Title image courtesy of Forest Woodward
As an ecologist and storyteller — how do these two complement each other?
Charles Post: Ecology translates into “the study of one’s home” – That’s the root of it. So, when I call myself an ecologist and a storyteller, what I’m describing is my passion for telling the story of a particular patch of earth, frozen in time. My background in ecology has taught me about the subtleties of the season’s change, how organisms, animals and plants vary over space and time, and how their life histories affects the landscapes that sustain them. It’s these relationships that intrigue me: relationships that exist between a tree and lichen, banana slug and a creek, or a trout, insect and a bird. You’ll find these relationships exist in nature in two forms: ephemeral and deeply rooted. Yet, each speaks to a patch of earth – it’s beauty, fragility and vulnerability in an ever-changing world.
I’ve found storytelling to be a valuable tool to illuminate these dynamics and complexities. This aspect of my job is something that’s cultivated in my adventures outside, work in the field, films and photo stories that are rooted to my passion for science in general and ecology in particular. Over time, I’ve continued to come across these confluences, places, and nexus points that inspire my work and time spent outside. With this focal point mind, I strive to tell stories that society’s relationship with nature, but also expose the fact that everything we do outside is inextricably linked to a greater ecosystem, one that has a future that we – as a society – are collectively writing.
Is there a specific moment or memory from your life that has stuck with you as the origin of your passion for ecology?
Charles Post: I grew up with a creek just over the back fence of my childhood home. Every fall when the autumn rains swelled our local creeks and streams hundreds of coho salmon would flood upstream to spawn as they have for millennia. Yet by the time I was ten years old the Army Corp of Engineers had deemed our creek a suitable flood control culvert as opposed to a creek that supported a now federally threatened population of salmon. So, like any nature loving kid would have done, I had my dad tie a rope around my waist so that I could climb over the seven foot barbed wire fence down into the culvert where scores of coho salmon swam with their noses pressed against the impassible dam that lay between them and their natal waters upstream. Once safely on the creek’s bank, I carefully captured a single coho salmon in my bucket, climbed up over the fence, and walk the tired fish upstream beyond the dam so that it could continue a tradition that I hope outlives that cement dam. It was in that moment that I recognized what was at stake, and that I wasn’t going to sit and watch the forests, creeks, coastlines, mountains and grasslands that I loved get swept aside by the collective swing of the society’s axe – one guided by a north star of ‘Progress At All Costs”.
From there, I went on to spend nearly a decade studying ecology at U.C. Berkeley during which I earned my Bachelors of Science and Master’s degree in Ecology, which was well complimented by many seasons working as a field scientist on research projects ranging from salmon to salamanders and songbirds to ancient redwoods from the foggy coast of California to the red rock desert of Utah.
What part does social media play for you and your mission to make an impact?
Charles Post: Social media wasn’t something I initially embraced as an outlet for my storytelling or ecology interests. But, by the time I added Instagram to my phone’s application quiver, I was in a graduate school program at U.C. Berkeley where – like many other traditional academic institutions – little space or attention was paid or made available for communication or storytelling efforts outside of peer reviewed academic journals, conferences, lectures and the classroom. And with that in mind, social media – and the platform it afforded – became an increasingly relevant tool and forum. Initially, my relationship with Instagram was one devoid of academic discussions or stories rooted in ecology. Though, as time passed I began developing my eye and voice around this new platform, one that I realized could not only compliment what my graduate research and ecological interests but could also serve as a window into the life of a young scientist. And it was through this understanding that I began using Instagram as a vehicle to communicate my passion for conservation, stewardship and ecology.
Do you think your generation understands how quickly changes are occurring in the outdoor world that we all love to play in?
Charles Post: To be aware of change you have to have a baseline. If elk went extinct across Montana you wouldn’t know they did unless you knew they were there beforehand. How can we care about something if we don’t know it exists? So, there’s that kind of baseline that needs to be established for people to really connect with what’s happening. But with the rise of smart storytelling and media, I believe that young people today are starting to establish that necessary baseline: it could be a widespread understanding that glaciers and summer sea ice are disappearing or that our planet’s species are disappearing at rate of 100 – 1000 times faster than would naturally occur without the impact of humans. With this in mind, I believe our collective awareness is rooted in our collective baseline for change, which I believe is increasingly tied to evidence that our world is indeed changing and we are to blame. Where does social media fit in you might ask: social media and mindful storytelling will continue to drive this shift, which I believe is the silver bullet that may slow the effects of progress at all costs.
Can you share a moment when you questioned your own limits in a field situation?
Charles Post: Before graduate school I spent the better part of two years living mostly alone in a cabin tucked away in the woods of Northern California. There were times when we ran out of water, months without electricity, a wood stove that inhaled wood faster than I could keep up with, and a collection of kerosene lamps and candles to read and cook by during the winter. From my cabin, I was about twenty minutes to the next cabin, which is where the steward, Pete, lived. Aside from him, I pretty much lived on 800 acres tucked away amongst a matrix of forestlands without another sole in sight. If you hiked north you would follow the Eel River towards Humboldt County, and if you hiked east you would eventually hit the fog belt of the western hills. Aside from the lack of people, I was in the company of ancient redwoods, black bear, mountain lions, ringtails, American dippers and a community of plants and animals that bloomed with life.
As simple and romantic as this might sound, there was one key thing that I learned during that time in the woods, and that was self-reliance. Back then my life was simple: wake up, hike and study the natural world around me. I did that every day, all day for two years. While I was busy with work and my various field experiments, I was confronted with the reality of being along – sometimes for weeks on end. With that came the need to be comfortable in the backcountry rooted to a confidence in knowing that I was prepared – it’s that simple. At times, when I wasn’t exploring my greater backyard – say in Alaska or the Canadian bush – I would and still opt to carry an emergency beacon or sat phone. Otherwise, time in the backcountry leans on a quiver of wilderness first aid skills and hopefully a team of friends or colleagues you can rely on.
How do you hope to change people’s perception of the environment and conservation and the balance or lack of?
Charles Post: Talking about the fate or status of lions, elephants, tigers, rhinos, orangutans, or redwood trees are important because they serve as the spokesperson and anchor for that greater system. There are ways of creating those smart umbrellas where you can tuck the obscure underneath, and save an eco-system by highlighting something that’s sexy, relatable or charismatic. That may be achieved by illuminating charismatic megafauna or a small fuzzy, furry animal. Success in this light may also stem from the craftsmanship and relevance of the story.
There are also a lot of changes that are taking place as a consequence of habitat loss, over fishing, over exploitation, or climate change. And with this in mind you might ask yourself, “What’s cape cod without cod fish?”; “What are the everglades without the Florida panther?”; What would Yellowstone be without lynx?”
Unfortunately the notion of climate change, which is more accurately described as climate variability, has been muddled by the media and politics, has left the general public with the task of making a seemingly obscure global phenomena relevant to their particular patch of earth and life experience. Conversely, if you as a storyteller narrow it down to something that’s relatable and more tangible, one can use that talking point as a vehicle to discuss something much larger. With this talking point positioned as the vehicle to drive the conversation, the public is allowed to find those climate driven effects that they can relate to: flood waters seeping through the front door, or winter snowpacks that no longer fuel ski resorts.
What I’ve learned is that the potential in a conversation stems from that single, crucial talking point that is in fact widely relatable and strikingly relevant. And with this in mind I’ve found that stories bound to a region can offer an effective way to split up the ambiguous nature of climate change and in turn expose an element of it that is affecting a conspicuous group of people. Consequently, a group of people can relate to the issue now that they understand it’s local and far reaching consequences the ripple beyond their backyard. This method challenges the widespread application of complicated graphs, charts and ominous depictions of our world in the year 2200 intended to sway the collective minds and interests of the general public. We storytellers must keep in mind that we need or stories to inspire a gin clear understanding that the fate of their backyards are at stake – which they are.