Trust author profile: Heidi Watts

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Heidi Watts, author of “No Trusts Without Trust” in Whole Terrain’s Trust volume

Heidi Watts has spent nearly a half-century of summers on the LaHave Islands, off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the 1960s, she experienced them as thriving fishing communities with ample hauls in small fishing boats. More recently, she has watched them transition to ghost towns, as fishing technologies and availability changed, and now toward a seasonal community of affluent vacationers. At Whole Terrain, we’ve been able to follow that journey as Watts has shared about her experiences in our 2002-2003 volume, Gratitude & Greed, as well as our 2015 volume, Trust.

In Gratitude & Greed, Watts was thinking about her gratitude for the fishing community that had welcomed her family as one of their own, and reflecting on the unsustainable fishing models practiced by big fishing operations that had profoundly influenced the ability for these small fishermen to maintain their livelihood. She spoke of the positive technological advances that allowed fishermen increased safety at sea, and expressed sadness about innovations such as huge nets that caused massive by-catch (undesirable species were thrown back dead or dying), and trawlers that destroyed the sea floor ecosystem. She told of the 50% reduction in marine life by the 1980s, down to almost nothing by the late 1990s. She discussed the impact of overfishing not only on the marine community, but also the terrestrial community, including the human population.

I do not know if the destruction of the sea’s bottom and the corresponding interruptions in the food chain are responsible for the disappearance of the tide line creatures, or to what extent increasing urbanization and chemical additives in the environment are responsible for the decreasing activity in our woods. I do know that each summer when I return to the islands I realize that one more bird is absent, one more sea creature is gone, and one more fisherman has moved away. It is then that I feel the reality of “endangered species” and “silent spring,” not as mere concepts but as personal loss. (Heidi Watts, Whole Terrain vol. 11, Gratitude & Greed, p. 13)

In our most recent volume, Trust, Watts tells another piece of the story of her life on the LaHave Islands. As the fishing community moved inland to seek other job opportunities, their cottages began to be bought up by developers. She saw the character of the islands changing from shared use of public beaches and ocean to private land and water rights. Therefore, she began working on a LaHave Islands Preservation Society, the Canadian version of a land trust. Through this means, she hoped to preserve public access to at least one beach and wetland, providing a conservation area for the non-human species who have traditionally populated the islands as well as preserving one space where a communal sense of land use still prevailed. To her surprise, in addition to the financial challenges of this project, she met with most resistance from the few old time fishermen who still call the islands home. In “No Trusts Without Trust,” Watts described the grievances of these fisherfolk:

Most of the objections revealed significant differences in our perceptions, both social and environmental. Some neighbors expressed concern that Americans would be making decisions and controlling Canadian land. Others remembered an attempt to make Cape LaHave a national park and how it divided the islanders. “We have always been able to fish off those shores, to land and to hunt, and now?we will not be able to do so,” said one man. “Even if you say we will, what happens when someone else, in twenty years, is making the rules?” Others worried about the financial impact on their properties: “The conservation efforts to the north and south of us, like the Kingsburg Conservancy, have just resulted in higher property values and more and more people moving in and privatizing the land.” Some expressed worry about land access, fearing what happened at nearby Cherry Hill when beach access was denied to save the piping plovers. Loud and clear we heard, “What’s wrong with just leaving things the way they are?” (Heidi Watts, Whole Terrain vol. 22, Trust, “No Trusts Without Trust,” p. 72)

Watts realized that, although her idea was well intentioned, and although she and the long-term residents of the islands valued the continued ecological health of the islands’ species, they did not connect the dots in the same ways. While she saw a preservation society as a way to ensure continued access to the islands’ natural resources, others noted possible access restrictions to natural spaces due to endangered species concerns, or to being priced out of the area. By the end of her piece in Trust, Watts had realized she needed to take a few steps back, engaging in more intentional education and collaborative problem solving to make sure the LaHave Islands community could move forward together.

It is these kinds of stories that show the importance of spaces like Whole Terrain, where environmental thinkers and practitioners can step back and reflect on the effects of their environmental theories when put into practice. We are lucky to have an author such as Heidi Watts share with us at different points on her journey as an example of an enacted environmental practice across time.

When we spoke with Watts recently about further developments on the LaHave Islands Preservation Society, she expressed mixed feelings about its progress. A group of individuals is going to purchase the property in question, with the eventual goal of making it into a preservation area or land trust, but the old time fishermen are still against the idea, which saddens her.

Art accompanying Watts’ “Who Hears the Fishes When They Cry?” in Whole Terrain vol. 11, Gratitude & Greed, by artist Tom McDonald

Whole Terrain: What was it like to learn that your well-intentioned approach to a land trust was not received in the spirit you intended it?

Heidi Watts: It was a shock! I feel it is of great importance to try to save natural resources and areas for future generations, so I was trying to see what I could do in my own little corner of the world. In this case, it was personal—I had lived through the depletion of a great natural resource and I saw how devastating that was. Well, what do you do when your own little corner of the world doesn’t agree with you?

I was a little bit naïve about the whole thing at the beginning of this process. I thought we had this lovely relationship with the fishing community that we’d developed over years of living there, and that’s what I shared about in my piece for Gratitude & Greed. So I was really taken aback by this hostile, suspicious response.

WT: What do you see as the core difference between your perspective and that of the fishing community on the LaHave Islands?

HW: When the fishermen became aware we were trying to make this preservation society, we had the open meeting I wrote about in “No Trusts Without Trust.” Their sense was, “There are these outsiders coming in and telling us what to do with our land, and they’re not even Canadians. They don’t understand how it always was: land you could roam through and use as you wished. It was a great commons.” And now someone comes along and says, “I’m going to take a piece of this commons and preserve it”—it feels like taking away their access to the land.

But what they weren’t understanding is that the commons was rapidly disappearing and what we were trying to do was to ensure that some small part of the islands would remain land open for public use in perpetuity.

WT: What have you learned about developing trust through this experience?

HW: The thing I learned from that experience was something I learned before and forgot: that my worldview is just not the same as everyone else’s. I believe in trying to understand from other points of view, but keep stumbling over my own blindness! What I want to do is be able to understand a situation completely from another’s point of view—get rid of my righteous indignation, but not get rid of the basic values I hold. I can’t alter my values around this, but I can alter my attitude.

As an educator, I know about developmental theory, and it’s an important part of education for people to develop the ability to hold in their minds two ideas that are completely contradictory, and to still be able to function.

When you’re teaching teachers, you teach them to win the trust of the group they’re teaching so they’ll listen to you when you try to give advice. You can’t very well win their trust if you just tell them they’re doing a bad job. You have to see where you can find common ground.

That should have been our next step on the island. They care as much as I do about the fishing, they just don’t see the same connections as I do. I’m going back and talking to people on the island, sharing my perspective and hearing theirs, and remembering our love for the islands and the community. That’s our common ground.

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Bio: Heidi Watts, Ph.D., is professor emerita from Antioch University New England, formerly co-chair of the Department of Education, as well as adjunct faculty with the doctoral program in environmental studies. She follows a migratory pattern, living in Nova Scotia in the summer, New Hampshire in the fall and spring, and India in the winter, where she works with teachers in the international community of Auroville.

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