Commencement Address 2015
Terry Tempest Williams
This commencement address was given May 9, 2015 at Unity College by Terry Tempest Williams.
President Mulkey, Trustees, Faculty, Students, Proud Parents, and Honored Graduates of Unity College — It is a privilege to stand with you today at America’s Environmental College to celebrate and congratulate the Class of 2015!
This, as you know, is the 50th anniversary of Unity College founded in 1965 by local people, who wanted to create a college for young people living in Maine who wouldn’t have to leave their farms, but could get an education that would continue to support the intellectual, economic and ultimately, spiritual wellbeing of their community.
In community, we discover not only who we are, but what we have to give. It is in community, we can engage in the blessings of reciprocity. We find our niche. Unity is a niche. Each of you graduates are finding your niche, your passion and purpose in place.
Last night, at the home of Charlie and Arlene Schafer on Unity Pond, I was able to meet both CJ O’Conner, daughter of Bert Clifford, the founder of Unity College and Arlene Constable Schafer of the Constable family who donated the farm for Unity. It was a celebratory meeting. And I am so moved by this community.
I was struck how in each conversation be it with board members, faculty, or students, the same phrase was spoken, “I found Unity…..” and then, a story ensued.
If only all of us could “find Unity” – in all things –
Rachel Carson wrote in SILENT SPRING, “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Unity College offers this fork in road, the one less traveled, that supports ‘the preservation of the earth.’
Amy Hudnor, a Unity graduate from the class of 1999, now the Solar Program Manager for the Kennebec Valley Communty College, like many of you, “found Unity” through her interest in environmental issues. She was attracted to Unity’s focus on “an ecology of mind,” to quote Gregory Bateson. It was small in size and large in vision, a beautiful campus with faculty who cared, where experiential learning was privileged while the school itself was unpretentious and progressive.
She holds her memories of field trips Down East close, with a snowstorm in April, seeing a harlequin duck on one of her birding adventures and hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing with friends as formative experiences. She read Rachel Carson, knowing this was her home ground, too, alongside Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and other American environmental writers, and felt a part of conservation history.
And you are:
Unity College lit up for me when I heard in 2012, it was the first American college to divest from fossil fuels. Now, Unity College is not a college that belongs to Maine, it is no longer a regional college, it is a college leading the country toward an “emancipatory education.” You are showing us not only what is possible, but what is necessary: Change.
I honor the leadership of President Mulkey, the board, the faculty, and the students who are forging the way.
Climate change under Unity’s leadership has become a matter of personal integrity and urgency and you cannot know the full impact of your leadership as Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, are trying to follow your example with Stanford, Rhode Island College of Design just two colleges among many who have now joined you.
Unity is leading this conversation and it is having a ripple effect.
This is what I most want to share with you today. As a college and as individuals, you cannot know what effect you are having on the world, on your community, or on other people. All you can do is follow the truth of your own heart with your own guiding principles.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting John Karyczak who will graduate with a degree in Environmental Policy, Law, and Society. He has been focusing on the issue of climate change since he was in seventh grade. He not only wants to make a difference, he has a vision of how to proceed. He sees himself focusing on climate change and human rights. He imagines himself running for Congress in New York to make these connections part of responsive and responsible social policy and I have no idea that he will. I told him yesterday, I want to be among the first to contribute to his campaign.
Unity has given John some of his guiding principles. The very word
“Unity” is instructive:
UNITY – The state of being united or joined as a whole – UNITY — we unite together in a common cause, creating a community in place on behalf of the dignity of life, both human and wild.
“Society is unity in diversity” – George Herbert Mead.
“If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.” — Askhari Johnson Hodari
“The breathing in unison” – T.S. Eliot
To breathe these changes into being – means we are better equipped to absorb this time of transition. It’s not about the future, it’s about the present moment, right here, right now. We have to make time to breathe, to slow down enough to realize the breadth of what we are setting into motion. The majesty of where you graduates are in this moment.
Last weekend we buried our dog in the desert, a Basenji of fifteen years. His name was Rio. Before he passed, my husband Brooke and I held him for several hours as we breathed together, just that, mirrored one another’s breathes – He calmed down. We calmed down. And we savored where we were in this time of transition. It was one of the most beautiful and intimate moments I have had with another being.
Each day, I make a vow that I will slow down enough to breathe in beauty and make eye contact with another species, be it a dog, a chickadee, a deer, or perhaps a praying mantis in my garden. This “breathing in unison” sustains me and allows me to hold both the grief and the beauty of this moment we are living in..
It is not easy – to engage in the work of the world — but it is worth it.
Dear Graduates: Trust what you feel and act accordingly. Trust what you know. And do not settle for less. It’s about respecting your own integrity and what you have to offer.
Here’s a personal story:
I had just graduated from the University of Utah with a major in English, a minor in biology. I had been teaching a class in the summer called, “The Urban Naturalist.” I received a letter in the mail from the publisher Prentice-Hall who asked if I would be interested in writing a book about the course? Sure, why not? They asked for a proposal and I wrote one. But as I started communicating with the editors, I realized a) the letter they sent was a form letter b) they had their own publishing agenda and c) I would be writing the book for them not for me, serving their ideas, not my own. I believed I had something to say and it was more than a paint by the numbers guide book. I withdrew my proposal and the book offer and sought another publisher elsewhere.
Elsewhere was in New York City. I thought, hmmm, what publisher would I like to be part of – what writers do I admire – I looked at my bookshelves – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Loren Eiseley, Barry Lopez, all writers I admired, all published by Charles Scribner’s & Sons. I would call them.
I looked up Scribner’s name in my copy of The Writer’s Digest and found their telephone number. I called the first editor’s name, Jack something, he hung up on me. I called the second editor whose name was Laurie Graham, and she stayed on the line……I told her I had a manuscript called “The Urban Naturalist” and that I would love to send it to her. She was polite, she said, “Fine –“ and then, I told her I was coming to New York, gave her the name of the hotel I would be staying at with my mother and she said, “I’ll be in touch.”
When I arrived in New York, there was no message for me at the hotel, no doubt, she had lost my number, so I called her again. She answered, “No she had not lost my telephone number, yes, she remembered me, and I could drop by Scribner’s at 11:45 a.m. clearly. not the best time to meet a New York editor just before they leave for lunch. I still remember the address. 597 Fifth Avenue I still remember walking down that famous street, my hair pulled back in a pony tail, I was wearing a tweed jacket,with my cords and cowboy boots. And I remember walking inside the publishing house and there hanging on the walls were portraits of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald staring at me. My stomach dropped. I suddenly realized this was a very bad idea. I was way in over my head. I sat down in the lobby and waited and waited and waited….The assistant at the front desk took pity on me and brought me a glass of water. Finally, Ms. Graham arrived in a Chanel suit with piercing blue eyes.
We went into her office where for an hour she grilled me with tough questions, “What did I know about an urban landscape growing up in Utah?” She commented on how I had so romanticized the children that it wasn’t even interesting.
“If I put this manuscript on the desk of the editor of the New York Times, he would laugh you out of this city.”
And then she looked at me, “Why are you wasting my time?”
“Because I believe wild nature has something to teach us.” I said. “Viktor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” talked about how it wasn’t the physical strong who survived the death camps during World War II, it was the spiritually strong, those who held images of nature in mind as a template for beauty and resilience.”
Ms. Graham then said, “You go home and write to me in your own words why landscape matters to you, then, I can put your manuscript on his desk and he will understand.”
Our meeting was over. She walked me to the elevator, pushed the button, the doors opened and she extended her hand. As I reached out to shake it, she said, “By the way, I’m from Wyoming.”
Laurie Graham became my editor, my mentor, and slowly, word by word, I began to find my voice on the page, my passion, my niche,
my community. My first book in creative nonfiction, “Pieces of White Shell” was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. I was no longer hiding behind the voices of children.
Trust what you know. And trust what you don’t know. At 25, I had found an editor who both saw what I knew and what I didn’t know and cared enough to be critical. I learned the power of apprenticeship. We do it alone. We do it together. Our best work is created in community.
Where you come from matters. I come from Utah where red rock walls rise upward like praying hands. Where rocks tell time differently and the sweet smell of sage brings my breath all the way down.
Wherever I go, I carry sage with me as a reminder of where I belong, what gives me strength, what inspires me in the place that I call home. Sage is the haunt of coyotes and jacktail rabbits, where the sage grouse dance each spring, the perch from which meadowlarks sing, and sage is the purifying herb that is used in ceremonies by the Navajo and Hopi. Sage is forever tied to my heart line where I remember my true and authentic self.
We are all in a humble apprenticeship with the Earth.
Another of my heartlines runs through Maine — And today, together, we “find our Unity” in this unified celebration of common ground – just as we do each fall at the Common Ground Fair where I have met many of you – at this beautiful example of community, niche, and creating meaningful change together.
Each of us is contributing to the divergent path toward “the preservation of the Earth” that Ms. Carson speaks of — each in our own way, each in our own time with the gifts that are ours.
One more story:
Deb Soule – herbalist, gardener, and founder of Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine – is a friend of mine – we met a decade or more at her farm, two women in love with the land, cultivated and wild.
On one visit, Deb told me the story of a Mourning Dove who visited her garden. She had noticed it had a broken wing and couldn’t fly. Each morning, she noticed the injured dove would drink the water held by the thistle plant where the petiole meets the stem creating a holding space for dew. And every day, she noticed the Mourning Dove seemed
stronger, until one day she could fly. By paying attention to the dove drinking the dew of thistle, Deb wondered if this might not have healing properties unknown to her before – healing what is broken.
Deb knew I had just returned from Rwanda, she knew that I was fragile from witnessing and working with women who had survived the wounds of war. She knew I was writing and needed support. Gathering the dew held by thistles with her eye dropper, she made a special tincture for me and placed the dew water inside a bottle of Rose Petal Elixir. Each time I would sit down to write my book, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” I would take that elixir and place four drops in my mouth and think of that dove sipping drops of dew, healing herself, until she could fly.
Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world
We do it alone. We do it together. We create our best work in community. We are all in humble apprenticeship with the Earth.
Our job is to pay attention.
“The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless…..beyond speech….beyond concept. “
— Thomas Merton.
To the Class of 2015 – perhaps the greatest gift you have received from Unity College is this communion with place, in place, this place of embodied knowledge.
Ocean. Sand. Forest. White pine. Balsam Fir. Birch.
Body – Earth – No separation – We breathe in deeply — Sage from the desert – Hands on the Earth – Hands in the dirt — We remember where the true source of our power lies – Unity – this shared vision of life, interconnected, interrelated — Here – Now – Together
Trust what you know – Trust what you don’t know – Proceed humbly with boldness and bravery.
Some closing thoughts:
The things I cared about in college, wilderness and the wildlands of Utah, literature, environmental education, and creating wild words on the page — are the same things I care about now. They are also, the same things I struggle with almost four decades later. We are still fighting for wilderness in Utah and I am still struggling to create wild words in a world hell bent on being tamed; education still matters to me, and justice is an ongoing pursuit, now evolving to climate justice. I walked with you in the world’s largest climate march in New York City last September.
We are all engaged in what Gertrude Stein calls “the vitality of the struggle.”
May you find your home ground – May you dig in –– and get your hands dirty and your feet wet. And cause a bit of mischief while you’re at it. Sage grows in disturbed soil. We can disturb the soil of the status quo joyously.
And please know, it’s not about what you will do but about who you are that will determine your path of influence –
It’s not about building a career – It’s about building a community — that will make the difference — daring to give and receive — fully — Our lives depend on the principle of reciprocity.
Our survival, the vitality of the planet depends on mental flexibility and emotional acuity. Hands raised. Hands put to work. We can improvise. We can create without a map. And we don’t have to live in isolation. The gift of an attentive life is the ability to recognize patterns and find our way toward a unity built on empathy. Empathy becomes the path that leads us from the margins to the center of concern.
The pattern is the thing. Relationships are the path.
The beauty made belongs to everyone. We all bow.
I have brought a sprig of sage for each of you, hand picked from the desert where Brooke and I live in Castle Valley, Utah. The base of each sprig has been wrapped with red thread symbolic of our bloodlines to the land and lives, both human and wild, that sustain us, the lives we choose to serve with love.
Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find. It is more than the art of assemblage. It is the work of daring contemplation that inspires action.
Breathe this beautiful, difficult, transformative change into being.
May you go forth with courage, commitment, and joy —
We are with you —
CONGRATULATIONS – CLASS OF 2015!