Memories of T. A. Cox

Tom Cox died in February of this year. On Friday, July 12, 2019 a group of his closest friends gathered at College of the Atlantic to celebrate his life. I was honored to have the opportunity to speak about Tom during that service. These were my words on that afternoon.

The first piece of mail I received upon arriving here as COA’s new president wasn’t a bill, it wasn’t a change-of-address memo or some other communique from the postal service; it was a moth orchid, Phalaenopsis amabilis. It was Tom’s welcome to me and my family; it continues to flower and to scent our washroom and to multiply its spider-like roots in a desperate search for its native Sumatran soils. It continues to be my memory of this man we all loved so dearly and are here to celebrate.

My personal experience with Tom and his philanthropy began with that orchid. It can never represent the magnitude, the diversity, and the outpouring of love that was Tom’s giving—to COA, to Friends of Acadia, to MCHT, the MDI Hospital and all the other institutions he loved here on MDI, to say nothing of what he supported throughout the world. But I suspect there’s an orchid analog between Tom and each and every one of those institutions, people, and ideas.

Tom’s second gift to me was Plutarch’s essay, “On Listening.” I kind of breezed through it when he gave it to me eight years ago, but I’ve read it three times prepping for this talk and cannot shake one paragraph where Plutarch, speaking with his pupil Nicander about the dance that must occur between listener and speaker, says,

“… it is important (to) peel off any excess in style—we ought (not) to behave like garland weavers (who) pick blossom-laden plants, and plait and weave them into something pleasant but barren,” (we must) consider flowery, showy language to be the ‘fodder of the drones.’”

I’ll always wonder if Tom thought my orchid-heavy opening paragraph is too flowery. But I know now that, in gifting Plutarch, Tom gave me the gift of self-reflection; it may have taken eight years, but Tom, I promise it has finally gotten through! I promise to be a better listener and practice self-reflection! As with Sam, as with Nadia, as with so many of us here, Tom gave the gift of mentorship and, in so doing, he gave the gift of patience, of listening, and of a promise for a refined intellect. Mentoring sessions with Tom were Swedish massages for the brain and facials for the self.

And Tom gave time, such glorious time! For me and for so many of us, he gave time at Moss Haven. I had to maneuver my truck as delicately as possible across the crushed stones, knowing a small slip in the clutch would send a spray of pink granite buckshot through the windows and into the frog pond. Parked without incident, Tom and I would pause in the entryway and meditate on Richard’s print, D-train, cruising across the East River from Brooklyn to downtown, silent and empty. About a month after Tom’s death I ran across southern Manhattan, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and returned via the Manhattan Bridge. I stopped at what I thought was a random hole in the fence and snapped a quick shot on my iPhone—it turned out to be the exact view of Richard’s D-train, like the orchid and Plutarch’s lessons, Tom’s caring and presence will be with us forever.

After the D-train meditation, Tom would hold court on his couches, he on the north, me on the south, with Buddha watching intently just to our West. Newspaper clippings, books, hand-written notes, yellowing, type-written pages in monospaced typeface, finely cut carrots, and cucumber sandwiches with no crust. These were the accoutrements of our meetings, Tom as sensei, me as grasshopper. Tom gave time imbued with the quality and attention few other human beings could ever muster. In a world of distraction, he gave focused time.

And after the mentorship, there was the gift of joy, the celebration of a session brought to a close by a vodka martini. Let’s be honest—it was a glass of unadulterated, very cold vodka. Even in his last year he would shake that vodka so hard I thought he might lose his balance. Tom enjoyed life with the vigor of that shaken drink. His smile and laugh drifting from his deck will linger forever in the spruce forests between Moss Haven and Little Long Pond.

When we wander down to the Turrets Great Hall I will most certainly make a silent toast to Tom with my glass of cold vodka for his great philanthropy. But here, now and publicly, I’d like to toast Tom by announcing that, to honor his life, his love for this island, and for his appreciation of beauty, College of the Atlantic is creating the Thomas A. Cox Chair in Painting and Drawing. We’re very excited about it. Thank you, Tom. We miss you terribly. Cheers.

 

 

Commencement 2019: From Problem to Project

The 2019 Commencement Ceremony was Saturday, June 8th. The weather was perfect and the entire ceremony felt like a perfect tribute for our graduating seniors and their friends and family. These were my words to them.

I’m so honored and humbled to serve this college as president—and I’ve never been so overwhelmed by honor and humility as I was yesterday. The board discussion, senior project presentations, the Laurel Ceremony, the celebration on the Turrets porch, the dinner at Havana with Koko. I can’t believe I get to be a part of this.

One of the best moments was former COA president Steve Katona’s words about retiring faculty member Bill Carpenter—it was as if Bill and Steve’s brains became a collective mind with an obliterated corpus callosum. As a way to encapsulate that moment, I am here recognizing Steve’s lifelong commitment to this school by honoring him with the title President Emeritus.

***

Every summer we bring college counselors to COA and I give them an overview of what we do here and of how we do it. In my first such event, I passionately described human ecology as an approach to solving the world’s most pernicious social and ecological problems and talked about human ecologists as problem solvers. I was feeling quite content with my words that day and, so, was surprised when faculty member Karen Waldron pulled me aside and asked, “do you think problems are really what we work on here”?

I‘ve meditated on her question for eight years and have come to think the answer is “no”—problem solving is not exactly what we do here at COA.

Today I want to unpack that and offer a better way to frame our work.

Unpacking begins with Ron Beard.

Ron is many things: among them, a trustee of the college; a Scotiaphile, proud of his Scottish heritage; and someone who takes firewood very seriously. So it was a nuisance when he received two cords of 24-inch firewood—too long for his wood stove. But I have a Rumford-style fireplace, where you stand the wood vertically and 24-inch logs are perfect. We negotiated a deal and I spent last weekend moving wood from his house to mine.

Millard let me borrow the pickup. My neighbor let me use his driveway, so I could avoid hauling tons of oak and beech up two flights of stairs. It would take four trips: out the Park Loop Road, passing the tourists at Great Meadow, past the ducks dabbling in the Tarn, into Ron’s driveway and greeted by his golden retriever MacDuff, and after a vigorous scratch of MacDuff’s belly, I’d load the wood, head back to town, past the Corvette show with the spectacular 1967 fastback Vet, by the girls softball game where every player wears a face mask, up the neighbor’s driveway, reverse down to the sexually dimorphic striped maple tree, and unload. Repeat. Repeat, Repeat.

It was during those trips that I understood the power of four letters—from PROBLEM to PROJECT. My universe changed completely.

Like my father-in-law Darrel in the audience today, I love projects, and during the firewood project I landed on the idea that a world through projects rather than problems is so much more appropriate and rewarding and more effective.

Problems encourage the wiping of hands—a false sense of completeness. Box checking. Projects embrace time. You see the fruits of your work, but understand the woodpile is endless and there will be more next year.

Problem solvers bifurcate the world into right and wrong; success and failure; good and bad. A problem is an annoyance, something to go over, around, or through. Projects encourage reveling in complexity and ambiguity. My wood is stacked, but there’s great subjectivity in whether it’s a good stacking.

Problem-solvers seek to fix the wrong and the bad and that’s presumptuous; project-oriented folks addressor encountersomething, and take on an “I-Thou” relationship with things like Martin Buber suggested; I am one with and in dialogue with my wood pile.

Problems are one-off, projects require repetition; through repetition, projects develop a deep understanding of tools; they encourage constant assessment and incremental refinement. By the end of the day I could pitch a piece of oak with incredible precision.

Problems tend to deconstruct, tend to say “this is why you’re wrong or why it won’t work;” projects tend to build, to construct. Analysis is important, but the wounds on my knuckles are evidence enough that my pile of wood is real.

Finally, problems inspire overconfidence, projects inspire humility. I kneel in humility to my stack of wood.

I was going to bring each of you a piece of firewood, but instead chose the equally unwieldy piece of slate under your chairs. I want these awkward-to-carry slices of stone to be a reminder of the power of projects. Do not put them in your carry-on bags, TSA does not approve.

The slate comes from Monson, Maine, at the foot of the 100-mile-wilderness. It was quarried in the 40s from the same veins of stone that adorn President Kennedy’s gravesite. The fire of ‘47 that ripped through these grounds didn’t destroy Turrets, but did damage the roof, and in 1948 the cypress shingles were overlain with slate. We repaired Turrets in 2013, but could only reuse half of the original slate. Millard, Bruce Tripp and others helped me move the cast-off pieces; Zach Soares cut a plexiglass stencil; Duffy at the Hardware store suggested the paint; I painted and carried them to your seat.

The paint will fade, the edges will chip, but let the slate be a reminder of this college and the power of projects.

Also remember two other projects. First, the Center for Human Ecology, emerging from the 450 million year old stone immediately to our east; a workshop for generations of projects beginning in the fall of 2020.

And remember the HELIO project on Osakikamijima, Japan, and the possibility of a small human ecological toehold in that beautiful country. Our work there is what brought us in touch with today’s speaker, Koko Kondo.

Remember that it was during your graduation that we celebrated the new adventures of four retirees who embody the concept of a project-oriented approach to learning:

Bill Carpenter, a man brimming with curiosity and wonder about everything, and there’s nothing that fuels projects better than curiosity and wonder.

Remember Andy Griffiths, our Dean of Administration, who taught me and so many others the power of incremental change and continuous assessment.

Remember Bruce Tripp, the curator and sculptor of these grounds, who has workshopped thousands of projects with hundreds of students, and who demonstrates that projects powered by mentorship, apprenticeship, patience, and kindness have the most profound, lasting impact.

Remember John Visvader, faculty member in philosophy, who wrestles with our deepest, archetypal projects of who we are and how we know, and addresses them with mind, with hands, with spirit, and with body.

Finally, remember, you have been architects and builders of this, the COA project, which will forever remain unfinished. Like all those who have moved onto new adventures—you have a place and a home here, you are forever a tinkerer in the COA workshop, you are always one of the eight brains of the COA octopus.

Thank you, congratulations, and remember to always be scrappy.

***

Postscript, June 11, 2019

During the performance of this writing I remembered that I had borrowed Faculty Member Emeritus Elmer Beal’s belt sander; two of them, to be honest. One of the biggest sins of any project is to borrow someone’s tools and fail to return them. I’d had these tools for a long time.

So this morning I cleaned both sanders up nicely, bought some extra belts of sand paper and headed to Elmer’s with my tail between my legs. Elmer’s kindness washed away my sins. Then he turned to me and said, “You know, I was just thinking about those sanders and was wracking my brain about who I’d lent them to! See this stair railing here? As I’ve gotten older I’ve needed it a lot more often and it desperately needs a good sanding.”

“Should I begin with the 50 grit?” was my response. Half and hour later, I called into The Burning Tree kitchen (the restaurant owned by Elmer and Allison) and yelled: “If anyone hears Elmer hooting and hollering, that would be him sliding down the outside railing–it’s smooth as silk.”

Again, the beauty of projects.

The Iron Throne (but not that Iron Throne)

I built a pit latrine on Great Duck Island yesterday and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my to-date eight year journey as president of College of the Atlantic. Either the bar for my presidency was set really low, or there’s more than meets the eye with this little endeavor.

I didn’t really build the latrine—the structure itself was already there. And didn’t build it—it was a collaborative project between me and several COA students and alumni. I may have nominally been the designated leader because of my age and title, but leadership was widely distributed.

COA’s Alice Eno Research Station is perched on the southern end of Great Duck Island, about eleven miles south of the town of Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Every summer for the last two decades, about six COA students, one faculty member, and a handful of guests are out there working to understand the ecology and natural history of sea birds. In so doing, they poop and pee quite a lot and can fill up a pit pretty quickly. The goal was mundane and utilitarian: they needed a new pit.

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Osprey, in the distance, and the GDI Boat Shed

There’s not a whole heck of a lot of soil on Great Duck Island and there’s even less soil on the southern reaches where the lighthouse, keeper’s house, and most of the bird nesting action goes on. Any pit latrine project is most often a futile search for cavities in the granite bedrock. If you can tunnel to three feet you’re doing great. Getting to that depth for us was about cutting through the thick sod, extracting head-sized boulders, and scraping through some clay before quickly striking bedrock with a pick or rock bar in a way that sends an electric shock through the hands, arms, and shoulders. It’s very clear when you hit bedrock.

So, with a 2.5 foot pit dug in about an hour, with zero confidence that we could dig another pit any deeper, and with six hours before the Osprey (COA’s research vessel) returned to pick us up, we were moved-by-the-spirit to, a) try and build up if we couldn’t go down and b) give the current outhouse structure a face lift.

Here’s the thing about islands: it takes a lot of effort to get stuff there. And once stuff is there, it’s generally worth keeping it there because, almost regardless of what it is, you’re likely to need it at some point in the future. In other words, islands inspire hording. The Coast Guard built a generator shed on Great Duck in the 50s and that bunker-like building has become the repository for decades of hording. That shed was our pallet: nails, old roofing materials, older siding, rusted corner braces, wheelbarrows with flat tires, old paint, and the like.

The outhouse structure itself—a four by four foot wide by eight foot high encasement of a toilet seat, which we would later dub the Iron Throne in anticipation of the series finale of Game of Thrones—had been blown over sometime during the winter. It rested, a bit forlorn, about twenty yards from our pit. We were able to coax the thing uphill by “rolling” it; whatever structural integrity the thing had was left downhill.

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Build up if we couldn’t dig down

So, with the Iron Throne still resting on its side but at least close to its new orifice, we proceeded to build upward. With old brick, sod, clay, head-sized boulders, two-by-fours, four-by-fours, six-by-sixes, and other timbers whose dimensions had been violated by time and the elements, we formed a rectangular perimeter around the hole in the ground. Anything made of wood on Great Duck was armed with rusted, bent, and tetanus-ridden metal. It looked like a poorly designed but very lethal trap, and, as the pit itself began to fill with the seepings of what had been a very wet spring, if the armaments didn’t kill you, the water just might.

But our foundation was remarkably resilient and, with a detached perspective, quite beautiful. In elevating the Throne about eighteen inches, it also might mean another year or so of utility. We then set to improving the structure itself. I had suggested to former GDI researchers that we should just build a new outhouse. That idea was met with contempt. As with any good outhouse, one develops very strong bonds with the built environment. It must be the reptilian brain activities of defecation and urination welded together with the frontal-cortex-heavy philosophizing that happens therein.

The only “good bones” left in this structure were sentimental, but those were wildly important and so must be saved. With a rusted hammer meant for driving pencil-sized nails, an equally rusted hand saw, and with—thankfully—a chain saw and ambitious sawyer, we set to work. For four hours we made the thing right: still full of sentiment, but a better barrier between your functioning human self and the night, the rain, and the eyes of fisherman in the not-too-distant waters of the Gulf of Maine.

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Roofing the forlorn Throne

We also made the thing about two-hundred pounds heavier. The left over cedar clapboard wasn’t too bad, but, wow, asphalt shingles are really heavy. We stood proudly around our accomplishment, but quickly realized we now were faced with the daunting task of lifting and situating this top-heavy behemoth onto the raised walls around the pit. Failure at this point would have been a complete, humiliating failure—not the “isn’t it nice to learn from your mistakes” kind. It would have been an ironic failure, with the important human orifices, the orifice of the structure, and the orifice in the ground separated by an inseparable gulf.

Inspired some by the worry of such failure and irony, everyone on the trip—including those who had been occupied with bird counts and the like—put a shoulder to the task. Using strategy, levers, and brute force we narrowly avoided putting the structure inthe pit and managed to put it onthe pit. It was beautiful and functional, but it wasn’t done.

We wanted to be sure those detached from the production of the Iron Throne would also see it as beautiful. The paint we had was spoiled and likely toxic. The entrance to the Iron Throne was steep and definitely not anywhere close to code—even in the island sense of the word “code.” The most beautiful thing we had plenty of (beyond comradery, perhaps) was sod. During that last hour we all became inspired sod harvesters and encased the lower flanks of our outhouse in sod and even managed a set of sod steps. With Osprey just pulling up to the boathouse, we were now truly finished and truly satisfied.

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Not a bad view

***

I’d like to conclude this short piece with just a bit of reflection on what I will call a project-based approach to learning. I’m refraining from the moniker experiential learning because it conjures people learning by holding hands in a meadow somewhere and absorbing experience auto-didactically. A project makes things real and I feel strongly that the learning outcomes of our Iron Throne project are real, measurable, describable, important, and replicable. As someone interested in education and as a college president at a place like College of the Atlantic, I want to put a lot more thinking behind those “real, measurable, etc.” characteristics. I’ll just scratch the surface here and ask that you look for my forthcoming (read: very much in the future) book on the subject to get the full story. The chapter headings of such a book might look like this:

  1. Material. I think we live too much in our heads. Projects can force us into the world of materials, but aren’t purely material in nature. Whether a pit latrine or a poem, they do involve a heavier emphasis on construction rather than deconstruction, and that feels very appealing in today’s day and age.
  2. Product. Projects produce products and there’s certainly something to be said about turning an idea into reality, whether that’s a business plan or a budget. We all experienced, perhaps to varying degrees with me on the “most excited” end of the spectrum, a pride in completion with our latrine.
  3. Understanding of time. Projects allow participants to drill down into their understanding of time—time in terms of budgeting time and deadlines, but also in terms of projecting and prognosticating into the future. What does it mean, for instance, for our latrine project to be sustainable into the future? What does ‘deferred maintenance’ mean? These questions certainly apply to material-heavy projects like latrines, but they’re also important for more abstract, spiritual projects.
  4. Physical. Closely related to Chapter One, projects tend to emphasize the importance of movement and kinesthetic intelligence. Again, we terribly undervalue these pieces of our unified, holistic intelligence. My shoulders are sore and bruised from the latrine project and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
  5. Cooperation. Projects can be solitary and might in those cases require a kind of self-cooperation with different parts of the brain or between competing demands on time or among various emotional preoccupations. But some of the most pedagogically powerful projects are done by more than one person. Negotiating a task in a group is one of the most important things you can learn, in my eyes. Our own experience with the latrine was, also in my eyes, an excellent example of cooperation working well. I had a lot of early questions that started off with “Should we …” or “Could we …” and after my third, “I don’t know, what do you think?” we were off to the races in terms of highly functioning cooperation.
  6. Tool-use. Yes, this may begin with screwdrivers and hammers, but good projects force participants to think about both physics and technique, but also about more profound means and ends.

The latrine project was fun, because I like digging around in the mud, because Great Duck Island is beautiful, and because I like variation in my life. It was also fun, because COA folks are adventurous and I like spending time with them. The latrine project was fun because it was useful and it’s nice to imagine researchers out on Great Duck having a relatively comfortable, very scenic place to do their business. But there’s a depth to the latrine project much more profound than the 2.5 feet we tunneled into the bedrock. I will continue to explore and work on this idea of a project-based approach to education and give meat to an idea that, in my mind, has been unfortunately mostly skin and bones.

Thanks to John, Chloe, Matt, Addison, Toby, Nice, Gaelen, Jenna, Elijah, Jenny, and Mikey. It was a great day.

 

Thin Places: Guest sermon at the Bar Harbor Congregational church

On April 7, a day after my 49th birthday, I had the opportunity to give the guest sermon at the Congregational Church over on Mt. Desert Street. My close friend Rob Benson is the pastor there. He and I hatched this idea some time ago. It was a great process for me – and I hope it resonated with some in the congregation.

***

 Thank you. I am honored, humbled, and admittedly a bit nervous before you today. But I want to thank all of you: the process of thinking about, writing about, and speaking about the passages today have been very helpful to me personally.

I was tempted to talk about John’s Gospel. I was drawn to the word nard. Nard is an essential oil made from the rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi, a plant found in the Himalaya and India. It happens to be a critically endangered plant; endangered because we’ve overharvested it as a perfume and medicinal herb. I pictured myself sitting at Jesus’s feet with Mary, sister of Lazarus, asking, “Mary – this is an endangered plant – maybe we don’t need a full poundof the essential oil and then being scolded by Jesus: “Darron – you and all of those College of the Atlantic folks, always thinking about plants and not enough about me!”

John’s was a very interesting passage, but I became most intrigued by the prophet Isaiah and how he asks us to consider or, rather, not consider history: what does he mean when he says: “Do not remember the former things, the things of old”?

I know, in a literal sense, he was asking us to prepare for the future; for something much greater to come. But was he really saying to ignore the past?

One of the most important pieces of my job is to understand and preserve the most important elements of the College’s past. I have to look deeply at the past in order to understand it and in order to best shape our curriculum for the challenges of the future.

As we approach our 50thanniversary in fall 2021, I’m most specifically drawn to the fall of 1972, when the first COA students arrived on campus.

Just consider what a different world we live in:

In 1972, the human population was 3.8 billion; that figure has doubled.

In 1972, each person on the planet emitted four tons of carbon dioxide a year; that figure has increased by 25% in 50 years.

In 1972, Arpanet, the progenitor to the Internet, was born. Today, 55% of the world uses the internet and five billion people have cell phones;

In 1972, we entered a period known as AI winter, where the innovations around artificial intelligence came to standstill; today, through very rapid advances in machine learning, a computer can learn chess, on its own, in four hours, and turn around and beat the Grand Masters.

In 1972, 37% of the world lived in cities, today we are 56% urban.

In 1972, Acadia counted 1.6 million visits, that number has doubled.

By an examination of the past, it’s clear that we live in a larger, more connected, more urbanized world where the line between human and machine is difficult to distinguish. We are bringing machines into our bodies and instilling our humanity – our intellect – into machines.

In feeding this cybernetic world with the food and energy it wants, we are destabilizing the planet and, although a privileged few will thrive, the fear is that most will be utterly helpless.

So I’m always thinking about the past. How can Isaiah say to ignore it? Don’t we learn from the past – those who forget the past are bound to repeat it?

But then I was exposed to “The Message” translation. You see, they don’t tell us about “the Message” translation down the road at Holy Redeemer. It reads:

 “Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.

 This really resonated: Isaiah was saying PAY ATTENTION. By being present and being attentive to the present, we create a past that is rich and worthy of analysis later on. If we dribble and stumble through the present without awareness and without attention – which seems to be far more common today – that creates a past that is shallow and looking at such a past is looking at empty nostalgia.

This is a message that is so incredibly important and relevant today.

My daughter Maggie and 13 other teenagers from MDIHS just arrived in Guatemala – such a great opportunity for them. The aspect of their experience I’m most excited about is that they are there without devices, without cell phones, tablets. They will achieve a degree of attention they haven’t experienced since they were little kids. They will create a past that is indeed very worth remembering and that will serve them throughout their future.

Our attention is increasingly under threat and is being commodified. Since the late 19thcentury and the emergence of the penny press made profitable from advertising; since the advent of color-printed posters in the streets of Paris; since the emergence of snake oil and Patent medicine; and especially in the last decade with the advent of social media and on-line advertising, the game of harvesting human attention and reselling it to advertisers has become a major, in-my-opinion destructive part of our economy.

More than a changing climate, more than drug resistant bacteria, more than terrorism or the rise of tribalism, I’m most concerned about the robbing and selling of our own attention. Again, per Isaiah, without the attention, not only will we be unprepared for the things to come, we create a shallow, nostalgic past.

And it’s not just the kids – with few exceptions, we are all guilty. Putting down our phones is only a first step. We’ve got to cultivate attention and it seems to me there are three specific ways we can do that.

First, there is the practice of ethnography – the focused study of the other. Ethnography is what anthropologists do when they study other cultures. After graduating from COA, I did my graduate work in anthropology among the Q’eqchi’, a group of Mayan speakers in Guatemala. My job was, in essence, to learn how to be a Q’eqchi’ farmer by being a Q’eqchi’ farmer and writing about that experience.

The first day in the fields I lined up with about 50 guys and began the process of planting corn. The idea is you take a step, thrust your digging stick into the soil, drop four corn seeds in the hole you just made, and the cover the hole with dirt by a quick flick of your foot. Easy, right? Not so much. Four or five paces in I was chasing corn seed all over the place. Looking up about midway across the field, I saw 49 actual Q’eqchi’ farmers doubled over laughing at the one ethnographer trying to learn to be a Q’eqchi’ farmer, on his knees in the dirt, searching for lost corn seeds. Through patient observation and patient practice, I learned to step into someone’s shoes in a very real sense. I also learned a great deal of humility.

You need not be in distant lands to practice ethnography, because ethnography is really just a fancy word for the practice of trying your best to stand in someone else’s shoes – whether those shoes are worn by a cashier at Hannaford of by president Trump. This requires a uniquely focused attention – it builds humility and it builds empathy. Maybe most importantly, it builds a valuable rather than a nostalgic past.

Second, there is the practice of natural history and the close observation of nature. I had the opportunity to teach a course a few years back where, for one of the exercises, I brought students to Little Long Pond at the Land and Garden Preserve. Rodney had allowed me to set up fourteen one-foot square plots in the forests and fields around the pond. Students spent three hours face-to-face with their small plots. It wasn’t a drawing class, it was an “attention” class and it was incredible. Although I believe you can do this anywhere, we are blessed to be on MDI. This island is what is known as a “thin place,” where the distance between heaven and earth is compressed. Don’t take it for granted. Whether a plot of grass in your front yard or along Ocean Drive, pay attention to it.

And, finally, there is prayer; whether that’s in quieting the mind before communion or paying close attention to the written word in scripture, like achieving a special kind of focus on nard in John’s Gospel. Prayer is an increasingly rare practice of building attention and is something we need way more of it in today’s world.

So, ethnography; natural history and observation; and prayer – three keys to develop your muscles of attention. And with this attention, not only will we be prepared for what’s to come – with this attention we create a past that is rich and well worth looking at.

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.

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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!