Science and History: Mirrored Interviews with Rana and Dianne Glave

The internet is an interesting world where I have met so many people with overlapping interests. When I was a guest facilitator/editor/organizer for a blog carnival, Rana happened about the call for blogs. She was kind enough to re-post the call on her blog because of her generous spirit and interest in diversity and the environment. We agreed to interview one another. Read Rana’s interview with me and my interview with Rana as follows:

What’s the story behind the Frogs and Ravens blog as a title?

There isn’t really a story!  *laughs*  People have asked me about it, and about the tagline “Some days we are ravens, other days, frogs” pretty much from the beginning.  The rather uninteresting answer is that the name and the phrase just popped into my head, I liked them, and that’s it.  I have learned, however, that there are a number of Pacific Northwest myths about both frogs and ravens, so maybe I was channeling that subconsciously.  Both animals also have human qualities – frogs in their shape, ravens in their intelligence – and are creatures of more than one world – water and earth for frogs, air and earth for ravens.  They also offer an interesting contrast in that frogs are quite vulnerable to environmental change, while ravens (like all corvids) are opportunistic and adaptable.  And, of course, frogs are not infrequently prey for ravens.  So there are a lot of interesting resonances to play with.

Tell me a little about yourself and your Frogs and Ravens blog.

I always have trouble summarizing myself, and similar difficulties with summarizing the blog.  I have a lot of interests, so it’s a bit hard to fit either into a nice little package!  That said, there are a few areas that I find myself returning to time and again over the years.  These would be photography, writing, academia, politics with a small p, animals, and the environment.  Yoga and crafts like knitting and sketching make their way in as well.  I’ve always loved the non-human world, so it’s not surprising that I keep being drawn back to it.  I’ve long thought of myself as a creative person – my favorite classes as a kid were art, dance, and story-time – and I’ve been writing and taking photographs and camping since I was a kid.  The blog reflects these somewhat scattered interests.

What interests you concerning diversity (human) and the environment?

As a white environmentalist with a middle-class background, and as a historian who studies the environment, it’s been pretty obvious that environmentalism in this country has (like the rest of American society) problems with race and diversity.  My own ignorance embarrasses me – I have some sense of the issues from my work in American Indian history and from teaching the environmental history of early America (including Southern slavery), but it’s clearly coming from a position of racial privilege – and so I’m grateful to those who have something useful to say about it.  Directing others to blogs like yours seems the very least I can do.

Do you have any concerns about the lack of diversity (people of color) in the environment(alism) dialogue? If so, what? What would you like see change?

Oh, yes.  The two main issues as I see it are (1) a lack of attention by mainstream (read, largely white and middle-class) environmental organizations to the concerns of people living in rural areas and in urban areas, many of whom are people of color, and (2) the very reasonable response of many people of color to see environmental issues in terms of a bunch of privileged white people who are more worried about trees and non-human animals than with their fellow human beings.  It’s not at all surprising that this is the way things have played out, but it bothers me both on a practical and a philosophical level.  On the practical level, we need as many people as possible to care about the environment and its health – and that includes the health and welfare of human beings.  On the philosophical level, I have real issues with the idea that environmentalism is something one does as a sort of privileged leisure activity, and an activity that’s only appropriate for those with the money and time to pursue it.  There are lots of ways of respecting the planet and its species, and no one way is perfect.  I particularly find it troubling when middle-class white people fetishize indigenous cultures’ relationships with the environment as a way of excusing their own passivity in the face of environmental threats, or when they try to ease their guilt over their privilege by paying other people to take inner-city children camping for one week, rather than questioning why such access to healthy outdoor activities isn’t a part of everyone’s daily life.

But, then, as a person speaking from a position of privilege myself, I feel wary of being too proscriptive in my suggestions.  If people like me are the only ones talking, then the problem hasn’t been solved; it’s just more white people talking to themselves about what they think people of color need.

I was enthralled by your photographs focusing on nature at Zenfolio. Why do you find nature photography meaningful?

One of the best things about photography, for me, is the way it forces me to slow down and pay attention.  So taking photographs is a sort of focused meditation on the world.  It’s also somewhat selfish, in that it allows me to capture things and moments and take them home with me, to be appreciated after the moment has passed.  I think of them as a sort of external memory, a tool for looking back at a moment in time and seeing things that escaped my notice the first time.  I don’t know that I think of myself as a nature photographer, however.  As the case with the blog, my photography is more about my perspective than about the genre; the strand that keeps the whole thing together is my interest and ways of seeing the world.  I happen to like subjects that others define as nature, but I’m also interested in things like garbage and buildings.  If I have anything resembling a formal philosophy for my photography, it’s that I do portraiture – but my portraits are not always of living things.

One of my favorite photos titled “Yawn. What was going on here?

If I remember right – it’s been nearly 20 years since I took that picture – I was spending the afternoon at the San Diego Zoo testing out this brand of black-and-white film that could be developed using color processes.  When you had it processed that way, instead of using black-and-white chemicals, you’d get these interesting grainy sepia tones.  Anyway, in this particular case, I remember watching not only the primates on the inside of the glass, but also the human primates on the outside.  And this mother with her infant was very calm in the face of all these excited children and adults staring at her, and I just wanted to capture that feeling.

I went back and (re-)read some of your posts. I wondered if you would elaborate on what you think:

Do you expand on your ethical response to the genetic modification beyond “Feral Canola,” the title of the blog:

In linking to this piece, I was mostly struck by the adjective “feral” being applied to plants.  I’m used to it being used in reference to animals like dogs and cats, which are not simply pets that have ended up homeless, but animals which have reverted to a wild, unsocialized state.  Such animals tend to react to human beings with the same fear and aggression you see in wild animals that were never domesticated; a feral kitten, for example, is not just a pet that hasn’t been housebroken yet, but a fairly savage little animal that will bite and claw if it is captured.  So it was interesting thinking of plants in this way.  What makes a plant “feral” as opposed to escaped?  What makes it different from a plant that is a weed, or something like a wildflower (which is not domesticated but not unwanted like weeds).  Is becoming “feral” something that only gene-modified plants can do, or is this something that might happen to any domesticated plant?  Does “feral” when applied to plants evoke that same sense of something hostile and suspicious of humans?

Please tell me more about your garden. The metaphor of battle is powerful in “Garden.”

Here I was reacting to my observations of the pea plants and the cucurbits.  Both of these like to reach out and wrap tendrils around objects in their path, and when said object is another plant, may end up pulling it down and cutting off its sunlight.  So, like when I was thinking about feral plants, I was intrigued by the idea that we tend to think of animals alone as the active, assertive species in ecosystems, but my observations made it clear that plants can be just as aggressive, albeit at a slower pace.  So, I was wondering, why do we think of plants as passive, and of active “nature” as animalistic?  (Just think of the connotation of “vegetative” versus “animalistic.”)  Certainly our own encounters with weeds – and now, feral GMOs – ought to suggest that wildness can be vegetable as well as animal.”

This also riffs off of my on-going fascination with how human beings like to define “nature” as if it’s this solid, concrete thing, instead of a bunch of human cultural constructs applied to a great variety of objects and living things, not all of whom co-operate so politely with their human-imposed expectations.

Photos Provided by Rana

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Labor and Place: Migrant Workers On Ponce de Leon in Atlanta

Juan Ponce de Leon

When I drive down Ponce de Leon, I think about conquest and the migrant workers waiting in front of Baskin Robbins. Juan Ponce De Leon. on the behest of Spain  became the provisional governor of Puerto Rico and later colonized Florida during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Fast forward to 2010, and men of Spanish descent lean on walls and street lights hoping that a contractor will pull up in a pick-up truck offering them work. After they’ve worked in the heat of the Atlanta sun on buildings all over the city, sometimes contractor pay the workers and sometimes not. These men have no legal recourse because they are illegal immigrants.

Exploitation. Spain. 16th century. United States. 21st Century.

Memory of 911: No Photos, No Images, Just Memories

911 has profoundly affected the nation. I’m originally from New York having grown up in Queens and worked in Manhattan including downtown. So now-gone World Trade Center and the death of so many people has changed me too.

I was living in Los Angeles when the planes hit the Twin Towers. I was getting ready for work at a local university. The TV was off so I had no idea that NYC, the United States, and the world was changing. My mother rang me and told me to turn on the television. I won’t describe what I saw because so many of us saw the footage repeatedly on CNN and other channels.

I called my cousin who worked steps away from the World Trade Center. People everywhere were jamming phone circuits. I like so many other people were worried about family and friend could not get through. I called my mother again and I learned my cousin had not gone into work that day. She was safe.

In shock, really feeling like a zombie, I went to work. LAX, the international airport in Los Angeles, stood between me and work. The airport and the streets around were shut down by the authorities. So I drove and drove until I found a hole to go through.

At the university, I went to administration and asked if classes were in session. No one had ever experienced anything like this so I got no answers. They too were in shock.

I headed to my first class and five of my students were waiting for me. We all knew what had happened and were stunned. I asked them what they were thinking and feeling. Each student shared. And then we all cried. I didn’t go to any of my other classes.

I did go to Faithful Central Church in Inglewood where a service had been quickly organized for the evening. I wept and fell over unable to stand up to the atrocity and destruction. Three women caught me before I hit the ground. The women held me for a long time.

A few days later I had to get on a plane for work. There were military everywhere with semi-automatic weapons. It was the beginning of the restrictions on traveling and luggage. I was scared to get on a plane but I forged on. It’s that New England stoicism I suppose.

In November, just a few months later, I went to New York to meet my cousin and my parents. My cousin resisted me when I said I wanted to walk around downtown. I did get out alone though.  The cut-through of buildings I’d used in the past  as a short-cut to avoid crowds on the streets were heavily guarded and were no more. Military were everywhere. I was asked to show my ID, which was my driver’s license. It was disorienting downtown  in a different and frightening way. It was not the bright lights, big city disorientation.

My parents arrived downtown a few hours after my arrival. We ate lunch with my cousin and then my father wanted to go to the World Trade Center. He had worked most of his adult life at Banker’s Trust across the street from the towers so this place had great significance for him.

We walked over and my father stood silent in front of the barriers that made it impossible to see anything that remained of the buildings. Fliers covered the wall of missing friends and family–all those missing loved ones. My mother did not understand his silence and started to rush him to go. She had not worked in Manhattan so the destruction meant little to her. I turned to my mother and said, “You have to give him time, Mom. This is where he spent most of his work life. This is where he met his colleagues and most of his friends here at Bankers Trust across from the World Trade Center.” So we waited. He said nothing but turned away from where the towers once stood and walked. We followed silently behind him.

I will always remember the World Trade Center and the people. I cannot count how many times I got off the subway early in the morning with a flood of dresses and suits with people. All of us ran swiftly through of the towers on marble floors. I ran up the stairs instead of taking the escalators with my jacket or sweater flapping around me into the streaks of sunlight and the drift of clouds, into the cool air of fall. That was my World Trade Center.

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction is the Second Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival. This time the focus is on environmental fiction or literature. Although I lean towards history and popular culture, I so dearly love fiction too. After reading blogs by the contributors to this carnival, look out for the Third Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival in the near future.

Many years ago, I learned that Lauret, my friend, was editing a volume that included environmental fiction. The result was The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002) edited by Alison H. Deming & Lauret E. Savoy. The second edition of the collection arrives online and in bookstores in February 2011. They edited the book from two perspectives: Deming who is white and Savoy who is of African descent. Both women were clear about their perspectives based on diversity in the preface which defined the collection.

Al Young, the author of one of the essays titled “Silent Parrot Blues,” introduces his piece on environmental racism with a story:

Even I, who knew next to nothing about parrots, understood that this parrot was exceptional . . . His coat of many color was listless and raggedy. Not only did he look as though he’d been plucked and picked on, he looked as though he had been ‘buked and scorned,’ as the faithful Negro spiritual would have it.” (p. 113)

The parrot, a metaphor for environmental racism, could not speak much like people who cannot speak up for and defend themselves when say a company opens up a garbage dump in an impoverished neighborhood skirting environmental laws.

To expand on this idea of inequity, Savoy says, “What is the American Earth to people of color? Of course there is no single or simple answer.” (p. 9) The following blogs come from many perspectives including ethnic-and bio-diversity:

FICTION

“Yard Yarns (Limerick and Haiku Prompt),” Mad Kane’s Humor Blog.

“Time and Tide Pools,” The Daily Neurotic: A Webblog About Life’s Peculiarities Otherwise Known as the Dailies.

“Fiction: A New Heaven and and a New Earth,” The Great Auk — The Greatest Auk: Not Bad for Being Extinct.

“Flying Alone,” Memorizing Nature: Fantastical Yet Critical Writings by Elaine Medline.

“Stone,” Frogs and Ravens: Some Days We Are Ravens; Other Days, Frogs

The Marshlanders Sample Chapter: Beaver Night.

“Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt,” From the Blog by the Same Name.

REVIEWS

“A Review of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,” The Schleicher Spin.

“A Damn Good Flood,” The Schleicher Spin.

Darryl A. Perkins the author of Into the Night and Understanding Goshawks offers shares some advice for writers of nature and the environment:

“The challenge of environmental fiction is to take something imaginary and not factual, and wrap it around something that is not only real, but necessary for our survival.  A further challenge, particularly of people of color, is to share our experiences and or imagination on the subject, with an audience that is unaware of our history and involvement with the environment.  However, there are heroes out there fighting the good fight like Rue Mapp, and Frank and Audrey Peterman.”

I am moved by the words of the authors who have shared their blogs in the Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival. Please take the time to comment on the blogs to encourage these environmental writers as they continue their creative pursuits.

Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt

In my book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, I open each chapter with literary or fictional vignettes. Read the first paragraphs of Chapter 4 titled “Resistance: Rebellion, Sustenance, and Escape in the Wilderness:

Joseph dreams that he is a revered priest in West Africa, where his people, the Gruma of the Akan, all call him Minkah, which means justice. Some of his priestly duties revolve around nature—blessing a field, pouring libations with water onto the ground to revere the ancestors, and tending to the village’s earth shrine. Minkah strides through the forests and sees a vision of a long leaf pine that weeps and shakes like a small child.
Awaking from his reverie, Joseph realizes that he is this child, who has ended up enslaved. Now, north of the city of Mobile between the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, he is far from his ancestral home in Africa. Yet he is comforted by the familiarity of leaves falling from the branches of the trees onto the uneven floor, a patchwork of sunlight and shadows in the forest.

Joseph’s visions and dreams have momentarily liberated him from the bondage of enslavement with thoughts well suited for the making of a runaway. Intuitively, he is comfortable and familiar with the woods and waterways surrounding the plantation. Joseph runs away for one- to three-day stretches, relying on his knowledge of nature, which originated in Africa, to survive. The first few times Joseph runs, Matthew Samford—the slaveholder of a two-hundred-acre plantation kept productive by seventy-five enslaved people— tracked him with dogs . . . (57-58)

My goal in using the fictional vignettes was to give thehistorical perspective of the book some “flesh.”