Hope has Wings
It’s late October here in Prescott, Arizona, and summer seems to be lingering, maybe loitering, as if it had nothing better to do. Frost has yet to visit, and the warm afternoons invite shorts and light shirts, somewhat to the delight of the mosquitoes, who have not given up on summer either.
But the birds are not fooled. Bald Eagles are showing up at the lakes, where the swallows are long gone. Sparrows and juncos visit the feeders, far from their breeding grounds, while orioles and grosbeaks are likely sipping the avian equivalent of margaritas south of the border. Anna’s Hummingbirds now have the feeders to themselves, after having to put up with frenetic late-summer swarms of competitors of three different species. Ash and walnut trees display the golden garb of autumn, and cottonwood leaves skitter across the ground as the breezes play. Butterflies are moving through in large numbers, finding our massive butterfly bush a nectar bar well worth visiting.
This fall has brought many Monarchs through. Today there were six of the large, brilliant, black-and-orange butterflies at the bush, easily outclassing the rather drab Queen and the two Painted Ladies-in-waiting. Royalty is not democratic.
Monarchs are dependent on milkweeds, plants with milky sap that protects them from most depredating insects. Monarchs, as well as a few true bugs and beetles, have circumvented the toxic defenses and incorporate the cardiac glycosides into their own bodies, a form of chemical recycling with tangible survival benefits. Their striking orange-and-black patterns apparently deter most potential predators; birds have been shown to avoid Monarchs after tasting a bit of a “hot wing.”
The Monarch is certainly one of the best known and most popular species of insects in this country. Their amazing long-distance migrations from throughout their summer continental range to small winter refugia in the mountains of Mexico and the coast of California are legendary. On the return migration, they stop in a milkweed patch and lay their eggs, which hatch, devour milkweed as caterpillars, grow until morphing into a chrysalis, then transform magically into the flying adult. This heads north, stopping to repeat the process. Thus the Monarchs that reach the northern parts of their range are several generations removed from the ones that migrated south the previous fall. There are no parental lessons, no lepidopteran guide books—just a built-in navigation system honed over countless generations by the sickle of natural selection. Truly remarkable!
The Monarch and its spectacular migration, to me, symbolize hope. Hope springs eternal. If a delicate butterfly, tossed erratically in the winds, vulnerable to accidents and shortages of food plants (especially in the Midwest, where pesticides have knocked them back in lamentable fashion), can travel hundreds of miles, then we sturdy vertebrates, with our technology, education, and abundant resources, surely have it relatively easy. I don’t know if the insect possesses hope, which may be a human construct, but it is easy to extrapolate the persistence and insistence on living that we see in the Monarch as implying determination, grit, and hope.
This weekend has brought more than Monarchs into my consciousness. I am now on the Board of Trustees of Prescott College, and yesterday after a prolonged search process, we selected a new president, John Flicker. With this choice, we are experiencing a revival of hope for the future of our beloved college. Mr. Flicker was president of the National Audubon Society for 15 years, and the coincidence of that name heading an organization heavily focused on birds has generated both smiles and questions. But there was nothing about John’s early life that suggested a straight track toward anything having to do with birds; it just worked out that way.
I had the pleasure of taking John Flicker, who visited Prescott College briefly in early April, to the Upper Verde River for an afternoon of birding and nature study. Birds were plentiful and diverse, but something else was going on. John and I connected, and the story of Prescott College filled the interstices between observations of raptors, hummingbirds, wrens (five species in what surely must be the high-wren district), and warblers. I did not need binoculars to see that John Flicker was visionary, and he did not need a powerful scope to magnify what he quickly perceived to be a remarkable educational institution in need of new direction and leadership. Not long after this, he applied for the job. Among 65 candidates, he soared to the top.
In 23 years of teaching at Prescott College, I have ridden a roller coaster of emotions as the state of the college undulated with the typical flight pattern of a woodpecker—rising and falling alternately, but staying in the air. In recent years, no doubt because of the national financial crisis and a cultural change regarding the value of higher education, the undulating flight has trended downward, and with the declining student population, staffing was forced to decline, as well. Morale followed the descending curve; pain, confusion, and pessimism grew. A leadership vacuum sucked spirits ever lower. A departing president, who was unable or unwilling to reverse the trend, was followed by the board chair, John Van Domelen, stepping forward, without asking for salary, to stop the bleeding. John was faced with hard decisions, having to reduce the number of employees, but the process was done as kindly and humanely as possible.
A funny thing happened. Despite the shrinkage of staffing, morale rebounded. Hope and trust returned. The search for a new president was long, but everyone worked together with a common goal. At the end of the process, we had a new John to take the reins, starting as early as December 1.
What gives us hope, what convinces us that this is not a normal presidency at a time when we need much more than that, is that John Flicker is a known strong leader, a visionary one, whose charisma is as bright and winning as is the plumage of a male Northern Cardinal. Our slogan—for the liberal arts, the environment, and social justice—fits John as if he were preordained to come here. John’s successes in collaborative leadership and fund-raising are exactly what we need. As board members often say, “there is nothing here that a million dollars might not cure.”
Of course, hope must not be blind. Hope can inspire us to do our very best, and that will be as important as anything John does. Misdirected hope can become unrealistic expectations. That sinking flight pattern will not suddenly result in an exponential growth curve. Changing momentum does not happen instantly.
However, as one who has watched our graduates out in the world doing amazing things, I know that faculty hope for student success has been realized. Our sacrifices and commitment to help our students were not misplaced hope. We can take a small measure of satisfaction knowing that we were not deceived by wishful thinking; the Prescott College model does work in producing remarkable graduate who still are striving to save the world. Those are transformations every bit as miraculous as the emergence of an elegant butterfly from a silent cocoon.
I believe John Flicker gets this. He has always focused on worthy causes, and he has repeatedly met the challenge of turning a small, struggling organization with high ideals into much more. Magic is not as mysterious as it sounds—it is merely the perfectly timed conjunction of improbabilities. I don’t play the lottery, but I am willing to bet on this conjunction.