Sustainable Music


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Festival El Aleph lecture: A Sound Ecology

      Last November I accepted an invitation to offer an internet (virtual) lecture in the academic component of the Festival El Aleph, which ran this month of May between the 19th and the 29th. The Festival, sponsored by the National University of Mexico, is a major ten-day event that includes live presentations, podcasts, along with television, radio, and internet components and that features music, theatre, dance and artistic presentations along with scientific and scholarly lectures and demonstrations. All of this is intended to bring together the frontiers of the arts and sciences. In this year, 2022, the theme was Planetary crisis, with particular emphasis on ecology and environment. Most of the presentations came from Latin American scholars, scientists and artists; it was an honor to be one of only three lecturers from the United States.

     After preparing my 50-minute lecture, a summary for the general public of my sound ecology project, I delivered it in advance to the Festival via Zoom, last March. They recorded my presentation (in English), letting me know that they would prepare Spanish subtitles, and that it would be broadcast over the internet on May 25th. I watched it then along with the others, and to my surprise and delight found that not only had the Festival provided subtitles, they had also found and edited into it numerous still photos and video clips to provide background illustrations for what I was talking about. Instead of the usual "talking head" presentation, this was far more interesting visually. Friends and colleagues who watched it told me that it was, also, the clearest and most inviting presentation of my project that they've yet encountered. (My first presentation, at an earlier stage of the project, was in 2015; the latest written presentation is the last chapter of my book, Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, published by Indiana University Press in 2020.) 

     As of this writing, the Festival still has my "sound ecology" lecture on its website and ready for streaming. All are invited to see it, at this link:

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Settler Ecology and Natural Rights

Whanganui River. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

      This blog entry follows on from my July 31, 2021 blog entry on Environmental Sustainability, Personhood, Legal Rights, and Indigenous Ecological Knowledges. Here I frame the matters under consideration in terms of settler ecology and add some new ideas and information. Elsewhere I’ve written that because natural rights doctrine (the human right to life and liberty) derives from nature, then self-evidently nature possesses these same rights. The counter argument is that human beings are exceptional in having consciousness, agency, language, etc. But this human exceptionalism is under challenge from neurobiologists, behavioral ecologists, and philosophers, not to mention animal rights activists and scientists who study plant intelligence and communication. Take, for instance, the 2012 Cambridge (University) Declaration on Consciousness, in which several prominent scientists declared that “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”
    If, then, more than human living creatures have consciousness, agency, language (gestural as well as sonic), and so on, it would appear that Western ways of thinking must grant them at least a moral right to life and liberty. Do other living beings—not only human beings—similarly have a legal right? What are the advantages and disadvantages to positioning animals (and possibly plants, and indeed entire ecoystems) within the modern, Euro-American legal framework of rights and obligations (duties) that largely derive from the social contract and justice theories that began during the Enlightenment? What is the relationship between such a rights regime for the environment and settler ecology? What possibly more desirable alternatives are available?
    At least since Christopher Stone’s provocative book Should Trees Have Standing (originally published in 1972)--that is, legal standing--nature’s natural rights have been invoked in the US to protect environmental features such as endangered species, landforms, and ecosystems against encroachment from developers. That is an application of ecojustice, and it is represented by a dissenting strain, neither colonialist nor extractivist, within US settler ecological thought: one that runs through Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold to contemporary conservation biologists and environmental activists. Town governments in Pennsylvania, for example, have passed ordinances granting legal rights to certain landforms in order to prevent fracking. They argued that if US law grants legal rights based on “personhood” to corporations, which corporate “persons” may have some kind of collective agency and intentionality, but lack consciousness, then landforms and ecosystems may also be considered persons and be granted similar rights. The latest example of such a lawsuit is occurring in Florida, where plaintiffs have gone to court on behalf of a threatened ecosystem, Lake Mary Jane, in an effort to stop work on a nearby housing development. Needless to say, the fracking corporations quickly sued the Pennsylvania town governments, and the judges in the state courts ruled in their favor. Whether the same fate awaits Lake Mary Jane remains to be seen.
    Rights regime suits have been effective in some instances outside the US, however. Ecuador and New Zealand are cases in point, where ecosystems such as the Whanganui River, and mountains have been granted the right to be respected and largely left alone. In those cases, the claims have been made not exclusively within a Euro-American legal framework of rights and personhood, but rather also by giving weight to Indigenous people’s beliefs concerning the rights and sentience of non-human natural beings, which requires thinking of them not as objects (as Western science does) but as subjects—that is, as living beings with their own forms of subjectivity, agency, consciousness, etc. In Ecuador, rights of nature are enshrined in its Constitution. That is not settler ecology. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Leo Marx, an Appreciation of a Pioneering Eco-Critic


Leo Marx, at Amherst College

      In college I studied American literature with Leo Marx (1919-2022), who died last week, aged 102. He also became my senior year honors thesis advisor. More than any of my other professors, he influenced my choice to go to graduate school. Leo had, in my junior year, published a book, The Machine in the Garden, which gained him a reputation among his peers as one of the foremost literary critics of his generation. The book’s thesis was original: that canonical American authors and painters, particularly in the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, responded both positively and negatively to the growing dominance of industrial technology and the desire for material wealth by creating, through their arts, fictional alternatives, literary or visual portraits of American culture that drew on the pastoral literary tradition in a metaphorical way. Or, in the case of Henry David Thoreau, here was someone who didn't just write pastoral but for two years lived it, at Walden Pond, before returning to civilized life in Concord to write his masterpiece, Walden. American environmentalism may also be viewed through this lens of nature as American pastoral, and as a result Leo is now considered an early eco-critic. I might not have thought about Thoreau and sound had I not read, in Leo’s literature class, about the shrieking, belching train that became a symbol of the industrial transformation of pastoral America, in the “Sounds” chapter of Walden. Leo's mind and his way with literary, social, and political ideas is well illustrated in a video made in the early 2000s (amazingly, when he was near to 90 years old) of a lecture he gave at MIT on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the American Myth, and the invasion of Iraq.
       I graduated from Amherst College in 1965. Leo and I stayed in touch for about twenty years thereafter. In 1972, when I'd just begun teaching at Tufts University, Leo was briefly in the public eye (and on the front page of the New York Times) when he was joined by many others from the College, including its president, John William Ward, to block the entrance at Westover (Massachusetts) Air Force Base, protesting the Vietnam War. Leo, Bill Ward, and hundreds of faculty and students were arrested for doing so. In 1977 Leo left Amherst for MIT, to become a professor in their newly-formed interdisciplinary program in science, technology, and culture. One of my classmates who also knew him at Amherst said that Leo told him he was feeling that the town and College were too far away from the cultural and political mainstream. The move to MIT would bring him closer to where he decided that he wanted to be. He had spent 20 years living in a pastoral New England town, teaching in an idyllic liberal arts college where we, the students, having left our familiar homes, lived in a pastoral retreat ourselves, in a privileged educational and social, rural college community, before we entered the real world (as it then was called). Leo finally left Amherst's pastoral for the city of Boston. In so doing he showed, literally, what he had claimed in his book, that the pastoral worked better as a symbolic field than as a permanent habitation; yet his interest in the idea of American pastoral never departed. He retired in 1990 but continued teaching in the MIT program as a senior lecturer, until stopping at last in 2015 at the age of 94. Whether he felt that he had a better perch there than at Amherst I never knew.   
       Leo had, also, been a pioneering scholar in the field of American Studies. Although he was not among the field's very founders, he was one of the founders' first students; and he soon became their friend and colleague. Their project, undertaken chiefly in the period from the latter part of the New Deal to the Vietnam War, was to examine the supposedly unique character and history of the United States as a democratic society and nation. They often did so by analyzing the cultural and historical meanings of themes like “the American dream,” or the Westward expansion of the frontier, or slavery and emancipation, women’s suffrage, the meaning of free speech, or immigration and the “melting pot.” They examined historical and contemporary responses to facts of importance to the development of American culture—New England Puritanism, for example, or cotton plantations and textile mills—and found in them symbols expressing both affirmation and despair over the past, present and future of the United States. However, the post-Vietnam War generation of American Studies scholars—my generation—did not think that Leo’s generation had gone far enough in exposing the violence and suppression in American history and culture: genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants of the United States; colonialist exploitation and transformation of the continent; continuing, institutionalized racial, ethnic, class, and gender discrimination; an increasingly imperialist foreign policy; and so on. Indeed, Leo’s generation was (wrongly, I think) attacked as believers in and therefore defenders of the American experiment as a whole. They did believe in the possibility of America, but they were critics of American society and well aware that its promise had yet to come close to being realized.  

American pastoral: The Lackawanna Valley (George Innes, c 1855).

      Leo spent some time fighting a rear-guard action on behalf of his generation’s “myth-symbol school” of American Studies, as it had come to be called (after Henry Nash Smith’s 1950 book, Virgin Land, on the American West as myth and symbol). Although he summed up his defense in a 2003 article in the Boston Review, he had also been busy as an eco-critic, following the path he charted in The Machine in the Garden into further studies in literature, technology, and the environment. He found like-minded scholar-activist colleagues in the environmental movement. Today ecomusicologists and environmental humanists recognize him more for his eco-criticism and pioneering work in studying the impact of technology on American culture, than for his participation in the development of the American Studies movement.
       Recently I watched an oral history interview that an Amherst professor and former colleague did with Leo, as part of the Friends of the Amherst College Library series. Leo was then in his early 90s and seemed a little bored on that occasion, but now and again he revealed some things that I hadn’t realized about him. I had known that he taught at the University of Minnesota during the heyday of its American Studies program; in fact, he steered me there for my graduate studies. But I hadn’t known that Minnesota denied him tenure. He did not say why, nor did it seem to trouble him. Fortunately for him, and for Amherst College, he found a home there directly after leaving Minnesota. Leo also spoke about his role as a catalyst in the College’s anti-Vietnam War protests. He said some of the more conservative faculty members thought of him as a troublemaker.

Leo Marx in 1985; photo by Jerome Liebling
       We also had a few other things in common besides Minnesota, I realized, when he spoke in the interview about the transition he had to make when he went from Amherst, a liberal arts college where he taught undergraduates exclusively, to MIT, where he was suddenly responsible for the professional training and future careers of graduate students. I made a similar transition about ten years later, moving from teaching (mainly) undergraduates at Tufts, to directing the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Brown. I don’t know if Leo made the transition easily. I know I didn’t. Leo did speak about the difficulties he had teaching undergraduates at MIT who were already well into their scientific specialties. I didn’t have that problem at Brown; I had a different one. I didn’t like the ways in which the professional concerns of the PhD students in our ethnomusicology program often made it inadvisable for them to follow the paths where their intellectual curiosities were taking them, to explore avenues of learning that were exciting but probably would not have a career payoff. It took me some time to reconcile to that, and to realize more completely my own responsibilities to the students’ careers.
       Although it has continued as an interdisciplinary field, American Studies fragmented in the 1980s and 1990s into a series of subjects: studies in social history, labor history, American minorities, race and gender studies, and so forth, effectively abandoning the idea that there was anything unique or unifying about American culture. In today’s even more polarized America, the belief that there is, or was, such a thing as a process of Americanization that resulted in, or was moving towards, a common culture, appears quaint—or, possibly, the kind of nostalgia that a segment of the population feels for a once-great America, but as Leo and his generation of scholars showed, its myths and symbols revealed it to be much more of a complex mixture of hope and despair, than a land of liberty and justice for all.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Settler Ecology 3: Kyle Powys Whyte's Cultural Ecology

        Kyle Powys Whyte (2018) uses the term "settler ecology" in a somewhat different sense. By "settler ecology" he does not refer to the science of ecology. Rather, he means what geographers call human geography and anthropologists call cultural ecology, in reference to a people's attitudes toward nature as expressed in how they affect and live in the habitat of the place(s) where they reside. For Whyte, settler ecology is expressed in Euro-American colonialist and extractivist land settlement patterns in the New World, their means of obtaining food, clothing, and shelter; their relationships with other and former inhabitants of the places they occupy; and their material culture and built environment as can be seen historically and in traveling today throughout the North American agricultural and industrial landscape. Whyte is interested in the Euro-American settler colonialist human geography that dominated the natural world and transformed it while committing the violence that disrupted and altered the lives of Indigenous peoples who were living on that land when the Euro-Americans arrived in the New World. Invoking cultural ecology in this way, Whyte turns upside down the early 20th century anthropologists' concept of cultural ecology, with its residue of cultural evolutionism from so-called primitive to civilized as shown in adaptations from nomadic hunting, gathering, herding and horticulture to settled agriculture. Instead, Whyte employs cultural ecology to show how maladaptive “civilized” adaptations are to the natural environment and its inhabitants. Whyte's analysis goes further than an environmental history of settler empires (Griffiths and Robin 1997) in that he identifies certain features of a people's onto-epistemology that partially explain their resulting adaptations. To what extent is Whyte's "settler ecology" similar to and different from my usage of the same term, where I anchor the expression of this onto-epistemology in Euro-American ecological science's concept of "ecosystem services?"


Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin, Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Kyle Powys Whyte, "Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Justice." Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9 (2018): 125-144.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Settler Ecology 2

Old apple trees in new snow. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, 2006.

    The concept of natural capital signals the introduction of an ecological, conservationist economics that injects sustainability considerations into productivity, growth and development. This ecological economics differs from mainstream economics, which conceives of natural resources rather differently--as "land" and not as capital. Traditionally, capital is defined as the stock of materials—equipment, buildings, supplies—used to produce goods and services. A defining characteristic of capital is that it is used to produce not only goods and services but also additional capital. Land, in the traditional view, represents the abundant inputs to production that nature provides: these include trees, mineral deposits, water and wind.

     Ecological economists take a different view. Considered as capital, natural resources are, like other forms of capital, limited. They also represent the Earth's life support systems. These limitations, as well as the consequences of their use (and abuse), must therefore be factored into cost/benefit analyses. Peter Neill, director of the World Ocean Observatory, defines natural capital as “the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources—energy, plants, animals, air, wind, water, soils, and minerals that must be included in any benefit analysis of production, its actual cost, and its real consequence for human benefit worldwide, all now mostly overlooked and left out of the equation” (1). 

     Mainstream (i.e., neo-classical) economists do consider natural resources in the costs of production, but not as a brake upon productivity and growth. “It appears that our ability to conserve these resources is growing more rapidly [due to technological advances] than their supplies are dwindling,” writes the Harvard professor who authored the most widely used introductory economics textbook in the US (2). Given this perspective, it is unsurprising that mainstream economists continue to look for technological solutions to problems such as global warming, habitat destruction, and species extinction. Ecological economists, on the other hand, claim that these problems can be better understood and addressed when natural resources are considered natural capital and factored into cost/benefit equations. In this way ecological economics represents an advance over mainstream economics. 

     And yet the concept of natural capital remains an expression of settler ecology. 


(1) Neill, Peter. 2021. “The Ocean as Natural Capital.” Working Waterfront 35 (2): 17.

(2) Mankiw, N. Gregory. 2012. Principles of Economics. 6th edition. Mason, Ohio: South Western Cengage Learning.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Settler Ecology 1

Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, 1942, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

     What is the relationship between settler colonialism and settler ecology? At first glance it might be thought that because ecology is the study of nature as a whole, ecologists would not be in the business of exploiting nature for the purpose of empire. But Indigenous scholars--Vine DeLoria and others who have followed in his footsteps--have indicted Western science for its role in aiding and abetting colonialism and empire. More: Kyle Powys Whyte explicitly identifies settler colonialism as an expression of settler ecology. What is the basis for this claim? It will require a few entries to explore this theme. Moreover, is ecology uniform? Or are there many ecologies, and even within ecological science, are there different, even opposing, schools of thought? Is there an ecology that is opposed to settler colonialism?

     In its most literal sense, settler ecology refers to the Euro-American science of ecology. Ecology has been defined from the outset as the scientific study of the relations among organisms and the environment (originally, the inorganic and organic environment; in more modern terminology the biotic and abiotic environment). Connotatively, however, because the adjective settler implies a people who settle and colonize a geographical place, it implies a colonial and extractive attitude toward the land and its inhabitants. In this sense it resonates with a dominant strain within contemporary ecosystem ecology that finds its characteristic expression in “ecosystem services” (nature's contribution to people). Nature, conceived as ecosystems, is regarded as resource capital, the stock of goods and services that nature provides for human beings. As the 2018 IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Report for the Americas delineates it, these resources include energy, and the raw physical, chemical and biological materials (including plants and animals) for making food, clothing, medicine, the built environment, industrial and consumer products of all kinds, and so on. Ecologists speak of natural capital, and ecological economists employ complex cost/benefit equations to predict and implement sustainable uses of natural capital that prevent its falling below carrying capacity, or the resource amounts necessary to reproduce and maintain a continuing sufficiency of supply.

     Viewing nature as capital is not the only strain within Euro-American ecological science, however. If we look at the history of ecology from its beginnings in Haeckel's pioneering definitions of oikologie in the 1860s, we find that most scientists have regarded their enterprise as a so-called pure science; that is, as the study of relationships in nature rather than the management of those relationships. That said, ecological scientists have not hesitated to act as outside consultants to industry, government, and other institutions concerned with the environment when asked to do so, something that they in fact encouraged after World War II. Advocacy, on the other hand, has been regarded by the majority as out of bounds for ecological scientists who believe that it compromises the otherwise presumably objective, unbiased and disinterested stance that a scientist must embody if their opinions are to be believed. On the third hand, a minority of ecological scientists have ventured into advocacy and some have ventured directly into management of natural resources. I shall have more to say about that in later posts. For now, suffice to say that Euro-American ecological scientists do not present a united front, and that the "settler" attitude (colonialism, extractivism) toward nature does not apply to the majority who consider themselves students of nature, not managers. Nor does it apply to an "arcadian" strain within ecology, one that can be traced back to Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir in which scientific reductionism is suspect while philosophical holism is prominent. This arcadian strain is sometimes disparaged as "Romantic" and idealistic, and it is (wrongly in my opinion) identified with settler colonialism and empire.

     To some extent the settler connotation aligns Euro-American ecology with the conservation movement’s doctrine of wise use (of resources), a doctrine identified with Gifford Pinchot in the early 20th century who advocated it in connection with forest sustainability by means of selective harvesting and other forms of stewardship. This doctrine can be seen as a precursor of ecosystem services. In the history of the conservation movement, Pinchot’s doctrine of wise use is contrasted with John Muir’s arcadian doctrine of set-asides, which is to say remote land that is left alone as natural wilderness, for the preservation of plant and animal species, to be used by humans only for contemplation and very light recreation such as hiking and canoeing. As we shall see, there were some ecologists who advocated for preservation of remote lands not for aesthetic contemplation or light recreation, but as natural areas to be left alone so that ecologists could study them over time.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Keeping Track of Writing Projects -- end of 2021

Scholar interrupted at his writing, by Gerrit Dou, c. 1635

    It’s been more than a year since I took stock of the research and writing projects I’ve been working on. Which of them has been completed, which are published, which are still in progress, and what are the new ones? On my page I suggest that readers who want to know the answer to the question “What are you working on?” come to this blog to find out. It’s a question that academics often ask of each other when getting together for conversation at conferences. For the past couple of years, though, most conferences have been virtual; and the times when that question could be asked and answered diminished as conferences became far more focused on presenting information in organized sessions, with little time for ordinary conversation.
    Last October, then, I mentioned a few essays that were completed but not yet published, and a few more that remained incomplete.
    1. “Ethical Considerations for Ethnomusicologists in the Midst of Environmental Crisis.” In August, 2020 I’d finished this essay for a book in progress edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond called the Routledge Companion to Ethics in Ethnomusicology, to be published by Routledge. Then on October 23, 2020 I presented a brief portion of the chapter, virtually, at a roundtable at the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology. On September 23, 2021 I received an email from Jonathan Stock saying that the editors were still waiting for a few more authors who agreed to write essays for the book to complete them—more than a year after the deadline—and that those of us who, like me, had finished up could expect to hear from the editors during the weeks ahead if they had any questions or concerns. That was the last I heard. It is not unusual for authors to go a few months beyond deadline in projects such as this one, but to go more than a year beyond it is uncommon. It is also a problem, in the sense that the other authors’ contributions become dated the longer publication is delayed. This is an issue that Aaron Allen and I also faced as editors of our book, Sounds, Musics, Ecologies. We have thirteen contributors, and each of them met the deadline. More on that book later in this post.
    2. “Ethnography in the Study of Congregational Music.” This was a chapter on doing ethnographic fieldwork, with special attention to prospects and problems with ethnography in religious music-cultures. I’d been asked to write it in 2015; completed it in 2016; but no doubt some contributors went well beyond the deadline. I did not see my copyedited chapter until September of 2020. Having waited four years to get to this point, I was given 7 days to attend to any questions from the copyeditor, and make any alterations. This is typical of scholarly book publishing and the way publishers treat contributors to edited books: wait, wait, wait, wait, then hurry up. At any rate, the book (Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives) was published in February, 2021. It has not yet been reviewed in any scholarly journals, to my knowledge.  
    3. “A Sound Economy.” This essay was an expansion of one of the four topics of my “sound ecology” project. It was written in 2017 as a chapter for a book entitled Transforming Ethnomusicology, edited by Beverley Diamond and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco. The book contains essays based on many of the presentations from the 2015 “Transforming Ethnomusicology” conference in Limerick, Ireland, including mine. Oxford University Press published this book at last in two volumes, in March of 2021. It has not yet been reviewed in any scholarly journals, to my knowledge. If ethnomusicology was being transformed in 2015 to a more politically engaged scholarship, signaled by this conference, it was even more radically transformed and re-oriented in 2019-2020 by a series of anti-colonialist, anti-racist upheavals in the membership of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
    4. “An Ecological Approach to Folklife Studies, Expressive Culture, and Environment.” This article was published in September, 2021 by the University of Illinois Press in Performing Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Ecological Change, edited by John McDowell, Katherine Borland, Rebecca Dirksen, and Sue Touhy.
    5. “Earth Song: Music and the Environment.” This short essay, written for an Alexander Street Press curriculum accompanying albums featuring music and environment, was completed in 2019 and remains in production at the Press, as far as I know.
    6. A “response” chapter based on my presentation for an online conference at Dartmouth College, entitled “The Power of Song: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe,” which took place in December, 2020. This was changed by the book’s editor to an introductory essay for a section of the book on musical icons. I finished up the chapter last spring and revised it a little in response to the book editor’s suggestions. As far as I know, the book manuscript is now with the publisher.
    7. “Eco-trope or Eco-tripe? Music Ecology Today.” I completed this chapter earlier this year. It’s for the book edited by Aaron Allen and myself, Sounds, Ecologies, Musics, under contract with Oxford University Press. We have all the revised chapters from our contributors and, after receiving various other things from them such as cleared permissions, illustrations, contracts, and so forth, we are about to send the entire manuscript to Oxford University Press for their  external review process.

    All of those writings were either in progress or completed and waiting for publication at the end of October, 2020. Three were published; the four remaining are completed and awaiting publication. Since October 2020 I’ve also taken on some new projects, some lecturing, and some writing:
    8. “Public Folklore, Heritage, and Environmental Sustainability” was a lecture that I gave for the American Folklore Society on March 10, 2021 at the invitation of the Society Fellows. It was part of a webinar with a follow-up “salon” that I led, with the welcome assistance of Rory Turner and Mary Hufford. About six weeks ago the Society Fellows asked me to turn it into an article for a special issue of the Journal of American Folklore, and I agreed. In my lecture I spoke about experiential knowledge mediated by cultural tradition, and how this can become folklife, or cultural heritage. I went on to discuss the difficulty of accounting for the kind of cultural heritage that rests in local, experiential knowledge about the environment, in the various policy documents that guide international planning for wise and sustainable uses of environmental resources, such as the 2005 UN Millennium Assessment Report on Ecosystems and Human Well-being and its more recent manifestation in the 2018 UN Regional Assessment for the Americas report from the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES for short. I asked what are the consequences of thinking of folklife and the environment as natural capital, providing ecosystem services that include cultural heritage, whose financial worth must be measured? Should public folklorists and other heritage practitioners endorse and work within this predominant contemporary policy paradigm, one that considers the environment to consist primarily of economic assets, with measurable market values that enter into cost-benefit analyses during resource allocation planning and decision-making? Or, to reprise an old theme in this blog, do we have built into the assumptions and mechanisms of these assessments a confusion of economic value with cultural values?
    9. “The Place of Music in the Social World: Whose Music? Whose Social World?” This was a public lecture I was invited to give on September 29 to a group of ethnomusicologists in Europe, for a lecture series on ethnomusicology that was based in Geneva, Switzerland. Although I would have loved to travel to Geneva on their invitation, the August return of COVID-19 in the form of the delta variant made this impossible and so I delivered the lecture virtually. I spoke about my sound ecology project and my proposal to consider the place of sound in the social world of all living beings.
    10. “Adaptations: Confronting Climate Change Amidst COVID-19.” The City University of New York held a week-long conference early in October 2021, on “Responses to Music in Climate Change.” I was asked to give a brief presentation on a roundtable with other scholars in ecomusicology: Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn, and Holly Watkins among them. I spoke for about ten minutes about the effects of COVID-19 and the perceptions of climate change among two marginalized religious groups that I’ve visited in and written about for many decades, the independent Baptist congregation in Virginia’s northern Blue Ridge, and the Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky. I was the only panelist whose presentation was based on ethnographic fieldwork, and yet most of it was fieldwork conducted by telephone on account of COVID-19 and the inadvisability of travel. I already knew about the Blue Ridge group’s ideas concerning climate change, because when I last visited them, in 2016, the subject arose and we discussed it. In essence this group of evangelical fundamentalists agrees that the climate emergency is real and that human beings are the cause of global warming, but they don’t believe that God will let His people or the Earth perish. I wrote about this in the Afterword to the 2nd edition of Powerhouse for God, published in 2018. But to prepare for the presentation I had to find out about how COVID-19 was affecting both groups, and how the Old Regular Baptists I knew were responding to climate change, via phone calls. Being there in person would have been much better, but even so I felt that because I’d known the people I spoke with for many years, that telephone fieldwork in this case was an acceptable option. Still, I wished for in-person visits and look forward to seeing them again when it becomes possible.
    11. A panel discussion in Music4ClimateJustice stream to accompany the COP-26 conference on the climate emergency, in Glasgow, Scotland, early in November, 2021. Warren Senders asked me and two other ecomusicologists, Jennifer Post and Mike Silvers, to talk about our work in ecomusicology and climate change for about an hour as part of an AV stream broadcast to the delegates at COP-26. I chose to talk about sonication, or bumblebee pollination of flowers in the nightshade family, such as those of tomatoes, and blueberries; and the damage that global warming is doing to bumblebees. For those who don’t know, these flowers hold their pollen inside their closed-up anthers, making it inaccessible except to pollinators like bumblebees who can pry them apart. In this case the bumblebee vibrates its wings and body, making its characteristic buzzing sound; and this buzz pollination vibration opens up the anther when the bee lies atop it, whereupon the bee is able to bathe itself in the pollen.
    12. “The Sound Commons and Applied Ecomusicologies.” This is an article co-authored by Aaron Allen, Taylor Leapaldt, Mark Pedelty, and myself, for a book in musicology edited by Chris Dromey and to be published by Routledge. This article has already been in progress for a few years. In it, I start off by explaining my idea of the sound commons and its application to applied ecomusicology, at least in theory; then Mark and Taylor discuss one case-study application of the sound commons, and Aaron Allen discusses another. Aaron has been spearheading this joint effort; I’ve just been doing my part when asked. I completed my section of the article in 2019, and the others followed; we revised in 2020 and sent the manuscript to Chris, who returned it with suggested revisions last spring. We responded to those and revised yet again, and the last I heard, Aaron was collating the changes as of last July with the intent of returning the article to Chris once more.
    13. “Ecojustice and Ontological Turns: a Response to Marshall and DeAngeli.” This was part of an E-seminar that the Ecomusicology Review has been conducting in the fall of 2021 within the ecomusicology Google Group. Kimberly Marshall and Emma DeAngeli wrote an essay to which Sebastian Hochmeyer responded, whereupon they wrote a rejoinder. Mark Pedelty followed with a second response. Aaron Allen asked me if I too would respond, and so I wrote a brief response, starting with my reaction to a disagreement between Marshall and DeAngeli on one hand, and Hachmeyer on the other, over the relevance of the so-called ontological turn in anthropology to the project of social justice. Rather than take sides, I proposed that ecojustice would resolve the disagreement by including social justice in the larger framework of relationality and by extending reciprocity and respect to all living beings, not just humans. This is congruent with the writings of Indigenous scholars such as Robin Kimmerer and Zoe Todd in past dozen years or so as well even though they don’t use that term. Aaron intends for all these to be published in the Ecomusicology Review, though I’m not sure when. I expect that Marshall and DeAngeli will reply to Mark and to me before it all sees the light of publication.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Doing DERT at the American Folklore Society Conference


Apple orchard atop Tanner's Ridge, Page Co., VA. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, 1979.

     Despite COVID-19 academic conferences haven’t let up. Instead, they’ve either gone entirely online or become hybrid, partially online and partially in-person. The American Folklore Society annual conference was hybrid, spanning the week of Oct. 18-25, in person in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and online from wherever the participants happened to be at the time. I was in Maine, part of a roundtable forum with others who were in Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio. John McDowell, folklorist from Indiana University’s Folklore Institute, put it together to showcase publication of a recent book, Performing Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Ecological Change, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press. The book grew out of a conference at Indiana University in the spring of 2017, sponsored by Indiana’s DERT group, the Diverse Environmentalist Research Team, based in the university’s folklore and ethnomusicology department. Although invited, I was unable to participate in the conference because I was scheduled for arthroscopic knee surgery at the same time. Later I was invited to contribute an essay to the book anyway, and to that end I decided to revisit a colloquium talk that I presented to the folklore department at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1984, which I entitled “Toward an Ecological Paradigm for Folklife Studies,” and again in a condensed version before the American Folklore Society, in 1986. I never tried to publish it; rather, I relied on some of it for a chapter of my book, Powerhouse for God (2018 [1988]), which focused on the folklife of mountain farming in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains from 1850 until the coming of the Shenandoah National Park to the area. The families living on what would become Park land were displaced—that is, kicked out—by the federal government which exercised eminent domain and attempted to resettle the families elsewhere, an experiment that, like others in Appalachia, failed. Nonetheless, the story of the families who lived there, I found, by looking at the household-by-household agricultural census, as well as courthouse records, wills, probate inventories, genealogies, trial transcripts, and local histories, was different from the prevailing narrative of these Appalachian mountaineers as a backward and impoverished population in a “land that time forgot.” In fact, the evidence revealed that these farming families were succeeding in the nineteenth century until around 1900 when a series of disturbances to their mountain agricultural ecosystem reduced them to the poverty in which they were found by government agents and journalists in the 1920s as plans for the Park were developing. Those disturbances included a blight that killed the chestnut trees, robbing the mountain families’ pigs of an important, and cost-free, food source, namely chestnut mast. Overpopulation was another problem, along with the coming of the railroad which enabled corporations from outside the region to buy timber rights and undertake large-scale timber harvesting. This left the land far more vulnerable to flooding and made farming far more difficult. In contemporary ecological terminology we would say that the ecosystem regime had achieved a degree of stability in the second half of the nineteenth century but that this series of disturbances took it to a tipping point in which the regime changed to a different and far less desirable ecosystem, one in which it was no longer possible for mountain families to make a living from farming in this area.
    For the colloquium, the AFS paper, and the book, I was content to leave the story there, trying to underline the point that the Appalachian hillbilly stereotype was contradicted by the evidence; and that rather than settling into poverty this population was reduced to it. But for the DERT essay, after encouragement from John McDowell, I decided to add a section in which I presented and interpreted several performed narratives, spoken by the last generation of mountain farmers, about what it was like to try to make a living after the regime change. And in the DERT presentation for the AFS forum last October, I revisited my ecological approach to folklife in light of these additional narratives, and then related it to what we now think of as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), in this case the knowledge that enabled the mountain farming ecosystem to flourish and provide a living for families who lived there in the nineteenth century. But this ecosystem was unsustainable in the face of the pressures of modernization and development, and vulnerable to environmental disasters such as the chestnut blight.
    I also spoke, at the end of this presentation, about an issue that has concerned me now for many years; namely, the roles of TEK and IEK (Indigenous ecological knowledges) in the discourses surrounding environmental as well as musical and cultural sustainability. But I will leave that for a later blog entry.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Adaptations in Sound and Music: Confronting Climate Change Amid Covid-19

 This has been a pretty busy month. On October 6 I participated on a roundtable at a virtual conference at the City University of New York. The four-day conference brought together musicologists, ethnomusicologists, composers, performers, and some of us who also identify, as I do, as ecomusicologists. The conference subject was "Responses in Music to Climate Change," and our roundtable forum topic was "Adaptations: Confronting Climate Change Amid Covid-19." Presenting on the panel were Aaron Allen (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), Mark Pedelty (University of Minnesota), Alexander Rehding (Harvard University), Denise Von Glahn (Florida State University), Holly Watkins (University of Rochester), and myself (Brown University). My presentation was untitled, and was an extremely brief excerpt from a portion of a 7,000-word article forthcoming in a book edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond, for Routledge, to be titled The Routledge Companion to Ethics and Research in Ethnomusicology. Most of the articles are completed, including mine; but the editors are waiting for a few that remain, whereupon they will all be forwarded to Routledge. I doubt that the volume will appear before 2023. At any rate, here is what I said on the panel, in response to the topic at hand:

          "As I understood it we’re supposed to speak of the effects of COVID-19 and climate change on music, and although I could speak about its devastating effects on my own old-time musical community, where under non-pandemic conditions we play fiddles and banjos sitting knee to knee and feeling each other's presence, instead I plan to do the traditional ethnomusicological thing and speak about some of its effects in two marginalized religious communities that I’ve visited in and written about for many decades. Their perspectives on climate change are somewhat different from mine, and perhaps they also differ from yours. 

            Old Regular Baptists in the coal country of the southern Appalachian mountains are a demonstrative, intimate group of about 10,000 people descended from the Calvinist wing of the Reformation. Their gatherings are best experienced in person. They sing lined-out hymnody in heterophonic unison, often with lyrics from the 18th century and melodies of indeterminate age. They intone their prayers and they sing their sermons. In the last century we collaborated on a music sustainability project. They say that the sound of their singing, praying, and preaching opens a mutually communicative channel of experience among them, and between them and the presence of God. I spoke with Elwood Cornett, their Association head, about the effects of COVID-19 and climate change on their music. Regarding COVID, there is no opposition on religious grounds to masking and social distancing, but there is longstanding mistrust of government and drug companies, so vaccine hesitancy is significant. Some are still going to church meetings while overall attendance is down. All are masked and they're doing the best they can, to refrain from the frequent handshaking and hugging that has characterized their meetings for centuries. Some tried church via Zoom but it failed for lack of presence as well as poor rural internet service. As for climate change, they agree that it’s anthropogenic but point out that they’ve been experiencing environmental violence and ecosystem devastation in the mountains for decades. Mountaintop removals and more frequent flooding are only the latest examples. 

            Things are different for the group of evangelical fundamentalists in Virginia's northern Blue Ridge who were the focus of my ethnography, Powerhouse for God. As a result of COVID they closed church for a couple of months in 2020. They knew Zoom church would be a failure so they did not attempt it. They got the idea to try to hold it outside in the church parking lot as if it were a drive-in movie. The pastor told me he felt like he was preaching mainly to Silverados and F-150s, and he didn’t much like it. None of them did. So after a few more weeks they all went back into church, some wearing masks and some not. Like the Old Regulars, they experience the sound of their singing, praying and preaching as a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit that opens a communication channel among them and between them and the divine presence. Climate change is much on their minds. They believe it is real, and that human beings have caused it; but they don't believe that it will cause the Earth's destruction. The pastor quoted Genesis 8:22 to me: "As long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." But they do see climate change as another sign of the end times, the Second Coming, and the rapture of the Church when, as they say, there'll be much so much shouting and singing in Heaven as to deafen a mere mortal."

Thursday, October 21, 2021

An ecological approach to sound communication in living beings (Lecture, Geneva, Switzerland, September 29, 2021)

Last spring I was invited to lecture in Geneva, Switzerland for a consortium of students and others involved in a joint graduate degree program in ethnomusicology. The topic was up to me, but it should reflect my current research, I was told. I had hoped that by September 29, the target date for the lecture, that the COVID-19 pandemic would have subsided sufficiently to make international travel no longer risky for someone my age but as we now know although the virus had subsided in the US and Europe in the spring and early summer, it returned with the delta variant in the late summer and fall. Travel would be impossible, but luckily it was possible to deliver the lecture remotely over the internet. I spoke for about an hour, highlighting some of the research that went into a chapter I'd written a few years ago that was only recently published, in the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenology of Music Cultures. There followed a question and answer period until our time was up about a half hour afterward. Here is the abstract for the lecture:

La définition de l'ethnomusicologie comme l'étude des gens qui font de la musique continuera à servir les chercheurs qui se concentrent sur les humains qui font de la musique et sur la création musicale en tant que domaine culturel. Cependant, une approche écologique élargit le sujet à l'éco-ethnomusicologie, ou écomusicologie, un domaine qui englobe non seulement les personnes qui font de la musique mais aussi tous les êtres qui font du son. En d'autres termes, la musique n'est qu'un cas particulier de la catégorie plus large qu'est le son. Les éco-ethnomusicologues s'interrogent sur ce que tous les êtres vivants d'une planète elle-même vivante peuvent partager sur le plan sonore et sur ce que ces points communs signifient pour notre avenir collectif.

            En répondant à cette question, je développe une perspective que j'appelle "écologie sonore". Par "son", je fais référence non seulement au phénomène acoustique, mais aussi aux significations anglaises du son comme "sain", comme dans "un esprit sain et un corps sain", et comme bien fondé, comme dans "un argument sain". L'écologie sonore prend comme point de départ la communication sonore multi-espèces, élargissant la discussion à l'écosphère pour prendre en compte les sons géophoniques, biophoniques et anthropophoniques. L'écologie sonore réoriente les idées occidentales contemporaines de l'être humain et de la connaissance, de la contemplation subjective de textes externes (comme les humanistes ont l'habitude de le faire) ou de l'observation d'objets externes (comme les scientifiques le font principalement) vers une ontologie et une épistémologie intersubjectives ancrées dans les connexions sonores.

            Le son, bien sûr, consiste en des vibrations transmises entre entités au moyen d'ondes longitudinales à travers un milieu. Deux ou plusieurs entités, ou êtres, si elles sont ainsi reliées par le son, vibreront ensemble. Il s'agit d'une connexion viscérale, physique, bien que dans certains groupes sociaux, les sons puissent également être compris comme ouvrant et maintenant des connexions rituelles avec des êtres spirituels, incarnés ou non. Le son annonce des présences, tandis que les connexions sonores établissent une coprésence qui constitue la base d'une épistémologie des relations intersubjectives, avec l'important corollaire éthique que les êtres ainsi reliés sont interdépendants et donc responsables du bien-être de l'autre. Cette reconnaissance de l'interdépendance et de la responsabilité mutuelle peut nous éloigner des économies et des communautés basées sur des relations sujet-objet, telles que celles qui sont principalement légales et contractuelles, et nous conduire vers des relations sujet-sujet qui sont personnelles et présentes.

            Il ne serait pas sage de laisser l'étude des mondes sonores plus qu'humains aux seuls biologistes, écologistes, philosophes et anthropologues culturels. Je suggère plutôt que nous, éco-ethnomusicologues, nous engagions nous aussi dans cette recherche, en poursuivant nos propres méthodologies et conclusions lorsque cela est conseillé et en collaborant avec des chercheurs d'autres disciplines lorsque cela est possible. Les idées phénoménologiques de perception sociale directe et d'empathie par perception directe, associées à des conceptions de l'incarnation et de l'Umwelt, des affordances et des compréhensions écologiques, sont en accord avec d'importants courants de recherche neuroscientifique sur les cultures expressives des oiseaux, des chimpanzés et, semble-t-il, des humains. Ces approches s'écartent du modèle behavioriste de la biologie évolutive d'une manière qui est cohérente avec les récentes découvertes biologiques concernant le génome, la codépendance du génome avec la culture et la coévolution des gènes et de la culture. Tout cela offre de nouvelles pistes de recherche importantes.

Thursday, September 30, 2021


     Reading about world hunger and possible solutions I came upon agroecology, something I want to learn more about because it has implications for sustainability. According to a recent article in Scientific American, agroecology is "a science, a practice and a social movement. Agroecology applies ecology and social science to the creation and management of sustainable food systems and involves 10 or more interconnected principles, ranging from the maintenance of soil health and biodiversity to the increase of gender and intergenerational equity. More than eight million farmer groups around the world are experimenting with it and finding that compared with conventional agriculture, agroecology is able to sequester more carbon in the soil, use water more frugally, reduce dependence on external inputs by recycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and promote, rather than ravage, biodiversity in the soil and on farms. And on every continent, research shows that farmers who adopt agroecology have greater food security, higher incomes, better health and lower levels of indebtedness."

Monday, August 30, 2021

Pete and Mike Seeger

Pete Seeger, 1984. Wikimedia Commons

Some time ago I was writing a piece for a conference and, as often happens, some passages fell out of the final presentation that I thought were worth hanging onto for another occasion. That occasion hasn't yet arrived, but certain recent events made me think of Pete Seeger as a cultural icon for the Left. He was a spokesperson for environmental sustainability, and early on he saw how environmental harm was the inevitable by-product of the military-industrial complex and the economic systems of both the Free World and the Communist bloc. He understood the irony in the claim that technology would revolutionize food production and raise living standards in third- and fourth-world counties, when in fact it would be utilizing higher and higher amounts of fossil fuels that would increasingly pollute the environment while heating the planet and changing the climate. It occurred to me that this could be a good place to lodge those passages about the character of Pete Seeger, until another occasion presented itself; and so here they are, with slight changes to adapt themselves to this different context.

The iconic image I have of Pete Seeger is of a tall, lean man in a blue-collar workshirt. With this workshirt he signaled his identification with the Depression-era, progressive myth of an industrial proletariat. I’d gone to one his concerts when I was ten years old and was thrilled to learn to sing along with him and everyone else. He wrote a regular column in the 1950s and 1960s for the folksong magazine, Sing Out, which column he called Johnny Appleseed, Jr. after the “natural man” John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed. The apple, of course, is the iconic American fruit; what is more American than apple pie? John Chapman traveled throughout the United States in the 1800s, planting and giving away apple tree seedlings; Seeger borrowed the Appleseed myth as he traveled and planted seeds of peace and brotherhood. In so doing he sought authentication in yet another cultural myth, the wandering medieval minstrels and actors who told the truth in song and story because they weren’t bound to the soil or to the court or any official culture.

Seeger became authenticated as an icon for the folk music revival and the progressive movement throughout the second half of the 20th century, advocating for workers' rights, Civil Rights and for world peace. I became acquainted with him in 1981 when for three days we served on a panel together for the National Endowment for the Arts. Seeger also channeled his considerable efforts into the environmental movement. Seeger symbolizes the authority of an alternative narrative fueled by music, a site of resistance to state hegemony. His was a narrative that blended political and cultural democracy. His narrative of brotherhood and sisterhood ultimately extended to include plants, animals, landforms, and geological forces—that is, the entire world of nature.

Nature and nurture among the Seegers produced a family of educators, artists and writers intent on doing good rather than making money. His father, the polymath musicologist Charles Seeger, was a principled scholar-activist. Pete, influenced by Alan Lomax’s commitment to cultural democracy and by Woody Guthrie’s life as a singer-songwriter, found that he could advance his progressive ideals by using his great gift for music and song-leading to enact, by means of his concerts, the feelings of brotherly and sisterly love and solidarity required for the social democracy he envisioned. Of course, his political activism involved more than just music performance.

Yet, interestingly, his brother Mike, an equally accomplished musician, did not use his musical gifts for political activism and social democracy. I knew Mike as a fellow old-time musician, having first met and played music with him in 1967; but he was modest and known to only a relatively small segment of the folk music revival. I found Mike dedicated and driven, like his brother; but Mike’s dedication was to working behind the scenes to help perpetuate acoustic old-time string band music. He worked tirelessly to aid and promote the elder source musicians who had kept it alive in the face of all the 20th century pressures to modernize and commercialize it. As Mike once quipped, by playing old-time music one could earn tens of dollars.

         While Mike Seeger’s story fed the pre-modern cultural myths of small, face-to-face communities and appropriate technologies for a few thousand of us old-time music aficionados, Pete Seeger became a household name. He not only perpetuated but also helped to promote and delineate, many more cultural narratives: those of the poet-hero of the working classes; of self-reliant antimodernism; of the value of an unpolluted natural environment, and of the cultural myth of universal brotherhood, peace, and justice.





Saturday, July 31, 2021

Environmental Sustainability, Personhood, Legal Rights, and Indigenous Ecological Knowledges

Upper Yarra River, Australia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

      In the Yoder Lecture, which I delivered on October 15, 2017 to the American Folklore Society as "Ecojustice, Folklife and a Sound Ecology," I said that “In extending the idea of ecojustice to the Earth and all its beings, the ecojustice movement would in my view do well to consider these beings—including plants, nonhuman animals, landforms, and so forth—as persons, with the justice and rights that persons deserve. Needless to say, this is not how we in the modern, Euro-American world usually think of justice. We extend only limited rights to beings outside the human world, as for example in our laws against excessive cruelty to the higher animals.” After the lecture, one of the two discussants pointed out that there was, also, a downside in considering these beings persons; namely, that in bringing them into the legal system it would also risk subjecting them to adverse judgments, to obligations that accompany rights, and to other encumbrances of the law, which seemed unwise. I’d spoken about traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledges of nature in that lecture, but did not have the time to speak a rejoinder and say that for many Indigenous peoples, nonhuman beings are like persons, in some ways are kin, and do have standing. In the meantime, I’ve thought more about this issue, but only recently learned that it has been pursued in the courts and legislature in Australia, in response to Aboriginal peoples’ activism. Indeed, it was in 2017 that the Yarra River Protection Act was passed in Parliament, which recognizes the river as a living entity. The Yarra River runs some 150 miles through the Yarra Valley and into Melbourne before flowing into Hobson’s Bay. For the Australian settlers, this recognition fits within the scientific portrait of the river as an integrated ecosystem. But for the aboriginal Wurundjeri the river means something more than that, which also is carried in the concept of personhood: the river with its fish, and its birds, and its land corridor, is a relative, their kin, a sacred, life-giving ancestor. Personhood, in this sense, carries with it a good deal more than mere legal standing and the right to protection.  

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Assisted Colonization?

Colonizing ground next to a sidewalk. Wikimedia Commons.

   It’s well known that the climate emergency is threatening the continued existence of numerous species, especially those in places subject to extreme habitat change or loss, such as on the Pacific island of Palau, where the combination of sea level rise with hotter temperatures could make Palau uninhabitable for many species found nowhere else. In response, the conservation community has floated the idea of moving populations of endangered species to other places thought to provide hospitable habitats, to prevent them from extinction. The name for this is “assisted colonization.” The downside of assisted colonization is that it is impossible fully to predict the consequences, bad as well as good, of introducing a new species into an ecosystem. Needless to say, the conservation community is not of one mind about this. The introduced species might well survive, but it might also become invasive and crowd out other species in the habitat, as happened when lake trout were introduced in streams to benefit recreational fishing, but it turned out that it was at the expense of other species of trout whose populations became endangered. Besides, the original intention of conservation ecology (aka conservation biology) was restoration of ecosystems to an earlier, healthier condition; assisted colonization would be a very new kind of goal that would, presumably, divert energy from conservation as originally conceived. Against this it is argued that humans have, intentionally as well as unintentionally by way of travel and exploration, introduced new species to ecosystems; assisted colonization would be just a more carefully considered way of doing what has been done for tens of thousands of years anyway, but this time explicitly for the benefit of the endangered species and for continued biodiversity.
    In 2006 I lectured to folklorists and ethnomusicologists about the advantages of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability. This idea of sustainability caught a tailwind and now, fifteen years later, the research into cultural sustainability is widespread, though more often from the standpoint of economics than ecology. Yet the contemporary debate over assisted colonization is worth considering in this light. Could endangered music cultures, for example, be assisted in moving to new geographical locations? In case this strikes you as a solution waiting for a problem, consider Old Regular Baptist singing, the oldest religious music in continuous oral tradition in the United States and identified as a national treasure. Old Regular Baptists’ “habitat” is in the upper South, in central Appalachia, where for the past hundred years most made their living from coal mining. But now mining is no longer viable and the music culture, which for generations fended off threats from other religious musical traditions, such as gospel singing, faces a different kind of threat: economic rather than cultural. They need to find another way to make a living and if they cannot in that place they will have to move. Where? Should applied ethnomusicologists direct them as a group to move en masse to a new location where they can prosper and maintain their religious communities and music? Certainly not; the idea is preposterous. The analogy between environmental and cultural intervention appears to break down at this point. Besides, the words "colonial" and "colonization" have a bad odor about them these days. And yet, it appears that some Old Regular Baptists are migrating on their own anyway, and have been doing so for decades, following the paths of Appalachian out-migration to southern Ohio, for example, and more recently into Florida, where they prefer to establish new communities of Old Regular Baptist families, and then later out-migrants feel attracted to move into these new communities, smaller of course than those in central Appalachia, and build some churches for themselves.
    Perhaps, then, applied ethnomusicologists could partner with community scholars to study these patterns of out-migration and community establishment, and see which ones have more success than others, and try to learn why. For example, a few churches were erected for Old Regular Baptists in Washington State in the last century, but these appear to have become extinct, so to speak, while the ones in Ohio have managed to maintain themselves. Possibly there is a role for applied ethnomusicologists here after all, acting more or less as consultants who would share the results of their studies with those considering out-migration as well as with those who have already out-migrated, with a view to strengthening their new communities by developing resilience. In this small way, assisted colonization might be something that ethnomusicologists and folklife specialists could do.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Sustainability and the Indigenous Americans

     The revelation that at least 215 students had died at the Kamloops (B.C.) Indian Residential School, in the news because of the discovery of unidentified children’s bones below the soil on the campus of this institution no longer in use, made me ask how widespread were these boarding schools for Native Americans in the US, and whether conditions in them were as bad here as in Canada. The answer is that there were hundreds in the US and that thousands, likely tens of thousands, of children died, whether by abuse or neglect, suicide or diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, influenza (the 1918-1919 flu took many of them), and others. 

I thought then of Thoreau who, almost alone in the 19th century when the schools were coming into existence (purportedly to “civilize” [i.e., Christianize] the Native American children, while extracting their language and culture), felt that there was much of value, and much to be learned, from American Indian languages and these cultures. He was intensely curious about how they had lived. “Some have spoken [so] slightingly of the Indians,” he wrote, “that they hardly deserved to be remembered”; but Thoreau wrote two thousand, eight hundred pages in his “Indian Notebooks” filled with his personal observations as well as quotations from historians and travelers. 

Thoreau found the “indigenous man [sic] of America” inexhaustibly interesting. Because, he wrote, they “inhabited these shores before us, we wish to know particularly what manner of men they were, how they lived here, their relation to nature, their arts and their customs, their fancies and their superstitions. They paddled over these waters, they wandered in these woods; and they had their fancies and beliefs connected with the sea and the forest…” Thoreau insightfully links indigenous ways of being and knowing with “place” (“these waters… these woods”). 

Joseph Polis
Among his notes he took pains to jot down words in the Penobscot language from his Indigenous guide in the Maine woods, Joseph Polis. Polis, who lived in Bangor, was fluent in both Penobscot and English. Aged 14 he had learned to write in English from a schoolmaster who taught on Indian Island (near Old Town). He also wrote in Penobscot; according to the research of historian Pauleena MacDougall, former director of the Maine Folklife Center, there are at least three extant letters from Polis in the Penobscot language; and besides providing words and translations for Thoreau, he wrote down a list of words for a priest named Vetromille in 1854.[1] Thoreau believed in the importance of words not merely as signs of natural facts, but as a medium between the natural fact and the truth that lay within it. In an Appendix to his book The Maine Woods were included several pages of Penobscot words and their translations, some with his own comments appended. While it would be a stretch to call him an anthropological linguist, there is a path from his ideas about words, natural facts, and the beliefs they signify to the ideas of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), and a kinship in the cultural relativism common to their approaches to language, thought, and reality. 

[1] Pauleena MacDougall, "Some Observations on the Penobscot Writing of Joseph Polis (1809-1884)," paper delivered to the 32nd Algonquian Conference, Montreal, Canada, Oct. 27-29, 2000. Accessible via the Digital Commons at the University of Maine, Papers on the Penobscot Language.