Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 17-year-old Stephen

Dear 17-year-old Stephen,

I share your grief about what is going on with the Dunes of El Socorro. That coastal erosion is happening due to climate change, rock extraction, tourism, and coastal development. To a young marine conservationist, I could only imagine what you are feeling. 

You have historical and ecological ties to Playa El Socorro. For generations, your family has lived and fished along the coast of Baja California. Your Abuela Rosalia (grandmother) labored the sea, harvesting seaweed, sea stars, and sea urchins. Your Abuelo Pancho (grandfather) did not know how to swim and yet, was a cooperative fisherman, a hunter, and a guide. They shared your concern for the conservation of the dunes. Your mother, tios and tias (aunts and uncles) were also fisherfolk who worked alongside your grandmother when they were young. Your Abuela Rosalia once said she was out harvesting seaweed, pregnant with my tia Patty at the time, and in the rocks of the tidal lagoon. Abuela Rosalia shared about her history with the intertidal and what her mother once shared with her: 

“There was an abundance of sea stars, abalone, and lobster in the rocks. My mother used to say “one day there isn’t going to be anymore abalone, no more lobster.” And there isn’t any more like there used to be. Long ago, when the tide lowered, you could see the lobsters flipping their tails.”

Take these words as a directive from your ancestors to take care of this place. Listen to the stories your elders share with you. Remember the time your Abuelo Stephen took you fishing and taught you about the biodiversity of the intertidal lagoon? I need you to remember the importance of conserving places like this. Remember when you went out with your grandfather and went to the intertidal lagoon and went clamming? You learned the name of things and learned what you could eat! You brought home clams, octopus, limpets, and other things to make what we appropriately called “adventure soup”. Never forget the mystery and wonder of what adventures in the intertidal are all about: connection. The intertidal is connected to the sand dunes due to the sand sharing across the beach. The sand dunes contain endemic plant species and is a habitat for migratory birds and many other animals.  

Stephen, be proud of your raíces (roots). Your raíces cross borders. Spring Valley is also important in your history. Your social location influences the way you understand the world and your relationship with nature. Environmental justice and working-class environmentalism came from this place. Growing up in Spring Valley, you learned about how income inequality impacts where people live and what people are exposed to. You know about the false separateness between nature and urban spaces. Urban spaces are part of ecology too. Looking up and around, look at Mount Miguel and the sweet water reservoir with migrating birds that visit this place. Or the wild coyotes and rabbits that you find in the morning hours in the streets. Look around at your local watershed. When you eventually go to Alaska, your experiences in Spring Valley and Baja California will encourage you to get involved in Indigenous organizations’ and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) -centered climate justice work. 

You will live on the frontlines of climate change in Alaska, hear about the impacts of coastal erosion in Kotzebue, and hear stories from Alaska Native elders about how climate change is impacting their way of life. Going out on the ice to hunt for seals, an important subsistence food, is now becoming dangerous with the thinning of the ice and people falling through. The ice is becoming much more unpredictable.  On the Koyukuk River, you will witness the impacts of rising temperatures and the increase of flooding on rivers, and generational shocks to salmon populations. When you take part in the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, you will learn that climate change does not impact everyone equally. And those of us who are directly and indirectly impacted the most by the impacts of climate change are not the ones contributing to it the most. And it is the poor, the working class, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, women, disabled,  LGBTQ+ folks, who are disproportionately feeling the impacts. We don’t have access to the resources required to escape from the consequences of climate change. Those benefiting from the displacement of Indigenous peoples, the environmental racism towards Black communities, the environmental conditions that force people to flee their countries from the global south. Climate justice is intersectional. Pero recuerda, like an intertidal lagoon, we are part of a shared struggle. I am reminded of the words of the Zapatistas in Mexico, that we are building, “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (‘a world where many worlds fit’).

Te voy a ser honesto, I have found that this work can be exhausting, and it is the kind of work that requires a lifetime commitment. And not just your lifetime, but generations to come. What has given me hope is community.  I have learned that a community can be a place of refuge and solidarity. It will carry you through the years to come.  It will take time to build, but know that it will be worth it. Remember your border-crossing roots. Let that empower you as well!  

Don’t forget about love, I know, it sounds cheesy now…but you will come to see how much love fills your cup. Bell Hooks once said,

“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others” (outlaw culture: resisting representations, 1994).

The systems (‘white-supremacist capitalist cis-hetero patriarchy’ as coined by Bell Hooks) that we are confronting are the ones that are invested in profits and will not be kind to you for wanting to change the status quo. Let love always guide you. It is the only antidote to the evils you feel haunted by. Love will sustain you, love will ground your hope. A hope that is grounded in building the next systems beyond where we are now. A love-filled hope is what is required for us to imagine a more just future. 

To conclude, I hope these words accompany you as you go through life. You don’t have to have it all figured out, in fact, when you think you do, look at the intertidal pools again. You don’t have to be an expert in order to care. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Nor do you have to do it all on your own. Talk to the people in your community about what they find important. You will see that people have a lot to share and that what you want to conserve overlaps with their values. The work of conservation is tied to the well-being of everyone in our community. And since ecology has a great deal to do with community, you’ll find that it is all interconnected. I share in your grief, your joys, your love, and deep hope for tomorrow. 

 In solidarity, 
 30-year-old Stephen Arturo Greenlaw Aguilar.

P.S. remember to have fun, choose love, and humor is important, after all, what is a community without chistes? 

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman

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