Marc Bekoff says the world’s future turns on ‘Rewilding Our Hearts’

If you recognize Marc Bekoff’s name then you probably know he’s the scientist who voraciously collects news stories about animal life around the planet—especially research into the psychology and sociology of animals—and then spreads that news through his popular online columns and occasional books. ReadTheSpirit has featured many stories about his work over the years, including this interview about his book Animal Manifesto and this more recent interview about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.

Most Bekoff books fill us with so much gee-whiz news about animals that we are eager to share the stories over coffee or dinner with friends—which is precisely Marc’s intention in publishing them.

So, there’s a big difference in tone when you begin reading his latest book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

This is a short book with a big message. It may remind readers of the work of environmental activist and author James Gustave Speth, who shows up in many forms of media these days, including National Public Radio. Speth is a secularist with little personal interest in religion and yet he closes his eloquent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, with this surprising admission: “I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

Essentially, that’s the departure point for Bekoff’s new book. How do we kick off the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that Speth and many others say we need to save our planet? Bekoff says we can start simply with daily steps to reconnect our consciousness with all living things on the planet—especially all forms of animal life from pets to the world’s wildest creatures. This expansion of our daily awareness, Bekoff argues, will bring with it a deeper compassion for animals (other humans and also non-human animals). If we can increase the world’s compassion—step by step in one life after another—then we have a chance to save Earth from a host of ecological dangers.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming reenchanted with nature,” Bekoff writes in his opening pages. “It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism. … It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.”

If you think of “wild” as dangerous and predatory, then you are already missing Bekoff’s startlingly hope-filled message. After decades of studying the science of consciousness, psychology and sociology in the world’s animal populations, Bekoff believes strongly that sustainable coexistence really is possible in our world. We don’t have to collapse into an apocalyptic state of savagery because of global warming and other looming ecological disasters. We don’t have to turn the world into a Hunger Games horror story. And in making this claim, Bekoff lines himself up with the likes of Speth and also the teachings of Pope Francis, as well. (You’ll enjoy reading Marc Bekoff’s sidebar to this interview in which he explores Francis’s recent off-the-cuff statement about animals.)

Want something fresh and hopeful, inspiring and also very practical, to read in this New Year of 2015? Order a copy of Rewilding Our Hearts right now. Bekoff closes the book by selling his argument on the basis of his own experience. He has drawn thousands of readers to his work, all around the world, and the reason we keep returning to his columns and books is this: He’s so darned hopeful about our future!

He writes: I have often wondered why I haven’t burned out despite many decades as an activist working for other animals. The reason, I have come to realize, is that I’m constantly rewilding. Every day I connect with nature and the animals around my home, and I hold to the unwavering belief that I’m doing some good in the world. I work really hard on a lot of “ugly stuff,” but I nurture the resilience to keep at it by making sure my life is balanced: I’ve learned how to “get away from it all” for a while and return fully recharged. I believe in what I do, even if there isn’t a gold star at the end of that day. Indeed, I may not live to see the fruits of my labor, but that’s just fine.

Isn’t this an intriguing fellow? Consider inviting friends to read this book and discuss it with you.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Marc Bekoff. Here are …


DAVID: Americans are deeply divided on climate change: whether our climate really is changing, whether human activity is causing it, and whether we should enact legal limits to curb its effects. University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker has reported on these divisions in his OurValues project. What’s your sense, Marc, of why we are so divided on an issue that most scientists tell us is settled by the data?

MARC: Mainly, a lot of people are unaware of the science. Americans lead very busy lives and don’t have time to follow the latest news in science.

We also have this incredible ability to look at something that is staring us in the face, actually impacting our senses, and we deny that it’s there either because we don’t want to believe it’s there—or we don’t believe the data. Some political groups have complicated the problem by telling people that this is a political issue. It’s not. It’s really a-political.

My new book is really an attempt to get people to reconnect with themselves, slow down, pay attention to what is happening and realize these challenges we are facing really are a-political. We’re all affected by this. We can’t put reality aside simply because we heard this from a Right-Winger or that from a Left-Winger.

DAVID: Your central point—that we need to “rewild” or reconnect ourselves with the larger natural world—suggests that we have lost that connection.


MARC: We become unwilded due to education and lifestyle and the busy kinds of lives we lead. What I’m trying to show people is that it’s good for them and good for the world to become reconnected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals.

I stress in the book that this is easy to do. You don’t have to be so rich that you can fund an entire movement. Even if you live in New York City, you can rewild in the middle of Central Park as I’ve done just going into the park, for example, and watching the squirrels and the birds. My message in this book is multilayered, but we can start to rewild our hearts with simple steps that reconnect us to nature and other animals.

DAVID: When I read your book, I thought of the work in recent years by E.O. Wilson and James Gustave Speth. Let me use Speth as an example—he’s certainly not a religious leader and in fact he is a secularist in his personal life. Yet, Speth says: Science is not enough. We’ve got to change hearts.

MARC: When I say that science is not enough, you have to remember that I love science. I’ve spent years studying the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. I write about science all the time. What I mean is that science is not going to make us more compassionate. So, rewilding is a personal transition, a spiritual transformation. By rewilding we will encounter feelings that some of us may never have had. It’s those feelings that can reinforce the need to make change and motivate action.

DAVID: This idea of each person doing a little bit each day sounds good, although I’m sure critics will complain it’s too little too late. I think that a lot of our readers from various religious and cultural backgrounds will agree with you. I am continually surprised by news reports that show incremental changes growing into huge movements. National Public Radio recently reported about the trend toward removing the grassy lawns that take so much water in dry regions of the U.S. That started with just a handful of people and now it’s transforming millions of acres and is saving lots of water.


MARC: That’s right. Maybe more people will realize that a green lawn is nice but it’s too costly in the resources it takes to sustain that. Many people around the world still love ivory jewelry—so we still need to reach a point where people realize that the price of ivory’s beauty is the slaughter of elephants as a species.

The problem is that we treat our own homes better than we treat the earth as a home. What I’m talking about is the process of coming to realize that the earth is our home.

Ask yourself: How often do you go out for a walk? How often do you look at the plants and animals where you live?

Those are very small ways you can begin this process. Set a little time aside at lunch for a walk. If you’ve got a dog, take your dog along as your companion and pay attention to what interests the dog as you walk. (He laughs.) If you don’t have a dog, then take your cat! Seriously, some people do walk their cats. Try it!

There are lots of small changes you can make right now: Do you have an errand you need to run this week? If it’s less than a mile away, try walking. I keep a backpack always ready with anything I might need for a walk or a ride on my bike. Plan ahead and make it easy to spend time outside.

I’m not against technology. I use my computer and iPhone a lot. But I also take time to set them aside during the day.


DAVID: As I read your book, I thought of something my son Benjamin started a year or so ago. He put a bird-identification book and a pad of paper near the big window at the back of our house and he challenged us to write down which birds we spotted right in our back yard. Very simple. Our backyard is quite small—but we’re now much more aware of the diversity of birds out there.

MARC: Yes, I love that idea! I’m writing it down right now so I can share that idea with others. As I’m thinking about that, you could also start a list of the kinds of flowers you can spot in your regular walk through your neighborhood. Or, here’s another one: If you regularly pass a stream or river, make a note each day about the water level and the state of the stream—make a list of plants you see growing there each year.

The whole point of this is to learn about the many cycles going on around us all the time. If you live in an apartment in New York City, go watch the animals in Central Park. I do that.

One day I was in Central Park, watching some squirrels and this family came upon me and the mother asked what I was doing.

I said, “I’m watching squirrels.”

And the mother said, “But they’re just squirrels!”

And I said, “No they interrelate to each other. They play. Their families relate to each other.”

And what happened? The mother’s children very quickly got enchanted with this idea and began paying attention to the squirrels.


DAVID: There’s a lot more readers will discover in this book. Let me just take one example from the middle of the book: Biophilic Cities, in other words cities that are friendly to a diversity of natural life. First, you cite a study by cognitive researchers on the beneficial effects of simply living near a park; they document lower levels of “mental distress” if you happen to live near a park.

Then, you give examples of projects that some people are undertaking right now to make their cities more “biophilic.” The goal, you explain, is to make sure that our urban landscapes “include more natural areas and take practical measures to protect wildlife from human impacts.”

MARC: This plays off the idea that biophilia is in our genes—we’re born with an attraction to nature. We need to make our cities more attractive to people, to be more like Mother Nature. Again, I’m calling attention to practical ways we can make changes where we live and then it will be easier to “rewild” ourselves and feel an even greater connection to the other animals and the flora around us.

There are so many things that can be done. We need to stop building buildings that mask sounds or that set up reflections so that animals are unable to navigate properly. We keep building too many buildings that cause birds to crash. We lose a lot of animals every day because of the thoughtless way we build skyscrapers.

DAVID: Some cities are getting this right—and attracting residents who care about these things. You mention projects in Vancouver, Chicago and Amsterdam.

MARC: Look at Amsterdam. The city actually has corridors where it’s easy for birds and animals to move through the city and also for people to sit down and appreciate nature. Central Park in New York is a good example, too.

DAVID: Readers who are curious about the ideas you are describing don’t have to simply take your word for it. Like your earlier books, you devote a lot of space—almost 30 pages—to detailed notes so your readers can find out more information about the many topics you cover. You list books, web sites and specific articles.

MARC: Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of the fact that as a scientist, I write about topics that most scientists don’t write about. I’m very careful in noting my sources. People may criticize the idea of rewilding—and critics may say it’s a little bit of a fluffy idea—but I’ve never been criticized for my science. I’m absolutely solid on my scientific sources and I always cite those sources. I want people to know that my claims are credible and it’s important for them to be able to follow my notes if they want to read further.

DAVID: You’re hoping readers will be moved to action, right?

MARC: Yes, rewilding is possible. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s a personal journey. It’s contagious. I like to think of “rewilding” as a meme that will spread.

If someone gets involved in rewilding and, because this feels good to them, they wind up doing something great for the world—then so be it. I’m happy.

DAVID: Let me close with a question about Pope Francis’s recent off-hand comment that our pets may one day be in heaven with us. He isn’t the first Catholic leader to say such a thing, of course. Pope John Paul II made some similar comments, but the fact is: Most people around the world thought it was a surprising thing to hear from the pope. That story went viral. What do you think? Is the pope rewilding?

MARC: I’ll have to think about that. Let me write something about this, after I’ve studied it more.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


What do strong, balanced relationships look like?


Got Religion? by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley looks at the mass exodus of young adults from congregations nationwide and finds hope in something those of us who’ve given our lives to faith communities should have known all along: It’s all about building relationships. (You can read an in-depth interview with her right now.) Riley saw these truths through the lens of Templeton-funded research and her reporting from communities coast to coast. I’ve seen this in the lives of countless men and women I’ve counseled over the decades.

These days, I like to send people personal notes with photographs I’ve taken around the world. I want to leave them with vivid images—and a handful of words—that they may ponder over time.

Immediately after snapping this photo along the North American Plate in Iceland, I knew that I had captured a geologic symbol of human relationships. In nature, in construction and in relationships, a keystone holds two dynamic forces together in a delicate, precarious balance. Through the years, I have mailed this photo to newly engaged couples, along with an inscription, formatted as a simple poem, to remind them of the dynamic tension and balance necessary to sustain a thriving relationship.

Recently, I visited one of those couples—and I was delighted to see my photo and my words framed and displayed in their home.

Here are the words I send along with the photograph …

strong, courageous trust
delicate, interdependent,

imagination, empathy, sympathy,
understanding, honesty, and clear communication.
The bond is sustained by a
a capacity to change both mind and behavior
to create a safety net
where acts of
love and laughter
will be fostered.

PLEASE NOTE: If you care to pass this along to friends, I am giving you permission to reproduce the photograph and the words (please credit me and mention that I’m a writer for You’ll find that, if you have a common card-making program available on your computer, the image and words fit together nicely to form a greeting card. If you do follow this suggestion, please email us at [email protected] and tell us how you’ve passed it along. I’d love to hear from you.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Explore the world’s spiritual traditions in ‘Global Spirit’

COMING JULY 13, 2014:

For years, ReadTheSpirit magazine has recommended the exceptional spiritual conversations hosted by Global Spirit, an innovative series of broadcasts mainly delivered across the Internet. Hosted by scholar, filmmaker and writer Phil Cousineau, the series has welcomed a Who’s Who of famous spiritual sages.

Coming July 13, you will want to visit Global Spirit’s live-streaming website to watch Cousineau interview two top environmental teachers: Joanna Macy and Michael Tobias. Until that time, you’ll see a brief excerpt in a video window on that page. Then, at the end of each new episode, Global Spirit also hosts Live Webcasts with participants in the program. Visit this page to find the Live Webcasts.

When are these broadcast? This page lists Global Spirit’s complete broadcast schedule.

Joanna Macy is well known as a Buddhist scholar and environmental activist, encouraging spiritual reflections on the Earth’s living systems. Wikipedia has a more extensive biography on this now 85-year-old teacher. ReadTheSpirit magazine especially recommends Macy’s book published by New World Library, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.

Michael Tobias also is profiled in Wikipedia. He’s a leading environmental activist, as well, writing and teaching primarily about population stress on our planet and, especially, the need to create sanctuaries and to change policies governing the protection of life on Earth. He has circled the world in his activism, working regularly with partners on several continents. His writing has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Forbes magazine.


Global Spirit has posted a short video clip of Macy talking about Sacred Ecology as a preview for the upcoming broadcast. This YouTube video is well worth watching, because Joanna Macy guides host Phil Cousineau around her Canticle Farm in Oakland, California.

Named for St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun, Macy and her friends convinced the owners of five homes in a poor neighborhood of Oakland to take down the fences separating their back yards to form a single community garden. Organic fruits and vegetables are raised and given away to neighbors.

CLICK THE VIDEO SCREEN BELOW to watch this clip. NOTE: The first two-and-a-half-minutes show Macy in the Global Spirit studio talking with Cousineau—but stay tuned! The next five minutes are a colorful look at Canticle Farm.

The Marc Bekoff interview on Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation

THE FULL TITLE of Marc Bekoff’s latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

In our interview today, Marc admits the first part of the title is to catch the eyes of new readers. Yes, he does address those two topics in his book, but they’re only part of this absolutely marvelous, world-circling voyage into the minds, emotions and values of non-human creatures.

If you haven’t discovered Marc Bekoff’s unique work until today, then you’re in for a real treat!

He has emerged as the world’s leading scientific voice translating the latest research on the psychology of animals—and human-animal relationships—into everyday language for general readers. He writes regularly for Psychology Today magazine. He writes so regularly, in fact, that he has produced more than 500 columns over the past five years. Don’t worry if you’ve missed this treasure-trove, until today. His new book collects the best of those hundreds of columns for readers … just like you.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we’re excited to tell you about this book—so excited, in fact, that in addition to this interview featuring our Editor David Crumm and Marc Bekoff … our colleague Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

Eager to find out more?
Let’s jump right to …


DAVID: Since we’re a magazine about spiritual and cultural diversity, I have to ask: Isn’t your basic message about the inherent value in animal life something that we’ve seen for centuries in Eastern religions—and, in the West, in the teachings of those Christian leaders who were sensitive to animal life? We all know about St. Francis, of course, but there were other Western Christian voices as well. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous for preaching that animals will be in heaven with us when we leave this world.

So, my question is: In this book, you’re really touching on a universal theme, right?

MARC: Absolutely. I was at a conference in 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London and there was a good discussion there about how this relates to Jainism. In my earlier book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, I wrote about Buddhism and compassion for animals. There is a strong Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all beings and the unity we share.

I believe: We all are one. I don’t mean that in any frivolous sort of way. What I mean is: We all depend on one another. We all work very hard to have good, social, amicable relationships with one another. We need to be very careful about separating ourselves from other animals.

I’m not bashing humans. I do believe that humans are exceptional. We’re a wonderful species. We do horrific things, yes, but we also do amazing things.

DAVID: Then, the second question is: What you’re reporting in this new book is solid science as well. How do you do that?

MARC: When I write for Psychology Today or in books like this one, I take scientific work that’s being reported around the world and I make the findings digestible to non-researchers. And, I do provide all the references to the scientific work on this, so readers can go deeper if they want to learn more.

DAVID: You’ve got 326 footnotes neatly listed at the end of this book, if readers want to check further into what you’re describing in the chapters. How do you manage to find all of these studies?

MARC: I read widely, but I also have lots of people who are in touch with me constantly, sending me links to new articles and essays being published both in popular and scientific journals. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and my email is so overwhelming that I almost want to shut it down! But don’t misunderstand me when I say that. I love this work! Love it! You can’t go a day or two without finding a new headline about animal behavior, psychology and cognition.

DAVID: Here’s one of your columns that caught my eye—and I wound up telling friends about it: You wrote about rats helping each, motivated by what appears to be a clear sense of empathy. I certainly wouldn’t have expected empathy among rats. But you write that this is consistent with studies of mice and chickens that showed those species were capable of empathy and what you call “pro-social action.” You describe a study that was first reported in the journal Science in which researchers documented untrained laboratory rats trying to free some companions who were restrained—sparked to free them by empathy for those other rats. What floored me was when the researchers tried to keep the rats from paying attention to their restrained companions by giving them an option to go eat chocolate—and the rats still helped each other.

MARC: The pro-social behavior didn’t surprise me—but the chocolate part of their study, that did surprise me a bit. I’ve been studying social animals for decades. People tend to set up these basic boundaries in which they separate us from other animals. They’ll say, “We’re the only animals who show antruism.” And that’s obviously not true. What we’re seeing here are pro-social behaviors among these untrained rats—even when they’re offered chocolate not to do so.


DAVID: When people read your book, they will discover a whole host of careers that—honestly—I knew little about until you explained them to us in your columns. Some of these admittedly are emerging fields, so please give us Marc Bekoff’s thumbnail explanation of each one, OK? And let’s start with Anthrozoology.

MARC: Anthrozoology is basically the scientific study of human-animal relationships. It’s the study of how we interact with other animals. This is broadly interdisciplinary work. You’ll find biologists involved in this kind of research—but you’ll also meet people in university English departments who are working on this, too.

DAVID: OK, next: Ethology.

MARC: Ethology is the study of animal behavior and it’s differentiated from comparative psychology by more of an interest in the ecology and evolution of behavior. People sometimes define ethology as the study of animal behavior by biologists rather than psychologists.

DAVID: Then, Cognitive Ethology.

MARC: Cognitive Ethology is the study of animal minds—asking questions about the evolution and ecology of animal minds. This is being done by a broad spectrum of academics: biologists, psychologists and even philosophers and theologians are involved in this. It’s called cognitive ethology mainly because, in order to fully understand the evolution of mind, cognitive skills and emotional interactions, you have to pay attention to what animals do in the wild. You can study animals in the lab, but that may be quite different than what we would see in the field.

DAVID: One more: Conservation Psychology.

MARC: I think of Conservation Psychology as a branch of Anthrozoology mainly because it deals with human beliefs and attitudes towards other animals and the environment. It’s really growing. Susan D. Clayton at the College of Wooster in Ohio is one of the leading figures in this field. She earlier published a book called, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for NatureThen, she was the editor for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.

DAVID: Thanks for running through the titles of those emerging fields. We have a lot of readers who are parents, educators and media professionals. Many of our readers may know of young people who are interested in studying an emerging field. If so, there are four of them. Read Marc’s book and you’ll learn about even more types of research.


DAVID: That was pretty heavy-duty science, so let’s tackle the title of your book. Anyone who buys this book hoping to discover “Why Dogs Hump …” well, I think we should warn them. You conclude: We don’t know. There’s no scientific consensus on this behavior.

MARC: We put the phrase on the cover of the book because it’s an attention getter. But there is an important point in that chapter. It’s an important point that I’m trying to make throughout the book: People just assume we know everything about animal behavior—and we don’t. Here’s a behavior that we’ve all seen and people will tell you that they know what causes it. They’ll say it’s sexual. Or, they’ll say it’s a dominance behavior by dogs. But, the research shows neither explanation accounts for this behavior. We don’t know why this happens. There’s so much research needed even on very common behaviors we think we understand. That’s the point I make in that chapter.

DAVID: I’ll admit the phrase is attention getting. And, OK, it’s a valid point: Animal behaviors are greater mysteries than we may assume. One of the eye-opening chapters for me was about jellyfish. I’ve watched jellyfish along the ocean shore and I can’t imagine a less-intelligent creature. They look about as simple as empty plastic bags floating in the water. But you report on research that shows jellyfish are actually interacting with their environment in a more sophisticated way than people ever imagined.

MARC: We’re too mammal-centric in our thinking about the world. In fact, many of us are basically primateocentric—just paying attention to primates. Most humans are interested in big-brained animals, but what we’re learning in science today is that big brains don’t necessarily rule. For example, honey bees have small brains—but, as I write in this book, they can get depressed. They show the same neural psychological changes that we get when we get depressed. What I’m saying is: Keep the door open on what other animals can and cannot do.

DAVID: You argue that many animals are what we, as humans, would call “moral beings.” They are not simply driven by instincts and natural urges. You pose this, from the beginning of the book, as a provocative conclusion you see emerging from all of this research.

MARC: I pose that thought starting with a biological way of looking at this. I use Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, which means that the differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. I like the bumper sticker about animals that says: “If we have something—they have it, too.”

We see lots of examples of animals taking care of other animals in in need. You’ll read about an elephant who was taken care of by other animals in her group. She couldn’t walk without a l imp. She’d been injured for many many years and had a deformed right-rear leg. Other elephants waited for her. The matriarchs in her group made a point of seeing that she was fed. But we see this behavior beyond mothers looking out for others. There are many examples where animals seem to understand clearly that others are in need—and help them.

DAVID: And I’d say we’ve come full circle to the first question in the interview. If animals are moral beings, then Buddhism and Jainism and John Wesley were correct in pointing out that there is an over-arching spiritual connection we share with non-human animals.

MARC: Yes, this gets back to that Buddhist notion that there’s an umbrella of compassion, a unity. People may say to me: Why do you care about aninals? You should care about humans! Well, I do care about humans and it’s true of a lot of people who work with animals. But, the reverse is not always true. A lot of pepole who care about other people don’t always display compassion to other animals. I want to encourage more of that.
DAVID: I’m going to conclude our interview by recommending that people also read our 2010 interview, when you and I talked about your book, called, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. I began that interview by telling readers that your overall goal is “to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic about scientific and ethical positions.” Once again, today, you’ve made that eloquent point. We’ll talk again when your next book is published.


ReadTheSpirit publishes two popular books with stories about human-animal relationships: You can learn more about Conversations with My Old Dog and The Spiritual Wanderer in our bookstore.

AND, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Kent Nerburn interview on Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy

For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!

But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:

His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.

He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.

He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.

Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …


DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.

KENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s,  I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.

And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.

DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?

KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.

But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.


DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.

KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.


DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.

KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.

DAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.

KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.

For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.

DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:

We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.

KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.


DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.

In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.

Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:

Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”

KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.

I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”

Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.

DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.

KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.

I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”

I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”

He said, “Yeah, I went.”

“How was it?”

He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”

To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.

DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?

KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”

I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.

I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.

I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.

Care for more from Kent Nerburn?

Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.

For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”

Shopping for great reading? Please, visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore anytime. Support our work by buying our recommended books—and telling friends.

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Debbie Blue interview on Consider the Birds

WHAT IF God is less like an eagle—and more like a … vulture?

What if the Spirit of God is less like a dove—and more like a … pigeon?

These are just a couple of the startling questions explored by the innovative Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue in her new book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. You may have discovered Debbie Blue before today’s interview. You might have heard one of the popular podcasts she posts from her congregation: House of Mercy, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You may have heard this line that often is used to describe Debbie: “She approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” House of Mercy often is called: “a pretty great church.” If this is sounding like a story by Garrison Kiellor, then you’re not far off the mark. Debbie and her congregation have been featured on Minnesota Public Radio.

And, just like listening to Garrison Kiellor, you may not agree with every story Debbie tells. But, you will think about the world a little differently after the encounter. You’ll definitely think about the Bible in new ways.


DAVID: Your church is in St. Paul but you really are a farmer, right?

DEBBIE: My family and I live on about 80 acres with four other families. We share the land together and, yes, we do some farming—but mostly we have what you would call gardens. We’ve been doing the House of Mercy for 18 years, so we’ve been at this for a while. I have a son who just went off to college for the first time and a daughter who is 13.

DAVID: It’s not what we would call a “commune,” though. For example, you’re not like a Bruderhoff Community with a shared kitchen and evening meals together. Your living situation is looser than that.

DEBBIE: We all have our own dwellings here. Our community has been going on for 18 years and I think it works because we’re not that intense of a community. We’re good friends who share the land. We do have occasional meals together.

DAVID: And it’s relevant to this book that you know what you’re talking about on a very practical level when you write about the natural world and our relationship with animals and birds. Or, as readers think about that promotional line comparing your qualities to a “farm wife”—well, the truth is, you do know something about farming.

DEBBIE: Yes, but the way I got interested in writing this new book actually was through my interest in medieval bestiaries.

DAVID: These were a bit like centuries-old encyclopedias of life on earth without the science. These medieval versions were created to draw Christian lessons from the animals.

DEBBIE: There had been a Christian tradition of trying to divide “man” from “beast” and the natural world from supernatural truth. But the medieval bestiaries took a different tack. In Job, it says: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”

The creators of these bestiaries believed that every animal, every plant, every rock—every created thing—possessed a truth of God. Often, the bestiaries were illuminated prayer books or Psalters that included these images of wild creatures. The thought was that these images could teach us something about God.

Yes, these medieval versions were full of pre-scientific ideas and some of the morality in these books was quite different than what we would teach today. But I think of my book as a contemporary version of a bestiary—looking for truth in things that are not of human construction.

The creators of the bestiaries paid such careful attention to these creatures, assuming that they might unlock windows for us that we normally keep closed. So, I love being part of that tradition. This really goes back to Jesus himself, who said: “Consider the birds.”

DAVID: It’s in Matthew, although some of the newer translations now render it, “Look at the birds …” It’s part of Jesus’s “Do not worry” teaching—and there’s a version of it in Luke as well.

Then, I want to bring up another great selling point for your book: Millions of Americans love birds! The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey says there are nearly 50 million American bird watchers—the most intense kind of bird lovers. If you add in all the people who have bird feeders, who love birds in comic strips and animated movies, who sing about birds in popular songs—well, this is a very crowd-pleasing idea! It’s great for individual reading, for small group discussion and imagine preaching a sermon series on Consider the Birds? People would flock to church.

Are you a birder with a Life List?


DEBBIE: I’m not as serious about birding as I once was—as I explain in the book. Back when I was courting my husband, I was pretty serious about birding and he taught me how to identify warblers. I was totally smitten with that idea. We paid a lot of attention to birds for a while, then we had kids and I started a church and it didn’t seem feasible to tromp through fields and woods with binoculars for hours, anymore.

Birding does give you this attentive space, though, that I wanted to experience again. One reason I wanted to write this book was that it required me to go outside again and spend time being attentive to birds. In the discipline of birding you come to appreciate waiting—using your body and mind as you pay careful attention. As in any devotional practice, birding creates a space in our lives that our culture desperately needs.

DAVID: Let me read a little passage from your book’s Introduction. You write: “Falling in love and identifying birds have similar effects. Normal life is altered; every experience heightened; what was mundane begins to explode with meaning. You think birds are just birds—undifferentiated fluttering, then you find one magnified in your lens. You recognize its unique markings, lines and color. Your heart pounds. It is a cerulean warbler. It is your new mate. I believe both things have equal power to change your life. I’m not kidding. Jim and I spent our courtship looking for birds. We drove to Nebraska to see the cranes do their mating dances.”

But I should quickly add that, while this book is about appreciating the birds in the Bible in surprisingly new ways—this isn’t a book about bird watching per se. Here are the 10 birds to which you’ve devoted 10 chapters: Pigeon, Pelican, Quail, Vulture, Eagle, Ostrich, Sparrow, Cock, Hen and Raven.


DAVID: Like your beloved bestiaries, you play with the bird images in this book. So, let’s talk about two specific sections that certainly caught my eye and are likely to prompt a whole wave of sermons and group discussions coast to coast. I can just see the sermon titles out on the roadside sign boards—and curious folks showing up to see whether their local pastor has gone a little nutty.

Let’s start with your chapters on the Vulture and the Eagle. There are so many thought-provoking ideas, so much historical information and so many spiritual insights in these 40 pages that my copy of your book now has the corners of many of these pages bent down—lots of notes in the margins, too. I won’t try to explain everything you cover in these two chapters, except this:

You open our eyes to a whole new interpretation of the Hebrew term “nesher.” You write, “The Hebrew word nesher is often translated in our English versions of the Bible as ‘eagle,’ but most scholars agree that ‘griffon vulture’ is at least an alternative …”

Now, I’ve checked with rabbis on this point, because it is such a striking idea: God may be like a vulture. And I would say the consensus I’ve heard—not being a Hebrew scholar myself—is that you’re onto something here. While most would agree with the usual “eagle” translation of this term, the fact is: “Nesher” means a bird that tears with its beak and references in ancient scriptures do claim that this bird was the highest-flying of all birds.

The griffon vulture was one of the ancient birds known to the Jewish people—and flies far higher than eagles. In fact, one type of griffon vulture is confirmed to have flown more than 36,000 feet. We know that because it was  ingested into the jet of an airliner over the Ivory Coast at that altitude. You’ve also got a pretty good ally in Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes for Zoo Torah.

DEBBIE: I like that you’re hearing this is a possible translation from the people you’ve consulted. At this point, though, I understand why Westerners can’t seem to bring themselves to more commonly translate nesher as vulture. Our culture regards vultures as horrific. We don’t like them. They eat dead bodies. I understand this. In Minnesota, we have mostly turkey vultures and it’s hard to appreciate them as physically beautiful. Their red faces look like they’ve had their skin pulled off.

So we may not be too eager, at first, to translate God telling Moses that God bore the Israelites on vulture’s wings or to translate Isaiah as saying we will rise up on vultures’ wings. Eagles are such powerful birds and we’ve come to respect them.

But think about this for a moment. Eagles are known for killing. Vultures hardly ever kill or hurt a living thing—they eat what’s already dead. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that otherwise might spread disease. They have these crazy-strong digestive juices that kill bacteria. The Mayans refer to vultures as “death eaters.” That begins to make sense to me: We need something to rid death of its toxicity in our world. Vultures stare death in the face—and death passes right through their bodies, rendered harmless. I like this idea that God can take anything in and make it clean.

And vultures do fly higher than other birds—tens of thousands of feet in the air! I love the idea of a slowly waiting God who is soaring and ever-patient. Have you ever watched vultures soar? It makes me cry to see it. It’s really gorgeous.

And I also like the way that talking about this bird imagery in new ways questions some of the symbols we associate with nationalism and patriotism. The symbol of the eagle now is almost hopelessly laden with images of massive power, fierce patriotism, killer instinct. I think it’s time to rethink this.


DAVID: Well, compared with the Eagle-Vulture discussion, the Pigeon-Dove issue is crystal clear. They’re the same, really—all Columbidae. The point you raise in this part of the book is that the dove, as a symbol, has become boring from over-use. You write, “Maybe because it is such a familiar scene or because I’ve seen too many bad illustrations of it, or because the white dove has been overused as a symbol in commercial Christianity.” So, instead, you suggest that readers consider the possibility that dove references in Christianity might apply to pigeons in general.

DEBBIE: The dove is probably the most familiar bird in Christian symbolism. In each of the four gospels the Spirit appears at Jesus’s baptism as a dove. In the popular imagination, this has always been a snow white dove. But this story changes a lot when you realize that the bird at the baptism was probably more like a rock dove, which we might more commonly call a pigeon.The dove now is totally bland, but what happens when we think of the Holy Spirit as a pigeon? We tend to think of pigeons as dirty; we call them “rats with wings.” I love it that the symbol of the Holy Spirit might be a hair’s breadth away from human trashiness.

Yet, think of pigeons for a moment. They are everywhere! They leave droppings on our sidewalks and our window sills. What if the Holy Spirit is like the pigeon? What if the Spirit is always underfoot to the point that we almost hate the constant presence—always leaving signs of the Spirit’s presence—everywhere!

When we think of the Spirit as something rare and pure as driven snow, then we forget that the Spirit of God is far more complex than that—fuller, messier, everywhere in life. We can get hung up on purity. But, remember, when we say God created all life, everything was teeming and multiplying and swarming. Maybe the Spirit is more creative than pure. Maybe we need to rethink what holy truly is.

DAVID: What I like about this section of your book is the realization that you don’t have to travel all the way to St. Peter’s at the Vatican and pray in front of the snow-white-dove stained glass window there. You might have just as full of an experience of God’s presence on a park bench in New York City, feeding the pigeons.

DEBBIE: That’s my hope. I hope we can experience God everywhere and find that grace everywhere, not just in rarefied settings.

DAVID: If you could talk to readers finishing your book, what would you tell them to do next? How do you hope your book will affect people?

DEBBIE: I hope people will start paying attention to what’s around them everyday—the birds and the bushes and the grace of God around us all the time. Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers …” and, if that is true, I hope we can increase people’s passion for keeping the world as beautiful as it is, now. I hope we’ll see more people working against climate change.

I hope people think about this: Hell would be a place without birds.

And I hope that I can help people to read the Bible in new ways—especially those who just can’t engage with the Bible now. I’m saying: There are layers and layers of meaning you can discover in the Bible. You can turn it—and turn it again—and look at it in new ways. There’s so much here, if we just look!


GET THE MUSIC! Debbie Blue’s House of Mercy also is a haven for musicians. Here is the overall House of Mercy music site. For the release of her new book, Debbie and her friends compiled a musical companion for readers who may be immersing themselves in the creative possibilities of birds for the first time. Visit this CD webpage for Bird Music, which describes the 15 tracks this way: The collection ranges from the old-time country sound of “The Great Speckled Bird” to the folk-pop of “Awake” to the jazzy cover of “Early Bird.” Tucked in-between these diverse styles is the gorgeous a cappella version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that slows down and draws the listener in.

GET THE BOOK! Amazon offers Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible in paperback and Kindle editions.

ENJOY MORE ON READ THE SPIRIT: One of our own popular books is Conversations with My Old Dog, by Rob Pasick. You’ll also enjoy our interview with Marc Bekoff on The Animal Manifesto and Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster on The Friends We Keep. We also highly recommend the Faith Outreach department of the U.S. Humane Society. If you are interested in the spiritual values of farm life, you’ll enjoy our recent interview with Mennonite author Shirley Showalter. And—new this weekFaithGoesPop writer Jane Wells tells us about a record-setting discovery about one amazing kind of bird.

Stormy Weather: Powerless? Nature is the real power

“If this phone line goes dead, that’s because of the storms hitting this part of the country,” our columnist and author Benjamin Pratt said this week as he telephoned the ReadTheSpirit home office in Michigan about the publication of his latest column.

The storms did more than knock out power. In a heart-breaking blow to people along the Boardwalk—high winds whipped fires that destroyed dozens of businesses. (See the news item below.)

This time of year—hurricane season—makes all of us anxious. As founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and publishing house, I am writing this column because I so vividly recall the terrifying first hours of the “Blackout of 2003,” which affected 55 million people. I was a senior writer on the Detroit Free Press staff, at that time, and occasionally was called upon to serve as “Rewrite” for major tragedies. In a traditional newsroom, Rewrite was the staffer who sat by a bank of phone lines and took calls from a cast of dozens of reporters swarming all over a breaking story.

With my background in religion reporting and my generally calm demeanor, the Free Press honchos tapped me for Rewrite a number of times over the years. I was at the hub for a couple of plane crashes, a mass shooting, the explosion of a fireworks factory—you get the idea. The rest of the staff would run as fast as they could to grab individual facts, fanning out to police stations, emergency rooms, neighbors’ homes. On and on, they would race until deadline. And, Rewrite would take their calls, tapping more and more details into the final story with each telephone report.

The Blackout of 2003 now is remembered as a cautionary tale about flaws in our national power grid. One long National Public Radio report on the 10-year anniversary of the massive outage focused on the need for proper tree trimming along power right of ways. I thought: How the terror of that story has faded into mundane maintenance tips!

When the Blackout of 2003 hit, the first reports in our newsroom were: It’s another terrorist attack! As Rewrite, I recall one of the first phone calls came from a breathless reporter who was speeding somewhere in a Free Press car: “Flames have been spotted south of Detroit! I’m heading there now!” Turns out, those flames were just the tall, burn-off vents that always sent flames skyward in one industrial area south of Detroit. Suddenly, in the darkness that was descending all around us—those vent stacks were an ominous sign.

As my fingers tapped on a laptop, I thought to myself: “Wow. This is how panic spreads! In an instant of terror, we can leap to the assumption that we are under attack.”

The truth was: We were under attack from ourselves—our own flawed technology in the national power grid. (You can read all about it in the extremely detailed Wikipedia overview.)

The larger truth is: In stormy weather—when we’re suddenly powerless—we glimpse nature’s real power. Talk about scary!?!

TODAY, our intrepid columnist and author Rodney Curtis has published a new column about this very point—as his family was just caught in a power outage.

ALSO TODAY, our caregiving expert Heather Jose writes about the challenges faced by millions of caregivers nationwide as seasons change. She invites readers to share tips to help caregivers prepare for fall and winter. It’s a great idea—and only takes a moment.

AND … BACK TO THE BLACKOUT: Now, 10 years after the 2003 blackout, as I look at that classic photograph of the Free Press team finishing the front page that day, I think: Is this a nostalgic look back? Or, is this a vision of how we’ll all be covering the next waves of disasters as nature truly unleashes her power?

Am I sounding shrill? I think not. After 40 years in journalism, my skin is as thick as a rhino’s hide. I’m simply reporting here: When we’re powerless, the real terror is that we glimpse nature’s unrestrained power. Want to have this message driven home with hurricane force? Grab a copy of Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl on DVD. In our home, we had to watch Burns’ four-hour documentary over four evenings. It was just too darned shocking to watch more than an hour of that film in one sitting! In the 1930s, bad farming practices in the Texas-Oklahoma region set off dust storms that eventually reached the East Coast and even dropped Great Plains topsoil on ships at sea!

‘it’s weird we cannot make the connection’

Another ReadTheSpirit writer, Eileen Flanagan, regularly reports in national publications about the looming effects of global warming. In early 2014, we will publish Eileen Flanagan’s new book—about urgent ways we need to start connecting our global family. If you’re already laying out the calendar for your small group discussions, now that Labor Day has passed—make a note to look for Eileen’s book. For quite a while, Eileen has been writing about these issues in national magazines. She just had one of her stories—a report on how climate trends are affecting Africa—published as a cover story in Christian Century magazine. The title: Temperature Rising.

If you click over to read that story by Eileen, don’t miss the quote from Pini Chepkoech Kidulah, an activist in northwest Kenya who is trying to raise awareness and responses to the growing crisis. Pini is Christian, as are many people in that part of Kenya, and she reminds all people of faith: “As Christians we need to approach it as a justice issue because we have a history of working for social justice, but it’s weird that we cannot make the connection on ecological justice, climate change justice and the issue of poverty.”


By now, you probably know the Boardwalk story: Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the folks who live and work along the Atlantic coast Boardwalk rebuilt their businesses to capture much of the 2013 tourist season. Then, a fire on Thursday—whipped by storms that hit the East Coast—wound up destroying dozens of businesses along the restored Boardwalk. Associated Press reports, in part:

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — A massive fire spitting fist-sized embers engulfed dozens of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, forcing workers to rip up stretches of walkway only recently replaced in the wake of Superstorm Sandy as they raced to contain the blaze’s advance.  The 6-alarm blaze began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk around 2:30 p.m. and fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series “Jersey Shore” was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.

The CBS station in Philadelphia posted a several-minute video report in the middle of the night, as firefighters controlled the fires and residents, once again, talked about their resilience.

(This column originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)