The Stream

The Problem

This poem seems to resonate with the students in the School, capturing a bit of the challenge we all face, whether dealing with issues large or small.  Reference to it has come up a number of times since we read it, exemplifying how poetry helps provide language for grappling with life.

The Problem

By Taylor Mali

The guy in front of me trying to get into the subway
who is blocking my way into the subway
is not the problem.
He’s my problem,
but even I am not so self-centered as to think that my problem
is THE problem.
Besides, he’s trying to do what I’m trying to do:
get on the subway.
I recognize him as my brother in transit.
No, he’s not the problem.
Nor is the woman in front of him,
nor even the people in front of her.
None of us is the problem,
we few, we happy happy few,
we band of transit brothers.

But there’s a guy inside the subway
with nothing but empty space to his left.
You know who he is? He’s the problem.
I wish he would look at me and say
“What’s your problem?” so I could say
“Don’t you mean, who?”
All he would need to do is step aside
and we could all get on.
But does he realize this? Noooo.
Does he know he’s the problem? Noooo.
Do problems ever realize that they’re the problems?
That’s why they’re problems.

Which makes me think,
am I anybody’s problem?
Am I keeping anyone from getting somewhere?
Not out of calculatedly malicious intent
but unwittingly lazy complacency.
If I knew where to look, would I see someone pointing at me
angrily trying to get me to do something
that might not occur to me otherwise?

New life resolution:
try to be aware of the problem.
If you don’t know what it is, it’s probably you.
So step aside.

Out and about on Lake Champlain

One of the dominant narratives of the Lake Champlain basin is the story told by the geology and hydrology of the lake.  This story is one that unfolded over a billion years of continental collision and crustal faulting, but especially over the last 15,000 years as the last glacial ice sheet retreated from the Vermont landscape.  Following the retreat of the glacier — as well as a sequence of freshwater then sea water then freshwater again transitions in the valley, the lake now known as Lake Champlain was formed.

DSCF6314And what a lake it is!  The sixth largest lake in the U.S. in terms of surface area (after only the officially-designated Great Lakes), Lake Champlain offers a complex story of water flow, sediment development, and ecological history, none of which have been completely unraveled.

In addition, the lake has a relationship with the cultural narratives of this region, not the least of which is that the lake receives run-off from several rivers and streams that flow through settled portions of Vermont, New York, and Quebec, carrying into the lake a diverse mix of elements, molecules, and microbes that derive from human action — such as phosphates and nitrites from fertilizers, mercury from fossil fuel combustion, and E. coli from sewage — that potentially have harmful effects on heath and ecosystem function.

DSCF6322How we come to understand this mix, which society is apt to call “pollution,” requires consideration of factors, including sources, transport, quantity, effects, and standards.  And we are just beginning to unpackage these through various means, including direct sampling of water and sediment in Lake Champlain aboard the R/V Folger, Middlebury College’s research vessel.

Yes, data on currents and phosphorus (in particular, unfiltered total reactive phosphorus), were collected.  Consideration of the story these data tell will take place in class throughout the semester.  But on this one particular afternoon, fun was had by all!


Sustainability Practicum reflection #2

We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills, such as systems mapping, human-centered design, and scenario planning. Reflect – using at least one specific example from the readings, your experience, or general knowledge – on your views of how such planning skills can contribute – or not – to developing practical strategies to promote sustainability.

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Kenny Williams — GreenThumb Program

Kenny Williams 2Last week, Kenny Williams, of the GreenThumb Program in New York City, came and talked to students about his experiences as a someone working to make a difference promoting the development of community gardens.  Kenny brought an important perspective to our exploration of what it takes to be an effective leader.  He is a recent college graduate (Class of 2012), yet despite that, he has tried a lot and learned a lot about what it takes to design, implement, and manage a project meant to make the world (or, at least, a part of it) a better place.

Kenny WilliamsKenny currently works as an Outreach Coordinator for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation GreenThumb Program. GreenThumb supports community efforts to create and maintain over 500 community gardens throughout the city. He joined GreenThumb shortly after graduating from Middlebury College in the spring of 2012. During his undergraduate career he and a group of fellow alumni created a school garden summer program at the Bronx Academy of Letters Charter School. The experience directed him towards further exploring the city’s approaches to gardening, particularly regarding conservation and community engagement.

One of our students, Joseph Interligi, summarized their conversation like this: ” Kenny Williams lecture fell right in line with our course curriculum by expressing how the lessons we are learning now in regards to the environment and implementing change are employed in the working world. Knowing the knowledge is important but you have to be willing to put that knowledge to work. The “sweat equity” you must dedicate into a project or idea, as Mr. Williams most eloquently stated, is one of the most important aspects of executing change. You cannot just talk the talk you must be willing to walk the walk as well.”


Sustainability Practicum reflection #1

Sherman (2008) makes the argument that the concept of sustainability complements areas of inquiry within numerous disciplines. Reflect on your views on how sustainability, as characterized by the elements we listed in class, is relevant across multiple disciplines at your college or university.

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

The Power of Communication

We recently spent an afternoon with Mary Hurlie, of LeaderScope, talking about … and experiencing the consequences of … different styles of communication.  Whether someone wants to receive information through direct, to-the-point conversation or wants to use conversation to first develop an interactive relationship is neither right nor wrong.  But recognizing that those styles exist and learning how to flex one’s own style in order to engage comfortably with others is a hallmark of effective communication.

Communications 5What does this have to do with the environment?  Making a difference in the world, being effective at creating positive change requires effective communication.  And communication is not just about talking at people; it’s also (and importantly) about listening to people.

Over the decades, environmentalists have become much better at messaging.  We reach out to more people in more sophisticated ways with our messages — whether it’s about climate change, socioeconomic inequality, species extinction, and any of the hundreds of other issues before us — than ever before.  But we have not become all that good at listening to others.  Or, at least, not as good as we need to be.

So that’s what we did.  We learned how to become better listeners.

It’s easy if you try … and if you know what to listen for.

Communications 1


September 1, 1939

We begin our days with a poem, both to honor the written and spoken word and to recognize that there are many pathways to understanding our environmental challenges.  Today we began with the final two stanzas of W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939″:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Opening ceremony

This afternoon, under blue skies and bright sun, we held the official opening ceremony for the 1st Middlebury School of the Environment.  Honored guests includes Ron Liebowitz, President of Middlebury College, Michael Geisler, Vice-President of Graduate and Special Programs (of which the School of the Environment is a part), and Nan Jenks-Jay, Dean of Environmental Affairs and the person who made sure that the dream of bringing the School of the Environment to life did not die.

President Liebowitz addressing the studentsAnd, of course, the most honored participants of the ceremony, were the students.  These were my comments to them this afternoon:

You already understand that you are a select group, the founding students of the Middlebury School of the Environment. This is an initiative 19 years in the making, building upon this college’s 50 years of commitment and excellence in environmental education.

I envy you. I have been privileged a few times in my life to have participated in the beginning of an initiative, and I know how powerful it is – years and miles down the road – to be able to claim participation and shared ownership of a true beginning. For this, you will always be able to say that you were among those who were the first.

But what, exactly, are you the first of? That will be revealed to you over the next six weeks as you engage with what lies before you, intellectually, emotionally, and somatically.

You are being called up to let go of any expectation you might have of engagement through modes that have unfortunately become too common in higher education today: modes characterized by passivity, characterized by expectations of being led, like boats bobbing in the water, to wherever the current takes you. The world has had enough of that, and you have chosen to come here this summer to prepare yourselves not simply for a life of the mind but for a life of meaning, to prepare yourselves to help change the world.

We invite you to be co-creators of your experience, to join with us in looking under the hood, if you will, of this experience. Not to critique it as a consumer would, but as someone intent on honing her or his skills at building something new and leading an initiative that you intend will make a positive change.

More than any other educational experience you’ve ever had, we invite your full engagement in making the structure of your experience part of your education.

At the risk of seeming to be a parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here at the beginning of your time with the School of the Environment, I would like you to reflect on four questions.

The first question is: Where do you come from? I know the answers that you all would give if you were asked that in a traditional setting: Lake Forest, IL; Shelburne Falls, MA; Kabul, Afghanistan; Basalt, CO; Potomac, MD; San Francisco, CA; Bedford, NH; Conway, AR; Glenside, PA; Heyward, WI; Wilson, WY; Vienna, VA. But consider what the narratives are of those places, both the cultural and ecological, that led them to be what they are today. Consider what makes them unique, consider what connects them to the broader world, and consider their interconnections with the more-than-just human world. So consider the question: Where do you come from?

The second question is: Where are you now? You know that you are at a place called the Organic Farm, which is part of a place called Middlebury College. But what are the narratives of this place, what kind of system is it a part of, and what does it represent. Fundamentally, why did we choose this place for the opening ceremony? It was not chosen at random, but rather deliberately because it is a visual manifestation of an environmental system that you need to better visualize and understand. It is one that involves food, energy, transportation, ecological diversity, material cycles, water, the built environment, and human engagement all interacting through time. So consider how you need to train your mind and all of your senses to recognize these things wherever you find yourself in the future.

The third question is: Why are you here? I know from your applications that you come to this School for many personal reasons: to both deepen and broaden your education, to prepare for new career directions, and to gain the leadership skills you will require you to not simply to move forward into the world with knowledge, but to do so with the skills and confidence to do something wonderful with that knowledge. But as you engage with your time here, I hope you will continue to ask the question of why you are here, to both broaden and deepen your answer as you encounter things you have never thought of before. However, I do not want to burden you with unreasonable expectations, especially of your path in life, and I encourage you to always hold close to your heart the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

And the final question is: Who do you wish to speak for? Being an adult, being a citizen, involves coming into yourself as a speaker for others, an advocate for rights, responsibilities, and aspirations that transcend simply your own, but those that encompass others who do not have your opportunities and abilities. For whom do you wish to speak? Your family? Your religious community? Your country? The oppressed? The dispossessed? Endangered species and ecosystems? Future generations? The choice is yours, but here at the Middlebury School of the Environment we encourage you actively to make the choice. And with such a choice you then see your true path and your true calling.

Our classroom

Snake Mountain 2One of our activities on the second day of the School was to climb to the summit of nearby Snake Mountain, about 1,000 feet above the floor of the Champlain Valley and with a spectacular view of the landscape that will be the focus of much of our curriculum this summer.  Note the interplay of both cultural and natural forces that shape the landscape: farmland, wood lots, transportation networks, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains to the west.  Over the semester, we will be unpackaging many of the narratives of this place, narratives which influence the environmental realities of the present as well as the options for creating a sustainable future.

But for the students on this day, the real pleasure was in stretching our legs, getting introduced to the landscape that will be home for the next six weeks, and enjoying the first day of summer.

And the weather was pretty darn spectacular, as well.

Snake Mountain 1


And we begin!

I have been somewhat silent on this blog for awhile, largely in order to focus on final preparations for the launch of the School of the Environment, which have been monumental. But today is the day we begin!  All of the students have checked in at the Arrival Center, and we’re now getting them settled into their rooms.  We are planning to have a group dinner this evening to kick things off, following by a welcoming and orientation session to talk about course assignments, the schedule for the weekend, and our shared hopes and expectations for the semester.

Many people deserve much credit for getting the School to where it is today, poised on the edge of its inaugural launch.  But I want to especially call out thanks to the 12 students who have enrolled in the School this summer.  They are the ones who will make all of this worthwhile … and help us make it even better as we proceed!

I plan to use this blog while the School is in session to post regular — if not daily — updates on what we have been doing.  If you are interested in tracking the daily life of the School of the Environment 2014, this is the place to be!

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.