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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.
Nature’s Menorah
by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor
This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.
Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.

Nature’s Menorah

by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor

This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.


Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.

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Anonymous asked:
Have you experienced Joe Hutto's "My Life as a Turkey"? Currently watching a program on PBS Nature. Some fascinating insights into imprinting, presence, and being... Enjoy!

Dear Anonymous—

I had seen previews on PBS for this Nature special several times but never found the time to watch it. Your question was the catalyst. Thank you. What a gorgeous film and what a novel way of seeing the world!

I’m embedding it within this reply so that others may watch it in the days leading up to Thanksgiving in the States. In many ways, characters like Joe Hutto and Alan Rabinowitz, whom we interviewed for “A Voice for the Animals,” are windows for our species. They’re eccentric characters that teach us about ourselves as a species and as a sentient beings through their interactions with wildlife. They also prove that we have a lot to learn when it comes to our sweeping generalizations about other species.

Turkey by Joe HuttoHere are a few of Joe Hutto’s words of wisdom that strike at the core of who this man is and how we can learn from his observations:

"And I realized that my involvement in this experiment was going to be a very personal, very emotional ride for me — and not just a science experiment."

"Each day as I leave the confines of my language and culture, these creatures seem to become in every way my superiors. They are more alert, sensitive, and aware. They’re in many ways, in fact, more intelligent. They’re understanding of the forest is beyond my ability to comprehend."

"Emotions are certainly not peculiar to the human experience. In their observation of death, the death of another turkey that is a member of their group, it’s a very conscious behavior as if they are trying to understand what the meaning of this is."

And, boy, I’d regret not commenting on the ending scene with Turkey Boy. My Life as a Turkey is a brutal reminder that with all of the kindness, the tenderness, and the social interaction between man and bird, nature and creatures desire not only to survive but to dominate and establish dominion.

Thank you so much for the reminder,
Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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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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Surfing a Wave of Mystery

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

When asked about surfing a world record 90-foot high wave (27 meters) above Nazare Canyon off the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Garrett McNamara comments in this Guardian video:

"This wave is very mysterious and very magical. It’s just such a mystery; you never know what you’re going to get out there."

Magical? Check. Daunting? Check. A mysterious place to meet one’s maker? Check.

(via theguardian)

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The National Archives’ todaysdocument delivers with some incredible color photography celebrating the passing of light.

Leaf Peeping

On this fall weekend - enjoy some lovely fall color from the Environmental Protection Agency.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Waves of Murmuration (video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

No, not a line from The Pixies. Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive will ensnare you in the majesty of this chance encounter with “one of nature’s greatest and most fleeting phenomena” — a collection of starlings rolling over a kayak canoe on a lake.

Editor’s note: In the comments below, Maureen Doallas reminded me of two spots where I first heard about starling murmurations and thought I’d share them with you: Paolo Patrizi’s magnificent photos of murmurations over Rome and a BBC documentary. Both are definitely checking out.

Hat tip to Anne Breckbill for the heads up!

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A Quest to Save the World’s Biggest Cats and the Story of a Man Who Found His Voice

by Krista Tippett, host

Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and this interview is as full of revelation and beauty as any I’ve done.

This is in part because he is an extraordinary person. How many people have stories of looking jaguars and lions in the eyes in the wild and walking away? Or of encountering pygmy humans believed to be lost? Or of discovering an unknown primitive species of deer? But the inner odyssey that has taken him towards all these experiences, and that he has taken in response to them, is as remarkable.

Alan Rabinowitz was born with a stutter, before this condition’s neurological base was understood. His difficulty in speaking was so profound that it masked his intelligence and personality for the first 20 years of his life. He was isolated in school, put in classes for “retarded children.”

After being mute all day, as he tells it, he would come home and be able to talk to his animals — a redemptive experience, he tells us, that is shared by many stutterers. Out of ignorance rather than cruelty, his parents essentially left him alone with his pain. But his father did notice that the “Big Cat House” at the Bronx Zoo relaxed and delighted his son, and that after these visits his speech was a bit easier. For Alan Rabinowitz, these were experiences of relief, pleasure, and a painful empathy. He deeply internalized something I think many of us have felt in the presence of powerful, wild creatures circling in cages — a wild, heartbreaking animal with grief and longing. Alan Rabinowitz looked those jaguars and tigers in the eyes and said, I’ll find a place for you — a place for us. A few years later, after rapidly distinguishing himself as a wildlife biologist, he began to do just that.

He is very clear, though, that his earliest exploits of tracking raccoons and bears in the Great Smoky Mountains were as much about getting himself away from people as anything else. In the meantime, he finally found a therapist who helped him thrive in the world of speech, to become the “fluent stutterer” he is today. Soon he began to help create some of the world’s most innovative wildlife preserves where big cats could roam and flourish — first in Belize, and later in Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma.

Alan Rabinowitz with Dawi of the Taron - by Steve WinterHere is where a defining irony — a humanizing and deeply moving irony — of Alan Rabinowitz’s story comes in. Having traveled to the most remote places on earth, driven by his passion to save animals, he kept bumping up against people in unexpected, life-changing ways. He discovered the last 12 members of a community of human beings, Mongoloid pygmies. He had no common language with them, stuttering notwithstanding, and yet he tells us movingly of connecting with the elder of this tribe in a way that transcended words. With this man who was the last viable male of his race, and who could no longer find a mate, Alan Rabinowitz came to understand that he was ready to marry the woman he loved and begin a family.

I am fascinated, too, that in the span of his career, the science of wildlife conservation has made its own version of this circle — integrating a concern for human thriving as essential to the work of animal preservation. Panthera Pantanal 2009 Within a few generations, scientists have learned that the model of isolating endangered big cats in large protected spaces is not a defense against extinction. They need to move far more widely, need to exchange their genetic material, need in fact to coexist with human beings. The projects Alan Rabinowitz works on now are called "genetic corridors." And his organization invests in the flourishing of human communities as part of its investment in the survival of big cats.

There are so many amazing moments in this conversation, especially a story Alan Rabinowitz tells of facing off with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize in a preservation area he had created. The eye contact they shared transported him back to those moments of longing in the Bronx Zoo. But this time they could both walk away and both be free in ways he could not have imagined as a child. And today, as he tells us, he is facing a new inner frontier. He has been diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer that is forcing him anew to see the urgency of his life’s choices — to keep protecting the animals who need him and to be there for his family, including a son born with a stutter, who means the world to him now.

Alan Rabinowitz is as whole and healed as anyone I have ever encountered, by the definition of healing that my wise guests have imparted to me. He has incorporated his sadnesses and wounds, his suffering and grief, into his very identity. They have become part and parcel of the gifts he has to offer to the world. I am better for experiencing his passion and his generosity of spirit towards both animals and humans. I feel grateful to have been in his presence — the presence, indeed, of his wonderful voice. I think you will be too.

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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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Wangari Maathai: A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places

by Krista Tippett, host

Condolences for a great lossPer Ludrig Magnus, the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, signs a condolence book for Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai in Nairobi. (photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour of "Planting the Future." I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.

Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.

Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked,” and continued, “For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”

For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.

My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.

The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.

We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.

As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here’s how she answered her own question:

"I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."
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Story of a Falconer: A Medieval Art of Intimacy and Beauty (video)

by Samantha Broun and Amanda Kowalski, guest contributors

"Falconry is my biggest passion in life. For many of us, our pursuit in the sport is a very spiritual place, and going out with your bird into good habitat and chasing wild animals with it is just very personal."
Scott McNeff, falconer

One night at a dinner party, I (Amanda) had just met Scott when he casually mentioned that he had a hawk in his car and asked me if I wanted to come see it. I had never seen a bird of prey up close before and had no idea Scott was a licensed falconer. When he invited me to go out “hawking” with him, I had to go. And I had to bring my camera, of course.

I was immediately hooked. In addition to it being a visually stunning sport to watch, I realized there were a lot of great sounds as well: the bells used on the hawk’s legs, the whistles and sounds the falconers use when working with the bird, and Scott was such a great explainer of it all. That’s when I contacted Sam.

Scott McNeff with His Hawk
Scott McNeff adjust the headgear on his red-tailed hawk. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)

Despite the fact that falconry has been practiced worldwide for thousands of years, it is a relatively new sport in North America. Currently, there are just over 4,000 federally licensed falconers in the United States. When Amanda showed me some of her photos and asked if I wanted to tag along with her and Scott, I said yes.

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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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Spring Growth Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"symbiosis"by Dorothee Lang
in between tulip bulbsthe question:am i growing this gardenor is this gardengrowing me?

We received this poem and lovely tulip photos from Dorothee Lang, a writer and editor in Stuttgart, Germany who responded to our call for images and stories about the spirituality of gardening.
Spring is still in its infancy and we’re eager to hear from more of you. How are you spiritually nourished by growing things from the soil? What do you learn from tending to your garden plot that you carry forward into your lived life? Send us images of gardens you’ve nourished. Over the coming weeks, we’ll continue to feature your contributions on this blog.

Spring Growth
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

"symbiosis"
by Dorothee Lang
in between tulip bulbs
the question:
am i growing this garden
or is this garden
growing me?

We received this poem and lovely tulip photos from Dorothee Lang, a writer and editor in Stuttgart, Germany who responded to our call for images and stories about the spirituality of gardening.

Spring is still in its infancy and we’re eager to hear from more of you. How are you spiritually nourished by growing things from the soil? What do you learn from tending to your garden plot that you carry forward into your lived life? Send us images of gardens you’ve nourished. Over the coming weeks, we’ll continue to feature your contributions on this blog.

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Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. … The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.
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— —Samuel Pisar, from an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times titled "Out of Auschwitz"

Trent Gilliss, online editor

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Our Former Guests’ Perspectives on Vodou and Living

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Sending around news articles is a regular part of workaday life here at Speaking of Faith. This AP story includes a quote from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who was featured in our program on Haitian Vodou:

Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.

Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.

But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense," Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. "They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants."

With the earthquake in Haiti on everyone’s minds, Trent blogged about our show on the morality of nature with geologist Jelle de Boer. His post sparked a spirited exchange on our Facebook page. Krista also cited Jelle de Boer in her conversation from this past year with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon. Le Pichon’s perspective is sobering:

Ms. Tippett: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, you know, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this “where is God?” question. And somehow this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what restore life over time. He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said here we are, lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack and as a consequence of that magmas form at deep levels in the earth. They are brought to the surface and they bring not only nutrients but also water and that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.

Mr. Le Pichon: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on and if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Le Pichon: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? You know, it’s a very dangerous place.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Le Pichon: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true, they put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment, and we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.

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Between Order and Mystery
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

The title of this slideshow, "The Myth of Order," is in reference to a statement made by James Prosek, our guest for last week’s program:

Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.

A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system.

Interestingly enough, earlier this week one of our podcast listeners alerted us to a New York Times article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon that adds another perspective to the naming and ordering of nature. While Prosek’s words lament a loss of nature’s magic to the rigid confines of Linnaean classification (named after the “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), Yoon’s essay mourns the loss of popular interest in taxonomy:

In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.

And, she relates this loss to a divestment from the natural world:

We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.

I find it interesting that these two perspectives on taxonomy can seem completely at odds, while at the same time come from the same sense of wonder in the face of the nature. Perhaps these two viewpoints evoke a need for balance: without some system of naming we’re limited in our ability to understand the natural world, but pin everything down too neatly and we lose the life that makes nature so attractive and — as Prosek might say — mystical.

(image: A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system, from Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes.)

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