Sustainable Music


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The commonwealth of culture

    “The commonwealth of culture” was the title of the Fellows forum that I put together for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, which took place in Providence in October, 2012. By  cultural commonwealth I refer to expressive culture as commons, as a shared resource—that kind of wealth, not material wealth. On that forum, as well as in my keynote at the cultural sustainability conference in Vermont last August, I spoke about expressive culture—that is, folklore—within the contemporary commons discourse, particularly the digital commons, copyright, and cultural rights.[1] Commons is a familiar topic for readers of this blog, but it is not familiar, yet, to folklorists even though they are now so occupied with cultural sustainability that they made it the official theme of their 2012 annual conference. The abstract I wrote for the forum on the commonwealth of culture read in part:
    “Although today we associate commonwealth with a political entity such as a state or nation, the original meaning was public welfare or general good. It has something in common with res communes, which in Roman law referred to those things which then could not be “captured” or owned, such as the oceans or air mantle. But in modern nations commonwealth has moved closer to res publicae, the Roman law term for a state-regulated public domain, such as fisheries and air travel flyways. Commonwealth is therefore allied with the notion of a cultural commons, the domain of ideas and performance which folklorists like to think of as a group’s expressive culture. Much in the air today are arguments over enclosures such as copyright that limit the free flow of ideas in the digital, cultural, and/or creative commons. Folklorists, who have a long history of considering culture as a common group possession, have a great deal to contribute to this discussion. Commons thinking is one means of theorizing folklore and cultural sustainability, and so each of the participants in this forum will address those issues briefly and in turn before we invite general discussion from the audience.”
    Altogether six folklorists, all Fellows of the American Folklore Society, spoke on the forum: Mary Hufford, Burt Feintuch, Dorothy Noyes, Nick Spitzer, Lee Haring, and myself. I won’t rehearse their presentations here, or my own. But I would like to expand a little on the idea of folklore, expressive culture, intangible cultural heritage—the competing synonyms today for that part of culture which folklorists claim to know something about—both in the context of the above abstract, and also in the context of what I said in my keynote at the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability.
    Folklorists, I told the group in Vermont, have had a longstanding concern with expressive culture as commons. The idea that folklore is a common resource goes back to very early conceptions of folklore as the expression of a group, not an individual. The author of a folksong, folktale, proverb was thought to be anonymous. The originator of folkways used in making barns, farm implements, crafts and decorative objects was unknown. Of course, someone must once have originated it, but over time the folklore was modified and improved as it passed from one person to the next and down through the generations until it became accepted as a common resource, “traditional” and rightfully shared.
    What folklorists can contribute to the discussion of a cultural commons, then, is based in part on this longstanding concern, where the advantages for a community of shared resources are plain: acceptance by, and accessibility to, anyone and everyone. Aesthetic satisfaction through community validation is yet another advantage. In my presentation for the AFS conference, I emphasized the legal aspects of cultural commonwealth, suggesting that the history of folklore studies lends weight to the argument that no one must “own” culture if we are going to be good stewards of it. Ironically, folklorists are very much involved today in international efforts (e.g., those by WIPO) to propertize culture in order to protect it. (See my blog entry on WIPO.) But thinking of culture as intellectual property, and thinking of groups as possessing cultural rights in this property, while it may seem attractive in the short run, is a losing strategy in the long term, for by putting a price on expressive culture it degrades and transforms it into commodity, thereby furthering the mistaken project of economic rationality.
    In my keynote at the Vermont conference I took the same position, exemplifying it through sound and “orality,” another longstanding concern of folklore studies. My plea that we manage the soundscape as an acoustic commons for all creatures derives in part from this concern with oral communication. But in folklore studies, orality has always been constructed in opposition to literacy, with the result that this distinction has shifted attention away from something I think is more fundamental, and that is how orality (or sound) is experienced as a medium in itself, directly through vibration linking one being to another. This model of sound communication, I argued in that keynote, as well as in the keynote talk I gave in May to the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists, is a cornerstone in the construction of an environmental rationality that stands in opposition to neoliberalism.[2]
    I felt a proprietary interest at the AFS conference in their theme, for to my knowledge I was the first to apply the sustainability concept to folklore, delivering a paper on that topic with special reference to music cultures, at their 2006 conference, then organizing a panel on that subject there for the 2007 annual conference. The idea gained traction, and late in 2008 I received an invitation from Rory Turner to take part in a conference of folklorists and other culture workers at Goucher College, chiefly to advise him and other faculty and administrators about starting an MA program in cultural sustainability, something that they had begun work on earlier that year. In 2009 Goucher did establish the first degree program in that subject, with Turner as founder. Since 2010, when Goucher’s first class enrolled, their MA program has taken the lead in folklore’s commitment to cultural sustainability. Turner has worked effectively to promote the concept. As a result of all these efforts and the discipline’s receptivity to sustainability, its enshrinement as the theme of the 2012 AFS conference may be the first indication that cultural sustainability has become the new paradigm for public folklore.
    Cultural sustainability has come so far, so fast because public folklorists think it an improvement over the previous paradigm, cultural conservation, which ruled from the 1980s until now. Of course, sustainability and conservation have much in common, but they also are significantly different both in concept and history. I've been writing about those similarities and differences in an essay on music, sustainability, and resilience for the forthcoming Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, co-edited with Slovenian ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan, for Oxford University Press. This volume, with more than 20 contributors, has been inching along for the past five years and probably will not be published until 2015 at the earliest. I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of folklore as an expressive cultural commons also gained traction within the academic side of folklore studies.[3] As the anonymous proverb-turned-cliché puts it, time will tell.

[1] My keynote talk for the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability in August, 2012 may be downloaded as an mp3 file at

[2] My keynote talk for ABET in May, 2012 on "The Nature of Ecomusicology" was published in their journal, Music E Cultura, and may be downloaded at

[3] Anthony McCann's pioneering work in commons and enclosure has important implications for folklorists. See 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Nature of Ecomusicology

My May, 2013 ABET keynote address, "The Nature of Ecomusicology," has just been published in the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists' annual journal, Music E Cultura, Vol. 8 (2013). The abstract:

     The new field of ecomusicology combines ecocriticism with (ethno)musicology. It is the study of music, culture, sound and nature in a period of environmental crisis. To date, most ecomusicologists have accepted nature as real, external, and objectively knowable. However, critical theory, the so-called science wars, and a changed paradigm within ecology have posed serious challenges to scientific realism, balanced ecosystems, and to the economic rationality which has caused environmental degradation. Going forward, ecomusicologists can meet these challenges by relying on an ecological construction of nature based in a relational epistemology of diversity, interconnectedness, and co-presence. In that way, ecomusicology can work meaningfully towards sustaining music within the soundscape of life on planet Earth.

A free pdf (in English) of the talk in its entirety may be downloaded from the journal's website, here.

Thanks to Carlos Sandroni, Alice Lumi Satomi, José Alberto Salgado e Silva, and the others in ABET who invited and sponsored my visit and who are responsible for this publication. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sound and sustainability at AASHE

     In early October, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I spoke in a plenary session to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE (pronounced HEY-she with the H silent), at their annual conference, in Nashville, Tennessee. Aaron Allen, the Academic Sustainability Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, received the initial invitation, then asked Denise Von Glahn and me to join him. Plenaries are special events at conferences, and so our photos and bios were prominently placed in the program.[1] Von Glahn is a professor of musicology at Florida State University; she is very active in ecomusicology and the author of two books on American composers, nature, and place—her latter book is specifically on women composers.[2] Allen is also a professor of musicology and one of the leaders and guiding spirits behind the ecomusicology movement. It was Allen who convened a group of musicologists to write essays for a colloquy about ecomusicology in JAMS (the Journal of the Musicological Society), and who was asked to write an entry on ecomusicology for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.[3] Although I’m relatively new to the (relatively new itself) ecomusicology movement, Allen was aware of my recent research in ecomusicology via Thoreau, and of my longstanding interests in sustainability—hence the invitation.
     Our topic was sustainability and sound, while the conference theme was resiliency and adaptation, a theme which readers of this blog know has occupied me here for years in connection with ecological models for musical and cultural sustainability. We held forth at the plenary for 90 minutes with a mix of prepared statements (from Aaron, explaining ecomusicology and its relation to sustainability; and from Denise, tracing her interests in nature, sound, music, and listening) and an interview (Aaron interviewed me about my research in sound and sustainability, touching on my plea for thinking about the earth’s soundscape as an acoustic commons for all living creatures [4], and my research on the sacralization of place by sound, particularly in Appalachia.[5].
    Most college and university campuses today make an effort to “be green,” to involve their staff, students, and faculty in energy conservation and recycling, and to lower their campus’s carbon footprint. AASHE brings together the leaders from those campuses, so they can talk to each other about common concerns and their efforts to make their institutions more sustainable. According to its website, AASHE’s mission “is to empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation. We do this by providing resources, professional development, and a support network. . . “ [6] Not only professional campus sustainability administrators, then, but also students engaged in various sustainability projects on campus, and faculty involved with sustainability and environmental studies, were present at this very large conference of nearly two thousand people. It was about three times the size of the conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology or of the American Folklore Society, the two I’ve attended faithfully each year since the early 1970s in connection with my own research and teaching. Like the invitation I received two years ago when I spoke to the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Academy [7], this was an invitation where people involved with sustainability, chiefly from the perspectives of science and engineering, wanted to hear from humanists about their own involvement with sustainability—to bring the humanities into the discussion.
    Allen, who has thought about bridging those gaps for some years now, is convinced, as I am, that humanists do have something to say to scientists and engineers about sustainability. The reverse is also true, of course. Ecomusicology, as he presented it at the conference, builds on ecocriticism, which is a three decades-old movement in literary history and criticism that takes as its primary subject the interactions of people, culture, and nature within literature, at a time of environmental crisis; and it, too, involves some scientists. That is, ecocriticism is concerned with literature and the environment, broadly conceived. Ecomusicology, then, is the critical study of music and the environment: of music, culture, and nature at a time of environmental crisis.
    Many ecomusicologists, myself included, prefer an ecomusicology that goes beyond music to include the study of all sound, and its relation to all creatures in the environment. In moving from music to the broader concept, sound, we think that ecomusicology shares common ground with other fields that focus on sound, fields such as acoustic ecology, sound studies, and soundscape ecology. I will save for another time a description of the differences of emphasis in these allied fields; suffice to say that Allen, Von Glahn and I spoke to the AASHE conference not only about music and sustainability, but about sound and sustainability.
    By their questions afterwards, the audience seemed as interested in music as in sound. They wondered about the future of musical genres they like, whether classical, folk, hip-hop, etc. Indeed, the majority of entries on this blog have been about music, not sound and environmental policy. But in the past two years, as a result of my work with Thoreau, sound has become more important, as I continue with a line of thought I introduced more than twenty years ago, theorizing a phenomenology of sound, a way of taking listening to sound and music rather than reading and interpreting a text, as the paradigm case of being in the world, and one which leads to a relational epistemology based on fieldwork and friendship.[8]
    In my part of the plenary, I tried to make the point that colleges and universities ought to manage their soundscapes for the health of all the inhabitants, and that this should be part of campus sustainability initiatives. Campuses after all are unusual in the amount of planning that goes into their spaces (pathways, landscaping, architecture, etc.) and their upkeep. Campuses are managed landscapes, and like gardens and country houses they are managed to be pleasant (usually pastoral) retreats from the jumble of appearances characterizing people’s workaday lives. Why not manage the soundscapes as well? I mentioned studies that have shown that soundscape interference (noise) is unhealthy, causing both physical and psychological damage.[9] I asked them if they thought they had any stress on their campuses; when they laughed in agreement, I suggested some of that stress might result from the soundscape. They already manage, or try to manage, certain soundscapes, such as dormitories. Roommates have to agree on the soundscape of their living quarters at any given time, for example; and there are “quiet hours” in some dorms, and so forth. But there is no coordinated campus effort to manage the soundscape for health and general well-being; for curbing the sounds of leaf-blowers, for example, or for attracting birds and other wildlife specifically for their contributions to the soundscape. In many campus buildings, the sounds of ventilator fans, heating apparatus, and air conditioners are omnipresent and noticeable, causing a kind of background stress that most people aren’t aware of until they go outside, and maybe not even then.
    Here, then, Allen and Von Glahn and I were concerned about sound, sustainability, and health and well-being. Von Glahn teaches her students to listen to all sounds, not just music. Attentive listening is a skill that can be learned. Once it is learned, people will pay more attention to the soundscape and its effects on life, human and non-human alike. Allen’s task was more general, to act as interlocutor and to explain the relationship of ecomusicology to sustainability, which he did by saying, among other things, that it introduces an aesthetic dimension that might otherwise be missing if the conversation is confined to scientists and engineers.
    In a sea of presentations on various efforts at sustainability and their outcomes, on campus and in the community at large, mostly involving engineering projects and group activities meant to conserve energy, our plenary must have provided some relief (including comic relief). About 500 people attended it, one of the larger audiences I’ve spoken with. It was a great pleasure to make common cause with Aaron Allen and Denise Von Glahn in this effort to link sound to sustainability for environmentalists, and we may get a chance to do it again. Plans are afoot for a visit to the University of Minnesota, where some interested parties have applied for a small grant to bring us there to coordinate with their own campus environmental sustainability efforts. I’d like to go, to try to give something back to them; for it was at the University of Minnesota that my own graduate education in the humanities took place many years ago.

[1] For the bios, see
[2] Denise Von Glahn, Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World (Indiana University Press, 2013) and The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (Northeastern University Press, 2003).
[3] Aaron Allen, “Ecomusicology,” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2013), also available at; and Aaron Allen, Daniel Grimley, Alexander Rehding, Denise Von Glahn, and Holly Watkins, “Colloquy: Ecomusicology,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (2011): 391–424.
[4] Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, 2012, at
[5] See
[6] See
[8] Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing Fieldwork,” in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, Shadows in the Field (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp,. 87-100 and Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing People Making Music: Toward a New Epistemology for Ethnomusicology.” Etnomusikologian vuosikirja, vol. 6, 1994. Helsinki: Suomen etnomusikologinen seura. [Yearbook of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology]

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A dairy farmer and a forester in Vermont

A field trip to what had until the previous year been a dairy farm, about ten miles from Sterling College, concluded the cultural sustainability symposium last August in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I won't call attention to the farmer by naming him, but he was there to greet us and tell us something about unsustainability. The land had been in his family for seven generations, and for most of the past 75 years it had been a dairy farm. He had added a bit of acreage and expanded his herd to fifty during the last ten years, an investment on a scale meant to produce more income. The way he explained it, the farmers sold their milk to a buying co-op which had a monopoly in that part of the state (the Northeast Kingdom) and therefore set the wholesale price per gallon that they'd pay the farmers. For the past five years or so, his income from sales of milk did not meet the expenses of running the farm; and rather than continue to lose money, a year ago he decided to sell his herd. He kept his land, but he had taken a job working at the Trapp Family Singers resort hotel. His wife also had a job, and so they would be able to keep their land, he thought. He didn’t want it to pass out of the family.
     Knowing a little about dairy farming in Maine, and also about the market for organic and upscale agricultural products in Maine and Vermont, among the tourists as well as the wealthier transplants, I asked him whether he had considered selling raw milk and bypassing the co-op. He said he had thought about it, but even though the laws about selling raw milk are not as strict in Vermont as they are in Maine, he didn’t think he could make a living that way either. As he explained the economics-driven unsustainability of his dairy enterprise, we looked out onto his pasture, and the land seemed better for agriculture than what I’m used to in my part of Maine. I supposed that a young couple, just starting out on that land, might have decided to grow organic vegetables here; but this was a dairy farmer in his 50s and it had been a dairy farm for three generations. He added that many other dairy farmers in that area were coming to the same conclusion, and that his kind of dairy farming, which was relatively small scale, was no longer sustainable in a state that is known as much for milk as maple syrup.

     As he told his story and answered our questions, we could look out from the top of his hillside farm to the ridge to the north, where wind turbines were slowly turning, killing birds and bats as they generated electricity—yet apparently not for the local area, but rather to a Canadian power company that owned the turbines. I pondered the paradox of renewable, sustainable nearby energy going out of state in the service of Canadian corporate capitalism, while the same economic forces had made dairy farming unsustainable here, at least on this scale and at the present time. And, of course, unsustainability extended to the culture of dairy farming as well.
     After we heard the farmer’s story, we took a walk along his woods road, led by a local forester, who told us about his own life and how he grew up in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State, and how after a series of unsatisfying jobs he eventually decided that he needed to work in the woods, and so he became a forester of the sort who hires himself out as a consultant, sometimes to timber harvesters, sometimes to local landowners who want to be good stewards. He was more satisfied working with the landowners, he said. He spoke about his interest in Thoreau, who toward the end of his life had written about preserving the Walden woods. Thoreau wrote that every town ought to preserve some forest land and, indeed, many towns in New England eventually did so. When I began college teaching many years ago, we lived in Reading, Massachusetts, right next to the town forest, where I spent many hours walking and gathering—not nuts and berries, but thoughts and ideas.
     The forester also mentioned some Europeans who had been interested in forest preservation during the late 18th and early 19th century. Thoreau himself was most familiar with the forest preserves in England that were managed as parks rather than set aside as wilderness. Thoreau would have contrasted these with wilderness such as he encountered in the most isolated parts of the Maine woods, where he took three trips in the mid-1800s with a Native American guide, Joe Polis, and wrote about his journeys. Thoreau, whose writing is usually classified as pastoral, that middle landscape between wilderness and civilization, placed the highest value on wildness—“in wildness is preservation of the world,” he wrote in his essay on “Walking.” And so we walked on through the farmer’s woods trail, a pastoral scene, learning from the forester about the trees and good forest management for the small landholder—thinning the stands, for example, and cutting paths, providing different habitats for all the creatures that dwell thereabouts; for the health of the forest, as culture, is in diversity.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sound, Language, Community and Place

    Nancy Menning and Mary Hufford both spoke to the cultural sustainability symposium in Craftsbury Common, Vermont last August about the relation between language, place, and community. Conversational narratives enact a collective commitment to the land and its inhabitants. Putting this into my frame of reference, I’d want to add that the medium of story is sound (even in so-called silent reading, a story is sounded in the mind’s ear). And sound draws beings into co-presence.
    Both Menning and Hufford are working on civic engagement projects exploring place-knowledge and land commitments. Menning is a professor of religious studies at Ithaca College in New York. Her project is located in the state’s Finger Lakes Region. She explained that she planned to engage the public with a project involving blogging, mapping, and storytelling that would explore the history of the landscape and weave personal narratives into the spirit of the place, especially as informed by the religious imagination. For Menning, the religious imagination here does not represent religious doctrine, but rather a spiritual inclination that becomes a humanities resource and includes multiple ways of conceiving of relationships among beings and the land: those of the Native Americans that inhabited the region, the revivalists in the burned-over district, Mormons, and contemporary spiritual practices of many kinds, some no doubt to be discovered in that place. At the conference, Menning referenced a book by Deborah Tall, From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, in which Tall found her bearings and made a home in the Finger Lakes Region through the interactions of her personal story with the larger, spiritual narratives of that place that were inscribed there over time. In that sense, for Menning, cultural sustainability is about imagining and building a home and feeling at home in a particular place and community. She showed intriguing pages from a website that she is building to house this project. To date I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet, and I am uncertain if it has gone live yet; but when I do find it, I will post a link here.
    Menning’s insight itself forms a part of a larger narrative about topophilia, or love of place, which becomes a cultural imaginary. The first time I encountered this concept was in 1974, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Topophila. Tuan, a cultural geographer, drew on his experiences of Chinese and Euro-American love of place, and in that book he mapped the territory, so to speak, for spiritual attachments to place, spirit being broadly conceived in all its possible meanings. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is plain that topophilia figures prominently: for the “promised land,” for the land of Canaan, and indeed for God’s creation itself (not merely the land but all its creatures). Tuan shows how topophilia animates other spiritual traditions as well as secular ones. I have written about topophilia myself from time to time, particularly in terms of the way sound binds people to places and to one another. For me, the exemplary moment of topophilia occurs in an old-time string band jam session when a fiddle tune is played and either before or afterward a story is told about the tune (which often evokes a particular geographic location by name, and a reference to a story surrounding it) and the generations of fiddlers who have played it.
    Hufford’s presentation is part of her ongoing project in understanding, valuing, and utilizing local knowledge of the land and natural environment in partnering with local groups to formulate a land stewardship strategy for particular places. She did much of her research in eastern forest areas, where she has examined such local uses of the land as ginseng and mushroom hunting, fox hunting and hound training, and the health of forests in the southern Appalachian mountains. This local knowledge is manifestly not the same as the “expert” knowledge of the forest conservationists, often working for the corporations or the government, who guide land and resource policy, usually taking into account the interests of those persons and corporations engaged in extracting coal, timber, and other resources from the land and region. Often the local and expert knowledge is at odds; but inevitably the government exercises its power to regulate land use through law, sometimes at the expense of traditional, local interactions with the land and environment. It is a fraught issue, and it has a history going back, in the United States, to the days in the 19th century when the government began enacting laws restricting hunting in the name of conservation. One result was that locals who hunted game chiefly to feed their families became poachers and outlaws when hunting out of season. James Fenimore Cooper was one of the first Americans to write about this (in his Leatherstocking Tales).
    Hufford’s presentation began with Aldo Leopold’s statement (introducing his A Sand County Almanac) that we habitually view land as a commodity, whereas we should view it instead as a community. She went on to ask how do people come to know land as a community? This is a question similar to the one I have been asking in my work with Thoreau's writings, namely, how does one come to respect the natural world and enter into a relationship with it of stewardship instead of ownership? Hufford’s talk tacked between the high theory of Bakhtin, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty, and the vernacular conversations among rural inhabitants about the land they’re intimately acquainted with, as a way of explicating a dialogical relationship between humans and the land. Hufford finds in common conversational metaphors, such as “robbing the land,” the idea that the land itself has rights of possession in the sense that its inhabitants belong to the land.
    She went on to link this idea to Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic communication (something that has been important for me in my ethnographic work ever since Dennis Tedlock introduced it to me in the late 1970s), and to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “common ground” (no pun intended) in dialogue, a relationship of reciprocity. This is similar to the concept of co-presence, Erving Goffman’s formulation from the 1950s, which I’ve been updating and working with in my recent public lectures and publications—particularly in the context of sound and its ability to enact co-presence. I also see a link to my earlier work in the way sound sacralizes space, especially uncommon sound (song, chant, and shifts from speech to one or the other). Hufford points out that this “communication” also exists in the land itself, in the soil, as organisms cooperate with one another; and she suggests (along with Merleau-Ponty) that this cooperation, both in the soil and in human conversation, creates a “third party” and brings “self and other into an identity-completing relationship.”
    Hufford describes the discourse of conservation experts in policy planning as top-down and monologic, whereas the discourse of local knowledge expressed in conversation among inhabitants of the land is dialogical, invoking community through place-names and ancestors. One person told her, “I don’t know where Williams come from, but I know where their grandma come from, cause she was my grandpa’s sister. Her name was Pliney. I’ve got a hollow up there that’s named for her: Pline’s Hollow.”
    As I wrote above, this kind of thing happens when a fiddler begins or ends a performance of a fiddle tune at a jam by saying something like, “That came from Shade Slone, who brought it back from Pike County," then names the tune: "The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek.” Then  another musician adds that this place marked the last battle of the Civil War in Kentucky, and references the oral tradition that the tune commemorated the battle and the war dead. Even though the musicians already know this, it must be enacted through conversation to animate for that moment of performance the links between the tune, its name, persons, places, events, and names on the land. Without those dialogical associations, the tune is just a series of sounds; with them, the tune invokes family (some in the region are named Slone and descend from Shade [nickname for Shadrack] Slone), place, and binds all in a community of musicians to land and family in that space. Hufford links these dialogues phenomenologically to organs of perception, sensation and embodiment, the living bodies of humans and the natural world. The monological pronouncements of the corporate state deny human being to those who know the land and the natural world in that region through hands-on experience. As one remarked, “A. T. Massey [the coal mining corporation] came in here and said, ‘You don’t exist.’” But Hufford insists that not only do those who inhabit the land exist, the land solicits the inhabitants’ attention and arouses their conversations about it, the kind of participatory dialogue that characterizes grass-roots democracy.
    It’s not entirely surprising how much Hufford’s work has in common with my own, although my emphasis is in music and sound as a bridge to community and the natural world, while her bridges involve dialogue and material culture with community and place. I’ve valued and learned from her work for more than two decades. Back in the late 1980s when she was working at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and before I knew about her research, she took me aside to ask me about mine into the Appalachian forest ecology and economy that I’d been doing in connection with the Powerhouse for God project, which I had been presenting at conferences since the late 1970s and which in 1988 I finally published as chapter 2 of the Powerhouse book. I had titled that chapter “Land and Life,” with apologies to the cultural geographer Carl Sauer, who with Yi-Fu Tuan had strongly influenced my approach to the connections between the two; another debt, my idea that “husbandry” unified the realms of farming, family, and worldview, was the partly the result of my reading Wendell Berry’s fiction and essays about his home place in Henry County, Kentucky. Probably Hufford also was aware of the research of Chuck and Nan Perdue into the same forest area in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge, in connection with the population removals that took place in the 1920s to form the Shenandoah National Park.
    In the early 1990s, Hufford asked me to write an entry on this work in cultural geography and human ecology in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, for a section that she was editing; and she also asked me whether the people I’d gotten to know in Appalachia had observed a decline in forest health. In truth, by the mid-1970s when I began that research, most of the Powerhouse people were no longer living off the land, and the minority who were, were farmers of a more modern sort, no longer living in the mountains. A few still hunted but, as I recall, their discourse about the good old days when they were growing up on mountain farms expressed general nostalgia, not stories of specific incidents showing forest decline. That decline had occurred fairly abruptly from about 1890-1910, when the combination of commercial timber cutting and the chestnut blight had made it no longer possible for the mountain farm economy to continue utilizing forest resources, particularly summer pasture and chestnuts for their pigs. The final blow was the Shenandoah Park removals, in which much of that population of mountain farmers were thrown off their land, by the federal government, against their will, to make room for the Park. They were resettled in modern tract homes, where they languished. My research into land and life in that chapter was chiefly historical. Hufford was interested in what she, along with forest activist John Flynn, was calling “the falling forest”: an increase in the number of trees falling to the forest floor as a result of ecosystem changes and declining forest health. I did not have much information for her.
    But if the Powerhouse people were no longer living close to the land, many in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky were. For the Old Regular Baptists of that region, whom I began getting to know in 1990 when I started teaching at Berea College, a couple of hours by car to the west, the mountains remained a resource for hunting and gathering, as well as a kind of spiritual resource. They expressed a strong topophilia for the area, saying that the land (and their singing) had a “drawing power” that caused many of them to stay, despite worsening economic conditions; and to return later in life, if they had migrated out in order to earn more money for their families. They spoke often about the ways the sounds of their singing echoed in the coal mines, and up and down the hills and hollows of the mountains. I tape recorded many of these statements about sound and the land (and the built environment), and some were published on the two CDs that I produced of Old Regular Baptist singing, for Smithsonian Folkways, in 1997 and 2003. It is unusual to include such spoken statements in the grooves of music albums; but these were a kind of testimony to sound and its meaning, and were so important to them (and so strikingly articulate) that I was compelled to add them to the music. Here, for instance, is a statement about affecting sound and the natural world, from Charles Shepherd: “One time when I was about six years old we had a meeting at a cemetery and, hearing these songs ever since I’ve been born, we was setting up in a cemetery, and I heard my daddy singing “Amazing Grace.” I never heard a more beautiful sound in my life. Seemed like the trees was just carrying that sound up and down the valleys, and it did something to my heart.”    
Cemetery, s.e. KY. Photo by Jeff Titon. Creative Commons License
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     I did speak to Hufford in the early 1990s about the Lilley Cornett Woods, which I'd learned about while visiting with the Old Regulars. This is the only old-growth, original growth forest in the state of Kentucky; and currently it is managed for sustainability by the University of Kentucky. It was set aside in the 1920s by Lilley Cornett, an eccentric and cantankerous mountain man who lived in the same part of southeastern Kentucky as the Old Regulars that I visited. Cornett stubbornly refused to sell the timber or mining rights to his land, as everyone else was doing, to the corporations who were coming in and paying good money for the privilege of damaging the mountain ecosystem. I’ve mentioned Mr. Cornett and his Woods in this blog before, saying that they deserve a separate entry; and they do. I will get to it in due course. It is not a stretch to link the Lilley Cornett Woods to our cultural sustainability symposium’s field trip, to the farm and woods of a former dairyman who had decided only the year before that dairy farming as he was practicing it was unsustainable. As the last scheduled event of the symposium, we heard him talk about this and explain his circumstances and his reasoning as we walked over what once had been his farm's cow pasture. Soon we were in the farm's woods. Now the conversation was led by a local forester who was helping the farmer manage his land and whose passion turned out to be for Thoreau. More about this soon.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Music, sustainability, and public radio

    Although we had little down-time at the cultural sustainability conference, early in the mornings before breakfast I listened to Vermont Public Radio, broadcasting NPR’s ubiquitous news program, Morning Edition. One of the flashpoints for music’s sustainability is its future on US public radio--what used to be called noncommercial radio, and now should be called brief commercial radio based on those 3-sentence announcements naming corporate underwriters, what they do, and how to contact them. Whereas music programming, particularly classical music, once dominated public radio, in the new millennium it’s gradually lost its hold, to the point that today most public radio stations broadcast news and talk shows over the air, having moved classical music to the Internet or to broadcast channels that conventional radios cannot receive. I've blogged here before about classical music's future, on radio and elsewhere. Meanwhile, music of many kinds still can be heard on several low-power, local community radio stations.
    In New England, I date the public radio all-talk trend from the 1990s, the decade when Boston-area WBUR-FM gradually removed music from prime time to its peripheral schedule, late at night and on weekends. In 1997, despite much protest, WBUR dropped music programming entirely, in favor of news and talk shows. WBUR’s award-winning and highly popular late night jazz show, hosted by Tony Cennamo, was among the programs eliminated. Boston’s WGBH-FM still provided much music programming, including the paradigmatic Morning Pro Musica, hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema, aired also by many other stations in New England, including Maine Public Radio. But in the new millennium, after the charismatic Lurtsema died in 2000, WGBH-FM also pushed music gradually to the side, and today it too is all-talk, all the time. What of Vermont?
    I didn’t hear enough public radio in Vermont to get an impression, but after returning to Maine I looked up its programming schedule. Not to my surprise, I found that Vermont had followed the trend, and was programming news and information almost exclusively. What did surprise me was that in some of the on-line articles I read about how Vermont made that transition, the man behind the trend was identified as Vermont Public Radio’s Mark Vogelsang. In 2012, Vogelsang left Vermont to become head of Maine Public Radio. Would Maine now follow Vermont? Most likely.
    Since Vogelsang took over, peripheral blocks once reserved for music have been replaced by talk shows. The 11 p.m. hour, once a haven for soothing music (“Echoes,” with John DiLiberto), is now punctuated by the noisy drumming that introduces segments of On Point, produced, incidentally, by WBUR, but on air there in the mornings when the drum-banging is a little less annoying. Maine weekend early mornings, once given over to classical music, now feature information shows: On Being, Living on Earth, Only a Game, and Bob Edwards Weekend. These shows do have their merits, but to music listeners, airing them on early weekend mornings is especially galling, as the classical music host, Jennifer Mitchell, used to start with Robert J. Lurtsema’s signature show-opener, a dawn-chorus of bird sounds, appropriate at that early hour—although not as rewarding as the real thing one could hear through an open window.
    Another ominous sign was the departure, last month, of Maine Public Radio’s morning classical music host, Suzanne Nance, for a position at a commercial, all-classical music station in Chicago. Morning classical music remains from 9 to noon on Maine Public Radio, but now with rotating local hosts while the station says it’s undertaking a national search for a replacement. Maine is the New England morning classical music holdout. If and when it goes, it will join Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, none of whose public radio networks broadcast classical music in the morning (or, for the most part, anytime else day or night).
    A word about Suzanne Nance is in order. For several years she not only hosted the morning program but also was a strong, public voice for classical music live performance in Maine. Herself a singer, she could be heard in concerts in Portland and elsewhere in the state; importantly, she hosted on her program visiting composers, conductors, soloists and chamber groups for a half hour, on average one day a week; and besides talking about their upcoming concerts in the state they sometimes played live music on her show. Not everyone liked her enthusiastic, up-front personality; and some thought she didn’t program enough music from before 1800; but no one doubted that her presence boosted classical music in Maine. Thus, her departure as radio host is an even greater loss for classical music in the state.
    By chance, a little after returning to Maine from Vermont, I met someone who until earlier this year had worked for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. I asked about Suzanne Nance’s departure. “Well,” the answer came, “I shouldn’t talk out of school. But since I am out of school, I will.” Having left the job at MPBN, the person (who will remain nameless here) told me that Suzanne “read the tea leaves and decided that she ought to move on. She’d been looking for another position, and when this came along, she decided to go.” I asked if this was a career move up for her. “More of a lateral move,” was the reply. “What did she see in the tea leaves?” I asked. “The new head, Vogelsang, wants to make it all news and talk radio. That’s what he did in Vermont. You can see he’s gradually doing it already.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve noticed.”
    What prompts this blog entry is that Vogelsang himself spoke for nearly an hour today, on MPBN, in response to listeners’ questions. He confirmed that his plan for Maine Public Radio was to move towards two separate stations, one for news and information, and the other for classical music. Of course, this means no jazz, no folk music, no popular music; it means the end on Maine radio for shows like A Prairie Home Companion, for years arguably the largest fund-raiser for public radio; it means the end for other staples that the Maine audience likes, such as alternative music and singer-songwriters; and it’s already the end for shows like American Routes, hosted by folklorist Nick Spitzer out of New Orleans, which went off the MPBN air last spring.
    These programming changes are cause for a measured lament, and the lament goes beyond music programming on public radio: it is a lament for a generation and a way of life that included listening to music on radio, particularly classical music; it is a recognition of the passing of a segment of a generation for whom classical music on radio represented more than merely music, but also a set of values, values increasingly out of step in a contemporary, diverse global society. Vogelsang dropped the statistic that most people under 30 don’t even own radios, and don’t listen to them except perhaps in their automobiles; and we are hearing that this young generation doesn’t own nearly as many cars as past generations did. The automobile, once the symbol of freedom, is being replaced by the smartphone, the symbol of connectedness. Culture is rapidly changing; those who wish to address questions of musical sustainability will need to look elsewhere besides public radio.
    Radio executives like Vogelsang are consumed with other survival issues, not least the survival of public radio itself, as it moves in the digital direction and its Internet presence becomes more important than over-the-air. All programs need to be available on the Internet, he said; that will become our primary means of delivery. When news breaks, should it go immediately on the public radio website, or do we wait until it’s broadcast and only then put it on the website? This is the kind of nuts and bolts question that radio and television executives think about, not what they will do with their music programming. They already know the answer to that one. And when pressed on it, as he was by at least one listener this afternoon, Vogelsang said it wasn't going away: classical music would be available 24/7 on another MPBN station, as it is on the Internet right now. (MPBN streams it from its website.) And after all, music of all kinds is available elsewhere on the Internet. Indeed, with Internet services like Pandora and Spotify and now Apple’s iRadio along with iTunes, the under-30 generation is able to hear the artists and individual music tracks they want there. Most won't realize what they are missing: voices like Suzanne Nance’s, which helped sustain the live classical music performance community in the state of Maine, for example; or the history and biography and other context that once came in the liner or brochure notes that accompanied a record album or CD, now replaced by "album art."
    Measured lament behind us, the transition to news and talk on Maine Public Radio offers the chance for MPBN to become a conduit for civic dialogue in the state. Vogelsang understands this, and has initiated programs like Maine Calling, now expanded in prime time, the noon hour, to four days a week. People are invited to call in from all areas of the state to discuss issues of local, regional, and national importance. This was the show he appeared on today, and I was one of the callers. Rather than prolong the lament, I decided to focus on the possibility of a future in which MPBN became more of what local community radio in this area already is, on WERU-FM, a “voice of many voices.” I suggested they make an effort to get out of their regional news focus on Portland, Augusta, and Bangor (the three major Maine cities) and get their news and information teams out across the state to find out what is going on in the Maine forests, the blueberry lands, the fisheries, and rural life all over Maine. I suggested that there be more working-class voices heard on air (and Internet), adding that it could increase their contributor base enormously. (Vogelsang asked me, “How do you do that?” One answer: get those news teams out into the whole state, talk to the people, and record their voices.)
    The future of classical music on public radio—let alone the future of music on radio—let alone the future of radio itself—is debated within a larger context that involves globalization, unprecedented connectedness and decreasing privacy, changes in media and transformations in daily life and experience. In this discussion, sustainability cannot simply mean preservation of an older set of experiences--that is impossible--but, rather, reassessment, continuity, and possibilities previously unrealizeable.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Syrup and sustainability

    Maple syrup and milk, closely associated with Vermont in the public imaginary, add value to the region, just as Maine benefits more than economically from lobsters and blueberries. As Michael Lange, presenting at the cultural sustainability symposium in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, pointed out, sugaring from the sap of the sugar maple trees is paradigmatically associated with the state, both as product and symbol. As a natural resource-based product, maple syrup is an important part of the Vermont economy; and Vermont accounts for nearly 40% of the US maple syrup production. But its economic value goes well beyond the product itself, for sugaring conjures up images of old-fashioned, wholesome rural lifestyles that attract tourists to the state, images that over the years also have attracted in-migrants. In this way, the tourist dollar value of a heritage symbol is enmeshed in cultural as well as natural resource sustainability.
    Although most sugaring operations sell to the wholesale trade, some also offer a portion of their product to the general public in small shops attached to the sugarhouses. In the state of Maine, which accounts for 20% of the total amount of US maple syrup production, it’s not uncommon to see homemade signs along the road during late winter sugaring season, advertising a local sugar-maker’s product, which is sold out of the home. But Maine does not have the large sugar-making operations that not only serve the wholesale trade but market under their own name and at the same time create tourist stops where visitors to Vermont may see demonstrations of sugar making and taste the product, year round. A few of these are quite large, rivaling living history museums in size and attractiveness; they also are competitive, and each has its partisans. In fact, when Lange named a few of them, Vermonters in the room immediately spoke up in favor of this one or that one; and if Lange hadn’t stepped back in, a lively debate on whose syrup was best would have interrupted the presentation.
    Lange placed these large sugar making tourist attractions squarely within the cultural heritage industry, and with it the ongoing debate among culture workers over the hells and benefits of heritage tourism. Although he didn’t elaborate on it, sugaring (like lobstering) is dependent on an ongoing natural resource, which brings in sustainability issues, international trade and competition (for maple syrup, the competition is with Canada, which subsidizes its sugar makers), state and federal regulation, and so forth, often putting sugar makers at odds with regulators over best practices. The ongoing health of the sugar maples in the forests, just like the health of lobsters in the oceans, will depend in part on the effects of climate change. We don’t expect the Vermont forests to look like those south of the Mason-Dixon line anytime soon; rather, the warming climate brings changes to the ecosystem in the form of pests and predators that the sugar maples have not previously had to combat.
    Vermont prides itself on the quality of its syrup and, indeed, offers it in four grades: fancy, grade A medium amber, dark amber, and grade B. No other state makes such fine distinctions. But ironically, this grading system works against Vermont syrup outside of the state. Grade B is considered inferior because of the labeling, whereas outside the state much ungraded Canadian syrup that would be labeled grade B in Vermont doesn’t carry the same negative connotation. A further irony is that the fancy syrup, being the purest and most delicate-flavored, has the least amount of maple taste; those wanting a stronger taste of maple use the darker syrups. The state legislature this year debated whether to endorse grade inflation: all Vermont syrup would henceforth be labelled grade A, and the distinctions would be made on the basis of color and the degree of maple taste. A Boston Globe article concluded by quoting an eighth-generation sugar maker, Doug Bragg: “Most of our customers are asking, why do we have to do this [change in the grading system]? There’s a logic to it, no question about it. It’s still annoying, though.” (
    As heritage tourism is a frequently-discussed topic on this blog, there’s no need to review it fully here. But maple sugar tourism differs from that revolving around much traditional music in the US in that sugaring is a viable industry and would remain one without heritage tourism, whereas heritage tourism often gives traditional music a second life, one that would not be viable without it. Like lobsters and blueberries, maple sugar tourism offers not just an education but a food reward at the end of the lecture. Forestry tourism doesn’t do that, which may be why in Maine, for example, it’s not as attractive as lobsters and blueberries. Nor has Maine capitalized on sugaring tourism anywhere to the extent that Vermont has done.
    Lange concluded his presentation by discussing a different kind of educational involvement with sugar making, a program at an elementary school in Fairfield, Vermont, where youngsters participate hands-on in sugar-making, presumably giving them a deeper involvement than the tourists get, and also a deeper understanding of what this symbolic state industry involves at the ground level. Such innovative programs could also involve field trips and nature-study, a curriculum that has gradually been disappearing from the schools in favor of the abstractions of modern science.
    In our own field trip, to a former dairy farm, we grappled with economic and cultural sustainability issues surrounding the other picture-book Vermont industry: dairy farming. I will have more to say about that shortly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seed saving and cultural sustainability

    An educational and cultural project involving home garden seed saving was the centerpiece of Rosann Kent’s presentation at the cultural sustainability symposium last month at Sterling College. Hers was one of the talks that engaged with my own work, for I’ve been an organic gardener and seed saver myself now for some thirty-plus years. After all, a university’s academic year calendar permits faculty time in the summer to do research, write, and in my case, also to tend an organic garden and orchard. Hand-work is complementary to head-work, and the easy pace of gardening frees me for creative daydreaming. If I had to make a living as a farmer, I’m sure that my mind would be full of worry about the year’s crops, the weather, and market prices; but growing for home use (with surplus for friends) involves a different kind of accounting.
    Rosann Kent’s school, re-named the University of North Georgia earlier this year, resulted from the merger of the North Georgia College & University, and Gainesville State College. Its website proclaims it “The Military College of Georgia,” and Kent was quick to state that one would not normally associate seed saving with a military college. Nonetheless, the university’s Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, where Kent serves as a faculty member and the director, recently completed a project entitled “Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories,” which not only gained a good deal of local attention in this fastest-growing region of the state, but also was featured in a forum on local food systems and sustainable agriculture last year, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
    Seed saving brings together culture and agriculture, a unity famously inscribed into the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s by Wendell Berry, whose words were prophetic then and whose voice remains essential today. Kent’s project was designed not just to inventory varieties of home garden seeds that had for years been saved and shared by local families, but also to collect and then present the stories that went along with the seeds. Stories connected with seeds may seem a little strange to anyone who either hasn’t either grown up in a family that keeps heirloom seeds, or hasn’t encountered the practice of storytelling surrounding the intersection of generations on the land through such things as names of places. Even the name of an old fiddle tune, when played in a circle of friends, if it names a place or person (or even if it doesn’t), often will draw forth a short story, or a reference to a known story, of the place or person named, or the fiddler from whom the player learned it, or an occasion on which it was played and something unusual occurred.
    In 1990 when I taught for the spring semester as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, in Kentucky, I spent most weekends in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky; and one of the things I did was ask the people I got to know, the ones who had home gardens, whether they saved seed. Among other things, as a seed saver myself, I was interested in trying new-to-me varieties of heirloom non-hybrid seeds, and swapping some I’d saved with theirs.
My garden bean field, 2013. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon
This is one of the things seed-savers do; we swap seeds. Every seed variety has a name; they are not just “bean seeds.” Otherwise we couldn’t keep track of their differences very well. When I asked them what they called these bean seeds, or those tomato seeds, the answer often was something like, “Oh, those are Joe beans.” “Joe beans?” I would reply. “No, I mean what variety of beans are they?” “Well,” the answer would come, “these are greasy beans, if that’s what you’re getting at. Lots of folks around here grow greasy beans. These are ones that go back to old Joe Caudill, whose home place used to be up here (points up higher on the creek bed) where he grew them, must have been one hundred years ago.” And then the lady would go on to tell a little story that revealed old Joe’s character, or maybe something about one of his descendants, or she might say she went to school with so-and-so who was old Joe’s nephew’s cousin’s niece, or something like that. In this way, the seeds, the land, and the families all were put into meaningful relation. Their “use-value,” so to speak, was cultural as well as agricultural. Saving seeds also meant saving culture.
    Kent’s presentation added another cultural layer. This part of north Georgia was being inundated by people “from away,” as we would say in Maine, contrasting them with “natives.” In Kent’s country, the same distinction was between “came heres” and “been heres.” As in Maine, each group had its own notions of what it wanted. The “came heres” wanted Starbucks and services they were used to in the big cities; they thought that the “been heres” were culturally deprived and they wanted to “help.” The “been heres,” of course, had a culture of their own; and seed saving was an unimaginable (to the came heres) part of it. Kent had her students go out into the community and talk to the been heres who had home gardens about the seeds they saved, and of course just as had happened to me nearly a quarter century earlier and in a different part of Appalachia, they not only got seeds but also stories. So the seed saving project, along with the oral histories and stories, was presented in the community, and the came heres began to understand something about the been heres, while the been heres were reassured about their own culture.
    In our cultural sustainability symposium, Kent not only talked about this project, but she got us all into a workshop where we told each other family stories, something that might have gone on all afternoon—but there were other presentations to hear, and besides, all this talk about food made us hungry for the farm supper that was only a couple of hours away.    

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The language of avoidance

    All of the presentations at the recent cultural sustainability symposium at Sterling College interested me, but in this and the next few entries I’ll single out some of those that linked most directly to the kind of thinking that’s engaged me on this blog: those by William Westerman, Mary Hufford, Rosann Kent, Nancy Menning, Michael Lange, and the field session with Farley Brown and Ross Morgan that concluded the symposium.
    Westerman spoke about the need to understand, confront, reveal and undermine those social, political and economic forces whose actions “disrupt local cultures with destructive, sometimes even genocidal, impact.” As he pointed out, people make decisions that set those forces in motion. They often are hard to identify because the disruption is often chronicled in the passive voice—events just seem to occur, and causation is not assigned.
    Much of what Westerman said is congruent with my own argument that culture workers must consider economic and environmental threats to cultural continuity, rather than confine ourselves to helping communities promote and maintain their traditional and characteristic artistic expressions, be they music, ethnic foods, religious folklife, dance, and so forth. Culture workers, who are trained to identify and document tradition-bearers (folk artists), ought also to direct efforts at identifying and documenting those people who give agency to the disruptive and destructive economic and environmental forces, and to exposing them.
    But Westerman’s focus on the language in which these problems are addressed is absolutely critical (a theme, also, of Mary Hufford’s presentation). It isn't just about what we say but how we think and therefore how we know, and how we can know. (The technical term for this is epistemology.) When one says, “The New York and New Jersey Coast was devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” that is the passive voice: the Coast “was devastated.” The fact is stated but the cause is not identified. If, instead, one says “Climate change is causing violent storms like Superstorm Sandy that devastated the New York and New Jersey Coast,” we have the active voice, which identifies the actor (cause), in this case climate change. Examples like this are more useful than contrasting sentences such as "The ball was hit to center field by John" versus "John hit the ball to center field." Of course, it's possible to identify actors in the passive voice ("by John" in the above contrast); but often the actor is absent, and sometimes on purpose.
    Westerman’s concentration on the evasive language of the passive voice reminded me of “Strunk and White” (The Elements of Style) with its prescription to use the active voice, chiefly to make writing vigorous. Contemporary contrarians have delighted in pointing out grammatical errors in their examples of the passive voice. But Strunk and White isn’t about grammar: it’s about style. And using the active voice is about more than style; it’s about naming “whodunit.” The passive voice, as George Orwell pointed out more than sixty years ago in his essay, "Politics and the English Language," is the deadening language of government bureaucracy. It’s a language of avoidance; it’s “official language,” it’s what my own freshman English teacher, William E. Coles, Jr., back in the day, used to call “bulletproof language.”
    Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer understood the paralyzing consequences of Lyndon Johnson’s bulletproof language. In one of the finest analyses of the failures of the passive voice, Mailer critiqued Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign book, My Hope for America. Mailer's book, Cannibals and Christians (1966), contains that essay. In it, Mailer showed just how Johnson’s passive voice avoided naming and blaming, and in failing to say what were the causes of, say, poverty in America, Johnson’s language disabled him (and others) from thinking clearly about it and therefore from effectively addressing its causes.
     I was reminded, also, of a Cambridge Forum broadcast from October of 2011, featuring Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, in honor of Thoreau’s essay on "Civil Disobedience." In the midst of the discussion, someone asked Berry why he was still willing to talk to those coal barons responsible for mountaintop removal when it was obvious that they weren't listening. The gist of his reply was that good people can still do terrible things, and if they're good people we must talk to them and try to reach the good within them. They need to know that "they're in the house that they're burning down. . . . and maybe we can help them put the fire out.” (View Berry's entire response at
     In other words, it's not enough simply to say that the house is burning down, or we're in ecological crisis, or that local cultures are disappearing. They are "being disappeared," as Tony Seeger reminded us at the symposium; and it's up to us culture workers to identify the people who hide behind the passive voice, and to try to keep a dialogue open with those powerful "good people who do terrible things." The language of avoidance blinds them to causation, keeps them from knowing that they are burning down the house that we all are in. But the spirit of non-violent resistance appeals to the good in them, in hopes that they will listen and we can put the fire out together.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cultural sustainability in the Sterling College setting

Sterling College. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon.
The site of the cultural sustainability symposium last weekend was Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. Founded in 1958 as a boys’ boarding school, it is now an accredited, B.A. degree-granting work college combining environmental study, activism, and work on the college farm. The college motto is “Working Hands, Working Minds.” As I told them, I thought they were trying to make Wendell Berry’s idea of “discipline and hope” into a grounded, secular reality.[1]
    Most colleges in the United States today try to practice conservation, or as the saying goes, be green; whether in recycling trash, giving uneaten dining hall food to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, maintaining a small organic garden where students can grow vegetables, encouraging faculty and staff to sign up with CSAs in the area, and so forth. My school, Brown University, does all of these. Our motto in this regard is, of course, “Brown is green”; but in fact Brown is many other things besides. The Brown community does not emphasize any one of them over all the others but, rather, sees itself as offering diverse opportunities.   
    Some colleges have made more of an effort at sustainability than Brown. Berea College, in Kentucky, where I taught as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies a little more than 20 years ago, moved in that direction, seeking among other things to make the college a self-sustaining energy community. They had an advantage here, because the College happened to own and operate the town’s electrical plant.[2] And Berea's commitment is serious and pervasive; see for more information. At Sterling College, on the other hand, green is the raison d'être: learning green, doing green, and promoting green. There is nothing more important. 
    With approximately 125 students, an average class size of 10, and major concentrations available in ecology, sustainable agriculture, environmental humanities, outdoor education, as well as curricular combinations put together by the students themselves with faculty approval, it must be one of the smallest colleges in the US. (Interestingly, there is another Sterling College, not related; it is in Kansas.) The average cost is about $18 thousand per semester, while the average financial aid award per semester per student is around half that. Of course, $20 thousand per year for college still represents a large sum. By contrast, Amherst College, my undergraduate alma mater, costs twice that; and it is one of the least expensive so-called top-tier colleges.
    One way Sterling keeps costs down is with a relatively small administrative staff. Another is by employing students to work at the college, in the dining room, on the farm (which supplies much of the delicious organic food), and on other parts of campus. Students earn a small portion of their tuition in this way. Based on what I saw, and what the students who were there told me about it, the Sterling students are strongly committed to the College and its work program, understanding that they are contributing to keeping the costs down for all. All students at Berea also participated in the College’s work program, but the jobs were for the most part menial and upon asking them, I learned that the students were less than enthusiastic about the work. Of course, this was 20+ years ago;  student work attitudes at Berea may be different today.
    Because Sterling offers less than a half-dozen named major concentrations, it doesn’t maintain the broad range of professors, courses and majors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences that the majority of colleges (including Berea) do. This sharp focus is another way to trim costs, but it also means that Sterling can't provide students with a broad, traditional liberal arts education. Yet that liberal arts education—one which I myself had as an undergraduate at Amherst College—has been under challenge since the 1960s. Charges ranged—and range—from elitism and lack of diversity to insufficient opportunity for specialization and depth, not to mention relevance (can a humanities major find a job?) and expense. Sterling’s focus on environmentalism is one answer to that challenge.   
    After all, in the first half of the 20th century, American undergraduate education had moved away from what remained of the traditional classical education (Latin, Greek, the humanities, philosophy, Greek and Roman history, mathematics, natural history, English literature) and toward a more contemporary one, which included modern science, modern languages, the social sciences, and American as well as English literature. Equally important was the persistence of breadth, for although curricula had become more specialized (the result of an increasing faculty orientation to research and a professionalization of academic disciplines), undergraduates were required to take at least one elementary course in the main divisions of the college (arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences) in what usually was called a “distribution requirement.”
    The liberal arts ideal, especially as embodied at colleges like Harvard and Columbia, and at my own undergraduate college, Amherst, was that an educated person ought to be familiar with the way artists and critics and philosophers and historians and scientists defined their subjects and thought about them, even though the students would surely not be pursuing careers related to all of them. In addition, most of the educational establishment, at the mid-20th century, believed that students ought to know how to write a proper, persuasive essay; and to be familiar with the great works of art, literature, music, and philosophy, at least at an elementary level of appreciation and understanding; and that they ought to be able to read and speak a modern foreign language, like French or Spanish. The colleges most committed to this ideal adopted, for the freshman and sometimes the sophomore years, a core curriculum of required courses. In this way, no matter what career they chose—and a liberal arts college education was not thought to be career-preparation except in the most general sense—students would be able to read, write, figure, know the past and how it informs the present, have a well-developed sense of ethics, think critically and intelligently, and take their place in the nation as effective and well-informed citizens. Liberal arts education of this sort embodied the Greek concept of paideia, educating for good citizenship.
    That ideal of a liberal arts education came under increasing pressure in the second half of the 20th century, to the point where colleges now find it impossible to maintain it publicly, even if some would wish to. Sputnik struck the first blow. In response, American science education was reformed from the high school level up. Research scientists argued that if the US was going to “win the space race,” a concept that did not seem silly during the Cold War because of the possible military consequences of winning or losing, the world’s leading scientists ought not to have to waste a lot of time in college taking courses in subjects that were irrelevant to their future scientific research. It was good for the nation’s future (non-scientist) leaders to learn how scientists defined their subjects and how they thought about them, so that they could work intelligently with scientists on national and international issues. But the nation’s future scientists ought not to be required to fill their undergraduate transcripts with courses broadly distributed throughout the arts and humanities; they didn't have time to learn how to work with humanists, I guess.   
    Next, beginning in the late 1960s, the traditional arts and humanities curricula were critiqued as elitist, and as a result curricula became far more inclusive. The Great Books with their heritage of classical learning were thought to offer a narrow, Eurocentric, racist, sexist and colonialist worldview. Therefore they could not equip a contemporary student to understand and act in a culturally diverse and rapidly changing, globalized world. The list of great works now expanded to include women and authors of color the world over, and the ancient heritage and contemporary history and thought in Africa and Asia, not merely Europe and North America.
    Eventually, the traditional liberal arts education itself came to be seen as elitist. Efforts to maintain distribution requirements gradually weakened, and today they are very modest. The argument runs that those who wish such a broad education ought to be able to get one through a combination of electives in a diverse curriculum with good advice from professors; and that such an education would now be much more inclusive than it was fifty years ago anyway, and better. But where some see diversity, others see fragmentation and disarray. The humanities have been in retreat; according to a recent Harvard study, only half as many students major in humanities now as did fifty years ago.
    The latest blow comes from a growing consensus that middle-class American families no longer can afford to pay for college, even with diligent, long-term savings and student work-study programs, plus scholarships and loans. College costs have been in the news recently, partly because it’s getting harder and harder for students to bear the burdens of increasing college debt when for years tuition, room and board costs have been rising faster than the inflation rate. When I was a college student, the price of a private college for a year was about as much as one would have to pay for a compact car; today, one could buy three or four comparable entry-level automobiles for what it costs to attend most private colleges, and it's not because cars are cheaper than they were. Students are graduating deeply in debt. Is it worth it? No wonder there's such pressure on colleges to prepare students for careers instead of preparing them for life. Not only does the public wonder why colleges are charging so much more these days, but also whether that model can possibly be sustainable.
    Neither Tufts nor Brown are quite the country-clubs that some critics of higher education make the top-tier private colleges out to be, but they each have a large administrative superstructure (many special schools, such as engineering, medicine, undergraduate liberal arts, a graduate school, etc., each with their own staffs of deans, associate deans, assistant deans, and administrators; higher administrators such as provosts and the president, each with their associates, assistants, and staff; financial officers, development officers, and so forth). Colleges like to brag about their low faculty-to-student ratios; they don’t publish administrative staff-to-student ratios. I’d like to see figures charting changes in these ratios over the past fifty years. I’ll bet that the proportion of administrators and staff to students (and to faculty, for that matter) has increased significantly while the others have declined. Of course, I have a faculty bias here. But one figure is not in doubt: the price of attending as a student.
    It’s also true that support services and quality of life amenities for students at private colleges have increased in the past fifty years, whether better food and housing, or wellness and counseling services, or a myriad of other things. This has to be paid for. Colleges and universities have also made large investments in computers and information technology, not to mention their science labs. At Sterling, at least according to their advertising literature, the college community as a whole seems to take care of counseling and problem-solving, placing additional advising burdens on faculty, who inevitably must get to know the students as people, not just as students. At a university like Tufts or Brown, it is an unusual professor these days who would know more than a few of their students each year as people, or feel part of a residential community in the same way that those who live at Sterling must. In that regard, Sterling may more resemble a private boarding school, with resident faculty who spend a good deal of time with students outside the classroom as well as inside.
    It’s impossible to tell, based on a few days of meals there, about the year-round food at Sterling; but based on what we had in the student dining hall—to be sure, in the middle of a summer harvest—it is plentiful, healthful, varied, and delicious. A college emphasizing environmental studies might favor vegetarian diets, but in fact a variety of meat was also served. The cooks knew what they were doing—one had been trained in cookery at Johnson and Wales University in a previous life, for example. Certainly, the food we (and the students who were there) enjoyed was far better than the school food served at colleges fifty years ago, where our choices were often limited to “mystery meat,” “elbow patches,” powdered potatoes, and canned vegetables boiled beyond recognition. At the same time, Sterling's wasn’t the trendy and upscale food served up in some college dining halls, either.
    The student dorm rooms where we stayed, on the other hand, were about as elemental as one could imagine. They would have seemed spartan even to a hired farmhand. Mine was about eight feet wide by about eighteen feet long, equipped with a bunk bed, a small table and chair that would serve as a desk, an overhead lamp, a bureau for clothes, no closet (but four hooks to hang things), and some shelves. Bathrooms were shared and similarly basic. Although these could be made more comfortable with student belongings, it would plainly be hard to spend time in them doing much other than sleeping, dressing, or working at a computer. Nesting in dorm rooms was discouraged by the nature of the nest. Instead, students would be far more likely to be outside of their rooms, either working at the college, involved with classes and study, or socializing in the community.
    The Sterling model, I believe, has a better shot at sustainability than the liberal arts one I’m most familiar with as a student and professor. I’ve told my Brown students, more than once, that because of rising costs and increased competition among them, in fifty years most universities like Brown will be able to exist only as living history museums, like Old Sturbridge Village, populated by actors and tourists. And many fewer of them. On the other hand, this Sterling model, if it is a model, does not pretend to offer a broad liberal arts education. Yet it offers enough to set the students on their way in the humanities, if they so choose. In the environmental humanities division—I envision an education in ecocriticism here—there is, for example, a course in nature writing; I would welcome such a course in the regular English curriculum at any college. And no doubt through this course, the students will become acquainted with some classic and modern authors of the first rank who write about the natural world, Thoreau as well as Leopold and Erdrich and Kingsolver. And they will become acquainted with the natural world by farming. Sterling College's advertising brochure states that they emphasize experiential learning: some colleges have a farm; Sterling is a farm.
    And so, turning now from the setting to the conference itself, a college that emphasizes farming, conservation ecology and environmental humanities was a very appropriate place to hold a symposium on cultural sustainability. Coupling “cultural” with something that the general public links primarily with science and technology brings a humanities and social science dimension to the discussion on sustainability. But at Sterling it is already there.
    I did meet and talk with several Sterling faculty and students over the course of the symposium. A few students attended the symposium sessions. One of them, a young woman named Jessy, got into a spirited discussion with me when over supper on the first evening, I asked her what her major was. “Ecological philosophy,” she replied; it was a major she was putting together herself, with help from some others in the community. She had, in fact, been working closely with the Dean of the College, Pavel Cenki, on this, and her hands-on experience combined with readings and discussions made her an interesting and challenging conversationalist. We got to talking about “altruism” in the natural world and, somewhat to my surprise, she took the position that it did not exist. She was willing to grant the reciprocity of symbiosis, but pure altruism she believed could not be found anywhere—even among humans. The philanthropist who gives anonymously and expects nothing in return still gets the satisfaction of giving. Such satisfaction, for her, represented a return (not a gift) gained from the transaction; therefore, it could not be an instance of altruism. Nor did she consider altruism in the zoological sense to be true altruism; that is, when one animal gives to another at its own expense.[3]
    In the coming days I will write here about the symposium itself, not only my keynote address but also some things I took away from the presentations and discussions, and from a field trip where we had a chance to learn something about cultural sustainability in the local economy. Of course, it wasn’t all intellectual discourse. In the evenings we played music—I played fiddle some, and guitar; it’s a pleasure to make music with Tony Seeger and his wife Judy, and to meet new musicians such as Carol Dickson, who favored Quebecois fiddle tunes. It was good to be with some old friends, Mary Hufford among them, and make new ones. In the coming days I’ll also try make a few observations here on what remains to be done as we try to understand sustainability in a cultural setting. As Rory Turner, the founder of the cultural sustainability graduate program at Goucher College said, in his concluding remarks, cultural sustainability remains an ongoing conversation and a work in progress.

    [1] Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in his collection of essays, A Continuous Harmony.
    [2] When I taught there, I saw college ownership of the electrical plant as part of the College’s totalizing tendencies, which included a history of paternalism toward faculty as well as students. For example, faculty were paid lower salaries than they might earn elsewhere, but the college provided free houses (some quite nice) that were to be returned to the college after faculty left Berea. I now see this differently: we are, after all, only stewards of the houses we think we own. Nevertheless, it was pointed out to me by some disgruntled faculty then, that they would be better off owning their houses and building equity. Given the recent severe fluctuations in the real estate market, though, building equity in one’s home isn’t the sure bet it once was.
    [3] The problem here, I think, is with the purity of the student's definition; it is easy to get boxed into definitional difficulties whereas the more important things go beyond definitions to acts of generosity, giving, and reciprocity. Relational epistemologies, which is what is at stake here, do not depend on reductionist definitional procedures; rather, they are given life through expansion and interdependent connection. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Upcoming Cultural Sustainability Symposium at Sterling College

     I've been away from this blog for a little while, as I prepare a keynote address for the symposium on cultural sustainability, which is to take place in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, at the end of this week, August 15-18, on the campus of Sterling College, a small, liberal arts college emphasizing conservation ecology.
     The symposium is open to the public: general information may be found here:

and the schedule of presentations here:

     The convergence of college and place, conservation ecology and commons, ought to inspire us all and I'm very much looking forward to meeting new colleagues and re-connecting with old ones there. Among those who will be presenting at the conference is Mary Hufford, an old acquaintance whose work on commons in the Appalachian forest was (and is) very important to my own thinking in this area. We met in the 1980s when she was working at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. She was one of a few scholars back then who was interested in my research into the Appalachian mountain farming ecology, a community worldview based in family, farming, and religious tradition, united by the concept of husbandry, which was an early version of what I now think of as stewardship. She asked me to write about that for the Encycopedia of Appalachia, which I did, and we had many interesting talks in the next decade, as she developed her research into forest commons and shared resources. At that time my research site had shifted south within Appalachia from Virginia to Kentucky, and to Old Regular Baptists, where I found the same ideas of husbandry and a mountain farm ecology. I also found the Lilley Cornett Woods, a preserved old-growth forest that one of the mountain patriarchs (Lilley Cornett) had stubbornly refused to sell out to the timber companies who were clear-cutting the forests in the early 20th century. Today the Lilley Cornett Woods is maintained by the University of Kentucky, and it is the only old-growth forest in the state. Cornett himself was quite a character, and I've mentioned him here before (see the blog entry for Feb. 7, 2011); but he and his forest deserve a separate entry, which I hope to make soon. At any rate, I recall speaking with Mary Hufford, who was at that time doing research into Appalachian forest ecology, and the "falling forest,"  very excitedly about the Lilley Cornett Woods and what it represented, in terms of resistance to the timber and coal corporations that were just beginning their cultural, economic, and environmental genocide in the region.
     For the conference keynote, I sent in the following abstract: "How may we contribute to the struggle for cultural sustainability in the face of increasing environmental, economic, and social injustice? Resilience thinking—today’s fashionable replacement for sustainability—puts us in a defensive posture that by itself is ultimately unsustainable. Nor will a greater reliance on Western economic reason lift all boats on a rising tide. On the contrary, economic reason, based on neoclassical assumptions about 'economic man,' has only exacerbated the current crises. Sustainable alternatives to economic rationality may be found in folklore’s emphases on commonality and orality. Commonality: folklore is not owned, but shared in a cultural commons. Cultural memory sequesters tradition by keeping it available; folklore is preserved by giving it away. Orality: sound vibrates us into co-presence with other living beings. Sound bundles human beings into relationships; economic man isolates individuals. Both commonality and orality may be observed at work in nature as well as culture. An enlightened cultural policy would borrow four principles from conservation biology: diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, and stewardship. But the relationship between culture and the environment goes beyond analogy. The commonwealth of culture is entwined directly with social, environmental, and economic justice. It is impossible to contribute effectively to one without working for all." I'm scheduled to stand and deliver it Friday morning at 9:30 to open the conference, and am very much looking forward to it, and to continuing the conversation about commons, conservation ecology, and cultural sustainability.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

ABET workshop wrap: when unofficial music gains official endorsement

    I promised to write about the other two topics raised at my ABET workshop: heritage and the so-called creative economy in the service of sustaining music; and the difficulties of enacting official cultural policies designed to sustain unofficial music. I’ve treated the first topic extensively over the past five years here, and while the second topic isn’t as prominent in this space, I wrote about it in my essay “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint.” The citation for that essay may be found in my prior blog entry, “Managing for Musical and Cultural Resilence.”
    It was not clear to me whether the creative economy argument gained traction in Brazil, but heritage (partimonia) is alive and well, particularly because Brazil has signed on to the UNESCO treaty safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, and UNESCO in turn has inscribed Brazilian musical traditions on its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. UNESCO's list includes samba de roda of the Reconcavo of Bahia, a tradition involving music, dance and poetry that is said to have developed in the seventeenth century and drawn on the music and dance heritage of the Afro-Brazilians as well as on Portuguese culture. It influenced the evolution of the urban samba in Rio de Janeiro that in the last century became a marker of Brazilian national identity.
    With a commitment to indigenous and minority cultures, the Brazilian government has embraced the UNESCO initiative and patrimonia, to the extent that, as Tony Seeger explained to me, numerous anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists are employed documenting oral traditions in various Brazilian regions. (If and when the US signs on to the UNESCO treaty, employment opportunities for culture workers would improve greatly.) Identifying, documenting and describing these traditions is required if they are going to be safeguarded. More of them will surely be nominated for the UNESCO list. The economic value connotation of patrimonia suggests cashing in on these traditions. Tourism is the usual means, through performances at festivals and such. Additionally, samba de roda has been identified as an endangered tradition, would enjoy the status of a roots music, and might well be marketed on its own in hopes of reviving it, particularly among the younger Brazilians.
    In this case, official cultural policies from UNESCO combine with Brazilian government efforts to sustain samba de roda. It can be seen on YouTube, downloaded from the Internet, purchased on CDs, and so forth, as a google search reveals. What the long-term effects of these efforts may be, remains to be seen. Sometimes the imprimatur of official culture adds value to musical traditions and helps galvanize sustainability efforts within the community that identifies with those traditions. So, for instance, the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky are more likely to conserve their tradition of lined-out hymnody as a result of official cultural attention from the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University. Tourism does not play a part in this: the Old Regular Baptists are not interested in attracting them, and neither is the music likely to do so. It is a participatory music, not the kind of music that is presented from a stage. In other circumstances, unintended negative consequences may result from official recognition, as occurred with the gu-qin (7-string zither) tradition in China. One kind of tourist will seek out sites that official culture has recognized as significant; another kind of tourist is suspicious of official cultural recognition and the mediation that accompanies it, and instead seeks music that is relatively obscure and unmediated, usually justifying this quest for authenticity on the grounds that once a music is marketed to tourists, it is inevitably transformed so as to please the tourist audience.