Pierson Students Honor Butts Through Farming

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Quail Hill Farm Manager Layton Guenther shows students how to prepare fields for transplanting

By Emma Betuel

Last Friday, the Pierson High School class of 2017 reflected on their last days of high school in a way that is unique to the East End: by squashing invasive Colorado potato beetles, cleaning parsnips, and transplanting celery root at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.

The roughly 50-member class assembled at 9:30 a.m. on Deep Lane to meet with director Scott Chaskey, farm manager Layton Guenther, and Quail Hill staff member Stephen Tolpinrud. While a morning off from class was welcomed by the seniors — who had gathered at 5 a.m. to conduct their senior prank — this was not a standard field trip. Instead, the “morning of service” was organized to honor of their classmate George Butts, who passed away last May. He was 17.

Many students saw the outing as an opportunity to give back to their community by providing “intentional labor” in memory of George and in reflection of their own high school experience. This is especially true for Alex Kamper, a Pierson senior who has been volunteering at Quail Hill for three years.

Alex Kamper clears weeds from parsnip lines

“My intention was to open a dialogue and create a mindset around sharing and connecting to our personal memories with George,” said Alex. “I’ve found that farming is incredibly cathartic, and nature in general is a wonderful way to establish connections with people who are no longer with you.”

Mr. Guenther and Mr. Tolpinrud led the seniors through planting and cleaning vegetables, completing an entire field’s work in less than two hours. Both Mr. Guenther and Mr. Tolpinrud emphasized the empowering, yet selfless nature of farm work.

“It’s a really special thing to work in memory of someone else,” said Mr. Guenther. “Especially to think about how you inhabit your body in service of someone else. Most of these folks will probably never meet these farm members who will be able to enjoy this celery and lettuce. It’s really an honor that the school thought to include us in this.”

This message resonated with many of the senior class, although few of them had worked at Quail Hill before.

“I love this,” said Karen Quizhope. “It’s very freeing.”

That freeing feeing may be more than just a spiritual experience. There is an entire branch of psychology, called Ecopsychology, that scientifically investigates the emotional connection between people and nature.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Ecopsychology found that participants in The U.K’s “Walking for Health” Program — a non-profit that facilitates weekly nature walks — showed “significantly lower depression and perceived stress” than a control group of non-walkers. In addition, people who had experienced traumatic life events like illness or death of a loved one, experienced a “mood boost” from spending time outdoors, according to researchers at The University of Michigan Medical School.

Quail Hill Director Scott Chaskey greets students before beginning their morning of service in honor of George Butts.

One of the leaders of this academic community is Dr. Lori Pye, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. She is also the president of Virdis Graduate Institute, a school dedicated to studying the interplay between social structures and ecological life.

“There is a freedom that comes when your hands or toes are in the soil because in some organic way, you are digging around in the very materials that you come from,” says Dr. Pye. “There is an aesthetic to this feeling and it touches the soul, the human psyche, in ways that nothing else can.”

Stephen Tolpinrud and his sidekick thin beet stems to prevent overcrowding. This allows the beets to grow larger, says Tolpinrud.

The staff at Quail Hill is adamant that these positive psychological effects are real. One of the group leaders for the morning, Mr. Tolpinrud, has spent years studying the social dynamics of farming around the globe, from Mississippi to Guatemala. He believes that there is a regenerative quality of nature. As plant and animal populations rise and fall and seasons change, the farm constantly renews itself.

According to Mr. Chaskey, that regeneration, or “freeing feeling” described by Karen, comes from a connection between humans and nature that is rapidly disappearing. He is adamant that “nature is not a separate entity.”

“Especially now, people don’t feel the interrelation between humans and nature,” he lamented.

When Alex began his morning at Quail Hill, he told his classmates he “would be looking for George in the minerals of the soil.” Near the end of the morning his classmate, Ella Parker, observed that the class had received his message.

“Doing something intentional with an underlying theme of togetherness was really poignant,” she said. “It was about moving forward with a sense of optimism and proactive incentives.”

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