The Lost “Art” of Being Creatures Among Other Creatures
by 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 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. 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."
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.
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.
The Primordial Silence of Light on Deer Isle
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor 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. 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. 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.) 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 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.
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
Ecotone: A Definition for Nature and Civility
by Susan Leem, associate producer
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.
Trees Give Meaning to Mystery and Life: Our Interview with Wangari Maathai
by Kate Moos, executive producer
Wangari Maathai attends the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. On February 26, 2008, the Kenyan environmentalist inaugurated the vault carved into the Arctic permafrost and filled with samples of the world’s most important seeds, providing a Noah’s Ark of food crops in the event of a global catastrophe. (photo: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)
Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 in recognition of her environmental and human rights work and linking sustainable management of resources, good governance, and equitable distribution with peace. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots project that has planted over 45 million trees across Kenya since the 1970s and worked mostly with women.
She is a global leader on issues affecting millions of people in Africa and around the world: desertification, global warming, sustainable ecology, and human rights. Wangari Maathai first appeared on our program in 2006 in "Planting the Future" and has since published her new book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, in 2010. She agreed to respond to some of our questions by email:
You indicate that your religious beliefs were not what motivated you to begin your work with the Green Belt Movement in it earliest days, but that your Christian background and faith have always been important, and that at one time you were surprised that so many people seem not to have spiritual values that shape their thoughts and actions. Those spiritual values seem to inform so much of who you are and what you do. And in Replenishing the Earth you talk about concern for our “inner ecology” as well as the ecology of the planet. Can you say more about this “inner ecology” and why it matters?
The “inner ecology” is the sense of wonder that we all have, especially as children about the world around us. But it is also the simple fact that our inner constitution is part and parcel of the environment around us. We need air to breathe and water to drink and food to sustain us. The environment that surrounds us directly provides us — physically and spiritually — with its bounty. If the outer environment is sick, then we become sick, not only physically because we are drinking impure water, or breathing polluted air, or not eating enough or consuming poorly produced food, but because we are psychologically and spiritually diminished.
You credit your Catholic education, and the various orders of nuns who were in charge of your education over time, with instilling in you an engagement with the scientific method and the use of critical thinking. Some people might find that surprising. How do you engage with people who insist that religion and science are incompatible and cancel each other out?
Science and religion are both means of discovering deeper truths about the world and the universe and our role within both. Science tries to answer the question “How?” Religion tries to answer the question “Why?” My science teachers did not seem to have a problem between their faith and pursuit of science.
Beyond that, the scientific endeavor and the practice of faith both require discipline, attention, and honesty. I engage with people of faith and scientists regularly, and I have never found it to be a problem. The more we know from science, the more we realize that there is so much we do not know. Faith will not give us the scientific answers and sometimes we have to walk both paths apart. However we believe this earth came to be, abusing it and destroying its ecosystems will ultimately bring about our end as well as destroy what the people of faith call God’s Creation.
Your book has some captivating chapters that focus on trees — what they mean to us both in practical as well as religious and aesthetic terms, and how trees themselves have at various times been seen as centers of sacredness, of our connection to spiritual knowledge and to the divine. If trees disappear from the face of the earth, among the many other serious and life-threatening consequences, we risk losing sacredness itself. You write that the “battle for control over the meaning of the spiritual landscape is an ancient one.” Can you say more about this battle over meaning?
Every society throughout history has sought to interpret the world that surrounds it, and as I say in my book, very many cultures have revered the tree as a symbol of that society’s connection to the Source. I also write in my book that since time immemorial cultures have known that one way to subdue another people is to cut down the sacred groves of that people’s culture — in short, to destroy their beliefs so they will not have anything to fight for.
I was intrigued to read that many temples, churches, and other centers of worship were situated over sacred sites of previous cultures. I had a similar experience in my own culture as Christianity was being introduced and churches were often built at sites of the form of worship that was being replaced.
This suggests to me that trees, groves, and forests have had a profound impact in the spiritual and physical life of peoples. They give meaning to mysteries and to life. They provide a connection between a people and their Source, hence their sacredness. In the course of the history of humanity, this largely spiritual landscape has been important to control in order to be able to control the people and their resources.
You point out that religious leaders have a role to play in creating scriptural interpretation and theology that support an essentially ecological point of view. Are faith traditions doing enough in this regard? What more could they do?
I don’t want to single out religious leaders, per se; after all, every one of us has a role to play in fostering healthy ways of healing the earth. And all of us have a set of positive values that could be drawn upon to make our lives more sustainable and conscious. I talk about these values in Replenishing the Earth.
I think I would ask religious traditions to challenge people to find solutions to their problems here on this earth, to acknowledge the wonderful gift of life on a beautiful planet that has been given to us and of which we should be good stewards. Yes, of course, we may wish to look forward to life after death. But when I am asked about heaven, I suggest that it might be green — a place of clean rivers with trees growing on the banks, fresh air, and all of nature’s bounty on display.
And then I ask myself: Why can’t we have such a life on this planet, right now? What is preventing us from cleaning our rivers, breathing fresh air, or growing food in abundance? Why do we have to wait until we get to heaven? The answer is almost always because we, ourselves, are doing things that are making that impossible: cutting down trees so that the rivers are silted with topsoil, producing greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuels, desertifying our pastures, and so on.
That said, the religious leaders have a special role because they are the ones who interpret the holy scriptures to the faithful and they ought to encourage the faithful to be custodians and caretakers of God’s Creation.
Many people become hopeless contemplating the widespread devastation of the earth. How would you counsel them to remain hopeful?
My view has been that one must always be hopeful, because hopelessness is a luxury we cannot afford. In Replenishing, I talk about the story of a hummingbird, which, though small, did what it could to try to put out a fire in the forest by carrying water in its tiny beak. The bigger animals, who were standing by in despair laughed at the hummingbird, taunted him saying: “What good do you think you can do? The fire is too strong and you are too small.” The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”
That’s all I ask of myself, and that’s all I can ask of anyone — that they do the best they can. But they must do — and not stand around waiting for someone else to step forward. So, I would counsel: Whatever you think you can do, start doing it. Whatever it is, commit yourself to it. If you don’t know what it is, then try various things until you discover your passion. Waiting around will only allow the fire to burn; acting together we have a chance to put it out.
Interview with Terry Tempest Williams: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
This past Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Krista interviewed Terry Tempest Williams for an upcoming show slotted for release on February 3rd. An author and environmentalist, Tempest Williams’ writing and storytelling is imbued with her experience growing up in the American West.
As a wilderness activist who grew up in Utah and teaches at the University of Utah, she bridges the worlds of the oil industry she questions and the members of her family who have made oil their livelihood. We are especially interested in how Tempest Williams navigates these two realms with civil language and an effort to stay at the dinner table, as she puts it.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those of us who weren’t able to follow along. Krista’s comments follow “KT” and Terry’s follow “TTW, TTWilliams, and @ttwillet.” Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
- Happy MLK day. Having a day off? Join a live tweet of Krista’s interview at 11 am CT w/Terry Tempest Williams. http://bit.ly/2m3aak 10:44 AM Jan 17th
- Pre-interview chat as we check for levels focuses on science and religion. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:02:13 AM
- TTWilliams: In the American west we see vitriol more than elsewhere, perhaps. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:04:11 AM
- TTW: when Brigham Young said this is the place, my family was right there with him. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:05:31 AM
- TTWilliams: I come from generations of pipeline workers. They built the infrastructure of the west. The land is spiritual and practical. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:07:07 AM
- @TMahady Let’s use #civility. Her name is too long. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:15:27 AM in response to TMahady
- TTW: Sense of community is not just human, also rocks, plants, animals. This reflects mystic roots of Mormonism. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:08:52 AM
- TTW: the word I play over & over is vitriol. What is it really? It is produced by sulphur dioxide, used to refine petroleum. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:14:07 AM
- TTW: I taught writing in Wyoming. Students wanted to create public readings about oil & gas, a big part of the economy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:18:24 AM
- TTW: Drill rigs look like Eiffel towers. Movers & shakers in the coal industry came. We stayed up at these readings till 1 am. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:20:56 AM
- @TMahady Thanks for that handle. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:21:46 AM in response to TMahady
- @ttwillet: When we tell a story it tells us what it means to human. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:23:33 AM
- @ttwillet: how do we build trust in our communities? Often small gestures. Tell a different story. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:25:13 AM
- @ttwillet: I understand my neighbor Ray because I grew up with my brothers, held a rifle at 16. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:27:14 AM
- @ttwillet: If we can speak of what we are afraid of, we can create a different kind of communion. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:28:22 AM
- @ttwillet: 24th anniversary of mother’s death. We are ‘down-winders.’ Nuclear fall- out caused this. Turn anger into sacred rage. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:31:00 AM
- @ttwillet: How can I take anger and not become a polemic? How can I heal rather than wound? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:32:50 AM
- KT: You have written about finding comfort in change. Often, change creates fear. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:34:43 AM
- @ttwillet: Civil discourse is not enough. It’s not enough to get a smile from your enemy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:35:45 AM
- @ttwillet: I want to know what you really think. We need more than opinion, we need ideas. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:37:46 AM
- KT: Where we start again is as neighbors, if our institutions, as you have written, have failed us. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:39:13 AM
- @ttwillet: The boundaries we have counted on are dissolving. It is frightening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:40:49 AM
- @ttwillet: When we talk about 9 mill. acres of wilderness, my e. coast friends don’t track. Issues are same. Scale is different. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:48:49 AM
- @ttwillet: Writing is solitary. But I write to create community. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:51:16 AM
- KT: Your book Finding Beauty In a Broken World : a mosaic is a conversation about what is broken. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:53:08 AM
- KT: Maybe in wake of Arizona, mosaic is a good metaphor for what we can be. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:54:04 AM
- @ttwillet : A mosaic is a collaborative process. Collaboration creates community. In community anything is possible. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:55:22 AM
- Beauty is not optional. It is a strategy for survival. - @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:57:07 AM
- KT : In American life where are you looking for beauty? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:58:45 AM
- @ttwillet : It begins and ends in the land. The sky as I drove to the studio. After looking at the Gulf oil spill, we saw dolphins mating. Monday, January 17, 2011 12:00:55 PM
- They survived. There is an inherent resilience. We can trust that. &mdash @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:01:57 PM
- In London I saw a Victorian artifact&mdash it collected the tears of mourners. How can we create a container for our sorrow? @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:04:24 PM
- Krista asks if there is something else @ttwillet wishes to talk about. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:12:02 PM
- @ttwillet: What do we do? How can I be a better neighbor? The oil that I saw for miles is me, my family’s livelihood. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:13:25 PM
- I want to be present. And useful. -@twillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:14:42 PM
- I worry that we are losing literacy. Who knows the green winged Teal? So how will we know our losses? -@ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:19:09 PM
- Empathy is rooted in action. When someone dies my father goes to that house the next day. He doesn’t call. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:20:30 PM
- @ttwillet : We need just enough light to shine on the next step, to show the way. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:22:06 PM
- My mother left me her journals when she died. -@ttwillet All of the journals were empty. What is ‘voice?’ #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:23:48 PM
- That concludes our live-tweet. @ttwillet tells Krista to take care, she recognizes there is a cost to Krista’s listening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:26:16 PM
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction on January 28, 2011: An earlier version of this article misstated that Terry Tempest Williams currently teaches at the University of Wyoming. It is the University of Utah.
Great Unravelings and Great Turnings
by Krista Tippett, host
photo: Hudson Gardner
On my 40th birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows’ translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
After reading this poem (listen to Joanna Macy’s recitation) for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of “the country they call life.” And after years of starts and stops, this program made its way into that country too.
I’ve ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany and had first read Rilke’s poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows’ book, I didn’t believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke’s words in Joanna Macy’s English and even more in her voice as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined. She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There, her husband ran the newly minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country, following the exile of the young Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe. She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation for "A Wild Love for the World," for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. “I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions … that reached into geological time. … That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.
It is so fitting and lovely that she should become our first show as Being.
History Tends to Surprise Us
by Krista Tippett, host
The terminus of Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganges River. In the last several decades the glacier has been receding at an accelerated rate, which most climate scientists attribute to climate change. (photo: Maneesh Agnihotri/The India Today Group/Getty Images)
It’s been striking how, across the past few years, the environment has found its way inside my guests’ reflections on every subject, as they say, under the sun. And we do need fresh vocabulary and expansive modes of reflection on this subject that, we’ve come to realize, is not just about ecology but the whole picture of human life and lifestyle.
Here are some pieces of vocabulary and perspective I’ve loved and used in recent years.
Starting with the basics, Cal DeWitt — a scientist, conservationist, and Evangelical Christian living in Wisconsin — pointed out to me that “environment” was coined after Geoffrey Chaucer used the term “environing.” This was a turning point in the modern Western imagination — the first time we linguistically defined ourselves as separate from the natural world, known up until then as the Creation. This helps explain why the language of “creation care” is so animating for many conservative Christians — as a return to a sacred insight that was lost. But from quantum physics to economics, too, we are discovering new existential meaning in terms like interconnectedness and interdependence.
Many people, but most recently the wonderful geophysicist Xavier le Pichon, have made the simple yet striking observation that climate change is the first truly global crisis in human history. In other words, just as we make newfound discoveries about old realities, they are put to the ultimate test. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the signs that we are not up to this test as a species. So it was helpful for me to have Matthieu Ricard, a biologist turned Buddhist monk, remind me that evolutionary change, which is what we need now in our behavior, always comes precisely at the moment where survival — not just betterment — is at stake.
Such ideas can make the task of integrating, or reintegrating, environmental and human realities sound far away and abstract. But it’s not.
The most redemptive and encouraging commonality of all the people I’ve encountered who have made a truly evolutionary leap is that they have come to love the very local, very particular places they inhabit. They were drawn into environmentalism by suddenly seeing beauty they had taken for granted; by practical concern for illness and health in neighborhood children; by imagining possibilities for the survival of indigenous flora and fauna, the creation of jobs, the sustainability of regional farms. The catchword of many of our most ingenious solutions to this most planetary of crises is “local” — local food, local economies. Ellen Davis and Wendell Berry illuminate this with poetic, biblical wisdom, each in their way reminding us that the health of our larger ecosystem is linked to knowing ourselves as creatures — “placed creatures.”
There is so much in my most recent conversation about all of this with Bill McKibben that will frame and deepen my sense of the nature and meaning of climate change moving forward. Among them is an exceedingly helpful four minutes, a brief history of climate change that we’re making available as a separate podcast. But what has stayed with me most of all, I think, is a stunning equation he is ready to make after two decades of immersion in the scientific, cultural, and economic meaning of our ecological present. He points out that cheap fossil fuels have allowed us to become more privatized, less in need of our neighbor, than ever in human history. And he says that in almost every instance, what is good for the environment is good for human community. The appeal of the farmers market is not just its environmental and economic value but the drama, the organic nature, of human contact.
I also gained a certain bracing historical perspective from my conversation with Bill McKibben. He and I were both born in 1960. He was waking up to the environment in years in which I was in divided Berlin, on the front lines of what felt like the great strategic and moral battle of that age. He published The End of Nature in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. And as I learned from that book, the science of climate change had already begun to emerge at the height of the Cold War. In 1957, two scientists at the Scripps Institution described their findings that humanity initiated an unprecedented “geophysical experiment” that it might not survive.
So I’ve been chewing on this thought lately: If humanity is around to write history in a century or two, what was happening with the climate in 1989 may dwarf what we perceived as the great geopolitical dramas of that time. Living through the fall of the wall and the reunification of Europe emboldened my sense that there is always more to reality than we can see and more change possible than we can begin to imagine. I draw caution as well as hope from the fact that history tends to surprise us. And I draw caution as well as hope from the knowledge that humanity often surprises itself on the edge of survival.
Hummingbirds and Outrage Fatigue
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
"I think there is such a thing as outrage fatigue. … Because statistics like that and numbers like that, scenarios like that, are as prone to make people throw up their hands and say, well, then, you know, I can’t do anything anyway."
During her interview with Bill McKibben, Krista suggests that all the bad environmental news and surplus of data can be overwhelming. What a common human response to a challenge that seems insurmountable! Because we cannot do something big, we are tempted to not even take the small, manageable actions that are well within our power. We feel inconsequential, completely forgetting about the cumulative impact of each person who cares for the Earth. This headline from The Onion captures the poignancy of this sentiment: “'How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?' 30 Million People Wonder.”
Listening to “The Moral Math of Climate Change” also brought to mind the 2009 Sundance Award-winning film Dirt! and the optimistic parable of the hummingbird as told by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Here’s hoping that the 30 million of us who wonder about the impact of one plastic bottle can adopt the tenacity and courage to be hummingbirds.