It was my sophomore year of college when I discovered Tom Eisner's class: For Love of Nature -- (no doubt a class that inspired his entertaining entomophilic tome, For Love of Insects). If you ask me to recall how I happened upon his class at Cornell, I might not be able to give you a precise answer. He was definitely a revered figure on campus, constantly delighting his students with deeply satisfying stories of insect courtship and defense, always reeling us in with the imagery, smells and sights of the quotidian customs of our hexapedal (or in some cases -- multipedal) counterparts.
Tom was a rare breed: He was both an artist and a scientist and his teaching style reflected that. In the same sitting, Tom could perform Partita No. 5 by Bach and capture the rapid-fire spray of a bombardier beetle -- as much as he could dissect the mellifluous nature of the musical notes or the reactant chemical compounds of said beetle. What I remember most about Tom, however, was his uncanny ability to reconnect his students with why they loved nature in the first place.
It sounds like a simple task: To love what you came to university to study, but as easy as it sounds -- it's even easier to get bogged down by the minutia of mitochondria or Calvin cycles. For anyone who has ever settled into a long-term relationship -- or even a career, you may know what I'm talking about. Sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves why we're there in the first place. Tom was a master at reminding us every moment of every day.
When I met Tom, it was already later in his life, and he was slowly losing the dexterity in his hands due to Parkinson's. "You should have seen me when I was younger," he would sometimes say to me in confidence. "Classes were much more dynamic." I would assure him that I couldn't even imagine because each one was already so delightfully entertaining.
As an itinerant student working closely with the fashion industry on sustainability, I would oftentimes find myself working in New York City. Tom -- who never stood still -- taught classes at NYU over the summer months. Over a spare lunch underneath a sycamore, he and I would find the time to dive into deep conversation about life, philosophy and our love for nature.
Every year I went back to Cornell to see Tom, but throughout 2010 and 2011, Tom's health started to fade precipitously, and it became more difficult to find him -- if not impossible -- at his office. It was early last year when I wrote him -- just to tell him how much he meant to me, how much he inspired me on my journey, and to let him know that I would be up on campus to give a talk and planned to have my new film -- eXtinction -- complete. I wanted him to see it, especially since it combined our love for both art and science.
It took a couple weeks for him to respond. When he did, he wrote, "I am delighted to hear from you, but I am out of commission. But if I am possibly miraculously recovered, I will make an effort to see you."
I think, in some way, I thought Tom -- the endearing and enduring figure that he was -- would some how, in some way, miraculously recover. I would see him walk through the door of Goldwin Smith, sit down, and be inspired by my love for nature the same way he inspired me just years before.
He didn't show.
The day I started shooting eXtinction was the day Tom quietly passed after his battle with Parkinson's. It was a trying time. And the first time that I felt true loss. Never before had I felt that from any family member or friend and it was a most unusual sentiment for me. From that point forward, the film took on a different meaning. It became far more personal -- a sort of cinematic glimpse of my soul. It was an artistic way for me to communicate that which is most important to me: Nature -- and the people who had helped me find Her.
Oftentimes such widespread change seems out of reach -- but when you are able to juxtapose it against something as fleeting as a single person's life, it becomes vividly apparent. It helps humanize loss, giving us a way to contextualize the speed of what we're losing by giving us a chilling reminder of our own mortality. In a sense, it shows that -- yes -- we will lose people and places that we love, but in stepping up to "save" them -- whether that is reflected through our actions or artful memories -- we have a way to feel human again, to feel connected.
When Tom passed, I found solace in the fact that someone had touched me so much for me to feel that sad. Admittedly, I was sheepish at first. I couldn't imagine that I would ever reach his level of humanity, humility, or awe-inspiring creativity... but I recognize that one of the ways for him to live on is through me -- and all those who have been touched by his ways and his words. This is why this film is dedicated to Tom, this is why the film is for the love of nature.
Follow Summer Rayne Oakes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sroakes