Joshua McGuffie will complete his PhD in the Department of History at UCLA in May 2023. His research focuses on biology, medicine, race, and the environment as they relate to the US Manhattan Project and post-WWII atomic testing. His dissertation, Atomic Salmon: Biology, Medicine, and Ecology in the Medical Section of the Manhattan Project, follows an unlikely group of medical doctors and fisheries biologists as they tried to understand the biological effects of radiation at the dawn of the atomic era. In 2016 he drove over 5,000 miles to visit seven atomic installations and clean-up sites from the Nevada Test Site to Hanford in Washington State. He is passionate about environmental justice.
To learn more about Holden Village, visit: http://www.holdenvillage.org or to listen to more audio recordings visit: http://audio.holdenvillage.org. The Holden Village Podcast is accessible through Apple iTunes, Spotify, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, and most podcast apps. For questions and inquiries, contact email@example.com.
Background music by SergePavkinMusic: Smooth Waters.
[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.
[00:00:23] Dev: Welcome to another episode of the Holden Village Podcast. I'm your host Dev (he/him) pronouns....and I'm with one of our wonderful faculty members for week three of our 2023 Summer program: Josh McGuffey.
[00:00:39] Josh: Hey Dev.
[00:00:40] Dev: How would you like to introduce yourself?
[00:00:43] Josh: I'll introduce myself as somebody who has been to Holden twice before...once in the fall and once in the winter...but never in the summer. So this has been a pleasure to be here with the community feeling in full force and the VC filled with song voices...singing and classrooms and the art studios going and just...it's awesome to be in this hive of activity.
The not-Holden introduction is that I serve 20 hours a week at the Church of Hope in Canyon Country, California...an ELCA congregation that proudly runs a food pantry...a thrift shop and is in a strip mall...and has never owned its own building. It was a new start in the nineties.
[00:01:35] Dev: Only in the nineties could that happen.
[00:01:36] Josh: Right? It's really true. They were especially proud...they're at their second location, but the first one was placed graciously between a liquor store and a pawn shop.
[00:01:47] Dev: That's where God lives, you know?
[00:01:49] Josh: That's right. It was awesome. And like they knew it. So super cool congregation. I also just finished a PhD at UCLA. Go Bruins. Actually my heart...I did my master's degree at Oregon State and that's where my heart is...so really go Beaves. But Corvallis was just a spectacular place to live, but UCLA also was Awesome. So I teach history as an adjunct faculty at Occidental College and at Moorpark College...both in Metro LA.
[00:02:27] Dev: What are you teaching at the village this week?
[00:02:30] Josh: Boy, I've had the pleasure to walk with a really cool group of people through a story about environmental history and ethics in North America and the U.S. and sort of the Pacific Northwest. We spent a whole day thinking about the Columbia River today. And then the last session is going to be all about race and environmental justice.
So, it's been fun for me in part because I wanted to walk through some stories. I'm really a believer that history is just a collection of stories and so it's super important to tell stories that don't get told very often. So it's been fun to walk through stories that sort of push back against what we were taught in high school...in U.S. history about the Europeans arriving in the Americas...and how the environment has been treated and how it's been used and utilized and exploited. So it's been a pleasure, but also to think about some ethical questions, which as a historian, I don't always get to do.
[00:03:34] Dev: Do you have like a first memory of when you had that moment...Okay, the environment is really important to me.
[00:03:41] Josh: Yeah. That's a great question. I can tell two stories.
[00:03:47] Dev: Excellent.
[00:03:48] Josh: That come to mind.
[00:03:48] Dev: Yay.
[00:03:49] Josh: One is as a child in Yosemite and we stayed at the Wawona, which is the hotel that's above the valley floor. So it gets way more snow than the Valley does. And it's up close to the big grove of giant Sequoia. My parents were there...my newborn brother was there...they were staying in one room and my maternal Grandmother and I were sharing the room next door.
To get between the rooms, you had to walk out onto the porch of this a hundred some odd year old building and then go and knock on the other door. So I walked out one morning because I'm an early morning person. And I'm from LA so it's snowing. I don't know what to do with snow...I was wearing like pajamas and socks.
So I walk out and there is right down the stairs on the snow covered lawn, these three deer, and one of 'em was a buck with however many points...I couldn't tell you. And I was simultaneously terrified because I'm like...if my brother was one...then I was seven. I was terrified, but overwhelmed with awe.
And I don't know how long I stood there...it felt like 10 million years because to a little seven year old body...four minutes in the cold...staring at these deer is like 10 billion years. But like I couldn't move because I like...well if I move then these deer are going to chase me. Dear don't chase people! But just the beauty of these big living creatures that were so outside of my experience in this totally foreign, snowy place...just was overwhelming in like the similar...like the most terrifying way...but also in the best way too.
[00:05:38] Dev: That's the best combo of things.
[00:05:39] Josh: Yeah, it was this awesome moment and I think I actually like shuffled with my back against the wall and like quietly knocked on my parents' door and someone woke up and like got me inside. I don't remember that much. You know, memories evaporate over time, but that one is like...my body can still feel it.
[00:06:01] Dev: That is fantastic. I feel like you should have like a sigil...like three deer, you know?
[00:06:06] Josh: Right. That's like my patrona...that's right there (pointing to upper arm). Oh God! So there's that story and then there's maybe a kind of more mundane story, which is a repeated experience during the summers we left LA and we went back east to the north shore of Lake Erie, where my mom's family's had a home for generations. And down at the point, you can see fossils from hundreds of millions of people from before the dinosaurs. And my mom would take us down and point out the corals and this and that...and as a kid, I didn't understand millions of years...or hundreds of millions of years.
But as I went through college and took a couple geology classes...walking back down to that point and now taking my kids down there to point out the corals and, you know, dutifully pass on the memory. I continue to just be amazed by some fossils hanging out on the shore of Lake Erie that you could easily walk over and never notice. But they're there and they've been there and they're an invitation into this deep time that's just so much bigger than we are.
[00:07:27] Dev: Humans, man. We're so small.
[00:07:29] Josh: Yeah. The journey to like embracing smallness is...it's a real thing and it's a bumpy and zigzaggy path, but it feels like it's a good journey to take.
[00:07:44] Dev: Absolutely. When we're combining ethics with environmental awareness, what's one or two core principles that's the hardest to express or articulate? However you want to go with that.
[00:07:57] Josh: Yeah. Oh, that's super interesting. One is impractical and one is practical.
[00:08:03] Dev: Excellent. We gotta balance it out.
[00:08:05] Josh: Yeah. The impractical one is that I've really been trying to think about... not in a systematic way...but the Christian scriptures give us this sense that God makes humankind in the divine image. And a lot of people have used that notion to run roughshod over nature and each other...use nature to run roughshod over each other and all these things. I'm not a trained biologist and maybe in this regard that's good because I really am fascinated by...again...like timescales again...because when I think about my body...especially all the research that people have done about all the bacteria in your gut and like 50% of your cells aren't even yours because of the things that live in us.
Because we all evolved and we live symbiotically with the world. So if half of me isn't me...and if I engage in kind of functions...like water comes in...water goes out,...we don't need to get too into...but there's a lot of natural systems and flows and movements that happen through all of our bodies...and they happen pretty quick. And what I'm really fascinated by like...I can't tell what the difference between me and a mountain is. Other than a timescale because mountains have lots of bacteria in them that are not them. Water moves through and water moves out. They grow up...they wear down.
I'm sure I peaked out at like six one and if I make it to my eighties...I'm sure I won't be six one anymore. And the Appalachians used to be tens of thousands of feet high and now they're nice rolling hills. This is the Westerner speaking. It's not that tall.
[00:09:55] Dev: They're cute little mounds.
[00:09:56] Josh: Right? Come on now. Yeah, we're not biased in any way. So I'm just really fascinated in like life cycles. I feel like we get stuck on consciousness as a way of making ourselves unique and that shuts down any kind of creative thinking about what gifts the divine gave to the mountain...to the fur tree...to navigate this world.
Because that's all of us are doing...is navigating the life through this world. I guess the ethic there is I'm really fascinated in...I don't want to let go of the Imago Dei because the value of every human being is like so important right now. In a world where people are being devalued all the time, but I also want to blur those boundaries between us and Copper Mountain or Copper Peak
[00:10:55] Dev: Are you like a sci-fi like reader?
[00:10:57] Josh: Oh yeah.
[00:10:57] Dev: Yeah. Okay. That was definitely coming out a little bit. I'm huge in the sci-fi. I love how you were talking about that...in a sci-fi sense, but also I got a mystical sense from it as well. Because the Christian mystics that I enjoy...especially like Francis of Assisi...they were some of the first environmentalists...at least within the Christian tradition. Getting in tune with one's natural environment.
[00:11:24] Josh: I TA-ed for a class at UCLA with an amazing professor, but he had us read Teresa of Avila. And she uses this water analogy to talk about how you move through spiritual states. There's the springs and there's fountains and there's drought. I felt like when I was reading her, I left regular time and just went into this like...things are happening, but it's not clear exactly if they're happening in a linear fashion or what.
But Francis...the phrase that I've been caught up with this week...one of the texts we looked at in class was this 1964 article in Science Magazine and it was written by a guy named Lynn White...and it was called The Roots of the Current Ecological Crisis. And he says it's Christianity...like Christianity is the most individualistic religion that's ever existed. This is why we have a crisis, but the response to this could also come from Christianity.
And that's looking at Francis and White has this great line where he says, we have to overthrow the monarchy of humans...and get back to the democracy of all God's creatures. I've read this like a billion times to teach it, but somehow the line leapt off the page this week. Maybe it's the surroundings, or maybe it's just the...who knows.
That's sort of one ethic, which has to do with like the person or the state of humankind and like the relationship with nature. The other one...the more practical one being the the health of the Los Angeles River, which runs through it. There was Exide Corporation, which if you still go to like Home Depot and buy a car battery or any auto shop, it'll be Exide. Exide battery had a battery recycling plant that spewed amongst other things lead into the air for decades. And just now the state's...
[00:13:37] Dev: Figuring it out?
[00:13:39] Josh: The state's no longer fighting remediation...there's a push now to have the neighborhood become a Superfund site. But that's not how the U.S. and Environmental Protection Agency is usually thought about...things like the tailings at Holden Village...has thought about, distinct, discrete spaces as Superfund sites...not a neighborhood with families living in it and children coming home from the hospital. That gets a little too complicated...there needs to be redistributive financial justice.
I had a student stand next to me and look at the LA River and very lovingly ask, why don't they just spend the money and clean this up? And we stood there with that for a little while and she finally looked and said...oh, racism. And I just nodded my head. One of the things I love about the Lutheran Church is that we have done a good job breaking down a lot of cultural barriers about justice...and breaking down stigmas.
But as someone who works part-time in a church and who's an adjunct faculty as opposed to a tenured track faculty with a job guarantee...I want to say here...we got to start just putting our money where our mouth is. And the next justice leap for me is...and this gets into questions of reparations too...which is outside of my wheelhouse, but man...there are whole chunks of this beautiful world that we have sacrificed for our convenience and our high standard of living.
We got to start hurting in the pocket book to make that better. And I don't know how to do that, but I'm saying it. So in like 50 years when I'm dead, someone will be like, oh yeah...thank God there's a new federal bureau that takes things seriously.
[00:15:39] Dev: Well, they're going to find out that this podcast episode was the genesis of that.
[00:15:43] Josh: Yeah. No big deal. Right?
[00:15:48] Dev: You heard it here first. The environment is such a huge arena. Are there specific terrains that are closer to your heart than others? I often like to think about it as like elementals like water, air, earth. Like what holds your heart the most?
[00:16:11] Josh: Oh, it's earth. My folks took us to Death Valley often as children and we still go there for family vacations. And so there's something about just the vastness and the desert's not barren. It's alive in its own wonderful way. The liveliness of the desert is like way different than the liveliness of the forest here in the cascades. Exposed rock and sagebrush. That's it for me.
[00:16:41] Dev: I Love high deserts. Those are like my favorite...as a place of worship...as a place of also just like ego death because in a desert...like the ego has nothing to latch itself onto. And in a mountainous terrain, it just gets cut...as a metaphor.
[00:16:59] Josh: Yeah, I know it's not the same, but I've never been to Egypt. One of my favorite things...if you read sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers...is just the travel. Like when they have their hut or their cave, but then they go into town to interact in some way and then head back out...or the disciples of whatever. I love to think about that. The traveling doesn't oftentimes make it into the story, but it's like, you have people just packing across the desert, right? With whatever they can carry.
[00:17:40] Dev: That's hardcore
[00:17:41] Josh: To get to and go and experience ego death with some grizzled sage. There's something that grips me about that.
[00:17:48] Dev: Oh, same. I do want to bring it back to Eden is calling...and just get like some very specific articulations of what that means to you?
[00:18:02] Josh: I would love to stand on the LA River in East LA and South LA and see a renewed landscape and hear the river singing Eden's song in a place that has been devastated by waves of industrialism, de-industrialization, Amazon distribution centers, diesel pollution...like that would be an amazing place to hear Eden's call.
It's raining now. I would love to hear the rain in places where there is dryness and drought and where people don't have access to clean water. We drove from LA to Chelan and we went up the I-5 and we drove past communities in the San Joaquin Valley of California where you can't buy clean water. And so what an amazing call of Eden to be able to go up the freeway or take a train (wouldn't that be better?) past places where people are drinking clean water.
There's so many narratives of scarcity and fear and apprehension and climate change became something that's on the forefront of our minds. So just to have to not deny or run away from all those things, but to still be able to live with an abundance of spirit and relationality and community to be in the garden...even when it feels like the world's on fire. So that's more of an internal vision. I wish I had a little more Eden inside of me and I wish that I could be at my best more often be joyful amid the abundance with like friends and family and that kind of thing.
[00:20:03] Dev: At the heart of everything is a song. And that's what civilizations used to honor is the hearing of that...or the listening...and even like in like meditative traditions...it's an inward listening more than anything else. And so that sense is actually highlighted more than any other sense.
One of my favorite traditions in the world, the Amartya, they talk about how spirit gets into matter...or gets densified into humanness...human density. There's a series of interfaces and those are what the senses are. That first interface is sound and it's interesting cuz the ears are the first organ to develop in the womb and the last to die. And so it's like that beginning and end of all processes. So anyway, that's me geeking out on that...and also just being loving hearing you talk about that.
[00:20:50] Josh: You know, I'm so glad you said that. My second year of seminary was like tough sleddin for me...like just emotionally and for a bunch of reasons. There were like 10/12 people who got together for Taize in one of the houses. We're on couches like this and we sang and we sang in parts...but we had 30 minutes of silence in the middle. And as you were saying...I don't think I've ever heard like I did in that silence after like 30 minutes of song in parts.
Where like there's the energy but like the silence...I want to say that's like the only time in my life where I've been able to have a discipline of silence. So, as you were describing that, it's like...that's why that worked. It's about hearing, It's not like...the silence is not the thing. It's about like tuning your ear.
[00:21:44] Dev: Because it's always there. We just forgot to listen.
[00:21:48] Josh: Yeah, or didn't think it was important enough to listen. And to have a time in space. So thank you...I need to think about this a little more.
[00:22:00] Dev: As you can tell, epiphanies left and right. There you go for all of our listeners. Well this has been an absolute delight. Thanks for speaking with me and for blessing the Village with your presence and thanks for doing the work that you do.
[00:22:19] Josh: It's been a joy to be here...so thank you.
[00:22:21] 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.