It was our 44th graduation and an incredible day — it poured rain just seconds after we all got under the tent and then the clouds opened up by the time we marched out back up to the Newlin Gardens. Though you really need to be reading our commencement speaker’s address (Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib), I wanted to share my talk as well. Before launching into the talk, we did give a hearty send-off to Will Thorndike, who was overseeing his last commencement ceremony as board chairman.
It was 1880. The French Directorate of Fine Arts commissioned Auguste Rodin for a 20-foot doorway that, after 37 years of work, would become his revered Gates of Hell. Here in the US, the worst blizzard in recorded history devastated the Midwest and The New York Metropolitans defeated the Washington Nationals 4-2 in the first professional baseball game held at the New York Polo Grounds.
And that same fall a fertilized seed of Thuja occidentalis whirled in the ocean breeze and came to rest near 44 degrees 23 minutes north latitude, 68 degrees 13 minutes west latitude. When the soil temperature eclipsed 60 the following spring the seedling pushed toward the sky and a beautiful white cedar began its 138-year life on what we now call the front lawn of the College of the Atlantic campus. (150 paces that way)
Linnaeus named the tree Thuja, but most know it as arbor vitae, the tree of life, because the vitamin-C infused foliage saved Jacques Cartier’s crew from scurvy during the winter of 1535. Sacred to the Ojibwa and also the Wabanaki tribes here in Maine, white cedar is revered as a soup to cure headaches, as a rib for birchbark canoes, and as a tincture to remove warts.
But our tree was destined for ornamentation. Two decades after the seedling germinated, a stand of twenty European black pine were planted just to its west. These pines grew much faster and formed a border along Eden Street. They also stole sun from the white cedar. Time and shade gave this tree form.
Imagine the thousand lungs feeding our tree Carbon Dioxide; the children who climbed those perfectly twisted branches; the Frisbees and kites snagged by its LeBron James-sized limbs?
Then in the last days of 2016, the salt-damaged and bug-ridden European black pines were belted with foreboding blue ribbon and in February 2017 the trees came down. The white cedar stood alone again as it had for its first 20 years.
The State of Maine, as you may have noticed getting here, is making enormous improvements to Eden Street and soon there will be a beautiful, safe road and multi-use path into town. Thoughtful and cooperative, the Maine DOT couldn’t save the European pines but did manage to keep the white cedar.
With its piney neighbors gone, the cedar among stumps looked horrible and, through presidential decree, I called for its removal. Word traveled quickly and many of the quickly traveling words were not happy. I read and listened and thought. But after deep consideration and meditative conversation with Millard and Bruce Tripp, we fired up the 18-inch bladed Husqvarna chain saw and the 138-year-old arbor vitae became arbor mortuus.
Vultures descended on the slaughter. Steve Ressell was quickest. He nabbed a perfectly-twisted limb to adorn his backyard sauna; John Barnes lopped a straight section for a canoe paddle; Millard scavenged for great fire starter. And I, too, managed a salvaged branch. Partially driven by guilt, I promised to perform some kind of alchemy to make good from the death I had caused.
So a few weeks ago Bruce Tripp and I sat the limb I had taken on saw horses newly crafted by John Barnes and his work-study crew. The Husqvarna and I cut through the tree like flesh and transformed a limb into a floor full of 4-7 inch diameter hockey pucks.
My stepfather, who’s a professional auto-body guy, gifted me a 15-amp grinder and, with this wire wheel attachment, I shredded through the fibrous outer bark and the phloem which was forcefully deposited into the deepest recesses of my ear canal, my lungs, and my nostrils. After each session I’d emerge from my basement coated in a wooly dandruff of cedar and quite literally one with the tree of life.
I picked up a wheel adapter from Steve and Linda at Green Mountain Auto – Linda’s sister is Jo Foster, a COA graduate from 1985 that everyone knew as “Bone.” The grinder and a 36 grit sanding disc knocked back the grooves left by the chainsaw. Elmer Beal’s belt sander with 50 and 80 grit paper removed the circular scars left by the grinder, and 100, 150, and 220 grit paper on a hand sander gave me 100 baby-skin-soft hockey pucks of cedar, each with its own display of heartwood and sapwood, growth rings and knots and imperfections. Each one different and perfect.
I then called Jeff Toman, husband to our friend and poet Candice Stover. Jeff is a blacksmith. With a handful of ¼ inch steel bits salvaged from the depths of his most exquisite man cave, he fashioned a 4-inch diameter brand of the College of the Atlantic logo.
On Wednesday May 24th Jeff and I fired up his coal forge to 700 degrees and branded the discs. The first press after each reheat of the branding iron actually ignited the oils still wet in the wood, and the flame cast a nice, unexpected shadow over the brand. A wire brush cleaned away any lose charred wood.
Off to Paradis True Value hardware where the software you want for anything having to do with paints, stains, or varnishes is named Duffy. Duffy suggested a glossy, oil-based polyurethane. It took fifteen coats to get that “wet look” I wanted, but eventually I finished up with what looked like a bakery full of COA-branded sticky buns.
Each of you will get one – they’re back there on your chairs – and you might cherish it, or at least use it as a coaster or a paperweight. But even if it gets lost in the shuffle of your life, maybe you’ll stumble on it twenty years from now in a sock drawer or dusty closet corner and remember this day, our cedar tree, or your times at COA.
But I didn’t make these things to jog your memory.
The COA-branded sticky bun is first a reminder of the social complexity of material things – think of the webs of material, behavior, history, technology, and community imbued in this object. But most importantly it’s an emblem of a project and how such project can be a catalyst for curiosity and an implement for exploring a labor of love.
My favorite thought on labor and love is from the public scholar Marina Popova who said, “Labor without love dooms one to the hamster wheel of productivity, that vacant counterpoint to creativity. Love without labor begets infinite procrastination, the death kiss of ideation.”
That is why ours is a project-based curriculum here at COA – to cultivate the right balance between labor and love.
I fell in love with arbor vitae and these sticky buns, but my ultimate labor of love is this very college. Rodin’s was The Gates of Hell.
All of you came to COA with at least the germ of some labor of love and this place, this community nourished that germ through the projects you undertook here. I cannot wait to watch your greatest labors and loves unfold as you go off to the wider world.
Last year I described COA graduates as “Wonderful, contemplatively scrappy, humble activists.” But with another year of reflection, I call you “wonderful, contemplatively scrappy humble activists all inspired to find and pursue your own unique labor of love.” Now go do it.