On a beautiful September morning, 15 Bates students hike a quarter mile through the woods of Freeport, Maine, shovels in hand, before emerging into a sunlit clearing.

Spread before them is Pettengill Farm, a historic saltwater farm perched on an estuary of the Harraseeket River. Now owned by the Freeport Historical Society, the 140-acre property features a circa-1800 saltbox farmhouse plus fields, woods, apple trees, and a salt marsh.

It’s a stunning vista.

Guided by Holly Ewing, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, the students are part of “Soils,” an environmental studies course that digs into the science of dirt.

Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Holly Ewing, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, center, offers her gathered students last-minute guidance. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Farm Stand

This fall, faculty had the choice to offer their courses in person or remotely. For Ewing, “Soils” needed to be taught in person.

“The course absolutely relies on students being able to see, smell, and feel soils in a variety of landscapes,” she says. “These field explorations make the properties of the soil tactile and help the students come to see soils as bodies in the landscape.”

ES majors Jake Lawler '21 of Chesire, Conn., (in blue shirt)  and Hayden Evans '22 of Seattle, Wash., dig for soil profiles on the marsh side of the farm with Holly Ewing.
  
Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Environmental studies majors Jake Lawler ’21 of Cheshire, Conn., and Hayden Evans ’22 of Seattle, Wash., look at soil profiles along an estuary of the Harraseeket River with Holly Ewing. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

The characteristics of soils are shaped by a variety of factors, she explains, ranging from vegetation, slope, drainage, and the parent materials from which they form.

“The physical, chemical, and biological properties we discuss in the classroom can be connected to what we have seen and done in the field — something that can clarify and connect concepts in a way that no textbook can.”

Off to Dig

At Pettengill, the students explored transitions in soil characteristics on the landscape and compared what they found in the field to how the soils are mapped in the areas’s soil survey, which describes and classifies soil types and properties of soils.

Students looked closely at soil structure, texture, and color among the different soil “horizons” — parallel layers of soil that have different characteristics from those above and below — that they unearthed.

Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Sophia Miller ’21 of New York City, uses a color chart to help her evaluate the type of soils at the Pettengill Farm. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“The changes that can occur within just a few feet of each other are incredible,” says environmental studies major Sam Gilman ’22 of Mendham, N.J. He and his lab partner, Zoe Knauss ’23 of Buffalo, N.Y., dug about eight holes during the course of the morning.

Zoe Knauss '23 of Buffalo, N.Y.,  who will declare as an ES major, and ES major Sam Gilman '22 of Mendham, N.J., , dig for soil in a field.


Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Zoe Knauss ’23 of Buffalo, N.Y., and lab partner Sam Gilman ’22 of Mendham, N.J., head off to their first location. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Ewing had prepared students (including one studying remotely in New Hampshire, who dug her own holes there) for their fieldwork by teaching them about differences in soils and what causes those differences, from redox reactions to erosion. “It’s really cool to then have the ability to get outside and actually see how what we’re learning in class applies to real landscapes,” Gilman says.

Fieldwork in Ewing’s class, including a recent trip to the local Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary, has been a blessing during a semester where so much has been curtailed due to the college’s public health measures.

“I’ve just been really thankful to have the opportunity to get off campus and get my hands dirty,” Gilman says.

Zoe Knauss '23 of Buffalo, N.Y.,  who will declare as an ES major, and ES major Sam Gilman '22 of Mendham, N.J., , dig for soil in a field.


Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Given the various constraints posed by the pandemic, “it’s really cool to then have the ability to get outside,” says Sam Gilman ’22 of Mendham, N.J. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Guided by a Mentor

As the students spread across the old farmland in Freeport with their analysis assignment in hand, Ewing, joined by Camille Parrish, a lecturer in environmental studies, moved from one group to another to check in and give feedback.

Stopping to talk to Sophia Miller ’21 of New York City, Ewing used a knife to scrape off the face of the pit to expose a fresh surface for examination before departing to work with a group down at the river.

Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Ewing stops to discuss the soil with Sophia Miller ’21 of New York City. The knife is used to scrape the side of the soil pit to expose a clean surface for examination. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Ewing is Miller’s senior thesis advisor and the duo have been working together intensely this fall. Because of the unusual semester, students are taking just two courses for 7.5 weeks (Module A) and then will take two more during Module B, which concludes in December with winter break.

Miller’s two classes, the soils course and her thesis work, are both led by Ewing. “She’s my only professor at the moment,” Miller says. That’s an interesting dynamic, she says, but “it’s been pretty incredible to get to know a professor on that level.”

Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.

The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.

ENVR 310 - Soils/Lab
Depending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
During the fall semester, Sophia Miller ’21 took two courses with Holly Ewing. “It’s been pretty incredible to get to know a professor on that level,” says Miller. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

Further Afield

As Miller takes notes, she explains what she’s learned. This part of Pettingill was cultivated so the soil was often plowed up, mixing everything at the surface into one deeper horizon. Below that is clay, which might have been originally deposited when this area was covered by the ocean after the glaciers left. “There is a lot of clay that’s pretty hard to dig through because it’s so dense.”

No matter, says Miller. “Experiential learning has always been big for me,” she says. “That’s part of why I came to Bates.” And particularly welcome this fall, when she’s been spending so much time in her room.

Sophia Miller '21of New York City consults in the field while digging a soil profile with Holly Ewing. Later she meets in a different location (with farmhouse in background) with Camille Parrish.Prof of Environmental Studies and Christian A. Johnson Prof of Interdisc Studies Holly Ewing and Lecturer in Environmental Studies & Learning Associate in Environmental Studies Camille Parrish take students in the Soils/Lab course for a field trip to Pettengill Farm in Freeport, Maine. A nineteenth century salt-water farm on the estuary of the Harraseeket River, the farm is owned by Freeport Historical Society(FHS). It includes a saltbox house (ca. 1800) on 140 acres of fields, woods, antique apple orchards and salt marsh. Most interesting are the etchings (sgraffitti) found on the plaster walls in the upper chambers of ships, sea monsters, longboats and animals. The farmhouse remains without plumbing, central heat and electricity and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Mildred Pettengill was its last resident and lived in the house until 1970.The students are digging up soil and making observations (soil profiles) before putting it back where it came from.ENVR 310 - Soils/LabDepending on one's point of view, soils are geological units, ecosystems, the foundation of plant life, a place for microbes to live, building material, or just dirt. This course takes a scientific perspective and explores the genesis of soils, their distribution and characteristics, and their interaction with plants. Field studies emphasize description of soils, inferences about soil formation, and placement within a landscape context. Labs investigate the chemistry of soils and their role in forestry and agriculture.
Sophia Miller ’21 works in an open field as Camille Parrish, Ewing, a lecturer in environmental studies who joined the fieldwork, heads off to connect with other students. That’s a circa-1800 saltbox house is in the background. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“I’m socially more isolated than I have been in past years,” she says. “So the opportunity to be around peers in a socially distant way, to get off campus, and be learning from Holly is especially special.”

This fall’s fieldwork, and its collaborative nature, helped solidify Zoe Knauss’ decision to declare her major in environmental studies. “It was super cool to be able to relate what we learn about in the classroom to the actual environment we are living in,” she says.

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