WHEN I FIND Warren Senders on the side of a Boston suburbs highway, he is ready to hand me a sign that reads, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IS SOCIAL JUSTICE. It’s only 7:30 on a late September morning, but the day is already steamy. This makes his own sign, which leans against a guardrail and proclaims, CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, seem especially appropriate. As I put down my things and accept the square of cardboard, Senders warns me away from a patch of poison ivy. He knows the spot well—at last count, he’s been out here every weekday morning for 154 weeks.
Senders spent years searching for a meaningful way to protest climate change. Eventually, he came to the idea of a daily practice. He’s a musician who teaches private lessons, specializing in Indian classical music, as well as courses on music education at the New England Conservatory. “I am accustomed in my life to doing something every day, whether I want to do it or not,” Senders says. Starting in 2010, he wrote letters to the editor about climate change every day for four years. He was published and republished in papers around the country, including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post, and got good at summarizing catastrophes in soundbites. But, he says, “It made me intolerably gloomy.”
Then a new idea came to him: he would make a sign, and go outside, and stand.
A passing truck casts a rectangle of shade, giving us a moment’s relief from the sun. I take off my cardigan, and Senders sheds his sweater too. On my other side is Craige Knopf, a retired library page who joins Senders’s morning vigil three days a week. He’s holding a sign referencing Hurricane Harvey, which asks, IS BOSTON THE NEXT HOUSTON? Knopf passes over some sunscreen, which Senders smears onto his face and neck. Construction vehicles bang and roar behind a screen of yellowing trees at our backs, forcing us to shout.
Senders points to the overpass where his vigil started. He was only there for about two weeks, he says, before state police strongly recommended he stand somewhere else. Senders asked where he should go, and an officer suggested the traffic circle below. Now we’re standing where he’s been ever since: the entrance to a heavily congested rotary that leads to I -93. At rush hour, commuters creep past on their way to Boston.
The logjam works in his favor, Senders says. On the bridge, people blew by, sometimes shouting rude comments. But down here, he has time for conversation. Once, he says, a city bus opened its door and the driver called out to ask who was paying him. Nobody, Senders answered; he was doing it for the world. “And he says, ‘The World?'” Senders recalls. “‘Is that some kind of left-wing group?'”
Knopf laughs at this. In the summer of 2017, he saw Senders speak at a benefit concert for climate change. Senders has organized at least eighteen of these concerts and estimates that he has raised more than $12,000 for climate change awareness groups 350.org and 350 Mass. Knopf says that at the concert, Senders told the audience about his daily vigil and invited them to join him.
“And so I did,” Knopf says. “I had been looking for something like this for a long, long time.”
Although the pair’s message could reach a wider audience if they moved around, Senders says there’s power in repetition, too. Commuters on this circle have to face his presence every day-not just the signs, but the fact that there are men who care enough to stand behind them in rain, blizzards, and broiling heat.
Many drivers keep their eyes ahead, never glancing at us. Others make friendly toots on their horns or hold up peace signs. “This guy always waves at us,” Senders says, pointing. Another driver combines a middle finger with a cuckoo sign. A woman squints at our signs, then smirks. A man with his windows rolled down to the warm air shrugs broadly and calls, “It’s a nice day!” In the far lane, the driver of a landscaping truck shouts to the three of us, “Hey, the crowd’s gettin’ biggah!” Senders says landscapers, who have to be outdoors every day, are all supportive.
Against the din of traffic, Senders puts in earbuds and sings for a few minutes, recording a video of himself for Facebook. He says practicing during each day’s vigil has made him a better musician. The classical Indian music Senders sings also reminds him of what we stand to lose in a melting, flooding, burning Earth. Some music in his repertoire is three hundred or four hundred years old, he says. “I damn well have to do everything in my power to make sure three hundred years from now someone is singing it.”
Another, more famous singer—Pete Seeger—used to stand by a New York highway with antiwar signs in his old age. Senders tells me this anecdote with sweat running down his face as we pack up to leave after an hour. He’s no Pete Seeger, he says. But Senders has a thirteen-year-old daughter, and if one day there’s a court of climate crimes, he wants her to be able to say that her dad was not indifferent. Her dad did something.
“By God, I was here,” he says, and there are tears in his eyes. But it might just be the sunscreen.
Artwork by Dalton Brown. Untitled, 2018, varnished acrylic on canvas; 12 x 36 inches.