Finding Community within Sustainability

by Sherrie Kelly

Lizzy Gendell 
Caeleigh Warburton 
February 4, 2014

There isn’t much that catches the eye while driving down highway 68, but the long and hilly roads carry much more than a few old houses and some vacant barns.  Amidst the sprawling forests, fields, and streams sits a modest renovated farmhouse that nine St. Lawrence University students now call home.  We come from different states, different graduating classes, have varied academic interests, and some pretty exotic hobbies, but we are all here to pursue our curiosity and passion for living a more sustainable life in the close knit community that we have developed over the past two weeks of orientation. 

This introductory period has allowed us to explore ideas of sustainability though the unique lenses of our peers and the surrounding Canton community.  Over home cooked meals of organic and locally produced food, we share our interests, passions, and questions with each other and the many community members that we have had the pleasure of meeting.  A panel of SLU alumni who decided to stay in the North Country after graduating from SLU joined us for lunch, each of them approaching the topic of sustainable living in Canton from different angles such as communication, education, homesteading, sustainable business, and the importance of the local economy.  Later in orientation we hosted our neighbors, the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) staff, and learned about their expertise in various areas of farming such as maple sugaring, livestock care, ecology, and community outreach.

Perhaps one of the most valuable components of the Sustainability Semester thus far has been engaging with this community. In meeting new friends and neighbors and listening to their stories of the North Country and how sustainability relates to their lives, we have developed a great respect for those who call this community home and find their enthusiasm truly inspiring.  Fortunately, a significant portion of the semester will be spent engaging with this community.  As part of our Sustainability Studies course we have each been paired with individuals or organizations in Canton that work on various projects relating to sustainability.  We will work with local farms and organizations to learn first hand how they address issues such as social justice, sustainable food production, and education. 

To celebrate the end of our first week on the Sustainability Semester, we piled into our twelve-passenger van and made our way to the Adirondack Loj just outside of Lake Placid to embark on an 8-mile hike through the snow laden Adirondack high peaks to Avalanche Pass where we paused briefly in the icy winds to admire the solitude and isolation of the frozen lake and rocky bordering slopes.  After a long afternoon of hiking, we settled into the Saint Lawrence University yurt where we all eagerly awaited the heat of the small, yet mighty woodstove.  Over a dinner of lukewarm pasta and banana chips we began to discuss rules and expectations for our emerging Sustainability Semester community.  Topics included the usage of cars, the welcoming of guests, and limitations we set on the time we spend off the semester site.  Through our thorough and thoughtful discussions we built the foundation of our new community in a manner that we feel will prioritize spending time together as a group without sacrificing opportunities to share our unique experience with others who are not on the semester. 

To conclude our two weeks of orientation, we held a Top Chef competition for which we divided into three teams, each responsible for one course of a dinner to be judged based on taste, aesthetics, and adherence to Top Chef rules by our professors.  In addition to being given mystery ingredients and having to produce dishes that were entirely vegan, we were only allowed to use ingredients that were grown or produced in New York state (with the exception of oils and spices).  Surprisingly, this was not especially difficult.  Thanks to the hard work of those who have lived in the Sustainability House before us, our cellar is filled frozen vegetables and hardy roots from this summer’s harvest, the pantry is packed with medley of canned goods, and there are grains and dry beans ready for processing. 

In facing this “challenge” of using only local food, we experienced just how plentiful and rich food can be when it comes from literally just outside your door, or, just as importantly, your friend or neighbor’s door.  Nourishment isn’t produced in a vacuum.  Without the efforts of the extended Sustainability Semester community the meal would not have been possible.  There would be no root vegetable slaw and butternut dressing without the neighbor who provided the butternuts.  There would be no sweet potato mash without the students who helped harvest in the fall.  There would be no maple cornbread without the communal undertaking of tapping trees.  We need the collaboration of a community to experience just how fruitful sustainability can be.  We carry this idea with us as we develop our own little community and embark on journey of sustainability amongst a larger one for which we hold a deep admiration.