by Drew Dellinger
Saving People and the Environment
Dianne D. Glave, the pastor of Crafton United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., is the author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” and a co-editor, with Mark Stoll, of “To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History.”
A few weeks ago I went on a tour of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago. CNT Energy, the focus of the tour, is “a creative think-and-do tank that combines rigorous research with effective solutions. Our organization concentrates on helping consumers and communities obtain the information and services they need to control energy costs and become more energy efficient. We use our cutting edge localized programs and research in the areas of dynamic electricity pricing, building performance, and regional energy planning.” (About Us) The CNT building is a LEED Platinum Building Renovation with 5 out of 5 LEED points for Innovation and Design.
My hope is to have 30% water use reduction and 90% of my space lighted with sunlight during the day in my own home much like CNT. Wishes can become reality.
CNT is doing tremendous things and I’m so glad I witnessed innovation in an energy efficient building first-hand.
Photos by Dianne Glave
Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.
The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.
The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”
If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.
Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.
The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth. Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:
- Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
- As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
- In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
- A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
- A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.
Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.
Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.
At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.
An article titled “Black Population Drops to 3.9% in San Francisco” in the February 4, 2011 in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, got me thinking.
The percentage of African Americans in California was never very high even when I lived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. My sense was you were either very poor or extremely rich. A handful of us lived somewhere in the middle. Where you lived and the type housing you lived in was and is defined by your socio-economic status. Not so nice neighborhoods were more concrete than grass and trees. Nice neighborhoods had more access to recreational amenities like local and state parks, and even the ocean. This dichotomy was true for African Americans living in that sprawling city I once called home.
Director Michael Mann made even the gritty poorer neighborhoods look good soaked by electric lights, stars, and the moon in the story of a white hit-man played by Tom Cruise and a cabdriver portrayed by Jaime Foxx:
Based on the article, I considered African Americans in urban/suburban place/environments. For example, people across ethnic lines yearn(ed) for suburban McMansions, as noted in the article, where African Americans have been increasingly migrating from San Francisco to places like Antioch to sprawl out on larger tracts of land. In another example, gentrification has long redefined cities including those in California for impoverished blacks. Historically, they have been forced out of the only places they have known, their cities of concrete, asphalt, a few struggling trees, and some patches of crabgrass. Upper middle-class people often come in and replaced the former occupants of public housing.
Socio-economic status does define where you live, the meaning of place, and what your urban and suburban environment look like. I am constantly reminded by this issue of social justice when it comes to these landscapes and African American people.
I feel in some way that I contributed to objectifying the Houma, Native American people during a visit to Grand Bayou, Louisiana on January 8, 2011. That made me sad during my visit. With pride mixed with humility and graciousness, they continue to accept help and support; BP destroyed the Houma’s ecosystem when oil spewed from the ruptured Event Horizon and in turn the latter’s livelihood of fishing, crabbing, and shrimping. The Houma have been reduced to giving tours of the Grand Bayou and inviting strangers like myself into their lovely homes. I thought, what would it be like if I had constant streams of people in my front yard and in my house? I am sad about by the dark grim times faced by these beautiful self-sufficient people.
So I honor the Houma with a few photos in hopes of keeping the Gulf of Mexico on people’s minds. Can I counter BP’s inhumanity in this small way? Can I reverse the lousy under-handed treatment of the Houma fishermen, oyster-men, shrimpers, and their families by BP? That’s a tough one since money promised for lost wages like the presence of the global company in the region has long evaporated.
The disaster is a tragic study in how a global corporation–a story that keeps repeating itself–has exploited and continues to exploit people who only want to live off the land and ocean.
Photos by Dianne Glave
I sat in the amphitheater at Zoo Atlanta listening to Shelton Johnson. He was the keynote speaker for the 6th Annual Keeping it Wild (KIW) Gala, and is a national park ranger and author of Gloryland. As I listened to Shelton, one row back from me I heard the rhythmic breathing of a six year old girl. Shelton’s passionate story-telling and cadence of that small child’s breathing mentally and spiritually took me outdoors.
I imagined being at Yosemite National Park, the source of many of Shelton’s stories. The adults–I was there too–were up late quietly looking up at the sky filled with distant stars and a crescent moon. We had tucked the children away in the tents and we could hear the distinctive breathing of each child, like different signatures on many pages.
So to beginnings. KIW hosted a wonderful gala. It began with a reception filled with people from so many cultures eating from their bamboo plates. Later, more guests filled their plates from a buffet with cornbread, black-eyed peas, and more.
In the amphitheater, the latter part of the evening, I felt love and joy seeing so many people of color listening to Shelton tell his stories. The Buffalo soldiers also drew me in. I cried when one of the soldiers stepped forward and affirmed Shelton in honoring the ancestors. Towards the end, a young woman strummed her guitar singing. We sang along with her about fighting pollution.
I hope that KIW continues to grow and expands their good work. I may not always express my feelings in the moment but my heart was bursting and full last night, full of Yosemite National Park.
Photos by Dianne Glave
I will be hanging up the blog shingle until Sunday, August 29th for a few weeks off. I’ll still share brief items at the Rooted in the Earth FB Group Page. Come by to share and/or read about (African Americans and) the environment.
The due date for the fiction blog carnival has also been extended:
DEADLINE EXTENDED UNTIL AUGUST 30, 2010. PLEASE CONTACT ME WITH ANY QUESTIONS AT DIANNEGLAVEROOTEDINTHEEARTH@CLEAR.NET
Who is Stevie Wonder, this gifted man who wrote and sings “Village Ghetto Land”? Stevie was born in 1950 in Michigan. He was born prematurely and while in an incubator, he lost his sight. Today, we know him as the talented singer, song-writer, instrumentalist, producer, and community activist. I would argue Stevie is one of the world’s most renowned musical artists in the world of all time.
“Village Ghetto Land” is on the “Songs in the Key of Life” LP. Tamia Records released the album in 1976. The album hit number one on the Billboard Album chart immediately.
Stevie co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” with Gary Bird. All of the instruments were also played by Stevie. The song probably wasn’t released as a single because it never charted.
Here’s one of my personal memories of the album; I’m sure many people connect a song to a memory, an experience. I was sitting in the back of my cousin Denise’s car with her daughter Christina. We were all driving back from New Jersey headed to St. Albans–that’s in the boro of Queens in New York–on a cold day after a family Thanksgiving dinner. During the drive, Christina and I belted out all the songs from the album as we peered through the windows looking at the landscape of naked trees lining streets that became highways under fall grey skies.
The song “Village Ghetto Land” focuses on environmental justice and racism before these terms were part of our vernacular. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” probably an influenced Stevie when writing “Village Ghetto Land” because both songs are about social justice.
Read the lyrics:
Village Ghetto Land Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land
See the people lock their doors
While robbers laugh and steal
Beggars watch and eat their meal from garbage cans
Broken glass is everywhere
It’s a bloody scene
Killing plagues the citizens
Unless they own police
Children play with rusted cars
Sores cover their hands
Politicians laugh and drink-drunk to all demands
Families buying dog food now
Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief
Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land
Village Ghetto Land
When I sing these lyrics out loud, I visualize a street that is more like a garbage dump and less like a healthy neighborhood. The sense of poverty is strongest in the images of people eating garbage and children suffering with sores on their hands probably from their playground of rusted cars.
The images take me to another place in the twenty-first century. I think about impoverished people in struggling towns, that were more like hamlets or small villages, in the shadow of chemical plants in Louisiana. I sat in the midst of tombstones in a graveyard of one of those hamlets that was populated more with the dead than the living.
Watch and listen to Stevie Wonder sing “Village Ghetto Land”:
George Michael’s cover of Village Ghetto Land is another good listen.
PHOTOS BY DIANNE GLAVE