Wilderness Fair nurtures discussion

Community members and students gather to watch klezmer band and browse the displays at the Urban Wilderness and Environmental Fair.
Community members and students gather to watch klezmer band and browse the displays at the Urban Wilderness and Environmental Fair. Emily Sayer/The Miscellany News
Community members and students gather to watch klezmer band and browse the displays at the Urban Wilderness and Environmental Fair. Photo by Emily Sayer/The Miscellany News

Sweatered and sandaled 50-some­things mill about the Farm en masse, their eyes alight with talk of vermicompost and stormwater pollu­tion reform. Students and other com­munity members peruse the scene with ice cream in hand, pausing to examine soil samples and taste fresh veggies while a klezmer band sere­nades onlookers. Such is the scene at the Urban Wilderness Festival and Environmental Fair, coordinated by the Vassar Farm and Ecological Pre­serve and Dutchess County Environ­mental Management Council.

The organizations came together to co-host the event with the hope of promoting environmental aware­ness and activism among residents of the greater Dutchess County area, inviting 20 local groups to participate in the fair and advocate various platforms for change; these groups include Riverkeepser, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Environment Program, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and more. The Environmental Cooperative’s new­ly-appointed manager Jen Rubbo noted, “The Festival’s objectives are to increase awareness of ways residents and students can connect with the environment around them despite living in an urban or suburban area. We hope to accomplish this by helping people become more aware of local organizations that they can get involved in, teaching about ways they can improve the habitat in their own backyards and giving them specific methods and ideas they can use at home that will have a positive impact on their environment.”

I concede that I knew very little regarding Dutchess County’s ecological concerns prior to attending the fair and I still have much to learn. However, after looking into the mission state­ments and research efforts of both the Vassar Farm and Preserve and the Dutchess Coun­ty EMC, I was able to establish a few of the top-priority issues that local organizations are currently working to combat. In a 2012 environ­mental report issued by the EMC, water quality ranks highest in a list of the area’s preeminent worries, along with biodiversity conservation and waste management. The Farm and Ecolog­ical Preserve has been focusing on related con­ditions over the past couple of years, studying the quality of water in the Casperkill, a stream that runs through the Farm and the overpopu­lation of white-tailed deer in the area. Overall, from what I could glean from a surface-level in­vestigation of their causes, both organizations are deeply invested in improving not only the ecological state of Dutchess County, but also community health and wellness.

One of the topics pertinent to the locale that I am relatively versed in is food security, so I head straight for the Vassar Food Project’s stand upon entering the fair. Curious as to whether or not their work corresponds with solutions for Poughkeepsie’s dearth of accessible groceries and produce, I ask about their operations. Maria Cali ’18 responds, “Poughkeepsie Farm Project really focuses on counteracting the hunger in the area and the food desert that Poughkeepsie is, so we have vegetable shares and we have a mobile market which goes into the community a few times a month…and that’s a farmers’ mar­ket in a sort of food truck, and there’s recipes and free samples of food to get people in the community who can’t make it out to the Farm access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Considering our urban/suburban setting in Arlington and Poughkeepsie, I’m curious about the ways in which the Environmental Co-op and the EMC have integrated city planning into the fair’s program. I spot a table promoting the Middle Main Initiative, an affordable housing center that manages a homeless shelter and housing units while striving to reinvigorate the robust cluster of businesses in downtown Poughkeepsie. Discussing Middle Main’s cur­rent projects, Volunteer Coordinator Ted Mar­rinan explains, “Specifically, we’re focusing on the underwear factory, which has been closed for years, decades. It’s some affordable housing units, community spaces, community kitchens, workshops and art studios.” I ask Ted if he can foresee further collaboration with Vassar orgs in Middle Main’s efforts to promote food and fi­nancial security. He replies, “We’ve been work­ing with the Cooperative on organizing clean­ups in downtown Poughkeepsie. I personally coordinate the volunteers that we have … We’ve been talking to the Vassar Catholic Community, the Co-op, and we’d love to get more individ­ual students involved. The Poughkeepsie Farm Project donates produce to our kitchen.”

Groups concerned primarily with climate change action are in abundance here. I watch as an effervescent local teacher connects with some volunteers at a table marked “Solarize Wappingers,” pitching a collaboration effort that she’s trying to put in the works with her stu­dents. I interject, sorry to intrude on the fruits of Vassar’s community assimilation efforts but intrigued by the discussion of alternative en­ergy. Duncan Gilchrist addresses my interest with the following: “So, we’re tabling for two different organizations today, but the two orga­nizations are working in conjunction with one another to launch Solarize Wappingers. Solar­ize Wappingers is a campaign to make it more affordable and easy for residents and businesses to install solar energy. We’re also tabling to edu­cate people about Wappingers Climate Change Action, which is a grassroots, youth-led organi­zation advocating for local solutions to climate change.” Of course, my first question surrounds both the affordability and feasibility of a wide­spread transition to solar power. Thea Bjornson jumps in, simply stating, “It’s worked in a lot of other communities before, so it’ll probably work here too.” Hannah Karp elaborates, “So­larize Wappingers is a program of Solarize Hud­son Valley. We’re a three-year program funded by a grant from NY state. Currently, or in the last year, there’ve been dozens of solarize pro­grams running throughout the state, and this is a program that’s in multiple states. So far, we’ve gotten almost 400 contracts for solar, and peo­ple have a lot better understanding of how solar works and how we can make it work for them.”

Leaving the event, I’m reminded of the school science fairs of my youth. I picture the jubilation of second graders scrutinizing ant farms and rubbing their hands in compost, and somehow, seeing the same, albeit inhibited form of passion present at the Farm comforts me. Perhaps I’ve just forgotten that the message of community betterment espoused in my childhood has not disappeared with the years of Crayola and Play- Doh, but persisted among my compassionate, forward-thinking peers.

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