Dedicated to this year’s PGs: Natalie, Lizzy, Will, Keeling, Matt Dunn, Dan, Matt Kooker, Chidi, Brandon, Jeremiah, Bailey, Juwan, and Alonzo. The seed for this speech grew from a conversation we had about the Starucca Railroad Bridge in Lanesboro, PA, and an essay by William Least Heat Moon.
About 10 years ago, I taught one of the most rewarding classes of my career. The class was Humanities 9, and at the time, we were discussing Greek architecture, specifically the classical orders ̶ the differences in size and shape of the columns used in the famous Greek structures like the Parthenon or the Temple of Hera in Samos. In order to show one example ̶ as well as to alleviate some of the tedium of a double long block ̶ we walked out in front of the chapel to take a look at the Ionic order columns of this very chapel, a wonderful example of ancient Greek architecture right here in our own front yard. But what I did not realize was at the same time, my students were also pointing to examples of the other two classical orders ̶ the Doric columns at the entrance of Austen Colgate, and the Corinthian columns set into the facade of Annenberg Hall. Right here. Never really noticed them. The great question from one of my students that day was, “why do schools do that?” That is, why do some schools ̶ older prep schools, maybe, and many, many colleges ̶ use these ancient Greek forms in their architecture, and Latin mottos carved in stone such as Finimus Pariter Renovamusque Labores. The essential question really was, What does it mean for a school like ours to lay claim to the ideals of the ancients? That got us into a conversation about, the Greek ideals of democracy and citizenship, about the Age of Enlightenment, and the ways in which colonial America adopted many of these architectural forms, with their emphasis on scale and symmetry, and how all of those ideas came to influence the people the founded this school in 1864, down through the generations to the building of the mostly early-20th Century structures you see today. That was a fun class.
No. What I loved about that day was the way the campus kind of transformed for me and my students. The way in which these buildings, which I walked by every day, provided a gateway I never much considered to a past that came alive in ways that mattered more to me than ever before. So, today, I want to talk with you about what I’ve taken to calling, "the wonders of everyday life." The examples I want to share with you are things we pass by in our lives and in our travels, and that if we took a few seconds to consider might, too, fill us with fascination and wonder.
A couple of summers ago, Mrs. Mooney and I were up on Long Island, in my hometown of Long Beach, NY. Sitting in the sand, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, I looked out to the ocean and noticed a group of cargo ships anchored out about 2-3 miles off. Not an uncommon site. They wait there for pilot boats to bring them into the ports of Bayonne and Elizabeth, NJ.
|Cargo ships off the coast of Long Beach, NY|
The Emma Maersk, and all stats I just shared with you, are no more than fun facts ̶ as cool as they are. But for me, the sheer size of this ship led me to read up on the shipping industry in general, which became a vehicle for me to think about and better understand a bunch of issues that are actually pretty important. Things I had never really thought much about, like trade practices and modern global manufacturing. Odds are just about everything you are wearing, every phone, every book you have with you came off one of these huge cargo ships, and it was probably made in factory in a place far from this campus, where people are not making the kind of wages that we’d consider fair. But this interest also connects me to the environmental issues ̶ these ships burn many, many tons of fossil fuels ̶ as well as the challenges facing our port systems in the United States. Currently the Bayonne Bridge is being raised 64 feet higher at a cost of $1.3 billion dollars to accommodate ships as large as the Emma and to bring more commerce and jobs into the port of Elizabeth.
|Proposed Bayonne Bridge project|
In recent years, I’ve come to have a much greater love for the outdoors than I had ever before in my life. I grew up very close to New York City and had parents who were Manhattan- and Bronx- born and bred, so getting back to nature was not really their thing. As much as I have gotten into going on backpacking trips, I realized how much I did not know at all about the places I was going, about the natural history of the forests in which I was hiking. So last June I did a trip to the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania, and the more I read about this wilderness--it’s known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon--the better I understood the story the natural landscape was telling me.
|View from the Black Forest Trail|
You could tell how and when they area was timbered by the tree species that grew up since the early part of the 20th century. If you knew the trees, you could know the story. If you saw birch trees, which are pioneer species, you knew that there had probably been a fire in that area within the last 50-75 years. Stands of Norway spruce were planted by settlers there in the late 1800s but are not native to the area. And the story that hit me hardest was this. In one of the trail guides, it says to look out for apple trees, and when you see them, you know there was a large camp or mining operation nearby. On the fourth night of my hike through these woods, I made camp near an area where I did see some apple trees, and what I came to learn was that about 100 years ago, there were hundreds of men working a flagstone quarry, which was now as remote and isolated you could imagine--five miles from the nearest road and about 20 miles from the nearest town. As I scouted out my camp, though, I came across the broken down remains of an old stove ̶ a cast iron old Franklin stove out there in the middle of this wilderness. In a spooky moment, the idea of all these workers camped out here--in all kinds of conditions warming themselves by the stove ̶ came into my mind, and the apple trees, which grew from the cores they tossed aside, as well as this stove are all that remain of this part of their story.
In the Walt Whitman quote read earlier, the poet says “I hear and behold God in every object,” but I don’t know that I would go that far myself. The examples I’ve shared with you today, these ways of seeing the world, these things I call wonders of everyday life could be a real snooze fest to some of you ̶ I am guessing ̶ far from representations of the supreme deity. But I don’t think that’s what Whitman was getting at. I’ll put it to you this way, I love my iphone, my Netflix, my NY Mets and NY Giants games, my Times crossword puzzle...all of which are designed one way or another to take my focus off the world around me and onto a much narrower and more isolated plain. And because of that I sometimes feel as if the world is like The Simpsons Hit and Run game that I used to play with Harry, Katherine and Megan on the Playstation 2. At some point this game developed a glitch, and as you got the certain points driving around Springfield hitting mailboxes and collecting coins, the whole backdrop disappeared into this blank nothingness. You could still drive around, but you were driving in, through, and around a formless white void. Life feels like that sometimes, and I think what Whitman was trying to say was not something religious, at all, but instead that the most ordinary things around have meanings that are as beautiful and complex as anything found in the Book of Genesis. And if you give some thought to the fascinating things around you every day, it might be a richer experience than say, the next snapchat or the score of the Giants game yesterday.
So, yes, there are wonders all around us if we would only take a closer look. And yes, the unexamined life is not worth living. And yes, you might even be able to understand the universe in a blade of grass, or a cargo ship, or an apple core tossed to the side of a quarry in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Yes, all of that is true, or at least I think so, but for me the wonder is not in the “fun facts” but in the stories that come alive: stories about history and hard work, about success and failure, about both the power and fragility of nature, about what we’ve made better and what we’ve destroyed. The stories are all around us, the connections we have to people who lived thousands of years ago are on center campus, and the connections we have to people who made the shirt on your back are as close as Exit 14 on the turnpike. You don’t have to go to the Galapagos Islands to learn about complex ecosystems, and the greatest story you might ever know could be waiting for you right outside this door, or even sitting right next to you.