On Being with Krista Tippett

Ellen Davis + Wendell Berry

The Poetry of Creatures

Last Updated

November 24, 2011

Original Air Date

June 10, 2010

How we see the world is how we value it, says Ellen Davis. And poetry is a way to rediscover the lost art of being creatures. An hour of learning and slowing down, with the “Mad Farmer” poems of Wendell Berry and a new way to take in the “poetry” of Genesis.


Image of Ellen Davis

Ellen Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at the Duke University Divinity School and the author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.

Image of Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a farmer, poet, and environmentalist who has published more than 40 books. He lives in Port Royal, Kentucky.


November 24, 2011

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The modern world was shaped by poetry that we forgot was poetry — the liturgical verse of Genesis, for example. So humanity read some callings there, and missed others. This hour, with biblical scholar and conservationist Ellen Davis and with farmer and poet Wendell Berry, we slow down. We learn about new readings of sacred text that have a power to reframe life in our most agrarian and most cosmopolitan places. We rediscover the lost art of being creatures.

WENDELL BERRY:[reading from his poetry collection Sabbaths] … 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.

MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “The Poetry of Creatures.”

Ellen Davis is a professor of biblical and practical theology at the Duke University Divinity School. I first discovered her in the early 1990s, when she was a professor at Yale Divinity School and my teacher of Old Testament. Over two semesters, she captivated our imaginations — excavating historical, theological, and literary nuance in the biblical writings. In the years that followed, she became actively involved with an emerging network of theologically and scientifically informed initiatives on ecology. In 2009, she brought all of that together in a book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. When I interviewed her the following year, Ellen Davis told me that she traces her personal attention to the natural world to her childhood on an island in the San Francisco Bay.

PROF. ELLEN DAVIS: I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. And so there was never a time when I was not conscious of being in an exceptionally beautiful place, and maybe the best thing I can say about my childhood is that my friends and I did not take that for granted. And we were outside every day. We would often just walk around the island and tell each other about the stories we were reading. There was still a lot of wildness in the Bay Area in my childhood. And a second thing, I would say, is that I watched the place I loved most change over the early decades of my life and change in ways that I think we now all recognize are probably not sustainable. And while I didn’t have that phrase to apply to it as a young person, I realized it was changing in ways that were probably not healthy.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you think of when you say that, those changes?

PROF. DAVIS: Well, I — you know, I think about highways going through places where there used to be farms. When I grew up, there was a lady raising goats and I would pass her every day on my way to school. Well, you know, that, that seems like another century now. It is another century.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it was.

PROF. DAVIS: Yes, indeed.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and then what really strikes me is also that this theme that you have become so passionate about and so wise about and you steeped yourself in the texts and traditions around the land, but that you started, as I understand it, thinking about this maybe 15, 20 years ago. And it wasn’t because you set out to be an environmentalist. You were very much a scholar. And yet, as you say, you stumbled across this. You came up on it in the course of your normal professional activity of reading and interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. So can you kind of tell me that story? I mean, can you trace it?

PROF. DAVIS: Sure. Sure. You may even have been in the class, but I was lecturing my way all the way through the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, for the first time. And I think at the end of the first semester, one of my doctoral student teaching assistants said when we were making up the final exam, “Well, you need to ask a question about land.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you talk about it all the time.” And I was not conscious of doing that; I was simply aware of talking my way through each book of the Bible. I would now say it’s obvious that I would be talking about land all the time because you can’t go more than a few chapters in the Old Testament Hebrew Bible without seeing some reference to land, water, its health, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water. But at the time, that came as a surprise to me. And so I became more conscious of what I was doing.

And at the same time, I had made a trip back to California and to a part of California not so far from where I’d grown up but far enough that I hadn’t been there in a number of years. And, again, I was shocked at the changes that had taken place within my memory. And I began to recognize that there was a huge gap between the kind of exquisite attention that the biblical writers are giving to the fragile land on which they live and the kind of obliviousness that characterizes our culture, or did at that time, in respect to our use of land. And California and Israel are very comparable landscapes. They’re both fragile, both semi-arid. So I found time sort of collapsing in a certain sense, but there was an odious comparison between that care of land which is at least held up as an ideal in the Bible and the disregard of it that I was seeing in my own place.

MS. TIPPETT: And when you — as you took that realization back into your scholarship, did you even start seeing things that you hadn’t seen before?

PROF. DAVIS: Oh, yes. And that continues now. As I started reading text — well, first I thought that I was going to have to be very careful to find text that would speak to the care of land, and that turned out not to be true at all, that I could open up almost anywhere in the Bible and find something.


PROF. DAVIS: But now I continue to find that even reading chapters, passages that I’ve written on before, that I’ve lectured on countless times, when I read them from the perspective of what they have to say about the land on which our life depends and its health, things pop out at me that I had simply overlooked before, or things make sense to me that I had never tried to make sense of.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Poetry of Creatures.”

The first chapter of Genesis is, as Ellen Davis puts it, a magisterially toned “liturgical poem.” In six days, “at the beginning of God’s creating,” as the Hebrew has it, God makes night and day, firmament and water, seeding plants, sun and stars, fish and fowl, crawling creatures of the dry land, and finally, human beings. And in a verse that colonizers and missionaries of the Christian West took on with vigor, God blesses the man and woman created in God’s image. And here’s how the King James version translated God’s command to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know what I thought would be interesting for us to do is just pick up Genesis. I have the Tanakh, the Jewish Publication Society Bible, in front of me, and I have Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses, which is a translation, and it’s very close to the Hebrew.

PROF. DAVIS: Yes. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And not necessarily as linear. It doesn’t necessarily read in a smooth way in English but, as you’ve said it, it makes the Hebrew more transparent, including rhythms and allusions. And so with agrarian eyes, you know, what do you see when you open Genesis 1?

PROF. DAVIS: Well, the first thing that stands out is that the rhythm of the passage changes when we get to the creation of the dry land on the fifth day. That up until that point — actually, I think the dry land is created a little bit sooner than the fifth day, but it begins to be furnished for habitation on the fifth day — and up until that point, Genesis 1 is really very terse. “Let there be light: And there was light” “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters … and it was so.” But then, when the dry land begins to be furnished for habitation, suddenly there is blessing enters the world. So the creatures are blessed. And of course, we know human beings are blessed on the sixth day, but we often overlook the fact that the creatures of sky and sea receive exactly the same blessing, pru u’revu, “be fruitful and multiply.” And so we are living amongst creatures who are blessed before we even come into existence. I think that’s an important thing to recognize.

MS. TIPPETT: Now let’s just, you know, point out that I think the passage, if people know something from this, it is this blessing that also seems to contain not just permission but a commandment to — you know, the words, the translation’s different: “to have dominion,” Tanakh says “to master it,” “to rule the fish of the sea.” So you’re saying that that’s tempered first of all by the context. But, you know, how do you step back from that and what do you see is happening there that is not clear in the way we have translated and used these texts?

PROF. DAVIS: OK. The Hebrew word is a strong word, and I render it “exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures” because I think the notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art, of being human without taking away the fact that humans do, from the perspective of almost all the biblical writers — not every single one but almost all — humans occupy a very special place of power and privilege and responsibility in the world. But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing of the creatures of sea and sky that they are to be fruitful and multiply. So whatever it means for us to exercise skilled mastery, it cannot undo that prior blessing. I think that’s pretty convicting for us in the sixth great age of species extinction.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: The other thing I would point out is that there is tremendous emphasis on the fruitfulness of the earth.


PROF. DAVIS: “Let the earth grasp forth grass,” the Hebrew says. “Let seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it,” and it goes on for another verse. Continual emphasis on how the earth is a self-perpetuating system of fertility, of fruitfulness to provide for all. And then there is the creation of the earth creatures, including humankind. And then again at the very end of the chapter, God says to the humans right after they have been given the charge to exercise skilled mastery, God says, “Look, I give you every seed-bearing plant that’s upon all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit that shall be yours for food. And to all the animals and to the birds and to the things that creep on the earth.” So food has been provided for all.


PROF. DAVIS: It seems to me that this is the first and maybe the best clue that we have of what it means for humans to exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures. That we are the one creature that is conscious that everybody has to eat.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, you even write about eating as practical theology. So again, I mean, I think here’s a whole new area that Genesis talks to us about eating as part of being human and as part of being a creature. Eating is something we talk about a lot these days in our culture, right, along with words like “ecology” and “sustainability.”

PROF. DAVIS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So talk to me about what you see there that you haven’t even paid attention to.

PROF. DAVIS: I think we are beginning to wake up in this culture from a long period of obliviousness about what we eat. And we’re also stepping out of our completely unprecedented lack of awareness that eating has anything to do with our life with God.


PROF. DAVIS: But so it’s important to realize what a bubble we have been in, with respect to this.

MS. TIPPETT: Is the prayer at mealtime that’s also going away, is that kind of a vestige of that mentality?

PROF. DAVIS: Oh, certainly. But I think even people who have been saying grace over their meals have not thought very much about the gift of the land and water and fertile soil that brought the food to the plate. And that I think is what’s changing now in our time. I remember 15, 20 years ago when I began thinking about this and I would be asked to speak in a church or to a group of bishops or to a group of clergy, and I would say, “This is what I wanted to work on,” and they would say, “Well, couldn’t you do something theological?”


PROF. DAVIS: But that has really changed.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: And I think that’s something to be grateful for, that in while the situation on the ground has in many ways become worse, the awareness in our culture and in religious communities really all over the world has grown significantly.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You do put it in very vivid and stark religious terms. I mean, you’ve written, “Every day taking our sustenance from the earth and from the bodies of other animals, we enter deeply into the mystery of creation.” You know, you said, “Eating is practical theology because it gives us an opportunity to honor God with our bodies.” You know, when I read that, that has resonance for so many things that we’re coming back to an awareness of again right now in our culture, even obesity, right?


MS. TIPPETT: And nutrition and care of body in many ways.

PROF. DAVIS: Yeah. For a very long time, I think we have had a highly spiritualized notion of religion in the West, that our souls, our spirits, our hearts, whatever word we wanted to use for what connected us to God, those things connected us to God; our bodies did not. With the one exception of sexuality. We thought that sexual morality in some way connected us to God, but nothing else about our physical being does. I think we are letting go of that delusion now.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Something else that you point out in the text in Genesis that you dwell on is this image of God seeing, right, because repeatedly in the first chapter of Genesis, “God saw that it was good.”

PROF. DAVIS: Mm-hmm. How we see the world is how we learn to value it. And it’s striking that in Genesis 1 what we know of God, really the only things that we know of God, is that God creates and God values what God has made. God sees it as good, but that can also be translated, “God saw how beautiful it was.” And I think there’s almost an element of surprise, of delight, that, you know, we know from our own smaller creations. And so God is, in a sense, the first appreciator of the world, the first one to see that it is beautiful.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s very important that, as you said, Genesis 1 is a liturgical poem. So, I mean, before we leave Genesis behind, would you talk about how that must inform our reading of what it’s saying to us and how it’s saying it to us?

PROF. DAVIS: Sure. Poetry is language that speaks to our hearts. And I’m using the biblical word “heart,” which I think the closest equivalent to that in 21st-century language is our imaginations. The heart, in biblical physiology, the heart is the center of our emotions, but also of our intellect. And those two things cannot be separated. And poetic language is precise. It is detailed, it’s realistic, but it is not the discursive language of mere fact. And so I think it’s important that in different ways the first and second chapters of the Bible are telling us about our place in the world, telling us about the web of relationships into which we are born as a species. And we are placed creatures.


PROF. DAVIS: We’re placed within an order. That’s a quite different way, I think, of thinking about ourselves than what we often take to be a literal reading of the Bible but, in my view, a cruder way of reading the Bible.

MS. TIPPETT: Over the years as you’ve delved into this, you’ve made more and more connections with the poetry of, well, especially Wendell Berry. You’ve written about the poetry of loss and care as the poetry of creatures. What do you mean when you use those phrases?

PROF. DAVIS: A starting point for me in thinking about ourselves as creatures is the observation of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that now the art of being creatures is almost a lost art. And I think that notion that we need to learn, we need to be skilled, we need to be wise, in order to be the creatures that, in fact, we are, that we think of creatures as anyone who’s not human.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. Right, right.

PROF. DAVIS: And, again, I think it’s part of the sense that we are limitless.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s that dominion that we have over the creatures.

PROF. DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: And it’s why I like the phrase “the exercise of skilled mastery” because it suggests an artfulness in being human. And I think that poetry, well, I believe Wendell Berry says poetry cannot be read in distraction. You can, often you have to read an instructional manual or a textbook or whatever, without paying all that much attention to kind of skim you away through it, to get to the heart of the matter. But you can’t read poetry that way. Poetry slows you down. And I think that anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued and maybe as a gift and even a calling from God.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Ellen Davis. And here is Wendell Berry, reading his poem “How to Be a Poet.”

MR. BERRY: [reading]

Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill — more of each than you have — inspiration, work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity. Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment. Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places. Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Wendell Berry graciously read several of his poems for us from his home in Kentucky. Go to onbeing.org, and you can download all seven — including “The Peace of Wild Things,” a couple of his “Sabbaths” poems, and “How to Be a Poet.”

One of the tricky decisions in producing this show was whether to add music beneath this beloved writer’s readings of his work. And so, on our blog, we’ve asked you to weigh in. The feedback so far goes resolutely both ways. People either love the music bed or they want the purity of Wendell Berry’s voice in the clear. Call this a weekend exercise — let us know what you would choose. That’s at onbeing.org.

Coming up, how the “cultivation of agrarian eyes,” is life-giving work for city dwellers as well. Also, more poetry with Wendell Berry.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Today: “The Poetry of Creatures.” I’m speaking with Ellen Davis, a biblical scholar at the Duke University Divinity School. Her way of reading the Bible reframes the way Western culture long approached the natural world — as something to dominate and subdue. And she’s helping shape a new imagination about this in Christian and other leaders from the U.S. to Sudan to Indonesia. The farmer, poet, and conservationist Wendell Berry is a friend and collaborator with Ellen Davis. And we’re weaving his poetry into this conversation as it’s woven throughout her writing. He recorded for us from his home in Kentucky. Here are some more lines from his “Mad Farmer” poems.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. BERRY:[reading]

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it. I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts, and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing, and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor, in spite of the best advice.

[Sound bite of music]

PROF. DAVIS: Part of what I find myself doing in my writing now is creating a kind of shift in paradigm because I’ve seen that there is something more basic in the Bible than possession of land; it’s care of land.


PROF. DAVIS: And it’s the best index in the Bible of the health of the relationship between God and Israel or between God and humankind is the health of the land of Israel or the earth as a whole, its fertility. And I think at the root of it is the notion that we are a part of an intricate web of physical relations, which are at the same time moral relations.


PROF. DAVIS: How we eat and drink, how we sow our land, how we get food to our plates, how we use other bodies, other human bodies, in getting food and drink to sustain us, these are moral issues which cannot be separated from the very basic physical questions.

And so I think the issue of land possession is important. There’s no question it’s important in the Bible, but it’s the question of possession can never be separated from the question of care. And I think in our — maybe in all of our cultures, going back to ancient times, we have put first priority on the questions of physical possession and somehow thought that the questions of care would take care of themselves or someone else would take care of that.


PROF. DAVIS: And I think now we’ve sort of come up against the wall and maybe the best thing that we can say about ourselves at this point is we’re reaching the end of that delusion.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And there’s something very striking also in looking at kind of the sweep of where your thinking has taken you, where your studies have taken you that — you know, I mean, at the one and the same time, there’s a new association and a new sense of the relevance and the present resonance of these images of Genesis and these meanings of it. And also this prophetic message, also in the sense of needing to wake people up, right, being a voice of — judgment is a hard word; it’s not even a complicated enough word.

PROF. DAVIS: Um, I think that if one reads scripture carefully, one is continually challenged to rethink maybe everything that we take for granted. I sometimes say to my students the best way to find your preaching angle for any text is to ask how it challenges or turns on its head your ordinary way of thinking about how things really are.


PROF. DAVIS: And that, I think, is the prophetic dimension of scripture itself.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: In her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Ellen Davis compares current specters of ecological devastation with the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of the earth gone “wild and waste” — a kind of reversal of the Genesis story. And in an essay about a visit he once made to a strip-mining site in Hardburly, Kentucky, Wendell Berry described “mangled land” — “a place of titanic disorder and violence.” He wrote, “Since I left Hardburly I have been unable to escape the sense that I have been to the top of the mountain, and that I have looked over and seen, not the promised land vouchsafed to a chosen people, but a land of violence and sterility prepared and set aside for the damned.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You and also Wendell Berry do a lot of describing of this waste and destruction, this chaos. And much of that now is becoming familiar. You know, these litanies are becoming familiar of what we have wrought. And of course journalists are also those kinds of prophets in a way. I mean, we become — we’re inundated with these facts and with images that I think are presented with the purpose of awareness and perhaps a different kind of action but can also be paralyzing and debilitating. You know, they can have that opposite effect on our imaginations and on our action. So I wonder how you think about what the biblical text offers also in terms of nourishing hope and courage and practical ways of living forward in a different way.

PROF. DAVIS: It’s interesting that none of the so-called prophetic books of the Bible, the books that actually have the names of prophets attached to them, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, all of those books bring us to despair if we take them seriously. If we apply them to our lives they, in a sense, bring us to our knees. But none of them ends without what they call in the book of Jeremiah “the book of consolation.” None of them ends without a picture of the people of God returning to a healthy relationship with God, and all of them have a picture of the land being fruitful and productive, in celebration you might say, of that restored relationship between God and humanity, God and Israel.

And as kind of a parallel to that, when I began working in this area and I saw how deep the problems were, I got more and more depressed. I noticed this happens with my students when we begin studying this. The first movement is into depression.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: But then there begins to be a sort of brightening on the path, you might say, as we begin to see that there are other people seeing the same things, we’re seeing and working on these things.


PROF. DAVIS: So Wendell Berry says now, “When hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them.”


PROF. DAVIS: There are reasons, you know, in the language of Scripture, giving reason for the hope that is in us. And it’s there.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you use phrases in your writing that are kind of countercultural. You know, you speak of “a tenacious but severely chastened hope” or “things that are encouraging and deeply sobering.” And maybe it is that kind of realism that we have to have about hope, how closely it can be mingled with our despair and yet survive.

PROF. DAVIS: Certainly there is a difference between hope and a foolish optimism. And in order to have hope, you have to see the depth and the dimensions of the problem.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: And I think that we are beginning to grasp.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, with On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “The Poetry of Creatures,” with biblical scholar Ellen Davis.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, most of the people who — possibly most of the people who listen to this conversation between us and including you and I, are city dwellers, are not agrarian in any kind of way that we can identify or way we would define ourselves. So talk to me a little bit about what this way of seeing, reading the Bible and thinking about land and care and loss of land and creation, how — what this says for city dwellers.

PROF. DAVIS: I think what is says is that our cities cannot be regarded as entities in themselves. Our cities are no more important than the watersheds and the breadbaskets that surround them and on which their lives depend and therefore, the lives of us who live in cities depend directly. One of the most positive things that has happened in the years I’ve been working on this book is that more and more, not only in the city in which I live, Durham, North Carolina, but in the cities that I visit, I see farmers in the middle of the city selling their food. I’ve learned that in Vancouver, BC, 45 percent of the residents grow some of their own food. It may be a pot of basil and parsley on the windowsill, but they grow something that they eat. I think that being conscious of where our food comes from and who grows it and at what cost, that’s something that all of us can do and must do. Certainly, if everybody decided to move out of our cities, it would be a disaster.


PROF. DAVIS: That’s not what I’m advocating.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

PROF. DAVIS: But just realizing that the kind of contempt that I think many urban dwellers have had for rural areas and the people who live in them, the kind of contempt that allows us to blow up mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia and fill the hollows with the rubble, that kind of contempt is suicidal for people who live in cities.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I have — one of my producers behind the glass has a question and will I be able to hear him just in my headphones? OK. OK. You’re going to love this one.


MS. TIPPETT: So apparently my senior editor, Trent, is tweeting this conversation we’re having, and he has had a question come in from a student of yours who loves you …


MS. TIPPETT: … and he was afraid to ask this question in your classes.

PROF. DAVIS: All right.

MS. TIPPETT: So which is, how do city dwellers, urbanites, relate to an agrarian mindset without romanticizing it?

PROF. DAVIS: I think the best way to do that is to listen to farmers and to meet farmers. As we’ve been talking about, that’s easy to do now because there probably isn’t an urban area …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. They’re in your city. Right.

PROF. DAVIS: Yeah, exactly. They’re in our city. So talk to them and find out what they’re doing, what their hopes are, and also what their struggles are. And I don’t know any farmer who isn’t struggling.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

PROF. DAVIS: And it doesn’t matter what model of farming they’re using. If they’re using small farming, trying to get off the grid, or if they are involved in industrial farming, I don’t know any of them who are not struggling and to some degree suffering. So I think that’s the most important thing that we can do in order not to romanticize it. I’d also suggest that you can read some of what is happening in new modes of agricultural research.


PROF. DAVIS: Because some people think that when I or others are talking about agrarianism, we’re sort of talking about going back a hundred years, if not 2,000 years. Um, but it’s not, it’s not an exercise in nostalgia.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. DAVIS: And so scientists, some of whom are also farmers, are a very important part of shaping the vision of the future. And there’s no one more important in my thinking or I think in the future of agriculture than Wes Jackson and the Land Institute.

MS. TIPPETT: He is a scientist, isn’t he?

PROF. DAVIS: He is. He’s an evolutionary biologist.


PROF. DAVIS: He’s a plant geneticist who is working on a completely different model of agriculture. For 10,000 years, the dominant model has been annual plants grown increasingly in monoculture. The model he’s working with is perennial plants grown in polyculture. So this would mean wheat, especially wheat, but other forms of edible nutritious grains that can be grown without plowing and stripping the land each year.


PROF. DAVIS: I think it’s tremendously important. I have another friend, Mary Eubanks, a biologist at Duke University, who is also a plant biologist and she’s growing high-protein, drought-resistant corn. Her corn, her maize, now is at 17 percent protein. The significance of that, when you think about — and this is non-genetically modified — when you think about the potential significance of that in terms of the world population, it’s very significant.

MS. TIPPETT: When you talk about Creation and Genesis and this agrarian reading of the Bible, and there’s beauty in it, there’s reverence in it, and also that the Bible and all the imagery of the Bible is no stranger to catastrophe.

PROF. DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: To loss and to bitterness and grief. And it seemed especially, I mean, that really seemed especially present and, in fact, fitting for this subject in this moment in our culture in a way that surprised me.

PROF. DAVIS: Yes. I remember my first seminary dean when I was a student saying, “If you don’t shed some tears while you’re here you will have missed the point.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Here, in closing, Wendell Berry reads from his poetry collection Sabbaths:

MR. BERRY: [reading]

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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MS. TIPPETT: Again, you can read and listen to all seven readings Wendell Berry recorded for us from his home in Kentucky — and you can share them with friends and family. Find that link at onbeing.org. Wendell Berry contributed a foreword to Ellen Davis’s book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

Ellen Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at the Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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We often live tweet my interviews and I sometimes bring your questions, as I did this time, into the conversation. And we post the Twitterscript of interviews on our blog well before you can hear the produced show on the radio or by podcast. Our handle: at Beingtweets. And right now on our blog we’ve posted an e-interview with a former guest on the show, the Quaker author Parker Palmer. He has a new book out called Healing the Heart of Democracy. I’ll send you off with a favorite meditation he quotes in that online interview.

[“The Gates of Hope” meditation by Victoria Safford]

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness … nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

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This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Special thanks this week to Ann Thompson.

Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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MS. TIPPETT: Next time, we look at the current TV season’s themes of God and meaning by way of zombies, vampires, serial killers, and other suspicious characters human and otherwise. “Monsters We Love.” Please join us.


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