“The question of justice is also about relationships. Our ability to lean into that tension and show up to it both externally and internally it’s about who and how we are. And to think about it as a geographer, it’s about human-environment relationships; it’s about people and place. We don’t exist separately.”
[00:00:00] Carolyn: Like, how will we be remembered? It’s not about being famous or any of that, but just how will we be held as an ancestor?
[00:00:12] Laurie: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders and independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. Today’s guest is Carolyn Finney, a storyteller, author, cultural geographer, and a self-described accidental environmentalist, whose work explores the intersection of identity, privilege, and our natural surroundings.
She’s the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. And lately, she’s been workshopping a performance piece titled The N Word: Nature Revisited, in which she interrogates our collective relationship with the land, an interrogation that includes a spirited conversation with the ghost of John Muir.
Carolyn teaches undergraduates at Middlebury as an artist in residence and environmental affairs, and last summer served on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference.
This is part two of a two-part conversation today.
If we think about your Black faces and White spaces and the way you think about the underrepresentation of Blacks in nature, in parks, in environmentalism, one of the things you say that kind of connects with what you were just saying now is that you talk about the need for us to look beyond environmental justice, include it, but also move beyond it to think about that expanded story. And I’m wondering, and this is a great example, which is, yes, justice policy, ways of thinking about naming that which hasn’t been named yet, of who the people are and were in those spaces, it’s that simple. And then, there’s this other next step, and I think that’s what, first of all, is brave about your work, is that you take that next step. You tell those stories, and I would love to hear you say more in relationship to “Black Faces, White Spaces” that work around including and beginning from the premise of environmental justice, but then moving into other ways of talking.
[00:02:22] Carolyn: Yes. Well, you know, so next year’s a 10-year anniversary for the book. And I’m talking with a number of people, my publishers, about writing a little something to, you know, where has my thinking shifted and changed and expanded. I’m all about justice as a broad and deep concept.
I think, you know, I have a quote somewhere, I think on one of my emails at the end in the signature from Cornel West: “Love is justice made public.” And when I heard him say that there was something so broad and deep about that; there’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau that sometimes, I don’t have it in front of me, but sometimes there’s nothing to do but to love more, like, to put more love. Like, the use of love as something that’s not light and just pink hearts, you know. That, actually, it’s an obligation, it’s a responsibility, it’s an accountability, it’s a caring, it’s a generosity, it’s a possibility, it’s potential.
So, when I talk about that, I think in my book, I was thinking that I was frustrated by, within an academic context, as I was learning, that there seems to be a separation out. So, if it’s struggles and there’s tension and there’s all this stuff, we’re going to place that over here in this category that we’re going to call environmental justice. And everything else—conservation, you know, all the other names we put to—it’s over here. It’s related. It’s in a family. As opposed, for me, of thinking that, well, actually, in all relationships, there is tension. And something that I learned, in particular from a wonderful, one of the smartest people I know, Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, who’s an artist and thinker and writer in her own right. She told me a long time ago, she goes, “It’s interesting how we take tension and think of it as something negative and hard, we should avoid. And tension is only energy.”
And I’ll never forget the examples she said. You know, a caterpillar cannot break out of a cocoon without that tension and become a butterfly. And it has stayed with me for years. And I was like, that is wonderful, it’s simple, but it’s something really powerful about that.
And so, the idea that we would try to avoid that, thinking about, you know, for me the question of justice is also about relationship, our ability to lean into that tension and show up to it, both externally, as well as internally, right? It’s about who we are and how we are. And to think about, you know, as a geographer, it’s about human/environment relationships, it’s about people and place. We don’t exist separately. I don’t care who we are. I don’t care where we live. There is no separation from standing on this earth, from needing that water, from the food we ingest, all the things, right? There’s no separation. We create things, you know, but there’s no separation.
So, for me, how do we, how do we lean into that more fully? And I always… this is the other thing I want to say. I’m probably getting off topic a little bit, but I don’t think… I don’t know if I’m going to say this carefully. I don’t think we have to necessarily give up, you know, go back to that quote about we’ve lost this shared American narrative. Actually, I think we’re just reclaiming it, remaking it.
[00:05:39] Laurie: And telling it in new ways, because we need to.
[00:05:42] Carolyn: Yes. And narratives and stories are not static entities.
[00:05:46] Laurie: Right, absolutely.
[00:05:48] Carolyn: You know, there’s nothing in nature that is. Even the rock is not static and unchanging. So, why do we think that it would be we have to stick with this thing over here like this that’s barely two-dimensional. It’s barely two-dimensional. It’s so flat. We are way more interesting than that. We’re way more interesting than that.
[00:06:09] Laurie: I so think that’s a great way of thinking about it. And, you know, what is foundational? When we think about what is foundational, that doesn’t mean that is a static structure that then dictates, but rather it is a place that we return to, to gain strength and to reinterpret…
[00:06:28] Carolyn: Yes.
[00:06:28] Laurie: …you know, in so many different ways.
And I just was going to say, the tension that you’re talking about is very much the spirit of conflict transformation, this big grant that we’re working through. It’s the basic idea is that conflict will always be there. The highest and best moral obligation is to make the tension in that conflict, which will always be there, productive rather than destructive. Like, changing police neighborhood practices, for example, so that the relationship between police and neighborhoods shifts, or changing how the national parks tell their story so that the relationship to a greater number of people, particularly people of color, shifts, you know, so more people can be there and feel welcome in that wilderness, et cetera.
Like, that’s the idea behind it. And it’s actually really hard analytical work, because to imagine a place where the tension is productive… Like, I’m always going to be in this role and you’re always going to be in that role—sometimes, we get caught in those institutional things. So, then, how do we stay in those roles and find that way of being that allows us always to reimagine new possibilities? John Poltorak’s, you know, philosophy is that, who inspires our conflict transformation group.
So, I think there are so many ways in which the relationship to nature teaches us that. And I also want to say, you were talking about the academy earlier in relationship to your book, and I wanted to bring it to Middlebury a little bit, because you’re not only an actress, you’re not only a cultural geographer, and you’ve, kind of, lived both of those lives—you’re a traveler and you’re also a Middlebury professor. I’d love to hear you think about both yourself as an educator, and I’ll ask a second question, we can come back to it, which is what you’re, I define, a Middlebury moment, as when you suddenly realize what a cool place you’re part of.
[00:08:24] Carolyn: That’s right.
[00:08:25] Laurie: And you always knew it, but, you know, you have one. So, I was going to begin by saying, like, finally getting to talk to you is my Middlebury moment for today.
[00:08:35] Carolyn: Right.
[00:08:35] Laurie: And I think that, you know, it’s so much fun and so joyful. But I would love to hear you talk a little bit about the actress, the cultural geographer, but now, the educator, more broadly. And then, maybe bring it home to Midd.
[00:08:47] Carolyn: Yeah. Oh, my God, I love that. Okay. Woo. So, I will say that, when I went back to school and got my three degrees, so my mid-30s into my 40s, it wasn’t because I was saying what I want to do is be a professor. You know, I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking, one, I wanted to build my knowledge base, my own confidence, and my ability to talk about a wide variety of things.
I love learning in the broadest sense. So, whether I was living in a village in Nepal for a year and a half or back and getting my master’s in Utah, it didn’t matter. I was, kind of, looking to add it all as an opportunity to, sort of, build something, because I wanted the opportunity to have a public platform do this work.
That sounds really fancy as an educator. Really, I just wanted to have my own independence and freedom and to think more broadly and expansively and be my whole self within that process. I will say that, you know, having worked in different institutions, often with really good people, and often… how can I say this gently, you know, being recruited into places that then wanted me to show up in a very particular way. And again, let me be generous and say that it can be both threatening or just you don’t understand or the way that we are measured and seen in terms of education and the way that we show up, the tension for me was, one, I was old enough when I was working to know that I, kind of, know who I am. I’m changing and growing, but I, kind of, know what I want to do.
But two, I have to walk my talk. So, here is what I’m doing. I’m saying to students, “You have to be willing to take risks. The invitation is to take risks in this life,” going back to the idea of obligation. How are you your whole self? Healing isn’t just something we’re doing for systems and structures outside of ourselves. We are also doing it for ourselves, right? And it’s a process. We’re building relationships constantly, across differences, you know.
If I’m going to do all of that, I’m going to have to do all of that, which means that it meant that I was coming up against it all the time in institutions that either didn’t know how to measure who I was. They couldn’t interpret me, and they couldn’t push me into a place they needed to. And I say that as a whole, not all the individuals, all the places, as I came to understand the academic structure better.
I will say one of my Midd moments was, and I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, I say it to people all the time, is that I was always being, you know—different institutions would talk to me about coming there—and I’d say, listen, that statement, Laurie, that you read at the very beginning, I only came to that statement…it took me years to get clearer and clearer and clearer about, “Here’s what I’m trying to do and who I am and who I want to be, right, in relationship.” That, when Nan Jenks was here as dean and reached out—and I was at University of Kentucky at the time, so I was living in Lexington, and actually, I had just, sort of, left that and was still living in Kentucky, thinking I can do this work out in the world in a way full time, I think it’s going to work for me—and said, “Would you come here?”
And one of the moments was when I said, “Well, you know, I’m not looking for a full-time position” because I’d been doing that and I couldn’t manage all of it. And actually, I said, “There’s got to be a different and better way.” And she’s like, “Well, let’s talk about it.”
And we spent six months practicing conversation in relationship about what would be good for the College, the university, what would be good for me, and how we might make it work. So, the moment of finally having an institute… because I like being in relationship with academic institutions. That’s the thing. I’m not the person who says, “I hate it.” I don’t. It’s broken my heart numerous times, and that has hurt. But I like the possibility that an academic institution offers. I like the privilege that an academic institution offers.
And suddenly, to find an institution that was like, “Yeah, we can figure that out. You can be part time. You can be in a residency. We can place you in Franklin Environmental Center. You can start to build relationships with different departments, like Black Studies or Theatre, if that’s what you want to do.
“There’s a way. What is it that you want to teach and talk about?” I was like, “Wait, what’s happening right now? Well, let me whip out my list,” because I always have a list, you know, about what I want to do. Who’s the network of people you know? You know all these amazing people, bring them in.
It was the freedom of that. I explain it to people all the time. I say, first of all, it’s the first time in years that, actually, that there was real freedom in that, there was no threatening of me. I could claim a place and be in stronger, better relationship. I could be upright in that in relationship, with all that comes with that. And I can do it honestly. I can be authentic about it. And I can be loyal about it, because what it asks of me is not to become something that I’m not. It asks of me to be authentic and in relationship as best as I can do, which doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. It doesn’t mean the institution doesn’t make mistakes. Well, we’re human beings. It just means that we’re accountable to each other for that. And there’s something really powerful there.
The second thing I want to say is, and the speakers who come to my class tell me this all the time, so I’m not going to use an expression that would be, kind of, crude, blowing smoke up you know what, is to say to people, the students are incredible. The students are incredible. And you know this already, but there is something really particular about a lot of the Middlebury students that I’ve come to and as a whole and as a body and as people. They may be young in age, but there’s a certain, I don’t know. There’s certain something. I come to the class, and I’m always surprised. Always. Because it’s like I forget over the summer, and then I’m back in the class, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah. Right.”
[00:14:41] Laurie: Keep me on my toes, please. Yeah.
[00:14:43] Carolyn: Keep me on my toes. And that’s exactly where I want to be.
[00:14:46] Laurie: Yeah, totally.
[00:14:48] Carolyn: But also, my real self in that. So, I can take risks and I can, kind of, come in. And I mean risks in the way that I can think of being an educator as, you know, as an older person. I can say, you know, “Here’s how I’m doing it. I don’t always get it right. But I’m thinking about it. I want to be intentional.” I always say to students, what is your intention?
[00:15:12] Laurie: Right.
[00:15:13] Carolyn: If you understand your intention, even if you got three or four of them on a list, and let that be your guide. Why do you want to do this work? So, when you’re feeling the activism piece, which I think of as a form of practice, you know, a way that you come to it. And many of the students at Middlebury are moved by whether it’s climate justice or whether it’s racial justice. You know, they’re thinking about these things very specifically.
What is your intention? How are you in service to that? And you don’t have to… it doesn’t have to be right or wrong for anybody else. You just have to be clear about it. So, you’re always going to be faced with choices. Sometimes, they’re limited. Sometimes, they’re not. But the responsibility is yours to make the choice that’s going to be in service to the intention. So, you can be authentic in relationship the way that you want, and ultimately upright. Because we need you as your whole self, you know.
[00:16:05] Laurie: Yeah, totally. You know, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson spoke about it at our graduation in the following way.
[00:16:12] Carolyn: Oh, I love her, yes.
[00:16:14] Laurie: Yeah, she’s awesome. She said, “You know, I’m not going to tell you to follow your passion. I am going to tell you, in 2023, what we need, that’s great, yay, but what we need is find the need in the world and affix your heart to it.” It’s kind of a different way to think about it.
So, just a couple thoughts about what you said. The first is, one of the things, you know, people come in and they flop on my couch, and they say, “I want to be a college president. Tell me how to do it.” And I’m like, I don’t say this, but I could, which is “you just disqualified yourself in the following way, which is the role, if you are attached to the role, you’re never going to get the work done. You might get some work done, but you’re never going to get it done as effectively as you need.”
So, what I love about your story is that it’s about you are not wanting to follow that role, but rather to be true to what the work is. Like, if you love the work, then the role, kind of, sort of, doesn’t matter. And that’s a really, really important thing. And it’s hard to think about that with identity and shaping of identity. The biggest work for 18- to 22-year-olds is that shaping of identity. But I love that you naturally understand that. It’s helpful, as you talk about vocation, you can see in young people the way in which their calling—they may not even articulate it yet. Most of the time they do because they’re Midd students, but their calling is there. The way I frequently ask them, I say, “What’s your question? The one question you never know the answer to and you’ll never get tired of asking? That’s your work. That’s the thing that will make you transcend or help you transcend the role.”
[00:17:50] Carolyn: I was in Telluride at Mountainfilm again in May, this time to see the documentary I mentioned earlier. And I had a conversation with the singer, MILCK, who was there promoting her documentary. And one of the things that I said to her, because we were talking about doing the work her documentary was about, what it meant for her as a singer, a person of color doing what it is she’s done. And you know, she focuses a lot on women’s rights. And I said, you know, “For me,” and talking, I would say this to Midd students, too, you know, “Most of us need a job, right? Because we’ve got bills to pay. We’ve got rent to pay. I need a job. I need to work, right.” I said, “But the job, I know the difference between the job and the work.” And I said, “And the work for me is the practice, you know.”
And I have reached a place in my life where I’m incredibly fortunate. It took some time to get here in the last few years, where I get to pay my rent doing the work, which… but it wasn’t… I mean, most of my life, I’ve had a lot of jobs. You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs. Some I have liked, some I have not. And I’ve done a lot of different things, you know, that I can do the work.
And so, if I were talking to Midd students, I recognize that, for everybody, we live in a world where you need money, you got to pay for things, you know, we come up against different challenges, financial challenges, that’s a real thing. And as somebody who has massive school debt at a later age, I know it. I get it. And you have to take that into consideration. And also, what is your intention? And that, for me, should be part of that conversation. It doesn’t mean that, you know, I can’t speak for anybody about what you need to do at any given time. You know, we have to make different choices. And we don’t have to lose sight of the intention, as we make the choices so we can show up.
And it is also incredibly important for me. I try to talk to them about self-care, you know, because I want you here for the long haul, whatever that is. And part of the practice is how you take care of yourself. And I’m not simply saying, go on vacation. That’s not exactly what I mean. Though, that may be what you have to do. But it is how you recognize that mentally, heartwise, physically, you know, what is it that you need to be able to stay upright? And you don’t have to apologize for that to me or anybody. You just have to attend to it, right?
[00:20:18] Laurie: Right, totally right. A friend of mine calls it extreme self-care, because she’s one of the editors of the volume, Slavery and the University. And she’s in that work, you know, every day as a historian and has an incredible, sort of, powerful voice in that space. And she, yeah, frequently says it needs to be… it will feel extreme to you.
The other thing I just want to name, and then I have another fun question, is the intentionality. I think a lot of the ways in which we think about changing the world and figuring out who we are in this time and in this space is focused on impact. And I think that that is incredibly powerful, and it should be. And this voice in my head is always saying, but intentionality is so important. There’s a Hindu ritual where the first thing you do before you go into any ritual is state intention, right? That’s, like, the part of the ritual has to be stating intention, the Sankalpa in Sanskrit. And so, you’re like in that space of… and I think that’s related to relationality, that part of a person’s intention. Intention can never be an excuse for harm, but it can be part of who the person is that should be shaped as… that’s part of the shape of the relationship, which is why I love your connection. And I would see in your work a connection between intentionality and the insistence on relationship.
[00:21:42] Carolyn: And I think that… I mean, for me, I periodically have to interrogate my own set of intentions.
[00:21:49] Laurie: Oh, hugely. Yeah.
[00:21:50] Carolyn: Right? Because that’s part of the work for me, is paying attention to things shift and change. I learn and grow. I come back to, you know, having to ask myself the question, is this still in service to, is this still working? Is this best? Because I also don’t want to hurt anybody. The intention is not to hurt.
And also, you said it, what I heard you say in the beginning of this last question was, there is impact. There is always impact. And sometimes, that impact, depending on who’s on the other end of that, it’s not received well, you know, how it’s interpreted.
And so, I also have to think about, how do I attend to that after the fact? And it’s not… Sometimes, it’s an apology. Sometimes, it’s not an apology, it’s just a recognition and an acknowledgement of, wow, that is not what I meant to do.
Because the thing that’s true is I can’t control you, right? I can’t control what you’re going to say. People ask me that, and students ask me that. Well, you know, emotionally, what if the person doesn’t like me or they don’t like what I have to say? Or, what if… I said, well, they might not.
[00:22:58] Laurie: Yep, and there it is.
[00:22:59] Carolyn: There it is. They might not.
[00:23:01] Laurie: That’s the reality, yeah. And I’m going to make a weird connection, but I think that it’s an odd thing to say, but I’m struck by your work with botanical gardens and with trees in the following way, which is, I was going to mention this earlier, but that the possibility for doing something different and telling different stories around the environment and our landscapes—trees are not human-size, but they are not, you know, what do I do about Yellowstone, for example? They are… how can a tree connect with a new story and, and intentionality, right?
And the reason why I’m connecting intentionality in trees is because, a lot of times, if someone passes and they’re connected to Middlebury, they’re going to want to plant a tree.
Our campus has a tree tour. Everyone loves it. And our arborist, Tim Parsons, loves to give tours. And there is a tree focus that actually helps people’s imaginations. When they plant a new tree, they reconnect to the landscape, and they also can tell the story of the tree and the relationships that the tree engendered differently.
So, I was thinking about that when you were telling your own cherry tree story, that there are many, many ways, and there are so many people who want to plant trees on Middlebury’s campus. A lot of times people are like, “Oh, okay, we don’t have any more.”
You know, there is always a possibility planting another tree. But when you think about what people are really wanting behind that, whether we plant the tree or not, it’s about reimagining and reconnecting and telling a new story. And I think that is also a way of imagining intentionality differently.
[00:24:52] Carolyn: And I want to say, Laurie, sometimes I think it’s not only about telling a new story but telling an old story differently.
[00:25:03] Laurie: So, that’s… can I just play on that for a second? Because that’s exactly right. And I wanted to ask you, in our classrooms, you are encouraging people to tell old stories differently. This is our, you know, 200th anniversary of Alexander Twilight…
[00:25:18] Carolyn: Yes.
[00:25:19] Laurie: … for us at Middlebury and his experience.
[00:25:23] Carolyn: Yeah, I love that story.
[00:25:24] Laurie: And when I think about… I had an amazing conversation at Aspen in June, in which a wonderful guy who runs the Howard Thurman Foundation, and he said, “People these days were incredibly polarized. People, you know, have mixed feelings about DEI.” He said it nicely. I get it. There’s all sorts of things we could talk about there, but he said people still want to give to the Thurman Fund. And we talked a lot about it, and I said, “I think it’s because of old stories being told differently. There are ancestries that are so powerful.”
And I think, you know, whenever I name Twilight, like, he’s our ancestor. And that’s what the work that Middlebury needs to do, is not, like, “Oh, yay, we were the first.” Even that is contested. I don’t mean to be dismissive at all. It’s incredibly important. And there’s more to be told about him, his life, his work. He’s an ancestor, so let’s make him complex. Because the reason why we love textured history is because we talk to our ancestors and they got different things to say to us on different days, you know.
And so, I would love to know from you in your work, who’s your favorite ancestor that we need to remember differently in the environmental work? And the second is, who is the ancestor that our students really resonate with, that they hadn’t thought about, you know, as an ancestor? Maybe, it’s the same person.
[00:26:48] Carolyn: Oh, my goodness. That’s a hard one. The first one’s really hard for me, our ancestors, to think of differently. So, here’s the thing. I’m going to come to it backwards and around the corner, like I like to do, is… we will all be ancestors, right? So, I think part of, perhaps, the unrecognized impulse to want to plant a tree for someone is because we imagine we’d want somebody to plant a tree for us.
Like, how will we be remembered? It’s not about being famous or any of that, but just how will we be held as an ancestor? So, part of that acting out is, you know, kind of, thinking about ourselves. I know I’m thinking about myself around that question. I think that, you know, I could name ancestors, you know. Zora Neale Hurston always pops into my head, because when I was doing the work of “Black Faces, White Spaces” as a dissertation, I was living in Florida for a year. And I was reading a lot about her letters.
So, I would go to… you know, I remember I’d go to the beach and I’d sit on the beach, and I was working. But I was sitting on the beach. It was Florida. And I’d be reading some of her letters, because I wanted to read about this woman who was complicated and complex and not always likable, but I loved her, who was doing this work of elevating, you know, the story of Black people from this part of the world and part of the country, you know, in a way that made them fully human and whole and did it her way. Because she was fierce in her own sense of, you know, maybe not always right, but she was fierce, you know, in the way that she did that, and what it cost her, perhaps, to do that.
And so, I think about her or any… so, I want to say this first, that we might look at differently. But lately, I have to tell you, and something I’ve been talking about in the class at Middlebury, where I had them think about their environmental autobiography, is I put a lot of emphasis on people. So, what if we actually think of ancestors more than human, trees, and other things as well? You know, how do we think of differently? I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of geologic time, because again, someone’s saying to me that, as human beings, we think in 100-year increments, more or less.
[00:29:04] Laurie: Yeah. And Robin Kimmerer’s wonderful comment, I’m paraphrasing here, “That I learned from strawberries. My teachers were strawberries.”
[00:29:10] Carolyn: Yeah. Oh, I love that. Yes.
[00:29:12] Laurie: Which is, like, it’s that same idea, yeah. That’s a wonderful, sort of, cross-species way of thinking about ancestry as well.
[00:29:20] Carolyn: Because think about rocks, for me, fascinate… Like, the rocks, like, just… but I mean, you know, so I’ve lived in… I’ve been in every state, I’ve been invited to every state, but the two Dakotas and Hawaii. So, I just want to leave it. So, I’ve spent time and I’ve moved around a lot. Especially, I lived in Utah. And I think of, right now, for me, the most beautiful, striking… and many parts of the country are beautiful and striking, but that just blew my mind was Southern Utah. Zion and Canyonlands just laid me out. I was like, “What’s happening right now?” Because it’s just like rocks, but incredible, like the colors and the shapes and the formations.
And what would it mean? You know, we can be dismissive of something inanimate like a rock. But what if we are also thinking about them as ancestors? Man, they’re holding geologic time.
Or, the stars. I’ve become interested in the Jack Webb telescope is kind of blowing my mind. These are, like, these random things that I, sometimes, go down rabbit holes, because I’m just like, “There’s all this up there that’s just… We’re like this.” I know everybody says it. I mean, I’m a Carl Sagan fan, you know.
[00:30:28] Laurie: Yes, billions and billions.
[00:30:30] Carolyn: But really, the ancestor… like, they’ve been here longer than us, and many of them, most of them will be here long after many of us are gone.
And I’m working on this, because I actually get very agitated, anxiety-ridden, when I think about the universe in that there’s more than simply human beings. There’s more than human beings and animals, right? There’s more than human beings, animals, and plant life… it keeps going. There’s more, there’s more, there’s more. And my anxiety goes up because, like, I don’t know how to grasp that.
So, that would be the thing for me, like, ancestors, just the idea of that is about back to relationship and connection and legacy. I was watching… so, this is so random because I love science fiction. I love science fiction movies. So, I was watching the movie, Lucy, again last night, which is with Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. But there’s this interesting conversation about the cell and going back to the beginning that I find so intriguing about we are more than… I’m more than this meat sack.
[00:31:35] Laurie: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:31:37] Carolyn: I get overwhelmed by that, because I can’t quite, you know, control it. But also, what if I knew? Like, what if I had access to 20, 30, 50 percent of my brain cell? And how would that bring me into greater relationship with everything around me?
[00:31:55] Laurie: Two thoughts about this. The first is my new ancestor. I knew that was going to happen. My dad, who just passed, he said something that was related to what you said about tension earlier, which is, we were talking about, my dad and I would have conversations from when I was young about, because he was a cardiovascular surgeon and loved to think about philosophy. And I’d say, “Dad, are we really just bags of cells? Like, what does it mean that we’re bags of cells?” And I would, you know, sort of, think about this. And he would just talk endlessly about how he, as a surgeon, manipulates bags of cells, you know, and that his work is a lot like a plumber, not to, sort of, you know, “I’m just a plumber kind of thing,” but much bigger than that, which is, this is what plumbing is, you know, that it’s the same, it’s fluid, it’s flow. A vascular surgeon focuses on fluid and flow.
And that’s what his understanding of bags of cells is all about. So, it’s very much connected to what you just said.
The other thing when you mentioned the tension, he would say, and I was talking to him about the relationship between stress and health and how both of us actually do really well in stressful jobs and what was going on with that. And he said, “You know, I totally get it. And, you know, frequently told my patients”—he’d retired by then, you know—“not to lead or add stress to their lives or to reduce stress, et cetera.” He said, “But I can tell you one thing that will absolutely kill you.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “No stress.” And I thought, yeah, it’s so true. You know, it’s like, “Wow, it’s really true.”
So, I want to say one of the things that really inspired me was Eddie Glaude. I don’t know if you know Eddie, but he wrote a wonderful book just recently on James Baldwin. He’s at Princeton, head of the Black studies program there. He’s a dear friend. And I was talking to him about… and he was coming to meet with our trustees. And I was talking about Middlebury landscapes and saying, you know, how, when the heartbreak of a landscape emerges in a landscape that you’ve loved, and then the heartbreak of that landscape and the pain of that landscape and the multiplicity of that landscape all emerges for you, how do you think about it? Because I think it’s a very Vermont challenge, in a certain way, because we love our landscapes, and we’re just beginning to tell a more textured history.
And he said something that I absolutely love, which reminds me of your work, which is he said, “What would it look like if the landscape became therefore more beautiful for all of us?”
[00:34:22] Carolyn: Yes. Oh, that’s great. Yes.
[00:34:25] Laurie: So, I just wanted to end with that note of appreciation in sharing that conversation with Eddie, because it reminded me of your work. And it’s really what you do for all of us.
[00:34:35] Carolyn: I want to say this very quickly. It’s just that, because when you said that, I couldn’t help but think of Maui right now and think about the job of reigniting the story of that landscape and who it’s become, because there’s so much loss and how to hold that. That’s for our next conversation.
[00:34:57] Laurie: Yes, thank you for remembering the people of Maui, because their historical town is no longer. And so, their history has to be within them. And that’s also really powerful.
All right, we’re going to exercise extreme self-discipline and stop. I hate to end this conversation, and I know we would be going on, on and on. And I think we’ve made our podcast editors’ lives extremely difficult. But I just have loved talking to you. I know there’s a ton more we could say. I hope and really wish for you a rest of a wonderful summer, a continued connection with all of our ancestors, both human, nonhuman, and across all species. So, thank you for your time.
We’d like to thank Carolyn Finney for joining us in part two of a two-part conversation today.
Midd Moment is hosted by me, Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury. The podcast is executive produced by Matt Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, and produced, engineered, and edited by Caitlin Whyte and the terrific folks at the podcast agency, University FM. Research on this episode was provided by Sara Thurber Marshall.
For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.
- Carolyn Finney
- Carolyn Finney – Middlebury Profile
- Carolyn Finney Instagram
- Franklin Environmental Center at Middlebury
- Black Faces, White Spaces
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.