Sustainable Music


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conservation, environmentalism, ecology

    A review of a new biography of Rachel Carson, one of the pioneers of modern environmentalism, affords an opportunity to compare and contrast three keywords in my work on music and sustainability—all of which are very much involved in contemporary sustainability discourse here and elsewhere. Those keywords are conservation, environmentalism, and ecology.
    Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), with its warnings about agricultural pesticides' effects on bird and other animal life, ushered in the modern era of environmentalism in North America. Carson wrote it while living on a remote island in Maine where she witnessed DDT's impact on bald eagles. Tim Flannery, who reviewed the biography in the New York Review of Books for November 22, 2012, writes that the biography's author, William Souder, argues that Silent Spring “‘marks the birth of the "bitterly divisive" concept of environmentalistm. Before it, environmental politics was characterized, he says, by the ‘gentle, optimistic proposition called “conservation,” which concerns the wise use of resources and has broad appeal across the political spectrum. Environmentalism, in contrast, can be politically polarizing because it involves a clash with vested interests'” (1). Of course, Carson was not the first environmentalist; Thoreau was one in the 19th century, and arguably so was the Englishman Gilbert White in the 18th. One might even make a case for John Bartram, a botanist (in the American Colonies) who lived a generation before White.
    But although we can point to earlier 20th-century North American, science-grounded environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold, Carson was the first to change public consciousness. Indeed, Carson’s work was polarizing: while President Kennedy and the general public took her side, the chemical companies who manufactured pesticides tried to discredit Carson, influence the public debate her book ushered in, and lobby Congress to prevent the eventual ban on DDT. Carson prevailed. Since then, of course, many global corporations have done their best to fight environmentalists in similar ways, adding greenwashing and large campaign contributions to their arsenal.
    At issue here is the distinction between conservation and environmentalism. Among early conservationists in the US, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and again in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the guiding principle was so-called wise use, which included public recreation and managed extraction of natural resources; the National Parks are examples. But even in the early period, and especially during the CCC era, more radical voices argued for setting wilderness areas aside: not wise use, but either light use or no use at all. The keyword "conservation" still implies a compromise between strict environmentalists who would severely limit or prohibit use, and “wise use” conservationists. In contemporary sustainability discourse, the wise use faction is represented by those who advocate “sustainable development” which, to use the words Flannery quotes from Souder, is a “gentle, optimistic proposition” and one under which certain developers and environmentalists find common ground.
    Besides wise use, conservation also bears another cross as a movement supported by the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The National Parks (Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain) that were built in the southern Appalachians, for example, were established by eminent domain; that is, the federal government dispossessed the inhabitants (chiefly subsistence farmers) against their will and resettled them elsewhere “for the good of the Nation.” Such dispossession by the law of eminent domain is not exactly a new thing in the US, and there is a shameful history behind it (consider, for example, the treatment of Native Americans).
Local forest path Creative Commons License
     And if one looks around today at the various conservation heritage trusts, the ones that receive charitable contributions from the wealthy to buy up land and turn it into preserves for nature trails, ocean access, farmland preservation, and the like, the question arises as to who uses these preserves. In my part of the US, as in many others, they're for those with money, leisure and an aesthetic interest in nature--in short, for environmentalists. The heritage trusts do not set aside land for trailer parks and RV campgrounds or for ATV and snowmobile use. Local naturalists in my part of Maine host a series of “walks and talks” through these forest and coastal preserves during the warmer months, for tourists and interested residents; subjects include local bird and animal life, geological formations, and other aspects of natural history. These rural preserves do not host visits from inner city residents who are below the poverty line; not only do the urban poor have no means of getting to them, but nature walks aren't high on their list of priorities.
    When conservation was first coupled with the word “cultural” beginning in the 1970s, the historic preservation model was applied to culture. Managed and wise use was the watchword, as federal and state agencies, historical societies, and NGOs got into the act. Cultural conservationists tried to manage cultural flow so that traditional expressive culture was not crowded out by what were felt to be the fads and fashions of modern, media-driven, popular culture. (I’ve written recently that those of us involved in cultural conservation and cultural sustainability need to be aware not only of cultural threats but also economic and environmental ones; I needn’t repeat that here.) Yet there was, in the early decades of cultural conservation, a kind of top-down, wise-use mentality in operation, one which has gradually and unevenly been giving way to cultural partnerships, participatory action research, and bottom-up management.
    As a keyword, environmentalism is usually distinguished from ecology in that the former is a political movement while the latter is a science. The distinction can be made clearer by saying that the science of ecology, like all science, aims to be objective and apolitical, or politically neutral; whereas environmentalism advocates in the political arena with its agenda to protect and preserve the natural environment. In this sense, it is plain that the conservation land trusts, with an ideology of environmentalism, ought to prohibit snowmobiles and ATVs from their nature trails if these tear up the land and bother the nearby animal inhabitants (human and otherwise) with their noise and fill the air with their carbon exhaust. Sometimes, of course, in popular discourse the word "ecology" is used when "environmentalism" is meant; people sometimes refer to “the ecology movement” as if they were referring to the environmental movement and at other times use the two words interchangeably. Indeed, even the word "ecosystem" is becoming common in public parlance.
    Yet in some instances this distinction between ecology and environmentalism is hard to maintain. For example, the science known as conservation biology (sometimes called conservation ecology) can be regarded as an applied ecology: environmentalism based on ecological principles.
    Just which ecological paradigm should rule, though, is a crucial question. Returning to the new book about Carson, Flannery reveals his own ecology-informed environmentalism. Concluding, he writes, “After recently rereading Silent Spring, I discussed Carson with an Indian friend, who put a question to me: ‘What is more orderly, a jungle or a garden?’ After a moment’s thought the answer became obvious. Of course it is the jungle, where the invisible laws of ecology dictate the relative abundance of plants and animals, and where they occur. The very shape and position of every leaf abides by those eternal rules” (p. 23). When Professor Flannery invokes the “invisible laws” and “eternal rules” of ecology he is thinking of the ecosystem paradigm in which nature in relatively pristine areas such as a jungle achieves a “balance” or equilibrium (the “relative abundance,” “shape and position of every leaf”) that it tends toward elsewhere, except when the balance is upset by human intervention (or as Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot”).
    The only problem with a balance of nature is that most ecologists—that is, the scientific ones—no longer believe in it. Beginning around the same time that cultural conservation arose in the public arena—the 1970s—ecologists began seriously to challenge such concepts as stable ecosystems, climax forests, and the balance of nature, arguing that the evidence indicates the opposite: that left undisturbed by humankind, the natural world does not move inevitably toward balance but is, rather, characterized by frequent perturbation, disturbance, and merely temporary equilibria—indeed, many different equilibrium points, one in which the relative abundance of plants and animals is always changing, as is the shape and position of every leaf.
     It is not accidental that ecologists were abandoning the balance of nature theory at about the same time that scientists were advancing chaos theory, a view of an uncertain universe that aligns with the new ecological paradigm of a natural world consisting not of ecosystems but of “patches” moving, in response to disturbing forces beyond their control, from one state toward another. How conservation biologists and environmentalists, let alone cultural conservationists and sustainability advocates, react today to this changed ecological paradigm depends on their awareness of it and how seriously they take it. Like a number of environmentalists, the reviewer for the New York Review of Books appears unaware of this paradigm shift. But to those who are aware, a concept like “resilience” is one way of responding—and I have blogged about resilience in this space before (please see the entry for July 21, 2011: "Sustainable Music: Resilience"). That is, resilience is the ability to resist or recombine in the face of perturbation or disturbance; management for resilience is one way to think about conservation under the new ecological paradigm.
     But there are other “downers” at work against environmentalism and musical and cultural sustainability. These include some of the obvious, such as the ideology of global corporate capitalism and neoliberalism; but it also includes powerful critiques (from critical theory) of science as privileged truth, and of environmentalists’ concepts of nature. It can even be supposed that environmentalism and sustainability efforts are themselves responses to the changed intellectual climate of the past forty years. In order to understand music and sustainability in its contemporary context, it’s important to view it not simply as a response to the changing natural and sociocultural environments, but also as a response to various currents in contemporary Theory which undermine old ideas of nature and culture. Some of the environmentalist response is, predictably, reactionary; but some of it attempts to think along with critical theory. I will be writing from and about this perspective in the coming months as I try to organize my thoughts on this music and sustainability project.

(1) Tim Flannery, review of William Souder, On a Farther Shore, New York Review of Books, Nov. 22, 2012, p. 21.

Photo "Local Forest Path" by Jeff Todd Titon, East Penobscot Bay, Maine, December 2005. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sam Bayard

     In another context tonight I was reminded of Samuel Preston Bayard, a scholar who did his best to sustain music in one of the oldest ways of doing so: collecting melodies from oral tradition, transcribing them accurately in musical notation, annotating them, comparing them, tracing their origins over time and place, and publishing them. Bayard (1908-1997) wrote the annotations for the hymn-tune collections of George Pullen Jackson, the leading scholar of vernacular North American hymnody in the first half of the 20th century; he identified a number of folk tune families (that is, melodies that were similar to one another and presumably descended from a single ancestor) and named them in these annotations, in his numerous essays, and in his collections of Pennsylvania fiddle tunes (Hill Country Tunes, 1944; and Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife, 1982). Bayard taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1945 to 1973 but continued actively researching and writing about melodies and melodic origins after retirement, and became the most highly respected scholar of English, Scottish, Irish, and North American folk song and instrumental melodies of his era.

     I met Professor Bayard only once, in 1992, after he gave a lecture at Harvard University (about which more below). I was teaching at Brown at the time, having driven from Providence to Cambridge for the occasion of his lecture; and when we were introduced he asked me what I was working on. I told him I'd been visiting with Old Regular Baptists, singing along with them, and was starting to look for the origins of their melodies. He didn't waste any time. "What's your favorite tune among them?" he asked. I thought for a few seconds; I didn't have one--I had many. "Well, maybe it's one they sing for 'Guide me o thou great Jehovah,' I said. "Sing it for me." I did, knowing that there were several tunes that went to the 'Guide me' text, and he needed to know which one I meant. "Oh," he said, "that one. Very nice. That's 'Adieu Dundee.' A Scottish tune. 1600s." I wrote the name down and later looked it up. Sure enough, that was it.

     A few years earlier, I had given the problem of melodic resemblance to our computer scientists at Brown. They had sent out a bulletin looking for interesting problems that computers might solve. I thought I had one, and they did, too. At first they were confident that they could come up with an effective algorithm. Six months had gone by after I gave them some melodies that I thought resembled each other, and yet I had not heard from them. Finally I called the lead scientist. He told me that they had lost interest and were about to give up. Things that are identical are not difficult for a computer to discern, he said; but similarity--family resemblance--is a puzzle that baffles even the smartest computer. It takes a human being to know melodic differences--and similarities. Samuel Bayard had been at it for more than fifty years.

Professor Samuel P. Bayard
There weren't many music scholars researching in Professor Bayard's specific area, but every historian of American music knew what he had been up to and how much it would mean to know the origins, histories, pathways and resemblances over time and place of all those folk melodies. The lecture announcement promised that at last he would let us in on his final conclusions about the tune families. Many of the southern New England environs music scholars--professionals and amateurs--were inside that packed lecture hall waiting for him to to pass along his holy grail, or at least give us a glimpse of it. Were there really only three tune families, or were there seven major families, or was it eleven, as he had claimed at various times? How did Bayard judge similarities and on what basis did he assign melodies to particular families? No one had ever before accumulated such insight into the origins and development of folksong melodies. This was an esoteric subject, to be sure, yet to those interested in the field it was an essential area but one that few had dared explore in such great depth over so long a period. Now in his mid-80s, and long retired from teaching, the great man at last ascended the steps to the stage of the lecture hall, with the help of a cane. After initial applause that must have lasted for twenty seconds, the hall grew very quiet. And then instead of doing what we expected--that is, leading us through musical notations and detailed analysis and comparison--he sang the tune families. All of them, so we could hear them.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Does mountaintop removal cause earthquakes?

   Three days ago at 12:08 p.m. an earthquake centered in the town of Blackey that measured 4.3 on the Richter Scale “rattled southeastern Kentucky” -- this from an AP report published in the Huffington Post on Nov. 10, 2012. The Post reported that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake was a “shallow” one, at a depth of only seven-tenths of a mile, or 3700 feet below the surface. Blackey, in Letcher County, may have gotten its name from nearby Black Mountain, or possibly from the blackness of the coal seams in its mountains. The Wikipedia reports that it was named after Blackey Brown, one of its early inhabitants, but the locals think the name comes from the coal that has been mined all around for nearly a century, first underground, then with strip mining, and lately by means of mountaintop removal (MTR). With its blasting and earth removal, coal mining obviously disturbs the earth. Could mining have caused this earthquake?

   On hearing that the earthquake was centered in Blackey, I immediately got in touch with Elwood and Kathy Cornett, friends of mine who live only a couple of miles from the center of Blackey, to see if they were all right. Elwood told me that they had survived just fine, and that it didn’t seem like their house had any damage, even though the exact center of the quake was one mile from their home. Theirs is a home that I have visited many times. I have been “kept overnight” there, as they say. And Elwood and Kathy have visited me twice where I live in Maine. Elwood is the elected moderator, or head, of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists. I first got to know Elwood and Kathy (his wife) when visiting with the Old Regulars every weekend in 1990 when teaching as a visiting professor of Appalachian studies, at Berea College in Kentucky. Since then I’ve been back to visit many times and collaborated with them on several projects to help them sustain their music, some of which I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog.

   Ironically, on October 25 at a conference in New Orleans I presented a paper whose main point was that when we think about helping communities to sustain their traditional arts, we need to bear in mind economic and environmental threats as well as cultural ones. In that presentation I mentioned the threat presented by MTR, which levels the mountaintops, extracts the coal, and dumps the toxic waste into the stream beds and hollows below, where it poisons the water and sickens the people. Not only does MTR endanger the people but it engineers an ecological catastrophe in the natural world of the Appalachian mountains. If anyone had asked me how those catastrophic threats to the nature of Appalachia were made manifest, the first thing I’d have mentioned was flooding resulting from deforestation. If they had asked further, I would have talked about ecosystem disturbance and the extinction of species. I did not have earthquakes in mind then. I do now.

   Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, my blog entry from one week ago was all about this--how cultural sustainability must take into account economic and environmental threats. Take a look, if you will. I would like to think that four days later it was as if the earth trembled in response. (I speak metaphorically, of course: “as if.”) In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether the quake was caused by mining, or something else: the quake shows that the Old Regular Baptists, the community that keeps alive the oldest English-language religious singing tradition in the United States, are vulnerable not only to cultural threats but to catastrophic environmental ones.

   But was MTR the cause? I hesitate to bring MTR up again with Elwood and Kathy and the others, but I will do so. Several years ago, when MTR first came into their region,  I had asked them how they felt about MTR. Elwood, who is a very kind, wise and effective leader in his community, understood that as an outsider, a university professor, and someone who acted on his beliefs in cultural equity and in the Environmental Movement, I would have been mightily opposed to MTR—I did not have to tell him so. In fact, just before mentioning MTR I had asked Elwood about the nearby Lilley Cornett Woods, the largest remaining old-growth forest in Kentucky, and whether he was related to the man after whom it was named, a World War I veteran who kept his land intact by refusing to sell the property rights to the timber and mining companies. He was related, distantly--all the Cornetts in the area, after all, are related somehow. Anticipating my opinion, when I finally got around to asking how he and Kathy felt about MTR, he said something like this to me: “You know, you have to bear in mind that our people have depended for their living on coal mining in this area for nearly 100 years.” That told me a lot. But I want to talk with them about it further now.

   The Blackey earthquake was widely reported in the Press, mostly from various AP bulletins. Here is one: the Alpena (Michigan) News reported on Nov. 12 that nearby residents were shaken up: “Blackey Public Library . . . worker Bonnie Asher said she was coming downstairs when she heard a big boom. Asher said the entire building shook and the lights flickered off and on, and at first she thought maybe a plane had crashed nearby. 'It was very scary,’ she said. ‘It knocked about 14 books off one shelf.’” I would like to know which ones they were.

  Was MTR the cause? It is generally accepted that underground coal mining has caused some earthquakes. Common sense would suggest it does cause them, as mining undermines (to speak in a 'dead metaphor') the structural integrity of the earth. What about the earthquake in Blackey? And does MTR have the same effect as underground mining? The Associated Press reported the following on Nov. 12 (this is from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader):

Zhenming Wang
“Geologists say the 4.3 magnitude earthquake that shook eastern Kentucky over the weekend was too deep to be induced by the region's underground mining activity. The epicenter was . . . in the heart of Kentucky's coal country, where underground mining and surface blasting are common. The head of the University of Kentucky's Geologic Hazards Section, though, says Saturday's quake occurred about 12 miles below the surface, far too deep for underground mining to have been a factor. Zhenming Wang says it came near the Eastern Tennessee Seismic Zone. That area receives a 4-magnitude quake every five to 10 years. [Wang] says mining and hydraulic fracturing used by the natural gas industry can possibly be a contributor to earthquakes but not in this case.”

   Twelve miles below the surface? That is what Adjunct Professor of Geology Wang said, but the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the quake was only 0.7 miles below the surface. Who is right? Both conclusions were separately and widely reported but I've seen no report in which they were put in contrast with each other. And how far below the top of the mountains in Letcher County is seven-tenths of a mile? If we ask how high is the highest mountain near Blackey, the highest in the county is Black Mountain, with an elevation of 3,700 feet. Blackey itself is at an elevation of 1,000 feet, five-tenths or half a mile below that peak. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, then, the quake itself must have occurred at sea level.

   The mountaintop removals at Oven Fork, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Blackey, are pictured below. The evidence is circumstantial, to be sure. But common sense tells me that when mountaintops are dynamited and otherwise blasted to smithereens, the earth below is going to be “some disturbed,” as my friends in the state of Maine would say. Look at the picture and ask yourself if it’s related to the earthquake. Talking about music, ethnomusicologist Dave McAllester, then the last living founder of the Society for Ethnomusicology, repeated as a refrain in his last public speech, in 2005, “It’s all connected.” Indeed.
Mountaintop Removal, Oven Fork, KY, 15 miles from Blackey

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2011 I.U. Keynote now on YouTube

As of Oct. 1, 2012, a video of the keynote address that I gave at Indiana University in March, 2011 (please see my blog entry "A Hoosier Mediation," May 20, 2011) was posted in three parts on YouTube by Michael Goecke. I didn't know that a video was being shot of my presentation, but I don't mind its being on YouTube. It can be found and viewed here:
          Part One:
          Part Two:
          Part Three:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cultural Sustainability, Economics and the Environment

   Efforts at musical and cultural sustainability must not fall victim to tunnel vision. Even in those areas where musical loss appears to have been reversed, entire social groups remain at risk. Economic and environmental threats to cultural sustainability may be even more significant than media pressures. Public folklorists and applied ethnomusicologists, concentrating on short-term victories in cultural sustainability, have short memories. Only twenty years ago, folklife specialists understood the interdependence of culture and the environment. Bent on community partnerships for the arts, culture workers today seem to overlook the fact that cultural sustainability faces potentially catastrophic economic and environmental forces. That is the essence of what follows here.

A sea of mown hay  Creative Commons License

Not long ago folklorists were theorizing cultural conservation; today the operative term is cultural sustainability. Both refer to partnerships between culture workers such as public folklorists, applied anthropologists, and applied ethnomusicologists, on the one hand, and communities of people who are rich in  expressive culture, with the goal of preserving, conserving, encouraging, and sustaining both the arts and the communities. These culture workers almost always work both with community artists and community leaders. These include community historians, scholars, arts promoters and political leaders. But whereas cultural conservation emphasizes preservation, cultural sustainability encourages development.
    In the cultural sustainability discourse, culture is used in three ways: one, as the whole way of life of a group of people; two, as a synonym for art; and three, in the phrase “expressive culture,” which refers to art as lived experience.
    Late last month, at the annual American Folklore Society conference, I heard dozens of public folklorists describe their cultural sustainability work. Most of these descriptions fell into a pattern. The folklorists described instances of successful partnerships that helped sustain the community’s traditional arts, usually through the tried and true methods of festivals, parades, artists coming into the public schools to demonstrate their arts, arts apprenticeships, museum exhibits, and media projects including recordings, videos, books, and Internet sites. These activities are intended to validate the artists and their traditional arts, to make them feel more secure in what they are doing, to help them support themselves by generating more of a market for their arts products, and to give a larger public stamp of approval (usually from a government agency such as an arts council) to community artists and their activities.
    The argument also is made—although it was not made so strongly at this past AFS conference—that these artistic activities constitute a “creative economy” which can help make up for financial losses in communities that have been hurt by the loss of manufacturing or other jobs, particularly if the traditional arts are branded as cultural heritage and attract tourist dollars. What I’ve just described is the general model, and although in some cases it’s worked better than others, at the AFS conference almost all the reports were positive. One success story followed another and another, at least in terms of encouraging the traditional artists and raising their profiles within the various communities (usually urban and ethnic), if not in terms of a creative economy whose impact was measured in dollars and cents.
    I, too, have written about cultural partnerships with the goals of conservation and development, describing my work in southeastern Kentucky in the 1990s with Old Regular Baptists to help the community maintain its music culture. This involved obtaining a self-documentation grant for them, teaching them how to use recording equipment, and their making recordings of endangered music among their own people and creating a library and a stock of teaching tapes to help maintain the tradition. In addition, we recorded two CDs for Smithsonian Folkways, some of them appeared at the Smithsonian Folk Festival, and then in the new century they participated in two conferences on lined-out hymnody at Yale University, organized by Professor Willie Ruff, where they demonstrated their singing—the oldest English-language religious folksong tradition in the United States (1).
    Cultural sustainability, in short, appears to be a growth industry. About four years ago Goucher College began offering the M.A. in Cultural Sustainability, to educate culture workers. Other graduate programs that emphasize, or at least include, public folklore or public humanities in their curricula, similarly are emphasizing community partnerships and cultural sustainability. Of course, many of the public folklorists who advocated for cultural conservation ten, twenty, and even thirty years ago were saying some of the same things about community partnerships and the traditional arts (2).
No train horn Creative Commons License
     Nevertheless, I worry that overlooked in the celebrations of community expressive culture are economic and environmental threats to those communities themselves. Why? For one thing, partnering with community leaders is far more difficult when the subject is economics or the environment than when the talk is about encouraging the arts. Everyone likes the arts and the only argument is over whether and how to pay for them. But bring up problems involving industry, transportation and fossil fuels, community relations, poverty, unemployment coupled with crime and drugs, or schools, land use, the location of medical services and the cost of their delivery, energy sources, noise pollution, natural disasters, relations between natives and newcomers, discrimination based on gender, age, and race, global warming and climate change, the effect of floods and rising sea levels, income inequality, gentrification, public transportation, water rights, and the like, and communities show themselves to be in serious disagreement. When community partnerships are viewed as feel-good, kumbaya opportunities, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is centered on the arts, then a focus on community arts and cultural sustainability has worked effectively, though this is not to say it has been easy. But when intractable problems and deep community divisions surface, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is taken instead to mean the whole way of life of a people, then united action is far more difficult, if not impossible; and success stories will be fewer and farther between. Yet cultural sustainability is ultimately dependent on solving those environmental and economic problems, for the arts depend on it even as community sustainability does. 
    Mary Hufford was one folklorist who probed the connection between cultural and environmental conservation. Unlike most of her colleagues who were concerned then (as now) with the conservation of the traditional arts in communities, Hufford in the 1980s explored community expressive culture which related to conservation in the world of Nature, whether in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey or in the forests of West Virginia. Working for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, she helped initiate the Pinelands Folklife Project in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, thus linking cultural with government natural conservation management efforts and moving the field of folklife in this direction. After completing this project she turned her attention to links between folklife and the forest ecology of the southern Appalachian mountains while editing a volume of essays, Conserving Culture (3).
    Indeed, the Folklife Center had considered the links between cultural conservation, land-use planning, and the natural environment in the early 1980s in conjunction with the Tennessee-Tombigbee River Waterway project, already under construction, when they were asked by the National Parks Service to take part in so-called “mitigation efforts” to counteract adverse effects of the Waterway on the affected areas’ populations and surrounding resources. After initial enthusiasm for the project, the Center withdrew, citing ethical issues (4). Further attempts to partner with the Parks Service during the next fifteen years also produced uneven results, due to differences over politics, bureaucratic problems, and arguments among stakeholders over goals and methods. In 1999 a new Folklife Center director was hired, in 2002 Hufford left the Center to direct a newly formed folklife and ethnography center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center moved away from team projects involving ethnography, culture and nature (5). Meanwhile, intangible cultural heritage gained currency as both a term and strategy among public folklorists, particularly when UNESCO intensified its international efforts in this area in the new century.
    Hufford had approached me in the 1980s to discuss mutual interests because I too had been exploring the relations between culture and nature in my research for the Powerhouse for God projects (6). In the Powerhouse book I proposed an ecological model for farming, family, and belief using the metaphor of husbandry to unite the realms. Back in the 1970s when I started this research I was not thinking in terms of cultural conservation; rather, I was interested in how traditional ways of thought nurtured in that ecosystem had persisted into the twentieth century, particularly in a religious worldview, despite the loss of the farm economy and the transition to an industrial and service economy (7).
    And so despite the early efforts of folklorists like Hufford, the environment is not playing an important role in contemporary cultural sustainability discourse. I plead guilty myself. Although I’ve been talking and writing about conservation biology and environmentalism and their contributions to the sustainability discourse, until fairly recently I’ve been concerned chiefly with music, sustainability, and cultural policy. But as I continued to explore Nature’s economy and acoustic ecology, conservation biology became not only a resource for my cultural policy work but also a bridge to environmental sound-worlds themselves. My recent work in Thoreau and sound in the natural world instantiates this shift.
Yellow warbler Creative Commons License
    Burt Feintuch, another folklorist who was an early leader in theorizing cultural conservation, asked me some years ago what role economics played in the Old Regular Baptist community that I had been working with in the 1990s (8). He had, himself, been researching music and cultural tourism and the creative economy in Cape Breton, where much of the industrial and fishing industry has departed, while the major economic activity of the island has become a tourist trade which depends, in significant part, on the traditional music and dance of the region. I did not have a good answer for him at the time, but I’ve thought about the question ever since. Economics also has been largely absent from the cultural sustainability discourse, except insofar as people were talking and writing about cultural heritage, tourist dollars and the creative economy. (Of course, the Old Regular Baptists would not care to become actors demonstrating their cultural heritage for tourists, except very occasionally, at festivals, conferences, and so forth.)
    Here, then, are some excerpts from what I said on the cultural sustainability panel, when I spoke about the perils of overlooking economic and environmental threats when considering work in cultural sustainability.
    “When thinking about culture, it would not be wise to overlook nature and the traditional economy as it relates to the community that culture workers partner with.. . . 
    “In other words, if the natural ecosystem that sustains traditional expressive cultures is damaged, drastically altered, or collapses, the effects on cultural sustainability are catastrophic. This is not an entirely new idea for folklorists, of course, but it is a principle that is liable to be forgotten when discussing cultural sustainability, for those discussions most naturally turn to cultural threats.
    “In those areas where traditional expressive culture is dependent on ecosystem maintenance or, in some cases, ecosystem restoration, the idea that culture is dependent on the natural environment is unavoidable. Examples include Native American basketmaking in northern New England, where a beetle, the emerald ash borer, threatens to destroy the ash trees from which baskets are made. Examples abound among traditional indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, the circumpolar regions, and Latin America whose lifeways are threatened or have been unalterably changed by destruction of the environment, usually done under the banner of modernization and economic growth. But in other areas the link between culture and nature is not always perceived as directly. I would like to suggest that this is a failure of imagination which folklorists and other humanists are in a position to understand and act upon, because we can understand these interconnections in terms of what humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan four decades ago called topophilia, or love of place (8).
    “. . . as folklorists are well aware, wholesale changes in local and regional economies, such as the drying up of fisheries or, in the case of central Appalachia, automation in the coal mines, threatens local cultures and causes out-migration. But threats to the natural environment rise to yet another level, because economies are themselves dependent on the natural ecosystem. The economic human does not exist apart from the natural world. An entire field, ecological economics, is devoted to that principle.
    “Thus in Appalachia an even greater threat to cultural sustainability, greater than cultural threats from newfangled music or trendy religion, and greater than from economic displacement, is the threat to the nature of Appalachia caused by the impact of modern mining methods on the mountain ecosystem: first strip mining, and now the horror of mountaintop removal. Topophilia is strong in Appalachia, as elsewhere; and it results in and from the intimate connection between culture and nature. But with wholesale alterations to the mountain ecosystem, and the resulting natural disasters—some obvious, like flooding, and others less obvious, such as microclimate change, unchecked predation in agriculture and elsewhere in the natural world because the ecosystem has been disturbed, and so forth—cultural sustainability is threatened as never before. Folklorists, in short, would do well to understand where and how cultural sustainability interacts with environmental sustainability, and build that into their cultural policies.”


(1) Jeff Todd Titon, “The Real Thing: Tourism, Authenticity, and Pilgrimage among Old Regular Baptists at the 1997 Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” The World of Music 41 (3), 1999, pp. 115-139. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Tuned Up with the Grace of God: Music and Experience among Old Regular Baptists,” in Music in American Religious Experience, ed. Philip Bohlman and Elizabeth Blumhofer, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

(2) Ormond Loomis, ed., Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1983.

(3) Mary Hufford, One Space, Many Places: Folklife and Land Use in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1986. Also, Mary Hufford, ed., Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

(4). See Alan Jabbour, The American Folklife Center: A Twenty-Year Retrospective. Washington, DC: American Folklife Center, 1996.

(5) The University of Pennsylvania’s Administration decided about 2000 to put an end to its Folklore Department and distinguished Ph.D. program, and to put in its place a new Center for Folklife and Ethnography, hiring Hufford as its director. Tenured folklore professors were permitted to stay in the university.

(6) Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (2 LP recordings, booklet), Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988. Also, Barry Dornfeld, Tom Rankin, and Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (16mm film), 1989. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA; also may be streamed and viewed in its entirety at

(7) My thoughts had turned in this direction partly because of my participation in the environmental movement of the 1970s, and partly because of my participation as a faculty member in a team-taught course in the American Studies program at Tufts University. The course was entitled “History and Ecology in America,” and it was in that context that I began linking my interests in ecology with my academic work.

(8) Burt Feintuch, ed., The Conservation of Culture. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1988. See, e.g., Jeff Todd Titon, Elwood, Cornett, and John Wallhausser, eds., Songs of the Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways CD, 1997. See also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky: A Community of Sacred Song,” Smithsonian Institution, 1997, at

(9) Yi-fu Tuan, Topophilia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Photographs above: 1: "A sea of mown hay," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2012. Photo 2: "No Train Horn," Pittsfield, Maine, summer, 2009. 3: "Yellow warbler," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2010.All photos by Jeff Todd Titon, © under a Creative Commons license. You may freely share them, but you must not alter them and they must not be used for commercial purposes.