Community Coordinator Who? Homesteader in What?: An Interview with Ben and Alie

by Sherrie Kelly

By Sean Morrissey and Lizzy Gendell

Today we decided that this week’s blog would look a little different. Instead of updating you on the good ole shenanigans we are getting in to over at the house (which is the usual array of new and unique experiences –planting seedlings, writing forestry plans, and planting a new orchard), we decided to let you all in on a couple of people who are unbelievably essential to the functioning of the Sustainability Semester. Literally, the program couldn’t happen without them.

If you know whom we’re talking about – then you know Alie and Ben are the greatest. You may know Ben is from Wisconsin and Alie from New Hampshire (I know, not as cool as Vermont). You may know Alie has been making some honey or that Ben is occupied with the early days of the busy planting season. But what some of you may not know are the answers to the questions below.

We asked Ben and Alie about their own personal thoughts and experiences revolving around the Sustainability Semester and the Canton Community. So here you go, take in their reflections - as the Community Coordinator (Alie) and the Homesteader in Residence (Ben) tell you what they think.

What are your favorite parts about your role at the sustainability semester?

Alie: Two things come to mind. One being the flexibility between office work and outdoor work such as today when I got to spend the afternoon planting. That kind of stuff are lifestyle choices that I am interested in and it’s nice to be able to incorporate those kind of things into my daily work.  The second thing is working with students.  I really enjoy getting to know different people from all different backgrounds and age groups that I wouldn’t ever get to establish such close bonds with otherwise.  Especially within the theme of sustainability, which is something I’m passionate about. Trying to connect and draw out of students what they’re learning in their classes to what they’re doing in their daily lives and witnessing that growth from when they first arrive in the semester to the very end. I feel like we have a space where people from all different starting places can come and develop their personal ideas of sustainability.

Ben: A few things stand out to me and a few are similar to Alie’s.  Definitely working outside for at least half the year. Today was the first full outside day and it felt really good; I’m looking forward to a lot more similar days.  Also, working with students.  I really enjoy taking what I’ve learned farming and trying to relate that to students and teach them.  I enjoy doing it at a place like this because I don’t think farming is all that difficult.  I think there are different approaches to it, but I think in a setting like this there is the safety to experiment and try new things and show students that it’s ok to do that and learn as you go.  I enjoy, more than anything, the fact that it’s a learning experience for me.  I am furthering my education everyday, both teaching and interacting with students and also on the farm: building the timber frame green house, starting trees-there’s something new every year. 

Define sustainability.  What does it mean to you?

Alie: For me, it is being intentional about your actions and the impact that has on the planet, your community, and yourself.  I think that looks different for everyone..  It’s so fluid as well.  I think there’s a quality of life piece in it for me too.  People might think the best way to live or the happiest way is like the huge house with all these things.  I think cutting back on that isn’t a sacrifice as a lot of people might see, but it actually enhances your quality of life when you’re growing your own food and your involved in your community. 

Ben: I think sustainability is finding a way to use resources in a way that meet the needs of everyone living on the planet and also having enough resources for those living on the planet in the future.  So that’s pretty simple.  I guess I think about it in two ways.  There is a way to live a sustainable life which is a much more social and personal thing, but I think there is a certain way to live in terms of energy intensiveness and how much resources you use that is acceptable.  But I don’t think many people in America are close to that.  People get there in different ways.  Living in a big house and cutting back versus what we do here (at the Sustainability Semester) and cutting back looks really different.

What are the highlights of the semester?

Alie: I really love the CBL (Community Based Learning) component this year also because that is the other portion of my job.  I feel like last year, community partners were eager to have more students from the semester.  They would come out for a field trip and they would have this interaction but they wouldn’t see each other again for the rest of the semester.  I really like that this year you spend your whole time with one person.  While the work you do at that place is really important, the relationship your building is almost more important.  You just know someone in the community and understand a whole different thing that goes on that relates to sustainability that might not be agricultural. I think that broadens the scope of sustainability and also just brings you outside of that St. Lawrence University bubble, which I don’t think a lot of people have the opportunity to do on campus.  I also think while Boston is so hard and exhausting and draining, it’s so good.  We are together 24/7 and by the end you realize how much information you learn in long, 12-hour days and your mind is just spinning.  But the bonding that happens in that time is so good and so rich.  Also you meet all these new people and learn about sustainability in ways that you may not have known before.

Ben: I think my favorite parts are the organic things that happen-spur of the moment times that aren’t programmed.  Yesterday we finished planting some apple and pear trees and I think three or four students came up with me and after we planted them we just sat on the hill and talked about ghosts and god for a while, it was hysterical.  Those moments happen during programming too, but I think the free moments we have to spend with each other are when really fun things happen.  To name one, pie days (ate 7 different pies for dinner).   

Where do you see this semester going?  Are there perks to it being a very new semester?

Ben: We were actually just talking about this because we just finished planting some blueberry bushes and it feels cool to start things out.  Last year we didn’t have this fence that’s behind us, we didn’t have a garden.  I think it’ll take shape more and more every year.  There’s going to be a greenhouse and barn at the end of this summer.  In terms of the farm, maybe we’ll have some goats by this fall or next spring.  We’re expanding what food we grow here.  As for programming, we are still meeting the challenge of perfecting what we are doing on a week-to-week basis.  Trying to find a balance between the hands on work on this farm and matching that with the new addition of CBL (Community Based Learning) placements.  I think for some people it is their favorite part of the program, but it also took people away from working on this farm, andI know people want to be on this farm more.  So trying to figure out how to balance all those things in a way that people also don’t feel overloaded.

Alie: It’s really cool to be a part of the beginning and I know I say this to you guys all the time but what you do and the feedback you give us informs the next year.  We really take feedback seriously in terms of programming and all that.  Also, it’s really cool to imagine coming back here in 10 years and maybe seeing like a cow and just more of a developed farm: more animals, an apple orchard. 

What are your favorite things to do in the North Country outside of the semester?

Alie: The summer here is amazing, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.  Swimming at Flat Rocks is a favorite.  Picking blueberries at Paul Hetzler’s.  Laying on this front yard on a blanket in the sun when the garden is in full bloom and there are flowers.  I’m still in progress, but I really like meeting people in the community and spending time with them.  A lot of people have really cool homes and properties, so just exploring new places with people.  The farmers market is fun when that’s outdoors.           

Ben: Spending time outside.  Biking a lot.  The summer is great because there are a lot of little races in town.  Hiking in the Adirondacks.

We had this conversation out on our front picnic table before dinner, waiting for the bell to ring. The peepers were peepin’ and we paused mid way through conversations as colorful birds flew all around the yard.

Hopefully you get a sense of what life is like here for us. Ben and Alie are a big part of our experience and who they are and what we take away from the semester is also shaped by what they teach us; as formal educators, housemates, staff members, and friends.

pic - Ben and Alie tasting and examining the leftover honey stored in the hive over winter.