My 2011 commencement speech from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

14 Jun

My classmates elected me and another graduate, Pablo Reed, to give 5-minute speeches on our commencement from graduate school.  I gave this speech on May 23, 2011, in New Haven, CT.

This is not the highest-quality video, but it’s all audible.  Transcript after the jump.

It’s been a pleasure and an honor knowing each and every one of you, and a pleasure and an honor that you, our classmates, have asked us to speak today.  Thank you.

I have to admit, drafting this speech was a serious challenge.  You are so wise—you are experts, masters, doctors.  What could I possibly say to contribute?  So many of you have advised and taught me so much, from how to structure my research to how to use a Biltmore stick to how to play squash to how to dance to Lady Gaga.

We have really had some fabulous times together.  But I don’t want to talk about the present right now.  Dave, Mario, and Charlie spoke so eloquently about our time together at Mods 2.0 that I have nothing more to add, and Pablo just invited us to such a wonderful FES party.  No, instead I decided that I want to talk about the past, and the future.

First, the past: each of us made the choice to come here, to join the intentional community of FES, for a reason.  Love and passion for the Earth and its people drove us to become professional environmentalists.  We are passionate outdoors-people, planet-savers, urban planners, learners, scientists, managers.

But why are we this way?  Is it because we have lived our lives in the light of Earth Day, 40 years old last month?  Is it because of a transcendent moment in nature, the agony of watching a loved one suffer from asthma, or a BBC nature documentary?  Perhaps our parents and families led the way, or a great teacher, or a good friend.

But still, why this love and passion to fix, to change, to save—in the face of overwhelming odds and the inevitable weight of climate change, extinction, overpopulation, and human denial?  We have every reason to just give up and walk away, exploit the commons to our own gain and horde our resources like survivalists in Idaho preparing for the apocalypse (which, pleasantly enough, did not interfere with our being here today).

But we don’t withdraw, we don’t run away.  Pulled by love and passion and more than a bit irrationally, we came to FES.  That shows we have hope.  Why?

I can’t speak for all of you, but I’d like to share my reason for hope, my inspiration.  It’s a poem I’ve carried close to my heart for the past ten years, by Mary Oliver.  Some of you may know it:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.  That was my inspiration, my past.  What was yours?  Whatever it was, never forget it, and take it with you into the future.

Now for our future: Let’s not just visit this world.  Let’s take the time to bring this chapter of our lives to a close, but remember that the wonderful party of FES goes on.  Our community of world-changers young and old spreads over the earth, and will support us when the climate negotiations again break down, or the timber harvest is lost to beetles, or we lose our jobs.  They will also exult with us when we rise up, and celebrate our hope and our optimism.  They will help us, and they will love us, for they share our passion and we, in our turn, will help them.

After Tom Hanks’ speech yesterday, I meditated on the meaning of fear.  Fear holds us back, it is the opposite of inspiration, it leads to hanging-on, to clinging to the liferaft when the waters are shallow enough to stand.  Let’s not bring fear with us into the future.  Let’s not talk about apocalypse—not the grim climate change scenarios we’re all capable of spinning, not any other kind of apocalypse.  Instead, talk about what inspires you.  This afternoon and for years to come, starting now, share with others your reason for hope, the thing that drives you forward.  Tell your family and friends what you’re passionate about, what you love.  Work for that and talk about that and let’s joyfully face the future together.

Thanks.

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3 Responses to “My 2011 commencement speech from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies”

  1. Catherine August 1, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Hopeful, thoughtful, joyful. Thanks so much for sharing.

    And how are you?!

    • elizacava August 1, 2011 at 12:09 am #

      I am well! I am currently at a big conference about ecosystem restoration and am steeling myself to present my research to the real experts…many of whom were the subjects of my thesis themselves. It’s intimidating, to say the least. Blogging, about to begin a four month contract, looking for long-term work, orienting myself to the world in a new way post-marriage and grad school. I loved looking at your beautiful wedding pictures!

  2. Michael McGee February 3, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    Nicely done! The future looks a little brighter.

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