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Thinkers and Activists Study Ties to Nature

IMAGINE a week or so aboard a sailboat with a dozen other people, meeting in seminar with one of today's best thinkers. No phones or television, just a wind-borne trip off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and deep conversation with the closest thing we have in modern American society to a ``tribal elder.''

That's what Jonathan White had in mind a decade ago when he bought an old wooden 65-foot schooner called ``Crusader'' and formed Resource Institute, a nonprofit Seattle-based organization. ``Talking on the Water: Conversations About Nature and Creativity'' is a collection of interviews White had with the writers and thinkers, the scientists and activists who were the focus of these floating seminars.

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The discussions range far and wide, but there are some connecting themes: The need for rootedness; separation in the modern age (between individuals and communities, between humanity and nature); the importance of ritual and myth; the worthiness of subsistence hunting; and native American spirituality.

``I think of the conversations in `Talking on the Water' as the roots of an integrated community,'' White writes in his introduction. ``While at first these roots may not appear to be linked, a closer look reveals that they are sustained in common ground. A poet, a biologist, a science fiction writer, and an ex-Dominican priest all share a deep and long-standing concern for their relationship with nature. How they think and talk about this is as full of surprising similarities as it is of obvious differences.''

These are provocative conversations, reminding one of Bill Moyers's public-television talks with Joseph Campbell. White is an excellent interviewer. He has done his homework, and he draws out these experts in a way that is both engaging and informative.

The subjects raised are profound and sometimes disturbing. What is mankind's place in nature? How should one view death? Has the shift from a hunter-gatherer society through the agricultural revolution to the industrial age brought spiritual barrenness?

``In working on this book,'' White writes, ``it wasn't so much that I wanted answers to the questions we were asking, but I wanted to learn more about how to approach the questions themselves.''

Poet Gary Snyder talks of the demand for ``nature literacy'' (starting in one's own backyard), anthropologist Richard Nelson of the need to ``rediscover that rightful place'' where human habitation fits with a sense of nature that is more than just scenery.

Rancher/writer Gretel Ehrlich and animal-behavior expert Roger Payne explore the way communication and trust can (and should) build between mankind and other species - not only in order to advance scientific understanding, but for man to grow in self-knowledge.

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Novelist Ursula Le Guin describes how ``the tribal storyteller'' (in modern times as well as ancient societies) ``is not just providing spiritual access but also moral guidance.'' Environmental and native-American-rights activist Janet McCloud worries that ``the greed and impatience of Western society is a symptom of a deep spiritual poverty.''

Others interviewed as part of White's ``integrated community'' are: David Brower, Lynn Margulis, James Hillman, Dolores LaChapelle, Matthew Fox, Paul Shepard, and Peter Matthiessen.

With 13 such conversations in one book of average length, each must be fairly brief. Yet they are individually rich and in sum most satisfying.

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