When some friends from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and the University of Vermont came to my winter term class to see our group project on Emerald Ash Borer, one of the things that impressed them the most was the diversity of experience in the classroom. We take it for granted at a liberal arts school, but to them it was quite novel to have Studio Art and Religion majors in the same classroom with Biology and Environmental Studies.
I’ve also discovered another delightful fact about teaching here at Middlebury-the sometimes painful truth that all of the students are more intelligent and creative than I could ever hope to be. It’s a great feeling to have your simple little course on trees extended into other work across campus, in liberal art ways you would have never thought.
So in that spirit, I want you all to watch Arbor Day, the movie. Created by the incredibly talented Joanie Thompson for Sight and Sound I in the Department of Film and Media Culture, it made my whole day. As I’m sure happens often at Middlebury, the teacher becomes the student.
The video below is password protected on Vimeo, so here it is on the blog. Hopefully she won’t mind if it’s posted here!
I’m not one of those super-organized, or super-marketeer landscapers who spends the slow winter writing blog posts to store them for slow release all summer. No, we spent the snowless winter busily pruning more trees in one winter than the previous 3, and my dream list of blog posts keeps growing almost, but not quite, as fast as the weeds in the garden.
So what’s my first blog post of the dog days? Guess what, it’s not even about plants, but food.
Some of you probably know my wonderfully patient wife, Nancy, and if not go introduce yourself. She summers as the supervisor of the Juice Bar, which, lacking students, is run by the Grille staff, where she slums in the winter. They’re calling it Crossroads, probably because of the large sign above the back, but the menu is all Nancy. Last year was the year of the Panini, which they’ve kept (try the Sierra Smoked Turkey one), but this year crepes are the thing.
We had crepe weekend here at home a month or two ago, where she and the children practiced all weekend. (Oh, the sacrifices I make for the Middlebury community; I didn’t eat until Tuesday) She’s got it down now, and has taught Sydney and Kate (Kate from Wilson Cafe, similarly slumming in McCullough for the summer). And you owe it to yourself to go get one.
Like the Goliath, with flank steak, goat cheese, carmelized onions, and roasted red pepper. Or the Fernicky, (don’t get the name? Ask Miguel), with sausage, ricotta, and apple. But, believe it or not, even this landscaper thinks the best one may be the vegetarian option, with a coconut tumeric lime sauce. I run and hide from Indian food (an unfortunate experience at a local restaurant after a Sunday brunch), but this crepe may be the greatest thing since skinny pancakes came along.
So go for the crepes, but stay for the Chocolate Soup. Really. We practiced that recipe at home too, but I was training for the Middlebury Half Marathon, so it was’t a sacrifice, but needed fuel.
All the talk around campus seems to be about Avocados. I’d always wondered about them, so I did a little reading. It got racy, I started blushing, and just now finished sputtering my way through the randy history of the buttery fruit. For apparently, with avocados, it’s all about sex.
It starts with the name. Avocado is a bastardization, the actual name comes from the Aztec ahuacatl, meaning testicle. Yeah, I went there. It gets worse. The fruit hangs off the tree in pairs.
The spanish took the aztec word and went with aguacate, which slowly became avocado. How’d they do that? We can only speculate, but it probably came about from lawyers with inferiority complexes. The spanish aguacate slowly became synonomous for abogado, legal expert. The french use avocat for both avocado and lawyer, the italians use avvocato for lawyer, and avocado for fruit.. Draw your own conclusions.
Naturally, avocados has a long history of being an aphrodisiac, following a botanical tradition of anthropomorphizing food based upon its looks. (there’s a name for that, anyone know it?) The first recorded english use of the word was in 1697, as Avogato Pear, but that was still hitting too close to home, so English prudes tried later to change it to alligator pear. Wiser heads prevailed, we’re calling a spade a spade, so Avocado it is.
And the sex isn’t stopping there. Avocados have evolved to avoid inbreeding at all costs. There are two types of avocados, A’s and B’s. Imagine this-a plant where the female flowers open on the morning of the first day, then in the afternoon of the second the male flowers strut their stuff. That’s an ‘A’ type tree, the B’s reverse this, with the males starting.
Our dining halls are filled with Ettinger Avocados, according to Midd-Blog, which is a ‘B’ cultivar. Bred in Kefar Malal, Israel in 1947, and brought to the US in 1954, this type is frequently used as a mate to the more popular Hass variety. (what makes Hass so popular? Marketing, savvy marketing. Hass bears all year, so is much easier to grow and sell, so the industry has made it popular.)
The pits are filled with a milky sap that turns red when exposed to air, and was used as an ink by the conquistadors. Bonus points for the first Middkid to write their thesis with this.
An avocado tree gets about 80 feet tall, and a mature tree will bear about 200 fruit. The trees are evergreen, and scared to death of the cold, although some can tolerate freezing temps for a couple of days. Most trees are grafted nowadays, and bear fruit in a relatively short 1-3 years. Stick 3 toothpicks in a pit about halfway up the fruit, suspend it in a glass of water, and watch roots grow in a couple of weeks. TAKE THEM HOME, I’m not taking care of them if you plant them out in the landscape.
Avocados are one of the Anachronistic Fruits, like the Mango or our Osage Orange, evolved to disperse its seeds with an extinct mammal, in this case probably something from the Pleistocene era. Or at any rate, if anything alive has the ability to eat and excrete an avocado pit, I don’t want to meet it.
I’m primarily a plant person, because I’m slow on the uptake and not very observant. Someone says “Look at that bird!” and by the time I’m looking even close to the right direction, let alone focusing in on what a bird is, said bird has flown far, far away. Trees, wildflowers, landscapes-easy to see, and prone to stay in one place. Since starting at Middlebury, though, I’ve become enamored of our extensive squirrel population.
Aristotle named the squirrel ‘skiouros’, combining two Greek words, ‘skia’ for shade, and ‘oura’ for tail, or, in some ancient Greek slang, ‘he who sits in the shadow of his tail’. The French created the word ‘esquirel’, from whence came the English ‘squirrel’.
Our breed of squirrel on campus is the Eastern Gray Squirrel, native to the east coast from Manitoba to Florida and eastern Texas. Squirrel fossils date back to 40 million years ago, and know number over 365 species in seven families, including ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and flying squirrels. Clearly, our Middlebury squirrels are tree squirrels. This time of year their nests, or dreys, are seen high in some of our trees, or in the several hollow trees we have scattered about.
We seem to have some squirrel ‘families’, or at least some serious inbreeding going on, although it does not seem to be as notable this year as in past years. While all white or black squirrels can often be seen in urban populations with little to no predation, up by Mead Chapel for the last several years we had a group of gray squirrel with thin, wiry red tails, more like a red squirrel. The difference in the squirrels between Mead Chapel and the library quad was quite striking. Now the Mead squirrels have fluffy tails, but they are still red.
Squirrels are ‘scatter hoarders’, making many small caches of food in various locations. They are known for their spacial memory, remembering where up to 1000 of these sites are. Food types are generally tree seeds, including many nuts, although they’ve been known to feast on fungi and tree bark as well. When food is scarce they will even turn carnivorous, eating insects, frogs, small birds, even other squirrels (!).
They are most well-known for feasting on nuts, however. In fact, their love of seeds started this post. While preparing to remove the lightning struck spruce, we noticed a large cache of spruce cones underneath the tree. Given a sudden abundance of a food source, a squirrel will make a temporary pile to await better burial and hiding later. Spruces were prosperous this year in cones, and if you’re a squirrel you can’t let a good thing go to waste. The seed of the spruce sits at the base of a seed scale, and each cone can have many scales. Squirrels seem to process the cones, flaking away the bracts to reach the seed, and then later burying the seeds for retrieval later.
If I were a squirrel, though, I’d be waiting for acorns. A good source of protein, their size is probably a meal unto itself. While humans don’t like the bitter tannins found in many acorns, the squirrel doesn’t seem to mind.
I remember my first fall here at Middlebury, and thinking our Red oaks had a terrible disease. The ends of the branches, the new growth, would lie scattered about the base of the tree. Dan Celik, custodial supervisor extraordinaire, has noticed the same thing, and took pictures for the blog. Squirrels, even though they have a brain the size of a small walnut, aren’t too dumb. They go to the end of an oak branch, and gnaw with their teeth until the end falls to the ground, where they can easily and quickly harvest the bundle of acorns attached.
This comes to me from a friend of mine-a Kate Forrer, of the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program, UVM Extension. There are over 350 SOUL graduates throughout the state, and everyone I know that has taken it has loved it. Through Vermont Interactive Television the course can be taken in Middlebury, and Kate says if there is room at the site she will open it up to Middlebury students at no charge. I’d take it if I were you…
Don’t Delay- Register Now to Become A Vermont Tree Steward
Early Registration Deadline Extended until Friday, January 13th for statewide course
Are you passionate about trees?
Do you want to learn more about them and how to care for them?
Do you want to make a difference in YOUR community?
Then you may be interested in the Stewardship of the Urban Landscape (SOUL) course offered by the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program. The course prepares participants to become stewards of the forest in which they live by covering topics from tree identification, biology and planting to resource assessment, landscape design and conservation planning. Through a series of eight evening sessions, offered through Vermont Interactive Television and three Saturday hands-on sessions,participants will gain 40 hours of instruction and become part of an invaluable community forestry network. This educational opportunity is based on fifteen years of SOUL Tree Steward programs which has graduated more than 350 Vermonters!
Winter Course Dates: February 11 through May 12, 2012- including eight Wednesday evenings; 6pm-9pm, and three Saturdays: February 11th, March 10th and May 12th
Locations: Evening sessions offered via Vermont Interactive Television at the following sites: Bennington, Brattleboro, Johnson, Middlebury, Montpelier, Newport, Randolph, Rutland, St. Albans, White River Junction and Williston. Saturday sessions in nearby location.
Nancy got an email the other day from a former student/co-worker at the Grille asking for help with a resume, and she shared the email with me. Rather fortuitous, as I’d been assigned to write my ‘personal biography’ for my upcoming TEDx talk, and I’d also been reading Ryan Kellet’s recent MiddBlog postings on job searching, (and one on starting, but for the sake of this post we’ll assume you’re already there) so my own resume was on my mind. I’ve been on both ends of the resume game, I’ve been at it a while, and I’ve had some excellent teachers along the way, so I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts. Melody, this one’s for you.
First secret? You don’t have one resume, you have hundreds, one for every job you apply for. A resume is not a static document, but it’s a sales pitch, and one that you should customize for every job. Nancy is a great example. She’s done carpentry, house restoration, boat building, cooking in restaurants, supervising, senior care, day care, even landscaping (not for me, I’m a terrible boss). If she is applying for a cooking job, her resume will reference most of that experience, while a construction job will focus on her degree and experience in Historic Preservation.
And this works on a smaller scale as well. Let’s say you are applying for a job supervising a small work group. Your summer job as a camp counselor is probably more experience than you realize at supervision and it only takes a couple of words to make the cut into the ‘call’ pile. Or maybe you are over-qualified for the position, but you’d really like to eat next week. Think carefully when describing your experience, and tailor each copy you send out. A resume is not a make it or break it document that will get you a job, but a well crafted one will get you noticed. The Career Services office has a list of ‘core competencies’ language that is excellent.
Another secret. You’re about to graduate, and you don’t have a lot of experience, so you may be afraid your resume may be a little empty. In reality, even a skimpy resume speaks volumes. When I am plowing through a stack of resumes, even for an entry level job, a well crafted document says a lot about the applicant. Spelling errors, bad grammar, and/or poor layout shows a lack of attention I find troubling in an employee, and don’t waste my time interviewing.
I won’t talk about formatting, style, etc. There is heaps of bad advice out on the net about resumes. The best way to separate the good from the bad? Any template that suggests a ‘mission statement’, ‘job objective’ or ‘personal goals’ section of a resume should be ignored with all due haste. I don’t care what your personal goal is-I know it’s to get a job. Give me and my tired eyes a break.
The best template I’ve found, with excellent advice to boot, is found at the Career Services Office right here at Middlebury. Keep your resume to one page. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t’ get fancy. Did I say keep it to one page?
What are other ways to fill out your first resume starting out in the big scary world? I’m not a terribly big fan of the activities and interests section most resumes have, but it certainly is a good area to fill out a lack of experience. Please, though, call the sectional ‘additional’. What kinds of things am I looking for? Once again, it depends on the job I’m looking to fill. Are you a member of a trade organization in my field? Do you spend your nights coding for free on an open source software project, or are you just laying about in your jammies playing X-Box? Are you an active participant in your life?
The best resume secret, though, is the hardest. You need to keep your resume updated. Constantly. Maybe it’s your birthday, maybe New Years Day, or tax day, but once a year look over your resume. Maybe you have something to add. Maybe, like me, you look it over and see a subtle, but deeply embarrassing grammatical error. You may get asked for a resume in an elevator while making small talk. The person asking will forget who you are by tomorrow, after you spent the previous night re-writing your moldy, dusty, stale life. The same person will be impressed if your resume is in their in-box in half of an hour. Attention to detail, being an active participant in your life.
In the same vein, keep a list of extraordinary things, items that didn’t make it into this draft of your resume. Time spent volunteering, times you’ve been quoted in the newspaper, anything where someone paid attention to you. You’re special, so literally don’t forget it, and write it down.
My last piece of advice would be to constantly look for work, even when you aren’t. Always read the help wanted ads. They tell you more than you realize. A restaurant continually looking to hire line cooks has potential to be a terrible place to work, or a food co-op with high turnover might not have the atmosphere they think they do. Help wanted sections are the pulse of a community, the news behind the news. Trust me, the job of your life may come around when you think you aren’t looking.
4:30 comes early. I like to say I’m a morning person, but the alarm goes off, it’s summer, it’s dark, and well, that’s just too early. I drive to campus, and park behind Kenyon Arena. All facilities staff park there, so the incoming guests can park closer, and we walk to the Service Building, not talking a whole lot. I’m mainlining coffee. The walk towards campus feels a bit like a fish swimming upstream, as most of the senior class is walking away from campus, towards Alumni Stadium to watch the sunrise. Both sets of people, though, look a little bleary eyed and tired. They get to go take a nap later.
The work day starts at 5, with all hands walking the campus picking up any trash we may find. It’s never really all that bad, more like sweeping the front porch before 6000 guests arrive. We walk our snow shovel routes, with others dispatched to hot spots. I like this time of day, the calm before the storm. I also like ending up near the stadium as the sun rises. The shouts, whoops, and hollers of the graduating class as the sun comes up quickly gets subdued, and all becomes quiet, maybe as the reality of the light of day hits-it feels like an end, and a new beginning for them.
At 6 or so the swarm of workers descend to the commencement site, the main quad below Mead Chapel. The tents were erected previously in the week, including the main tent, technically called the clamshell. Some in Facilities spent part of yesterday setting chairs in front of the tent. It’s a delicate balance. While it’s nice to have some of the many many thousand chairs we need to place already up, we could spend a large chunk of the morning drying them off from dew or, even worse, rain. Towels work best, although we have resorted to backpack blowers in the past.
My day begins in earnest as well. My job is to set up the flowers in front of the commencement tent. There is a giant seal of Middlebury College right in front of the stage, and 300 red geraniums are placed at the base. First secret exposed? I leave them in the trays, and mound mulch around them to make them look like a planted bed. All life is a stage.
To give you some idea of how long Facilities plans the commencement ceremony, I first get asked to order the geraniums in September. I say you bet, but I don’t worry about them all too much. (perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this?) I buy the geraniums from a local wholesale grower, so 300 is just a tiny little drop in the bucket. It doesn’t even make a dent in the greenhouse. He gets the stress though, and the fact that they have to be right shade of red, so he doesn’t pick on me too much when I’m ordering plants 9 months in advance.
While I’m there working, I’m also watching the second coolest job for the day, the hanging of the flags. Behind the tent, hanging off of Voter Hall, are flags of every country represented by the graduating class. I was told we had to buy 9 new ones this year. I counted 59 flags when they were done, but I was supposed to be working, not counting, so there may have been more. They use a lift truck, 65′ boom, and I bet it takes them a good hour or two. One year, someone in Facilities that was attending the festivities looked up, and noticed one of the flags was for the Boston Red Sox. Oh, the horror, and the humor. Mostly horror, but we had to admit it was pretty funny. We got into the student’s room, where he thoughtfully leaned the correct flag against the wall after he leaned out his window and made the switch.
I also rent some shrubs to do a fake little planting where the tent guy lines get staked in front of the clamshell. When I first arrived on campus, I noticed a plethora of White Potentilla and Dwarf Garland Spirea planted here, there, pretty much any little corner. You see, they used to come buy them off me when I worked up the road at Greenhaven, for the very same purpose I now use Ivory Halo Red Twig Dogwood (not white flowers, but a pretty variegated leaf). I don’t want to fill the campus exclusively with a plant that looks for great for two weeks in the spring, so I just rent them and bring them back to Greenhaven the next week. They don’t make a habit of it, but I still have a little bit of influence. (I also tend to help a customer or two while I’m there-old habits and all)
There is a huge amount of activity taking place around me. It’s too much for a blog post, it could be it’s own blog. The brunt of it, though, is chair setting. Some chairs get set the day before, but the bulk are set this morning. And by bulk, I’m talking thousands. We have a tractor trailer we keep filled with chairs, I think it’s about 4000. The trailer is parked on the road, and trucks and gators are used to ferry them to the setters, following the lead of the string setters, who assure the chairs are placed in straight lines.
Seriously, we use string and stakes to set chairs. Not because the person setting chairs is a civil engineer, although that helps, but because looking at 5000 chairs set out, well, they just NEED to be straight. For a great video picture diary of chair setting, view the pictures taken by the communications department of the (very wet) day before.
The early arrivals for the ceremony begin arriving around 8 or so. There’s a couple key places to sit, and they usually go first. One is the area around a Red maple, which offers some key shade most years. The other isn’t in the chairs at all, but up the hill towards Gifford, where the day beforehand the landscape department sets all the Adirondack chairs out. Watching commencement while reclining in a comfy chair? Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it.
Graduates start arriving soon as well, and get staged east of Old Chapel. I usually run into Matt Biette, the extraordinary head of dining, for the first of several times today, handing out water and breakfast sandwiches to the seniors. Starch and re hydration-Matt’s a genius.
Time to pull out, get out of Dodge, and pretend we aren’t even there. Some years, the landscape department goes and pulls weeds, radio close by. I have another semi-official job, though, that of weather-boy. Luther Tenny, Chair General (you did click that link on chair setting above, right?) calls me occasionally, wondering what the weather radar looks like. I’m the local weather geek, next to Luther, who is in an information tent on site, so isn’t close to a computer. I was watching this year by Android phone, as it was a spectacular day to pull weeds. The year Bill Clinton was the speaker several thunderstorms were forming in upstate New York, and I was freaking out. 6000 plus guests, and a storm on the way? I deferred to the experts, and called the National Weather Service in Burlington, who thought I was nuts, until I explained just exactly why I was calling, and they set my mind at ease. It rained for about 3 minutes, and then the sun came out and all was well. So, really, I’ve never seen the ceremony.
11:30 all the workers start traipsing up the hill towards Mead Chapel, where we get fed. All parents and graduates get fed by Matt Biette and crew, and that’s another blog post all together. Middlebury has an amazing home-grown dining service, and the food is great. They are brave feeding the landscape crew before the guests, but they certainly cook enough. Second Matt sighting-right below Mead Chapel telling guests walking up the hill that food is on both sides of Mead, and the lines are never too long. It seems like almost every student stops to talk to him.
The lure of the food works, and the chairs and stage empty soon enough, and facilities goes berserk in reverse. It’s easier to take things apart than put them up, and the chair trailer fills again. We also store chairs all over campus, so trucks are dispatched to places I haven’t even seen yet in my 5 years here. It’s a logistical nightmare, and always goes off without a hitch. I take apart the flowers, and plant them in the coming week by Admissions. We’re done by 3 or 4 PM most years.
I spent yesterday helping set up the Central Display for the Vermont Flower Show-it’s my spring training like baseball players have in Florida. Shoveling mulch came easier this year than some past years, must be all of the snow shoveling. WCAX did a blurb on the news about the show, and in the interest of tempting more people to go this weekend (it’s going to rain all weekend, what else you gonna do?), I took some poor pictures with my cell phone camera. The theme (that Ed let slip in the WCAX video is thought of by a “past board members kids and wife”)(I’m saying nothing, but we’re thinking the next one should be “Tangled Up in You”) this year is “Sweet Dreams”, and Ed came up with a great design.
Here’s some pictures, but you aren’t going to get a good feel for the scale of the central display. Suffice it to say that it would just about fit on the ice at Kenyon. Click on the picture to view a larger size.
Lou Nop of Nop’s Metal Works in Middlebury made a metal bridge for part of the display, and it sits over a pond in a tropical setting.
Here’s some of the tropical garden. That’s a giant Banana plant in the center.
We forced an entire vegetable garden.
This is a 20′ “bird nest” complete with paper mache eggs. It was constructed with the help of the Urban Forestry program at the Northland Job Corp in Vergennes. Took them about a half of a day. And here’s a great Middlebury College connection-the branches making up the nest are leftovers from the harvesting of the Willow project out on Route 125.
I believe one of the greatest secrets at Middlebury College is the Rikert Ski Touring Center, located at Breadloaf Campus up in Ripton. Home to the Middlebury Nordic teams, as well as my daughter’s Middlebury High School team, this gem of a ski area has very well groomed trails, wonderful staff, and, this year, plenty of snow.
This coming weekend is the Bill Koch Ski Festival, so in honor of the weekend I’ve made something for the kids to play with, if yours are anything like mine. I’ve converted some Arc GIS files to a Google Earth File, so now you can fly around Rikert in Google Earth and see where you went skiing for the day. Chester Harvey in the Geography department has made a new trail map for Rikert based on this shapefile, and I’ve taken the trail names both off of that new map, as well as the older traditional map. So the Google Earth file is still a rough draft, and some of the trail names may be a little off, but it’s still fun.
Right click here, and choose Save As, then don’t forget where that is. Clicking on that file should open it in the right program. Naturally, you will need Google Earth installed on your computer. I’ve been having bad blog luck, and just clicking on the file itself will probably lead to a page of gobbledigook.
Much like the Shameless Commerce division of Car Talk, I’m veering slightly from the ‘educational institution’ blog to plug one of the finest things you should be doing this winter, which is attending the Vermont Flower Show at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds in Essex Junction, on March 4-6.
It’s been my pleasure to help set up this show for many, many years (10, 15?) I was the central display designer twice-a herculean task that was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I look at set up for the show much like baseball players going to spring training, the smell of soil and green plants, the movement of mulch fork and shovel getting your muscles in shape for the upcoming year.
I’ll tell you what goes into the display, but you won’t believe me. More than 150 yards of mulch ( a yard of mulch fits in the back of a small pickup truck), an entire commercial greenhouse of forced bulbs, hundreds of perennials, and trees and shrubs forced for blooms as well. Yes, entire trees. We’re a little crazy, admittably. And that’s just the plant material. Read about more of the design for more of the scoop, including a sketch of the design.
What makes the construction of the flower show all the more remarkable, though, is the hardest to explain. At most flower shows, individual landscapers and garden centers construct their own booths, miniature landscapes amongst a green mall for a week or weekend. In Vermont, though, the green industry is a little smaller, and not many firms have the resources to pull off a booth of forced plant material. So, many years ago, the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association teamed up to hold a flower show, then at the Sheraton, where everybody got together and built one central display, for the betterment of the industry on the whole. Competitors the rest of the year, everybody teams up and shares tasks, and creates a spring world inside on a snowy weekend.
There are many other things to do at the show as well, not just walking through the central display. The admission price alone is a steal for all the talks and hands-on seminars that are possible to attend, and kids have their own room to ‘craft’ in as well. There are even cooking demostrations, along with vendors selling gardening merchandise, and plants. I dare you to walk out of there without some forced flowers in your hand.
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