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Story - Education

May 19, 2010 9:48 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Activist makes fight for campus spiritual

May 19, 2010 9:48 AM

SHINNECOCK HILLS—When word spread that Stony Brook Southampton would shut down most of its academic programs at the end of the summer session, a casualty of dwindling state funds, the people of Southampton raised their pitchforks—and Peter Maniscalco pitched a tent.

The 68-year-old environmental activist from Manorville camped out for four days last week under a gnarled tree beside the campus volleyball court. There, he led a series of nightly fireside ceremonies to call forth the ancestral spirits of the land and, he hoped, guide the fate of the beleaguered environmental school.

“Some years I ago, I understood that all environmental issues are symptomatic of a deeper issue,” he said. “Basically, the college issue is a symptom of a far deeper issue.”

Mr. Maniscalco, who has studied Shamanic ceremony for 28 years and has been active in Long Island environmental issues for even longer, said that the students who will be booted from the dorms on August 31 are the latest victims in a long history of mistreatment at the Shinnecock Hills campus. As Mr. Maniscalco tells it, it began when the Shinnecock Indian Nation was forced off the rolling meadows centuries ago, and continued when Long Island University shuttered Southampton College in 2006.

“Most of us have patterns in our lives that keep repeating until we reconcile them,” he said, sitting cross-legged on a campus hilltop last Thursday.

Reconciling the history of the site was one of the stated goals of his vigil, which culminated in a sunrise meditation on Friday. On that overcast morning, Mr. Maniscalco—aided by a handful of students, staff, teachers and administrators—sprinkled a pouch of tobacco, which had been blessed in a Shinnecock ceremony the week before, around the perimeter of the southern portion of the campus.

“What Peter was doing was trying to find a very peaceful resolution for this land for whatever happens in the future,” said Kathleen Furey, a student who lives in Hampton Bays and carried a stick of burning sage during the ceremony.

Dr. Mary Pearl, the dean of Stony Brook Southampton, was one of about 10 people present, Mr. Maniscalco said.

Mr. Maniscalco is no stranger to the campus. He taught a class on spirituality and the environment there earlier in the decade, when it was run as Southampton College by Long Island University. But when he pitched a similar course to Stony Brook University after it took over the campus in 2006, he said he couldn’t even get a meeting with administrators—although he was invited to give a workshop last semester.

Elise Tyrie, a student from Manorville who attended one of Mr. Maniscalco’s ceremonies, said that the Stony Brook Southampton curriculum sometimes shunned the spiritual or visceral elements of sustainability in favor of the purely scientific. “The way the campus was being run, as great as it was, they focused mostly on the technological aspects of environmental problems and sustainability,” she said.

That was one of the things that Mr. Maniscalco said he hoped to change with his ceremonies last week. On top of keeping the sustainability programs open, he said he hoped to move the school in a more spiritual direction, with more of a focus on an individual relationship with nature.

“I’m not here to save this college—I’m here to renew this college,” he said.

At the nightly ceremonies, Mr. Maniscalco would play a drum, and the students and staff who gathered around him would meditate. Afterward, they would discuss how they felt about their fledgling campus closing its sustainability programs and mothballing its dorms.

Last Tuesday, the day after the vigil began, two campus police officers approached Mr. Maniscalco at his camp and questioned him, he said. But when the officers called a campus dean, he told them that the administration was aware of Mr. Maniscalco and to let him be.

“Now, in this crisis, things are happening that didn’t happen before,” he said. “I’m well received now.”

Mr. Maniscalco, who now works as a renewable energy consultant, has a storied history of attacking environmental issues from a spiritual angle. In 1989, he lived in his car outside the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant for 55 days, meditating and singing. In 2007, he returned to the same site and lived for a month in a tent on the shore of the Long Island Sound, where he sought to garner positive energy to fight a natural gas barge proposed by Broadwater Energy.

Considering the fates of those two projects—neither came to fruition—he boasts a pretty impressive track record.

But the fate of the Stony Brook Southampton campus remains up in the air. Since the cuts were announced in early April, elected officials have taken Stony Brook University to task in the media, and coaxed them to the bargaining table. Students took to the streets in demonstrations, and continue to threaten legal action. The university has stated its intention to hold on to the 81-acre campus, but remains silent on what it will put there to replace the sustainability school.

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While the possible loss of this college is being fought from several angles, Mr. Manisalco's expertise and efforts to heal the land on which it sits are very much appreciated.
By js (44), NY on May 24, 10 7:31 PM
Yes, thank you Mr. Manisalco, for taking the time and making the effort to heal the land and invoke the naure spirits. Thank you to everyone who was able to join him in this process. Thank you to Will James for reporting this story.
By VenecianWaters (6), southampton on May 24, 10 8:48 PM
If it is so dear, why doesn't the soap dodger buy it?
By Hambone (514), New York on May 24, 10 11:09 PM
I'm of two minds regarding Mr. Maniscalco's activities. One can be fully committed to preserving the environment, as I am, for what I believe are rational, practical reasons, e.g., because a clean environment improves the quality of the air we breathe, because mental and physical health are promoted by serene and unspoiled surroundings, because it enhances real estate values, because healthy vegetation offsets industry's negative effects on the atmosphere, and because it's good for business if ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on May 25, 10 2:43 PM
Sorry, broke off there in mid-stride. Just to finish up, it seems to me that when you get away from the purely environmental side of the Southampton College matter and look at all the practical aspects -- as our local leaders and the people running SUNY must do -- Mr. Maniscalco's bit shrinks to near-insignificance, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on May 25, 10 2:49 PM
Filler, not news.
By nellie (451), sag harbor on May 25, 10 9:40 PM
1 member liked this comment
I guess you are not aware of human interest stories? While it may not appeal to or be relevant to you, it is to others.
By jgrindrod (2), Southampton on May 26, 10 3:38 PM
Kind of a weird way to get your resume out there. BTW, what is the market for Shamans like these days?
By Hambone (514), New York on May 27, 10 9:40 AM