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.
The Pleasurable Choice Is the Ethical Choice
by Krista Tippett, host
I like to say that I’m not an an optimist, but I am a person of hope. That is to say, I cultivate the virtue of hope in myself. Hope takes account of the enormity and darkness of challenges and problems, and yet it meets darkness with light, and points to resilience and goodness where they can be found.
(photo: Jen Kim/Flickr)
In this spirit I am drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s hope and resolve that, however grim the man-made crises of our time, we are gradually getting some things “more right.” And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.
But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family’s “food life.”
Her story begins with a sense of urgency, however, in Tucson, where she had spent half her life, and her children the whole of theirs. As she became more aware of the larger issues she explores in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life — including the elaborate environmental cost of the global food chain — she came to perceive this great American city as a kind of space station, utterly dependent on the outside world for its most basic needs. And after three consecutive years of drought, she felt she was staring global warming in the face. “Like rats leaping off the burning ship,” her family moved to a farm in Appalachia to land that could feed them.
There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver’s move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book — of giving her family’s life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals — appears immediately impracticable in light of another “drought” in American life and in my own, a drought of time.
Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted — lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January — began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.
The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life — including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup — are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.
But this conversation, which you can hear in the audio link at the top of the page, is not really about what we have to give up. The U.S. culture has fallen into “the language of sin,” Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had — what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.
I’m very aware that the details of my life — including the northern climate of the place I inhabit — limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s experiment in totally local eating. But since this conversation I have begun to frequent the farmer’s market for the first time in my life. I planted a vegetable garden last summer and made pesto from basil I grew. I tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I’m living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I’m getting it a bit more right. And I’m delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”
“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.
Tired of Inevitable
Shubha Bala, associate producer
“It’s inevitable, there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m so tired of that word inevitable.” —Wendell Berry
In this video from the Arlington Public Library, Wendell Berry (who reads his poems in our current show “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures”) brings his wisdom to thinking about the current oil spill. When an audience member asks him to expound upon his previous comments about “cheap oil” allowing people in the U.S. to “live in a certain way,” Berry responds:
“When we talk about these characteristics, that happen to be characteristics of good agriculture — diversity, versatility, recognition, and acceptance of appropriate limits or getting the scale right, and local adaptation — those ideas, it seems to me, put us in reach of work that we can do. To assume that all experiences like that oil well can only be handled by experts at great expense is a mistake, I think.”
Crystal Waters Flowing from the Throne
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, former intern
Rogation Days were first instituted in the 5th century by Saint Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in France. He lived through a period of humanitarian crises: of sickness, natural disaster, and war. One night, when the village was overwhelmed by a raging fire, and the whole place was aflame, Mamertus is reported to have prayed this prayer:
“that God will turn away the plagues from us, and preserve us from all ill, from hail and drought, fire and pestilence, and from the fury of our enemies; to give us favorable seasons, that our land may be fertile, that we may have good weather and good health, and peace and tranquility, and obtain pardon for our sins.”
This prayer of Mamertus has been close to my heart these past weeks, as more and more details of the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico have come rushing into my consciousness.
There is, as you know, oil rushing constantly into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate no one’s really able to say. Estimates have ranged between 5 and 60 thousand barrels per day, and efforts to stop the leak have been, for over a month now, unsuccessful. There are massive plumes of oil in the mile-deep water over the leak. That oil, and the oil at the surface is spreading every day, into the habitats of plants and animals who call that ocean their home and provide the livelihood for an entire culture of fishing people. It’s spawning season in the Gulf, and that ecosystem will not be the same for a long, long time, if ever.
When I was a child, at home on a bay in the Gulf of Mexico, my mom and I would go fishing with my cousins for specimens to keep in our salt water aquarium. We have a short seine net — a rectangular net with brown square mesh — with floats on the top and weights on the bottom. Each end has a pole attached. In shallow sea grass, wearing our bathing suits in the warm water of the bay, she would hold one pole and I the other. I would stand in the shallows, at the edge of the grass, while she ventured out into the deeper water.
As she walked, the water inched up her waist until she stood nearly neck deep. She turned and looked at me, and we would start to walk parallel to the shore, she a little ahead of me, so that fish scared by our steps and swimming out to the deep would be caught nonetheless in our net. The grass got caught in our toes.
When the net was full, I would plant my pole and she would swing in toward the shore so we were both facing the beach, the net between us bulging with the baby animals that call this estuary bay home. We would pull the net up to the shore, lift it, and, surrounded by a little crowd of cousins, set it on the sand to see what we had caught.
The children, my cousins, who call the beach home where my mom and I would go fishing, would gather around after we had pulled in the net to see baby grouper, fat and black; little puffer fish, prickling like pineapples; needlefish, wriggling snake-ily; mounds and mounds of shiners, the bait-fish that are silvery with yellowish stripes; and every now and then, for the luckiest searchers, a tiny seahorse, clinging to the grass that got pulled in. That was the most precious of all finds. For a brief moment when I saw a seahorse, hidden among the seaweed in the net, I swear it felt like the kingdom had indeed come.
We would collect what we wanted for the aquarium in a bucket, and throw the rest back, to swim free in their ocean home. It was an exhilarating introduction to the variety of life that exists in God’s great wide world. But after the oil disaster in the Gulf, hope of seeing the seahorse this summer will be, I imagine, hard to muster. The fecundity of that bay is unlikely to persist as the oil comes to shore.
So these fishing memories have been surging up as I wonder and worry what the future holds for that bay, and as I studied some texts that articulate God’s incredible promises to us. In one revelation to John, John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In this holy city flows the river of the water of life, water that is bright and clear as crystal, water that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. What a strange city this is, where water, bright as crystal, flows through the streets, its source a throne. On the banks of this lovely river grows the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
In this city, the river is clear and bright as crystal. In this city, the nations and all their wounds are healed. In this city nothing accursed will be found anymore. In this city there is no darkness, nor need for sun or moon because the glory of the Lord God is its light.
The promise of this city, of its water bright as crystal, and its trees that grow leaves that will heal the nations, has been difficult for me to believe lately. The bay where my parents live is under threat, and though I believe that God’s promises are good beyond what we can imagine, sometimes the best I can imagine is fishing in the bay with my mother. A person has to wonder if it will ever be the same.
But the Gospel of John also describes God’s incredible promises to us. Jesus tells the disciples, gathered at the Last Supper, that after Jesus returns to the Father, that he and God will come to the disciples and make their home among them. He tells the disciples that God will send them another advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach them everything, to remind them of all Jesus had said to them. He tells the disciples “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
We are disciples of this man full of promises. And Jesus promises us that He and God will come to make their home with us. Jesus promises us that He will send us an advocate, that the Holy Spirit will teach us everything, and Jesus promises us that He will leave us with the gift of his peace.
These promises have not yet been fulfilled. We live in a world that remains unperfected, marked by sin and disaster, and full of unexplained suffering.
But we have been sent the advocate, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. The spirit is breath and wind and fire. The spirit is with us and in us and around us. The spirit creates beyond the limits of life, the spirit breathes new realities. The spirit speaks.
Rogare, like rogation, means to ask or propose, and we ask God to fulfill God’s good promises — to give birth to the heavenly city, to give us water clear and brilliant as crystal. And the spirit is our advocate as we ask, because the spirit nurtures our relationships: with each other and with God. The spirit enables us to live together beyond possibility.
For me, it is impossible to reconcile the love I have for the Gulf Coast with the devastation that is coming. But when I asked my mother if it made her sad, if the possibility of havoc in a place she and my dad have loved so well and worked so hard to care for was heavy on her heart, she said it was; but she also said that they have experienced much in that place, much beauty, much care, much joy, much grace, much goodness, and much love. She said that those experiences and that love are what will enable the work they do now and in the years to come for the bay and its life. We may not hope for seahorses this summer, I think she must have meant, but we might hope that our lives will be faithful to the gifts we have already received.
Life among us, your life, and my life, and our life together is both a gift from the Spirit and a promise that the Spirit will be our advocate. Let us remember God’s gifts and ask God for the blessing that God has promised.
Alda Balthrop-Lewis is a former intern at Speaking of Faith and is a graduate student at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. She will be returning to the Gulf Coast for the summer and pursuing her studies. Look for more posts from Alda in which she reflects on her home and its evolving state.
Joanna Macy and the Great Turning
Trent Gilliss, online editor
“It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive.”
“I see such promise in the human heart and at the same time I see such tragedy. And, so, my heart breaks over and over.”
Remember the name Joanna Macy? If not, she’s the person who collaborated with Anita Barrows (“The Soul in Depression”) on translating Rilke’s Book of Hours. By the way, they recently collaborated on another book, A Year with Rilke, published this past fall by HarperOne.
I stumbled upon two videos of her for an upcoming film called The Great Turning — her concept of a period of transition for our society that she describes as “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” She speaks about ecology in human terms of reconnection and references wisdom traditions and work as a way back to sustainability.
What’s interesting is that her efforts don’t simply focus on repairing the physical world. She emphasizes the spiral of connectivity as a way back to choosing a vibrant life rather than apathy: seeing the world and people with new eyes by coming from a place of gratitude and recognizing the pain of the world as a way of seeing anew and then engaging (“going forth”).
She’s a compelling character with a way of speaking that really draws me in — sensual with a gruffness like Vigen Guroian, a little new-agey, I guess, but more along the lines of an engaged Buddhist. She speaks somewhat softly but with a verve, with energy and intensity and a self-awareness of a teacher who has answered many questions and knows many remain unasked and unable to be answered. She speaks about being present, mindfulness, mystery, the interconnectedness of all things — ideas that engage all kinds of people on many levels.
(h/t Time for Awakening)
The more tedious the work we have, the better. Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together.
—Rob Jones, an organizer of a “new movement” linking young people together who want to do some hardcore farm labour for a day.
Shubha Bala, associate producer