Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Devi Lockwood is cycling around Australia and New Zealand to gather first-person accounts.
The weather changes quickly on Arthur’s Pass. Rising 3,018 feet above the sea, the trail slices down the spine of New Zealand’s South Island. A narrow viaduct spans mountain ranges and waterfalls. In one spot, it might be dreary, cloaked in heavy mist. Down the road, it might not be raining at all.
The landscape changes quickly, too, from dense forest to jagged scree. “In New Zealand, you can be in the ocean in the morning, mountains in the afternoon, and fields at night, and have the sense of really having gone somewhere,” says Devi Lockwood. The 23-year-old cycled the passage as part of her project to document 1,001 narratives about water and climate change.
“It’s a gradual climb all day, and a steep climb at the end,” she adds. She pushed her Surly Disc Trucker bike up the last leg while cars rolled by, cracking their windows to cheer her on. Her neon flag wobbled behind her.
Lockwood has been on the road for 15 months and has picked up 443 stories, moving along slowly by bike and boat. After graduating from Harvard in 2014, she headed to Fiji on a travel fellowship. From there, she headed to Tuvalu, Australia, and New Zealand. A student of folklore and mythology, she also studied Arabic and is enamored with The Arabian Nights. There’s “something magical,” she says, about the number 1,001.
She doesn’t wear a watch, and doesn’t track her mileage each day. She loads up her handlebar pack with food, and tucks a printed map into a laminated case on its cover. Along with vitamins, a Diva cup, and other toiletries, the bag also contains talismans and gifts from people she’s encountered on the road: icons of saints, an anklet strung with beads and shells, a can of pepper spray someone bought her at Walmart during an earlier trip along the bank of the Mississippi River. (She’s never used it.)
Her bike frame is covered with so many neon stickers that Lockwood can’t remember where she picked them all up. They add a bit of levity to what can be a solemn, solitary trek. Lockwood spends quite a bit of time alone, balancing on her two wheels. “It’s good for reflecting,” she says. “Sometimes frustratingly good.” The stickers make her journey “a little bit happier and a little bit goofier.”
She finds places to stay by using warmshowers.org—which she describes as “like couch-surfing for cyclists”—or she pitches a tent that’s strapped to the back of her bike below a travel-sized guitar and reflective vest. She calls the tent her “five-billion star hotel.” It becomes a sanctuary. “It can be nice to have that space to retreat into,” she says. “To claim that one little space as mine.”
In many cities, she parks her bike and pulls out a handmade sign. It’s cardboard, reinforced with layers of tape and a tattered string she loops around her neck. In permanent marker, she scribbled, on one side: “Tell me a story about climate change”; on the other: “Tell me a story about water.”
“Sometimes, people who don’t have a story will introduce me to someone who does,” she says.
She’s learned about displacement from climate refugees fleeing Tuvalu, a small island nation of 10,000 in the Pacific Ocean, sitting no more than 4.5 meters above sea level. At United Nations summits, Prime Minister Enele Spoaga has blamed greenhouse-gas emitters for the country’s vulnerability, arguing that it is at risk of being swallowed by the water. Some scientists, BBC News reported, believe that atolls won’t sink, but simply shift. But Spoaga—and Tuvalu citizens—are deeply concerned. "It keeps me awake at night,” National Geographic quoted Spoaga as saying to the UN. “Will we survive? Or will we disappear under the sea?"
According to a recent UN report, more than 70 percent of households in Tuvalu feel that migration “will be a likely response if sea level rise, flooding, saltwater intrusion, or droughts become more severe.” Many respondents also indicated that they had intended to migrate earlier, but felt that they did not have the financial means to do so.
Lockwood has also learned about natural gas in Taranaki, from a retired man who spent his whole career in fracking. And about the horror of trying to locate loved ones after a tsunami, from a family who had been eventually reunited at a Buddhist monastery. She’s quick to point out that the stories aren’t about her. “They’re about the bigger issues,” she says. She considers climate change to be “the most important issue of my generation.”
The narratives unfold in the way the speaker wants them to. “I don’t interrupt,” Lockwood adds. “I don’t ask clarifying questions. The rhythm and way someone tells a story has value.”
Eventually, Lockwood hopes to digitize recordings she makes along the way into a clickable map. “Listening is a form of activism,” she says. “There are as many ways to be an activist as there are people on the planet.”