The Critical Role of Writing in Environmental Activism: Reflections on the First Annual Kickass Writers Festival

By Andrea Shipton - Climate and Conservation intern

Friday, September 9, 2022

In August, I attended the first annual Kickass Writers Festival in Saranac Lake, on behalf of the Adirondack Council. Hosted by the Adirondack Center for Writing and sponsored by the Council and other organizations, the two-day festival featured a full schedule of events, including readings, workshops, book fairs, and a Howl Story Slam. It welcomed a talented group of writers, editors, comedians, and speakers from within the Blue Line and beyond. The festival left me feeling not only empowered to improve my own writing, but also hopeful about the ways in which writing can help the Adirondack Park tackle some of its greatest environmental challenges.

A speaker at the Adirondack Center for Writing's festival

As a writer, environmentalist, and outdoor adventurer, I believe we must draw more attention to the intersection of these passions. Writing provides a powerful avenue for advocacy for the protection of wilderness spaces like the Adirondacks. Environmentalists write for the species that inhabit these spaces, urging lawmakers and stakeholders to protect the plants and animals that can’t advocate for themselves. Often, years of outdoor recreation and exposure to Adirondack landscapes can inspire and strengthen an environmental ethic in those who hike, paddle, ski, bike, or otherwise explore wilderness spaces. Certainly, my two decades of summer adventures around the Park have influenced my decision to pursue a career in the environmental field and spend the summer advocating for the protection of Adirondack landscapes.

NYS poet Willie Perdomo speaks at a writer festival in Saranac Lake

Amidst the current climate crisis, our planet needs talented writers to advocate for it. Words form the building blocks of all advocacy work, and knowing how to arrange them in a way that accurately and effectively characterizes the climate crisis will draw more supporters in to facilitate bold, urgent, and aggressive action. As environmentalists, we must emphasize this issue’s gigantic scale, but we also can’t present change as a problem too astronomical to overcome. We can’t halt all the negative effects of human-caused carbon emissions, but we can slow and minimize them. The quicker and more aggressively we act, the more lives— human and non-human alike— we can protect. The world needs talented writers to communicate this to broad audiences.

Adventure narratives and nature writing provide powerful avenues for climate advocacy. From memoirs that describe thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail to conquests of 8,000-meter peaks, these types of adventures will become more difficult and more dangerous as climate change shifts landscapes and renders environments more unpredictable. Outdoor recreationists need to care about climate change if they hope to continue these types of activities throughout their lifetimes. In the Adirondacks, scientists expect that climate change will diminish opportunities for winter recreation, shrink wetlands, increase precipitation events, and allow ticks to expand throughout the Park, among other effects. Weaving these climate impacts and need for action into adventure and nature writing will help invigorate those with a preexisting love for the outdoors to step up on their climate activism.

Author Gwen Kirby reads from one of her books

For me, the highlight of the festival was meeting one such talented writer and activist: keynote speaker Silvia Vasquez-Lavado. Silvia holds an impressive mountaineering resumé as the first Peruvian woman to climb Mount Everest and the first openly gay woman to summit the Seven Summits— the highest mountains on all seven continents. The challenges she has overcome throughout her lifetime, from childhood abuse to addiction, led her to discover mountaineering as a method of personal healing. She detailed this journey in her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain, which I picked up a copy of after her speech. Upon reaching the front of the book signing line, I met Silvia, who mentioned that she had been searching all weekend for a female 46er, since she had heard so much about the challenge from festival attendees and wanted to hear a woman’s perspective on it. Having myself climbed forty-four of these peaks over the past eleven years, Silvia excitedly requested that I share some words about the journey to her once I climb those remaining two mountains… which are Dial and Nippletop, for the current and aspiring 46ers out there. Though I am only a few chapters into her memoir so far, I am already blown away by her wisdom, her ambition, and her ability to craft a thrilling and inspiring story.

Inscription from book's author to blog writer

As I reflect on the festival, I’d like to thank Nathalie Thill and Tyler Barton at the Adirondack Center for Writing for putting together this wonderful event, along with all of the volunteers, board members, speakers, sponsors, and everyone else who allowed it to run so smoothly. I’d also like to thank the Adirondack Council— not only for allowing me to attend this festival, but for three months of up-close exposure to conservation work in the Adirondack Park. Though my summer in the Adirondacks is quickly coming to an end, I know this is not the end of my Adirondack story. I look forward to returning, whenever that may be, as an outdoor adventurer, an environmentalist, and a writer.

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