As part of our larger Hike-Play project, we're going on walks in parks and forests around Lenapehoking, communing with our neighbors of other species, and talking with each other about the climate crisis. In this project, we expand the definition of theater to mean an intentional space created for people to pause their daily lives and immerse themselves in reflection, joy, emotion, story, or thought.
June 12, 2021
Mohonk Preserve, New York
By Jem Pickard
“Maybe we need to stop talking so much about the climate crisis.”
I stumble, and not because of a tree root. These are surprising words to hear from a climate scientist.
But Sonali McDermid-- a professor of Environmental Studies at NYU and one of our Core Members-- isn’t your ordinary climate scientist. Her environmental superhero origin story includes a teen residency at the infamous Biosphere 2 and an epic lightning storm in the Sonoran Desert with hundreds of tarantulas skittering underfoot.
We’re walking up Giant’s Ledge trail in Mohonk Preserve, fawning at the flowering mountain laurel. At an overlook, Sonali points to a clump of white in the distance. “Catalpa trees are so tall, you don’t usually see them in bloom.” Mohonk Preserve is part of the Shawangunks, a mountainous ridge just south of the Catskills with a dramatically different ecosystem. Sonali lives nearby, on a large expanse of land outside New Paltz, where she and her husband are engaged in a massive project to transform their acreage into native forest and meadow. I admire her commitment to restoring biodiversity, but she expresses mixed feelings about “rewilding” and land ownership. “Sometimes I don’t know how much of it is self-indulgence.”
Sonali is a rare bird in her field. She is passionate about science through a justice lens, constantly questioning what her institutions take for granted. When she and her students began feeling defeated after years of teaching and learning about climate catastrophe, she created a new course focused on action and adaptation. In response to growing support for dangerous geoengineering projects (last-ditch efforts to keep the world under a 1.5 degree temperature rise), she challenges her colleagues to imagine the world at 3 degrees of warming instead. “Is an equitable world even possible at 3 degrees? No one is talking about this. Scientists refuse to think about it. But we have to start thinking about it, because climate engineering is not a solution.”
It’s not the first time the word “visionary” has come to mind when I hear Sonali speak. She gives me a lot of hope, even though hope is not a concept she easily embraces. Sonali has both personal and professional stakes in the climate crisis: her extended family and much of her research is in India, where drought and erratic monsoons are battering an already precarious economy. A first-generation American and child of immigrants, she’s angry at how the combined forces of climate change and COVID are separating her even further from her ancestral land and culture. When she says, “Maybe we need to stop talking so much about the climate crisis,” she means the myopic attention on climate by foundations, academia, and the media that can sometimes distract from (and even defund) related issues like migration, income inequality, and social justice (for both humans and non-humans), and the slowness with which institutions consider the intersectionality of these issues.
As I ask Sonali what she would do if she had magical power to make big changes, we hear classical music coming through the woods. There must be a concert outside the nearby Mohonk Mountain House, where wealthy locals and tourists congregate. “I would give up my power, and create a compassionate world,” she says.
April 18, 2021
Kaaterskill Falls, Catskills, New York
By Lanxing Fu
As we set off, we wonder outloud how to make a loop out of the intersecting web of trails at Kaaterskill Falls. “Okay, we’ll take this one… to here, then connect to this one… then turn left… then we’re back.” Crowds of people seem to swarm us, but they slowly fall away and we plod into muddier terrain.
Jonathan Camuzeaux (an artist, environmental economist, and Superhero Clubhouse Core Member) moved from Paris to the French countryside when he was 9-years-old, an urban transplant at odds with the rural culture where he spent the rest of his formative years. Then and now, he finds solace and beauty in nature through unconventional delights: a chilly beach on a winter day, a city street. When I ask if he has ever felt the romanticized “wilderness” of anthropocentric fantasies, he tells me about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Standing at the summit, he came close to relating to that fantasy. But most of the time, he is a realist who believes that the natural world is simply the world around us, including us.
Having spent many years as an economic analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, he is in close proximity to climate predictions around the clock. When I ask him about how this feels, I discover that he holds multiple truths: cynicism that we will be able to meaningfully mitigate climate change in coming years, and also a responsibility to future generations; doubt that we will shift our economy away from extractive capitalism, and also astute creativity for dreaming up new systems; a desire to step away from social media information overload, and an equally strong desire to hold his community close.
Jonathan asks me if his cynicism depresses me. I honestly respond, no. I am relieved to commiserate about fears, difficult decisions, and worst-case scenarios. As we hash out challenges to the systemic change we crave, I suddenly feel like we’re troubleshooting the future. I remember that as much as hope needs our dreams, tangible hope needs us to iron out the kinks and press those dreams into plans. I am happy for the Jonathans of the world, dreaming big and dreaming with clarity.
April 18, 2021
Kaaterskill Falls, Catskills, New York
By Jeremy Pickard
"'Look around,’ my Dad would say on car rides. ‘Appreciate your home.’” Superhero Clubhouse Core Member Nikki Holck is from Oahu, Hawai'i, a vital and diverse archipelago ecosystem that is clearly so special to her. “But as a kid I didn’t appreciate what my Dad was saying.” It wasn’t until a backpacking trip when she was 24 that the “Magic of Hawai’i” revealed itself to her: standing on a beach at the end of the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, the moon rising over the ocean. As Nikki describes this moment to me, I am transported.
In reality, we’re in the Northern Catskills on a trail near Kaaterskill Falls, a popular waterfall destination. The parking lot and overlook are packed, but thankfully the trails are quiet. Nikki is an extraordinary dancer-choreographer-educator, and a grounding force. I follow her deliberate steps, avoiding fresh mud, breathing in the new green of spring.
Oa’hu is an island notoriously abused by U.S. military occupation and tourism. It’s fragile paradise is also under assault from warmer temperatures and rising seas. When I ask Nikki what she thinks about when she thinks about the climate crisis, she pictures the eroding beaches of her home, and imagines a future with no sand. It’s hard to imagine Hawaii with no sand.
But Hawai'i is also in good hands. Native Hawaiians, who have protected their ecosystem for thousands of years, still make up 10% of the population. Like many Hawaiian children, Nikki grew up immersed in stories and a culture centered on environmental stewardship. The term “aina”, which means respect for the land, is common vocabulary and practice. Nikki remembers taking a stone from a volcano on a family trip, and becoming ill when she returned home. Her family was seriously alarmed because Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, curses those who take stones from her. Nikki mailed the stone to her grandmother, who returned it to the volcano.
We return to the trailhead and the crowds have cleared a little. We stand on the overlook and gaze at Kaaterskill Falls, slowly eroding the winter ice at its base.
February 13, 2021
Shorakkopoch (Inwood Hill Park), Manhattan
By Jeremy Pickard
I’m trying to keep up with Claudia Villar-Leeman. One of our Hike-Play codes is I will walk at your pace, and for me this often means a practice in patience. Today I’m hurtling down the snow-covered trails of Shorakkopoch (Inwood Hill Park), out of breath. It’s fitting that Claudia, one of our Superhero Clubhouse Core Members, is an Energy Policy Advisor at NYC Mayor's Offices of Sustainability and Resiliency; she has at least as much energy as her dog Akila, bounding around us.
Shorakkopoch is a special place. Unlike the heavily designed parks like Central and Prospect, Inwood retains some topography and geology of ancient Manahatta, including old-growth forest and Lenape caves. Claudia grew up very close to where we are now, at the northern tip of Manhattan, where she and her parents still live. A childhood passion for animals led her to study biology, then climate communications. In the field she researched petrals, eels, and salamanders; in the city she worked for The Climate Museum. Energy transforms. Wilderness becomes a park.
We talk a lot about climate change. On a cold February morning, watching Akila leap through a foot of snow, it’s hard to remember that we’re living in the warmest years on record. But Claudia has family in Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria. At work, she has a front-row seat to the frustrating slowness of climate politics. Her grief and anxiety about the climate crisis weigh heavily. She also speaks seriously about hope, comforted by people’s eternal resiliency as well as the present moment. “I have daily nightmares about the apocalypse. But also, should we have chili tonight?”
When we part ways, I leave energized by the city Claudia would create if she were Mayor: Solar panels on every rooftop. Housing for immigrants and climate refugees. Support for delivery workers on bikes. Car-free avenues turned into parks filled with fresh air and music.
January 21, 2021
Anthony's Nose, New York
By Lanxing Fu
“Do you think it’ll be too warm to wear my scarf?” Noelle asks.
“I mean, I always get warm halfway through the hike when I do that,” I say.
She wears the scarf.
I’m with SHC Core Member Noelle Viñas, about to climb Anthony's Nose. Neither of us have been here before. We aren’t sure what to expect, except that it’s on the shorter side, steep, with a sweet view of the Muhheakantuck, otherwise known as the Hudson River, at the top.
As we clamber on, we pause often to check-in with each other: “Are we going the right way?” Noelle remarks that she doesn’t have a lot of the hiking literacy that other people seem to have, even though her parents took her and her siblings on family treks in the Appalachians and Shennendoahs growing up. I tell her I didn’t learn things like trail markers until my 20s. Maybe it’s that we’re both migrants, raised by families with roots in other places. We both remember the manicured Northern Virginia suburbs our families eventually settled in as being full of abundant nature. A pond with geese! Trees! Paths that led to creeks! Compared to the big, crowded, foreign cities we were born into, they felt like wilderness. We talk about how the climate crisis and environmental degradation show up tangibly in the bodies of our loved ones and in our own constant, low-heat anxiety. When I ask her about change and how expansive she thinks it can be, she is pragmatically hopeful. She believes entirely new systems can replace what we know, but she wants to know how. With radical change, she’s always seeking the how. As I listen to Noelle, I am buoyed by a feeling of trust. I trust that she, along with all the artist changemakers, will do the work that we are so especially called to do; the hard work of making what is presently unimaginable, real.
January 16, 2021
Courtney St. John & Eva von Schweinitz
Harriman State Park, New York
By Lanxing Fu
On a biting January day, we find ourselves in a part of Harriman State Park dotted by lakes. The gray, misty waters are a soothing sight for our brains worn down by a pandemic winter. Superhero Clubhouse Core Member Eva von Schweinitz and Board Member Courtney St. John are meeting in person for the first time as we set off on the muddy trail. Courtney recounts growing up living in muck and nature, as a young person who spent her free time with beloved horses, and Eva recalls a hike in Vietnam with her father that lit up her lifelong urge to be close to the natural world.
Both say the paths they’ve taken don’t exactly line up with what they imagined they would be doing in their adult years. Eva, a multidisciplinary theater artist and filmmaker, spends many of her working hours inside dark rooms and behind a camera. Courtney, Senior Director of Science and Energy at Climate Nexus, works at a desk most days advising media partners on how to tell stories about climate change. Both of them love their work, and also hold a longing to be in closer relationship to the land.
We come to a fat stream dissecting the path, and we all pause to test our footing on the rocks. Courtney and I take a short route across, splashing our feet with water, while Eva clambers to higher ground to hop across a more precarious path on bigger boulders.
Our conversation eventually winds around to finding comfort in humility. Courtney and Eva agree that something that brings relief in the face of devastating climate change is remembering how small a human life is in the web of life on Earth. They acknowledge that we must hold simultaneous truths: our outsized negative impact on the world and the intrinsic value of humanity, as we continue to strive towards reciprocity with our ecosystem.
January 16, 2021
Harriman State Park, New York
By Jeremy Pickard
“The happiness other people experience from hope I get from knowing that everything on Earth is insignificant compared to the cosmos. The universe is beautiful. There are so many other planets we haven’t destroyed.” It’s the second time I’ve hiked with Superhero Clubhouse Core Member Sergio Botero through Harriman State Park. Last summer we lost the trail and acquired a tick; today’s walk in the cold and clouds is less dramatic. The sound of cars on Harriman’s main road fades as we pass through leafless deciduous trees into a world of misty evergreens. It’s the perfect setting to ask Sergio about his least favorite topic: hope.
“And no matter what we destroy on earth, we haven’t done that much to the microbial world. There are so many tiny ecosystems under every rock.” Sergio, an ecologist, biologist, and primatologist who now works in business, is a big-picture person. He is disconcertingly fatalistic about the climate crisis and holds little faith in humanity. To truly avoid mass extinction and other catastrophes, he says we would have needed to maintain a planet of “200 million people; 20 cities; everything else is wilderness.”
Sergio’s disenchantment with humanity is countered by his deep compassion for the other species. He was raised in Columbia and studied monkeys in the Amazon. His current studio apartment is a jungle of sun-fed and cold-blooded creatures. When I ask how he would reinvent New York City if he was Mayor, his answer included no cars, way more green spaces, and “legalize pet crocodilians.”
We walk around the rim of a little canyon, admiring the frozen water below. From this height we can see a dam-made lake in the distance, a feature of both natural beauty and human interference. “I’m a forest snob, because I grew up with so much biodiversity. But I like this area.”
November 9, 2020
Celia Gurney & Megan Paradis Hanley
Greenbelt Nature Conservancy, Staten Island
By Lanxing Fu
It's a sunny afternoon in November, and I'm on a soothing, meandering stroll in Staten Island’s Greenbelt Nature Center with Superhero Clubhouse Core Members Celia Gurney and Megan Paradis Hanley, and Gabriel (Megan’s infant child). We walk in the sweet relief of Election Day 2020 having passed and glimmers of brightness appearing on our horizon. Through our conversation, Megan and Celia discover similar upbringings in the Pacific Northwest, always being in view of the mountains, accustomed to park hangs and summers in water. Both grew up with relatively benign relationships to the natural world around them. It wasn’t until leaving their childhood homes that they discovered more rigorous ways to engage with nature, and started plugging into networks of people fighting for climate justice. We share hopes about the future; how we want to use our crafts (comedy, theater, activism) to move hearts and minds and nourish our communities. And, we share dreams for building homes and families in an increasingly uncertain, unstable world. Gabriel’s presence emphasizes just how tangible those challenges are for a new parent. The questions of how to guide and provide for a new being in this world are a vivid reflection of the big questions that face us all, children or no children: How do we make choices that serve our greater community while also taking care of our own well-being? How do I get the most joy, love, pleasure out of life, while staying small and humble enough to not make a hugely negative impact on the world around me? Near the end of the hike, Gabriel wakes from a nap and stares up, eyes saucer-wide, mesmerized by the sun streaming through Fall leaves. We pause for a moment, watching him watch the light.