What a Large Zucchini, Piling Wood & the Call of the Bobolink Have to Do With Progressive Education: Jim Sparrell’s Graduation Talk

Here is the talk Jim Sparrell gave at the Individualized MA graduation on August 5, 2012:

Thank you graduates for inviting me to offer a few words. I have taken the liberty of inviting this large zucchini to join me, which I will explain presently.

Earlier this summer I was confronted with the challenge of my woodpile. Living in historic and sometimes fussy Portsmouth, NH, I have struggled with how to pile 5 or 6 tons of green wood discretely in my front yard, so that my doctor neighbor won’t come over and give me a polite lecture on the importance of “keeping up the property values,” as he has done in the past. My traditional method of covering it with a big blue tarp wasn’t working for my own aesthetics, either.

There was a wonderful moment of not knowing what to do, a moment that invited me into a creative spot – a place that I know you all have experienced in the challenge of designing your own course of study here at Goddard. We sometimes rush past that place of ignorance and anticipation in favor of some kind of certainty and relief, but there is much to be gained in not knowing and remembering to breathe and being at peace in that place.

From there, I started with what I did know. The wood needed to be off the ground and it needed to have some space in the stacking so it would dry. My next step was one I am sure you all took in the course of your studies, to learn from prior scholars by searching YouTube for relevant videos.

This was extremely helpful. One source explained that you should always stack split wood with the bark side up because it prevents moisture from soaking into the wood again. Another explained that you should always, always stack the wood with the bark side down and the split side up so that the split side would release the moisture most effectively. This is not unlike the situation that I think most of you found yourselves in when dealing with your first and second readers, who don’t always agree.

Deciding that I needed a more interdisciplinary approach I searched for historical perspectives in stacking wood. I discovered that the traditional rule for stacking was that the gaps in the wood pile should be big enough for a mouse to run through, but not so big that a cat could chase the mouse through the pile.

Photo by Jim Sparrell (of the bunny that ate his kale)

I learned about the history stacking wood and evaluating potential relationship partners. The story goes that those who lack confidence build a low stack and are unlikely to demonstrate much ambition. Those who are politically ambitious stack their wood high, with big logs on top to show off their skills, but these piles tend to topple over in time. And potential partners who never get the wood stacked are seen as inattentive. And this too, made me think of advising in that we have tried to let you know when you could stack a bit higher, or when your woodpile might topple over, or when something just didn’t seem to line up.

After the woodpile was done, I expected that some of the neighbors might comment on how much better it looks, but people weren’t sure what to make of all my activity. And you may have experienced some similar reactions to presenting your thesis or explaining it to other people. Like the large zucchini here, people may look at your work or comment on your degree and be impressed for a moment, but then they are likely to ask, “well, what are you going to do with that?”

Of all our progressive ideas, probably THE most radical aspect of a Goddard education is that it is intensely personal. It is rooted in how you see the world, the problems you encounter, or the aesthetics that you see that could be nurtured and come into being. You sit with the weight of not knowing how you will bring something into the world, and reflect on your experience, your body, your place, your words, your consciousness, and your neighbors and community. We all laugh at those old Goddard traditions, like back in the 60‘s and 70’s how the graduating class would all pose nude together and take a picture each year. But in your work you all have laid bare your deepest and truest selves, very much in the spirit of that tradition. “Hey, this is who I am.”

And that self is a dynamic evolving self full of new perspectives.

Photo by Jim of his cats

One day this summer I was offered a readjustment of my own perspective. I was eating dinner alone – well, in the company of my two cats, Pearl and Arlo. I looked out the window and saw a little bunny eating my lettuce. I know this little bunny – she and I have a sort of relationship. I had not gotten around to putting the rabbit fence around my raised beds. Eating the dandelions was fine, but at this moment, having lost all my sugar snap peas to this rabbit and her mama, I was perturbed and ran outside to shoo her out of the garden. This is a futile task, since the little rabbit has all day to come back and is often fairly indifferent to me in the back yard. But she gave me the satisfaction of scooting off, briefly. I came back in the house to discover, Pearl, our cat with the most enthusiastic appetite, with her head buried in my bowl of homemade chili. “What are you gonna do?” Pearl and the bunny made me consider my place in the food world as supplier, grower, sharer, and sometime consumer, connected in multiple ways.

But I know them, the backyard rabbits, the cats, the scolding wrens and sweet cardinals, the noisy crows, as we here at Goddard, all of us in the community, have gotten to know and recognize you.

And you have gotten to know us.

Jim’s photo of a bobolink

Listening to your presentations, I heard the common theme of connection in your work, connecting to history, to ancestors, to erotic passion, to story, to body/mind, to plants, worms, and butterflies, to children, to land, to community, to cell and universe, to neighbors. And the way you described or experienced this relatedness was as a challenge to the cultural oppression of forgetting, disconnection, dismembering, and dissociation.

Jon Young, in his book, What the Robin Knows, repeats something attributed to a person who was describing hunting and gathering as a way of life:

If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be us. We make ropes with all aspects of creation in this way.”

While I was working on the woodpile I was also taking some bike rides around town. One day in mid June I rode over to an old land fill that has been planted with grass. I suspected that it might be a good spot to find grass-breeding birds like the meadowlark, field sparrow, or bobolink. These birds have experienced a sharp decline in numbers because people tend to mow fields more frequently, or have let pasture grow into forest, so they have lost much nesting habitat. Bobolinks experienced a 75% decline in Vermont in the last 30 years.

I saw a bobolink for the first time, last year. A beautiful black bird with yellow on his head and white on his back, swirling and chirping around a field, sounding quite like R2D2 from Star Wars. Or as David Sibley describes the song, “a cheerful, bubbling, jangling warble…”

On this day in June I noticed that there were indeed bobolinks in the field over this old dump. Good news! I also noticed that the city was mowing the field, but they seemed to be leaving strips that were unmown and I thought, preserving some habitat for the birds. The next day I went back, the field was entirely mown and the bobolinks were gone. Bad news!

I was discouraged but ultimately was able to link public works (who does the mowing and had no clue) with NH Audubon who has detailed information on how to delay mowing until after breeding season. Hopefully a happy ending. I’ll definitely be watching next year – now that I recognize and name the bobolink.

Bobolinks have served as inspiration to song writers from Cole Porter to Warren Zevon. And they inspired poems from poets like Nabokov and Anne Sexton, and were particularly important to Emily Dickinson who wrote no less than 9 poems featuring bobolinks.

In thinking of you graduates, I particularly like her references to bobolinks as rowdy, impudent, defiant, and irreverant companions who challenge the status quo, for example:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—

I keep it, staying at Home—

With a Bobolink for a Chorister—

And an Orchard, for a Dome


The Bobolink is gone—

The Rowdy of the Meadow—

And no one swaggers now but me—

The Presbyterian Birds

Can now resume the Meeting

So the little bobolink has connected me to my landscape, city hall and public works, the birding community, songwriters and poets, and you.

In the work you are doing, you have seen a messy woodpile, or a frightened bobolink circling a field — something that calls to your attention in this personal way — a need for connection somewhere. You have chosen a study focus to recognize, to name, to know, and have started to feel these threads and cords and ropes. And hopefully with us at Goddard, too, we have recognized this web of knowing, being, and doing, we who know your names, Desiree, Scott, Kao, James, Robin, Kelly, and Kate – we recognize you and you recognize us. Connection is an antidote to the cynicism and despair that would have us cave in and give up in creating a more compassionate society.

So, like the giant zucchini, people will continue to ask you, “what are you doing with that?” And you can tell them you are noticing threads of connection with place, community, the natural world, your body, your experience, stacking your wood square, studying birds, visiting ancestors, questioning the dominant social order, or making some really good relish, which is one of the best things to do with a really big zucchini.

What you have taught me this weekend is that connection doesn’t come from building something new, but in truly recognizing what is already there. Being conscious. And we need you to help us do that.

Challenge the status quo. Keep learning. And when someone asks you “what are you going to do with that?” point to what’s happening or what’s not happening, something that you have challenged or raised consciousness about with your work and ask, “and what are we going to do about this?”

Honor those threads with us at Goddard. Be in touch and stay connected. Let us know what you find.

We wish you all the best.

And we have some zucchini relish and kitchen scrubbies to confer on you in celebration of your work.

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