A month ago, a friend of mine made me aware of a program at our University which provides a series of one-off lectures to the general public. One series is aimed towards the retired community, entitled “Retirement is Opportunity.” These talks are academic in foundation, but with a lot of wiggle room in the tone of content. I emailed the organiser and pitched my idea over tea (and then detailed it via email), and was thankful to get a spot in the schedule.
That gratitude was then immediately replaced by a tidal wave of anxiety. First, these talks are in 2-hour slots. 1-hour is your talk, then a wee break for tea, and then the rest of the time for Q&A / discussion. I have never spoken about anything for an hour in front of a group of any size. I have hardly spoken on anything for even 15 minutes in such a context. Since becoming a PhD student, I spend so much time in my head and talk so much through my typing fingers, that 1-hour of talk might cover my allowance for speech for a handful of weeks.
The second reason for the nervousness, however, was perhaps more penetrating. I had selected to talk about someone very near and dear to my heart…and this was my chance to introduce him to people who may not know him. I chose (unsurprisingly if you know me well) to talk about John Muir.
I chose this topic for a few reasons. One being that it is easiest to talk of things you are very passionate about. And John Muir is a border-line obsession for me at this point. Second, a lot of people in Scotland (and in the States as well for that matter) do not know who John Muir is, and additionally don’t often think of him first as a Scotsman (which he is!). I think everyone, Scottish or American, should know who John Muir is. So I want to do what I can to introduce him to as many people as I can.
As I prepared the talk over the weeks, I felt strangely as if I was going to be introducing a fiancé to the parents for the first time: “I hope they like him.” But of course, I think it is impossible not to like him. There was no thought of “how can I put his good side forward?” All his sides are good.
Thinking in this sweetly nervous “meet the parents” manner, I even spent Valentine’s Day Evening typing away at a draft of the talk, researching John Muir quotes, pulling images of natural monuments named after the man. Best date ever? I think yes.
Anyways, the morning of the talk, the first attendee to arrive took a look at my opening slide picture, projected already on the screen in the room, and began speaking to me about trees. This is a topic that is very much a sort of catnip for me, and conversing with him put me instantly at ease about presenting.
The presentation itself included: the basic biography of John Muir, emphasis on his more adventurous exploits, a discussion of his preservationist work, highlights of his written works (of course quotes, because I’m a quote fiend) and a look to his legacy in the United States and in Scotland. I concluded with his legacy in my own life, how he is no small part of the reason I’m in Scotland.
I believe it went well as a whole, I had some questions at the end (some of which I didn’t know the answer to, but I did my best to talk around it): “What do you think John Muir would have thought about wind turbines?” “What has your experience been with bears in America” “Did John Muir’s daughters continue his work after his death?” I am very thankful to the friendly audience who made my first lecture-length presentation such an encouraging experience.
I hope the introduction has made them smitten with John Muir too.