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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Seeing this photo of an elephant family on Smithsonian magazine’s Tumblr reminds me of an observation by the acoustic biologist Katy Payne, who spent most of her years researching elephants in the Dzanga clearing:

"Families in elephants are females related to one another, sometime three, even more, generations who live together and take care of each other’s young — a very tight, very integrated community. The males are considered to be outside the families, even though they are of course progenitors, but they live a very different kind of social life that involves competition between themselves. Most of the calls we found — although there were some calls associated with aggression, some calls associated with moving from one place to the next, very many of them were calls between calves and their mothers or their aunts or their cousins."

Photo of the Day: Addo Elephant Park
Korli Swart (Los Angeles, CA); Addo, South Africa

Seeing this photo of an elephant family on Smithsonian magazine’s Tumblr reminds me of an observation by the acoustic biologist Katy Payne, who spent most of her years researching elephants in the Dzanga clearing:

"Families in elephants are females related to one another, sometime three, even more, generations who live together and take care of each other’s young — a very tight, very integrated community. The males are considered to be outside the families, even though they are of course progenitors, but they live a very different kind of social life that involves competition between themselves. Most of the calls we found — although there were some calls associated with aggression, some calls associated with moving from one place to the next, very many of them were calls between calves and their mothers or their aunts or their cousins."

Photo of the Day: Addo Elephant Park

Korli Swart (Los Angeles, CA); Addo, South Africa

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"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."
—John Muir, from The Yosemite
About the photo: The Saar River forms this wondrous loop (Saarschleife) in Germany. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

—John Muir, from The Yosemite

About the photo: The Saar River forms this wondrous loop (Saarschleife) in Germany. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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We’re fascinated with outer space, but there’s a place on earth that’s just as alien — and just as mysterious. It’s the bottom of the ocean, and Sylvia Earle has walked there:

"[I walked] on the bottom, two and a half hours, and I later spoke with an astronaut friend, Buzz Aldrin, and he said, ‘Well, that’s about as long as we had to walk on the moon, two and a half hours.’ But what they did not have on the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and those who came later, they didn’t have just this avalanche of life, this great diversity all around. Everywhere you looked, there were little fish with lights down the side. Of course, the corals themselves are alive. There were little burrows of creatures that were dwelling in the sediments on the sea floor. The water itself is like minestrone, except all the little bits are alive."

And that life of the ocean sustains all life on earth. Sylvia Earle takes us there with singular urgency and passion.

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Hoh Rain Forest - Elk

If you’ve never heard this soundscape meditation with Gordon Hempton, I implore you to listen to this aural hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to One Square Inch of Silence — with the chirping twitter of the Western wren and the haunting call of the Roosevelt elk:

"Good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion. The words peace and quiet are all but synonymous, and are often spoken in the same breath. A quiet place is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of truth and beauty.

A quiet place outdoors has no physical borders or limits to perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen even farther. A quiet place affords a sanctuary for the soul, where the difference between right and wrong becomes more readily apparent. It is a place to feel the love that connects all things, large and small, human and not; a place where the presence of a tree can be heard. A quiet place is a place to open up all your senses and come alive.

Sadly, though, as big as it is, our planet offers fewer and fewer quiet havens. …

In 1984, early in my recording career recording nature sounds, I identified 21 places in Washington state (an area of 71,302 square miles) with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. In 2007, only three of these places remain on my list. Two are protected only by their anonymity; the third lies deep within Olympic National Park: the Hoh Rain Forest in the far northwest corner of the continental United States. I moved near the Hoh in the mid-1990s just to be closer to its silences. In the Hoh River Valley, nature discovery occurs without words or even thoughts — it simply happens. Wondrously. But you have to listen.

And to do that, you first have to silence the mind.”

If you can, be sure to listen with a pair of headphones or earbuds. You’ll discover quieting sounds you might miss without them. I promise! Download the MP3 and share it with your friends.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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There are answers in the silence. I feel the presence of everything, nothing shouts importance. Quiet is quieting.
- ~Gordon Hempton, reflecting on the hike to One Square Inch in the Hoh Valley Rain Forest
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On one of the loudest holiday weekends of the year, a show about the importance of silence. Being a boy from the Dakota prairie, this week’s show with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton just tugs at my heart strings.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.

Our intention and our resolve can save us from getting lost in grief. … When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face. When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.

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Joanna Macy, from her Tricycle essay “The Greatest Danger”

One of the shows I’m proudest of pitching, producing, and getting played on national public radio is this interview Krista Tippett did with Ms. Macy. Her name had come up anecdotally years before for a show on “the soul in depression” when Krista interviewed poet Anita Barrows.

When one hears a phrase like “The Great Turning” in a pitch session, veteran journalists may shy away (or run) from it. It’s somewhat difficult to make concrete and can sound rather soft and puffy. To some degree, this is true. But, my task was to acknowledge this response from our executive producer and staff — and then describe it, explain it more plainly, and make sure all knew why her voice is different. And then emphasize its importance and her wisdom as an elder this world needs to hear from ever so much.

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trentgilliss:

What a magnificent few minutes of bird watching. I’m not a birder, per se, but the breadth and array of birds in Spain is remarkable — so many species and types of habitats. The filmmaker must have traveled thousands of miles getting these shots:

  • Riglos and Valle de Tena (Pyrenees, Huesca)
  • Bardenas Reales (Navarra)
  • Montes de Toledo and Andújar (Jaén)
  • Albufera de Valencia and Dénia
  • Tablas de Daimiel (Ciudad Real) and Doñana (Huelva)
  • Coast of Murcia and Almeria
Being an American, it’s the Spanish Imperial Eagle that captured my imagination: large, powerful, majestic. (Oh, you’ll know it when you see it!) It’s something to behold. Here’s a list of all the species in order of appearance:
  • Bubo bubo
  • Gypaetus barbatus
  • Tichodroma muraria
  • Chersophilus duponti
  • Otis tarda
  • Falco naumanni
  • Pterocles orientalis
  • Bucanetes githagineus
  • Cercotrichas galactotes
  • Aquila adalberti
  • Sylvia hortensis
  • Aegypius monachus
  • Cyanopica cyana
  • Galerida theklae
  • Sturnus unicolor
  • Dryocopus martius
  • Dendrocopos leucotos
  • Phylloscopus bonelli
  • Serinus citrinella
  • Montifringilla nivalis
  • Pyrrhocorax graculus
  • Prunella collaris
  • Luscinia svecica
  • Merops apiaster
  • Upupa epops
  • Circus pygargus
  • Larus genei
  • Porphyrio porphyrio
  • Oxyura leucocephala
  • Marmaronetta angustirostris
  • Phoenicopterus ruber-Platalea leucorodia
  • Grus grus
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A Twitterscript with Gordon Hempton

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Gordon HemptonOn March 7, 2012, the audio ecologist and “soundtracker” Gordon Hempton found his way to a comfy-quiet public radio studio in Seattle to speak with our host, Krista Tippett, via ISDN line. We live-tweeted some of the best verbal nuggets from this conversation. What are your favorites?

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Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
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Aldo Leopold (1887– 1948), from A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949 one year after Leopold’s death.

A watershed guide to resource managementThis widely cited book is considered a landmark in the American conservation movement for its call to create a land ethic. Leopold wanted to understand humanity’s relationship with and obligations to the natural world. He is also known as the "father of wildlife management." The naturalist and author would have been 125 years old today.

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The Lost “Art” of Being Creatures Among Other Creatures

by Krista Tippett, host

Ellen DavisEllen 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 for this week’s show, nearly two decades since 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. When I interviewed Ellen Davis last year, we didn’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what came to mind, 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, whom 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 bombarded us 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. Wendell BerryAnd 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."

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.

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A Prayer for Nature That Holds 100 Years Later

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Morning light by the streamPhoto by Joel Bedford/Flickr, cc by-nd 2.0

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who is our featured guest this week at On Being, shared this poem by his great-grandfather along with his moving Thanksgiving Day Prayer. Nearly a century old, this prayer, Raushenbush writes, “reads so much like something that could/should be written today.”

Prayer for Nature
by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918)
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.

Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.

May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you.

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One Year in 40 Seconds (video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Something a bit more playful and quiet for this Friday: a time-lapse video of a grove of trees in Oslo, Norway showing the seasons change.

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The Primordial Silence of Light on Deer Isle

by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor

Lilly Pads on a Pond

Luminous, mysterious. Trust me, such adjectives are not excessive nor maudlin. If anything, they capture only part of the mystery that’s Deer Isle, and the entire area which stretches from Bucksport to Stonington. For once you are Rt. 15 Hill, the drive takes a strange turn: In a moment of insight, you grasp something as you have never before — that the twin meanings of the word light must have their anchor here, in this tiny community of 3000 persons (during the summer months the number doubles), a six-hour drive from Boston.

And in your mind, this alchemy of land and water, which has little to show by way of majestic churches and monuments and big museums and palaces, has the same feel as those other — more famous, more visited — places of light, Venice and Jerusalem, for instance.

Pine Tree

Natural light is everywhere, day and night. During the day, it’s in the stillness of a pond of bright pink lilies, or against the ashen white sails of a ship in the distance, or hidden behind the gentle play of the leaves in a forest, or on the surface of the naked, glistening arms of a swimmer in a hidden cove — all this by way of the gentle wind that transports the light to the surface of things, that makes the ocean tides fold and unfold, that turns the poplar leaves this way and that, that gently sends someone through the sloping shrubs and into the warm waters.

At night, the sky is a weave of stars, especially in Mariner Park, on a mid-August night when you’re lying on a wet comforter — your spine aching and your eyes to the midnight blue sky trying to catch a glimpse of the Perseids but also simply looking, far far away at nothing in particular, the act of attention an end in itself.

Inlet

It is tomb-quiet here, not a single sound, save for the chatter of the dozen or so persons who have gathered for a talk about the night sky. The leader is a carpenter-turned-amateur-astronomer who points to constellations and talks about light in terms of going backwards in time. Time, time, time, which never leaves us, even here, in this moment of complete and total stillness and silence, which looks both ways to the past and the future, which liberates and enslaves. (There’s a reason why, as Robert Grudin writes in his gem of a book, Time and the Art of Living, that the French adjective for happy and lucky, heureux, is derived from heur, which means hour.)

Harbor at Deer Isle, Maine

Though the speeding Maine drivers can make you livid with anger, though the state has a reputation for attracting a motley crowd of outsiders and renegades, you know that their reaction is somehow equal to the conspiracy of light and wind and water which is Deer Isle. The speeding truck, the large laughter, the police car horns tear through the silence of this place with a violence which subsides as quickly as it erupted.

Unlike our human silences, this silence is primordial, the world as it must have been before speech, and will be long after we’re all extinct. These rocks, these waters, this wind, light of our days and nights.


Taline VoskeritchianTaline Voskeritchian is a translator and teaches writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, BookForum, London Review of Books, Agni Review, and in Alik (Iran), Warwick Review (UK), Daily Star/International Herald Tribune (Beirut). She also blogs at Passages Home.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Ecotone: A Definition for Nature and Civility

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Desert foothills meet forested mountains in California. (Photo by: David McNew/Getty Images)Desert foothills meet forested mountains. (photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Krista’s most recent interview with Terry Tempest Williams is part of our series called “The Civil Conversations Project.” During the conversation, Ms. Williams introduces the word “ecotone” as an analogy from nature to describe a clash of cultures:

"As a naturalist, my favorite places to be are along the ecotone. It’s where it’s most alive, usually the edge of a forest and meadow, the ocean and the sand. It’s that interface between peace and chaos. It’s that creative edge that we find most instructive. It’s also the most frightening, because it’s completely uncertain and unpredictable and that’s again where I choose to live."

Merriam-Webster defines ecotone as “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” It comes from the Greek root tonos, meaning “tension.” Dr. Lucinda Johnson, director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the University of Minnesota Duluth explains “ecotone” in this way:

"The word ecotone derives from the landscape ecology literature, and refers to the transition area between "patches" or areas of the landscape that exhibit different characteristics… it is generally applied to the transition zones between two different vegetation types (e.g., grassland and forest), but can be both more subtle (e.g., edges of wetlands, which have subtle transitions from submergent to emergent vegetation, one of which dominates depending on water levels) or more extreme (the area adjacent to a stream, called the riparian zone). The ecotone shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches (hence the transition)."

Subtle or extreme, I love the idea that when two disparate, even opposing viewpoints meet they create a new kind of landscape by the meeting itself. One that doesn’t draw a fixed line or a wall of opposing viewpoints but rather a kind of “transition area.” To me that transition area could be a new terrain that is not only different from my own reality, but that “shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches.”

I wonder how this kind of encounter (with someone I vehemently disagreed with) would change my outlook and defining characteristics — and whether that area of tension is a space I could actually stand to reside for very long. Either way “ecotone” is neither a word nor a space I explore and/or inhabit often enough.

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