Ralph Lutts, IMA faculty and coordinator of IMA's environmental studies concentration, always believed environmental action in rooted in our relationship to place. “I came to realize that when we speak of thinking globally but acting locally, the local is one's place, and the notion of a place embodies knowing local history, local environment, one's neighbors and experiences.” He also found that science alone isn't enough to understand place because science tends to apply generalizations to specific situations. “The science is important, but human values are very important, the nature of personal experience is very important, and in order to discuss environmental effects, you need to bring all these parts together....As I got into this, I realized this has been a consistent theme in my life.”
As someone who grew up with a passion for the earth and for writing poetry and eventually essays about place, Lutt's community activism, while teaching at Hampshire College, led him to help found a local nature center in Amherst, MA. From there, he moved to Milton, MA – near where he grew up in Quincy – to direct a nature center in a 7,000-acre open space park just north of Boston. Realizing that the center's museum featured exhibits that could describe the natural history of just about anywhere in Southern New England, he helped raise funds to revamp all the exhibits to interpret the park's natural and cultural history.
After a decade in Milton, Lutts moved to Virginia to direct the Outreach Divisions of the state museum of natural history. His efforts included traveling exhibits to community centers and shopping malls around the state. “We saw ourselves as not interpreting natural history in the abstract but interpreting the natural history of Virginia.” As a result, the exhibits, which previously only reached 25,000 people a year, now reached over one million. At the same time, he worked with the economically challenged community of Saltville, VA., where an ice age mammal was being excavated. He arranged for public tours of the excavation site, and on salt mining history in Saltville, which was the principal source of salt for the confederacy during the civil war. Everyone who went on such a tour was given a “I dig Saltville” button, which showed local merchants the effects of eco-tourism.
While working at the state museum, Lutts also happened upon a community located in the Blue Ridge called Meadows of Dan. “I fell in love with the place and decided my next career move would be not for the job but for the place.” He resigned from the museum in 1994, started looking for employment, and found Goddard. Eventually, he fell in love with a person too – his wife-to-be, Sue, a librarian and quilter who now runs a bookstore in the heart of Meadows of Dan. They built a house on 39 acres of wooded landed just three miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
No surprise then that at Goddard, Lutts brought a place-based approach to environmental studies, an approach gaining cultural currency and of great interest to IMA students such as Sebastian Marino, the hereditary chief of a small island state in the within the West Pacific country of Palau. Marino came to Goddard to learn how to integrate indigenous conservation strategies into plans to protect the large coral reef near his island, which is also the largest protected natural area in Palau.. “If you live on a two-square-mile island for centuries, if not thousands of years, you know how to conserve the resource,” Lutts explains. The place-based approach is also effective for those on the move. Kate Mendenhall, another environmental studies alumni, wanted to understand organic agriculture on an international level, so she visited organic farms around the world, volunteering and studying how each farm fit within the context of its local culture and economy.
In all this work, Lutts advocates for the importance of personal experience that connects the person to the place, and the place to its history, culture, politics and, most of it, its most sustainable future.
Ralph Lutts, top photo, and Sebastian Marino, fifth photo down; all other photos by Ralph, from top, Lover's Leap view in the Blue Ridge, autumn in the Blue Ridge, pink azeleas, small yellow lady's slipper. To see the extensive extensive environmental studies resource page, visit George.