Archive by Author

Faculty Spotlight: Sharon Seelig

6 Mar

Sharon Seelig is a long time member of the community, having come to the Pioneer Valley in 1967 and to Smith College in 1980. Seelig, the Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities, primarily teaches classes that focus on Renaissance English literature and early modern women writers. Over the past few years, she began integrating environmental themes into her courses and teachings here at Smith, and getting more involved with similar kinds of issues on campus. She currently serves as a member of the College Committee on Sustainability and as a Faculty Fellow for the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability (CEEDS).

When asked about her work as an English literature professor with ties to the environment and nature, Seelig attributes her interest to early childhood, where she spent her first five years on a farm in Southern Minnesota and lived in very small towns thereafter. “I wasn’t an only child, but my brother was 13-years older than I was, so I might as well have been an only child. I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself noticing things like the ferns by the house, the yellow violets under the willow tree, and the abandoned garden with surprising flowers.”

Seelig’s passion for both literature and the environment led to the creation of her First Year Seminar: Reading the Earth, which was first offered in the fall of 2008. “It has been a lot of fun to try to bring together my own training as a reader of texts to reading the world as a text.” The course, inspired by geology faculty member John Brady’s method of education through exploration and discovery, is based on the idea that we employ similar tools in literary criticism as we do in observing our natural world. From Brady’s course, Seelig developed her own focus, which was not to have a prescribed body of knowledge, but instead to allow student observations and insights to direct the class. “I wanted this to be a course about seeing,” Seelig explained.

seelig students                      Students in Seelig’s class explore and observe the world together…
student_writing                                           …and on their own.

Outside of the classroom Seelig has deepened her connection to the natural world by spending her summers as a National Park volunteer, first in Utah and then at Glacier National Park in Montana. Seelig described the latter as one of the most wonderful things she has ever experienced. “I had wanted to do this for a long time, and it turns out it is not as easy to get this gig as you might think.” Seelig described her acceptance into the program at Glacier as a hard-fought win, “I mean, I campaigned seriously for this job… [when I heard I had gotten the position] I was as happy at that moment as when I got tenure at Smith.”  Seelig went on to say that although the job was hard, there were also amazing benefits, like the opportunity to share the splendor of the natural world with others. “Each week we walked through a burn area with beautiful wildflowers, which were different every week. It was just wonderful.” As she reflected back on the experience, Seelig commented that “my interest in the natural world led me to do this, and I see it as in harmony with what I do here.”


Seelig continues to be an active proponent of environmental health and education through her teaching and contributions on campus. Even her daily habits reflect an environmental awareness. “When I leave Seelye I try to turn off all the lights in all the rooms. Again, it is a tiny step, but I believe that if you are aware of these things and you are practicing them personally, the idea might spread.” She also offered some creative ideas to our current landscape aesthetic. “This will not fly, but I wish we could bring goats onto campus! Lawns are a problem. Must they be only blades of grass? I mean, is that really necessary? What is wrong with clover?” Seelig attributes her motivation for taking on environmental issues to her long-standing concern about the planet. “I have seen the effect of climate change in the 40 years that I have been in the Valley. I know what is happening and it distresses me. And it worries me that many students don’t seem as concerned about it as I am. I am very glad for those who are, but it seems to me a real crisis.” And one, that in Seelig’s opinion, is starting to be addressed. “We are moving in the right direction and the sustainability committee is working on this. There are a wonderful group of alums who are the advisory board to CEEDS and they are full steam ahead and engaged, and I feel if that spirit can spread, people will learn!”

As our conversation came to a close, Seelig recited a Thoreau quote about civil disobedience that still lingers in my head: “It is not necessary for a man to do everything, but a man must do something.” Seelig reiterated that something is “…what you can. It doesn’t mean you alone can solve the problem, but you must do what you can do. You absolutely must, it is your obligation as a citizen, as a human being. It takes many people’s gifts and skills to do this, but it is important.” Through her work both in and out of the classroom, Seelig aims to continue to empower and engage those around her. “The challenge is how to spread awareness and provide students with information without insisting on one answer. Because it is important that people work through the process and come to their own conclusion.” Yet, Seelig warned, “there are a lot of things that people won’t know about if we don’t provide avenues for their exploration.” Sharon Seelig is one professor at Smith who is certainly providing some of those avenues.

-Hanna Mogensen, ’14

Feeding our Hearts and our Heads

29 Nov

Have you noticed the new signs in our dining halls –maps, information about animal by products, and information about food available locally? These spiffy visuals are the work of the environmental science and policy capstone class (ENV 312) as they focus on community environmental issues right here on campus. The students have been taking a closer look at on how much of Smith’s dining food is local, where it is coming from, and what the student response is to local foods on campus.

For example, this week new maps have gone up in dining halls to highlight the food being served that is produced locally. Did you know that yogurt from Sidehill Farm comes right from Hawley, MA (28 miles away). Also, since last January, Smith College made the transition to using ALL cage free eggs provided from a local grower in NH. In the winter, many of our carrots, radishes and parsnips are supplied by Winter Moon Farm and transported the 4.5 miles to campus via bike cart!

local map

In addition, table tents and small handouts about our rBGH-free milk, available in many dining halls from Guida Farms in CT, can be found scattered around dining halls. Keep your eyes open for special meals featuring locally grown meat, such as Thanksgiving dinner and Julia Child’s Night, where products come straight from Massachusetts farms.

By showing your appreciation for these efforts, students can support Dining Services decision to purchasing more local, sustainable food that feeds us better and helps our community farmers at the same time! Look for the yellow sticker that denotes local food in dining halls today.

Also, please share you thoughts and feelings about our food on campus by taking our survey. It takes just 5 minutes of your time, and you could win a prize for participating!

Bridge 1 circle 3

-Hanna Mogensen, ’14
CEEDS Intern

The Hunt for Fungi

11 Nov

The diversity of fungal species is outstanding. Whether one is considering location, shape, color, touch, smell, or even taste, fungi are the masters of symbiotic interactions. They tap into the resources of both living and dead plants to gain nutrients and energy to feed their prolific underground networks. Fungi are incredibly important in nutrient recycling, as many of them act as decomposers, helping to maintain the richness of the forest habitats that supports a diversity of life.

DSC06290Crepidotus herbarum

This semester I am working with Ellena Baum to create a fungi collection as part of our work for Plant Ecology. We began our hunt for local fungi at the MacLeish Field Station. The location’s segmented land-use history makes it an ideal location to explore both old stand and new growth forest stands, and provides an opportunity to exploring the diversity of what each forest type has to offer. The soil squishing beneath our feet and the moist warmth in the air were  harbingers to success, as these conditions are ideal for the growth of fungal fruiting bodies. Apparently, these were the ideal conditions for tree frogs as well. With every step we took, half a dozen little frogs, no bigger than an inch in length sprung from the leaf litter. We stepped carefully around the forest in awe of their presence. Despite these summer-like conditions, the trees above had already started to drop their canopies, resulting in a dense blanket of leaf litter covering the forest floor that necessitated our dropping down on all fours to be able to carefully move leaf litter aside and scan the ground.

DSC06220Clitocybe Truncicola

It wasn’t long before we started to note an abundance of fungal species everywhere- on the leaf litter, dead logs and even living trees. Some species were hard to spot, as they blended in flawlessly, like the brown and funnel shaped Lentinus detonsus. Others stood out, like the red topped Russula. We also stumbled across fungi with beautiful organic shapes, like Crepidotus herbarum, which we called delicate coral. And even some that looked nothing like the mushroom bodies that we typically associate with fungi, like the black fungus that we called the “dead finger” (scientific name is Xylana polymorpha.)

DSC06327         DSC06239
Xylana polymorpha                                          Russula

Our day concluded with over 5 dozen brown bags each containing a fungal specimen. While field work was done for the day, our analysis was nowhere near finished- now it was time for lab work!  As we headed back up the leaf-covered slope through the forest, I stopped for a moment to consider just how much life exists in the complex and interwoven forest environment, from the giant white pines to the tiny soil microbes. And while my head pondered this thought, my grumbling belly wondered just how many of these specimens we collected were edible!

-Hanna Mogensen ’14

A Trip Down the Damariscotta

1 Oct

The Damariscotta River winds between small historic towns and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Maine’s rocky coast.  Despite its seemingly peaceful flow, this estuary habitat is teeming with life, as indicated by its Abenaki name which translates as “the river of many fish.”  Since the weekend mission of our marine ecology class was to study marine wildlife, the Damariscotta estuary was a perfect place to start. The class boarded the small research vessel Ira C.  prepared to see the workings of one of the most productive waterways in the state. Our Captain, Robby, immediately took the stage, climbing up on the edge of the boat to gaze over the masses congregated on the ship’s floor below him. “One rule on my boat: I don’t ask you to do somethin’, I tell you to do somethin’.” The gruff rough and tumble demeanor of this weathered looking native Mainer was quickly cut with a hearty laugh as he jumped off the side and began to share his passion for the river we were navigating. Through his historical knowledge we were informed about the incredibly unique habitat of the Damariscotta. The salinity of the river is higher than most estuaries, boasting levels that are comparable to the open ocean. The high salinity, paired with increased temperatures and the protected landscape, make this estuary a prime habitat for aquaculture. As we sped up the river, large black chains of floats, 30,40,50 units long were strung near the shore. Robby pointed a leathery finger off into the distance at the odd structures, saying “those there are the oyster farms…they’re popping up all ovah.” And in fact they were. Shortly after we saw another conglomeration upstream.


Aquaculturists in the region use cutting edge engineering capabilities to produce millions of oyster seedlings annually for market production. One of the most predominant farms in the area, Mook’s Fishery, boasted a seed production of 80 million this last summer and is looking to increase this number by 50 percent in the coming season. The huge success of oyster production on the river is due to a mixture of the natural environmental conditions, as well as human advancements in seed nurseries, increased nutrient feed supply, and better growing and harvesting techniques. Robby mentioned that experimentation with mussel aquaculture, the first of its kind, is taking place in the Damariscotta. Plankton is the major food source for filter feeders like oysters, and the Damariscotta has plenty of it! To illustrate the richness of these primary producers, we dropped a  large plankton net 21 feet below the surface and towed it slowly behind the boat.  After only two minutes,  we pulled it back in to see that the net, originally white, was now brown because of the abundant single celled algae stuck to it.

Plankton Tow Dredge net                        

The Damariscotta is an immensely important resource for a multitude of marine organisms. Therefore, it is impossible not to notice the changes that the river has been experiencing over the last few decades as the effects of human activity begin to be felt. As a way to better understand the environment below the surface, we conducted a small dredging sample. The excitement on the boat was evident every time our net lifted back out of the water, pulling up everything from charismatic sea stars, to pinching crustaceans and various forms of algae. Yet, despite this diversity, both Captain Robby and professors Paulette Peckol and Graham Kent noted the differences in the catch between this year and past trips. The changing environment of the Damariscotta was a theme of the trip.  The challenges presented by climate change were reiterated by ecologist and oyster specialist Andy Stevenson when he later came to discuss aquaculture and the change in naturally occurring small-celled algae in the water column. Tim Miller, ecologist at the Darling Marine Center also discussed his worry about shell disease with the native lobster population, stating that while funding was not available to support it, research on the subject was needed. The trip left us with the realization of the fragility of our changing world and the effect that those changes will have, not only on single-celled marine algae, but on all species as it reverberates up the ladder.  The savory taste of lobster lingering in our memory from the previous night’s dinner became even more cherished with our new found understanding of this new wave of environmental uncertainty facing this complex marine system.

Hanna Mogensen, ’14

Hanna is a biology and environmental science and policy double major at Smith College and is working as a CEEDS intern! Despite being a proud Mainer, this trip was her first to the beautiful Damariscotta River. She is greatly enjoying having the opportunity to get out and explore the world through her courses. Hanna is excited to celebrate her last fall on campus with excessive amounts of apple picking, leaf peeping, pumpkin carving and other good old fashioned fun!