Rachel Merz - Baccalaureate

 

Thank you, Liz. I knew that when I came to Swarthmore that I would have brilliant, interesting, accomplished colleagues – I never imagined that the College would also give me a sister.

It is a great pleasure to be with you today – in some sense, this is also my graduation from Swarthmore College and it makes me feel especially connected with the members of the Class of 2018. You are my classmates!

I very much appreciate the honor of participating in this ceremony, although, I do have to admit that in my academic career I have attended very few Baccalaureates. And so, when I received the invitation from President Smith on behalf of the nominating committee, I turned to Wikipedia to get a better sense of what I was supposed to be doing up here. Wikipedia informed me that a baccalaureate talk is, "A farewell address in the form of a sermon delivered to a graduating class."

I found this rather distressing because I’m neither religious nor prone to delivering sermons. However, then I realized that I have a great advantage compared to most graduation speakers, and that is that I know Swarthmore students – I have taught them – You! - for more than 30 years and I know what happens when you graduate. You go on to live interesting, fruitful lives. Your creativity, hard work, and passions allow you to use your talents and do remarkable things. You care about others and you make the world better. So, I don’t need to give you a sermon about what to do – you are going to do great things and I and the rest of the faculty will admire and take enormous pleasure and pride in your efforts and accomplishments.

So, instead of a sermon, what I want to do is to support you and your efforts by reminding you of a way to restore yourselves as you take on the challenges that your lives will supply.

As you came into the amphitheater, near the top of the stairs, you passed a little building on the right. Outside of it is a stone bench on which is carved the quote, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” When I first came to the College, lacking the liberal arts perspective that you are all now imbued with, I read that quote in a very literal and naïve way and wondered what in the heck it meant. There were lots of things about it that did not make sense to me.

The first is that “Nature” seems to be regarded as female. And while some of “Nature” is female, all of Nature, even most of Nature, is not. For instance, speaking as a biologist I know that unless there is also “male,” there is very little point in being female. And, given my study of all kinds of organisms, I know that the individuals of many, many species are simultaneously male and female. This phenomenon of hermaphroditism may be familiar to you, but you may not realize that in some biological systems, there are actually more than two sexes. For instance, in one species of seed harvester ant, there are what have been described as 3 sexes. A colony can only be successful if the queen is mated with two entirely different kinds of males (not just two individuals, but two males with genetic lineages so different that they could be considered different species). One male’s offspring produces the worker caste, the other produces the future queens – a colony would not be successful without its 3 distinct parents.

To go a step further, if you were a single-celled ciliated protozoan sitting in the Crum right now, you wouldn’t see the world as splitting into males and females, instead you would be one of seven mating types. Those seven types don’t simultaneously participate in the exchange of gametes, but rather mix and match amongst the types. If that doesn’t blow your mind, in some species of fungi the number of “mating types” number in the thousands! 28,000!

Therefore, assuming that Nature is female is leaving out a whole lot of biological reality and doesn’t even begin to take on the physical side of Nature – the weather, elements, the stars!

The next part of my confusion about the saying that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her” is that it implies that Nature “cares about you” and will not betray you if you “love her.” And to that I ask: What about parasites?

Really, what could be a greater betrayal than the existence of parasites? And lest you think that I’m picking nits here, let me point out that parasitism is the most common kind of life-style there is among organisms. Think of it – any organism you can name – any species of chipmunk, jellyfish, bacterium, maple tree, porcini mushroom, or frog has parasites. And those parasites have parasites! Layers and layers of betrayal!

Unlike majestic lions, or powerful grizzly bears, or awesome cheetahs that would merely eat us, parasites seem insidious - small organisms that are successful at sucking blood, stealing nutrients, devouring gonads, and in many cases taking over a host’s body and manipulating a host’s behavior for the parasite’s own benefit. What am I talking about? Well, let me give you an example by telling you about a small liver fluke, the lancet liver fluke. This is a parasite with a complicated life cycle - for our purposes here what you need to know is that the mature sexually reproductive form of the worm lives in the bile ducts of herbivores, typically sheep. The juvenile worms, however, live in intermediate hosts – ants – and the worm’s challenge is getting from the ant into the sheep in order to complete its life cycle.

When an ant is infected with these juvenile worms, at first it seems to have normal ant behavior – it forages for food and interacts with other ants until night fall. At sundown, the uninfected ants go back to their ant nest, however, the infected ant (carrying the juvenile worms within its body) crawls up a blade of grass and locks its jaws onto the tip of the blade. It remains “stuck” there overnight, in a position that makes it vulnerable to being eaten by grazing sheep. If it has not been eaten in a given night, the daylight and warming temperatures cause its jaws to unlock and it crawls back down the grass blade and carries on like a normal ant until the next evening where once again it is compelled to crawl up a grass blade and take up a position that is advantageous to the worm inside BUT NOT TO THE ANT. Betrayal!!!.

Now while I have just described what seems like a sort of betrayal perpetrated by parasites, I do want to point out that our perspective and appreciation is warped and limited. First, why do we think of parasites as insidious and betraying when really their crime is that they are small, very successful organisms that really only take small bites, while at the same time we credit much more obviously dangerous species with noble qualities – majestic lions, amazing, awesome cheetahs, powerful grizzly bears? Shouldn’t we admire small and effective over large and obvious? Second, as we learn more about the connection between parasites and their hosts, what we realize is that they are mutually engaged in an evolutionary arms race – for parasites to be successful within the body of their host, they have to escape or trick its immune system. One way they do this is by releasing chemicals that are anti-inflammatory. These chemicals are now being used as medicine to treat auto-immune diseases in humans where inflammation is overblown. The addition of the parasites’ secretions (in some cases by introducing living parasites into a patient!) damps down the inflammation and diminishes the patient’s symptoms.

Thus, it turns out that parasites are more fascinating and byzantine than we might have imagined. Thinking about their complexities, maybe even being grossed out by the idea that they exist in us or that we might benefit from having them in us, does draw our imagination in a new direction and for a moment take us away from our too familiar or humdrum worries.

Getting back my confusion about the phrase, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” I realize I was too simple minded. Now I have a deeper sense of what William Wordsworth meant when he wrote that phrase in 1798 as part of his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abby.” What he was getting at, is that focusing on Nature has the capacity to take us out of a worried state and give us respite by entrancing us with beauty and infinite diversity, to fascinate us with intricacy, order, and “otherlyness.” Wendell Berry says this in his poem,

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This is so much what I want you to take away from this, that I’m going to read this poem again.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Barry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This is what I want you to take away from today, the fact that Nature is all around us and by noticing it, by really noticing it, that we can find peace and a refuge from turmoil.

In this weekend and the days to follow, all of you will be facing the turmoil of a changing chapter in your lives. Friends will be parting, belongings will be packed, children will re-enter natal homes, status and identity will change. The ceremonies of this weekend mark your profound achievement, however not all of your experiences will be comfortable or welcome. So, I invite you to remember to realize that you can find solace and peace in wild things.

Start now by looking at this stunning setting – an amphitheater made of natural elements, not the least, these fabulous tulip trees that form living columns holding up an emerald canopy. Most of these trees were planted nearly a century ago and yet they are young, they could live for hundreds of years. They were selected for this setting because of this species’ dramatic tall trunks – in fact, this species is the tallest deciduous tree in eastern North America and this height is supported by very deep roots. Although this tree is not related to tulips, if you look, you can see that its leaves have the silhouette of a tulip flower. If we were flying in canopy, we would see that its flowers also slightly resemble tulips with yellow, green, and orange petals – you may find some at your feet where they have fallen. These flowers are remarkable for the prodigious amount of nectar that they produce to lure pollinators to such heights. The honey that bees make from this nectar is favored by bakers for its strong rich flavor.

This amphitheater is nestled in the Crum woods – and all around us wild things go on about their lives without forethought of grief. I ask now, that we take a moment (longer than you might imagine) to listen and appreciate the layers of sound. Let the peace sink into you.

Thank you. Good luck Classmates!