Commencement 2008

President’s Welcome

Remarks of Colin S. Diver

Reed College, May 19, 2008


speaker smallListen to the lecture.

hohengarten imageGood morning. My name is Colin Diver. I am a Reedie. And I’m proud of it!

Welcome to Commencement. This day belongs to you, the 2008 graduates of Reed College. It belongs only to you. But before we recognize your achievements, we should recognize those who made your achievements possible. First, the incomparably talented and devoted Reed College faculty. Second, the equally dedicated staff who labor so hard to support all of you, and all of us. And last, but certainly not least, those whose love and support and tuition payments have supported you through all these years: your parents, your brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, friends and other guests. And of course, your dogs, cats, goldfish, monkeys, boa constrictors, and other sources of companionship.

As you know, tomorrow is the day of reckoning in the Oregon presidential primary. The presidential candidates have all been in town lately. Hillary Clinton has been driving around Oregon in her pickup truck, with a dead elk strapped to the roof. Barack Obama, meanwhile, arrived in his new campaign bus, called the Elite Express, which I understand is powered exclusively by hot air. John McCain, who apparently discovered global warming while in Oregon, arrived in his stretch Toyota Prius, with gun racks on the roof. He was last seen traipsing through old-growth forests wearing a flak jacket. Just in case Dick Cheney might be in town.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates accepted our invitation to come to today’s Commencement. I guess they aren’t that desperate for votes.

So, here we are at Commencement—one of those liminal moments T.S. Eliot calls “intersection time.” As he says in “Little Gidding,” the fourth of his Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Throughout the Four Quartets, Eliot meditates on time and timelessness. He reminds us how we are both defined and imprisoned by time, by the burdens of the past and the fears of the future. But he offers the hope of redemption from the tyranny of time, through the experience of living in timeless moments, moments perhaps like this one.

These moment, says Eliot, are “a new and shocking/ Valuation of all we have been.” They are reminders of where we have come from and how far we have traveled. And they are premonitions of how far we will travel and how much we will change, before we reach the ultimately timeless moment of death. As Eliot famously says, near the end of “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

You have reached a momentary end of exploration today. This is, figuratively speaking, the lull between two waves—as my yoga teacher used to say, the still point of rest between breathing in and breathing out. On this arcadian expanse of lawn, surrounded by these venerable buildings, and surrounded by classmates and faculty, you are reminded where you started just a few years ago, and how far you have traveled. And, surrounded by parents and family, you are reminded of the place of your birth and the place of your upbringing. And I fondly hope that, returning to that place today, you know it for the first time.

But, as I said, this is only a momentary cessation from exploration. Soon time will again swallow you up in its relentless rhythms. Your exploration will continue. So what of the future?

In “Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets, Eliot ponders the meaning of a famous line from the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna says to the warrior Arjuna:

On action alone be thy interest,
Never on its fruits.

Eliot interprets Krishna’s admonition as a call to live in the moment, seeking always what he calls “right action,” understanding that you are no longer the person whom you once were, and you are not the person whom you will become in the future. You are shaped and given meaning by time, but, in the moment, you transcend time. Eliot writes:

‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here, between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind…
Fare forward.

O voyagers, O seamen,
You who come to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
…this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

So, on this Commencement Day 2008—this moment out of time—I add my voice to that of T.S. Eliot. To you, graduates of Reed College—visitors here for but a moment, but beloved and respected colleagues forever—“Not fare well. But fare forward, voyagers.”

Thank you.

And now, it is my pleasure to introduce a true voyager in life, our commencement speaker, Michelle Nijhuis. Michelle graduated from Reed in the class of 1996, after majoring in biology. She wrote her senior thesis under the tutelage of Professor Robert Kaplan on a unique salamander found at Wahkeenah Falls in the Columbia Gorge, giving her an early taste for fieldwork and science writing.

After Reed she made a career as a science and environmental journalist, writing for newspapers, magazines, and public radio. She has won numerous awards, including the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism, selection for the anthology Best American Science Writing, and, just this week, the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ annual media award for a series on invasive species. Her work regularly appears in High Country News, Smithsonian, the Christian Science Monitor, Audubon, Orion, and on National Public Radio.

Michelle writes about threats to the environment—not simply from abstract knowledge, but from lived experience. In 2006, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, she spent ten days on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska with a team of glaciologists to gain first-hand perspective on climate change. She and her husband Jackson Perrin live off the grid in Western Colorado.

Please join me in welcoming our 2008 commencement speaker, Michelle Nijhuis.