“The way is untraveled and unpredictable, without warnings or boundaries, it takes us places we wouldn’t want to walk at night, but intellectual discomfort is the light by which we work.” - Bill Carpenter

Technically this is our 43rd commencement, though in the first one there weren’t any graduates. We thought of borrowing or leasing a senior from another college, which would have sped up our accreditation, but by the time COA’s spring term got over every college had graduated and there were no seniors left in the United States. We stood there bewildered by our survival, called an ACM and voted to re-open in the fall. We weren’t sure if we were an institution or a performance. That was in the last millennium, long before climate change; the class of 2015’s parents were in kindergarten; Mount Desert Island was a level grassy plain, the sea was several millimeters lower and you could walk over from Trenton at low tide. A small wandering band of homo ecologus, their faces fur-covered but still recognizable as human, crossed the land bridge in a 1971Toyota Land Cruiser and found hominids already present; there were some instances of interbreeding, but ALWAYS first getting affirmative consent, though without much enthusiasm, as they were monks, Canadian monks, but with our powerful tribal narrative, and our numerous dogs, we were able to overcome them and here we are.

The great ancestors we’re honoring today, Dan Kane and Dick Davis and Bill Drury were human ecology superheroes who had worked at the top levels of American academia and knew from firsthand experience that it had to be completely transformed, not just in content and arrangement but how to relate to one another and how to think. It wasn’t enough to add a human ecology wing to some existing university, it would mean leaving the familiar structures to journey to a remote place to began from zero in the full realization there’d be no turning back. They came to this beautiful shoreline to occupy and repurpose the old citadels of inequality so a new generation could learn to inhabit their home planet without draining it dry.

There was no place for individual advantage or the pretensions of rank and privilege, the separation of disciplines, or the stratification of the teacher and the taught. In the face of a new paradigm everyone was here to learn. An open intellectual community cannot function unless all its members understand each other on the same adult level of unconditional acceptance, personal courage and self-discipline, transparency and respect.

We abolished departments and tenure, we had no professors and assistant professors, no Phi Beta Kappa, no publish or perish, no Human Experiment board because the whole place was the human experiment, and it still is, all of us, students and faculty still on an equal footing facing the unknown, which is now a little less unknown thanks to Rich Borden’s definitive book; but what we don’t know keeps changing; whatever seems clear now will darken and unravel, the faculty will clean out their offices and climb the hill to Birch Bay and the next great ecology text will have to be written by the class of 2015. But that won’t capture it either because it’s always ahead of us, like the phantom spout of the white whale, which now that we’ve finally seen it turns out to be a website designer; the megafauna have all gone virtual but the hunt has to carry on.

Our address might have been Eden street but COA was never the peaceable kingdom nor are we now. If you want an affable smooth-running organization don’t give it to forty human ecologists, or 400. We were born in the contention and dialectic of a deeply engaged academic community and we’re still there. Before the fire we used to meet in a room called the White Learning Center and someone would stand and draw a circle representing human ecology, someone else would leap up and overwrite that with a bigger circle, and another, till the board looked like a UFO invasion, then we’d all head downtown to Lennie’s Restaurant where Marie Stivers’ big brother Lennie DiMuro would serve something to reduce our differences, everyone welcome because the drinking age was 18. Beneath all our disputation was a trust in one another drawn from the knowledge of a common commitment and a common search.

The one principle we brought with us from the past, protecting and sheltering it like a glowing perishable ember, was academic freedom, the right and responsibility to follow knowledge wherever it leads, which at one time made colleges sanctuaries of the truth. The way is untraveled and unpredictable, without warnings or boundaries, it takes us places we wouldn’t want to walk at night, but intellectual discomfort is the light by which we work.

The largest most encompassing of all the circles was always drawn by our first architect Roc Caivano. We have to thank Roc not only for our legendary design program in the early years plus a good portion of our campus, gut also for his cosmically irreplaceable daughter Kate, who for 6 years has channeled her dad’s vision and humor and sense of fairness, and she will be hugely missed.

The most visible images of COA are so often our faculty and students, that’s what you see on the home page and the posters, but this place couldn’t get from sunrise to lunchtime without the staff members who feed, fund, sustain and organize us while we seek enlightenment. Whenever I think of stepping onto this campus, the face, voice and personality of our institution will always be Cheri Ford. We skid along Route 3 in an icy blizzard, we park illegally in a snowbank and head through the howling Thorndike wind tunnel and finally make it in the door and there’s Cheri behind her little black metal sperm whale, who even in retirement will always be COA’s cover girl.

I mean Cheri, not the whale. I’ve always just assumed all sperm whales are male by definition, but it’s not my field. 

When we sat around smoking and dreaming in 1972 the school we hardly dared to envision was just what it is now, raised one order of magnitude, still eating at TAB and having gobbled up all the real estate it could see. What we could not have imagined is the diversity and internationalization of our student body and our curriculum. We were all basically from New England, Thoreau was our totem animal and Walden was our manifesto: you could learn everything in the universe standing in one place, as long as it was north of the Massachusetts Turnpike. This campus was the expedition and it was the destination; and the whole thing was a monster class. [It took 15 years before the first COA course dared to board an airplane. That group had no institutional support whatsoever and I don’t think the college even knew we were gone. We arrived in Bombay without reservation or arrangements and trusted to destiny that we’d survive. We lived off Indian street food and rode the vedantic bus on the wrong side of the road with goats in the aisles and Shiva the Destroyer at the wheel, we slept in 75 cent rooms padlocked from the outside and the only home stays were when somebody fell in love, then the whole group would be welcomed as family to an Indian home, as long as it lasted, then back on the road again.] Now COA’s presence is everywhere, like the genome of Genghis Khan, look at the settings of these amazing senior projects, Yellowknife, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Hyasmin’s Manobo village, Linnea’s recreated African clinic in Witchcliff so they can keep the old faculty alive, a panel with four learned Bolivian studies professors all from the class of ’15, not to mention Khristian’s superinclusive UN whose delegates include an earth goddess, a llama, a Maine spruce tree, a volcano, an ear of corn, a canned tuna’s sister, and a baby pig.

By now everyone must have seen the latest MAP version 77.2 which has now gone 3D and it’s a GLOBE, and the fifth compass direction will be UP. Thanks to a substantial anonymous grant the college is hatching a new startup, this coming November, of our own airline, COAIR with service to eight continents, totally wind-powered, no fossil footprint; its somewhat counterintuitive logo will be a flying whale. No longer can the auditors complain about COA’s jet fuel consumption per credit hour, each COAIR flight will offset the carbon use of 400 homes. Our hub will not be Bar Harbor but Georgetown , the Cayman Islands, our new urban campus and our tax haven when Paul Lepage comes after the nonprofits. The whole school will depart on a cargo flight after Thanksgiving, Millard and everyone, Bobby, Bruce, Howdy, Charlie the dog, no more winter term with the sun setting at 2 pm, no antidepressants, no third-term attrition, Steve’s Winter Ecology class chasing iguanas in bikinis, hmm, Cooper’s Cool Cayman Calypso Combo chilling our evenings, and no freaking snow: there hasn’t been a snowfall in the Caymans since Godwanaland. We’ll be the first 100% expeditionary college, Columbusing yet another island, I hope they’re prepared for it, thanks Anna for my new word of the year.

Every spring while other colleges descend into mindless partying, COA seniors endure celibacy, sobriety and insomnia to produce the blossoming of creativity we’ve seen in the last month. The Blum had one awesome student show after another. I first thought Maggie’s project was a group exhibit, it filled the whole gallery with multimedia objects revisiting and evoking her native city of Detroit. Sometimes you have to leave home and travel a thousand miles in order to return there and see it as it is. Art transfigures the ordinary, and we feel different about what we see. I passed fields of horses every day and never noticed, but after Willa’s amazing drawings I see them with their skin scalpeled back and I’m almost stopped by the knowledge of what’s inside. It’s like having Marius kick you in the chest on a cold night in the rose garden, “It hurts? This pain is our gift!” I went to Bogdan’s confessional and knelt down; instead of a priest there was just old ham radio equipment; I tried the earphones and all I could hear was heavy breathing, patriarchal heavy breathing, and the voltmeters were quivering at their peak so I thought OK, with Bogdan’s Transylvanian connections he’s got God himself on the line, finally I can empty my conscience, I told Him everything in that creepy faculty hut, then I went up and visited Kayla’s life-size red human images climbing the Blum’s walls like the Sistine chapel; I prayed they weren’t all human blood, there were so many of them; now I know she used beetroot too. I love beets, it’s OK. I paused before Jackie’s surrealist altar and saw the twin rings and wristwatches of our own Silver Rose, the two palettes of tempting delicious colors, but luckily I’d seen Lin’s toxic materials show and I knew if I ate them that would be the end.

Last weekend at the Criterion we looked through The Strange Eyes of Nancy Andrews, and saw that they’re our eyes too, monster eyes and human eyes, skink and tarantula eyes, grackle and thrush eyes, poet eyes and wise retirement eyes and eyes that look underneath human ecology and see the dark reptile underbelly, eyes of those staying in Bar Harbor and those that make the mistake of thinking they can leave. We think of creativity as an individual gift and achievement, yet every one of these artworks comes from inseparable collaboration with the community. I counted 48 COA names in Nancy’s credits and I couldn’t believe my own Witchcliff eyes when I walked into my office one summer day and found a real movie star in my chair with makeup artists fastening huge warts and boils to her face, because only when she becomes impossible to look at can she learn to see.

In the first year we lured a young ceramicist from a remote downeast commune, Ernie McMullen, who not only built us a kiln and taught pottery, he made a place for the arts in Human ecology and established a standard of skill and precision for generations of COA artists and artisans. We used to debate about craft versus art in those days, but Ernie showed us they’re the same thing, no matter what you are making, there are no short cuts; you can only realize your aesthetic vision by painstaking focus and technique. Those who endured COA’s near-death experience in the 1980s will remember Ernie’s home as a place of refuge, we met as a faculty in exile, dividing scarce resources with complete equality, our institutional survival hung in the balance, and we’d always end with a little folktale called “Chi Chi or Death,” which I can’t repeat here cause the Title IX investigators would rise from their chairs and deport me, but it gave us a blast of humor and solidarity that got us through. Painting was not on the radar in the original COA plan but Ernie and his many devoted students have put it there, and you could see during this spring’s art search that what used to be thought ancillary to human ecology is absolutely crucial to it now. No matter how desperate the world situation may seem, without art there can be neither human ecology or any other human thing.

Normally COA’s retirement plan is when you don’t show up on campus cause you’ve totally forgotten where it is; I know Casey’s working on dementia but I don’t think he’ll get there in time for us. Ernie’s smart to take early retirement while he can still find his way (though it doesn’t look like he made it this afternoon). He’ll redirect energy to his own distinguished artistic career, and every alum should start saving from the first paycheck to have one of Ernie’s paintings in your home, or forget that, direct your philanthropy to the new faculty emeritus lounge, next door to Witchcliff, which is a naming opportunity by the way, and we’ll purchase an Ernie to hang over the bar.

The first step to success is a very short one and all downhill. There’s a reception in Turrets and everyone’s invited who has a ticket. If you don’t have a ticket, there is a special degree offer just for today. Go into the business office, pay 4 years tuition and assemble one of Missy’s instant senior projects then come in and come in and join us for a drink.


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