Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2014 (July 10, 2014)

Life of the Mind

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July 17, 2014

In any given semester at Beloit, the calendar is brimming with lectures, poster presentations, performances, and panel discussions, some given by visiting scholars and artists, others delivered by Beloit’s fine faculty and staff. In the spring of 2014, magazine staff covered a handful of these events so that we could share them with you.

Useless Beauty

tropical bird

Scott Russell Sanders / Mackey Chair in Creative Writing

Essays lend themselves to questions, not answers, Scott Russell Sanders told the crowd that braved below-freezing temperatures to hear him read from his work in Moore Lounge in February.

The essayist, memoirist, and environmental writer held the Lois and Willard Mackey Chair in Creative Writing in 2014, the program’s 26th year. Beyond the public reading, Sanders led a writers’ workshop with 14 students over half the spring semester.

Sanders started by reading his essay “Useless Beauty,” which asks why there is so much beauty in the world (think sunsets, bird song, butterfly wings). He questioned what this beauty demands of us, entering his subject through a particular object—a sliced-in-half nautilus shell, a gift that he and his wife display in their home. They exhibit one side showing the butterscotch-dappled exterior; the other opens to the mother-of-pearl, spiraling chambered interior.

“Why such beauty in a sea shell?” Sanders asked. It turns out that the external pattern serves a practical purpose as camouflage to predators. He pointed to other beautiful things that are useful—the smell of a rose, for instance, fragrant to attract pollinators. “If you carefully observe anything alive, you’ll find something biologically useful that is also beautiful,” Sanders said.

But Sanders’ central question focused on beauty without practical purpose, like the lustrous interior of the nautilus. Sanders cited other examples: “the arias of humpback whales, fish gaudier than clowns, birds as flamboyant as Victorian Easter hats.” He asked: “Why all the flare and filigree?”

Sanders proposed three possible explanations for useless beauty: the existence of a creator in love with beauty, a fanciful accident from an indifferent universe, or a matter of perception. All three, he writes, demand something of us. A creator’s handiwork would be sacred and deserving of care. Useless beauty as a lucky accident should be treasured for the unearned gift that it is. And, finally, neither sacred nor secular, beauty as an experience that nourishes us or those around us should be valued and protected for its own sake.

Sanders wrapped up with an observation: We are increasingly distanced from nature, and we will not protect what we do not know. Yet he argued that beauty in nature has boundless value and is worthy of our care. “Beauty calls us out of our selves, feeds our senses, inspires affection and gratitude,” he said.

—Susan Kasten


The Eighth Continent

tree canopy

Margaret Lowman / Roy Chapman Andrews Society Distinguished Explorer

Margaret Lowman, also known as “Canopy Meg,” gave a public lecture in Eaton Chapel in April after accepting the 2014 Roy Chapman Andrews Society’s Distinguished Explorer Award. The award, given to contemporary explorers, pays homage to Andrews, the celebrated 20th century explorer and member of the Beloit College class of 1906.

Lowman is considered the world’s leading forest canopy explorer. Earlier this year, she became the inaugural chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences. She is a biologist, educator, ecologist, writer, editor, and public speaker.

Clad in khaki pants and a matching vest, Lowman looked every bit the part as she gave her talk, “It’s a Jungle Up There: How Canopy Exploration is Conserving Global Forests,” accompanied by a colorful slideshow depicting her treetop adventures.

Lowman, who uses hot-air balloons and treetop walkways to explore what she calls the “eighth continent,” argues that forests are worth more alive than dead. To that end, she is working on a variety of sustainability projects around the world.

These involve teaching Ethiopians how to build stone wall perimeters to preserve their forests, encouraging the use of treetop walkways in Western Samoa to attract tourists, and helping Cameroon villagers make a living from orchids instead of logs.

Children are another topic close to Lowman’s heart. A single mom, Lowman took her two now-grown sons on many of her adventures as they grew up and even included their journal entries in a book she co-authored with them. 

Her dream is for all kids to climb trees, including those with disabilities, coining the phrase “No child left indoors.”

Lowman is also a big believer in passion.

“If we follow our hearts and dreams, maybe it will make us a little more successful or at least happier at the end of the day,” she said.

-Hilary Dickinson

Shakespeare and Sex

Tom McBride / Beloit College Keefer Professor of the Humanities

As he surveyed Richardson Auditorium one evening in mid-April, English Professor and Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride noted the larger-than-usual audience.

“I’m sure it’s because it’s my last [lecture], and not because it’s about sex,” he said. (McBride retired from teaching in May.)

It was the first laugh line of the night, but certainly not the last, as he delivered “SEXSPEARE: William Shakespeare’s Anthropology of Sex.” The quip set the tone for McBride’s last Keefer and Keefer lecture, a perfect illustration of his trademark wit, gruff charm, and renowned oratorical skills. He even poked fun at being marketed as “a legend” prior to the event. “I always wanted to be called a legend, because I wanted to have something in common with Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper,” he said.

When he turned to the topic at hand, sex and Shakespeare, he noted that if animals (baboons, say) turned a critical eye on human sexual behavior, it might seem as bizarre as some animals’ mating habits seem to us, like female insects who eat their sexual partners. “We insist on sex in private; human women conceal, rather than advertise, ovulation.” Citing the anthropologist Jared Diamond, he asks, “Who is really crazy here? To monkeys and water buffaloes, it is we humans who are nuts, with our habits of private copulation and hidden ovulation.”

While Shakespeare is no anthropologist, McBride said, he is known for showing us new things, for creating characters who experience unexpected revelations.

“So here’s the question: if Shakespeare had written a book on features of human sexuality, would he himself have come up with strange ideas about it?” McBride asked. Offering Shakespearean characters Hamlet, Lear, and Portia as examples, he set about expounding on this theme, in three parts: “Is sex necessary, or wise?” “A chance for romance,” and “The bed trick,” which he described as “the most salacious.”

After finishing to a round of applause, McBride fielded questions, pacing in front of the podium, hands in his pockets.

When one audience member asked why he chose Shakespeare and sex as the topic of his last lecture, he grinned and said that it was “purely commercial.”

“I thought it would be a little embarrassing if it was my last lecture and no one came, so I decided to have it on a topic that would bring people out,” he said.

—Lynn Vollbrecht’06

Drone Wars

Beth Dougherty / Beloit College Manger Professor of International Relations

Grab your lunch and tune in virtually or in person for a lecture: That’s the objective of a live-streamed “Lunchbox Series” Beloit debuted last fall.

Among the half-dozen lectures held so far, one of the most-viewed to date—and perhaps the timeliest—was about drones, given by Beth Dougherty in January.

An expert in Middle East politics, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy, Dougherty used her talk to call for transparency and debate on the use of drones for targeted killing.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have called armed drones, a direct result of the 9/11 attacks, the most effective counter-terrorism tool because they kill terrorists, keep American troops from engaging in danger, and minimize civilian casualties.

That last point is hard to prove though, Dougherty argued, as the public doesn’t have any good information about who is killed by drones. Many of the strikes occur in remote areas with no outside observers. Furthermore, the United States has never confirmed that the CIA carries out drone strikes and only occasionally confirms that the Joint Special Operations Command does.

Recently leaked Pakistani documents, however, allege there have been 330 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 and approximately 2,200 people killed, among them 400 civilians and another 200 possible civilians, according to Dougherty. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reached a similar conclusion, reporting 381 strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2013 and an estimated 416 to 951 civilian casualties.

The U.S. government’s basic argument is to trust that drones are the most useful and effective tool, but Dougherty asserts that the public should have a debate about whether or not they are the only tool in counter-terrorism and if they are counterproductive because they radicalize populations and stir anti-American sentiment.

To carry out this debate, she said there needs to be discussions in the media, people need to be willing to listen to critics of drones, and Congress should hold hearings on the subject.

—Hilary Dickinson

Vandana Shiva / Weissberg Chair in Human Rights

Time magazine called her an environmental hero in 2003. The Guardian named her one of the top 100 women in the world in 2011. Forbes magazine identified her as one of its seven most powerful women on the globe in 2010.

While world-renowned activist Vandana Shiva holds claim to these credits, she’s also been the subject of criticism due to her strong opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Shiva is not one to shy away from controversy, though, and neither is Beloit College, which invited her to serve as the 2013-14 Weissberg Chair in Human Rights so that she could share her perspective on access, availability, and quality of food as a human right.

During her week-long stay in late March and early April, she visited classes, attended a documentary screening and poster sessions, participated in panel discussions, and enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner at Bushel & Peck’s Local Market in Beloit.

Shiva’s main public event was a keynote address given in Eaton Chapel, titled “The Right to Food: Women, Development, and the Global Economy.”

Shiva argues that we as consumers need a major awakening to the perils of an industrialized food system that she says is financially, ecologically, economically, and health-wise too heavy a burden for the Earth and our bodies.

“I feel what we need is a bypass of the cholesterol of greed that has blocked the arteries of the food system,” she said.

To do this, Shiva ended her speech with an action list that included eating food from local farms and supporting the labeling of all GMO foods.

“Intelligence is living on this Earth in ways that we can have a future and our children can have a good future. I know that we as a species are intelligent enough to make that change,” she said. 

—Hilary Dickinson

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