What are we fighting for?

Bell Prize winner: Through the trials of life, a young writer finds she’s fighting for our spirit.


A net bag filled with dried leaves sits in a wooden box on my kitchen table. Buried in the leaves is a piece of oil shale, wrapped in twine. A long wooden rod with hooks on each end, one for the leaves and one for the rock, rests against the wall. Beside it stands a thin wooden board, two feet square, with a question inscribed across its middle: “Rather than against, what are we fighting for?” A year ago I inherited these items from my friend Alisha, and since then I’ve collected people’s responses to them. Neon-yellow, pink and blue post-it notes dot the board with suggestions ranging from “powder days” and “more female athletes on TV” to “the bees, clean air, and each other.”

Coming of age in an era of dystopian politics and looming climate chaos, it’s easy for me to say what I’m against: fascism, capitalism, racism, sexism. The list of isms goes on and on. Saying “no” to an unjust system creates space for rage and grief, but shouting “yes” to equity and beauty inspires hope and joy. As the title of Naomi Klein’s new book says, No Is Not Enough.  

What are we fighting for? Today, I write “aspen.” For the past eight years, I have faithfully returned to the dense aspen grove at Willow Heights in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. When I was 17, I lost my virginity under the aspen alongside Willow Pond. I hiked the trail every time I came home from college. I bring my visiting friends to the aspen grove, and they always take photos on their iPhones. After I broke up with my partner of seven years, I walked up the snow-covered path. Lying down in the knee-deep powder on the side of the trail, I was finally able to sob.

My rituals have always been shaped by land. I didn’t grow up with religion; I grew up with wildness. My parents divorced when I was 5. I coped by climbing a ponderosa pine in my grandparents’ yard, swinging from each reliable branch. When my grandparents cut down the tree to pave their driveway, I didn’t talk to them for a week — my first environmental protest.

This past summer, Bill Anderegg, a young climate scientist, took me to the forest he grew up exploring in southwest Colorado. He told me aspens support more biodiversity than any other forest type in the mountain West. Each tree in a stand of aspens is connected, sprouting from the same lateral roots. But now the aspen are dying and stand no chance of adapting to climate change. During his first year of graduate school, Bill returned to the forest, the backdrop of many family photos, and found a sea of dead stumps. Cause of death? The early 2000s drought, which was 3 degrees Celsius hotter than any drought on record. He said, “Climate change is visible, and it’s visceral, and it’s during my lifetime.”

After writing “aspen” on a blue post-it note, I drive to Willow Heights. Golden-yellow and pale-green leaves litter the ground like the leaves on my kitchen table. My heart beats faster as I walk the steep trail. I stop and feel the stark white bark. A powdery residue like climbing chalk covers my hands. I look around, and hundreds of trees flow into one another, a sheet of white dotted with gray-black knobs from branches shed with age.

How long do these aspen have left?

When I return home, I stare at the box of leaves. Alisha gathered the leaves from a gutter. She said, “A gutter collects a diversity of leaves, a coming together of difference.” She acquired the rock from the Bureau of Land Management office in Vernal, Utah. She asked for a map of oil shale deposits, and the person at the front desk walked to a back room, returned, dropped a stone on the counter, and inquired, “You mean this?” Alisha left with the rock. She said later, “I may have been vague as to why I needed it.”

She needed it to make art. In the fall of 2016, Alisha brought her project to the Uplift Climate Conference, a gathering for young climate activists. Sitting on a picnic table at a campground outside Durango, Colorado, she instructed us to string strands of leaves together until they were heavy enough to outweigh the piece of oil shale. She hung the rod with the leaves on one end and the shale on the other. The heavy-looking rock now appeared insignificant.  

What are we fighting for? Our spirit. I uncover the piece of oil shale and pull out the mesh bag. I tie the rock to one end of the rod and the leaves to the other, and I find a hook above my head and hang them. The oil shale hits the ceiling.


Winner of the 2017 Bell Prize

Brooke Larsen is a writer and climate organizer from Salt Lake City. As a current student in the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Graduate Program, Brooke explores the role of storytelling in the climate justice movement. She spent the summer of 2017 cycling across the Colorado Plateau, listening to stories from people on the frontlines of climate change and environmental injustice. She works for Torrey House Press and organizes with groups such as Wasatch Rising Tide, Uplift, and SustainUS. Her essay “Eyes of the Young” was recently published in the anthology Red Rock Stories. Brooke graduated from Colorado College with a degree in environmental policy and researched land and water issues in the American West with the college’s State of the Rockies Project.

The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the runner-up essay.