Orion Blog

Radical Joy for Hard Times: An Excerpt

In a world devastated by human interaction and natural disaster—from clearcutting and fracking to extreme weather and urban sprawl—creating art, ritual, and even joy in wounded places is essential to our collective healing. When a beloved place is decimated by physical damage, many may hit the donate button or call their congressperson. But award-winning author Trebbe Johnson argues that we need new methods for coping with these losses and invites readers to reconsider what constitutes “worthwhile action.” She discusses real wounded places ranging from weapons-testing grounds at Eglin Air Force Base, to Appalachian mountain tops destroyed by mining. These stories, along with tools for community engagement—ceremony, vigil, apology, and the creation of art with on-site materials—show us how we can find beauty in these places and discover new sources of meaning and community.” — North Atlantic Books

Trebbe Johnson is an Orion contributor, author, and speaker on the relationship between people and nature. Here’s an excerpt from her latest book, Radical Joy for Hard Times:

I thought I was prepared. I expected an embattled shade of green in the grasses and bushes, probably a few dead trees, and perhaps, in the distance, an old relic of a building exiled behind a fence. However, as we walked around the curve of the trail that contoured Blue Mountain high above the Lehigh River, we stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” gasped my friend, Liz Brensinger. What we had never expected was an entire vast, gray, dead hillside plunging all the way down to the river.

Only a few sparse patches of grass managed to survive on the bare soil, so depleted by erosion that the stony substrate of the land was exposed like a body wounded to the bone. Trees lay strewn on the ground, their spindly trunks offering clear evidence that they had died long before they reached maturity. The few leafless, skeletal trees that did remain upright stood only a few feet high. Everything about the place looked so abused and hopeless, it was as if all life had given up even attempting to root there.

The only thing my imagined picture had gotten right was the old relic. Behind a chain-link fence on the slope across the river stood the zinc smelter that had been shut down decades earlier, a long brick box of a building with four or five stories of broken windows and a rusting metal roof. The place was silent, and there was no sign of birds.

But we had chosen this patch of the Appalachian Trail on purpose. I had begun to feel that something was missing from the way the environmental movement thought about and addressed the problems it encountered. I witnessed lots of efforts to protect pristine, endangered wilderness areas and clean up places that were already damaged. But there was another kind of place that nobody seemed to be paying attention to, and that encompassed the ones that were neither currently beautiful nor slated to receive remediation to restore their former beauty. Paved over, broken down, polluted, drained, they were often nothing but eyesores, useful to none and despised by many, including those who had once cherished them.

It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were.

What about those places, I wondered, those sad, decrepit, onceloved places? I had been mulling over this question for a few years, so when Liz learned about the Palmerton Zinc plant, she suggested we go for a visit. But now that we were here, it turned out we had no idea what to do.

We couldn’t think of anything. We stared. We looked at each other. 

We left in silence, feeling almost as hurt by our helplessness as by the condition of the land.

Psychology reminds us that we can’t be whole and healthy until we confront old secrets and shames and accept them as part of who we are. Surely acceptance and reconciliation were also needed to heal the relationship between people and places. It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were. Then I wanted to be able to pull out some tool that would help me and the place and others who cared about it to live with it in its current state and even to find new meaning and value in it. This tool had to be so handy and convenient that anyone could use it at any time, without having to go to a meeting, get training, phone a stranger at dinnertime, yell at somebody in power, get arrested, or give money. It also had to be serviceable enough, even pleasurable enough to use, that those who tried it would want to pick it up again and again.

(Excerpt from Radical Joy for Hard Times by Trebbe Johnson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Trebbe Johnson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.)

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Happy Birthday, Mary Oliver

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the late Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019), poet and long-time friend of Orion. Here’s a simple offering of gratitude from Editor-in-Chief H. Emerson Blake: 

“When I was moving some things around on my desk the other day, these fell out of a folder. Immediately I was filled with love and gratefulness for Mary Oliver. She was always kind and helpful to Orion’s staff, and we were extremely privileged to publish more of her poems and essays than any other magazine or journal. She was, in many ways, the quintessential Orion writer—fully devoted to taking notice of nature, and unflinching in her investigation of the emotional relationship between people and nature. I miss her very much. Happy birthday, Mary.”

  

Here’s one of our all-time favorite poems by Mary Oliver, “Blueberries,” originally published in our Summer 2014 double issue: 

Blueberries 

I’m living in a warm place now, where
you can purchase fresh blueberries all
year long. Labor free. From various
countries in South America. They’re
as sweet as any, and compared with the
berries I used to pick in the fields
outside Provincetown, they’re
enormous. But berries are berries. They
don’t speak any language I can’t
understand. Neither do I find ticks or
small spiders crawling among them. So,
generally speaking, I’m very satisfied.

There are limits, however. What they
don’t have is the field. The field they
belonged to and through the years I
began to feel I belonged to. Well,
there’s life, and then there’s later.
Maybe it’s myself that I miss. The
field, and the sparrow singing at the
edge of the woods. And the doe that one
morning came upon me unaware, all
tense and gorgeous. She stamped her hoof
as you would to any intruder. Then gave
me a long look, as if to say, Okay, you
stay in your patch, I’ll stay in mine.
Which is what we did. Try packing that
up, South America.


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Recommended Reading: Joe Wilkins

(Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Joe Wilkins’s feature article “On Edges” in the Summer 2019 issue.)

I hold so many books close. My tattered copy of James Wright’s collected poems, Above the River—Wright the poet who, along with his friend and contemporary Richard Hugo, first gave me permission to make poems of the small towns and losses and hard landscapes I knew—leans just so on my shelf. Nearby, an old paperback edition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I discovered in a cardboard box of books my mother brought home from a library sale when I was twelve has traveled with me all these years. And stacked below are the books I love and often teach Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, Michael McGriff’s Home Burial, and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

Lately, though, I’ve had to do a little bookshelf accounting. On sabbatical from my permanent teaching post in western Oregon, I’ve temporarily moved with my family across the country to upstate New York, where I’ll be serving as the Viebranz Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University for the academic year. From the Columbia River Gorge to Montana’s Crazy Mountains, we traveled from the fecund Pacific Northwest of my adulthood to the high, dry Montana prairie of my youth. We spent a few happy days with friends in northern Iowa, where both kids were born, then drove farther north, taking every opportunity to pull off the road and swim—Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario, and finally, the Grasse River. 

Of course, even before the first mile of the trip, I spent many afternoons trying to decide which books to leave and which books to carry with me. Which brings me to the list below. Along with those close-to-the-heart books, and the books I love and often teach, I found myself reaching—and reaching once again, now that I am ensconced in my little office in our old house in the North Country—for books that have taught me how to be a better writer and how to be a better human being:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage

I might be stretching definitions here—I teach Campbell’s stories in my class on the literature of contemporary rural America—but every time I go back to American Salvage I’m startled by how intricate and powerful these stories are. With great compassion and pure honesty, Campbell inhabits the lives of deer hunters, farmers, machinists, and meth addicts in small-town Michigan and finds a way to tell stories that are not just hard but also cleansing, redemptive. Rereading American Salvage, I think: this is it—these are the kinds of stories I want to tell—and I look up from the page wounded and wiser, hoping to move with greater care through the world. 

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I first read A Field Guide to Getting Lost four summers ago when I was living in an off-the-grid cabin above Oregon’s Rogue River in the Klamath Mountains. I haven’t really put it down since. Always sharp and meticulous, Solnit is more meditative and personal, even confessional, here, as she explores the dangers and joys of falling into place—falling out of the self and back in again. Of a camping trip in the eastern Sierras, Solnit writes, “the place […] seemed when we were in it as though it was all there was in the world.” I keep happily losing myself in this book the same way.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Oh, Annie Dillard. How I love her sentences—paying attention to her commas alone is a master class in prose—and her god-haunted attentions. Say, for instance, as I let Teaching a Stone to Talk fall open on my desk, these:

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

On our road trip, we stayed with good friends in Montana. They’re sheep ranchers and environmental activists, and over beers late that night we read Ross Gay’s poems to one another. My heart hurts with gladness just thinking about it.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

I don’t understand how this book works. I can’t say exactly why it feels so charged and necessary. Yet it seems to me like life itself: circular, half-secret, full of bright suffering and shadowed grace. “Maybe heaven would be like that,” Lila muses, as she tries to reconcile her own lives of deprivation and of love…

…with fields and fields of nettles and chicory, things anybody could take because nobody else would want them. Then if the thief on the cross went to heaven he could just thieve forever to his heart’s content, nobody the worse for it.

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I Biked 10,200 Miles to Follow Monarch Migration. I Discovered an Entire World.

Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to “Biking with Butterflies,” included in the Summer 2019 issue.

For 10,200 miles the monarchs were my guide. They provided the route. They were my teachers.

By watching a caterpillar eat corn-on-the-cob style from a milkweed leaf, I was taught about the evolutionary arms race playing out in ditches across their range.

By watching a tattered female—wings more sky than orange—lay an egg, I was finally able to grasp the magnitude of their multigenerational migration.

By watching evicted caterpillars crawling on milkweed beheaded from a recent mowing, I was able to feel the lesson of responsibility.

By crossing a continent alongside the monarch butterfly, my migrant teachers taught me how to see.

Map courtesy of MonarchWatch.org

While looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars, along the way I was introduced to many shyer creatures. The googly-eyed spider peeking out from a curtain of milkweed. The angelic moth, sateen white, floating from purple bloom to purple bloom. The fiery-legged insect, fresh from its recent molt, gaining bearings in the stubble of the milkweed’s white hairs.

Following the monarchs thousands of miles by bicycle, I discovered an entire world. Here are six memorable encounters:

 

1. Tussock Moth

Wading through a strip of prairie alongside a bike path in New York, I spotted a mob of tussock moth caterpillars gorging on milkweed. Like monarchs, tussock moths can store milkweed’s toxins and use them for their own defense. Unlike monarchs that advertise their toxicity with flashy warning (aposematic) coloration, the tussock moth adults are drab, nocturnal creatures. Instead of bright colors, they evolved an organ that clicks, to be detectable by bats. Aposematic sound. The bats learn that these clicks are best avoided.

I didn’t know any of that as I watched those tussock moth caterpillars, each one a mess of black hairs, orange lashes, and white whiskers. Unlike monarchs that distribute themselves among many plants, tussock moths stick together for much of their lives. Together they formed a shag carpet.

2. Skunk

Zipping through a patchwork of rural Canada, I encountered the most dangerous animal of my trip. At first sight, I slammed on my brakes, and we locked eyes. There, teetering at the edge of the road, lurked a skunk. With only the width of the road separating us, the skunk paused. Her curious nose and eyes read the wind in a way I would never be able to do. The white stripes on black fur matched the pavement markings.

The worst-case scenario flashed in my mind. Getting sprayed would have been bad. With no shower in sight, and no change of clothes, I would have smelled like a skunk for the rest of my trip. Someone once told me that bathing in tomato juice was the antidote to skunk spray. I only had ketchup. Would ketchup work? I imagined rolling up to my next school presentation on my junky bike covered in ketchup, smelling like a skunk.

“Worth the risk,” I whispered as the skunk’s beady eyes looked at me and decided I was no threat. She cut through the grass along the shoulder, leaving me disappointed. Lathering myself in ketchup would have made for a good story.

3. Leopard Frog

At the edge of a pond, I found my camping spot in a half-finished housing development in Texas. Here, as the light of our sun gave way, frogs began to sing. Cricket frogs clicked at the edge of water and mud, while the larger leopard frogs squeaked before launching themselves into the safety of turbid water. 

I saw the approaching army of bulldozers looming nearby and lights of new homes polluting the once raw darkness. The male frogs called, attracting mates to lay eggs, to begin another generation. The very act of those frogs calling was an act of defiance. As development continued to squeeze life out of Texas, the frogs still called, to remind anyone listening that it was their home too. I listened. And with a heavy heart, I wondered how anyone could call such destruction progress.

4. Barred Owl

As I doggy-paddled through a roadside lake in Rhode Island, I caught a glimpse of an alert barred owl. I slipped from the water, onto a sun-warmed boulder, to watch the bird as it watched me. The wind mixed his tan and cream breast feathers, and stirred the brown circles around his darting eyes. Connected by curiosity, we watched each other, and after a few moments he closed his eyes as if to declare me harmless.

When darkness arrived, I retreated to my tent. I was expecting to hear the “hoooo cooks for youuuu” call of adult barred owls. Instead, as canopy leaves shuffled in the wind, a shrieking “caaaa” cut like lighting through the dark. One call was answered by another. Echoes. The owl I had seen was likely a juvenile. I found it reassuring to know that owls must learn to be owls. They too must learn to sing their song, hunt their food, and navigate their world. We were both teachers, the forest our classroom. 

5. Goldenrod

Searching for monarchs I was rewarded with blooming rainbows: pink Joe-Pye weed, violet wine cups, purple lupines, orange butterfly weed, blue larkspur. But my favorite was the goldenrod. As autumn led me south, the best miles were fenced by thick stands of goldenrod. I watched the plumes of their yellow tentacles rise like waves, spill into the wind, and feed clusters of monarchs with their blooms. Like a good friend, I was always happy to see the goldenrod waving back. The pollinators must have been happy to see them too. I never met a lonely goldenrod.

6. Green Snake

A rough green snake stretched across the Katy Trail in Missouri, basking in the sun. I was off my bike and the snake was in my hand before my bike’s wheels could stop spinning. I still feel the quilt of her keeled scales twisting through my fingers. I still see her eyes, huge and alive, watching me. A tube of muscle, a balance of power and grace. I can still see the peaceful beast melting into the leaves when I let her go.

It is easy to be scared of something we do not know, something we are taught to be afraid of. Snakes, bears, bees, wolves—we are taught to be afraid of such wildness. We let fear control us. War on nature. War on migrants. War on the lesser known. To be afraid is to be dangerous, and to be taught, especially by a snake or monarch, is to be liberated.

And, Yes, Monarchs…

Of course, across the continent I found monarchs. The heroes of this story. The ambassadors of nature. They invite all of us to dive into their world and discover the brilliance of our own backyards. It is their undeniable beauty that lures us into their world. And there we linger. We see the spiders, snakes, and skunks that all benefit when the prairie is protected. These monarchs, the gateway bugs, hold our hands as we enter new worlds.

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Why Thomas Berry Matters Today:
Mary Evelyn Tucker Reflects on Her Latest Book, Thomas Berry: A Biography

Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers. As a cultural historian, he sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to Earth in order to respond to the ecological and social challenges of our times.

Thomas Berry: A Biography, by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal (Columbia University Press, 2019), is the first biography of Berry. The book illuminates his remarkable vision and its continuing relevance for achieving transformative social change and environmental renewal.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale where she teaches in an MA program between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. With John Grim she organized ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at Harvard. They were series editors for the ten resulting volumes from Harvard. She co-edited Confucianism and Ecology, Buddhism and Ecology, and Hinduism and Ecology. She has authored with John Grim, Ecology and Religion (Island Press, 2014). They also edited Thomas Berry’s books including Selected Writings (Orbis, 2014). With Brian Thomas Swimme she wrote Journey of the Universe (Yale, 2011) and was the executive producer of the Emmy award-winning film Journey that aired on PBS. 

Orion’s Editor-in-Chief H. Emerson Blake recently spoke with Mary Evelyn Tucker about the book.

 

What distinguishes Thomas Berry from other modern thinkers and philosophers?

Berry overcomes many of the abstractions and intellectualizations that are present in many modern thinkers. He is seeking a more encompassing worldview for contemporary dilemmas, such as racial divisions and ecological exploitation. This is why Berry calls us to a Great Story for the Great Work of transformative change for the well-being of both people and the planet.

Berry is interested in our identity as humans in the largest sense of our being. This means that an important part of who we are is our race or ethnicity, gender or sexuality, state or nation. We are richly differentiated, yet also one species. Thus, he is keen to awaken our deepest identity as related to the cosmos itself—we arise from out of universe and Earth processes. This is an ancient reality and yet a new discovery. That is because all cultures have had cosmologies that explain where we come from and where we are going. But now through the lens of science we have a new sense of cosmology as the interrelationship of systems—galactic, planetary, and ecosphere. We are part of nested circles of interwoven realities from stars to planets, from mountains to rivers, from humans to more than humans.

The awareness of this relationally is born from a new understanding of evolutionary time—cosmic, geological, and human. We are older than we thought. We have arisen out of the deep time of the universe unfolding. We are kin to all biological life. 

Thus, we sense we are related both to that which is minute and that which is infinite—to the microcosm of the atom and the macrocosm of the universe. Within such immensity, we belong here. As the Chinese Neo-Confucian scholar, Zhang Zai, said, “Heaven is my father; Earth is my mother and even a small child has a place on their midst. Therefore, that which fills Heaven and Earth, I consider as my body; that which directs Heaven and Earth, I considered as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, all creatures are my companions.”

This cosmological identity is very old in the human family, especially among indigenous peoples. Yet it is also being understood anew though the lens of science from the microscope to the telescope. We sense it in the awareness of the communication patterns of all mammals, in the migratory patterns of birds and fish, in the hidden life of trees and fungi. 

This opens us up to awe and reverence in the face of vast mystery and endless complexity. Such awe can lead to action; such reverence can lead to responsibility. A new understanding of our role not as dominators or exploiters, but care takers, care givers. As such we are participants in the dynamic creative powers of the universe and Earth. May it be so!

You’ve known Thomas Berry since you were twenty-four. How do you think your life would be different if you hadn’t met him?

There is no doubt my life would have been radically different without meeting Berry.

Before I went to Japan to teach in 1973 I was given some of his yet unpublished essays to read. I didn’t understand them well before I left, but once there I began to sense their import. In particular, I was so moved by his understanding of Asian religions that I wrote him for a copy of his book on Buddhism. The miracle of my life is that he wrote back!

When I came back to the States in 1975 I met him at his Riverdale Center for Religious Research along the Hudson River. The moment I met him there on a bright winter day in early February I knew I had met my teacher. For the next 34 years I studied with him at Fordham, planned lecture series with him at Riverdale, prepared and edited his Riverdale papers into five books of essay, and eventually wrote his biography. All of this was done with John Grim, my husband and collaborator, whom I met in graduate school studying with Thomas at Fordham. I have been fortunate in finding an inspiring teacher and a dedicated partner. 

In writing Thomas Berry: A Biography, what new thoughts did you develop about Berry that you hadn’t had before?

I was continually amazed at his persistence against great odds. He came out of a Catholic background in the south, but grew to embrace all religions and cultures. He entered a monastic order devoted to personal prayer and divine contemplation, but he branched out of this to contemplate the Earth and Cosmos. He was asked to preach retreats not teach in a university, but he broke free of that restraint to found one of the first graduate history of religions program of its kind in the country. He was encouraged to remain in the monastery, but he traveled the world giving talks and attending conferences. 

His persistence and continual growth were fascinating to me. All of this is because he had a penetrating intelligence and a unique ability to synthesize material. He brought these gifts early on to address the ecological problems we were facing—fifty years ago and down to the present. He was prescient in anticipating our challenges and helping us to develop the stamina to understand them and endure.

Berry died in 2009. What do you think his reaction to the today’s political turmoil would be?

He would be devastated with the racial upheaval and white supremacism, with the militarism of our society and the violence of our ongoing wars, with the destruction of the rainforests and the pollution of our oceans. Yet he understood that as we are shutting down the Cenozoic era due to the rate of species extinction, we are also laying the foundations for a new Ecozoic era for the flourishing of the Earth community. 

He predicted that our institutions would not be up to the task of this Great Transition. And we see this in the inadequate response of government, economics, education, and religion. All of these institutions are unraveling in terms of efficacy to meet our current challenges. He would say they are breaking down so as to break though to new forms of ecopolitics, ecoeconomics, ecoeducation, ecospirituality. This is the Great Work we need to be involved in fostering, individually and in communities.

Where do you hope that Berry’s legacy, and the work of the Thomas Berry Foundation, will be a few decades from now? 

Berry’s legacy of a “new story” is already available in the projects we have been birthing with the Journey of the Universe projectThese are an Emmy award winning film, a book (Yale, 2011), a series of interviews with ten scientists and ten environmentalists, and massive open online classes with Yale / Coursera. One of the online classes is “The Worldview of Thomas Berry.” We hope these materials will move out further into societies around the world. Already the book has been translated into some ten languages and the online classes have over 24,000 people participating. This cosmological perspective will help to engender ways that can see our commonalities amidst our differences. There is no future without a shared future and that sensibility is what Journey is trying to midwife. 

By the same token we would hope that his efforts to teach the world’s religions, and encourage understanding of indigenous traditions, will also lay the ground work for greater tolerance and respect. Moreover, he saw that the role of religious communities needs to be elevated in the struggle for greater awareness of an integral ecology fostering ecojustice. His insights will endure, his spirit will continue to inspire.

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