Wild Fare


Andrew Lawler


Only later, after lunch, did I see the snakes. They were thick as ocean-liner hawsers, ominously speckled and striped, and coiled in a tea-colored pickling juice in 2-foot-high jars on the tall counter at a roadside eatery in rural Vietnam. My plan for a quick bite had morphed into a plastic table covered with a dozen del icious dishes, but snake apparently was reserved for a more special occasion. Wild or tame, hooved or winged, root or mammal, land-living or water-loving, almost anything living here can be pickled, boi led, steamed, or fried.

The Vietnamese take Woody Allen’s famous saying about nature—“It’s like an enormous restaurant”—to lengths unimagined by finicky Westerners like me who think it edgy to eat venison. There are dog farms here. Hanoi bistros special ize in snake blood-and-bi le cocktails. At an open-air market in a small town, women sell fly-laden water buffalo skins good for a meal, though exactly how to prepare them gets lost in translation. Nearby, a woman with scissors expertly snips open little snow-white silkworm cocoons, setting aside the wriggling electric-green worms for a customer’s stir-fry dinner. In the next row, an energetic egg vendor proudly shows off her most expensive product: fertilized duck eggs prized for their fetal crunch.

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THIS IS NOT YOUR NATURE OF HENRY DAVID Thoreau or John Muir, a transcendental retreat or a sacred park behind a carefully protected border. This is nature as take out. The forest is home to what can’t grow or live on the farm—herbs, mushrooms, fresh-water crabs, and boar. The distinction between wild and domesticated is hard to maintain in a pot on the stove. In Vietnam, nature is a great larder against hunger as well as a medicine chest for what ails. Some things might be poisonous and others can heal, but nothing is disgusting.Order chicken, and you get, well, chicken. It comes sliced in a neat medallion with a circle of skin and bone encasing fat and  
gristle and, finally, almost as an afterthought, meat. And the cooked comb is there for you to pick up with your chopsticks—if you dare.

Like soul food or French country cooking, Vietnamese cuisine approaches nature’s heady variety with a gusto that is both refreshing and intimidating. I grew up in a world where the sound of the can opener’s metallic saw heralded dinner. Animals were neatly corralled into three kinds: the meat on our plate, those born free in the wild, and the pets we loved. We ate only the first. Our deer-hunting neighbors, with their guns and hounds and camouflage, were faintly alarming.Even now, I like my snakes far away, my dog on the rug, and my

chicken lean, boneless, and combless.

In Vietnam, even chicken is not just chicken. Every village seems to have its own peculiar combination of varieties, each with its own name and history. At one meal I was served three distinctive breeds, identically prepared but quite different in texture and taste. One was honey-colored, another a metallic grey, and the third black—black bones, blood, and even its comb. All were, to my taste buds raised on predictable and bland KFC, oily and hard to chew. I found the darker the flesh the less palatable the meat. This was chicken that didn’t taste like chicken.

Such distinctions are sources of deep


pride. In a small settlement outside Hanoi, Nguyen Dong Chung preserves a breed called the Ho, a tall ungainly bird with dark feathers, red skin, and huge feet. Chung is slight with a shy smile. Over tea in his sitting room next to the family’s ancestor altar late one morning, he recalled that the finest pair was once presented to the king and queen at Chinese New Year’s. Villagers would make a Ho chicken dinner offering at their home altar on special occasions, then enjoy the tasty meat. They also would train the huge roosters to fight one another; cockfighting is still the favorite spectator sport of rural South Asia.

Today, the Ho is still prized. A single egg can net $3, twenty times the price of a regular hen’s ovum, and a rooster can sell for a hefty $150. A French company, Chung said casually, is considering turning the Ho into a line of broilers. Down the street, a friend has Ho fighting cocks in wicker baskets for sale. Overall it’s a profitable business that employs many of the villagers, and people come from all over the Hanoi area to place their orders.But Chung’s thin face was radiant with old-fashioned devotion, not nouveau-riche avarice, as he  

showed me his birds. His tone was reverent, almost grave. “My grandfather and his grandfather raised Ho. We are proud of them. We think they are very important.”

Animals in this country’s shrinking wilderness, however, lack such dedicated advocates. The last wild Java rhino in Vietnam was downed in 2011, with only its horn—rumored to cure cancer—removed by hunters. The gaur, the world’s largest species of wild cattle, is numbered only in the hundreds. And the mysterious saola, also called the Asian unicorn, hangs on in small numbers in high mountains. The World Wildlife Fund ranks Vietnam first in wildlife crime, and its huge neighbor China is the world’s largest market for wild animal parts. Combine that with Vietnam’s culinary gusto and a population that has nearly tripled in a half century—one which will soon surpass 100 million—and there’s less and less time to restock the forest larder.

Further complicating the matter is the issue of what species command attention. You won’t find, for instance, an obscure wild bird called the red  

jungle fowl on the extensive list of Vietnam’s endangered species. Unremarked by mammal-fixated conservationists, this creature is slowly and inexorably vanishing from its South Asian home. It’s as if a family suddenly took in several teenagers who raid the fridge with impunity.It’s a stealth extinction. Unmourned, the fowl is losing not only its habitat but also its very genes. And the unwitting collaborator in this quiet extermination is its very own close cousin and famous descendant, the domesticated chicken.

Given the environmental problems this planet faces, kvetching about the loss of the wild chicken might seem, at best, ludicrous. There are still plenty of red jungle fowl—certainly tens of thousands—in comparison with, say, Bengal tigers. And, after all, there are more chickens on Earth than any other bird: 18.5 billion, give or take a hundred million or so. They crow the dawn in Polynesia, cluck around frosty Siberian villages, and annoy neighbors in Brooklyn. They are everywhere. And they are survivors. After the apocalypse, the ragged remnants of the human race will find clucking hens pecking nonchalantly through the rubble.


So what does it matter if its wild cousin gets the axe?

There’s a sensible-shoes response: chickens are now humanity’s largest single source of protein. In the land of the hamburger, Americans today eat a third more chicken than beef. And in rapidly developing countries like Vietnam, the bird also rules the culinary roost. As people flock to cities, cheap eggs and white meat are essential staples that only grab headlines in their absence. When avian flu wiped out 22 million chickens in Mexico last summer, egg prices tripled in the capital, and angry protestors took to the streets, shaking the new government. In Iran, the price of chicken is rising out of the reach of most consumers, prompting the nation’s top police chief to recommend a ban on televising people eating chicken. He worries that such provocative images might spark dissent.

Given that the chicken is arguably our most important animal companion, preserving its wild cousin seems prudent. The red jungle fowl’s particular gene bank, only dimly understood now, could prove a  

treasure trove for future breeders since it lacks the genetic tinkering we’ve done with the domestic version over five millennia. All that tinkering produced hundreds of chicken varieties like the Ho. But local breeds are diminishing in our global economy. Today, a half dozen of these, controlled by a smaller number of corporations, account for more than 80% of the world’s population. The possibility of mass disease sweeping through nearly identical flocks is a real and present threat, and one sure to grow in the future. Chicken corporations claim not to be worried. But keeping the wild bird in reserve would seem wise and judicious nevertheless. 

And, as I learned on my visit to Vietnam’s rugged northwest, it is easier said than done.

On a humid late November afternoon in a small town in northwestern Vietnam, I saw my first red jungle fowl. I didn’t need binoculars. It was in the back of a drab-green Russian jeep. The flame- and sea-colored bird nearly  glowed in the small wire cage. Its beady black eyes, sleek body and long black tail reminded me of a

pheasant. With its red comb and wattles, however, the bird would not have been out of place in the fancy-breed chicken shed of a county fair. But unlike the domesticated bird, this fowl avoids people, prefers the deep forest, and flies.

I came upon the red jungle fowl while in the company of Chinese geneticist Jianlin Han, Vietnamese biologist-cum-gourmand Le Thi Thuy, and a young driver with an eclectic mix of heartfelt socialist songs and thumping disco. After a six-hour drive from Hanoi, where every one of the 3 million inhabitants plays chicken on a motorbike, we rolled into a provincial town set among the rice fields of a wide valley bracketed by strange stony mountains.

In a crumbling French colonial building, we plotted our campaign. Marx and Lenin looked sternly from their frames as former enemies—Vietnamese, Chinese, and American—hunched over a map together.Our goal was to hike into promising and remote forest areas to spot and photograph the bird in the wild.


The fowl is notoriously skittish, and tracking it is no simple matter. To improve our chances, the leader had already procured a male red jungle fowl that now sat in the jeep: bait for his wild brethren. We drove away as schoolchildren next door sang a song of socialist paradise.

The sun already was sliding into a gauzy western haze as we hugged the edge of the wide valley, green with ripe rice, framed by fantastically pointed and domed peaks. The fields looked ancient, but are in fact carefully engineered to move water imperceptibly. The resulting product is famed across the country for its sublime flavor. At first glance, this scene seemed one of eminent sustainability. But between field and peaks, the dark thick forest that serves as prime red jungle fowl territory was pocked by ugly red gullies and marked by the pervasive light-green shade of corn plants. The slope of the fields here is breathtakingly steep:

 Iowa on an impossible slant. Entire mountainsides are given over to this hand-planted cultivation. The resulting corn feeds the chickens and pigs that feed the expanding appetite of the cities. Demand for chicken is steadily destroying the red jungle fowl’s habitat.

Turning off the paved road, we forded a river, bumped through a pretty village of wooden houses on stilts full of children and chickens, and worked our way up a slippery track, past lumbering carts of rice and tall dignified Black Thay women in black headdresses with bright needlework, who swooped along on shiny motorbikes. One simultaneously clutched a handlebar and a dead chicken. 

Along the way, after a flurry of cell calls, we picked up our guide, Lo Van Huong, a stocky young Black Thay villager. He was wearing camouflage and seemed nonchalant about our odd little expedition. A few minutes later, high in the foothills, we parked in

mud and walked into an unexpected paradise. Stone cliffs dotted with twisted trees loomed high above a little saucer-shaped valley discharging a rocky stream that made a tumble of a little waterfall. A lone farmer in a conical hat harvested rice in a sea of green amidst a meander of raised dirt paths. The scene had the cozy feel of an English meadow bordered with hedgerows or an Italian vineyard town—a beauty shaped slowly and methodically by innumerable generations of farmers.

While I paused to savor the moment, Huong was already heading up the mountain at a distressingly fast clip, the cage with the jungle fowl strapped to his back. I hurried after, my foolish loafers sucking into the red goo on the path. Eventually we reached mossy scree as a thorn caught the center of my forehead. The brambles closed around my legs. The other members of our party, less invested in the hunt, turned back.

Just below the mountain’s crest, we halted at a rocky stream. Mosquitoes whirred; my heart pounded. In the distance, motorbikes honked. The guide set the fowl’s cage on the ground, and we hid separately, some distance away in a thicket. But the caged bird refused to crow, the tropical night came on fast, and my urban fidgeting ensured that no sane wild creature would come within a hundred yards of our position. I felt like the bumpkin unwrapping candy in a packed theater.

After a time, Huong reappeared. Too polite to roll his eyes, he instead began walking back down the mountain. I had no choice but to follow, sensing—as I did—the disdain of Abel for Cain. The caged bird was as silent as ever.

Later, I spent a restless night in the world’s loudest hotel room: outside my window, every motorcycle and truck blew its horn as it sped down the empty town, and every cock then decided it must crow.

As the sun rose, we—Huong, the driver, and I—were already beyond the little saucer paradise, climbing again in search of our elusive red jungle fowl. Skirting rocky outcrops near the summit, Huong put down the cage, quickly built a screen of vegetation for us to hide behind, then vanished.

The driver and I crouched down. Through an opening in the cage, I could see the trapped bird standing erect but remaining still. The mosquitoes swarmed. The driver idly texted on two cell phones. Truck horns blared from the distant road. A long half hour passed. Then the caged bird suddenly shook its feathers, raised its head, and let loose a surprisingly deep noise—a slightly more sober and serious sound than a domestic cockle doodle doo. A moment later, not far above our perch, another wild cock answered. Then another on a neighboring ridge. Peculiar, this most domesticated of sounds piercing the dense forest.

But as soon as it began, our fowl slumped back into a reticence that lasted another half hour. The sun was rising fast, and our chances of actually spotting a wild bird were rapidly diminishing. Some time later, Huong reappeared without making a noise. We picked our way past boulders and clung to vines as we worked our way back down to the mud and rice fields and motorbikes. By now, seeing a red jungle fowl in the wild had lost its shine. What I really wanted was to talk with people who know the bird.

Han suggested a farm an hour’s drive to the northwest. The owner greeted him with a wide grin. Han oversees a United Nations project to help South Asian farmers breed better chickens, but he’s also fascinated by the bird’s history. Since the days of Darwin’s grandfather, biologists have argued about where and when and how the chicken was domesticated. That debate remains a hot topic in the little world of specialists.


For his part, Han is gathering genetic samples of the fowl to shed light on the remarkable transformation of a shy wild bird into our most critical animal protein.

In the farm’s main courtyard, we drank tea and ate sweet potatoes as a 3-year-old red jungle fowl watched us warily from a cage hanging in a nearby tree. Nguyen Quir Tuan, a lean Hmong worker who has cared for such fowl for more than 40 years, said the bird came from high in the mountains, beyond the reach of humans and domesticated chickens. Opening the cage and grabbing the reluctant bird by its feet so as to avoid its razor-sharp spurs, he offered us a close-up view.

“There are fewer now because the trees are being cut and they are being hunted,” he said matter of factly, looking down at the now-calm bird.

Tuan then gestured to the fields beyond. Years ago, he recalled, when tigers were still prevalent, the birds inhabited even this valley.

But now, he added, the wild places are dwindling to a few islands at high elevations.

Tuan, like many Vietnamese villagers I met, is a little awed by the bird. It is smart, he said, and avoids traps. If captured, it more often than not dies, refusing to eat the rice grains that domestic chickens adore. Or it might break its neck rushing to the other side of a cage if a human enters. It is small, but tough enough to beat a much larger domesticated rooster in a fight. And it can fly. As we chatted, a flock of hybrid birds—fowl crossed with Egyptian Fayoumi—effortlessly flapped into the top of a nearby tree and settled down for the night, as fully wild ones do in the forest.

At house after house in the area, we encountered a single red jungle fowl either tied to a string or living in a cage. Though the birds surely are kept for cockfighting or for sale, their owners all said they take particular delight in the sound of the fowl, which they described as fuller and richer than the domesticated kind that pecking away outside. The wild rooster’s crow seems to cast a particular spell on these practical Vietnamese farmers.

Perhaps because it is illegal to hunt and trap the bird—one woman explained her husband just happened to find a red jungle fowl egg while looking for mushrooms, and brought it home to hatch—people at first were reluctant to discuss its gastronomic qualities. Finally, though, one village chief confessed: “The meat is very good—dark and juicy. There is nothing that tastes so wonderful.” He admitted he eats about 20 a year.

At the small-town market, I asked the egg vendor if she carried red jungle fowl eggs. She hopped up and hovered boldly over my notebook. I gave her my pen, and she scribbled down a cell phone number. “No eggs, but call and order a fowl,” she said. I could expect to pay about $100.

Whether these birds truly are wild, however, is no longer an easy question to answer. That night, I emailed two American biologists pictures of the red jungle fowl I’d encountered, including Tuan’s bird—supposedly from a remote area. The scientists, however, saw subtle signs—invisible to me—that made them suspect the fowl are all hybrids. What’s more, they said, if any such birds are calm and eating grain, their behavior may be a tip off to their mixed nature.

Can a fowl that acts like a chicken truly still be called a red jungle fowl? There’s little doubt that in the past century, with the human population explosion, better roads, and growing demand for food, more regular contact has been established between the chicken and the red jungle fowl.

And biologists have noted that a dramatic plumage once unique to the wild rooster—feathers that showed up only briefly when it moulted annually—have vanished since the 19th century.

Ornithologists have long argued over exactly what traits define the wild variety. Genetics seemed poised to provide another less subjective line of evidence in 2004 when the chicken, as befitting its status, was the first domesticated animal to be sequenced. But nearly a decade later, scientists still don’t have a clear baseline to compare the red jungle fowl with its fellow subspecies. Untangling the genes associated with wild versus domesticate turns out to be far more difficult than anticipated. Wild nature and human nurture are deeply intertwined within today’s common chicken. It may prove impossible to determine if there are any truly wild red jungle fowl left. By then, they may well be extinct.

It is hard, of course, to compete with drowning polar bears and hornless dead rhinos. And a bird that looks and sounds so much like its 

barnyard cousin must contend with familiarity breeding contempt. Chickens root around in the soil; they rush about. And while they may dream of flying, they cannot soar. They are like us: ordinary, noisy, and busy creatures tied to the ground. Humans and chickens are like the old married couple that comes to resemble one another.

That may be the very reason, the non-sensible-shoes reason, to save what we can of the red jungle fowl—or at least to acknowledge its passing. Its presence reminds us that civilization is not a sudden creation, a Genesis-like gift or a free pass for domination. Civilization rests on the complicated web of relationships that we’ve built with plants and animals, the grueling negotiated work of generations with the thing we call nature. That may be why the red jungle fowl’s crow appeals so strongly to Vietnamese villagers already surrounded by chickens. It’s the wildness that we want to keep in our homes, close to our hearts: tied or caged perhaps, but a happy reminder that our dominion has its limits.


Andrew Lawler  is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish and places ranging from Japan to Iran to Sudan. He is a contributing writer for Science Magazine, the world’s largest scientific weekly, and a contributing editor for Archaeology Magazine. He has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, The Sun, Orion, Astronomy, Body & Soul, Yoga International, and several European newspapers.


Jobie Cole, New products, mixed media


Zach Falcon


solution for soil erosion. DDT started as a solution for mosquitoes. Thalidomide
began as a solution to morning sickness. The first-order problem seems so
intractable, so insurmountable, that the gamble of fixing it disarms rational
thought. Anything to scratch an itch. Only when the pencil-end snaps beneath the
cast, or one’s field clots with vines, does perspective return and the second-order
problem manifest. An itch is one thing; birth defects are another. I once heard of
a man who survived a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the moment
of launch, during the weightless pause before he plummeted toward the sea, he
realized in a burst of clarity that all of his problems were petty except for just
having jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. In my case, the problem was that
at eighteen I felt aimless, friendless, and alone. I suffered from a longing as vague
and corrosive as nostalgia. The world I lived in was blurred and indistinct. I had no
words for any of it. My solution was Cassie.
Cassie was a witch. And not the friendly Wiccan-earth-goddess-tattoo type
who gives her children sweet-but-absurd names. Cassie was a straight-up Grimm’s-
fairy-tale witch. She was a strict Manichean who believed in good and evil:
black and white. She had decided to play for the winning team, and so dressed in
black. She and her friends came into the coffee shop in downtown Juneau where
I worked, and she drank the same tea I liked: Market Spice – the Seattle kind
with the flavored fob, the thin square of cardboard at the end of the teabag string.
Placed on your tongue, like a wafer, the fob burned your mouth with cinnamon
oil. Sometimes having only one thing in common gets you started with someone.
Cassie told me I had sweet eyes. She made me a mixed tape of bleak music. I had
never been picked for any team. I would have followed her anywhere.
Cassie told us that the original human sin was consciousness. That God had
forced the Fall with His insistence that Adam name the animals. That the serpent
had nothing to do with it. “Animals live in the world like water in water,” Cassie

Cassie told us that the
original human sin was
consciousness. That God
had forced the Fall with His
insistence that Adam name
the animals.

said. “We do not.” We are estranged from the world we have named, and the naming
is why we are lonely. Dominion is the unbearable condition, she explained, not a gift.
Our task was to recover our birthright and live in the world as indivisibly as the wolf
that eats the caribou or the caribou that is eaten by the wolf. “Like water in water,”
she said.
Only after Cassie and her friends, who had become my friends, killed Dylan
Hamner, one of our friends, and ate slices of his heart by the light of a pallet bonfire,
did my second-order problem become manifest. Certainly I had been there; I was the
one with a car. A Buick Skylark. It could hold all seven of us. Dylan said he didn’t
mind being a caribou if that’s what it took for us to become wolves. Even within our
mopey circle, Dylan was notable for his despair. He had sweet eyes.
We drove that night across the bridge to Douglas Island and then north to Outer
Point, where an edge of the gray Pacific huffed and seethed through the pores of
a black-cobbled beach. But while Cassie drowned Dylan in the sea and made him
water in water, I wandered from the beach into the woods. I didn’t follow any
trail; I just pushed through the thicket and into the forest. Alone in the darkness, I
placed my hand on the rough bark of a looming tree and felt the adhesive grab of
sap upon my palm. The name of the thing I touched, Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis,
came unbidden to my tongue. I remembered in a flood the rangy red-bearded man
at the Boy Scout camp, ten years before, who taught us the name, who had each of
us touch the tree in turn and repeat the name after him. Now, the words burned a
furrow behind my eyes. Everything has a name: longing, murder, trees. Names have
edges that cannot blur and we are obliged to say them. There is a reverb between
the touching and the naming that we must weather. I felt a great vertigo and retched
from the shaking of it.
I think about that moment all of the time now. Not the killing. I feel bad about
Dylan and the violence against his body, whether he wanted to be a caribou or not.
I am sorry for the Hamners. But I think now about the spruce and its name and the
intimate distance that naming enforces. Some days in the Lemon Creek Correctional
Center yard, when the sun slants right against the forest on the rising flanks of
Thunder Mountain beyond the flashing razorwire, I feel the furrow burn again.
Always it is fleeting. Often it is not there at all. Some summers I catch the upward
spiraling call of a Swainson’s thrush. And I tell the sullen fellas marking their shuffled
time that it is a Swainson’s thrush they hear. That’s its name, I say.



Zach Falcon is a graduate of Columbia University, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in the Sycamore Review, The Bear Deluxe Magazine, and The Journal, among others. Born and raised in Alaska, he now lives in Maine.

Sunset Ridge

Mark Kelly, X Ray, smoke on paper


Alina O’Donnell
Sunset Ridge

where I grew up, there wasn’t much to do. It wasn’t within walking distance to a park, and no one I knew had a pool. “The field” was where my friends and I spent stifling summer afternoons practicing cartwheels and running through sprinklers. My house was right next to the field, which meant that all of the neighborhood kids came to my house to swing on the swing set and take breaks for popsicles. When darkness fell we’d run home with gummy fingers and gleaming foreheads to gather flashlights and jars for capturing fireflies. When I ran away from home when I was four years old, I packed a suitcase filled with plastic play food, my ballet costume, and a toothbrush, then sat in the middle of the field until my parents retrieved me. Looking back, it is hard to conceive that the same docile earth my friends and I plucked flowers from was laden with 12 inches of arsenic. My parents bought the house that abutted this field in 1990. Their first, it was a brick, single-family home, less than a year old and located in Burlington, NJ. It had been a model home, an exhibit for interested buyers. It had a sprawling backyard, large enough to accommodate a big, wooden swing set, walk-through garden, and a brick patio, and still have room for lawn parties. We were the last house of the cul-de-sac, so our property was fenced by a thicket of pine and maple trees, which, in autumn, supplied great leaf piles for jumping into. Historically, Burlington County, New Jersey, had been one of the state’s foremost agricultural counties. In 1940, Burlington County had 7,600 fruit orchards. By 1992, the year we moved in, that number had been whittled down to 745. And it wasn’t just the orchards that vanished. It seemed that each year
that passed, another row of the pine and maple trees framing my house was supplanted by cookie-cutter houses. When I looked out my bedroom window, I no longer saw thick forest, but a house that was virtually a clone of my own and a meager bulwark of trees my father planted to define our property line. These transformations didn’t just take place within the confines of our neighborhood. The orchards, farms, and parks we had passed on my bus ride to school had been trampled by a stampede of convenience stores and fast food restaurants: Wawas, Checkers, and 7-Elevens. It wasn’t long before the name “Sunset Ridge” was steeped in irony, as the housing development left so little of nature intact. My family became distraught over the devastation of our charming, pastoral community. Yet, it wasn’t this residential development that ushered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection into our backyard in 1996. Almost two years earlier, the NJDEP launched an investigation of soil contamination in two housing developments in Burlington County as part of the lands’ sale to a new company. One of these developments was Sunset Ridge. The tests unearthed elevated levels of arsenic, lead, DDT, and DDT byproducts in 73 properties throughout Burlington Township. Both my property and the field beside it were rife with these chemicals. One contaminate found was dieldrin, an intensely toxic insecticide that was banned in 1986. The levels of dieldrin found were up to 14 times higher than the NJDEP mandated limits. By state law, the DEP was not required to inform the public, and chose not to. When the company selling the tract informed the DEP of its contamination in 1994, the two

Cole Caswell, Image 1


Alina O’Donnell is a junior at the University of Delaware, where she is majoring in English and Environmental Studies. Aside from contributing to the Review newspaper and Deconstruction magazine, Alina has worked as a tutor at her university’s writing center since her sophomore year. She has also been interning with Community Energy Inc., a developer and marketer of renewable energy, for the past year. When she graduates next May, Alina hopes to marry her two passions and work as an environmental reporter.

Sustainability Character and Life Practice on a College Campus

Sustainability Character



Sustainability Character

Mitchell Tomashow

An excerpt from The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, MIT Press

IN THE EARLY 1990’S, THICH NHAT HANH, THE VIETNAMESE Buddhist, presented a series of meditation workshops oriented towards the specific challenges of environmental professionals. I had the good fortune to attend one of those workshops. In my experience during the program and following twenty years, the reverberating mantra “you can’t take care of the environment if you don’t take care of the environmentalist” resided in my awareness. I used it as a way to balance the challenging demands of professional life, to serve as a way to place aspiration and accomplishment in the deeper perspective of a whole life.

Much of the sustainability ethos has its origins in the virtues of simplicity, a vision of a “good life” that has Thoreauvian roots, including what Philip Cafaro describes in his book Thoreau’s Living Ethics as “health, freedom, pleasure, friendship, a rich experience, knowledge (of self, nature, and God), reverence, self-culture, and personal achievement.” Simplicity also reflects an enduring tradition in American history. In The Simple Life, David Shi, reveals the origins and practice of this sensibility. He describes how the simple life was intrinsic to the Progressive movement, including “a cluster of practices and values that have since remained associated with the concept: discriminating consumption, uncluttered living, personal contentment, aesthetic simplicity (including an emphasis on handicrafts), civic virtue, social service, and renewed contact with nature in one form or another.”

On college campuses, sustainability advocates typically support such Thoreauvian values in principle, yet their work environments are exceedingly demanding. The sustainability ethos promotes “the good life” but the urgency of the “planetary challenge” coupled with the various stresses of contemporary higher education often creates pressured and tense work environments. Most campus sustainability professionals I encounter, including staffers, faculty, and managers, all the way up to the senior leadership, are challenged by a seemingly unlimited portfolio of urgent and demanding tasks and requests. They are compelled to respond for three main reasons: the perceived importance of the sustainability mission, the motivation to accomplish tangible results, and their desire to uphold standards of personal achievement. This is stimulated and reinforced by the presumed ubiquity of work, an implicit work ethic, and the assumption that individual and organizational success depends on the exemplary accomplishment of that work. It is relatively rare to find people on college campuses who proclaim that they’ve achieved a “balanced” work life. Rather people complain, proclaim, or take pride in how busy they are.

WE HAVE A PROFOUND CONTRADICTION HERE. The sustainability ethos deeply values a “good life” informed by simplicity, communion with nature, and reverence. But the provision of that good life seems to obviate its realization. Of course many people find great satisfaction in sustainability work and find that the work itself is sufficient reward. And how people choose to spend their time and balance their life is an individual matter. Still, my impression, informed by hundreds of conversations with higher education sustainability professionals, is that most of these people (regardless of their place and position) experience a fundamental imbalance between the promise of the “good life” and its realization.

What I wish to convey, then, is the inevitable link between sustainability, character, and life practice. Sustainability practitioners are ultimately interested in human flourishing: they serve as the campus conscience for personal health and fitness, community purpose and vitality, and ecological resilience. They are inevitably scrutinized because they are espousing ways of thinking, living, and acting. They are expected to model the very behaviors they advocate. As Emerson suggests, how they live and act is as important as what they say.

In my role as “supervisor in chief,” I had to learn how to create high expectations for the college while espousing a balanced work life.

During my tenure as a college president I directly confronted this issue. In my role as “supervisor in chief,” I had to learn how to create high expectations for the college while espousing a balanced work life. Unless I found the same balance in my own life I wouldn’t be taken seriously in that regard. There was a stunning parallel between how I conducted myself publicly and the tone I set for the whole campus. As I lived on campus, this was an inescapable reality. We constructed a modest LEED platinum, zero carbon presidential residence to set a public standard for sustainable living. The house functioned simultaneously as our private living quarters and an educational venue for campus sustainability. Our lives were on display. But the public nature of my life didn’t end there.

As a college president, I discovered that people inevitably scrutinize everything you do and say. Like so many of my peers, I aspired to maximize the educational value of that scrutiny. I won’t say that I achieved the balance between high-level professional accomplishment and the sustainable “good life.” But I did publicly pronounce my desire to do so and attempted transparency in my successes and failures accordingly. I also emphasized the importance of a balanced life for those employees who reported directly to me, and I instructed them to do the same in their departments. As the president of a small college (in a small town), almost every work-related dissatisfaction eventually arrives on your desk. The “well-being” of your constituents is always on your mind. There is no solace in knowing that you can’t please everyone or that some people just find trouble. And the more accessible and transparent you are, the more likely it is that people will come to you with their issues.

In many respects, the daily challenge of maintaining high morale at a college that espoused the sustainability ethos was the most stressful element of my job. I had to balance the psychological demands of the position, my expectations for achieving a sustainable campus, and my aspirations to live and lead “a good life.” I contend that this balance is crucial for any sustainability practitioner, although considerably magnified for a chief executive. Mileage varies according to the culture of each campus, the personal style of the practitioner, and the level of leadership responsibility intrinsic to your position. However, there are some behavioral tenants for implementing that balance in any institution. These reflect approaches I use (not always successfully) to promote “a good life” in an organization.

1 Accept that You’re a Role Model

If you espouse sustainability, people will expect you to live according to your ideals. You can’t practice an energy guzzling lifestyle. It just won’t work. Similarly, if you espouse campus wellness, you should probably eat well, pursue physical fitness, and balance work and play. If you can’t do so, then how can you promote it for others? When I was the president of Unity College, I organized a noon-time bicycle ride for senior staff and invited any students and faculty to join us. I was always on my bicycle. I encouraged the Dean of Student Life to develop comprehensive wellness programs for students, staff, and faculty. We created a spirit of wellness for the entire campus, and we knew that if we took the lead in our own lives, it would have much more impact. I would take the lead in encouraging everyone on campus to alleviate stress, practice fitness and relaxation, and engage in both work and play.

2 Provide a Sense of Proportion and Scale

It’s often difficult for people to distinguish between working hard and working well. Throughout my career people have questioned me as to how I’m able to take breaks during the day for exercise, or find time to pursue my many interests. The answer, I think, lies in the fact that people often misappropriate their time. I spend much of my supervisory time working with people to help them align their priorities accordingly. When you are the chief executive, you are more able to do this. The first question I ask my employees is to tell me how they spend their time, what rationale they use for making their time management decisions, and whether they feel that their work is important. Just about everyone I encounter requires such conversations.

Similarly (from an institutional perspective), people often worry about the wrong things. Often, this is the reason for misappropriating time: they are working and worrying about issues that aren’t really that important. Surprisingly, providing this kind of counsel can be the key to promoting campus wellness. You can’t have a balanced working life unless you can figure out how to manage your time.

3 Emphasize Clarity and Accountability

Any campus with high aspirations must create a challenging and demanding work environment. How can campus wellness coexist with such aspiration? The key to this balance is requiring clear accountability and expectations. People must know what they can and should expect from each other. The most egregious miscommunications often can be traced to a misunderstanding of who is accountable and what is expected of them. When there is lack of clarity, the stress level in an organization becomes inordinately high. Then you have to spend far too much time (see point 2 above) trying to figure out who was supposed to do what or what people meant when they said something.

4 Emphasize Politeness and Respect

This is an incredibly simple way to promote a sense of campus well-being. When people treat each other with politeness and respect, they insure better communication, they are more likely to speak and listen well, and they will come to every encounter with more confidence and integrity. In contrast, an environment of intimidation, bullying, sarcasm, and condescension promotes anxiety and defensiveness. I have spent hours of supervisory time mediating such bad behavior. I have always placed a huge emphasis on creating conditions of conviviality and good interpersonal manners. However, it’s crucial that people don’t mistake conviviality for a lack of discipline or an unwillingness to set limits. Conflict is inevitable and different perspectives will always emerge. The manner in which conflicts are resolved reflects volumes about campus morale and community vitality.

5 Create an Improvisational Flow of Creative Imagination

I always try to stimulate a creative, improvisational working environment that rewards innovation and imagination. This attitude is absolutely necessary in demanding working environments. It provides an outlet for stress, encourages participation, and demonstrates open-mindedness. Sometimes there are multiple solutions to vexing problems. An improvisational flow doesn’t necessarily mitigate a stressful challenge, but it can create more stimulating and rewarding conditions for taking on the challenge. People are most fully engaged in campus life when they are using their imagination to solve challenging problems. An improvisational attitude also suggests there is a willingness to experiment and explore as a way to adapt to changing circumstances.

6 Purity is the End of Potential

In the introduction to The Collected Works of Gary Snyder, poet Jim Dodge tells a wonderful story. He describes a group of students who were visiting Snyder to discuss various environmental issues. Snyder served a meal of “road-kill stew” in bowls without silverware. Observing the scene, Dodge wondered whether Snyder has gone Zen-pure. But, then, Snyder went to the kitchen to fetch dessert. He came back to the dining area and tossed Hostess Twinkies to all of the seminar participants. There’s a lesson to be learned here. For Jim Dodge, it’s that purity is the end of potential. I recount this story on numerous occasions as a reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Our important work requires comedy and lightness.

Why is Thoreauvian simplicity such an enduring aspiration? For starters, it cuts against the complicated intricacies of contemporary life. In the early nineteenth century, Thoreau conceived a counter to what he considered to be the ubiquitous monotony of daily work life, especially as informed by the routines of commerce. Those routines prevented people from living a full life, mainly by distracting them from direct experience of the natural world. Thoreau’s many projects entailed deep immersion in the extraordinary mysteries and intricacies of the immediate landscape, He aspired to shed the shackles of commerce, to roam freely through the fields and forests, and to commit himself to the daily practice of observing nature. Philip Cafaro neatly encapsulates the essence of this daily practice in his book Thoreau’s Living Ethics:

It is striking how often Thoreau, in discussing the good life, specifies human flourishing and excellence in relation to nature. Some of this is quite basic. The simplest messages in Walden are to get outside, use your limbs, and delight in your senses. Run, walk, swim, sweat. Taste the sweetness of the year’s first huckleberries and feel the juice dribble down your chin. It feels good to plunge into a pond first thing in the morning and WAKE UP, or to float lazily in a boat along its surface, wafted we know not where by the breeze, gazing up at the clouds…. What we need to know in order to live better lives may indeed be very simple.

Nearly two hundred years have passed since Thoreau’s time. The routines of commerce, the schedules of daily life, the intervening layers of technology, and the expectations of productivity remain considerable. The fields, forests, and ponds are not nearly as accessible. Yet Thoreau’s aspirations remain vibrant and his concept of human flourishing (which also includes the pursuit of knowledge and creative expression) is absolutely relevant. How can it be justified in a time of ecological urgency?

As a college president, I would often address prospective students and families. Why should they consider the environmental field as their educational foundation and a possible career? These are questions that clearly deserve answers. And they transcend college open houses or days for prospective students. In all kinds of other circumstances (with colleagues, friends, or in public settings) I find myself explaining the virtues of an environmental career and life, or how to incorporate a sustainability ethos into one’s life practice. The essence of my appeal is twofold. I explain that environmental sustainability is the ultimate service profession. Wherever you are, however you work, you are engaged in activity that serves your neighborhood, community, and planet. Service is rewarding, engaging, and meaningful. Second, by studying sustainability and the natural world, you are gaining a deeper understanding of life processes. In so doing, you are constantly reminded of the mystery and wonder of the biosphere. As you do so, you gain an appreciation for the sanctity of life.

I can think of no better way to integrate personal growth and the pursuit of a career. The justification is embedded in this appeal. Thoreau’s daily practice of observing nature was far more than a testimony to direct experience. It was a way to build appreciation for the very circumstances of his life. Rather than taking the natural world for granted, he chose to probe its intricacies. In deepening appreciation, he summoned gratitude. The good life beckons gratitude. For Thoreau, this is the very essence of human flourishing.

I explain that environmental sustainability is the ultimate service profession. Wherever you are, however you work, you are engaged in activity that serves your neighborhood, community, and planet.

How can this sensibility be relevant to the 24/7 world of contemporary higher education? It’s not easy. Expressions of gratitude can be washed away in cynicism, sarcasm, anxiety, and stress. Or they may be perceived as sanctimonious. How can I express gratitude when you’ve just slashed my budget? The budget-cutting mentality, the trappings of accountability and assessment, the constant need to justify higher learning beyond sheer productivity and career building—these pressures can shatter gratitude into the scattered fragments of spare change. Where does Thoreauvian simplicity belong here?

Perhaps the most vivid reminder of gratitude is to call attention to the great privilege of education itself. Just as we often feel entitled to the earth’s bounty, so do we expect that education is an entitlement. Yet the great majority of the world’s population has no access to either. These two fundamental expectations—the fruits of the earth and the gifts of higher learning—are indeed the culmination of the good life, and taking them for granted leads to their squander. Budget cutting is so threatening because it ultimately implies less access to both prospects. Let us be thankful for what we have and conserve its best use.

This idea of gratitude is at the heart of Thoreauvian simplicity. It is also the very essence of the sustainability ethos because it teaches that the culmination of gratitude is reciprocation. Reciprocation implies giving back what you have received. It involves an exchange, transformation, and acknowledgment. Reciprocation is a circulation from the biosphere through human awareness and back again, passing through social networks, educational venues, creative expression, and community service. It is the very foundation of human flourishing. If reciprocation and gratitude are so essential to the good life, how can such qualities become intrinsic to the curriculum of higher education?



Mitchell Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. He is the author of Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (MIT Press, 1995), Bringing the Biosphere Home, (MIT Press, 2001), as well as The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (forthcoming from MIT Press 2013). The past president of Unity College, Thomashow now serves on the advisory board of Orion Magazine as a consultant to Second Nature. 

Cole Caswell, Image 1