On a crisp autumn morning last October, with fiery-leaved trees lining Washington Road, an excited group of students set out from Guyot Hall, room 305, into the wilds of the Princeton campus. I was lucky enough to be one of the wide-eyed disciples on this weekly nature walk, led by none other than the fearless Henry Horn, an EEB professor emeritus whose white beard once accentuated the kind wrinkles around his eyes.
For the next hour, I was entranced by Horn’s attention to the minutest of details, from the scattered feathers at the base of Fine Hall, marking the remnants of the avian meals shared by the two resident peregrine falcons, to the complex threads of fungi adorning campus tree trunks. Never had I taken the time at Princeton to focus so closely on the intricacies of my surroundings before Professor Horn shared them with me.
Two weeks ago, Horn unexpectedly passed away. The news was shocking, to say the least. He was planning to lead his weekly nature walk on March 15 and had sent out a reminder email just hours before his death. I’d always expected that I would be able to join him again in his meanderings about Princeton, and I realized just how grateful I was, as a freshman, to have spent even one morning with him, to have learned from him lessons for approaching nature.
In my recent column on the electronic screen, I wrote about the threat that phones pose in reducing our awareness of our natural surroundings, calling on students to pay more attention to the outdoors when walking around campus. It’s one thing, however, to preach this lesson and another thing to actually embrace it, as Professor Horn wholeheartedly did. Yes, he did come from a generation that hadn’t grown up with smartphones, but practicing mindfulness can be difficult at all ages. Motivated by his unconditional passion for all of ecology, he left no stone unturned during his weekly excursions, growing his awareness of the natural world simply because he had the patience to listen.
What Professor Horn taught me, which I think we all can benefit from, is that life isn’t always about reaching the next deadline — if we don’t stop to smell the roses, we miss out on all of life’s little intricacies, the beauty present in our ordinary, everyday surroundings. Here at Princeton, I often feel as if I’m just hopping from one assignment to the next with no time to breathe. I’ve had friends say to me, when I ask them how they’re doing, that they’re just “hanging in there,” “taking it day by day,” or “trying to survive.”
Constantly living in this “just getting through life” mentality, however, can be incredibly detrimental, leading to significant built-up stress. By hitting the pause button and going for a walk in the woods, as I did last October with Professor Horn, we can return back to our schoolwork feeling more refreshed and ready to take on the next assignment. In twenty years, what we will remember from our time here at Princeton is not necessarily the readings we did for our classes (although hopefully some of that material sticks), but will instead be the friends we made and the sights we saw.
Although Professor Horn is gone, I hope that members of this community do not forget the value of his teachings. Even if you never met Horn, I promise you that there was nothing difficult in his approach to learning about nature — all he did was focus on the world around him. This spring, we all can take just a couple minutes when the weather is nice to drop all of our deadlines and head out into the world around us, whether that be down by Lake Carnegie or over toward Institute Woods.
Professor David Wilcove was quoted in the University’s obituary as saying that “Princeton has lost a part of its soul” through Horn’s death. I couldn’t agree more that we’ve lost someone incredibly special. But Professor Horn’s soul isn’t departed, in my opinion. Instead, he lives on in the trees lining Washington Road, in the peregrine falcons on top of Fine Hall, which he loved to photograph, and in the mushrooms dotting the forest floor, encouraging us to open up our eyes and ears to the wonders of nature surrounding us.
Claire Wayner is a first-year from Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.