Waltzing with the MacArthurs

Of course the most noticeable thing on campus this week is the influx of students following spring break: the dining hall is cacophonous again, the library is doing a brisk business and students are sprawled on the brown lawns enjoying the first warm sunshine we’ve seen in months. But the other thing is a little fiddle tune in the back of the minds of many, a waltz, the afterglow of an event at Whittemore Theater last Sunday. A full house gathered there to see Margaret’s Waltz, a documentary about Margaret MacArthur, Marlboro resident and Vermont’s “First Lady of Folk” who passed away in 2006.

Have you ever had one of those experiences, like, you’re reading a biology textbook about how an eye works, and then you realize that this is your eye working, reading about how your eye works, and you get a little dizzy just thinking about it? Well I had a similar experience watching Margaret’s Waltz because it was filmed at two memorial benefit concerts for Margaret, one in Middlebury and one at Marlboro. So there we all were, clapping in Whittemore Theater for a movie of people clapping in Whittemore Theater, and I got a little dizzy.

The movie was a bit of a trip down MacArthur Road, with clips of physics professor John MacArthur (Margaret’s hubby), showing the historic harp that he patched together, and Megan (former student and current office manager of the Total Health Center) remembering her mom. Megan and brothers Dan and Gary also played some songs after the film. But the highlight for me, and a touching bit of Marlboro history, was the footage of former psychology professor Tony Barrand singing “Robin’s First Ride.” This song tells the true story of he and John Roberts, another former psychology professor and fellow musician, coming to the rescue of current psychology professor Tom Toleno and his wife, Mary, who was about to give birth during a snowstorm. You might call it a psychological thriller! Anyway, Tony and John drove the expectant couple to the hospital as fast as they could but the baby, Robin (not a psychology professor as far as I know), was born in the back of the car.



Farms Are a Gas

Did you know that 8 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in the U.S. come from farms? Neither did I, until I sat in on Jenny Ramstetter's Introduction to Ecological Sustainability class. The class had a visit from Vern Grubinger, UVM agricultural extension agent, who talked about the role of farms in a sustainable future. Most of the greenhouse gases on farms don't come from exhaust-belching tractors and farm trucks, but from belching (and farting) livestock and their manure. Vern said there's not much that can be done about the gaseous emissions of ruminants, but he had lots to say about "manure management." This was not a job that all the students were lining up to apply for, but we all agreed it made a lot of sense. Manure management means either spreading it in an expeditious fashion, to avoid anaerobic decomposition, or allowing that decomposition under controlled conditions to trap the methane gas for fuel.

Vern was into the concept of "economy of scope," which he always illustrated using a gesture that looked like he was forming a big snowball in his hands. As opposed to economy of scale, which is a popular idea on farms where there are not mountains and rocks and soil still damp from the last glaciers, economy of scope means optimizing the self-sufficiency and number of products from one small farm. Vern had lots of examples of this that kept us all on the edge of our seats, although the snowball gesture may have helped: like a farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, where they are growing sunflower and canola to produce thousands of gallons of biodiesel fuel on-site. Once the oil is pressed out of the seeds, they can also be smooshed together to make a high-quality feed for livestock. The oil could also be further refined to make organic cooking oils. The stuff that settles out of the oil was thought to be useless, until a cosmetics company offered to buy it as a base for their products. This operation is so self-sustaining, so no-brainer simple in its conception, that it hit us all like a big snowball. To learn more about this and other case studies, go to Vern's site at http://www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/CaseStudies.html.



Marlboro Goes to Court

"Basketball" and "Marlboro" are not two words you would typically associate with each other. Maybe basketball and Duke, or basketball and UCLA, or Marlboro and broomball. And yet, Marlboro dominated the court on Sunday, proving once again that the grit and determination required in a self-designed course of study has broader applications. The "Dead Trees" came alive to beat Bennington 52-32, and then played a couple more halves just to drive the message home, 25-23 and 28-19.

Professor William Edelglass was not even a little bit philosophical when it came to fast breaks, and fellow John Arhin abandoned all mathematical precision to snag messy rebounds. Seniors Isaac Lawrence and Nate Weeks played with equal shares of heart and skill, and sophomore Sophie Mueller stood her ground defending against Bennington players twice her size and with half her grace. Freshman Emily Stalter had a killer three-point shot that would make Ray Allen proud. Senior Kenny Card and Sophomore Ryan Stratton signed on at the last moment to help sub in, and local residents Ronie van Loon and Matt Chapman also helped the team control the court. Ronie, grandson and namesake of former history Professor Roland Boyden, wowed spectators and teams alike during halftime with his through-the-legs, over-the-head hook shot, which you would have to see to believe.



Once in Afghanistan and New Jersey

This has been a "historic" week for me, meaning I've been thinking a bit more about history than merely "where did I leave my coffee mug last week?" This was prompted by a remarkable documentary movie presented in Ragle Hall, Once in Afghanistan, about a group of young women Peace Corps volunteers who went to that country in the 1960s to immunize Afghan women against small pox. Their stories and images painted a picture of an Afghanistan that no longer exists; a lot can happen in 40 years, like the Soviet occupation, the Taliban regime and the U.S. military presence. But what really struck me was that these young women were no longer young; in fact you might even call them old, although they looked spry enough to beat me at ping pong. And yet their time in Afghanistan was still a central formative experience in their lives.

I was reminded of this again the next day at the Senior Plan Presentation of Justin Wexler, a student who is exploring the history of native peoples originally from the New York City region. Justin kind of blew my socks off: This unassuming young man knew more about native peoples from the mid-Atlantic, and what happened to their populations and cultural practices following European contact, than I know about anything I can think of. He was translating the words of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who made first contact with these people in 1524. He had surveyed and collected plants used by local tribes, and cultivated an indigenous garden using a deer's shoulder-blade (the deer was dead, he was quick to point out). This study was clearly a profound experience. I enjoyed imagining Justin in 40 years, with grey hair and wrinkles but still able to beat me at ping pong, reflecting back on it.

The "experiential learning cycle," is what Kristina Engstrom, the training director for the volunteers in Once in Afghanistan, called it. She even had a choice little circular hand gesture that described one's experience, then the incorporation of that experience through reflection, informing further experience. Kristina suggested a parallel between how these brave women who went to Afghanistan learned and how Marlboro students learn today. She and film co-director Jill Vickers felt like the village elders, coming to Marlboro to let us know that learning never ends, that "history" is more than just getting old.