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Just to the red side of brown: An art adventure in Maine

Things you would find in my bathroom this morning: a large fan sitting at chest height and pointing toward the floor; a box of one-gallon Zip-lock freezer bags; my daughter’s florescent green plastic sled; the folding, metal fireplace screen from the living room; several gallons of moist dirt–just on the red side of brown. The dirt is spread several inches thick in the bottom of the sled and the combination looks disturbingly like a human-sized kitty box. The fan blows red dust and opened plastic bags across the tile floor. The dust patterns up on the floor into pleasant little dunes. The bags are just annoying. The fireplace screen served well as a soil sifter and gave the whole process a mild archaeological feel, but I may have stained the thing orange. Thank God I chose to do this while my wife was out of town. My daughter is not impressed.

Several weeks ago I had agreed to find red earth for an art project: not just any art project, mind you, but one being completed by my life-long hero and inspiration, Bob Sacamano. I won’t explain the design here because I’m guessing he wants to keep things under wraps, but suffice to say that when Bob asks for red dirt I say “yes, Mr. Sacamano, how much and how red?”

“Two gallons,” was the answer, “and as red as possible.”

Well, that’s easy as pie across most of the Unite States, especially in the iron-rich unglaciated soils of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. But here in Maine, the clays are all what as known as the Presumpscot Formation and, although they turn a red when fired, they are a beautiful, creamy grey and not useful for this project. There are mineral rich soils that are stained red by high iron content bedrock up north near the Katahdin Iron Works. But the snow is waist deep up there. And the six mile road to the site is unplowed.  And the ground is frozen solid.

But we’re talking Bob Sacamano here: I would climb Lhotse burdened with pick-axe and shovel to get the red earth he needed. But the rub with the red earth near Katahdin is that it’s Red Earth–with caps. It’s sacred. The Wabanaki tribes in the region trace their origins back to the “red paint” people and the red paint in question is the red ochre-rich soils near the sacred mountain itself, Mt. Katahdin. I think I could have worked with the tribal authorities to get permission to dig and collet some soil, but the time, the need for respect, and the extreme weather made that location off limits from my point of view.

“Well, it can certainly be a ‘brownish red,'” Bob said. OK, honestly, Bob did not say that to me–it was George, one of Bob’s assistants–but in my head and whenever I tell the story, it was an order or a compromise directly from the man himself. I scoured my own humble island, Mt. Desert Island. I did find some earth just barely on the reddish side of brown, but it was in Acadia National Park and, although I could very easily have made a collection under the cover of darkness, the health of the Park is just too important to me and COA’s relationship with ANP is something also sacred. Getting caught in the act would not have been good at all for my job security and, like the Katahdin example, could tarnish the project with a very poor color choice.

So I went to the specialist–Dr. Sarah Hall. Sarah explained that this region once had deep red clays put down by the erosion of iron-rich granites of the northern Appalachian range, but that that red clay had been scraped away by the advancing Wisconsin glacier some 15,000 years ago. You find the clays south of the moraines–the humps of earth that mark the end of the advancing glaciers. Yes, there are iron- and mineral-rich soils elsewhere here in Maine, but those deposits are spotty and usually covered by a thick layer of brown to black soils.

But all hope is not lost, Sarah explains. There are a number of magma chambers in our neck of the woods that have left accessible deposits of mineral-rich earth and that earth tends to be on the redder side of brown. For best results in understanding the concept of a magma chamber, you need to speak with Sarah or look beyond my description here–it’s not an intuitive concept.

But try this: Picture really, really hot magma coming up from the mantle. It’s so friggin’ hot that it melts anything in its path as it works its way toward the Earth’s surface. Eventually it hits a temperature and pressure threshold (cooler and less pressure) where it doesn’t have the same “humph” and the magma-inspired tunneling stalls out. Then something else happens and your left with a pile of mineral-rich ores very near the surface. Something like that.

Oftentimes these collapsed magma chambers are dense with valuable metals like Nickel or Cobalt and one such collapsed chamber just so happens to be about two hours south of us, not covered by snow, very accessible by foot, and was designated by the State of Maine as an open prospecting site.

Sarah and I hit the road, armed with all kinds of digging implements, plenty of hunter orange (the only thing one can hunt in early March are crows, snowshoe hare, and coyote–but one cannot be too cautious), and longitude and latitude numbers extending way right of the decimal. There’s no way I would have found this place without Sarah and her longitudes and latitudes.


Selfie of me and Sarah Hall

We are in the earliest stages of Maine’s fifth season, mud season, wedged between winter and spring. Par for the course, the ground was in the process of thawing and the mud was thick and, thankfully, not dissimilar to the orange we wore to avoid getting confused for a coyote, crow, or snowshoe hare.

Sarah helped clarify the magma chamber a bit on the short walk. Don’t think “chamber” as in “cave.” The magma, because of incredible heat and pressure gradients, works its way through a path of least resistance until it gets stuck and then piles up and begins to cool. The magma cuts and fills the chamber simultaneously. As things cool, some of the heaviest minerals begin to sink toward the bottom of the magma blob. When the mass solidifies, you get your igneous rock with the heaviest metals (like Nickel and Cobalt all nicely gathered at the bottom later to be scooped up by some mining company–only, of course, after the top layers are eroded way by water, wind, glaciers, and time. We were on the floor of one of these exposed magma chambers.


Crack open one of these stones and you see the exposed Nickel. Exposed to air, it oxidizes into a purple.


A panoramic of the collection zone.


That’s me breaking through the frozen soil.

We got the reddest stuff we could find, I promise. It definitely has a yellow tinge to it–that comes from the sulfur, according to Sarah. This area was abandoned as a mine for the higher sulfur content of the area, which means you’re left with a lot of sulphur pollution to clean up after you have gathered your Nickel or Cobalt.


That’s the raw material for what we’re going to send to Andy.

Not too much more to talk about in terms of our collection. Sarah and I, now painted orange by the Earth itself, managed to grab a really nice lunch at Long Grain restaurant in Camden and tracked a good amount of the orange through the restaurant–sorry about that, LG.

But there was no way I was going to send Bob that slop, wet and full of debris. I had to get him two gallons of purity.

Sarah suggested using the COA botany lab with its sieves and ovens for working such material, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of work during the last week of term.

Sorting through the cold, wet soil on a cold day was, well, cold–so I brought everything inside and into the sunniest room on the first floor, the bathroom. The sledding has been lame this year on the coast, so I saw no harm in borrowing my daughter Molly’s green sled.


Stage 1 in the green sled. I think I’m going to have to replace the colander.


Trying to work with the slop was a disaster. But an afternoon of heat and wind made the material a lot easier to work with.



The colander was a disaster–especially when the stuff was still wet. The fireplace screen was perfect. I thought for sure I’d discover a bone or coin or pot sherd in the material–no such luck. It still felt archaeological.


Sifting through the clean, dry material with bare hands was very satisfying. A gallon ziplock never looks like a gallon … until you fill it. I had just the right amount of material.


Great value, indeed. Double bagging was a bit of a challenge.

So, that’s it. Well, not exactly. One of the best parts of this project is that it lingers.


At a board meeting, a trustee said, “What’s going on with your fingers?”


It lingers on my computer.


It lingers, with surprising resilience, in the kitchen sink.


It lingered for a long time on the bathroom floor (looking a lot like a line of red cocaine neatened up by some gangster’s credit card). My bathroom smelled like Yellowstone National Park for some time–the sulphur.



And it lingers in my office at College of the Atlantic, on my well-worn copy of a book in my office.

As with everything Sacamano touches, this project will be something truly extraordinary. I’m honored to have had my fingers in it and my fingerprints on it, even if they’re in and on it at the very margins.

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King and Creating the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness at College of the Atlantic

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Although the country celebrates on the third Monday in January to regularize the holiday for employers, Dr. King was indeed born on the 15th of January, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia—he would have been 91 years old today. I write to you because I believe it’s critical that we reflect on his life, his work, and his death more so now than in any other time since the day he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968.

Inspired in part by his birthday and with Black History Month right around the corner in February, I’ve reflected deeply on Dr. King’s work since the New Year. Of course I’d read his famous lines and listened to I Have A Dream at some point in high school; of course I’d always admired and respected Dr. King and his commitment to my own shared passions for civil rights and non-violent protest. But I went pretty deep into his work these last two weeks. And I’ve emerged super-charged from that reading and now see Dr. King as a bright, clarifying light for me as a person, for COA as an institution, and for the world at large. Here’s why.

For starters, in my eyes, no one has a better, more compelling command of the English language than MLK. With all the discussion recently about whether or not there can or should be a canon of work in the English language (see, for example Ross Douthot’s piece in the NYT from this weekend), I feel enthusiastic about publicly responding to that question with a resounding “yes” and “put King at the top of the list.” King’s brilliance with language can be found everywhere in his writing. For example, in his 1967 speech at the National Conference on New Politics, Dr. King says:

In an age so adjusted to war, I call on you to be maladjusted; In an age adjusted to imperialism and colonialism, I call on you to be maladjusted.In an age amazingly adjusted to hate and malice, I call on you to be maladjusted.Too many people in America are more concerned about making a living than making a life; there is a need, now more than ever before, for men and women in our nation to be creatively maladjusted.

No one married content and delivery better than King. Whether reading them or listening to them, his words make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. As important as their beauty and rhythm, his words are powerful calls to action that move us from apathy, that force us to push through disparity and loss of hope. If nothing else, have a read of his last speech, one of my top two favorites, from Memphis, Tennessee where he was galvanizing a group of striking sanitation workers. Really excellent annotations of that piece can be found in the New York Times here and in the Irish Times here. It’s called I’ve Been to the Mountaintop and it’s hard to fathom that he was only 39 years old when he uttered those words. He speaks with the ferocity of a young man, but with the wisdom of a learned octogenarian.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s period of greatest impact during his short life overlapped importantly with the founding ideas of our own college. One of our two founding trustees was Jim Gower, a Catholic priest and peace activist profoundly shaped by the words and actions of Dr. King. Did you know College of the Atlantic was originally going to be named The Acadian Peace College” Father Gower served in Waterville and right here in Bar Harbor, at the Holy Redeemer Church on Mt. Desert Street, and would later go on to establish the Maine Chapter of Pax Christi in 1980. Although the first inspiration for COA may have been to help rekindle the economic and intellectual flames on MDI that had been devastated by the fire of 1947, it was Father Gower who said, “If we’re going to build a college, it’s going to be focused on addressing the social and ecological turmoil we face as a species. I’ve buried too many boys killed in Vietnam.”

Martin Luther King Jr. attacked the social injustice of segregation throughout the American South. Those examples of brilliant, focused acts of organized and strategic non-violence paved the way toward the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here in the US. But Dr. King also believed deeply in and worked toward the unity of the human spirit, the need for a global perspective in addition to local action, and was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam.

From his 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam, King writes:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

Much has been written about MLK as the prescient, founding father of “environmentalism.” Yet, for me, honestly, his work speaks to us here at COA more for its erasure of disciplinary or subject matter boundaries than for its importance of adding fodder to the rather problematic category of “environment.” King is the ultimate human ecologist. From his address on the stairs of the Montgomery City Hall after his 50-mile pilgrimage from Selma on March, 25, 1965;

All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated; we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny; whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

And, again from the 1967 National Conference of New Politics:

… there are those who have criticized me; those who have said that the issues of civil rights cannot be separated from the issues of peace; I intend to keep these issues mixed because they are mixed. I’m not going to segregate my moral concern.

But for an even deeper understanding of Dr. King’s human ecology, have a look at my other top-two pieces of his work, entitled The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life (really worth listening to his voice via YouTube; there are several versions of this speech, here’s one version if you’d rather read than listen). In that work, King shows he is really thinking about the implications of our globalized world, where:

We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.

But King’s words are equally as powerful when they bring us beyond the world of practical social justice, of global politics, and of the need for national socio-economic reform, that is, when they bring us to the spiritual and the divine. Dr. King was a Christian Pastor. His parables and proclamations frequently reference the divine, Jesus Christ, and organized religion, which doesn’t always sit well for the atheist or non-Christian. For me, as a Catholic, he has somehow, from the grave, inspired new interest in the power of faith and faith-based communities. But no matter what your interest or practice of religion may be, it’s hard not to be moved by his words that stretch our minds beyond the material world. Like these lines, describing that “third dimension” from his Three Dimensions of a Complete Life:

We become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that we unconsciously forget to look up and think about that great cosmic light. It gets up early in the morning in the eastern horizon and paints its technicolor across the blue, a light that man could never make. We become so involved in looking at our sky scraping buildings, and we unconsciously forget to think about the gigantic mountains kissing the sky, something that man could never make. We become so involved and fascinated about our radar and ourtelevisions that we unconsciously forget to think about the beautiful stars that bedeck the heavens, like swinging lanterns of eternity something that man could never make.

I love walking, running, and climbing and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m deeply inspired by the walking and climbing King did during his life. Martin Luther King made pilgrimages on foot and in spirit, to mountaintops and to jail cells, in Jericho and in Selma, Alabama. His footsteps are all around us. Those prints must be studied with an unparalleled sense of relentless curiosity and wonder, for they give us great insight about what it actually means to be human.


I want to find a way to honor Dr. King’s work, through our own work here at COA. I want to pay special mind to his passionate plea for unselfishness. Dr. King called on us to “…develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…” (that’s from his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee). If there’s one word that captures the spirit of MLK it’s unselfishness; if there’s one word that describes what we need now more than ever as individuals, as a college, as a global community, it is a reawakened sense of unselfishness.

To mark the power of this word and concept, we are creating the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness. (side note: I had considered an award in Creative Maladjustment, another powerful phrase from King, but I thought that that might raise eyebrows if listed on a resume!). That title nicely honors the words and deeds of two great champions of the cause, Dr. Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis. Congressman Lewis, as you may have heard, is now battling cancer. Lewis marched side-by-side with King in the 60s and has fought valiantly to continue King’s fight across the half century following King’s death.

I will be convening a small group of faculty and staff to choose the winner of this award every year on Martin Luther King’s birthday (the 15th, whether or not it falls on the third Monday of January). Although the award will recognize an individual, it will also emphasize the work that the individual has done as part of a team on a particular project that, together, embodies the spirit and work of MLK and Congressman Lewis.

But in this, the inaugural year of the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness, I am selecting the individual and project myself. I am proud to announce that the 2020 award winner of the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness is Vonnie Love and her work to form and lead the Black Student Union here at College of the Atlantic. Vonnie will receive $500 to help build on the work of COA’s Black Student Union. Congratulations, Vonnie, and thank you for helping build a better sense of dangerous unselfishness here at COA.

Be well all,


Convocation 2019

This was my ninth Convocation Address to the COA CommunityI’ve generally been happy with how they’ve turned out, but this one felt special enough to capture in my blog.


Welcome to Convocation 2019. Convocation—it is the collective noun for Eagles and it’s the start of the academic year; the start of what I hope and expect will be one of the most adventurous and productive and exciting parts of your education, an education, that if we do things right here, you’ll build on for the rest of your life. I’m Darron, the president and an alumnus, and I love this place, and this time of year, and the presence of students on campus—we had so many exciting, high profile guests here this summer, but there’s nothing like the return of students.

I’ve got three things to cover in my few minutes with you today (actually, let’s call it what it is, more like 30 or so minutes).

First, a discussion of tribute, respect, and partnership. A year ago at this time, I made mention that the college was putting our collective shoulder behind three broad, crucial topics: FIRST, the future of our faculty and curriculum—because of demographics, we will see a lot of older faculty members retiring and new ones coming aboard—how, as a community, do we want to manage that?; SECOND, how to better provide all students with the guidance and foundation to persist through to graduation; and THIRD to understand and improve upon questions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – of staff, faculty, and students. First year students have been a part of that in orientation, there’s a working group led by faculty member Dave Feldman, and there will be opportunities to engage on those questions throughout the year. There’s no doubt that we’ve got a lot of work to do on the DEI front and part of that work involves recognizing the Wabanaki peoples, past and present, whose lands we are on; recognizing the tribal communities who call Mt. Desert Island (Pesamkuk) home. This image is from the Abbe Museum exhibit, “People of the Dawnland.”


Today, the indigenous communities of Maine are called Wabanaki, but they refer to themselves as Ckuwaponahkiyik, which means “people from the land where the sun rises” and is also the root of the word Wabanaki. According to tribal records, there are 8587 Wabanaki people: 1240 members of the Aroostik Band of Micmac; 1700 members of the Houlton Band of Maliseet; 3369 members of the Passamaquody Nation; and 2,278 members of the Penobscot Nation. I want to acknowledge their presence here today, but want to make this acknowledgement being fully aware of continual violations of water, territorial rights, and sacred sites in the Wabanaki homeland and to work, if called upon and as needed, to help the Wabanaki address those issues. 

In my eyes, one of the best ways to understand, respect, and pay tribute to the people who lived here is, first, to press your mind and stretch your understanding of native peoples, of indigeneity, of the very violent, difficult history of the Wabanaki, but, second, to get outside and know their lands intimately. There’s a portal for doing that right by the Dorr Museum, it leads into the Park and the hundreds of miles of trails and carriage trails. We have an ability to know these lands; we also have a RESPONSE-ability to know them.


Second, this convocation is a place and a time to remember someone.

Les Brewer was one of two founding board members. He died on August 23rd of this year. He was 97. I would like to call for a moment of silence for Les.


See that portrait on the wall (pointing to picture of Ed Kaelber)? That is Ed Kaelber, our founding president. We will add a portrait of Les, of Father Jim Gower (the other founding trustee), and Anne Peach the first Executive assistant, Chief Operating Officer, and Business Office director. Those four were the original generation; they’re gone and that’s significant.

Third, today I wanted to explore COA a bit and ask “what are those components of what might be called ‘our special sauce'”?

I landed on this idea through two avenues. First, just two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take my own daughter off to college…a life changing experience for both of us. Great school; seems like a great match for Maggie; but, wow, I came back thinking that we definitely take a different tack on education. And that tack is, well, excellent…better…yes that’s a judgement, but if I didn’t think that, there would be something wrong, am I right?


I also have been thinking about the special sauce a lot because of new staff. Convocation last year was on September 5th. I wanted to recognize folks that have joined the staff since then. Kerri Sands—who works with our Sustainable Business Program and food program started on September 4, but I suspect I my have left her off the list last yer; Ivy Enoch joined us as an admissions counselor on September 10th of last year; Don Bareiss joined us on November 30, 2018 as the night watchman; Laura Berry joined us at the Community Energy Center on June 5th; On July 1, John Pergillini came on board as Grounds Director; Sydnie White became an admissions assistant on August 12; Deb DeForest is the new executive assistant to the president and started that role on August 26; and on September 1, Blake Cass became the assistant director of the writing center and Maureen Harrigan started as our new Dean of Administration. WELCOME EVERYONE. Consider this a primer on those intangibles that you just kind of need to experience to understand.

OK, are you ready for “The Top 22 Examples of How COA Takes a Different (read, better) Approach to Higher Education?” I started with a list of 10, but just couldn’t stop.


#22. We have a different perspective on how we share the campus with others critters; where other crews would have bombed the hell out of the hornet nest, we mark it and politely ask you to mind your step.


#21. Graduation. We do it really, really well. This was from three years ago; me, then board chairman Will Thorndike; Nancy, who was the Grand Marshall, and the poet Hanif Willis-Abduraqib, who was our commencement speaker. There’s just something very, very special and distinctive about it. Stick around if you can. The chocolate fondu might have something to do with it.


#20. I mentioned Will Thorndike before board chairman, well here he is again on far right. Our approach to athletics is quite different. Where else is the president the coach of the team and the board chairman is the honorary coach? We certainly have a curious approach to athletics and trail running is a real strength of that athletic program. There’s no better place on the East Coast to run trails. We take it very, very seriously.


#19. While we’re still on trustees. It is so cool, distinctive, and excellent that the thing our trustees like best about the college: not the endowment, not the fancy buildings, not any sense of prestige. They love our students and their work, as seen in the senior project presentations on the day before graduation. Ask any trustee and they will tell you there’s no better way to understand the college than to experience those talks. A sample from this year would include, Isabel Shaida (above, right) and her dance and movement performance, but also:

Rose McNally, from right here in Bar Harbor, and her, Wound induced polyploidy and integrin-hippo signaling. Rose is a research scientist at the MDI BioLab;

It would include Moni from Lebanon and Body Autonomy and Domestic Violence, An artistic approach for women in Syrian refugee settlements. Moni won the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and will be examining domestic violence in four corners of the globe;

And Jolie from Hong Kongwould present A Students’ Perspective on COA Housing Design. Jolie is working for Opal, an architectural firm in Belfast;

There’s Colin from western Maine and his project with the hard-to-memorize title, A Photographic Exploration of Cyanotype and Van Dyke Brown Printing Methods. Colin works with the conservation organization, High Peaks Alliance;

And you’d hear Shivon from San Francisco and her thesis: Alternative versus Traditional Veterinary Care in Southern Chile. Shivon is doing her DVM at UC Davis

Mark your calendars: for students, it’s the Wednesday before graduation.


#18. I think it’s fair to say we take art very seriously and probe it in ways that aren’t always common in a liberal arts setting. For instance, we always ask, “When you say, ‘we must bring the arts and the sciences together, what do you really mean’”? We push and poke on that question in really interesting ways–ways that demonstrate we’re not comfortable with sound bites.


#17. We have a relationship with a unit of the National Park System–Acadia National Park–that is stronger than anywhere else out there. Here’s faculty member Sarah Hall left, and a group of students measuring the directionality of basalt intrusions on the top of Cadillac Mountain.


#16. Plenty of colleges do outing programs for orientation. None do it like we do. None have a Nick Jenei. Have a listen to Nick’s introductory session from last Saturday: “This is what OOPs offers: connection to the landscape, connection with our fellow humans, connections to the earth itself. These are not intellectual pursuits, but profoundly visceral and embodied. OOPs allows us to open up to the natural world around us, with this the world becomes alive and deep truths avail themselves: the connection between all things, the fundamental mystery of being, the eternity in a moment of silence. OOPs allows us to practice the art of being human. Further, these trips are microcosms of the entire human and human ecological experience, they touch on all aspects of life, physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual.  They teach us that whether it be in a small tent, or on a small planet, we truly are all in this together.” Mic drop.


Does anyone know what this is? This is 150 cubic yards of soil from our building project up on the north lawn; eventually it will be sifted and re-incorporated back into the building site where needed. That in of itself is somewhat unique, but just yesterday I learned that Suzanne Morse, faculty member in plant science, will be using Mt. COA as a field site to understand weed diversity, origins, and how weeds get transplanted here, there, and everywhere riding on the coattails of human behavior. The point is: We make the best of strange situations and take all the opportunity to learn from them.


#14. Back on the north lawn: we embrace winter wholeheartedly, academically and recreationally.


#13. We experiment and improvise. We are scrappier than any other college in the country. On the US News World Report Rankings, we ranked #1 in Scrappiness.


#12. We challenge ourselves with forks–who has not experienced poorly functioning but compostible forks? Kidding aside, we are passionate about discarded resources. We have a long way to go in terms of improvement, but I’m quite certain we’re going to make huge gains. It’s not easy. It’s essential.


#11. We have the unique ability to touch and learn from our history. For instance, we know now that Millard should never sport the mustache solo without a beard (John Mitchell, Les Clark, Millard Dority).


#10. Anyone recognize this guy? Jacques Cousteau. For my generation JC was the marine science hero—the human face of the ocean. And Jacques was great, not taking anything away from the man; but there’s a new face of ocean science.


How bad-ass is this photo? I want everyone to know that our campus extends out into the ocean we’re about to swim in. We have a campus 25 miles out at sea at Mt. Desert Rock, pictured here. We also have one on great Duck Island 11 miles off shore. Yes, other colleges have island research stations; none like ours.


#9. I also want everyone to know that our campus also extends inward, terrestrially. We have two 100+ acre farms. Yes, other colleges have farms, but we have two and they are completely integrated into the curriculum and into our food system. REMINDER: This year Farm Day is being held at Peggy Rockefeller Farms on Monday, September 23rd. Tours will start at 4:00pm and dinner will be served from 5:30-6:30pm. There will be music during dinner.


#8. Speaking of farms and food, we take our food really, really seriously.


#7. One of the places we take food seriously in TAB. It is the best place to gather and eat, EVER. My wife Karen told me to tone that down, but I couldn’t. We considered momentarily the idea of moving TAB into the new building. It caused wide-spread panic. “Whatever you do, do not mess with Take-a-Break!”


#6. Part of the reason TAB is what it is, is because of kids. Here’s Jack Grizley and you can see Willow in background. You might get to meet Ezra later on. Kids are a part of this campus. We can all use more kids around. There’s so much we can learn from them.


#5. We open worlds up by recognizing that we can learn from everyone. In a transdisciplinary learning environment like ours, you can and should learn physics, and chemistry, and design, and management from stone masons as well as PhD’s, like we did here in the Sunken Garden on campus.


#4. In so doing, our campus becomes a real laboratory. Yes, it is gorgeous and beautiful and should be admired, but it is also worked and studied in and massaged by the hands and minds of students.


Speaking of the COA-campus-as-laboratory, come spring you’ll see this and become of the COA maple syrup gang.


#3. And speaking of maple sugaring, you’ll find that we like to ferment just about anything we can get our hands on. During last year’s sugaring season, we came across a funky batch and tried to make mead from it. It was a perfect addition to Reuben Hudson’s Chemistry of Food and Drink class.


#2. We were just ranked #3 in terms of most international students—as a percentage of the student body, where we’re at roughly 25%. But that percentage doesn’t do justice to the depth of our globalism. The student community here come from 55 different countries. It took me a long time to put each little diamond on the map. Evii Tong from Kiribati, I apologize, I had to make an honest estimate there out in Micronesia.


We also come from 37 states across the United States. Put us all together in a small, concentrated, highly-inspired environment and really creative things happen.


#1. Finally, #1. Remember I could have gone forever (I highly suggest you make your own list). The Bar Island Swim. It’s the best convocation day event and is emblematic of what we’re asking you to do here at COA: Challenge and push yourselves intellectually, socially, and physically. Reminder: at 3:30 we will have the safety meeting for the swim here in Gates.

So that’s how I would like to officially open up the academic year. May the year be replete with challenges, with excitement, and with wonder. Let’s hit the water!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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,


Ps. OK, one more:

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

Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiem for the Norway Maple

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


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

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

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

Why the scorn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Congratulations to the COA Class of 2018!