About me

Me demolishing my kitchen a few years back. It looks better now. So do I.

Lissa Harris here. I’m a local climate reporter in the rural Catskills, an MIT-trained science writer, a volunteer firefighter, and a lifelong problems nerd.

This newsletter is a local, personal, bug’s eye view of some big problems. Like a lot of reporters, I bust my ass to be fair and accurate. That’s different from adopting a “view from nowhere.” We all come from somewhere. The view here is mine, I hope you enjoy it.

In 1916, my great-great-grandfather John Birdsall started a little telephone business in Margaretville, a tiny rural village in Delaware County, New York. At the time, Margaretville had all of seven telephones. It has broadband now. (Thanks, John.)

I left this place in my teens, and honestly I never expected to move back home. But in 2010, following the family tradition of disrupting information systems in the middle of nowhere, I came back to the Catskills with my (now ex-) wife Julia Reischel to found the Watershed Post, a digital news outlet for the rural Catskills. We spent a lot of time trying to convince people that news on the computer was a thing.

A year later, the Irene floods hit the region with brutal force. Unable to travel in the aftermath because of catastrophic road washouts, we spun up a live blog and a contributor network across the region, and we covered the disaster in real time. Our efforts earned national recognition, academic curiosity, and a loyal local readership.

In the long run, John had better luck than we did. The Margaretville Telephone Company is still going strong. The Watershed Post shut down in 2017. Local news is a rough business.

I’m still living in Margaretville, I’m still writing, and I still think rural places like the one I live in deserve better care and attention from the press.

Since 2021, I’ve been focused on covering climate policy, problems, and solutions from a local perspective, first for The River and lately as a freelancer for the Albany Times Union’s Hudson Valley section. I had support and training from the Solutions Journalism Network while at The River, and it’s made me a big believer in reporting on efforts to fix things, not just documenting how terrible they are.

Climate isn’t the only thing I write about here, but expect a lot of it — and a fair amount of nerdery on that front.

Why subscribe?

Free subscribers will get a weekly dispatch about something I’m working on and thinking about — thoughts on a hot local issue, a deeper dive on a story I’ve published elsewhere, a Q&A with an interesting problem-solver, a helpful breakdown of some knotty climate topic in plain English.

Any original local reporting I publish here will be free to read. Local news in my region is drying up at a terrifying pace. By becoming a paid subscriber, you’ll be helping me produce more local journalism in a place that sorely needs it.

The people have spoken, and they want climate and nonsense.

Paying subscribers will hear from me more often, and a little more personally. If you’re into dispatches on the life of a feral reporter out in the sticks, notes on my ongoing quest to sequester a bunch of carbon in my glutes, or the occasional selfie, you should probably subscribe.

Another thing I’m working on launching soon for paying subscribers: Roundups of the latest New York State climate stuff, local Catskills news tidbits, and news from the wider world that’s relevant to rural upstate New York. There may be sass.

If this thing gets enough subscribers, we’ll do live chats and fun stuff like that. This New Zealand reporter’s chatty Substack community is goals.

A sample of what you’re in for

Recent work for the Times Union:

Lucy Sante writes about how NYC got its water, up to a point.” Look. If you’re going to read a book review dragging one of this century’s most celebrated literary talents, you could go witness the New York Times crack a lame Deliverance joke, or you could read something from a local who knows what’s wrong here.

Rural electric co-ops see new opportunity in Inflation Reduction Act.” A look at one of New York State’s smallest utilities — and why rural co-ops like the Delaware County Electric Cooperative think the IRA might be the biggest development in their world since the New Deal.

Climate coverage for The River:

Leading the Flock: The Promise of Agrivoltaics in New York.” You learn things from talking to sheep farmers. I did not have “a shortage of local slaughterhouses might be holding back the pace of solar energy development in the Northeast” on my bingo card.

New York’s Heat Pump Program is Drying Up.” Why New York State’s heat pump rebate program is so confusing — and how it’s become a victim of its own success.

A Green Firehouse for New Paltz, Despite the Odds.” On the uphill battle to make New Paltz’s long-anticipated firehouse a zero-carbon building, and balancing first responder needs with green design.

A few greatest hits from my column for the Woodstock Times:

The Wench Mill.” An account of a forgotten chapter of local history, and a reminder that slavery was alive and well in upstate New York til it wasn’t.

Shandaken 911.” How one Catskills town stays in touch with all its citizens in a disaster, even the most remote and digitally-challenged ones.

Vote where your heart is.” In which I get myself in trouble for being crabby about drives to register second homeowners to vote at their weekend addresses.

Why Substack?

Honestly: Because it’s a big platform, and I’m tired of having to move digital homes all the time. I quit Facebook after watching it eat my business and make my community meaner, not to mention giving me a wicked case of burnout from constant local news comment moderation. Now Twitter is melting down. No place on the internet is perfect. I want to go where people are talking to each other.

Substack has taken some well-deserved heat for platforming vaccine misinformation and transphobia. If you’re here for that sort of thing, move along, there’s lots of other newsletters. As a rural queer first responder: Zero oxygen to dumpster fires.

Subscribe to Empire of Dirt

A newsletter for people who love little places with big problems. Written by a climate reporter from the rural Catskills.


Lissa Harris

climate reporter. firefighter. upstater. barbaric yawper. she/her 🏳‍🌈⚔💀 @MIT_Sciwrite @timesunion @rivernewsroom, founder @watershedpost