Lecturing has always come easily to me. Backed by the technical, the theoretical, a few supporting slides, and a captive audience of college students or peers, I've given hundreds of presentations in classrooms and professional meetings. But after many years of stale introductions, methods, results, and conclusions, I began to wonder if anyone was listening -- and if there was real reason for them to.
In lecture after lecture I regurgitated factoids and data that were readily available in the readings. And between the slides of animals on the verge of extinction and of tropical rainforests being slashed, burned, and mowed down by cattle, I sounded to my own ears like the apocalyptic preachers. I looked into my audience and saw drawn expressions of boredom and dread. Day after day, semester after semester, year after year, I droned on. Yes, I was presenting the facts. Yes, I was publishing the facts. But it seemed to me that the facts never created motivation to make things better. [...]
A few years later, I spent several springs in northern Vermont, writing and thinking about nature in a different way. In that strange place my right brain flickered back on. The need to impress other professors, pile up peer-reviewed publications, and cache grant dollars began to give way to a desire for consciousness. Vermont was the greenest place I'd ever been. It was also a place where no one knew me. In that freedom my stress-tightened shoulders dropped and the tension in my jaw lessened. I slowed down and walked dirt roads -- sometimes barefoot and empty minded, with not much more in my head than the present moment. Warbling vireos and least flycatchers were the only audiences I entertained.
Within the past couple of years I've given fewer and fewer (statistics-driven) presentations. More and more I find myself taking the hard data and wrapping it in genuine caring. The words are flocks of inspiration that I want to migrate from my mouth into the heads and hearts of others. I shake hands less now and give hugs more. I exchange more heartbeats than business cards. The energy is palpable.
In my moments of confession in front of strangers, talking about my love of something much greater than any one of us, I become a freer me. Each time I am reborn. For all those years of running from anything resembling religion and all the scientific training that tells me to doubt anything outside of the prescribed (statistical) limits, I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than by what I can. As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.
The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. Excerpt above from his celebrated book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.