Tag Archives: environmental leadership

Controlled Rot: Growing Mushrooms at MacLeish

27 Apr

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” goes the proverbial phrase used to encourage making the best of what one has. At the MacLeish Field Station we have lots of forest that provides much shade. So why not grow food that does not require full sun—such as mushrooms? In April, eight students spent an afternoon inoculating logs with both blue oyster and shitake mushroom spawn. Their work was part of an agroforestry demonstration project being established this year at the Field Station.

Alexandra Davis ’18 and Lilly Williams ’18 drill logs in preparation for inoculation.

Inoculating logs is relatively simple. Holes drilled into recently cut logs are filled with mushroom spawn and then sealed with cheese wax.

Tracy Rompich ’21 inoculates logs with shitake spawn.

Tess Abbot ’20 and Molly Peek ’18 seal the spawn in the logs with cheese wax.

After being labeled, the logs are all stacked in the shadiest part of the forest. Over the 12 months the fungi will grow and spread throughout the logs, becoming well established, and hopefully begin fruiting mushrooms that we can harvest next summer!

 
Preparing hot chocolate for all the volunteers on the beautiful spring day are,
from left, Lily Williams, Molly Peek, Alexandra Davis, and Diana Umana ’19.

A Week with ACE: Lessons from an Environmental Justice Organization

29 Apr

This spring break I left the books at home and hung out with an environmental justice organization in Roxbury, MA. Known locally as ACE, the acronym stands for Alternatives for Community and Environment. Through a series of workshops, adventures, meetings and hands-on work, I had my eyes opened to what environmental justice can—and ought to—look like from the ground on up.

One of my first surprises upon entering the organization was how friendly and easy-going the staff were. I was there with a UMASS grassroots organizing class and the ACE staff had us dive right in—right from hour one. I quickly discovered that about 80% of the staff were between the ages of 17 and 24. They were young, furious, and working hard to improve their neighborhood and to fight for their community. Specifically, their environmental justice campaigns focused on better air quality for Roxbury, improved public transit, anti-gentrification and food justice.

One room of the office space was devoted entirely to the REEP program (Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project and part of ACE). REEP is a youth empowerment program that works with and recruits local high school students—and thus the office was always alive with spunk and energy. It was difficult to not join in the fun!

As a group, my class attended workshops led by the youth organizers. They taught us about environmental justice issues specific to Roxbury, gentrification 101, and the power of story-telling to effect social change. Each of us had to informally present on life experiences that influenced us to pursue environmental justice. Being from a rural town in Northern California, my daily concerns differed vastly from the youth of Roxbury. While I drew the following (and beautifully artistic) rendition of my hometown, the youth organizers from Roxbury were distributing flyers relating to transit justice within their own community (see flyer below). Roxbury is a 95% black neighborhood and has been historically—and notoriously— ignored and marginalized by transit development and air quality control.

My beautiful rendition of environmental hazards in my hometown, Northern California.

My beautiful rendition of environmental hazards in my hometown in Northern California.

The flyers that we distributed throughout Roxbury.

The flyers we distributed throughout Roxbury.

In fact, in 1997, REEP was founded by a high school led campaign to hold the MBTA accountable to the Massachusetts anti-idling law. Roxbury has a higher rate of residents with asthma than any other neighborhood in Boston and it was apparent that the MBTA’s bus parking garage was a major contributor to the problem. Buses were left idling on a daily basis, generating excessive exhaust that permeated the neighborhood. On a “Toxic Tour” of Dudley Square led by one of the youth, we were exposed to the air quality monitoring station that was installed as a result of their anti-idling initiative.

A view from the local high school in Roxbury of dirty stormwater.

A view of dirty storm water from the Roxbury high school.

My biggest take-away from the week was learning the difference between environmentalism and environmental justice. In a 1987 study titled “Toxic Wastes and Race” by the United Church of Christ, it was determined that race is the most significant factor in predicting the distribution of environmentally hazardous facilities. A repeat study, conducted twenty years later, showed that people of color are now found to be even more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown. Thus environmental justice is focused on equality of healthy resources and environments for ALL people. To this end, ACE’s mission is to “build the power of communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to eradicate environmental racism and classism, create healthy, sustainable communities, and achieve environmental justice.” Their Vision of Change is as follows:

“Systemic change means moving beyond solving problems one by one to eliminating the root causes of environmental injustice. ACE is anchoring a movement of people who have been excluded from decision-making to confront power directly and demand fundamental changes in the rules of the game, so together we can achieve our right to a healthy environment.”

After this experience I encourage all of us to move beyond popular narratives of environmentalism. Instead, we need to reevaluate our commitments to the Earth AND to its people.

To learn more about ACE, or to donate, visit: www.ace-ej.org.

-Odessa Aguirre is a senior at Smith College from Sonora, California. She studies Anthropology with a focus on immigration and Spanish. When she is not at Smith College, she is somewhere sunny and warm. Her future plans include backpacking in every feasible mountain range–and for the non-feasible mountain ranges, she has plans to train as a mountaineer.

Learning to understand a food forest

1 Jul

The outdoor realm of the world has always held more fascination for me than that of the built environment, mostly, I think, because of the variety of smells. At home, those smells were pine needles and green peas, strawberries and mulch. In Ecuador, where I’m completing a two-month tropical food production internship on a biosphere reserve, the smells are vastly different but still provide fascination for me; the smells of maracullá and papaya, donkeys and thatched roofs mingle with motor oil and moist air for an intoxicating mixture of jungle community. When I first arrived in the 350-person community of Camarones four weeks ago, I made the three-kilometer trek up to the Jama-Coaque Biosphere Reserve. I unpacked in the bamboo tree house and became acquainted with the moist evergreen forest surrounding me. I looked out on the tree-covered mountains and immediately took stock of what was lacking from my normal view—power lines, roofs, and road cuts, to name a few. What was present was thereby made more special—I saw powerful hummingbirds hovering over passion flowers, countless bizarre insects, as well as a mish-mash of fruit trees and shrubs that would soon become my fascination. About an acre of the Jama-Coaque Reserve is a permaculture food forest, and this site is where I’m spending most of my time.

I’m learning more and more that a permaculture system looks akin to a half-forgotten forest. And even more, I’m learning this laissez-faire appearance is intentional—strived for even. This is hard for me to comprehend; I come from a suburban New England town where lawns were the norm and any stray dandelion was blasphemous and immediately attacked with any number of chemicals, from RAID to Windex. In school, I was praised for having all my papers in numerical order and at home I was rewarded for keeping the table clean. These subtle influences made me want to control everything in my reach. This tendency mostly manifests itself in a clean room, doing most of the driving on road trips, and taking on the mother role in many friend groups.

This controlling trait of mine has also applied to most of the gardening I’ve done in my life. Gardening brings me joy and peace because I have a hand in producing the food that I consume. Neat rows, not a single maple seedling in sight, and beautifully trellised tomatoes are my favorite TV shows and I could watch them for hours. Of course, there have been mishaps, including a slapdash pea trellis, and a bunch of tomatoes whose growth was stunted when I mistook their terminal buds for suckers (suckers are sometimes removed from tomatoes so that energy is sent to a few tomatoes to make them bigger—in this case, the tomato plants had to send lots of energy into a sucker stem to create a new terminal bud).

Nothing compares, though, to the chaos and beauty of permaculture. To my control-focused brain, a permaculture system is difficult to comprehend, but I’m coming to understand the purpose. Along with the general food production my internship entails, I will also be getting a Permaculture Design Certification. This certification will verify that I am capable of designing a system that might look like an overgrown forest but that is so productive the fruits of my labor will literally be falling on my head (this is not an exaggeration—I’ve had maracullá, or passion fruit, fall off its vine into my lap while reading in a hammock).

The food production side of the reserve is still young, but some of my favorite permaculture techniques that the reserve employs include a water filtration system that uses beneficial bacteria that inhabit sand and eat harmful microorganisms, making the river water potable; planting ginger rhizomes to outcompete weeds; and utilizing the cleansing properties of banana and yucca plants to filter our grey water. I am also learning the concepts of design, which really just define common sense principles of using a problem to create a solution, among other things. The crux of permaculture is to design sustainable human settlements, something we all need to put all of our time and energy into.

Life on the reserve is similar to a permaculture system—while most of our food still does not come from the backyard, bananas, oranges, limes, passion fruit, yucca, oreganon, spicy ají peppers and a spinach-like green called verdulaga come in from the food forest and supplement our diet. Our days are relaxed and full of learning. The day starts at eight, maybe clearing the understory with machetes or harvesting oranges and cacao in the forest, followed by an extended lunch, and then permaculture class. The day ends at four and a good two or three hours of my afternoon are consumed by reading (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert are my latest obsessions). Since there is no electricity, dinners are shared by candlelight and then after a game of cards it’s to bed at 8:30.

One of the things I’ll miss the most when I return to the States is having an infinite supply of fresh local bananas at my doorstep. The coast of Ecuador is prime banana country—“banana heaven” is what my intern coordinator called it—and each week it’s someone’s chore to harvest a whole stalk. Bananas are actually overgrown herbaceous plants, not trees, and their vascular system is amazing. To harvest the fruit, one must cut down the plant, which then exudes copious amounts of sap. Each xylem tube of the plant is visible to the naked eye, making the cut stump look something like a beehive, but with rectangular holes instead of hexagonal. A banana stalk contains anywhere between 25-35 bananas and terminates in a long stem holding its purple flower bud. Since all bananas that are cultivated today are clones, bananas do not reproduce sexually, so this flower never gets to complete its natural cycle. Bananas produce pups at their base, which grow into subsequent plants in about nine month. I pretty much swore off of bananas a while ago for the well-known politico-social reasons, but while in Ecuador I’m planning to consume as many as my body can stand and appreciate this bizarre fruit’s sweetness while I can.

The most recent adventure in tropical food production surrounded a pile of light-brown fermented seedpods. These seeds had been harvested from age-old trees and their orange outer-pods sat fermenting in a bag for about three days and then spent the past two weeks drying in the sun. Yesterday, we toasted them over a low flame and then cracked open the casings to reveal a midnight black oval with a delicious fragrance. Once ground, this end result was turned into xocolatl—“bitter liquid” in the Aztec language Nahuatl. In other words, hot chocolate. From the tree to the cup, chocolate takes on many forms, and in the process I experienced we didn’t even make a classic chocolate bar. Yet I have to say my favorite part of this whole cacao process was not sipping of the panela-sweetened drink but sucking on the freshly harvested outer pods, which are coated with a sweet and slightly tangy goo that is absolute heaven. My fellow food production interns and I sat for about an hour shelling the pods and intermittently sticking one into our mouths to enjoy that sweet flavor. Cacao is actually native to Ecuador, yet most modern cacao does not come from here. However, the majority of the highest quality cacao is grown in coastal Ecuador, right near the reserve. So while I’m eating locally now, I will sadly never be able to taste the fine flavor of Ecuadorian cacao in a Hershey’s bar…but who needs those anyway? I’ll have my chaotic, fruit-falling permaculture garden design to keep me happy when I return.

P.S. I apologize for the lack of pictures—we operate with limited technology up here! If you’d like some photos of this project, visit the reserve’s website at http://www.tmalliance.org, their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.780585085294384.1073741834.154975601188672&type=1 or check out my fellow intern’s blog at http://sarahkbarney.wordpress.com/.

-Julia Graham, ’16

Leadership*- Day 3

9 Jan

Wednesday was our final day together in the environmental leadership workshop. We were happy to sit back and hear from seven Five College alumnae who are leaders of one kind or another in the environmental field, about their career paths, about the kind of work they do, and about what keeps them coming back for more day after day, despite (or because of) the challenges they face in doing their work. I think we all left inspired and reassured, with new ideas to consider.

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The day wrapped up with the promised lecture by someone many consider an environmental hero: Denis Hayes.  It was exciting to see the Neilson Browsing Room fill up with students, faculty, staff, and members of our larger local community, eager to hear from someone who has accomplished so much and who continues to provide inspiration. 

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It was a great three days, and students are already asking about whether we will offer a similar workshop next year! We’ll keep you posted…

IMG_2037                                 Leaving MacLeish

-Joanne Benkley, CEEDS

Leadership*- Day 2

7 Jan

What a beautiful day today was! It was definitely cold, but the clear, sunny, brilliant blue skies and the landscape beckoned, so after a morning considering some of life’s big issues– you know, like what path to take after graduating, how to not only face, but learn and grow as a result challenges and failure– most of us set off to explore. (I should say, this was after yet another delicious lunch provided by Chanterelle Catering.) We came back gratefully to the heated building and a warm drink, freshly invigorated and ready to hone our skills at op ed writing.

winding paths

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BraveThey all said they were smiling, but it was a bit hard to tell with all the layers!

HoningIn                                    Honing in on the perfect lede sentences.

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Tomorrow is our final day together, but we are all looking forward to our conversation with a number of “environmental” alumnae from each of the Five Colleges. The workshop will wrap up at 5:30 p.m. with the lecture “From Earth Day to Tomorrow: Environmentalism in the Digital Century” given by Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. A seasoned veteran of many legislative, cultural, and courtroom battles over the years, and the author of numerous books and articles, Hayes is probably still best known for having been National Coordinator of the first Earth Day when he was 25. The lecture, held in the Neilson Browsing Room, is free and open to the public.

-Joanne Benkley, CEEDS

*The workshop is sponsored by Smith College and Five Colleges, Inc., with support from the Thoreau Foundation. The effort is also a three Centers collaboration! Thank you Jennifer Walters, director, Center for Community Collaboration and Jessica Bacal, director, Wurtele Center for Work and Life, for everything.

Environmental Leadership in the 21st Century

6 Jan

This is just a quickie post, an update of sorts– You see, despite slippery roads, and weather that ran the gamut from rain and fog to snow, the environmental leadership workshop* went on… and what a fun day we had at MacLeish! Here are a few pictures to give you a small taste of our time together. The group was made up of students from all Five Colleges (UMASS, Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges) who came with such a variety of interests. It was great to see them make connections, both personally and with each other. Hopefully tomorrow we will be able to go outside, too, to take in some of the natural world that is our inspiration…

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-Joanne Benkley, Assistant Director, CEEDS

*The Interterm workshop is sponsored by Smith College and the Five Colleges, Inc. with support from the Thoreau Foundation.