author Alexander McCall Smith.
The Nicholas School of the Environment conceived of the Duke LEAF Award for Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts as a way to recognize the important role of the artist in advancing an environmental agenda.
While there are many, many awards given to artists - and many, many awards given to champions of the environment - the Duke LEAF stands apart from those other awards in that it recognizes the role of the artist in a unique, but important, way. It is not simply given to an artist who has advocated for the environment, nor is it given to an environmentalist who has worked as an artist. It is an award given for a body of artistic work that has lifted the human spirit by conveying our profound spiritual and material connection to the Earth, thereby inspiring others to help forge a more sustainable future for all.
Over the past four years the award has been given to Robert Redford, Jackson Browne, Barbara Kingsolver and John Sayles. We were thrilled that this year's award recognized the work of Alexander McCall Smith.
An Impressive Career
Alexander McCall Smith is an extraordinary human being and an extraordinarily accomplished human being. A lawyer and renowned expert in bioethics, he has served as vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the UK, chairman of the British Medical Journal of Ethics Committee, and member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. And he is currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh.
But, with the publication of a children's book, The White Hippo in 1980, he embarked on a second career - writing.
Today with some 60 and counting books published, tens of millions of copies sold, and numerous awards, including the British Book Award, one would have to say that his 1980 foray into writing panned out rather well.
Now add to these accolades the Duke LEAF awarded on campus last Friday.
McCall Smith Tips His Hat to Environmental Issues
Why McCall Smith? Well for one, there is the range of environmental issues (like biodiversity, air quality, consumerism, and climate change denial) he so adeptly weaves into his stories. And given all the laughs a McCall Smith read provides, it shouldn’t surprise that he also enjoys poking fun at the environmental community. He does this most memorably with Manfred in Corduroy Mansions, who endeavors to make his dog, Freddie de la Hay a "responsible world citizen" by giving him a strictly vegetarian diet. "Do you realize," he asks, "the damage dogs cause the environment?"
And Then Some…
McCall Smith's stories deal with some rather weighty subjects; characters are confronted with difficult situations - at times they're a matter of life and death, at other time they're a little less momentous, like how to get one's 24-year-old son to move out and, is that painting in his closet really a stolen masterpiece? But in either case, for the characters these are real crises, filled with emotion and import.
Despite all this, his stories have a delightful lightness and warmth to them. There are far more chuckles and laughs than gasps and oh-my-gods. Reading a McCall Smith novel is more of a savoring experience, like enjoying a glass of fine wine than a heart-pounding shot of whiskey.
One of the ways McCall Smith pulls this off is by providing us with perspective. Reminding us that even as the characters of his novels act out their lives, cope with their fears and disappointments, and pursue their dreams; they do so on an all-too-human stage, one that is very small; and one that is surrounded, no subsumed by a huge and wondrous world of animals and trees, forests and deserts, houses and cathedrals built from the stuff of the land. Of sun, and moon, and stars, and sky and Earth.
While the human characters go about their lives, this larger world operates in the background, independently, indeed unaware, and uncaring of the human struggles of McCall Smith's protagonists.
For example, here's a bit from Friends, Lovers, Chocolate on the society of cats:
"The feline lines of territory, were jealously guarded and supported by a whole set of laws that humans knew nothing about, but which had every bit of validity - down amongst the undergrowth of cat jurisdiction - as did the laws of Scotland."
Sometimes, the natural world comes to the foreground forcing the characters to look up and take notice of the world.
With Environment Resonating Throughout
And on occasion, Isabel Dalhousie and an urban fox "who lived part of his cautious and hidden life in Isabel's garden" known as Brother Fox meet eye-to-eye across her garden window. Without understanding but with a seeming mutual respect.
Understanding or not, there's a profound connection to home and homeland.
Be it the dust-swept lands of Botswana with its thorn trees and forbidding Kalahari desert, or the urban and affluent Edinburgh with its stone spires and cobblestone streets, the connection to the land pulls powerfully throughout McCall Smith's work.
This is perhaps most palpable for Mma Ramotswe who loves her Africa. She thinks about the "intimate memories that made the land alive - that bound people to a baked earth, as if it were covered with sweet grass." And she believes that "When we die we do not leave the place we were in when we were alive. We are still there, in a sense; our spirit is there. It never goes away." And "Every man has a map in his heart of his own country and that will never allow you to forget this map."
Similarly for Isabel Dalhousie, "every part of Edinburgh had a memory." And for William French, a wine dealer and connoisseur, whose life is grounded by wine, "wine is about place and the culture of place."
A Reader's Portal
Reinforcing the characters' connections to the land, are beautiful passages, stunning pictures of the landscape that provide a portal for the reader to understand this deep connection to land and place.
In Mma Ramotswe's Africa, "the sun rises above the plain and for a few minutes the whole world was a pulsating yellow gold. The sun, a great red ball, seemed to hang above the horizon then freed itself and floated over Africa."
Isabel Dalhousie's Edinburgh "is a northern light ...a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and candlelight and intellect."
This makes for wonderful storytelling. But there's much, much more.
For one, there is a message of reassurance, solace. No matter how bleak our lives may look, there is a larger world that operates on its own laws and will continue to do so long after we are gone. Even though we are sometimes confronted with difficult struggles, even struggles of good and evil, these are human struggles and concepts. And you know what, while we struggle, it's ok if we also find a way to laugh from time to time. And bless his heart, McCall Smith gives us myriad opportunities to laugh.
McCall Smith’s Challenge
And there is another, perhaps even more profound message in McCall Smith's works; perhaps even a challenge.
If a woman from Botswana and a woman from Scotland share the same passionate connection to the land, can't we all agree that the land, the Earth is precious and deserves a common stewardship?
And if a woman and a fox can find a way to bridge the gap of understanding and share a small patch of land in Edinburgh, can't we all find a way to live in peace and share the bounty that the Earth provides us?
To me, at least that is a powerful set of environmental messages packaged inside and delivered with dozens of wonderfully entertaining and thoughtful stories about ordinary people doing mostly ordinary and at time extraordinary things.
And so, for a body of work that conveys - with great wit and affection - the complexities of human nature, and how it shapes and is shaped by the places we call home, it was my distinct honor to present Alexander McCall Smith with the 2013 Duke LEAF for Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts. (Slideshow here.)