Cape Cod, M.A.
Having hardly ever ventured outside of Los Angeles, Calif., I had no idea what the East Coast had to offer me. This October break I was fortunate enough to experience a true New England fall as my two friends Robin Corleto ’19 and James Boyd ’19 and I drove down to Cape Cod, Mass., and took in what was a whole new world to me.
As soon as we crossed the bridge onto the island, pardon my usage, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This place was definitely full of many “firsts” for us West Coasters. First time at the Atlantic Ocean, first time seeing the leaves change color, first time playing corn hole and even a first time going to Dunkin’ Donuts.
The highlight of the trip for us was visiting Provincetown, a small gay community on the tip of Cape Cod full of shops promoting gender equality and selling shirts celebrating same-sex marriage. Interestingly, Provincetown is also the first spot the pilgrims landed on Nov. 9, 1620. This is commemorated with the Provincetown Monument, which stands 252 feet high and provides a breathtaking view of the beach town. Just standing at the bottom and staring up at all the looping stairs and ramps made us dizzy, but we were able to make it to the very top and take in the view. We then walked up Commercial Street, which was full of all kinds of pride.
As first-generation Americans, being in a town that embodies the beginnings of this country greatly impacted Robin’s and my views of what it means to be “American.” Robin gave some insight into this, “In L.A., I feel like there’s not a lot of patriotic sentiment compared to here on the East Coast. I definitely felt like I was surrounded by a different type of American people.” He concluded by saying, “We’re all here living the American dream, but being here made me realize the
different types of American dreams there are, whether it’s fighting for gender equality or fighting for your children to get a good education.” We never thought our October Break travels would bring us this kind of realization.
We concluded our break with a road trip back to campus, driving through the college towns of New Haven and Providence. We reveled in all of the different sights, bridges, trees and geotags. Exploring this side of the country was something Corleto and I both needed in order to call this place home, and we both returned to Vassar feeling more like we belonged.
—Kayla Gonzalez ’19
I’ve already been to Mexico, but when a friend asked if I wanted to go again, I said yes without hesitation. Having spent a week in three of the country’s cities last year, I already knew how much I loved the country’s many sights and sounds. Recalling my previous trip, I could still re
member Mexico City’s tight urban planning that reminded me of China and the vibrant, colorful houses that shimmered in the southern town of Oaxaca. The visit last week was like jumping back into my memories, while also exploring places I didn’t have a chance to see before.
Mexico City was an obvious first stop. I was excited to finally go to the Island of Dolls down in the southern suburbs of the city, between the canals of Xochimico. After nearly two hours in a trajinera, we arrived at the island. Thousands of dolls, or parts of dolls hung up in the trees, roofs and power lines. Under the midday sun, the whole space somehow appeared mellow and peaceful. On one side of the island, there’s a tiny cabin with hardly enough space for a wooden bed. A large stone bowl was put near the doorway, with some red chili in it. It was probably where the island’s caretaker lives. I wondered how and why he went there. After 3 days in the nation’s capital, we headed for a small
village named Urique. The town was at the bottom of Mexico’s northern Copper Canyon and we could reach it only after three and half long hours in a little van. There was one street and probably no more than thirty houses in the village. Save for a machine-gun-toting man and the passage in my travel guidebook that mentions the village’s involvement in the marijuana business, it was a very likable place.
The next morning we hiked up to a nearby village on top of the mountains. There was a primary school and we bonded with the kids by sharing the cookies and candies we brought. The highlight of the day for me was our journey back downhill. We were too tired to walk back so instead we opted to catch a ride with some locals in the back of their truck. Speeding over bumpy stone roads, we quickly discovered that the ride was not going to be the relaxing trip we had expected. Even so, it was one hell of an experience.
For the final two days, we took Mexico’s Last Train Ride, literally the last railway operating in Mexico for a larger city. There were open areas between cars and I stood there in the fresh air for pretty much the entire six hours. As we made our way out of the vegetation-covered canyons, large, open grasslands appeared, with small, white houses dotting the yellowish green. Thinking back to this time, I still remember talking with someone for half an hour without understanding his language at all—he spoke Spanish and I spoke English.
Chihuahua was our last stop in Mexico, and after further exploration, we turned around and sped off to catch our flight back to the US.
Although the Adirondacks are only a few hours away, most of us at Vassar rarely take time to explore the region, which is often called the “great
conservation experiment,” or “America’s first wilderness.” During October Break, the Conservation of Natural Resources class (GEOG/ESCI 260) spent a week learning about the region and carrying out field studies to understand impacts of settlement on environmental conditions.
Legally, the Adirondacks are distinct to the U.S., and probably the world. The 6 million acre area (three times the size of Yellowstone) is a N.Y. State Park, but only half of it is owned by the state. State lands are protected as “forever wild” in the New York state constitution, and a constitutional amendment is needed to modify or exchange any state lands. This is probably the strongest legal protection of any land in the US. This protection was put in place because of the ravages of private logging, mining, and railroad interests in the 19th century, which had cleared and burned about half the park’s area,
mostly in a few decades following the Civil War. Today, private lands in the Park include about 100,000 permanent residents and more than twice that many seasonal residents, scores of villages and hamlets, a few industrial enterprises. The big question posed by the Adirondacks is how does wilderness coexist with human settlement? If coexistence can work here, then can it work elsewhere?
The class spent most of the week at the Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC), a research field station in Newcomb, N.Y., just south of the High Peaks. We climbed a small mountain and got a view of the park from a fire tower, and we worked on tree and understory plant identification. We visited the “Great Camp” Sagamore, one of many rustic mansions built for robber barons in the region. We took a core from a small bog, by pushing a coring tool 7 meters down into the peat to reach the 7,000-year-old, undecayed leaves and plant matter at the bottom of what was an ancient post-glacial pond. We also visited an atmospheric observatory on the top of Whiteface Mountain, one of the most important U.S. monitoring sites for acid deposition, and for climate-changing gases and particulates. We took a tour of forest stands managed for 80-year rotations, and we compared 60-year-old logged forests to old growth forests, to learn what “old growth” means. (A main difference turned out to be in the structural diversity of the old forests— which provides habitat to a huge variety of fungi, understory plants, birds, and small mammals.)
The main focus of the trip was independent student projects. Students developed questions and found field methods to examine effects of logging on biodiversity and on soils, effects of trails (as an aspect of ecotourism) on biodiversity, effects of roads and settlement on road salt in streams, effects of farming on streams and on soils, and effects of climate conditions on carbon storage in trees.
What did we find? Projects are still in progress, but preliminary data show that roads introduce a lot of salt to remote streams, but small settlements may not. Trails seem to significantly alter understory biodiversity, but most effects seem pretty local to paths in this boreal environment. Logging has a long-term effect on biodiversity, especially because old and decaying trees contribute distinctive habitat, and because soils are disturbed by forest clearing. Trees store more carbon in warm conditions—but it’s unlikely
they can take up enough carbon to counteract carbon accumulation in the atmosphere. Farming appears to modify soils and streams, but the impacts of the small-scale of farming in this cold environment appear modest.
Overall, we had the chance to learn a lot about conservation and resources in this regional case study, and we got to learn a lot from each other about field methods and data, which are how we know what we think we know about environmental change. And we got to see some great fall colors, and we had a lot of fun, too.
—Professor Mary Ann Cunningham