CRAFTSBURY—Friday night’s winds, hail, and rain wreaked havoc on trees and power lines but cleansed the earth with blue skies and sunshine for the Sterling College Commencement exercises on Saturday. Twenty-nine men and women earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in an impressive array of studies and capstone projects.
Board of Trustees Chair Peter Chehayl welcomed the gathering, assuring parents parents the graduates would know what to do with their newly earned Sterling College degrees. “They are entrepreneurial young people who know what they want to do and will figure it out how to do it,” he told the crowd of parents, relatives, and friends.
President Matthew Derr introduced Commencement Speaker Wes Jackson, founder and president emeritus of The Land Institute. Jackson is one of the most forward thinking advocates for sustainable agriculture. Life Magazine included him as among the top 18 most important Americans of the 20th century.
Jackson’s remarks juxtaposed parallels between the high-morality and legality of issues and events. Although one of the worlds’ greatest problems is ignorance and apathy, the Sterling graduates were “both knowing and caring.” Using the Constitution’s serious flaw of declaring all men equal while legally allowing slavery created a conundrum leading to the Civil War. Both free and slave states had legal authority to prevail.
A century and a half later, Jackson said, the high law of morality must protect our waters, our soils, our prairies, our oceans but the high law of morality has no legal standing. He cited the legality of drilling for oil to burn it, cutting forests to burn, destroying mountains to burn the coal, polluting air and water. The discovery of America has been with the mentality of colonizing, from the mining of bison for hides, later their bones for fertilizer, to the mining of the soils, forests, and grasslands. “It is legal to produce unnecessary items, to let soils erode, to apply toxic chemicals…to watch our seed stock of farmers disappear.”
“You do not like that,” he said, “and that is why you are here at Sterling.” Corporate leaders have responsibilities to their stockholders to make investments grow despite the destruction to the land, air, and water. “We are all in this today,” he said. “There is no North or South.”
The pioneers came with a vision but lost sight of where they were, cutting forests and plowing prairies, “not knowing what they were doing because we didn’t know what we were undoing.”
“Not knowing where you are, not knowing what you are doing and, therefore, undoing—this is the way of colonizers and our job now is to discover America.”
“We are counting you, my young friends, to become the true pioneers.”
He stressed that Nature has become enslaved and the high law of morality is needed to overturn the legality of its destruction. The moral and the legal must merge to discover the original America.
Student speakers Kesha N. Medina, Colton James Francis, and Collin Tomlinson each addressed the crowd with their own perspectives.
Medina, recounting how she “made a big fuss here at Sterling,” said she found herself as a Puerto Rican woman from Philadelphia coming to the whitest state of the country. The kente stole she was wore represented the African diaspora and the pride of achievement. “Sterling has taught me to bring myself to activism,” she said. “I appreciate every second of my life here.”
Francis reminded the gathering they were on ground that was once Abenaki territory with a long history. He spoke of his own challenge with dyslexia, his first day on his job working with children with their own challenges. In their explorations, one child had brought back a bug that flew away when he opened his hands to show what he had found. The child then taught the group how to find the bug and catch it. “He taught us this technique to find the bug,” Francis reminded his peers and guests. “Each and everyone has gifts to offer this world and gifts to give back. Take care of yourselves so you can do that.”
Tomlinson’s remarks were a beautifully nuanced rap-like poem, beginning with Muhammed Ali’s words and ending with Maya Angelou’s. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” Muhammed Ali.
Tomlinson’s words: “When we celebrate diversity and equity in thought and action, we each start a small but vital chain reaction, we build community through unity and build opportunity to widen our world view and perception, see beyond political propaganda and media deception and open up to universally communicate regardless of census data collection.”
“Knowledge is on a universal flow, from recipes for life in carbon, boundaries, broaden and world turns, through time and space, we all adapt and learn, generation after generation we each get a turn.”
Maya Angelou’s words: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Musical interludes by graduates Carly Wile, Emma Enoch, Dakota Rudloff-Eastman, Brendan Terranova, Jackson Hughes, Oliver Zeichner and faculty Tony VanWinkle celebrated the joyfulness of the occasion.
Dean of Academics Dr. Carol Dickson presented the graduates, their courses of study, and capstone projects. Fields of study ranged from ecology majors, environmental humanities, sustainable agriculture, ethno ecology, to wilderness therapy, sustainable food systems, and drafts horse management.
—This article, written by June Pichel Cook, appeared originally on May 9, 2018 in The Hardwick Gazette. We are grateful for permission to reprint it.