Timothy Castner ’93.5
Submitted April 2, 2020
I am a high school teacher who was on medical leave for six weeks, prior to the pandemic closing schools and colleges throughout the country. As an introvert and former Mountain Club guide I already had gone through "basic training" in social isolation. The biggest stressor was rescuing my daughter from her elite liberal arts college in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, and adjusting to everyone unexpectedly being at home.
I am currently still out from work and getting exercise in an (exurban) area by doing trail maintenance in nearby conservation land and working in my lawn. I am trying to be a support for family and friends while avoiding getting sick myself in order to flatten the curve. I also am trying to spend my "surplus" to support small local businesses and those most impacted by the crisis.
What has been your greatest worry or day-to-day concern as coronavirus has spread?
That people won't listen to experts or officials and make things worse.
What has made you happy over the past few weeks?
The many examples of people showing love and concern for those suffering.
Anything else you'd like us to know?
Geography, history and the relentless pursuit of honest dialogue are crucial for understanding our present predicament and charting a path towards a better future.
The disease is tracking the European settlement and conquest of the New World. The first cases were among “globe trotting” leaders and business people. They were biotech executives in Boston and frequent flyers from Seattle, New York City and San Francisco. People who look a lot like Middlebury students and graduates and faculty.
The greatest damage has been among the urban and rural poor and elderly. Maps around Boston show that the “support staff” for global elites are being harmed disproportionately. Hotel workers have been laid off. Taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers are now competing to deliver groceries. The custodians at hospitals and the food inspectors do not have the luxury of retreating to rural hideaways. They are threatened with being fired or are the first to be laid off. The pattern of "outsourcing suffering" has been repeated throughout our shared history.
My experience as a social studies teacher and a Middlebury graduate keeps bringing me back to the “settlement” of Massachusetts. Even before “Plimoth was planted” 400 years ago, virgin soil epidemics ravaged coastal New England.
Scholars such as Emerson “Tad” Baker of Salem State University have argued that no human intervention could have prevented the population collapses that Wampanoag, Nipmuc and Abanaki populations suffered in the 17th century and beyond. Even in the midst of the pandemic, federal officials are scheming to deprive the Mashpee Wampanoag of their ancestral lands and sovereignty on Cape Cod.
My education at Middlebury and beyond has allowed me to connect the dots between the virgin soil epidemics in the 1610s with the smallpox epidemic during the Revolutionary War and the Spanish Flu outbreak in the midst of World War I. The failure of many leaders to connect these dots represents a failure to teach and submit ourselves to the grim lessons of history. Many high school history textbooks spout talking points to corporate leaders instead of environmentalists and ecologists. As a result most leaders mystified by the “unprecedented” events of the present and have to be reminded that students in the 1970s were also sent home due to campus unrest in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
But even in the midst of great suffering, leaders have always emerged to battle injustice and speak for a more inclusive world. None of them are perfect. Most are heavily critiqued or even pilloried by contemporaries. But learning about their lives and lessons can bring us new comfort and resolve as we move forward. I would recommend reading biographies and memoirs from such diverse voices as Roger Williams and Abigail Adams, who experienced and wrote about pandemics and wars. George Washington and Frederick Douglass fought for the rights of their people and then sacrificed their own interests for the good of the whole. Henry David Thoreau and Elizabeth Cady Stanton accepted internal isolation and rejection from their peers to prophetically imagine a better world. Sojourner Truth fought for the rights of women and enslaved Africans. Abraham Lincoln chose mercy over judgment during the nation’s greatest crisis.
Mother Jones became a tireless advocate and grandmother to embattled coal miners. John Steinbeck should be required reading again for his elegant nature writing, and chronicling of the dispossessed from an early depression and environmental crisis. Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Harvey Milk, Robert F. Kennedy, Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Bill McKibben, Ellen Degeneres, Oprah, Barack Obama and even the current occupant of the White House have all tried to speak out on behalf of people who have felt “left behind” by rapid change. A new generation of scholars such as Lisa Brooks at Amherst College are helping us to reconnect with the "toxic legacies" of stories that we would prefer to forget. Such activists and authors who live at the bleeding edge of change often pay the greatest price, as Rachel Carson, climate change activists and "The Squad” can attest.
The list is never ending but it shows that prophetic and loving critique matters and that "honest patriots" lose many battles. Their sacrifices, however, inspire the next generation to keep fighting for "The Healing of the Earth."
We need the technocrats and the experts, but we also need the “synthesizers” who can make connections across diverse fields of inquiry to solve pressing challenges. Making “liberal arts” education available for everyone, especially for those excluded by the stressors of poverty and oppression, is more important now than ever before.
Those of us who have the advantages of secure jobs, retirement funds, access to health care and housing should be doing what we can to ease the suffering of those in our neighborhoods, communities, nation and planet. Only when our circle of care includes the whole ecosystem can we begin to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. An economy that values profits over health will not get us there. We need to combine the insights of both ecology and economics to imagine a better future.
Timothy Castner ’93.5 in Massachusetts
Timothy Castner ’93.5