The Hudson River Watershed Alliance Storytelling

By Madison Langweil

To the naked eye, the environment is made up of various elements and matters of life that compose a beautiful and sacred place. As simple as it may seem, the truth behind the Earth’s beauty is relatively complex. Flowing rivers, organisms, rocks, human impact and climate change are all part of the environmental ecosystem that influence one another that can be difficult to communicate to those unaccustomed to science. There is this widening gap between scientific information and what the public knows, so many science communicators aim to reduce this gap in knowledge. There are different mediums to do this: art, writing and film that help educate the public.

Siena College and the Hudson River Watershed Alliance organized the “Water Science through Storytelling: Film Screening & Panel Discussion” virtual event on Tuesday, May 18 that shed light on how to be an effective science storyteller, engage communities and share scientific information for broader audiences.

Will Lytle, Thorneater Comics, educates the public through his art.
Will Lytle, Thorneater Comics, educates the public through his art.

Filmmaker Jon Bowermaster was one of the panelists who showcased his short film, “A Living River.” The short film unveiled the incredible life in the Hudson River that’s often overseen by its polluted history.

Following the short film, other panelists like Kathy High, NATURE Lab Coordinator at The Sanctuary for Independent Media; Will Lytle, Thorneater Comics; Branda Miller, Arts and Education Coordinator at The Sanctuary for Independent Media and Anne Toomey, Assistant Professor at Pace University, shared their ways of how they effectively communicate science and how others can too through different mediums.

Surrounded most of his life by the natural world, Lytle says he tries to depict the natural world with his art. He tries to “use the art to educate people and inspire people to get involved with the natural world.”

As Lytle communicates through his art, Bowermaster communicates through his film, which he adds, “I’m a big believer in that media can make a difference. I love the fact that there are all these new mediums to explore with.”

Anne Toomey, Assistant Professor at Pace University, discusses social and cultural meanings that communities have towards water bodies.
Anne Toomey, Assistant Professor at Pace University, discusses social and cultural meanings that communities have towards water bodies.

Anne Toomey has lived to ask the question, “How can we do research differently to better engage the public?”

“When we are trying to restore waterfronts and revitalize them, we have to think about existing uses and the social and cultural meanings that communities have had,” she said.

“How are we making sure that the people that have been using these sites can continue to use these spaces and value them as they have done in the past?”

Toomey discussed two primary ways in how to engage the public: through storytelling and behavior. Storytelling helps people become empathetic while behavior is about getting people involved rather than trying to change their attitude. “It’s not going to work to try to argue someone out of an idea based on the evidence,” she said.

“We don’t absorb facts; we absorb facts into our existing beliefs. We have a belief and the belief is not really shaped by factual evidence, it’s shaped by our world views, our experience [and] our social connections,” Toomey said. “A lot of this is evolutionary.”

As Toomey suggests the emotional and social connection to the environment through storytelling, Kathy High discussed the power of passion that makes the story. “When someone is really passionate about something and they really commit themselves to some part of that storytelling…it’s very affective and infectious,” High said.

When emotions and feelings are triggered through media, people are susceptible to changing their beliefs and practices.

“There’s been a couple of examples of films we have done about the Hudson River that have been used to help sway public opinion or even votes or politicians,” Bowermaster said. He recalled the time when he made a seven-minute film called “Anchors Away” when there was a large public outcry about 43 new oil barge storages that would be parked on the Hudson between Kingston and Yonkers.

“By the virtue of hearing stories and connecting to stories, we can develop this sort of empathy and it’s almost as if we have had that experience,” Toomey said. “It can be extremely powerful.”

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