By Chloe Burns, Tallgrass Network youth outreach coordinator
To be clear, I’m not normally the type of person who does what I did. I've never been someone who gets particularly emotional in front of people — it's just not one of my recreational activities.
But in the late fall of 2015, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably in front of a crowd of semi-strangers — including the C.E.O and C.O.O. of the organization I’m involved with, the Savory Institute, and Allan Savory himself (if you’re not familiar with these names, don’t worry; I’ll get there). That’s a fairly sharp turn-around for someone who has never even been so much as an enthusiastic hugger of people.
City Girl, Country Girl
This is a story that starts all the way back with my birth. Picture it, 1997, the island of Manhattan, New York City. The streets are bustling, the skyscrapers are glistening, the air smells faintly of hot dogs and something else that’s probably not as edible. Now, picture my tiny eight-month old self being piled into a car for the long drive to Kansas, because that’s what happened next. It was goodbye New York, hello creepy Wizard of Oz museums and vast piles of wheat.
I know nothing about what it means to actually live in New York, but after that long drive, I always kept the city close to my heart. Something about the skyscrapers, the convergence of culture, and the inspiration that emerges from it kept me drawn to it. That, and when you grow up in Kansas and everyone around you was born in who-has-ever-heard-of-that-place town, you tend to brag if you have the means to.
So I made sure that New York remained a part of my identity. I wore Yankees caps, hung maps of Manhattan up in my bedroom, and displayed little figurines of the city, complete with little yellow cabs.
None of this, of course, is to say that I didn’t still love Kansas — Wizard of Oz museums and all. The endless horizons, rolling grasses, and enormous sky will always be my home, no matter where the rest of my life might take me. I attribute a large piece of this love to my grandparents’ farm, which was founded by a great-ancestor of mine and rests at around two hundred acres. I grew up visiting on the weekends and summers, riding (well, falling off of) horses and exploring the vast wilderness that was our grass-fed beef farm. There, I could be alone and marvel at the natural beauty around me.
That beauty, however, always seemed fragile, because here’s a note about being born in 1997: Climate change has always been a part of my life.
An Inconvenient Truth
It wasn’t anything anyone told me point-blank; the truth of where the planet was headed was tucked away in the things all around me. It was in the National Geographic magazines I cut pictures out of, it was on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet stations that I watched, and it was a constant voice on the radio or news. Since I was born, the world has been apprehensive about its fate.
Then, when I was somewhere around nine years old, the movie An Inconvenient Truth came out. I don’t remember much about the movie, because, well, I was nine. But when I watched it, I saw something that lit a fire inside of my tiny heart, and that same day I began doing everything I could to stop the end of the world.
Of course, at nine years old, it wasn’t like there were an abundance of opportunities for me to accomplish this. I could ask my parents to recycle, and then find out that we already did, which was a bit deflating. I did end up making a series of crayon flyers to hang around my school, but because I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, they were more just a gruesome reminder of dead whales than an actual call to action.
So I did what we all do in the face of something terrible, looming, and out of our control.
I stopped thinking I could do anything about it, I stopped watching the news like a hawk, I stopped trying to convince others to join me in my feeble, aimless fight. I gave up and turned my attention to other things, avoiding and thinking surely someone else could solve this problem.
But of course, as I continued to grow up, my concern was still there. It was still in the magazines, on the TV, in the back of my mind every time someone asked me that dreadful question of where did I see my life in five to ten years. I glanced at it every once in a while, but something deep inside of me would no longer allow me to look my deepest concerns in the eye.
Meanwhile, in 2014, when I was seventeen, my grandparent’s little family farm hit the big time – huge, in fact. Out of nearly 100 sites worldwide who applied that year, we were selected to become a Savory Hub. This meant that we would use Holistic Management to regenerate the natural grasslands we’re sitting on, and we would teach other people how to use it, too, with a goal of transforming our region. On top of that, if Holistic Management is practiced by enough people around the world, it can help combat the effects of climate change.
That summer, my mother and I jetted off to London for the Savory Institute international conference, and then on to Zimbabwe for Hub Leadership training bootcamp with Allan Savory, the founder of Holistic Management and the Savory Institute. (Allan has a popular TED talk and is the subject of PBS Earth-A New Wild: Plains. He is both controversial and a hero, depending on whom you ask.)
The London conference and Hub training inspired me by helping me realize that becoming active in climate change didn’t mean I had to make carbon air-scrubbers or invent something to convert trash to energy; I could simply learn to properly manage within the complexities of the natural world and put that knowledge to good use on our farm.
Seeing what Savory’s ranch and nearby communities had accomplished in Zimbabwe in just a short time was truly inspiring. I was excited that I, a young girl from Kansas, could be a part of something bigger than myself.
But when we returned home, like I had before, I abandoned my cause. I’m sure that the rest of the people in my life would disagree, because I seemed enthusiastic, but I was just going through the motions, desperately trying to re-inspire myself. For some reason I couldn’t identify, I could not hold onto the frenzied excitement from the summer. Deep down, a part of me was wishing Savory and his Holistic Management would quietly vanish from my life.
Savory Hub retreat
However, a year passed, and it was still there. In October 2015, we found ourselves once again at the Savory international conference, this time in San Francisco. Then, we drove to Paicines Ranch for a retreat with the leaders from the nearly 30 other Hubs around the world.
We spent several days discussing our role in the larger Savory Network, whose goal is to grow to 100 Hubs worldwide by 2025. You don’t need to know the details; all you need to know is that for all of our enthusiasm and friendship, the retreat work itself sucked. We had to accommodate for people coming from all walks of life, all over the world, working in service of something incredibly complex, and we simply could not wrap our minds around it.
Sometime into the second day, Allan talked frankly with us about our holistic context, which is the guiding document to which we would all look for guidance in the future. We were trying to figure out a critical part of the context, which is “how we need to be.” We wrote things like “honest” and “tolerant,” and after spending most of our time arguing, Allan gave us a stark reminder. “You cannot put these words up here if you do not mean them,” he said. “You must believe in them to the point you would rather die than live this way.”
And to be clear, I understood what he was saying as being dramatic for the intention of making a point. Don’t say “tolerant” if you have no intention of being tolerant. It was really that simple.
But in that moment, that’s not what I heard. Allan wasn’t talking to a room full of people; he was talking to me. He was looking straight at me, and he knew full well I wasn’t in this. He knew I was phoning it in. And he was telling me that this wouldn’t do.
I don’t know how visibly shaken I was after this; I would imagine no one noticed on account of these days’ previously-mentioned suckage. But I felt deeply unsettled, and I quickly became aware of something stirring inside of me — something that was whispering for me to walk away from it all.
I didn’t know what it was or why it was saying the things that it was; all I knew for sure was that I couldn’t do what it asked me to. I couldn’t be the youngest person sitting in a room full of people who were working to change the future — my future — and turn away. That was simply not an option.
So I existed in an uncomfortable, grating state throughout the night and the next day. I didn’t sleep well, and although you could attribute the following to having been raised in a place that was flatter than all get-out, when I looked out at the mountains in the morning, I felt like they could come crashing down on top of me at any time.
When the third day ended, we all sat in a circle to deliver our finishing comments. A few people stood up to say “thank you,” others began to share more meaningful sentiments, and I became increasingly aware that this discontent inside of me was quickly rising to the surface. As more people stood up to say their closing words, I looked at this room full of people I was only starting to know and was overcome by the most powerful understanding: I had to say something.
I didn’t know what, of course. What I had to say was beside the point. The point was that this was my last chance to say it. Because if I did not take this final opportunity, I would certainly lose it forever. I would lose the chance to understand this conflict that was growing inside of me; I would be bowing down to something I couldn’t even name.
An Impossible Enemy
I stood up, and as soon as I opened my mouth, it finally gave. It slipped and shattered inside of me as suddenly and irreversibly as glass, and I was reunited with a memory that I had been blocking since my nine-year-old self sat on the basement couch, watching An Inconvenient Truth:
The movie explained what would happen if the ice caps melted, causing a rapid sea level rise that could devastate some of our biggest cities. In order to demonstrate this point, an animated projection played, and I watched as New York City – my birthplace, with all of its skyscrapers and culture and inspiration – was swallowed whole by an ocean.
Nothing else in my life has ever frightened me as much as this image. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I love horror movies and Halloween; I’ve been waiting for something to come along that frightens me more. A nice murderer, maybe, or a poltergeist. But the enemy I saw in that clip was not something I could fight with a knife, and it certainly was not something I could tell myself wasn’t real. It was mortality in its purest form.
So, at Paicines Ranch in California, in front of all those people I was only just getting to know, I broke down. In that moment, it became blatantly apparent what I’d been fighting all this time. The avoidance that was holding me back was not wicked; it was trying to protect me from ever feeling so hopeless again. It wanted to keep that part of me locked away, so that when I looked out at the world I didn’t see its future devastation and chaos. It wanted to keep me in the light.
I don’t really know what I said, but I know it was wracked with sobs, and by the time I sat down I could tell that the mood of the room had shifted. It was as if the weight many of us felt had been released, and now everyone had to decide how to cope.
COWBOYS DON'T CRY
More leaders spoke, especially of their children. A cowboy from Georgia said that he had always been taught that cowboys don’t cry, but something about the way he spoke told me that despite this he understood what I was feeling. As people stood up to speak, some of them cried, and I tried to recover through shaking breaths, feeling like any moment I could fall apart all over again.
As I gathered myself, I responded the way anyone who has ever had a public meltdown would; I wanted to crawl away into the farthest corner of that barn and shrink into stardust. I wanted everyone to forget, I wanted them to go back to their polite thank-you’s, I wanted to erase it all. But, whether I liked it or not, I had started something, and it trailed all the way around the circle to the last speaker: Allan Savory.
Although he didn’t know it, Allan was the one who had called me out and forced me to face the dark memory that was holding me back. I didn’t care what anyone else in the room said; his words would be the ones that would either validate me, or they would make me think that perhaps I should make an appointment with a therapist once I got home. Honestly I was partial to the latter.
But Allan spoke the way I’d always known him to: calm, and deliberately saying every word because he believed that it was the full truth. He told us the story of his moment, when he was a young man in Zimbabwe, during a time of heavy rain. As the land flooded — a sign of environmental degradation — zebras drowned and their bodies were carried past him as he sat in a boat on his beloved river. He sat and cried, afraid in the same way I would be, sitting on my couch in our basement, decades later. And then, because boys were not supposed to cry, he kept the story locked away from the world for decades.
When Allan sat down, I felt a great burden lifted off of my shoulders. The weight I had brought to the room was perhaps not just the overreaction of an overly-emotional teenage girl. We had all caught a glimpse of the seriousness of what was facing us, what we are working for. Although I know some people in the room were uncomfortable and found my outburst too dramatic, mostly I received comfort and commiseration, that we all felt at least some portion of this weight.
We said our goodbyes, and I returned to my life as a college student in Kansas. However, unlike before, what happened at Paicines Ranch has stayed with me. As we’ve worked to represent our Savory Hub, learning and teaching others, especially about agriculture’s role in climate change, I have stayed committed to our mission. I have told pieces of my story as we go along, and although I still can’t tell it without crying, at least now I know what it is.
Confronting the fear of climate change, when it’s been with you your whole life, can be devastating. Talking about it is almost as hard, and writing about it is like stabbing yourself in the heart and analyzing what comes out. But it’s the challenge our generation must face if we are to face our futures at all.
I've learned to accept that the reality of climate change is not going away. We wish in every way possible that it will, and we hope that others will solve it for us, but we simply cannot afford to keep thinking this way. Instead, we can start where we are. We will all have to do our part, and for me, that means looking at how we take care of 200-some acres of Kansas grassland. But before that, the most important thing is to start with ourselves. As Allan said, don't put something on the board if you don't mean it.