What do you get when you combine environmentalism, music, prose, and an Emmy Award? A great lecturer and an almost-full Olin Concert Hall.
On Monday, October 14th, guest speaker Rubén Martinez delivered the annual Otis Lecture, which he entitled Desert America: Politics and Contemplation on the Mythic American Landscape.
The Otis Lecture, which just celebrated its 17th year, is an event that honors Bates graduate of the Class of 1995 Philip J. Otis, who died while on a rescue mission for a group of stranded hikers on Mount Rainier in the summer after his graduation. The Philip J. Otis Endowment was established as a tribute to Otis’s life and academic pursuits, pertaining specifically to environmental studies.
Martinez was certainly well chosen for the task of continuing environmental awareness at Bates. An accomplished pioneer in the art world, he has published three books and was awarded the Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Martinez also won an Emmy Award for his work hosting a television series on the politics and culture of Los Angeles. He is currently the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.
Martinez, who identified himself as the son of Mexican and Salvadorian immigrants, showed his talents in journalism, prose writing, and music through his multi-media lecture to explore the nature and healing powers of the American desert. He addressed the audience of students, faculty, and other community members with three songs on his acoustic guitar and five chapters of non-fiction prose. Themes of drug addiction and desert landscapes served as the linkage among the chapters, one of which addressed the landscape as well as race relations portrayed in the popular television series Breaking Bad.
In regard to the desert’s role in Breaking Bad, Martinez noted, “The land is always there, it’s always in the frame. The trouble does not take away from the beauty of the land.”
In another chapter, Martinez recounted heated arguments fueled by drugs among his next-door neighbors, which Martinez later explained produced complex emotions of guilt and responsibility for him and his wife.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the songs and prose, Martinez was able to expand on his themes in ways pertinent to interests from some of the audience members.
One student inquired, “How do I go to the desert?” meaning, how could he experience the physical and spiritual healing of the desert described by Martinez’ prose and song if he is not literally able to visit the desert. To this, Martinez replied that for us in New England, we can go to the forest, which is readily available in a state such as Maine.
Students seemed to respond well to Martinez’s performance. Senior Hally Bert, who also attended the dinner prior to the lecture, commented, “I thought that the Otis lecture was really powerful because it presented scholarship in a unique way not always seen at Bates. The way [Martinez] combined music, narrative, and political thought presented his issue in a multifaceted way that I thought made his points very powerful.” Bert also felt that Martinez’s lecture was beneficial in particular to the Bates community. “I thought that what made it most important to Bates was his challenge to view the places and environments as more than just sources of beauty and adventure.”
As a closing note, Martinez left his audience with an uplifting remarks in regards to the world’s current state of uprising, noting that, “It’s a time of global fervent among the student generation,” citing globally influential occurrences such as the Arab Spring and the Chilean student protests.
“The world is troubled,” Martinez asserted. “We’re at a crisis moment. And yet we haven’t thrown up our hands and stopped thinking of a new world.”
As Philosophy Professor Thomas Tracy noted, “These Otis Lectures are always good; they are worth catching.” Perhaps what was most catching about this year’s lecture was Martinez’s appealing blend of an old-world connection to nature and the necessity for change, in environmental thought and social issues, in the world today.