Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Scaling Down, Opening Up
by Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern
We moved to the Adirondacks ten years ago, flatlanders out of New York City, suburban kids before that, eager to live in the East's great wilderness. We knew--we hoped--that by living at the edge of the deep forest we would find ourselves amid bear and coyote, beaver and deer, and that has been true. What we didn't know, and in our ignorance could not have hoped for, is that we would find as well a warm and welcoming human community. Here, where people live in the shadow of mountains and disdain most efforts of government, kindness is a currency. People help each other; neighborliness is a shared value; democracy is the corollary of friendship and mutual respect. We work together. We make things happen. A library, a school, a teen center, a museum, a health center. The forest, which is vast, makes us humble: We know we are small. We know, that is, that we need each other.
by Sue Halpern
Imagine you have been asked to draw with two colors, green and gray, a small town tucked high in a piney forest. The background is white: snow. There is a main street, and along it a school, a hardware store, a supermarket, a garage, two churches, and a number of abandoned two-story wood-framed buildings. Add to these a town hall, also made of wood, trimmed in faux chalet style, and a handful of people walking between one end of the main street and the other. Do not draw more than five people. This is a remote, sparsely inhabited place. This is where I live--Johnsburg, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains. If, a year ago, I would have described it as relatively poor, I am unable to do so now. A few months ago we got a library.
When I say "got" I don't mean that somehow we went out and bought ourselves a library, or that one was given as a gift. Rather, the town board allocated $15,000 and appointed nine citizens to figure out how to make that into books, furniture, supplies, and a librarian's salary. Seven months later the Town of Johnsburg Library opened in a cozy room at the back of town hall with 3,000 books, most of them on loan from the regional library consortium, and a librarian who seemed to have materialized from nowhere.
It is rare these days to be able to create public institutions. Our country is old enough, and our municipalities financially strapped enough, that for the most part we inherit what we have, that which others have made before us. So it is also rare to be able to watch what happens when a new public institution is introduced into a community--how it is received, how quickly its absence becomes unthinkable. Last Thursday, people took out 126 books from the Johnsburg library; the day before, 113 items went out the door. Seven thousand books were circulated in the first four months, and not long after that, the 800th library card was issued. Eight hundred library cards and we're now approaching 900, which means that nearly half the people who live here are library users. It's as if the local newspaper were running a banner headline that said "New Portable Interactive Technology Available for Free at the Back of Town Hall." But there is no such headline. Instead there are announcements for a preschool story hour, a free classic film series, a local history lecture series, and a weekly list of new (which is to say new to us) books.
Of course, people in Johnsburg had seen books before, but they had never had access to them in the abundant, organized, diverse way a library provides, and that has made all the difference. I have watched my elderly neighbor Jean in the library learning how to use the computerized card catalogue so she can order large-type books for her homebound husband and quilting books for herself. I have seen a group of three year olds clustered around the board book edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I have noticed teenagers poring over Rolling Stone and heard them requesting Roald Dahl. I have listened to a discussion of Virginia Woolf--should it be To the Lighthouse this week or Mrs. Dalloway?--between men who work with their hands. I have watched as the dozen or so volumes that constitute our art book collection have been passed around with such excitement and care it's as if they were originals and not bound reproductions. And I have seen how people come into the library and prowl the shelves looking hungrily and plaintively for authors and subjects and titles that might not have been there a week before--and certainly were not there six months ago. (But who can remember when we didn't have a library? How could that have been possible?)
This is the way we become literate, both as individuals and as a society. It is not simply a matter of being able to read, though that is essential, of course, and the Johnsburg library is working with Literacy Volunteers to teach adults who can't, to read. But it is also a matter of community. A library starts with one book passed from hand to hand. The book is the cable, the fiber optic, that connects the first hand to the next and that one to another. Invisibly, the book binds them. It establishes, then maintains, civic literacy. Which is to say that living in proximity is not the only thing that makes us neighbors.
It is erroneous to think that people read in isolation, for while it is true that for the most part people read silently by themselves, books give us a set of images and experiences and emotions that become part of our common language. "You've got to read this," I heard one nine-year-old boy tell another, pointing to C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. "It's awesome." "Thank you for showing me the Narnia series," that same nine year old said to me. And so the two of us share a language and a landscape. We are able to talk, to be neighbors and friends. We are not isolated.
Recently, a group of people met at the Johnsburg library to listen to a public radio book show. All of them had read the book that was to be discussed, and they were planning on using the radio show to guide their own conversation. But no one had counted on the mountain behind town hall blocking reception, so when they tuned into the station, all they heard was static. Undeterred, the group piled into someone's four-by-four and drove around town until they could pick up the show. And there they sat for two hours, shoulder-to-shoulder, people who hardly knew each other, talking about books. No--about books and kids and work and retirement and the price of chicken and health insurance and health care and everything else. It is no longer accurate to say they hardly know each other.
Educating to Scale: The Wilderness Community School
We live in one of the largest, most rural school districts in the East--the town covers 137,000 acres, most of it protected Adirondack wilderness. It contains four or five distinct watersheds; some of the snowmelt flows north, some south. We have twenty-some peaks over 2,500 feet, only two of them with trails. And we have one school, a big brick building that houses everyone from kindergarten through high school.
This fall, if our family and a few friends are successful in raising the necessary funds, we're going to open a second school--a tiny one-room schoolhouse that will begin with fewer than a dozen kids. A "private" school. It's a curious thing to do, when you're as committed to things "public" as we are--to public libraries, to public radio, to public zoning. And thinking about it has taught me a lesson or two about what public means.
But of course it starts with a story. Some years ago, as advisor to the Earth Club, I took a group of high school kids from town for a camping trip. We set off across the lake in canoes; I was loading the last one on shore when I looked up and saw the other three boats turning in circles on the lake. It hadn't occurred to me that they wouldn't know how to paddle, but they didn't. And it hadn't occurred to me that they'd be quite as awed by the quiet and dark of our campsite as they were. When we walked away from the fire and stood by the lakeshore staring up at the stars on this new-moon night, some of them almost gasped. Of the six kids camping with me, four had never been shown the Milky Way before, even though we live in an exquisitely dark corner, a place where the Milky Way shines from horizon to horizon on a dark night. They were impressed, they were moved ("Freak me out, dude"), but I was pissed off. How had their schooling failed them so completely in this regard? Looking up at the Milky Way and feeling small was probably the first bit of education that most human generations ever had. Feeling that delicious smallness may have marked the moment when we became human.
Which explains, in a way, why we're now huddled with the building inspector trying to figure out how thick the fire wall must be in the cabin we're converting to a schoolhouse, and why we're desperately trying to raise money for a school at the intersection of the three poorest counties in New York State, and why we're building desks and setting up bulletin boards and all the rest. If it's "our" school, then we have the chance to say: kids are going to spend an hour or three outdoors every single day. They're going to know Mill Creek, which runs by the schoolhouse door, in every season; from the age of four they're going to know what a watershed is. They're going to learn music from the violinist who lives next door to the school, and also from the loons that come to the nearby lake in early spring. They're going to learn math in some of the traditional ways, and also by figuring out how those loons migrate. They're going to learn some history from a book, and they're going to learn some more at the town nursing home. They are going to raise food and cook, and they are going to share that food with people in this town who need it, and they are going to learn civics by helping protect the creek and the forest and the lake and the people of this place.
In other words, we're going to borrow a lot from the best of modern education, and a lot from the tiny schools that used to be scattered around the town until they were all "consolidated" together, a consolidation that had its obvious benefits (efficiency, more opportunities) and its hidden drawbacks (loss of contact with older folk and younger children, loss of flexibility). Unconsolidating will be very difficult; one reason so many people home school now is because it's so hard to set up an affordable intermediate step between riding an hour a day on the bus and sitting around the kitchen table. For some people, of course, home-schooling is wonderful; others, like us, want our kids to have somewhat more exposure to other adults and other families. My ideas about the world are simply too strong; it wouldn't be safe for our daughter to hear little else for the next twelve years. On the other hand, I want my sense of the world, a sense I share in general terms with the people we're starting the school with, to leave a stamp on her.
And if that's going to happen, it needs to happen every day. Children across the country now get "units" of environmental education; they may spend occasional hours sampling water from the local river or volunteering at the senior center. But if there's one thing that every guru that's ever lived has agreed on, it's this: what you do every day is what forms you, shapes you. The exceptions are--exceptions. Wonderful, necessary, perhaps seeds that some later experience will reawaken and nurture. But one camping trip every other year can't make you comfortable with the outdoors. It's incredibly difficult for a consolidated rural school to have a point of view about the world, because it's simply too busy trying to fill the various mandates the community and the state have pressed upon it. Whenever you want to take a club out in the woods, for instance, there are howls from the teachers who feel it takes time away from studying for "the regents test," a particular set of exams that New York State has long imposed, and that President Clinton now wants to make national. I have nothing against reading and writing and arithmetic; they've served me well, and I'm sure they'll serve my daughter well. But a school that thinks it has no point of view in fact always does--it takes as its basic task the preparation of children for the world of work, prepares them to fit as easily as possible into the prevailing paradigm. And in a rural setting that usually means preparing kids to leave, to escape to somewhere richer. It gives them no view of the splendor of their own world, nothing to compete with the fantasies that beam in via the satellite dish. So many kids barely live here, in these mountains, by these rivers, in these seasons; their minds hum with the fab images of some generic California. On prom night, kids spend a year's earnings on limousines to haul them around the potholed backroads of town.
You can change such education around the edges, but changing it in ways large enough to make it really different may never happen. Won't happen in the years that our child is growing up. So is this model--a few families getting together to plan curriculum, interview possible teachers, remodel buildings--"public" or "private" education? Do we need to feel guilty? I don't know. We got together for a planning day last fall, and while the adults were going over finances, a teacher took the kids about a mile to a cranberry bog. They picked and they ate and they saved and they talked, about everything from how they might make some dye with the berries to what Indians ate in this region to where the food at the supermarket comes from. This is what we want, every single day, not some ideological debate. Our great hope is that the Wilderness Community School will be such a success that the town will take it over someday, making it a model for how to break down other rural school systems in creative ways. If we're successful, which means if we can raise enough money to stay afloat, that's not impossible. But in the meantime we're committed to unconsolidation--to finding a scale for education that suits life in this sweet place.
Sue Halpern is editor-at-large of DoubleTake Magazine and the author of Migrations to Solitude (Vintage).
Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, Hope, Human and Wild, and is the editor of a new edition of Walden (Beacon Press). His upcoming book, Maybe One: An Environmental and Personal Argument for Single-Child Families, will be published this June by Simon and Schuster.
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This essay was originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at email@example.com.
To contact The Wilderness Community School, please write: P.O. Box 26, Johnsburg, NY 12843.