Ross School - Senior Projects 2010

Student: Sylvia Channing

Mentor: Carleton Schade


Title: Off-the-Grid, On the Map


For the month of August, 2009, I spent a month with two of my classmates living self-sustainably in a platform tent on my property in Bridgehampton. Karen Sanchez, Patricia Milligan and I tended a vegetable garden, raised chickens, milked goats, and cooked over a fire in an effort to explore energy independence. Off-the-Grid, On the Map refers to the blog I maintained while living off-the-grid, which was powered by a solar panel system. I wanted to maintain contact with my community throughout the duration of the project, and thereby keep them up to date with its progress. I wanted to teach that we can approach sustainability without completely abandoning modern technology and community relationships. In the fall, I incorporated my literary research and the practical components of my project into a journalistic essay, accenting my writing with photos and excerpts from my blog, and constructed a scale model of the project site for the exhibition space to provide visual context for the paper.



PowerPoint Presentation


My senior project plan was to spend August living entirely “off-the-grid,” in a tent set on a platform of reclaimed pine boards that I had found at a Brooklyn lumberyard. We would give up any fossil-fueled activities and live self-sufficiently, eating only the yield of our small patch of land, collecting eggs from our eight free-range chickens, tending two goats with summer plans of their own, and blogging our daily activities on a solar-powered computer. In this way, we could reach the wider world with tales of our experiences. It was a new—or a very old—version of “summer in the Hamptons,” one that might be recognizable to the Montauketts and Shinnecocks.

The experiment was one that I had wanted to undertake for the last couple of years, since I had founded the Environmental Club at Ross. My thought was that an exercise in collaboration, simplicity and self-sufficiency could be meaningful in a part of the world in which those values were very much in jeopardy. In the end, though, what launched our planning and work was a very simple desire that had little to do with rationality, almost a dare: “Let’s do something.” Karen Sanchez was from a long line of farmers from Colombia; she accepted the dare. Through our work together, she became my project partner and a close friend.

I considered the precarious position of the subsistence farmer, doomed to starve in the aftermath of a single failed crop. Our plight of a record rainy June made me consider the very merit of agriculture; the phenomenon Jared Diamond called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

I started my blog with “questions for a farmer,” wondering how much I would already know by this time in my life had I been raised by a subsistence farming family. Our main concerns during the months of preparation were shelter and food for us, and power for our computers. Maintaining blog on a solar-powered computer was the component of the project that, in my mind, would distinguish my project from being another “Walden Pond.” But when the tent’s construction started running behind schedule, our garden failed to bear a fruitful harvest, and August began with a highly informative, disastrous first day, we questioned the “simplicity” we had initially attributed to these things.

I didn’t recognize the success of this summer’s project until its concluding days, when I had finally reached a state of comfortable awareness, finally relaxed into the gentle pace of my off-grid lifestyle. It was after the moment of clarity that manifested this blog post that I finally allowed myself to ally with my project, to yield myself to the inseparable relationship of humans and the natural world. The project, though only clearly so during its last week, was a practice of sustainability, of reunification with the natural world, but also a journey of profound discovery that has shaped my values, and consequently my perspective on the way societies are structured.

Drawing from my experiences and the two books assigned to me by my mentor, Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, and Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodges, I composed a journalistic paper to culminate the project. I see my project as a rigorous microcosm of the approach that the developed world may take as environmental issues and natural resource depletion necessitate a collective move towards sustainable evolution. Taken together, my personal experiences over the summer, Helena Norberg-Hodge’s concept of counter-development, and Bill McKibben’s tested hypotheses on the thorough sustainability of strong communities, have coalesced into a workable vision that I hope to realize in years to come.

Works Consulted

Diamond, Jared. "The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.” Discover. May 1987, 64-66.

Finkel, Michael. The Hazda. National Geographic, December 2009.

Geismar, Erin. “Students take on month-long sustainability challenge.” The East Hampton Press)

The Story of Stuff. Dir. Annie Leonard. Video. Free Range Studios, 2009.

McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. New York: Times Books, 2007.

McKibben, Bill. “If You Build It, Will They Change?” Toward the Livable City. (Milkweed Editions) 2003.

Norberg-Hodges, Helena. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Ponce, Victor M. “Groundwater Utilization and Sustainability.” (Viewed November 2009)

“Protecting the Last Wild Forests.” (Viewed October 2009)

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner Books, 1992.

Steel, Carolyn. How Food Shapes Our Cities. (Recorded at TEDGlobal, July 2009, Oxford, UK. Duration: 15:41)

University of Granada. "Goats' Milk Is More Beneficial To Health Than Cows' Milk, Study Suggests." ScienceDaily 31 July 2007. 4 January 2010.

White Jr., Lynn T. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science. Vol 155. 3767 (March 10, 1967): pp. 1203-1207

Community Member (Details)

Bill McKibben is an environmental author and activist, and the founder of In 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history.