Independent Thinking Publishes Letter by Farm Director, John McDaniel
An article by Farm Director John McDaniel was published in the October issue of Independent Thinking: The Head's Letters. The Head's Letters is a compilation of articles by Heads of School discussing leadership and significant issues related to independent schools and interesting programs at schools around the world. Below is John's article.
Terroir is the French word that literally translates to terrain in English. Terroir has also come to mean how food or wine expresses the climate, soil, traditions, and culture of a region. This “taste of place,” shows the sum of the effects a local environment has on the manufacture of a product. However, what if the “product” is not food or drink, but a childhood? What if the traditions, climate, soils, and cultures are those experienced in the Catskill Mountains of New York State through each season during a child’s formative years? How might a person express, share, or replay these deep personal feelings derived from their roots?
Manhattan Country School students are children of the Catskills. Of course while they live most of their lives in an urban setting, they also have been given the opportunity to grow up in the terroir that is Roxbury, NY.
Our kids absorb what the soil provides and are immersed in an ever-changing climate. They have been “knee deep” in the mountain traditions, customs, and cultures, both wild and tame that help shape their beliefs and ethics. As Roxbury’s own famed naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “The soil is in my blood.”
MCS students begin their farm experience in the 7-8’s (2nd grade). After this initial trip, they will spend 16 more weeks operating their farm through 8th grade. Living, working, learning, and playing in this place during each season provides an extraordinary perspective on the natural world. Classes in Farming, Cooking, Nature Studies and Textiles fill much of the day. “Free Time” is also scheduled throughout their time here. While adult supervised, Free Time is child initiated, allowing and encouraging children to make their own fun. Students are encouraged to take both physical and emotional risks, knowing that a well-woven safety net is just below their feet. This social experiment of bringing children from diverse backgrounds to the same place, to do the same work and honor that labor, was the vision of our founders, Gus and Marty Trowbridge, when they started Manhattan Country School more than 50 years ago. There have been thoughtful programmatic and physical changes at the Farm, but always with children as stakeholders and mission as our guide.
Our school community is involved in agricultural work that provides 100% of our beef, pork, poultry, dairy, eggs, maple syrup, honey, and wool fiber consumed and used at the MCS Farm and some for lunches at our W. 85th Street campus. Approximately 75% of our fruits, vegetables, and herbs also come from the Farm. While everything we produce is self-consumed, the experientially-educated child is the “product” we ship down the road. It has never been our mission to produce future farmers, but to help children become informed citizens, environmental stewards, educated consumers, social change makers, and community leaders. We believe that when you have people who are aware of and educated in the sources of their food, fiber, water, and energy, they become powerful advocates and critics of the people and businesses that grow, produce, and supply these basic human needs.
How will current and future MCS children of the Catskills convey to others what is familiar to them? Will human values, principles, and even morals continue to be shaped by this physical place? I believe MCS children of the Catskills will persist in helping others negotiate this world, read the lay of the land, and investigate and interpret the terroir.