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Saturday, Jun 25, 2022

Op-Ed: John Elder

When I heard from friends and teachers that John Elder would be retiring from Middlebury College, it was at the beginning of my junior year, late in 2008. It was not the first time I’d heard that it had come time for him to leave after some three decades, an amazingly long tenure. At the time, posters had been put up around campus advertising a lecture that Elder would be giving, based on the premise that it would be his final lecture ever. On the night of the event, I went down to Bicentennial Hall on anxious, hurried feet.

I wasn’t sure who John Elder was; only that he was something of a fabled man around here, an author of several books about literature and landscape. My parents had seen him speak in New York City, where I’m from, and afterwards told me that if there was anything that I should do in my years in Vermont as an English major, it should be taking one of Elder’s classes. I soon learned that those classes were very hard to get into, and were not always being offered. I thought that seeing Elder that night would be my only chance to get to know the man, and being in the familiar rush that consumes us here as Middlebury students, I took only a pen and whatever piece of paper was free on my desk. I walked into a full lecture hall, where things had not quite settled. I’ll always remember Elder as he began to speak at the podium. Something about his presence, the air of humility that surrounded him, the unadorned, earnest and eloquent way in which he spoke was palpable, a brilliant light in the room.

John had passed around a short packet, where he’d pasted several passages from different writers and thinkers across disciplines that had given him insight over the years. Among the most memorable of these was a poem by Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.” The poem describes a small, seemingly innocuous moment, in which the speaker holds a grasshopper in her palm and, by chance, begins to ask some simple questions in its presence.

Like the grasshopper from the poem, we are bound to feed upon life’s sweetnesses. Life is generous with us, and, like the grasshopper, there will be times along our journey when we are forced to depart from that old sugaring ground and to move on, remaining strong along the road, nurtured by moments of insight like the one offered to the speaker in the poem by the simple, enigmatic grasshopper.

As spring melts into summer, John Elder leaves us with a wealth of insight, language, and inspiration that will remain passionately scribbled in our notebooks — you know, the kind of notebook you hold on to for years and years to come. Perhaps the greatest lesson Elder has taught me is that the truest forms of wisdom, the kind of wisdom that radiates from him, is wisdom that asks questions, and challenges us to see further, beyond ourselves. “What is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” John has taught us that the best classroom discussions are the ones where nobody has the answers, and instead, students and professors alike are inspired to build off each other’s ideas in an effort to see deeper into the questions of our hearts, minds and souls. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” But we do know one when we hear it, and we do pray, trusting that higher force of love when we need it. Thank you, John, for all that you’ve taught me — and for reminding us that sometimes, the mystery is more important than the answer.