Robert Hass Speaks at Center for Environmental Literacy & River of Words Reception

Robert Hass and Caroline Woods-MejiaFormer U.S. Poet Laureate Tells How His Poetic Journey Began at Saint Mary’s

Robert Hass, former poet-laureate of the United States, came home to Saint Mary’s, his alma mater, last week to welcome the Center for Environmental Literacy and its first project, River of Words, to the college.

Hass and the center’s new director, Pamela Michael, founded River of Words 15 years ago to encourage young people – and their teachers - to become engaged with art, poetry and the environment. Through a collaboration with the Library of Congress, the program is now in thousands of schools throughout the nation. And now it has found a new home in the Kalmanovitz School of Education.

“We have to do this for the sake of our children, for the sake of our land, for our imagination and our future,” Hass said at the reception.

River of Words invites children from kindergarten through 12th grade to submit poems in a nationwide contest every year. From the thousands of entries, it chooses four children in art, four in poetry and one child from the developing world as winners and brings them to Washington, D.C., where they are honored at a ceremony at the Library of Congress.

Provost Beth Dobkin said the Center for Environmental Literacy will bring together people at Saint Mary’s who are interested in art, writing, science and social and environmental justice.

“Environmental literacy is key to making sure that we are responsible stewards, that we are living out our Catholic mission, that we understand how to engage not just ourselves but the wider world in all its forms in ethical and productive ways,” she said.

Hass told the audience that he is excited to bring the River of Words project to Saint Mary’s, where, he said, his journey into the world of poetry began back in 1959. He was a sophomore in the Integral program, and his science teacher sent the students out with binoculars and notebooks to observe birds. He remembered the exact moment that he found his calling:

“One of the first things I did was to go out to the lake, lift a pair of binoculars and see a Caspian tern, this immense white bird, great fisher of the bird species, sail over the lake, open its wings like a paraclete and plunge into the lake and come up with a fish. It was just a moment of heart-stopping beauty.”

Drinking in the wisdom of his teacher, who pointed out the intricacies of nature, “was being given a new pair of eyes with which to see things,” he said. “It was a gift that I tried to give back.”

Following Hass’s speech, two students honored in the 2009 River of Words contest – Caroline Woods-Mejia of Mill Valley and Lizzie Chadbourne of Berkeley - read some of their poems, and another former winner who recently graduated from Stanford, Tobi Earnheart-Gold, spoke to the audience about the moment when “poetry found him.”

“River of Words instilled in me a sense of place and a relationship to art that later became a refuge,” he said.

Photos by Jaycee Casalnuovo '14

Poems by River of Words honorees Caroline Woods-Mejia (left) and Lizzie Chadbourne:


plastic dinosaurs,
embellish the grass.
Randomly placed, standing in
a mess of garden furniture.
Bill and Ben the flowerpot men
wave hello to Snow White.
She is leaning to
one side, all
the way
the lawn
among her six
dwarfs, who lost a
brother in the tumult of
repainting the fence. What
a lovely way
to spend
Sunday afternoon.

--Lizzie Chadbourne, age 13
Mill Valley, California
2009 River of Words Finalist


In a sacred place, a creek is alive,
Shallow, murky, moving water.
A water-strider walks along the water.
"Look closely, follow our movements," the green water whispers.
A misplaced turtle bobs up and down, swimming gracefully.
Its striped shell and red head floats near the surface and then disappears.
Ripples spread over and over again, like a never-ending secret.
A wilted tulip drifts by.
Water springs out creating unforgettable ripples.
And if you look closely, you can see the copper glow of pennies, the creek hopelessly misunderstood for a fountain. Dead leaves drift upon the water.
The turtle observes this silently.
While the only spectator in the creek is Abe Lincoln's copper face.

-- Caroline María Woods-Mejía, age 12
Berkeley, California
2009 River of Words Creek Seeker Grand Prize