UPPER JAY - A group of nearly 40 people gathered Saturday morning, May 5 at Paul Johnson's home to draw attention to the ways climate change has affected peoples' lives.
The event, which was called Connect the Dots, was part of Climate Impacts Day, which featured hundreds of similar gatherings worldwide. It was organized by local members of the international climate action organization 350.org, started by former Adirondack writer Bill McKibben.
Johnson owns Paul's Bakery on state Route 9N in Upper Jay. Behind the business are his home and a big chunk of picturesque property. It was all heavily damaged when Tropical Storm Irene tore through last August.
Residents of the towns of Keene and Jay line state Route 9N in Upper Jay on Saturday to raise awareness about the impact of climate change.
"When the storm struck, we - my mother who is quite elderly and I - did not leave, because we have never had a drop of water in the house," Johnson said. "In the basement of the barn, we had water twice in all the years that we've lived here. From the Torrance family to the present day, about 150 years, no water in the house whatsoever. So we thought we were fine."
But, like many homeowners in the towns of Jay and Keene, Johnson was far from fine. Floodwaters from the East Branch of the AuSable River rose dramatically before he could get his mother into the car to escape.
"The water started coming in the house," Johnson said. "So we put water and food and flashlights, etc., up to the second floor, and just went up to the second floor and rode out the whole storm."
Johnson said Irene devastated his bakery, as well as a barn on his property that he rented out to multiple merchants. The storm also damaged a unique iris garden on his property that was built by his grandmother.
Bob Andrews of Keene Valley helped pull Saturday's rally together. He also helped organize last fall's "We Are the 99%" rally in Keene Valley, part of the Occupy movement.
"It started in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific (Ocean), where the Marshall Islands' people are dealing with rising ocean levels and the end of their life as they know it. Pakistan, dealing with floods that took place that displaced 20 million people."
Andrews readily admitted that many people will roll their eyes at the group's effort. He spoke to gatherers about the Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank that recently put up billboard around the U.S. sporting photos of people like unabomber Ted Kaczynski and murderer Charles Manson, with logos reading, "I still believe in global warming, do you?"
"So you see, it must be true of you all," Andrews told the crowd. "That's what we're up against."
Andrews said for him, the "Connect the Dots" theme was all about looking for the relationship between natural disaster and climate change.
"The notion there is that there's lots of points around the world where we see evidence of really unusual weather - weather that makes for flooding in some places and wildfires in other places," he said. "But we don't necessarily always connect the dots of what that means. Is this really related to climate change? And there's still a certain amount of climate skepticism. Is this just unusual weather? Or is this climate change and its affects."
Mona Dubay of Jay attended the rally and was among many people who carried big cardboard signs bearing a single black dot. She said she wants more people to think about global climate change.
"It's right here in everybody's neighborhoods," Dubay said. "We definitely had a huge showing last Aug. 28 when Tropical Storm Irene made its appearance here in our area, and we're still dealing with the cleanup from that. People's lives have been changed forever. This is just the beginning, I'm afraid."
The event also attracted some younger activists like Maria Goulet, a teenager from Jay.
"I really feel like, as a young person, I need to be aware and kind of do something about it," she said. "I really would like to focus on getting information out."
Two local politicians - Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee and Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas - attended the event. Douglas said climate change and global warming can be tricky territory for a politician, but he said it's hard to ignore that something is happening.
"I'm not so sure what it is," Douglas said. "Something triggered Hurricane Irene to hover over us for that time frame and cause all this drastic damage. I'm not on one side of the aisle in this or the other; I'm glad to be part of it to learn more and hear some of the research other people have done."
Putting the topic of climate change aside, Douglas said he was happy to see people from his community getting together to do something positive. He said people like Johnson, who have no plans to leave despite the possibility of future flooding, inspire him.
Johnson said he's staying, not out of defiance of climate change or potential natural disaster, but because he has a deep connection to his home.
"I have a lot of tactile memories associated with the property, with the place," he said. "I'm not digging my heels in in the sense of, 'I'm going to be defiant and stand up against Mother Nature.' I'm digging my heels in the sense that I've had such a wonderful life here, and when I want to leave here, I want it to be just as wonderful. I don't want to say, 'It was wonderful until I had a very horrible thing happen,' and that's the memory I leave with."