What Is Mr. Duke Thinking? September 25, 2013
Last Friday, on the campus of Duke University in Durham, NC, I made a super hero cape for James B. Duke, himself. This happened while students built “Fort Duke” out of used move-in boxes in a successful attempt to break a world record. All of this was a big kick-off for Duke’s Fall Arts Festival with this year’s focus on sustainability. We worked in front of Duke Chapel on the quad where a statue of James Buchanan Duke presides with cane in one hand, cigar in the other, atop a tall stone plinth. Under a cloudy sky, over 250 students, staff, and faculty worked all day to make a construction out of over 3,500 cardboard boxes. Architect and Duke instructor, Todd Berreth, designed a structure that was both a fort and a maze. From the beginning everyone worked together like bees in a hive. As the day progressed the hum of activity grew in intensity as the dimensions of the fort increased. Box upon box was assembled, numbered and stacked. The walls grew higher and the paths to the center grew deeper, longer and more convoluted. Around 6 in the evening a huge cheer rumbled across the quad as the record breaking box was placed on the fort. It was a race against time and weather with everyone on the same team and in the end, the fort was a joy to behold. Arwen Buchholz of Duke Recycles told me that it was all unstacked crushed and recycled before 11 that same evening. Teamwork at its best! That’s for sure.
It was clear that Mr. Duke, who was standing tall in the center of all of this activity should be included in the action. So under my direction we made him a shining 20 foot cape of plastic water bottles. Many of the bottles said “welcome Duke students, class of 2017.”
Early in the day two graduate students from the Duke School of Engineering came by to lend me a hand. Quickly,
one of them asked me. “So why are you putting a cape of plastic bottles on Mr. Duke?”
Good question, I thought and immediately answered, “It is a recycled cape. He is our super hero today.”
And then he asked me, “So what is Mr. Duke thinking?” Another excellent question.
I answered, “Mr. Duke is thinking about sustainability.”
“Okay,” the student answered, “well, let’s get going.”
James B. Duke was a magnate of tobacco and textiles. He established the Duke Endowment in 1924 in the name of his father, George Washington Duke. He was a champion of industry and believed in sharing his wealth for the greater good. I like to think that if he could have lived another lifetime, he would have put out his cigar and been an ardent recycler. Like the university he endowed he would be looking for solutions which would make the world sustainable.
In the words of the naturalist, Edmund O. Wilson, “The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.”
Sustainability. It concerns us all, all of the time, yet how much do we really think about it? Last Friday over 250 students faculty and staff were doing just that as they worked together. And I can’t help but hope that all of us involved will continue to do so. The fort and the cape are gone, yet the community created by their making remains as inspiration. Sustainability. It is the biggest challenge we face as we live together on this earth. We have a lot of work to do. Paying attention and working together are key factors here. Building Fort Duke was fun. All day ever changing groups of people worked long and hard to make it happen. The mantra “we can do this” was a palpable undercurrent.
Sustainability wise, I am inspired by what the engineering student said to me on Friday. “Okay, so let’s get going.”