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Sustainable Missoula: Getting dirty on Public Lands Day

Caroline Lauer helps restore the riparian area near Rattlesnake Creek during a community planting session. (Amy Cilimburg) photo)

One year ago, students and workers across the world went on strike to demand action on climate change. In Missoula, hundreds of us joined the call and gathered throughout the day – at Caras Park, the Missoula County Courthouse, and Northwestern Energy.

It was an emotional day filled with urgency and inspiration; in some moments I grieved and in others I committed myself to new action. I felt overwhelmed and inspired.

I was exhausted by the end of the day and slightly regretted committing to the final event: a restoration planting along the Rattlesnake Creek. Over the course of a few hours, a group of 20 or so Missoulians young and old came together to plant trees, shrubs, and seedlings to revegetate a small area adjacent to the creek. The planting began in a light rain and ended in a heavier one, but it didn’t deter the group from making sure all the new plants were in the ground.

After the visceral energy of the rallies earlier in the day, this was quite a contrast. There was something meditative about the experience. My mind settled and focused only on the task at hand: dig, plant, cover. I was soaking wet and covered in mud, but I left the site to bike down the hill back to town with a sense of calm. I had spent the past two hours meeting new community members, doing something positive, and learning about my local ecosystem.

I’ve thought a lot about that day recently. The world is even more chaotic now than it was a year ago, and the ways we can engage with our communities have changed dramatically as we navigate our COVID-19 reality. The urgency of the moment seems to escalate daily, and yet it can be difficult to find our place in it.

At Climate Smart Missoula, we’re frequently asked if individual actions, like riding your bike to work, or yes, planting trees and shrubs, are worth the effort when you consider the scale of systemic change needed for a just and rapid transition to a low carbon world. (Spoiler: They are.)

Taking individual action doesn’t supplant the need for broader system change, but it still has a place as we work together to build a healthier and more livable planet. Instead of confining ourselves to an either/or binary between individual change and system change, we need to see the interconnections between them.

If we made every decision simply based on a calculation about how much carbon it reduces, just about none of the seemingly small steps we can take in our own lives would be “worth it.” But reality is not so simple, and humans are social creatures. Individual actions can encourage those around us to change their behaviors, too – what social scientists call “social contagion”. Rooftop solar is a great example of this: studies have shown that when someone installs solar panels on their roof, their neighbors are more likely to do so too.

This social contagion contributes to shifting cultural norms, which in turn create the context for bigger systemic and policy level changes. “What communities do, laws reflect – this is another reason to act on climate change, and urgently… Many climate activists believe that changing social norms around carbon-intensive behaviors makes the likelihood of dramatic climate-change legislation in the future more likely, not less,” writes Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic.

These legislative changes won’t happen without all of us talking about the issues more with friends and families and showing up at the polls to elect climate candidates. If you’re not sure where to start, go to Climate Smart Missoula’s Advocacy page for a few suggestions.

Knowing that our decisions can influence wider cultural change can be gratifying, but it is still pretty abstract. Another reason to take action in our own lives, maybe an even more important one in these challenging times, is that it feels good. Individual actions can help turn us away from internal consumer preoccupations and instead attune us to the bigger systemic challenges and wellbeing of our community.

Getting our hands dirty, figuratively or literally, helps ground us and connect us with the world outside of ourselves. In a time when so many of us feel isolated, reconnecting with our community and the actual dirt under our feet is not frivolous or a waste of time; it’s a lifeline to hope and sustaining our spirits. We have to create rest stops along the long journey of activism; it’s even better if those moments of respite contribute positively to our community.

Are you ready to take a moment to recharge while also contributing to our community’s resiliency? You’re in luck! This weekend and throughout the month, we have several opportunities to engage with our community and local ecology while getting your hands dirty. Missoula Parks and Recreation, the Clark Fork Coalition, and Trout Unlimited are organizing volunteers to be a part of Missoula’s history and help with the removal and restoration of the Rattlesnake Dam.

Volunteers will help restore native vegetation along Rattlesnake Creek, which is now free-flowing for the first time in over 100 years! There are many days to participate, including this Saturday, September 26th – which happens to be Public Lands Day! If you can’t make it this weekend, sign-up for a shift on September 29, October 1, or October 17.

Space is limited and registration is required to ensure that participants can safely distance themselves from one another, so reserve your spot today!

Caroline Lauer is a Program Director for Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

September 21-26. MUD Garden Party. Missoula Urban Demonstration Project is hosting a week of virtual events to demonstrate, inspire, and engage with sustainability projects at home.

September 25, 5 – 6pm at Caras Park. Families Unite for Our Future. Join Families for a Livable Climate to stand in solidarity with families across the country who are suffering the devastating effects of wildfire and hurricanes, and in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike.

September 26, 29, October 1, and October 17. Rattlesnake Creek Revegetation. Sign up for a shift.

September 26, 10am-12pm. Honey Extraction Workshop. This workshop, hosted by MUD, will teach attendees how to harvest honey with MUD’s new honey extractor. Workshop cost: $10 MUD members/$20 nonmembers.

September 21-27. Climate Week. Join Sustaining All Life (SAL) and United to End Racism (UER) in a week of international virtual climate events focused on addressing barriers to resolving the climate emergency. Topics include: Ending Racism and Classism in the Climate Movement, Expressing Climate Grief, War and Climate Change, Youth at the Forefront of the Climate Movement, a Pacific Island forum, and an Indigenous Voices forum.

October 1, 4 – 5:30pm. Decarbonize Your Transportation: Bikes, EVs, Buses, and Trains. Hosted by Families for a Livable Climate, this happy hour Zoom panel discussion will focus on what’s happening in Missoula and greater Montana to promote the decarbonization of our transportation system and ways for Montanans to make change now.

Through October. It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market are happening. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

Now through November 3. Work to elect climate leaders. And vote.

Find more activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar.