By Gabriel Shapiro
The Ithaca College Alumni Association hosts a monthly speaker series called “Brains in a Bar”, in which members of the IC community talk about their educational pathways in an informal bar setting. At the Range on the Ithaca Commons last week, our professor Jason Hamilton was the star of the show. He told the story of this class, Non-Timber Forest Products, to a crowd of students, faculty, administrators, and members of the greater Ithaca community.
Free drinks were had, a table was set up to sell our handmade goods, and there was free food with maple syrup for tasting. After mingling for a little while and building excitement for the show, Jason took the mic and started the story.
He talked about the unforeseen path that his career has taken, from being a biology professor to a forest product wizard. He joked that he was forced into it by a “grand scheme” on the part of his students. He ended up taking courses and getting certifications in order to teach skills such as carving, beekeeping and maple sugaring.
Jason started Non-Timber Forest Products around 2007 with a small mushroom growing operation. A few years later, it expanded with an attempt to tap maple trees. Over time, students asked to be taught how to make all sorts of forest products, and Jason said yes. From trees to bees to mushrooms, spoons, salves and soaps, the class evolved through student interest and Jason’s willingness to learn new things and then teach them. Ten years later, the class is large, passionate and committed to the whole line of South Hill Forest Products.
Jason mentioned how his colleagues noticed changes in him over time. While he began to focus on things like herbalism, maple syrup, and woodworking, he spent less time in the classroom and more time in the woods and fields. They began to notice that not only was Jason different, but his outfit itself had also changed. As he was telling us this story, he was slowly pulling off his nice shirt, tie and dress pants, to reveal his more typical outfit of a t-shirt, work pants, and muck boots.
Besides his slick storytelling techniques which had us all laughing, Jason was making a serious point that all of the students present understood on some level. Modern education is trapped in the classroom. We all suffer from nature deficit disorder. Traditional conceptions of professor and student are useless in the process of collective learning. Being connected to the forest in tangible ways is a pathway to good health and self-reliance in a time of global uncertainty.
To finish his speech, Jason said, “the lesson is: you just gotta say yes, and let them go where they want to go.” That is what I like to hear from my teachers. I am grateful for Jason making the choice to listen to students, because what came out of that whole process is one of the most valuable learning experiences I’ve ever encountered. This is what I wanted when I decided to go to college: skills that will help me survive and thrive in the world, and especially in the forest.
As the annual South Hill Forest Products open house approaches, students are busy carving spoons, checking the beehives, boiling maple sap, making baskets and creating many other delightful products. Mark the date April 21st in your calendars! Bring your friends, because at the open house you will be introduced to our whole operation. For more information, check the South Hill Forest Products Facebook page, or explore our website.