What does it mean to farm without a fence? To exist with open boundaries, communicated through ideas, written and spoken words, abstractions… but without physical barriers?
And what do we do when there is porousness? Crossings, transgressions?
I think about the incredible idea of osmosis, and osmotic potential: that, with a permeable boundary, compounds and substances dissolved in water will want to find some kind of homeostasis, a balanced admixture on both sides. Perhaps to fence one out serves, in fact, to draw one in. But this takes a particularly potent and volatile type of solute, perhaps better viewed as a rare case.
One of our key goals and ideas at the Knoll is around accessibility for everyone, particularly for those who have not been, or seen themselves in places like the Knoll before. We have a long way to go here, and yet we’re humbly working toward progress. And, updated accessibility on our campus requires deep collaborative work and convincing of alignment with institutional priorities.*** Accessibility also means making sure that we can welcome everyone in knowing they will be physically safe, and that the care extended to the space includes care for folks of all abilities, ages, and wills to explore the infinite possibilities of the Knoll if they so choose. In building toward this, questions come up in the doing: how do we “close” a space with no doors? How do we bridge uses of the space that honor both the sacred and the mundane? What kinds of healing and connection can happen in affinity spaces, and what kinds thrive in the wild?
When one approaches a new space, an outdoor space, a space that is shared, our ideas of the space are sometimes equally as important as our physical, embodied encounters. Many are willing, and most at Middlebury are privileged, to see past the physical shortcomings if our ideas of the space preconfigure something more grand.
So the stories we tell about the space—and how we engage with it—are important.
What does homeostasis have to do with it? Maybe this is a stretch, but I wonder, what’s the right amount of information (including stories) to ultimately invoke a sense of relationship to place– perhaps even as kin, perhaps even as self– to ensure its respectful existence into perpetuity? What’s the right porosity of the “boundary” to allow this balance to settle readily? I don’t know about you, but I don’t care to be in spaces where there are signs posted everywhere naming only what NOT to do. Talk about limiting our imagination to the impossible. But there’s also the disingenuous harm of pretending that no boundaries or the absence of posted guidance is better. Because then we are all left to our own personal devices to imagine what is allowable, which gets slippery, fast.
A former College colleague of mine, Kristen Mullins, teaches around intercultural competence, and one nugget that has stuck with me is “there’s no such thing as common sense.” I love to be challenged by this idea, which at the same time, rings true to my experience. Operating in the worlds I have walked through, there are so many times we’re asked to athletically leap from one assumption to the next, flexing our benefit of the doubt just about as far as it can go, expecting that the “universal” norms that I am accustomed to are the same for you. And for all of us. How about that?
I like to go from there to ask, “if ‘there’s no such thing as common sense’ but we’re expecting ‘common sense,’ then how do we co-create it?” Well, there are signs posted at the Knoll that Burn Permits are required at the Knoll, that Pizza Oven use is by permission only, and some other guidelines for the shared space. For folks whose paths cross with our interns and me, please ask what kinds of considerations there are in a new space—or even in spaces we think we know. We post on Instagram, the website, and go/knollhours during the rare full Knoll closure, we have an entire document with over seven pages of information about specific steps in order to host an event using the campfire pit and pizza oven, and have a consultative form and sometimes, even a designated intern to help support this process. I would like to think we try to give people information up-front, so they can get a sense for the rules and then choose how to engage with them, and the place.
This is a beautiful place to pause and offer gratitude to the over 50 groups, departments, professors, and student organizations that we work with each year to ensure that they can enjoy the Knoll. Yes, it takes a little work, and, with all our communication and willfulness to leave the space better than we found it, these events will continue to happen gorgeously into the future. And thank you to those who graciously yield their casual plans to those who have organized events.
And what to do with the folks who presume that there are no rules? Or fail to see how the posted rules apply to them? I’ll leave it at: if you burn things that are not yours without permission, that’s called arson. If you break into structures with locked doors, that’s called vandalism. If you lie, point-blank, to caretakers of a space about open alcohol containers in your hands that you do not have permission to consume… There are names for that, too. That’s for another day (or not: we have better things to do, richer fodder to metabolize).
I’ll use my breath instead to offer a deep thank you to all who visit, care for, and love the Knoll—a place where we can sow our visions into being.
A final note to close—with more conversation to come. At the Knoll we can—we must—talk about Land Acknowledgment in deed and in action, and how it relates to responsibility and repair. These are some of our best plots to weed while we garden. And as we go, how can we think about improving and healing our own relationships with what it means to be in place? What does it look like to be in some idea of “right relation,” and in service of those who come next? Open, important questions, which are only underscored in importance with small actions, sometimes as simple as picking up the litter you didn’t leave, or reminding your friends that it’s better to leave booze behind when you head to the Knoll. Thank you for tending to them, in the ways you can, in thinking about our shared ways to be with each other.
***[And, money. Accessibility updates at the Knoll are more than the simple act of building a ramp to replace the stairs in the Outdoor Classroom structure (though this would be a great start). It takes money to pay folks to see the work through thoughtfully and to offer continued care for the space. There are physical plans in place, conversations happening across faculty, staff, classes, and administrative collaborations– so many incredible resources ready to be organized– but deeply limited capacity to champion them to action, so if you would like to help support this work, please be in touch!]