The question today is, did anybody really listen to Joni Mitchell? She’s this beloved figure in music, everybody has a copy of Blue or Ladies of the Canyon sitting in their record collection, but as we find ourselves on the brink of (or deeply in) absolute climate catastrophe 50 years after those records came out, it does make you wonder. Given that ecology is an evolving science and we know more now than we did when Joni sang “Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT, now. I don’t care about spots on my apples, just leave me the birds and the bees, please,” but it’s been 50 years of knowing that chemicals on our food is bad, 50 years of knowing that plant and animal species are going extinct, and 50 years of knowing that if we don’t do something about it we will lose this paradise that we have.
Our song, “Joni,” is about the conversations we’ve been having with folks across the country who are taking steps to act sustainably. We learned a lot from our friends Robert and Nancy in South Dakota, who have turned their little cattle ranch in the middle of miles and miles of industrial land into an organic safe haven and are bringing back natural prairie grasses. As big agricultural businesses grow chemically dependent crops on either side of them, and their neighbors keep getting sick with cancers and lung issues, our friends have kept their heads down and done the work of healing their land, utilizing re-generational farming to recreate as close to a natural space as possible.
We sat around their table one night in August, and they told us South Dakota is big for pheasant hunting. There are all of these hunting lodges in the area, where you and some buddies or coworkers can go on pheasant hunting trips. Once a plentiful prairie bird, the pheasant is almost extinct in its natural habitat, due to overhunting and their habitats becoming farmland. But would-be-pheasant-hunters and their open wallets don’t need to know this, and so it’s become common practice to purchase factory farmed pheasants, and an hour before the hunting party goes out, the birds are placed in a sack and swung around until they’re dizzy and disoriented and then released. They have little time to hide themselves and after living in their lives in cages, have few natural instincts. If by chance, the pheasant isn’t shot that season, it likely will die during the winter because it’s a factory farmed bird. It should be noted that these hunting lodges are often set up next to brothels, strip clubs, bars and are often connected to the illegal drug trade. This is what passes for the thrill of the pheasant hunt.
The redtaill hawk, a natural predator of the pheasant, has also seen its numbers decline after farmers and hunting lodge owners began shooting them so the hawk wouldn’t get to the pheasant before the sportsman does. It’s an entire ecosystem turned on its head and an entirely new industry moving in to take its place.
Mallory grew up in a conservative house, where her parents used to recycle until it became a liberal way to save the planet, and the kids movie Fern Gully was seen as brainwashing. It’s a hallmark of Christian teaching that this world is not our home-- it’s just temporary, and that someday Jesus Christ will returns to sweep us up to Heaven, our true home. So when presented with scientific data saying that we are making the Earth uninhabitable for future generations, Christians often see this as ushering in the end, preparing the way of the Lord, or something that doesn’t concern them because this is not their home. They were big supporters of the Creation Museum, Young Earth theology, and capitalism. But in a real act of “your right hand should not know what your left hand is doing,” Mallory’s mom, bought her Joni Mitchell’s greatest hits when she was in high school, putting that on the CD pile next to Janis Joplin and Carole King and saying “everyone needs to listen to Joni.” Even as it was drilled into her young mind that those liberal conservationists were ruining the lives of small businesses by "preserving useless wetlands" where Mallory's father was bidding to literally dig up to put in a parking lot.
Our song, “Joni,” sits on We’re Only Family If You Say So, an album that’s all about difficult family relationships, what it’s like to persist in them, but also what it’s like to lose them. It’s been a couple years of realizing that family is what you make it, it’s not blood, it’s not convenience, but it’s who you stick up for.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”
So, why is there a song about the earth on an album that is all about family? It should be obvious by now, but the way we treat the earth is the way we treat our family. The love and care that we use when we engage with nature is the same love and care that we use to engage with our brothers and sisters. This earth can be our home only if we say so.