CONVOCATION ADDRESS 2016 – UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN BRITISH COLUMBIA
THE HOPE OF THE PRESENT
Chancellor, President, honoured guests, faculty, and most of all, graduating students and their friends and families. I thank you for honouring me today.
I squat on my haunches in a coastal estuary under the limbs of an old crabapple planted a hundred years ago. No people come here now to pick its fruit. Only the bears feast here. They climb the tough trees in the autumn to eat the hard little apples, the taste so sharp it burns the tongue. I nibble on a fallen fruit and think this place is close to paradise. Fifteen feet from me is the tributary of a river come down from the mountains. The water in the narrow side channel is shallow, the backs of the salmon breaking the surface. The fish have laid their eggs and spread their milt and now wait out the last few days of their lives. Strewn on the banks of the river are dead salmon, most of them partly eaten, what remains rotting in the sun. The eggs laid here are the generation to come.
On the far bank of the river three small grizzly cubs play with the carcass of a salmon. They will spend the coming winter with their mother in the den. Just beyond the cubs is their mother. She is ripping up gouts of muddy dirt, feasting on the thick roots of the grasses she unearths. Her head is as big as my chest, her paws the size of dinner plates, her claws long as my fingers. Her cubs play together, the salmon they are fighting over falling apart in their small jaws, their tiny milk teeth. I sit and watch her feed. The grizzly mother knows I am here. Her eyesight is poor, but she can smell me.
The quiet here is as loud as river water, loud as the wind in the crabapple trees and aspens, loud as the wheeling gulls, the crows and ravens. The animals and birds surround me and I am one among many. The grizzly lifts her head, strips of grass roots dangling from her jaws. The two biggest cubs roll over each other in a fight, their growls and plaintive cries as much laughter as tears. She looks at them for a moment and then falls down on her huge rump and, sitting up, spreads her front legs wide. The rumble she makes is soft and low and the cubs race to the sound. Her two huge breasts are swollen, her milk leaking, running down her chest. The two bigger cubs get to her first and each grabs a nipple to suckle. The little cub squeezes under their paws and licks at the milk they spill. As they feed the mother grizzly pulls them close, her front legs and paws cradling them. She raises her great head, her eyes closed. The bear’s visage is one of contentment and pleasure and what can only be described as love. Beneath that wild apple tree I am undone and sitting there find in me a profound compassion for their lives.
My grandfather was born in 1875, my father in 1906, and I was born in 1939. During that century and a half our three generations ate the world. We ate and ate until there was almost nothing left. We consumed the forests and emptied the fields, we consumed the seas, we ate the animals, the fish, and the birds, the grasses and the shrubs. We turned the mountains and plains into coffee, olive, and grape plantations, whole landscapes into cotton, corn, and wheat. We emptied the lakes and rivers of water, melted the glaciers, filled the air with carbons and acids, the ocean with vast islands of plastic.
You who are graduating today have been left very little by us. The wild world around us here is mostly gone to pine beetles, clear-cuts, and trophy hunters. I sat by that river two years ago and watched the great bear feed her cubs. To me they were were the last grizzlies in the world, no different than the vanishing African lions, Chinese tigers, Madagascar lemurs. Today I cannot imagine the grizzly I watched dead, cannot imagine her skull decorating a mantlepiece in Berlin, Beijing, Toronto, or New York.
May that mother grizzly live forever in the wombs and seeds of her cubs as we older ones here on this stage will live on in your wombs, your seeds. I want to tell you there are nights when this old man grieves, but I am not grieving right now. Today I am speaking to you, the graduates of this University, and I ask for your bravery and courage, your compassion and humility. I ask you to act and put an end to our sorrows. I ask you to dare to love this only world of ours with your whole hearts. Don’t believe them when they tell you you are the hope of the future. You are not. You are the hope of the present. You are this hour, this day, and I ask you now, what are you going to do with it?