Pulitzer Prize Nominee Tries To Educate Students Into A ‘New Age’


In order to visualize a poetry reading, the most common scene would be set with low lighting and a crowd of ill scented hipsters, snapping to a stranger’s rendition of “The Road Not Taken.” However, this month, Pulitzer Prize nominee Diane Ackerman found her most recent audience adorned in Nike Frees rather than earth toned turtlenecks and oddly shaped hats.

Unsurprisingly, most of the students who attended Ackerman’s reading at Mercy College on March 4 were first timers. Athletes, not attested scholars. Amateur Anthropocenes who know little of astrology and epigenetics, yet are passionately versed on the ode to “extra credit and free snacks.”

While her long list of accomplishments echoed off the Rotunda’s stained glass windows, it could be assumed that her visit was more suited for the faculty who had sat in the back. What seed could the author of more than 24 books fertilize in the minds of a group more deeply mesmerized by the earth shattering combination of cranberries and macadamia nuts inside one round cookie?

An awestruck “wow” escaped the back of the room at the mention of her early collaboration with Carl Sagan, a front running scientist, who sent the Earth’s first message to extraterrestrials in the 1970s.

Ackerman blushed lightly, as the reference had clearly impressed someone in-the-know and caught the attention of a few to whom Sagan and his studies would remain an eternal mystery.

“Like… aliens,” one student whispered to his neighbor. The two share a stifled laugh before revisiting Ackerman on the stage, with new interest. Extraterrestrial life is but one of Ackerman’s radical ideologies.

Ackerman was the inaugural speaker of the Poetry-On-The-Hudson event, a true treat for poets, essayists, writers and English majors. She offered two lectures – a matinee at the New York City campus followed by a performance in Dobbs Ferry. Ackerman earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She has published over 20 original works, has won a slew of awards, and has three New York Times bestsellers to her credit. In 2012, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and National Books Critics Circle Award for One Hundred Names of Love. Four years earlier, she won the Orion Book Prize for The Zookeeper’s Wife. Most recently, The Human Age was awarded the P.E.N. Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing.

In previous interviews, Ackerman has shared innovative advances in the world of genetics, nucleic climates, and de-extinction, in hopes of introducing the world to a new age.

“If you think about it, nearly all of the wonders that we identify with modern life occurred just within the past 200 years. And in the past 20 years, the human adventure has been accelerating at an absolutely mindboggling pace.”

She paused to lift her long wavy hair, sharing a smile with the audience. The quietness of her voice seemed meant for a coffee house and her eloquence meant for telling whimsical folklore.

“Creating hives of great meta-cities and bedrooms that spiral into the sky would be impressive enough. But removing, relocating, redesigning and generally vexing and bothering every plant and animal on earth is a whole other case of mischief in itself.”

What would traditionally come next is the proverbial finger pointing at those who don’t recycle or donate to animal shelters. But what separates Ackerman from other naturalists is her divine trust in today’s technological resources.

“It’s so easy to look at today and get scared or overwhelmed about how little influence we think we have. But humans are the only species that has the luxury of deciding to act on the best of our nature and subdue the worst. We need to stay positive about the future!”

Her presentation wanders to far away regions, like Bangladesh, where solar powered river boats have been transformed into schools for children who live through extreme weather conditions. Next, to the Frozen Ark, a project housing roughly 28,604 frozen DNA. More than half of the recorded DNA is that of extinct species and the other half of living species with dwindling populations.

Her seed begins to sprout curiosities.

If what we are trying to preserve can be recreated, what good is the effort to save it in the first place? Is this not an eco-friendly Band-Aid smacked on the ignorance to continue living excessively? If “mischief” is what we’ve created from centuries of pollution and carelessness, could another few save our planet if we just do it differently?

“We are living on a used planet. We just have to get used to that,” announced Ackerman.

Truly, her solution translates into re-educating ourselves.

We are both the problem and the solution, the ying to our own yang. If those with fewer resources and greater adversities can adapt to evolutionary circumstance, so cam America, in the “New Age.”

Ackerman plugs the term into her speech smoothly: New Age. In her book, The Human Age, Ackerman elaborates on why today’s society will soon be fossilized in Earths geologic record as members of the Anthropocene Era.

Unbeknownst to many, 2015 is the final year of the Holocene Era, a gap encompassing the growth of human beings and all its written history. The period holds all that we know, have known, and wish to know. Until 2016, that is. By next year, today’s modern era will graduate to the Anthropocene age.

Anthropocene is the chronological term marking an era when human beings have had a significant impact on the Earth’s environments.

Though her work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, and the New York Times, Ackerman has stretched out of her own environment to bring her stories to the silver screen.

This year, Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife, is said to begin production and tells the true story of Polish zookeepers who hid refugees in empty animal cages during the Holocaust. Actress Jessica Chastain, best known for her roles in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, is cast to play Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife, in the film, combining Ackerman’s appreciation for both nature and history.

With a great amount of buzz circling the film and the recent release of The Human Age, a strategic balance must be acquired for her naturalistic approach to stay hydrated in Hollywood. One would imagine recruiting the world to fight for new solutions, while channeling a mellow mindset for poetry, to be no easy feat. However, contrary to her long list of modernizations, her writing is what Ackerman says, “keeps her grounded.”

As if turning to a random page in one of her books, she shares an unconventional perspective with the audience with regard to her creative process.

“My muse is very miscellaneous,” she says, looking into the empty space of the Rotunda. “My psyche has a board meeting every night I go to sleep and slips a note under my door…I just wake up and I’m off.”

As a forward thinker who creates stories from relaxing rem-cycles, change is easy. Perhaps the key to Ackerman’s success is her ability to look at something and see what it could be: some days the world, other days, a story.

“Language is manmade. Emotions are not.”

Ackerman becomes transcendent one last time. “For me, writing and poetry is about getting my feelings out in the right words. I get to create my own astonishment.”

Some wise students grant her a nod as they applaud. Slouching in their sweats, they remain on a different level but have met Ackerman somewhere on another. The group had become a bit re-educated already- spouts, enriched and ready to bloom. The students have much hope with regard to the future and a new age. But, if there was a chance to ensure one, “creating your own astonishment,” would be the one to pick.