“We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden”

Authors note: The following is the text of my commencement address to the 2013 graduating class of Shead High School, Eastport, Maine.  It has connections to the garden.

Mr. Underwood, Mr. Theriault, Mrs. Mitchell, fellow members of the Shead High School staff, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Shead High School class of 2013, for the privilege of speaking to you this evening, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.

Forty-four years ago, I walked across a high school stage in cap and gown to receive my high school diploma.  I do not remember the commencement speech at that graduation, nor who gave it.  I believe I could have said this the day after the event, for my mind that evening was elsewhere.

In June of 1969 our country was at war, Vietnam looming on the horizon for every male high school graduate.  On December 1 of that year my birthdate, July 29, was the 225th number to be drawn in the new draft lottery, high enough to keep me on the road to a college degree.  As I think back to that period, I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been changed if July 29 had been drawn earlier, before drawing of the 195th number, the cutoff for enlistment of men born in 1950.

Here tonight and in similar ceremonies around the country this month, high school graduates will swell the ranks of the next generation.  Once again, our country is at war.  And while presently the ominous cloud of conscription does not loom over this year’s graduates, the drain of war on our nation’s economy is a burden that each of them will bear.

In addition to this burden, this new generation of decision makers must succeed where my generation has failed and find solutions to the problem of global climate disruption – incorrectly labeled “global warming” –, a problem caused by decades of a gluttonous appetite for fossil fuels without regard for the consequences.  It will be up to this generation to either solve this problem or risk a crisis that threatens Earth’s very viability.  Scientists tell us that we must reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80% before 2050 in order to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

Graduates, you have your work cut out for you!

If that is not enough, planet Earth is in the midst of its Sixth Great Extinction Period, an event characterized by the loss of at least 17,000 species each year, possibly as high as 100,000 species each year.  Scientists estimate that half of all species of plants, birds, and other animals on the planet will die off before the end of this century.

This mass extinction is the first to be witnessed by humans.  The previous or Fifth Great Extinction occurred around 65 million years ago when major asteroid impacts caused the deaths of 85% of all species on Earth, including the massive dinosaurs.   And the current mass extinction is the first to be caused by human activity through the combined impacts of habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, pollution of all kinds, human population growth, and over-harvesting.

Graduates, it now falls to your generation to stop the juggernaut of global species loss.  To not do so will lead to significant direct human health impacts as ecosystem services such as availability of fresh water, food, and fuel sources are no longer adequate to meet human needs.

Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services will also affect income, local migration and, eventually, cause political conflict.  It would be a grave mistake to assume that our county will be immune from these consequences.  They are sure to impact your lives and your children’s lives in ways we are just beginning to imagine.

This year, you and 3.4 million other high school graduates across the United States are inheriting a planet in peril.  My question to each of you tonight is a simple one: Do you have the courage to meet these challenges?  To do so will take sacrifices that my generation was not willing to make.  To do so will require unprecedented selflessness.

Do you have the courage to be that selfless?  After talking with several of you over the last few weeks in preparation for this event, I think that some of you and your fellow graduates across the country do have what it will take.  Among this year’s graduates are our nation’s future doctors, research scientists, psychologists, farmers, skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen, and artisans, all planning careers that involve enriching he lives of others.

Graduates, my wish tonight is that those of you with the courage to meet these challenges will leave your children a planet on the return road to health, and that your good work will endow those that follow you with a renewed sense of the sanctity of all life on Earth.

I am optimistic.  It is an optimism bolstered by the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

And so my few remaining words this evening are directed at those of you who would belong to that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens determined to change the world.  It makes little difference whether you are off to college or off to work.  What counts is your willingness to look beyond self gratification to create lasting changes in human behavior, changes that will enable your children to inherit a healthier and more sustainable planet.

What counts is your willingness –hear your old chemistry teacher talking here – your willingness to be part of the solution rather than part of the precipitate.

To be an instrument of change, you must read.  Read to stay informed. Read for the self discipline and self respect that it imposes.  Read to keep your mind sharp and open to new ideas.  Read to your children so that they will become life-long readers.  Read all the time, every minute that you would otherwise spend stupefied by commercial television.

To be an instrument of change, you must make a commitment to citizenship at the local level, to thinking, living, and eating locally.  Wherever you wander in this world, you must immerse yourself in the affairs of your community, attend public meetings, voice your concerns.

On this point, I recently attended a meeting of Washington County citizens interested in making this county more self-sufficient in food production.  The meeting was held here at Shead High School and it was well attended by local citizens including some of our students.  We learned that Washington County, 100 years ago, had 10,000 more people than it does now and that farmers in Washington County were shipping food they had grown to the Boston markets.  In other words, Washington County was a thriving agricultural community.  Something went awry, but now there are citizens interested in change.  They want to turn their backs to corporate agriculture and, as much as possible, eat locally-produced food.  They want to reconnect themselves and their children with the soil and the oceans, the foundations of human health and the health of planet Earth.

Graduates, these people could use your help.

To be an instrument of change in this country, you must exercise your right and duty to participate in the electoral process.  It is clear that if the human species is to avoid the impending crises of climate disruption and species extinction, our country’s agenda must change.  The cupidity, the greed, that pervades current political leadership in our country must be replaced with selflessness and genuine concern for future generations and the health of the planet.

This must be the work of a new generation of courageous voters.

The poet Baron Wormser, who from 2000 to 2005 served as Poet Laureate of Maine, recently published an essay entitled “The Garden Remains”.  He, like me, is old enough to remember the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969, the year of my graduation – some of you here tonight remember it, as well.  Woodstock happened during three sometimes rainy August days on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, an event billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”, an event that drew over half a million people to hear many of the outstanding performers of that time, including Ravi Shankar; Joan Baez, who asked, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”;  Arlo Guthrie, who sang “Good morning, America, how are you?”; Grateful Dead; Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”); Joe Cocker (“You Are So Beautiful”); Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Jimi Hendrix.  Surely you of know these artists and their timeless music.  Their music is immortal, as are the words of songwriter Joni Mitchell who while not at the festival, wrote a song called “Woodstock” in honor of the event.

In his 2013 essay, Wormser focused on one line from Joni Mitchell’s song, “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”.

Quoting Wormser now,

Why isn’t the green world enough for us?…  

“Alas, the human race has never been very good at appreciation.  We’re active and forgetful creatures who tend to be glib.  To build a culture of appreciation for the finite and reside there may be the largest task facing the human race.  It certainly won’t be accomplished by being busier and creating more labyrinths of money.  Weeding and hoeing are much more important.  So is cooking.  So is any imaginative endeavor that makes us feel at home on earth.

When the song “Woodstock” proclaimed that “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” it wasn’t as hippie-foolish as it might have seemed.  The backers of the blind certainty that perpetually afflicts human affairs…might ponder the peace that resides in that line.  We may have left something very crucial behind; yet the good news is that anyone can see the garden any day on earth.  It’s called grass or tree or fruit or flower.”

I don’t remember the commencement address of 1969.  I do remember Woodstock and Joni Mitchell’s song.  And Wormser’s recent words resonate with truth.  Something was left behind when my generation turned its back on the garden we call “Earth”, when we handed over the security of your future and the future of our planet to multi-national corporations.

Now, dear graduates, it is your turn, your opportunity to turn the tide.  Do you have the courage?

I wish for each of you the best of luck – for luck, as I mentioned earlier, is part of the equation.

I wish for each of you long and productive lives filled with love for family, community, and for the planet that we must hold dear.

Congratulations to each of you and thank you for inviting me to this stage tonight!

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)