Peter Steinhart, ’65, is a naturalist and the author, most recently, of The Undressed Art: Why We Draw.
I miss birdsong. When I was a child, it attended everything, like background music in an elevator, only, you know, nice. I grew up in the Santa Clara Valley when it was still mostly plum orchards and wheat fields. The morning air was choral with quail calls, sparrow song, finch zurps, the metallic chink of towhees, the liquid burble of meadowlarks in the hills, the wick-up hype of woodpeckers in the oaks, the sad ballads of hermit thrushes in creekside willows. I can hear them all in memory, braiding through the soft golden light of a summer day. But it’s mostly only in memory.

Memory partly because after six decades of living in a concussive world, I can’t hear well enough to deal competently with human speech. When I see a housefinch singing from a springtime perch, I feel the sound waves on my skin, but don’t hear the song.

Even if I had perfect hearing, human sounds now drown out the natural sounds. The rush of tires on pavement, the eternal background drone of millions of thrumming pistons, the automotive anthem of our lives, the neighbor’s stereo, his gardener’s leaf blower, the compressor some guy down the street uses to power his screwdriver, the throbbing bass of a kid in his Toyota, like some enormous bat trying to echolocate a moth the size of New Jersey. As a kid I probably put more than my share of this yap into the world: loud music, nattering Chevys, firecrackers tossed into the night. Like most tub-thumping Americans, I like to draw attention to myself. For which I apologize.

The saddest reason for this changing soundscape is that the original choristers are vanishing. By all scientific measure, something like one-third of America’s 836 bird species are in “statistically significant decline.” It’s not just birds. One hundred and twenty amphibian species went extinct in the last 25 years. In some Western rivers, 90 percent of the native fish are on the endangered species list.

About the only taxa turning a profit out there are species that have adapted well to human culture. Rats, cockroaches, termites, starlings, marijuana and sugar beets are riding a sellers’ market. Coyotes can laugh at anything and they’re doing fine. Raccoons live in people’s attics and commute through the storm drains. Corn grows out of sidewalk cracks in downtown Los Angeles.

But it’s a narrowing creation. Quail disappeared from the Stanford campus in the 1980s. The location of the last surviving Presidio manzanita plant is a guarded secret. I once visited the very last Dusky Seaside sparrow, a forlorn creature in a chicken-wire aviary in Disney World, no medal on its sagging chest to close the history of its race. We’ll have fewer species and more individuals among those that toe the company line.

The sadness in this, to me, is that all these different voices are different intelligences—if you’ll concede that any considered response to the world is an intelligence. They represent a vast and tested wisdom and living with them made us what we are as a species today. As we shrink the creation, we witlessly discard that wisdom. We shorten the conversation. We lose the experience of otherness. We reduce our own capacity for thinking and inspiration.

Lauren Jacobs Black, ’83, works at the Stanford Alumni Association.
Sunbathing without guilt.

Karen Cushman, ’63, is a Newbery Medal-winning author of historical novels; her latest is The Loud Silence of Francine Green.
I miss the sweet certainty of youth. I was certain that someday I’d know the answers, lose those extra pounds, figure out something to do with my hair. I was sure that justice would triumph, truth prevail, and the meek inherit the earth. I just knew that after the freedom of the ’60s and all those flowers in our hair, we would never return to days of fear and repression. I was certain that no one would ever want war again.

I seem to have traded that certainty for the wisdom of age and sad resignation. Alas.

Carolyn Laub, ’95, is executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
I miss the days before e-mail when people would send you a letter via U.S. mail and reasonably expect that a week might pass before you would respond. And they certainly wouldn’t call you 10 minutes after sending the letter to find out why you hadn’t responded yet. (Note: I wrote this response within eight minutes of receiving the question via e-mail.)

Laura K. Donohue, JD ’06, is a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Law at the School of Law.
Pluto. In the midst of political chaos, I found the illusion of certainty—knowing, or at least being able to define, my broader universe—reassuring.

Andreas Bechtolsheim, Gr. ’82, is chief architect of Sun Microsystems, which he co-founded.
An abridged version of his answer appeared in the print magazine. I miss Stanford. It was truly one of the best times in my life. One of the greatest things for me was the ability to do what I wanted to do, and being able to do that in this idyllic campus setting. It was just perfect and I loved every minute of it. So I miss not being there. But I kept my Stanford PO box so I get to visit every so often.