s a really hard system because it fluctuates. Nuclear energy just provides constant power.”
Renewables like wind and solar are “fabulous” she said, but not the only solution. In the past five years, she said she’s changed her mind on nuclear power. She used to see it as a danger.
Powers said the “duck and cover” generation who grew up during the Cold War is frightened of nuclear power, but pointed out there have been more deaths because of coal — mining deaths, damaged immune systems, health issues exasperated by pollution and natural disasters caused by climate change — than because of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is powerful, she said. Its cancer-causing radiation is a danger. But she said if it’s done well, it is safer than coal. The risks, probability of a disaster and size of a catastrophe are much lower.
“Climate change is a global catastrophe,” she said, adding that natural disasters caused by a changing climate caused by burning coal are killing people every year.
Powers said big nuclear power plants aren’t needed anymore. Smaller, “modular” reactors, like the ones that power submarines can be used.
Moss and mosaic
Two works of art are the visual centerpieces of the exhibit. One, a giant wall of moss with an outline of the Adirondack Park “Blue Line” is actually a heat map visualizing data on carbon storage.
Hanson harvested all the moss for the wall from the wild and preserved the samples. She said this was the “largest DIY project” she’s ever done. Though it has a specific purpose, she said people have treated it like a piece of art, interpreting many messages about it — from being a statement about moss, to seeing the moss as an analogy for their own involvement in climate change.
The moss comes in shades from dark to light green. It’s pretty, but also informative. On the map, lighter-colored moss represents areas of high carbon storage — where natural environments, and especially bogs, hold carbon in soil and wood, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Darker moss colors represent areas of low carbon storage.
The Adirondack Park is a climate solution itself, Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe was glad to include the work of indigenous people. She said indigenous knowledge is “inherently sustainable.” There are indigenous populations all over North America who have knowledge specific to their area on how to maintain the natural environment. That knowledge is just being recognized by science now after years of being overlooked, she said.
David Kanietakeron Fadden, a local Akwesasne Mohawk artist, created the other eye-catching piece of art in the room — a large painting of a girl releasing a bird. He said, to him, this represents how humans need to care for the Earth. The Earth is wounded, he said, and like a hurt bird, should be nurtured, then released back to the wild.
Fadden said he wanted to create a hopeful image.
“We have the ability to solve that problem,” he said.
Fadden said he is asking people to “finish” the painting, and to add their own paint strokes as they visit the Wild Center.
About the exhibit
People know the dangers climate change poses, Ratcliffe said.
When the Wild Center polled its visitors about how aware they are of climate change, she was surprised to find that more than 80% of their audience already knew a lot about the problems. So, she said now it’s time to start talking about the solutions.
Hanson said the human impact on Earth’s climate may not be reversible, but it can be livable. Ratcliffe said the people working on making the world more sustainable are not far from home. Around here, it’s many people’s neighbors.
Wild Center Board of Trustees Chair Karen Thomas said this exhibit was “inspired by the public.”
Several of the people featured are alumni of the Wild Center’s Adirondack Youth Climate Summits, which started in 2009 and gives young people the chance to work on climate issues. All come from within a 100-mile radius of the museum.
“We hope that whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever your background is, there’s somebody in here that you’re going to identify with,” Wild Center Marketing Director Nick Gunn said.
“Everyone has things that they’re passionate about and things that bring them joy. Each of those things can fit into the climate movement if people want to be a part of it,” Hanson said. “There’s something for everyone.”
Ratcliffe said creating the exhibit was itself a microcosm of this broad field of climate work, involving researchers, artists, photographers, designers, scientists and fabricators to get it done. She said the creation of “Climate Solutions” was done in-house.
Gunn said it was an “all hands on deck” effort to create it.
The exhibit is the result of two-and-a-half years of work, but Ratcliffe said the idea’s been circulating for four.
This exhibit was largely inspired by the climate change mitigation organization Project Drawdown and its book “Drawdown,” which lists its top 100 solutions to climate change.
Gunn said the book is focused on hard-science-based approaches to climate change, but they’ve found people connect with climate issues better through stories. That’s why they wanted to focus on local people.
“I think that it is easier for people to make those connections than to stare at a chart,” Gunn said.
Hanson and Pierce also said the book “All We Can Save” was influential on their work.
The exhibit was funded in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a financial gift from Wild Center supporters Peter and Hela Kindler.
The Wild Center is also showing a 20-minute film it created with Paul Smith’s College biology professor Curt Stager, titled “The Age of Humans.”
Gunn said the Wild Center has never had an exhibit showing climate work to this extent before.
Ratcliffe said the museum plans to host this exhibit for five years.