Walk #9: The Word Barn


Class Pic@ The Word Barn

Today, we gathered at The Word Barn in Newfields for the inaugural celebratory reading of this spring’s Lit and the Land writing. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by the stunningly talented Three-Quarter Moon, a student band comprised of singer/banjoist (and L&L member!) Hannah Merril; singer/mandolinist Sol Chase; and singer/guitarist Erica McCormick. Thanks, too, to local poet/teacher Sarah Anderson for lending us the use of her Word Barn space!

While we heard an array of voices today, all of them held at their core the themes of place and beauty, the natural world and its myriad expressions. It was a joy to listen to your words today, making their own music–humansong as beautiful as any birds I’ve heard all spring. Hopefully, I’ll have some more video of the event up soon.

-Mr. Bre


Student Writing: Blood Brain Barrier

When I was fifteen years old, on a muggy May Wednesday in Pittsburgh, I learned about the blood-brain barrier.

Before, through prematurely-peeled scabs and too-loose molars and over-chewed hang-nails of third grade, I had come to know my sloshing erythrocytes and leukocytes and pulsating plasma as ubiquitous. Ubiquitous as the ubiquitin enzymes that nonchalantly whirl and twirl through my cells. Blood was a chartreuse reservoir, a watershed, upon which my flesh delicately floated. Under my skin, blood was everywhere. Or, so I thought.

The blood-brain barrier is a humble thing. A forgotten thing. Or, rather, a thing never realized. It is a diaphanous layer of endothelial cells that guards brain cells from blood vessels (Abbot et al 2006). I thought that blood cells could travel anywhere they wished in my body, on miniature turnpikes to junctions to trails and to other cells. But they can’t. They can’t travel to my cerebral cortex. To my brain. To me.

Blood and most of its cumbersome cargo can’t saunter through the kingdom of spongy grey and tangled white matter. But, some cargo can. VIP cargo can. Glucose— tiny nuggets of chemical energy—can. Energy is life, so energy can travel fast past the toll-collector; it has an E-Z Pass on the Pennsylvania turnpike.

Cantaloupe-hued sticky-monkey blossoms and Santa Cruz Mountain ponderosa puzzle-bark and Mono Lake tufa crumbs. Gulps of zooplankton and Asilomar turban snail poop and Carmel Point sunsets and sand-encrusted, stale pastries. Warm whispers of Mom’s soft voice reading Siddhartha to the family from the other tent. Adrenaline-squirting phantoms of mountain-lion cubs in Tuolumne Meadows and back-country vegetarian chili.

These are the things which can cross my blood-brain barrier. These are the things which bear E-Z Passes on the Pennsylvania turnpike. These are the things that are glucose; these are the things that are energy. These are the things that are life. These are the things that can travel fast past the toll-collector, as if blessed with some hereditary familiarity.

Stands of New Hampshire white pines and honey-hued birch and melting mounds of snow. Horseshoe crabs and warm Atlantic breezes. West Texan chaparral and itinerant termites of the semi-arid Llano Estacado. Crispy South Dakotan Badlands.

These are the things which cannot cross my blood-brain barrier. Between me and these zany natural places far from home is a barrier almost as tangible as the gauzy endothelial cells in my brain. I didn’t usher in mitosis, but the cells have proliferated nonetheless. To know by feeling is not easy for me, but this, I know by feeling…

When I sit amid sleepy, wave-misted Monterey Pines and granite alcoves at Point Lobos, the forest is soluble in me. Or, rather, I am soluble in the forest. The Monterey Pines dissolve into me, and I dissolve into the Monterey Pines. When I sit among thickets of Witch Hazel and Hemlock in the Academy Woods, or under the shade of a willow in Pennsylvania, the forest is not soluble in me, and I am not soluble in the forest. I wish I could say it were, and I wish I could say I were, but it is not, and I am not.

I first learned about the blood-brain barrier at the International Science Fair. But perhaps, I’d known about it much earlier than that. Or perhaps, I’d felt it much earlier than that. I’d felt it the first time I sat in unknown forests under unknown trees under the unknown auspices of unknown clouds over my head.

Part of me wishes it would melt away, that the endothelial cells will pop quietly in apoptosis, that I could be soluble in the unfamiliar, and that the unfamiliar could be soluble in me.

But part of me knows, in some private crevice in the skull, that the blood-brain barrier is, on most days, my only tether to home. It may be diaphanous and it may be humble, but it links my internal core—my brain—to my external core—California, and its mountains and deserts and delectable dirt and rabid waves. To the glucose that sustains my spirit. It deserves some respect. Not apoptosis.

Works Cited

Abbott, N. Joan, Lars Rönnbäck, and Elisabeth Hansson. “Astrocyte–endothelial Interactions at the Blood–brain Barrier.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7.1 (2006): 41-53. Web.

-Ailis Dooner

Walk #8: Apple Annie

Class in yurt Yurt Apple blossom blossom 2 blossom 3


My toenails are soggy in my vernal-mud-encrusted Mizuno trail runners. My feet are planted upon blades of dew-spritzed weeds on a slope that is covered in frolicking labradoodles and plymouth rock hens and a giggling toddler on a trike. This is a New England apple orchard: not a grove of ruler-straight, dizzyingly parallel rows of Kern County almonds—the imagery I have come to associate with “orchard.” It is a variegated wonderland of spring smells mingled with phantoms and figments of autumnal warmth— sweet, dusty cider donuts and sparkling cider and apple-pickin’ flannels—which has receded like high tide, but is also incipient. The pollen on my fingertips could be cinnamon-sugary-fairy donut dust in a few months’ time, in apple season. But for now, it is pollen. For now, it is spring. If only bone marrow or hearts or brains or lives were like apple trees. Malleable. Twistable. Braidable. Amenable to union with a healthy version. I know the slope of this apple orchard. The wet grass and the baby violet verbena blossoms and the soft, cold mud. The gradient has been under my toenails before. But, it hasn’t. Perhaps I am mistaking familiarity with an intangible aura for familiarity with a tangible slope.

It is an aura. Or maybe, an era. When I was thirteen, my family terminated our lease on a single-family home in Monterey, California, and moved in with a family friend, Gabriel, in the rural abode of a horse and chicken farm in Prunedale. I remember the smell of oak trees in the morning and the taste of fresh huevos rancheros. Of mud-scraped knees and overextended badminton muscles. For three months, a slope with dew-spritzed weeds and plymouth rock hens and Arabian horses was home. On this apple orchard in this miniature town in southern New Hampshire, I feel an aura that I once knew. The orchard may not have Arabian horses, but it has a feel. I remember a home that I entirely forgot I had. I grin.

My classmates and I nibble on gooey coconut and read poetry in a barn. I sense that we are not the only souls under these creaky pillars; I hear the cacophony of laughter, taste the saltiness of tears, and feel the warmth of a million awkward hugs from vaguely known third-aunts —diffuse sensations spanned across generations behind me, concentrated like d-hall fruit punch in this moment and place in space. It is an aura. An aura of convergence. Of closeness. I close my eyes for just a moment. I know this aura. At Gabriel’s horse-farm, there was was a small fire-pit where we would converge on warm inland-California nights in the late spring. Gabriel would play his guitar and I, who at the time thought I was a fledgling Hannah Montana, would test my voice:

Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores

Porque cantando se alegran

Cielito lindo los corazones

This was our poetry. In the glow of the bonfire, we would devour corn chips and Gabriel’s famous guacamole in a treasured molcajete— a stone mortar and pestle—which harbored some timeless secret ingredient in its mineral crevices. The guacamole was salty, but tangy with the juice of lima, lime. Some days—after a triumph in badminton or a long hike—the tanginess was tinged with sweetness. Other days, the tanginess was tinged with sorrow. Or jubilation. Or relief. The tanginess of a lime is in the tastebuds of the beholder. This is a lesson I learned in the chartreuse glow of a bonfire amid the mingled aroma of decaying oak leaves and hay.

A transposon is a bite-sized chunk of DNA that frolics around like labradoodles in an organism’s genome, courting the adenines and cytosines and thymines and guanines until it finds a new niche or a vacation spot. An enzyme, transposase, extracts the transposon from its original locale and sutures it into a new dwelling. As I stand on these blades of dew-spritzed grass on this story-book slope in this story-book wonderland, I suddenly know something I have never before known. I have been transposed. I can feel the cool clench of transposase in the cracks of my soggy toenails. I am a transposon. I have been transposed. From a Prunedale horse-farm to a New England apple orchard. From a bonfire to a barn. From an aura to an aura. I have been transposed.

class in field dog dog Flower flower 2 flower 4 flower 5



Laurie's favorite tree...

Laurie’s favorite tree…



The orchard

The orchard



The river behind the farm...

The river behind the farm…

New splices not quite ready to be braided...

New splices not quite ready to be braided…

Ocean Rock

It only takes about ten minutes to get to the top from the parking lot. The climb is steep and dark. My feet send small landslides of pebbles tumbling a few feet down the mountain. The path levels and after scrambling over a large, jagged boulder, I can see the entire Salt Lake City valley. The edges of the scene are hidden by the night, but the center is illuminated by millions of lights. You can’t distinguish individual buildings, or people, or cars–all you can see is the glow. If you position yourself right, you can look straight down Main Street and watch the streetlights change from red to green. The rock I’m sitting on is rough, and I shift under the uneven granite, but my eyes stay locked on the blaze of yellow before me. If you lay upside down, then the lights look like stars and the sky looks like a dark, blue ocean. This is how locals started calling it “Ocean Rock”. I gaze out at the landscape and at the lights disguising themselves as stars.

Just as every star in the galaxy has its own solar system, its own self-contained world, each of the millions of lights belongs to someone. Every glimmer in every building in the city represents a life, with its own troubles and triumphs. And I can see them all. I can see downtown Salt Lake City where we’d walked earlier that day. When I was amidst the bustle of University Boulevard, the rest of the city hadn’t existed to me. All I had thought about were the signs, buildings, and people that I could see. In that moment it had all seemed so significant. But from this vantage point, the street is only a speck among thousands. I feel absolutely, unimportantly small, but in this sense of wonder I am utterly at home. It’s easy to forget that we are all people living together, social by nature. Humans have gone to such great lengths just to surround themselves with interactions. From “Ocean Rock” I can see that the whole city is connected. And even when you can’t see or feel it, so are the people.

My friends start their descent back to the parking lot, but I can’t leave yet. I gaze up at the silky blue darkness that stretches to each horizon. I follow the slopes of the moonlight-soaked mountains down to the flashing city nestled tenderly between high summits. I try to look at a single light, but it’s impossible to focus on just one since their glows overlap. Seeing the whole city, each light, each story, I am reminded that all the dots connect. This moment is mine, mine too is this fleeting understanding of the sky and mountains and city and the distance between them. Before turning to leave, I look back at the valley one last time, and it all seems so vividly important. The blue-black sky, and the trembling stars and the twinkling city lights, and me. I am alone, but so much a part of the night.

-Victoria Prend

Walk #7: Brad and Amy Robinson: Of Beavers and Bees

Having two friendly, snuffly dogs come wagging up to greet me as I step out of a van feels like home, and that’s precisely how our visit to Brad and Amy Robinson’s home and farm continued feeling. Keep in mind, I have absolutely no experience with farming, besides our trip to Glen’s and the occasional local fruit picking. I did grow up in this kind of land, though; of skyscraper trees and seral growth that scrapes at your shins, of routine tick checks and squatting on the edge of ponds to watch anything that moves (and swat at Mosquitos). Between Amy’s expert knowledge of bees, her attitude that balanced bee health and honey sales, Brad’s planning of which trees turn into firewood, and the almost solitary- yet still connected-  current running throughout the farm, I felt increasingly comfortable and at home even knowing the work performed was not easy. It was their hard work; their little community that they had started, which they were graciously bringing us into.
I saw this reflected in the Robinsons’ thoughts on beehives: that like organisms, they are made of many individual working parts that make up the whole. Bees and blood and honeycombs and cells and bones and queens and brains, all interconnected and similar in their necessity to keep it- the beehive or the organism- alive. Bees don’t have an immune system, but they clean each other and create a substance called propolis,  effectively becoming the immune system of the whole hive so that sicknesses don’t catch and spread. Bees have made the Robinsons rethink community, especially communities of people, in how people look after one another and work for something big. I will definitely be thinking about this on my own during my travels this summer, when I get to experience communities and creatures of all kinds.
I didn’t want Amy to stop talking. Between her charisma, humble approach of knowledge, dedication to healthy bees, and use of visuals and “hands on” experience, even going so far as to share some honey that she collected, I felt that I could listen to her far longer than any lecturer. Perhaps it was her passion leaking into speech, or it was the sky full of Baltimore Oriole flutesong and the meadow of grasses which held patches of wild flowers– either way, I wanted to learn about bees all day.
One image sticks to my thoughts: the mossy, stubbed trunk of a white oak, a ledge cutting across the center of its surface cut where jagged fingers spike toward the sky. It was only a few meters into the woods, a location slightly far away from the water.
“It was a beautiful tree”
“Beavers’ selections are random”
“I like to think we have an agreement, the beavers and I”
So there are little parts working for a whole. Brad got to claim the tree he had admired, because the Beavers ate away at it until it died. It became firewood, it became heat for a house, for a stove, for Brad and Amy and their bees. Little parts working together. The bee, an organism. The beehive, an organism. The farm, an organism.
-Hannah Sessler

Hannah flowers


Brad’s “agreement” tree…

Bee barn

Bee barn

bees close up Bees, Amy class, bees

Hannah with a hive...

Hannah with a hive…

hive, close

Trying Amy's honey!

Trying Amy’s honey!

Walk #6: Willow Pond Magic

We climb out of the humid red dragon, and are immediately greeted with the faint fishy odor of Neptune’s Harvest fertilizer. Glenn, the owner of Willow Pond Farm, quickly leads us over to Willow Pond. Dozens of tadpoles lay still in the shallow murky water, even as you approach the surface. The pond and the farm get its name from the willow trees that hang over the water.

Glenn begins to tell us of the benefits of a local community supported agriculture (C.S.A.). He wears shin-high muck-boots caked in mud and dust. His dark khaki workpants and matching long-sleeved shirt protect his skin from the sun he has to endure, working outside for hours each day. His beaded necklace and patchy beard create a relaxed environment when he speaks to us. “Right on,” he says.

C.S.A.’s are farms where members of the community buy in annually, then are allowed to take food from the farm for their own use. This system allows the farmer to work without the constant demand of needing to sell product as soon as it is harvested, as Glenn knows that his members will come to pick up groceries each week; and the community is able to gather around delicious, organic, and fresh food while supporting a small business. At Willow Pond Farm, members can chose to either pay $500 a year for weekly groceries during harvest season, or can pay $400 and work on the farm for 12 hours.

Today we are working on the farm. After giving us an introduction to C.S.A.’s Glenn brings us over to the greenhouse where he hands us two pots of onion stalks. Our task for the day is to plant as many onion plants as possible.

Glenn walks us over to the row where we will be planting our onions, and hands out piles of “Red Long” onion stems. Each crop row at the farm is about two feet wide, and Glenn uses a Water Wheel Transplanter connected to his tractor to plow each row and burrow hundreds of small holes in the fertilizer for each plant. The holes are three inches deep before hitting really dense wet soil where we are to individually place each onion. On the average day this would take Glenn over an hour, but today with our group of 11, we project to be finished within 20 minutes.

We spread out an immediately begin planting our onions. The noon sun beams down on us as it does to Glenn every day. As we plant, we talk about the positive effects of C.S.A.’s, our summer plans, and some of us even eat a few of the pungent onion stems. Dust from the loose soil coats us, and we lose our initial reservations about getting dirty. We rest on our hands and knees, flinging powdery dirt at each other, while fingering the soil delicately to make room for our next onion.

As projected, we finish a row within about 20 minutes, but we have a little time left, and each of us in the group is beginning to develop our own special method of planting as efficiently as possible. We ask Glenn if we can use the Water Wheel Transplanter to plow us another planting row. He enthusiastically runs over to the tractor and lines it up with the next row. The engine roars and screeches, and his machine slowly pushes forward. At about two miles per hour, his tractor looks like the collage of tools that it is: a blue cab, a green water wheel transplanter, yellow jugs of water, a red plow, and a while hood. When he reaches the end of the row, he hops out and tells that we’re ready to get going again. We hop into position, and recommence planting just as we did with the first row. We talk, and laugh, and joke, and take pictures under the hot sun. We enjoy the manual labor together, and finally understand just how Community Supported Agricultural can really bring people together.

-Sage Mason

Visitor: Dr. Mark Long, President of The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE)

In class today, we hosted Dr. Mark Long, President of ASLE and professor of English at Keene State. I first met Mark in the summer of 2006 in Juneau, Alaska when he was teaching for the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English M.A. program in which I was enrolled. We shared our mutual interests in hockey, mountaineering, and environmental lit, and he introduced me to ASLE, where my mind just about imploded at the discovery of a whole institution (!!!) dedicated to the study of the body of work I love above all others.

When I discovered that I would be teaching EN453, I rekindled my conversation with Mark, who invited me to his farm in Keene, NH to brainstorm ideas for the course. Mark is more knowledgeable on this particular discourse than anyone I know, and I remember scribbling notes, furiously trying to keep pace with the titles he referenced and the incipient ideas they sprouted in my mind. Mark’s good at the kinds of conversations that elevate your intellectual heart rate, that stimulate ideas and that send you tumbling down the rabbit hole of possibility. And, in addition to a brainload of new thoughts, I left his farm that day with an armful of fresh-cut garlic heads from his garden.

Mark shared with us his reflections on the work of John Muir and its influence on the environmental movement. Mark told this story through the lens of his own encounter with Muir during his climbing and mountaineering days in the high Sierra in the early 80’s. According to Mark, Muir is responsible for a legacy of ideas that flows through the environmental literary canon, and Mark’s central premise emerged that there exists a crucial relationship between experience and ideas…that one without the other is somehow incomplete.

Mark traced for us how Muir’s own work emphasizes this truth by pointing out the dialogue between Muir’s firsthand experiences in the Sierra and the ideas they inspired. Mark described his own confirmation of this relationship where, steeped in the words of Muir and in the geographical actualities they describe, Mark discovered a fountain of his own thinking. The granite to which Mark clung 1,000 feet off the valley floor infused Muir’s words with three dimensionality they lacked for him sitting at a desk. In this way, Mark suggested a synergy between the kinesthetic and the cerebral.  The internalized life of the mind becomes endowed with life and breath in the torque of muscle and the visceral encounter with rock and wind. Mark showed us photographs of Mt. Ritter as he searched for the apocryphal location of Muir’s “near miss,” when he almost fell to his death, but was saved by a surge of atavistic energy that forced him to contemplate our place on the human/nature continuum. He showed us photos of pocket glaciers where Muir first posited their influence on shaping landscape. He showed us myriads of alpine flowers, growing from precarious mountain perches. It was here where Mark discovered what he deemed his “mature writing voice,” here where his environmental and literary vision crystalized.

Above all else it is this truth that I hope you glimpse this spring: that the dialogue between the lived and the read can create magic where before there was none. May you let the land itself and your encounters with it breathe life into the texts you read in new and energized permutations of thought.

-Mr. Bre