“An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land”
Krista Tippett, host

Land, Life, and the Poetry of CreaturesEllen 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.

Ellen DavisThe 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.

Wendell Berry and His Wife TanyaFor 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.


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Beautiful. Our Bible study group did a study on the concept of the "Kinsman Redeemer" that is carried throughout the Bible and a great deal of it revealed God linking physical land/territory with all aspects of identity of His people--inseparable in regards to their covenant (old and new) with God and their moral obligations. It developed a deeper sense of identity with and moral responsibility toward everything in the world.

Your thoughts are a reminder that teaching is not a job, but a vocation, if done well. SOF airs on my public radio station on Sunday mornings at 10. I could not find meaning in attending institutional "church" services. I have listened to SOF for the last two years "religiously" and have gained more insight and made life changes that have helped me feel more in harmony with the Divine. I usually listen alone, but this week my 17 year old daughter joined me due to her interest in the message of Food Inc. and her love of Wendell Berry and his writings. It has been rewarding to watch her discover that unlike her subjects in school, religion cannot fit into a neat box. I'm sure she will tune in again as she continues to shape her own way of BEING in this world.. this is certainly my hope.

I liked "Speaking of Faith" as a name for the program, but "BEING" is interesting and is growing on me. FAITH is very fundamental aspect of my life and I liked the current name; but FAITH is part of my being. BEING! Being who we are whenever and wherever. Being in the present. Being present. The state of Being is all there is really - it is now. Being in the present, Being in the past, Being in the future. BEING will be a Good Name for this wonderful program that you have nurtured for so long. If it will allow this thought provoking program to reach a broader audience and allow others to benefit from it, let it become BEING. Thank you for the wonderful experience of your program.