Op/Ed

Climate Matters: The Knoll is a place of nourishment and wellbeing

The Knoll at Middlebury College provides a space where students can get hands-on experience caring for the land.
Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

35th in a series

Founded by students in 2003, the Knoll, Middlebury College’s educational garden, has become a vitally important center of climate justice, resiliency, education and community nourishment. At the Knoll, people flourish as much as food; connection between students and the wider community becomes reciprocal; and learning, service and transformation occur daily. The Knoll’s 20th anniversary is in 2023, and in honor of this upcoming celebration and all that has become over the past 20 years we would like to share what we love about the Knoll. 

The Knoll’s story is one of commitment. Volunteers composed of students and community members created the garden from the ground up. Dedicated students, faculty, and staff have kept the garden growing for the last 20 years with immense labor, love, and generosity. Over 100 student interns have tended the land through the seasons, overseen by three consecutive Food and Garden Educators and countless student volunteers during the school years. 

If you haven’t been, we encourage you to take a stroll around. Right off the Trail Around Middlebury and Route 125, the Knoll is a beautiful spot on a hill, surrounded by a green marshy expanse and flanked by views of Middlebury College to the east and the Adirondacks on the western horizon. Feel free to meander through the garden, smell the flowers and harvest from the Grazing Garden — the circular garden dedicated to communal nourishment. Rooting in place is fundamental to understanding, and our words can only do so much to represent the Knoll. This place radiates love. 

Food and Garden Educator Megan Brakeley ’06 and a group of student interns oversee the Knoll spring, summer and fall. Volunteer hours are offered multiple times a week in the spring and fall, and last year, students filled nearly 300 sign-up slots. These devoted hands nourish a garden that provides for the college community through a partnership with dining halls and Crossroads Cafe. The garden also provides for the greater community through community partnerships, including Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and theNulhegan Food Security Project. In 2021, HOPE distributed more than 3,000 pounds of produce grown at the Knoll, 1,000 pounds more than the preceding year. For the Nulhegan Food Security Project, the Knoll grew about 300 pounds of produce, in both2020 and 2021. The Knoll also has a longstanding partnership with Cornwall’s elementary school, welcoming third-graders weekly for five weeks each fall, engaging them in gardening, soil ecology and more. 

The Knoll is also a site of restoration, providing space for the betterment of students’ mental and physical wellbeing. In 2021 36 students received PE credits through volunteer hours at the Knoll. It’s one of Middlebury College’s most popular places for students to move their bodies in ways that feel good while being outside and engaging with their landscape and working toward feeding the community.

Students work at The Knoll, which is celebrating 20 years at Middlebury Collge in 2023.
Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

The Knoll has also become an important gathering site for the college community. In 2020 the garden hosted 25 events and 32 days of educational programming. In 2021, over 55 official college events were hosted at the garden. Knoll staff also plant and manage an annual experiment for 40 students in a Natural Science Environmental Studies lab class. The Knoll reaches the larger Middlebury College community by hosting or assisting with events such as reunions, Fall Family Weekends, Bread Loaf Commencement, Language Schools, Alumni College, MiddView, Early Arrival programs and others. In the summer of 2022, the School of Abenaki held class at the Knoll, and marked the beginning of a partnership through ceremony and plantings of sweetgrass.

As Middlebury students, many of us pride ourselves on attending a school that is awake to the intensity of the climate crisis. We choose Middlebury and Vermont because we are biologists and activists, artists and gardeners, builders and collaborators who crave a place to share, learn, and serve resilience. The Knoll is where students can come together through our differences, speak truthfully and do work that directly impacts our fellow students, staff and local community. Justice is rooted in listening, acting with heart and gaining genuine comprehension of context. Many students choose to go to the Knoll because it offers a place to truly practice climate justice and find community in the midst of the climate crisis.  

Middlebury College students have demonstrated a growing interest in learning about food systems in the classroom, as well. Since creation in 2020 of the Food Studies minor 20 students have declared and eight more intend to, according to the Food Studies Department. In addition, 10 students are pursuing or have completed Independent Scholar tracks on food-related subjects. Extracurricularly, hundreds of students have engaged with local food issues through Weybridge House, on Weybridge Street. An average of 40 students gather there weekly for community dinners, while over 200 students come to the Weybridge Feast each year. These meals are open to the whole Middlebury community, and consist of produce grown within 30 miles, much of which comes from the Knoll.

There is clear demand for engagement with food justice from students. We know that food lies at the center of climate, labor, economic, political and social issues. Studying food systems is an avenue to gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of the world. As climate change exposes thefaultsin our food production systems, students are realizing that reimagining those systems is vital to building resilient communities. This growing student interest stresses how food is not just a conversation for agricultural schools and programs, but also vital for each of us every day. 

The Knoll is also an important BIPOC affinity space. In the U.S., the violent processes of colonization and slavery have deeply impacted agriculture and food systems. Simultaneously, there is a pressing need to acknowledge and honor the agricultural roots of many Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and foster exploration and reconnection with students’ personal and ancestral histories to land and food. 

The Knoll has consistently emerged as a central space for students to hold this history and imagine what the future of our food systems might look like. In community, the Knoll is co-creating a space that allows us to dive into the complexities of imagining futures where co-existence, solidarity, and justice are abundant. The numerous BIPOC affinity spaces organized by Megan Brakeley, in collaboration with the Anderson Freeman Center (AFC) and the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki point to the interdisciplinary, hands-on work underway at the Knoll. 

Among other BIPOC affinity and focused events, the Knoll hosts First@Midd gatherings in the beginning of academic years; held space for a bouquet making workshop for the AFC’s “Bridgerton Bunch,” an affinity space for women and femmes of color on campus; and hosted a Kimchi making workshop with RAISINs. A field trip was also coordinated to Soul Fire Farm in New York state, an Afro-Indigenous community farm committed to decolonizing and seeding sovereignty in the food system. These all point to the community-connected experiential learning to which the Knoll is dedicated. In a state where BIPOC representation in farming and agriculture is limited, taking up space in the garden has opened doors for many BIPOC students to explore environmentalism and community building while breaking down perceptions ofwho belongson farms. The Knoll’s interdisciplinary focus on food and organizing gives many BIPOC students on campus a radical space to feel joy and learn skills to benefit whole communities. 

The Knoll’s 20th anniversary will be celebrated throughout 2023. It is truly remarkable how much the Knoll has grown over the past two decades through dedication, collaboration and resilience. We look forward to inviting alumni who helped create the Knoll, past student interns who have cared for the land, and the many community members without whom the Knoll would not exist to join in these celebrations. We will invite more Middlebury community members to the Knoll to observe this abundance with us, and we seek community support and excitement as we make these plans. We look forward to the ways the Knoll can continue being a site of nourishment, education, gathering, and joy for many years to come.

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This column was written by Aria Bowden, Claire Contreras, Viv Merrill, Hannah Laga Abram, Andrés Oyaga, Lauren Gemery and SJ O’Connor, all of whom are seniors at Middlebury College, except for O’Connor, who is a junior.

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