A View from Little Long Pond

I was asked to give the keynote address at this year’s Land and Garden Preserve (LGP) annual board meeting. The LGP stewards the Asticou Azalea Gardens, the Thuya Garden and the 1000+ acres around Little Long Pond on Mount Desert Island, Maine. It’s always hard to replicate a talk with visuals in a blog format such as this, but I thought I’d give it a try.

 

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Little Long Pond

Good afternoon. The title of this talk is “A View from Little Long Pond,” and before starting I wanted to point out that when I say “Little Long Pond (LLP),” I’m referring to the pond itself plus the 1000+ acres around the pond that Mr. Rockefeller transferred from his private ownership last summer.

And, rather than put this all the way at the end of my talk, I wanted to start with a “thank you” – for the incredible conservation leadership and stewardship of the Rockefeller Family, to all the volunteers and staff of the Land and Garden Preserve, and specifically to Rodney Eason, the Land and Garden Preserve CEO, for asking me to do this talk back in January 2016. I can honestly say that that asking inspired a kind of personal and intellectual growth that has meant the world to me over the past few months.

Here’s an outline of my talk: I expect it to last about 40 minutes and will be sure to leave 20 minutes for questions, although, if you feel the need, you can certainly stop me along the way. During those 40 minutes I’ll run through my methodology, findings, questions, and suggestions. The time I’ve spent on this project has inspired more questions than answers, but I definitely came away with plenty of opinions and, in the most humble way possible, I wanted to share those with you as well.

When Rodney first asked me to do this I knew of his desire for an ecological analysis of LLP and that made me a bit nervous. I’m not an ecologist in the strict sense of the term. I don’t know how to measure the flow of carbon or water or nitrogen or biomass through any ecological system nor quantify predator prey relationships, trophic cascading and what not. I’m a human ecologist and am most interested in the dynamics between human beings and those various non-human systems. LLP is a perfect place to tease out those human ecological relations. My method of coming to understand was utility, plain and simple: use – experience – being there – spending time – coming to know.

Some of the time I did that with my family, with my girls Molly and Maggie. It turns out 13- and 15-year-old girls don’t have the right attention span for attending to what I was interested in.

But dogs do. My dog and co-author Lucy was with me in the winter, spring, summer and fall.

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Lucy in Winter

I’ve been visiting LLP since I was a COA student in the late 80s and early 90s, but things took a real turn for me starting May 1 when I decided I needed to buckle down for this talk. So from May 1 until now I spent 4.1 times a week on average at LLP; most of that was running and some walking, at an average of 4.6 miles a visit. Over the 15 weeks that gave me 61 trips to the region and 282.9 miles. It sounds like a lot – enough to give me pause about sharing such data for fear you would say, “hey, isn’t this guy running a college?” Each trip lasted an hour to 90 min. But I got to thinking, if I’m not able to budget 6 hours a week for something as interesting and revitalizing as this, something’s wrong.

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My Map of Jordan Stream

I also began to think that running and thinking and generally experiencing wasn’t enough, so I took to mapping and drawing, which, if nothing else, brought some serious focus to my adventures. Hand drawing a map is one of the most powerful ways imaginable to come to know a landscape.

So, through such experience and mapping I “found” a lot of things, I found, for instance, the hide out spot for a gaggle of showy lady slippers, a dog’s gravestone, a monument to someone named LEO on top of Mitchell Hill, an old well based around a still active spring, and a few hundred small, patches of beauty that only lot’s of time or really good luck allows.

In terms of this talk, my key findings are: 1) LLP is most certainly distinctive from the lands that surround it; 2) the user and the user experience in LLP is likewise quite different; 3) there’s a decidedly linear nature to the geography; and 4) the hardwoods around LLP are completely out of the ordinary.

The 1000 or so acres centered on Little Long Pond (LLP) are distinct from the rest of MDI, from both the surrounding private lands and the national park. In absolutely no offense to the park, there is what I call a “Non federal” nature to the landscape.

This differentiation is interesting because we are dealing with the same ecological underpinnings. The canvas and the paint are the same. But the human ecological underpinnings are very different – the unique character of the landscape is due almost entirely to anthropogenic circumstances. That’s interesting, worth noting, and worth teasing out some. What’s at the root of these anthropogenic distinctions?

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Historic Stone Wall

First, there’s history. The human history of the LLP area – primarily, the history of the Rockefeller family — bleeds into the landscape with much more force than the park. The horse fields and the long-term management of those fields are the most obvious elements of that history, but there’s the boat house, the mixed grassy and gravel carriage roads, and the more subtle touches of history like what seem like rock walls.

Second, there’s the way the landscape bobs and weaves with the private and federal land that surround it.

Third, there’s the emphasis on management for extraordinary views and the more active management of understory vegetation to give the user long, sweeping views across acres of moss and lichen.

The presence of dogs off leash is a fourth differentiator.

Then there’s sound: It’s not necessarily that I found LLP to be more quiet than Acadia, — certainly dogs do make quite a bit of noise, especially when you run into that guy that’s training five dogs with whistles — but the sound experience is different. I don’t have quantitative data to back this up, but I bet there are fewer decibels of road noise. The location of Peabody Drive, the slow speed of traffic compared to, say 102, and the relatively narrow, linear nature of the area and the trail system, means you get away from road noise very quickly.

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Soft Trails

Sixth, the network of trails is radically different. They are soft. But there’s a more profound difference. In Acadia you have a relatively lightly managed forest bisected by heavily structured trails. In LLP you have more managed areas bisected by less intensively managed trails. This makes sense. To manage 3 million people a year the National Park has to take a particular management approach to the construction of trails in order to meet the goal of preserving “unimpaired the natural and cultural values” of our parks for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

It’s also been my sense that there is a higher percentage of local, repeat users at LLP in comparison with the typical ANP visitor. Clearly visitation types exist along a continuum, from those riding bicycles who do not even know that they’re not in the Park, to the Jesses and Eds and the others on the trail crew who know every feature of the terrain, but I had the sense that LLP users have a somewhat deeper understanding and familiarity with the landscape. They

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The “St. Louis Arch” Tree

know where the “St. Louis Arch Tree” is and cherish that emergence from the forest where the grasslands unfold in front of your feet. There is, in a very real sense, and LLP culture LLP that is distinctive and has a particular knowledge base about the landscape. Like the landscape itself, this distinction is a good thing, one that should be nurtured, cultivated, and maintained … not erased or ignored.

I also found there to be a definitive linear nature to the LLP landscape.

This finding emerged in February of this year. I’m very fond of rivers and whenever I come across a body of water I’m pulled by some magnet and drawn upstream on a quest to know where the most distant droplet of water comes from.  I do these “source to sea” adventures all over the Island and did one on Little Harbor Brook, tracing the brooks source to the southern flanks of Penobscot Mountain.

The more I walked and the more I ran I came to know the LLP landscape as four sets of peaks separating three distinct watersheds running north to south. These are Little Harbor Brook, Little Long Pond and Jordan Stream, and Stanley Brook. I think this “finding” – call it a watershed approach –is more than just curious and might be useful for stewarding the lands and waters of LLP.

My fourth finding has to do with the hardwood trees of LLP. I’m a sucker for forests and trees, so it’s not a surprise that I found them and found them to be impressive. You’ve heard of The “Big Five” – elephant, lion, cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros – in terms of African animals?  Well at LLP you also have The Big Five: maple, ash, oak, beech, and birch. Of all the trees in LLP, it is birch that wins the prize in terms of number and biomass. Birch is the cape buffalo of LLP.

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Massive Maples

In addition to number and volume, there are also the charismatic individuals, like the Tolkien maple or what I call the sentinel birch. My all time favorite is a 107cm Diameter at Breast Height birch tree that you would never see unless you knew it was there. This has got to be the largest birch on MDI, certainly the biggest I’ve ever seen.

Looking at trees became a great example of “the more you look, the more you see.” I kept looking, kept seeing, and eventually mapped al of the hardwood trees around a loop I came to call The Hardwood Mile. I began to know the trees like people.

The more time I spent at LLP, the more certain questions really kept pushing their way to the front of my mind, questions that linked to the findings themselves.

Recalling the linear nature of the geography and how watercourses define the place, I desperately wanted to understand how silt and water moved through these “systems.” Especially in this very, very dry year, it was obvious to me that there is far more vegetation in LLP than in years past .Why is this; what’s the pace with which it’s

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Brook Trout on the Fly

occurring; where is the sediment coming from? Not unrelated, I also was very curious about water levels, the connectivity between smallest headwater tributaries, the main stem of the river, and the ocean itself. There’s no better critter to ask about these things then the brook trout and the “salter” – the anadromous brook trout that makes use of both freshwater and saltwater environs. So, I began questioning not only about the movement of silt through the three watersheds, but also the movement of water, and the movement of the brook trout themselves. I was forced to do some fly fishing … poor me.

My second set of questions revolved around the trails and the terrain I was using every day – what makes sense in terms of trail management?  I know there’s loads of enthusiasm around trails and trail building and I myself was very enthusiastic about the Richard Trail, which is exquisite. But as my experience grew at LLP I did begin to think a lot about the impact of trails on the experience and how the specific kinds of trail infrastructure shape the experience, from the more modest improvement projects to the more substantial.

Third, I also became increasingly curious about what I called earlier the “LLP culture.” I spoke with a lot of people during my excursions to LLP — actually 95% of people I ran into were on the carriage paths – and I thought that really coming to know what was going on in the minds of people who use the area would be really useful: why did they chose this place; what did they come for; how did they use it; how often; how many, etc. I definitely wanted to know those things and thought that you knowing them would be very interesting and, more than likely, very useful.

Not surprisingly, I began to question the trees.

During my ten years at World Wildlife Fund I was also very much interested in trees, largely of the neotropical forests. And the place you went to if you wanted to know trees in the tropics was Barro Colorado Island. At 3840 acres it’s more than three times the size of LLP. It was formed in 1913 when the US dammed the Chagres River to help create the Panama Canal zone. The island became a nature reserve in 1923, managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. There’s unlikely to be a swath of land anywhere in the world we know more about than Barro Colorado – if a leaf falls we know from which tree.

It struck me that this might be a very interesting model to follow, especially where silviculture and forest management is concerned (I say a prayer every time I walk by those recently planted American chestnut trees). And in my eyes, there’s no greater threat to LLP than invasive insect pests like the emerald ash borer, the red pine scale, and the hemlock wooly adelgid. Knowing our trees is the first line of defense in saving them.

It’s human nature I suppose: it’s hard to ask yourself these questions or pose the questions to a group without your mind leaning in the direction of answers or at least suggestions on how to answer them. So I will close with ten suggestions, made in the most humble, appreciative way imaginable.

  1. I would suggest beginning a sediment tracer study – that allows you to pin down specifically where sediment is coming from, how quickly, what particle size etc. These kinds of studies have been done in freshwater environments since the 1960s, but recently the methodologies have been improved.
  2. In tandem with that study, I would use brook trout as an indicator species for freshwater health and freshwater connectivity in the three watersheds. I’d again recall the three drainages and watersheds, each with distinctive characteristics. I’d also note that Acadia National Park has done an extensive brook trout study in Stanley Brook , so replicating that kind of work in the two drainages further west could be a very, very interesting way to compare and contrast the impact of use and land management on a watershed.
  3. I also came away from my time at LLP thinking we should maintain the open water nature of LLP. I’ve become bored by complaints or questions about what is natural or not: the human footprint across the island is very heavy, there’s no need to be embarrassed by that and decide to manage the land for outcomes and choices and aesthetics in addition to general ecological health. It’s perfectly appropriate to say “we are managing Little Long Pond to protect the scenic and ecological qualities of open water” just as it’s perfectly appropriate to say “we’re mowing the fields to maintain the grasslands.”
  4. What about my hunch that the LLP visitor is a year-round resident or summer resident and a much more frequent return visitor?;What about this “Little Long Pond Culture”; who are your visitors; what’s their penchant for volunteerism? I’d implement a visitor study.
  5. I’d define a large, long-term area for looking at tree phenology and disease resistance. I’d map, catalog and keep on top of your beautiful trees.
  6. OK, this one might get me thrown out of here, but I’d caution against overbuilding the trail system. The trails are some of the most precious on the entire island. I’d lean away from mapping and displaying trail maps and away from signage. I’d maintain a sense of exploration, adventure, and discovery for people. Let them get a little lost. There’s nothing like that on the island and it’s such a unique value.
  7. All this, I wholeheartedly recognize, would take a lot of work, among volunteers, of committees, and of new person power. I’d steer that volunteerism to low tech, high labor needs associated with weed removal, sediment removal, and tree work and away from trail building and maintenance.
  8. Well, you had to know this one was coming. COA has a 40+ year history of work with Acadia, a relationship that helps define who we are as an institution. But the management scheme of LLP opens a whole new range of learning opportunities for our students, which is my bottom line as president. Doing something collaboratively seems like a no brainer. Our students are fantastic and could and would do fantastic work at LLP.
  9. But beyond the somewhat self-centered suggestion of involving COA, I just get the sense that there’s an increasingly strong aptitude for cooperation among island institutions. I absolutely know that’s the case for philanthropists. It might be a very interesting and powerful idea to use the LLP area as a platform for cooperation, because where institutions themselves are powerful reasons to cooperate and people or leadership among those institutions are important as well, in my eyes, there’s nothing stronger than place as a gravitational force for pulling people and institutions together. I could envision the lands of the Land and Garden Preserve as being that gravitational center for understanding the relationship between place and education, and human health, and genetics, and land management.
  10. Last and maybe most importantly of all, my suggestion would be to keep doing what you’re doing. LLP is an incredible place both because of the way glaciers sculpted the land 12,000 years ago and the way you have sculpted the land today overt he past decades. Whatever magic you’ve imparted on these lands — keep doing that.

Thank you.

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Good View from Little Long Pond

 

 

 

Champlain Society 2016 – Martha Stewart, Host

On Saturday, July 30th, College of the Atlantic celebrated another year of extraordinary support with our most important giving society, The Champlain Society. The reception was held at Skylands, the summer home of Martha Stewart. Martha was a generous, gracious host and the evening was spectacular. These were the comments I delivered that evening — to a crowd of nearly 200!

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Martha Stewart’s Scrabble Board

I’m going to yell because I want all of you to hear the words ‘Thank you” very clearly.

When our founders hatched COA 46 years ago, they had three missions in mind: revitalize the economic, intellectual, and cultural life of MDI; cultivate the most dynamic, adventurous and effective minds to address the most pernicious problems we face a a planet; and bring a new model of education to the world.

With revitalizing MDI, it wasn’t just about warm bodies living here year round and spending money, but, rather, about the preparation and seeding of an amazing cadre of COA alumni who would settle here. Alumni who

  • Built businesses like Reel Pizza and the Criterion in Bar Harbor
  • Founded restaurants like Havana and The Burning Tree and Café This Way
  • Care for our health as leaders of the non-profit Healthy Acadia and as doctors and physician assistants in the hospital
  • Steward the land as rangers in the park, biologists at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and as staff at Friends of Acadia — a third of FOA staff are COA alums
  • Sculpt the land as landscape architects like Dennis Bracale, as gardeners like Mary Roper of the Azalea Gardens and as farmers like Matt Gerald at Sweet Pea Farm
  • Teach the kids in our public schools and run the schools as principals and vice-principals
  • Are the artists like Jennifer Judd McGee or like Dan Farrenkopf of Lunaform
  • Are the founders of the newly established MDI Community Energy Center, which will bring energy efficiency and sustainability all over the island.

It’s amazing when you list things out like that: COA folk help make this Island thrive.

 Our second mission is to seed the world with creative, entrepreneurial, adventurous people to make it more just, more humane, more beautiful, more sustainable.

 Surya Karki is one such seed, an incredible Davis Scholar from Nepal. In his senior year he joined our Hatchery Program for entrepreneurship and went home to Nepal to develop the Nepali version of Zipcars, a company of shared, solar powered rickshaws. But a week after he arrived the earthquake hit. He pivoted and six months later founded a non-profit, built 3 schools, and secured $3 million dollars from the Nepalese government to build an additional 20 schools in the countryside that will provide education to 5000 Nepalese children affected by the earthquake.

He’ll be managing that work from China, because he was one of just 111 Schwarzman scholars selected from an applicant pool of 3500 to participate in a new masters program in Beijing. Among all the Ivies, Oxfords, and Cambridges – there he stands among the 111, representing our great school.

But there’s also the subtle student. My 13-year-old daughter Molly and I performed in the spring talent show at COA – a hip-hop performance I was told specifically NOT to replicate here tonight.

Right before we went on, Molly and I watched from stage left as a quiet, young woman I hadn’t met performed a ballet of Ludwig Minkus. She left the audience stunned. She had this quiet confidence and from that day on I called her the stealth ballerina.

Just this past Sunday I was on our boat bringing gear and people to Mt. Desert Rock, 25 miles out at sea. The sea was angry that day my friends. To land at The Rock you need a small zodiac with an outboard. You need to set the zodiac, load it, speed off to the boat ramp and land. With everything loaded to the hilt and 20 pairs of eyes watching, who jumps on to start, pilot, and land the zodiac?, No other than Elsa the stealth ballerina; and she speeds off through the chop as if she were on a glassy lake – unbelievable. It was a very different performance, a different ballet, but also one of quiet confidence and every bit as amazing as Surya.

Students like Surya and Elsa – and all our students who hail from 40 states and 40 countries this year – have this incredible vision, capability, and daring and should give you hope in a time when it’s in short supply.

As a school of 350 I’m often asked – why so small? It’s strange: no one asks The Julliard School “why so small?” And that’s my vision for COA: the Julliard of the environment.

Like Julliard, we’re small by design.

We’re small because our focus is on the quality of experience – think of us as small batch whiskey — and we want the best people here regardless of their financial background.

We’re small because we demand our students NOT be anonymous and not simply pass through college, but become a part of a community and learn what it means to run an institution.

We’re small because the way we teach demands it; because you can’t learn by doing in a lecture hall of 1200. You learn by doing in a field, in a boat, in a tidal pool, or on a mountain with 12.

We’re small, but we have greater impact than our own numbers alone because of our third mission: to take our model for learning and set it down elsewhere. We see that here on MDI with the new Community School, based on our model for younger kids; or the Sage school a new high school in Idaho based on COA or in Germany and the Philippines where two new colleges have formed in our image; or, most recently, in Japan where on the invite of the governor of Hiroshima we are helping build a Japanese COA.

 Importantly, our success against these three missions is being recognized.

Our success is recognized in the media where over the past year we were featured in the NYT three times, the Wall Street Journal, on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and were recently named the best collegiate website in the country.

Our success is also attested in the record number of student applications to COA we had this year and the quality and number of faculty applications that have brought us artist Sean Foley and agronomist Kourtney Collum.

And finally, our success is felt in the number of people here and in the growing number of people who really love us and want to see us succeed.

A toast to Martha for having us, for all of you and for your support, and to the College of the Atlantic. Thank You.

 

Our 43rd Commencement

To be honest, the student talks stole the show. Barry Lopez was incredible. The whole day felt very, very special. Here’s what I had to say at the ceremony:

Forty-three years ago, we came together for our first graduation.

We had no tent. We had no accreditation, for that matter. We gathered in a gravel parking lot in what is today the Newlin Gardens – the red bricks – and celebrated the accomplishments of two students, Bill Ginn and Cathy Johnson.

They were both transfer students, Bill from Amherst College and Cathy from Yale.

Can you imagine that conversation? “Mom, Dad, I’m leaving Yale after three years to get my degree from a non-accredited school in its first year with three dozen students and a few faculty and no departments and one major on some Island in Maine.”

Today Bill is helping lead the world’s most influential conservation organization: the Nature Conservancy. Cathy is the senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and is leading the charge to create a new National Park in Maine’s North Woods.

Like the folks seated behind me, those two thrived here as students and continue to thrive as human ecologists working for a better planet. And like all the 2150 COA graduates, they shaped the institution that so powerfully shaped them. That’s because COA is not a monolith, but something more akin to clay that’s been worked by the hands of students just as much as by the staff and faculty, as much as the trustees and friends. And the 43 years of dialogue between hands and clay is what has given COA the form we know today.

Sometimes the changing form is tough, like when staff members Puranjot Khalsa, Charley Farley, and Khristian Mendez move on or when faculty members Heath Cabot and Nishi Rajakaruna leave for new adventures. Thank you for everything you’ve done here. Even with change, today’s form is beautiful and one I feel lucky to be a part of.

Today there’s a tent in case of rain. We’re accredited. We’re a bit bigger – today we’re celebrating 82 graduates from 24 states and 13 countries. And where the tent, the size, the accreditation, the permanence has inspired more confidence among families, these graduates are every bit the explorers and adventurers of those early years.

I am honored to share this day with such adventurous people.

I brooded over that word – honored. Presidents throw such words around a lot during commencement time.

But while brooding I’ve been to scores of senior project presentations and other class and individual projects. There’s nothing better than the last three weeks of spring term. I wish you all could have just camped out here on the north lawn to be a part of the experience: performance, music composition and improvisation, scholarly research, film, drama, clowning, sculpture, mathematics, charcuterie and I’ve left each of those experiences with mouth agape, with eyes unblinking: the intellectual maturity, the creativity, the skill of these works has left me 100% satisfied with the authenticity of the word honored.

In the midst of all these projects, I took a day off and spent last Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MassMoCA. COA faculty member in painting and drawing Sean Foley opened an exhibit he curated there entitled Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Wonder.

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Sean Foley and I at the MassMoCA Opening

During the 6-hour drive there, the exhibit opening, and the 6-hour return trip I had time to meditate on the word wonder and I’ve decided to use it in an evolving description of COA graduates. I’ve got this shtick: at each graduation I use this welcome address to build what I think is an increasingly accurate description of the College of the Atlantic graduate. Just to review: COA folk are scrappy, they get stuff done creatively and without hand holding; but they temper their scrappiness with thought and are thus contemplatively scrappy. They are appropriately humble, yet they know when the time is right to be bold and act on an idea. They are contemplatively scrappy humble activists.

 

 

I will now add wonderful to that description. Wonderful not in the way my grandmother described the doilies on her dining room table, but in the way Sean meant it in the exhibit.

Sean describes wonder as that space between not knowing and knowing and as something that precedes and is wholly distinct from curiosity. Where curiosity typically leads to research, problem solving and other practical things – wonder doesn’t always do that. Wonder is ephemeral. It is emotional, it exists before thoughts or words can pin it down, and it is the stuff that causes mouths to drop, eyes to bulge, pulses to quicken.

Our students are wonderful in the sense that they are full of wonder, inclined to states of wonder; but they are also wonderful, in the sense that their work provokes the feeling of wonder in others.

In the exhibit narrative at MassMoCA Sean emphasized the words of Ray Bradbury who asks that we find ways to wonder every day and at things that might otherwise be considered mundane. How can we move through the world with this openness to wonder? How can we actually cultivate it? That’s what COA is all about.

One way we can do this is to both practice and to develop reverence for art. I firmly believe that it is only through a society-wide embrace of the visual, the aural, and the performative arts that we can change the trajectory of our world away from what can sometimes feel hopeless. It is art that will recalibrate our sense of value and our perverse perspective on what’s useful; it is art that will allow us to negotiate the complexity of the human individual, human society and the natural world. Wonder provokes art, and art, wonder in a very powerful virtuous circle.

Second, careful and patient observation of the world around us can also provoke wonder. That kind of observation is the root of the practice we call natural history, a practice elemental to so much of what we do here, so much of the inspiration behind COA projects, even those you would not normally consider natural history. And, although I’m leaving the introduction of our Commencement Speaker Barry Lopez to my friend and colleague Galen Hecht, I here have to say that Barry’s work is some of the most important, most powerful natural history the world has ever experienced and we are so fortunate to have him here on campus. His work is both inspired by and inspires wonder.

In Barry’s writing he rarely comes out and says “this is the way it should be.” But he takes this tact at least once in an essay called The Passing Wisdom of Birds where he makes a very definite suggestion. Our world is in the middle of an attentional apocalypse and to dig out of this hole Barry stresses the need for more natural history and more natural historians and suggests every college should have a position called campus natural historian.

In honor of Barry, I am taking his advice and am creating the position of the Barry Lopez Student Natural Historian at COA. In the fall, I will solicit suggestions from the faculty and staff and give a student the title, a small budget and a charge to explore, observe, and describe wonder on our campus.

So there is wonder from art and there is wonder from the patient and precise observation of natural history. But what would our world be if all wonder remained trapped in the minds of the wondering? Such a world would be confused! It would be selfish. And so a necessary third method for catalyzing wonder is through the story and the storyteller. To draw from Barry’s work again, “everything is held together with stories.” Stories and story telling are the connective tissue holding human society together; they are also the crucibles for transmitting wonder from one person to the next.

So we have at least these three methods for provoking virtuous cycles of wonder: art, natural history, story telling. Notice how they parallel the COA curriculum: art aligning with art and design; natural history as a key element of scientific inquiry; story telling as the fabric of human studies. It should be no surprise then that these students, these graduates are full of wonder and full of the potential to inspire it in others. With that I present to you the COA class of 2016, now part of the College of the Atlantic alumni community of wonderful, contemplatively scrappy, humble activists. Congratulations.

Japan, Chapter 8: Homeward Bound

Day 6: Homeward bound

For the first time during my short stay in Japan, I had some free time to wander and I did that through the streets of Tokyo. What a beautiful city. Stunning. I cannot tell a lie: I saw a woman with a Starbucks Coffee cup and, catching her with a few frantic but effective Ohaiyo gozaimas’s (Imagine being chased down with “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”), she directed me to the nearest shop where I drank the mass-produced, commoditized, and fantastically delicious nectar of the gods.

Over tea and waffles (sic) we discussed some possible next steps: get some sleep, discuss the ten-day pilot course (how about, for a name, “Human Ecology Lab and Island Odyssey,” HELIO?) with faculty, staff, students, and the board at COA, get the folks at Japlan hooked up with Patagonia-USA, invite a COA faculty member to Tokyo to serve on a panel of Ashoka Youth presentations in March, create a program outline for HELIO, ask Makiko if she would be interested in taking and perhaps helping organize the course, pitching the HELIO course to other Ashoka U colleges at the upcoming meeting in New Orleans, LA, find at least a half dozen appropriately minded Japanese college students to take the lab … on and on and on.

***

On the subway ride to catch the express train to Narita Airport to catch the flight to JFK Nagao-sensei, Okanako-san and I sat across from a young mother with an all-smiles toddler. “There was a woman,” Nagao-sensei began, “who was born in Hiroshima several days before the bomb dropped. Though 80,000 people were evaporated instantly and another 70,000 died before the end of the year, she had somehow survived. The infant became a toddler, like that child sitting across from us, and soon showed signs of radiation poisoning. She became the poster-child for the Japanese government’s initiative for understanding the long-term effects of radiation. About every week she was hauled before a group of Japanese scientists, asked to disrobe, and was poked and prodded and otherwise humiliated in the name of science. The radiation had stunted her growth, but the life-long public nudity and objectification stunted her psyche. The Enola Gay pilot became her white whale. What she wouldn’t due to that man if she could get within inches of his throat!

“One day the woman, now in her 50s, was again paraded around for some formal government function and was introduced to an American man she had never seen before. Shaking her hand, the elderly man began to sob uncontrollably. ‘Please forgive me; please forgive us; I’m so, so sorry. What have I done!’

“At the very moment the elderly man’s quivering hand touched her own the vitriol that lived within her – a vitriol that compounded one-hundredfold any poison or humiliation – evaporated. They wept together. The woman was at last at peace.”

I looked over at that little girl now climbing around her mother’s neck, still all-smiles and felt that uncomfortable, uncontrollable flood of tears begin to well up. “Hold it together Darron,” I told myself and bit my tongue.

I’ve said it at least once: Japan has a complicated relationship with things at the atomic level. This trip and now this feeling I wrestled with was, at its root, about this same complicated relationship. I thought about COA’s founder Father Jim Gower, whose grave I had visited just a week before leaving for Japan. I thought about his original name for COA, The Acadian Peace College. I’m not sure what will come from my time here in Japan, but I can honestly say that something new and inspired had awoken within me, something I think would have brought an ear-to-ear smile to Father Gower’s face approximating the angelic and ultimately happy comportment of that little girl.

Japan, Chapter 7: Tokyo

Day 5: Tokyo – Government meetings and Ashoka Japan

I’ve always considered myself more at home in the countryside than the city, and my experiences in Japan have confirmed that so far. But I fell in love with endless and impeccable Tokyo. The emperor and empress reside in the city center behind an enormous, meticulously constructed stonewall and mote. I’m convinced the metro system will someday become a World Heritage Site. The streets are narrow and twisted and they sparkle. Pruned ginkgo trees divide the streets from sidewalks. It’s definitional for modernity, yet feels ancient.

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Tokyo Gingko

We started the day in the snows of Kyoto, took the bullet train into the bright blue skies surrounding Mt. Fuji, and by noon were warmly greeted by Kan Susuki-san, the ex-Vice Minister or Education and our champion within the Japanese government. He was so incredibly impressed by our progress and left Nagao-sensei and me with the sense that he will help our idea flourish.

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Mt. Fuji from the Bullet Train to Tokyo

It was during this meeting that I began to understand why COA was the right model in the minds of my colleagues. The educational reform we sought would be accelerated most rapidly through the brand and approach of Ashoka. COA was the perfect model because a) we were founded with the intention of helping inspire the revitalization of a rural island community and, b) we were an early Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, that is, one of just 33 colleges in the world selected by Ashoka as fully embracing their ideals. Lending COA’s vision and pedagogy and lending COA’s brand would mean establishing the first Ashoka U educational entity in East Asia.

The clarity in my own mind was refreshing and helped me envision a way forward where I could authentically and appropriately develop the necessary support back home. Importantly, this new found clarity didn’t really change the idea of a “pilot program” as outlined in Day 2.

Following the meeting with Kan Susuki-san, we met with three executives from a recycling company named Japlan (pronounced ‘jay-plan,’ which I thought ominous, given Jay Friedlander’s role in this whole adventure). The CEO is an Ashoka Fellow (anointed annually by Ashoka Japan as someone emblematic of socially-responsible innovation) and has put together some of the smartest and most entrepreneurial materials scientists who have managed to squeeze much more out of waste materials – both clothing and electronics – than ever before imaginable. They have a bid, for instance, to harvest the precious metals from old cell phones to be able to melt and forge the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The folks at Japlan were enthralled by our ideas for educational reform and will undoubtedly support our early initiatives.

My big show came on the evening of this, my final day in Japan. Nana-san, the Executive Director of Ashoka Japan, organized an exquisite gathering at the offices of a young publisher of progressive Japanese texts. More than thirty entrepreneurs came to hear about the College of the Atlantic: Ashoka fellows, Friends of Ashoka, and Ashoka Youth – a mixed-age army for Japanese educational reform.

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Getting ready to speak about COA to the crowds at Ashoka Japan

I gave a 30-minute talk I’d pulled together during my scant down time on the trip: a discussion of the place, the people, and pedagogy of COA and of my immediate reflections on my whirlwind tour of Japan. They appreciated how I peppered the talk with Japanese phrases I’d learned, no matter how pitiful the pronunciation. They especially liked my final slide: a selfie of me taking my onsen in OK. They roared and gave me a standing ovation.

It was hard to believe I’d be heading back to MDI tomorrow.

Japan, Chapter 6: Kyoto

Day 4: Kyoto, Makiko’s parents, and academic partners

When Nagao-sensei and I were first putting this trip together, I mentioned my affinity for moss and bragged about the moss on Mount Desert Island. “I too like moss,” she replied, “and so we will stop in Kyoto on the way back to Tokyo.”

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Sugidama in the train station: Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria spp.)

That journey began with cancelled ferries from OK due to high winds and crossing on the last jet boat from the island before that service was cancelled as well. We then climbed over a high, snowy pass to the station for the bullet train — shinkansen, or “new train.” My ethnobotanical nose led me right to the sugidama, a ball of cut and shaped Cryptomeria that’s used to publicize the freshness of the last saki batch. A green sugidama denotes fresh and a darkened brown, aged.

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The bullet train, shinkansen

My nose for high speeds (plus Nagao-sensei and the need to get north quickly) brought us to the bullet train, which was unfortunately running at half speed due to the snow. Our arrival in Kyoto was delayed a few hours, but we still had time to visit the Silver and Golden Pagoda. Though both places were aesthetically brilliant, the crowds of tourists left me with that Disney World stomach. I found more favor in the 500-year-old Buddhist temple on OK.

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The Golden Pagoda: As if I were the only one there

If you’re a moss, January is your hardest month and you wouldn’t want people judging you on your looks during that month. But — wow — the moss in Kyoto gives MDI and the coastal forests of Oregon a run for their money. For me, the moss work here in Kyoto is emblematic of all that is great with the traditionalism of Japan I spoke of earlier in this series. I snapped a few photos and sent them off to my colleague Rodney Eason, the director of the Land and Garden Preserve back on MDI, which overseas the care and curation of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gardens, my high water mark for moss.

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A masterpiece of moss, the Silver Pagoda moss gardens in Kyoto

We spent the late afternoon and evening in the hotel lobby. Nagao-sensei’s colleagues from her old place of employment at the Women’ College were there – a geographer and art historian. Jay Friedlander had met with them previously and they struck me as the perfect collaborators. The Japanese use an expression “s/he has the same smell” to mean that a person is sympathetic to your own way of being – these guys smelled like us.

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Dr. and Mrs. Yoshida

The highlight of the evening came at 8pm, when I had the opportunity to meet Makiko Yoshida’s mother and father. Makiko is a second year student at the College of the Atlantic – a terrific young woman who is also currently COA’s All College Meeting moderator. Her parents were wonderful – smart, thoughtful, kind, sincere. Makiko’s mother actually graduated from the UWC-Atlantic College in Wales. Dad is a faculty member in the social sciences at Osaka-prefecture University. Both, fortuitously, are focused on inspiring educational reform in Japan. The apple does not fall far from tree. The whole family may very well turn out to be important partners in our efforts here.

Japan, Chapter 5: Hiroshima

Day 3, Part 2: Hiroshima

Japan has a complicated relationship with the atomic world that spawned precisely at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945. At that moment an atomic bomb named Little Boy detonated 1900 feet above the city center and incinerated 80,000 lives. I suppose there’s no good name for a bomb, but that one seems about as bad as it can get.

Over the next three months another 70,000 died from exposure to the radiation. Countless others perished in a most gruesome way as the months and years passed. The event is venerated in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

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View from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – Little Boy exploded across the field and 1900 feet in the air.

Following the tranquility of the zen center, the excitement of the signing ceremony, and the ferry and car ride to the city of Hiroshima, I had a 45 minute window to see the museum before having to head out and meet the governor. Those unfortunately hurried 45 minutes flipped some switch inside – something I’ll expound on in the conclusion to this series.

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A 14-year old girl’s clothing who died from the bombing – this was the exhibit that hit me most personally

I won’t go into too much detail about my experience at the museum. I will say that when I came to exhibit #21, which features the clothes of a 14-year-old girl who perished in the event, the personal nature of the connection between that poor girl and my own 14-year-old daughter Maggie was unbearable. It was hard to hold back the tears from that point on and I’m sure the governor wondered about my swollen, reddish eyes. Or, on second thought, perhaps he’s quite used to it.

The governor was a thoughtful, generous, smart, and highly refined guy who had studied at Stanford Business School not long after COA board chairman Will Thorndike. More serendipity. Governor Yuzaki is championing educational reform and wants to make Hiroshima the HQ for the country’s move in that direction. I proposed that Nagao-sensei, the Governor, and I co-author a short piece about how the Fukushima disaster inspired educational reform and outlining some of the early elements of that reform. Though we only had thirty minutes with him, the governor was wildly enthusiastic about supporting the unfolding relationship between COA, Ashoka Japan, and the municipality of Osakikamijima.

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From left to right: Okamoto-san (OK businessman and partner), Nanako Watanabe (Head of Ashoka Japan), me, Hidehiko Yuzaki (Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture), Nagao-sensei, and Courtney Lawrence (DSIL) – looking at three different photographers.

We then drove back to the ferry, crossed back onto the inland, drove around in the dark, and somehow found our way to an amazing restaurant. I could never find it again if I had to. It was a one-table restaurant, run out of what felt like the living room of the chef’s house. I was spent from the long day. The sake didn’t help. I ate more raw fish than I ever thought possible and ended the meal with shabu-shabu: thin slices of raw meat you submerge in boiling water and then douse with a ginger- and vinegar-spiced soy sauce. I slept very well.

My last thought as I finally closed my eyes: College of the Atlantic’s co-founder Father Jim Gower originally intended for the college to be called the Acadian Peace College.

Japan, Chapter 4: MOU

Day 3, Part 1: Meetings and Idea Formation

My third day in Japan was an 18-hour affair. I’ll split it in two sections for this blog.

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Onsen – an inspiring if impractical place to write.

I woke up with another onsen and was inspired to bring my notebook and try and capture the conversations we had yesterday. We needed more form to our ideas. The exercise was very productive, though the water in liquid and gas forms at the onsen made writing a bit of a challenge. This is what that session produced:

 

 

 

A College of the Atlantic-Ashoka U Changemakers Lab in Osakikamijima, Hiroshima       

Goals:

  1. Seed educational reform in Japan with young minds committed to strong, independent, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural learning.
  2. Inspire the economic and intellectual revitalization of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, with tangible economic, intellectual, and cultural benefits accruing to Osakikamijima Island and other communities in the region.

Some of the specific ideas we discussed included:

  • Begin small and excellent
  • Consider incorporating high school students in the mix
  • Pursue a 1:1 ratio of students from Japan and abroad
  • Tap the expertise, name recognition, and human resources from Ashoka, the College of the Atlantic, Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership (DSIL- Center for Executive Education (CEE) at the United Nations University for Peace and Conflict), and Osakikamijima Island.
  • Begin with a ten-day summer pilot program in 2016 with two dozen students
  • Balance the long-standing commitment to tradition in Japan with the openness of globalized education.
  • Initially focus the curriculum on the economic sustainability of Osakikamijima Island, Energy and Food Security and Sustainability, and human ecology.

I read this summary to my colleagues on the way to the zen center. They were happy and felt it reflected a consensus in a way we hadn’t been able to articulate before.

We prayed and practiced zazen in the early morning. The immaculate temple was built in 1545, but neither the antiquity nor the beauty helped my knees and stubby legs find their way to the full lotus position. I sat cross-legged and my mind wandered, but it was a great experience and the monk was a generous, thoughtful, inspiring guy.

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The Buddhist temple on Osakikamijima

We then went to the town office where we were scheduled to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. Such a signing always makes me nervous. I never want to promise more than I can deliver and felt a little odd signing something where there’s been so little discussion with my COA colleagues. But signing something was important to the mayor who generously paid for my entire trip. After some careful wordsmithing and negotiations, we settled on the following language:

“Osakikamijima municipality and College of the Atlantic will explore ways to establish an Ashoka-recognized college on the island of Osakikamijima based on the College of the Atlantic pedagogy.”

We signed away. It felt like we were signing a peace treaty, bombarded by camera flashes from the crowd. I think the MOU was appropriately vague and useful — there was certainly the sense in the air that the municipality was excited to support any efforts that might emerge.

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The OK mayor and I with our signed MOU

My colleagues felt they could garner financial support for the ten-day pilot as laid out in the summary above. To me it seemed like a low-risk experience that could raise the profile of COA, offer an exciting opportunity for COA students, and be a good “first step” toward doing something larger if there was continued interest among our faculty, staff, students, and board. The benefits to the island and to the educational system of Japan as a whole would be further off, but this pilot program could very well set the stage for those larger goals. That the College of the Atlantic began with a similar pilot program focused on the future of Bar Island in Frenchman Bay, Maine was not lost on me.

We bowed and headed for the ferry and Hiroshima City.

Japan, Chapter 3: Getting to know the island and the mayor

Day 2

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Map of Japan, showing approximate location of Osakikamijima.

Osakikamijima (henceforth OK) is an island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan about a third the size of MDI and home to 8000 year-round residents. Some absurdly high percentage of that population is over 65 and most young people leave for the cities after high school. People make a living primarily from the ship building industry, by growing citrus, and by cultivating blueberry (yes! blueberries — high bush, not low bush — coincidence?). The idea is to bring a new “industry” to the island: education. In the minds of my guests, this island and Hiroshima Prefecture as a whole will be the sharp edge of the wedge for the educational reforms I spoke of yesterday. Education is also meant to be the lifeline for a much-needed renaissance on the island; not too different from the model inspired by Les Brewer, Father Jim Gower, and founding president Ed Kaelber for COA and MDI back in ’69.

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Panorama shot from Mt. Kannomine

Today I learned the lay of the land here and met the other primary drivers for this reform: Nanako Watanabe (head of Ashoka Japan), Okamoto-san (the island’s “Les Brewer,” a businessman on OK), and Courtney Lawrence (former faculty at HJU and education expert/consultant). OK is indeed beautiful and the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea are certainly an inviting backdrop. Better than inviting — gorgeous. The finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) calls these waters home. We summited the island’s highest point, Mt. Kannomine.  At 453 meters above sea level (1486 feet above sea level, just 50 feet shy of our own Cadillac Mtn.), one can see 105 islands. But, if there’s one word to describe the place, it’s quiet … very quiet. Granted, it’s Sunday and January is a cold, grey month. I suppose it’s not very far removed from a cold, winter day in the streets of Bar Harbor or any other hamlet on MDI. But here there is not the same influx of tourism, summer residents, and the surge of summer we feel back home.

Maybe more than any other country in Asia, tradition has something of a strangle hold on Japan. In many cases that tradition has bred true excellence: in craftsmanship, attention to detail, work ethic, respect, etc. The Fukushima disaster has started to loosen the grip on the more problematic results of traditionalism. In terms of education, it reminds me of what happened to public education in New York City toward the end of the last century. The poverty, crime, and income inequality there was wreaking such havoc with the public schools that the city all but threw up its hands and said, “All right then. We don’t know what to do. If you have an idea or an experiment, have at it.” That sense of newfound openness is what gave rise to the myriad experimental and innovative schools we see today in NYC. Hopefully the same might happen here, just not inspired by poverty, crime and income inequality.

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The meal that made Eddie proud (and envious)

I ended the day feeling as if I’d been bathed in that “fifth taste,” umami. I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of seafood and generally despise things of the olive-pickle-fish-tasting family. We had an enormous, formal dinner filled with fish where the mayor and I were the honored guests. Thankfully, my anthropological instinct and training kicked in. I watched a live abalone be set upon a flame and squirm to its last breath. After dousing the shriveled bi-valve in lime juice, I ate it, chased it with saki, and then texted COA-alumnus Eddie Monet. He was envious. I wish I could relish in the cultural novelty that is Japanese cuisine. Intellectually, perhaps. I ended the day with an onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) before hitting the hay.

Tomorrow is probably the most important day of the trip.

Japan, Chapter 2: A Day of Travel and Understanding

Day 1: Travel from Bar Harbor to Bangor for 5:25am flight, Bangor to LaGuardia Airport, LaGuardia Airport to JFK Airport, JFK to Tokyo, Tokyo to Hiroshima, Hiroshima to Osaki-kamijima Island via ferry

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A long day of travel, but one without incident

As if the title doesn’t explain it, today was a brutal travel day; brutal, but without incident. I met Dr. Hiromi Nagao (hereafter and correctly Nagao-sensei) at the airport in Hiroshima and had a few hours of travel time with her to begin to understand her own goals and the state of education and educational reform in Japan. The key takeaway from these conversations involves the Fukushima Nuclear disaster of 2011 – what the Japanese refer to as “3/11.”

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Reactor control room at Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Japan This photo was taken on June 23, 1999 during a tour of the plant. Creative Commons License 2.0, generic.

That catastrophe inspired a lot of things but, curiously, it also inspired sweeping educational reform. The reaction to the event from the various ministries was that, of all the failures, it was the educational system that failed first and foremost. The string of bad decisions and general human error were tied back, in the opinion of the federal government and Nagao-sensei, to an educational system that placed too much emphasis on rote memorization, specialization, and information acquisition over true understanding. The managers of the power plant itself and those involved with the response to the disaster lacked the ability to lead multi-disciplinary groups, lacked the power to innovate and think creatively, and lacked the experience necessary to absorb large quantities of information, data, and ideas and respond to them with an appropriate degree of experimentation and adaptive management. Those large gaps inspired Nagao-sensei’s interest in Ashoka and social entrepreneurship. They also inspired her interest and Hisohima Prefecture’s interest in the College of the Atlantic and that is why I am here today. That makes this trip even more interesting than I originally imagined.

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