How Rilke and the forest became part of my graduate school dissertation

Christa Avampato
2 min readNov 20, 2023
Me surrounded by ginko gold in Prospect Park. Photo by Christa Avampato.

I’m deep into the work of my University of Cambridge dissertation. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’m sitting at my laptop, looking at the research and also monitoring the news. Where do I begin with all of the problems, pain, and promise in the world? How can I make a difference?

I close my laptop and go to the forest, where I always go when I don’t know what to do. My forest is Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The ginko trees are putting on a show—my favorite kind of gold. Walking there among the crunchy colorful leaves on the forest floor, the autumn sun on my face, breathing in the cool dry air, I think of Rilke and his beautiful quote about living the questions in the book Letters to a Young Poet.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

Maybe the point of my dissertation is not to find an answer, but instead to find a way to ask powerful questions that help readers live into answers of their own making and choosing. Maybe I’ve been trying to make my dissertation a solution when what’s really needed is a mirror, using stories to reflect individual truths back to people who haven’t yet seen them on their own, to help them stand in the power they don’t know they have to shape the world in a way where everyone brings their gifts and resources to the table and uses them to collaboratively to win together.

This is how a forest operates, the flora and fauna sharing with and caring for one another, each taking what they need and giving what they have. Diversity is celebrated, and necessary for health. Abundance is created through deep cooperation. Imagine a human society like that. Maybe I’ve found an answer after all.

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Christa Avampato

Award-winning author & writer—Product Dev — Biomimicry scientist — Podcaster. Runs on curiosity & joy. twitter.com/christanyc / instagram.com/christarosenyc