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Talk NERRdy to Me: Chris Bowser

Nov 17, 2020 | Hudson River, New York, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me, What We Work For

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Chris Bowser, the “funnier”  NERRA auctioneer and education coordinator at New York’s Hudson River Reserve. They covered a hundred-mile estuary replete with science, eels, volunteers, and one wrong Seger.

Nik: One purpose of Talk NERRdy is to explore what it means to be a NERRd across sectors and geographies. Why this bizarre collection of people, in this small little boat of a system, navigating the changing world? So let’s start there. Why are you a NERRd, Bowser?

Chris: I think maybe something NERRds have in common is they don’t like to be pigeon-holed. They don’t like to be just one thing. Everybody’s attracted to Reserves because they do education, AND research, AND stewardship. We can’t settle on just one thing, and I’m thankful the NERRS is about trying to do everything. Which has its pros and cons. I’ve been with NERRS for 13 years and education coordinator for six. Before that, I worked for the nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

Nik: Oh yeah, with Bob Seger! 

Chris: Well, it’s actually Pete Seeger, but funny story: When I first started working on the Clearwater, I thought it was Bob Seger’s boat and I was like ‘I love Night Moves!’ I was colossally disappointed to find out it was not Bob Seger. But I quickly adopted the easy joy that is Pete Seeger’s message and music. 

Nik: Before that, you were in the Peace Corps, weren’t you?

Chris: I was. I lived in Mauritania in West Africa for two years. That’s where I really decided I was not just into science, but more in education and communities. For all the talking I have to do, the Peace Corps taught me to listen more. It’s a lesson I’m always coming back to. I went into it very naive and with a mindset that wasn’t always productive. But after a year I had a real epiphany and I said ‘Bowser, you need to listen more.’ And thankfully I did. It turned that experience around and the latter part of my Peace Corps experience was one of the best times of my life.

Nik: What caused the epiphany?

Chris: I realized that it’s wonderful to bring science to bear on many problems, but science has to be paired with a respect and recognition for the people on the ground. The people who are living in a situation, whether it’s historical trauma or environmental degradation, have a lot of the solutions built into their community. Science can help, but science can not replace that.

The listening started by saying: “Here’s the small set of tools I can bring to the problem—what is the much bigger set of tools that the community is already engaged in? How can I contribute in small but legitimate ways?” That’s not unique to desertification in West Africa. That’s applicable across the entire planet.

Nik: And even the NERRS. I think a lot of us came in with the attitude that if you bring good science, the rest follows. Is that not your experience?

Chris: I don’t think you can just bring the science. I heard a presentation earlier this week from an educator on the Clearwater named Amali Knobloch. She didn’t start her presentation with the river or science or education or advocacy. She started out talking about trust.

It really clicked in my mind—that’s a huge element in all these issues, whether social or science or environmental. You can’t just bring science to a problem without also making sure you’ve established trust. I think often throughout history, it’s been assumed that science IS trust. It’s science, right? It’s vetted. Nope… that’s naive and incomplete. That’s just not how people work.

Nik: How does the education sector accomplish bridging science and trust and conservation? Is that your role?

Chris: I think it’s everybody’s role. I just love it when people discover the river for themselves. My favorite education programs are the ones where we talk the least. To me, the ideal program is some version of: “Here are some tools, go out and explore, and YOU tell ME what you find.” Enabling people to explore their river on their terms, in their community, whether it’s in Kingston or Yonkers or Staten Island.

Nik: You just covered 100 miles there! New York is a major estuary. How do you get people to understand that scale?

Chris: I don’t really worry about that. You just try to get people to care about their piece of the estuary. You’re in Poughkeepsie? Great. Let’s go down to the Poughkeepsie waterfront. And once we’re there, we’ll talk about estuaries, because look, the water level is changing before our very eyes because of the tides. 

I think a lot of things click into place for people then. You’re suddenly connected from Albany to New York Harbor to the Atlantic ocean and the world. You say, ‘Look, this is a baby eel, it was born a year ago, 1,000 miles away and now it’s come to your town, to your creek.’ Then eels are no longer just cool fish, they’re concrete reminders that we live in a larger connected world. That’s a great thing for people to realize and discover. Teaching about estuaries means we’re constantly teaching about connections and how nothing exists on its own. 

Nik: When people start to grasp this, what actions do they take? How do you turn education into action on the Hudson River?

Chris: People learn in different ways: some by reading, some by doing, some with music, some with motion. Similarly, the actions people take are different. For some, it’s volunteering once a year for a river clean up. For others, it’s donating to a local nonprofit or joining the town zoning board. That’s all awesome. 

Doing any kind of service allows you to feel good about yourself. I volunteer a couple nights a week with a local ambulance squad. Sure, I’m grateful to do something for the community, but the truth is that it does something for me too.

In the NERRS, I think it’s good for us to make sure we prioritize the people we want to be involved in conservation action. It’s great to pick up trash and save the whales, but the first message should be ‘You’re going to get something out of this. This is going to be something important to you.’ 

A few years ago, the Cary Institute surveyed our eel volunteers. They found the reasons young people wanted to volunteer with us was that they could spend time with their friends, they liked being outside, and it felt good to be in the riveras opposed to ‘oh, I want to help the environment.’ That part was nice, but it was the internal motivators that really mattered. That really changed how we frame volunteer recruitment. 

Nik: But you’re volunteering to be an EMT in a freaking pandemic!?

Chris: It’s been a really important source of strength and recovery for me. During calls, everything just goes away—my personal issues, my work issues. I’m just focused on what’s going on. It can be intense, but it’s also good to have something to focus on during tough times. 

Nik: Huh… well, listen, I was instructed that, because this was the Chris and Nik show, it had to be funny. So far I don’t think we’ve laughed once.

Chris: They pigeon-holed us! Why didn’t you tell me at the beginning? Now all the funny stuff’s going to be at the end.

Nik: People gave up reading a few answers ago. 

Chris: We could talk about some of the other great aspects of being an educator.

Nik: That should be comedy gold.

Chris: Ok, here’s one. One of the funniest moments in my entire education career was two years ago when I was onstage at a public festival doing an eel program, and I called up a volunteer from the audience to touch an eel.

And this girl—let’s call her Daria—comes up. Daria’s mom is in the front row filming with her phone, and I say, ‘Ok Daria, choose a finger, and you’re going to use that finger to touch this eel. Now show me your finger.’ And this four-year-old girl looks at me and just slowly extends her middle finger, giving me the bird on stage, and the whole place is falling apart laughing. She sticks it right in the tank and uses it to touch the eel. It was probably inappropriate, but it was just one of my favorite education moments of all time.

Nik: Kid must have been from New Jersey.

Chris: Well, we were in NYC, that’s all I can tell ya.

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