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Burnt-Out People Cannot Serve a Burning Planet

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum

Photo Sarah Whiting

Jothsna Harris, Sachiko Graber, and Monica McDaniel (above l-r) have become colleagues and friends during their careers in the environmental and sustainability fields. They also share a love for farming. In the following essays, they combine life experience and scientific knowledge to explore how spending time with nature has prompted their paths to healing following climate grief, burnout, and altered sense of place.


On the Waxwing, by Sachiko Graber

I come from a family of birders. The intense type, the ones who have spotting scopes in their cars and three pairs of binoculars each (one for the house, one for the car, one for around the neck). As such, I grew up bird-watching with my dad on Sunday mornings. It was our special time together before we came home to make pancakes for the family.

Since then, birds have always grounded me. I get a little thrill finding childhood favorites — like the cedar waxwing— in a new environment. I was shocked to learn that the Audubon Society estimates only 55 percent of Minnesota’s bird species will be stable in the face of climate change based on a 3°C increase. This means that only about half of our bird species are well adapted to quickly changing environments and are likely to thrive over the coming decades. Others will experience geographic shifts, die-offs, and even extinction.

What does it mean to live in a world with a rapidly changing climate? As I imagine what a resilient future looks like for myself and my family, sometimes I feel stuck in my grief. The East has hurricanes, the Southwest has no water, and the West is on fire. We fear the droughts and floods of the central Midwest, where my dad grew up working on an Iowa farm. Where can we live and feel safe?

My partner and I moved to Minnesota to seek a new beginning. As a transplant, I am learning to combat my climate anxiety with the plants that grow here — native and non-native alike. Species like calendula, valerian root, peppermint, woody plantain, and cedarwood are healing in many forms. Messy gardens provide more habitat and variety, so I lean into them.

Acclimatizing to a new environment can be hard. We want to feel rooted in place, but the place keeps changing. Parts of Minnesota have already warmed more than 3°F since 1895, with the most dramatic changes in the past several decades; other parts receive ten more inches of rain now than they did at the turn of the century.

In this increasingly variable environment, I try to hold on to the things that ground me: the birds. I learned that the cedar waxwing is expected to be resilient in the face of climate change — they can eat almost anything.

I worked in the environmental field for many years. I became burned out by the traditional white-led nonprofit model that is based on urgency and white supremacy culture, so I founded my own consultancy. Waxwing Consulting focuses on climate solutions and equity, creating space and time for community engagement without simply focusing on deliverables.

As we search for resilience, some of us will shift geographies to keep our families safe. Like the waxwing, we can find ways to adapt.


An End and a Beginning, by Jothsna Harris

Scientists have been predicting our warming world for many years. Yet somehow it is still surprising to be experiencing the warmest winter in Minnesota history — again. I imagine my children as teenagers off in the world in an uncertain reality. I feel my shoulders rising, a rock in my stomach forming, and the recurring thought that I and we are not doing enough.

The urgency of the climate crisis can make us feel like we must always be ready to spring into action.

Additionally, the mental health implications of climate change can be compounded with existing historical traumas, such as systemic racism manifesting as pollution from toxic industries, often intentionally zoned next to redlined residential areas. What can we do to keep showing up, even when our world is so broken?

Nothing in nature produces 100 percent of the time. So perhaps just as important as the “doing” is creating space for ourselves to be “in our feelings,” whether those feelings are grief, rage, overwhelm, resignation, or guilt. Acknowledging and naming our emotions helps normalize them.

I remind myself that taking a break is better than quitting.

As researcher and climate communicator Susanne Moser says, “burnt-out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet.” I try to find solace by leaning into each season. Stewarding my family’s small farm has taught me that each brings something to let go of and to embrace. Winter can be a time to draw inward, create, and reflect. In spring, my hands feel the soil, spring peepers calling. In summer, the sights and sounds of the garden come alive, pollinators hum, and I delight in tasting the first strawberries.

Last fall, I wrote in my journal:

I have been thinking a lot about how my colleagues in the climate movement and people in my life have expressed feelings of overwhelm and burnout. Many of the lessons of slowing down have been forgotten and exchanged for ones of urgency — even for those who despise grind culture and outcomes-driven results.

For the past three years in my garden, I have ambitiously planted, imagining the abundance of what will grow — but in the bounty of the harvest, I am usually too busy to do the real work of picking, cooking, preserving, saving seeds, and mixing the compost.

I spent time in the garden this afternoon and ate four tulsi basil leaves, savoring their licorice taste in my mouth. It is called ‘holy’ basil in India because of its abundant medicinal benefits. I wondered about the missed lessons my ancestors would have taught me. I felt the waning sun on my skin and savored it. I realized that sometimes, even with good intentions, we can grow sick from work that demands so much. There must also be time to process so that the seeds can be saved and planted again another season.

As I look toward spring, I accept that there will likely be new climate records broken, but I will choose to recommit to the slow, intentional work of cultivating new seeds with the promise that there will again be a harvest.


The Star Tree, by Monica McDaniel

Gardens have always been my sanctuaries, places where I feel most alive. In my youth, I insisted on being called “Farmer John” while gardening with my mom, perhaps as a subtle rebellion against gender norms. In recent years, I have helped steward gardens where foods from around the world are adapted to Minnesota’s growing season. Community gardens, with their ecosystems of beings, have taught me lessons about how to be a humble newcomer [non-indigenous person] and good relative within the natural world.

On a typically atypical warm day this past November, my daughter and I walked the few blocks to our neighborhood community garden.

Our little family delights in taking this urban trek, greeting gardeners and flowers alike as we roll our wagon. As I navigated the familiar rut at the garden fence, she was off, racing down a well-worn patch of dirt cutting through the grass. This not-quite-three-year-old ball of energy always slows at a neighbor’s raspberries, which gives me time to catch up. There was confusion and disappointment realizing those harvests had finally succumbed to frost.

I was gathering straw, my mind running through to- do lists, when my ears pricked to her tiny shoes shuffling gleefully through fallen red leaves toward the maple. This tree has received a hug and usually some water or a special rock from my daughter on every visit since I shared with her that the species makes the syrup on our pancakes. But my smile faltered as my mind shifted into worry about the fate of the maples in this region. Sugar maples will wither in rising temperatures and struggle to escape the heat into the boreal forests of Canada due to their pH differences and the migration’s disruption of soil microbe relationships. Not all of us can move freely.

I was jolted out of my thoughts by sweet petrichor hitting my nose as my daughter slid spectacularly down a soil pile.

Landing, she turned her face of sheer delight to me, and raced off as I followed in playful pursuit. When I caught her in mock-tackle on the still-green grass, she came up with a stick in her hand and a thoughtful expression. She broke it cleanly, then raised it to me, asking, “Is this the star tree?” I stared, stunned, and nodded slowly, working to form an answer.

The stick she was holding, with stars on each end, was from the cottonwood tree watching over us. Months before when we were exploring the garden’s spring shoots, I’d introduced her to the cottonwood and shared the Dakota story of a curious little star who wanted to be close to humans, and so had hid in the cottonwood tree. As a Dakota elder had shown me, I had snapped a twig for her and revealed how there are sometimes stars on Earth. We talked about the history of our neighborhood, and the lessons we can learn when we listen to Dakota and Anishinaabe stories and life ways.

I want my daughter to know the plants, animals, and humans of our neighborhood as relatives, part of the same ecosystem. To be good stewards and relatives, we must know whose land we are on, and hear their stories. Peering at the pith of stars in her hand, I marveled at all we could learn. While I was in my head, she was on the ground, playing and engaging with our relatives.

 

Writing about your experiences with climate change can be a tool to advocate for solutions. Prompts to get started: What is a landscape you feel connected to? What do you notice about the changing climate? Can describe the future you want to see? Share it with a friend, colleague, or legislator.


Sachiko Graber (she/they) is a Japanese American aspiring farmer and a resident of Minneapolis. She is the founder of Waxwing Consulting LLC, which focuses on the intersection of climate and equity.

Jothsna Harris (she/her) is the founder of Change Narrative LLC and has a decade of experience building capacity for the climate justice movement.

Monica McDaniel (she/her) is an equity-driven environmental sustainability leader. She is a queer mom who loves to grow food with her family.