The Electric Car

I borrowed the College’s Ford Fusion, an all-electric vehicle that’s been generously leased to COA in return for good will and good PR.  I am predisposed to despise this vehicle.  I love old, large, trucks – specifically Toyota Land Cruisers – and this pale blue shiny box I’m now driving is the antithesis of that ideal.


My image of an electric vehicle: That’s my niece in hers.

My love for old Land Cruisers stems from the aesthetics of the LC design and the practicality the vehicle offers for lugging gear over all kinds of roads and in all kinds of conditions.  But, most importantly, my love for the vehicle – my particular vehicle – comes from my fascination with tinkering.  A 1985 Land Cruiser requires serious tinkering and I’m not afraid to admit that my mechanical, electrical, and body work skills are sad and are the reason I’m forced to borrow this Ford in the first place.

That's Scarlett: I'm trying to 'burp' her to get the heat working better.

That’s Scarlett: I’m trying to ‘burp’ her to get the heat working better.

Even on a good day when my tinkering works, my truck (Scarlett) is not a comfortable, efficient vehicle: it (she) takes a fair amount of pedal-pumping to wake up in the morning; she’s porous, which means I have to scrape the outside and the inside of the windows on a cold morning; she burns loads of gas and leaks loads of oil; she’s difficult to climb into for anyone under 5’6”; she’s a bit stinky.  But for me, those issues are a palette of tinkering prospects and I revel in the complexities of my relationship with the truck and her relationship with the wider world.


That’s the Ford — a tremendous car.

I will admit, you could get very used to the ease, comforts, and efficiencies of our new Ford.  Doors close with a thwap that perfectly separates interior from exterior space.  Stopped and in motion, there’s an eerie, beautiful silence.  Digital displays, parking cameras, ear-splitting woofers (ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), and an on button (what!!??) make driving the Ford an extremely comfortable experience.  My kids, having suffered through many long drives in Scarlett, screamed with delight as we quietly and gently sailed down Cottage Street.  With a forty-mile range between plug-ins, this Ford is arguably the perfect vehicle for MDI.  With almost 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, this Ford is arguably the perfect vehicle for the planet.

So, I loved the driving experience and, for the record, believe Ford Motor Company has done a superb job with this vehicle.  But despite the massive PR risks of a COA president driving a gas guzzling truck (that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration as well), you won’t find me trading Scarlett in for a Ford Focus – or a Nissan Leaf or a Toyota Prius.  Not gonna happen.  I will continue to tinker.  I will continue to love and drive my truck and develop the ecological arguments around the “reuse” and “reduce” elements of the triple R model.

Part of the “reduce” argument and out of sheer necessity while I try and figure out how to replace the slave and master clutch cylinders?: walking, beautiful, slow, contemplative walking.

Lost so close to home…

I’m a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions; of making them, if not completing them.  But this year I’ve taken one on that I feel really good about: cover 1000 miles and climb 250 mountains in Acadia National Park across the 365 days of 2014 and keep a diary of the journeys.  That’s an average of 20 peaks and 83 miles a month; 4.8 peaks and 19.2 miles a week.  Neither of those goals are physically daunting — covering mileage on Acadian hills that range from 400 to 1500 feet above sea level in what is arguably the most day-hiker-friendly National Park in the whole US National Park System is anything but extreme.  It’s the time management that is the real challenge.  The idea is to complete these challenges while becoming a better college president and better husband and father – no easy fete.  To that greater end, I’m trying to involve family in many of these walks and, on my solo sojourns, meditate on several key questions we should be considering as a College.

I’m about three weeks in and just logged my 14th peak and 35th mile.  Mileage in the winter will be much more slow going.  I find I’m doing plenty of meditating, but I’m pleasantly surprised that on solo walks my mind empties rather than focuses.  That’s probably just as well for my wife, the kids, and the college, quite frankly.

The time management concern is a reasonable one.  Being a president, husband, and father (friend, reader, writer, student of dynamical systems, poker player, angler, Breaking Bad enthusiast, etc.) is anything but a part time gig, but there’s actually quite lot of time in the day and one can cover a lot of terrain and scale many peaks in just 90 minutes or so.  Last week, for instance, I completed a four mile, three peak jaunt over Gilmore, Bald, and Parkman Mountain in 100 minutes door-to-door.  But there have been and will certainly be more days where I’ll have 30 and .  Such a day occurred last night and for such occasions there is nearby Great Hill.

Great Hill is appropriately named.  At about 480 feet above sea level it can hardly be considered a mountain or even a peak.  But it is great in that it looms and feels bigger than it is and changes remarkably as one circumambulates its small granite dome.  It forms the backdrop behind Bar Harbor’s Clefstone Road and is thus a mountain of the town.  But once you leave it to your north heading west out of town it acquires a different, although still looming presence.  It feels of a Persepoline column marking the entrance to Acadia.  It is great.  And it’s three quarters of a mile from my front door.

Halftime of a late NFL playoff game — about dusk at this latitude.  I take off with my dog Lucy, throw on the ice cleats, jacket, hat and all, make the quick jaunt to the Cadillac Mtn entrance at the foot of Great Hill, wait for my watch to find satellites and briskly hop and skip to the top of the southwestern knob on Great Hill.  I snap a picture and then look to the NE where a distinct and obviously higher knob stands out.  Although the light has faded and it is just a hair before solid darkness, Lucy and I do what we feel is necessary.


Last Light on Great Hill

I should be clear: I’ve walked both knobs half a dozen times in the last year and have both what I feel to be a lot of experience walking in the woods and an average “sense of direction.” But all that seemed to fail me this time on Great Hill.  Darkness erased my tracks and shadows obscured the obvious way home.  I could see the gentle curves of Cadillac’s north ridge and the neighboring blackened blobs of Dorr and Champlain, but the angles were all wrong to me.

Knowing that I was less than a mile from home and that I could walk in any direction and would come upon a paved road in under a mile, my heart raced as if lost in an Alaskan endless wilderness.  Lucy bounded on unaffected.  In five minutes I exhibited all of the panic-ridden traits you read about in your typical “lost in the woods” stories: confusion, heart palpitation, time warp.  I reached for my cell phone to call home — not to share my panic, but just to tell Karen and the kids I’d be a bit late and not to worry.  The cold had zapped my iPhone batteries, which pushed me to worry double time, for me and for Karen and the kids.  After circling around and recognizing that I’d made a few idiotic odd loops to nowhere, I picked what seemed to be a logical point in the horizon and walked straight.  Sure enough, I was on the park loop road in under five minutes.

Like I said, the whole endeavor of found to lost to found took all of ten minutes, but seemed like hours.  My watch tells the most hysterical tale.  It’s worth jumping on Garmin Connect and using the play feature to follow my ridiculous path:

With it you can walk with me and see where I’m scratching my head, wandering aimlessly, panicking and eventually returning to some degree of found.  Friends have actually laughed out loud watching it.

It was the perfect, safest place in the world to get lost.  But I can also see how — even in such a place — confusion can lead to desperation which can lead to irrational decisions and even fatality.  Even on little ole’ Great Hill.  Does such a lesson call for an end to solo journeys?  Absolutely not.  But it does call for always having at the bare minimum a compass, a headlamp, and charged batteries.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect, I suppose that getting lost, panicking, regaining composure, and then finding your way again — all on a small hill you think you’re completely familiar with —  is great practice for a college president.

Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Going through papers recently, I came across my 1992 Human Ecology essay and didn’t think much of it, so I took a second crack at it and expect there will be a third and fourth editions to come …

My daughter Maggie and I have gotten completely sucked into the Discovery Channel show Alaska: The Last Frontier.  After a day of romping in the snow, we love nothing more than to enjoy hot cocoa and watch the Kilcher Family survive the much colder climes of coastal Alaska.  The Kilchers are an extended family of homesteaders whose ancestors got away from it all in the 1950s.  If you haven’t read McPhee’s Coming into the Country, I highly recommend it; if you have, you also have a pretty good understanding of what ATLF is all about.

I hear the snide, snarky comments about sensationalism, Hollywood, naïve, romantic visions of what is really a miserable existence, etc.  I get it.  Maggie has said more than once, “Dad, if a bear comes after them, the camera crew is right there – they’re not going to let the bear eat Atz Kilcher and just sit back and film it all.”

Recognizing that ATLF is first and foremost entertainment that appeals to low brows like me, the show has inspired fun, interesting, and marginally educational experiences between father and daughter: canning apple butter, making what I consider to be an impressive snow fort, and debating vegetarianism.  I’ve suggested a moose hunt, but Maggie hasn’t taken that bait quite yet.

The rationale for introducing my fascination with the Kilcher family isn’t about the merits of reality television; it’s about my intellectual wrestling with self-reliance.  Reading McPhee, watching Discovery Channel, building snow forts, and writing a recent grant have brought my thoughts on self-reliance into focus and have even got me thinking about the subject as a pillar of the COA curriculum. 

As a context-setting introduction to a recent grant, I put the following paragraphs together:

Energy generation – how we harvest food and power  – poses the most pernicious threat to the ecological integrity of the planet.  Over the past century, we have become increasingly disjointed from – and ultimately ignorant of – the origins of these two sources of human fuel.  As such, we have naively accepted the myth that we can buy or consume our way out of the problem: “Just purchase this or that green product and you can feel good about yourself and the fate of the Earth.”

At College of the Atlantic, we feel the path toward sustainability begins by re-connecting to production rather than consumption, by becoming intimately aware of the costs and benefits of our food and power choices, and by uniting two intrinsically connected movements.  

I took a few liberties with the first line of the second paragraph and may have stretched “I” into “we,” but I feel good about that generalization and those paragraphs. 

Many of us have intellectually and practically toyed with self-reliance in the form of the back to the land movement, which reached an apogee in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  That movement focused primarily on reconnecting with food, saw science and technology as inherently evil, leaned on a naive nostalgia that hoped to “roll back the clock to a time where man and nature existed in harmony,” and, in the end, was a movement that affected only the fringes of society. 

I’m certainly not proposing the tenets of back to the land as the or even a cornerstone of our academic setting.  But there’s a new, not-entirely-unrelated movement unfolding that does seem relevant and useful to COA.  I hate the thought of hitching a wagon to what might be seen as trendy, but, in my eyes, there’s something important and revealing about what’s typically labeled the maker movement.  Like the back-to-the-landers of time’s past (or, present, in the case of the Kilchers), this maker movement begins with the assumption that sustainability requires making more with less, that sharing knowledge is important, and that using old materials or ideas for new purposes is inherently good.  But unlike back to the land, today’s makers/hackers balance these beliefs with a realistic but optimistic vision of the power of science and technology, they don’t cut the world up into what’s “human” and what’s “natural,” and they want to extend the power of making and creation beyond the realm of food and into all forms of production: digital, creative, and entrepreneurial endeavors seem right at home with work on food and energy.

As such, I imagine the blend of the back to the land movement with the emerging maker movement as Back to the Land 2.0.

Self-reliance is central to BTTL 2.0 and seems like the most intellectually and practically important commonality between coding a computer program and pruning an apple tree.  It’s about developing a sense of intimacy in knowledge acquisition.  It’s about empowerment, experimentation, and learning from re-inventing the wheel.

For the maker community self-reliance is not the same thing that drives someone to join a militia in the panhandle of Idaho.  For today’s makers, the value of making comes from knowledge gained and knowledge shared.  It’s a compassionate, community-focused self-reliance, not an “I know this, so I can survive an apocalypse; I don’t need your help, now go away” approach to the world.

To me, this compassionate, community-focused self-reliance feels like it should become a core component of how, what and why we teach and learn human ecology at COA.  I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I think there’s enough interest and expertise within the faculty, staff, trustees, students, and – importantly – the MDI community to figure it out.  Plus, my intention is to engage this guy in the thought process as well:

I just got off the phone with Marcin and I’ve got a good feeling about that connection.  Stay tuned.


A Eulogy for my Father, James Francis Collins

My father died on Saturday, July 6 2013 after a thankfully short second battle with an extremely aggressive cancer. I gave this eulogy on Tuesday, July 9 at Christ the King church in New Vernon, NJ.  Maybe something like this should be kept personal, but I feel like sharing it.  As a kid, everyone called my father “Franny,” which he despised.  As a teenager, a group of friends came across the baseball card for the lefty first baseman of the Yankees and from that point onward he would be “Joe.”  Until he got to Guatemala…

The '62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

The ’62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

Before I say one word in praise and honor of my dad, I want to thank my Aunt Mary, Judy Baker and the entire Baker family, and Suzy Moran for making dad as comfortable as possible during the last months of his life.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done without their help.

It feels like the world’s made up of simple and complex people: not in terms of intelligence, but in terms of how easy or hard it might be to understand a person’s motives and true thoughts and beliefs.  My dad was undoubtedly a complex person – and that’s neither good nor bad, it just is what it is.  On the complex side of the coin there are those who are talkative and open, ones you can come to know rather quickly through their loquaciousness despite their complexities versus those who are quiet and guarded and tough to get to know.  My dad fell into the later category.

He was a great man and someone I hope my own children will forever look up to, but he was definitely a quiet, complex character and it took me my entire 43 years to have a better idea of what made that guy tick.  I loved my dad’s complex character and I think it’s important we all remember him with his complexities.

It would be easier, of course, to just focus on the last decade of his life and praise him for his work in Guatemala.  That work, without a doubt, deserves praise and is an achievement that will always be remembered from other writings and from the continued efforts of the institution he founded and loved, “From Houses to Homes.”  Dad’s death, in keeping up with the decades, has gone viral. Thousands upon thousands are now posting and blogging and tweeting about his passing.

But, although I don’t think he was particularly proud of them, there were a full six decades of complex life before he could even point to Guatemala on a map.  I myself can only speak to a few of those decades, but obviously dad was first a son and sibling.  Whether he’d admit it or not, his brother Michael and sisters Mary and Peggy shaped him like a ball of clay.  And, lest we forget, he lived under the roof of Michael Collins Sr. and one of the most remarkable women who has ever walked the face of this earth, my grandmother Josephine Collins.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad was also a husband, two times, twice divorced, and it would be easiest to dance around what might be called failed relationships.  I certainly will not hold them up as model relationships, but I know there was tremendous love and adoration in both of them and they resulted in, well, me and a lasting and important friendship.  I like to think of those things as fundamentally good.

And dad was, of course, a father.  Yesterday I took a run in the sweltering NJ heat and ran through my childhood neighborhood, past my Aunt Peggy’s house, around the Parsippany Hills high school football field, and ended at the baseball diamond of Littleton elementary school. I‘ll never forget jumping into his arms after the last out as my team, the bottom-of-the-league Green Hill Cleaners, squeaked by the much-favored yellow team to win the little league championship. I may not have lived my first eighteen years with dad, but he was and will always be my third base coach.  When I think of the “how-to’s” of fatherhood for my own girls, that’s the memory I will always land on.

Dad was ashamed of his perceived failures as a father.  I hope he feels no shame now.  He also didn’t think too highly of his stint as a United States Marine but, for whatever reason, whenever I spoke of dad to others I spoke of semper fidelis and the transformations that occurred during his basic training at Parris Island.  I loved and was proud of my dad as a Marine and always thought I myself would have made a great one.

Dad, boot camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Dad, Boot Camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Part of why dad didn’t find pride in his years in the Corps revolved around the fact that he chose the Marines over college.  He beat himself up again and again over that and could never really eliminate the burdensome cargo from his shoulders.  But, like with the marines, I found a lot of pride and confidence in dad’s lack of a college education.  He was the ultimate experiential learner and his ability to get things done – his scrappiness – was fantastic.

More than his generosity, his love and dedication to the poor in Guatemala, more than anything else, my favorite quality in my father was his awe-inspiring can-do attitude.  Stop the whining, stop the fussing, and just get ‘er done.  As a complex person he could navigate the world’s complexities like no other and that made him a tremendous success as the co-owner of an Irish Pub, as a real estate broker, as an addict in recovery, as a private investigator, as a founder of a non-profit, and as a human being.  I loved that about him.

It was a curious thing, finding a school for me and working through that process with someone whom always kicked himself for not going to College.  There was the father-son college tour that started at Rutgers where I didn’t need to get out of the car.  Afterward, we headed north to Brunswick, Maine and visited Bowdoin that, in my dad’s eyes, was everything he’d expected in a college – the lawns, the kids in kakis, the ivy-covered buildings, etc.  But it wasn’t for me and so I coerced him to keep driving three hours further up the coast to this small school that few had ever heard of.  We arrived, I got out of the car, stood face-to-face with this whale skull and said “This is it” and he said “this is what?  What the heck is this place??!!”

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

He was skeptical of the College of the Atlantic at first — it didn’t match his mental image of College — but he did trust me and my decision and came to love that school almost as much as I love it now.  I hold that piece of trust as sacred.  That my last days with dad were at the College of the Atlantic is not insignificant.

And, of course, there was Guatemala.  Dad came down to visit Karen and me in the small, rural, and isolated village of Santo Tomas Chajaneb.  It was the rainy season and my Q’eqchi’-Maya friends and I dragged him and his stuff through the mud to get to our home.  Let’s just say that he was way out of his comfort zone.  Dinner was an adventure.

We all will remember my dad’s strangely complex preference for extremely simple food where a spaghetti and meatball dinner was wildly exotic.  Well Dad’s visit to Santo Tomas Chajaneb was a huge celebratory event that involved lot’s of food – an oily but tasty chicken stew, some tamales, beans, and tortillas.  You would have thought they had served monkey heads.  But, I’ll hand it to him, he smiled, was incredibly gracious, and finished every last spoonful of the stew and would be always remember as “Qawa Nim Jose” –Mr. Big Joe – in the village.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and dad’s work changed thousands of lives in Guatemala and he also inspired a tremendously large and exuberant fleet of foreign volunteers and From Houses to Homes staff who would come to move mountains for the poor in that country.  But none of that work – none – would have been possible without the trust and friendship and brilliant dedication of Oscar Mejia.  Oscar, my dad loved you like a son and, though we’ve only been in each other’s shadows a handful of times, I’ll forever love you like a brother.  You are a model human being we can all learn from.

Dad’s complex life was too short.  Who knows what could have been accomplished with another 15-20 years.  He certainly preferred free will over fatalism. But without his relationships with all of you, without his own personal battles, without his disappointments, without his failures, Qawa Nim Jose would never have been Qawa Nim Jose.

Dad, I love you.  Our world is less without you but better through your work.

On Sunday, June 30th, College of the Atlantic memorialized the life and contributions of Father Jim Gower, the College’s co-founder.  This was my introduction to that ceremony.

Thank you all for coming to celebrate the life and work of Father Jim Gower.  My name is Darron Collins and I’m the president of College of the Atlantic and an alumnus from the class of 1992.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Fr. Jim all that well, neither in my role as president nor as a student two decades ago.  By the time I’d arrived on campus the second time around, Fr. Jim’s health had already began to fail.  I’ll never forget my first summer here though, less than two years ago; it was about my first order of business to call up Ed Kaelber and pay a visit to Fr. Jim at his home in Birch Bay.

Tired and a bit distracted, Fr. Jim’s eyes lit up like a flame when Ed walked into the room and that’s when I came to know — however briefly — the smile that he was known for.  Indeed, it was a magical smile that spoke of brilliance, compassion, love and all the other characters that will be discussed today.

And the smile widened even more once we spoke of the College.  Ed said, “Jim this is the College’s new president, and he was a student there too.”  “Wonderful!” — he said. “I love those students.”

Fr. Jim’s love in that moment both reflected and embodied the purpose of College of the Atlantic — it’s all about the students.  Though his faculties may have started to fail rather quickly, it was brilliantly clear from that first visit, and the half dozen or so that followed, this College held a very special place in his heart.  I’m honored to have been shaped so completely by his and Les Brewer’s brainchild, and am also honored to have the opportunity to help steer the college into the future.

Part of my commitment to this school will be to rekindle the discussion and influence of spirituality as a part of the curriculum and experience of attending the College of the Atlantic.  I’ve been told time and time again about how, in some of the most desperate or difficult times at COA, Fr. Jim — in the kindest, gentlest, and most non-denominational way — would ask for a certain modicum of spiritual reflection.  Similarly, as our students face a world of human ecological problem solving, there can be no doubt that many, many actors operate within a spiritual or devoutly religious framework.  In both cases — for the operations of the College and the operation of the world — religion and spirituality have utilitarian value for an institution like ours.

But it goes beyond that.  I want our students to be comfortable with the idea that this world does have un-knowable qualities and quantities; that immersing oneself in the un-knowable is neither egotistical nor immature; that reflection on the un-knowable somehow produces new understanding of what it means to be a human on this planet; like science, like the written word, and like the arts, spirituality helps us make sense of complexity, helps bring life and hope into a world that too often feels lifeless and seems hopeless.

I owe that — and we owe that — to the man that helped breathe life into this absolutely incredible institution.

Father Gower

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Human Ecology: A Grand Experiment

Last month a group of COA faculty and I attended the International Society of Human Ecology (SHE) meetings at the Australian National University in Canberra.  280 people from 28 nations attended the gathering. I decided to focus my talk on College of the Atlantic’s understanding and approach to Human Ecology — not as a body of knowledge, but as a way of knowing and problem solving.  The talk and the event went really well.  SHE’s next gathering will happen on the COA campus in October 2014.

Branding Human Ecology for Higher Ed: A Talk at the Society for Human Ecology Conference

By Darron Collins ’92, PhD, President, College of the Atlantic
February 5, 2013 – Canberra, Australia

Thanks to Rob Dybal and all the conference organizers for putting this spectacular event together. It’s my first SHE conference and I’ve been looking forward to it since I began my new job at College of the Atlantic. Thanks also to ANU for hosting. And, finally, thanks to my colleagues at COA, especially Rich Borden, who’s helped me think through many of these ideas.

Wow, the Pacific Ocean is big–so big, I had the opportunity to fiddle with my title and insert the word branding in my presentation somewhere miles above New Caledonia. I’m aware the word “branding” makes academics queasy. But brands can be powerful things.

My reason for coming to this conference is that I’m concerned about where higher education is going in the US (and here I’d like apologize for my US-centric perspective and also point out that when I say “college” I mean “university”)

I want us to imagine a role for Human Ecology in helping steer toward a new future and I think branding just might help out. Rosie the Riveter changed hearts and minds: Human Ecology can as well.

I’m hoping to play a role in all this from my position as the president of the College of the Atlantic. Just a bit of history to start:

COA wouldn’t be what it is in the context of any other location: we are blessed with beauty and inextricably linked to place. We’re on the coast of Maine, five hours north of Boston, on Mount Desert Island. MDI was once a thriving summer community in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The country’s most influential artists, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs all came up to MDI in the summer among year-round lobstermen, scallop and ground fishermen. The summer community was torn apart by the depression, the Second World War, and a devastating fire in 1947.

In 1968 a local businessman and a very progressive catholic priest conceived the idea of a college. The businessman wanted to revitalize the summer and year-round communities. The priest had said too many funeral masses for boys coming home from Vietnam and was at the same time frustrated by the environmental devastation unfolding in front of his eyes. COA was founded in 1969 to take on these social and environmental challenges.

The first class arrived on MDI in the fall of 1972. They were an amazing group of intrepid explorers: half-a-dozen staff, a half-dozen faculty, and about three dozen students looking to expand the boundaries of higher education. Faculty from that time say there were as many dogs in the class as students—and the dogs were also very attentive.

Ed Kaelber, a former dean at the Harvard School of Education, led the group as president. Ed wrote a prospectus for the college and I refer to it all the time. The lines that jump out at me are these:

“The term experimental college has much currency. It is unfortunate that we have to resort to this phrase; it should be a redundancy. Any college that is not constantly seeking new ways of doing things is only half alive. College of the Atlantic expects to be experimental in the best sense of the word. We will not be bound by tradition nor will we make the assumption that because something is different it is automatically better.”

Given today’s higher education growing pains and the tremendous price that’s being charged for tuition, there’s an unfortunate tendency for colleges to equate “maturity” with becoming rigid and unresponsive.

One of COA’s biggest successes as an institution has been avoiding that pitfall for four decades. One of my biggest challenges as president is to continue to innovate and experiment.

We’ve remained experimental by staying small (we have 330 students now), staying department-less and tenure-less, by demanding a flat hierarchical structure, and insisting upon continuous self-assessment.

We’ve also continued to innovate by maintaining our curricular center of gravity on the practice of Human Ecology. Human Ecology can improve upon how higher education evolves. Coming to more of a consensus around a definition and a brand will make it more powerful.

COA students, almost invariably, arrive on campus thinking about Human Ecology like this: as an area of study, like Russian or Botany, and often land on human ecology as “the relationship between humans and their environment.”

Up until this point, life for too many students has cemented the idea that you come to college and declare a major, graduate after a bucket of knowledge has been passed to you by experts in a field, and then you go off using that bucket of knowledge in a job for forty years, and then retire.

The world doesn’t work like that. So, though students find their own meaning of Human Ecology, it’s important that students first unlearn the idea of Human Ecology as a discipline. But for many reasons (including parents and donors), it’s not enough to say what Human Ecology isn’t. We’re asked to define it honestly and without dumbing it down. That process helps in branding.

We’re landing on a working definition that’s a platform for our work at COA and helps communicate our ideas to the outside world and more suspicious audiences:

“Human Ecology is a perspective that cultivates self-direction; a method of problem solving that emphasizes transdisciplinarity; a way-of-knowing that balances hands-on with minds-on learning; and an educational philosophy that inspires purpose and values.”

For this talk I’ve interviewed four COA alumni. Each one helps me flesh out one of the four elements and shows how—as artists, scientists, humanists—they are also human ecologists and highly effective practitioners of their own craft.

I’d like to start with Amy Toensing. Amy graduated in the early nineties and is now a successful photographer. Although she shies from the title, she’s a National Geographic photographer and will have a new story coming out in the magazine this June, on Australia. I’ll admit, part of why I chose Amy was because there was a time in my life where the idea of being a National Geographic photographer was about the coolest idea in the world. I also knew that if I choose Amy, I could feature her brilliant photographs.

When I interviewed her she told me that, more than anything else, at COA she learned to be a storyteller and that no matter what you do in life, storytelling will be an essential element of success. I’d go even further and agree with my colleague John Anderson and say storytelling is elemental to being human and therefore storytelling puts the human in human ecology. Here, Amy tells a story of two brothers on the isolated island of Monhegan in Maine, each with a portrait of the other hanging over their bed.

Another of Amy’s photos tells of a man from Papua New Guinea who tells his story by the flowers in his beard. Amy developed great skills as a storyteller, but for her COA was exceptional because it cultivated self-direction, even though her direction was circuitous. She was encouraged to poke and prod at her own passions and interest and develop a curriculum around those issues working with a team of advisors.

In a final photo of Amy’s, Somali refugees in Maine, tired of following hijab, escape to a department store and don dresses, never leaving the changing room.

Amy started at COA as someone who wanted to be an outdoor educator; her interests evolved into biology and then agriculture. During a class with a faculty member in biology, during a pot-luck dinner at that faculty member’s house, the two were discussing food security on an island further off the coast. Amy spoke of an image she had from that island, when the instructor said, “Go photograph it.” The real magic occurred when her biologist advisor then encouraged her and provided direction for Amy to continue her exploration of photography. There was no turf war and no typical jealousy or ego on the faculty member’s part. Amy’s story also explains that “following passion” is not a random, willy-nilly taking of this and that class, but a thoughtful, guided, example of self-direction.

A second aspect of what we’re doing when we do human ecology revolves around transdisciplinarity, and for this, I interviewed a public school teacher named Ben Macko. Ben teaches eighth grade math and here we see Ben graphing equations with a group of students. Ben works in the context of a public middle school – which is particularly challenging and inflexible. Ben will also eventually be my own daughter’s math teacher, so I thought interviewing him would be a great way to scope him out.

Ben graduated ten years ago and is quiet, smart, and very thoughtful. It may be a less sexy job, but it’s every bit as inspirational as Amy’s and he’s equally as accomplished. In Ben’s interview, he focused on how the college cultivated his passion for kids and for art. Here’s a sculpture by Ben. Where Amy followed a segmented but singular path, Ben followed two paths simultaneously and was encouraged to do so.

Ben requires his students to think of mathematics outside of the context of math. An equation for a golden spiral becomes a golden spiral from the world around us. Ben emphasized to me that there’s nothing new about using art or nature or every day life to discuss the application of mathematics. We all remember “word problems,” a painfully boring example of that.

But Ben’s approach goes beyond that: For Ben, art and mathematics are iterative. He asks students to toggle between the methodologies of math and art. He actually begins the process of acquiring mathematical concepts by cultivating student curiosity in art. You can see student projects hanging in the back where he began the year asking students to doodle; to draw; to let their mind wander.

Eventually Ben guides students to understand art through mathematics, understand mathematics through art, and discover new knowledge entirely. The importance the US gives to standardized tests makes it very difficult for other teachers to work like this and they wind up teaching to the test.

Ben’s students excel as people and excel on exams because Ben and his students discover new depth in the subject matter and new ideas through transdisciplinary thinking. There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of STEM education—both in Ben’s classroom and at COA we want to move that acronym to include art and make it STEAM.

Third, there’s the importance of hands-on learning in human ecology. Greg Stone graduated in 1981 and is currently the executive vice president for oceans at Conservation International. Greg grew up wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, much in the same way I grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones.

Greg’s love for the ocean was spawned in the ocean and when it came time for college he was one of those kids who said, “I want to be a marine biologist” and started out at a large university known for that subject. After the first month, Greg hadn’t stepped foot in the Atlantic, was confined to the classroom, and promptly left and left frustrated.

During Greg’s first COA class he found himself in a boat designing a piece of humpback whale migration research using fluke patterns. His frustrations dissipated. Classes weren’t generally in class; there were no textbooks but sets of peer reviewed papers; faculty members weren’t talking at you, but were thinking through problemswith you. Greg said to me, “It felt like a graduate school for undergraduates because it was so problem-focused.”

But what Greg kept hammering on during my interviews was how important the “doing” was. There was a craft involved in his work, not unlike an arborist or blacksmith. Some of that craft is mental, but a lot is kinesthetic—like diving, small engine repair, building, landing a boat, storing specimens, drawing, doing what might in essence be called field work.

Greg’s success comes from his experience as a maker, a doer, a builder of tools, techniques, and thoughts for tackling the challenges that plague our oceans. But it gets lonely on the ocean floor. Greg’s good at what he does also because he recognizes that success in marine conservation depends as much on social science as marine science. He also “does” marine science as social science. Luckily he is as much at home working on the ocean floor as he is working with this man, the president of Kiribati in the Phoenix Islands—who is himself equally adept at fishing with a hand line as he is with running a small island nation. Greg’s skills as a doer and a human ecologist have helped drive the creation of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, which, with an area of 408,250 km2, is the largest marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean and the world’s first deep water, mid-ocean marine protected area.

Fourth and finally, we approach the more nebulous element of our definition, which centers on the cultivation of purpose and value. For this element I used myself as subject matter, because in addition to being COA’s president, I’m also an alumnus from the class of 1992. (I believe strongly that self-deprecation goes a long way in a presentation and if there was ever a self-deprecating photo, this is it.)

My story began as a high school student and as the first kid in my family of Irish immigrants to go to college, it begins with my dad and me making that trip of college visits. We started at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, and I didn’t even get out of the car. We went to Princeton – that would have made Dad very proud, but it wasn’t for me. We went to Bowdoin in Maine because we had both heard it had a great outdoors program. It was a beautiful school, but something just wasn’t right. I turned to Dad and said, “There’s this other school I’d really like to see – it’s three hours further up the coast. Can we go?”

I’ll never forget the moment he dropped me off at COA. It was magical. Almost immediately I could tell something was very different about the place. One of the most important differences was that everyone—students, faculty, staff, trustees, wanted to be there at COA; nowhere else. They had their own sense of mission, and a very definite sense of purpose.

It was obvious that students weren’t at COA as a right of passage their parents or peers coaxed them in to. Students arrive at COA predisposed to a certain kind of value- or purpose-driven way of life, but the experience itself cultivates purpose.

I came across a good example of this just before the holidays when I had the chance to take these students and drop them off on an Island 20 kilometers southeast of MDI. They wanted to understand the ecology of offshore islands in winter and were worried about the impacts of offshore wind development. The idea didn’t come from the faculty; it came from them. They were giving up Christmas and New Year’s holidays to do this, and they were excited to brave some serious conditions out there.

Here they are on drop-off day. We tried to hang around, but they were ready for us to get on and leave them to their project.

I received this letter a few days after Christmas from one of the students. It concludes with:

“The adventures we are having have been so enriching, experiential and magical. We are constantly learning new things. I just wanted to say thank you so much. You are such a supportive president and having you excited and involved with our journeys is so wonderful and helpful. It means so much to us.”

I don’t read that to pat myself on the back (although it’s been the proudest moment of my presidency so far), but I read it to demonstrate the degree of thoughtfulness and purposefulness there.

As a human ecologist and president, I’ve discovered my own purpose: first, build on what we do best at COA and second, take what we know really works and inject that human ecological thought and practice elsewhere, in other institutions.

I’ll never forget a discussion I had with a mentor when I first started the job. He asked me about goals and I immediately spoke of the quality of our graduates.

“There are over 4,000 universities in the US and I bet every single one of them has at least a handful of great graduates. Graduates are a given. What else?”

I then told him about this four-part curriculum, but ended with, “Hey, it’s not for everyone.”

He almost jumped out of the phone: “No, no, no!! Never say that. It needs to be for everyone. This curriculum is in fact what as many people as humanly possible need. ”

And he was absolutely right.

So when you look at the current situation in the US, there’s a lot of change unfolding. It’s not an easy environment, but it can be an environment that spawns innovation. We’ve seen a trend toward for-profit institutions and the flowering of massive open online courses, MOOCs. The later are being championed because they are free, not because they are great.

MOOCs may help democratize education, but we are in a heap of trouble if they or for-profit schools become the default for higher education. I feel strongly that if we do our job right here at this conference and beyond and begin to think about human ecology in light of a brand which includes these four elements, that human ecology is a far more robust, useful, and critical tool for the brave new world of higher education than MOOCs.

            How we do that is a much more difficult question. Yes, it will take policy change. And it will take new money. And it might take a completely new educational structure. But at the core it takes people and that’s why I’m at this conference.

When we think and act on one of the conference’s themes “re-inventing the future” one of the ways to re-invent must be through getting these four thematic elements of human ecology inserted into a much higher proportion of colleges and universities. Thank You.

Little Harbor Brook: From Source to Sea

It’s difficult for me to cross the bridge between Turrets and Deering without looking away from the Bay.  I’ve got a very strong magnet that pulls me from downstream to up, no matter how humble or urban the stream may be.

On Saturday I decided to yield to this magnet and follow one of our Island’s streams from Sea to Source.  Boating allows you to travel from Source to Sea, which rolls off the tongue a lot better, but in winter and with small streams it’s general a walking journey from Sea to Source.

For this weekend’s excursion I chose Little Harbor Brook.

Little Harbor Brook at its terminus

Little Harbor Brook at its terminus

You cross it on the stretch of road between Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor – it’s just one drainage past Little Long Pond moving westward along that road.  I’ve walked the lower section of LHB many times.  I always take visitors there because it’s a nice flat walk, it feels like you’re in a Tolkien novel, and about a mile into it you can turn left, scamper up Elliot Mountain, and enjoy an amazing view of the near shore Islands of MDI.  But those walks are somewhat painful when I leave the trail up Eliot.  I pine for knowing where the stream starts.  Today I didn’t have to hang that left.

The turnoff to Eliot Mountain

The turnoff to Eliot Mountain

I recognize, of course, that such a Sea to Source walk is the antithesis of a thinking person’s stroll, of a Thoreau “walk about.”  It’s goal-driven.  You might call it a Type A walk, more fitting of a Richard Burton; a “I will find the Mountains of the Moon damnit!” kind of walk.  Luckily my little Type A excursion didn’t have all the nasties of colonialism and associated ill will of a genius however delusional 19th century explorer.


Sir Richard Burton (Wikimedia Commons)

My trip was a lot shorter too – 7.2 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1194 feet.  The trail past the Eliot Mountain turnoff looks a lot like the first mile, gin-clear water, moss, elves and the like.  Crossing a few sections of Carriage Road, you arrive at Little Harbor Brook Bridge, and that’s where the fun begins.  A western, central and eastern feeder stream come together at this point to form the “main stem” Little Harbor Brook. Although I was temporarily drawn to the western trib up the larger volume Amphitheater Trail creek, I instead decided on the trail-less eastern tributary that would bring me to the Penobscot Mountain Trail and terminate just a few hundred yards from the Penobscot Summit.

A hint along the route

A hint along the route

That’s where the going got tough, not surprisingly.  There’s a reason a trail doesn’t follow that tributary – it’s steep as hell.  Making matters worse, the creek’s volume drops precipitously north of LHB Bridge and, well, water freezes in winter.  I spent a lot of time listening rather than looking for the way forward.  The creek carved some obvious paths, but in other areas meandered in a way that left me tracking and backtracking, starting and stopping, shushing my dog Lucy, and getting on hands and knees to listen for the telltale gurgling of a submerged stream.

Above tree line the way became more obvious.  And right where a long crevasse touches the Penobscot Mountain Trail I found my Lake Tana (Blue Nile Source) or Great Lakes Region (The White Nile source is somewhere near the Rwanda/Burundi boarder – the most distant source is still undetermined): a large, greenish, partially frozen bog.

Source of LHB

Source of LHB

I’ll admit, I had the urge, like Burton before me, to plant a flag, name it, and somehow own it.  Instead, Lucy and I celebrated with a snack cracker and planned our descent.

Old snow offers a nice set of breadcrumbs for a mindless walk back to the car, but I decided to continue on to the Penobscot Mountain Summit and then peel off down through the western-most tributary and into the Amphitheater.  Setting me up for one of those disastrous return trips – e.g., not paying enough attention to the descent after celebrating the summit – my phone battery died leaving me without camera, communication, or compass (lesson learned).  Thankfully, the way was much more obvious and before long I was back at LHB Bridge and confidently en route to the car, a piece of cake, and a hot chocolate.  Hardly the perils of the Nile, but a fantastic adventure nevertheless.

Map, north

Map, north

Map, central

Map, central

Map, south

Map, south

Our precious Island is just a touch over 100 miles squared; yet there are hundreds of miles of small streams cascading from her peaks.  Knowing their source, knowing their path, and knowing where they touch the sea is key for understanding the character and ecology of MDI and I’m keen on exploring them all.  If you see me in waders slogging through the campus wetlands or crawling through an Eden Street culvert, you’ll know what I’m up to.

Remember: always be prepared for a hike in ANP, no matter how modest it may seem – and always tell a friend where you plan on going.

Suite Limpet

I’ve never been much of the theater type and will never pretend to know the ins and outs of “good” versus “bad” theater.  This lack of enthusiasm and expertise extends across the entire range of theater, from the classical to the avant garde, though I suspect my patience diminishes significantly with the latter.

But — although just a marginally interested skeptic — I am convinced that theater is somehow innately good for you, like Vitamin C, and I feel certain that performance is incredibly important, like, say, Abraham Lincoln.  As such, my wife and I packed up the kids (girls aged 9 and 11) and headed out to Otter Creek, Maine for the finale performance of Suite Limpet by Dru Colbert and Lisa Levearton.

On the ride over from Bar Harbor I tried to manage the kids’ expectations that this event wouldn’t be like the Shakespeare performance of Twelfth Night that was unwinding simultaneously at the College of the Atlantic.  (I also promised it wouldn’t last as long, which seemed critical to them).   I seem to remember saying, “This might stretch your understanding of performance a bit. “

It didn’t take long to get that point across.  As soon as we had parallel parked and walked the 50 yards to the Otter Creek Hall we were met by half a dozen “limpets” – a marine snail characterized by their conical shells.  The common limpet, Patella vulgata, measures a few inches across, but these were indeed much larger.  They were in fact humanoid limpets, actors dressed in brown, not distant relatives to a teenage mutant ninja turtle, making sucking noises and strange, hard-to-interpret lurching movements across the front lawn and up the front entrance stairs.


I’m not sure what was more entertaining: the humanoid limpets, my girls’ reaction to the humanoid limpets, a neighborhood dogs’ fear of the humanoid limpets, or the neighborhood kids’ who stared, completely perplexed, at the humanoid limpets and the everything else going on at the Hall.

Yes it was entertaining, but it was when one aforementioned limpet began gnawing, gently and limpet-like, on my hand that the light bulbs starting going off: Where did the performance stop and reality begin? Would it be the same if I weren’t here? What were the intentions of the creators, of the actors, of the ticket-holders, of the neighbors?  Was I “in” or “at” a performance? How did all this come together on a Sunday in October to make up the slice of reality I was currently experiencing?

Now I’ve already underscored my naïveté around theater, but I have been steeped in anthropological discourse on postmodernism and I know that performers and theater critiques have explored these kinds of “porous boundary” questions for millennia. But for me – and even for my girls – Suite Limpet brought all of those interesting questions front and center.

But that wasn’t the only point Colbert and Levearton hoped to get across in Suite Limpet.  They also sought to tell a story of place, a small outpost of Mount Desert Island called Otter Creek.  They succeeded there as well.

Up the stairs and in the foyer, Suite Limpet set out a number of historical and geographical markers for the viewer – an authentically dressed 18th-century woman of historical importance (whose name escapes me) penning a note back to France, two “television heads,” and a fantastical description of an absolutely incredible but real fish, the oarfish (worth looking up – the oarfish can reach 17 feet long and can predict earthquakes:


The show began (or did it? Or had it started while I read the oarfish description?; walking up the stairs?: parking the car?) with bus driver Jarly Bobadilla escorting the crowd to their seats on a tour bus situated in the main hall.  The tour brought us through four distinct views of the historical development of Otter Creek using wall shadows, readings, figurines, and dialogue between and among the bus driver and his limpet helpers.  My kids were confused and started shining flashlights at the limpets (we were all asked to bring flashlights and binoculars – again, was this “confused kids with flashlights” part of Dru and Lisa’a intention?).  I was confused too but had the patience and wherewithal and inspiration to put the pieces together.  Here, Suite Limpet made you work, which is yet another thing I hadn’t considered or experienced in any other of my prior outings to theater.

Of course things got more interesting for the kids when we were escorted onto a “real” bus.  My family, knowing that things are always more fun where the bumps are more pronounced, fled to the back of the bus.  Unlike all bus trips I’ve been on – and epitomized by a recent trip to Maine’s Common Ground Fair with 50 sixth graders – no one said a word.  No one instructed us to be silent, but we behaved like a group of third graders recently threatened with detention.  Complete silence.  And off we went.

Jarly the bus driver was replaced by a real driver who didn’t say anything.  Questions of “who’s an actor” blossomed to “where’s the stage” quite nicely and powerfully.  Winding our way through Otter Creek, we were now either “on” the stage or “in” the scene. I gave up on the utility of prepositions.

By this time night had fallen.  Mix darkness with flashlights and you get a light show, all the time.  The reflective interior roof of the bus played with the light.  Adults and kids alike made creepy monster faces with lights-under-the-chin tricks.  We rode by limpets performing on the side of the rode and I started to ask questions like “how did they possibly beat the bus here” and “how did Dru and Lisa manage to convince Acadia National Park that this “tour” was sanctioned? and “was this tour sanctioned?”


The breath of fifty odd passengers steamed the windows and I could only imagine what the humanoid limpets saw as we cleaned the bus window interiors with our forearms.  We passed a deer on the side of the road and my nine year old turned to me and asked, “Did they ‘plant’ that deer there”?  I said “No, silly,” but then questioned my own confidence.

The highlight for me was the scene off the bus, in the middle of the dark, somewhere in Otter Creek, somewhere in history.  The limpets ushered us off the bus and guided us along a small, perfectly situated culvert whose waters ran loudly and echoed beneath the old granite bridge.  Faceless musicians performed and the limpets danced in unison.  If my old, skeptical, non-theater-going self could only see me now, transfixed on humanoid limpets dancing along the shore!

We were revisited by the fishermen, by Madame Maria Theresa De Gregoire (the name came to me), and of course by the limpets of the foyer.  The bus driver’s stories emerged anew under the night sky.  We all peered out across Otter Cove, to the other side, west or east I wasn’t sure, and stood in silence, waiting, wondering how this would all end.  Again, there was no audible instruction, only each audience member’s suggestion at what to pay attention to next – this was a self guided tour, or, better, a selves guided tour.

Half expecting fireworks or some laser light show on the opposite shore, I wasn’t at all disappointed by a faint light illuminating a small structure that I always knew was there, but always questioned its purpose.  This was its purpose.

Back on the bus and back to the fixed stage my daughter wondered aloud at the lights shining in neighborhood houses – were they aware of us?  I scared myself when the thought crossed my mind – what if I’m the only audience member here?

The show “ended” back on the more fixed stage where the passage of time and tides were told by the Madame herself and by the revolutions of Earth and Moon.

Suite Limpet.  Sweet Jesus! – did it open my mind and make me rethink and reconsider the validity and utility of theater and performance.  The production and attention to detail was extremely smart.  Suite Limpet struck the perfect balance between fun and serious and between making my mind work and letting my mind relax.  I’ll never look at Otter Creek, think about landscape history, and consider reality in quite the same way.

Darron Collins

The Bar Island Swim

Will Thorndike and I

I remember swimming in the bay twenty+ years ago in one of the earliest Bar Island Swims. It wasn’t the first, but it may very well have been the second. I know Ken Cline was there. I can’t remember, embarrassingly, whether we swam to or from Bar Island, but I don’t remember any long, barefoot walk home, so I’m guessing it was from. It was cold. It was fantastic and, ironically given my earlier sentence, memorable.

When I got the job as president, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would do the swim year after year. Fall of 2011, my “Year One,” seemed a lot colder than 1989 or 1990. I remember a bit of pain in hitting the water. I remember struggling to change clothes in the Gates bathroom and the lights starting to pulse and go blue a bit as my body dealt with cold blood returning to my core. I remember falling asleep at 9 pm that night as soon as my head hit the pillow.

For the “Year Two” swim, Continue reading


Just the other day I went to count clams on the beach at Hulls Cove.

“That’s pretty decadent – to be able to just count clams.  The times I’ve counted clams it’s been of the shells after I ate them.  We foraged to eat, not to count,” remarked Bill Carpenter when I mentioned my clam counting plans.  “But, hey, whatever suits you.”

Chris Petersen, not surprisingly, likes both to count and to consume clams.  He’s doing a bay wide vount as part of a larger statewide census and is concerned that ocean acidification might be taking a toll on the soft-shell clam population here in Maine.  Sucks to have a relatively soft shell in acidic waters.

I didn’t really think actually counting them would be great fun – one clam, two clam, etc. – but thought mucking around in the mud would be a hoot and I knew my girls Molly and Maggie would like it. Plus, applied math, science, conservation, the fresh outdoors all on a beautiful day in Maine in the middle of mud season:  Was I being Dad of the year or what?

Truth be told, there weren’t many clams out there.   But the digging was great fun and we did play with bloodworms (that try to grab one’s finger with their evil little sucking proboscis), bamboo worms (that build little saliva tubes to live in, like salt water caddis flies), and all sorts of other bizarre, mildly disgusting invertebrates.

Chris is spectacular in the field and captivated Maggie and Molly despite the clamless outlook.

Wrapping up our last one by two foot clam plot, my youngest daughter Molly came across a HUGE clamshell, still articulated but good and dead, and thought it a good keepsake.  Walking back toward the car Chris suggested in the nicest way possible, “Why don’t we leave that guy here on the beach?  He’s got all kind of barnacles on him that will be wondering what happened to the incoming tide.”

I agreed with Chris and reaffirmed to Molly that those lifeless looking bumps on the clam were indeed alive and they would not do well without their salty, aqueous home.  Molly, who’s a softy for critters in general, put the shell back in the sand and strode off, maybe a bit dejected but understanding our rationale.

So I was somewhat surprised when, arriving home, I turned around with a “Wasn’t that a cool adventure!” smile only to find Molly weeping big crocodile tears.

“Molly, what’s the matter?” I said.

“I want that clam shell!” she yelled. “I really want that clam shell and want to show it to my friends.”

“Well, Molly, remember about those barnacles?” I replied.  “They’re alive just like, or at least something like Lucy (our dog).  They’re cool little filter feeders and when the tide comes back in they stick out their little tongue thingies and filter out little bits of food in the water.  Doesn’t that sound cool?”

Neither guilt nor “science” seemed to work.

“But I wanted to keep the shell and show it to my friends at school,” she wept.

“Well, Chris said we couldn’t take it.  And that’s that.  I’m sorry buddy.”  (Yes, I threw him right under the bus.)

Molly stomped up the stairs, now more vocal about her dislike of the situation.

And as the water filling her tub drowned the sounds of Molly’s sobbing I sat on the steps and reflected a bit: life of barnacles + lesson of respect for life in general … does it or does it not add up to that barnacle-encrusted clam as a talisman of a young child and her fascination with the non-human world?

I drove like a bat out of hell back to Hulls Cove.  The tide was coming in.  Dinner was on the table.  I had an event to go to and I was covered in beach sand.  Most importantly … what if Chris was still counting clams??!!

I made a quick pass and saw no sign of Chris or his team of students.  I parked, illegally, and started running.  I could still follow the team’s footprints across the muddy shoreline and re-lived the stories of bloodworms, of bamboo worms, of the barnacles I was about to annihilate.  Barnacles?  They are r-selected species, right? – lots of offspring, little to no parental investment.

But it wasn’t about the threat to numbers of individuals; it was the lesson of respect to life in general.  It was that lesson I was destroying.

But there it was.  Amidst rocks and mussels and seaweed, the whopper of a clamshell sat waiting, its barnacle hitchhikers about to be washed by the glory of an incoming tide.  I took it and ran.

Running through the door and onto the porch back home I saw Molly – running and playing wildly with her sister as if nothing had happened.  I half expected her to weep again, upon being presented with the clamshell, blaming me for the execution of a barnacle colony.

But she didn’t.  She hugged me with everything she had in her, her face buried deep in my belly. It was without a doubt the most meaningful hug she’d given me in her short nine years.  And now it was me that was crying.  I’m a softy for moments like these.

It will be tough to measure the impact this clamshell will have on young Molly and whether my cost-benefit calculations were correct.  In the end, it’s a tough call and I imagine Molly herself will struggle someday with the same questions.   For me, I scored HUGE, heroic-level father points and expect she will always remember the day we found the monster clam at Hulls Cove.

Dedicated to Dr. Chris Petersen, source of much inspiration for me and my family.  Hope he forgives me for being sneaky.  Somehow, I think he’ll understand.

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