Turners Falls’ Gia Neswald recounts support of environmentalism, other causes

  • Gia Neswald of Turners Falls at one of her favorite places, Wickett Pond in Wendell State Forest. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Gia Neswald of Turners Falls walks in Wendell State Forest on Friday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2020 4:15:34 PM
Modified: 1/12/2020 4:14:50 PM

Editor’s Note: This profile is the first in a week-long series focusing on female activists from across Franklin County, timed in advance of the coming weekend’s Women’s March.

WENDELL — Gia Neswald was 7 years old when she knew she would be an activist for environmental causes.

She was in school, and — as children sometimes do — became fascinated with a particular animal. For her, it was whales. The different species of whales and their massive, oceanic existence impassioned Neswald, so it was shocking for the young girl to learn people were killing whales for their blubber and oil.

With some red and purple markers, Neswald penned a letter to the “General of Japan,” asking he put a stop to the practice. Of course, there wasn’t really a General of Japan, she later learned, but the activist seed was planted.

“I was motivated,” said Neswald, as she hiked through the quiet Wendell State Forest on Friday, pausing by an iron gate installed by loggers at the forest last year. “I didn’t know anyone else who was doing activism. It just seemed like, ‘What else do you do?’ I was motivated by love, and my activism started because I loved the whales.”

Neswald, 50, of Turners Falls has been involved with a variety of different causes throughout her life, many having to do with climate change and environmentalism.

The mother of two is a “gardener by trade,” former child-care and elder-care worker and a “full-time activist” who, for the past year, vigorously protested a project by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to log in an 80-acre oak stand in the Wendell State Forest.

With other locals dubbing themselves the “Wendell State Forest Alliance,” Neswald rallied and picketed, circulated petitions and even attempted to physically block loggers. She and 29 other members of the group are currently suing the state over the logging project, which finished in September, alleging the DCR broke state laws, including the Global Warming Solutions Act. They argue that leaving forests uncut is necessary in combating climate change, due to the trees’ sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere.

Also necessary as an activist, Neswald said, is making sacrifices. Not only was Neswald arrested for blocking loggers and machinery in Wendell last year, but she was arrested earlier this month in Harvard for blocking a train carrying more than 10,000 pounds of coal from West Virginia to the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow, N.H.

“Everything has to be viewed in light of the climate emergency now — socioeconomic, spiritual, political,” Neswald said.

“As uncomfortable as it is, I believe and accept that it’s necessary now to take risks not for their own sake, but in order to be heard over the deafening corporate machines,” she said.

Neswald is originally from New York City, having moved to the area about 12 years ago to be closer to family in Vermont. An early formative experience for her as an activist, other than her discovery of whale hunting, was reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank.

‘“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,’” Neswald quoted from the book.

In 2016 came another “life-changing” experience, when Neswald traveled to the Dakotas to take part in the protests against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which protesters considered a threat to the area’s water supply and the sovereignty of indigenous people in the area. Neswald said she and others are “still counting” leaks from the pipeline, and she knows of at least 11.

“I was part of a historical co-creation, including over 10,000 people from more than 300 nations,” she said. “The most powerful experience I had while I was out there was supporting the International Indigenous Youth Council’s forgiveness walk to the jail and police station in Mandan, N.D. It was incredibly inspiring to see young activists who had been brutalized while engaging in peaceful protests forgive.”

It was at the Standing Rock protests that Neswald met other women activists who inspired her, particularly Lyla June, an activist with Scottish and Navajo ancestry who focuses on the lasting harm of colonialism, and Lakota elder Cheryl Angel.

For Neswald, being a woman, or “a person with a womb,” as she says, is an integral piece of her drive to be an activist. The motherly instinct to nurture and protect is central.

“The world needs both masculine and feminine energy to heal,” Neswald said. “It’s no news that we women have the power to bring life into the world. But the power of the womb is more than that. We carry in our wombs a power of motherhood, a microcosmic expression of Mother Earth. We can feel her.”

Neswald said she doesn’t have much to say about movements like the Women’s March — other than she’d actually like to see a march for people who identify as having non-binary genders — but said it’s important women have a “place of honor” when it comes to activism.

“My life’s work is activism now, which is a very new realization,” she said. “Even though I’ve been a lifelong activist, it’s very recent I recognized this was my purpose in life.”

Neswald’s sons — a 32-year-old stepson and a 19-year-old biological son — are both black, she said, which is another drive toward activism.

“I think about them when I’m engaged in any form of activism that I do. I’m working so they have a future, so their children have a future,” Neswald said. “They’re young, black males. If they went out and did some of the things I’m doing, they’d be taking much greater risks.”

Neswald said her activism marks a shift in thinking in how to best take care of her family. There was a time she drifted away from involvement in protests and civil action, focusing on making money and buying property, and providing for herself and family.

But as someone who always looks at the “big picture,” Neswald said material things won’t matter unless radical changes happen to reverse, or at least slow, the effects of climate change.

“The time had come for me to leave home and hearth and take more personal responsibility for these enormous problems,” she said of the 2016 protests in the Dakotas. “I don’t enjoy taking risks, or risking my life or lifestyle, but people are dying right now as a direct result of global warming.”

Neswald added she is not necessarily optimistic about global warming reversal, but, as long as there are forest fires, floods and other disasters killing people, she has to hope something can be done.

“Being an activist is very intentional. I had a lucrative career in the past, so I’m not just a lazy hippy,” she said. “But we have to make sacrifices. ... With climate change, it’s like a war.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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