Post-election Permaculture, Process, Peaches, and P(h)otography with Dennie Eagleson

Nov 17th, 2008

By Louise Smith, Crossroads — read the original blog posting here.

Dennie Eagleson has been around Antioch College for a long time.

DE: I graduated from Antioch and then started teaching as an adjunct in 1987. I also started making photographs for the college. I taught as an adjunct for about four years, then became half time faculty. Eventually became I full time and then tenured faculty over a really long time. So I would say that I worked at Antioch for almost twenty years, in one fashion or another and the time that I was not teaching I was doing freelance photography and making pictures.

I am talking to Dennie in her home out in the country where she has lived since moving out of town (across the street from my house) several years ago. I marvel at the work that has been done on the old farmhouse she bought with her partner Alan.

LS: How did your teaching and your art practice intersect?

DE: Probably the time that was the most powerful for me was when I was getting my MFA and teaching, between 1990 and 1994. I was going to University of Cincinnati and I had to produce work for assignments. I also had to write papers, teaching half time teaching and doing freelance. So I was stretched in ways I never had been before. I had a new appreciation for what students have to do to keep that level of production, find sources of creativity. Simultaneous with that I was working with a group of student, a lot of them from the theater who were willing to make big emotional investments in their work. I was at this point of really leaping off a cliff in terms of trying to grow into some new work myself; trying o really get a sense of how I approach making images. So they inspired me. I was at this point of vulnerability and innovation in my own work so it was a very mutual time. We also went through a lot together at that point because that was when we lost Belinda McGuire and there was a van crash in which a student died. It was a very close time, a heartbreaking time. It was also the time of the SOPP. I felt like I made deep connections with people and they helped me grow into my work. I became much more comfortable in terms of my own teaching.

LS: That is something that has always struck me when I have gone to see the photo shows or looked at the work that students have made and looked at your own work, is what an incredible dialogue you have with the students. There seems to be a real conversation going on artistically

DE: Thanks.

LS: So how does it feel now at Nonstop? Are there any echoes back to that time?

DE: I feel very excited to be working at Nonstop. It is a different kind of teaching It is not as deep as I was able to go with classes at Antioch because we do not have resources. I do not have my photo lab. I don’t have the computer lab. So people are not making work to the level of intensity that I am used to making work. I enjoy it a lot but I have had to limit the possibilities. I am working with a group of villagers and Nonstop students in a photo class where they have to own their own digital cameras and everybody has been very eager participants. People have been very sweet about sharing work and sharing feedback and really being inspired by each other’s work. Every week is a surprise. That part feels wonderful. I am always trying to problem solve about how to take people to a higher level if we don’t have those kinds of resources that we are used to having. I had to walk away from six digital XLR cameras. Now people are working in different platforms with different software. It’s hard.

LS: It’s a lot to manage.

DE: But I love the enterprise. I love what we are trying to do and trying to accomplish. It’s been really interesting over the summer—having so many different hats and working so hard–working with the Curriculum Committee to create that statement of who we are and translating that into brochures and powerpoints. Trying to get all that information out to alumni and to other institutions, I have been able to develop other kinds of skills. And the fact that we have this shared enterprise feels really good. That students trusted us to come back was amazing. That alumni see the power of this. It feels good to be working with something that we all believe in.

LS: So when you had to make that decision last summer to sign up for Nonstop or move on, how did you come to that decision?

DE: It was really no question. I had no ambivalence about it. I knew that I had energy. I mean it was hard, at the end of the spring it was like—how do we dive in and find the resilience to invent a college after trying to save it. I took May off and I planted my gardens and I got some of my spiritual rest—recharge– and then it was fine to get back. One of the other things that this has done for me is that—you know, I have lived in this town for thirty years so I am really connected with it but I was not involved—Antioch took a big toll.

LS: Antioch was pretty consuming.

DE: Wagons were kind of encircled. We were always trying to survive.Now we are able to develop courses and projects with people in the town. It feels like the best thing.

LS: You have done a lot of that. You ‘ve done those sustainable agriculture workshops with Andrew–

DE: Andrew Menari. Doug Christian, Kat Christian. Rob Content and Jenny Hack from Community Solutions. That has been amazing and part of this has been because I have had this passionate desire to know how to do this. How to do permaculture, how to do sustainable agriculture. I’m doing it out here and I have this opportunity to learn from people who have been doing this awhile and they are doing it on a very serious level. They also are really lovely about sharing information. We have a consistent group of about eight people who attend, mostly younger nonstop students, and a couple of recent grads who are going to be using this information no matter where they go. It’s really been fun.

LS: So you are blending how you are living with how you are teaching and working, with the edge of your own learning because this is a whole new field you are going into.

DE: I find myself– like yesterday I had a zillion questions and I was trying to hold back and other people did not know what kind of questions they wanted to ask so I took the opportunity.
The other half of what I do is the antidote to how hard Nonstop is. I am just working here planting and growing things and preparing a lot of new areas for planting. Planting fruit trees and blueberries and raspberries. I did a lot of drying this fall so I have this really sweet stash of—there was this peach tree that we discovered when we cleared out behind the barn—this ancient old peach tree that was so delicious. Putting peaches away and apples.

LS: I have a peach tree that never ripens. This actually ripened. Huh?

DE: You are supposed to pull off some of the flowers and the buds so that they get bigger so the peaches were small but it was such a reward for clearing out the honeysuckle. I can imagine in five years that I am going to be really busy putting food by and drying blueberries. Continuing to learn. Thinking about whether we want to add animals to this mix. Alan and I both work so much but it doesn’t feel like work. It is our pleasure and our joy.

LS: It’s your life in terms of how you are living out in this place which is really different than living in town. Nonstop kind of provided and opportunity that would not have happened in quote the same way.

DE: I would not have had to reach out to those resources. I have been involved in sitting on Ecology and Sustainability classes and we have amazing local resources in this area . Community Solutions and people doing serious work. In terms of crossroads, with this election, the energy crisis, the economic crisis—There is still so much reckoning, so much transformation that we have to make in our lives every day because we are such denialists. It will be really hard for people to think about giving up their instant car addictions and energy addictions, consumerism. There is a kind of education that can happen because people are in such tough straights. The country as a whole has—nobody has been strong enough or brave enough to name it all. I feel that Barack has been trying to name it. It’s been kind of gentle but there is an acknowledgment of where we are and how critical a time it is.

LS: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

DE: Yes, and the Community Solutions folks—they are talking about a very, very dramatic shift, asking us to really be responsible in our use. Everybody is going to have to start growing food . Eating locally, buying locally. How can we create support systems so that everybody can have their needs met?

LS: The need creates the motivation to really do the stuff we needed to do.

DE: And the other thing that seems pretty interesting is my experience in Cuba where people had nothing –their lives were so full and so rich because they had this tremendous spirit of possibility. They figured out how to weather a 70% drop in their economic support . Their solutions were incredibly innovative and organic. They could not buy fertilizer and pesticides so they figured out how they could create their own source of food and health. There is a resilience in people and an enthusiasm when people have nothing. The American people –we don’t like it rough. We like it easy. We have not had leadership that has asked anything of us as a people.

LS: Look at Bush after 911—“Go shopping”.

DE: I was just reading an article in the NY Times about a man who is from Levittown. He had gone at the primary to talk to people. Many people said: Race is a huge issue. The unfamiliarity that people had with Obama was enormous. Hilary had a very high percentage of support and when he went back for the voting in the fall, these very conservative, working class white people, who had admitted to being racist were voting for Obama. They accounted for five months of familiarity, a lot of ads, his presence and consistency of message which helped to win them over and how dysfunctional McCain and the whole campaign was.

LS: There was a certain integrity that the other guy could not muster.

DE: It makes me feel a higher sense of respect for the American people. They have stepped up and met the challenge in a way I had not expected. I had done polling in Greene County—Xenia, Enon, Beavercreek, and I just felt like there is no way that Barack is going to win Ohio. There were people that I encountered who were like—“Can’t do it”. The one time that felt good was downtown Xenia, very diverse neighborhood. There was so much overt support and fewer people who had not decided. And I’m like—what’s going to make you make up your mind? What else do you need.

LS: David Sedaris wrote this great thing in the New Yorker about the undecideds:
“It’s like when you are on the airplane and they ask you do you want the chicken or the pile of shit with glass in it. And you say—I want the chicken. What’s to decide?”

DE: Exactly.

LS: When you look ahead to after the election, what do you see on the landscape for Nonstop?

DE: I think that maybe grassroots efforts—here is this grassroots effort that has had tremendous success and we are a grassroots efforts that is having its own success in its own time. Whether or not there is the will to try and rebuild the college in this environment is a big question. We are enacting a story that I think will be very instructive and inspiring to other people. I think that is why the alumni jumped on board because I think they see us persevering against so many odds, obstacles and underminings of our value and our worth. There are enough voices acknowledging that we are doing something important. And people who have come back who are so talented. Tim Noble, Michael Casselli, Meg Fleck, Chelsea who is providing amazing leadership for all of us, and Corrie came back to give us four months of her time and generosity. The staff people who are really skilled and committed who find a home in this—as hard as it is.
How do we all survive and what are all of our needs? We are working out so many things. There are not that many of us but we all live in different locations on the comfort arc and our ability to deal with the unknown. Everything takes a lot of time.
I never sat on Comcil before. The CM/s are really committed in the processes. They also know that you need to make adjustments all the time because we are not what we were.

LS: You’re not chucking the whole enterprise from before but you can’t just translate everything directly from the previous institution. It’s evolutionary.

DE: We have this ledge code but it is not our ledge code because it belonged to the college. We use it as a guiding principle and we are constantly evaluating the choices we are making now relative to that other context. What are we going to invent? How do we build something new and exciting?

LS: It’s really interesting in light of the whole permaculture metaphor.

DE: What we are doing at Nonstop is an act of permaculture.

LS: Clearing away the honeysuckle but letting things have their own shape. Things grow and it may not look like it is cultivated but it is.

DE: I think it is remarkable thinking about the fact that everybody who is here to learn is here of their own free will. There is no pressure from their parents or the draft They are here for the pure experience of learning. We felt that at Antioch. I have always felt that about my teaching at Antioch. It feels that students are committed and invested and want to be inspired and it didn’t take much to do that inspiring. Give them some tools and a framework and you encourage them to find their own voice. What a pleasure.