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Sustainability Studies Spotlight: Presenting Dr. Jesse Curran!

by ericarunsamerica on May 3rd, 2014

Hey Stony Brook!

I don’t know about y’all, but I am so excited that it finally feels like springtime around here at the Brook! Bluejays and robins are singing, the sun is shining, and daffodils and tulips are blooming…

Flowers always remind me of gardening–something that I’ve always loved but never have really had a knack for (as a licensed wildlife rehabber, I am much better at tending to the needs of animals than the needs of plants). But, as a student in the Stony Brook Sustainability Studies Program, I have learned that spending time outside in the dirt–amongst fruits and veggies and flowers and worms and mud and rocks and microbes–is inherently healing and healthful, no matter what you are (or aren’t) able to successfully grow in the ground. I learned this both in the field–by working in the Stony Brook Heights Rooftop farm a few semesters back as well as volunteering at a local organic farm–and also in the classroom, namely, by learning from Sustainability Studies Program professor Dr. Jesse Curran.

As a student in Dr. Curran’s SBC 203: Interpretation and Critical Analysis class last year, I remember our many meaningful discussions on the more philosophical side of the environment. Among the many things I learned–the physical interaction of the human body with and within the  environment can lead to a greater understanding not only of one’s physical self, but of their psyche and the whole universe that spins around them. Dr. Curran is a huge advocate of getting out in nature as a means of finding oneself–namely, through gardening/farming and yoga.

Stony Brook Sustainability Studies Program professor Dr. Jesse Curran exercises her green thumb installing home organic raised-bed gardens with her husband Dylan...all over Long Island!

Stony Brook Sustainability Studies Program professor Dr. Jesse Curran exercises her green thumb installing home organic raised-bed gardens with her husband Dylan…all over Long Island!

Recently, I asked Dr. Curran to elaborate on her green thumb–it turns out that she and her husband own, literally, a home-grown small business–and on the connections she sees between yoga and the environment (she is an expert yogi!). Dr. Curran’s detailed responses to my dual inquiries can be found below–they’re well worth the read!

Dr. Curran on growing a sustainable business:

When I studied abroad in Italy, Lena Buroni, the lovely elderly lady I lived with, had what she called her orto. “Orto” in Italian refers to a kitchen garden, and because Lena lived in an apartment complex, she had a little square of earth elsewhere where she did her gardening. Years later, while Dylan (my husband) and I were travelling through Japan, we noticed how yards were used; lawns were non-existent and even the smallest spaces were converted into kitchen gardens. And so, HOGS: Home Organic Gardening Service actually began over a dinner conversation. In the spring of 2011, Dylan and I were musing on our travels, bemoaning the shady-yard of our apartment, and were still on the wait-list for a community garden in Huntington [in Suffolk County on the North Shore of Long Island]. We love talking big ideas and found ourselves saying how “someone should really start a company that installs gardens on front lawns…”  At that moment, I think, we both realized that we needed to be that someone.

The next day, we asked friends with homes and sunny front yards what they would think if we dug up the lawns for raised bed vegetable gardens, and they were enthusiastic, and HOGS was born. Dylan gave up his work doing foundation contracting in the city and dug in, literally, full time. He has a diverse background in construction, carpentry, landscaping, organic gardening, and tree-removal, and he put his skills, experience, and passion for doing something proactive in the face of our precarious environmental situation to work.

I was delighted because part of my dissertation work examined poet-gardeners and the importance of “living metaphors,” or poetic language that continues to open and make connections. Like a good metaphor or a healthy seed, HOGS grew by itself. People were interested—and Dylan has installed well over a hundred gardens, as well as a range of season-extenders, rain-catchment systems, and composting systems. And we always had (and have) the grounding sense that encouraging organic gardening was good in and of itself—that it is important work—and a way of contributing to the health of both people and place (and we continue to quote Thoreau’s virtue ethics from “The Bean Field” to frame these ideas).

Having a small business surfaces all kinds of interesting questions—most importantly, what type of business model is sustainable both ethically and economically? As a CCE master gardener, Dylan is very committed to service and outreach—and has done workshops at community centers, yoga studios, libraries, etc.—and he prioritizes working with clients who want to learn and get their hands dirty.

What is perhaps most exciting about HOGS is the way it connects us to a network of other passionate agriculturalists on Long Island. We have also noticed how, within even one season, a well-planned garden can, in a very real way, contribute to the emotional and physical health and well-being of the gardenerand it teaches much about process-orientation, systems-thinking, and local economy. Over the past several years, we have become more interested in permaculture design and adapting sustainable systems for the suburban home. And this year, Dylan’s big initiative has been to plant edible perennials and fruit trees. HOGS keeps on growing!

Dr. Curran on yoga and the environment:

Yoga and environment! Wow, what a question. This is a topic I write extensively on—and one that figures much into my scholarly research on the relationship(s) between poetic language, ecological thinking, and meditative philosophy. And although I teach hatha yoga asana (or postures), I am perhaps even more interested in the yogic philosophy that surrounds the physical practice. In a 1849 letter to his friend H.G.O. Blake, Thoreau wrote “Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. . . . To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am ayogi.” Why did one of America’s most beloved environmental thinkers identify himself as a yogi?

Thoreau’s work at Walden involved intense self-reflection and practical critique of, and response to, what he identified as being awry in antebellum America. As many people know, more than the physical practice, yogic philosophy is an ancient system of self-discipline and ethical action. When we think about our environmental problems, many of them are rooted in out-of-control consumption patterns; hence, the need for self-discipline and ethical action.

Yoga and meditation offer opportunities to become mindful and aware of one’s own tendencies, which is the first step in changing and evolving one’s tendencies. As one of my favorite eco-theorists, Tim Morton writes, “Meditation is yoga, which means yoking: enacting or experiencing an intrinsic interconnectedness.” It seems to me that it is important to both enact and experience the “intrinsic interconnectedness” that underlies ecological theory. Yoga’s emphasis on breathing helps illustrate this point; we often forget we’re breathing, and so, perhaps we forget how intimately we are connected to theplanet and one another.

On a much more practical level, the physical practice cultivates a sense of grounded health and well-being, which I think is important for environmentalists and other people passionate about social justice. On a personal level, my yoga practice has helped me to gain confidence and perspective as writer, teacher, and as a participant in a community; daily, it allows me to practice social virtues such as gratitude, equanimity, patience, generosity, and compassion. As sustainability advocates, we often quote Gandhi’s powerful advice concerning the necessity of being the change one wishes to see in the world. Yoga, although by no means the only path, provides an integrative method for working with one’s mind and body in order to become an empowered, grounded, mindful, and compassionate human being.

Thank you, Dr. Jesse Curran! I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed hearing Dr. Curran’s reflections. A well-deserved #supergreenstatus for a supergreen person! 

Keep your eyes peeled for Dr. Curran’s classes in the coming semesters…sign up and I will guarantee you will come out a more grounded, balanced, and well-rounded person. Expect at least a couple of outdoor classes, deep discussions, great reading, and maybe even some yoga

All for now! Happy studying for finals ;)

peace. love. run.


From → Erica

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