"My Turn"

Daniel White of Kapolei, Oʻahu and a member of Keawalaʻi, is an occasional contributor to My Turn. This article is from the July-August 2017 issue of the church newsletter.



A friend responded to a recent About Aging piece musing about his legacy. That is a word we have heard a lot. In the last year of the previous presidency, pundits prattled on about Obama’s leaving a legacy, and now there is an equally frenzied look at how the legacy might be undone.

The target is too easy to make fun of those wise souls who inform us that so-and-so is adding to her legacy and the legacy of the other so-and-so is being undone. They clamor for attention so that their paper, or station or cable service, or blog can get notice, meaning financial support from advertisers. For better or worse, that is our system of informing the public in our country.

At least, though, couldn’t we be encouraged to think about something we could actually affect? How many people, if any, can control their legacy, at least as conventionally defined by the media folks?

For example, my friend noted that creating a school contributes to a legacy. My response as one who helped to create a school? You might get a plaque on a wall, and you could cite your role on your gravestone. But some years after you are gone, no child is going to remember who you were unless the school is named for you. You played a role, yes. But the legacy in that school, such as it might be, is the one built by the people who inhabit the school year after year.

People often forget that Thomas Jefferson created a school and even etched that fact on his gravestone. I bet most of the people attending University of Virginia would miss that fact if his statue weren’t on campus. (Note: Jefferson did not include being President of the United States on that tombstone.)

People of a Certain Age, I don’t doubt that we have all engaged at one time or another in speculation about whether or not we will be remembered after we die, and if so, how. I am hopeful that we seldom take action with our eyes on future critics; we live here and now with today’s problems and possibilities. As Kenny Rogers’ Gambler advises “you never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table . . . ” There’s time enough when the dealing is done, and then you are dead anyway.

My friend’s question arrived as Judy and I were reading what could be the most profound cautionary tale about building legacy in a book called The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. The book is about Alexander van Humboldt.

Here’s a challenge: Name three important facts about Alexander von Humboldt. If you cannot, you are hardly alone.

Only one of our friends, who are a well educated bunch and a few educated in science, knew more about him than about the Humboldt Current off the Pacific coast of the U.S. So, it will surprise you to learn that Humboldt, a Prussian, was the most widely read and universally respected scientist in the world for the first half of the 19th Century. Charles Darwin carried Humboldt’s writings with him on The Beagle and based much of his theorizing on thoughts Humboldt had as well. Name a scientist - Planck, Lyell - of that era and they all owed something of their thinking to Humboldt.

Humboldt got right the shift in tectonic plates, the relationship between the heavens and the tides, the fact that plants at the same altitude but on different continents tended to be more alike than different, that nature was one big interwoven web of complex systems.

He was called the first ecologist, although one of our friends noted that her college professor said that the term was invited in the 1970s, one who took the disparate elements of the physical and biological scientific worlds and made clear how affecting one area impacts another. He was a friend of Goethe and Gallatin, a correspondent of Jefferson, a highly sought-after speaker so generous with his financial support of aspiring scientists that he could not afford to purchase a complete set of his own writings.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 1869, there were large festivals thrown in his honor in the United States. So what happened to Humboldt?

Two main things: 1. increasing specialization in science in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th; and 2. World Wars One and Two when Germans and their achievements were not popular in the U.S.

I’ve been reading another book, too, called Old Herbaceous by Reginold Arkell about a fictional head gardener for an English manor who, now that he has retired, has time to think a bit. Early in his reminiscences, he says: “Funny that! You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you - just as though you had never been. But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It had always been there and it would always be there. Everybody ought to plant a tree, sometime or another - if only to keep them humble in the sight of the Lord.”

Happy is he who is more concerned with how he lives than how he will be remembered. Happy is she who, whoever she was so many years ago, planted the tree that now gives me shade.


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