In the Fall 2016 issue of Common Voice, former presidents of Sterling talked about their philosophies of environmental stewardship education. Here, former President Will Wootton talks in greater detail about the unique environmental stewardship curriculum of Sterling College. 

Returned in December to a poor Craftsbury winter, a drawn out spring, and a raggedly beautiful summer after 16 months living in New Mexico, I’m now preparing (it is August) for another, but shorter stint in the high plains. What I missed most about being out there, besides the sunshine, the people, and green chili, is experiencing deep geologic time on an almost daily basis. It is displayed in the enormous sedimentary mesas of mudstone, sandstone, and rock, just 70 million years old, planted and weathering on ancient sea floors, amidst the remnants of even older rivers, at least one of which would have dwarfed the Mississippi. Out there in the High West you can contemplate an even more unimaginable stretch of time in the deep canyons, like the 1.7 billion year old shear basalt walls of the Black Canyon in Colorado. In our rented cottage in Las Vegas, NM, the book shelf, like the back seat of the car, became crowded with geology books: Geology Underfoot Along Colorado’s Front Range, Gem Trails of New Mexico, The Geology of Northern New Mexico’s Parks, Monuments, and Public Lands, and most amazing of all, Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau.

The Earth before humans. Nature before thought. Contemplating geologic time—so startling across the vast Colorado Plateau, so in your face—helps me imagine what things might look like in another million or 20 million years. Inevitably, thinking this way reinforces notions of how thoroughly meaningless an entity we are in the face of geologic time. One way or another, the world will re-shape itself. There will be deserts where there are seas, seas where there were cities, rivers were there were none. (To take a look at the future of humanless deep time, Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us, is a charming mind exercise, which for a narrative hook asks the question, “What will be the last human artifact attesting to our long-ago existence?”)

For millions of years, piled upon more millions of years, there was Nature but no thought. Not one. Then, something like .2 seconds ago in a 24-hour compression of earth’s existence, people. It was not we modern humans but ancient peoples in groups, tribes, societies, and even civilizations in the New and Old World who first gave thought to nature, and with that to define it…for us.

To most if not all Neolithic peoples nature was dark, terrifying, deadly, and unpredictable, as well as intensely personal and alive. The only way to control nature was to appease it through shamanistic practice, through sacrifice to whatever gods might demand it, for they controlled everything in nature, everything. That may have culminated in the New World, with the Aztecs, where human sacrifice was employed on an industrial scale. How else but through blood, notes the English historian and writer Peter Watson in The Great Divide, could people hope to protect themselves from mysterious powerful gods and their indiscriminant or vengeful use of fire, volcano, flood, tsunami, hurricane, drought, lightening, and poisonous snakes, leopards, disease, and physical injury?

Indeed, one can speculate whether the fear of nature and the compulsion to seek its benevolence (which was never coming) and stay safe from its multiple threats shaped human societies and thinking equally profoundly as did geography, technology, and agriculture.

The fear of nature and the never ending fight for survival “against” nature, combined with a literally Neolithic level of understanding of nature, prevailed until, in my opinion, the advent of the industrial age. Then, with human populations exploding, scientific knowledge and industrial might expanding exponentially, and exploration shrinking the globe, some significant portion of humankind came to the belief that nature, suddenly, perhaps even unexpectedly, could be understood, subdued, and exploited at will and without regard.

Thus we poisoned ourselves, without full understanding and certainly without subduing anything. The evidence of our unremitting success in exploiting Earth has become as evident as a multi-vehicle smash-up on the interstate. Fish are dying. The weather is frantic. Oceans are rising. The land is polluted. The rivers dammed and dying. Pandemics threaten like sappers. The icecaps melt. We are overwhelmed by our own complexity: children drink lead contaminated water in Flint as machines are flung at Pluto.

All this in just a few short centuries—humankind as evolutionary accelerator par excellence—and now we are again fearful of nature.

All of which brings me to curriculum…

An institution’s curriculum is more than its most elemental definition, the list of courses being taught. Scholars have broadened its application to include, essentially, the institution’s philosophy that supports its course of study, as well as the school’s institutional expectations, its culture and (almost) its attitude. Philip W. Jackson, for instance, writing in the 1960’s, identified among others a “hidden curriculum”—things students learn through a school’s practices and methodologies, student/faculty relationships, and other characterizations of culture and place.

Given the flexibility, Sterling’s curriculum is well reflected in its mission statement, which includes producing “stewards of the environment.” Thus “environmental stewardship” finds itself part of the whole – the books and courses, the experiential and the seat-time, the faculty/practitioners, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the “hidden” parts” like Vermont’s working landscape, the communities of the Northeast Kingdom, the Work College ethos.

Twenty-five or so years ago the famous Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson spoke at Marlboro College. He was fascinating and gentlemanly, and spoke eloquently about ecology, the branch of biology with an ancient pedigree that was then still accelerating towards a foundational spot in evolution theory. The very word attracted students. We all knew who Arnie Naess was, the father of the Deep Ecology, which pictured a new and ecologically balanced world that has somehow – just how is not part of the equation – reduced its human population to ecological neutrality.

After his talk there were questions and answers. I only remember one, and it startled me. A young man at the back of the room stood and said how he wanted to do more, and do it now. You could feel this kid’s activist passion. He described a new local environmental organization he was forming, right here in Southern Vermont. What would Dr. Wilson advise as the most essential activity in which they could engage?

“Get out of Vermont,” Dr. Wilson replied. “The problem is not here.” The kid sank down like a wilted balloon, and Dr. Wilson went on about the enormity of the issues facing the world. He spoke about the ideality of the Vermont landscape as compared to just about everything else. Then he went on to another question.

Far be it from me to take umbrage with E.O. Wilson, but he might have said, “Stay in school. Learn. Observe. Experience. Practice. There’s a lot of room in this business and there’s going to be more. Find your place, then employ your passion.”

Someone who did stay in school was John Elder, the distinguished literary essayist, nature writer, thinker of all things environmental, former Middlebury College professor, and member of the Sterling College board of trustees. In his books, particularly The Frog Run, John writes closely to the notion of environmental stewards, in part because he is building on an idea that redefines, or reconsiders, the idea of wilderness by including in it, ecologically perhaps, people, and all that entails, from industry to the old country farm.

In an interview in The Sun Magazine (2013): John responds to a question about the “thickness” of Vermont’s woodlands: “…when I first came east for graduate school, a fellow student from the West said that living in New England is like ‘living in a tea cup.’ And I thought, Yeah, small. But then I began to realize that the ground beneath my feet here – the thick decomposition, the density of growth – had much more to it than the bare, arid ground where I’d grown up (in the San Francisco area). I continue to discover more and more within a smaller and smaller radius of home.”

Later in the same interview: “They are one story (the exuberant regrowth of Vermont’s forest-denuded landscape of the 1800’s, and the historical “thickness” of New England farming, lumbering, and living). Because of them, Vermont makes a unique contribution to the national debate about conservation. It helps us think about wilderness as more than just vast, pristine, and untrammeled places with little human presence. Those roadless expanses out west are great…but we also need to have harmony between the human world and the ‘more-than-human’ world, as (cultural ecologist) David Abram called it.”

In John’s 2001 book The Frog Run, he discusses Native American writers, like Leslie Marmon Silko, who challenge the notion that wilderness is a transcendent value, existing in opposition to the realm of culture. Native Americans, John writes, “emphasize the traditional stories – mythic, familial, and personal – that have long been woven into landscapes newcomers might assume to be pristine and primal.”

It’s a testament to the liberal arts – so adaptable over the centuries – and to scholars and writers like John Elder that we, that Sterling College, can put substance to such a new thing as environmental stewardship. The thin line of environmental literature is filling out, expanding into subject areas never or thinly explored. The sciences have awoken and their efforts, too, have shifted towards understanding the rapid global changes and, critically, how human life and society may be affected. Curricula also has changed across higher education: faculty responding to the world around them and bringing it into their teaching; in Sterling’s case, into an entire college.

I read on the College’s website The Sterling Model, three well wrought paragraphs articulating a curriculum well beyond a list of courses and academic opportunities. I re-read the mission statement – a critical guide in good times and bad, and not easily disjointed. I think about Sterling’s size, and how important that is…when not a threat. I think about the Work Program. I read alumni profiles and add them to the dozens I carry around in my head. What I see is not the regular stuff of the past, what Sterling is trying to achieve. It’s all not quite like anything else around. It’s as thick and nutriment-filled as John Elder’s forest floor. It is already, and in its entirety, speaking to the future that’s upon us.

*********

I am standing at a large west-facing window on the top floor of a hokum-shaped building in the center of the 26,000 square mile Navaho Nation, in Tsaile, northeast Arizona. The building, constructed in the early 1970’s with colored tinted windows against the Sun, is a little shabby on the outside, but spacious and light inside. It’s full of classrooms, administrative offices, a small museum. It’s late afternoon and the eye-stretching view of red rock, mesa, pinion and juniper lays out around us like a diorama – huge, lit, stark under the immense sky, and, here on the campus of Diné College, welcoming.

I am standing with Dr. Maggie George, President of the college. Diné was the first public community college built by Native Americans for Native Americans, in 1968. I’m on a tour with colleagues from Highlands University, in northeastern New Mexico, working through an articulation agreement for Dine students after they’re earned their Associates Degree. We’ve just come from the newest building on campus – the cultural archives building that will one day be part of a new and permanent museum. Inside we walked between broad shelves lined with the treasure of a nation: pottery and weapons, figures, dolls and weavings, silver and turquoise, paintings and sculptures, baskets and ancient artifacts, spear points, grinding stones, everything labelled and placed and well illuminated in this huge temperature controlled environment. More Native American – Diné, in this case – “art” in one place, one safe place, than I imagined even existed. We just walked through – 20 minutes. It was dizzying.

At the window, I ask Maggie George what she wanted from her students.

“We want them to go from here,” she said. “Finish their educations. Gain some experience. And then we want them all to come back. Every single one of them. Every one.”

That’s what is needed, she said, for the Nation to be stronger, more secure, less poor. It’s what is needed if the Navajo language is to survive. And those men and women are needed to continue (as oppose to preserve) the relationship between the Dine and their ancient land, which as is much a spiritual relationship as it is physically sustaining. The land is not just “all we’ve got” – it is instead somehow “of them”.

What I saw at Diné College was another curriculum as thick as the culture it inhabits, at once serious and celebratory, as unique and demanding as its physical place requires, and aimed, always aimed, at the future viability of the Nation through the product of its educated youth…all of them.

I wish our nation as a whole, the whole world for that matter, could express the same level of confidence and hope in its younger generation. It’s unsentimental, I assure you. The history of the Navaho has no room for sentimentality, and neither should ours.

 

 


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