Katie Powers '09 Remarks to Graduates

May 17, 2009

Good morning.

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about our time here, about the implications of the work we’ve done, and about the richness of the lives and communities we are in the process of cultivating every day.

A very close friend of mine spent last summer planting a garden at the University’s Ecological Sustainability Landscape. When I came back to campus last fall, I was surprised and impressed by the transformation this small patch of earth had undergone in a few short months. Cherry tomatoes overwhelmed a gnarled thicket of green; potatoes blossomed in neat rows; zucchinis crawled into the grass. There was an overabundance of food: the result of careful, deliberate work of the body and spirit.

Seeing this landscape reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, who is celebrated for poems and essays that call for sustainability in agriculture and health and wholeness in human communities. He wrote, “We are working well when we use ourselves as the fellow creatures of the plants, animals, materials and other people we are working with. Such work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and from despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.”

I spent a warm afternoon last fall walking with one of my favorite professors. We spoke about the environmental studies department, the future prospects for sustainability at St. Lawrence, and writers like Wendell Berry, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. I wondered aloud: what would it be like to attend a much larger university, with twenty thousand students, an environmental studies department that dwarfs our own, a whole program for sustainable agriculture? I think it would certainly mean giving up the privilege of this afternoon walk with my professor; it might mean a lost opportunity for my friend to be an independent gardener for a summer; it might also mean settling for a slightly more textbook-oriented understanding of the earth and how we should participate in the world.

My friend who spent the summer with his hands in the soil, my environmental studies professor who makes every effort to practice what he preaches, and the words of one of my favorite writers woke me up to this important insight: all of us who have the good fortune to live and work and play at this school for four years are very lucky people. We have been provided with endless opportunities to nurture both our intellectual and our physical lives, to practice working in our minds and with our hands.

Our professors know us all by name, invite us to office hours, and encourage us to speak in the classroom, to express our ideas and beliefs with conviction and to be tireless in our pursuit of more questions. Small classes allow for constant interaction with peers through discussions, workshops, critiques and debates, providing both support and the necessary challenges that motivate critical analysis, exploration of new concepts, and an enhanced understanding of community. 

We have access to a nearly limitless supply of resources and technologies that provide us with the space and information to explore the world from a computer in Owen D. Young Library, make films and paint landscapes, study genetics in state-of-the-art labs, or write memoir on a sunny morning in Herring Cole.

And when we are not immersed in the expansion of intellect, we are encouraged to take advantage of every other opportunity for growth that is at our fingertips: we are encouraged to work with our minds as well as with our bodies, to use our hands to reach out into the world around us. We can take a course that includes a Community-Based Learning component, participate in Dance Ensemble, or go hiking with the Outing Club. We can join the Emergency Medical Service, help build homes with Habitat for Humanity, or act as a mentor for a local elementary school student. We can plant a garden just around the corner from campus, spend a summer kneeling in the dirt, and learn to nurture growth; in engaging ourselves in this St. Lawrence community, we learn to embody the spirit of transformation that I witnessed in that small patch of earth at my friend’s garden, as we mature, ripen, and prepare to offer sustenance to our world.  

And as we leave this place, and begin to participate in new communities, we should not forget to keep practicing the kinds of work we’ve engaged in during these past four years. We should remember the value in balancing efforts to foster creativity, determination and curiosity in the mind with the hands-on experiences that teach us equally valuable methods of problem-solving. We should remember Wendell Berry’s words, that “we are working well when we use ourselves as the fellow creatures of the plants, animals, materials and other people we are working with.” If we leave St. Lawrence with an insatiable desire to keep learning, and if we can wed the nurturance of the mind with an ability to work with our hands, we will be working well. We will create the kinds of communities that take better care of this planet, that allow for continuous intellectual growth, and that prepare us to take on the responsibilities of our generation.

Thank you.