Framed by red velvet drapes at Indian Head’s Grand Theatre, microphone in hand, Jared Clarke plunges his free arm deep into imaginary ocean water in front of him. Deeper water is usually cold, he explains, and hurricanes lose energy when they stir it up.
But Hurricane Harvey found warm water instead. Loaded with moisture, and trapped in one place by an unusually large loop of the jet stream, Harvey dumped as much as five feet of rain in areas east of Houston, Texas.
“That’s almost at my shoulders,” Clarke says, gesturing against his charcoal tweed jacket.
A hushed crowd of 55 people takes in Clarke’s message, told against a backdrop of visuals selected from Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. From an astronaut’s view of our atmosphere as only a thin blue rim over the vast dark Earth at sunrise, through footage of cars and trucks jostling together down a flooded, river-like street in Spain, to news reports of floods and droughts right here in Saskatchewan, Clarke connects numerous dots worldwide to draw a convincing, disturbing view of climate change.
Timing his words to footage of an intense storm hitting Tucson, Arizona, he says, “Watch the water bounce off the city – right there,” – and gets a gasp and murmur from the otherwise quiet crowd as a silver plume bursts across the screen.
But Clarke isn’t here to scare or depress people. “Deep breath, everybody,” he says, and turns his talk to solutions.
For someone only 31 years old, Clarke has done many things, from bird banding to school teaching, but he’s not a climate scientist. Still, here he is, in a province known for its rejection of a carbon tax, talking about climate change to rural people who are known for toughing out whatever the weather brings.
From his bold decision to train as a climate leader, to his choice with his wife to farm near Edenwold even though they both grew up in the city, to the long list of achievements that won him a spot on CBC’s Future 40 in October 2017, it’s clear that this young man steps up to try whatever promising opportunity he sees.
Family and teachers encouraged his curiosity and drive when he was young. At five years old, he called his mom to the window to ask about a new bird in the yard, nothing like the usual sparrows. Ramona Clarke didn’t know the bird either, but she didn’t let it pass. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t we just go buy a bird book?’ So we did.”
The bird was a spotted towhee, and the young Clarke was hooked. “I kind of became an expert on this little backyard bird book,” he says, “and it just kind of grew and grew.”
By Grade 4, Clarke’s knowledge caught the attention of a teacher, who invited him to talk to the Grade 2 class about birds.
Soon after that, on a school field trip to the waterfowl display ponds in Wascana Park, Clarke helped the minister of the environment at that time, Lorne Scott, release a wood duck. Scott became a mentor and remains a friend, bantering with Clarke while introducing his talk at Indian Head.
But through his school years, it still wasn’t clear what direction Clarke might take. Ramona Clarke says he might have gone into business, or performing arts.
In Grade 11, his school presented Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “He played a character, the donkey,” his mom recalls. “He had the crowd going. He was really in his realm right there.”
Not every high school student has the confidence to play the role of a donkey. And Clarke’s preference for birds over sports may not have helped him fit in.
But in the student representative council and drama club, his mom says, he showed that he would speak up even if others disagreed. “He was always confident that he was doing the right thing.”
In university, Clarke studied biology. In summers he worked with Scott and another well-known bird naturalist, Stuart Houston, to band ferruginous hawks, climbing numerous trees to count nestlings, note what prey the parent hawks had brought for them, and clamp a band onto the leg of each nestling.
His passion for birds seemed fulfilled when Clarke became a park naturalist for Wascana Centre in Regina.
He says birding and nature were a place of peace for him all along. “It’s always been my anchor in terms of who I am and what I’m proud of being.”
But his flexibility would soon be called on, when he and his wife, also a biologist, got pregnant. Looking for a stable long-term career, he checked the University of Regina admissions page for teacher education, found the deadline was extended, applied and got accepted in just two weeks. “And I was like, ‘Okay! I guess I’m going to be a teacher then,’” he laughs.
Today Clarke spends his time teaching, raising twins and farming, and continues his nature outreach through projects like hummingbird banding at people’s feeders and training volunteers to observe birds for the new Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas.
He also hosts “The Prairie Naturalist” on CJTR Regina Community Radio, which is where he interviewed another climate leader who encouraged him to apply for an upcoming round of Gore’s training.
With everything he had going, plus having to sacrifice all his days off as a teacher, it was a tough decision, but he went ahead. “And then all of a sudden I’m in Pittsburgh, listening to Al Gore,” he says.
In conversation, Clarke’s face shifts quickly between a big, tooth-flashing grin and an intense look that makes you wonder if you’re taking yourself as seriously as he is.
That cheerful dedication inspires his students. His Grade 6/7 class at Lakeview Elementary School recently hosted a public presentation of his climate talk. The event impressed his mentor, Scott, who says, “He had the kids introduce him, introduce the program, welcome people….”
And so, Clarke is passing on the confidence he gained from his own teachers, to young people who face new challenges.
Seeing the climate reality as he does, Clarke considered not having kids of his own. Now his 5-year-old twins, Rowan and Teal, drive what he does. He protects some time for hiking with his family and enjoying the outdoors, but sometimes he spends a Saturday afternoon talking to strangers instead, hoping to leave a better future for his children.
“I want to make sure at the end of my life that I can look them in the eye and say that I did what I could do, as an individual,” he says.