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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.
This striking (and haunting) image of an early twentieth-century resort foundation surfaced while I was searching for a photo of the San Andreas Fault. Apparently, the waters of the Salton Sea, a freshwater lake that had once been the tip of the Gulf of California, turned a hill into an island, Mullet Island. And, then I read this line from the caption:

"Scientists have discovered that human-created changes effecting the Salton Sea appear to be the reason why California’s massive Big One earthquake is more than 100 years overdue and building up for the greatest disaster ever to hit Los Angeles and Southern California. Researchers found that strands of the San Andreas Fault under the 45-mile long rift lake have have generated at least five 7.0 or larger quakes about every 180 years. This ended in the early 20th century when authorities stopped massive amounts of Colorado River water from periodically flooding the into this sub-sea level desert basin.
Such floods used to regularly trigger major quakes and relieve building seismic pressure, but the last big earthquake on the southern San Andreas was about 325 years ago. Dangerous new fault branches that could trigger a 7.8 quake have recently been discovered under the Salton Sea.

Do I stand in awe, or hold my hand over my heart and parrot Fred Sanford, “I’m coming, Elizabeth!”
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

This striking (and haunting) image of an early twentieth-century resort foundation surfaced while I was searching for a photo of the San Andreas Fault. Apparently, the waters of the Salton Sea, a freshwater lake that had once been the tip of the Gulf of California, turned a hill into an island, Mullet Island. And, then I read this line from the caption:

"Scientists have discovered that human-created changes effecting the Salton Sea appear to be the reason why California’s massive Big One earthquake is more than 100 years overdue and building up for the greatest disaster ever to hit Los Angeles and Southern California. Researchers found that strands of the San Andreas Fault under the 45-mile long rift lake have have generated at least five 7.0 or larger quakes about every 180 years. This ended in the early 20th century when authorities stopped massive amounts of Colorado River water from periodically flooding the into this sub-sea level desert basin.

Such floods used to regularly trigger major quakes and relieve building seismic pressure, but the last big earthquake on the southern San Andreas was about 325 years ago. Dangerous new fault branches that could trigger a 7.8 quake have recently been discovered under the Salton Sea.

Do I stand in awe, or hold my hand over my heart and parrot Fred Sanford, “I’m coming, Elizabeth!”

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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Overwhelming Video of Tsunami Taking Out Entire Japanese Fishing Town

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The plethora of footage showing the ravaging impact of the earthquake and resulting tsunami on Japanese cities and infrastructure pale in comparison to this hand-held video above. Many of us have seen this BBC video of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, a fishing town situated at the tip of a bay on the Pacific Ocean in northeastern Japan; but, when you watch the embedded video shot from, what I can glean to be, the rooftop of an engineering building, you get a deeper sense of why human casualties are numbering at more than 18,000 so far.

Searching through Debris in JapanI imagined that tsunamis crush everything in their path with a massive series of waves and wild storms, but what you see here — besides this camera operator’s steadfast, fearless determination to capture it all — is the rushing water engulf Japan’s capital of the shark fin trade in a matter of minutes. While the water rises, the town sinks.

If cars can float like fishing bobbers on top of the flood waters and huge white storage tanks wander restlessly, the amount of debris displaced must be unfathomable. Robert Hood of MSNBC gives you a better sense of this. He created the panoramic shot below to show an on-the-ground view of the devastating aftermath of the video you see above.

(via Laughing Squid)

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"Nou Met Led Me Nou La!" (We May Be Ugly, But We Are Here!)

Trent Gilliss, online editor

Patrick Bellegarde-SmithPatrick Bellegarde-Smith, whom we first interviewed for our program "Living Vodou," grew up in Haiti, a member of the country’s aristocratic elite of African descent. He studied political science in the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Unlike his well-known grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith was first drawn to his homeland’s indigenous religion as a way to understand his cultural identity, and later became a oungan.

The professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee responds to our questions about Haiti’s history, the mass media’s reporting, and Vodou’s role in recovery:

I find myself wanting to hear about the context and perspective that only you can bring to the way Haiti is being viewed and discussed while the earthquake spotlight is on it. What are your thoughts?

I am running on adrenaline at this moment, often unthinking, unfeeling, “zombie-like.” I didn’t sleep for the first several days. A Haitian baby girl, 15 days old, was found alive and well after seven days. Half her life! What stamina shown by the buried, the undead, after one week after the cataclysm.

The UN says that it is the worst disaster it has faced, presumably in terms of actual death and refugees in a single country. It is the worst earthquake in Haitian history, in a country and in a geographic/geologic area that was literally created from fault lines and tectonic plates and volcanoes. When earthquakes occurred in the 19th century, Haiti picked itself up and rebuilt itself, without assistance from the outside world. We do acknowledge that we need it this time, and hope that Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, at the direction of Haitian governments, with all that Haiti has in terms of a reservoir of talent both inside and outside the country.

Map of the Caribbean and North American Crustal Plates

When you say that you hope Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, what do you mean? Are there certain examples you’re thinking of?

Haitian models abound in all fields, areas, and systems of life. The culture provides with indigenous models of development, as well as indigenous patterns of housing development, some predating European colonization of the island of Haiti (Hispaniola), e.g. Amerindian sources. The “Miami model” now found throughout the Caribbean insists on low houses, flat cement cement roofs, and the like, which do not accord with the environment.

Other more “settled cultures” have improvised upon their legacy, while Haiti has opted for a pale imitation of American standards all too often. In the same way that our art is distinctive and derived from our religion, our housing and our cities can also be creative and innovative within our own traditions and foundations. Hence, my call for all architects and engineers to come together to rebuild Port-au-Prince.

Port-au-Prince had eathquakes in the 1860s and 1950s. It was rebuilt. The second city of 500,000 inhabitants, Cap-Haïtien, was destroyed in 1842. It was rebuilt.

There’s been so much non-stop coverage of Haiti since the first earthquake devastated the country where you grew up. I saw a series of reports on one news channel and its website that featured a reporter standing outside of a Catholic church…

Haiti has always been “defined” as 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, but 100 percent Vodou. This recognizes that the national religion is part of a worldview that belongs to all Haitians, and for which all Haitians should be proud. Typically, we can and do worship in churches, temples, and ounfos, realizing that it’s all about “spirit” and that all spiritual disciplines have access to the spiritual world.

Vodou is merely the culturally Haitian form of such worship. Haitian music, painting, oral literature — all systems inherently found in all cultures — have a Vodou foundation at its base. Much the same as the Judeo-Christian ethos suffuses all that is American, even those millions of Americans who are atheists.

…and the report would cut away to shots of Haitians worshiping while the correspondent continued to talk somewhat off-the-cuff. I thought, “Why aren’t they speaking to more people and featuring their voices on camera — even if they need interpreters?” What’s been missed in U.S. coverage of Haiti and its cultural/religious/spiritual moorings?

Much is missing from the American reportage by media. American media, all together now, refuse to mention that the first responders were more than 400 Cuban doctors doing good work in Haiti for several years. American media are not reporting that Venezuelan and Cuban help is being resisted by the U.S. when Cuba and Venezuela are very significant allies of Haiti for the past 200 years — for the past 100 years, depending on when these countries achieved independence.

The emphasis was not on water or food, but on landing 12,000 American soldiers in Haiti. Why so many soldiers? Please explain. Haitians are refusing to oblige American reporters who insist that Haiti will have “riots” and that Haitians “loot.” Is it because Haitians are black? The same arguments were made about New Orleans during Katrina. Racism always remains true to itself. When will that stop, coming from people who are genuine in their desire to help, but remain racist nonetheless. Please stop!

Patrick Bellegarde-SmithAs someone whose personal history represents the many layers of Haitian cultural, political, and religious identity, how are these events impacting you personally?

I have lost nine members of my extended family. Cousins of my generation have all survived, but their five homes have collapsed. One cousin in her mid-60s is sleeping in her car with her gravely ill husband. I have yet, as of today, been unable to call. News is intermittent. I am distressed and distraught.

I remember Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and 1950s — une ville jardin, a garden city with abundant greenery and water, a small population of 150,000. I am well-born and come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.

That sentiment — “the dead are not dead” — reminds me of a line from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The future stems from the past, so life and death become one in the same.” Could you say more about the Vodou understanding of spirit and energy and not wasting the wisdom of one’s ancestors? And how might this Vodou worldview inform a Haitian approach to rebuilding the country?

The Gede family of spirits protect the cemetery, and also protect new life in a never-ending chain. The Gede love children, reminiscent of the relationship one often finds between grandparents and grandchildren. One’s past predicts tendencies for certain outcomes, yet, through the exercise of free will, one can transcend one’s limits.

In traditional African thought, as in most spiritual systems, reincarnation is taken for granted, though attenuated in Haiti by the impact of Christianity. Hence the lack of a heaven and a hell, yet alone a purgatory or, in pre-John Paul II times, a limbo. Souls are nearer than we realize, and their interaction with the “living,” generally beneficent. No energy goes a-wasting in a close universe!

The way one interacts with fellow beings on the planet is far more significant (and rewarding) than the way one might interact with the spirit world or with God for that matter. At critical points in our lives’ journeys, God shall not ask about our beliefs or treatment of “It,” but how we have managed our relationships with humans and other facets of nature alike.

In what ways are you seeing your local community and, perhaps, larger Haitian-American community coming together during these times?

Haiti was in the process of reinventing itself politically, socially, culturally. Now Haiti has to reinvent itself physically as well. Out of tremendous pain, rays of hope. We rebuilt after past earthquakes, after hurricanes. We are spared the scourge of volcanic eruptions; our sister English and French colonies in the Caribbean, Monserrat and Martinique, did not escape volcanoes that are at the foundations of our countries.

The Haitian diaspora, more than a million strong, will come to the rescue. This signal event forces us to come into action. “L’Union Fait la Force" ("Union Makes Strength"), the national motto of Haiti must be practiced or else the international community will dictate the terms of Haiti’s "recovery." And worse will follow!

As a Vodou priest, how has the spirit world been present during the aftermath?

Haiti needs all its ancestral spirits, now more than ever. Praise the Lwa.

You began this interview by sharing the remarkable story of a 15-day-old baby surviving the quake. How do stories like this inform your notions of the human spirit? Of what Haiti’s future might hold and look like?
Her spirit is strong, and I would hope that she was spared to produce great things in her lifetime. This is one of many miracles we have been fortunate to witness over the last 12 days! That girl, name unknown, has proven as resilient as Haiti herself.
Who might have predicted that Haiti would have survived 206 years when faced by the opprobrium of the Western powers? In defiance, we cry out, “nou met led me nou la (we may be ugly, but we are here)!”
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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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Manifestations of the Living Earth
Trent Gilliss, online editor

"Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing."

The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.

Displaced Haitians Gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville
Displaced Haitians gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville to spend the night.
(photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images)

Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.

Map of Global Tectonic Plates

To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.

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