Summing Up with Uncle Ernie

One of the most memorable professors I had at UGA was Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a tough, leathery S.O.B. who had scars from a katana blade wielded in anger.  He could identify any skull at a glance, feared no rattlesnake, and regularly won national and world skeet competitions until the hand-rolled cigarette habit of decades took his breath away.  He could recite poetry, discuss philosophy and history, and referred to Aldo Leopold as “Our Father who art in Heaven.”  His students called him Uncle Ernie (thought not usually within earshot).

I had the privilege of taking Natural History from Dr. Ernie Provost.  I think the year was 1989, and it was one of the last years he taught. I could tell a lot of stories about this colorful man and the difficult class that I was proud to have earned an A in.  But for now, allow me to share some of the man’s pearls of wisdom.

For the final lecture of the class, he walked in with a tape recorder, gave a brief introduction, and turned on the tape.  I was much impressed and pleaded to get a copy of the tape.  He said no, but after the final exam he relented and handed it over.  What follows is a transcript, first of his introduction, and then his tape.

Introduction (in class):

“I came back to work last night about eight o’clock, and it was about 11:30 before I got home.  And I was kind of tuckered, and I didn’t know what in the world to do with today’s class.  It’s frustrating as heck to get this far and have so much left undone.  So I did something I have done a few times in the past — sometimes it turns out alright, sometimes it doesn’t — but what I do is mix me a tall, cool one, roll a cigarette, put on a tape and start running my mouth off, and now you are stuck, ’cause you got to listen to me run my mouth off here for a little while.  So sit back and relax.”

The Tape:

“I’m all for the man who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving oral evidence of the fact.  In trying to decide what to do with this last lecture period, I’d about decided I had nothing to say, since none of the topics such as zoogeography, bioenergetics, population genetics, hibernation and reproduction, biology of extinction, rare and endangered species —  all of which and many more should be addressed —  none of them could really be approximated in one 50 – minute lecture.  It occurred to me, however, that I might presume to impinge on you for a few minutes with a few philosophies of that most ubiquitous of all vertebrates, Man.  This course, as with most taxonomic subjects, has been primarily factually oriented; and in such courses, there is little time (particularly in the span of the quarter system) to stimulate the imagination and perhaps even the intellectual curiosity of an inquiring mind.  This is regrettable, but I do not say it apologetically.  Our aims this quarter have been to learn to identify vertebrates, and hopefully we gained some insight into what a vertebrate is and how it got that way.  This I think we have accomplished.  But the lessons we’ve learned from the so-called lower animals are frequently applicable to ourselves if we exercise the common sense to apply them.

I make no claim as to the originality of any of the ideas that these ramblings may encompass.  We are all, after all, a product of whatever our particular sojourn in this great big beautiful blue-eyed world has exposed us to.  Some perspicacious character observed that no one can get more out of anything than their previous experience permits them to get.  I suppose this includes life, books, college courses, professors and students.  At this relatively late stage in my own life, I’ve long since lost track of where I picked up what particular thought or opinion I may now have salted away.  But though there may be a lot of plagiarism in what follows, maybe there’s a little bit of originality and perhaps you may find something worth keeping in the conglomerate.

It’s been said that no man’s opinion is any better than his background, his experience, and his general common sense.  Just because a person has a Ph.D. after his or her name doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth listening to.  As human beings we all have a right to our opinion.   But opinions should be based on facts.  We even have a right to be wrong in our opinions, but we don’t have the right to be wrong in our facts.  This train of thought was prompted by a question that was posed to me a while back.  The question went something like, “What are snakes good for?”  Perhaps the most challenging and intriguing way to answer that question, especially when it is posed by one unversed in ecology and vertebrate zoology, is to answer it with another, much more difficult question: “What are human beings good for?”  That one has puzzled philosophers ever since the first cave man stopped beating the brains out of one of his fellow men long enough to look up at the sky and wonder the same thing.  Man consists of some seven octillion atoms (that’s 7 x 1027) grouped in about ten trillion cells (that’s 1013).  This conglomeration of cells and atoms has some astonishing properties:  It is alive, feels joy and sorrow, discriminates between beauty and ugliness, and distinguishes good from evil.  In many of these, and other things, Man differs from other animals, but is nonetheless a product of the same forces.  All animals, including Man, are adapted to a way of life, to specific habitats and ecological niches.  The ability to adapt resides in the individual, but only assumes importance when it becomes a population characteristic.  Whether or not an individual utilizes the ability depends on circumstances.  Survival or death of an individual is to some extent a matter of chance.  Some will adapt that are killed and vice-versa.  Adaptation leads to diversification, and make no mistake, failure to adapt leads to extinction.  This is a universal law of great big beautiful blue-eyed Mother Nature and it applies to Man as well as to the other critters.

If this course is worth anything — if I’ve been worth anything — it will occasionally have asked questions (and I will have asked questions) or caused you to ask yourself questions which are really big.  And I hope that in some of the biggest I will have had the good sense to have left them unanswered.  If you think about the material in which your training in ZOO 350 allows you to observe — and up to now you may have seen but I don’t know whether you’ve been observing or not — some of the things you learn and observe will provoke and inspire, and irritate, and I don’t know which will be the most advantageous to you.  But learning to ask the questions why, how, to gain an awareness — these are the things that really matter.

When I finally got discharged from the Marines Corps after World War II, I was a very mixed-up, bitter, and disenchanted young man.  Realizing that I had to get my head straightened out or I was going to end up in jail or the booby hatch, I headed for the hills and spent some time trying to sort things out.  I learned a lot in the few months about myself, about life, and some do’s and don’ts, one of which was ‘It’s not prudent to squat in front of a fire when the crotch of your jeans is sewed up with copper wire.’  Anyhow, years later, after belatedly getting my life back on track, I read something written by a man named James A. Mitchner, in which he summed things up perfectly for my own case as well as his, and it went something like this:  This tardy beginning (referring to his late start in life, and my own), one might say delinquency, stem from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around the country trying to find out what I believed in, what values were large enough to enlist my sympathy during which I sensed would be a long and confused life.  Had I committed myself earlier, I would not even have known the parameters of the problem.  Any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong.

Even though it took a lot of years’ work to figure out the real facts, I finally decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly-small percentage of the population; the rest simply don’t give a damn, or they fail to acquire, when young, the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades ahead.  I’m not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on Earth.  But they cannot be depended upon either to generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them.  Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many.  I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among these creators.  Hence the necessity of education — that’s really what it’s all about.

Way back in 1958 a man named George Walls said that the great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answers, learns to stop asking.  That’s what’s known as “growing up;” it’s supposedly one of the fruits of education.  Heaven forbid!  Occasionally, a man such as, oh, Einstein asks a few such questions as a child and never gives up asking them.  That is genius.  The human mind is capable of solving every problem that it can formulate if it’s not distracted; but it longs to be distracted.  The great and difficult thing is to ask the right questions.  Their rightness is in their spaciousness; one can grow in them, and they grow as one grows, so they lead ever onward, ancient yet always new, always fresh,  always yielding but promising more than they have yielded.  One might suppose that all of us know some of these great questions and live with them.  This is not so.

In an almost universal habit of intellectual agoraphobia (and if you’re not familiar with that word, agoraphobia means morbid dread of crossing or being in the midst of open spaces) we grow up to avoid these questions.  We like to pin ourselves in with as close and cozy detail that we can manage and arrange.  Most of us are like men with sore eyes — we find the light which permits us to see things clearly, painful, and the darkness which clouds our vision is comforting and cozy.  I’m reminded of the story of Plato’s Cave. It’s been quite a while since I read it, I’ll probably bastardize it a bit, but it goes something like this just in case you don’t remember:  There was a race of people who lived in a cave.  They were chained to the wall; actually, they weren’t being tortured, they weren’t prisoners, it’s just the way they lived.  And, on the wall, they saw shadows moving back and forth, and of course these shadows were caused by the light coming through the mouth of the cave, and things and people passing back and forth across the mouth, casting shadows on the wall.  And these people that lived in the cave figured all this out, and they figured out what the shadows meant, the significance of it, what caused them and all that.  Of course, they didn’t have it right, but they had it figured out anyway.  But eventually, one of their number, a young man, was permitted to go to the outside.  Of course, it took him a while to adapt to the light, but little by little he was able to handle the bright sunlight and he began to see what the real poop, the straight scoop, the facts were.  He realized the real cause of the shadows they had watched on the wall and what it was all about.  And he wanted very much to get back into the cave and explain it to the rest of his people.  And he did, and he went in there and laid the straight scoop on them.  Now, did they hail him as a hero?  Not at all!  This guy was an iconoclast.  He was tearing down images and idols, and they didn’t like it; he was upsetting the apple cart.  So what did they do?  Well, they solved their problem, they killed him.  And they didn’t have to worry about this upstart anymore.

Sort of reminds me of another one of those little poems from Ogden Nash (I’ll bastardize this one, too) that goes something like: For things are frequently what they seem, and this is wisdom’s clown/ Only the game fish swims upstream; the rest of the fish swim down (actually, Ogden Nash said the “sensible” fish swim down, but I don’t like that, so as I said I switched it around).  In other words, when you’re right, you’re right, and even if you gotta pay the bill, you gotta stick to it.  After all, no one has the right to be a parasite on society.  But by the same token, one has to use your head.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Robert Ruark.  He is now dead, but Ruark was a wonderful author, he wrote a lot of wonderful books.  He grew up in South Carolina here in the Southeast.  One of his finest books, I think, is called The Old Man and The Boy, and the old man is the boy’s grandfather, and there’s a lot of nice interplay between these two, but there’s one particular passage that I find intriguing.  The kid is trying to train a goat, and he’s not having much luck training this goat.  The old man finally admonishes him and he tells him something like, “There are some things, some dogs, some goats, even some people that ain’t worth troubling over.  You can feed’em, and gentle’em, and worry over’em, and coax’em and try to teach them, but they’ll stay obstinate.  After a while, the only thing is to give up.  The hard thing is to know when to give up, not too early, and not too late.  If you give up too late, you’ve wasted a lot of time; if you give up too early, you may have lost a winner, and that, we really can’t afford to do.”   Ruark also pointed out that Man becomes immortal only in what he writes down on paper, or hacks into a rock, or slathers onto a canvas or pulls out of a piano.  But the thought, the feeling, the question precludes the immortal result; you’ve got to keep on trying to ask the right questions.  But I’m convinced that each of us should strive to find his or her niche in life whatever that may be, and that takes some doing sometimes.  You gotta thank your lucky stars if you do find it, but having found it, you’ve got to be smart enough to realize that you’ve had some good fortune and found your niche, and stay there; don’t try to be a ladder climber and promote yourself to the level of incompetence (as the saying goes).

This business about giving up reminds me of another old man and the boy, coming down out of some hills of the Northwest in the middle of July in a blizzard dressed only in thin summer clothes, riding obstinate horses, herding a string of granny mules that were absolutely impossible.  The old man rode back along the string, and he saw the young kid, soaking wet from all the snow coming down off the pine boughs all over him, Cold, wet, miserable, teeth clenched hard trying his best not to shiver and sob.  The old man knew the kid was in tough shape, and he said “Son, you may be give out, but you can’t give up.”  Well, the old man was usually right, it doesn’t pay to give up, at least not too early.  Once in a while, once in a great while, one has to give up, but the hard thing is to know when — not too soon, but then again, not too late either.  I guess it’s a matter of establishing your own sense of values and then sticking to them.  A short while ago a group of Georgia bigwigs along with a lot of lesser wights gathered on campus here to celebrate the ground breaking for a $32,000,000 biological sciences complex to be devoted to biotechnological research.  Of course, this building is just about complete now over behind Forest Resources and Ecology, but at the time, ex University president Fred Davidson (who I am pleased to call a friend and whose baby this project really is) was quoted as saying that, and I quote, “Nature will literally be reprogrammed to serve Man,” end of quote.  In view of Man’s record so far, the very population explosion alluded to by Davidson, and the result of Man’s dubious attempts to date to reprogram Nature, I am tempted to ask, along with Billy Shakespeare, “What meat is this our Caesar eats that he is grown so great?”  History records that Conquering Man has always known, in each of his various civilizations, what was important where in the particular artifact known as Society which he had erected at that particular moment.  But the failure of each civilization in turn suggests that, so far, he has been predominately wrong about the whats and the wheres.  So by what colossal bigotry then do we presume to have suddenly found all the right answers in ours, the latest of these artifacts?  As a dedicated doubter, a full-time skeptic and a part-time cynic, I question whether this highly-touted artifact we are pleased to call Society is evolving a better Man or is capable of doing a better job of reprogramming Nature.  With Aldo Leopold, I wonder if we are exchanging such things as two cars under the roof of our neo-colonial garage, multiple TV sets, and all the rest of it, for an awareness of some of the greater values in life.  To get technical for a minute, the Hardy-Wienberg Law, which deals with the relations between gene frequencies in random-mating populations of diploid  individuals, and the zygotic frequencies resulting from such matings, shows that there no intrinsic mechanisms in Mendelian inheritance leading to alterations in gene frequencies in populations.  In other words, there is no tenancy for one gene to replace another and hence no loss of variability in a population.  In other words, Man is a product of the same evolutionary principles as are other critters.  But modern man has a double heritage.  He is a product of biological and cultural evolution, and herein maybe’s a problem.  As I told you before, the concern of man in reality should be not whether his species survives but whether his population line will persist.  It could, if among successful lines, continue in existence, presumably 11,000,000 million years, at which time its representative species could, and undoubtedly would, be far different than that of the present day.  The problem lies in time and the nature of man, and the decisions that he is capable of making.  The bottom line here is, you people are the ones that are going to make the decisions.

I think it well to quote here from Aldo Leopold’s last chapter in his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, when he quoted from Robinson’s injunction to Tristram, and it goes something like this:  ” Whether you will or not, you are a king, Tristram.  You are one of the time-tested few that leave the world, when they are gone, not the same place it was.  Mark what you leave.”

Well, now this is getting a little bit heavy, and you’re probably getting a little bit, shall we say, disenchanted with my ramblings.  In any event, before I leave you, I’d like to read something to you.  It’s a poem called “Evolution,” written by a guy named Smith.

When you were a tadpole, and I was a fish,

In the Paleozoic time,

And side by side on the ebbing tide

We sprawled through the ooze and slime,

Or skittered with many a caudal flip

Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,

My heart was rife with the joy of life,

For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved

And mindless at last we died;

And deep in a rift of the Caradoc drift,

We slumbered side by side.

The world turned on in the lathe of time,

The hot lands heaved amain,

Till we caught our breath from the womb of death

And crept into light again.

We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed,

And drab as a dead man’s hand;

We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees.

Or trailed through the mud and sand,

Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,

Writing a language dumb,

With never a spark in the empty dark

To hit at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived, and happy we loved,

And happy we died once more;

Our forms were rolled in the clinging mould

Of a Neocomian shore.

The Aeons came, and the Aeons fled,

And the sleep that wrapped us fast,

Was riven away in a newer day,

And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees

We swung in our airy flights

Or breathed in the balm of the fronded palms

In the lush of the moonless nights

And oh! what beautiful years were these,

When our hearts clung each to each,

When life was filled and our senses thrilled

In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love,

We passed through the circle strange,

And breath by breath and death by death

We followed the chain of change

Till there came a time in the law of life

When over the nursing sod

The shadows broke, and the soul awoke

In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Aurock bull

And tusked like the great Cave Bear;

And you, my sweet from head to feet,

Were gowned in your glorious hair.

Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,

When the night fell o’er the plain,

And the moon hung red o’er the river bed,

We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge,

And shaped it with brutish craft;

I broke a shank from the woodland dank

And fitted it, head and haft.

Then I hid me close by the reedy tarn,

Where the Mammoth came to drink,

Through brawn and bone I drave the stone,

And slew him on the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,

Loud answered our kith and kin;

From west and east to the crimson feast,

The clan came trooping in.

O’er joint and gristle, and padded hoof,

We fought, and clawed, and tore,

And cheek by jowl, with many a growl

We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone,

With rude and hairy hand,

I pictured his fall on the cavern wall

That men might understand,

For we lived by blood and the right of might,

Ere human laws were drawn,

And the Age of Sin did not begin

Till our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago,

In a time that no one knows.

Yet here tonight in the mellow light,

We sit at Delmonico’s;

Your eyes are as deep as Devon springs,

Your hair as dark as jet,

Your years are few, your life is new,

Your soul untried, and yet,

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,

And the scarp of Purbeck flags,

We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,

And deep in the Coraline crags;

Our love is old, or life is old,

And death shall come amain;

Should it come today, what man may say

We shall not meet again,

Got wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds

And furnished them wings to fly.

He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,

And I know that it shall not die,

Though cities have sprung above the graves

Where the crook-boned men made war,

And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves,

Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then, as we linger at luncheon here,

O’er many a dainty dish,

Let us drink anew to the time when you

Were a Tadpole and I were a Fish.

And speaking of which, good luck with the tadpoles and the fish.”

Dr. Ernie Provost

I feel sorry for the students of today who will never know a teacher like this one.

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