In Ripton, students learn lessons of less

RIPTON — Ensconced in a former farmhouse tucked away amid the tree-filled slopes of Ripton, one could already argue that attending classes at the North Branch School is akin to going back to nature.
But the more than two-dozen students and faculty at North Branch took that concept a step further last week, as part of their contribution to the more than 5,200 worldwide global warming action events that occurred on Oct. 24 through the efforts of
The students in the small private middle school — located in the hometown of co-founder Bill McKibben — spent all of last week not only reducing their carbon footprint, but depriving themselves of things they believed smacked of consumerism.
“In order for us to change behavior, in order for them to have an interior mental revolution, it has to be physical and tactile and direct,” North Branch School head teacher Tal Birdsey said of the philosophy behind the weeklong project.
In that spirit, classrooms were lit only by candles and/or oil lamps; computers and photocopiers were unplugged; water was rationed; heat was used very sparingly; and at least one assignment was done on birch bark.
Participants honored the assignment outside of the classroom, as well.
Some students walked to school and participated in classes barefoot; others either took cold showers or dramatically reduced their use of bathing water; most everyone wore the same clothes for the entire week; and virtually all refrained from wearing brand-name attire.
Birdsey explained the global warming warning of fit into what will be the North Branch School’s theme for this entire academic year: Utopia.
“We thought that we wanted to do something that pertained to having some influence over their world you’re in,” Birdsey said. “With happening this fall, we thought that would be a great opportunity.”
McKibben in fact paid a visit to the North Branch School last month to talk about and other environmental issues. That motivated the students to sign up for activities.
North Branch members decided not to join regional gatherings.
“Doing something on (Sept. 24) would have meant driving somewhere and defeated the purpose,” Birdsey said. “So we thought we would spend a whole week doing it here.”
Together, students and teachers spent around a month brainstorming what they wanted to do for their contributions — as a school and as individuals.
“One of the things they realized is, we’re not going to alter the climate this week,” Birdsey said. “So really our work this week has been about them becoming more aware of the dimension of the problems and how we are all a part of it, enmeshed in it. That gives them a sense of power, and sometimes a sense of despair.”
Thursday saw the students work silently and collectively on a mandala — a Buddhist or Hindu design that symbolizes the universe and wholeness — in front of the school that they fashioned out of various rocks, twigs, leaves, pine needles, ferns and sand that they harvested from the nearby woods. The school will send a photo of themselves surrounding the mandala to be posted on the Web site.
The week’s activities clearly made an impression on the young students in grades seven-nine.
Bryn Martin, a ninth grader from Lincoln, used the experience in part to understand the plight of those less fortunate than herself.
“When the moon was out, I would walk barefoot in the gravel and thought about people who didn’t have a home to go to,” she said. “I realized we take too much for granted.”
Nathan Wulfman, a ninth grader from Ripton, wore the same clothing all week.
“It raised my awareness of people in other parts of the world, where it is a luxury to have more than one pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of shoes,” he said.
Wulfman also calculated that if he could cut back his shower use by one minute per day, he could save 1,000 gallons each year.
Sarah Miller, an eighth grader from Ripton, has been studying the works of Henry David Thoreau, of “Walden” fame. The school’s recent activities have corresponded well with Thoreau’s thoughts on simple living, she noted. Miller has been taking two-minute showers; walked to school barefoot in the rain on Wednesday; slept on the floor; and did not touch a computer or TV for the school week.
“It all felt natural, really,” she said of eschewing modern gadgetry and creature comforts.
Luke Freidin, an eighth grader from New Haven, wore the same clothes and took a pass on showers last week. He and other students plan to incorporate some conservation efforts in their everyday lives.
“I think I will definitely try to lower my water use, maybe start brushing my teeth in the shower so I don’t use as much water,” he said.
That’s just the kind of talk Birdsey wants to hear.
“I think we’ll all probably be more conscious of what we’re doing,” Birdsey said.

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