It's Your Calling
by Brian R. Rosborough ’58, P’03,’06
2008 Heritage Award Acceptance Speech, October 7, 2008
Thank you. It is an honor to be invited back. I’ve been asked to speak for just 20 minutes about my 50 years with Deerfield, so I will try to connect my Deerfield to yours, my life to yours, and your life to the future. Please fasten your seat belts.
Not so long ago, in geological time at least, I sat right there where you sit, wondering ‘what’s this one about?’ Today, I am an immigrant in your world.
My Deerfield was 500 students, all boys, and a nimble headmaster named Frank Boyden. He would be 128 this week. Half those years, 66, were spent building this school from a back water rural public school with 14 students, to the best independent school in the country - 44 of his 66 years were all boys, a failed experiment say the girls. In spirit, Deerfield has been coed since its founding in 1797 as a colonial academy and is a better place for it.
We played more sports and watched no TV; there were no computers, no cell phones, no Xerox machines, and no printers. We wore scratchy wool uniforms, and rarely lost a game. We were checked in 15 times a day (3 sit down -meals, before 7 class periods, at evening events, back in the dorm and at lights out, and 2 times when we weren’t looking.) We sang a lot and twice on Sundays. Most attended the brick church. Jews and Catholics were exempt, or bused to town which was a better deal. We were allowed two dances a year, one in the fall with Emma Willard and one in the spring with Stoneleigh Prospect. The girls were trucked in and closely guarded; we were matched up by height, like 500 bad marriages: faculty was assigned bush duty in case we slipped out of the dance. Despite all this, we loved the place!
Mr. Boyden was barely five feet tall, a full ten inches shorter than Mrs. Boyden. We sat on the floor a lot to listen to his stories. Mr. Boyden’s desk was in the hall in front of the fireplace in the Main School Building where he could watch us come and go. He knew when we were off our game. “Never give a boy bad news at night; always wait till morning,” he would say. “A boy is more important than a rule.” We knew we had a second chance. His mission was to build character; the rest would take care of itself.
He said things back then that connect to your Deerfield. ‘Be Mobile!’ ‘Look at the hills!’ ‘Be Worthy of your Heritage!’ Without realizing it, I must have been following his advice all these years. I’ve been mobile, whizzing about, often to little effect, trying to save this and that. Looking is what scientists do, and you can see more from the hills. Being worthy of one’s heritage can mean many things, e.g. being true to your family values, to your upbringing, to your word, to your faith, to your community, to this school. Just being true to your values should suffice. But heritage, in my view, is huge. It’s all things that matter, all that makes life interesting along your way, e.g. art, music, the environment, the wonders of life and its splendid diversity. Without our heritage, we are impoverished. That’s what I’ve come to talk about, our heritage and your ‘rendezvous with destiny’, (if I may borrow that title from a good book by my professor Eric Goldman.)
Let’s start with ‘Be Mobile!’ In one sense, mobility is NOT your problem. You are walking, talking, texting, multitasking, Special Xing dudes (what’s the feminine of dude? Deuces?). But I think Mr. Boyden had more than mobile devices and special exercise on his mind. His ‘Be Mobile’ translates into agility of mind and spirit, exploring all your talents, including team sports, picking yourself up when you’re knocked down, like Alex Nicholson and Maggie Ray. Being mobile means resilience, resourcefulness, and perhaps Mr. Boyden foresaw that being mobile translates into entrepreneurial daring or your noble instinct to do the right thing, when no one is looking. That’s also called character, by the way.
Being mobile requires time management skills and good judgment which you’re learning as you go. To be mobile is not the same as to be available. Beware of every chum who friends you or texts you incessantly to learn ‘Where you at?’ or ‘How you doing?’ That’s your precious time, and you can’t get it back. Much better to be smart than available, he would say.
He was a crafty Yankee, Mr. Boyden. He used to put all the biggest boys on the front of the team buses, so we would intimidate the home team on arrival. I usually sat in the back. Before my time, during the war years, he wanted his boys to be officers if they served. He figured they’d have a better chance of survival. During mock interviews to prepare his graduates for recruiters, he would push a pencil off the desk to see how quickly you would pick it up. So ‘be mobile’ can mean be alert, it may save your life. You’ve all read John McPhee’s book, The Headmaster. This place is your heritage too.
“Look at the Hills, boys and girls!” He’s nuts, we thought. Sure the fall colors are stunning, but we had our books and games to worry about. The Quid was right. If you haven’t noticed, you are learning about life in one of the best natural laboratories on the planet. If you take Mr. Harcourt’s class you’ll get a closer look at those hills, and learn the oldest rocks traveled here 400 million years ago from 20 degrees south, about where Brazil is today. The continents bunched up for several hundred million years and then tore apart. Boston and Deerfield were competing for coastline, and the rift in Boston won out, as Europe drifted away at 3 centimeters a year.
But Deerfield has better rocks, ground down over millions of years from volcanic peaks as tall as Everest. If you sit still, you can almost feel the earth heave beneath your seat. Listen! Can you hear the dinosaurs? They passed right near this room, stomping across mud flats at Turners Falls. Next time you’re in Amherst, go to the college museum of natural history, and see the dinosaur footprints found here by a former Deerfield headmaster, Edward Hitchcock. No telling what Mrs. Curtis will find. Those hills and this valley were carved by retreating glaciers which left a vast lake, named Hitchcock, as big as the great lakes some say. Now, fast forward to your time.
This week you have a ringside seat on the change of seasons that brings millions of visitors to New England. Kick up the leaves. Learn their different names. Learn the chemical processes of living and dying that produces their iridescence. Wake one morning early, at first light (if you can manage this feat) and bring your camera to America’s prettiest mile, Main Street, lined with house museums covering four centuries of frontier settlement. Those hills have seen four thousand years of settlement in this valley, including the slaughter of the Pocumtuck by the Mohawk Less than a year after the fight, Thomas Pynchon, a Connecticut merchant, settled a debt with settlers from Dedham who wandered out in wagons to find this valley, pristine and deserted, yet enriched as if it had been farmed for years. Divine Providence! They must have rejoiced. Sorry folks, just blind luck and good timing. Some night after a fresh snow, while you’re lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, listen for the screams of neighbors, living right here were you sit, as they fought off the French and Indians who climbed over the stockyard around this village in February. 1704.
Don’t just look at the hills, go ask a farmer if you can milk his cow, or help him pick corn or sack his potatoes. Tom Clark on the hill across the river, just there, grows 39 different varieties of apples. Go learn their names. Mr. Clark needs apple pickers. He went to Deerfield too. That’s what Mr. Boyden meant when he said, Look at the hills! When we weren’t being mobile, he wanted us to be observant, to be a noticer, an active participant in life. Enjoy living, say the Chinese, for you are a long time dead! There are 100,000 different micro-organisms in every handful of farm soil out there, and no one knows their names. Read the Last Child in the Woods by Robert Lourie. He says you can name a thousand sports heroes, commercial products and celebrities, but fewer than a dozen plants, trees, and flowers you pass by every day. It’s called Nature Deficit Disorder and it can stunt your imagination and rob you of sensory delights. I hope you don’t catch it.
Rudyard Kipling once said, “Something hidden! Go and find it!” After Deerfield, I studied history, law, and business then tried investment banking but I found my life on expeditions for science and conservation. I learned it was more fun to give away money than to make it. Starting a non-profit organization is the commercial equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. But what fun we had! Come join us on an expedition this summer.
I was a slow learner. Mr. Boyden said, “Look at the hills”, when I was 16. We laid the foundation stones for Earthwatch when I was 32, so you’ve got plenty of time to be mobile and be observant before you start your own organizations. Not everyone wants to climb into volcanoes, excavate shipwrecks, measure melting glaciers, or spend days on one’s knees in a rain forest documenting chemical warfare between termites. There is plenty else to do. Something hidden! Go and find it!
Now when you’re not being mobile, and are tired of looking at the hills, ‘Be Worthy of Your Heritage’, said Mr. Boyden. What the dickens is he getting at, we wondered? It was a lofty phrase alright, the sort of thing you’d chisel into a rock for passers-by to ponder. To be honest, I don’t think any of us got the hang of it while we were here. Heritage sounded to me like old things, furniture and bibles, stuff you’re supposed to look after until it’s your turn to give it away. Now they even have an award named Heritage.
Little did I realize back then, when I was sitting right there with you, that I would dig up everyone else’s heritage. Earthwatch has funded archaeological excavations in about 60 countries. Dr. Farouk El Baz asked us to help him find out why the paintings on Nefatari’s tomb were buckling and falling off the wall. You remember Nefatari, she was Ramses II’s wife (or Ramses’ second wife, I can’t remember), Nefatari not Nefertiti, she was a different queen. These people lived in Egypt a long time ago, and when they died, people made a big fuss, invented embalming, and erected tombs as large as pyramids to cover them over. Many of the Royals were buried in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens across the Nile from Luxor. No doubt some of you have been there. I never had, so I went along on the expedition. Egypt is all about Heritage, 4000 years of it, 30 Dynasties, invaded by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, one of our first great civilizations. The reason we have so much heritage lying around is that all civilizations before us have perished. Think about that. All of them!
Now our job was to make a map of the hillside behind the tomb (you’re thinking, “Ok, Look at the hills, boys”). These hills were escarpments, ugly, rugged, rocky clay monsters with no trees, just Egyptian police, watching our every move. The EAO, which you know to be the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, is responsible for all the heritage in Egypt, they dig it up, rebury it, clean and catalog it, put it in museums and charge the rest of us to come look at it. I’d say they are worthy of their heritage.
The EAO wanted to know where the moisture was coming from that leached through ancient soils, slipped in behind priceless 3000 year old paintings, blistered, and pushed their heritage onto the floor of those tombs. Some thought it might be the perspiration of German tourists, so Nefetari’s tomb had been closed to the public for over 80 years, just a few years after its discovery by an Italian archaeologist named Schiaparelli in 1903. Others, including Farouk El Baz believed the culprit was ancient rains that may have drained down the escarpment into the tomb. He asked Earthwatch to sponsor an expedition to look closely at the hills so we could make a map. The map convinced EAO to move the road. No sweat. German tourists now arrive in air conditioned busses, that are kept running while they peer into tombs, and their idling buses might have made the ground shake, which may or may not have shaken the paintings off the wall. In the end, it did not matter. Our little map persuaded the Getty Conservation Institute to give the EAO millions to restore their priceless heritage.
Well, I don’t think Mr. Boyden had the Egyptians in mind when he said Be Worthy of Your Heritage, but the story indicates how much value we humans place on our heritage. There’s even a UNESCO division called World Heritage (Google it). They look after about 600 World Heritage Sites in 150 countries, roughly half natural (like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone) and half man-made (like the Pyramids or Angkor Wat). Earthwatch has sponsored restoration at 173 of them. If you’re the King of Cambodia and you’ve got a root growing through your temples at Angkor Wat, you’re in the dog house, because that’s World Heritage, and you haven’t been worthy of it.
Now there is cultural heritage and there is biological heritage. Did you know that there are between 8 and 12 million different species of animals on earth? Some say 30 million. But we only have the names and addresses of 1.8 million. That’s your biological heritage, and a source of medicines, art, and spiritual renewal. We only know 10 to 15% of the animals who share the planet with us, and few of the free services they provide us. Of those 1.8 million known species, all but 46,000 are invertebrates. “God had an inordinate fondness for beetles”, said one 19C explorer. Of those 46,000 with backbones, half or 23,000 are fish; about 9000 are birds; 6000 are herpes and reptiles; and 4000 are mammals, of which you are one. We don’t understand their relations or interdependencies, but we depend on them for our survival, especially the countless micro-organisms without names found in the soil and our bodies. Something hidden! Go and find it!
Perhaps you prefer plants to animals. You should know we have about 270,000 higher order plants, multi-celled, plants you can see. Of those, we cultivate about 1% or 2700. We choose to eat about 65 or 70 plants. One plant feeds half the world. Rice! What we don’t know about plants is exciting, since we depend on them for the health and nourishment of humankind.
It takes a long time to create all that heritage, different plants and animals, rocks and rivers, people and their ruins, (i.e. millions and millions of years.) It didn’t come in a kit; it evolved through countless permutations, random chance happenings that brought us together today. It is who we are, why we are, what we are. We don’t own it. It owns us. It defines us, nourishes our spirit, and feeds our bodies and soul. Maybe that’s what Mr. Boyden meant when he said, ‘Be Worthy of your Heritage’.
That’s why you are among the luckiest students on earth. You are in the best school of its kind, in the best valley for learning about natural and cultural heritage, at the awakening of your intellectual capabilities, and members of the first generation since the dawn of man, who understands that all life is interdependent, fragile, and connected to a common heritage. Your parents did not know that. Are you sitting down? 30% of American voters do not believe we evolved from animals! You are ahead of the pack.
Now here comes the important part about you and your future. In the next thirty years the world as we know it will change, imperceptibly at first, then in fits and starts as climate change alters the playing field, and the world’s peoples, plants, animals, and fisheries move around. Nature prefers steps to gradients, so expect surprises, (i.e. fires, floods, heat waves, natural disasters and other so-called Acts of God,) which will soon be called man-made disasters, as we have a hand in it. Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt.
You have box seat tickets to the events ahead. You just stumbled upon it like the Dedham settlers who found Deerfield; it’s your blind luck. I say luck and not misfortune because you get to invent a new Era, a kinder, less consumptive age, a less wasteful world, where material goods are built to recycle, and waste equals food, a world you’ll be proud to hand on to your successors. Change is not something to worry about; it’s been going on since we climbed down from trees and stood up on our hind legs to peer out over African savanna grasses in search of food and predators. That’s what our species does best; we innovate! Climate change is healthy and life supporting, but the velocity of change can be destabilizing, and the excitement will occur on your watch.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about climate change:
- We know the earth is in a warm phase, but not how long it will last. Mr. Gore’s film may have taught you that.
- We know it’s caused in part by variations in solar radiance hitting the earth. In 1859 a Serbian engineer named Melankovich worked out a 126,000 year cycle of the earth’s orbit around the sun, a 46,000 year pattern of the different tilts of the earth on its axis, and a 21,000 year cycle of the variations in the gyration of the earth on its axis. Crispin Tickell’s book, Global Climate and World Affairs, calls these cycles ‘stretch, tilt, and wobble’.
- We know if you studied 3 million years of climate, laid out here on the stage, you’d detect a pattern of 100-150,000 years of cold and ice, followed by 10-15,000 yrs of warmth. All human civilizations have come and gone in our warm patch. Some day, long after your time, there’ll be a stack of ice a mile high on this roof. But your days on earth will grow warmer.
- You know a lot of other things if you read newspapers, (e.g. our carbon intensive lifestyle is a problem, our fossil fuel addiction, especially to coal, is a huge problem forcing a warmer climate.) There’s a mad scramble to find clean energy with no solution in sight, CO2 emissions in the atmosphere are increasing, polar caps are melting, glaciers are retreating, worrying farmers and cities that depend on melt water. In addition to the stress of climate change, environmental warning signs are everywhere; (e.g. over harvesting, species decline, habitat conversion.) Where have the frogs, bees, and bats gone? We are witnessing the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Chicken Little would be pleased.
We know Nature like surprises, but we don’t know the triggers for climate instability, the so-called tipping points, that have radically altered climate by 5 or 10 degrees in the past in a few decades. We know clouds play a huge role, but can’t pin that down. Nor do we know the stability of vast deposits of methane in the tundra and deep oceans, which could speed up the mess if released, nor the inertia in the system that visit more warming long after the problem is solved, and it will be solved. Go to ipcc.ch and read their reports, 1400 scientists from 80 countries can’t be too far off.
We don’t know the tolerances of carbon sinks, like our forests and oceans, nor the positive feed backs that reverse their capacities to ameliorate CO2 emissions, or the tolerance of marine life to withstand ocean acidification. We do know that marine life and their food sources like phytoplankton are in serious decline, and that coral reefs and shell fish are struggling. Our oceans need your attention. We need to put less in, take less out, and guard the edges.
We know the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) want to live the American Dream and are adding energy capacity at a staggering rate. China is putting on line a new coal-fired utility every 5 days, without any carbon sequestration. The emissions from just two new plants are sufficient to wipe out the gain from changing every light bulb in the US to the twisty jobs, in just 20 days.
We don’t know whether it’s safe or effective to try to geo-engineer the climate to a cooler state, like seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfur particulates, imitating volcanic ash that occasionally cools the planet. Tinkering with the climate is a crazy idea, but the Native Americans danced for rain, and someday we may too.
So what to do? The velocity of climate change is accelerating. We need to reverse CO2 concentrations by 2050, or we’re toast, literally. The decision path to get there needs to be charted before you turn 30. Now that’s exciting. The solutions may be in this room.
What to do? Easy! You’ll design and build a new smart grid that delivers renewable energy from all sources to quaint green, carbon neutral, zero waste communities, better looking than the Truman Show, and designed by you. Net metering and venture capital will make many of you entrepreneurs in search of clean energy to run your lives. Some may take the risk and stir in a bit more nuclear capacity. Others may feed coal emissions to fast growing blue green algae for conversion to bio fuels, or genetically engineer carbon eating trees. You’ll all be driving plug-in hybrids in 5-7 years. You will replace or retrofit half of existing buildings with carbon neutral, green designs in 60 years. You will transfer our best technologies to the world’s 50 poorest countries and devise ways to pay the developing world not to burn down their forests, while you help build their schools, hospitals and their dignity. You’ll be so busy; you won’t have time for wars.
As the seas rise, you’ll need to move those most vulnerable out of the lowlands. Half of today’s world lives within 60 miles of some coast line. That’s a big job waiting for one of you. 20% of them make less than $2 a day. You will find ingenious ways to shelter and nourish legions of environmental refugees.
Yes, you are on the eve of a Renaissance. It’s like Martin Luther just nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Everything is going to change. When you are my age, there will be 9 billion people on Earth, an increase of 40% from today. You will witness a race for the middle class and a staggering assault on your heritage; the natural and cultural treasures you will hold in trust for your children.
Years ago, the Boston poet, David McCord, loaned me this verse. It’s about you.
“Oh what it is to be young,
To be of, be for, be among:
Be enchanted, enthralled,
The caller, the called;
The singer, the song, and the sung.”
Climate Change is the caller; you are the called.