Climate Action Day: Exeter gets hands dirty for planet

Day-long program turns 10, reminds Exonians about natural world and their place in it.

April 22, 2024

Exeter students make their way through the Academy woods Monday to check on the progress of American chestnut saplings.

A rescue mission is underway in the Academy woods. Three hundred American chestnut saplings, dwarfs among towering pines and oaks, are fighting for a footing in our forest, and Exeter students are here for it.

An Exonian work party marched into the woods Monday to check on the mini chestnuts as one of 19 workshops and presentations comprising Exeter’s Climate Action Day. Now in its 10th year, the school-wide, day-long event is devoted to service projects and improving awareness of challenges to the environment, great and small. Workshops have ranged from environmental law to oyster farming to sustainable business practices, the program an important tenet of the school’s sustainability and climate action plan, “Building From Strength Toward a Carbon Zero Future,” published last spring.

Monday’s observance of Climate Action Day coincided with Earth Day, the global inspiration for what the Academy promotes locally. While planting saplings or turning over a community garden for spring seeding doesn’t track directly to disappearing ice caps, the underlying message is that human impact on our natural world has consequences. The institution is committed to ensuring students understand the principles of sustainability and the impacts of and potential solutions to climate change.

Keynote presenter Rev. Dr. Abby Mohaupt led an interactive workshop in Thompson Gym, challenging audience members to think about their purpose in life and how their actions affect the world around them, including the natural world. 

“What is nature?” posed the director of the Garrett Collective, prompting students to draw pictures of their interpretations of nature before asking, “Now, where do you fit in?”

Mohaupt admitted the task of fighting climate change is a tall one but referenced her work as a community organizer when urging students to start with small change and look inward for inspiration. “When we dig into our values we can make a difference in the world.”


‘A real and present danger’

The threat of nuclear war is “not some 1980s problem we read about in history books — it’s a real and present danger,” Dr. Ira Helfand ’67 told students in a workshop held in the Elting Room titled “Nuclear War, the Ultimate Climate Catastrophe.”

Helfand, a physician, is a member of the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work. As an ICAN representative, he has spoken to global audiences about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear war, including key United Nations assemblies that led to the successful negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. Helfand has served as an Exeter Trustee since 2020 and advised the school on the creation of its climate action plan.

Helfand spoke plainly to Exeter students about the devastation that would follow a potential nuclear attack, including massive, abrupt climate disruption, worldwide famine and the deaths of billions of people worldwide. He emphasized that the threat posed by nuclear war is higher than at previous times in history, thanks to a number of volatile global flashpoints including Russia’s war in Ukraine and tensions in the Middle East and South Asia. 

In addition, Helfand said, the climate crisis means that the world “isn’t getting safer, it’s getting more dangerous.” With many countries struggling to support their populations due to dwindling natural resources, more and more people are being displaced from their homes. This rising tide of climate-related migration increases the risk of conflict. 

Despite such a sobering message, Helfand remained hopeful about the possibility of avoiding nuclear war, if everyone — especially younger generations — do their part. He urged the students in the audience to begin by finding small, concrete ways to educate themselves further and increase the political will behind nuclear disarmament. “You had nothing to do with this problem … but the fact of the matter is that it’s your responsibility, too,” Helfand said. “You should really appreciate the power you have to influence policy."

The little chestnut that could

The American chestnut, the “Redwood of the East,” once dominated forests from Maine to the Mississippi River. “Numbering nearly four billion, the tree was among the largest, tallest and fastest-growing in these forests,” according to the American Chestnut Foundation. “For thousands of years, the original inhabitants of the Appalachians coexisted with the American chestnut. The nuts provided an abundant food source, and Indigenous peoples responded in kind by managing the landscape to improve habitat for chestnuts.”

Charles Moreno, a New Hampshire forester who works with Exeter to help manage the 800-plus acre woodlands, explained to students Monday that symbiosis was upended in 1904 when a blight was discovered on chestnuts in a Bronx botanical garden. Introduced by the planting of a non-native Chinese variation of the chestnut, the blight devastated the native species. By 1950, the American chestnut was nearly gone.

Today, science has helped re-establish it through a hybrid seed — B3F3 — with genetic resistance established through multi-generations of cross-pollination in the lab. Three hundred of the B3F3 seedlings were donated to Exeter last year, and on Climate Action Day last year, students joined Moreno to plant them in designated places in the woodlands southeast of campus.

Monday’s mission: Check on their progress. While 300 soaring American chestnuts won’t result, Moreno is optimistic that many in this battalion of saplings will prevail. Students inspected the hundreds of plastic tubes that protect the tiny saplings, making sure winter and hungry voles haven’t wrought too much damage. The saplings that thrive will grow 4 to 7 feet per year. By the time the class of 2044 graduates, these trees could each be producing as much as 100 pounds of chestnuts annually.

One man’s trash …

In the workshop “Recycle + Reuse + Repurpose,” visiting artist Ryan McGinness gave two groups of students a glimpse into how he uses upcycled and sustainable materials in his artmaking process. From worn-out squeegees used to spread paint in the screenprinting process, to thrifted T-shirts printed with new designs, to saving old paint containers for future sculptures, McGinness said he is constantly finding ways to rework “residue and detritus from the studio” into new creations.

McGinness, a New York City-based artist whose work draws on the surf and skate culture of his native Virginia Beach, is known for paintings, screenprints and installations that incorporate corporate logos, signage and contemporary iconography. His work is held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Charles Saatchi Collection, among other museums and art collections.

Aided by Art Department faculty members, McGinness guided students through the screenprinting process, helping them create a collaborative artwork on repurposed screens, using old ink, spatulas and squeegees. The project was inspired by McGinness’ own recycled installation, “Screen Combine #47.” After an initial demonstration, the 12 students in the afternoon workshop donned aprons and broke into pairs to build on the work of their morning counterparts, creating a rich, layered tapestry with a vibrant message of sustainability.

In addition to his Climate Action Day workshops, McGinness was to spend a week on campus thanks to the generosity of the Michael Clark Rockefeller ’56 Visiting Artists Fund. He will visit various art classes, and deliver a slide talk on Thursday, Apr. 25 at 8 p.m. in the Frederick R. Mayer Art Center.

Meeting people where they are

Speaking at an afternoon workshop in Assembly Hall, Justin Worland, a senior correspondent at TIME, discussed his work as a journalist covering climate change. 

In his early days on the climate beat, Worland noticed a hole in the storytelling surrounding the climate crisis. He realized most of the reporting was too scientific and not accessible to the average reader. Worland focused on telling the stories of commodities, like coffee, and what the effects of climate change can do to something tangible and beloved. “You have to meet people where they are,” he said. 

As a high-schooler, Worland’s interest, and that of his peers, in the topic climate change was admittedly low. Looking out at the Assembly Hall audience, Worland received a nearly unanimous response when asking, “How many of you are concerned about climate change?” He followed up by asking how many intend to pursue a life in climate advocacy, receiving a much more muted reaction. Worland championed former presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s ’75 message that people, regardless of their occupation, should strive to be “climate people.”

“One of the most remarkable things I've noticed in the course of the last decade is how much people are starting to think about climate beyond just the [traditional] climate people, how people are starting to incorporate findings that work across fields, even if isn’t their full-time job.”