Matt Dickerson: Collecting stories about the outdoors

As I write this column, the Arkansas River is plowing past outside my hotel window, carrying 100,000 cubic feet of water per second — roughly double its normal volume for this time of year, but only a fifth of what it was carrying just a couple weeks earlier. Some of that water has come all the way down from the Rocky Mountains (where it was once fantastic trout water), flowing across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and into Arkansas. But much of it fell from the sky within the state in the hills of the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests.
The river will probably rise before it goes down. Arkansas has had a very wet winter and spring. Last night, as I sat in conference talks, a stunning display of lightning flashed outside the window. The thunderstorms brought a night of pounding rain. Flash flood warnings appeared on my cell phone. The mud, which has colored the river like a mocha latte, and which was once soil on some farmland or riverbank upstream, will flow on down into the Mississippi River and get deposited into the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve spent most of the past three days in this hotel in Little Rock at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, or OWAA. In some ways, the view out the north-facing windows has been very appealing, during the day as well as during the nighttime lightning show. A multi-use trail wanders along the river’s edge below: a little green belt of parks dotted with some majestic trees, attracting a variety of birds along with the walkers, joggers and bikers. A short walk down that trail is a fun nature center run by Arkansas Game and Fish. If I lived in Little Rock, I imagine I would make good use of that trail, and make regular visits to the nature center to look at the cool fish in the aquarium and the very cute baby alligator. Even the architecture of the bridges draws my eyes, when my gaze wanders from the speakers in front of me, or when I take a break and return to my room.
I’m currently serving on two OWAA committees that met at the conference: an educational committee that decided some writing awards, and a committee helping to plan next year’s conference, which will take place in my home state of Vermont! (I’m quite excited to help with that planning, and looking forward to having some nationally known and award-winning outdoor writers, photographers and video producers visiting Addison County on their way up to Jay Peak where the conference will be held.) The conference also provided some contacts and venues for me to research, write and publish future outdoor stories in some interesting places including Arizona, Colorado and Arkansas.
Mostly, however, I spent my time listening to a variety of interesting talks and panel presentations, including a keynote address from Carolyn Finney on “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” Her talk on diversity in the outdoors, and in outdoor communications, generated much conversation over the weekend. Finney has spoken at Middlebury College in the past, and after hearing her speaking I was even more excited that she will be spending more time at the college in the future.
Another presentation was on the impacts of climate change on wildlife. The opening speaker, from the Environmental Defense Fund, who also has done work with the NOAA, addressed changing oceans and the range of projected impacts of climate change on marine fisheries. He noted that we are beyond the point where we can stop climate change, even if we dramatically cut greenhouse emissions immediately. It will take years to slow and stop. But he did present various scenarios for how bad it might get depending both on how we respond to the inevitable changes in our management of fisheries, and also on how quickly we do take the steps to dramatically cut global emissions. The best case scenario if we make wise choices is not nearly as bleak as the worst case.
The next speaker on the panel worked for Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, though he was speaking as a private citizen and avid duck hunter, and not as an official representative of any state organization. Which brings me back to our opening paragraph. He spoke about the dramatic — and mostly negative — impact of climate change on the rivers of his home state. All the while he spoke, as if to provide a visual example of his points, out the window behind him the Arkansas River continued to flood past at five times its normal volume. These sorts of prolonged periods of flooding have become increasingly common in Arkansas, he noted. And, along with another of the panelists, he mentioned the rising levels of the Gulf of Mexico, the eroding and vanishing coastline of Louisiana, and the dead zones in the Gulf resulting in part from the raging floods pouring into the Mississippi.
The tone of the room was somewhat somber, but the writers weren’t hopeless. “Keep telling the stories,” somebody said. Politics so often clouds the issues and prevents dialogue. “I can’t talk about ‘climate change’ to my readers,” one writer noted, “but I can talk about rising sea levels.” And while notions like “climate change” may be abstract or even politicized to many people, those who spend time outdoors paying attention to trees, ducks, fish, deer, migrating birds, or blossoming plants, can’t help but notice the changes — and bemoan them. The specific examples speak loudly. And for those who care, they are also the most motivating. Look around. Listen. Pay attention. Then live well.
Good advice, I thought.

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