Potash Hill Goes Viral

You know those terrible black holes of the digital universe like Farmville or eBay or Second Life or “how to shrink your tummy using these three silly tricks?” Well Potash Hill will never be like that, but the beloved alumni magazine has taken a small step and a giant leap into the digital world. Yup, in addition to the pdf version we have been known to eventually post for each issue since 2001, we have now promptly posted an html version of the latest issue for you people with ipads and smartphones and other fancy things I probably haven’t even heard of yet.

Now, don’t get the crazy idea that we are just looking for things like this to do up here on the hill, things besides pondering dialectical materialism and watching the ferns grow. This newfangled digital version of PH is in response to several admiring readers who have expressed a desire to save paper, and as a born-again-pagan tree-hugger myself I do admire this goal. It also stands to save us a few pennies of postage, especially when we’re talking about alumni overseas, and in this age of crashing economies and defaulting governments a few pennies is nothing to sneeze at.

But you know, I’ll always be the type who wants a hard copy of Potash Hill to recline with in the ol’ hammock or in the ol’ armchair or even on the ol’ potty. I like turning FSC-certified pages, and flipping back to the part I didn’t understand and falling asleep with the binding on my nose. I’m just an analog kind of guy. Honestly, I have trouble reading digital watches, even. I know there are others of you out there who, like yours truly, still don’t want to read magazines on devices that might be smarter than you but cannot get wet. We intend to keep printing out Potash Hill magazines for a long time, but if you would rather read it on your Android or your Blackberry or your newfangled 4G virtual reality networkabob, please let me know…

 

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Compost Happens

I suppose you think that when all the students go home for the summer, the much-adored compost shed by the Persons parking lot becomes the neglected province of scavenging squirrels, crows and coyotes. Well, the scavenging squirrels are right on the mark, and I even saw a woodchuck in there finding out “how much mac’n’cheese can a woodchuck chuck?” But what you are totally missing is that there is also a boatload of lovely, fresh, even musically gifted garbage to keep the compost cooking all summer. I mean, the Marlboro Music School and Festival is in full swing, at least as far as the compost pile is concerned. It turns out that world-class cellists, flautists, violists and even bassoonists enjoy the earthy delights of composting their food waste just as much as college students do.

I absolutely know this because I spent yesterday afternoon turning the festering pile of pastoral over with Marlboro junior Caitlyn Charles, who is working for the festival this summer and helped mastermind the summer compost program. Festival staff and participants are on a rotation to bring their polyphonous plate-scrapings down to the compost shed quicker than you can say klangfarbenmelodie, if you can say klangfarbenmelodie. Really, when I think about it my mind reels: how do these outstanding chamber musicians from around the world view composting their leftovers? Giving Bach to the land, perhaps? Scraping the Rimsky-Korsakovs their plates? Making rich garden soil from their discarded Berliotz-meal and orange Schubert and Mozartichoke hearts and pickled Beethovens? I mean, where have these musical composters been Haydn, all these years?

 

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The Original Town Meeting

I hope when I get to be 250 years old, I look as good as the Town of Marlboro. That’s right folks, this year the town is celebrating its “sestercentenial,” literally having something to do with Latin for “half-three,” which makes no sense to me and reminds me why most of our math comes from the Greeks. Anyway, that term is probably preferable to “bicenquinguagenary,” which I know sounds like a tongue-twister I just made up—but I really didn’t, I swear. There are all kinds of exciting activities happening in town this year to commemorate the town charter granted in 1761, at least exciting enough for a town of less than 1,000 easily-excited souls who don’t watch much television.

It all started with the community supper that took place last week at the Marlboro Meeting House, which is what they call the white-steepled church at the center of town. There were salads and quiches and pasta and enough deviled eggs to sink a ship full of angel food cake. Several students, staff and faculty members from the college were there, and I can vouch that they were all well fed. Sophomore Eric Dennis, son of Sophie Dennis ’90, made out like a bandit in the door prizes, but only because he traded tickets with sophomore Michael Schneeweis, son of electronic music professor Charlie Schneeweis and American studies professor Kathryn Ratcliff.

Ironically, and you know how I love irony, the Marlboro Meeting House is not where the town folk hold their “town meeting,” which takes place in the Town House nearby every March. To make things even more confusing, and you know how I like confusing things, they built the Town House out of timbers from the very first Marlboro Meeting House built here in 1778, after a windstorm blew the roof off in 1819. One of the very first Marlboro town meetings was held at Jonas Whitney’s house, now the Whetstone Inn. The first town clerk was William Mather, part of the very same Mather family that once owned the property Marlboro College now occupies. I don’t know about you, but that just gives the college tradition of Town Meeting a couple more centuries of gravity.

The festivities continued on July 2 with the first annual Marlboro “parade,” which was indeed exciting for the five minutes that it took to pass by on the way from the firehouse to the historical society. You know, kids on bikes, old cars, tractors, it was all just as adorable a chipmunk with its cheeks full of seeds, and then it was gone. Everyone was eager to get to the end, where Whetstone Inn owner Jean Boardman was making her world-famous homemade ice cream. The grand finale of all this excitement will be at this year’s Marlboro Community Fair in September, where perhaps they will combine the nail pounding contest and the skillet toss into a dramatic re-enactment of the battle of Bennington. Okay, so it’s not television but it keeps us busy up here on the hill.

 

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Making College History

If you were out of diapers by 1966, you might remember that this was the year when China launched the Cultural Revolution, Indira Gandhi was elected prime minister of India, U.S troops in Vietnam topped 250,000 and John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In that same momentous year, classics student Don Eaton ’68 read The Iliad out loud in the cellar of Mather, subjecting onlookers to a continuous 18 hours and 35 minutes of Achilles’ wrath. But you probably didn’t know that, unless you already discovered the fancy “Marlboro College Through the Years” timeline recently posted on the college website.

This mind-bending meander through Marlboro-ana is the product of hours of pouring through dusty archives. I mean, it required scrutinizing papyrus scrolls, stone tablets, mimeographs and cocktail napkins for essential details about the new buildings, academic programs, community activities and student initiatives that make up the college’s illustrious history. Where else could one find the essentials of “parietal rules” in 1951, or the first Plan student in 1962, or the establishment of the Outdoor Program in 1972? Who ever heard of parietal rules, for that matter (They seem to have something to do with limiting the function of the brain’s parietal lobe when entering a dorm of the opposite sex)? Actually, the exhaustive memoir of Tom Ragle, president emeritus, proved very valuable for remembering many of these early historic highlights.

So, whether you are a pioneer from the early days, a recent graduate, a prospective student or, like me, you just have a really bad memory, the timeline is a great way to take a trip down Marlboro memory lane. Meet the first 50 students, 35 of which were veterans, learn about the Town Meeting ban on cars and ponder the “Men of Marlboro” calendar. I discovered that in 1966, for instance, a potential donor offered $1 million if the college changed its name…to the donor’s name, of course. The potential donor is not identified but the cynic in me wonders if the college name would have changed to Winston or Salem.

 

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Invasion of the Asphalt Snatchers

You know that cult classic movie where aliens invade the earth in the form of simulacrums that hatch out of giant pea pods? Well, this is not exactly like that, but it does feel like campus has been invaded by simulacrums driving big excavators, tractors and dump trucks. Their goal? Not world domination, but the transformation of the center of campus into something more pleasing than a poke in the eye. I’m talking about that loop of asphalt that wraps around the admissions building and is the noisy province of super-woofing students’ cars, snow plows, delivery trucks and the periodic MOO!ver transit bus.

That’s all changing, as the front yard of the dining hall and Mather gets a facelift and a positive attitudinal adjustment from “driveway” to “walkway.” The sprawling asphalt is being replaced by narrower paths of paving stones, and accented by a stone-walled embankment in front of the dining hall for sitting on and discussing the finer points of existentialism. The grade will be raised up by the admissions building, for easier entry, and the mishmash of steps, railings, ramps and weeds between the dining hall and Mather will be replaced with green space and paths. It will be nothing less than a transformation, and one much more in keeping with Marlboro’s hill farm roots. You can follow the exciting changes on a webcam mounted on the dining hall, refreshing, so to speak, every two minutes.

I know, I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “But what about four square, that game of strategy and skill, played in all kinds of weather and all kinds of footwear, perhaps the most hallowed of Marlboro athletic traditions after broomball?” The crumbling asphalt in front of the dining hall was the sacred location of countless four square tournaments that went on until it was too dark to see the ball coming at your face. What are you supposed to do, play on the hill farm lawn? It turns out, the landscape architect who designed the changes to the front yard happens to be a hardcore four square player, and he has designed a regulation-size court into the path. It almost seems too good to be true, and I wonder if he is really a simulacrum like in that old movie. If any of the excavator drivers wants to dig a new broomball stadium, I am going to start hunting for giant pea pods.

 

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Celebrating a Little More

Just when all the party tents and flowers and bon mots from commencement were put away, and you thought it was safe to stop making merry for a few days, here comes another Marlboro milestone. Last night a whole boatload of faculty, alumni and staff gathered in the dining hall to toast, roast and generally have the usual good time with Tim Little, who retires this year. Some of the emeritus-ly faculty who came waltzing out of the woods for this event, such as the likes of Tom Ragle, Luis Batlle, Geoffry Brown, Edmund Brelsford, Ted Wendell, Michael Boylen and Jaysinh Birjepatil, gives you an indication of just how big a deal Tim’s retirement is, as if you don’t know.

Tim has always struck me as the product of some kind of magical union between Socrates, Santa Claus and the best storyteller you can imagine. He did not dispel that image last night, even after a toasting and honoring and eulogizing and extolling that would have reduced most mortals like myself to a blubbering mass of schmaltz. I mean, even after being conferred an honorary doctorate, including a Marlboro academic “hood” that appeared to take the combined effort of President Ellen and trustees Ted Wendell and Peter Mallary ’76 to get over his head correctly, Tim was not lost for words. With his characteristic photographic detail and sense of irony, he described the last time he had the honor of wearing such a hood, which he borrowed from trustee Zee Persons to attend the inauguration of the new president of Norwich University. We’re talking Iron Age Marlboro history here, but Tim described it as if it were yesterday’s bridge game or the French Restoration. He will be remembered with the same equitable sense of wonder.

 

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Graduatin’ in the Rain

Here’s a bit of Marlboro memorabilia for y’all. In 1971, that’s right, 40 years ago, Marlboro’s graduating seniors rebelled against wearing gowns for the first time, including those outrageous caps that look like you are balancing an LP on your head. Instead, students wore their usual bellbottoms, tie-died Ts, peasant blouses, plaid shirts and mini, midi and maxi skirts, and were led into the hall by bagpipes. Caps and gowns were reintroduced in later years, just like LPs were, in keeping with longstanding tradition and the words of the 19th-century French writer known as Stendhal, “Only great minds can afford a simple style.” Still, as one graduate pointed out to me before they paraded into Persons Auditorium yesterday, this is Marlboro, and you can wear pretty much what you want.

In addition to being the rainiest commencement in recent memory, this year’s parade was marked by more unique variations on the cap and gown than I can recall from years of yore. Sari Brown wore a traditional pollera in keeping with her field research in Bolivia, and Alexandra Spohrer wore a pleated chiffon dress right out of Grand Hotel, consistent with her study of costume in performance. Devin Green wore his trademark bare feet and Thea Schneider, who studied the physiology of sled dogs, wore an Alaskan Malamute hat that made everyone’s tails wag. There was pretty much every possible departure from the somber academic garb, all the way from elegant lace to the timeless, just-rolled-out-of-bed look highly favored on campus.

Oh, there were speeches of course. President Ellen made everyone feel as welcome as if she were sitting down with us to tea and cider donuts, and senior speaker Jonathan Jones talked about finding family on Potash Hill. Claudine Brown, director of education at the Smithsonian Institution, gave a rousing commencement address, remembering the many turns in her path to professional fulfillment. I found it more than a little auspicious, given the expressive outfits of so many graduates, that Claudine started out majoring in fashion design. But I have to say, the highlight of the ceremony for me was the musical interlude, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” played by senior Zach Pearson and music professor Stan Charkey on dueling electric guitars. Okay, call me sentimental.

Check here for videos of commencement, to be posted soon.

 

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Wherefore Art

You know, some Marlboro traditions are truly worth leaving behind. Throwing unaware diners into the fire pond, as practiced by members of the Tri-Mu “fraternity” of the 1980s, comes to mind. Maybe singing the national anthem at commencement, as was done until 1970, is another example. Well, I say the tradition of having an “open studio” at the end of each semester, as inspired by ceramics professor Martina Lantin starting last year, is one tradition worth keeping around. At least until someone gets the idea of throwing a random artist into the firepond.

This semester’s open studio, which took place yesterday afternoon, included samples of paintings in upper Baber, and drawings in lower Baber inspired by phrases from Tennessee Williams’ work (in collaboration with senior Elizabeth Hull’s Plan in Theater). It also featured mind-bending sculptures in Perrine, amazing photographs in Woodard, and shiny ceramics in, duh, the ceramics studio. There were even theater students doing dramatic readings of their own plays in Appletree, a real crowd-pleaser even if there weren’t cookies. But my favorite part about these open houses is snooping around from cubby to cubby, seeing what each art student is up to. If you are nosy like me this is a dream come true, to see works in progress, witness the source of an idea, find out who keeps all their materials in a neat line and discover who’s studio looks like the site of an art tsunami.

The open studio also coincided with Lex Kosieradzki’s Plan exhibition, titled “Play Station.” I was grateful to learn that this had nothing to do with the Sony gaming network recently breached by data-thieving hackers. No no. Lex’s work is much more low-tech, with photographs, videos and sculptures that challenge the observer to think about perception and their own role in experiencing art. Large sheets of metal and large tin buckets were available to generate large amounts of artistic noise, and an interactive sculpture that involved geometric sticks, ribbon-bedecked t-shirts and colored duct tape brought out the contortionist in everyone. But my favorite was a tiny booklet of Lex’s “Ideas for Sculptures,” most of them whimsical performance art pieces that might easily go unnoticed, like, “For four minutes, four people blow bubbles in the four oceans.” It was clear that he could be busy for many years to come with these ideas, and I personally volunteer to help him with the bubbles if I get the South Pacific.

 

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Senior Plan Crossing

If you spend a lot of time walking around in the dark at night like I do, you know that there are a few rainy nights in the spring, here in Vermont, when every self-respecting spring peeper, wood frog and spotted salamander comes out in mobs, absolute mobs. They swarm across the roads on their way to vernal pools like ceremonial bathers crowding the banks of the Ganges, like Catholics elbowing into St. Peter’s Square for a Papal Inauguration, like Xbox shoppers on Black Friday. It’s just that same sense of explosive activity that happens this time of year on campus, when every self-respecting performing arts senior on Plan is presenting his music or her play or his dance or her avant-garde live video installation. Just this weekend there were two amazing Plan presentations, enough to overwhelm any spring peeper.

First there was a collection of short plays and poems by Tennessee Williams, peopled by our man Tennessee’s usual cast of dreamers, misfits and fugitives, all directed by senior Elizabeth Hull and performed in Whittemore Theater. The plays were Talk to Me Like the Rain, This Property is Condemned and Lady of Larkspur Lotion, referring to a lotion once used for lice. Now, I’m no Shakespeare but these plays were really artfully done and dug right into Tennessee’s “mystery of life and the meaning in the confusion of living.” Not only that, the actors and actresses actually spoke up so I could hear them. The plays were layered with poems, recited with feeling by senior Christopher Little, like some kind of delicious, wild at heart, layer cake.

The second Plan performance was a circus, literally. No, not the kind with elephants and lion tamers and sword swallowers and the flying trapeze artists. Senior Sarah Verbil’s performance was called “Circus of the Body,” and it started with a circus midway scene outside Persons Auditorium probably not much different than the dining hall any weekend evening: barkers, clowns, face-painting, contortionists, Siamese twins, fireworks and popcorn “free with the price of admission, which is also free.” Sarah’s show was non-stop entertainment, leading off with 11 dancers doing partnered acrobatics like synchronized swimmers on land, but it also had a serious message about body types and bodily self-image. There was a particularly poignant scene where four very different bodies looked at themselves in four mirrors, reflecting on themselves critically in the way everybody does. Unless you are a spring peeper, of course.

 

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A Dream within a Dream within a Center for Performing Arts

Everybody’s had those dreams where you’re in the middle of some crazy scenario, like walking along an ocean of pink lemonade on a beach of granulated sugar and talking to Russell Brand about hair treatments, when you actually realize you’re in a dream—am I right? Well this very thing happened to me Friday night, except right after I realized I was in a dream I realized that I actually was not in a dream at all but just thought I was. I’m not kidding, that’s just what it felt like attending a Plan performance called “Hallways to Harbors,” directed and choreographed by Kenyon Acton with installations and technical design by Ben Lieberson.

It all started with being ushered down the hallway to Ragle Hall, not to the seats as usual but to the stage door of all places, by senior Ruth Stark, who gestured for us to follow her as if she were wafting the aromatic steam off a pot of soup. We could hear beautiful piano music, and in a closet by the stage, yes a closet, there was the graceful Michaela Woods ’10 standing on a ladder behind a gauzy net, with electronic angle motion sensors on her elbows and knees controlling the colored spotlights. She was slowly turning and climbing up and down and the lights were changing color and the music was making my knees weak and all I could think was, “Where is that beach of granulated sugar?”

And the dream went on from there, as dreams do, as we moved into Ragle to see sea sprites playing in the waves (the seats) under singing stars, a bicyclist powering a disco ball, a troupe of dancers resolving conflicts by rolling over each other with giant phone-line spools, a quartet of angels singing a processional in heavenly four-part harmony, suave couples dancing the tango in the lobby and a girl dreaming about a eerie, glowing, wavy line that comes to life. I mean, the Rudolf and Irene Serkin Center for the Performing Arts is not just a long name, it’s a big building with lots of nooks and crannies and halls and, yes, closets, and this performance had something going on in most of these spaces.

I must still be a wee bit bedazzled from the Embodied Learning Symposium we had on campus a couple weeks ago, because I felt like Kenyon and Ben’s production was a total sensorial workout. You know, instead of just sitting in an auditorium dazed by an entire dance recital we were moving around, changing venues, passing among the performers, seeing others in the audience. We were all crowded together up there on stage, for crying out loud, and I have to say I felt like I sat up a little straighter, breathed a little deeper and took in the whole scene of synchronized sea sprites like I might be asked to dive in at any time.

 

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