Melissa Kirkby is a senior at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vt., majoring in sustainable agriculture.
Monday, 12 Jul 1999
Craftsbury Common, Vt.
Last week, I wrote a letter to a friend describing the new culture, new landscape, new rhythm of life I have discovered in the six weeks since my move to Sterling College in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I was drawn to Sterling, the smallest accredited four-year college in the country, not only for its student body of 90, but for the environmental focus offered through an approach of experiential learning. With a black ink pen, I mused to her about how good I feel here, having just transferred after three years at Dartmouth, and how much meaning I’ve found in my studies and in daily living. “I think I will settle in northern Vermont after I graduate in May,” I closed. Indeed, I have not just found an alma mater here; I have found a home.
This morning, I wear a wool sweater and wrap cold fingers around a mug of Earl Grey tea. Sun comes in and out through the clouds, its warmth thrown around by a hilltop breeze. I walk down a rolling dirt road, noticing the day and that my clogs have become more worn with the dust of these strolls. Reaching behind, I untie my hair so that it might dry in the wind and under quick pockets of sun. I notice the shadows imparted by clouds on hillside trees and pastures below, the same hue as my sweater. I breathe deeply, taking in the vastness of this countryside and the freshness of this air. Yes, I am in the right place, I know.
My walk takes me to a vacant lot, its entrance impeded by a rusting chain strung between two wooden posts. A real estate sign hangs from the chain creating a dull screech as it blows back and forth, rusted links resisting the sign’s weight. Twenty-seven acres, nice views, an agent’s name in the next town over. Call today.
I climb over the chain, wondering if this is the way by which I might stumble upon my own land one day — a morning walk and a for sale sign. A year left of school, and then a few years of loans; the reality of purchasing land is distant. But still I daydream, imagining these acres as my own one day. I allow the morning air to fill my lungs as I make my way down an access road grown over with grasses and wildflowers, with which I have been familiarizing myself throughout these last weeks. Many names I still do not know.
Coming to an ancient stone wall, I follow what I interpret to be the former property line south by southeast, through sugar and red maples, a diversity of conifers, then into an open field. I seat myself on the wall and pass my hand along its uneven surface. This wall was stacked years ago, I imagine, before boundary lines were re-drawn and advertised by a real estate company; long before a Sterling student in jeans, clogs, and a sweater the shade of shadows on the hillside would climb over a chain, travel along these stones down a sloping landscape, and find on them a place to sit. How many others, like myself, have discovered these old walls on their early morning walks, and suddenly felt themselves an intruder on someone else’s land?
How many newcomers like myself might transfer, move, migrate, settle here until the richness that calls us to this place, beckons us to stay, is lost? I walk to the middle of the field, looking out over the pastures and barns seated in the next hill over. In those barns, morning chores are just ending. I think of the last old barn in my hometown of Pickerington, Ohio. Last year, it was torn down, a 16-screen movie theater to take its place. Will theaters, fast food restaurants, strip malls ever dot the hillside in view the way these barns do now? As I make my way back up the hill to the road, I look over my shoulder, then to the stone wall. How many settlers like myself? I wonder. And approaching the chain at the road, I contemplate unhooking the for sale sign and hiding it on the other side of the stone wall.
Tuesday, 13 Jul 1999
Craftsbury Common, Vt.
Summer returned today, after having given way to cool breezes and blue jeans for the weekend. I returned to the Sterling garden this afternoon to find the peas hadn’t sensed the chilly air the way I had; in the three days elapsed since my last picking, another harvest had matured. It hung plump and sweet from a drooping trellis.
For 40 minutes I picked peas one by one, noticing the increasing weight of the white bucket into which I was dropping them as I moved slowly down one side of the trellis, then back up the other. I joked with the cook as I delivered them to the kitchen. How many pea dishes could she think up for tonight’s dinner? I was not entirely joking, however, knowing that another eight pounds of ripened peas still hung from their plants in the garden. I had left them there, somewhat thankful that the kitchen already had an overabundance of the bright green podded vegetables, because I did not have another 40 minutes to spend harvesting.
Academically, it is a busy week for me here. At the forefront of my mind are not pea plants, but a research paper on the environmental implications of peat extraction, a mid-term exam tomorrow in boreal forest ecology, a pricing project on the marketing of organic vegetables, a problem set, and week one of a statistics research project I have not yet started. In the garden, picking peas, I tried to devise in my mind a mental schedule of how I would fit it all in. When I got back to the dorm, I transferred that schedule to paper and posted it on the wall over my desk. It stares at me and makes me cringe.
But tomorrow morning, I will not get up and tend to paper writing immediately. Instead, I will wake and go to the garden to harvest the remaining eight pounds of peas, along with the others which will have matured while I sleep. Pea picking is not written on my list of tasks, but it’s one of the things that we just do here, because it has to be done for the good of a garden, a community, a commitment to growing much of our own food.
Before coming to Sterling at the beginning of the summer, I had developed what was perhaps a college survival skill of cutting out all the small tasks and just focusing on the big deadlines, assignments, meetings, and lectures on my schedule. Tasks such as pea harvesting were overshadowed by all-important school-related assignments. How interesting it is now, to be in a place where garden tasks are as significant as those of the classroom. It calls for a reevaluation of priorities, an important step for an environmentalist, I think. The paper will get written, and of course the exam will be taken at 8:30 tomorrow morning, but the pea plants in the garden will not suffer as a result.
Wednesday, 14 Jul 1999
Craftsbury Common, Vt.
I rush back to my room over my lunch hour, needing the break from a six-hour ecology class to finish cramming for an exam this afternoon. For me, tests provoke nail biting. As I sit down at my computer to log my thoughts for this entry, I lift my fingers to my mouth. I taste dirt.
We’ve been out in the woods for the last hour and a half, delineating a wetland through plant identification and soil sampling. Dirt is stuck under my fingernails and caked into the creases of my fingers. I check the keyboard for gley soil and go to the sink to wash my hands.
Our test will cover five weeks of class spent on mountain tops, in yellow bogs, northern hardwood forests, a patch of wildflowers, today a wetland. Dried smudges of soil mark the pages of field notes strewn around my desk, and some of the notes are illegible from rain drops that made the black ink run and smear.
Hours worth of note taking; I will remember only some of the data. But the ideas I have grasped and will take with me into the test; soil smudged onto my paper and stuck beneath my fingernails h
as embedded those ideas in my mind.
Thursday, 15 Jul 1999
Craftsbury Common, Vt.
I am amazed at the quiet beauty of Craftsbury Common. Founded in 1789 by Colonel Ebenezer Crafts, this picture-perfect New England town has a rich tradition of logging and farming. I am intrigued by the history of this village and have been gathering bits and pieces of lore. Today, a walk around the grounds with our Admissions Director John Zaber helps me pull it all together.
As we stop next to the white church at the northwest corner of the common and look out over the Lowell Mountains, I am told that the wooded landscape before me has undergone intense changes. At the time of its settlement, it was fully forested. By the late 1800s, however, 50 percent of the woods had been cleared or harvested. In time, trees returned to the fields and John estimates that now roughly 75 percent of the land is wooded.
We continue on around the common. Students and staff try to gather here for a weekly game of ultimate frisbee. A white post-and-rail fence lines our frisbee field, which also serves as an idyllic setting for brass bands and the local chamber players to hold Sunday night concerts, antique shows, and the annual Old Home Day celebration. John tells me that this field once served as a training ground for the local militia.
Considering the contrast between ultimate frisbee games and military exercises, I begin to think of the history of Sterling College itself. I have discovered that Kane Hall, the administrative building on campus, began its life as an inn around 1840. The student lounge, which we refer to as “the barn,” was indeed a barn — I picture John’s description of visitors’ horses being tended to in the same room where we now retreat for community meetings. Across from “the barn,” their carriages were parked in the building that now houses our bookstore and ping-pong table.
We walk past Sterling’s woodshop, known by my peers for the snowshoe- and canoe-paddle-making projects that are required of all incoming students. Now named Paradise, this was formerly the store of Augustus Paddock. Across the street, the Simpson Classroom building was once Augustus’s home. John tells me he read in a local history book that a windmill located behind the Paddocks’ house was used to pump water up to the first flush toilet on the Common. That windmill is no longer there.
When first looking into Sterling College, I learned that Sterling’s educational history began in 1958, with the founding of Sterling School, a traditional boys preparatory high school. The stories of the old days are filled with forced marches to the Church on the Common for Sunday services, limited contact with local young females, and restrictions on the length of student sideburns. What is now our admissions office once served as the kitchen and dining area for the boys school, our dean and president’s offices served as their dorms, and the “barn” was their student chapel.
In 1974, a decision was made to close the doors of Sterling School. A pioneering group of faculty remained and established the Grassroots Project in Vermont at Sterling Institute. This was an academic year-long program offering physical, mental, and spiritual challenges similar in nature to the programs offered by Outward Bound. By 1983, Sterling had developed into an accredited college offering an Associate of Arts degree in resource management. In 1997, it was accredited as a four-year college and granted approval to award a Bachelor of Arts degree with concentrations in wildlands ecology and management, outdoor education and leadership, and sustainable agriculture.
While I realize that my time here is momentary in the historical spectrum of Craftsbury Common, I am no less captivated by the mental images of those who have come before me, and by the historical picture John has painted for me this morning. The pioneering spirit of the settlers of Craftsbury, the founders of the Sterling School, and the alums of Sterling College have, in a way, helped to shape and guide my present educational experience. I smile at the way history is preserved here, while we move on into the future. The dorms are receiving a new coat of paint today; a student walks towards the Simpson Classrooms wearing colorful clothes; the lawn in front of the old white church is being mowed.
Friday, 16 Jul 1999
Craftsbury Common, Vt.
The Sterling van will depart at 8:00 this morning for an all-day rock climbing trip to New Hampshire. Today provides an opportunity for me to display the skills I have acquired in a “Bounder” course — a semester-long class designed to promote group dynamics, outdoor recreation, and personal challenge through adventuring in the out-of-doors. The course began with a “ground school” and soon led to top-rope climbs on nearby ledges. I have learned the proper way to tie knots in climbing rope, the proper use of climbing harnesses and ropes, and a string of commands exchanged between climber and belayer, all designed to ensure the safety of the climber.
The trip will be led by our dean, Ned Houston, who is teaching this summer’s “Bounder” course. Ned is an avid climber who joined the Sterling faculty in 1978. He teaches a variety of classes including literature of the rural experience, human ecology, and canoeing skills. Ned looks at the world through the eyes of a climber; he uses the metaphor of climbing to address the everyday challenges of life.
A few afternoons ago, I sat in his office and we discussed ideas for my senior project. This will be an opportunity for me to specialize in my field of interest, carry out research, collect and analyze data, and take a step toward the implementation of a concrete plan. The senior project is a requirement for the 17 fourth-year students in the upcoming school year. My fellow students and I are at various stages of planning. We are also looking ahead at the impact this project may have on the personal and professional decisions we will confront when our time at Sterling is finished.
I looked around Ned’s office as we chatted, taking in pictures of him climbing when he was about my age, some colorful wall hangings from other countries, a picture of one of his 30-plus llamas, and finally a computer screen that bore a web page advertisement for climbing shoes. He explained that he’d worn out his shoes recently while on a trip out west. His undergraduate degree from Middlebury College hung over the door, and I asked him why he had not hung his Harvard master’s degree alongside it. “No room,” he replied.
Ned and his office epitomize the versatility of the people at Sterling College. Although I have yet to find a passion for the rock-climbing approach to group dynamics and personal challenge, I love the fact that each Friday I am led up rock facings and granite outcroppings by the dean of our school. I love that our president, an author of books on mountain rescue and a recognized authority in the field, helped me move in on my first day here. I love that my peers are botanists, writers, canoeists, farmers, and fly-fishers. And I love that I am a part of this college community.