Amherst awarded honorary doctorates to seven people:
David P. Corey ’74
Cape Town, South Africa, Archbishop
Book author, science writer and scriptwriter
Charles C. Mann ’76
Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist
Journalist, book author and former Amherst Board of Trustees chair
Cullen Murphy ’74
Ford Foundation president
What brings substance and beauty to our lives? As members of the class of 2019 seek answers to that question, President Biddy Martin urged them to look to one another—and also to the trees around them.
“To learn how trees communicate,” she said, “and how they protect one another—by emitting chemical and other messages—is a great lesson and a humbling one to us humans, who so readily set ourselves apart.” In fact, she said, “our perspectives change by virtue of our interactions with others, and with the things of this world. They change with our awareness of our interconnectedness.”
On the Quad, beneath a canopy of oaks and maples, Martin began her commencement address by recounting the removal of a copper beech from the yard of her house on campus. “I stood looking out at the tree’s great height and expanse, its deep plum-red leaves and the trunk that still gave the appearance of solidity,” she said. “I began to feel a sense of loss, the loss of what had felt like shelter.”
The tree reminded her of another beech—the one planted behind Webster Hall as a memorial to Christopher Collins ’20, who died last year. “Within minutes of its planting in the earth,” she recalled, “its branches began to lift, and the tree seemed to raise its arms and fill out, as if on cue.”
Martin quoted from the book The Songs of Trees, in which David George Haskell writes that to “listen” to trees “is to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance and beauty.” She cited Bertolt Brecht, who wrote of trees in a poem about Nazi book burnings, and Adrienne Rich, who wrote of them in her poetry about civil rights. “Today, more than in the late 1930s or mid-1970s, it is necessary to talk about trees, not in order to obscure, deny or ease us into truth and dread; it is necessary because the forests they once made up are essential to living networks, and the shelter they provide and represent is disappearing even as the numbers of persecuted human beings and extinct species seem to grow.”
Martin observed that she’s been thinking about losses in general—not only of people and trees and other species, but also of principles, rights and protections, threats to which “destroy shelter for the embodied networks of which humans are one part.”
Martin then spent several moments marveling at the graduates’ abilities in classrooms and labs; in community service and athletics; in theater, art and music; and in their work to make Amherst and the world a better place.
Before reciting A.R. Ammons’ “Salute”—as she does every year—she left the class of 2019 with one last charge: “You have what you need to do well, also to create more truth, better politics and the relationships worth having,” she said. “Go out and plant trees. Remember they do not stand alone—and neither do you.”
Prior to Martin’s address, Helena Burgueño ’19, a film and media studies major from Hamden, Conn., addressed the audience of 5,000. “The class of 2019 has been through a lot together, because Amherst has been through a lot in the past four years,” she said, citing student protests in 2015, the selection of the Mammoth mascot in 2017 and the demolition of the Social Dorms to make way for the 2018 Science Center opening. “Acknowledging hardship doesn’t devalue the entire experience of being here. If anything, it makes today feel like more of a celebration.”
In addition, the College gave these prizes and honors:
OBED FINCH SLINGERLAND MEMORIAL PRIZE:
Hilary Bediako ’19 of Gaithersburg, Md., and Elorm Yevudza ’19 of Accra, Ghana
Jamie Tucker-Foltz ’19 of Boulder, Colo.
MEDAL FOR EMINENT SERVICE:
Paula K. Rauch ’77 P’00 ’08
Andrew Kendall ’83, P’19 ’22
SWIFT MOORE AWARDS:
Math teacher Heather Anderson, Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School, Palmer, Mass. (nominated by Katherine Cyr ’19E); music teacher Z. Aaron Barkon, Hamden (Conn.) High School (nominated by Burgueño); and English teacher John Hoerster, Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. (nominated by Anjanique “Jana” Barber ’19).
Photos: Cap: Young-Ji Cho ’18; Burgueño: Matai Curzon ’22; Booth and Martin: Maria Stenzel