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The Light Within

Nicole Patterson

Jessica Reed presents the 2022 Meredith-Donovan Lecture

Jessica Reed, MFA, presents the Meredith-Donovan Lecture.

Close to the front row in a nearly full Laughlin Auditorium, Professor Emeritus of Biology William “Bill” G. Meredith, Ph.D. sat intently, listening to special guest speaker Jessica Reed, MFA, read her poetry for a presentation she titled: “There is Indeed Some Light in Us: Seeing the Poetry in Science.”

“Consider/the reversal/of time:” she began, a field of black-eyed Susans projected on the screen behind her.

blackeyedsusans_poetry-in-text.jpgMeredith’s career spanned more than 40 years. As the original namesake of the speaker series, in 2015, the Meredith Lecture was renamed to include the biologist’s colleague and friend, Professor Emeritus John Donovan, Ph.D., who taught philosophy. The Meredith-Donovan Lecture Series is an annual event organized by the Honors Program to highlight the reconciliation between the natural sciences and the humanities. Meredith and his late wife, Betty Jean, attended each lecture since its inception after his retirement in 1998 and hers, as an elementary school teacher’s aide, in 1995. High school sweethearts, the pair moved to Emmitsburg in 1957 after he accepted a teaching position at Mount St. Mary’s College.

“A white match/ regenerated/ by its flame, branches grown into young fresh shoots, and/ consciousness reverted to embryo, an inert/ Newtonian mass—an egg.”

In 1998 Meredith learned about paleontologist Peter M. Kranz’s discovery of a possible prosauropod footprint in Frederick County. On May 10 of that year, Meredith made national news in a Washington Post article titled “Tracking Down Md. Dinosaurs.” Written by Desson Howe, Meredith “remembered seeing a rock in storage at the college. Meredith found and dusted off the prints, then called Kranz, who examined them and excitedly confirmed that they were footprints of Coelophysis, a small meat-eating dinosaur. They had been sitting in storage at the college, forgotten, since 1957.” In 2001, the exhibit titled “Before the Bone Wars: Dinosaurs of the National Capital Region” was on display in Knott Auditorium. Meredith’s find was part of Mount professor James A. Mitchell’s collection of fossils stored at the college; he first reported the evidence of dinosaurs in the northern part of Maryland in 1895.

“The film, wound all the way back to black, to the rash/ wordlessness of once. We all believed in god then./ It has since become buried—in the DNA, in seed,/ in carbon’s memory of become-this-tree./Such trembling./ Continental/ plates slip, land un-shapes/ itself. Animal/ shapes alter.”

Fifty years after moving to Emmitsburg, Meredith began to write, to make clear the relationships between living things and their environments. His column “The Retired Ecologist” delighted readers of The Emmitsburg News-Journal from 2008-2018 with a staggering 232 reflections on a variety of topics. Month after month he eloquently applied scientific underpinnings to everyday life—thoughtfully showcasing reason alongside metaphor and wonder. His first column “Creating Order from Chaos” focused on his abundant garden while highlighting the importance of connection in an ecosystem. In his final column, “Little-noticed Things,” he gave attention to the foresight of ants, cycles of growth and remembrance—an ode penned to the ever-present courage of a good man and a good poem.

We need to understand our past, where/ its facts collide. Here was a knife, an old man’s fingers/moving, an apple peel, a galaxy turning/ like a severe question. Spiral symmetry in/ white luminous arms, newly evolved cilia, worm’s gills, / fly larvae, butterfly tongues, the gentle/curl of a/ fern tendril, in/ giraffe intestines/, chambered nautilus/ (nocturnal roamer of the spiraled coral reef),/ and retracted octopus arms.”

Trained with an acute awareness for biological beauty and storytelling, Meredith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science education from Fairmont State College, a master’s degree in zoology from West Virginia University and a doctoral degree in ecology from the University of Maryland. Undoubtedly influenced by his childhood on the farm, his writing and teaching life paired sharp intelligence with keen observation. Students in his biology, botany, genetics and general science courses were grateful recipients of his lived and learned experiences. Meredith served as chairman of the Science Department from 1968-1997; he also served as associate dean in 1980 and dean of undergraduate studies from 1981 to 1987 and in the 1995-96 school year.

Kraig Sheetz, Ph.D., professor and physics lover, sat a few seats behind Meredith and to the left. As Reed discussed her yearlong course Physics and the Arts at Butler University and her teaching experience at Purdue and Arizona State Universities and Scottsdale and Ivy Tech Community Colleges, Sheetz was intrigued. Reed read purposefully with meter and rhyme, letting some lines rustle, hang and descend upon the audience as they listened. Some eyes closed; some faces uplifted. She stood center stage.

“Music from coiled brass/ instruments enters the ear’s cochlea. Letters/from ancient alphabets and the cross-section of/ a scroll curl to mimic the stars and the genes/ that we came from. I might be autobiographical…”

A stone’s throw from Meredith sat Kate Marshall, C’77, whose father Robert T. Marshall was a professor at the Mount from 1949 to 1985 and taught students Latin, Greek and Linguistics, the professors’ timelines a delicate synchronicity. She came to the event to “branch out from classical, traditional poetry and experience more contemporary poetry,” Marshall said, having grown up with parents who were passionate about poetry and encouraged bedtime recitations. “Everything from Barbara Fritchie to Paul Revere’s Ride,” she recollected.

An Emmitsburg native, Marshall said she grew up at the Mount; both her father and brother-in-law were faculty and she often babysat for her professors. Sophomore year she transferred to the University of Maryland. “I wanted to see if I could succeed in an environment where I hadn’t known everybody my entire life,” she said. One semester later she was back at the Mount. Even with the same GPA and same intellectual scholarship, she reasoned her return: “I may have known everyone my entire life, and I may be going to college in my hometown, but it was absolutely the right place for me.”

“Centipede, /in its death, forms/ a truncated swirl./ As if: completeness./But the spiral becomes less circular as it/ grows, though it surrounds a gravitational center./ Here’s the thing: Spirals never return to their source./ Expanding universe, things scintillate.”

Marshall graduated from the Mount with a bachelor’s degree in English and a Juris doctorate from Georgetown. She practiced law for several years. Reflecting on the passage of time, she said the greatest gift of the Mount was confidence. Whether through the theatre group Sock ‘n’ Buskin or the teachings of her favorite professor—the influential Robert Ducharme—she gained the skills to write well. She has the confidence to shine.

“I draw/ a diamond, invite a rain, tornado, hurricane. /Someone else builds a great lattice. Her construction stands.”

Reed’s poem is almost complete. “There Must Be.” One more stanza remains. Will the structure hold?

“I begin/to believe that/patterns are far less/persuasive than ice, white moonstone, molecules folding themselves into/ thermodynamically stable arrangements, each spruce.”

Sheetz leans forward in his seat.

“Her words capture a lot of important science concepts: Newtonian masses, carbon’s memory, galaxies turning, facts colliding, spiral symmetry, gravitational centers, thermodynamically stable arrangements. All of these things are tied to the beauty of what we see, but more importantly, they are elements of amazing reality within a state of declining disorder that still manage to be responsible for the ultimate creation,” he explained. “I am here.”

“Listen. Words are what we know. /Cosmology of instance and particulars. /Van Gogh loved accidents. He thought there must be a/ God not far off: a gray sky with a band above/ the horizon, A billion chances—and I am here.”

“Light is probably the most meaningful word in both faith and science,” Sheetz pointed out. “Though it represents so many things…the beginning…life…hope…and truth, it is often most literally referred to as a ‘source of illumination.’ The most powerful combination for humans as sources of illumination is scientific rigor and creativity, and she combined these in a way that I had never seen before. It was wonderful!”

Marshall exclaimed: “Oh my goodness. It was wonderful. It was remarkable. Were you there?”

Before dawn breaks and after twilight ends, light is on the horizon. The black-eyed Susans projected on the screen are visible a moment longer. Grown in full sun, their dark centers are determined to bloom where planted, their radiant rays of florets a symbolic encouragement.

In a nearly full auditorium, our ecosystem, the work we do for each other is a source of illumination, a communion—a unified understanding of the light within.

**Poem “There Must Be” by Jessica Reed, MFA, from her book Still Recognizable Forms. Hear all her poems from the evening’s Meredith-Donovan Lecture here.

Nicole Patterson