Years ago, as a budding producer at the NOVA Science Series, I learned that carbon tetrachloride is a key chemical in the dry cleaning process. That fact has been lodged in my brain for nearly a quarter of a century. Not because I was so impressed by the tetrahedral configuration of this chemical or its magical cleaning properties. Quite the opposite. I was afraid of it. It is the reason I hand wash almost every delicate article of clothing I own. No matter the risk. No matter how many officious dry cleaning labels I confront. I have learned over the years that most fabrics can be delicately washed in cold water with a gentle soap. To avoid puckering or crimping delicate silks or blends thereof, I take care to not wring them dry but drape them, dripping, over a square-framed mesh net I purchased for this purpose. Recently, I almost broke protocol when faced with cleaning a beloved sweater from a friend that bears the label, Sleeping on Snow. Icy white beads and silk ribbon are intricately stitched along its border, carefully spaced apart to resemble a row of flowers. Did I want to take my chances and possibly destroy this work of art, this symbol of a deep and abiding friendship? Yes, I decided. Even though this article of clothing sparks joy in my life, I know the friendship can withstand the risk that I might damage its handiwork. Part of what pushed me to this place was reading an article by the BBC about the town of Kanpur in India which is poisoning itself from the chemicals it uses to create leather goods for worldwide consumption. The article was a larger piece about the pollution of the “mother” Ganges river which the new prime minister, Narenda Modi, vows to clean up. Four hundred and fifty million people contribute to the river’s pollution in the form of human waste, industrial pollutants, agricultural runoff and cremated bodies. It is an admirable goal on Modi’s part and one that must be tackled no matter how daunting. If I told you I’d rather be sleeping on snow —on pure white snow— that is the truth.
When grass-fed beef farmer, Todd Churchill, told me that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains billions of living organisms —more than there are people on this earth— it reminded me of another astonishing fact that I’d learned in my work. Neutron stars which form from the gravitational collapse of massive stars, after supernovae or stellar explosions, are dense beyond reckoning. Just a teaspoon of this condensed celestial body, according to some estimates, weighs about ten million tons, which is equivalent to the mass of roughly “900 Great Pyramids of Giza.” That’s an imagined space that gets your head spinning.
Churchill’s enthusiasm for the richness of organic soil was palpable when I interviewed him for “Troubled Waters.” Fungi, nematodes, earthworms, insects, billions of microbes and other living organisms all work their magic just beneath the surface, creating a phantasmagorically diverse, healthy and porous environment. In times of drought, the fluffy, aerated soil retains moisture like a sponge. Cracks and crevices from biological activity allow roots to maneuver and grow, strengthening the plants while crowding out the weeds. Grass-fed beef once dominated the landscape of America but in recent decades has been taken over by CAFO’s or Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Grass-fed beef represents a small fraction of the marketplace today, but Churchill is not deterred. He is committed to partnering with nature’s genius.
I felt that it was important to include Churchill in “Troubled Waters” because his grass-fed beef operation represents a tangible solution to improving land and water quality. There will never be a silver bullet to heal our land and waters but more a tapestry of efforts that can make a real difference. Every individual effort counts.
I was practically a child when a friend of a friend asked me if I would conduct an interview for her high school video project about the avant-garde artist, John Cage. She was running the camera and needed someone to interview him. So off we went to Washington D.C. where I sat down with Mr. Cage. To this day, I am not sure how she secured the interview. But, without realizing it at the time, this encounter taught me about the art of listening. For every question I posed, Mr. Cage sat in silence. I recall feeling uncomfortable but something stopped me from blurting out the next question or trying to rephrase the first. Perhaps it was his aura of kindness that gave me the courage to sit in silence with him. Eternity passed and then he spoke. As I worked through my questions, I came to understand that the silence was as important as the answers —for it was in that eternity of time that his thoughts were gathered. Nearly a decade later, when I embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker, I knew not to fear the silence in the interview, but to welcome it. In fact, I have found that sitting in silence with my interviewees can sometimes bring forth revelations about their personal life they had not contemplated until that moment.