“An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land”
Krista Tippett, host
Ellen Davis was one of my greatest teachers at divinity school, which I attended in my early 30s. One of the biggest surprises upon arriving there was finding the biblical texts themselves to be full of buried — or at least hidden — treasure that can be unlocked with careful attention to words as much as to expertise in theology or history. Ellen Davis both practices and embodies this art of careful attention to the power of language.
Being in conversation with her now, 17 years after she was my teacher, I am struck again by her precise and penetrating elegance of phrase and thought — and, again, by how she uncovers meaning in biblical teachings that have been obscured in Western imaginations by modes of translation and interpretation. From the very beginning of our conversation, as she notes the similarity between the semi-arid, fertile yet fragile ecosystems of Israel and of California (where she grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay), we begin to experience new layers of association between the Bible’s large, deep themes and present realities.
The most defining and consuming of these associations in recent years, for Ellen Davis, has been the “exquisite attention” the Bible pays to care and loss of land and creatures. She finds an “odious comparison” between the way recent generations of human society have lived and the Bible’s insistence on an existential human responsibility vis-à-vis the land and all the life that depends on it. She herself began to see the urgency of this theme of human responsibility — its abundance and nuance — while teaching the course I attended at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. As she taught her way through every book of the Hebrew Bible, her teaching assistants pointed out how “the land” seemed to leap off the pages in her lectures. There were people in those classes who had memorized the Bible growing up, and yet for all of us there was an arc of discovery here.
It was a thrill to draw her out on this as a journalist these years later, though we start in our interview where we started in that class, with a few translations of the Bible open to Genesis 1. What a pleasure it is to introduce you to my teacher in this way. And now, more than I could have realized then, this is an exercise with much larger ramifications than personal scriptural study. For as I’ve realized in the course of my work in this intervening period, a certain reading of the command in Genesis that human beings should “dominate” and “subdue” the Earth and its creatures emboldened and shaped the modern, technological, Western imprint on the world — ecological as well as political and economic. This has come through in my conversations as far-flung as Majora Carter in the South Bronx and Cal DeWitt in a Wisconsin wetland to the Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai in Kenya.
The Hebrew Bible’s prophets also sound devastatingly relevant in light of present realities, from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the wild fires in Australia. Ellen Davis and I don’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what comes to mind at the moment, painfully, when she recalls the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of land gone “wild and waste” — a kind of vivid reversal of the Genesis story of order out of chaos, light out of darkness.
For Ellen Davis, poets among us who are rooted in a geographic place — Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, and Wendell Berry who she specifically identifies — are modern-day successors to Jeremiah. Yet the hard edge of prophecy is not the same as the hard litany of devastation that comes through by way of damning fact and information — the overwhelming pictures of despair that bombard us right now from the Gulf, for example, against a backdrop of accelerating statistics about phenomena like Arctic melting, species extinction, desertification. The lamentation of the prophets, as Ellen Davis puts it, is always followed by “consolation.” This is not based on a foolish optimism, she says, but on a hope grounded in a sober assessment of the reality to be faced. And in the course of our conversation, she offers much to take away that is deeply practical, organic in every sense of the word, like the way she would have us see the link the Bible makes between eating and being human, and its evocation of the lost “art” of being creatures among other creatures, a reality we seem to be rediscovering as a virtue and a pleasure.
Ellen Davis quotes her friend Wendell Berry in noting that, even on the heels of justified despair at the wild and waste we’ve made of the world, “when hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them.”
And I’ll end with one of the poems Wendell Berry read for us — listen to him while you read if you’d like — that aptly frames this show:
Not again in this flesh will I see
the old trees stand here as they did,
weighty creatures made of light, delight
of their making straight in them and well,
whatever blight our blindness was or made,
however thought or act might fail.
The burden of absence grows, and I pay
daily the grief I owe to love
for women and men, days and trees
I will not know again. Pray
for the world’s light thus borne away.
Pray for the little songs that wake and move.
For comfort as these lights depart,
recall again the angels of the thicket,
columbine aerial in the whelming tangle,
song drifting down, light rain, day
returning in song, the lordly Art
piecing out its humble way.
Though blindness may yet detonate in light,
ruining all, after all the years, great right
subsumed finally in paltry wrong,
what do we know? Still
the Presence that we come into with song
is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.
What Title Would You Have Given It?
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Did you get a chance to listen to this week’s show with Prof. Ellen Davis discussing her approach to sustainability — through an agrarian reading of the Bible — along with Wendell Berry reading his poems?
If you haven’t, swell. This Sunday morning exercise is ripe for the picking. Then you’ll have a fresh perspective unencumbered by the content. You won’t get mired in the details of summarizing or full description. You are our target audience. You are the listeners we want to grab with the title and draw in. Now, if you have heard the show, that’s great too. Then you’ll have an insider perspective, an intimate understanding of the interviews and readings. The content may inform your decision. And you may sympathize with our plight.
Here are a few titles we considered:
» “The Poetry of Creatures”
» “An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land”
» “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures”
Show titles do a lot of work. They appear in one-minute bumpers to the show and within the show itself. They are part of promotional spots on the radio. The appear in iTunes podcast feeds and on our email update, websites, Facebook page, blog, Twitter. Duke University will uses it in their communication.
Which one would you have chosen? What’s an alternative you might suggest? Should it be just catchy? Should it tell you more about the show? Should it be a tease? How will it render in a graphic for our online channels. Will it help in our search rankings?
These are the few of the questions we ask when titling. And, as you can see, we struggle mightily with this task. We labor, we strive, we grope, we concede. But we always end up with something. For this show, I can’t help wonder if we could’ve done better.
Speak with Farmers
Chris Heagle, producer
Joel Salatin, the farmer featured in this clip (jump to the 4:20 mark) from the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and owner of Polyface Farms, has found a way to be profitable while staying true to his family’s ideal that nature’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world. After hearing Ellen Davis speak so eloquently about stewardship of land, I couldn’t help but think of his words and Professor Davis’ advice on getting informed about how our food is produced:
Ms. Tippett: So apparently my senior editor, Trent, is Tweeting this conversation we’re having, and he has had a question come in from a student of yours who loves you …So it is how do city dwellers, urbanites, relate to an agrarian mindset without romanticizing it?
Prof. Davis: I think the best way to do that is to listen to farmers and to meet farmers. As we’ve been talking about, that’s easy to do now because there probably isn’t an urban area —
Ms. Tippett: Right. They’re in your city. Right.
Prof. Davis: Yeah, exactly. They’re in our city. So talk to them and find out what they’re doing, what their hopes are, and also what their struggles are. And I don’t know any farmer who isn’t struggling.
And it doesn’t matter what model of farming they’re using. If they’re using small farming, trying to get off the grid, or if they are involved in industrial farming, I don’t know any of them who are not struggling and to some degree suffering. So I think that’s the most important thing that we can do in order not to romanticize it. I’d also suggest that you can read some of what is happening in new modes of agricultural research.
Because some people think that when I or others are talking about agrarianism, we’re sort of talking about going back a hundred years, if not 2,000 years. But it’s not an exercise in nostalgia.