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Warren Wilson College

Commencement 2011

The Sun Shines—literally and figuratively—on the Class of 2011 By Ben Anderson “The sun shines on this class.” Warren Wilson College President Sandy Pfeiffer was dead on target when he spoke those words right after the last of 197 bachelor’s degrees had been conferred on the Class of 2011 at Warren Wilson. And in somewhat of a surprise, his observation was accurate not just figuratively, but literally as well. After a rainy Friday evening and dark clouds early Saturday, the sun began to break through just as the 2011 Commencement ceremony got under way. And over the next couple of hours, the College managed to squeeze in another dry Commencement despite a somewhat ominous weather forecast. The sun-favored Class of 2011 ended up as the second largest in Warren Wilson history, trailing only the total of 201 graduates in 2010. As Pfeiffer noted, the College’s newest class is a “diverse and ambitious group,” with job plans ranging from GIS technician to English teacher and travel plans varying from Cuba to Switzerland. In her Commencement Address, oceanographer Sylvia Earle observed that the graduates will be going out into a much different world from the one she came from in the 20th century. “I come from a different planet,” she told the graduates, referring to the fact that the world today is vastly altered from that of her formative years. For one thing, she said the world’s population “has more than tripled in my lifetime.”


“We seem to take the planet for granted,” Earle said, noting that over the past century humans have fully demonstrated they “have the power to modify the nature of nature. We have the capacity to eliminate species and ecosystems.” The good news, she said, is that “for the first time, we can identify that we’ve got a problem. We have the answers; we’re the only ones who can figure it out.” Because of that reality, Earle is optimistic about the future. “I’m a hope-aholic,” she confessed. “We have a hope for the future, and this is the time; we can do something about it. “We should prize who and what we are. The worst thing would be for nature to let us slip through her fingers.” This year’s highest senior honors went to Hannah Jacobs, Pfaff Cup winner, and Victoria Wiener, Sullivan Award recipient. Top teaching awards went to sustainable forestry professor Dave Ellum (faculty) and rental/renovations supervisor Paul Bobbitt (staff). Chelsea Gandy was chosen by her classmates to deliver the class remarks, which included a quote, a wish and the story of her somewhat harrowing encounter with the Warren Wilson cattle herd. Her recounting of how she talked to the agitated cows prompted Earle to refer to Gandy as the cow whisperer.


Commencement Address By Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Thank you for inviting me to share this once in a lifetime moment. What a special occasion. I want to warn you before anything else that I come here from a different planet. My friends say, “We knew that.” But I did come from a place that was so different from the planet that we’re all experiencing today that it might as well be another planet. Imagine this place as it was 100 years ago, when Warren Wilson College was still a teenager, long before anyone here was born. Now try to imagine this place, or really any place, a century ahead, a century from now. Can you possibly imagine what the world will be like? People then will think you’re from a different planet, too. Imagine Warren Wilson College in the year 2111. Will this place still be fostering the Big Three: academics, work, service? Or will digital communication take the place of small classes and great mentors? Will there be an outpost on the moon, or Mars, or deep in the sea, where students will gather and wonder about the big questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What can we, as individuals, do to influence the future? My parents were born in 1900 and 1902 in South Jersey, New Jersey. By the time they were married in 1920, neither had traveled more than twenty miles from where they were born. They literally arrived in a horse and buggy age and lived to see a space buggy crawl across the moon. My parents started their life together at a time when they couldn’t imagine—they just couldn’t imagine—things we now take for granted. Airplanes. Television. Satellites. Spacecraft, cell phones, computers, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, iPads. Ballpoint pens. Sharpies. Atomic bombs. Nuclear energy. The massive impact of burning fossil fuels. Climate change. Global warming. Ocean acidification. That human beings might have the power to eliminate ninety percent of the fish in the sea—the big fish, anyway—the sharks, the tunas, the swordfish and other large ocean predators. By the middle of the 20th century there were three billion people, a number that swelled to four billion by 1980, and now we have reached seven billion. The population has more than tripled in my lifetime, but that little blue speck in the universe stays stubbornly the same size. I once gave a talk at the World Bank, and I put an image of the Earth that we now, in our lifetime, take for granted; the one that was snapped by 4

photographers up there in the sky as astronauts. I pointed to that image and I said to the World Bank, “There it is: the World Bank.” We’ve been taking it for granted through most of our lives. We take it for granted still, as if we can draw down the assets infinitely and still get away with it. But now we know. Now we have the capacity to understand that one species—that would be us—has the power to modify the nature of nature and puts all that we care about at risk. All of us have come along, as my parents did, but we share this amazing time in history—this time of greatest change, socially, politically, economically and certainly environmentally. Since the first three of those things, the social, political and economic aspects of our lives, are absolutely dependent on the nature of nature—call that environment if you will—I want to spend a little bit of time, just a moment, focusing on your power, your power at this pivotal point in history to make a difference for the natural world, and in so doing secure hope for the future, of everything that we care about. Do you care about the economy? Do you care about your health? Do you care about security? Or is it life itself? All of those things are rooted in taking care of the sky, the mantle of life that keeps us alive, and water, everywhere, of course. When asked “Well, what can I do to make a difference?” I sometimes suggest that whoever you are, go get a child. If you don’t have one personally, borrow one, and go to some wild place, preferably a wild, wet place. My advice for a good education means that no child should be left dry. Go to a river, a puddle, a lake, the ocean. Look at the world through the eyes of that child, or find that child who’s there inside of every one of you, even if you’re decades beyond the class of 2011 in terms of years. No doubt you have given some thought to the future anyway, especially this crowd dressed in black. But kids don’t know what is not possible. It’s that sense of wonder, the questioning attitude: who, what, where, why, when, how? Just don’t ever stop doing that. Don’t ever lose your sense of what’s possible, the sense of wonder; asking questions and seeking answers. 5

To this question of what you can do to make a difference, I say, “Hold up the mirror.” Who are you? You, whoever you are. Every one of you is different. One thing that I’ve discovered in my lifetime, spending a lot of it splashing around in the ocean, but also in the forests and other places where humans come in contact with the rest of the living world, is that there aren’t any two critters who are exactly the same. No two cows. No two flying squirrels. No two birds. Certainly no two fish. No two kids like any other. It’s one of the great miracles of life: that capacity for diversity. And yet the common ground that we share with all life on Earth—that’s worth knowing. What do you most like to do, whoever you are? What are you good at? What do you love to do? Do you love to sing? Are you good at writing? Are you a cow whisperer? Do you have a way with numbers? Do you have a knack for making herbal tea? Is crafting laws and policies your thing? Are you irrepressibly curious about fish, or tardigrades, or whales, or the stars? Whatever your talent, your inclination, your passion: listen to it. Use it. Polish it. Follow your heart. Find your power. And whatever else it is you do with your life, be aware that your life, that all of our lives, depend now as never before on addressing the changes that are taking place in the air, in the water, in the carpet, this matrix of life, our fellow species. Never before in the history of our species has there been a need to use our power to take care of the natural world in the way that it is now because never before did we know that we have to take conscious action. Now we know that the atmosphere, what we can put into it, is finite. We have the power to change the composition of the atmosphere through our actions. We now know that we can diminish the diversity of life that shares space with us here on this little blue speck. We now know that we have the capacity to eliminate whole categories of life, whole ecosystems. It’s happened on our watch. It’s happening still. There once were monk seals in the Gulf of Mexico. Can you imagine seals, basking on the beaches of Miami or in the Caribbean? The last one was seen in 1952, when I was kid. What else will be missing on your watch, or what will we be able to keep because of what you do, not what you fail to do? We once looked at trees primarily as feet of lumber; wildlife as something to be consumed—birds, bears, otters and foxes to be valued mostly for meat, for fur, for feathers. Aldo Leopold had a different view. He said that all those critters, all that 6

diversity of life; they’re the nuts, the bolts, the cogs, the wheels that hold the world together. One of the greatest threats to our survival is the loss of those cogs, wheels, nuts and bolts. On my watch, since the middle of the 20th century, and now yours as well, we’re seeing coral reefs, great wellsprings of diversity. About half of them are gone since 1950, either gone or in a state of serious decline. About forty percent of the phytoplankton, those little green and blue-green guys who grab carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and churn out oxygen, or maybe it’s only thirty percent—maybe its only twenty-five percent that’s gone since the middle of the 20th century. Whatever it is, the trend does not bode well for us. The acidification of the ocean driven by excess carbon dioxide; we can look in the mirror to look for the source. Look in the mirror for how the world is changing at a pace that is unprecedented in the history of our species. The good news is that, for the first time, we can identify that there is a problem, and so we can take actions that can solve those problems. We can communicate across the planet in a heartbeat. We can see ourselves from up in space. We have submersibles that can dive down into the blue heart of the planet, bring back the news of what’s there and why it matters to us. People say to me, “Why should I care about the ocean if it dries up tomorrow? What difference would it make?” And I say, “Think Mars.” No ocean there, but with a life-filled ocean, with a planet that works, we have reason to hope. We have the capacity to connect the dots, to imagine the consequences of losing not just whales, tunas, sharks, plankton, coral reefs, but the mechanism, all together, that makes our lives possible. We have the answers. I think about some of the creatures I meet when I go out into the ocean. Bowhead whales can live to be twice as old as humans; some have been around for two hundred years. Orange roughy, those fish that are now on menus all over the place, occur in the deep sea—they may be two hundred years old or more. Some tortoises and turtles, and certainly trees and corals, can be well over two centuries old. They’ve experienced this time of unprecedented change, but even the smartest of them—the dolphins, the whales—don’t know why these changes are taking place. And they don’t know what to do about it, even if they can figure it out. We’re the only ones. 7

You have an edge, you, the Class of 2011, because you’re armed not just with this unprecedented insight and opportunity, but I think about what Jane Goodall said, reasons for hope (and, by the way, I’m a hope-aholic, like Jane Goodall), she said, “It’s the human mind.” Clearly you’ve got an edge because you’ve got good minds, else you wouldn’t be here. Use those minds to figure things out, to make the calculations, to look at the plans, develop strategies and combine it with the second big thing—the human spirit. Maybe dolphins have something akin to that, too, but we know for sure that it’s alive and well among human beings. Polish it. Use it. Enjoy it. Combine it with your mind. And take advantage of that other thing: the resilience of nature. There is plenty of reason for hope because there are a lot of backstops in nature. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have in the destruction of nature and still live on this little blue speck but for the fact that nature is resilient. I hope that we are something that has resiliented its way out of the system, because I hope that we belong here. I think that we are pretty exceptional. We should prize who and what we are and do everything we can to secure an enduring place within the natural systems that sustain it. And there comes the fourth thing. For Jane, it’s the most important. It is for me as well. It is for all of us. It’s what you have as a kid, what you have when you’re young that, if you’re lucky like George Stuart, who keeps it all his life. I think all people here have it or, again, you wouldn’t be here assembled around this occasion with a hope for the future. That’s what it’s about. Not just kicking back and saying, “It’s over; nothing I can do” and let complacency set in and just drift for whatever time you’ve got. This is the time as never before, and maybe as never again, that we have a chance to do something about it. One of my heroes, Ed Wilson—the ant man, he’s an ant whisperer—on his eightieth birthday he commented, with some degree of regret, that we seem to be letting nature slip through our fingers. And it’s true. Look around. What’s been lost on your watch? What’s still out there that we could save? The worst thing that could happen is for nature to let us slip through her fingers. That’s a possibility, but when I look at this class and see the spirited actions that you’ve already taken, I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. So, I wish you well. I look forward to see the consequences of what happens when you find, polish and use your power. Thank you. 8

Senior Speaker By Chelsea Gandy Hello all. First off, congratulations! I am so honored that I was chosen to speak to you. To be honest, it has gone to my head. It started when people began offering me money to name them while I was up here. If anyone can beat Drew Thilmany’s, again that was Drew Thilmany’s, offer of 10 dollars, see me in the next four minutes and thirty seconds. In all seriousness now, I understand the minutes become exponentially more precious as diploma time approaches. So I have chosen three things I want to say to you. The first is a quote, the second a story and the last is a wish. The quote is by Junot Diaz from the lecture he gave in Kittredge two years ago. He was describing the difficulty he was having writing the ending of his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He had it almost finished but had to let it sit for six months. “I needed to grow as a person before I could finish the book” he said. “I needed to grow as a person to be a better artist.” This is true of all disciplines. It is not only our diligence, study and work (though these things help), but also our ability to grow that will make us into the best artists, scientists, social workers and mathematicians that we can be. This brings us to the story portion of my speech. This is at once my proudest moment at Warren Wilson and the moment that I put the most lives at risk. It was a perfect spring morning this past March. I was out running; actually, I was taking a well-deserved walking break on the dirt road in Clingman’s pasture listening to my iPod when I noticed the herd of yearling cows there. Not in itself troubling; however, when I was about halfway through the pasture, I heard the gentle clomping of hooves. I looked back and saw that half the herd was trailing me by seven feet. I picked up my pace a little, but not too much because, as we all know, cows can smell fear. As I neared the end of the pasture, I looked back once more and saw that the entire herd of about 50 cows was now five feet behind me. At this point I gave up all my pretensions of dignity and began to scamper toward the electric fence. The cows sped up. I reached it (“Thank God!”), and, as I was taught, I placed my foot on the fence so I wouldn’t get shocked. It was at this point that the wire snapped. 9

Often, personal growth is not prompted by our successes but by our response to the question failure asks, namely, “What now?” That was the question I was asking myself, 50 cows behind me, the open road ahead. I could melt into the woods, I thought. No one knew I was there. I would lose the cows eventually. But then I would know I was the one whom Farm Crew was cursing for releasing all the baby cows onto Daisy Hill Road. I could re-tie the electric fence. The cracking sound it made as it lay on the damp earth quickly killed that notion. All these thoughts passed in seconds, yet the cows were growing restless, and I still had no plan. I threw down my headphones, whirled back to the cows, and yelled, “No!” The cows stopped. All of us were surprised. A cow moved. I glared and clapped. It stopped. The cows and I proceeded in this uneasy state for minutes, hours, days. Long enough that my hands hurt from clapping, glaciers receded and the album I was listing to ended. I planned to stand there until the cows dispersed or someone in a truck arrived. However, my rescuer appeared not in a truck but in teal cowboy boots. Kate Sabo came walking out of the woods. “Kate,” I said, “Help!” “What’s wrong?” she said. “The fence broke, and I’ve been holding the cows back with the force of my will!” At this point the cows became so excited by our yelling that they began to trot towards Kate. Seeing this, I rushed to the generator, unhooked the cables from the fence and began retying the string. As I was doing this, I looked up to see one of the cows following Kate across the pasture. She turned and said “No thank you.” The cow stopped and turned around. Never under estimate the value of direct politeness.


The cows, realizing that Kate would not be leading them to freedom, turned and began loping back toward me while I was still holding the string in pieces in my hands. As they approached nigh on three feet, I reattached the fence, hooked the generate back up and ducked under the fence while saying “Peace, cows!� I have never felt so cool. And, here, at last we come to the wish: My wish for all of you is that when you are faced with tough choices, as you surely will be (though they may not involve cows), you respond to them with strength, poise and panache so that you grow into the artists you are destined to be. I believe that Warren Wilson has prepared us well to face these challenges, and I would like to extend my thanks to each person who made this education possible: faculty and staff, family and friends. I make this wish not only for your sakes, but also for the world’s, because right now the world needs all the beauty and skill that you can bring to it.


Closing Remarks By President Sandy Pfeiffer At the close of each commencement, it is customary to summarize the results of a survey done of our senior class about their immediate plans after Warren Wilson. Here are just a few pieces of information gleaned from the survey you completed about your next adventures. For some of you, the next stop will be an advanced degree or more training. Some sample fields of study include: accounting, art, biology, chemistry, environmental journalism, fiber arts, hydrology, international relations, library science, marine environmental science, secondary education, social work and tropical forest conservation. Others of you will be heading straight to jobs or internships. Here are a few you mentioned in your responses: Admission Counselor Aquatics Director Archaeology Supervisor Art Dealer Farm Manager Bassist Cheese Maker Chef Sustainable Firewood Worker Circulation and Periodicals Assistant Dairy Apprentice Deck Hand Energy Intern English Teacher Farming Apprentice Garden Manager Grant Writer Grassroots Advocacy Intern Junior Curator Supervisor Marketing Intern Math Teacher Nanny GIS Technician Primate Intern Recycling Coordinator Research Assistant Sales Person Teacher/Corps Member Mediation Center Staff Church Youth Coordinator 12

Many of you will be traveling right away to many different states, as well as other nations such as Cuba, Spain, France, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, India, Bolivia, Italy, Canada, Switzerland, France, Italy, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, the Greek Isles and Ukraine. Others of you will be starting a permaculture homestead, applying for law school, applying to Latino non-profits in Asheville, starting an artist residency, joining the Coast Guard, pursuing a passion for weaving, learning how to surf, reconnecting with wilderness and working on downtown development and historic building restoration. You’re a diverse and ambitious group with dreams and plans that will change the world, like the intrepid group of Warren Wilson graduates that have gone before you. You can be certain we’ll follow your progress, keep you informed about the College and hope you return many times in the future.


Pavilion by Ann Vasilik, 2005


2011 Commencement  

2011 Commencement featuring Sylvia Earle, national Geographic explorer-in-residence.

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