Mountains, Mills, & Mohawks
Posted 04/06/2016 09:20AM

While warmer locales typically beckon over spring break, this year, a group of nine Pingry students, accompanied by four faculty members, headed north, into the mountains. Their destination: The Berkshires, in northwestern Massachusetts. Their goal: A one-of-a-kind place-based, experiential outdoor education trip, one that combined lessons in environmental learning, history, land use, art, and architecture.

Senior Libby Lee played a major role in the trip's orchestration. A three-year member of the Outing Club and Green Group, where she is the project and events coordinator, she brainstormed with other members of the club to come up with a spring break trip idea. Williamstown, Massachusetts immediately came to mind. Her family owns a home there (Mount Greylock, the state's highest natural point, is visible from her home), so she was familiar with its rich offerings. What's more, several years ago a similar trip—though not as deeply interdisciplinary—was led by Upper School history teacher and Outing Club advisor John Crowley-Delman, who attended Williams College and wrote his college thesis on the environmental history of Williamstown. Relatively local and easy to reach, the wild, historic, alternately agrarian and urban landscape of a multifaceted region in northwestern Massachusetts seemed the perfect destination in which to stretch both brain and body over the break.

"An interdisciplinary trip like this to a single place had never before been undertaken at Pingry," said Mr. Crowley-Delman, referring to the melding of subjects—and representative faculty members—that it involved (Environmental Art teacher and Outing Club and Green Group co-advisor Rebecca Sullivan, Environmental History teacher Dr. Megan Jones, and Environmental Science teacher and Pingry's Director of Global Programs Jeff Jewett also led the trip). "We had organized urban hiking trips before, featuring art, food, and architecture, but this level of interdiscipline was brand new. What other school offers three different courses on environmental issues? We really wanted to capitalize on them and give the kids as experiential a trip as possible."

The group's itinerary ran chronologically, exploring the region's early history and landscape, and ending with its more modern land uses. Just what, exactly, did they do?

  • Day 1: Hiked a portion of the Long Trail, not far from Williams College, which summits to a panoramic view of the Hoosic Valley. There, the group discussed the history of the Mohawk Trail and the Mohawk and Iroquois tribes. Students and faculty also collaborated on two panoramic drawings of the Hoosic Valley, one depicting the landscape without human impact, and the other emphasizing it.
  • Day 2: Walking tour of the Williams College campus, with a focus on architecture and land use. Tour of the Clark Art Institute, home to a rich collection of early American landscape paintings. Visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), housed in an adaptively reused textile mill, and viewed a variety of exhibitions by artists who used environmental concepts in their work. Also toured historic North Adams, once a prosperous manufacturing town.
  • Day 3: Toured the controversial Hoosac Wind Farm; discussed pros and cons of wind energy. Afterwards, the group hiked a nearby ridgeline trail (in the sleet).

  • At the end of the three days, the students learned, first-hand, how the mountainous landscape of a place can affect the evolution of its human culture, and vice versa; how early interactions along the Mohawk Trail shaped the region's history; the ways in which humans use and impact the environment; how an area's industrial past informs its future approaches to land use and renewable energy; and how various expressions of art—both old and new—function within a community. Tasked with preparing all meals and cleaning up, the students also learned the merits of planning and teamwork.

    "The Berkshires trip was an incredible experience because of the various perspectives of each faculty member," remarked Ben Ramos '18. For Libby, who is considering an environmental studies major in college, touring the wind farm and getting to understand its inner workings was a highlight.

    When the group of 14 headed north over spring break, they didn't quite know what to expect. But when they emerged from their three-day adventure—a "lab experiment" for all the teachers involved, is how Mr. Crowley-Delman characterized it—it was deemed a success all-around, and likely will serve as a model for future Pingry travel endeavors.

    Leading up to the trip, when asked what his goals were and what would make it successful, Mr. Crowley-Delman remarked, "I want the kids to value great places. I want them to see and experience really cool things in an adventurous way, empower them to follow their passion, whatever it is." That they did.

    Photos, top to bottom: Mr. Crowley-Delman at Pine Cobble peak, teaching about the history and landscape of Williamstown and surrounding mountains; Libby Lee '16 entering a sculpture at the Clark Art Institute; a MassMoCA exhibit; students' panoramic drawings of the Hoosic Valley, from a summit near Williamstown.

    Click here to view the Outing Club's blog, and read entries about their trip.

    Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,