When it comes to climate change and our progress in addressing it, sometimes all we hear is how bad things are. It is, after all, a formidable situation which requires a serious attitude.
Unfortunately, seriousness often takes the form of grimness, but that’s not how Sam Saltonstall, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s 2021 People’s Choice award winner, approaches energy conservation—or life in general, for that matter.
“He is contagiously positive,” said Laura Seaton, executive director of WindowDressers, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers to build and install low-cost, custom-made insulating window inserts. Saltonstall has volunteered with the organization since 2012 and currently serves as its board president.
While living on Peaks, he spearheaded efforts to get heat pumps into buildings…
“He has this attitude of ‘Whatever the problem is, there’s something we can do about it. It’s going to be great. We can work together and make a positive difference on this issue,’’’ she said. He’s “adorably silly,” and uses his “fantastic sense of humor” and willingness to do things a little bit differently to put people at ease and bring them together and encourage enthusiasm, she said.
A hallmark of his sense of humor and playfulness is his use of two hand puppets, a fuzzy critter named Fud and a bat named Bitey, which he uses in the WindowDresser’s regular newsletter and informational videos, and for presentations at the church he attends in Bath, the Neighborhood United Church of Christ.
As hokey as it may sound, it’s nothing but, says Marcia August, who has worked with Saltonstall on a number of energy conservation projects at the church, including most recently the installation of a solar array on the church’s premises, which required getting an amendment to Bath’s historic district ordinance so that the church, and now other historic district property owners, can place solar on their properties.
“It doesn’t feel hokey,” she said. “I don’t know why, other than it’s Sam. You’ve got to love this guy.”
During church services, Saltonstall uses the puppets and sometimes humorous poetry to pitch energy projects and illuminate the need to raise money, be generous, and to take immediate action rather than pushing it off into the future, she said. With the puppets and funny poetry, “You don’t feel lectured at,” August said. “It feels softer than a sales pitch.”
His “softer” approach is not just fun and games, and in fact, has helped him and the organizations he has volunteered with make significant and positive change on both the individual and community levels.
The first year he volunteered with WindowDressers, he was living on Peaks Island. He arranged a partnership with the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront, and managed to get more than 100 homes on the island weatherized.
While living on Peaks, he also spearheaded efforts to get heat pumps into buildings on the island, sold LED lightbulbs to residents, and worked on a large energy upgrade project at the island’s school that air sealed the building and replaced the old heating system with a more energy efficient one.
“He has such a powerful combination of skills,” said Suzanne MacDonald, chief community development officer for the Island Institute. “He knows firsthand what it takes to get community energy projects done. He’s been in the trenches, he’s rolled up his sleeves, but he’s also savvy enough and understands the levers that are out there to help him affect change on a broader level, too.
“Sam is really good at partnerships and working with other nonprofits, with companies, with funders, and even doing the work with policymakers,” she added. “I think he’s learned how to not just get it done locally, but how to leverage the resources out there to affect change at the state level and at the federal level as well.”
Now 80 years old and living with his wife of more than 50 years in Brunswick, Saltonstall continues his hands-on work with WindowDressers as well as volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a new kind of volunteering effort for him, which has him meeting with members of Congress to work on creating policy to address the changing climate. Doing local, grassroots work is incredibly important, he said, but he has also come to realize that “if you’re concerned about climate change, you’ve got to have one foot in federal policy.”
Like many grandparents, he said, he is compelled to do the work he has been doing because of his love and concern for his grandchildren.
“It is so unfair that we could leave to future generations a world already trending in such a harmful direction,” he told a virtual audience when he accepted NCRM’s People’s Choice award in late October.
“The injustice and foolishness of it motivates me and I hope you, to stay engaged, be of good courage, better learn what our Wabanaki neighbors have known all along, and not throw in the towel.”
To watch NRCM’s award presentation, including Saltonstall’s remarks, go to nrcm.org/events/conservation-leadership-awards/.
To see some of Saltonstall’s puppetry in action, go to the WindowDresssers’ YouTube channel.