Japan, Chapter 2: A Day of Travel and Understanding

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


A long day of travel, but one without incident

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

EPSON DSC picture

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

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

Japan, Chapter 1: Introduction.

I spent six days in Japan exploring a possible relationship between COA and an evolving educational entity in that country.  I will encapsulate that experience in a series of 6-8 blog posts beginning with this introduction.


It’s Jay’s fault. Jay Friedlander, COA’s Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business, convinced me to attend the Ashoka U Presidents’ Experience at Brown University in 2014. Ashoka is the organization founded by Bill Drayton in 1980 to foster a change in the way the world understands entrepreneurship. The world would be a better place, Drayton surmised, if the power of creativity and innovation in the business world could be applied in full force to the social (read: human ecological) difficulties we face. Among the throngs of these social entrepreneurs at the conference, we met Hiromi Nagao.


Dr. Hiromi Nagao

From 2010 until just recently Dr. Nagao was president of one of the most admired women’s colleges in Japan. Like every other women’s college in Japan, Hiroshima Jogakuin University was more of a finishing school for girls, where the finality was for the alumnae to become the wives of the business elite. Dr. Nagao wasn’t satisfied at all with that end-state and managed to champion some significant reforms during her four-year term at HJU. Annoyed by what they considered to be a radical bee in her bonnet, the all-male, all-octogenarian board chose not to renew her contract.

Though close to a retiring age, Dr. Nagao wasn’t going to go down quietly. The 4’11” woman is a whirlwind of intensity, smarts, and vision and is entirely focused on educational reform in Japan. After meeting Jay and me at the Ashoka U meeting, she became enamored with the College of the Atlantic and thought we might have something at COA that could help realize her ambitions.

Six months went by before Jay and I heard back from Dr. Nagao. To be honest, when I received the email from her in the summer of 2015 I had somehow managed to forget her story. The email from Dr. Nagao asked if Jay and I would be interested in visiting her and her colleagues in Japan. I remember internalizing her email as: “we want to start a college in Japan based on the COA model.” I couldn’t afford to leave MDI in August, but Jay was able and excited. (It’s no secret that Jay thinks with his mind, heart, and belly. Japan was his gastrological Mecca.)

Jay made an enormous impact on Dr. Nagao and her colleagues during his short trip and further fueled Dr. Nagao’s interest in COA. In November 2015 I received a second invitation. In Japan, titles are meaningful. “We want the president and we’re willing to pay for your trip so we can discuss mutually beneficial collaborations. I still read, “we want to start a college in Japan based on the COA model.” Armed with a very serious dose of curiosity and a sense of pride fueled by Nagao’s interest in the college, I left for Japan on January 15, 2016.

Proceeding with caution, proceeding with a sense of managing expectations, but proceeding nevertheless felt right.

Income as a proxy for college excellence?

Dear Alumni:

Some of you may have seen an on-line college ranking that uses income after graduation as a proxy for college excellence. Given COA’s emphasis on values and service over the profit motive, it’s probably not much of a surprise to learn we didn’t fare too well on this list. There has been some discussion about this list on social media and I thought you’d like to hear my reactions.

First, it’s heartening to see our alumni question the validity of this ranking and the metrics being used. We aim to educate COA students to critically analyze the source and accuracy of any information – and there certainly exists a world in social media where “top 10” lists, like this one, misuse data out of context to draw dramatic conclusions and get more clicks.

The list in question defines success based solely on income six and ten years after starting college – or between one to six years after graduation, depending on one’s path. These data were originally collected by the US Department of Education and only include students who started as first-time freshmen, received federal financial aid in college, and filed a tax return during the years in question. Not included in the count: anyone in graduate school at the time that the data were gathered; international students; transfer students; students who didn’t receive federal financial aid; anyone who didn’t file a tax return during those years. Business owners declaring a loss in an early-year LLC or other such enterprises are included as income-negative.

In an effort to learn as much as possible from this ranking, we looked at our specific cohort of alumni and determined that, once you account for all of these factors, the sample size in question is somewhere between 15-30 individuals for the ten years post-start group, and an even smaller number for the six year group. That’s an exceedingly small sample size and an inappropriate way to accurately measure outcomes. And, because the data looks at anyone who started at the college in a given year regardless of whether they graduated, our results would also include some students who transferred elsewhere after a term or year, or decided not to graduate from college at all.

For the sake of comparison, and to get a better sense of what COA graduates are doing in the first years after they leave the college, we decided to look more closely at the graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 – students who may have been included in the data released by the DOE. Within this excellent group of alumni, six years after graduation we found a handful of educators, a public-interest lawyer, several artists and musicians, multiple new entrepreneurs, a park service employee, a free-lance journalist, organic farmers – exactly what you might expect our younger alumni to be doing. When I looked through this group and learned about what they were doing in the world shortly after graduation and what they’ve gone on to do since, I was even more excited and prepared to shout our mission and message from the rooftops.

Fold the other graduates into the group and the story becomes all the more interesting. We have a large number of students going on to graduate studies in science, education, business, law, medicine, art, and other fields. Recent COA grads seem to be choosing fields where they can continue learning and building their skills – and jobs where they can provide a service or make a positive impact on the environment or their communities. A recent survey of the graduating class of 2013 tells us that within just one year of graduating, 22% had gone on to graduate school and an additional 65% had started working at a job “in their field.” It’s what we love to see: COA students going out into the world and finding meaningful next steps for work or further study.

The ranking and the ensuing conversation on social media inspired us to have a closer look at a particular cohort of our alumni and gain an understanding about factors they’re facing as they graduate and move into life after COA. Do we want our students to be able to repay debt, earn a living wage, and enjoy the individual and familial security higher education can bring? Of course we do. We’ve recently implemented a more robust and consistent system to better understand how our students move through life after graduation. Part of the rationale for focusing as much as we did on alumni in our most recent strategic planning process (the MAP) was both to capture and use alumni data better and to support alumni more effectively in career placement. We certainly can make improvements to help our graduates find the path toward a job or a career that they’re inspired by and that helps serve the planet and humanity.

But placing undue emphasis on income as a metric of success undervalues the importance of careers in the arts, education, the environment, and – broadly speaking – those jobs we as human ecologists typically pursue. We certainly see human ecologists succeeding in business, medicine, law, and other more high-income careers, but adherence to a simplistic measurement of educational success such as income threatens to undercut the institutions and individuals dedicated to making a difference in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with collecting diachronic data and, to a certain extent, playing the game with such lists can help with our educational mission. I will definitely share any such news and my list-loving mind will likely be pretty excited about it. But do I think all of these lists and rankings tell the story of a COA education? No – and I hope you don’t either.

Be well,


The 2015 Common Ground Fair

Today was my ninth Common Ground Fair.  I logged four fairs as a student back in the day when it was held at the Windsor Fairgrounds and five at the site in Unity.  All were excellent and today did not disappoint. My seventh- and ninth-grade daughters decided to sit this one out.  Their loss was my gain.  I don’t think they could have stomached watching granite be dissected and split for hours on end anyway. Why can’t I get enough of the CGF? Well, I catalogued today’s fair and that answered the question easily:


Biking to the CGF is a great option, especially on a day like today. $2 off the admission price, no lines, and they treat you like royalty when you arrive.


I joined the Maine Stonecutters Guild and learned how to cut and grind granite.


COA’s Peggy Rockefeller Farms Manager CJ Walke lectured on the ins and outs of using chipped hardwoods as mulch for apples.  I also saw our other pomologist, COA faculty member Todd Little-Seibold.  We know our apples.


I let the dirt squish through my toes.


I got to see Arika von Edler, COA alumna ’12: artist of this year’s CGF t-shirt and poster design.  They sold out of t-shirts.  I got the sense that that was rare and that Arika’s artwork was to blame.  I got a signed copy myself and I’m going to frame it and hang it in my office.


I got to meet Ben and Jerry — yes, that Ben and Jerry.  They were selling ink stamps that read “Not to be used to bribe politicians” as part of their campaign finance reform work.  You’re meant to stamp the backs of US currency.  I cannot condone defacing US currency.  I may have bought one such stamp.


Food.  Enough said. But I’ll say more: those fries and that ketchup!


I ran into old friends.  Here’s Ryder Scott, class of 1997. I lead his OOPs trip.  Now he’s running the 4-H camp programs for the entire State of Maine.


Yurts. More correctly, gers — the proper Mongolian terminology. I love everything about gers and think we need one on campus.  Today a group demonstrated a technique for bending the oak, maple, or birch trusses.


More old friends: Genio Bertin ’97 and Sara Faull ’98. Genio, like Ryder, was also on that OOPs trip.  Clearly, I had a big impression on these guys.  I’m kidding. Genio and Sara are remarkable people and Mandala Farm is a CGF mainstay.


I love hogs.


I love dogs.

And there’s something in the air — something hard to capture in photographs or words — that makes the fair so special. Thank you MOFGA.  Next year I’ll drag my girls kicking and screaming if I have to. It’s just too good to miss.

Convocation 2015: Three Stories of Kindness

On Wednesday, September 9th the College of the Atlantic Community celebrated Convocation — the opening of the academic year.  Alumna Amy Hoffmaster (’06) addressed the community and faculty member John Cooper and COA student Eloise Schultz performed a set of mass standards.  Before heading off to the 25th Bar Island Swim, I offered these words:

I bought a boat. Three weeks ago. I named her Nunu, Egyptian Goddess of the Sea.

Despite the name, it’s a very modest boat – a 12-foot inflatable with a rigid keel and an outboard motor. This boat has turned my world upside down, and I thought convocation would be the perfect place to talk about it.

I’ve always considered myself a terrestrial person. Though I’m at home on rivers and ponds, the ocean seemed spooky and malevolent.

I’ve been on boats at sea, of course; but there’s something about being the captain and pilot of a vessel – whether kayak or freighter. It’s about the responsibility, the decision-making, and the freedom, and the complete change in perspective. The world looks entirely different from the ocean.

The magic I’ve experienced also has to do with the novelty. In piloting Nunu, I’m a child – in the sense that I know so little. There’s so much new to know: winds, tides, a completely new language. It’s fun to be forced to grow up all over again.

But, like a child, I’m vulnerable. Consequences are intimately tied to my decisions and are so much more severe than on the land.

You miss a knot in your shoes, you might stumble. You miss a knot on a mooring and, that’s it for Nunu. Tying that knot, stepping off the dock, adjusting the choke, filling the gas tank, requires ultimate presence. 326 million cubic miles of seawater inspires reverence and presence.

Despite the vulnerability, I’m now more willing to step into the unknown – and this is strange. It has to do, I believe, with the community of boat people – there’s a degree of remarkable kindness within that community. Everyone seems excited to help me, the child, learn to walk on water. Whether it’s Rosa de Jong helping with my bowline knot; Tom Fernald up in Allied Whale lending me gear to be safe; Toby helping me get set up on a mooring; my fisherman friend Dan Clark keeping an eye out for me on channel 7 on the VHF; Adam Hilton over at Hinckley who piece-by-piece tore apart my carburetors on the back of the boat so I’d be able to use it this fall. People want me to succeed. There’s a kindness on the water. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

My suggestions based on this revelation? First, don’t wait until your 45 to be a captain of a boat. Come to know the ocean and come to be a part of the kindness on the ocean. You’re in one of the best places in the world to do that. Obviously, do it thoughtfully, do it safely, do it respectfully … but do it.


That’s my first story of kindness. My second involves COA alumna Chloe Chen Kraus. Chloe graduated in 2013. I spoke with her yesterday and she gave me the green light to use her personal narrative.

In her second year Chloe went to Costa Rica as part of a field ecology course with John Anderson and Steve Resell. It was quite an adventure and, much like me in Nunu at sea, she experienced extreme vulnerability.

On the day students were set to begin their independent research, Chloe approached Steve and said, flat-out, “I can’t do it. I can’t go out there alone.” Hers was not an irrational fear, any more than my own fears of the ocean. The fer-de-lance is a snake as deadly as the cold depths of the sea.

“Will you come with me,” she asked Steve, sheepishly.

“No, I will not,” was his response. “Chloe, this is something you’ve got to do on your own. I know you’re ready for it. You’re prepared.”

It was the kindest, gentlest, most appropriate encouragement possible. That kindness and Steve’s expertise and knowledge were the safety net that made it the wisest decision in the world for Chloe to go off on her own.

That walk in the woods was transformational in the truest sense of the word for Chloe. It began a cascade of growth for her, unlike anything else she had experienced during her four years here at COA.

Two weeks ago, Chloe came back from her second field season of three months of independent research in Madagascar where she’s studying lemurs as part of her PhD program in anthropology at Yale.

That kind of transformation is something everyone should experience. It requires the kindness and support of a mentor and advisor. It requires risk taking and comfort with vulnerability. And, more often than not, it requires something we might call an “expedition” – something that takes us beyond: beyond our comforts, beyond our campus.

To facilitate these kinds of expeditions, we’ve created the student expeditionary fund. It will provide all students with $1800 toward such expeditionary work.

In week two – remember this is week zero – we’ll circulate a how-to guide explaining the details, but the basic outline looks like this:

  • The funds are for off-campus courses, internships, senior projects, or residencies of an expeditionary nature.
  • Use of these funds requires the negotiation with an approval of your advisor – that is crucial. You have to be in good academic standing and have all your bills with the college squared up.
  • First year students have to have been here at least three academic terms and transfer students have to have been here at least one academic term before they are eligible to use these funds.
  • For those students that have research and travel awards in their financial aid package, this money will not be in addition to those monies.

There are more specifics about frequencies of withdrawal, amounts, conferences, etc. and, like I said, a ‘how-to’ guide will explain everything precisely.

But for today think about Chloe; think about your version of her expedition. First year students, begin the process of developing a relationship with an advisor. And for everyone, think about that kindness again – that non-romantic, non-hokey, deeply empathetic kindness – that radical kindness – that helped Chloe venture into the woods.


My last story of kindness requires Sean Foley to stand up.  Sean is a new faculty member at the college and will be teaching drawing and painting. He’s teaching Drawing 1 this term.

Sean, we’re super excited to have you on board. About one-quarter into your job talk it was so obvious that you were spot on for this position. I’m so much looking forward to working with you.

Tim Liardet, would you stand up? Tim’s a poet and is on the faculty at Bath Spa University in the UK and is an author of 10 poetry collections. He did a poetry workshop for us last year and it was so good, we wanted to do everything in our power to get him here for a full term. So we did. He’ll be teaching Poetry as Synthesis this term.

And then there’s Abigail. Abigail Curless, can you stand up. Abigail is the next executive assistant in the president’s office. That’s my office. I’m very excited to have Abigail.

Finally, will all the new students stand up – transfer and first years? A welcome to you! All 105 of you; from all over the country and all over the world. You are an amazing bunch – welcome.

Yes, we have one of the most beautiful campuses on one of the most beautiful islands in the world; yes, we have one of the most innovative ways of teaching and learning. But the root of our success and excellence is about the people. This enormous wave of new people, new thinking, new enthusiasm, is something we celebrate on a day like today.

Heather Albert-Knopp – will you stand up? Wait a minute, you say, she’s not new. But, ah, yes she is – she’s new through experience, having just led the college through a new web redesign that went live today!! I wanted all of us to thank Heather for her leadership.

Today we also recognize that, at COA especially, we are all new. We’re all new through experience. Human ecology is about the expeditions, the encounters, the experiences that transform us. Me on Nunu. Chloe out in the tropical forests. But, also, Heath Cabot returning from her Fulbright in Greece; Ken Cline coming home from France; Dru Colbert, back from her ocean voyage.

Human ecology is about these expeditions, these encounters with the other, these experiences. It’s about becoming comfortable with complexity, with a lack of definitive answers. At COA we live in a sea of newness and vulnerability. And living in such a sea requires that kindness I’ve talked about today. Again, not the hokey “politeness,” but that deep, empathetic kindness that provides a definite and strong safety net for the risk taking we ask for.

It’s a kindness that’s about wanting everyone to succeed – about wanting to help everyone succeed – every student, every faculty member, every staff member. Thank you for listening and welcome to the new academic year.

Posy Stone’s “Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck”

My notebooks are filled with introductions: especially during the summer months, when I welcome and introduce dozens of speakers to COA.  I spend a lot of time on such pieces.  The goal? Rather than recreate someone’s CV in oral form, I strive to say something useful about the accomplishments and interests of the guest in question and creatively link those back to the mission of the college.  I’m not always successful in doing that, but I felt particularly good about my introduction of filmmaker Olympia “Posy” Stone and her new film on the sculptor David Beck. 

Filmmaker Posy Stone and Sculptor David Back at COA, August 10, 2015

Filmmaker Posy Stone and Sculptor David Back at COA, August 10, 2015

When this college was founded we were fixated on saving the world. Today we understand that the world will outlast our existence and, over the long haul, be just fine. The question has evolved: how can we be part of a better world – one that’s more just, healthy, more thoughtful, and more beautiful?

Science is key for understanding the tradeoffs we face. Business, long considered the source of the problem, we now understand as part of the solution. Policy or government: clearly also part of the equation.   But, in my eyes, finding our place in the world begins and ends with art; it begins and ends with tapping the curiosity, motivations, priorities, and the patient observation of the artist and the lover of art.

Posy let me take a sneak peek of tonight’s film and that viewing changed the way I think about the world. Most importantly, it underscored that, in art, everything can be interesting. Everything can be interesting provided we develop the mental and the manual competence necessary to understand the world around us. David Beck and Posy Stone both exemplify people who have cultivated the sense that everything is interesting.

If we all cultivated this sense, our motivations for living and our relationship with humanity and with the planet would be realigned and would be better. It took the artist, in this case David Beck, to underscore that for me. But it also took a storyteller, and Posy Stone is one of the best storytellers I know.

Posy is a storyteller and a filmmaker. I also think of her as an archaeologist.

Imagine the world of living artists and their artistry – thousands of living artists and mountains of interesting work. Posy could have chosen anyone, but she did what archeologists call a site survey and chose to excavate on David Beck.

But once in the right trench, she faced the task of troweling through David’s life and work and likely ended up with 80 hours of raw material. She then sieved, brushed, reexamined, and analyzed the raw material to put together an amazing story.

She performed that archaeology of ideas on the sculptor Elizabeth King; and on her father, Alan Stone, in the film The Collector. Two years ago, Posy came here and screened The Cardboard Benini – a film on Jimmy Grashow.

During that showing it clicked for me that, with films about art, you’re examining the process of a storyteller —  the filmmaker — superimposed upon the process of another storyteller — the artist. If those gears aren’t synched up perfectly, the film is either terrible or it simply documents. In Posy’s films the synchronized storytelling comes together so beautifully that you get so much more than a documented story about an artist or a piece of work or a collector. You get completely new information, new insight, new ideas that neither the artist nor the filmmaker could ever have produced independently. The product is compounded.

I’m so honored to have Posy and David here and am so excited to see what new information and new ideas and new stories you see through this tremendous film. Please welcome Posy Stone who will introduce Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck.

40for40 Expedition: Instructions for Support Vehicle

On Thursday morning at 1:30am I’ll begin what I’ve come to call a “mission-appropriate stunt,” a trans-Mount Desert Island hike that will cover 43 miles and to the summit of 40 peaks. I’m doing it for fun, yes, but also to help inspire COA alumni to make a donation to our annual fund.  Upon hearing the idea, one generous alumna pledged $40,000 of support IF a) we pass the 40% mark and b) I complete the hike.  The walk will be supported by a vehicle and driver (COA student Ursa Beckford).  Here’s the itinerary.  I’ll be using #40for40 as a way to mark my progress.

40for40 Expedition, V.3.

Instructions for Support Vehicle

  • Wake up at 1:00am, drive to Eagle Lake Road to grab DC at 1:25am, depart for launch at 1:30
  • Drive to Seal Cove Road and take first left; at split drop DC off. He runs up to Bald Mountain-1 and back – shouldn’t take longer than 15 min.
  • At 2:15 DC back in car and drive to Western Ledge Trail, drop DC off by 2:30am. He leaves to do Bernard Mtn.-2, Knight Nubble-3, Mansell-4, Beech Mtn-5, Beech Cliffs-6.
  • 5:00am, be at end of Beech Hill Rd, Beech Hill parking area. He will be coming down from Beech Cliffs and should be at bottom by 5:15.
  • Drive with DC to Flying Mtn. drop off at end of Fernald Point Rd. Recharge watch and phone during trip. Refuel/water/food/rest.
  • 5:45am DC begins Flying Mt-7, Valley Peak-8, St Saveur-9, and Acadia Mtn.-10 stretch.
  • Be at Acadia Mt. TRAILHEAD (not Echo Lake Cliffs parking) by 7:00am.
  • DC should be down to car by 7:30. Drive from there to Norumbega Mtn. Parking area. Recharge watch and phone during trip. Refuel/water/food/rest.
  • DC scampers up goat trail to Norumbega-11 summit and back down. It should be a 45 min round trip; then drive DC to Parkman Mtn. entrance across street. DC heads off at 8:30am.
  • DC does Bald Peak-12, Parkman Mtn.-13, Gilmore Peak-14, Sargent Mtn.-15, Penobscot Mtn.-16, Cedar Swamp Mtn.,-17 and Eliot Mtn.-18
  • Pick DC up at Rt. 3. ELIOT MTN TRAILHEAD near Rales home on Rt. 3. Be there at 11:00am; this could be a point where timing is tough, DC should be there between 11:00-12:00am
  • At 11:30 take off from trailhead and drive down Rt. 3 to Day Mtn. Parking. Recharge watch and phone during trip. Refuel/water/food/rest.
  • At 12:30, DC takes off to do Day Mtn.-19, The Triad-20, Pemetic Mtn.-21, South Bubble-22, North Bubble-23, Conners Nubble-24.
  • DC heads off by bike by 3:00 toward Breakneck Ponds, hides bike in spot, Bushwhacks Brewer Mtn.-25, and comes back, rides to Breakneck Ponds, bushwhacks McFarland Mtn.-26 and Youngs Mtn.-27, gets back on bike and rides back to Eagle Lake Parking lot.
  • Pick up DC at Eagle Lake Parking Lot at 5:30pm, and drive to foot of Great Hill.
  • DC bushwhacks up and down Great Hill-28. Pick up DC and drive to Kebo Mtn. trailhead. Drop DC off after recharge/rest/food/water by 6:30pm.
  • DC leaves car for Kebo Mtn.-29 by 7:00pm and then does Dorr Mtn.-30 and Cadillac Mtn.-31. DC drops down to Tarn.
  • Check in on DC at The Tarn Parking lot, he should be there by 9:00pm.
  • DC crosses street and does Huguenot Head-32 and Champlain Mtn.-33, Halfway Mtn.-34, Gorham Mtn.-35, and The Beehive-36,
  • It’s dark. Meet DC at The Beehive trailhead, across from San Beach with bicycle; about 11:30
  • DC rides north to head up and down Enoch Mtn.-37 then rides to ANP Entrance station.. Should be there by 12:30pm.
  • Drive DC to Great Head parking. DC does an out and back of Great Head-38; back by 1:00am
  • Drive DC to Murray Lane trailhead, DC does and out and back of Cranberry Hill-39; back by 1:20am
  • Drive to Bar Harbor. DC crosses the bar (low tide, midnight) and climbs summit of Bar Island Summit-40 by 2:00am.

My Mount Desert Island High School Commencement Address

On Sunday, June 14th, I had the privilege of giving the commencement address to the graduating seniors of MDI High School.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ceremony.  You should note that I did a solid job acting out the “corn planting” scene I describe as “story two!”

"May I present to you, the class of 2015!"

“May I present to you, the class of 2015!”

Hi everyone. It’s another beautiful day on the most beautiful island in the world. I won’t soon forget the moment a few weeks back when I heard David Anderson’s message on my office phone asking if I’d be up for giving this talk. I was touched and honored.

It meant so much to me personally and, institutionally, for the College of the Atlantic, because being asked says a lot about the strong and growing relationship between COA, the local schools, and MDI as a whole.

A handful of seconds after those feelings of pride and honor, a wave of panic swept over my body.

I give lots of talks, so it wasn’t about speaking in front of people. But, let’s be honest, commencement speeches most often fail miserably – I’d put the failure rate at 95%. Most fail, not because they’re rude or wrong, but because they’re forgettable. Despite weeks of deep thought by the speaker, by the time graduates toss their caps in the air everyone has completely forgotten the message delivered. Everyone.

Now, I have an eighth-grader — Maggie Collins — who will be coming to MDI High next year and when I told her this – that most speeches fail because they’re simply not memorable – she said, “Dad – please fail. Please be unmemorable. Whatever you do, do not make it so people remember your talk.” Poor Maggie.

In an effort to find my way into that small percentage of memorable, good talks, I took the anthropological approach and went to the MDI prom, you know, to try and get to know students a bit more. Maggie was of course mortified by this and, to be honest, I felt a bit creepy.

At that event I asked a few administrators, “Who gave the best MDI high school commencement address?” and the universal response was “Eddie Monet – Diver Ed.” They recalled how Eddie showed up on stage in his dry suit, which he of course inflated, and I’m guessing proceeded to deflate through the neck gasket and in the process emit the loudest, longest piece of flatulence the island has ever heard. But I’m willing to bet Eddie was also a success because he was insightful without lecturing; he didn’t patronize folks, didn’t wave fingers, didn’t pretend to have the answers to all the problems you’ll run into after high school.

Believe me, if Eddie or I had such answers we’d definitely share them. The fact is, no one knows.

There’s just not a straight line between where you are now and where you ought to be a few years from now. There’s not a clean break between success and failure, between great and mediocre. The world is a complex and confusing place and it’s becoming increasingly complex and confusing every year.

40-50 years ago, people giving commencement addresses had it easy. You graduate. Get a job. Have a family. Retire after 40 years with the same company and with savings. There, that’s success.

Perhaps the only absolute truth I can offer today is that, at 45 years old, I have absolutely no idea what the world’s going to look like 27 years from now when you’re 45. No idea.

In writing this talk I came to think there should be law banning anyone older than 25 from giving commencement speeches. At least at 25 you can say “Hey, my high school experience was X, my experience immediately thereafter was Y, and this, Z, is what I see as the causality.” I thought about ending the talk right there as a public protest: let’s STOP middle-aged and older people from giving commencement addresses. But that wouldn’t be fair.

Instead, I’m going to tell three stories.

Story number one occurs between my junior and senior year of high school, in a remote corner of Idaho. I was sixteen and I had a wicked mullet.

I was part of a group of six student volunteers and two counselors working with a program called the SCA – the Student Conservation Association. It’s a program that puts kids to work in harsh conditions and for no pay out in the national parks or national forests – kind of like a child labor camp.

It was my first experience with the open West, but it was also my first experience with work. Now, I wasn’t some spoiled rich kid, I’d done things to earn money. I worked the counter in the New Jersey Video Vault growing up. But this was different.

We were building two miles of barbed wire fence to keep cows out of a stream and we did it with hand tools. Digging post holes through rocks. Stretching chain with hand-powered come-a-longs, etc.

If the two counselors were softies, we probably could have kicked around in the dirt for a while and called it success – a day of personal, inward journeys. But Harold and Gail Lindebo were not soft. They were hard-core back to the landers from the Boundary Waters and they worked us to death. They were also very smart, very thoughtful and were two of my earliest mentors.

We finished our two miles of fence a week before schedule and were assigned to another fence-building project in a different watershed where they wanted this jackleg fence. I’d generally worked my butt off and the Lindebo’s liked me – I liked to think I was their favorite. But at one point in the jack-leg process I was standing around, just kind of scratching, and Harold came up to me and said with a verbal slap to the back of the head, “Darron – what the hell are you doing standing around – get working.”

And I said, “I don’t know what to do – you never told me what to do.”

In a way that left this deep, psychic scar Harold said to me “Darron, I thought we’d moved past that. Not everyone’s going to lay everything out for you. Sometimes you need to assess what needs to be done and give it a go without being told.”

I’ve never forgotten that ten-second snippet. Never.

Story two occurs twelve years later. I was finishing up my PhD in anthropology and my wife Karen and I were living in northern Guatemala where I was doing my dissertation fieldwork among the Q’eqchi’ Maya, a group of Mayan-speaking farmers.

Corn is the lifeblood of these folks – it’s ubiquitous in the landscape and the language. A family without a stable supply of corn is a desperate family; the yearly cycle is dominated by the preparing of fields, the planting, the weeding, the harvesting. Corn sets the pace and the direction of their lives. Those of you who participated in the Guatemalan experience here likely saw that.

Because I was interested in plants and I’d worked hard to learn the Q’eqchi’ language, and because Karen and I had spent enough time there, I got invited to plant corn.

I’d never planted corn before.

I was given a burlap sack full of seed. I was given a digging stick. I was given instruction: Take a step, drive the digging stick into the loam to open up a nice hole in the ground. Drop four seeds in – not three, not five. Kick over some soil on top, just so. Take another elongated step, repeat.

There were, I’d say, about fifty of us. All guys, because men did the planting. We’d started the day with loads and loads of coffee, tamales, some alcohol and were now perched on this great hillside in the hot April sun. I was in the middle, with planters on the downhill and uphill side of me. The patriarch of the group stood next to me and almost imperceptibly nodded his head and everyone somehow knew to begin.

I went, faltered, staggered, dropped five seeds and only one found the hole; I fell and rolled over, almost down the hill; stood up, erratic; a total disaster. The caffeine, the corn-based beer, the heat, the ineptitude all focused on me with laser-like attention and knocked years worth of chips that had accumulated on my shoulder.

After fifteen minutes of intense attention but complete failure I looked up to get my bearings and there stood fifty guys bent over with laughter – all at the other side of the field – watching as I helplessly stood there. It wasn’t a mean-spirited laughter, for the most part, and with practice and through mentoring by the community, I eventually got pretty good at the task. But that’s not the point.

The point rests in the power of experience, especially experiences where you throw yourself into some very, very uncomfortable and awkward situations, experiences that rip you out of your present body and somehow magically return you to a state of childhood. Such experiences have a tremendous impact on your make-up of as a human being – they also thicken your skin and, wow, with the way we coddle kids today, humanity needs thicker skin.

Story 3 begins in June of 1984, the summer before my freshman year at Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey, right next to the Video Vault.

My cousin, who was the closest thing I had to a sibling, took me aside one day and, I’ll never forget it, told me explicitly, “Listen, Darron, you are going to public school, and if you want to be the first in your family to go to college, whatever you do, don’t sign up for any of those silly shop classes – they’re a waste of time and are for losers.”

Now this makes my poor cousin sound like a complete jerk; he’s a great guy and I love him to death – what did he know? But I listened to him. I listened to him with the same reverence I had for Harold and Gail Lindebo while out in Idaho.

And, from that point forward, there was this strange, powerful, and completely fictional divide between work done with your hands and work done with your mind, where the former was bad and something to be avoided and the later was the mark of success.

Fast-forward 25 years to when I decide to purchase this unbelievably beautiful truck I name Scarlett – a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-60. She’s parked outside and you’re perfectly welcome to come grab a photo with her after the event. By then that belief in the beauty of mind work over handwork had thankfully eroded away – at least intellectually.

Not more than a month after that purchase, I’m driving through the woods of North Georgia when Scarlett gets T-boned and impaled by this enormous and very, very fast buck – literally T-boned, windows smash, doors implode, fenders crumple.

At that very moment I decided to move from an intellectual understanding of handwork to a very practical one. I embarked on the “let’s fix Scarlett and make her last for ever” project. And, when you all rush to take your graduation photos out there with Scarlett, you’ll see that my skills as a mechanic are infantile, not unlike my early corn planting skills.

But through Scarlett I’ve learned the harsh discipline of a hacksaw and the patience of drying paint and through Scarlett I now live by the tenet: If your hands aren’t dirty with the filth of practice I’m going to guess you’re wrong. Scarlett is my constant reminder that understanding the world’s complexity requires the artist, humanist, and scientist in one being; that true knowledge comes through the use of brain and body together. And because these things also define human ecology and the ethos of College of the Atlantic, Scarlett is an odd but constant reminder of why I’m here, at COA, on MDI.

Now, I could at this point say, “Graduates, the moral of these three stories is a) work hard and don’t always wait to be told what to do (Idaho); b) have experiences that are uncomfortable, push you to failure, and force you to laugh at yourself (Guatemala); and c) work with your minds and your hands (Scarlett the truck).”

I do believe those things and believe them strongly enough to feel that everyone, no matter what their long-term goals, should be required to take shop with Mr. Munger and Mr. Deans – we have two of the most dedicated, smart, thoughtful shop instructors and two of the coolest shops in the state.

But my conclusion revolves around how beliefs are formed. You’ve heard three of my stories. They tell tales of how strong beliefs were formed within me and now dictate how I move through the world. Whether you remember my stories or my beliefs doesn’t really matter.  What matters, I think, is that at this point in your lives it’s worth being aware, thoughtful, and critical of how you come to believe things.

I think if you do that you’ll come to see that your beliefs come to you through mentors (like Harold and Gail Lindebo for me) and through direct, intense, and intimate experience with the world around you (like corn planting in Guatemala).  And I think you’ll also recognize that beliefs change over time (like me with minds and hands) and that such change, not surprisingly, also comes from mentors and experiences.

Belief makes us all who we are as human beings.

The most complete human being is the one who surrounds him or herself with as many and as many diverse a group of mentors as possible, but is skeptical about self-proclaimed experts. The most complete human being is one that learns continuously, develops thick skin, and comes to love life through experience. The most complete human being is one who is aware and values how they’re shaped by their surroundings. Your experience on MDI has, whether you know it or not, baked things into your being that will be a part of you forever. We are all so privileged to have experienced this remarkable place.

If you can remember one thing from today, remember my metaphorical dry suit, remember to embrace the power of mentoring, of experience, and of place.

So, congratulations seniors, congratulations friends and family, congratulations teachers – don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the island.

Thanks for listening.

Commencement 2015: My Welcome

Pitcher plant at Witch Hole Pond

Pitcher plant at Witch Hole Pond

I write to you from the shores of Witch Hole Pond, 4942 paces from the podium under the tent on the North Lawn and two weeks before graduation. I’ve waited for the winds to shift for a week – they’ve been blowing from the southwest, which makes the fly-fishing cumbersome. But tonight the wind’s in the north and just strong enough to keep the black flies at bay, yet not interfere with my casting.

And that’s about as far as I got with writing out at the pond.

I wanted to do the Thoreau thing so badly, and though there was plenty of inspiration with the brook trout, the eagles, the pitcher plants, etc., it didn’t exactly translate into any great ideas for this welcome address other than:

Welcome to the 42nd College of the Atlantic Commencement.

I don’t expect you would remember this, but when I did my commencement welcome two years ago I searched for a word that characterized the senior class and the COA family as a whole. I landed on scrappy. Not in the sense of disheveled, but, as in, having the gumption to throw oneself into the mix, sometimes at great peril, in order to get things done.

At last year’s commencement, I felt scrappy overemphasized action at the expensive of thought, so I morphed the description to contemplative scrappiness.

I like that phrase. But more than liking the phrase, I really like the idea of building off of the year priors’ graduation address. So today I’m going to continue to build on the phrase and maybe in a decade or two I’ll have it nailed.

I want to be extra careful with whatever term I add this year because many of the students seated here in front began their career at COA at the same time as I began my COA experience as president four years ago. I remember vividly, for example, the first day of fall term 2011, meeting Anyuri as I sheepishly worked my way up to my office, on-the-fly working out what it means to be a new president and what it means to repatriate yourself into an institution you’re getting to know for the second time. I was trying to play to cool: I’m sure I was painfully awkward

We’ve had an amazing journey and the phrase I’m adding to the string this year is humble activists, which makes us contemplatively scrappy humble activists.

Humility is not generally the word on the tip of most college president’s tongues. We, as part of the very competitive world of higher education, tend to emphasize bold confidence. Especially when we speak to families on a day like today, the rhetoric drifts toward: “we are the best; you, students, are prepared and equipped with complete knowledge; our students solve big problems like hammering a nail; our way of teaching is the best and is unique in the world of higher education; think big, do bold, get there first; change this, save that, no fear, etc.

In this same vein, colleges promote themselves as a training ground for today’s “creative economy” and as the launching pad toward success in a “world with endless possibilities,” where choice is king and you’re meant to have the skills to pivot on any dime the world throws at you and be imbued with a confidence that will carry you over any hurdle. Again, it’s typically about bold and brash confidence.

But, here I am, saying I’m most proud of our humility; hoping that we, as a college, can continue to emphasize such humility. And that may strike you as odd.

Graduates, for your years here at the College of the Atlantic, one of the most important things I hope we’ve instilled in you as human ecologists is that the world is a complex place, that there are few easy answers out there. And, most often, just when you think you’ve got a hold of the complexity, you lose it; or, better still, you poke and prod at the question endlessly, skeptical of whether it’s even possible to achieve clarity. We’ve asked that you supplicate yourself to the complex world and, to do that effectively, you have to be humble.

I hope we’ve provided enough uncomfortable situations for you – because there’s nothing like discomfort and social and intellectual awkwardness as a way to ramp up one’s humility.

Namisha Bastedo, for example, in working with elders from a First Nations community in Northern Canada jumped into a sea of awkwardness with both feet when she worked to learn the Dene language. In learning a language, one is in a way reborn, becomes a child in an adult body, and must wade and waffle through awkward misunderstanding and opaque communications. In learning language, one supplicates oneself to complexity and becomes humble.

Casey Acklin, as another example, could very well have stayed in what to him were the intellectually cozy confines of a genetics laboratory in order to understand and explain dementia. But, as a good human ecologist, he stepped out of those confines into the world of ethnography and discarded reductionism. He ventured beyond the lab and worked with dementia caregivers all over Europe. Participation in a different world through ethnography involves a similar kind of regression to childhood; and, so, in crossing disciplines too, one supplicates oneself to complexity and becomes humble.

And there’s James Crawford, the human ecological ironworker, the builder, the craftsman. In the process of material construction, there’s no hiding behind thought. In material design, you wrestle and dance with molecules and the end product either works or it doesn’t. With plenty of trial required in creation, there comes plenty of error. In using tools and learning to manipulate the form of things, one frequently comes face to face with failure and, once again, supplicates oneself to complexity and becomes humble.

And, as a final example, there is the attentive, patient observation of the naturalist, someone like Anne Hurley. In contemplative, precise, and patient observation – whether you’re looking at the behavior of marine mammals on a rocky ledge or the human debate over how to protect them or the way the light casts shadows in an attempt to draw them, Anne experiences a deep sense of humility in observation. Most of the time in such observation there’s simply not a lot “big” happening. Whales aren’t continuously breeching; brook trout are not continuously rising to the surface. In such an absence of bigness, one begins to see differently, one begins to see and understand the smallness and pays attention to the details that otherwise may have been lost. With practice, everything can become big and interesting and, so, in such patient, attentive observation, there’s an appreciation for the small and a kind of supplication to complexity that inspires humility.

But, with all the humility, all the questioning, all the supplication, one might conclude that human ecologists prefer to sit back in a gentle, Zen-like state of stasis as we struggle with complexity.  At some point, the child that is the new language learner, the participant in new social contexts, the maker, the patient observer comes to believe something and is inspired to act on that belief.

The problem with activism is that it presupposes you know something and know it with great confidence. John Deans, a COA alumnus, is currently risking his life from the cockpit of a sea kayak protesting oil drilling in the arctic. He’s pretty darn convinced that drilling in the arctic is a really bad idea. He has come to a belief and acts on it, not for his own good, but for the benefit of others.

And though John’s is something of an extreme case, at some point Namisha, Casey, James, Annie, and everyone else sitting down here will come to believe and will act and will therefore become an activist, not always in the political sense, but as an agent of making change.

The key ingredient, though, is what I might call “the toggle” – can we balance the boldness and confidence of action with ultimate humility. This is what we teach and this, I believe, is what the world desperately needs. I’m confident that these seventy-one human ecologists have that ability to toggle, between scrappy and contemplative, between humility and bold action.

Darron Collins, Ed Kaelber, and Steve Katona: 3 COA Presidents

Darron Collins, Ed Kaelber, and Steve Katona: 3 COA Presidents

My confidence in these graduates stems from the fertile ground of support represented in this very tent. And, because the shortest path to humility is gratitude, I want to close by thanking everyone that’s helped you along your journey here. Thanks to Ed Kaelber, our grand marshal and founding president of the College of the Atlantic; thanks to the inspiration and inspirational lives of Polly Guth, Robert Kates, and Naomi Klein; thanks to the faculty, staff, and students who make up the community here at 105 Eden Street; thanks to our trustees, friends and colleagues, and, most especially, thanks to the parents, families, and loved ones of today’s graduates who have trusted COA with the care and cultivation of your contemplatively scrappy humble activists. Thank you.

What to Bring to College of the Atlantic this Fall

What should I bring to COA?

On a long, early morning run I pondered my own first days at the College of the Atlantic and was therefore well-prepared when a recently admitted student asked for a list of what things to bring.

Footwear. A strange item to list first on a list like this, perhaps, but hiking boots would be a great investment. This is a practical and philosophical recommendation that has little to do with being “outdoorsy.” Practically and philosophically, we spend more time than other people doing things and such doing will invariably bring you into Acadia National Park, a planning office, an historical society, a mine, a boat, an outcrop of granite, a restaurant, a tree, a roof, a field of grass, a field of mathematics, a business, a forest. You need footwear that can accommodate that diversity. Bare feet are great on the lawn, but they tear easily on the 600 million year old Ellsworth Schist that is our bedrock. From personal experience, if you had to have one pair of shoes, I’d recommend hiking boots.

Other clothing. I’m not the most elegant dresser (see above), but, if you had the chance to invest in one additional piece of clothing, I’d suggest an impermeable outer layer. It need not be fancy, expensive, breathable material because we’re more interested in keeping the moisture out than your perspiration in.

The practical: winter. It’s cold. But it’s absolutely beautiful. Come with the mindset of embracing winter by getting outside and you will adore the ten-week winter term. That shell layer is key, even if it’s a five-dollar nylon poncho. You can borrow layers from friends or from the Free Box; you can purchase them from Bar Harbor Barter and Swap, thrift stores, or Cadillac Mountain Sports.

The philosophical: think of this as a reminder to develop thick skin. Constructive criticism – even on the tail end of passion and hard work – is crucial for any successful human ecologist.

Cooking gadgetry. Food is a very important part of the COA experience. The food served up in TAB is excellent and thoughtful, but we’ve purposefully kept Saturdays and Sundays off the meal plan in order to force you to think about consumption, food, and community cooking on at least those two days. There will be students from approximately 35 countries and 40 states at the College next year and food is a great way to explore that geographic and cultural diversity. You don’t need to buy or bring any cooking gadgetry because the kitchens in campus housing have gear and you should be thinking about packing efficiency. That said, if there’s that special garlic press you just can’t live without, by all means bring it.

Postcards. When my mom dropped me off here in the fall of 1988 she cried like a baby and left me with several dozen self-addressed, stamped post cards. This was before the miraculous and disastrous invention of the mobile phone. In most cases the separation between the modern parental unit and child can be difficult.   Mobile phones have exacerbated the problem. There will be times where you’ll be cold, confused, hungry, scared, challenged and otherwise uncomfortable – physically and metaphysically. That’s the point. Let your folks or guardians or whomever know how you’re doing by all means, but write it down on a post card and resist the urge to call or text.

A map of MDI. You are about to embark on a collegiate adventure that is situated on one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Acadia National Park, which makes up about 65% of the 105 square mile Mt. Desert Island. Explore it. No car? There is a trailhead directly across from the Community Garden on campus and you can get everywhere from there. No excuses. Yes, many classes will get you out and about, but this is your president telling you to find time to stop thinking and stop working and just enjoy the outdoors. I feel so strongly about this that we’ve bought all of you maps, so don’t go out and buy one.

Willingness to interact with people you don’t know. I’m not saying everyone needs to be an extrovert. Introverts are great. I consider myself one. But one key element of doing human ecology is doing it with others and engaging with humanity in all of its forms. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a convenience store in New Orleans with my best friend (and later, best man in my wedding) and he started a long conversation with the cashier – a dreaded stranger, egads! – that lasted into the night, that had everyone involved rolling in delightful and illuminating laughter, and forever reshaped my conception of self and other. Human ecology is an alembic for turning strangers into colleagues. Plus, life is so much more fun when you engage.

Gumption (or, in my own parlance, scrappiness). From Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (bring the book if you have it. You can borrow my copy if you don’t): “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing (a motorcycle in need of repair, for instance, or any other project) going.” Bring what gumption you have. Prepare to gain it and use it on some of the world’s most difficult challenges. That’s what we do here.

Your sense of adventure. It’s ok if you don’t have hiking boots – we’ll find a work around. It’s ok if you’re quiet – you’ll gain confidence in speaking with others. But, without a sense of adventure or at least a willingness to cultivate one, you will find it difficult to succeed here. And I’m not talking about the adrenaline junkie sense of adventure (although that can be good too), I’m talking about the passion and curiosity for pushing your understanding of yourself and the social, natural, and built environment you operate in – that’s human ecology and that requires a hunger for adventure. The adventures you’re about to embark upon are of mind and of body and, most of the time, both. Bring a sense of adventure and other things will fall into place.

See you next fall,