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Conversation #111: Laura Beebe on Ecological Education

We share the same house

A conversation between Laura Beebe and Bart Everson on teaching, learning, and ecological education.

From the warm sands of the Gulf of Mexico to the frigid shores of the Bering Sea, Laura has lived and learned in a diversity of landscapes and cultures. As a geographer, ethnobotanist, and wilderness educator, Laura has sought to understand how humans have come to make sense of the world around them, be it through storytelling, backcountry field experiences, plant medicine, folk arts or spiritual rituals. Laura’s graduate work in Geography with a focus in the Circumpolar North and ethnobotany, explored the intimate relationships between arctic women and wild berries. While at Sterling, Laura has instructed field courses in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada, arctic Labrador, Alaska and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. When not in the field, she has taught classes in Cultural Ecology, Storytelling, Ecology, Research Design and Writing. In these courses students have explored and questioned what they know about the world- how did it come to be, what forces hold it in place, how can they live in accordance with such forces, and how can they authentically articulate their evolving understandings of the world around them.

Bart Everson is a media artist and creative generalist at Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. His recent work draws on integrative learning, activism, critical perspectives on technology, and Earth-based spiritual paths.

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Bart Everson: Hi, welcome to the podcast I'm Bart Everson.  I'm here today with a special guest, Laura Beebe from Sterling College. If that name sounds familiar, you might recall —attentive listeners might recall, we did talk to Laura from Sterling College a few episodes ago. That was actually Laura Spence. Today I'm joined by Laura Beebe. So please don't confuse the two Lauras, even though they're both from the same institution of Sterling College. We wanted to circle back to Sterling College because there are some interesting things going on there. But before we get into that, first of all, Laura, welcome to the podcast. If you could tell us just a little bit about yourself and your life. What classes do you teach, and maybe what's your favorite class?

Laura Beebe: My name is Laura. I have been working for Sterling College for about 13 years. I work in the Environmental Humanities group, although Sterling is very small, and we often teach across the curriculum. So I teach courses that integrate natural sciences, cultural studies, the arts, and then quite a bit of outdoor education place-based on the grounds. Some of my courses on campus include stories and storytelling and mythology, how it relates to the ways that cultures understand and articulate their natural and social systems, ethnobotany, and concepts of cultural ecology. When I'm not on campus, I'm teaching field-based courses that run from 30 to 80 days in the backcountry, in some of our national parks, and national forests that are often integrated looking at natural sciences, humanities, and outdoor education. So I just finished up an 80-day field course out here in the American Southwest, looking at the Natural History and ecology of our desert systems, the ancient cultures of people who lived there, and their contemporary descendants. We did that all by traveling by foot, and usually canoe as well, but with climate change, our rivers are low this spring, so we had to do quite a bit of reshuffling our courses. So that's what I've been up to. I grew up in the Deep South, and I left there, went to college out west, made my way up to Alaska, up into the Arctic, living in Inuit communities, and then came down to Sterling College during graduate school. So here I am today. 

Bart Everson: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being with us. You know, Sterling College first came to my attention and kind of made headlines back in 2019 when the college made action on climate central to the mission. I just thought that was so interesting because the climate crisis is dominating a lot of our thoughts these days. Of course, in New Orleans, I'm, living in a city, as you know, that is one of the most vulnerable in the world. It just seems like this really needs to be front and center for us all. But there are not that many institutions that have actually made it that way, and Sterling has. So I'm just wondering how that has played out for you, as a teacher, and as a part of the college. Was it a big shift? Or was it just really a natural extension of what you were already doing?

Laura Beebe: I think it was a natural extension. I think it was a practical approach. But it also was quite a bit of political statement in higher ed to have other institutions think about their connections to global systems the environment and their responsibilities. It's not just institutions that have physical locations, but the sort of mentors for the next generation of problem solvers as well. Sterling has always been place-based focused on living within its local systems and finding creative ways to build a community to live in better accordance with the natural ecological systems. Not just in rural Vermont, but how it connects worldwide through our food systems, our ecological studies, our social dynamics, and so forth, so I don't think that it was anything sort of radical for us. I think it was part of the conversation to get other higher ed institutions, to think about these things that we spend most of our classroom time thinking about and discussing and trying to problem-solve. 

Bart Everson: You mentioned just a moment earlier how climate change is affecting the rivers, and how that's affecting your class. Are there other ways that climate change is kind of showing up in your teaching?

Laura Beebe: Oh, absolutely. We just had our end-of-the-year Risk Management Review looking at incidences and potential risks and hazards to our students and faculty and staff. Climate change was one of my largest sorts of challenges for the year. We are dealing with forest fires in central Arizona, where we ended our course, and campgrounds were closed. We also operate in the Sierra Nevada. Areas that we had hoped to operate in the summer are closed because of massive fires and road closures from last year. We were rerouted to Yosemite National Park. Last time we were there, we deal with ash, and students with asthma and other sorts of respiratory challenges as well. So it's a constant, we were supposed to paddle the Rio Grande on the border of Texas and Mexico for three weeks this winter. The water levels are so low that it wasn't worth going down there because we wouldn't actually get to paddle. We would have been dragging boats. So it's a constant, shifting safety curricular changes, what I found particularly interesting, this spring, dealing with low water, and forest fires is looking at the ancient cultures of the area, from the Pleistocene to contemporary times, and how climate has always been a major driver of cultural booms and also collapses in a way that's much more visible in the history and contemporary issues than it is say in the Northeast. It’s a landscape that has defined human modifications, changes, and sort of a frontline of climate change. 

Bart Everson: So interesting, of course, there are so many facets to this in New Orleans, particularly, we are usually concerned about too much water or water in the places where we don't want it to be. In other places, it's not enough water or where we need it to be, and so forth.  I'm wondering, too, of course, about just higher education as a whole. You know, of course, every college is different, every university is different. Each one has a different character, a different focus, and a different mission. Could you describe for us just a little bit about what Sterling is like, in terms of its character, just to give people a flavor, who may not know anything about Sterling?

Laura Beebe: I think Sterling is in some ways pre and post-industrial education. We have, at our height, about 120 students on campus and  in our field programs up to 12 students. So just the idea of what education looks like is quite different. It's a community center, it's emergent, and it's reflective based on the personality and the needs of the students. It is human scale. So it's not 1000s of students trying to get funneled through the same type of approach, the same lectures, the same test, but it's really about the dynamics of the community that's there, which is a reflective way of thinking about ecology. It's dynamic, and it's in the moment, and it's all about the inputs and the outputs. It's also what we call place-based. So it draws on the history of land use. So we have classes in logging. We have draft horses that run a lot of our farming equipment. We do have tractors, but we also rely on animal power and the history of that and how it can be used to offset sort of climate inputs. We have a large focus on our food systems, whether it's permaculture or small-scale agriculture, looking at foraging , wildcrafting, collecting food, and some of the ethics and challenges around that. We also look at the arts and humanities where we gather our natural materials from the land, so we have basket making that we use as willows and alders from the land. Instead of importing from places on the other side of the globe. We also have a fiber program where our textile materials come from the sheep that we raise and go all the way from sheep into the natural dye process with local plants. So really contemplating how you live locally on a small scale in a way that fits with the community that you're in. But has to also be practical. So we have a maple sugaring operation that uses draught horses and fires to boil that and that syrup goes into our kitchen. We can do that as a learning opportunity. How do you scale up if you need to do that from a place that has more economic restraints? So basically, I find it sort of a laboratory of how we live more simply how do we live in community? What's going to work on a large scale and what has to be particular to the region that you're in? Yeah, that's a little bit, it's quite different than most people's college experiences.

Bart Everson: Oh, really, it really sounds different. It's very intriguing to me. That's why I wanted to talk to you in the first place, of course. Understanding that all universities are different, and have different focuses. Of course, as I was saying, before the question that I keep coming back to is that it seems like these ecological issues are kind of universal. Meaning whatever we might specialize in, we all walk the same earth, and you know, breathe the same air and drink the same water just keep circulating around again and again. So even though we have different missions, climate affects us all. The environment affects us all. Do we have universal responsibilities as educators, particularly regarding climate and these connected ecological issues? Do you understand what I'm getting at? What I'm asking? Am I even making any sense?

Laura Beebe: Yeah, so our mission is ecological thinking and action, it comes from the Greek term that breaks down to oikos, which means household, and ology the study of the household. So we share the same house, we build the same house, we're intensely connected in ways that we can see it not see. So yes, we're universally one thing. I think about in some of my environmental humanities classes we are part of the water cycle. Our bodies are part of that cycle. We're breathing in air, we're part of the biogeochemical cycle that is moving through our bodies through our communities. It doesn't matter if you're in rural Vermont, you're facing similar systems in the American Southwest or up in the Arctic, or in parts of Central Africa, or wherever you happen to land on the planet. So I believe it is our collective duty to steward it and to come at it from whatever passions and background we have because it's going to require every facet of our life to really address and creative problem-solving. I think we need artists just as much as we need scientists just as much as we need people who grow food and build buildings, and we need mathematicians, however, we creatively experienced the world that has to be put into the problem-solving conversation. 

Bart Everson: I have this feeling that we all need to be a little bit more like Sterling that's my gut instinct. As I have learned more about what you're doing there at Sterling College. Even though we have a different mission here at Xavier, that is, you know, it's pretty righteous and that we were invested in and we believe in. I feel like if we're not addressing some of these issues that you're talking about then we're really not living up to our full potential. In that spirit, I'm wondering what you may have learned, you know, in your teaching at Sterling, engaging the mission that you've described, what you may have learned that you think you would want to share with other faculty teaching other subjects at other institutions, and so forth. Is there any? Hopefully, some of those folks are listening to you. Is there anything you want to say to them?

Laura Beebe: I think the pandemic has really brought forth some new reflective points for students, teachers, and parents. I think for the field of education doing less is more, having more time for reflection in depth and looking at connections, relationships, care over content, and production. I think that's what's going to help us in some of the climate crisis and social dynamics that come out of that. But I also think it's part of who we are in the healing process. I find myself doing much more of that in the classroom since the pandemic, I think that's where creative thinking and collaborative conversation come from. Ultimately, I like to think about the term deep ecology. So there's surface ecology, we can recycle, and we can do more sustainable building, but what is the ethos of the consciousness underneath it? I think that's really where the reflective community building, center of care, and just spaciousness are sometimes in our academic curriculum. So I don't know that I have a particular tangible, but maybe more of a way of operating and sort of codifying success in the classroom and our majors within our degrees. I think that's one aspect.

Bart Everson: I think reexamining the basis of our relationships could be really revolutionary. So thank you for that. Well, yeah, thank you so much for talking with me today. Speaking with Dr. Laura Beebe of Sterling College, I wanted to invite our listeners, if you've enjoyed this conversation at all to please seek us out on whatever platform you're getting this podcast from, leave us a review, and a rating. It really helps other people find the podcasts and so forth. We're one of the few podcasts out there directed to faculty development. So thank you again, Dr. Beebe, for speaking with me today.

Laura Beebe: Thank you for your time. 

Bart Everson: Be safe and be well, and I hope to talk to you again someday. 

Transcript by Jada Pettigrew

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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