She-Wolf: Transitioning to the New Year of 2012

Tulips in Bloom, Chicago

Right now I’m caught up in series of novels titled Game of Thrones, and the HBO series based on the novels.  Creatures called dire wolves–from the Ice Age and now extinct–are central to one of many over-lapping  story-lines, with dire wolves in symbiotic relationship with young royals. 2011 transitioned so quickly cart-wheeling into 2012, and I am embracing my she-wolf. I don’t bite but am running hard and fast down two different paths: the environment and health. Like the story-lines in Game of Thrones, the two paths have and continue to overlap. I’m including some of my favorite photos from 2011 some with and without rhyme and reason in relationship to the text. Put simply, these photos like so many I took last year simply touched me.

The first path is environmental. I continued my life’s work, a ministry to people and the earth, sharing the gospel of African Americans and the environment. Back in 2010, I published Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Continuing into 2011, non-profit organizations invited me to do speaking engagements, some of the content based in part on the book:

At Barnes & Noble with a Little Fan

I also did a radio interview with Groovin 1580 FM and a book-signing with the Wildlife Federation at Georgia Tech. In 2012, I will continue to share an environmental gospel, speaking at the Tuskegee Institute Historic Site in Alabama and Getty College in Pennsylvania.

From Fall 2010 to Summer 2011 when I  continued my environmental opus, I was in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education Program training for chaplaincy. I managed to complete the program, while still blogging.

Interestingly, the Rooted in the Earth WordPress Annual Report differs from my favorite blogs “penned” during part of the program. The highest ranking blog going back to 2010 was (drum roll please) Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise. Perhaps not so surprising since my blogs on film and television ranked higher than some of the historical blogs. People like popular culture. Well, so do I.

Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2007 (ok, not 2011!)

I also love history and my personal favorites included Kentucky, African Americans, and the Environment, Harriet Tubman Working Nature, Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental History, and 2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King, the Environmentalist. Hey, I’m a historian. What can I say. I’m back on the steep happy hill–that’s the she-wolf in me on the move–blogging again in 2012 with a call for blogs for a State of Diversity and the Environment Blog Carnival.

So what’s that second path as I continue loping on winding path?  Back in 2010, I never imagined that graduating with an M.Div. in “Faith, Health and Science” at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University would be life changing concerning my health. Over the last year I lost 17 pounds and hope to lose about 20 more. No rush. One pound at a time. Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers . . . make it happen like Mariah belts out in the recent Jenny Craig commercial.

I continue being heart healthy with nutrition and exercise. I serve as a pastor at Crafton United Methodist Church and some of the members have followed my example joining Weight Watchers. Others have been serving healthy options like veggies at Coffee Hour after church. And yes, I found time to blog about spirituality and religion at BeingEphesus.com.

Korean War Memorial, Washington, DC

I am grateful to everyone in my personal life who patiently listened to my stories about being on paths of the environment and health. In addition, so many colleagues invited me into their institutions trusting me to share one vision of  an African American environmentalism. I did not take that trust for granted because many of the people in the audience were college students. I honored to continue working with young people, my favorite “demographic.”

Now I stand among many talented and committed in an environmental family with shared interests in diversity. One kind and generous person in stood out in 2011: Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. I knew Na’Taki for years going back to 2005 when I went on a hike with Keeping It Wild in Georgia. It wasn’t until she organized several events for me that I got to know her better. I am grateful for Na’Taki and so many others devoted to the cause.

I invite you to continue with me embracing your inner-she-wolf (or whatever creature works for you) on paths to protecting the planet and good health, with a dash of science. Thank you for coming along with me.

Photos by Dianne Glave

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Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

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.

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

Can a Year on a Farm Based on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Work?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steve L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007.    

Barbara Kingsolver says in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food, “Our culture is not acquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain food. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text.” (p. 67). I say both our land and the food produced on that land must be treated as unequivocally holy! 

 As I began to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I felt that the spirituality and holiness she describes is at odds with who does and doesn’t have accessibility to green places including farms. Certainly, the upper middle- or upper classes could pull off living off the land as an experiment.

I had another response to the book: I realized I shared some of Kingsolver’s ideological and practical concerns about American foodways. Louisiana Voices defines foodways as, “obtaining, preparing, serving food and stories and beliefs about food.”  Perhaps considering some of these concerns could be a bridge to the spiritual and holy when it comes to land and produce.  

Stepping back a bit, Kingsolver describes the purpose of her family’s foodways journey and book: “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. (p. 3). She got away from a life in Tuscon where distributors ship in food from far-away places and water is running so low that in the near future it will not support the existing population. Here are the costs: fuel must be purchased to ship the food and when water is diverted to desert places like Arizona someone else has diminished access to water.     

Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to the southern Appalachia to live off the fruits of their labor on a farm and limit their purchases to local farmers. The Kingsolver clan made it sound relatively simple: relocate and then experiment on the land for a year.   

 Let’s think it through. “A Year of Food” requires resources, which includes money for expenses, and comfortably owning or renting a working arable farm. Before actually arriving at a farm, the average working- to middle-class family would have to turn on the utilities in a new home–that would be the farm–which could be a challenge. One might ask: Can they afford the gas for the car to make the move? What about motels and food on the way? Can they pay the start-up for some of the utilities? Will they have to physically go and pay with cash or a money order to turn on utilities because of a poor credit rating that does not allow for easy transactions by phone, mail, or the internet? These are real questions and concerns for people living pay check to pay check. Forget actually getting to the point of owning a farm. Most people are not privileged. Kingsolver and her family already own a farm.   

Class is a factor. So too is ethnicity. The farm families around her were probably predominantly white though she is not explicit concerning this point. There is a tension here for me. I grew up in Queens, New York in Rosedale, a working class neighborhood of people of African descent. Later as an adult, I lived in Lawndale, California in a working class Latino neighborhood. I’m not sure if many of the people in either ethic group would readily relate to Kingsolver’s agricultural experiment. Some who work the land to survive might see it as a working holiday. The ethnic disconnect and lack of diversity was problematic, typical of broader environmentalism, including the foodway movements.    

With that said, Kingsolver gives the reader much to think about through her beautifully written prose. Many of her suggestions are achievable without going through the financial duress of relocating and purchasing a farm. Consider two ways or reconfiguring Kingsolver’s experiment for regular folks with finite resources.    

Green tomatoes: it's only June.

  • Farmers Markets: Kingsolver does rely on and support the local farmers market near her farm. You too can do the same since these markets are in many cities across the US. The other benefits are eating local organic foods, and diminishing the fuel used to transport produce. Right now I am in Tennessee and plan to visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market downtown.
  • Indoor Plants and Gardens: The author had a flower garden that was part of the farm. This is not an option for many people live in apartments in cities or townhouses in the suburbs. In both types of housing, keep indoor plants, some that flower for the aesthetics. Consider growing herbs in a box on a window ledge. When I lived in Los Angeles I kept orchids, African violets, and a bonsai. Plants, particularly flowering plants, bring a bit of nature’s beauty indoors, which I find soothing spiritually. Tending, watering, re-potting, and fertilizing plants is a break from hectic modern life. Community gardens in cities are another option working side by side with others or carving out a plot of your own. There are benefits to the physical labor of turning over the soil and weeding the rows of plants. At the end of the season, you can enjoy the produce, the fruits of your labor.

So there is a bridge between Kingsolver’s experiment and incorporating nature into the daily lives of regular people. 

Going a step further, I feel a connection with Kingsolver because of my own environmental concerns. I worry about the planet. I worry about the limits and our dependence on fossil fuels. I worry about how many Americans are disconnected from the land and don’t understand how plants actually get to the supermarket. 

Kingsolver develops a parallel argument: when the oil runs dry, and we have to return small-scale agriculture to sustain ourselves, we will not have the skills to produce much needed food in rural settings. 

Perhaps if we resolve to treat the land and our food as edible holy objects, we can save the planet for our children. 

Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover 

Splice The Movie: Makers Not the Creature are Dangerous

From nationalpost.com

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT

Don't Splice the Duck with Humans

I went to a matinée of Splice, thinking I was going to see a by the numbers horror film. The film is frighteningly more. It is a morality tale of arrogant humans playing at being the maker and abusing genetically manipulated creatures.

In Splice, Elsa (Sara Polley), a young woman, ranks as one of the most evil characters I have seen on film or television, or read about in literature. Elsa’s cool calm rationality, a scientific façade hiding behind her damaged psyche (yes, mommy issues!) is more chilling that an ax murder. Elsa operates outside the law and ethics to bio-engineer a creature from the spliced DNA of human and animal genetic material. It is unclear what animals are spliced in the experiment but Dren, the engineered creature, has legs, wings, and eyes like a bird, and a tail with a poisonous spike like a stingray.

Spliced with a Flower or a Vegetable? Hmmm.

The question for me throughout the film is who is evil? Is it Dren who does abominable things or Elsa and boyfriend Clive (Adrien Brody) who play god and manufacture evil. Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creation is both a sympathetic and evil character. The film is also a homage to the monsters in the Alien and Species movies.  So who or what is evil: the makers or the creature?

Throughout, Elsa and Clive have crossed ethical and legal boundaries but forge ahead. Ultimately, they fall prey to the evil they created. You’ll have to see the film to understand what I mean.

As I watched the movie, I thought about the Tuskegee Experiment in which African American men in Alabama with syphilis were test subjects used to track the ravages of the disease. Even when scientist discovered a cure, these same African American men were left to go insane and die from the disease as white scientists continued their inquiries.

As we continue to test the boundaries of genetic engineering, looking back to the bad and unethical science of the past, who or what is our nightmare and danger?

PHOTOS BY DIANNE GLAVE unless otherwise noted