TOAD Talk: The Place and Its Soils

Dr. Russell Spinney
Good morning!

For those of you who do not know me, I am Dr. Russell Spinney, chair of the history department and Director of the Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics and Global Citizenship. I am in my fourth year here at Thacher, and I want to offer a warm welcome to grandparents, family and friends of Thacher students gathered here today.

When I thought about what I was going to say to all of you this week for my third Toad talk at Thacher, I wondered how that would land in the wake of the release of the second MTO report, so I had to pause. I could not just talk about what was on my mind detached from what I am sensing ripple through the community. When that landed for me, I had to go to that place that helps me ground myself and reconnects me to what is alive.  With a cold winter and a long run of working hard everyday, fatigue sets in, and I need those routines, those practices that can help sustain me and show up for my family, my colleagues, and students, and I hope you all can develop too.

I love teaching history and making history feel fun, relevant, illuminating, and inspiring. But teaching history is heavy stuff. So for years now, wherever I have lived, when I get home from classes, the first thing I do is get outside, go check on the garden, and see how the seedlings of snap peas, lettuce, radish, beet, carrot, artichoke, and sunflower shoots are growing in little plots around the house. There is nothing grandiose about those little gardens, but they are vital to me. 

Each place is different. It takes time to get to know a place, how the sunlight traverses that space each day, where the cold shady spots are, how the water flows over the lay of the land, when the rains come, when to plant, like late May after the last frosts in the northeast of this country where I grew up or as early December and January as I am finding out here. As I have moved from place to place, I have learned that I can throw down some potting soil from the local hardware store, sprinkle seeds, and watch things pop up quickly, but over time it becomes harder to grow, the soils dry out quickly, plants struggle, insects and blights descend upon them, and the diminishing yields on those efforts to coax life from that earth diminish. So that has led me to focus on how to build those soils, not just thinking like a chemist about what the pH is and what combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium needs to go into the ground to feed the plants I want to grow - that is all important, but even more challenging, what is the biology of the soil, how do I help cultivate a teeming, diverse host of different beneficial bacteria and microorganisms in that soil that can help make nutrients available to plants, that can help retain more water in the ground, and continue to sustain life beyond that first planting. I have learned this from my amazing partner, Ms. Stern, who has shared her knowledge gathered from her own work as a landscape architect, and introduced me to biointensive gardening, how to capture the rainwater and stormwater with bioswales, how to compost our food waste back into the earth to feed the soil, how to companion plant, what plants might antagonize each other or grow well together and even help each other, help build the soil, and foster that diverse biology and ecology that healthy soils need. In the winter, it is hard to discern these efforts, but it is more about what is going on under the surface that matters most to make all that life that we see above ground flourish. 

Pretty much wherever there are plants, there are fungal networks in the soils making nutrients available to these plants and trees all around us, moving nutrients and water where they are needed. So that when you look at the gardens where we have lived, you will find plants living and growing together with some intentional design, with beds of culinary mushrooms like the wine cap or garden giant, stropharia rugosoannulata that we have just started in the garden. They are secondary decomposers that break down insoluble nutrients and make them available to plants; they even have the ability to capture harmful roundworms and prey upon them in the soil. In return, those plants and trees produce sugars that those fungi need to live and grow too. They help each other thrive in mutually beneficial relationships. So when I think of something I want to grow, I start first with the place, with the land, and with the soil.

Place also reflects world history that students have begun exploring through the Story of Place curriculum in our ninth grade world history classes, and in time, I hope, we will discover that place is also a palimpsest of history with archaeologies of natural and human imprint and impact: The geology of this place, for example, is relatively young, multilayered, and diverse; it is also active, the valley slowly turning over tens of thousands of years, at times quaking, and changing. The abundance and diversity of wildlife made California what one historian has called the Serengeti of North America, and this region had some of the most diverse and complex Indigenous worlds of the continent. In the students’ projects, I also see it in a multitude of additional ways, in their studies of the Chumash, the Roman arches and concrete of our buildings, the Greek alphabet, the Arabic numbers, Algebra, and algorithms, astronomy, physics, and chemistry, the Renaissance techniques of the art classes, and their studies of Mandarin, French, and Spanish - all things we hope to share with grandparents and friends this weekend.

When I came to Thacher four years ago, I arrived with this senior class as first year students, and so I feel a special bond with this class, having taught many of you, worked with many of you in some other aspect of school life, even sparred in the occasional debate, or at least got to know you a little better along the way. We caught the last glimpses of what Thacher was like before the pandemic, before Black Lives Matter, before students and young alumni started opening things up on Instagram. We have also seen the changes come, some lightning fast, others maybe not fast enough; it is not perfect, and we still have a lot of work to do to cultivate this place. 

Think about some of those people - some having moved on, others still here - who put in the work to diversify our curriculum, to take on mental health and well being, toxic masculinity, rape culture, hidden disabilities (and superpowers), opening up the curriculum, developing mental health and well being, supporting alternative learning styles and dietary needs, building our affinity groups and cross-group alliances that do not let us devolve into some perceived fear of tribalism, but enrich us all as we have recently learned from the JSU about the Jewish holiday Tu B'shvat that celebrates nature and taking care of the environment or great role models in Black History that the BSU leaders have shared with us at every assembly this month. We learn more from each other this way and hopefully prepare ourselves more for a diverse and changing world in the process.

I admire the work so many of us all have done, and continue to do to create safe, fun learning environments in which everyone of us can hopefully bring more of our whole selves to this place, to each thrive in our own ways and work together, and to have systems in place for when things do go wrong and healing and repair become imperative for us today. Thus I often look for inspiring historical role models that can even be found here. I see it in the story of Lee Quong, for example, the long time Chinese American executive chef of the school, whose story of working with Thacher and the US state department to help his family come to the US in one of the worst periods of racist anti-immigrant fervor in our history is told through the archival documents in the library courtyard. The visit of one of his daughters, the Oscar-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock, is hopefully just one of the fruits of those efforts started decades ago, a story that offers us a positive model, one of many such stories in the story of this place.

So I want to end with a call to keep envisioning and re-envisioning what our school is and can be, honoring the place and drawing from the patterns of place even as we look to the outside world to inform and guide us in how we continue to evolve as a place, especially as we look forward to the school’s strategic planning in the future. Private school institutions serve a very small percentage of American students overall, but that privilege that this school gives us, also carries the potential to have impact beyond our gates and the communities that we serve and could serve more. So I would inspire us to reimagine this place on the hill, if I may, a new chamber in the nautilus, more grounded in place, its patterns, the land, and its people, and able to help foster reciprocating, mutually beneficial relationships locally, regionally, and globally.

Look closely just below the surface for those new shoots of life that we must nourish in the years ahead, what’s percolating up among the younger students here and what’s going on around campus even now in the throes of winter, like the work going on in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I think of our nascent work with the Chumash, the original human stewards of this land, who are still present and active, taking the time to get to know them, build trust, listen to them, learn from them, and find ways to support their work to revitalize the land and their way of life, all things that, Ms. Kesler, you have helped build in a short amount of time, work that I hope does not wither on the vine. I also think of more deeply rooted work, like what Ms. Hooper does, a one-person show supporting all kinds of efforts across this valley for those in need. It is built into the way Mr. Carney’s summer camp connects with local youth, families, players, and coaches in ways that foster basketball and much more in the process. It informs how Mr. Sanchez is building his new sustainability course, running all over the valley connecting our students with other schools, organizations, and civic leaders in order to work together toward the common goals of combating climate change and building resilience in the valley. And there is so much more potential: The work in the sciences with the Island School in the Bahamas, the Turtle Conservancy…the list goes on. None of it can be done alone, but thinking about the place, and its soils, both literally and figuratively, thinking strategically, systematically, and collaboratively in mutually beneficial partnership with others, there is much that we can help nurture in this place and in how this place continues to work for the greater good.  Thank you.

Dr. Russell Spinney is chair of Thacher's history department and director of the Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics and Global Citizenship. 

More About Thacher

Interested in learning more about Thacher? Sign up for a virtual visit here.
Notice of nondiscriminatory policy as to students: The Thacher School admits students of any race, color, national, and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other School-administered programs.