Ex-Reducer Hugh Birdsall reaches out to youth with Reforest the Tropics environmental group
When New London pub rockers The Reducers toured Japan in 2004 and guitarist/vocalist Hugh Birdsall looked out from a Tokyo stage at a venue stuffed with screaming young fans, he probably figured it was as close as he'd ever get to living a Beatles/"Hard Day's Night" mob-adulation moment.
That's probably still true.
But the satisfaction Birdsall feels today, as an educational consultant for the environmental group Reforest the Tropics, speaking to classrooms full of young students about climate change, is an even more important and resonant experience.
Birdsall says, "The planet is in trouble. We are in trouble. But it's one thing to alert someone to an external crisis and quite nother thing to look inward and find out what our relationship to the planet is. That's what I try to convey to students and, ultimately, it's up to them to answer that question. But I can ask, 'Does the planet belong to us or do we belong to the planet?'"
Reforest the Tropics is a Mystic-based nonprofit organization that works with farmers in Costa Rica to plant trees on their land to help offset carbon dioxide emissions. The group is sanctioned by the United Nations and works to mitigate climate change by sustainable forestry and long term carbon sequestration. Part of their efforts involve conducting programs and workshops with more than two dozen schools across Connecticut including both the New London and Norwich magnet schools. These efforts have resulted in several school- and student-sponsored tree-growing projects in the region.
For Birdsall, as part of these educational efforts, the opportunity to reach out to young persons is a logical step in a remarkable life of music and activism.
"As far back as 1986, I figured out I wasn't going to make a living playing rock 'n' roll," Birdsall says. Formed in 1978, the Reducers came incredibly close to stardom and were a full-time occupation. Ultimately, all four members decided to forsake a driven bid for international success to stay rooted to the New London area and carry on while working day jobs. The Reducers continued to release albums and perform regionally until 2013, when they dissolved following the cancer death of bassist Steve Kaika.
Throughout, Birdsall, a Yale graduate, earned his teaching certificate and taught French for 20 years at schools in Madison, Wethersfield and Groton. He later worked with the regional education agency LEARN teaching English to speakers of other languages. And all along, throughout his musical and educational careers, the environment was always a very important personal issue.
Birdsall remembers, "My grandmother was a huge environmentalist and on her death bed she said, 'Hugh, this is so important. Remember that.' This was in the late 1960s, so she was someone who got the whole thing. She'd read (Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book on the environment) 'Silent Spring' and it probably took me too long, but I came around to being actively involved."
In 2004, while Birdsall was teaching at the regional multicultural magnet school, he and another faculty member saw anthropologist/environmentalist Jane Goodall speak at Connecticut College and found her presentation revelatory and inspiring — so much so that they dipped into their own pockets to send two of their students to participate in Goodall's Roots & Shoots service programs for young people. Those students came back from that experience and wanted to start an ecology club at the magnet school.
"They needed a faculty advisor to do so and I was happy to volunteer," Birdsall says. He and fellow teacher Susan Hafler are still the organization's advisors.
Among the many experts and volunteers who spoke with the club was Herster Barres, director of research at Reforest the Tropics.
"He gave a great talk and a power point presentation," Birdsall says, "and the kids got inspired and wanted to take part in the program — where schools and corporations invest in hectares of land (about two-and-a-half acres) and plant trees."
Over the next three years, as Barres made regular appearances at the club, the students and sponsors were able to secure a grant and enough donations to start their own forest. To date, they've raised enough trees to offset about 20 percent of the school's carbon emissions.
"That forest is now about three years old," Birdsall says. "When it was initially planted, pests wiped it out and we had to start again. But that's a real-life pitfall and a lesson and we kept going."
As for Birdsall becoming part of the Rainforest the Tropics organization, he approached Berres with some ideas about school presentations.
"I'm used to teaching that age group and I know the kids' interest level and how long they can pay attention," Birdsall says. "They might be genuinely interested, but at a certain point they'll fall into a coma. I had a lot of ideas about how to keep them engaged."
Barres liked Birdsall's ideas. "When Hugh retired in 2016," Barres says, "We took the opportunity to ask him to work with us teaching in elementary schools about climate change. And he's very good at that and self-motivated."
Birdsall explains there's no mandate in Connecticut schools to teach students about climate change, so his classroom approach has evolved to center around hands-on physical activities and mental challenges. By now, he's traveled from school district to school district, sometimes using a sort of door-to-door salesman approach, and has over the past two years worked with over 2,000 students — mostly seventh graders and some pre-schoolers — along with their teachers to create sustainable programs that provide knowledge and experience and, yes, plant trees.
Still singin', still playin'
As active as Birdsall is with youth and the environment, he's also stayed very busy musically. Along with guitarist/vocalist Peter Detmold and drummer/vocal Tom Trombley — the other two surviving Reducers — Birdsall continues to write and perform occasional gigs as The Three-Pack. He also plays in the long-lived rock band Dogbite.
But Birdsall says a different musical persona has emerged over the years. While he still enjoys playing the sort of anarchic, rebellious loud/fun rock that fueled the Reducers, he's now frequently armed with an acoustic guitar and has become very active in folk music and pop standards. He plays solo, in the duo Hugh and Dana with violinist Dana Takaki, and participates in all manners of benefits and for charitable causes. This aspect of his music reflects the ideals of artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Occasionally, he says, he'll incorporate music into his environmental classes. He's collaborated on songs with his students — one is called "This is Not a Game This is Climate Change" — and has spoken with other local songwriters Ben Parent and Steve Elci, both of whom have written eco-conscious material, about possible future joint projects.
"When you're a kid, you join a band and play punk rock," Birdsall laughs. "Then when you're an old fart, maybe you have a bigger view of the world and play acoustic music. The important thing is to keep playing."
In that spirit, Birdsall says, "When you think about it, I'm not really retired. Not at all. I've slowed down a bit but now I have the luxury and the breathing room to plan and focus. My goal is to keep getting into more and more schools. It's easy to sit back and think we're fighting a losing battle. But the Reforest the Tropics people are amazing. They refuse to give up. And there are dozens, hundreds of groups all fighting this battle all over the world.
"For me, there are a lot of kids we'd love to reach just starting in southeastern Connecticut. The idea is that, eventually, after we've been there, the kids and the teachers learn and become committed to carrying on without me. It's a process. I'm learning and adapting, too. Most importantly, it's important to teach a fourth-or fifth grader in a way that they get involved out of love rather than fear."