Commencement Remarks by Susanna Paisley ’91
It is a great and terrifying honor to be here today. I am a very proud Guilford alumna, but never more so than this year as I have followed the progress of the Green and Beyond Initiative. How cool is it that the students reduced their energy consumption by one quarter in one year? That Guilford has the largest solar hot water project of any college in America? The Earth Tubs and the free Quaker Tune-Up at Re:Cycles… I love it.
Class of 2011, congratulations on completing all that coursework and passing all those exams! I myself was a highly motivated student while at Guilford. I carried out a four year long self-generated research project in the field of dermato-dental energetics – subtitled scraping through by the skin of my teeth.
I remember quite a lot about my Guilford career, though there are definitely some hazy bits like the Serendipities. But I remember with unusual clarity my own graduation exactly 20 years ago today.
I remember deliberating about the best arrangement of my lank hippy locks with the mortar board and bobby pins. I remember the intense expressions on parents’ faces: pride at their children’s achievements, heartache at watching them take this big step into adulthood and overwhelming relief at no longer having to pay their college fees.
I remember the transformation of my best friends in the world into daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, and meeting, often for the first time, the other major players in their lives. They had been mine, we each others’ for four years, and there they were: slipping into gowns and slipping away from me out into the world. (This was pre-Facebook. You’ll be fine.)
But more than this, I remember sitting there in my black gown, and listening to Beth Keiser’s commencement address. You may have seen the title of my talk, ‘The Birds and the Bees,’ and thought ‘oh no – this is going to be so embarrassing – she’s going to talk about s.e.x.’. Don’t worry. I am. But I am merely following the precedent set 20 years ago by Beth. The topic of her address was orgasm. Truly. She talked about the pursuit of orgasm – of the intellectual variety. Clearly, she was not advocating sexual relations with intellectuals. Or, for that matter, suggesting we have sex whilst reading Chomsky or Heidegger or indeed have orgasms just by reading Chomsky or Heidegger.
As I recall, for Beth Keiser, the pursuit of intellectual orgasms was finding those subjects and endeavors that make you tingly with pleasure, that light up the switchboard of your brain, flooding your system with lovely endorphins. I think it was her take on Joseph Campbell’s ‘follow your bliss’. In any case, it has had a guiding influence over the last 20 years of my life.
Whilst thinking about all this I happened upon a novel, soon to be a major motion picture, which explores the theme of the birds and the bees, over an exact 20 year period, and opens the night of graduation at the University of Edinburgh: ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls. It was just so serendipitous – that I couldn’t resist reading you an abridged excerpt from the opening,
‘I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,’ she said.
‘”Change the world”, you mean?’
‘Not the entire world. Just the little bit around you.’
They lay in silence for a moment, bodies curled around each other in the single bed, ‘Can’t believe I just said that,’ she groaned. ‘Sounds a bit corny, doesn’t it?’
‘A bit corny.’
‘I’m trying to be inspiring! I’m trying to lift your grubby soul for the great adventure that lies ahead of you.’ She turned to face him ‘So, what are you going to do? What’s the great plan?’
‘Well, my parents are going to pick up my stuff, dump it at theirs, then I’ll spend a couple of days in their flat in London, see some friends. Then France, maybe onto India– ‘
‘Traveling,’ she sighed. ‘So predictable. Why not just say “I’m going on holiday for two years”? It’s the same thing.’
‘Because travel broadens the mind,’ he said, kissing her.
‘I think you’re probably a bit too broad-minded as it is,’ she said, turning her face away. ‘Anyway, I didn’t mean next month, I mean the future-future, when you’re, I don’t know…’ She paused, as if conjuring up some fantastical idea like a fifth dimension, ‘…Forty or something. What do you want to do when you’re forty?’
‘Forty?’ He seemed to be struggling with the concept. ‘Don’t know. Am I allowed to say “rich”?’
‘Alright, “famous”.’ He began to nuzzle at her neck. ‘Bit morbid this isn’t it?’
‘It’s not morbid, it’s exciting.. It’s like the graduation speaker said, “the doors of opportunity flung wide…” “Yours are the names in tomorrow’s newspapers…”
‘Not very likely. So, what, are you excited then?’
‘Me?’ she said, ‘God no, I’m crapping myself.’
I don’t suggest that anyone here would be so loose as to hop into bed with someone before marriage or that you’re specifically about to go traveling in India, but some of the sentiments may nevertheless be familiar. There may be some of you who, to quote from literature, are “crapping yourselves” about the future, and as invited speaker, I feel it incumbent upon me to reassure you, and inspire with you my own personal secret recipe for success.
Before I begin, I should mention: I have never actually had any success. At least not by many people’s standards. I have never made any money, I still wear a lot of the clothes I wore at Guilford, and I drive a clapped-out old Volvo. Success for me is about happiness, some do-gooding, adventure, flexibility and round-the-clock access to high quality chocolate.
But, for what it’s worth, here’s my recipe:
First, I have always found being told something was impossible, inadvisable or simply not allowed to be a great motivation to do it anyway. When I was very small and living in England, there was a stained glass figurine of a mouse which sat on the top of the loo. The toilet. When the morning light shone through it, it looked like a lollipop. My mother told me in very serious tones that this blue and red mouse was poisonous due to the lead solder, and that it was never, under any circumstances, to be licked.
I licked that mouse every time I went to the loo, or even walked past the loo on other business, for years. The cumulative effect of this probably took 35 points off my IQ, and it never did start tasting like a lollipop.
More recently, when I had decided to get serious about studying bears, I applied for funding from The People’s Trust for Endangered Species. I got down to the last few but my application was rejected. I found out later that one committee member had strongly opposed my bid on the grounds that, “it would be criminally irresponsible to support a young woman to go out into the Bolivian Back-of-Beyond, miles from help, chasing a mysterious and probably dangerous species of bear. If she finds a way to do this, she will come back in a casket, but my conscience will be clear.” This discouragement was worth far, far more to me than the lousy £15,000 I was denied.
Second, in order to buttress my tendency not to take no for an answer, I have become what some would call conniving and stubborn. I prefer to think of it as resourceful and tenacious.
When I embarked upon my spectacled bear research, there was a lot unknown. Really basic things like: Were they nocturnal or diurnal? How did they interact with each other? Did they in fact poop in the woods? This was due to the bears’ incredibly elusive nature. Radio-telemetry was the only real option, but no one had trapped and radio-collared a wild spectacled bear before. Sarah Stein, whom I met in our suite in Bryan Hall on our first day at Guilford, came and spent several months in Bolivia living in tents and caves helping me find a field site. You can picture the scene – it was cloud forest, descending from snow-capped peaks – a fragile, dream-like environment with tiny deer the size of dogs, and frogs that could hide quite happily under a postage stamp. It was also steep, muddy, cold, low on oxygen and a very long way from the closest Harris Teeter.
The first task was to figure out what I could use to lure them into a trap. Every few weeks I would fill my pack with a new delicacy and trek back into the mountains. Honey, bread, corn, peanut butter, fermented egg product, peppermints, bacon, Sweet Sixteen Doughnuts and so on and so on. Ad nauseum. Literally.
Months went by. People were strongly advising me to give up. Especially my Ph.D. supervisor. Eventually, one glorious day, I stumbled on the magic formula that induced a large female bear to start visiting my traps. I would see her daily, waiting on a cliff for me to leave the delicious bait, but no matter how I configured those traps she outwitted me, nabbing the bait and evading capture. I never did trap her. Nevertheless, she had taught me her own personal secret recipe for success and after 10 months, I eventually caught and collared my first bear.
In case you want to try it, the flesh of a cow in advanced stages of putrefaction is just the thing. Adding some pineapple and letting it sit in a black trash bag in the sun also helps the rotting process. I would then use my machete to hack individual hunks of bait from the grey slimy flesh, writhing with maggots. It took me many months to work out that I could avoid having maggots fly up into my face and hair by cutting up the meat before it became putrid. (I put this delay down to the mouse licking.)
On the subject of smells, the third ingredient in my recipe is having a good nose. I do not claim to have a nose even one-thousandth as sensitive as a bear, or even a bloodhound. But I am quite good at sniffing out my trail. Many people have a hard time perceiving and recognizing the scent of their particular bliss; trusting that faint inkling that a certain idea or opportunity might be the way forward. I believe it’s a skill that improves with practice and deep breathing. Don’t rush things. Take the time and space to make the big decisions in your journey. And change route if things don’t smell right.
My fourth and final ingredient is the tendency to develop huge and passionate enthusiasms of a very diverse nature and to make connections between them. I would certainly never have had the courage to become a biologist without Lynn Moseley, and without Guilford’s wonderful broad interdisciplinary focus, I’d never have branched so far out from this discipline either.
So then you mix all of this in a big bowl, form it into patties and bake for 30 minutes at 375ºF. Or sauté in butter over a low heat. Or puree and pour over crushed ice.
The point of all this is that there is no universal recipe for success, any more than there’s a universal recipe for tasty food. It’s all about working with what you have on hand, with who you are and your own particular gifts and tastes and passions.
You will probably have to add pinches of compromise and adversity as I have. The one thing I would say, if you’ll allow me to torture the recipe metaphor and go all mushy for a moment, is that the greatest meals are the ones we share, and the people that we sit down to eat with matter much more than the food that we eat.
I’d like to return to the birds and the bees now with a couple of positive conservation stories. We all know that human populations are due to reach nine billion by the end of this century, and that we are in the middle of the 6th Mass Extinction, losing 38 million acres of rainforest a year and 100 species a day. Things are getting very serious. But I am not going to dwell on the precarious state we’re in. To me, one good empowering story is worth a lot more than a barrel full of doom and gloom statistics.
When my mother was at Guilford in the early 1950s, there were about 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the 48 contiguous states. When I went with Lynn Moseley on the ornithology field trip to the North Carolina coast in my junior year, bald eagles were definitely not on the list of species we might see. Yet last week I watched a male bald eagle feeding on a fish in the late evening sunlight, perching on a tree near his nest, not 100 yards from my father’s house in Wilmington. Eagles nest in Guilford County. Their populations are now measured, not in hundreds, but tens of thousands.
Bald eagles were brought back from the brink by massive collective action owing to this bird’s cultural significance. Powerful legal instruments such as the Bald Eagle Protection Act were passed with measures like the strict clamp-down on illegal shooting. But in a very real sense, bald eagles were saved by the bravery of one person. One of the main factors causing the eagle’s precipitous decline was the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. This chemical built up in the bodies of adult females and weakened eggshells. The eggs could not withstand the weight of the brooding adult. Crushed eggs, no eaglets, no eagles. What turned things around for the bald eagle was the banning of DDT, and this was directly attributable to the courage of one woman, Rachel Carson. Despite an agonizing battle with cancer, Carson pushed through to write Silent Spring, a book that resulted in the birth of the environmental movement, earned her a storm of abuse once it was published and probably saved the bald eagle.
From birds to bees. As you will know, bees are in trouble. Colony collapse disorder is having a devastating effect on the honeybees which we depend on for food. These busy creatures pollinate more than 70 percent of the 100 crop species that supply 90 percent of the world’s food. Their services have an estimated economic value of over $200 billion worldwide.
Now honeybees are essentially a domesticated species, and the colony collapse disorder that is having such a dramatic effect on their populations may in fact lead to changes that are hugely beneficial for wild bees and biodiversity more generally. The creation of pollen- and nectar-rich habitats, by individual gardeners, small scale farmers and as part of big agri-environment schemes, can have a transformative effect on the prospects for wild bees. This is good for food security because these excellent wild pollinators function as an insurance policy in the face of honeybee declines.
In the part of England where I now live, a woman by the name of Nikki Gammans is spearheading the reintroduction this year of a species of bee that went extinct in Britain due to intensive agriculture. Luckily, about 100 years ago, a population was carried to New Zealand, where it survived. Owing to increasing bee-friendly gardening and farming, rare bees are making a comeback across England, and the stage is set for the resurrection of the short-haired bee. Bees are teaching us that we cannot operate independently of nature through technological innovations. We all depend upon each other.
On pages 24-25 of my new U.S. passport it shows a grizzly bear foraging for salmon, and a totem pole I believe to be Tlingit. It contains a beautiful quote from the Mohawk version of the Thanksgiving address, “We send thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are glad they are still here and we hope it will always be so.”
Following on from the birds and bees, and of course bears, I wonder if you’ll allow me one final B. Given that I’ve come over from England and this is such an important week for the monarchy, I’d like to pay tribute to our inimitable and irreplaceable monarch – the monarch butterfly. This species, regularly to be seen on this campus, is an extraordinary creature that undertakes one of the most spectacular migrations in the world – thousands of miles from as far north as Canada to the oyamel forests of western Mexico, where they spend the winter.
Monarch butterflies have been declining and last year was the smallest over-wintering population on record. However, a monumental effort is now underway to turn this around. People are planting flowers to provide food for the migrating butterflies, protecting milkweeds on which the larvae depend and looking after the oyamel forests. And it might just be working. I’m pleased to report that this year’s over-wintering population was more than double that of last year.
But the real reason for mentioning monarch butterflies is an amazing feature of their natural history. Monarchs normally live a mere few weeks, but as winter begins to close in, and things get really serious, a generation of superheroes is born. This Methuselah generation lives for an incredible eight months, a lifespan which in human terms would be half a millennium, and achieves what their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great- grandparents could only dream of.
Never having been there before and without a guide, they navigate by ultraviolet light and by scent. They fly 3,000 miles clear across North America to quite literally save their species from freezing to death.
I sincerely believe that you, the Guilford College Class of 2011, graduating this beautiful morning at the culmination of this Green and Beyond Year of Sustainability, you can be the Methuselah generation. You can achieve truly extraordinary things. Forget cynicism. You can astound yourselves. So get out there. Spread your wings. And follow your nose.