Digital storytelling takes Lake Champlain stewardship online
By KATHRYN FLAGGMIDDLEBURY — Bridget Butler is paddling into uncharted territory, searching out the headwaters where new media, local storytelling and ecological stewardship converge.The St. Albans resident and ECHO Center conservationist is heading up a two-year project that has her scampering around Lake Champlain in person and online to collect stories about the lake that she hopes will inspire stewardship efforts.Butler, 38, is using social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to collect those stories for the Voices for the Lake project, which operates through the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington. In many ways, it’s one of the first projects of its kind to blend conservation efforts with new media.And, in some ways, that untested approach to talking about stewardship has Butler paddling upstream. “Most people don’t know that they have a story to tell,” Butler said. “It isn’t until you sit down and start a conversation with someone that they know they have a story.”This summer, Voices for the Lake is focusing its efforts in two regions of the Lake Champlain basin: the Otter and Lewis creek watersheds in the southern and middle portions of the lake, and the Missisquoi River to the north. At the end of the two-year project, these stories will make up both virtual and physical exhibits at the ECHO Center. Those exhibits will include center around an online, interactive map of Lake Champlain dappled with stories about the lake.That effort brought Butler to Middlebury earlier this month. On a clear, sunny July evening, she was holding down the fort at the Ilsley Library. But no one had turned up for her library event, where she’d hoped to help local residents record their stories about Lake Champlain and add them to the growing digital library of videos. So far, she admitted, her trips to libraries around the state have been largely similar. She’ll show up, but the storytellers themselves have been conspicuously absent.“I keep reminding myself that it’s new stuff,” Butler said. That means that Butler has had to be flexible about just how Voices for the Lake is going to play out. Now, she’s beginning to target the sort of key constituents for interviews, rather than waiting for these individuals to seek out Voices for the Lake. These interviews are filmed and then loaded onto YouTube, where they join a slew of short clips recorded at the ECHO Center. The aquarium has a new kiosk on the floor where visitors can express their feelings and memories about Lake Champlain, ask questions of researchers at the ECHO Center, and talk about stewardship. So far, more than 1,000 video clips have been recorded at that kiosk. Often it’s children who plan themselves in front of the camera, and sometimes whole families will sit down. Butler said that ECHO has also been able to track down translators to interpret videos recorded by French and Spanish-speaking visitors to the aquarium. One of the challenges she said that Voices has run into is introducing many Vermonters — who might be reticent to use social media — to new technology like YouTube and Twitter. “Are Vermonters into this?” Butler wondered. She doesn’t have the answer yet, but she does hope to figure out how to engage Champlain enthusiasts who may not gravitate toward new media.Butler is one of the recent converts to this sort of technology, as it turns out. Two years ago, the Butler didn’t even have a cell phone. But now she’s hooked, and she says that fitting the right tool to the right job means social media and technology can open up doors that might not have existed before. But new as she is to technology, conservation is old hat for Butler. Though she moved to Vermont to be a “ski bum” originally, she’s worked extensively with the Audobon Society, and blogs about her Vermont birding adventures at www.birddiva.com. It’s easy to get area residents excited about birding, she said, because so many people find birds innately fascinating. Lake stewardship can be a little to sell, but Butler’s enthusiasm for the project is holding strong.The exhibit at ECHO is slated to go up in February. But already, the YouTube videos from the ECHO Center do offer a glimpse into the minds of those who are thinking about Lake Champlain. In one clip, a family from California worried about fertilizer run-off, which they said had spoiled a lake in their home state. In another, a young girl said she supported stewardship because she wanted to be able to swim in clean water. Two boys rattle off a question for researchers about the number of fish in Lake Champlain, and a little girl shares that her favorite experience on the lake was learning how to fish with her father. Dogwalkers, anglers, farmers — Butler wants to hear from them all. And by sussing out these stories — online or in person — she hopes to raise awareness about Lake Champlain stewardship using real stories from people who feel passionate about the lake.“In terms of activism and a stewardship message — man, we haven’t found a lot of other models to look at,” Butler said.Bring on those uncharted waters.Follow Voices for the Lake on Twitter at @VoicesVT. To tell stories about Lake Champlain in person, turn out for upcoming library events in Vergennes, Bristol, and Shoreham. Voices will be at the Platt Memorial Library Shoreham from 2 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 13 and at Shoreham Days on Sept. 5; at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes on Aug. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m.; and in Bristol at the Lawrence Memorial Library on Sept. 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.