Every year, on one of the first three Fridays in October, the President of Williams College cancels classes and encourages students to spend the day outdoors instead. This tradition, dubbed Mountain Day, features festivities including organized hikes and an all-campus picnic. Mountain Day not only gifts students a surprise day off, but provides a chance to reconnect with the natural world and acknowledge the beauty of the campus’ setting in the Berkshire Mountains; these things might otherwise fall by the wayside in the College’s intense academic environment. As such, the celebratory events are well attended: according to this Williams Record article concerning 2021’s mountain day, 1,915 people out of around 2,000 students participated in the Mountain Day events that year. However, transporting such a large number of Williams students to off-campus locations and providing them with meals outside of the dining halls presents quite the logistical challenge and could have potentially significant environmental impacts. The Williams Outing Club, or WOC, which coordinates the festivities, recognizes the need for sustainability on Mountain Day and takes conscientious steps to reduce its environmental impacts.
In a world of predominantly fossil-fuel based transportation, perhaps the greatest challenge is getting students and food to trailheads with as few vehicles as possible. Scott Lewis, the director of WOC, says: “We bus folks to Greylock trailheads and discourage any personal driving of cars up the Greylock road.” Additionally, to avoid as much long-distance shipping as possible, he says, “dining purchases local apples, cider and bakes the donuts.”
Sophomore Josh Bruns, a member of the WOC board and Zilkha Center Intern, says that student leaders were particularly concerned over the amount of food waste, and how best to deal with it. “Some of it had to be composted, and Dining had the [leftover] wraps out with meals for the rest of the week.” Josh adds that having lunch on campus, so that all the utensils could be easily collected and composted by Dining Services staff, reduced potential waste as well.
The rainy weather prompted another concern this year, namely students walking off the trails, trampling fragile vegetation and compacting soils. There was little WOC could directly do to prevent this kind of behavior, but Josh notes that they emphasized staying on trails in announcements. Despite these issues, the environmental awareness the day fosters remains valuable. Josh says: “Providing access is one of the focal points of the outing club, and that I think is our contribution to sustainability at Williams … to get people excited about protecting nature.”
Mountain Day is undoubtedly one of Williams’ most beloved traditions, so it is critical that sustainability is integrated into the event. As Scott Lewis notes, “sustainability comes in forms of first encouraging folks to use their own legs to get out.” He continues, “I believe people will protect things they care about. Mountain Day brings folks out to not only build community, but also gives people the opportunity to look up and around, appreciating the beauty that surrounds us. That joy will hopefully translate to caring about our environment which will help people to make choices that will promote a healthier environment.” WOC’s approach to Mountain Day, in emphasizing strategies to mitigate unintentional side effects (while acknowledging the unresolved issues that come with existing in an inherently unsustainable society), is a wonderful example of both attempting to achieve and encouraging sustainability within a single event.
P.S. Check out this piece in the Williams Record about the history of Mountain Day!
Interviews in this article were edited lightly for clarity.
Isabella H. is one of the Communication Interns for the 22/23 school year at the Zilkha Center.