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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.

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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Fishing as Metaphor

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

I’ve never tried fly fishing, and I haven’t fished at all since I was a kid. But working these past couple weeks on our show "Fishing with Mystery" brought back a visceral memory of that unmistakable tug on my line. Though I haven’t experienced it in almost 20 years, I’ll never forget what it’s like to go from reeling in an inanimate object to feeling that sudden connection to a living creature beneath the water’s surface.

It’s no wonder people often use fishing as a metaphor to describe the creative process. While working on this show, I was trying to come up with literary references to fishing. Luckily, the availability of searchable online texts makes this kind of literary fishing a lot easier. I cast my line into the pond of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, searched on the word “fish,” and came up with a whopper.

The abridged passage below became a part of the show, and I think it perfectly captures one of the ideas James Prosek explores in his work. Namely, that nature can help take us away from reality, and into our dreams, but that it simultaneously pulls us back to the immediate reality that’s always there if we pay attention.

Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day’s dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight…communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below….It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

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What Do Pets Do For You?

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

So we’ve been trying to finally find someone to interview about the human animal bond, a show topic that’s been in the works for quite a while now. I was shocked to learn in my research just how much the relationship between humans and animals had changed over time. About 100 years ago, dogs in this country were primarily used for work on the farm, and rarely allowed inside the home. Today, 60-80% of dogs sleep with their owners at night in the bedroom, either in or on the bed.

Why have we gotten so much closer to these creatures? Is it our growing sense of displacement from nature that makes us want to form a bond with something non-human? Is it the same longing many people for natural places that a recent guest talked about in our show Pagans Ancient and Modern?

Of course, our desire to get close to animals is not new, as this amazing article from the New Yorker points out: the earliest artworks human beings are known to have created were cave paintings of animals. Maybe we bring animals into our home today for the same reason those first artists chose not to depict themselves but rather the living creatures around them. We want to get ahold of that wildness somehow. But I have to wonder what those cave painters would think if they could see us today, feeding the fish, changing the kitty litter, or doling out doggy anti-depressants.

(photo: m-louis/flickr)

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The Weird Glory and Terrible Power of Nature

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

It’s hard not to see life as utterly random and meaningless in the face of disasters like the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. And this is an issue that comes up again and again in theological circles, referred to as as the theodicy question: How could a just god let innocent people suffer and die?

On our show A History of Doubt, the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the theodicy question through the Book of Job. To test Job’s faith, God takes away his livelihood, his children, his status, his health, and finally Job breaks down and demands to know how God could do this to him, an innocent man. God appears to Job in a whirlwind and responds with a tirade.

Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?

Hecht gives her wonderful reading of this passage in her book Doubt: a History.

This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.

Krista explored the same theodicy question with the geologist Jelle de Boer, not long after the December 2004 tsunami disaster, in our show The Morality of Nature. Jelle de Boer pointed out that the horrifically destructive power of earthquakes and volcanoes is actually the same power responsible for bringing water and nutrients to the surface of the earth, therefore making life possible.

So through these volcanoes, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes…the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other 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 those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.

That magma running under the surface of everything, ready to destroy and remake life, puts a dark spin on something the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.

(Image: NASA)

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Rounding Out a Fine Month of Poetry

Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern

Kate posted a poem a while back that, she said, bonked her on the head. Robinson Jeffers, nature poet of the Central Coast in California, wrote this one that never fails to make me gasp. As the snows linger on in Minnesota, it also makes me a little homesick for the grandeur of the Pacific.

Editorial Note June 12, 2008: "The Great Explosion" is reprinted on many sites on the internet. In deference to copyright, the text has been removed from this post and a link to the text provided above. (Kate Moos, Managing Editor)

Carmel Valley
(photo: “Carmel Valley” by Mike Disharoon/flickr)

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The Wonder of Water

by Trent Gilliss, online editor

Video snacks are the latest rage among the working proletariat nowadays. People are hungry for the sentimental, the celebratory, the enigmatically natural joy of physics, the contemplative, the comic — especially at 3 pm on a workday.

For me, one of the pure pleasures of video on the Web is discovering cinematic joy in a short commercial that I may have dismissed because of timing and the medium. But, with a set of headphones forming an aural cocoon, I can experience the magic of water balloons floating and bursting in super-slow-motion, reflect on my children and wife, and appreciate what an immensely beautiful world that presents itself. All in a Schweppes ad; can you believe it?

(via VSL)

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