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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.


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!



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

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

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

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

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

“What was your first concert?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

COA’s 2017 Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.


Response to Friday, January 27 Immigration Order

Dear COA Community:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well and stay in touch,



Welcome to Winter and 2017

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

Hi Everyone:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

There will always be room around our fire.

Be well,


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

Convocation 2016

2016 Convocation

I love “terms of venery,” collective nouns from the 15th century: a flock of seagulls (also a British synth band from the early 80s), a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, a convocation of eagles.

Today is the 45th time in the history of College of the Atlantic that we gather as a convocation to open the academic year: 350 students from 43 countries and 41 states; 40 faculty and lecturers; 70 staff members; One community. Welcome back!

Today is also the first time we’ve swum the Bar Island Swim before all the public speaking. Let me tell you that 30 minutes in sub-60 degree water is not a good tonic for said public speaking. [Improvisation because BIS was postponed due to fog.]

And I’m sore as a dog from this wicked hike I did on Monday – across MDI with a COA board member, Winston Holt. How great is it to have a job where your boss, a member of the COA Board of Trustees, joins you on a trek of 31 miles and 20 peaks across 16 hours.

My intention was to bring this little, black notebook and write my talk along the way I was going to use the walk as a metaphor. But by the time I was on top of Bernard Mountain, just 90 minutes into the walk, I realized that using a metaphor was a very bad idea and would quickly devolve into something that would make your eyes roll.

I may not have physically written a word in my book, but I did in fact write my talk on the journey. I kept coming back to the physics of work and the Joules of work I was expending against gravity. It also happened to be Labor Day. That line of thought about work kept with me and, by the time I was on Beech Mountain up under the fire tower, I arrived at the conclusion that the most pernicious threat we face as a planet is not climate change, is not habitat loss or deforestation.

The most pernicious threat is our own gluttony and indolence; our laziness and our penchant to want to be entertained into a deadening lull – our quest for an Infinite Jest; our desire for immediate gratification. The sustainability we seek and talk about, as individuals, as a COA community, and as a world requires we buck this trend and will require hard, hard work.

Unfortunately, the rallying cry for “hard work” conjures nostalgia; it conjures parents and grandparents talking about walking to school in deep snow. My opinion is not that difficult work is better, but that we should all be very, very cautious about “easy” things and “easy” decisions.

I started thinking about a modern, refined concept of “hard work,” which would have three lenses and come to embrace a physical hard work, an intellectual hard work, and a social hard work.

In term of our own sustainability as an institution, think about it:

Changing our habits and behaviors; thinking about and working with discarded resources; reducing our reliance on energy; taking care of our bodies as a kind of individual sustainability, all require very physical kind of hard work.

Striving to understand complex issues, recognizing the danger of easy answers, developing a sense of the long view over the short term: these things necessitate a kind of intellectual hard work.

And the need for collaboration, the need for empathy and altruism, thinking beyond the self: all this requires a kind of social hard work.

In short, sustainability requires that we embrace a new, evolved work ethic for the 21st century and College of the Atlantic can be and needs to be the laboratory for building that ethic.

Winston and I crossed Somes Sound in kayak and climbed Norumbega Mountain whose western flanks are being devastated by a red pine scale. It was there that I began to prioritize the collective work the college needs to take on this year. There are of course different roles and responsibilities here between student, faculty, staff and such, but at COA we take on big things collectively.

We’ve got loads of collective work to do: challenging but really exciting work.

I mentioned we were today celebrating our 45th convocation. Fall of 2021 will be our 50th. We have our MAP, our plan for getting there and answering questions around what we want our school to look like including scholarship, raises, and this idea of a new building we called the new arts and sciences building. At this point I am officially renaming that endeavor. “Arts and sciences” sets up a real terrible binary. Yes, we need to meet the spatial needs for teaching arts and sciences, but the real question is how can a new structure embrace and enhance what is absolutely crucial to this college? How can a new building inspire the collaboration and project oriented nature of the work we do here? How can it help us do human ecology? The process of answering those questions is going to be hard, but essential. The New Building will do that.

We also have to continue the excellent however hard work and progress we’ve made around sexual violence – something that’s thankfully and appropriately on the mind of colleges and universities all across the country. Ensuring that everyone understands the meaning of consent and continuing to refine and strengthen our policies and procedures, these things require hard work, incredibly important, hard work.

Third, I thought about the work we have to do in terms of getting the world to know us. The world knowing about us is not a bad thing! Great students, great people, and great resources to do what we do best come to us when the world knows about us. But our message is more nuanced, so telling our story loudly, clearly, and compellingly is more difficult.

But #1 on the list of Sierra Club Cool Schools? Number one – there’s no doubt about it, that’s a great thing. Do we have plenty of work to do? Absolutely. But our #1 ranking emerges because of our commitment across 45 years and because places like Sierra Club recognize that environmental excellence is not about how many solar panels you build, but how embedded sustainability is within the curriculum.

And Japan – this evening we will collect 10 colleagues rom Japan who are interested in creating a College of the Atlantic on the island of Osakikamijima. This recognition is a great thing and demonstrates just how much hard work we’ve put into this place. It is our job to continue to tell our nuanced story loudly, clearly, and compellingly.

But the thing I kept coming back to time and time again, and the work most specific to this year, is the importance of hiring three new faculty: in computer science, botany, and anthropology.

It is crucial we get three tremendous human beings on our faculty – tremendous according to our terms as COA: people who are excited to collaborate, with students, with staff, and with faculty; who are excited to stretch beyond what they know; who want to play a role in the evolution of this college as an institution; who absolutely love to teach, are excellent at it; people who are excited about human ecology.

We did that successfully once last year with the hiring of Kourtney Collum, our new Partridge Chain in Sustainable Food Systems. Welcome Kourtney! We have to do that kind of work three times this year.

By the time Winston and I got to the Tarn, a small pond that’s quickly becoming a meadow between Dorr Mountain and Huguenot Head, I thought about last year’s graduation.

How many of you were there?

It featured a commencement speaker who I always considered a hero: Barry Lopez. It was the most real, gripping, smart, powerful and useful talk I’d ever heard. Not everyone who witnessed it would agree with that assessment, but most would. Importantly, the message he left to those graduates felt and feels every bit as useful here to us now. He concluded with a set of recommendations, all of which require the 21st century work ethic I mentioned earlier. He said:

First, Barry said, “step away from the unconscious confines of your own culture. Learn what others are facing and how they are coping.” Our commitment to expeditionary learning and providing every student here with an $1800 expeditionary budget is meant to do just that: to help you become comfortable with being uncomfortable; to help you think about what ‘other’ really means; and to help you recognize that you can do that “stepping away” here on campus, in Machias, or in Madagascar. Culture does not necessarily equal geography.

Second, he said, “think more often about what might work for everyone instead of what might work for you.” This is the human challenge: the rise to an altruistic existence, the understanding of what it means to be part of an institution, the desire to make all boats rise, at this institution and in the wider world.

Third, Lopez asked, “we read about the lives of those who you admire and take in the meaning of each ones’ flaws. “This need not be purely biographical, but it nicely emphasizes the cerebral, which we want to nourish every bit as much as the corporeal.

Fourth, he said, “be cautious if you feel an urge to become well known.” This is a really hard one, especially in talking about our #1 ranking in Sierra Club. But recognizing institutional fame and hard work feels more refined than the individual fame Lopez was speaking of.

Fifth, Lopez asked, “remember that sometimes reverence and not efficiency is the way to a solution.” I only ask that we also be cautious of the binaries in the world. Reverence and efficiency might unfortunately lead you to imagine the arts and sciences, or artists and scientists, as in the artists have all the reverence and the sciences have all the efficiency. Break out of the binaries.

Sixth, he said, “remember that sometimes it’s more important to be in love – in love with the Earth and with each other – than it is to be in power.” And I don’t have anything to add to that one.

Barry’s last words on the stage sent this riveting wave of power and importance and thoughtfulness and love through the audience, he said:

“For God’s sake, take care of each other.”

As president here at COA the number of things I just get to go ahead and do is few and far between. We make decisions collectively as often as we can. Well, it says on my little agenda for today “President convenes the 2016-2017 academic year” and, with that, I will, for as long as I’m president, officially convene the academic year with this saying

For God’s sake, take care of each other.

Thank you.

A View from Little Long Pond

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



Little Long Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lucy in Winter

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


My Map of Jordan Stream

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

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

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

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

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


Historic Stone Wall

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

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

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

The presence of dogs off leash is a fourth differentiator.

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


Soft Trails

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

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


The “St. Louis Arch” Tree

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

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

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

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

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


Massive Maples

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

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

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

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


Brook Trout on the Fly

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

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

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

Not surprisingly, I began to question the trees.

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

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

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

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

Thank you.


Good View from Little Long Pond




Champlain Society 2016 – Martha Stewart, Host

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


Martha Stewart’s Scrabble Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Julliard, we’re small by design.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Our 43rd Commencement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sean Foley and I at the MassMoCA Opening

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan, Chapter 8: Homeward Bound

Day 6: Homeward bound

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

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


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

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

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

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

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