Let’s Just Stick to Email
Reflections on Grad School and Ecological Irreverence
“You are just like everyone else, Mel. You’re one in millions, actually thousands”, he said. “I know you feel special, but you are just not. I have heard this story hundreds of times. And as your older brother I have to tell you that I have experienced it often myself”. My brother (deep time ancient connected brother) and I had this real deal heart to heart Saturday morning. I was sitting on the pier next to Scripps Institute on UC San Diego’s Campus and I was thinking of his work saving the world’s oceans and how I have always looked up to him. He had read my first thesis, and said, “Where’s your null? You are a scientist aren’t you? Where is your null?” That was the first time anyone had ever called me that, and I was 33 years old and teaching science at a small liberal university everyday. Jesse had always watched out for me-- thought I could take on the world and was willing to call me on my bull. He had traveled to Scripps often over the past 30 years to work there among his colleagues and friends (the world’s greatest oceanographers), so I texted him a pic of the pier and said, “If you are a real oceanographer you will tell me where I am right now?” Of course, he got in on the first try.
I took a long barefoot run along the Pacific dodging Coquina shells that I always used to collect to show him and I thought Jesse would know what to say. He had lived a life in academia and sciences; raised a family and gotten divorced. He would know what to do. So, I called him. Curled up in my sweatshirt and running leggings I gazed out at the rolling waves of the Pacific littered with humanity I tuned into his southern crusty drawl. “Mel, you are doing amazing work with amazing people. I have lived a career and a life, and here’s what I am going to say. Don’t fuck this up. What you are doing is way too important and way too good to ruin. Get up everyday and just go to work. Keep personal personal and professional professional. Call me when you need someone to talk to and share with. We can be completely honest (100%) and then whenever you want to map because you need it in your life, you call your big brother. We will use sonar instead of ground-truthing, but I think I can teach you some things”. I laughed. I guess he was right, my world-class-oceanographer-former-William-and-Mary-professor-ocean-saving-grant-funded-divorced brother had some things he could teach me.
I crested the hill back (that treacherous one that makes it way back to the five freeway) and I saw a cottontail smushed on the road. How did she get there? How did she end up laid out smeared on pavement rather back in the Palo Verde bush surrounded by falling Eucalyptus leaves. She took her eyes off the road, of course.
I finished grad school one month and eight days ago, and to be honest, I took my eyes of the road. The road inside grad school was so fulfilling, loving and life-giving. I was surrounded by amazing friends from Canada, Peru, Qatar, Egypt, Japan, Portland, California, Boston, and every place in between through online courses. I talked to conservationists and ecologists daily about the ails of the planet and read a research article at least once a day (downloaded for free from Harvard Library). I worked every afternoon and into the early morning on crafting my perfect speech in the Universe. My words, the ones I had in me since I was seven years old, came out in droves like a spring of pure water rolling onto the page with every keystroke. I was elated, ecstatic, and euphoric. When I crested the final hill, graduation, I felt as Everest had been conquered and the Colorado River had been paddled for the first time ever with John Wesley Powell in a wooden boat. I felt that the people I had journeyed among were the best people I ever met and I hoped to never have to break up our flow. The sense of accomplishment I felt walking across Harvard Yard as my name was called and hearing some of the greatest conservationists and smartest people in the world clapping made me feel like flying.
The night before graduation I took a couple (well maybe more than a couple) tequila shots with my marine ecologist buddy and she began to replay ecologically irreverent stories from her time in grad school. “Let’s just spend a moment reflecting on hermaphroditic snails and their detachable gonads. I mean they are fucking phenomenal. Go to the Malacological Club in Boston and they will take you deep diving to discover sea snail penises that fence with one another”. I am snickering in the background of her living room comedy hour as she stands wildly on the sofa flinging a tequila shot in her hand and I am rolling around on the floor unable to catch my breath. “Then let’s talk about the time that I accidentally texted my librarian that meeting this famous female marine biologist gave me a continuous orgasm”. “WHAT?”, I yelled. “You must explain yourself, because that is just too funny”.
“Well, ya know, how when women really like something they say it gives you a continuous orgasm”, she says. “Yeah, okay, I get that” I laugh. Well, I met this famous marine biologist and I thought I was texting my friend about this awesome and inspiring encounter and instead it was accidentally the librarian who had been trying to give me resources for my thesis, and he replied, “Let’s just stick to email”. The laughter erupted and we both started rolling on the couch together. How does this happen? How does this crazy shit happen?
I have plenty of stories of ecological irreverence, where nature has blown my mind over the past three years of grad school, and equally I have plenty of stories like hers, where life didn’t go as I meant it to go and I wake up the next morning saying, “CRAP! SHIT! FUCK! What in the world, how did that happen? What the hell was I thinking?” Looking back at our stories, I realize, you can’t make this up. It’s too outlandish, too wild, and too embarrassing that we would never purposely do this to ourselves.
So, what I have learned in the past 38 days after grad school? Ecologists are human and we are living in a very funny ecological world. You can be one of the most educated women in the world, and still not have your life together. You can feel like you are flying and then splat you are the cottontail who took her eyes off the road.
As I listen to my older brother, Jesse, and his wealth of experience, I first remember that I am not alone in my pursuit for scientific knowledge and that along this journey it is going to be easy to get deeply connected and attached to the people I work alongside. In addition, if I want to keep doing the work I am doing for the long haul (to save terrestrial land like he is saving the oceans) then I need to wake up every morning and keep my eyes on the road-- keep personal personal and professional professional. Email the things that are important and when I need a funny ecological irreverent moment I can always call my marine biologist friend and talk about marine sex organs. If I ever need an ego boost over text, I can call my brother who thinks I am beautiful, smart, funny, and totally cool. Then I can go home and remember that I am like everyone else in the world-- totally not special at all and just utterly human.
Melissa B. Wilson, A.L.M. and M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduated from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.