Video: Presidential Commencement Address 2019

May 26, 2019

During her Presidential Address at Amherst College, President Biddy Martin urged the Class of ’19 to...“continue to be open to the complexity of truth.”

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Twelve days ago, we lost a very old copper beech tree in the back yard of the president’s house. Lightning had struck it at some point and burned out its core. From a distance there was no evidence that it was hollow. Early on a Wednesday morning, the tree cutters arrived. I was in my study at home, working on this year’s Commencement speech, and thought I could ignore the activity in the yard. But I was drawn to the window of my study and 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. I began to feel a sense of loss, the loss of what had felt like shelter.

Once the work started, the noise made it impossible to focus on a speech. I could not block out the motor or the sound of the saw cutting through wood, then the heavy thud of large branches hitting the ground after a long fall; and then the loud crunch and whirr of the machine that began, branch by branch, to turn the tree to dust.

I decided I should go to the office. When I got back from meetings late in the day, I went upstairs and looked out from the vantage point I’d had during the morning. The men were still there. Of the tree, only about a ten-foot-high stump remained, a pile of branches, and what felt, to me, like a void. I thought of a passage that intrigued me in David Haskell’s book Songs of Trees, a book that one of our alumni sent me two years ago as a gift. “Although tree trunks seemingly stand as detached individuals, their lives subvert this atomistic view. We’re all—trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria—pluralities. Life is embodied network.”

The fact that it was a beech tree that came down in the yard made me think about the purple beech tree that Chris Collins’ family planted in his memory behind Webster Hall, overlooking the baseball field that Chris loved, and looking out onto the soft blue-green mountains that I love, and that I remember from my childhood in the Appalachians of Virginia.

I remember the day Mark and Beth, along with other members of the Collins family, came up to plant the beech. When it came off the truck, it looked terrible. It hardly seemed alive. It was folded in on itself, and seeming to wither. But, within minutes of its planting in the earth, the branches began to lift and the tree seemed to raise its arms, almost as if on cue. On my way back to Converse, after spending time with the family and Chris’ teammates and friends, I was approached by two baseball players. They said they wanted to thank me for their new coach. “He cares about the important things, not just winning,” they said. And I thought, in difficult times, if we clear out the debris and ignore the noise, we are reminded of what really matters.

Haskell has written of trees as “life’s great connectors.” To listen to trees, he writes, “is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” To learn how trees communicate with each other and how they protect each other by emitting chemical, electrical, and other kinds of messages is also a great lesson and a humbling one for humans, we who so easily set ourselves apart. Listening to other people, even those who think otherwise, teaches us what gives our lives their source and beauty—our interdependence and our belonging in embodied networks.

When I was in graduate school, questions about the relationship between trees and politics came up in a seminar on German literature and also in a seminar on Women’s Studies. The German playwright, Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem in the late 1930s called: “An die Nachgeborenen” or “To Those Who Follow After Us.” At the time, fascism was spreading across Europe. “What times are these,” he asks, “when a conversation about trees can seem almost like a crime/ Because in that moment we remain silent about so much wrongdoing.” Why speak of trees when there are so many urgent things to talk about in the country?

In one of the first Women’s Studies Programs in the country, we were reading the work of Adrienne Rich. In the 1970s, Rich wrote a poem that was published in 1975 called: “What Kind of Times Are These.” She would have known Brecht’s poem and his question about what it means to talk about trees in dark times. She was writing at a time when the civil rights movement continued, and also faced efforts to undermine it, when movements for the rights of women, gays and lesbians, Native peoples, and other marginalized groups had force, and opposition to the Vietnam War roiled campuses and the country as a whole. In 1970, shortly before Adrienne Rich wrote the poem, student protesters at Kent State University had been shot by members of the National Guard. That was when I was still in college. The Cold War was still on. I want to read to you Rich’s poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”:

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

In times like these, you still listen, but in order to get you to listen, it’s necessary to talk about trees. It matters how truth is communicated, she says. But today, more than in the 1930s or in the 1970s, it is necessary to talk about trees, not in order to obscure, deny, or ease us into truth. 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 all over the world.

I am thinking about losses in these times, not only of people and trees and other species, but also of principles and rights and protections. Threats to principles and rights and protections destroy shelter for the embodied networks of which humans are one part.

I recently visited the president’s page on the Amherst College website and I clicked, for the first time in my life, on the link to “president’s statements.” And, oh my goodness, the list is long and so are some of the messages. They include emails on immigration policy, DACA status, environmental policy, Title IX, transgender rights, gay and lesbian rights, and a myriad of other issues, including Charlottesville, that “ghost-ridden crossroads” to quote Rich, where, and again I quote her, our country was revealed to be “moving closer to its own truth and dread.”

The impact of policy changes and forms of wrongdoing are the reason for those statements. I wrote them because of these changes’ impact on you. When I look at the list, I am struck, as you have been, by how much you have been through in four years, how much we have all been through.

Perhaps all the difficult things you have experienced, on your own and together, account for some of the beauty in your senior speeches—Tucker’s and Lindsay’s at the Senior Assembly earlier this month, and today Helena’s—where each of you has focused on the things that matter most about your experience here, all of which are heartening about you: that you prize your faculty and what you have learned, that you appreciate the staff who have been a big part of your lives. You have celebrated kindness, support of others, and the friendship of your classmates in your talks, and the conversation that is made possible when we let ourselves step outside of the way we’ve become accustomed to rushing through our lives and filling them with busy-ness. Your talks, all three, have shown that at our best, we can combine talent with humility, strength with vulnerability, fear with courage and resilience, seriousness of purpose with humor. And to those who say you are snowflakes, I wish they knew and experienced the resilience and courage you show.

You have shown those qualities and abilities in classrooms, in labs, on stage, in the community, during semesters abroad, on courts, the fields, and in the pool. You have given brilliant performances in dance—I’m thinking about DASAC showcases; and in music—I am still marveling at the symphony orchestra’s concert featuring the music of Duke Ellington and Gershwin. I will long remember the extraordinary classical trio performance to which we were treated on Friday, that included two of your classmates, Diane Lee on cello, and Shannon Wei, on piano, along with Marie Leou, a member of the Class of 2022, playing violin.

You have shown exemplary discipline and teamwork in your athletic commitments and successes. You have done remarkable work in theater—I’m thinking of Brandon Medina’s thesis project. You have done amazing work in art –the thesis exhibits in Fayerweather Hall right now—Jonathan Jackson’s photograph, Joanna Booth’s woodcut prints, and Mika Obayashi’s gorgeous paper installations. (If there is still time to see them, I urge you to go.) You are certainly all pluralities. I am amazed at the number and range of things you do while you’re doing your academic work. You’ve excelled in debate, gaming, public speaking, improv, radio, and club sports, like ultimate frisbee. You have found ways to combine an extraordinary amount of hard work with opportunities to enjoy yourselves, in a variety of different ways, some better than others (and some questionable, to be honest).

I also want to highlight your courage and commitment to helping make Amherst a better place, whether through protest, contributions to governance committees, your own student government, the student newspaper, as resident counselors, peer advocates, and in your work to support marginalized groups in our resource centers. You have supported one another and also many younger students through your help creating the Center for International Student Engagement. You have created cross-center conversations between international students and students who frequent the Multicultural Resource Center (I’m thinking of Chris Lewis and Esteban Uceda, for example). Sho-Young Shin is one of the students who has made such significant contributions as a career services coordinator in the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership and also as a peer career advisor in the Loeb Center. I apologize for not mentioning every one of your names. Let these names that I have mentioned stand in for all of you and what I know you have done.

I also want to thank those of you who have worked so hard to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. The exhibits in Keefe, conceived and put up by the group Active Minds, show your courageous openness. Adrienne Rich says “When [we] tell the truth, [we] create the possibility of more truth around [us].” You have helped create more truth and you’ve done it in many different ways.

I have heard you speak movingly about the impact of climate change on the places where you grew up, integrating science with personal experience and longing for the grownups to acknowledge the truth of what is already being lost.

In your thesis projects, some of which seem closer to Ph.D. dissertations than undergraduate work, you have extended the possibilities of discovery, truth, and change.

Natalie Braun’s thesis outlines the history of internment and deportation camps in France starting in the late 30s and into the late 40s. It opens with a moving personal note about her grandmother, then a child of 4, who hid with her mother from Nazi pursuers in France. It is a beautiful piece of work that asks how a memorial might create an experience that would help us not simply remember the past, but think critically about how to avoid repeating it.

For her thesis, Deborah Newmark spent time in Cherry, Michigan with undocumented families, learning what it’s like to face the perils of living undocumented now, with all the uncertainties.

Annika Ariel shows how illness and disability actually enrich and enable the imagination, focusing on the work of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

Huey Hewitt offers an analysis of how social and cultural norms can imprison us in our bodies, and how often trans people of color are incarcerated, where they are subjected to horrifying violence and abuse. At the 3-minute thesis competition, he ended with a call to understanding and change, quoting from the Bible, Hebrews 13: 3: “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.”

These and many other projects show a commitment to acknowledging difficult truths and realities. Adrienne Rich writes about the nature of what we call truth. “There is nothing simple or easy about this idea,” she writes. “There is no ‘the truth’, ‘a truth’—truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity.” Truth is an increasing complexity. This gives the lie to the either/or thinking that we hear so frequently today. She writes: “The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely…we learn of the tiny multiple threads, unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.” Distracting ourselves from hard truths can be a necessary part of dealing with them; but the denial or refutation of hard truths and realities does not constitute a solid defense. Rather, such denials, ultimately “limit the possibility of life between us,” as Adrienne Rich writes. They harden us to the possibilities of life among us. Rich continues: “This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler—for the liar—simpler than it really is, or ought to be.” Complexity, interdependence, continual change. Please continue to think far beyond the either/or, the binary oppositions that are being handed out today. Continue to be open to the complexity of truth and the possibilities of life among us.

“Life, says Haskell, “is embodied network.” And he adds that living networks adapt best and most successfully not by virtue of being places of “omnibenevolent Oneness.” Instead, and I quote, “they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated.” Tension and conflict are a crucial part of positively adaptive changes to networks and communities. They work when we are willing to take risks in truth-telling and when our interlocutors or listeners are as forgiving as possible of our mistakes. We need a politics understood as an effort to use disagreement in search of a larger good, a good that acknowledges the life we share with one another and with trees.

Having now told so many people about the felling of the tree in my yard (and having had so many people listen to my sadness about it), I can now see the void in my back yard increasingly as a clearing. 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. I know that the essential meanings of your Amherst experiences will be revealed to you only over time. For now, I congratulate you, wish you all the best, and leave you with a quote from Adrienne Rich again, and then the salute to you that I read every year.

From Rich: “Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve deeper.”

All of you have what you need to do well, to create more truth, better politics, and relationships worth having. You have what you need. Go out and plant trees. Remember that they do not stand alone and neither do you.

 

“Salute”

May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you.

A.R. Ammons