WVU 2014 Commencement Speech delivered by Keith Bowers, President of Biohabitats
Davis School of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
Thank you, Dean Robison, for that introduction.
I am truly honored to be with you today for your commencement. Personally, I believe you are all graduating from the best college at West Virginia University–the Davis School of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design–the one with the greatest potential to make a real difference for the future of our planet. Not to mention that I had the privilege of graduating from the same college some 32 years ago in landscape architecture. So I may be a bit biased. This is an especially important year because it is the 50-year anniversary of the Landscape Architecture Program. While I am NOT old enough to have been here for the early days, I have tracked the program’s history for long enough to know how far it has come since the 80s.
A big congratulations to the LA Program, and to everyone graduating today. Let’s give a big shout out for all of the moms. They have been waiting a long time for this moment…no really, some of them have been waiting a really really long time. Happy Mother’s Day!
I want to tell you a brief story of why this College rocks, and why you all are perfectly poised to take on the challenges and opportunities that our planet so desperately needs you for.
The City of Cleveland, Ohio approached me and my firm last year with a problem. As many of you may know, the Cuyahoga River, nestled within a beautiful, glaciated valley, winds its way north and empties into Lake Erie in Cleveland. This is the same river that caught on fire for the 13th time in 1969 and focused the nation’s attention on the environmental crises we were facing. Imagine that, a river catching on fire, not once, not twice, but 13 times.
Now, thanks to the heroic efforts of the City, its citizens, and many of the industries that line the river’s banks, the Cuyahoga has improved to the point that many fish are returning and using the river to spawn, feed, and live. The only problem is that the lower part of the river is a shipping channel, with an active port. As you can imagine, the river banks and port are lined with steel bulkheads or retaining walls.
While this may be great way to contain the river channel for the large cargo ships that ply its waters, it doesn’t do much for young-of-year fish trying to get out of the way of these ships, hide from their predators, or find the sorts of food they would typically come across in shoreline grasses. In fact, very few of them survive. So Cleveland turned to us to help them develop a new bulkhead that would benefit the fish and aquatic life within the river.
So, what to do? How do we redesign a bulkhead that contains the river but can also serve as habitat that nourishes and protects young-of-year fish? We turned to Biomimicry, the discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates natural forms and processes to solve human problems. The classic example is Velcro, a design that mimics the construction of a burr seed that you often find tangled in your dog’s fur or stuck to your shoelaces after a walk in the woods. The bur seed sticks to your clothing because it is comprised of hundreds of tiny little hooks, which is how Velcro is made.
With the principles of Biomimicry in mind, we asked ourselves, “What can we reference in nature that will help us redesign the bulkhead to support aquatic life?”
More specifically, we asked, “How does nature provide food and shelter and how would we apply those ideas to designing a bulkhead that supports life, instead of taking life away?”
And what if the bulkhead could be made out of a natural material that attracts wildlife while filtering contaminants at the same time–similar say, to a coral reef?
And could we use 3-D printing to manufacture bulkhead panels that are customized to specific fish communities and river systems?
And what if we could use citizen scientists, armed with smart phone apps, to monitor the effectiveness of these living bulkheads and allow us to manage them adaptively?
And then we could empower local industries to manufacture and install these living systems, providing local jobs and livelihoods to underserved communities?
And what if we licensed this technology through the creative commons, giving waterfront communities across the globe free access to this technology?
What if…. ———–
Now think of all of the disciplines we need to make this happen, Wildlife and Fisheries, Soil & Plant Science, Landscape Architecture, Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, Biochemistry, Conservation Ecology, Sustainable Design, Manufacturing, Recreation, Parks and Tourism, and computer programming, to name a few. Does this sound like the Davis College? You get the picture. Many of you graduating today represent these disciplines, and Davis is a place where they come together.
Today’s challenges require answers that are not confined to a single discipline. In fact they can’t be solved in any meaningful way by applying the industrial revolution model of reductionist, compartmentalized, myopic, thinking. Over time, academic disciplines have become increasingly isolated from each other and their scholarship even more constrained.
But colleges such as Davis break down those divisions. Davis recognizes that the only way to solve the pressing issues of our time–climate change, food security, natural resource scarcity, species extinctions, and poverty–is through multiple and seemingly unrelated disciplines. Today’s answers require us to think beyond our own silos, in a cross-disciplinary and inter-dependent way. This touches every one of you. Breaking down the barriers between disciplines can lead to futuristic solutions to any problem.
For example, fashion designers may one day team with microbiologists to develop fabrics that will contain living microbes that sense changes in body temperature and alter the material’s fibers to keep us warmer or cooler. Our clothes will be alive!
This isn’t about being connected, or even interconnected. Instead it’s about being interdependent.
As John Muir, the renowned naturalist and fierce advocate for wilderness, reminded us, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Today we find ourselves so connected to one another in so many ways that it is hard to image life without these connections. For instance, I can’t imagine raising my teenage daughters without the ability to keep in touch with them via text messaging or on Facebook.
The trouble is that we are losing a deeper sense of connection, not only with people around us, but also with nature and the natural systems that sustain us. For me, I have found forging those deeper connections, those interdependencies, has made all the difference in the world. After today, you will be setting off in a hundred different directions, but I urge you to continue to tend the special relationships you have with your professors and classmates. The world is smaller than you may think.
Now, one great thing about WVU is its close proximity to so many outdoor activities and the opportunity they provide to connect with nature. Cheat Lake, Seneca Rocks, New River Gorge, Dolly Sods, and on and on. I am sure all of you have had some great experiences in many of these places, some adventurous, some maybe a bit more contemplative—-and others that you would rather not share with your parents.
As I slogged my way through the landscape architecture program at WVU, I was continually drawn toward the natural world in all of these great places (and some I didn’t share with my parents either).
I became increasingly curious about how nature worked, and more importantly, how to put it back together again when it was broken. Fortunately, in the summer between my junior and senior years, I came across a company on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that was pioneering the science–and art–of tidal wetland restoration.
Like the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, many of our natural habitats are simply disappearing from the landscape. We have witnessed a precipitous decline in wetlands throughout the United States, — with over half of our original wetlands in the lower 48 drained or converted to other uses.
Except for the groundbreaking work associated with the restoration of the Curtis Prairie under the direction of Aldo Leopold in the late 1930’s…(which, by the way, is at the Longenecker Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin–named after William Longenecker, the father of recently retired WVU Landscape Architecture professor George Longenecker; a great connection back to WVU.)
…when I was in college only a handful of people had been engaged in what we now know as ecological restoration. Up until then, the primary means by which people participated in the environmental movement was to give money to a conservation organization that bought and protected land.
But I discovered Dr. Edgar Garbicsh, once a professor from the University of Michigan, who took a sabbatical in the early 1970s, moved to St. Michaels, Maryland, and began tinkering with salt marshes. He started by propagating and growing marsh grasses. Then he set out to learn about how marshes function. And finally he developed– through much on-the-ground trial and error–techniques to restore and revegetate tidal marshes up and down the Eastern seaboard. Today, tens of thousands of acres of marsh are restored each year thanks to Dr. Garbicsh’s tenacity, determination and vision of 40-some years ago.
For me, all I could think about at the time was, “How cool was this!!!” Someone was getting paid to be on the water all day, whizzing around in an airboat, planting marsh grasses and getting a tan. Now that was for me.
Little did I know that most days consisted of swatting away merciless mosquitoes, horse flies, and no-see-ums. Fighting off stinging nettles and sunburns. Getting stuck in the mud up to my chest and having to be rescued by ropes and winches out of the thick oozing muck. Watching my unmoored boat drift haplessly into a shipping lane in Baltimore Harbor. And if all of that were not enough, after an exhausting day of planting thousands of plugs of marsh grass, returning the next morning to find that all of the plants had been unceremoniously yanked from the ground and devoured by flocks of hungry geese during the night. Not as glamorous as I thought.
Even so, I was sold. And more importantly, I had a mentor. I started looking into this field called ecological restoration. It seemed obvious to me that people had a role in helping to restore ecological systems that had become damaged, degraded and destroyed. I also discovered that even though the field was in its infancy, it most likely required training in ecology, geomorphology, and a whole array of ‘ologies’ that would take me years to learn, not to mention that if I was going to be successful at this, I probably needed a good grounding in business. None of which I had.
I was about to graduate, so it was too late for me to begin taking electives in these disciplines. I finished out my undergraduate and without thinking of graduate school, immediately–and somewhat naively–started Biohabitats, an ecological restoration company.
This makes it sound like I knew exactly what I was doing. But it didn’t feel like it at the time. Many of you may still be looking for that job that grabs you; maybe you have an idea you’d like to pursue. Now is the time, but don’t expect it to be easy.
When my business partner left because he was tired of a shoe-string budget and living with his parents (so was I actually–and so were my parents), it certainly didn’t feel like I was implementing a grand plan. What I did have was a vision, or at least an inkling of a vision. Unlike many of my friends, this vision was not about making a lot of money, or even being employed.
Although I didn’t think about it in these terms at the time, looking back I now see that the vision I was beginning to articulate was about something much bigger, fairly audacious, and certainly outside of myself – Restore the Earth and Inspire Ecological Stewardship.
Many people (including my parents) weren’t so sure there was a market, or even a need for restoration. It turned out that having that vision–a vision that transcended an immediate desire to make a living, turned out to be even more powerful and fulfilling than I could have imagined.
I would wish the same for each of you. Having a vision is more powerful in that it not only keeps me focused on a bigger purpose, but more importantly it resonates with so many people. It is something that all of us can participate in and make a real difference. And it transcends generations and cultures.
Knowing that my actions have helped conserve valuable habitat for endangered species, such as the red cockaded woodpecker, or helped restore a vast swath of eastern deciduous forest, or helped inspire the City of Baltimore to make their Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by the year 2020, is extremely gratifying. As is knowing that these projects have supported the livelihoods of hundreds if not thousands of people around the globe.
A vision doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do today; it only tells you where you want to be in 5, 10 or say even 32 years from now. There were a thousand decisions along the way, and half the time I felt like I was making them without any plan at all. When you are in the early days of something, it doesn’t always feel like the beginning of anything–certainly not your life’s work. Often it is only by looking back that all of those daily choices fall into place and start to make more sense than they did at the time.
Over the years, it has become more clear to me that the glue that holds a vision together, that steers those thousands of choices toward a higher purpose, is passion. I – am – fortunate. I didn’t just find a job. I didn’t just find a career. I found a calling. I fell in love with the idea of restoring the earth and inspiring ecological stewardship. While it can be exhausting at times, it ignites me, it motivates me, it invigorates me, and most of all, it’s an absolute blast!
Some of you may have already found your calling, others not quite yet. That’s okay. Put trust in something you are passionate about doing and don’t let up. And dare to dream big. Come up with a vision with a higher purpose. Combine vision with your passion and nothing can stop you. Don’t be afraid to use it and don’t be afraid to take the lead. And when you do, be prepared. Be prepared to jump in full force, to stay true to your values and purpose, and to practice humility.
Remember, ‘Vision without action is a dream; action without vision is a nightmare.’ That’s courtesy of an Honest Tea bottle cap, often my source of profound inspiration. Perhaps even more inspiring are the words of Wendell Berry, the great American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, in what I believe is one of his best activist pieces: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Barry urges us to:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest. —
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold. —
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years. —-
I urge each of you to seek out and embrace diversity. Refocus from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s best for the common good?” Be the change agent. Dare to think big and love what you do. Go from being the best in the world to being the best for the world.
Congratulations to the class of 2014!
Go out and make the world a better place, for all life on Earth!
Thank you! Lets Go Mountaineers.
Keith Bowers, President
Keith Bowers © May 2014
Further ReadingConservation over fracking? Show me the money.
The eternal ripple of a restored stream
Drinking from a Long Straw
The Restoration Economy
Breaking Barriers: How I Shaped my Image with Advice from Sylvia Earle
More From This AuthorNew urbanism: too often practiced in an ecological vacuum
Ecological Restoration: In the year…
Learning from Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Restoring the Future
Millions of bees unintentionally killed in Zika battle. Need for systemic thinking.