What environmental organization are you affiliated with?

Audubon Expedition Institute at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

What does it do?

AEI offers higher education that fosters ecological awareness and personal and societal transformation through immersion in a variety of environments and cultures, critical reflection, and experiential learning communities. As learners, we awaken to a deeper sense of participation within the web of life and engage in lifelong ecological and social justice and responsible global citizenship. Undergraduate and graduate students travel in different regions of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, on specially outfitted buses. We also offer a distance learning program for teachers that has two field components.

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What’s your job title?


What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

I collaborate with faculty and administration to develop the paths and possibilities that allow our programs to create the conditions for transformative learning — specifically to foster an ecological worldview. This means lots of meetings, talking on the phone, and emailing. I also provide supervision and professional development for faculty and sometimes teach.

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How many emails are currently in your inbox?


With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?

We recently merged with Lesley University and my daily interactions involve faculty, program staff, marketing and admissions folks. I am collaborating with Lesley University faculty in different programs that have courses relating to ecology to coordinate our efforts and raise awareness in the Lesley community about environmental issues. I also work with other universities and colleges.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

Myself and the worldview I was born into.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

The community of beings that surrounds (and sometimes lives in) my little house in the woods. Considering my clumsy attempts to inter-be, as Thich Nhat Hahn would say, they are remarkably forgiving.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Glen Ridge, N.J., and grew up in a suburb close to Hartford, Conn. I have spent the last 30 years in the Gulf of Maine bioregion and now live in a white pine forest on sand and gravel deposited during the last ice age.

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?

Reading Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. This book provided the ecological context for my feminism, my educational philosophy (Freire, Giroux, Dewey), and shaped my search for community. Connecting my own experience as a woman with what is happening to the world around me brought a new authenticity to my activism.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

When a student’s despair and disempowerment led her to consume more rather than less.

What’s on your desk right now?

I have three desks — I work at home, in Belfast, Maine, and in Cambridge, Mass. In Cambridge, the little Buddha sitting on a small toilet full of angel cards is surrounded by untidy heaps of paper.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

Last night my adult son let the water run while he was brushing his teeth! AAARRRGGGHHH!

Who is your environmental hero?

Hank Colletto, faculty for Audubon Expedition Institute. Hank’s home is as big as my bathroom, his magnificent organic vegetable garden feeds body and spirit, and he kisses the chickens. I am blessed to share land with him — he walks the talk.

Who is your No. 1 environmental villain?

George W. Bush — his leadership is one of the culminating events of the scientific, industrial worldview.

What’s your environmental vice?

Transportation. I fly to our programs and to conferences. I commute from Maine to Boston.

How do you get around?

Plane, automobile, commuter train, feet.

What are you reading these days?

True Partnership by Carl Zaiss. Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership by Pearce and Conger.

What’s your favorite meal?

Summer corn slathered with butter, salt, and pepper with a side of peas from our garden. Topped off with John’s pistachio ice cream!

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

From the ravens, the pines, and the chickadees. Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words reminded me to listen to the voices speaking all around me.

When I must know what the industrial-commercial order is up to, I listen to NPR. When I can find it, I listen to “Democracy Now.”

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?


What’s your favorite ecosystem?

Where my heart is nourished. Right now that is Ravenwood, my home — four habitats that include a white pine forest, a brook with varied wetlands, otters, deer, beaver, muskrat, turkeys, ravens, hawks, fishers, ermine, snowshoe hares … birch, beech, oak, spruce, fir … mice, voles, shrews … people.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

The YIIMBY Project — Yes! It’s in my backyard! My household has a no away policy. If it comes here, it stays here. This practice has a remarkable effect on consumption.

When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?

I’m wearing fleece as I answer these questions! While I am a former fan of black lights, tie-dye never made it into my fashion repertoire.

Do you compost?

Essential to the YIIMBY project. Have a humanure project going as well.

Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?

Dennis Kucinich, although I would vote for almost anyone to defeat GWB.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

No. I would label myself an ecological citizen, an ecological educator, and a practitioner of transformative learning and change. From my perspective, an environmentalist does not necessarily embrace a deep ecological perspective or challenge the assumptions underlying the current paradigm.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?

I can’t imagine passing judgement on the entire environmental movement. Since education is critical to creating change, I wish more people involved in this effort would educate themselves about multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence, brain-based learning, and challenge themselves to do the personal growth work necessary to function successfully in the emerging ecozoic era (Thomas Berry).

What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?

Some environmentalists believe it is up to the human species to manage the current crisis. I believe Gaia has successfully managed her own health and well-being over the eons and will continue to do so — that it is not a matter of planetary survival. If we are to survive as a species, it is important that we do more than think in terms of systems — we will need to experience our inter-being with the world and feel deeply the connection between ecological integrity and environmental justice.

What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?

Set personal and organizational goals that when met will demonstrate through action the concepts and principles we espouse. Walk the talk!

Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?

Cat Stevens! Now, Eva Cassidy.

What’s your favorite TV show?

I don’t watch TV. I love movies — Antonia’s Line and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off come to mind.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Join the YIIMBY Project.

Lily Fessenden, director of the Audubon Expedition Institute

I would like to understand the YIIMBY project. Could you explain it to me in more detail?     — Noel Collins, Newington, Conn.

I would love to! “Yes! It’s in my backyard!” is a take-off on NIMBY (not in my backyard). It seems to me that if those of us with large ecological footprints are going to reduce our consumption (critical to ecological integrity over time), then we need to experience our consumption in a way that creates a change in our behavior. Imagine if everything you brought home had to stay there — nothing could be thrown “away.” Our household agreement is that in order to recycle anything we need to research the embodied energy and industrial process involved — what happens to the plastic milk jug is not always a non-toxic event. Practically, what this has meant is that we compost absolutely everything that will degrade and make soil. Our assumption is that there are heavy metals in some of the inks on newspapers, magazines, etc., and those will end up traveling with the rain into our brook or the aquifer under our land. So we try to find newspapers with soy-based ink or not buy newspapers. So far we are astonished at the amount of plastic (i.e., petroleum products) in our lives. We will have to create a landfill for it until we figure out ways to reduce our use. Bulk food purchasing helps. So do glass bottles. It’s complex, frustrating, and life-changing to have to live with your own waste!

Could you explain how one would go about joining the YIIMBY project and what is involved?     — Jim Kurz, Wallingford, Penn.

Right now the YIIMBY project is my household — grassroots at its best. Please join us! What is involved is making the commitment to keep your waste at your place. Everyone will do this to the best of their ability — I have a backyard; you may not. The idea is if every time you buy something you know that you will have to figure out what to do with the packaging, you will begin to take responsibility for the resources consumed by your habits. If you have a flush toilet, where does that waste go? Can you compost instead? Instead of an expensive composting toilet, I have a pickle bucket and toilet seat out back with organic matter to mix in. All of this goes into a humanure system. (When it’s cold I use the flush.) This isn’t about doing it perfectly, but simply becoming conscious. I would love to share experiences and information with others. What am I going to do with those plastic rings on the orange juice carton? Contact me at lfessend@lesley.edu.

Could you explain the details of your “humanure” project? I am a camper who loves to poop outdoors.     — Alissa Nutting, Bridgeport, Texas

We have an outhouse (and my pickle bucket), where we mix our solid waste with sawdust from a local mill. Some folks have a two-holer so they can leave one side to compost for a year before moving it. We have a big garbage can under the hole; we dump the can into a wooden bin on our land and layer it with hay. Leave it for a year to cook — if done properly, the temperature of the compost will kill the pathogens. Since we want to be completely safe, we leave the compost for a year and then mix it with yard waste for another year. It then goes on our comfrey beds in the garden (we grow comfrey for compost; it adds lots of organic matter and potassium), the comfrey gets composted, and then it goes onto the vegetable garden. Currently, much human waste is sludge spread onto agricultural fields, with some stipulations about how many months must pass before a crop can be grown. I highly recommend The Humanure Handbook. A composting toilet makes all of this easier.

I am intrigued by your household “no away” policy. Do you consider it acceptable to take recyclables to an “away” recycling center? How about shoes and bicycles and other things that have become too worn out to be used?     — Laura F. Lindell, Berea, Ky.

Shoes, clothes — anything that will rot, we compost. Lots of what is left will go to make sculptures at this point. Plastic is our biggest challenge. We often stand in our kitchen looking perplexed at some small piece of plastic we had no idea we were purchasing. I heard that in South Africa they are weaving plastic bags into baskets!

Many things either necessary or accidentally acquired bring with them much junk. We’re making every effort to reject this kind of acquisition — composting, recycling, etc. — but there are only so many un-recyclable items you can keep/use. Any serious suggestions for improvement?     — Ann Lamb, Knoxville, Tenn.

Buy in bulk, and buy peanut butter, juice, etc., in glass bottles. Have a worm composting system for food waste. Ask yourself every time you shop: Does my need for this balance the life energy and resources used to produce it and store it when I am through with it? Spend a certain amount of time every week contacting businesses and telling them what you want — CDs in paper sleeves, non-tree paper, soy-based ink, and glass containers. Read Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Keep trying!

What is the best way to introduce the YIIMBY project to a small Midwestern city’s governmental body to make them stand up and take notice?     — Rebecca Osterberg, Belvidere, Ill.

Ask them to try an experiment with you. Many college courses have done this. Ask each person to carry a garbage bag around with them for a week (only at work for this group?) and save everything they throw away. Meet at the end of the week and reflect on what the experience was like. Did they change their behavior? Learn something new? Reflect on where all of that stuff comes from and goes to. Have them fill out Redefining Progress’s short ecological footprint questionnaire. Be kind and know we are all in this together.

How can we help “uninitiated” folks receive and embrace the Deep Ecology worldview?     — Heidi Swets, Decorah, Iowa

One of the ways we introduce Deep Ecology to teachers in one of our programs is by creating a Council of All Beings with them. This can be an abbreviated experience for those just coming to an understanding of their relationship to the environment and is a powerful way to connect (as you probably know). I don’t spend a lot of time trying to change those “who need to hear it most.” My energy is best spent developing leadership skills and the capacity to create change among people who are waking up. The others will come around if we lead the way.

My personal practice of living comes out of the field of Deep Ecology. I’m thinking about going back to school and have just recently begun to wonder what kind of institutions and academic programs might exist along these lines. Got any advice?     — Jessica Zane, Hadley, Mass.

Yes! The Audubon Expedition Institute’s programs develop three themes: environment as educator, community, and authentic firsthand experience. Our philosophy rests on a Deep Ecological perspective and we nurture the personal growth necessary to come into relationship with self and other. Check out our website.

How do you keep the faith in the work that you and others are doing for the environment, when the data seem to say that there is no hope?     — Natalie McIntir, Portland, Ore.

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? What I do to keep the faith is spend as much time as I can outside. Sunday, I lay down in the snow in the middle of the pine forest to watch the ravens building their nest. It started to rain lightly and I could see each drop falling toward me. My mind emptied of thought and the birds’ conversation echoed through me. A measure of peace was mine. I recommend Joanna Macy’s work on despair and empowerment and Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words. Making sure you laugh regularly — it develops a light-heartedness that against all reason can keep you going. Most of all, find like-minded souls and love each other.

How can we raise the topic of this administration’s environmental lapses with people who think George W. Bush is a wonderful president and plan to vote for him? Got any ideas?     — Pat Eisenberg, Tucson, Ariz.

I would find out if the person feels connected to or passionate about an animal or a piece of land that you can then connect to negative changes the Bush administration has made. The topics of clean air and water (do they have children with asthma or allergies?) can be a lead-in as well.

Does the Audubon Expedition Institute cooperate with the Ecopsychology Institute, which is also based in Cambridge, Mass.? What do you think about ecopsychology?     — Richard Esser, Wageningen, Netherlands

I think you had one of our graduate practicum students last year. I think ecopyschology is a field of study that could reconnect us to the world and develop the ecological literacy we need to become responsible ecological citizens.

I am a retired civil servant and natural resources manager with a broad background. Many environmental organizations will not take volunteers because they feel they don’t have time to baby-sit volunteers. Any advice?     — Carl Lahser, San Antonio, Texas

Phooey on them! Start your own organization. Choose something you care deeply about, find like-minded souls, and start working! Remember what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We developed an ecological restoration major (restoration ecology) here at Defiance College over 12 years ago. What assistance might you provide our students and our programs?     — David Reed, Chairman, Division of Science and Mathematics and Associate Professor, Ecological Restoration, Defiance College, Defiance, Ohio

It is wonderful to hear about efforts like yours. We are all sending seeds of change into the world. We offer students from other programs the opportunity to travel with us for a semester. They learn many of the leadership skills they will need to create change and become self-directed learners, and develop critical-thinking skills by visiting and working with people on every side of various environmental issues. We develop affiliation agreements so students can fit our courses into their programs of study — some institutions are pleased to offer a travel program without having to administer it.

What is the environmental community doing to convince people that each one of us should protect the web of life that now exists so that mass extinctions are curbed as much as possible?     — Nan Schweiger, Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Our answer is to put students into direct contact with the Earth. To live outside every day and visit inside once in a while changes perspectives. For a broader answer to your question, do a web search — Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense, and Natural Resources Defense Council all have initiatives needing support.

Do your buses run on an alternative fuel? Does AEI have any plans to convert a bus to biodiesel or veg-oil?     — Gabriel Cahalan, Greenbelt, Md.

Our buses are diesel and do not need to be converted. We use biodiesel whenever we can find it.

What decisions and experiences led you to become affiliated with AEI? How did you find a way to add a more human aspect to science? Have you ever lost hope? What do you do when you’re low on hope?     — Efan Hsieh, Amherst, Mass.

I simply could not accept the way humans treated each other. When I was a little girl I found out about the Holocaust and that horror started me on a quest to discover how people who had survived such terrible events could still love humanity and experience joy. I thought if I found that out, I would be able to live my life. I became passionate about feminism, which led to ecofeminism, which led me to the greater community we call the Earth. How I came to AEI is a story that keeps me going — there were so many synchronicities that I take heart in knowing I was meant to travel this path. I have lost hope in the past — when I do, I find inspiration in others less fortunate than myself who continue to work for peace and justice.

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