We’re fascinated with outer space, but there’s a place on earth that’s just as alien — and just as mysterious. It’s the bottom of the ocean, and Sylvia Earle has walked there:
"[I walked] on the bottom, two and a half hours, and I later spoke with an astronaut friend, Buzz Aldrin, and he said, ‘Well, that’s about as long as we had to walk on the moon, two and a half hours.’ But what they did not have on the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and those who came later, they didn’t have just this avalanche of life, this great diversity all around. Everywhere you looked, there were little fish with lights down the side. Of course, the corals themselves are alive. There were little burrows of creatures that were dwelling in the sediments on the sea floor. The water itself is like minestrone, except all the little bits are alive."
And that life of the ocean sustains all life on earth. Sylvia Earle takes us there with singular urgency and passion.
…15 years ago when I went out into communities, these people would ask me, ‘Why are you doing the slaves’ work?’ And now I don’t hear that anymore.
In his recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Allen credited Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and and the White House Kitchen Garden with getting people of color “back into the game” of what he calls the “good food revolution.”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Chef Dan Barber and Mindful Eating in the 21st Century (Live Video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
date: Friday, November 5th, 2010
time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern
duration: 90 minutes
From Atlanta we take you to Indianapolis to bring you a New York chef who is a game-changing voice of the farm-to-table movement. Tonight at 7:30 pm Eastern, we’ll be streaming live video of Krista’s interview with Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame, from the Spirit & Place Festival in Indianapolis.
Barber is a James Beard Award winner, who is using his New York restaurants to highlight the distinct quality of locally grown, seasonal, and sustainable agriculture. His approach to mindful eating and the values surrounding food in contemporary lives is something you don’t want to miss.
How this public event came about has been serendipitous. A number of years ago Krista interviewed Rabbi Sandy Sasso for a show on the spirituality of parenting. It so happens that she’s been deeply involved in an annual, 10-day festival called Spirit & Place, Indiana’s largest civic festival, which promotes “civic engagement, respect for diversity, thoughtful reflection, public imagination, and enduring change through creative collaborations between arts, faith-based, and civic institutions.” She invited us to come down and we accepted!
This venue is an ideal forum for our conversation, which will enlarge and deepen our understanding about sustainability issues through discussing core human values of beauty and living in relationship with one another. Dan Barber stresses that, for him, a core value of sustainability is expressed through an age-old tradition: “The sustainability stuff comes in through the stories. The thing that the industrial food chain will never have is the ability to tell stories.” I look forward to hearing him tell some of those stories and share his imagination about how those narratives enliven his experiences as a grower and chef and thinker.
While preparing for this public event, I can’t help but hear echoes of Krista’s conversation with Ellen Davis — specifically, about getting to know your farmer and understanding where your food comes from. He seems to be one of those bridge people whose appreciation for food and the land was cultivated by working Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires as a teenager, where he spent most summers “bailing hay and moving cows, pasturing them from field to field.” His Know Thy Farmer effort reminds me of a fabulous film campaign out of Maine called Meet Your Farmer, which emphasizes the values in understanding the struggle of people producing food, the joy of working intimately with others, and celebrating a table of locally grown produce and meat and its flavors even more.
He’s also a businessman. Dan Barber builds on the idea of interdependency but applies it in a fresh way through his fine dining restaurants — that both businesses and livelihoods of the people who work there are mutually dependent. In effect, his farm depends on the viability of his restaurants and his restaurants rely on the quality of the food produced at his farm.
In ten short years, Barber has impacted public consciousness about our everyday food choices and perhaps even agricultural policy. In 2009 he was named to the annual Time 100 list. In 2010, the World Economic Forum invited him to Davos, Switzerland to participate in their annual meeting, and President Barack Obama appointed him to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. And his TED2010 talk has become a sensation that has been forwarded to more than one of our producers’ email in-boxes.
Please join us right here or on the Being LIVE page and watch the live stream of this public conversation. For those of you who can’t make it, not to worry. We’re recording it and video will be immediately available for playback after the event.
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.”
What Heritage Lies Dormant Within You?
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"There’s satisfaction in the job we do, but, at least for Penny and I, we get to work with our kids. Working with family."
—Addison Chase, patriarch of Chase Farm
A confession. We’re longing to illustrate a narrative that’s flowing beneath the surface. The river in the ocean that’s shrouded by the billowing sail but plays its vital role in carrying the ship to a new destination, a new shore.
For the most part, sustainability and climate change reports carry a bit of doom and gloom in their tone. The guests on our program embrace that reality, but they also bear out that the human spirit can never be vanquished. And with this “brightening on the path,” as Ellen Davis puts it, hope is renewed as we rescue what we’ve lost and ways of living that lie dormant within us.
The two films included here are part of eight vignettes called Meet Your Farmer. Put forward by the Maine Farmland Trust, an organization that works to preserve farm land in the state, the films tell the stories of — and share the perspectives of — eight family farmers who echo sentiments harbored deep within the core of most of us:
"I think people want to be farmers. I think everybody really wants to be a farmer. I think (laughing). I think they do, deep down inside. Everybody wants to be a farmer."
—Aaron Bell, Tide Mill Farm
They share our dreams and clarify perhaps a small piece of the romantic longing inside each one of us, at least to some degree — to live differently, to be more than we have become. For me, it’s the notion of being able to work alongside my two boys far into my old age. Never having to leave their sides. To know them deeply, intimately. And for them to know me and their beautiful mother in the same way. The Chase and Bell families are passing down not only a work ethic and a set of values, but a heritage worthy of preserving:
"Children that grow up on farms, near farms, or working on farms — that know how to nurture life, whether it be a bed of carrots or a mother cow that’s having a tough delivery — and know how to even take a life, that know how to put a cow out of its misery, that know how to butcher a pig, that know how to do that in a humane way and understand and respect the importance of it. … To know that importance and that meaning. They’re going to know the difference between right and wrong. They’re going to be more compassionate."
I’m hoping these films prompt you to think about your relationships — to the land, to your family, to your neighbors, to our collective heritage, to your faith — and then distill your ideas into words about what this means for you.
It could be a place — a prairie night sky or an urban garden. It could be an interaction with a neighbor or a local farmer — something that makes you contemplate the deeper meanings of possession of land and its care. The result: a collaboration between us and printmaker Annie Bissett to weave your narratives into a collective narrative through text and images. Tell us as simply as you can.
(h/t to kateoplis)
"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.
An Exquisite Portrait Worth Sharing
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sometimes a guy just has to share the majestic. I consider this portrait of Ellen Davis one of these opportunities.
Last Thursday I asked Jon Goldstein at Duke Divinity School to send me a few photos of this week’s guest, hoping that one would give me enough lateral space to work with for her bio pic. Being in a rush, I passed right over this exquisite portrait. I think it really speaks to our title “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures.” It also reminds me of this passage in in the opening chapter of her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible:
"The present generation is embroiled in a crisis that is, in material terms, the most far-reaching crisis in humanity’s life with God; it concerns us precisely as creatures, so far as we know, who are susceptible to moral failure. The crisis has its roots in our moral lives, yet it now touches and probably affects every aspect of our physical existence and possibly that of every creature in the biosphere."
(photo: the Eno)
Evaluating a Potential Guest
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Our colleagues at Marketplace are conducting a day-long conference called Moving by Degrees, which “brings the nation’s top scientists, policymakers and business leaders together with reporters from public radio and commercial stations from around the nation.” One of the voices we’re paying attention to is Elizabeth Kolbert, an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker.
The live video stream should be up any second (it was scheduled for 1:00 pm Pacific). Listen in and help us evaluate whether she might be a guest on Speaking of Faith. What do you think?