Seniors Today: The Lost Lecture

by Emily Akin–
The subject of this article is James Byford, Dean Emeritus of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences at UT-Martin. I wrote this in the early 1990s for an assignment in a communications class at UTM. I thought Byford’s method of presenting a program was a stroke of genius. Go back in time with me, about 25 years, to a meeting in the University Center.
I’m in a dinner meeting, followed by a lecture. It’s an ordinary meeting of a typical university group. Sometimes the lectures are interesting. The meal is finished, and it’s time for the speaker, Dr. James Byford, Dean of the School of Agriculture at UT-Martin. He’s a wildlife expert and has written numerous articles for farm publications and outdoor magazines.

Dr. James Byford Singing.

Just another after-dinner lecture? Let’s see, he has a Ph. D. in wildlife biology, with minors in forest ecology and fisheries biology. He should have enough ammunition for a lengthy lecture. No, wait. He has a guitar with him! His fingers stroke the strings. He’s singing. The lecture will come later. It’s country music, but he’s not singing about personal tragedies usually chronicled in country songs. It’s about another aspect of country life.
“We’re stewards for such a short time of the soil we call our own,” he croons. He’s singing about the land, the earth. This song is about ecology. “What shape will it be left in? Look inside yourself and see.” Yep, it’s about ecology. The lecture will be about ecology.
The guitar falls silent. Here comes the lecture. No, he’s singing again. This one’s about an old man, a life-long farmer, who was not a good steward. It’s called “The Will.” The old man writes a letter of confession for his son and leaves it by his bedside when he lies down for a nap.
“I’m sorry, son …,” it begins. He admits that he has mismanaged the once-profitable farm by using its resources carelessly. Yes, he is an ecology nut, and the sermon is coming.
This is really sad. The son finds the letter and reads it, a few lines at a time, pausing to reflect on each portion. “You can’t take forever, Son, without putting some back.” The song is over. Now for the sermon.
He says he’s an environmentalist and a hunter – that these two points of view can be compatible. What? How can you say that you want to save nature and kill bunnies, too? He continues. The environment has its own natural balance. People interfere with the balance just by existing within the ecosystem. Balance, that’s the key. Now – the lecture.
Our job is to restore the natural balance while using the earth’s resources to live and make a living. Stewardship, he sang about that just a minute ago. Agriculture has progressed from a philosophy of exploitation to one of stewardship. We borrow the earth’s resources and return them, with interest, if we can. He sang about that, too. This must be the lead-in for the lecture.
An environmentalist can be an agriculturalist, and vice versa. Balance, that’s the answer. The environmental movement has prodded the agriculture industry to be more conscious of its effect on the earth and the people on it. The agriculturalists are responsible for feeding the earth’s population. They want to produce adequate food with the least amount of harm to the environment. Balance – stewardship. Is this the lecture?
People study agriculture and environmentalism side-by-side in university schools of agriculture, like the one at UT-Martin. They explore both sides of the ecology issue in a balanced environment.
“Reason suggests that a balanced viewpoint is most logical,” says Byford in one of his published articles. Individuals earn labels such as “ecology nut” by allowing issues to become emotional. Extremes of either viewpoint lose the balance that reason brings to any argument.
Stewardship, balance, reason. He’s playing the guitar again. What happened to the lecture?
That’s it. Byford got his message across while entertaining us. I asked his permission to publish this. He agreed, saying he still promotes that message in retirement. He’s still advocating for agriculture and ecology to “get along.” Byford was selected for the National 4-H Hall of Fame in 2016 for service and dedication to the organization over the years. He is currently Secretary/Treasurer of Weakley County Hunters for the Hungry. He’s a member of Martin Rotary Club, the Church Council for Martin First Methodist Church, and numerous other advisory boards.
Dr. Byford has written for Hometown in the past. Read “The Making of The Will” online at these links: http://tinyurl.com/k567pkc and http://tinyurl.com/mcrdwg5.