Sociologist Kate Olson knows climate change is happening. But while working toward her PhD at Boston College, she began to wonder what the precise impacts of it were already. By the time she and her husband moved up to Maine, she had a game plan to find out, and a dissertation topic: “Fish, Farms, Forests: An Ethnography of Climate Change in Maine.” Translation? She was going to ask the Mainers on the front lines of the state’s natural resources, from the people who work the good dirt to the loggers harvesting trees and clammers digging the flats.

We asked her about her research methods and her findings so far. Since the Freeport resident was in her last days of her second pregnancy when we spoke – complete with Braxton Hicks contractions – we also asked her what it is like to be gestating another human when her eyes and ears are so finely tuned to the sights and sounds of climate change. Her answer was reassuring.

IT’S ACADEMIC: Olson sees environmental problems as a function of social systems; hence the connection with sociology, where human problems are the focus of study. “It’s not like the environment is out there. We are part of it.” She set a goal for her dissertation to document what people who work outside in Maine are seeing and how the changes are affecting their work.

Olson began interviews in the summer of 2017 and now has completed interviews with 45 farmers, fishermen and foresters, divided evenly into 15 people in each category. “Those are the three primary natural-resources based industries in Maine.” These would be her experts, although they tended not to think about themselves that way.

MEET THE EXPERTS: “Some people definitely questioned whether they could be a good source of data because they are just one person. But that is exactly what I want. This isn’t like biology or science like GMRI (Gulf of Maine Research Institute) does. This is taking people who have so much depth of knowledge – not breadth – and considering them experts. If you have been on your farm for 40 or 50 years, I consider you an expert on what is normal for that farm. And the same goes for someone who has been fishing in the same places for their entire lives.” All of these individual changes might seem minor, Olson said. “But when you add them up, the accumulation is really profound.”

CAREFUL QUESTIONS: One of her strategies was to approach her research subjects without naming climate change. “I believe in climate change and I accept that it is caused by humans, but I recognize that not everyone does. So I always said “environmental change” initially. Once they named climate change, then we used that. I didn’t want to put my beliefs out there and frame the conversation that way.”

SNOWBALL SAMPLING: How did she find her research subjects? “The fancy answer is through snowball sampling.” Come again? “That is an academic way of saying, word of mouth. You talk to one person, let’s say, a farmer, and then at the end of the interview I say, I would love to talk to more people and maybe they give me two or three names.” (This sounds a lot like the way journalists find people.) But she also used sources like Get Real Get Maine, various fishermen’s associations and groups like the Maine Woodland Owners. “I wanted to make sure I was getting some degree of diversity in my samples. I didn’t want to end up just talking to organic farmers.”

BIPARTISAN: Olson did ask her subjects to share what their political affiliation was, on a paper form before she settled into the one-on-one questioning sessions. Was that because climate change, or rather, the belief in it, has become in many cases a partisan issue? Not exactly, she said. She ended up with 12 Democrats, 14 Republicans, 15 independents and two people who were not affiliated with any party. She didn’t deliberately try to get such an even mix, but she was happy to have one, even though she said she’s not aiming to make broad generalizations. “This is a very small sample and it is qualitative,” she said. “If it had turned out I didn’t have any political diversity, my committee would have told me to be very cautious about any claims I might make.”

IN EARLY FINDINGS: Of the three groups she interviewed, did one report more changes than the other? The foresters have seen the least, she said, “partly a function of how the forest system works. Changes come more slowly.” But the foresters did report seeing far more ticks, and more incidences of Lyme disease. Farmers, Olson said, are well used to adapting to weather changes, but the last three summers of drought have been brutal. “They’re feeling like they need to invest more in infrastructure, particularly around water.” The fishermen reported the biggest changes, and within that, “clam harvesting is probably the most rapid change that I have heard about.” These include clams moving further into the upper intertidal zone, which could either be a relocation to avoid green crabs or evidence that they’re gone in the lower intertidal zone because of green crabs.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: What happens when she gets the PhD? Does she have to leave Maine to find a job? Unlikely she’ll do that, she said. “I’ll keep all options on the table. The only thing I feel really compelled to work on right now is climate change. And the way I can have the greatest impact in Maine.”

ANOTHER HUMAN ON THE HORIZON: In the category of impertinent questions, how is it to be gestating a human in these dark times, especially in light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? “It has been tough. It was a hard decision to have another one. It has been a really eventful summer in terms of climate-induced disasters and such. It is pretty hard to hear some of the stories that I am hearing from people.” Especially because, as Olson puts it, “having a baby is something that you do with hope for the future. It is sort of an expression of hope in a way.” She focuses on what she’s doing to combat climate change, through research that she hopes raises awareness. The fight is not over. “We have a window right now. We still have a window of opportunity.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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