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St. Louis, Missouri

Washington University in St. Louis played host to the 1904 World's Fair and Brookings Hall, pictured at left, served as its administrative center.  Just behind Brookings is Holmes Lounge, where last week the university played host to an annual conference of headmasters.

In 1904 Holmes housed the Convocation of Arts and Sciences for the World's Fair.  It was said at the time that all the knowledge known to man was presented in this hall. It was in this hall that I met Mark Wrighton, Chancellor of Washington University.  He spoke with conviction about the greatest issue he felt confronts us--clean, renewable energy.  With a population of the planet expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, the chancellor argued, combined with industrialization of underdeveloped economies in China and India as just two examples, energy use will double and the need for clean, reliable energy will be the defining issue of this new century.  It is directly tied to our security, he said, our economy, health, lifestyle, and culture.  At the heart of the president's argument: nuclear now; solar later. Fascinating--I don't hear many people making this argument post Fukushima Daiichi!

But it wasn't nuclear and solar that defined my time in Missouri, it was water.  Flying into St. Louis it was hard not to notice the damage done by the water associated with recent tornadoes (large sections of St. Louis airport remain out of commission) and the still swollen Missouri and Mississippi rivers that ran large and full, banks overflowing still. From the top of the Gateway Arch, which is well worth the climb by the way, the flooded plains and damaged countryside were still visible.

In addition to the abundance of water in and around St. Louis, I listened to a presentation by Liz Childs on the 1891 expedition of artist John La Forge and journalist, historian and anti-tourist Henry Adams--the odd couple of the Gilded Age--to the South Seas in search of untouched aboriginal cultures.  Their journey of discovery on the sea proved enlightening, if not totally fulfilling.  An interesting tidbit on La Farge: It was La Farge who invented what we know today as Tiffany glass and by a twist of fate Tiffany came out on top and we know the glass today by his name.  Anyway, water made possible their journey, bridged their experiences and knowledge, and marked their passage. But the water theme didn't end here.

Wayne Fields then took us deep into the wisdom found in rivers.  We examined closely Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi" written when he was young and McClean's "A River Runs Through It," written when McClean was 74 years old--Twain's in the early years of his life; McClean's at the twilight of his.  Twain learns the slow, wide river of a steamboat pilot while McClean learns the fast, narrow river of a fly fisherman.  In both pieces, Fields presented a metaphor for education: learning to read what's on the surface so as to "know" what lies beneath. At one point in the early mid-section of the story, Tom Sawyer comments ... "Oh, don't say any more, please! Have I got to learn the shape of the river according to all these five hundred thousand different ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make me stoop-shouldered." "No!" replied Bixby, the pilot, "you only learn shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's in your head, and never mind the one that's before your eyes."

Meanwhile in McClean's story, the water theme/analogy all crystallizes when Norman, the son and narrator, reflecting on the river says ... "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters."-- powerful words.

What I love about these pieces is that they both speak to a spirituality found in rivers or water--somehow they provide access to an otherwise hidden truth--a true beauty.  By learning to work the river, to learn the water, you uncover what's hidden.

The conference ended with Ray Arvidson, a NASA scientist working on programs involved with the exploration of Mars.  He is intimately involved, among other things, with "Spirit" and "Opportunity," two rovers exploring the Martian terrain.  He spoke of, and showed, compelling evidence of liquid water (we viewed ice just under the dusty surface and watched it evaporate before our eyes) on Mars; we also watched it snow--my first Martian snow fall--observed on a hot summer's day in St. Louis. Uncanny! The implications of this are quite staggering.

So, from the greatest challenge of the 21st century to the lessons of southern seas to rivers of the plains and mountains, to ice on our closest planet -- St. Louis: the gateway to the west during her earliest day is again leading us in dreams of a better tomorrow.

We also learned of the beginnings of American racial integration and some of the latest research and breakthroughs in attempts to decipher cancer's genetic secrets.  What is happening in the field of genetic research gives one an incredible sense of hope.  There are so many bright and committed people working incredibly hard to solve the cancer mysteries.

Pictured at right is the home of Ulysses S. Grant, perfectly preserved as it was found, on the grounds of what is now known as Grant's Farm in St. Louis. The Texas Long Horn (left), contemplating a charge, prevented a more perfect shot.
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