Thank you for the kind introduction. I am honored to talk with you all for a few minutes.
First of all, let me congratulate both students and parents for this major achievement.
It has now been 40 years since I was in your shoes, going through a commencement
ceremony. I remember it being very hot… I’ll start by laying out my main theme. In early
October Scott Simon on NPR was summarizing the lives of two important journalists and
owners of major newspapers who had recently passed away. Paraphrasing, he said they
were “people who enjoyed what they were doing, and who made their life’s work stand for
something”. I want you to do that. Make your life stand for something. Now I have no
magic recipe for this, but I do know that what you have just accomplished, graduating from
this university, is a fabulous start.
I have no recipe…but I do have a few thoughts. I first ask that you revel a bit - in your own
accomplishments, in those of humankind, and in the beauty of the natural world around
you. You need to look up to see this, to witness the world you live in and that rips by as you
travel through it in a car, train or plane. Live a life in which you are truly engaged. There is
no sleepwalking through life. Keep asking questions – that is the best way to keep thinking
– and some of the time these should be big questions, important questions.
A couple Sundays ago, I was walking our dog around Boulder Reservoir north of town. On
this particular day there had to have been 50000 Canada geese squawking on the lake. As I
walked, the sounds changed suddenly and the patch of goose-chaos on the lake erupted
into the sky and organized itself, incredibly quickly, into strands and individual V’s of 20 to
50 birds each. For a moment it looked like a black lace tablecloth being pulled up from the
lake… …before the V’s headed off in their different directions and the sounds declined to a
more typical Sunday morning murmur.
Take time to revel in the beauty of this world. And let it ask questions of you. Why V’s?
How do those geese take off simultaneously from the lake? You have to look up to see
these things, to let Nature ask questions of you. Look away from your cell phones; listen not
to the earbuds but to the occasional cacophony, and the even more occasional quiet of the
real world. Look up and keep asking questions.
Also revel in the accomplishments of humankind. I grew up in the Apollo era – and listened
to all the launches on the radio, no matter what time of day, as we slowly built our way to
the Moon. Yes, that target and the excitement of it is long passed. But it is not over, folks.
Can you imagine that we (in this case the European Space Agency) actually caught up with
a comet, half a billion miles from here. This year. The comet is only as wide as the distance
from here to the flatirons! We chased it for 10 years, caught it going 40,000 miles per hour
(that’s 3 seconds to Denver), and are now accompanying it as it passes its nearest approach
to the sun. Now that is very very cool. It makes me proud to be a human, living now. And it
makes reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince all the more relevant (although
as you recall he lived on an asteroid he called 325, and not on a comet – I was re-reading it
last night, and you could do me no greater honor than to re-read it yourself soon).
Such accomplishments are the products of the long-term collective dreams of many people,
the science that backs up those dreams and the engineering that puts them into action, and
the citizens and politicians who vote to put the resources behind the programs. And lest I
forget to remind you, CU plays a big role in space exploration.
OK. Back to Scott Simon’s comment about “people who enjoy what they do”. This means
every day stuff. It doesn’t mean every once in a while – like on a vacation, or in retirement.
You should seek to “do” something that you enjoy – if you do that you will be more likely to
get up every day wanting to make yourself and the world around you better. I happen to
love the early morning hours when few are up and about, the cars aren’t sizzling down the
street, and my light at the dining room table that is my home office is the only one in the
neighborhood. This is when I get to do what I love, exploring the origins of the patterns in
Nature on our planet’s surface, and the teaching of it.
This is not to suggest that you avoid those occasional adventures, those things you do to
jostle life a bit – like climbing a mountain, or traveling to a new country. Darcy Thompson,
who wrote a marvelous book called On Growth and Form about patterns in Nature, said,
“Everything is what it is because it got that way”. I can rephrase this to say more succinctly
that “history matters”. Geologic history. Human history. History of a human. When you are
my age, you too will “be the way you are because you got that way” – because you
interacted with the people along your path, and had the adventures with them. Adventures
are a wonderful way to count time in your life. They are the punctuation that keeps life
from being a run-on sentence that we are all taught to avoid. A friend of mine calls
adventures “wide aperture” experiences – in analogy with cameras, which when they are in
wide aperture mode pull in the maximum amount of light.
In thinking back to my own graduation, I can say with certainty that my “wide aperture
experiences” had only begun. They started a week after graduation when I was hired as a
sheepherder and put in charge of 1500 sheep above timberline in the San Juan Mountains
in southern Colorado for 3 months. Now, how in the world my parents dealt with this I
have never asked. Thankfully, for whatever reason, they gave me complete freedom to
choose my own way. They took to the bleachers to watch. No doubt they cringed as I
careened from herding sheep to attempting graduate school to irrigating a square mile of
grass in NW Colorado, to traveling in Africa with a pack full of cameras …the list goes
on…for years… Maybe my folks were simply too busy to worry. But I bow to them for their
implicit support. For those were formative experiences. They gave me the sense that I
could do many things. And fail at several. By the time I figured out that I craved an
academic life, I had already under my belt a number of adventures, stories to tell, images to
hold onto, and most importantly the confidence that I could do a lot of things.
And, long story short, after a PhD, and teaching in California for 15 years, I got to come back
to Colorado to teach in 2003, partnered with my wife Suzanne who is a professor in
Geography, and with twin daughters who are now sophomores in Boulder High up the
creek a bit from here. So I am ….now… a scientist, a geologist, a professor. And if I have a
legacy, if my life “stands for something”, it is through teaching of graduate students who are
now engaged in research and teaching all over the world, or undergraduates who are
simply a little better informed as citizens of our planet. It is truly an honor to teach about
our planet, and to work with students like you.
And as an earth scientist I would be remiss if I were not to point out that ours is a planet
that humans are changing in every way… Humans now move more dirt on this planet in a
year than the rest of Nature moves, … and you should already know that the greenhouse
gases have risen beyond the levels the planet has seen in the last several million years. I
would like to think that if we are smart enough to catch a comet half a billion miles from here,
that we are wise enough to be the shepherds of our own planet. A major challenge your
generation faces is to learn how to adapt as the planet responds to these human-inflicted
alterations, and to reduce any further alterations.
While these planetary scale problems are indeed daunting, paralyzingly so, and their
solution in the end will require a collective willpower that my generation appears to lack,
you can all make a difference, acting as individuals. You can ride your bike to work. You
can put up solar panels on your house. You can vote. You can write, you can inspire others
through your art. You can teach.
I would also like to think that if we are smart enough to catch a comet, we are compassionate
enough to acknowledge that all people of the world, men and women of all nations deserve
equal respect. I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on my way to
walk the dog on that Sunday morning. It was the week after Obama gave his immigration
speech. Keillor introduced his song saying, “Here are a few thoughts on immigration”. It
was a beautiful song about the need for compassion for our fellow humans, those who are
working for us in the fields, or making the beds for us in the hotels, whose labors we quite
literally live off of. This issue is amplified in tensions within our own nation, in wars both
civil and international, and in epidemics that threaten to go global. Here too I do not have
answers. But I hope that you engage, look up from your day-to-day duties and face these
societal issues head on, with compassion, and the will to listen to and to respect the views
Ok. My final points. How do you stay engaged? In my experience it is very easy to be ping-
ponged about by life, doing what is easiest, or just what happens to happen because you are
in a particular place at a particular time. It is actually hard to take command of it, to force
yourself on life rather than react to it. You have just spent 16 or more years in the ping-
pong mode, largely within the bounds of school… Now it is your opportunity and your
challenge to take charge.
And this is not simple. You actually sort of have to have a plan. And to plan you have to
think. I find that one of the greatest challenges in this noisy world is finding the time to
think, really think, and to ask these larger questions? Most of the time you don’t. But you
can file information and inspiration away to be brought back up when you do have time.
Discover heroes whose lives you wish to emulate, and read about them. Find wise people
and listen to them; read the wise writers and poets. Listen to Ted talks. The opportunities
abound. This loads the brain, what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called the “little grey
cells”, with images, scraps, puzzle pieces. These are your note cards. The jostling of these
notes into something coherent, like a plan of action, might happen on a run or on a bike
ride. I actually find that pondering of the broader issues is best done in the quiet of a
mountain trail, where my mind can better wander and these puzzle pieces can at least have
a chance of falling into place. Make the time for that to happen.
So, again, congratulations. Go forth into the world and make a difference. Find something
you like doing, and make your life’s work stand for something. We will be watching you
with the greatest of hope that you will do just that. We need you.
Thank you and take care.