Vassar College

The Local

Jeffrey R. Walker, Fall Convocation, September 2, 2009

Thank you President Hill. This is a great honor for me. Welcome to my faculty colleagues, and to the students. And an especially warm welcome to our newest seniors, the class of 2010, and to the newest members of the Vassar community, the class of 2013. I hope for you a wonderful and productive time here at Vassar.

I have never had a better advocate for my classes than Dr. James Hanson, chief scientist at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Dr. Hanson does not know me, or anything about me, but comments he made in the summer of 1988 helped guide the course of my career at Vassar.

My family and I arrived in Poughkeepsie in mid-July of 1988 on what I thought must have been the hottest day of the summer (the rest of July and most of August proved me wrong on that account). Kathy and I were both displaced westerners, and the heat and humidity that day were certainly not what we were comfortable with. I recall driving down the hill on route 44, sighting K-mart, and thinking "what have I gotten us into?" Now, more than 20 years later, I have come to appreciate the beauty, and the importance of the local, wherever you are.

I was a newly hired assistant professor, and I had my work cut out for me at Vassar. The Geology department was essentially moribund: we had one geology major (total), and perhaps 25 students (total) in all geology classes the year before. As soon as I accepted the job at Vassar, the chair of the department retired, leaving two of us to teach the three-person geology curriculum that first year. In addition to teaching an overload, we also had a faculty search, which was unsuccessful probably because nobody wanted to part of this disaster. We had an external departmental review to try to figure out the problem, and some interesting and constructive suggestions were made. Finally, at the end of the year, my colleague was denied tenure. Ten months after arriving, I was the only one left in geology.

I have always wondered that Vassar didn't, at that point, decide to jettison geology entirely. Despite the fact that geology had been taught since the beginning of the college, it would have made some kind of sense.

Of course, that hot July day I had no idea that all this was about to happen. I only knew that I was excited, after a year of doing only research, to start my new job, and to get back to teaching students about the wonders of world, and how geology can be used to interpret that world.

Since there weren't any geology majors, there wasn't a huge demand for courses in the geology major, like mineralogy and petrology (my specialties), structural geology, sedimentology, paleontology, etc. This meant that I could suggest new courses, anything I wanted as long as they were interesting to non-majors (which, of course, was everybody on campus) and useful to other departments.

I came to Vassar after completing a research post-doc at the University of Montana. The day I arrived in Missoula to begin my post-doc, my mentor showed me the lab, introduced me to a couple of people, and left for a two-month rock-climbing trip on Baffin Island. While he was away, he and his climbing buddy, an itinerant textbook author (I didn't know there was such a thing), decided to write an earth science textbook.

By the time I finished my post-doc research in February, my mentor was ensconced in his textbook project, so I took to wandering the halls of the geology department at U of M looking for people to collaborate with. That was when I met Johnnie Moore, a geochemist working on arsenic pollution in sediments of the Clark Fork River which ran right through downtown Missoula.

Johnnie asked me to characterize a mineral that he had synthesized. The mineral is called birnessite, and it has the ability to oxidize arsenic making it less toxic and, therefore, less harmful. The ultimate result of our collaboration was a paper on how the structure of birnessite changed as it caused the oxidation.

This was my first foray into the relatively new field of environmental science, and I found it exciting. So when I was given the opportunity to propose a new class, I decided that "Environmental Earth Science" would fill the bill. This is where James Hanson comes in, because one of the topics I suggested we "might" cover was global warming. The summer of 1988 was one of the hottest summers on record, with wildfires burning in Yellowstone Park and numerous deaths across the Midwest from the heat. Sometime that summer, probably while I was driving across the country to my new job at Vassar, James Hanson had testified before Congress that "global warming is here."

I have always felt that it was that kind of national press that convinced 45 students to sign up for my environmental earth science course. Four of those students decided to major in geology, and soon we had enough majors to begin to offer the major courses again. The geology program also began to have more interactions with other departments. We convened a group of science professors to develop advising recommendations for students interested in the environmental sciences. Some of our recommendations were incorporated into the environmental science correlate sequence when it was first instituted. We convened the first meeting of the group of science, social science and humanities faculty that eventually became the core of environmental studies development project, the precursor to our current environmental studies program. Geology was taking a role in academic life at Vassar, and I felt proud to be part of that enterprise. I was grateful, too, that Vassar had enough faith in our potential as a program not to give up on us when we were at our lowest ebb.

Two events, however, caused me to reassess my own personal relationship to the study of the environment. The first was a visit to campus by Denis Hayes, one of the organizers of the first Earth Day. At the time of his visit, Denis was director of the Bullit Foundation which, through Patricia Bullit Collins '42, had funded our nascent Environmental Science program. In his keynote address on various environmental challenges that society faced, including global warming, Denis remarked, "the next 20 years is a bottleneck through which the human race must pass, and it is up to us to decide whether or not we will pass through in an orderly fashion."

The more I thought about this comment, the more I realized that, as scientists, we knew a lot about the atmosphere and the way the climate system works. It seemed crazy to me, on a personal level, to deny that there were things we could do to decrease our contributions to global warming. By burning fossil fuels we were adding fossil carbon to the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate. Didn't we have some responsibility to do something about that?

Denis's reference to moving through the bottleneck "in an orderly fashion" also made me realize that we, as well-off people in a rich western country, would remain insulated from the negative effects of global warming longer than anyone else. We could, in essence, buy our way out of it longer than anyone, and we needed to be aware of that fact.

The second event that challenged my thinking was the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist in the Niger Delta who was working to bring an end to the oil spills that were polluting the land his people relied on for agriculture. Western media like the New York Times reported that Ken Saro-Wiwa and his ten colleagues were executed by the Nigerian government at the behest of a multinational oil company, but it almost didn't matter to me (though I have not bought gas from that particular company since that time). It finally dawned on me that there were serious conflicts over oil, and that people were dying so that I could have a comfortable, petroleum-based lifestyle.

In response to these events, my family and I decided to see just how little fossil fuel we could use. Our goal was to determine which fossil fuel uses were necessary and which were optional. As a guide, we began thinking in terms of what biologist Wes Jackson has called "contemporary solar energy." Contemporary solar energy is not photovoltaic electricity, or solar hot water. It is low-tech solar energy collected by plants through photosynthesis. The challenge is to find ways to harness that energy directly instead of waiting millennia for geologic processes to concentrate it for you.

We bought a small farm in Hyde Park (5 miles from campus, a 25 minute bike ride). We raised chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, and sheep. We hunted wild turkey and deer in our woods. We used draft horses instead of a tractor, heated the house with wood, cooked with wood, heated our hot water with wood. We lived for 9 years without a refrigerator, and for 10 years without hot running water. We used about 2kW-hr of electricity a day when the Dutchess County average was about 20kW-hr a day. We used fewer than 10 gallons of gasoline annually to cut wood with our chain saws, and drove our car fewer than 10,000 miles a year. For a household of nine, our per capita energy use was pretty low. We raised fruits and vegetables, slaughtered our own animals, and canned or preserved the meat, fruits, and vegetables because we could not freeze them. Like Thoreau, our goal was to "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest term."

When you start living the so-called "simple life," you quickly understand the truth behind the observation that a life based on fossil-fuel conveniences (that is, the typical western lifestyle most of us are used to) is like having several hundred servants. Without fossil fuel conveniences to do mundane tasks, you need to do them for yourself, usually by hand. This takes time, and it takes conscious effort.

This is where contemporary solar energy, Wes Jackson style, comes in, for when you do things for yourself, by hand, you are using energy harvested by plants, and transferred to you either by eating the plant, or by eating the products of an animal who can derive nutrition from a plant in ways that you cannot. A person cannot survive on grass, but some animals, especially ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats, have evolved to eat grass and to derive useful nutrition from it. In turn they give us meat, milk, wool, and work. Even horses, although they are not true ruminants, can subsist primarily on grass and do plenty of useful work.

Inevitably, the focus of a life based on contemporary solar energy turns to the local. It may seem obvious that a local focus conserves fossil fuels because transportation miles are minimized. A local focus also strengthens local communities by keeping money circulating in the community, and providing jobs to your neighbors. But the local can run deeper in our lives if we allow it. It has often been said that you will not love or protect things that you do not know well. "It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home" begins Terry Tempest Williams's 1994 essay "The Wild Card," "otherwise, who will be there to chart the changes?" To live a truly local lifestyle, and chart the changes, you need to know all you can about your region. You need to understand the climate, the soil, the topography, and the history, both geological and cultural. You need to appreciate the land's possibilities, and it's limitations. For instance, it didn't take my family long to realize that our little farm had only a thin veneer of rocky topsoil over bedrock. Our attempt to grow corn in one of the pastures convinced us that our land was more conducive to growing grass for grazing animals than raising field crops such as corn or soybeans.

While it is good to know as much as you can about your region, it is even more important to be an active participant. How does one engage with the local? For each one of us, the appropriate activities will be different. I have three very different examples to get us started thinking about it. One approach is to think of the talents you can offer and who might need or want them. For some this might mean getting involved in local politics, or with a local non-profit organization. For my family, this engagement has come through music: we play in a Highland pipe band, we lead a choir at our church, and I sing in a community choir called Capella Festiva. We play dances for all kinds of community groups, but probably the activity most effective at community building is when we have dances in our barn. It is a wonderful moment when our lesbian neighbors and our fundamentalist Christian friends, and everyone else in between, join hands in a circle. Dancing is a great equalizer.

A second way to engage the local is through your interactions, direct or indirect, with the staff people right here at Vassar who do so much for us. These folks are local residents and deserve our respect. Showing respect is as easy as saying "hi" and getting to know something about them. It's thinking twice about who is going to clean up after you when you leave a mess especially after an event like Serenading. Staff members should not be treated like servants. They are bona fide members of the Vassar community, just like you.

A third way you and I interact with the local community is through eating because eating, as the bumper sticker says, is a local act. To live a local life involves a myriad of conscious choices. When you choose your food, ask yourself if what you want to eat can be grown around here. Even if the particular item you eat is not grown locally, if it can be grown or produced locally, you are helping to create a potential market for it. Also, you are training your tastes to prefer local, in-season food. Eating seasonally means you need to know what is available seasonally and choose it. In Dutchess County, it means eating tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, and zucchini in the summer, and cabbage, root vegetables, winter squash, tomato sauce, and meat in the winter. It means choosing apple juice instead of orange juice.

You also can take personal responsibility for your food. If you have the chance, grow some of your own food, and learn about the care it takes to help a plant bear fruit. If you eat meat, learn to slaughter and butcher an animal. Learn to cook. You may not always do these things for yourself, but you will certainly appreciate the work that went into preparing your food, and that will increase your respect for both the people and the food.

Soon after we bought our farm the word "sustainability" began to creep into the national discussion of environmental issues. I was intrigued by the concept of balancing social, fiscal, and environmental concerns in our decisions because that was what we had been trying to do in our personal lives since we started farming. I found sustainability to be a very powerful concept once I was able to think of it as a process instead of a goal.

As good of an idea as it might be, however, sustainability cannot be forced on anyone. For an institution, a family, or a person to be moving down a sustainability path, they must make decisions based on all the available information, including their own willingness to act. Sometimes it takes a particular event, for me it was the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, to make them care enough to take stock of their actions, and to make changes.

I have described some of the things we did as a family to decrease fossil fuel use, but I don't think that Vassar would ever do some of them, nor should it try. The amount of firewood it would take to cook all the food at ACDC for a day is mind-boggling. Running a food service without refrigeration would be difficult. However, running a food service with a high percentage of local, in-season or cold-cellared foods is possible. Last year, approximately 30% of the food offered on campus was either locally grown or locally produced, and Campus Dining would like to raise that to 40%. The responsibility is ours to help them reach this goal because the success of the endeavor depends on our willingness to allow local conditions to influence our diet.

Now that our own children are growing up and finding interests off the farm and away from the family, Kathy and I are confronted by the tension between the pressures of the "outside" world and the demands of the "simpler" life (which we have found to be really quite complex and time-consuming). This tension doesn't mean, however, that we need to give up the ideals that we have worked hard to foster. The very essence of sustainability in my view is personal choice: having as much information as possible, and choosing the best course of action based on the circumstances, your goals, and all you know about your options. We eventually bought a refrigerator so that our goat milk wouldn't spoil so quickly. We bought a freezer the year we got two deer and slaughtered 25 chickens. We installed hot running water; we used to have one big car that got 9 miles per gallon, now we have three smaller cars that each get about 30.

These conveniences make our lives easier, but we always bear in mind the responsibility we have not to waste resources. We still do a lot for ourselves. We raise chickens for meat and eggs, turkeys for Thanksgiving, sheep for wool, and goats for milk. We plant a garden, make jam from our currants and raspberries, and I spend what time I can hunting for free-range organic meat. Most of the time we cook on a wood-burning cookstove, and heat the house with wood.

A friend of mine once told me a story about an acquaintance of his who lived in Germany in the days before "Slow Food" was in vogue. One day the American happened to ask a local resident why the countryside was so beautiful. The German didn't answer directly, but invited him to his home for dinner that evening saying he would make it all clear then. They had a great dinner, after which the German said, "All of the food for this meal came from within 10 kilometers of my house. This land is beautiful because we know it, we love it, and we care for it."

Seniors, you have one more year to know and love this region and the people who live here. Then you will probably go some place new. Make the most of the time you have here in the Hudson Valley, and when you go, where ever you go, learn about the landscape, the regional history, the regional cuisine, even the local beers and wines, anything that helps you to develop a sense of place. Know and respect the people, and so come to love and care for that place.

Freshmen, you are at the beginning of four years here. Take every opportunity to find out what makes it unique and special. I hope you will come to know it, and love it, by the time you graduate.

Good luck and have fun. Thank you very much.

Back to all Convocation Remarks


124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY 12604
845.437.7000