Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making the Farfetched Practical

During his life, Princeton mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen made the case for many things that may have seemed farfetched. In the early 20th century, he dreamed of American academic institutions gaining parity with the European universities dominant at the time. His ideas about how to house and promote mathematical research were incorporated into Princeton University's Old Fine Hall and the Institute for Advanced Study. He argued in favor of the Institute acquiring lands that later became the Institute Woods. What is remarkable is how he was able to gain the support and funding necessary to help bring these dreams into reality.

The Veblens had a dream for the house and farmstead they left to the county back in 1974, but its rather sketchy. (On February 10, on the last day of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival at the public library, I'll present a talk on the Veblen legacy and the house they left to the public trust.) A "library and museum" are mentioned in their wills, and their wish for the land they donated with the buildings, Herrontown Woods, emphasizes providing a place where people can experience and learn about the woodlands.

For some reason, the county did not follow up on the Veblens' expressed desires, rented the house instead, then closed the house altogether in 2000. Given this voiding of original intent, the abandoned house and farmstead at the edge of Herrontown Woods have attracted many dreams to flesh out what the site could be used for. The pieces of that composite vision range from the practical to what seems like the farfetched. Most of the ideas have to do with changing the way we see the world and live within it, but when demonstrating a different approach to life, what's practical and imperative for one person sounds farfetched for another.

In a recent visit to Willow School, about an hour north of Princeton, I had a chance to see some of the pieces of the composite vision for the Veblen site applied to a school that hosts students from preschool through middleschool.

Pieces of that vision include:

  • Make use of pre-used materials when possible, rather than buying new.
  • Stress resourcefulness rather than consumerism.
  • Promote and demonstrate the utility and beauty of native species for landscape and food.
  • Demonstrate ways to minimize use of climate-changing fuels.
  • Treat wastewater with a wetland/septic system instead of tying in to town sewer.
  • Bring back some of the components of a rural life that are lacking in our more urban experience, such as the rewards of physical work (Veblen loved to chop wood), and the wonder of the cycle of life (kids growing up in town seldom get to see baby animals grow up). (A small example of this played out in our family a year ago, when my 12 year old daughter wanted to get chickens. Having never been around them, I argued the impracticality of the idea. But she persisted, and found validation for her view on the internet. Assisted by some testimony from friends of mine who have chickens, she was able to convince us to give it a try. Now, what began as farfetched seems highly practical and rewarding. Related post here.)

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