Nancy Gift: Good Weeds and Sustainability

Beza Moges ’16Leave a Comment

“My father was an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, so I grew up in Lexington,” explained Nancy Gift, Berea College’s Compton Chair of Sustainability. The first time Gift visited Berea was in the 1980s. “I remember coming to visit a friend, and we checked out the ‘Spaceship School’ and I remember thinking that I would want to live here one day.” (Designed in the 1960s, the resemblance between Berea Community School and an UFO has been noted by more than one unbiased observer.)

Twenty years after that initial visit, Gift now calls Berea home. But the journey to get here required a change of major, a career shift, and stops at Harvard University, the University of Chicago and Chatham University.

At Harvard, she started out as a mathematics major, but after taking a conservation biology class in her second semester, Gift switched her studies to biology. “I liked biology because I always liked to go outside, and I especially liked environmental science because it makes a connection between different fields of knowledge and how organisms interact with their environments.”

Afterward, Gift went on to study crop and soil science at the University of Kentucky. She attributes her choice of studying crop science for her master’s degree and her subsequent Ph.D. in weed science from Cornell University to her love for plants. “My grandmother was a wildflower person and I remember her telling me a lot of flower names. So, I wanted to do something with plants that is practical, and I applied to the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky, where I was introduced to weed science.”

“I went into weed science knowing that it would be about killing weeds, but I was always the one more interested in studying them.” She continued, “It is interesting how there is a crop growing and obviously there is still room for something else to grow. One way of addressing this, for example, is polyculture, where you deliberately grow multiple crops to make a better use of the field. So we see that the weeds were actually telling us that there is room for more things to be produced.”

Gift’s next destinations after earning her Ph.D. were Chicago and Pittsburgh. “My spouse was offered a post-doc position at the University of Chicago. While we were there, I realized that there were no opportunities for me to do anything related to agriculture. I tried to be an extension agent in counties to help people solve their agricultural problems, but at the University of Chicago, there was not any such extension to speak of.” As a result, she taught environmental science-related courses part-time at the University of Chicago before she and her husband moved to Pittsburgh. There, she joined the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University. “Rachel Carson was an alum of Chatham University before she became famous for writing Silent Spring, the book that informed people that pesticides might not be all that good. So, in Chatham, I read her works and taught about them.”

While working at Chatham, Gift’s first book, A Weed by Any Other Name, was published by Beacon Press. “In 2007, I applied to give a talk at a conference by the American Society for Literature in Environment about Rachel Carson and her ethic on lawn care – specifically her claim that more pesticides are sprayed on lawns than on farms,” Gift says. At the conference, Gift was approached by an agent from Beacon Press who had read her abstract, attended her presentation and wanted to discuss the possibility of a book. A year later, the book was published. “It was pretty exciting because going into a conference thinking you are just giving a presentation and having it turn into a book doesn’t happen all the time,” she exclaimed.

Gift explained that each of the book’s chapters deals with a different type of weed, its biological and seasonal characteristics, as well as approaches that should be taken by lawn owners and others concerned: “It is what we call creative non-fiction, so it is factual but also a little creative to make it easy to read. Because, as far as I am concerned, if nobody reads your work, it doesn’t matter, and I have always wanted to write work that matters.” A second book has also been published: Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What to Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Gift also co-edited the Encyclopedia of Climate Change while at Chatham, and her first textbook was published this year.

While working at Chatham University, Gift found out about an opportunity to work for Berea College. “I was once advising a student and I pulled up Orion Magazine’s green jobs website, and there was a featured job for the Compton Chair of Sustainability at Berea. So I told my student to go explore the website and started applying for the job.” As Compton Chair of Sustainability and the Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) Program, she works to infuse sustainability across programs in the curriculum. “I don’t see sustainability as a textbook or a field that you become an expert in. I want economists to understand sustainability, I want writers to know how to write about it responsibly and correctly and so on.”

According to Gift, some programs, such as agriculture, technology and applied design, biology and chemistry have already designed their own ways to move in a direction of teaching sustainable practices in their classes, but there is still work to be done. “There are other programs that are not ‘comfortable’ teaching sustainability, and I try to help more programs feel like sustainability is something we should all be teaching,” she added, summing up her responsibilities as an effort to make herself unnecessary. “If I do my job well, whether it is philosophy, psychology or physical education, they will know how to teach sustainability to their students and eventually, they would not need my help.”

Gift’s full circle has brought her back to Berea, a place she admired as a teenager. And through her position as Compton Chair of Sustainability, she is doing her best to help it become a center for educating the future generation on how to lead a sustainable life, as well as an environmentally sound college that can be a model for others.

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