The Holden Village Podcast

Sara Olson-Smith & Brent Olson

June 28, 2023 Dev Bach
The Holden Village Podcast
Sara Olson-Smith & Brent Olson
Show Notes Transcript

Sara Olson-Smith is a pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. She is the author of recent Bible studies in the Women of the ELCA's Gather Magazine. In her writing, teaching, and pastoral work she weaves together God's ancient stories in scripture with contemporary struggles, movements, and hopes. In community, we can (re)discover a Spirit-led life of freedom, joy, and care for one another and all creation. 

Brent Olson is a professor of Environmental Studies and co-director of the Institute for Mountain Research at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. His teaching and research is centered on the stories we tell about nature and their implications for our relationships to each-other and the non-human world. These relationships and stories are complex, varied, challenging, and embedded in legacies of slow violence.

In the midst of this injustice and trauma, he works to uncover and share the work of communities that are fostering hope, and the stories that nurture life in the scorched soil. Befitting the overlapping and cascading crises of the Anthropocene, his work refuses simple answers, easy optimism, or quick solutions, instead encouraging students, colleagues, and others to find a richer and deeper hope grounded in communities of knowledge and engagement rooted in playfulness and creativity.

To learn more about Holden Village, visit: or to listen to more audio recordings visit: The Holden Village Podcast is accessible through Apple iTunes, Spotify, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, and most podcast apps. For questions and inquiries, contact

Background music by lemonmusicstudio: Leva - Eternity.

Sara Olson-Smith & Brent Olson

[00:00:00] Intro: Welcome to the Holden Village Podcast. Holden is a community of education, programming, and worship located in the remote wilderness of the Cascade Mountains. These snapshots provide a glimpse into the learnings taking place in our community. Let's tune in to this week's highlight. 

[00:00:22] Dev: Welcome to another edition of the Holden Village Podcast. Here we are in week three of the summer program...and I am with the wonderful Olsons...the dynamic brother/sister duo. How would you like to introduce both of yourselves? 

[00:00:41] Sara: I am Sarah Olson Smith. I use she/her pronouns. I am from Davenport, Iowa. I am pastor there...and I find joy...I have two children and we find a lot of joy being outside...lots of joy in our garden and the zinnia's that are coming...peonies...and I'm excited to be here with you. 

[00:00:59] Brent: I'm Brent Olson. I use he/him pronouns. I live in Salt Lake City and teach at a little college there, or I guess university now. We've just been named Westminster University. I often call myself primarily a cyclist and a fosterer of Border Collies. 

[00:01:13] Dev: Beautiful. So what is the topic that both of you are teaching the villagers this week? 

[00:01:21] Brent: Our goal is to engage with people in a conversation really about how to live in a broken world. We've sort of titled our sessions as the setup for a joke that we don't yet know the punchline for. The joke is that an anarchist and a pastor walk into the forest and what happens there? The punchline of that joke; we are working with people here this week to figure out. 

[00:01:41] Sara: And as we do that we're putting side by side biblical stories and stories that grow out of anarchic movements to see how those conversations dialogue with each other and then how we enter them and how they shape our thinking and our imagining in new kinds of ways.

So our hope really is to ask some good questions and to imagine differently...and to let that imagination shape how we practice and live our lives...especially in the light of this broken world and climate crisis and all the other ways we experience devastation, but also great hope in the midst of all that.

[00:02:15] Dev: Yeah, absolutely. The previous faculty that was here last week, her name was Laura, all of her sessions began with, you know, we're in this spiral of doom and like, what do we do from there? And so, you know, we played around with that a lot and a question I asked her, it kind of turned into this funny segment, was how much of us being on the precipice would actually allow us to transcend... and so how much of this is purposeful or not? What are your thoughts on that?

[00:02:47] Brent: I would say conflicted in a couple of ways. One, there's in social movement theory (I'm an academic at heart and so sometimes I slide into those worlds) there's a crisis theory, right? That like, change doesn't happen until things get so bad that you've gotta fully undo and like reset and blah, blah, blah.

In the context of climate change, in the context of racism and oppression in the context of wealth inequalities, in the context of species lost, that is not actually a very promising mode. Like I don't want to lose all of the hummingbirds before we change... and so I think...the only way I can move through this space individually and maintain an ability to get out of bed in the morning is to believe and live into a world in which we act before we get to crisis. 

To engage and build and create new things out of the old things...and brand new things simply because they're good, not because we're so bad we absolutely have to create them at the moment. Like the fact is, for example, urban parks downtown that don't have cars in them are amazing. They're really awesome. We don't need to have a downtown parking crisis in order to have an urban park. Like we can just go ahead and build those things. It's okay. Why wait to the crisis? 

There are good things that we can do today. What if we did those things? And so part of my hope this week is to like actually recognize and name some of the ways that's already happening in the world...that people are creating really new things even before we get to crisis. While also recognizing that we're also already in crisis. We don't need to wait till we lose all the hummingbirds. We're losing hummingbirds. Like, that should be enough. Yeah. We don't need to hit the bottom before we can start to make change.

[00:04:27] Sara: I think especially within Christian traditions, or other kinda places of privilege, we pretend the crisis isn't real. Like we have the privilege to deny the reality of the precipice we're in...and in particular different kinds of privilege in different sorts of ways...keep on living in as though it's not real. And I think Part of what we hope to do as well is to linger in those places of challenge, of conflict, of possibility, of hurt, of despair, of order to respond in ways of hope...and to open up our eyes in some ways...and then open our eyes as some possibilities as well. 

[00:05:07] Dev: Yeah. I grapple with that question a lot, just from observing the periods of my own life where crises has led to periods of learning. But I also try not to be a masochist, and for me, that's why laughter and humor is a beautiful way to create harmony. 

[00:05:26] Brent: I often spend a lot of time teaching and my partner's research is sort of built right now on thinking about play and fun as fundamentally revolutionary. And so her research at the moment is working with a cycling organization in Palestine. And thinking about fun and moving through that space as an act of cultural identity and resistance to oppression. And so like that act of fun is itself a revolutionary act?

[00:05:52] Dev: This kind of goes into this summer theme that we have. Eden is calling. I'm curious, what does that mean to both of you? 

[00:06:01] Sara: it's been a fun theme to think about. We spent yesterday, our first day of our study together, looking at the Genesis two story...inviting to think about the ways that we are invited into deep community and deep kinship. Not only with other human beings, but with non-human beings.

And so I that Eden story as this place...this vision of a place of deep interconnectivity...of humans made from the earth. All of us made from the same place. And then because of the shared rootedness/groundedness, how then do we live and work and play and take responsibility for each other?

So we've been having some fun conversation about kin and what does that mean in terms of our responsibility for and with each other. And that's been a real joy in some of our conversations, but it also invites us to imagine new futures for how we can be and think about how Eden is present in those urban parks. Or, you know, not as an escapist, but as a deep commitment to the places we are or find ourselves. 

[00:07:04] Brent:  And for me, the sort of Eden calling theme...I mean all of the plays on words, right? All the potential puns and meanings of it...but like both a wake up and a networked connection. And in my thinking, We've done a really expansive job of thinking about how human relationships work and function and think as western cultures, less great jobs of thinking about how those emotional relationships are mutual in the natural non-human world.

And when we do, we also tend to make that non-human world sort of exclusively non-human. So for me, thinking about Eden calling is very much a both and....right. It's not  we're just gonna focus on the natural world now, or we're just gonna focus on human injustices now. But really all of these things layer in ways that are...once you see them...undeniable and also critically important. 

[00:07:57] Dev: Is the border collie world part of your entrance into the non-human realm? 

[00:08:03] Brent: I read somewhere that wolves domesticated us...dogs domesticated us as much as we've domesticated we've become attuned to read their responses so that they can get exactly what they want out of us as much as we get out of them.

Working with dogs in trauma...working dogs in is a sort of really wild mode of inner species communication that is obvious and clear and much more direct than say the inner species communication one might have with a grub. Right? Like, I don't know how to read a grub emotionally. I know how to read a dog emotionally...working with dogs becomes an avenue to think outside of myself in a cool way. 

[00:08:39] Dev: That's great. That made me think of like this rendition of Plato's Cave where the wolf is doing the puppet mastering...

[00:08:49] Brent: Another book that has said that our lawns have made subjects of us in the United States.

[00:08:54] Sara: Oh, for sure. 

[00:08:55] Brent: We are subjected to our lawns in powerful ways. Which is another wild... 

[00:09:00] Dev: That's a great lesson in humility. 

[00:09:03] Brent: It's a fascinating Eden story, right? Like if the lawn in that Eden is domesticating us...that's a whole new flip (uncontrollable laughter). 

[00:09:15] Dev: That tickles me immensely. (We had to move unexpectedly outside so we took about three minutes finding a location). We have now moved from the art gallery to the porch of Narnia and there are flowers in front of us and beautiful weather. There's a creek in the background, so this is better in general.

[00:09:36] Brent: We'll roll with it.

[00:09:39] Dev: Is this both of your first time at Holden? 

[00:09:41] Brent: I've experienced most of the roles at Holden and now have sort of been to Holden in all of the major phases of my life. I was here as a young child. I was here for a year and a half as a young adult. I was here a year and a half ago in a professional capacity with my job and brought some students up for a week. Now I'm here on the faculty.

So I've been a guest...I've been a short-term volunteer...I've been a long-term volunteer. So now I have this new experience too. So I keep coming back to the same place, but in kind of radically different personal positions in that process. 

[00:10:13] Dev: That's great. 

[00:10:14] Sara: And we were here together as children. We were here then in the summer and then the year and a half Brent was here, I was in college. And so I spent a J-term volunteering, which a short term volunteer...and then now here both on faculty, but also with my kids. So it's fun to be here both as learning and teaching together and with our kids's been a total treat.

[00:10:33] Brent: One of the things that's been most exciting for me coming up here this time, just to say it sort of out loud publicly, is that I haven't really had a chance to collaborate in these kinds of ways with Sara.  And so it's been really fun this week and leading into this week to have a chance to think through and talk through these ideas and talk through these processes with someone who I know well...and spent a lot of time with, but not in this capacity. Like it's been a real joy to play in this new sense has been awesome.

[00:11:01] Sara: And it's been similarly for me too. And I think maybe that's the way this place can be for lots of people is that the gift of learning together and alongside and with others who they might know well or might not know well and what happens in those conversations.

And it's been fun for me to be with Brent as we put conversations together and I've always loved Brent's energy and joy in understanding and terms of how he teaches and the stuff he teaches and I hear about them secondhand. But it's fun to be in a classroom together and to watch it lived out. And then to see the ways that our own energies together can play.

We come from really different groundings and so to see how they align and where they conflict and bounce off against each other has just been really a total treat. It's been really awesome. 

[00:11:48] Dev: It's absolutely been inspiring just thinking of like brother/sister collaborations. I think of my sister as well.  We have a lot of similar paradigms and I would love to do something with her. 

[00:12:00] Sara: We were laughing that usually when brothers and sisters walk into the forest...Hansel and Gretel, you know, like all these old stories. It's like they get, you know, they make their way and the witch bakes them into a cake or whatever it might be. Trouble happens, but I guess trouble is happening in the best kind of way, you know...absolutely best kind of way.

[00:12:20] Dev: As a closing, what are your hopes for the world or the work that you do? 

[00:12:26] Sara: The biggest kind of ways, my hope for the world is like deep thriving and flourishing and in authentic and beautiful ways. Both human and non-human. And I guess in my own smaller ways, my hope is about the church...and I can speak in my own context as a Lutheran Christian...that there's a kind of deeper commitment to our connectedness with the non-human world...with each other...a deeper sense of responsibility...commitment to practices that are new.

And creative and playful and outside of the old. And as the more I have conversations with Brent...the ways of new thinking and partnerships and letting go of some of the old ways that are inhibiting us from really being the church that we can be and ought to be in the world and with the world.

[00:13:15] Brent: Raymond Williams has written that we need new ideas because we need better relationships. And so if, what I can do is help people ask questions and develop ideas in order to foster new and better relationships with each other and with the world around them...then that's really all I can do. 

[00:13:34] Improv Closing Ceremony: Flowers, hope, tomorrow, will, become, today's, adventure. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes...

[00:13:45] Dev: Actually, that was beautiful. 

[00:13:47] Sara: That was beautiful. We're making poetry out here. 

[00:13:51] Outro: Thanks for joining us. Be sure to view the links in the description for more information or visit our website to find out more about the village. We hope you will make a pilgrimage to Holden. Blessings and peace to you.