Spring (?) Highlight Reel

About once a quarter I put together what I call  “Highlight Reel” for the COA Board of Trustees. This quarter there seemed to be loads of very good news across a wide spectrum of the COA community, so I thought I’d share it with a much wider audience.

Dear Trustees,

It’s still cold — I don’t think it got above freezing yesterday — but it smells like spring. And we took the yellow “Enter Through Side Door to Conserve Heat” sign down from the Turrets front door, so that makes it officially spring.

There’s always a lot going on here, but this time around the good news feels more plentiful. As such, enjoy the many but brief blurbs of the Hopeful Spring Highlight Reel:

  1. Senior Moni Ayoub is a 2019/2020 Thomas J. Watson Fellow. She’ll be exploring domestic violence in Egypt, Tunisia, Argentina, and Sweden.

 

  1. Student Lika Uehara ’20 is a 2019 Projects for Peace winner and will be developing a mobile library for rural communities on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

 

  1. Faculty member Doreen Stabinsky has a co-authored a new book entitled Environmental Politics for a Changing World with her colleague Ronnie D. Lipschutz. The text was published by Rowman & Littlefield and can be purchased here on Amazon.

 

  1. Capital campaign success has meant that two faculty are now named chairs. Dr. Steven Ressel was recently named the Kim. M. Wentworth Chair in Environmental Studies. After excellent work and long-term negotiating by Lynn Boulger, Jodi Baker is now the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman Chair in the Performing Arts. Recall that Joanne and Paul’s daughter Nell is a COA alumna from the early 1980s. That brings our total number of endowed faculty positions to 15.

 

  1. Trustees unanimously supported the purchase of a set of town homes to add about 30 new beds to our suite of COA-managed housing.  We are finalizing the building inspection this week and, assuming all goes well, we will be under contract in just a few days and getting the place ready for students soon thereafter.

 

  1. Our  Dean of Admission Heather Albert-Knopp organized a conference session called Major Issues: Moving Beyond the Major and Minor Conversationfor the upcoming National Association for College Admissions Counseling meeting this June. She’ll be collaborating with colleagues from Bard College, St. John’s College, and Hampshire College on that symposium.

 

  1. Bill Carpenter will be retiring this Spring. We’re working with Bill and local filmmaker Peter Logue in the publication of our 50th anniversary documentary film and using his last COA class (called The Big Bang, an intellectual and institutional history of COA) as a cornerstone for the film.

 

  1. All of the boxes have been checked for the Center for Human Ecology (with the town and state). Site work will begin next month and construction will begin in May. Please mark Saturday, May 25 on your calendars — that will be our ground breaking ceremony here on the COA campus!

 

  1. Graduation will be here before you know it — Saturday, June 8th. Our commencement speaker will be Koko Kondo, a Japanese peace activist, Hiroshima survivor, and featured personality in John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

 

  1. We have nine candidates to consider for the Administrative Dean/CFO position. In short order the selection committee (of trustees, staff, faculty, students) will narrow that field to three finalists who will visit campus this spring.

 

  1. Our friends and partners at MD365 held their annual Business Bootcamp, a program designed and led by our own Jay Friedlander. Ten startups pitched their business ideas in the Northeast Harbor Neighborhood House and COA alumnae Joanna Fogg and Teagan White of Bar Harbor Oyster Company were the Audience Choice award winners and received $5000 in support of their business.

 

  1. Ken Hill, former Faculty Dean is now Provost and should forever be addressed as Provost Hill!

 

I could go on, but I’ll let those sink in for awhile.

Enjoy the spring,

Darron

Ps. OK, one more:

  1. The tree sap is flowing and we will be tapping and boiling up our 2019 Château COA Small Batch Maple Syrup… it will be very expensive, but I should be able to cut you a deal! 😉

Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag

The communities of Mount Desert Island are joining others across the nation who are banning single-use plastic bags. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the local paper in support of a ban bag in Bar Harbor, kind of liked it, and wanted to share it more widely.

 

 

I encourage Bar Harbor residents to participate in the town’s public hearing on a proposed ordinance to ban single use plastic bags and polystyrene containers, 7pm on Wednesday, January 15th in the Town Hall. I enthusiastically support the ordinance and hope other residents will get behind the initiative.

How these single-use, polyethylene, blown-film-extrusion, t-shirt style bags came to dominate the market is an interesting story. They were the brainchild of the Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin who came up with the design in the 1960s just as plastics were infiltrating every corner of our lives. Georgia’s Dixie Bag Company got a hold of the patent in 1977. The Kroeger and Safeway supermarket chains introduced the bags in 1982, but it took the petrochemical lobby and the American Progressive Bag Alliance a decade to convince consumers to abandon paper for plastic.

Admittedly, the bags in question are good at what they were designed to do. They’re also cheap and we’ve come up with some other ways to use them, although the claim that they make good emergency windbreakers seems far-fetched. Their very design is what makes them particularly problematic for a community like ours. Airy and with handles, they travel well in the wind and get caught in everything from tree limbs to whale baleen.

We are a community that depends economically on the ecological integrity and aesthetics of our surroundings – anything we can do to reduce trash, the better. We are also surrounded by water filled with majestic marine mammals, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Explore “plastic bag whale stomach” online and I think you’ll agree that anything we can do to avoid those heinous scenarios would be good as well.

Eliminating single-use bags and polystyrene containers, is not going to be the silver bullet of our waste problems and wasteful habits. They don’t amount to a huge proportion of our landfill waste and they’re not significant sources of microplastic pollution. But prohibiting these bags would send an important message to the plastics industry as a whole, would help clean up unsightly and dangerous litter in our environment, and would move the needle in reducing plastics more generally.

No longer having these bags at our beck and call may sting a little. But it stung a bit when we moved away from those plastic six-pack rings and incandescent light bulbs, when we realized it was important to separate trash from recycling from compost, and when we decided that smoking on airplanes wasn’t a good idea. Such constraints can also fuel creativity and cooperation. When we eliminate these bags, for example, I think it’s extremely important we pay special attention to those in our community who can’t simply drop $2.99 for a reusable bag every time they forget their own. For one, paper bags can be a last resort. Or, preferably, we can rally around a bag share program. I have no doubt that we have the spirit of cooperation and plenty of reusable cotton, paper, canvas, rayon, and linen bags in circulation to keep us all outfitted.

Let’s follow the lead of Southwest Harbor and listen to the voices of the students from our island who have so creatively and persuasively encouraged us to drop our single-use plastic bag habit.

Requiem for the Norway Maple

College of the Atlantic celebrated its 45th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, June 9. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ceremony. As is normally the case, the students themselves and their own words were largely responsible for that beauty. Risking scorn most people who live and work in the botanical world, I had the following comments.

***

I love Norway maple trees. If you’re from away, you may not know that the Norway maple may just be the most reviled plant on the planet.

It made the “most hated plants in the world” list where it was described like this: “The Norway maple is one dirty tree. It drops trash at all seasons, including flowers, seeds, branches, and copious amounts of leaves. It can grow in heavy shade and is therefore a ‘sneaky’ invasive plant. Fear for your dog … a falling Norway maple branch would hurt it badly.”

This spring a group of us tapped 50 Norway maples on campus. We boiled 400 gallons of sap down to eight gallons of syrup. When you graduates arrive up on stage, you’ll find a jar of COA’s 2018 Vintage Norway Maple Syrup. I ran this plan to tap Norway maples by some Vermonters and you could see the disgust rise through their faces. “You might poison yourself.”

Why the scorn?

When disease wiped out the elm trees in the 1940s, who brought shade back to the city streets? The sneaky Norway maple.

When George Washington landscaped his home at Mt. Vernon, he did so with Norway maples.

The back, ribs, and neck of the Stradivarius violin?; made from the dangerous-to-your dog Norway maple.

So they bring us this nectar with which you’ll remember your time here at COA, they bring us shade, they bring warmth when you burn their boughs, they bring color in the fall, they bring us brilliant music.

So I ask: Are they trash? Are they botanical litter?

I’m going on about Norway maples because how you approach litter and trash is absolutely essential to the practice of human ecology.

Trash collecting is about getting dirt under your nails and about lowering yourselves into the mire of the profane. It’s a show of respect for the planet and an act of humility in a world that desperately lacks that quality.

It’s altruistic. You didn’t throw that gum wrapper or, God forbid, that tissue there! Why should you pick it up? It’s taking care of the commons; it’s an unrecognized offering to the other. And it might even boost your immune system.

Consider the empty, flattened can of Schlitz beer on the roadside. It’s a no-brainer; or is it? In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey described his job as a ranger in the Utah desert like this: “I sweep the outhouses and disengage the Kleenex from the cactus. I toss my empty out the window and pop the top from another can of Schlitz. Of course I litter the public highway… it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that’s ugly.” Trash, transformed, can be an act of resistance or a work of art.

So trash status depends on what kind of material it is, where it is, and why it was put there.

The same holds when you move away from the material world. That world is littered with trashy ideas and trashy, alternative facts … with trashy souls … and we should be prepared to put them in the bin where they belong. Just recall that, as with flattened cans of Schlitz and Norway maple seedlings, you’ve got to constantly check yourself, you’ve got to get down in there and get your hands and your minds around those things first.

You’ll find that the hard work occurs before and after you actually pick up the trash. Picking it up is easy. Beforehand, you need to make that crucial mental calculation about what is and what isn’t trash. Afterward, you’ve got to figure out what to do with it.

I lived for two years in northern Guatemala working with people who speak a language called Q’eqchi’-Maya. One day, I was walking through the woods, collecting plants, and I came across this old, ragged pair of Adidas sneakers, what I saw as litter in the forest. I picked them up and put them in a trash pile back in the small village. The next day, I saw the rubber soles stripped from those same sneakers and nailed to the door of someone’s home. They had become hinges. That’s become my mental model for transformation.

Just a few weeks ago I was coming across Bar Island in my truck and saw this plastic bag caught up in a snag. I parked the truck just right, found a long stick, climbed up on the roof rack, and wrestled that bag out of the thorns. I felt good about it. But I just balled up the bag and threw it in the trash. That action did not line up with my mental model. Moving trash isn’t good enough.

I think about Abby Barrows’ master’s thesis on microplastic pollution and the fact that by 2050 there will be more tons of plastic in the ocean than there will be tons of fish in the ocean. But even if we were to gather every microfiber and put it in a big pile, we might be a step in the right direction – it’s not in the ocean anymore – but have we really solved anything?

Although the boundary between trash and non-trash is vague and it is porous, I venture that there are things and ideas that are trash in the absolute sense. But I believe that that body of absolute trash is smaller than you might think.

Trash collecting requires intimate, critical contact with the material world and with ideas. The process of collecting, sorting, and transforming requires loads of manual labor and intellectual heavy lifting. Trash collecting is an elixir against physical and intellectual laziness.

No matter what your vocation, you’ll confront a continuous stream of materials and ideas and you’ll have to judge them – to what extent are they trash? You’ll have to figure out what to do with the trash you do find. Are you going to shuffle it around? Will you try and eliminate it at the source? Will you transform it into something useful, rebellious or artistic? How you approach trash is one of the most important practices of human ecology you’ll confront. I’m confident we’ve helped you cultivate these skills.

Last year I used the words wonderful, contemplative, scrappy, inspired, humble, and activist to describe the COA graduate. But with another year of reflection, I will refer to you as “wonderful, humble, contemplatively scrappy activist trash transformers, all inspired to find and pursue your own unique labor of love.”  Now go do it.

***

Congratulations to the COA Class of 2018!

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Mud Season Highlight Reel

About every two months I write a “COA Highlight Reel” for our Board of TrusteesI wrote this one yesterday –a rare snow day for the college — and, after reviewing it said to myself, “This one captures the distinctiveness and excellence of the college in a very special way.” So, I wanted to share it with a wider audience and here we are.

Hi Everyone:

Just when we thought we were getting into the heart of mud season, a Nor’Easter dumped 18 inches of very wet, very heavy snow on us. Oh well, I’m calling this update the “Mud Season Update” anyway! It’s going to be a little longer than normal because I let too much time slide between this one and the last, so, bear with me.

Faculty.

a) COA faculty has been busy! We were thrilled when Nancy Andrews won a coveted 2017 Gotham Award for Best Short Form Breakthrough Seriesfor the 10-part adaption of her feature film The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes.

b) Ken Hill, Rich Borden, Jay McNally, and MPhil student Kira West also got a taste of the celebrity life this winter when they were treated like rock stars at the XXII Society for Human Ecology Conference at the University of the Philippines. They presented a four-part history of COA to a packed crowd and otherwise kept busy honoring multiple requests for selfies.

c) The spotlight turned to Sean Todd this winter as the charismatic, David Attenborough-esque instructor of Life in the World’s Oceans, a 30-part video course by The Great Courses in partnership with Smithsonian. Todd provides a fascinating tour through marine life “even more otherworldly and fantastical than we ever imagined.” Sean was also published recently, as part of a massive, 10-year study on endangered North Atlantic right whalesthat could point the way toward better protections.

d) Jay Freidlander traveled as part of the Maine delegation to the 2017 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he gave talks on eco-tourism, academic exchange, and energy security in remote communities and explained COA’s interdisciplinary approach to very receptive audiences. More recently, Friedlander has designed the Mount Desert Business Bootcamp, a three-day intensive in Northeast Harbor culminating in a pitch competition worth $10,000! This is part of the great work being done by MD365.

e) Susan Letcher’s research was published as part of two scientific papers recently.  “Opposing mechanisms affect taxonomic convergence between tree assemblages during tropical forest succession,” published in Ecology Letters, explored plant species crucial to rebuilding disturbed forests in Costa Rica. “Phylogenetic classification of the world’s tropical forests” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, now gives scientists the ability to use tropical forest DNA to trace where the American and African continents were ripped apart millennia ago.

f) And have you seen the March 2018 edition of Yankee magazine? The cover story, “Rising Seas,” is an in-depth piece about how the New England Coast is changing – and it leads off with John Anderson and College of the Atlantic! There’s great picture of John, too, and of Great Duck. Yankee has a total readership of nearly 2 million people.

Alumni

a) Did you hear about the newly discovered penguin colony? 1.5 MILLION animals were discovered on The Danger Islands down in the Antarctic? He didn’t get the ink in the NYT because he was downin Antarctica in the field, but COA’s own Alex Borowicz (’14) was the lead author on the paper outlining the find, published this week in Nature, one of the two most important scientific publications in the world. (ps. Just got off the phone with Alex’s major professor at Stony Brook University and she couldn’t stop gushing about him!).

b) Microfiber plastics is one of the most ominous threats to the marine environment, and Abby Barrows (MA, ’18) is an authority on the subject. She just published a recent articleon the subject (co-authored by COA faculty member Chris Petersen) and the results from that publication are getting loads of attention.

c) Keeping with that marine theme, my own close friend Leslie Jones (’91, we overlapped for three years at COA) was just named the #2/Chief of Staff at one of the most important, dynamic non-profits dedicated to marine conservation,

d) And just to broaden out a bit, you may recall the Bon Appetite pieceabout our alumna Tara Jensen? Well Tara’s new book has just been published. She is a baker extraordinaire and her book tells the origin story of her outfit, Smoke Signals, and is full of her best recipes as well. Lynn and I visited Tara’s shop out in the mountains of western North Carolina — she’s an amazing human being.

3. NEASC

Ken Hill and I were in Boston last week to meet with the DOE Commissioners about our ten-year reaccreditation. I got a call from NEASC director Barbara Brittingham the day after our presentation and she said we “hit it out of the park” and really opened the Commissioners’ eyes. That meeting was the culmination of an enormous amount of work led by our Academic Dean Ken Hill. It’s a disproportionately large burden for a school of our size: most other institutions have an entire department that can focus entirely on such processes. We’ll have to go through that ringer again in ten years.

4. New Faculty

In the fall term we were excited to finalize the contract with Reuben Hudson, our new faculty member in chemistry. Reuben is coming to us from Colby College and will begin in Fall 2018. Two weeks ago, we also finalized the contract with Dr. Dan Gatti, our new faculty member in Computer Science. Dan is a bioinformatics specialist (and much, much more) who will have a very short relocation: for the past ten years he has been a Research Scientist and Bioinformatics Analyst at JAX. Dan also begins this coming Fall and we are over-the-moon to have them both on board.

5. Fund for Maine Islands

The Fund for Maine Islands, our partnership with the Island Institute, is in its fourth year. We have had two wildly successive programs develop out of that partnership over the past two years, following up on the tremendous work we did with energy sustainability on the outer islands. The first of those success stories is called, coincidentally, SUCCESS: Sustainable Coastal Communities, Educators, Students and Schools and is a three-year collaborative effort to support place-based experiential education training for local teachers and school administrators from 15 schools along the coast. Rooted in high quality, relevant professional development for teachers, SUCCESS has provided professional development for 67 island and coastal teachers and administrators from 19 schools and 7 education non-profit organizations.

Second, there is the project called Mapping Ocean Stories. Building upon the Island Institute’s engagement in the recently completed federal ocean planning process, Institute staff, MaineSea Grant, and COA staff members designed a new 10-week course exploring and documenting the links between working waterfront communities and the marine environment in an era of climate change. The team hoped additional information gathered by staff and student participants would have a tangible benefit: strengthening island and coastal community voices in decision-making processes affecting nearby ocean waters. Given the way the waters of the Gulf of Maine are warming, it will be absolutely essential to understand the economic histories of families and communities to be able to adapt to a radically changing economic and ecological environment — coursework like this represents COA at its best where innovative and relevant teaching and learning is concerned.

Coincidentally, I just received an email this morning from a fisherman. It reads:

“Dr. Collins,

I hope you have a moment so that I, as a recently retired lobsterman and oceans and fisheries advocate here in Friendship, may offer some praise to your college and some its students. Island Institute asked me to assist in the Mapping Ocean Stories class that later became the Winter Harbor Oral History Project, a shared venture with them, Natalie Springuel of Maine Sea Grant, and Todd Little-Siebold from your school. I had offered suggestions at the start and a small “How to talk with fishermen” segment of one class. The results of this project alone were amazing, especially for the short time allotted, and worthy of praise. But I keep running into them out here in the world. Yesterday they came to the BOEM OCS Drilling meeting in Augusta with it’s adjacent NRCM press conference and comment section, ready to stand up, have a voice as well as learn. Before that they attended the Maine Fishermen’s Forum to join in those discussions and add to the oral histories. Even as far afield as New Hampshire where they shared their project results with regional ocean planners. This level of engagement and depth of involvement with both the issues and communities affected is the remarkable part and reflects a true learning experience. Thank you for giving that to them and in some part giving them to us here in Maine.  -Richard”

An email like that is a powerful reminder why we all dedicate so much time and energy to this school.

6. In the next Reel

I’m afraid I’m going on too much — and there’s so much to tell. In the next Reel, look for news on our 2018 Commencement Speaker, a building and campaign update, the 2018 Champlain Institute lineup, our enrollment update, and news from our Human Ecological collaborative in Japan!

7. On a light note…

Tomorrow we will be boiling off about 100 gallons of sap we’ve collected from our Norway maples! Come on by and help keep the fire right — we’ll be out by the Buildings and Grounds shops in the far north of campus, 9amuntil we’re down to our two gallons of amber gold.

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Be well and stay in touch,

Darron

 

 

DACA: A COA Response to Attorney General Sessions

To the COA Community:

Today (September 5, 2017) at 11:02am Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the podium and announced that the Trump Administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era rule giving temporary legal immigration status to people who arrived in the US without documentation as children. The program affects nearly one million people, including hundreds of thousands of college and university students across our country.

At College of the Atlantic, we firmly believe that all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, or gender orientation, should have equal access to education, employment, safety, and opportunity. DACA was one step in creating a pathway to this equality, and by dismantling it, this administration signals its disregard for the well-being of our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, and our peers. For many of these immigrants, the United States is the only country they have ever known. The protections afforded by DACA have given them dignity and the ability to fully pursue the American dream.

COA is committed to making education open and accessible to anyone who wants to pursue learning. As has been our policy, we will continue to accept applications from undocumented and DACA students, and treat them as domestic students in the application process. In addition, we remain committed to maintaining the privacy of all student records, including undocumented students. We will continue to show unwavering support for any of our students affected by this decision. We will also continue to engage with a large and growing number of colleges and universities across the country and with our own legislators here in Maine to address this issue head-on in the halls of Congress.

As a member of The Council of Independent Colleges and the National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities (NAICU), College of the Atlantic supported an Aug. 29 letter to President Trump in support of DACA, with a call for Congress to take action to protect DACA students. NAICU pointed out in an email to members today that for individuals who want to preserve DACA, the most effective step would be to urge one’s elected officials in Congress to take swift action to provide permanent protections to DACA participants. NAICU provided a link here to search for representatives and their contact information.

The rescinding of DACA protections is unfortunately in line with an administration that in my view has not worked to condemn bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and intolerance, even in light of several recent, highly publicized, violent expressions of these sentiments. At College of the Atlantic, we stand firmly for tolerance, inclusion, acceptance, and equality. These tenets of social justice are exactly what DACA is about. We must work to ensure that the legislative solution the Attorney General spoke about this morning does not jeopardize the collective future of the many young people who arrived on our shores and ports with their parents. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas on how best we can counter this situation.

Sincerely,

Darron

A Memorial for David Rockefeller

On Monday, August 14, 2017 we celebrated the life of David Rockefeller here at College of the AtlanticSix hundred of Mr. Rockefeller’s friends and family gathered under the tent — the same tent and same spot we use at graduationSpeakers included David MacDonald of Friends of Acadia, Senator George Mitchell, Rodney Eason of the Land and Garden Preserve, and two of David’s daughters — Neva and Eileen. Music interludes included a Chopin piece by COA Trustee Emeritus Bill Foulke and the Ave Maria, performed by David’s granddaughter Rebecca Lambert. We closed the ceremony with 600 voices singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus! I had the opportunity to open the ceremony with the following words:

Welcome. My name is Darron Collins. I’m the president and an alumnus of College of the Atlantic. It is an honor to help celebrate and memorialize the life of David Rockefeller.

This afternoon I want to emphasize Mr. Rockefeller’s role as a leader of three kinds of families – families beyond the biological, which is well represented under the tent with children David, Jr., Abby, Neva, Peggy and Eileen as well as grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews.

First, David Rockefeller was keeper of an extraordinary family of friends, as is evidenced here, a gathering of one thousand, a number we could have easily doubled had we a bigger lawn and a bigger tent. More important than quantity, his circle of friends ranged from the world’s kings and queens and brokers of power and prestige, to the unknown and the unnamed.

I learned the egalitarian nature of his friendship in August 2011. I hadn’t been in the role of president for more than a few weeks. I was at one of the many summer events getting to know the MDI community and down the drive came that beautiful, white Cadillac. I pulled myself together and joined the throng of people who surrounded Mr. Rockefeller as he emerged from the car. We wouldn’t even let the poor man grab a drink; but he wasn’t flustered or frustrated, he engaged in thoughtful, sincere discussion with everyone who held out a hand. He knew names and asked questions. He didn’t look over the shoulder to see who was next or more interesting. “Mr. Rockefeller,” I said, “I’m the new president of COA and I just wanted to…”

“Hello Darron,” he said, “it’s great to meet you and I’m excited to see COA has an alumnus at the helm.”

I don’t think the conversation went far beyond that because I was stunned speechless. But at that moment I was a new member of David Rockefeller’s family of friends and nothing could have had a stronger welcoming effect than Mr. Rockefeller’s handshake.

Mr. Rockefeller was also an advisor and supporter to a great family of institutions. His philanthropy was generous and transformational. I could never give these words today and not thank him for taking a philanthropic risk on a small, new, unaccredited college that, although founded by a Harvard man, looked nothing like his own alma mater. His early philanthropic investments in College of the Atlantic gave this institution immediate credibility and an immediate jolt of confidence, just like our handshake.

I witnessed this institutional fatherhood on August 14, 2013, four years ago to this very day. The Rockefeller family had given COA the Peggy Rockefeller Farms in 2010 and we wanted to show the family some of the early returns on their investment. We gathered in the barn with D-R, five of his six children, our farm manager, and a group of students. It was the hottest day of the year and this was a working barn, full of the most pungent of farm smells and thick with flies. Brian Lindquist pulled me aside and said, “Hey, don’t take it the wrong way if David spends just a few minutes here and then moves on.”

But David sat down on a hay bale for an hour and a half. Yes, he had incredible stamina, but he wasn’t suffering through anything; he was completely engaged and hung on every word of every student as they walked through the details of their research on the farm. Again, never a sense of looking beyond the shoulder to what was next on his schedule; only complete commitment to the moment, to the individual, and to the institution in question.

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Family gathering in the Peggy Rockefeller Farms Barn, 2013

Lastly, David Rockefeller was guardian and protector to something larger than any individual or institution, something of a father to a family of insects – actually, an entire order of animals called Coleoptera: the beetles. Friends have told me that on trips to Africa, while others scoured the savanna for lions and other charismatic megafauna, D-R asked guides to put him on Colophon primosi or Macropsebium cotterilli.

Mr. Rockefeller collected more than 90,000 specimens*, but, more important than quantity, his passion for beetles offers a window into his world and the qualities he found curious.

Beetles evolved 300 million years ago, they occupy just about every ecological niche on the planet, and their diversity and numbers are staggering: one of every four species of animal alive on the planet today is a beetle.

In beetles I think he found intrigue in what was truly important, what was fundamentally important; I suspect he found beauty beyond the obvious and in the diverse; he appreciated overlooked detail and knew that the more you look, the more you see. In D-R’s collection of beetles, I believe we find a man who is a father to ideas, to big ideas, namely those that try to answer or understand what it means to be human on this planet.

All of us gathered here today have been embraced by a nurturer of friends, a champion of institutions, and as a curator of ideas. As his MDI family, we are saddened by his passing. But the gifts David Rockefeller has given us as make us more whole and more able to navigate the turbulent times we currently find ourselves in. Thank you.

I pulled this from a 2009 source. His collection had since grown to something closer to 150,000!

Rudderless

Rudderless

My mom died recently and now, with both parents gone, I feel rudderless. I’m 47 and feel like a child. With my mind wandering and thoughts scattered, the obsessive synapses have been firing full force and I’ve sought direction through cleaning the floors, through fly-fishing, and through music.

Music has always been a big part of my life and in the days after my mother’s death I’ve thought about two music-related episodes in my childhood years that served as wayfinding points, one involving my father and one my mother.

Mom and Dad split up when I was three. To be honest I’m not sure how old I was, but anything hard to peg down at that stage in life I label with “age 3.” I was the only child and lived with mom. We were like Mutt and Jeff. Dad lived close by so I saw him frequently. We were cut from different cloth but loved each very much.

One of my elementary school friends, Kyle Baraloone, and I fell hard for the band Kiss in 1975. Kyle had some developmental issues that left him at least a foot shorter than everyone else. But the only thing he ever ate was Kit-Kats, so mom and I weren’t convinced the problem was beyond his control. Kyle and I loved Kiss, especially the Destroyer album and the cover of Kiss Alive 2 that featured a very sweaty, psychotic-looking Gene Simmons spitting blood. We’d put on Kiss performances in my basement and dress up as Kiss for Halloween. Kyle was always Peter Chris, the Cat. I was always Paul Stanley. I didn’t know what Stanley’s character was at the time, but had I known he was “the Lover” I would have chosen to be Gene or Ace.

Dad caught wind of my infatuation with this band and, somewhere around my seventh or eigth birthday, I opened a card from dad and out dropped two concert tickets for Kiss. Yes, my first concert was a Kiss concert. In 1978. At Madison Square Garden. I was eight years old. Do you know how many times I’ve unearthed the “what was your first concert” challenge?

“What was your first concert?”

“Rick Springfield at the Brendan Byrne Arena, 1985. It was cool, but my sister was annoying. How about you, Darron?”

“Kiss. 1978. The Love Gun Tour. Madison Square Garden. Don’t even try to match that.”

Dad had no idea what he was walking in to, but he walked into it with dress shoes, suit pants, and a buttoned-down Oxford. We were stage right, way up in the nose- bleeds, where the pot smoke was thickest. I remember two things from that night. First, I am positive I saw Gene stick his surgically augmented tongue out and spit blood and breathe fire, the Holy Trinity for any Kiss enthusiast. Second, when dad brought me home and we walked through the front door, I projectile vomited all over the entryway rug. It must have been the epic performance, near-toxic levels of secondary smoke, and the speedy ride home as my father got the hell out of Manhattan as fast as humanly possible.

Fast-forward five years. The path you might expect a Kiss Army squadron leader to take was not the one I took. By seventh grade my mother’s influence on me became stronger and I became a nature loving outdoor enthusiast. Keep in mind the setting for this story is Parsippany, NJ and not Boulder, Colorado. But mom must have taken me to visit every square inch of public forested land in Northern New Jersey and splash in every stream, no matter how orange the water. I’m tearing up as I write this. I have a very full mental and visual Rolodex of those times together.

Beyond those paired expeditions to the woods, summers back in the day were like every suburban 40-something person describes: After a hearty breakfast of Fruit Loops and chocolate milk it’s a “Mom – I’m going riding bikes with Paulie.”

“OK, be back by dark and, for God’s sake, don’t rip those new jeans I just bought you. And will you pick me up a pack of Salem Lights at the 7-Eleven?”

But between the summer of sixth and seventh grade mom sent me off to summer camp. One of my best friends, Doug, was Jewish and he had been going to a religious summer camp for the past few years. From the stories Doug told, the nature of his summer camp was firmly focused on fondling the opposite sex and sounded like a lot of fun.

But I wouldn’t have Doug’s luck at the Vershire Outdoor School in Vershire, Vermont. Focused as I was on the woods and waters, my first year’s camping experience was filled with hiking and backpacking and rock climbing and canoeing. I have near total recall from those two weeks: the home-base cabin, the enormous grassy hill we had to climb to get dinner, scoops of mashed potato I thought were scoops of ice cream.

There was also a self-proclaimed Satanist in the group of happy campers. Stories around the fire invariably drifted toward goat sacrifice. We all thought he was a nut until he lost the pentagram-decorated ring he wore on his left middle finger and proceeded to become violently ill. When he was medivacked off the south slope of Camel’s Hump we knew for sure Satan was real, that this kid was his disciple, and that he would suffer terribly at the hands of Satan himself for losing that ring.

But this story isn’t about Slayer or Merciful Fate; it’s actually about the Grateful Dead.

One of our other campmates was a Dead Head. It was 1983, the Brent Midland years, and this kid spent two solid weeks connected to his Sony Walkman via fluffy foam headphones singing songs, complete with pitch-perfect guitar riffs and the screaming falsetto of background vocalist Donna Godchaux. Counselors begged him to unplug and enjoy the great wilderness. “Oh, my friend – The Grateful Dead and wilderness are one,” was his retort.

I never met anyone as devoted to a band as this guy. It made my earlier reverence for Kiss seem shallow.

I never actually heard the Grateful Dead’s music during that entire summer camp experience because those headphones never left his curly haired head. Nevertheless, I must have went on and on about the Dead to my mom on the car ride home to Parsippany, because the next week, God love her, mom went right out and bought Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead. (You can’t blame mom for not knowing that the Dead were a traveling show, not a studio band. You can’t blame her for failing to track down an appropriate bootlegged recording of a good early-70s show. No matter – Skeletons from the Closet was the perfect gateway drug for me).

I sometimes wonder if mom was trying to outdo dad’s birthday present from years past when two Grateful Dead concert tickets dropped out of my 13th birthday card. New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne arena, 1983, two full years before that poor kid who had to suffer through Rick Springfield.

Mom fit the part. She was a beautiful woman, 40 at the time with long, straight, brown hair. She would have been a flower child if she were born a few years later. Mom and son strolled through the crowds. I bought an ugly poncho. We laughed and joined the spinning dancers. The tunes didn’t sound at all like the ones I’d memorized from my cassette and I remember being slightly disappointed they didn’t play Casey Jones so I could scream, “… high on cocaine” without repercussion. But that concert opened up a new world of adventure for me. And I didn’t projectile vomit when I got back home.

***

Through music, both parents took risks with me, measured risks that inspired a lasting sense of adventure and love for music. Though my direct ancestry backward is gone, I now think about transferring that sense of adventure and love for music forward to my own kids. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all that I jumped at the chance to take my two teenage daughters to see Justin Bieber. I’m guessing they’ll remember it and remember just how awkward their father was: almost as awkward as my own poor dad up in the nose-bleeds at the Garden.

COA’s 2017 Graduation

It was our 44th graduation and an incredible day — it poured rain just seconds after we all got under the tent and then the clouds opened up by the time we marched out back up to the Newlin Gardens. Though you really need to be reading our commencement speaker’s address (Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib), I wanted to share my talk as well. Before launching into the talk, we did give a hearty send-off to Will Thorndike, who was overseeing his last commencement ceremony as board chairman.

It was 1880. The French Directorate of Fine Arts commissioned Auguste Rodin for a 20-foot doorway that, after 37 years of work, would become his revered Gates of Hell. Here in the US, the worst blizzard in recorded history devastated the Midwest and The New York Metropolitans defeated the Washington Nationals 4-2 in the first professional baseball game held at the New York Polo Grounds.

And that same fall a fertilized seed of Thuja occidentalis whirled in the ocean breeze and came to rest near 44 degrees 23 minutes north latitude, 68 degrees 13 minutes west latitude. When the soil temperature eclipsed 60 the following spring the seedling pushed toward the sky and a beautiful white cedar began its 138-year life on what we now call the front lawn of the College of the Atlantic campus. (150 paces that way)

Linnaeus named the tree Thuja, but most know it as arbor vitae, the tree of life, because the vitamin-C infused foliage saved Jacques Cartier’s crew from scurvy during the winter of 1535. Sacred to the Ojibwa and also the Wabanaki tribes here in Maine, white cedar is revered as a soup to cure headaches, as a rib for birchbark canoes, and as a tincture to remove warts.

But our tree was destined for ornamentation. Two decades after the seedling germinated, a stand of twenty European black pine were planted just to its west. These pines grew much faster and formed a border along Eden Street. They also stole sun from the white cedar. Time and shade gave this tree form.

Imagine the thousand lungs feeding our tree Carbon Dioxide; the children who climbed those perfectly twisted branches; the Frisbees and kites snagged by its LeBron James-sized limbs?

Then in the last days of 2016, the salt-damaged and bug-ridden European black pines were belted with foreboding blue ribbon and in February 2017 the trees came down. The white cedar stood alone again as it had for its first 20 years.

The State of Maine, as you may have noticed getting here, is making enormous improvements to Eden Street and soon there will be a beautiful, safe road and multi-use path into town. Thoughtful and cooperative, the Maine DOT couldn’t save the European pines but did manage to keep the white cedar.

With its piney neighbors gone, the cedar among stumps looked horrible and, through presidential decree, I called for its removal. Word traveled quickly and many of the quickly traveling words were not happy. I read and listened and thought. But after deep consideration and meditative conversation with Millard and Bruce Tripp, we fired up the 18-inch bladed Husqvarna chain saw and the 138-year-old arbor vitae became arbor mortuus.

Vultures descended on the slaughter. Steve Ressell was quickest. He nabbed a perfectly-twisted limb to adorn his backyard sauna; John Barnes lopped a straight section for a canoe paddle; Millard scavenged for great fire starter. And I, too, managed a salvaged branch. Partially driven by guilt, I promised to perform some kind of alchemy to make good from the death I had caused.

So a few weeks ago Bruce Tripp and I sat the limb I had taken on saw horses newly crafted by John Barnes and his work-study crew. The Husqvarna and I cut through the tree like flesh and transformed a limb into a floor full of 4-7 inch diameter hockey pucks.

My stepfather, who’s a professional auto-body guy, gifted me a 15-amp grinder and, with this wire wheel attachment, I shredded through the fibrous outer bark and the phloem which was forcefully deposited into the deepest recesses of my ear canal, my lungs, and my nostrils. After each session I’d emerge from my basement coated in a wooly dandruff of cedar and quite literally one with the tree of life.

I picked up a wheel adapter from Steve and Linda at Green Mountain Auto – Linda’s sister is Jo Foster, a COA graduate from 1985 that everyone knew as “Bone.” The grinder and a 36 grit sanding disc knocked back the grooves left by the chainsaw. Elmer Beal’s belt sander with 50 and 80 grit paper removed the circular scars left by the grinder, and 100, 150, and 220 grit paper on a hand sander gave me 100 baby-skin-soft hockey pucks of cedar, each with its own display of heartwood and sapwood, growth rings and knots and imperfections. Each one different and perfect.

I then called Jeff Toman, husband to our friend and poet Candice Stover. Jeff is a blacksmith. With a handful of ¼ inch steel bits salvaged from the depths of his most exquisite man cave, he fashioned a 4-inch diameter brand of the College of the Atlantic logo.

On Wednesday May 24th Jeff and I fired up his coal forge to 700 degrees and branded the discs. The first press after each reheat of the branding iron actually ignited the oils still wet in the wood, and the flame cast a nice, unexpected shadow over the brand. A wire brush cleaned away any lose charred wood.

Off to Paradis True Value hardware where the software you want for anything having to do with paints, stains, or varnishes is named Duffy. Duffy suggested a glossy, oil-based polyurethane. It took fifteen coats to get that “wet look” I wanted, but eventually I finished up with what looked like a bakery full of COA-branded sticky buns.

Each of you will get one – they’re back there on your chairs – and you might cherish it, or at least use it as a coaster or a paperweight. But even if it gets lost in the shuffle of your life, maybe you’ll stumble on it twenty years from now in a sock drawer or dusty closet corner and remember this day, our cedar tree, or your times at COA.

But I didn’t make these things to jog your memory.

The COA-branded sticky bun is first a reminder of the social complexity of material things – think of the webs of material, behavior, history, technology, and community imbued in this object. But most importantly it’s an emblem of a project and how such project can be a catalyst for curiosity and an implement for exploring a labor of love.

My favorite thought on labor and love is from the public scholar Marina Popova who said, “Labor without love dooms one to the hamster wheel of productivity, that vacant counterpoint to creativity. Love without labor begets infinite procrastination, the death kiss of ideation.”

That is why ours is a project-based curriculum here at COA – to cultivate the right balance between labor and love.

I fell in love with arbor vitae and these sticky buns, but my ultimate labor of love is this very college. Rodin’s was The Gates of Hell.

All of you came to COA with at least the germ of some labor of love and this place, this community nourished that germ through the projects you undertook here. I cannot wait to watch your greatest labors and loves unfold as you go off to the wider world.

Last year I described COA graduates as “Wonderful, contemplatively scrappy, humble activists.” But with another year of reflection, I call you “wonderful, contemplatively scrappy humble activists all inspired to find and pursue your own unique labor of love.” Now go do it.

Thank you.

 

Response to Friday, January 27 Immigration Order

Dear COA Community:

President Trump issued an executive order on Friday that temporarily bans citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the US, even those with already-approved visas. The current administration’s policy shift on immigration and immigrant communities is inhumane and will be the subject of intense scrutiny over the next months. It is also mercurial and therefore difficult for us to respond to through policy. But some response is essential and I felt it absolutely necessary to emphasize — now and again — the college’s commitment to providing an open, inclusive educational experience regardless of national identity and immigration status. As a school dedicated to human ecology, I also feel our mission demands we play a leadership role for higher education as a whole.

As you well know, although our student, staff, and faculty community is small, we come from all corners of the globe: 43 countries and almost all fifty states. We are also a college that understands education as a lifelong enterprise and one that takes us far beyond the borders of campus, of MDI, and of the Nation. Consider Bonnie Tai’s class in Taiwan and Karla Peña and her students in Yucatán — they are safe, but must be experiencing these tumultuous times in very different light. Although we currently do not have students from any of the countries highlighted, we have in the past and will in the future. In Barry Lopez’s speech to the graduating class last June, speaking of the many interwoven challenges and perils of the world, he implored us, “For God’s sake, take care of one another.” His words ring even truer today. Please reach out to me or Sarah Luke if you or a fellow student in anyway feels affected by the executive order — we want to address any and all of these concerns immediately, on an individual basis, and with ultimate empathy.

At the same time, I want you all to be aware that I have been in touch with other colleges across the State of Maine and within the United World College-Davis Scholarship Network to see what kind of collective action we might be able to take.

Colby College President David Greene penned words to his campus which resonate with me. He characterizes the higher educational system in the US as excellent because of its “…commitment to free inquiry, to educating talented students from here and abroad, to populating our distinguished faculties with leading thinkers from all corners of the globe, and to scholarly collaborations that result in groundbreaking discoveries and improve the human condition.”  Spot on.

The University of Michigan has taken a particularly powerful stand. Their statement underscores that they:

– welcome and support students without regard to their immigration status and will continue to admit students in a manner consistent with their non-discrimination policy.

– comply with federal requirements associated with managing its international programs, but otherwise, does not share sensitive information like immigration status.

– do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties in community safety

– will not partner with federal, state, or other local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law except when required to do so by law.

– will maintain a strong commitment to the privacy of student records for all students, consistent with state and federal laws and do not provide information on immigration status to anyone except when required by law.

We are similarly committed. I am working with colleagues on campus and with our board to make a similar statement.

What I said as we started the new year feels more relevant with each passing day:

“… to those who have long been marginalized in society, there was outright fear that the decades of progress around inclusivity would be turned back, that those on the tails of many bell curves would be shunned or persecuted.

I want to tell you now that we here at COA will continue to work our hardest to make sure that this will never happen here. To the best of our abilities, we are working to make sure that it doesn’t happen anywhere. At COA you will no doubt be tested and you will be uncomfortable — perhaps physically as you climb across the Knife Edge of Mount Katahdin, perhaps intellectually as you confront material you either do not understand or do not agree with, perhaps socially as you discover that your beliefs do not align with those of a close friend. But you will always be welcomed.”

These are trying times — times where silence is simply not an option.

I look forward to working with the entire COA community and with others across the globe to address any and all threats to the freedom of inquiry we are all so committed to.

Be well and stay in touch,

Darron

 

Welcome to Winter and 2017

I sent the following communication to students, staff, and faculty on the heels of a new year. I thought you might like to read it as well.  DC

Hi Everyone:

Welcome to winter term and, for those of you who were away, welcome home.

The COA community, although small in number, is made up of a fantastic array of people. We come from more than 40 countries and nearly all 50 US states. We come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. We’re straight, gay, queer, bisexual, transgender, or gender indiscriminate. We worship different Gods or no gods. Most importantly, we bring many worldviews to the things we’re passionate about. At COA diversity is not about a feel good or check-the-box statistic; it’s a critical element of our approach to education. Our intent is not just to understand the world, but also to improve upon it and, with that approach, a commitment to diverse perspectives is absolutely necessary.

In this “Welcome Back” I want to re-emphasize something we may sometimes take for granted: at College of the Atlantic we are committed to fostering an inclusive, nondiscriminatory, diverse, secure environment to learn, think, and grow.

I was reminded of how essential these elements are on the day before Thanksgiving when I invited students staying on campus to my home for a simple meal. A frigid night descended on us, so we ate chili and lit a fire. There were about 30 of us there gathered around the fire, including with my wife Karen, my two daughters, and my dog Lucy. It was a tremendous evening and one that exemplified the diversity, the learning, the openness to having difficult conversations, and the real sense of community at our college.

We spoke about the Baltic War, the effect of climate change on Maine’s maple syrup industry, the upcoming winter ecology class, the devastation in Aleppo, the impact of fungal infections on bats, the skyrocketing costs of health care and their impacts on how we manage the college, the seasonal shifts of cranberry harvesting, SEC Football, Colson Whitehead’s novel Underground Railroad, and, well, the list goes on. I did more listening than talking and found myself thinking “What an amazing experience for my young daughters to be part of this!” and just as quickly understood that these kinds of experiences and conversations can be transformative for everyone.

The conversation drifted to the 2016 election. No matter what your personal politics, this election exposed an ugly rift here in the US and has shaken the very fabric of our country. The language, the media-inspired frenzy, the attempt to whittle complicated matters into Twitter posts, and the discussion of a “post-truth” universe were infuriating for me. But, to those who have long been marginalized in society, there was outright fear that the decades of progress around inclusivity would be turned back, that those on the tails of many bell curves would be shunned or persecuted.

I want to tell you now that we here at COA will continue to work our hardest to make sure that this will never happen here. To the best of our abilities, we are working to make sure that it doesn’t happen anywhere. At COA you will no doubt be tested and you will be uncomfortable — perhaps physically as you climb across the Knife Edge of Mount Katahdin, perhaps intellectually as you confront material you either do not understand or do not agree with, perhaps socially as you discover that your beliefs do not align with those of a close friend. But you will always be welcomed.

Now more than ever we need a diverse group of doers and thinkers, and now more than ever this college is ready to stand by its commitments to support, challenge, and advocate for our students. Our own alumnus Khristian Mendez ’15 may have said it best: “The values that COA stands for and the education we received were made for this moment.”

College of the Atlantic is a place to work on “wicked” problems. Those problems —like environmental justice, deforestation, racial violence, water scarcity, meth addiction in rural America, meeting energy needs in the face of climate change, the causes and consequences of migration, the homogenization of native languages and cultures, industrial agriculture, the role of technology and artificial intelligence, poverty and population, the loss of traditional ecological knowledge — these problems demand integrative thinking, they demand open minds, they demand creative, entrepreneurial, adventurous thinkers and doers. They demand a diverse set of human ecologists.

***

So winter is here. The days are growing longer and our 108 square-mile island feels more like a rural Maine hamlet than a Mecca for leaf-peepers (but who can blame them for wanting to be here in the fall). And, whether this is your first or fiftieth Maine winter, we find ourselves in what one might call very different and quickly changing operating conditions.

In such a climate I went to one of my intellectual heroes, former COA faculty member Bill Drury. You’ve likely run into his quote:

“When your views on the world and your intellect are being challenged and you begin to feel uncomfortable because of a contradiction you’ve detected that is threatening your current model of the world, pay attention. You are about to learn something.”[1]

So true. But today more than any other day of our collective past a corollary of the quote is worth meditating on:

“When your views on the world are being challenged and you become dogmatically comfortable with your own views and you find your immediate peer group is no longer threatening your current model of the world, pay attention. Learning something will require you reach out to those who make you uncomfortable.”

Seek out those uncomfortable, precipitous, Knife Edge-like climbs. Test your own preconceived notions and, with the highest focus on respect, probe the notions of those with whom you don’t agree. I want you to feel challenged and challenge yourself, but also know that we will do everything in our power to ensure you can thrive here, regardless of your point of view and regardless of the national or global political situation.

There will always be room around our fire.

Be well,

Darron

[1] While looking for the exact wording of the quote, a Google Search yielded this hit from COA alumna Heather Candon ’99 – it’s about Roller Derby, being uncomfortable, wearing protective gear and the like. Enjoy the relevant read.