Monday, October 15, 2012

a field trip to black mountain college

since 2009, the black mountain college museum + art center has organized an annual conference called reviewing black mountain college. the conference includes performances, talks, and panels and the last two conferences had a thematic focus. last year, the focus was john cage. this year's focus was buckminster fuller, who, among many other things, was a faculty member at black mountain college in the summers of 1948 and 49.

it was a good conference and a lot went down. for this post, though, i want to focus on my favorite part of the conference: the field trip to the lake eden campus of black mountain college.

alice sebrell, program director of BMCMAC and one of the main organizers of the conference, led the field trip. she began by explaining that when BMC started, in 1933, they were across the valley at the blue ridge campus, where they stayed until 1941. from 1941 to 1956, the college existed on the lake eden campus. throughout the tour, alice told fascinating stories and anecdotes about the college and shared a thick photo album that brought to life the buildings, campus, and college.

alice was sure to include a number of bucky fuller-related nuggets. for example, when we got to the studies building, the beautiful, modern building that BMC students, staff, and faculty designed and built between 1940 - 41, alice brought us to the room that bucky slept in during his stay at the college. a sudden and prolonged hush filled the room. as other tour members began filing into "bucky's room," the guy next to me, wearing a "i heart domes" shirt, whispered to the incoming group, "this is where bucky slept!" a sudden and prolonged hush fell upon the group.

i must admit i was less interested in bucky stuff and more interested in farm and food stuff, including the dining hall, where our campus tour began. the dining room was, well, the dining room - the place where students, faculty, and faculty families sat, at tables of eight, to break bread in the morning, afternoon, and evening. it was also a space of endless talking, scheming, suggesting, debating, arguing, and fighting. after meals, student work crews moved the tables and chairs to the side and the dining room was transformed - into a rehearsal space for the dancers, into a performance hall for the musicians, into a lecture hall for speakers, or into a dance hall for saturday evening dances.

while the tour group was in the dining room, i snuck into the kitchen. the kitchen is an essential part of my research on the farm at black mountain college. the kitchen was where they took dairy, meat, and produce from the farm and made it into meals. further, the kitchen was where a remarkable group of men and women, mostly black, worked hard and creatively to feed the college. BMC kitchen staff -- each of whom will soon receive a blog post of their own -- included jack lipsey (chef, 1933 - 1945), his wife rubye lipsey (assistant chef, 1934 - 1945), and cornelia williams (cook, 1947 - approximately 1950).

our field trip also included a tour of a student lodge, what was once the quiet house, and the studies building. as the official tour ended, alice turned to the group of about thirty or forty and said, "if folks feel like walking a bit, we can take a quick tour of the farm and, er, maybe david silver would be willing to say some words about the farm." (this wasn't a surprise for me. i had the good fortune of carpooling to BMC with alice and during our ride she asked if i might want to share some stories about the farm. i believe my answer was: "yes! oh hell yes!") then, like so many black mountain college students, staff, and faculty before us, we walked, about twenty or thirty of us, from the studies building, northward, up a gentle hill, and to the farm.

i was so excited to be at the farm that much of it is, alas, a daze. at one point, i do remember a fellow field tripper approaching me and asking some questions about BMC's livestock. my first reaction was surprise -- i totally knew the answers! my second reaction was to share my knowledge about the college's history of livestock -- from chickens to pigs to dairy to beef cattle. when i finished, i sensed something behind me. i turned around and saw about twenty people surrounding us, listening in, curious about the farm. "a talk about the farm at black mountain while at the farm at black mountain college," i thought to myself, "let's go!"

my talk was brief, about ten or fifteen minutes. i shared with the field trippers a brief history of the farm, from its student-initiated veggie garden in the 1930s to the farm buildings and pastures and livestock in the 1940s to its slow demise in the 1950s. i explained the role of the farm within the college's work program and the ways the farm was used to build community and encourage collaboration among students, staff, and faculty. and i shared some of BMC's sustainable practices -- everyday practices that would, today, immediately qualify the college as the country's "greenest" campus.

after some Q and A, we turned our backs to the farm and began a leisurely walk, southward, down the hill, towards and past the studies building, back to the parking lot, and into our cars. perhaps i'm projecting but at the time it seemed that many of us, myself included, wished we didn't have to leave so soon.