This spring, I had the honor of speaking at the commencement of my alma mater, the University of WisconsinStevens Point. Here is some of what I told the graduates:
I want to start with a story about a trip to one of my favorite placesthe Firth River Valley in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Compared to the razoredged peaks in the heart of the Brooks Range, the Firth River Valley is handsome at best. Her hills roll more gently; a brushy ruggedness belies the peaceful nature of the place.
We were walking along the edge of the river, slipping in and out of the willows and onto gravel bars as the river laughed at our stumbling. Large piles of droppings chocked full of bright red berries reminded us we shared this land with grizzly bears.
Shed moose antlers occasionally marked our way. A bird flew low along the horizon to the south. Someone quickly identified it as a hawk owl.
I had read a report of a biological reconnaissance of the Firth that had taken place some 15 years earlier. The report noted that a hawk owl was found nesting in nearly the exact location we were exploring. I thought that my hawk owl could be the grandson or greatgranddaughter of that bird seen 15 years earlier.
Had hawk owl lived here when Columbus discovered a new world? No doubt about it. Had hawk owl seen the scimitar cat and the shortfaced bear? Did hawk owl hear the thunder of the mastodon? I didnt know.
Hawk owl had connected me to the landscape in a way that both recalls and predicts our evolutionary destiny. A sense of our primeval past had merged with a consideration of what lies ahead for our species and our planetand for hawk owl.
I tell this story today because, in this, another timeless moment, we also reflect on the past and look to the future.
While the paths you are choosing differ, each and every one can be approached with an attitude of humble service. Consider what you want to do, not what you want to be; what you want to give, not what you want to get. It is through the nature of your service rather than your choice of discipline that you will find happiness and fulfillment.
My career and lifes work have been about conserving the nature of America, her wild places and wildlife. The foundation for that work was laid during my years here.
I felt great joy and excitement exploring the wild places of Wisconsin. I remember seeing my first bald eagle at Big Sand Lake near Phelps, hearing the bugling call of sandhill cranes at Necedah, watching prairie chickens on their booming grounds at Buena Vista. That sense of place kindles a desire to be thoughtful stewards of the land and water and the wild creatures that live therein.
I find it astonishing that even my field, the conservation of Americas natural resources, is controversial and divisive. There is nothing more conservative than the conservative use of our natural resources, nothing more progressive than building a sustainable future for our nation and our planet. They are the same thing. The new greatest generation must build bridges not walls. I hope you are that new generation.
I hope the university will, in the year 2046, ask one of you to ascend this stage and address the graduating class. I hope you will report that you not only kept our world free, but that you made our presence on this good planet sustainable,that you kept it livable for our speciesand for hawk owl. Tell them how you did it through your hard work and your humble service, your innovation and thoughtful stewardship, through your fearlessness.
The entire speech is available at http://www.fws.gov/refuges/Kurth_Commencement_Speech.