What could possibly make you feel more warm and fuzzy than a warm and fuzzy hoodie sweatshirt with “Marlboro College” emblazoned right on it? If you ever stopped playing foosball in the campus center long enough to wander into the Marlboro College Bookstore, you know that there is much more than books in there. Bodacious Becky Bartlett ’79 keeps the bookstore stocked with art supplies and cards and stamps and Snickers bars and Post-its and breath mints and paper clips and temporary tattoos and pretty much everything a student in the wilds of Vermont would need on a whim. She also has a couple books, of course, but the real highlight, and this is why I mention it, is the stylish selection of clothing and accessories available.
I mean, what better way to keep Marlboro close to your heart than to have it physically printed on or near that vitally sentimental organ? These trendy garments look smart with plaid flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and either Sorel boots or bare feet, but are versatile enough to wear with your finest linen suit. You could even mix and match them so you could have Marlboro College emblazoned on nearly every part of your body, so there is no mistaking your abiding loyalty.
Thanks to the modern miracle of online shopping, these quasi-fashionable items are even available to alumni and other friends too far away to swing by for a game of foosball. Seriously, you could be wearing a voguishly classic wool ski hat (right) to your next executive staff meeting, or a Vermont-woods-chic T-shirt to your favorite urban block-party. You could really turn some heads at your next Yankees game with your Marlboro College officially ironic baseball jersey. Water bottles, travel mugs, decals, postcards, bumper stickers, you could have all this and more (did I mention water bottles?) faster than you can say “add to cart” (my middle name). Just don’t ask Becky to send you a Snickers bar, because I tried that already. You can visit the Marlboro Bookstore online or visit the modern miracle of facebook for the latest bookstore news.
How many red-blooded American teenagers do you know who would take a week away from smart phones and in-your-facebook and other exercises in self-absorption in order to climb mountains and gain perspective through poetry? Zero, right? Well, I know 10 now, 10 fine young people from Vermont and Connecticut and Virginia and Texas and Kentucky and California who participated in one of Marlboro’s amazing (pre)college summer programs called “Poetry on the Peaks.” Led by fearless writing professor Kyhl Lyndgaard, I joined these intrepid youths for a hike up to the dizzy heights of Haystack Mountain.
Our man Kyhl chose Haystack because it reminded him of the work of ancient Chinese mountain recluse poet Hsieh Ling-Yün, who lived in exile in the fifth century and built himself a thatch hut to write poetry in. Get it—Haystack; thatch hut? I mean, Kyhl has a writer’s knack for metaphor. He pointed out that many poets and other writers have found their way to Vermont to follow in ol’ Hsieh Lin-Yün’s footsteps, metaphorically speaking, and get away from it all, get out of their own heads, get away from the notion that everything is revolving around them, and ignore their emails. I don’t know if any of them have built thatch huts, but you get the idea.
When we reached the top of the mountain, all hot and sweaty and flushed and panting and more sweaty (and that was just me), Kyhl didn’t waste a moment before reading poems by David Budbill, one of Vermont’s own mountain recluse poets. The teens took turns reading lines, then jumped right into writing some of their own poetry and journal entries—I have never seen a group of teenagers so quiet before. All you could hear was the heat rising off the rocks and a Swainson’s thrush fluting down the slope. I’m not kidding, a butterfly was making a colossal racket flitting around the group. I would not be surprised if some of these reflective young folks, many who had never seen a mountaintop before, might be next to follow the path of ol’ Hsieh Lin-Yün.
I know you’re probably thinking that Marlboro is basking in the hot, sultry, humid idleness of a Vermont summer, and you would be right about the hot, sultry, humid part. But things are still humming along here, with the summer programs going full tilt, the maintenance department fixing everything that sits still long enough, and Marlboro Music participants playing breves and semibreves and hemidemisemiquavers everywhere you turn. I mean, you can barely hear yourself think about whether existence precedes essence with all the humming going on. But there’s one particular humming that out-hums the rest, and that’s the humming coming from the greenhouse.
As part of her Plan of Concentration in visual arts and biology, Shyloh Favreau explored the hummy world of bees, including the installation of an exhibition hive in the greenhouse. Holy honey, Batman, you have never seen anyone so busy as a hive of honey bees on exhibition, doing their round dance and waggle dance and tremble dance and I swear I saw some of them doing “Gangnam Style.” If you ever think you are being wonderfully industrious, like, writing a whole paper on Virginia Woolf in a single night or something, come down to the greenhouse and check these little buzzers out for a dose of humility. While they are busy this summer building labyrinths of wax and pollen and honey and larvae, more labyrinths than I have managed in my whole life, they are also pollenating all the veggies in the garden in their spare time.
Speaking of busy, Shyloh also did some awesome, beautifully buzzing bee-motif tiles for the greenhouse ceiling, inspired by her class trip to Turkey last spring to study ceramic tiles in Seljuk and Ottoman mosques and mausoleums. We don’t expect any empires to follow or anything, but just one more amazing example of the impact one Marlboro student can have on life and times up here on th’ Hill.
Did you know what an apotheosis is—some kind of reaction to medication or an arrangement of dividing chromosomes or a honeybee goddess or something, right? Neither did I, until one of those smarty-pants graduating Marlboro students used it in his commencement speech and I had to go look it up. Senior Speaker Evan Lamb said, “Right now, I’m standing at the top of my own personal mountain, and it feels like a tiny apotheosis.” Okay, by that point I had ruled out honeybee goddess, but I still had to look it up: a•poth•e•o•sis (noun): highest level of glory or power, transformation into deity. Pretty awesome, I know, and I had to hand it to Evan: I was a tiny bit jealous of his tiny apotheosis.
Commencement 2013 went off without a hitch, by the way—all the pomp and ritual you’d expect from a venerable institution of higher learning like Marlboro, with no missteps or costume malfunctions, unless you count Kalie Kamara’s New York Yankee’s cap. President Ellen was gracious as ever, and the commencement address from Governor Peter Shumlin encouraged Marlboro graduates to use their skills and imagination to define a carbon-free future. Outgoing Dean of Students Ken Schneck delivered a heart-felt valediction including a poem he wrote in seventh grade.
But our man Evan really stole the show, with his tiny apotheosis, his itty-bit of godly transformation. All his tales of wriggling through crushing caves, and biking over ice and snow, and crashing into the dining hall at full speed, and sweating through the Seminar on Religion, Literature, and Philosophy, and cooking apple pie during a power outage, and getting lost on Town Trail in the middle of the night without a flashlight or a shirt, this is the epic stuff of Marlboro legend. I mean, the Hindu Vedas and the Icelandic sagas and the Australian Dreamtime Stories have got nothing on Evan, and every student in the room was just as captivated as if he was telling tales of Thor laying waste to legions of evil jötnar. Okay, maybe not that captivated, but Evan’s point was well taken—every graduate had their own epic list of Marlboro adventures to take with them. We wish them all well in their future quests, and journeys, and jötnar encounters.
Ah, spring. It’s that time of year when the hills and forests are ringing with the sound of “hoot-hoot-hoot!” and “ah-woooo-gah!” and “honk-ah-honk-ah-honk-ooooh!” and, well, you get the idea. The Annual Windham County Hog Calling Competition, you might guess? Nope, it’s the time for oral exams and the concomitant celebrations that happen after each graduating senior leaps this last hurdle. I mean, nothing warms the heart of this crusty old, world-weary, jaded, jaundiced—and, well, you get the idea—nothing brings out the daffodils and lilacs in my heart like Marlboro students cheering on their comrades after orals, celebrating and hugging like they just won The Next Food Network Star or something.
Orals are kinda mysterious for those of us who only get to hug the examinees and enjoy the food and libations assembled on the lawn in their honor. It’s like a clandestine rite of passage or something, a ritual to enter the secret society known as the Benevolent Order of Marlboro Graduates. According to Nikki Haug (somewhere in the middle of that group hug, above), who recently learned the secret handshake herself, there is no blood-letting or scarification or other ritualistic practices involved. She say’s it’s not only an opportunity to impress your outside examiner that you’ve thought deeply about the concepts in your Plan, but also to show them how much other stuff you’ve learned along the way.
“Your orals are supposed to demonstrate both that you know your stuff and that you know other stuff,” said Nikki in a blog post called, “Most everything you will ever want to know about Plan.” This post has many helpful suggestions, ranging from “Get a Plan Buddy,” to “You will read things that won’t help you,” to “You will always feel like you could do more—and that’s probably true—but you need to know when to stop.” Nikki wrote a truly remarkable Plan about Victorian poets Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson and their critiques on materialism, especially in relation to the theory of evolution by natural selection, so her sound advice stands to help many future inductees to the secret society. “Ah-woooo-gah!”
Did you know Earth Day is the largest secular holiday on, you guessed it, “earth,” celebrated by more than a billion people every year? Well the Marlboro microcosm is no exception, and our mighty population of 300 some-odd students, faculty and staff, some of them odder than others, have been out in droves for the last week to celebrate the ol’ earth in one way or another. I mean, it started with Work Day, when people got out and enjoyed what felt like the first warm, sunny day since last August. They were all building benches and making tile walkways and cleaning up and weeding gardens and doing trail work and splitting rails and doing all kinds of down and earthy things.
But that was just the beginning, the Big Bang, so to speak, of this particular Earth Day genesis. On Thursday there was a Sustainability Fair in the dining hall, and on Friday there was a mini-symposium on environmental initiatives called Expeditious Earthworks. Then on Sunday there were nature walks with the earthy folks from Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center, who led hapless hikers down the garden path and into the woods in search of porcupines and woodfrogs. Sunday night was the first half of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, six scintillating films about wildlife conservation. The second half continued on Monday, with seven films focused on environmental activism that got the audience totally up in arms and ready to storm the Bastille, or at least Monsanto.
Also, the Food Committee chose Earth Day to “release into the wild” a huge collection of colorful mugs that they have been ferreting away from tag sales, flea markets and consignment shops. Seriously, the hope was that this new population of mugs would interbreed with the struggling native population, leading to a heartier hybrid variety of mugs that would be easier to find when one wants want a cup of tea. But perhaps the one thing that got people most in touch with their inner earthiness was on Monday afternoon, when politics professor Meg Mott brought in a bevy of baby goats to snuggle with. Studies have shown that “therapy goats” can lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels, and reduce levels of aggression. Judging by the number of students peacefully crowding into the little pen with the goats, cooing and laughing, plotting peace on earth, I’d say it works.
With a foot and a half of snow still on the ground right now, it’s hard to believe that last March, I’m talking about a year ago, there was not enough snow to make a snow-cone and we were all basking in an epic heat wave. I was reminded of this last night at a screening of Joshua “Petey” Petersen’s documentary about the shooting of Northern Borders, the focus of the Movies from Marlboro program last spring. There was Willow O’Feral ’07 and other students and alumni from 15 colleges in the semester-long film intensive, dressed for summer and scraping little patches of snow into cardboard boxes to sprinkle around the scene, which was supposed to take place in the winter. It was just one of the many life-on-location lessons recorded in Petey’s fabulous documentary, along with slogging through mud, moving outhouses, scraping up chicken poop and, seriously, trying to get a cold, sluggish snake to respond to “lights, camera, action!”
Last night’s screening at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center was just the first glimmer of the rolling out of Northern Borders, which has its world premiere at the Latchis Theater next Wednesday, April 10. Director and film professor Jay Craven was there to stir the citizens of Brattleboro into a frenzy of enthusiasm, talking about Movies from Marlboro as a transformative experience for students and the most satisfying production experience in his career. The Latchis showing will be the first of five Vermont premieres in as many days, which is just the kickoff for a 100-town tour of screenings and fundraisers across New England this summer. Really, what does Jay eat for breakfast, anyway?
Although Petey couldn’t be there last night for his film screening, he sends his regards from New York—since graduating in December he has kept busy in music videos, narrative films and fashion photography, including being creative director at Universal Models for Peace. But Petey’s documentary is a totally awesome testament to the transformative power of, as Jay says, “watching films come alive,” not to mention the copious creative energy of Marlboro students like himself.
Do you know that part in Skyfall where James Bond is chasing the evil mercenary Patrice on motorcycle, implausibly over the tile rooftops of Istanbul’s Kapalı Çarşı, or Grand Bazaar? Well, you would hopefully not see Marlboro students behaving so culturally insensitive-like, but you just might find them squeezing lemons and apricots at that very same Grand Bazaar this week. That’s because a group of students is in Turkey over spring break, part of their class with ceramics professor Martina Lantin and art history professor Felicity Ratté called, verbosely, “Art on the Walls: Ceramic Tiles in Seljuk and Ottoman Architecture, Meaning and Design.”
I know, I know, you’re thinking spring break is when college students typically to go to Fort Lauderdale and get savage tans and dance to pulsating music with total strangers and think about anything but Seljuk and Ottoman architecture. Well, Turkey is just one of several decidedly un-Florida destinations where Marlboro students are spending this spring break. Another trip, for the class called “Cuba: 1898 to the Present” with anthropology professor Carol Hendrickson and American studies professor Kate Ratcliff, went to Cuba (duh) to explore everyday Cuban life, politics and national identity, and also to research why their national dish, called ropa vieja, translates as “old clothes.”
Another group of students and alumni went out to Yellowstone National Park to track bison and elk and wolves and grizzlies and cook their dinners on geothermal geysers. Yet another band of students drove a van as far south as they needed to in order to find snow-free and dry rocks to climb on, which, given the way this spring has gone, was probably nearly as far south as Fort Lauderdale. I mean, you can’t keep these Marlboro students still for a minute if there is a Seljuk palace to explore or some basalt slabs to clamber up. We look forward to seeing them all again next week, with or without savage tans.
Shhhh, listen. Do you hear that humming sound over the hiss of melting snow and the whispery breeze in the trees? That’s the jangle of neurons firing, of synaptic clefts bursting with neurotransmitters, of axons and dendrites alive with activity. I’m saying that’s the sound of thinking getting done. I know, I know, on the outside Marlboro College looks all bucolic and picturesque and quiet, like a postcard from a theme park called Vermonty-land. But on the inside it is a seething cauldron of critical and creative thinking. I mean, in addition to the small and engaging classes, with names like Digitally Mediated Performance and Debating the American Dream, there is the constant buzz of two- and three-person intellectual revolutions known as tutorials.
People new to Marlboro will be excused for thinking that tutorials have something to do with “tutoring,” but they could not be more pleasantly mistaken. Tutorials are basically classes with just one or two students, on a subject of particular interest to the students. Some times it is a specific subject in which the professor has limited knowledge, and they are reading and learning right alongside students based on a syllabus and reading list designed by students. It sounds like a lot of work for everybody, and it totally is, but tutorials are the personal spark that keeps everyone fired up and on their own burning path of self-designed study known as the Plan of Concentration.
A case in point: I stumbled on a trio of two students and a professor down at the skating rink, doing random circles and shaky spins on the ice. Innocent enough, right? Turns out that they were also passionately discussing the philosophy and methodology of history in enough excruciating detail to make my head do random circles and shaky spins. Like, they were talking about how Leo Tolstoy’s approach puts historians in the unique position to basically ignore the philosophical dilemma of free will, how Leopold von Ranke criticized Hegel’s conception of man’s relationship to god, and a hundred other tantalizing specifics that I have as much hope of understanding as, say, nuclear physics. Since tutorials typically happen somewhere more discrete, I felt very fortunate to catch a glimpse of this this lively discussion, which apparently takes place on the skating rink each week. You can catch the flavor of it too in the following video.
You know what I really like about Marlboro students, besides the fact that they can clearly articulate the difference between post-modernism and post-structuralism and Post Grape Nuts? What I really like is that they give a darn. I mean, sure, they can wax all theoretical about conceptual art or Martin Heidegger’s “hermeneutic circle,” but they also put their heart and soul into more immediate, practical concerns. I’m not just talking about the espresso machine at the coffee shop or the broomball tournament—they care about the world. I stumbled on an example of this in the dining hall, where a group of students was up to their elbows in tomato sauce and cheese.
Students in the World Studies Program were working with Susie Belleci, associate director of world studies, to make two big pans of the most awesomest-looking lasagna this side of Sardinia. This was much more than a lesson in world cuisine—the students were making the yummy lasagna to share with local community members at Morningside Shelter, in Brattleboro. Morningside is the only homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont, and a blessing for people in the area who have fallen on tough times. Residents typically cook for themselves, but on Thursdays other community members are invited to share with them, and what better day to share than Valentine’s Day? These Marlboro students are learning that, like love, lasagna is something when you give it away.