Convocation 2011

Wanderlusting in the key of green
Betty M. Bayer
Professor and Chair, Women's Studies
August 29, 2011

On this convocation of the new academic year, I join our faculty, staff, Deans – Susanne McNally and Eugen Baer - Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty Pat McGuire, and President of these fair, coordinate colleges of Hobart and William Smith, Mark Gearan, in saying welcome and welcome back.

To the class of first year students, we appreciate all your years of preparing for this moment, however you measure them – in school years, facebook time, lines of text, number of tweets, books read, tunes played, or, breaths taken, for "breath is time," it marks an ending and a beginning, a renewal, and here we are embarking on a new academic year. (1)

So take a deep breath. Breathe In... Breathe Out. Find the rhythm in your breath and use it to bring your attention to your body, this place and this moment. Tune in to how one breath follows another and does so 21,600 times a day, a fact known from one of the oldest systems of thought. So here we are, renewing in ourselves with each breath a system of marking a lifetime thousands of years old.

Speech is breath too: It arrives on the wings of a breath of air at the rate of roughly ten syllables per breath.

Give it a whirl: try this phrase of ten syllables: Hobart and William Smith... breath-taking.

That speech is breath, and each breath travels the globe, reframes the connectivity of the words we send out texting, tweeting and speaking. Are "humans wired to tweet," ask researchers revisiting those ancient cave dwellers' squiggles? (2) Do they tell us about some "ancient human impulse to give status updates in short [breathy] bursts of information?" Squiggles as inhaling and exhaling remake worlds.

So here are at the beginning about to have our breath taken away by the wonders of liberal education and of you, our students, breathing new life into these colleges. For you are poised to stir the air of a new day beyond this campus and corner of the world.

That it is all about interconnectivity is probably already self-evident to you, a generation born and raised making media a social network in new ways. But it is also about balance: as a breath in is to a breath out, studying is to playing, culture to counter-culture, urban to rural, life of the mind to body of the planet.

This weekend, students labored to build and to revive playgrounds, places and spaces in which to thrive, to renew life and relationships, for all the reasons our honored guest and speaker Darrell Hammond addresses. His own years at Mooseheart set on "acres of lush lawns, a lake, farm and dairy" served in some ways to highlight the need of places to play, to explore, to plant trees, and to make community. Parks and playgrounds allow us to live "in the key of green," a key our brains take pleasure in, for our brains are, according to some scientists, "nature buffs." They like to be taken out for a stroll, a breath of fresh air. Some historians suggest that parks in the Victorian age brought nature into cities to buffer people from the increasing noisiness of urban life. In recent decades, parks called peace parks are being built to create another kind of buffer zone between conflict-ridden areas or countries.

There is a sort of renaissance of this idea of parks as buffer zones today. Cities, it turns out, have a kind of paradoxical effect on our lives, and this is important to know given that roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Urban buzz can sap our brain's attention, focus, emotional control and may even lower our inhibitions in the face of all those consumer temptations... cupcakes, french fries, poutine, cell apps, and a pair of wild boots. That same urban hum, however, can foster innovation. (3)

Botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger says part of what our "˜nature buff' brains respond to is the color "green" and part is the geometry of nature, its fractals, elements that combine in a seemingly infinite diversity of forms. (4) Seeing green is a counter-balance to urban stress. Seeing green is also to pay attention to nature's pleasing patterns, its fractals, a geometry of things at root similar and yet diverse such that mere sight of certain scenes tickle the brain with an endorphin rush – a natural high, if you will, a kind of tuning in and turning on from those neural place areas of mental recognition, the ones we rely on to orient to and to navigate our worlds. Maybe this is why Laurie Anderson sings of her bossy brain directing her to take it out to the park?

Perhaps writers and thinkers have been on to this for centuries. Maybe these neural paths are "extensions of walking" as Rebecca Solnit writes. (5) Walking engages body and mind: poets, such as William Wordsworth, walked out the rhythm of their poetry, freeing their minds even as their feet kept measure on the ground and writers such as Virginia Woolf opened public spaces for women's freedom of mind, thought and expression.

The walking paths we make, says Solnit, are an "acting out of imagination and desire." Walking may lead us to stray, it may make of us wanderlusters - venturers, flaneurs and flaneuses, seekers of color, movement, shapes, sound, and textures, explorers of the full five senses.

To be a wanderluster is perhaps to live in the key of green. (6) Wanderlusters may well find their mantra in lines from writer Arundhati Roy, as Former Canadian Ambassador to the UN and co-director of an AIDS_Free World reminded us recently in his eulogy for Canadian NDP leader Jack Layton:

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

One breath is roughly four seconds in length, one minute of an arc of the earth revolving. Ten syllables issue in one breath; words moved some of the longest revolutions for human rights – women's movement, civil rights and lesbian and gay rights. Revolutions of nature are movements in thought, feeling and connection.

So, breathe in, breathe out; free up your mind. Go wanderlusting in the key of green so you can plot the path of your liberal education as one of a revolution in the art and science of living well together in this home we call earth.


(1) I thank Iyengar yoga teacher Rick Lynch for his teachings on finding in patterns of breath (prana) ways of living mindfully. I also thank Merrill Amos '11 whose music reminds us: "Don't Forgot to Breathe."

(2) For innovative approaches to technology questions, and especially questions noted here on ancient "squiggles" and twitter, I draw on Nora Young's "Spark" program on CBC Radio One.

(3) See Jonah Lehrer, "How the city hurts your brain...and what you can do about it," Boston Globe, 4 Jan 2009: C.1.

(4) See Beresford-Kroeger, Diana (2010). The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us. NY: Viking. Also see:

(5) Solnit, Rebecca (2000). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Viking.

(6) For a wonderful exposition on the history of 'green,' the senses and consciousness, see Bruce R. Smith's (2009) The Key of Green, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.