Commencement Address 2018
Dr. Jeff Corwin
The commencement address was given May 12, 2018 at Unity College by Dr. Jeff Corwin.
Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you, Melik, for that kind introduction and this honorary degree. I’m very proud to be a graduate of Unity. By the way, you know how you know when you turn 50? This happens. Feeling this great honorary ribbon going around me, I thought, oh, that’s probably what it will feel like when the Secretary of the Interior puts a noose around my neck because he doesn’t like what I’m saying. Just kidding. They said don’t be political. I won’t. Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, I send out to you a great congratulations for your achievements. You’ve done what you’ve aspired to do. You’ve achieved a dream in your life, and today, it becomes possible and it becomes a reality. To all of you graduates of the class of 2018, congratulations. Now get a job, as my dad said.
So, we’re all in this room together, and we’re all individuals. We all have our own backstories, but there’s something that all of us share in common. We’re drug addicts. Our drug of choice is nature. We love the natural world, whether you’re sitting in a stream with a fly rod or you’re sitting in a stream with a little caliber, measuring out little baby brook trout and Atlantic salmon. You’re in the woods tracking a trail of a fisher cat in Maine, or you’re in binoculars staring at a newly arrived pair of bald eagles. Or you’re just enjoying the day with your children in a stream in Maine that today you can drink from, swim in, that today, in the 21st century, giant sturgeon return to after being regionally extinct for 100 years. You enjoy that moment, the miracle of nature. Something that we all take in common and take stock of, is our passion for the outdoors.
Now, as individuals, as I alluded to, we’re all different. Each of us, as we’ve learned in nature, each of us has our own niche that we’ve carved out for ourselves. Some of you will take on careers such as game wardens or EPOs. Some of you will find your way into the field as conservationist biologists and environmentalists. Some of you will take the path as educators, inspiring the next generation of stewards to protect our planet. Others may work for the great state game agencies, such as the great agency of the state of Maine or New Hampshire or Massachusetts. Look at all the tremendous success … While still, there are many challenges. Look at all the incredible success that has been achieved in the state of Maine. You can go out this morning in Maine and be depressed as you look at all the flowers that were eaten by the deer that weren’t there 100 years ago, at least not in the populations that we have today. You can head to the parking lot and your brand-new car and hang your head, forlorn, as the turkey that has scratched and muzzled against it, turkeys that were rarely here. People don’t realize that in the state of New Hampshire, the first wild turkey, after a long window of extinction, of extirpation, didn’t appear until 1963.
Today, a father and his daughter can go into the woods in search of a turkey in springtime, 21st century that you couldn’t do 100 years ago. Who made that possible? People like you. People with your degrees. So, whether you find your way to a state agency … Maybe you’re going to work for the Department of the Interior, if it exists in the future. You may find yourselves working for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or USGS. I’ve worked with all these incredible organizations. While I may joke and hem and haw about the current state of politics—and yes, I am terribly concerned about where we’re heading—I can take a deep breath, knowing that these organizations, the thousands of people, the men and women that work for the Department of the Interior, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM, and all the dozens of organizations that have been charged with protecting the natural legacy of our great country, those people do what they do every day. Not because of politics but because, like you, they’re addicted to nature, and they love the great outdoors.
Here’s the bad news. We have incredible challenges with our planet. Yes, Virginia, there is climate change. It does happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve witnessed and told the stories of creatures that are impacted by climate change. I always tell people that want to have a climate change argument with me, I can tell you the climate change story through the lens of a conservative fisherman in Alaska whose whole livelihood has gone down the Alaskan toilet because of a changing environment and a shifting resource which his family can no longer depend upon. Your role as conservationists will be to look at this challenge. We know about endangered species, extinction. We lose a species once every 20 minutes on our planet. These are all realities that are terrifying. We know about the Black Market wildlife trade, a $20 billion a year industry. It’s a big problem. We know about habitat loss and pollution and the impact of plastics on our planet. I’ve been to the gyre in the Pacific and filmed an island of floating plastic debris that will take 400 years to break down that is the size of Texas. I’ve told that story. So that’s the bad news.
The good news is you. You are the solution. You all, we come together with a passion and love for nature and the outdoors, but you are individuals. How many of you guys are going to become EPOs or game wardens and stuff like that, go into that line of work? You can raise your hand. Good to see. It’ll be a mission for you in our national parks. There’ll be places for you, as scientists, to work in climate change. Places for you, as naturalists, to work in education as field biologists to restore endangered species. My point is there is opportunity for your new specialty as an environmentalist capable of taking on the challenges of a 21st century planet in serious peril. The good news is we have you. Today is the beginning moment of your journey forward as environmentalists for our planet.
The other good news I will share with you is that if we were in Madagascar celebrating your achievements, you probably wouldn’t get a job unless you worked for an NGO based in Europe or the United States or unless you were one of the precious few who got a government job. If you did get a job, you probably wouldn’t get a livelihood resource that could sustain you very long. Or if you were a wildlife biologist in Africa and you were working in the front lines of the Black Market wildlife trade, not only would you not get the resources you’d need to survive, your very life would be in danger, because it is a battle where lives and wildlife are at stake in our effort to save animals like rhinos and elephants and other creatures that are put in harm’s way from the Black Market trade.
But you are in the United States, in case you didn’t know that. You are in North America. This is the land where the idea of science, wise, long-term, sustainable, pragmatic resource management germinated. This is the land of the first national park. They may shrink today, but someone tomorrow will make them bigger again. This is the land where we use science and apply it and say, “We need science and data to show the truth and accuracies of a current situation or challenge that we face.” Many other places in the world, my point is, cannot provide you the opportunities that you will find in your future if you do your very best and become the very best that you could be. You’ve already achieved something remarkable. The remarkable achievement is you’ve tapped into something I tapped into. In addition to a love for nature, you’ve chosen this as your calling.
When I was six years old was the day my journey began. You know, I speak to people all around the world. Get to travel. Tonight, I’m leaving for Spain. I’m filming a cooperative of women who are harvesting giant goose barnacles off a place called Costa de la Muerte, the Coast of Death. It doesn’t sound very promising when I say it. You have chosen a journey where you’re going to take your passion in life, whether it’s forestry or species management or law enforcement or policy, and you’re going to make that your mission. You’re going to make that your career, and that is pretty remarkable. For me, it began when I was six years old. When people meet me, I think sometimes they may, perhaps, think that my dad was David Attenborough and maybe my mom was Jane Goodall and something like that. Although I’ve had a chance to work with both of those remarkable individuals, my dad was Marcy Corwin, a retired Boston cop, and my mom is Valerie, who is a retired registered nurse. When we were growing up, there wasn’t nature. Actually, it’s better now than it was when I was a kid on the outskirts of Boston. The coast was polluted. There were no striped bass returning, and you couldn’t go into the water because of sewage. There was no nature.
The only time I ever saw nature is when I visited relatives. One day, in my grandparents’ backyard, I rolled over a log, and there it was. It was my gateway moment. It was this long, and it was scaly, and it was legless. Thamnophis sirtalis or the …
Exactly. I always have to correct people. No, it’s not called a Gardner snake. It’s a garter snake. There she was, laid out at that layer that no one goes to in the woodpile where all the spongy wood is and all the little tendrils up and white little-forgotten cobwebs, and she was there. She was about to take off, and I panicked, because I thought, I’m the only one in the world who’s ever seen something like this. I’ve got to show this to people. So I reached out and grabbed onto it, and it reached back and grabbed onto me. I walked into the manufactured home where my grandparents lived at the time. There’s my Grandma sitting in there, sitting in her big easy chair. She’s got a Fresca in one hand and a Pall Mall in the other. She looks at me and looks at this snake hanging from my arm. I’m six years old. There’s blood and there’s tears. She looks at me and she goes, “Get rid of it,” only deeper. I went, “No!” She said, “Why not?” I said, “Because I love it. Now get it off my arm.” My dad pried this poor snake off my arm and we liberated it back to the woodpile.
That was the day I became a naturalist. You mentioned the idea of when you remember … When you were six years old, and that’s what I thought about. That was the day that I became a naturalist. I knew that somehow, someway, I would spend the rest of my life working with nature. I learned all about Gladys. That’s what I named her, my garter snake. I studied her for two years. If you know anything about snakes, you don’t get a lot of them in Maine, but there’s a few. When you see a snake, they are the ultimate creature of habit. I learned about ecdysis watching Gladys shed her skin, with the brand-new shiny skin underneath. You’re like, oh, that’s how the ancients applied this sense of physical renewal to medicine and healing. It makes perfect sense. I learned about defense and offense. Learned about reproduction at the ripe, old age of seven. I was watching Gladys pop her head through the leaf litter. Then, all of a sudden, these curious little heads popped up to the leaves. Before you know it, they all twisted into this breeding ball. She had spent and sowed her pheromones throughout the leaf litter. Male garter snakes came in from an acre away. That’s a long way for a garter snake, for an opportunity to pass on their genetic material and secure the next generation. They’re all twisted up.
The one snake that can fight his way through that Medusa’s head, that maelstrom of serpents, and breed with her, once that is done, he’s done his job. She immediately produces chemicals of repulsion. So the snake that invited them in, she sends them away. Not all that different with human relationships. The squirm of shame. So, the day I became a naturalist is when I found Gladys. The day I became a conservationist, I was eight years old, and I was sitting on my elbows watching her in fascination and delight. Suddenly, it was chaos. She was reaching out and biting at the air while her back part was kind of flipping pathetically and all of a sudden … Did you ever see the movie The Terminator? You know when the Terminator dies, it just cycles down? Her power and energy just went away, and her mouth just came down, and I realized that something terrible had happened. I realized her head wasn’t connected to her body, and my grandparents’ neighbor had a spade in his hand. He had dispatched her and killed her. That was the day I became a conservationist. That was the day that I realized good people make bad decisions because they lack information. It’s very important to think about. That’s as apropos today as it’s ever been.
So that was my first beginning as a naturalist, way back then, 45 years ago, whenever that was. I’m looking at all of you and looking at myself and thinking about how did I get to have my own … I don’t want to say success, because I’m 10 series in, 20-plus years doing what I do in books and television, and I’m always thinking what’s behind the corner. I try to enjoy a little more. I’m always looking what’s that next challenge ahead. I think what do I have that you don’t have? We’re probably all equally good looking, from what I can see. I don’t think that I’m smarter than anyone here. I wasn’t the best academic until it was time to really settle down. I became a pretty good student. So I’m not smarter than you. I’m not better looking than you. I’m not any more talented than you are. So, what is it that I may have that other people don’t have or don’t tap into? This is my first bit of advice of the few that I’m going to offer you, if you choose to use it. I, in my career, have had a chance to break bread and meet people and work with people like Jane Goodall and Oprah Winfrey and a lot of people that I admired growing up.
I realized I had something in common with them. What I had in common with them is that I would not give up. I had an arrogant, an obnoxious, unrealistic sense of possibility. I believed no matter what person said, and it has been said to me, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not going to make it in this business,” I didn’t give up, and I kept going. That fuel drove me to eventually get on the path that made my passion a reality in my life. So number one, if there’s something in your life that you want to achieve, what will make you get it versus anyone else is a tenacious, obnoxious sense of drive and sense of optimism, and a sense of confidence that you can accomplish that mission and you will do whatever the sweat equity is required to make it happen. So that’s my advice to you of number one. You don’t have to applaud for that.
I was thinking about creatures. We all love creatures and wildlife, and many of you guys have had a chance, as you begin your professional journey forward, to work with remarkable species. Even as you grow in your careers, you will have moments of discovery that it will feel just like it did when you were six years old. About six months ago, I was in Japan. I got invited to help study the giant Japanese salamander. I went out with a scientist, and we captured one. I looked at my daughter, and I said, “Maya, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, and here it is.” My point is that as you work your way to your goal, make sure you never give up that childhood sense of desire and discovery, because that’s what will push you forward. Now, speaking of creatures, I thought of a creature that’s kind of been with me in the best and worst days of my life, and that is elephants. I think my best moments and worst moments have involved elephants. I helped look for elephants that were thought to be extirpated from Asia. I’ve had moments with leeches and elephants. I almost lost my arm to an elephant. I’ve had a lot of stuff happen with elephants.
One of my best memories of working with elephants happened when I had a chance … Does anyone know who Daphne Sheldrick is?
Well, she just passed. She is from Africa, and she is a pioneer in saving elephants. Because of the Black Market wildlife trade and all of these elephants that have been pressured, there are all these orphans. She takes them in. She discovered the formula that increased their survival by 85%, but she still had, like, 50% of the elephants were dying, and they couldn’t figure it out. Till one day they had either a fire or a storm, and everyone had to sleep in the same paddock, baby elephants and people. The next day, when they woke up, no elephants died, and the elephants that were sick were feeling better. They discovered the miracle cure for elephants when it comes to saving them when they’re orphaned, and that is basically the love of a parent, that tactility, that connection. The touching, the holding, the sleeping, the connection. I went to tell that story. So here we are at Daphne’s place. I’m in this paddock on this scratchy straw, and I have this elephant named Rajkal, I think. He’s only about three months old, but a three-month elephant is about five feet long, about this wide, and weighs about 600 pounds.
We bed down, and we’ve got this wool blanket. Rajkal comes down. Then, she kind of lays on me, and she puts her leg up here and her leg up here, and she’s kind of sucking on my face. I’m kind of conflicted. It’s a very contrary situation, because half of me is like saying, “Oh my god. How many people on the Earth today, tonight, are being spooned by an elephant in Africa?” Then, the other half of me was saying, “Oh my god, I’m having a stroke because I’m being spooned by a 400-pound elephant.” So she falls asleep and I fall asleep. In the middle of the night, there’s this chaos. There’s this commotion. I wake up, and Rajkal is kind of stomping on me and pushing me, and she’s really upset and it hurts. I’m like, what is going on? I realize she’s not even seeing me. He is having a night terror. He’s having a complete nightmare, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t have kids at the time. So I instinctively reach up, and I cup Raj’s eye, and I kind of try to pull his head in. I just stroke his eyelashes, and I kind of whisper in his whiskery, wire, itchy, big, long, flappy ear. I’m like, “Sh, it’s okay.”
Then, the elephant takes some breaths, gets up, and begins to fall asleep. Right before the elephant fell asleep, its flimsy trunk … You know, an elephant’s trunk is amazing. It looks so rudimentary and simple. It’s just a big hose about this long. People don’t realize it’s actually articulated by 40,000 different muscles and ligaments. It’s so sensitive that it can pick up … They call it the Jenny Craig elephant. It was literally picking up one rice grain after another rice grain after another rice grain. A male bull will waft it over a puddle of cow urine and know exactly that moment when she’s in the season of reproduction. It’s also a powerful tool. They can, in one night, transform hundreds of acres from a forest into a savanna with that amazing elephant trunk. Raj was a simple, young, little elephant, and his flimsy trunk was going everywhere. Right before he took that last time to go to sleep, I’m safe breath, his trunk came up and grabbed some hair, when I had long hair, and twisted it into a lock, and then fell asleep. Then we had to euthanize him. No, we didn’t. He’s fine. We didn’t do that. You can stop crying. That was a joke.
We went to that graduation with Jeff Corwin, and he’s killing elephants on stage, and it’s terrible. We did not. She survived, or he survived. Donald Trump, Junior, is actually getting him right now, probably. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. No, last one. That’s it, I promise. No more. That’s it. I completely forgot about that moment. It went away, like a lot of cool moments in life, until you get something that reminds you of that moment. Years later, I’m a dad. My daughter Maya, who is now 15 years old … God help me. She’s an amazing kid, but back then, she was seven months old. She was about this big, like the size of a tortoise. So I’d just come home from a long trip, and my wife says to me, “Okay, I’m going to go out with my girlfriends. You’ve been gone. We’re going to have a dinner out. Two things, Jeff. When I come home, there will not be firemen here like before.” I said, “I won’t do that again.” She said, “Number two, this kid better have a pulse.” I’m like, “This kid will be alive.” That’s my goal. So my wife goes. I’m bored. I get up, like 10:00. I’m like, I should probably check on Maya. She’s so quiet.
I look in. She’s all coiled like a cute little puff adder in her bassinet. I’m like, oh, jeez, she’s really quiet. I’m like, Maya? Maya? Maya! She wasn’t. She was awake. Looks at me kind of blindly. I pick her up, and I take her downstairs and I put her on the couch. She’s not very good on the couch at seven months. She probably got that from my wife. I was very good on the couch at seven months. So I hold her head, and I’m kind of holding her steady like that and watching the TV. I’m like, okay, dad’s going to go get a beverage kiddo, so Maya Corwin, meet Hannibal Lector. Hannibal Lector, that’s Maya Corwin, and I’ll be right back. That’s not his face. I go to the kitchen, and then I hear this thump. I come out, and she’s crying on the ground. I don’t know how the hell that happened. So I pick her up, and she’s crying. I find if I shake her, she stops, quiets down a little bit. No, but I rock her, actually. After she gains consciousness. Then I rock her. Right before she falls asleep, she reaches up and she grabs my hair, and she twists it into a lock.
That elephant moment that I had completely forgot about came back. It really moved me. It was like it had just happened. My role as a conservationist changed. I tell you these stories because who you are will change as you go through life. The fuel that fires you and the missions that drive you will change. I became a naturalist because of Gladys the garter snake. I became a conservationist when someone made a bad decision because they lack information, and it was about animals and saving snakes. I now became a conservationist because I was a dad and I had a child, and I was very terrified about the world that she would face. I wanted to do everything in my power to secure her, as the ultimate definition of my success of the species, that this representation of who I am genetically makes it to the next generation. That was my change in life and what I do and why I do it. It was because of Maya and the world that she faced and now her sister Marina. Maya is incredible. Now she studies at the Bolshoi Ballet. She’s doing amazing things. Her sister Marina, she’s either going to be a great lawyer or she’s going to need one.
Number one for advice, believe in yourself. We mentioned that. Believe in yourself in the most obnoxious way, because there will be points in your life where people will not believe you and believe that you can do it and they will resist you because they’re stupid. You power through, and you have the confidence and faith that you can do it and you can complete it and make it happen. Number two, be courageous. It’s very easy in a room like this for me to be courageous about the environment. I can make little jokes about this or that, because we all think the same. We believe the same. It’s a very homogenous view, what I would consider a positive view. So I would say it’s not courageous. To be alone in a sea of resistance, to stand up and perhaps your career will be on the line because you know what is right. To be there at that moment where you say, “This is going to hurt. I’m not going to like the reaction from this, but someone has to do it. I’m going to find the courage to make it happen.” Find your courage and be courageous. No one ever lost sleep at night because they were too courageous. It’s because they weren’t. There are those moments, we all have them in our lives, where we wish we had done something different, and it’s about finding that courage.
I believe we’re at a time where a lot of people are going to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of natural history. You want to be on the right side, and courage will make that happen in very difficult, polarizing times. Number three, be empathetic. Have empathy. Try to feel what other people are feeling. Don’t hide behind your veneer and your security of your insulated world. We all do it. Breakthrough that. You have an adversary out there. Find out why. Build a bridge. Pass the branch. Understand the other side of the story. It’ll only make you more equipped to be better at what you choose to do in your life, so be empathetic.
Number four, have an open mind. We live in a world where there’s a lot of closed minds on both sides. Try the walk the middle. See every side and have an open mind when you make decisions. You may learn something. The most powerful moments of my life, where I’ve truly gleaned wisdom, is where I’ve listened to the other side and I’ve had an open mind. Number five, be forgiving. We all screw up. My wife tells me every day how much I screw up. We all make mistakes. Forgive the people around you, your family, your friends. You know you’re perfect. No, the truth is you need to forgive yourself, too. If you have baggage, here’s what you should do today. If there’s stuff that’s holding you back, baggage, let it go and move forward. Forgive yourself, because it makes life that much more easier.
Number six, and I think this is kind of the common sense one, be careful how you behave on social media. I’m serious. I’m in a position where I have hundreds of thousands of people that engage me all the time, and I’m always struck at how cruel people can be because they have the curtain of anonymity. They can say terrible things about sex or women or nature or what you believe in. You can really be emotionally crippled from that sort of stuff. We need to be a kinder people in how we interact. I think that begins with social media. Whether you’re texting, whether you’re twittering, whether you’re snapchatting, you’re Facebooking, whenever you’re sending an email, think about what you’re going to do. Don’t do two or three things. Don’t send it when you’re mad. Don’t send it for revenge. Don’t ever send it when you’re drunk. I’m serious. You’ll wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, no, I didn’t. Oh my god.” There are talented people who love what they do who do great jobs that lose their jobs every day over decisions they’ve made over social media. Don’t become one of them.
Number seven, focus on your moral compass. Find your truth north. Again, it comes back and connects to courage. What you do today in your life … You’re going to make mistakes. Yes, you need to forgive yourself. If your mantra is what I do today, I want my children to be proud of in the future, let that drive you forward. Number eight, do not fear failure. We all fail. We all make mistakes. Don’t make lazy mistakes, even though we do those, too. If you do your best and you fail, if you’ve put yourself on a limb to take a chance, to take that risk … I wouldn’t do what I do today if it wasn’t for all that failure. The truth is the successes of life only glimmer against a canvas of failures. We wouldn’t notice them. We wouldn’t notice our achievements if we didn’t recognize our failures and see them.
Nine, seek the truth. The truth hurts. You see a scale and you know when you step on that scale, it’s going to tell you something you don’t want to hear or see. Your jeans are tight. I blame my wife. She must have used hot water in the wash. When you see the scale and you go, “Take a breath.” You find the reality of your reality and you make the changes to fix it. The truth is very important. When we turn away from the truth, terrible things happen to ourselves, socially, and to the fabric of our country. So the truth is very important. 10, master your craft. Continue forward. This is only the beginning. You walk out that door successes. It’s actually the very beginning. Who is going to graduate school? You should all raise your hands. Whether you’re going to be a game warden, an EPO, a scientist, you need to go to graduate school. You need to really consider that and always consider the challenges in your future and challenge yourself and be the master of your craft.
Lastly, have hope, because without hope, there is despair. Hope is what makes an ornithologist think, huh, I can take 100 surviving pairs of bald eagles and make 20,000 today. The greatest example, the last story I’ll leave you with is, to me, the ultimate natural story of hope. I look at it as nature’s Lazarus, and it is the black-footed ferret. The black-footed ferret became extinct. Done. Closed. Walk away. We failed. It’s gone. Many species. Steller’s sea cow. Lots of creatures have become … Passenger pigeon. It was gone. So, well into modern time, like the 1970s, until one day, a farmer came out his door and saw a fresh black-footed ferret. It was dead. Sad for that ferret, but the possibilities. Could there be more? Now, he could have done two things. He could have closed that area off and not told anyone. In fact, he was advised that, because a lot of people out West don’t want the federal government helping them manage their land. I understand that. But he didn’t. He took that black-footed ferret to a local office, Fish and Wildlife office. They went to his property and found the last 100 surviving lost colony of black-footed ferrets. They became extinct because of prairie dog management and disease. They only eat prairie dogs. They’re specialists. Little bit of plague, little distemper in a destabilized population, you know the story. Extinct.
They grabbed those ferrets. They brought them to the West, I think to Denver first and then Wyoming. They got either distemper or plague. The population, within weeks, plummeted to just a dozen animals out of 100. It didn’t look good, but someone had hope. I went to film them years later at the Denver zoo. Still not in the wild. They weren’t doing well. It was kind of trying to find the glass is half full story. Someone had hope. Finally, when Maya was three years old, I was filming in Wind Cave National Park. I was with her. There were 12 other people. We each had a carry cage, like an animal carry cage. We put in the ground, we open the door, and out popped this vicious little slinky, the black-footed ferret. Looked back and went (hisses) like that, like you’re not very grateful. It looked at this prairie dog cow, and then these prairie dogs were like, “Why did you do that? It’s been awesome?” These 14 black-footed ferrets disappeared into this prairie town. Introduced this prairie dog town, introduced to a new habitat in Wind Cave National Park. 14 of 2,000 from a species that was extinct. Someone had hope to make that happen, and I believe someone here has hope to do incredible things like that in their future.
All of you who are the next generation of environmental stewards have the hope to move forward. As you do, remember, explore the world, find your own adventure, and make a difference. We’re counting on you. Thank you. I didn’t need my glasses.