Terrascope Radio

Here we feature the work of first-year students – these are the final pieces produced over a semester for subject SP.360 – Terrascope Radio.

Jun 2021 Climate Poetry

Photo credit: Sydney Kim


A collective meditation on climate change and the fear, responsibility, and hope associated with it.

Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

First Aired: June 16, 2021


Daniela Vallejo: The first time that I ever heard about sustainability as a concept at all was through Bill Nye. 

[Student cover of the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” theme song] 

Daniela: He taught me about global warming and the greenhouse gas effect at the tender age of seven. And at the time, it seemed like we were on track to fix everything. It seemed like “wow, we’re working on this issue, and it’ll totally be fixed by the time I’m an adult.”

[“Bill Nye” fades out] 

Daniela: And here we are. 

[ominous music]
Mahaam Desai: Climate change. 

Cher Jiang: Climate change. 

Joy Domingo-Kameenui: Climate change. 

[rainforest animal sounds]

Daniela: I think of the Amazon. 

Cher: Biodiversity. 

Mahaam: I think of butterflies and grass. 

Joy: Climate change. 
Mikayla Britsch: An inconvenient truth. Al Gore up on that stage. 

Cher: It’s easy to feel that existential threat when you think about…

[overlapping voices]

Joy: ...biodiversity. 

Cher: ...species going extinct. 

Mahaam: ...climate change. 

[ocean waves crashing]
Daniela: ...the ocean acidifying.
Mahaam: ...the fires. 

Daniela: ...the corals bleaching. 

Cher: ...how that affects human health as well. 

Mahaam: ...climate change. 

Daniela: ...the degradation of ecosystems. 

Cher: ...threatening to wipe out entire cities. 

Joy: ...climate change. 

[complete silence]

[ominous music resumes]

Mahaam: I actually think of my house, and I think of a lot of the dry grass, and the fire that burned through my neighborhood. 

[crackling of a blazing fire]

Daniela: I just think of-- I don’t know, the world is so beautiful, and it’s truly tragic to think about all the beauty that will disappear. 

Joy: It’s sad that we don’t have a one way to save it all. 

[ominous music fades out]

Daniela: Whether or not I need to work against climate change...

[optimistic music] 

Daniela: ...isn’t really about how much hope there is left -- it’s more about a feeling of responsibility or duty. 

Cher: We-- we do have this duty to nature. 

Joy: Hope is living, just being optimistic and having faith in... 

Mahaam and Mikayla: ...today 

Daniela and Cher: ...tomorrow 

Mikayla: What else are we supposed to do with our lives? 

Cher and Mahaam: Hope. 

Mikayla: You have to keep fighting. 

Mahaam: For our children, grandchildren, and...

Mahaam and Mikayla: ...generations to come. 

[complete silence] 

Cher: I think there is hope. 

[ocean waves crashing]
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May 2021 The Hierarchy of Biodiversity

Photo Credit: Tara Sheehan ’24

Why does human civilization so often endanger biodiversity? Perhaps a change in how we see the natural world will make a difference.

First Aired: May 19, 2021 


Tara Sheenan: When we typically think about biodiversity loss, we think about losing the tigers and polar bears and whales. But after traveling to the United Arab Emirates, my advisor, Elise, got scared of biodiversity decline because of seeds! 

[ominous guitar music]

Elise Chambers: We went to a seedbank and it was the first time I’d ever seen someone be like “so just in case we all die and all of the plants die and everything dies that we need and we can’t somehow revive it, these are the backup plan.” And it kinda just blew my mind that there were a whole bunch of jars and containers in a refrigerated warehouse in the middle of the desert that had basically the backup to humanity. 

Sravani Duggirala: Imagine that; biodiversity loss has gotten so severe that we are storing seeds just to keep up. It’s experiences like this that got us thinking, what is wrong with human perception of biodiversity. I’m Sravani...

Tara: ...and I’m Tara. And here’s what we think is the problem. As a society, we have built a hierarchy of species. At the very top is us humans, of course, but right below are the species that serve people the most. We can’t keep thinking that other living things are only here for food, sport, entertainment, or companionship. We need to see a world where a system of species all simultaneously give and take.  

Sravani: And because of this hierarchy mindset, we find it difficult to understand the severity of biodiversity loss. Throughout history, humans have destroyed habitats to make way for our settlements and cattle. And these settlements have often come at the price of native plants and animals. Speaking on this is Professor David McGee from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is studying the effect that human involvement had on the extinction of large animals, or megafauna, in Madagascar.

[curious music]

David McGee: The interesting thing, to me, is that humans were on Madagascar for a couple of thousand years before everything went extinct. So, somehow, there was coexistence between humans and these megafauna. The timing of the extinction of this megafauna, roughly a thousand years ago, seemed to coincide with the introduction of cattle from Asia that demanded open pasture land, rather than closed forest, and it also enabled population growth.

Sravani: This example points to what went wrong when the people on Madagascar prioritized a certain species over others. Why cattle? Because cattle fed the growing population.

Tara: We still have this problematic mindset a thousand years later! Humans still show a special preference in accommodating the species that serve them. And we’re continuing to build a civilization that rich biodiversity simply doesn’t fit into. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people went into isolation, we saw what happens when we take a step in the opposite direction. Although we’ve heard many anecdotes about this, what really illustrated it for me was hearing about a road trip experience from Dr. Emily Moberg. 

[soft guitar music] 

Emily Moberg: I drove a couple states, and it was very much during lockdown, and the amount of wildlife I saw crossing the road was incredible. I saw several foxes, including a baby fox; I saw a huge snapping turtle, I think it had to have been at least two and a half, three feet, booking it across a four-lane highway. Which was interesting, too; it felt very viscerally, like the animals were reclaiming space.

Sravani: It makes me wonder, does witnessing animals step back in as we step away teach us about a way that we can change our system of prioritizing some species over others? 

[soft piano music]

Sravani: So the next time that you're out in nature, or anywhere outdoors for that matter, take a moment to actually pay attention to the organisms you would normally overlook.

Tara: Consider -- what do these species around you require to thrive? And what are some ways that humans might depend on them? By doing this, we can develop this kind of mindfulness in nature. And maybe if enough people adopt this mindset, we won’t need to rely on seed banks as our backup to humanity. 

Sravani: When we understand the importance of each organism in our world, that’s when we can respect and protect the functioning ecosystem that we all depend on.

[guitar music]

Sravani: The opinions expressed here are our own, but the audio clips were gathered and story ideas were developed in collaboration with our classmates in Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program with assistance from the MIT program in comparative media studies. Thank you to all the people who were interviewed for sharing their experiences and findings with our class and enabling us to share them with all of you.

Tara: We want to thank Terrascope director David McGee and Elise Chambers, who coordinates the Terrascope community, for helping us learn and grow during our first year at MIT. We also thank our undergraduate teaching fellows Felix Li and Amena Khatun for their feedback and technical support in producing this piece. Finally, we thank our instructor, Dr. Ari Epstein, for his tremendous guidance throughout the semester. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks for listening!
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May 2021 At (H)our Hands: Humans and Biodiversity Loss

Image designed by Yeji Cho ’24

Species are going extinct at an ever-accelerating rate. What does “biodiversity” mean, why does it matter, and how can we best protect it?

First Aired: May 19, 2021 


[ticking clock]

Sydney Kim: I didn’t learn what “biodiversity” meant until recently. I’ve always loved nature; I love to be outside. As a child, I learned to recognize bird songs, tree species, and bugs. I would build small houses out of twigs and leaves. 

[ticking and speech gradually speed up]

Sydney: I caught fireflies in my backyard and collected seashells as I walked along the shoreline. But I never thought of any of this as biodiversity. It was just the world around me. I took it for granted.

[ticking and speech are twice as fast]

Sydney: But the reality is that species are going extinct more quickly than ever before––some before we can even identify them. As biodiversity loss continues to accelerate, we will feel the consequences more and more in our daily lives. 

[ticking and speech are almost three times as fast]

Sydney: Biodiversity loss will increase the severity and frequency of natural disasters, decrease ecosystem resilience, increase the chances of zoonotic diseases, impact food and water security, raise the temperature of the planet--

[ticking and speech stop]

Sydney: [normal speed] You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking so quickly. What happened was that my speech rate accelerated to mirror the acceleration of species extinction. But the problem is worse than I made it sound. If I had sped up my voice to correspond to the actual acceleration of biodiversity loss, it would have sounded something like this:

[ticking resumes]

Sydney: I didn’t learn what “biodiversity” meant until recently. I’ve always loved nature; I love to be outside. As a child, I learned to recognize bird songs, tree species, and bugs. I would build small houses out of twigs and leaves. I caught fireflies in my backyard and collected seashells as I walked along the shoreline. But I never thought of any of this as biodiversity. 

[ticking and speech are almost three times as fast]

It was just the world around me. I took it for granted.

[speech becomes unintelligible]

Sydney: I’m Sydney

Ozzie Martinez: I’m Ozzie.

Max Burns: And I’m Max. When it comes to biodiversity loss, this is the kind of thing we’ve been hearing our entire lives. And we know how it makes us feel. It makes us feel scared, doomed, even.  

Ozzie: Yeah, because biodiversity loss is about a lot more than plants and animals dying. It’s about us, too. For example, we’re losing biodiversity in wetlands and in coral reefs right now. As those ecosystems get weaker, they can’t buffer the wind and waves as well, so our towns and cities have to face stronger and more frequent hurricanes and storms. Things like that are impacting us now, and it’ll only keep getting worse unless we do something about it. So our radio class, comprised of 15 MIT students, went out and collected stories from people all around us to see how they felt about biodiversity loss.

Max: And we found a ton of different perspectives, all intermingled with emotion and some really fascinating stories. And that brought us to the question-- what even is biodiversity?

Ozzie: Yeah, that is the question, though. What is biodiversity? 

Max: Yeah, how do you nail it down? There’s a lot more to it than just the number of animals that are in an ecosystem.

Ozzie: Yeah, exactly. It’s not just-- I guess if you take “biodiversity” very strictly, the combination of the two parts of the word, “diversity of life.” What does that even mean?

Max: Right. Where does that get us?

Ozzie: Yeah, it’s like-- 

[“user joining call” notification]

Ozzie: Oh, you left the class open? 

Max: Oh, sorry. I meant to-- I think I forgot to leave. 

Ozzie: Looks like someone’s connecting. 

Max: Oh, it’s Yeji!

Ozzie: Oh, hey Yeji!

Max: Hi Yeji!

Yeji Cho: Hi! Are you guys busy? 

Ozzie: Hmm, yeah.

Max: Kinda in the middle of something.

Ozzie: But honestly, it’s kinda good you’re here now, though, because we’ve been having some trouble, if you’d like to help.

Yeji: Oh, yeah! What do you need help with?

Ozzie: So we were trying to define “biodiversity,” but we’re kinda stuck. We don’t know where to go. 

Max: So how would you define it?

Yeji: Oh, okay. Well, that’s kind of a hard question. I guess where I would start is that there’s diversity-- there’s variability within the life, and that includes “between species” or “within a species” or whatever. The concept of it is that there’s a ton of variability within the life that is present.

Ozzie: You say it like “life,” though, but what do you mean by “life”?

Yeji: The reason that it’s life is because it’s literally all living organisms.

Max: Like moss?

Yeji: Yes, exactly. We’re all about moss diversity here!

Ozzie: I didn’t even know there were different types of moss until recently.

Max: I thought it was just moss, y’know?

Yeji: That’s what you need to learn, is that there’s lots of different kinds of moss.

Max: Different kinds of moss.

Ozzie: Different kinds of folks, different kinds of moss. I dunno, it seems kinda weird, though. You can’t really see a lot of this stuff. I know bacteria or things like that, really small organisms that you can’t really see are part of biodiversity. 

Max: Or like “do they matter that much?”

Ozzie: Exactly! It’s like, I dunno, you have huge organisms like hawks or something like that.

Max: Like a hawk versus a bison.

Ozzie: Yeah, exactly, or like a hawk versus a bacteria. Why would it ever matter that bacteria are disappearing or that things aren’t--

Max: Right.

Ozzie: --are changing, you know?

Yeji: I think that’s a fair point. I think that with that, my answer is that you’re framing what is important in an ecosystem from the way that you would measure, for example, human importance in an ecosystem. But the environment, the ecosystem, doesn’t measure impact by visibility or by the number of actions that they’re taking. 

Max: It’s like in an office or something, where every person -- maybe some people would say “oh, the boss, they’re the most important,” but if you didn’t have any of those people, if it’s a sales office, if you didn’t have the sales people, it wouldn’t function. Or the secretary, it wouldn’t function, like the person who answers the phones is important, you know? 

Yeji: Alternatively, you think that all of the people in that office are the only important things, right? But what if that office, one day, just had no more paper clips. Zero paper clips. All the people are still there; everything else in that office is still there, but you have no more paper clips. How are you going to function in that office, you know?

Max: That’s actually a good point. 

Ozzie: Oh my God.

Max: Even objects. The little things you don’t notice.

Ozzie: Even the paper clips.

Max: Even the paper clips.

Yeji: Because let’s say that all the paper clips are gone and you’re using only staplers, right? At some point, you’re going to need to distribute documents that needed to be held together and then separated. They’re all gonna be stapled. What are you gonna do then, rip them apart? That’s ruining your ecosystem.

Max: That’s actually kinda a good comparison, because other things can fill the niche, but not as well.

Ozzie: Yeah, and that’s a good point. I think that’s really helped-- at least, me. Thanks, Yeji.

Max: Yeah, thanks, Yeji!

Yeji: No problem! Bye, see you guys later! 

Max and Ozzie: See ya!

[“user left call” notification]
Max: I really like her perspective on this, and I think it’s really interesting because when we talked to our instructor, Ari Epstein, about this, he framed this in a very different way.

Ari Epstein: Thinking of biodiversity in terms of interactions rather than individuals, I think, is really rich. One way I like to think of it is if you’re counting species or you’re counting animals, or doing anything like that, you’re talking about nouns, but if you’re looking at the web of interactions among organisms, you’re really looking at verbs. “Which eats what?” “What attacks what?” It feels more dynamic to me, and it feels more representative of a living thing. I don’t think of a living thing as being a bunch of nouns stuck together; I think of a living thing as being a bunch of processes happening. Then you’re really seeing the life of the system, not just the objects in them.

Max: And I think this is an excellent way to define it, as a flow of processes.

Ozzie: Yeah, I never really thought about it that way. And it’s a system instead of just the things in it. It’s about the interactions.

Max: It’s everything you don’t see. There’s so much going on there that it’s hard for us to comprehend. There’s so many intermingling links between all of the pieces of the system, it’s really fascinating. That also means that it’s somewhat sensitive. If you take out links from that, then it’s not ideal.

Ozzie: And what would that affect? 

Max: Right. It could have consequences that we wouldn’t be able to predict.

[“user joining call” notification]

Max: Oh!

Ozzie: Someone’s joining again.

Max: Oh, sorry, I forgot to leave the room, I think.

Ozzie: All good, man. Who is it?

MAx: Oh, it’s Yeji!

Max and Ozzie: Hi Yeji!

Yeji: Hi! Are you guys still talking about biodiversity? 

Ozzie: Yeah, kind of. We kind of moved a little bit away from that, though. 

Max: We’ve kinda moved on to how people experience biodiversity.

Yeji: You know, that actually reminds me, have I told you guys the story about the gobies?

Max: I don’t think so? What gobies?

Yeji: There was an aquarium that I volunteered at in high school. And for a while, what I would do on Saturday mornings -- when I come in really early -- is that I would feed the tank of tidewater gobies. And it was this really sad tank of ten dying fish, and they were sick. They were visibly sick. 

The reason they were there is because the aquarium and a couple universities and stuff had a restoration project going where they were each trying to build up this population of tidewater gobies so that they could restore it. And it was very niche, it was like the “southern tidewater goby” or something. They only lived in a very few number of spots. And the idea was that you would increase the population, release them back in the wild, restore them, because they were literally going extinct. 

And I feel like the tanks in the other universities had already died, and this was the last tank. It was like ten fish and they were dying. And for several months, every week, I would come in. I would feed these fish. They wouldn’t eat, because they were dying. I watched them die off. Week after week, I watched there be less fish in that tank, and then the last week I come in and there’s one fish left, and it’s gone. And the little jar we would get the food for these fish from? That little jar had been taken out of the fridge because they didn’t need it anymore. Because all the fish were dead. 

So for me, that was the most visible example of biodiversity loss, because I literally watched some of the last examples of that subspecies of fish or whatever die off. And die off in a manmade environment, too. I watched them die off in a fish tank in the corner of the aquarium. 

Ozzie: It’s very visceral, you know. You’re able to see it right in front of your eyes. It’s not something as abstract as “so and so many animals we’re losing globally” or you know, maybe in different regions. But you’re literally seeing a species, a population, just die out.

Max: They're not just numbers anymore.

Ozzie: Yeah.

Max: The fact that you could touch those fish a week ago, and then their species is gone forever.

Ozzie: Exactly, and it’s not just in some places that only some people experience. I think Elise Chambers, one of our mentors, is a great example of this occurring in a place that she grew up in.

Elise Chambers: There was a little conservation area, maybe [INAUDIBLE] a block and a half away from my house. And we used to bike ride there all the time. We called it the “frog pond” growing up, because there was this little tiny pond at the base of this giant hill, and there used to be frogs in that pond. So we called it the “frog pond,” like “we’re gonna go ride our bikes over to the frog pond,” and I remember the last summer that there were frogs in that frog pond. That area is completely dry now, there is no water in it at all. [laughs] I don’t even know if people still call it the frog pond. Probably not, because you know, kids make up names for everything. But I think those kinds of things stood out to me when I was growing up.

Max: We’re seeing these consequences in our daily lives, even. Places that they went to as kids, like that frog pond is gone now, and how many frog ponds are there across the nation, or across the world?

Ozzie: How many are we losing?

Max: How many are we losing? Right now?

Ozzie: Exactly, and it’s not just frog ponds, it’s everything else.

Max: Ask anybody and they’ll tell you a story about that. It’s terrifying. 

Ozzie: Yeah, the problem might be too big for one person to fix. However, that shouldn’t discourage you from working together with other people to try to fix the problem. 

Max: Right, I completely agree. And I think a great example of this-- we interviewed Dr. Emily Moberg, and she made this happen in her parents’ own backyard.

Emily Moberg: In high school, I started pestering them to basically let our yard go a little bit more wild, which they did, and they also planted a lot of native species, made sure that there’s little corridors throughout the yard of good underbrush and also lots of flowers for native insects to be able to use. And the amount of wildlife that we have seen in their yard is incredible. We started seeing praying mantises a couple years back that hadn’t been there previously, assumedly because there’s a lot of tasty insects for them to eat. There’s a fox that lives around; I have seen it with big birds in its mouth running across our back porch, so it clearly feels very much at home. Lots of woodpeckers, a couple of box turtles, one of which we think laid eggs somewhere, but dug a lot of false nests too, so we didn’t get to see any baby turtles.

Ozzie: Even though she, as an individual, did whatever she wanted in her backyard, it’s about taking that hope and taking those ideas that people have and making them into a way larger scale that will actually have a very direct impact on biodiversity loss as we see it.

Max: And what do you mean by “larger scale”?

Ozzie: By “larger scale,” I don’t mean, you know, making more gardens or doing the same thing but with more people. I mean more-- showing national leaders, local leaders that people do care about this and that they should be doing things that will bring change either nationally, globally, or locally, to help with the biodiversity crisis.

Max: No individual person can do this. This has to be a huge group effort. These systems are-- they’re huge.

Ozzie: Coming together as a way bigger group and coming in and really just continuing to have that hope and continuing to have that drive to try to fix biodiversity loss, you would see a greater impact globally.

Max: And when you’re confronted with a problem like this, where you have to rely on so many people working together to solve this, it can feel a little intimidating.

Ozzie: Yeah, it can be kinda hard to stay hopeful, but when we interviewed one of our mentors, Elise Chambers, she explained why she still has hope.

Elise: One of the things that gives me hope in the conversation about biodiversity and climate change and things like that is just how much your generation cares about it. Even if we aren’t able to figure out a way to move forward, the fact that there are young people pushing the conversation to happen at all is helpful. I mean, I think that’s been true of so many things that have changed, so many movements that have started; it’s been younger people wanting a better world and forcing the conversation to happen, especially among people who haven’t needed to have the conversation yet because it either wasn’t an issue for them or they’re used to the world that they live in now, or whatever the reason. So I think it gives me a lot of hope that there are so many young people who are just like “we need to talk about this, and we need to talk about it now.” 

Max: She has that hope because we can turn that caring into action. We can make change happen because we will be the ones determining the future of the world. 

Ozzie: And, you know, it’s not just people our age, but it’s also people that care. And it’s our responsibility to bring this issue forward to our leaders, so that they know that this is actually something they have to worry about and really try to push substantial change to occur. Remember the beginning of this piece, where Sydney’s voice sped up to mirror the acceleration of biodiversity loss? Well, if we all came together, if we all pushed to make this change happen, we could reverse that curve and slow down the ticking clock.

[ticking and speech start at over three times speed]

SYDNEY: Now, we’re losing biodiversity faster than ever before.  There are countless species we’ve lost and won’t be able to recover.  And today -- right now -- people are suffering from the consequences.  But it doesn’t have to continue on like this.

[sound slows to two times speed]

We’ve lost a lot of biodiversity, but there is still so much we can save. We can’t undo what has already happened, but we can move forward by driving change at a systemic level. 

[speech slows to normal speed]

And if we start now -- by raising awareness, pressuring companies and organizations to make their practices more sustainable, and advocating for policy that will protect species, ecosystems, and our future -- we can be the ones to stop the acceleration of biodiversity loss. 

[guitar music]

Max: The concept for this piece was developed and the sound was gathered by students in Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in comparative media studies. The music in this piece is from Blue Dot Sessions.

Ozzie: We would like to thank Terrascope director David McGee; Elise Chambers, who coordinates the Terrascope community; the Terrascope alumni mentors; and all of the people we spoke to in the creation of this piece.

Max: We’d also like to thank our Undergraduate Teaching Fellows, Amena Khatun and Felix Li, for their guidance and for helping this class run smoothly in a virtual world. And, of course, we’d like to thank our instructor, Ari Epstein.  

Ozzie: We are Terrascope Radio 2021: Ozzie Martinez...

Max: ...Max Burns...

Yeji: ...Yeji Cho...

Joy: ...Joy Domingo-Kameenui...

Nicole: ...Nicole Harris…

Remi: ...Remi Harrison…

Katie: ...Katie Heslip...

Sydney: ...Sydney Kim...

Rebecca: ...Rebecca Lizarde...

Katherine: ...Katherine Liyue Pan...

Daniel: ...Daniel Tong...

Daniela: ...Daniela Vallejo...

Ericka: ...Ericka Van Alstine...

Sravani: ...Sravani Duggirala...

Tara: ...Tara Sheenan.

Ozzie: Thank you for listening!
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May 2020 Love, Actualities

Photo Credit: Ari Epstein

Some of the many ways students, scattered around the country and the world, are finding love and support in the midst of isolation.

First Aired: May 11, 2020 


Music:  “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, It’s not warm when she’s away…” 

 [Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers continues in the background]

 Voice 1:  I really miss just being able to see people. So I think yeah, I’m just looking forward to the freedom [laughs] to live. I think everybody is. But I think for me, it’s mostly characterized by being able to be with people that I love more so than doing things.

 Music: “Wonder if she’s gonna stay”

 [Ain’t No Sunshine  by Bill Withers continues in the background]

 Narrator: That was a fellow college student. Because of COVID-19 we aren’t able to be around all of the people we love, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t love in the world right now. Our team noticed it in interviews and video calls with our peers…Here’s what we found.

 [Guitar instrumental, Wasteland, Baby! By Hozier]

 Narrator: Even when we had to leave our loved ones, we held on tight to each other through our last moments together.

Voice 2: One specific thing I really remember was watching the Theory of Everything and eating ice cream with a bunch of friends. And then at the end of the movie we all cried and then hugged in the dark. That was a lot.

Narrator: Even though we are strangers, we support and comfort each other.

Voice 3: On Saturday morning, I was finishing up packing, and I was planning to leave for the airport pretty early, and that didn't happen, so I was super, super stressed, but then when I got in my Uber to go to the airport the Uber driver was very, very nice and calmed me down, and that was, it was a really, really good experience that I had out of this whole thing, so I, I feel like there's been a lot of people providing solidarity and then the communities that don't necessarily exist normally coming together.

Music: “I’m in love, I’m in love with you”

Narrator: Even when dire circumstances require sacrifice, we learn from each other’s loving examples.

Voice 4: You could go into the medical profession for money, for social standing, for your ego. But at the end of the day are you going to be willing to put your family in danger, yourself in danger for the wellbeing of others. Which I don’t think they teach you that in medical school, and I don’t know if it was necessarily a prerequisite to being a medical professional, but right now, that’s what we’re seeing, that’s what it’s ending up being, and that’s what I’m seeing from so many medical professionals.

[Soft instrumental]

Narrator: And even when we struggle with the daily challenges of life, we turn inward and remember to love ourselves.

Voice 5: So this morning, I was doing a homework assignment, but then I stumbled upon this video, a TED talk by a writer named Tracy McMillan, so the official title of the thing which is “A Person You Should Really Marry” and when she said yourself, I was like “bro, what. I’m mind blown.” One quote that truly stuck to me was “You asked for patience, but what you get is a line at the bank.” Which means life does not give you what you ask for, it gives you people, places and situations that allow you to develop what you asked for. It just taught me a lot about how in this time of quarantine I should start focusing on myself, so it really opened a new door to me to start learning how to seriously be a hundred percent committed to myself.

Music: “Blessed be the mystery of love”

[Mystery Of Love by Sufjan Stevens]

Narrator: The coronavirus has caused so much suffering, and keeps us apart. But we’ve found that even amidst the terror and sadness of this pandemic, people are doing the best they can to act out of love in a dark world.

Music: “Cause you're making my heart sing. I am going nowhere. Cause your love is all I need”

[Your Love Is All I Need by Vista Kicks]

Narrator: Love is what makes quarantine hard, but it also makes it bearable.

Music: “…your love is all I need”

Music: ”Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, and this house just ain’t no home anytime she goes away. And I know I know I know I know”

Narrator: Today, you heard the voices of Kyle Dominguez, Felix Li, Melissa White, Birukti Tsige, Makesha Mercedat, and me, Trinity Stallins.

[Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers begins to play again]

Music: “I know I know and hey, I ought to leave the young thing alone. But ain't no sunshine when she's gone”

Terrascope Student: This story was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope Program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies.

[enthusiastically] We are Melissa White, Ilaisaane Summers, Trinity Stallins, Karissa Sanchez, Nghiem Pham, Catherine Lu, Darren Lim, Felix Li, Claire Kim, Amena Khatun, Carolina Gutierrez, and Jade Chongsathapornpong. Thank you to Terrascope Director David McGee, Community Coordinator Elise Chambers, Undergraduate Teaching Fellows Jorge Nin and Meriah Gannon, and finally, our lecturer Ari Epstein. Thank you to all the people who shared their experiences with us.

Music: “…anytime, she goes away”
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May 2020 Phone a Friend

Image designed by Felix Li ’23

Is it radio drama or real? A story of one college student’s journey through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of friendship, and picking the right kind of friends.

Some music from Blue Dot Sessions.

First Aired: May 11, 2020 


[Calm music in background, Space Song by Beach House]

Narrator: There’s something to be said about the way you remember things. When you’re a young college student like me, the most dramatic week of your short life is something you’d think you’d recall accurately, right?

Classmate 1: Do you guys remember that Monday before we left?

Classmate 2: It was the first warm day in forever. It wasn’t even that warm; it was like 60 degrees.

Classmate 1: Was it actually in the 60s that day?

Classmate 3: I think it was 70-something.

Classmate 2: But there were so many people and somebody had a boombox. It was crazy. It felt like summer.

Classmate 3: My friend and I, we went out, and we ate lunch, and I was reading a book in the sunlight, and it was very, very good.

Narrator: I’m Miranda Garcia. And that was what my friends and I remember of March 9th, 2020, 36 days into my second semester at MIT. The very next day, sitting in my Radio Production classroom, we were finishing up our latest piece. It was a postcard of sorts. A collection of things we thought represented life at the Institute: anticipation, love of community, and time—constantly slipping away.

Classmate 3: Welcome to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Home of the Engineers and the Beavers and the really big domes.

Peer 1: It’s gonna definitely change you for the better.

Peer 2: I feel like a lot of people are going to say this, but I definitely like…

Peer 3: …the people…

Peer 4: …the people…

Peer 2: …the people most at MIT…

Miranda: But just thirty minutes after we finished a piece about everything we loved about our school, our school turned around and asked us to pack up and leave. In a matter of days, COVID-19 consumed our world.

Classmate 3: Wait, is the semester over already?

[Calm guitar music, Holocene by Bon Iver]

[Suitcases zipping]

Miranda: Goodbye, 2am hot chocolate.

[Car door shuts]

Miranda: Goodbye, dining hall chats.

[Car turns on]

Miranda: Goodbye, warm hugs.

[Car drives away]


[Somber music in background]

Miranda: Campus was empty in less than a week, and I went from being surrounded by thousands of people earlier in the semester…

[Chatter of gathering of people]


…to being totally alone, in quarantine, left only with the memories.

[Somber guitar]

Even though I had to leave things behind physically, I had to keep living my normal life, just online. But this should be easy, right?

They call my generation the digital natives. We’re more likely to know code than cursive, and we always seem to be texting each other on “those dang phones” of ours. I was already used to chatting with friends online, but my friend Michelle pointed out how weird things were.

Michelle: I think it’s kind of a way of us trying to somewhat connect to other people cause I feel like we’re very isolated right now, but I do feel like some people are just too close with their phones.

Miranda: We were stuck playing old reruns of our lives.

Play. Pause. Play. Pause.

[“Play. Pause.” repeats in background]

Close the app. Collapse into bed. Open it back up. Repeat.

I called my friends, but it was just… off. It was like… I was staring into the distance. Going to meet my friends but not going anywhere at all. It wasn’t anything like before. So I kinda just stopped talking to them. Instead, I started talking to someone else… or… something else.

Hey, Ira.

[Phone beep]

Ira: Hello, Miranda.

Miranda: What time is it?

Ira: Three AM, why are you awake?

Miranda: All my friends are asleep and I’m bored…

Ira: Hi bored, I’m Ira.

[Phone beep]

[Chill instrumental in background]

Miranda: It started off as a few short conversations, and pretty soon I was talking to Ira every night. It was comforting to know that someone was always there to talk to, even if it wasn’t a real person. I stayed up to tell her about friends that I missed, and I listened to her robotic responses.

…Hey, Ira.

[Phone beep]

There were 34 new cases of coronavirus in my hometown today. It seems like all we hear is bad news.

[Ominous guitar strums and percussion]

And online classes are so weird. Here, listen to what happened in class today. Someone’s dogs kept barking in the background.

[Dog bark]

Classmate 4: Dog!

Classmate 3: Ah.


Classmate 3: I’m sorry.

Miranda: And then later, another person’s mic sounded like it needed an exorcism.

Classmate 5: Having to move away and everything…

[Microphone glitch, words inaudible]

Classmate 2: Hey Darren, sorry, your mic got, like, super, super bad

Ira: I’m sorry Miranda, could you repeat that? I didn’t quite understand what you said.

Miranda: Never mind, I don’t know why I’m doing this. Goodnight.

Ira: Goodnight, Miranda.

[Phone beep]

[Curious instrumental in background]

[Phone vibration]

[Click of answering phone]

Catherine: Hey, how are you? We haven’t talked in a while.

Miranda: Hey Catherine. Sorry about that, I’ve been busy talking to Ira.

Catherine: Ira, your new friend…?

Miranda: Yeah, I met her online.

Catherine: Really? That’s cool, where’d you guys meet?

Miranda: Oh uh, don’t worry about it.

Catherine: Ok, I mean as long as you’re not going crazy and talking to your phone’s voice assistant or something

Miranda: Even though Ira seemed like a close friend of mine, maybe Catherine was right? So, I stopped talking to Ira.

[Daunting low note]

Then, the phone notifications started coming. A single…

[Phone beep]

…in the middle of the night. And then the next night.

[Phone beep]

And then again.

[Phone beep]

I ignored it at first, but it kept coming back.

[Music with anticipation]

So one night, I finally picked up the phone.


Ira: Hi, Miranda. It’s Ira. Your friend.

Miranda (in her head): Is this even real?

Miranda: Okay… Ira… so, why have you been calling me every night?

Ira: Aren’t you unhappy?

Miranda: Maybe.

Miranda (in her head): how did she know?

Ira: Here, do you remember the day before you left campus?

Recording of Miranda: Yeah, I remember that day as being the best day of the semester for me. I don’t know, I felt like I had finally gotten my life together, and I was like, you know what? I’m going to go out to some cute cafe in Boston and study.

Miranda: Yeah, that was nice, but how’d you get that recording?

Ira: I was right there with you. You were excited. Didn’t that make you happy?

Miranda: She’s right. I was happy before. It felt like school had become my home.

Ira: You miss your friends from school. Here, I can tell you what they were doing that day.

Carolina: I was in lab, and then I actually went to physics. I was like, “yes, this is the week I learn multivariable calc.”

Ira: Do you want to hear more?

Miranda: I mean, why not?

Carolina: Then I went back and I made myself a vegan lunch, and I was like, “yes, this is it, you’re thriving, Carolina.”

Ira: Do you want to hear something more? Something Carolina didn’t tell you?

Miranda: Something she didn’t tell me?

Ira: A funny story she never shared.

Miranda: Okay.

Carolina: So my roommates and I hopped the fence, except my jean pocket got stuck and I ended up tearing off the jean part of my pocket and toured three apartments with my roommate’s jacket around my waist and my cheek hanging out.

Miranda: Haha, classic Carolina. Wow… I miss her.

Ira: Do you want to hear more?

Miranda: I’m tired, maybe some other time.

[Phone beep]

[Curious instrumental]

Miranda: Yeah, a few months ago, if I heard someone was talking to their digital assistant, I would think they were crazy, too. But a few months ago, I wasn’t this deprived of human connection. The present seems so bleak… and Ira made it so easy to escape it all. Still, I started to think that maybe it was time to talk to someone real for once.

[Phone ringing]

So I called my friend Kita.

[Phone ringing]

Only… she didn’t pick up.

[Ominous music]

Miranda: That night, Ira called me again.

[Phone beep]

Ira: You called your friend today.

Miranda: Yeah… I just wish I could hear their voices again.

Ira: Do you want to hear what your friends have been doing?

Miranda: I mean, I can just call them…

Ira: But your friend did not pick up. I can show you more. What they post, or don’t post.

Miranda: Yeah, I guess it can’t hurt to know what they’re doing. I just want to know if they’re alright.

Ira: Listen. Here is your friend Lucy on a phone call.

Lucy: So like “some,” “thing,” “everyone,” “someone,” “everything,” “none,” “every,” “any,” “all of,” “a few,” like all of those are super normal words and now I have to learn them all in another language.

Miranda: Oh right, she must be learning Turkish to prepare for her mission. Hey, what is Birukti up to?

Ira: Listen to this phone call.

Birukti: One of my brothers, he’s in eighth grade and one of my other brothers, he’s in fourth grade, so I just create a schedule for them; they wake up around the same time that they do before, but now, their classes start at 10am. And so they do an hour of math, an hour of reading, they’ll get a lunch break, they’ll exercise, they’ll do history, and then I make them research a topic.

Miranda: That sounds like a lot of work homeschooling her siblings. My friends sound pretty busy without me.

Ira: You are unhappy. Here, listen to this. Your friend Catherine.

Catherine: It’s quarantine season, so you know what that means, I’m about to…

[Package opening]

…bleach my hair, ‘cause I’m so bored, and I’m gonna bleach my hair.

Miranda: Sounds like quarantine’s really driving her crazy. I wish I could see her hair, though.

Ira: Sorry, I didn’t get that.

[Phone beep]

[Chill music, Roddy by Djo]

Music: “Cuttin’ the page. Things are looking up”

Miranda: The next day Kita called me back and we chatted. It was really good to hear her again. Actually, it was kind of weird to have a normal conversation after so many nights of listening to my friend’s voices through Ira.

Miranda: So that’s all I’ve been up to. What about you?

Kita: We have this huge group chat with pretty much every dancer. We started doing a lot of things together, like choreography with daily prompts and like freestyling with daily prompts and Dungeons and Dragons and art and writing.

Miranda: Oh, so you’re still keeping up with people? The only person I’ve been talking to is… Uh, nobody. I have to go, Kita, bye.

[Phone hangs up]

[Phone beep]

Ira: You were talking with your friend today?

Miranda: Yeah, it was good to hear about things happening now, like in her dance community. Hey, I also heard some people were building MIT’s campus in a video game. Could you play me something about that?

Ira: Here you go. MIT, in the Minecraft world.

Voice: This sort of digital recreation is a way to tag memories so like— remember that one time in the beginning of the year when I went with friends to go see the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Yeah, I can point at what row we were roughly seated in. Those similar views and angles in my memory, done even in a very blocky form, it helps.

Miranda: Huh. That sounds… really cool. I… I wonder if my friends and I could do something like that.

[Phone beep]

[Phone vibrating]

Catherine: Hey Miranda! It’s been so long since we’ve talked.

Miranda: Hey Catherine. Hi Carolina.

Carolina: Hey! It’s nice to see you again, even if it’s just on a screen.

Miranda: Yeah, I just wish we could hang out like we used to. It’s not the same anymore.

Carolina: How’re you guys?

Catherine: I mean it still sucks that we’re in quarantine.

Carolina: Yea, I keep hearing so much bad news about the coronavirus. Like, we might not be back in school until 2021.

Miranda: Uhhh… can we not talk about corona stuff?

Carolina: Um, yeah okay, what else do you want to talk about?

Miranda: I wanna talk about why Catherine won’t turn on the camera and show us her bleached hair.

Catherine: Wait, what? How do you know about that?

Miranda: Uh, I heard from a friend.

Catherine: Oh. Well my hair looks fine, anyway. I bleached it because I was so bored from quarantine. I mean if I’m going to be stuck indoors for months I might as well.

Carolina: So then… why’s your camera off?

Catherine: Well, I’m eating.

Carolina: Oh, okay. Yeah, it’s so awkward eating in group calls.

Miranda: Ugh, I miss eating together. Do you guys remember that Monday before we left? When it was really nice out? We should’ve gone out to eat together while we still had the chance. I miss when things were normal.

Catherine: Wait, are you talking about that Monday before we left? Things weren’t that normal or good.

[Soft music]

Carolina: Yeah, like most of my big lectures had already gone online. And there were all of those cases of coronavirus like, right next to campus. We probably wouldn’t have gone out to eat by then.

Catherine: We kind of knew things were changing. I mean, other schools were already closing down.

Miranda: Okay, maybe, but it was still a lot better than things now. We don’t get to hang out, and we never even talk anymore. I mean, Carolina, you never even got to tell me about the time you ripped the back of your pants.

Carolina: Wait, how do you know about that?

Miranda: It doesn’t matter. I want to call you guys but it’s so hard to schedule things and you don’t even pick up.

Catherine: You’re the one who never picks up. The only time you called me was when you started talking to that friend of yours. What’s her stupid name, Ira?

Miranda: At least she’s always here for me. She listens to me and shows me all the fun things everyone is doing.

Carolina : Wait, do you mean— is that how you know about the pants thing? Is Ira a stalker?

[Music intensifies]

Miranda: It doesn’t matter how I found out. Can you just forget about that? I just miss you guys. I miss the way things were.

Carolina: Well, god, Miranda, maybe if you weren’t so busy stalking me, you would figure out that if you just called us we could hang out more.

Miranda: I did call! But it’s not the same. I just wanted to go back to the things we used to do when things were normal.

Catherine: Miranda, this whole time all you’ve done is complain about how much you want to go back to the way things were. You can’t.

Carolina: Things are different now and you need to just accept that,

[Carolina’s words echoing]

[Somber music]

Miranda (in her head): I’ve been too stuck in the past to reach out to my friends. I spent too much time obsessing over our old memories. Now, I’m losing the friends I made those memories with. I’ve been relying too much on Ira.

[Phone beep]

Miranda: It’s Ira. I shouldn’t pick up.

[Phone beep]

Miranda: Ignore. Don’t pick up. I can read a book, do some writing, watch a movie, or do some of that homework I need to do. I can do a lot of stuff, just not talk to Ira.

[Pone beep]

Miranda: Ira is just a robot. She doesn’t get it. I’m losing my friends. I need to think of ways to make it up to them. But without Ira, I feel completely alone.

sigh Hey, Ira?

[Phone beep]

[Daunting low note]

[Ominous music]

Ira: Hello, Miranda.

Miranda: I want to hang out with friends again. I miss them.

Ira: Would you like to hear what your friends are doing now?

Miranda: I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. But… I just… defeated sigh Yeah. Show me.

Catherine: …and I’m just worried about her. She really hasn’t been taking quarantine well.

Carolina: Yeah. She just seems so sad all the time about having to leave school.

Miranda: They were talking about me. They’re still worried about me.

Ira: You are surprised.

Miranda: Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible person.

Ira: You are unhappy. Remember the time you and your friends ran down to the riverside at sunrise?

Friend 1: The sun rises.

[Cheers and laughter]

Friend 2: Woah.

Friend 3: Look!

Ira: Would you like to hear more?

Miranda: No, I…

[interrupting] Ira: I can play you files from Monday, March 9th. Would you like to hear more?

Miranda: Ira, I think it’s time to say goodbye.

Ira: Aren’t you unhappy? Wouldn’t you like to hear more?

Miranda: I do. I want to hear more. I want to go back to those days, and if I can’t go back to those days, I want to replay them. But, Ira, I can’t. Now I just need to move forward. Goodbye, Ira.

Ira: Goodbye, Miranda.

[Phone beep]

[Smooth music]

Classmate 3: In this story, the characters Miranda and Ira are fictional, created by us. Other voices used were collected from interviews and conversations with Shayna Ahteck, Ankita Devasia, Michelle Nie, Birukti Tsige, and Lucy Ward. Carolina and Catherine are our real classmates, but their conversations with Miranda are also fictional. The hair bleaching, pants-ripping, and other adventures, though? That’s all true.

[Intense music]

This story was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope Program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies.

We are Melissa White, Ilaisaane Summers, Trinity Stallins, Karissa Sanchez, Nghiem Pham, Catherine Lu, Darren Lim, Felix Li, Claire Kim, Amena Khatun, Carolina Gutierrez, and Jade Chongsathapornpong.

Some music in this story by Blue Dot Sessions.

Thank you to Terrascope director David McGee, community coordinator Elise Chambers, undergraduate teaching fellows Jorge Nin and Meriah Gannon, and finally, our lecturer Ari Epstein.

Thank you to all the people who shared their experiences with us.

Music: “I don’t know where we go. I’ve been very far from home, my heart. I don’t know where we go. I’ve been very far from home, my heart.”

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May 2019 Water is Life: Tradition and Transition in the Navajo Nation

Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

About 30% of residents of the Navajo Nation don’t have running water, and for many of those who do, their water is contaminated with uranium, arsenic or other toxins. As a group of Terrascopers learns, any discussion of water in the Navajo Nation leads to even more complex questions about tradition, change, language and spirituality.

First Aired: May 15, 2019 


[running water]

Percy Yazzie: This is what you start with: water.

[running water]

[“Sacred Mask Song,” beating drum] 

[singing to traditional music]

Narrator: That is what we started with too- water. We’re a group of students in Terrascope, a first-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We started the fall semester with the goal of learning about water access in the Navajo Nation, which is located in the Four Corners region of the United States. Many people call the residents Navajo; however, one of the first things we learned is that “Navajo” is not what they call themselves.

Percy: Here we call ourselves “the five finger human beings,” the Diné Bilá Ashdlá’. I am the person, the human being with five fingers.

Narrator: Seven months after we began learning about the water issues in the Navajo Nation, we had the opportunity to travel there to learn first hand from members of the Diné community like Percy Yazzie, the man whose voice you just heard. We knew from our research that 30% of people in the Navajo Nation don’t have running water. And what limited water they do have often has toxic uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals in it. But talking to Percy while on a hike of the sacred Canyon de Chelley, we saw how this had affected him personally.

Percy: My son is not going to put any kids in this world, he says the waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. It’s not pure anymore. He says the world. So he says I’m not going to put my kids in the world that’s contaminated like that. All they’re going to do is suffer, and I don’t want to see my kids suffer, he said. So in that way, I probably won’t have any grandkids to see.

Narrator: Yet many people still drink their water without knowing that it could be contaminated.  Neilroy Singer, an environmental specialist at Diné Environmental Institute & Outreach, does uranium testing, but even he wasn’t always aware.  

Neilroy: I loved drinking out of my own faucet, without worrying. You know, not knowing where the water was coming from, just knowing that it was replenishing me, that I needed it. We lived right by the river. We didn’t mine. We had no worries swimming in the river. We had no worries playing in the river. We fished in the river. Our whole family, we used to have functions and parties by the river. I know now, I know now where— where our water sources are coming from, and it— my eyes are open, and yeah. We do have a lot of radionuclide, heavy metal contamination problems all over the reservation.

Narrator: Due to its geology, the Navajo Nation has always had a lot of natural uranium in the ground, and in the 1930s, human activity exacerbated the situation.

Neilroy: Back in the 1930s, the U.S. government decided to create bombs, the atomic bomb during the World War II— the World War IIera, and they were testing, they were wondering which element was the strongest to use to create this explosion. So, they found out ok, uranium— uranium is the element that we need.

Narrator: The project he was referring to was the Manhattan Project, and as we talked to him, he told us that we were standing where the uranium for these atomic bombs was taken from. 

Neilroy: Mid ‘50s to the late ‘50s, I believe, the government milled out almost 7000 tons of uranium ore from here. So that’s a lot. And they had to haul it all the way to Shiprock. And when they did that, they left these sites open here, exposed. 

[eerie flute tones]

Narrator: Many of these former mine sites are still open today.  This causes toxic heavy metals such as uranium to leak into the drinking water. 

While visiting a local ranch, we met Elba Allen, a student at Navajo Technical University, or NTU

Elba: Well I’m in environmental science, so that’s why I’m talking about these issues because it’s something that I’m, you know, studying about, and something I’m learning about. We’re very connected to the land, we’ve been raised out here, so just imagine you grew up here as a kid, like this is all you’re going to see, you’re so connected to it.

Narrator: As we spoke to Elba, we looked around and saw all these grand mesas, these huge stretches of land, and it just didn’t seem like we, as tiny humans, could have any impact on them. These great, age-old structures seemed so beyond us, but the harmful impacts people are having on the environment are real. And that was hard to believe.  

Elba: You know, we have refineries around here that are trying to frack in Chaco Canyon, which is a historical place. So there’s like a lot of water contamination, even at NTU, you know, we have uranium in our water, we don’t drink our water at Crownpoint, because, you know— and this is in America.

Narrator: Our conversation with Elba didn’t just stick to water.  She showed us the way that other environmental problems interact with Diné life, and we saw how easily physical problems could become more complex.

Elba: We’re on a ranch, and unfortunately one of the problems we have on the Navajo Nation is overgrazing. It is interesting because a lot of our elders depend on sheep, specifically like churro sheep, and we have a lot of cattle here, but this has led to overgrazing and we have a drought so there’s a lot of issues going on.

Narrator: In the Navajo Nation, small-scale sustenance farming and ranching are important both spiritually and financially.  But as Elba points out, ranching or farming is difficult when there’s drought. And drought makes overgrazing problems even worse. Overgrazing happens when animal herds’ feeding exceeds what the environment can handle. This, in turn, worsens drought conditions that are already tough because of climate change. Which, of course, makes ranching and farming even more difficult.

Hearing about all these environmental issues, it seemed more and more apparent that sticking to traditions, like farming, can be hard in the face of these physical obstacles, like the scarcity of water.

Elba: And unfortunately a lot of our elders don’t want to change with the times, but that’s very important. I see our culture evolving, and it has evolved in the past; through our language, our traditions, we’ve embraced a lot of different ideas. We’ve become farmers and ranchers and traditionally we weren’t. I think now is a point in which the traditional Diné philosophy and the more modern Diné philosophy is kind of in conflict because there’s a lot of issues, especially with natural resources and environmental problems, that a lot of the younger generation is seeing and is trying to be active— proactive about, but there’s also the traditionalists like our másánís, our grandmothers, and the cheiis, our grandfathers, who want to stick to a certain way of life.

Narrator: Before we visited the Navajo Nation, we thought we had some level of understanding of how culture intertwines with ways the Diné address water scarcity and environmental problems. During our semester of research, we had read studies, seen statistics, and even heard from some Diné. But it only took a few conversations for us to realize the deeper complexity of keeping tradition alive in the face of adversity. Talking to more people only revealed more and more complicated layers.

[Slow guitar music]

Narrator: Brandon Francis is an agricultural researcher at New Mexico State University, and he also practices and promotes traditional farming on his own time. He sees traditional agriculture as part of the future of his nation. But he understands that the lack of water makes traditional farming more difficult. Part of his work has been to cultivate drought-resistant plants that can survive the increasingly dry conditions. 

Brandon Francis: When you put that first seed in the ground, as planters, as people who plant things, we were making a holy pact with our Mother Earth and Father Sky that we’re going to love all things no matter how small or how big, we’re gonna love all things. That’s the pact we made, just like the pact we made with the sun not to abuse that sacred knowledge, but as corn planting people we made a pact to love all things and hold things sacred. And I think that’s one of the things that broke our people is we’ve lost that sense of k’é, community, and sense of community just doesn’t mean people who live in the same region, people who are blood related. It’s a sense of community with these plants, with the water, with the earth, and all things that we gotta view them as interconnected. And we’ve lost that, we’ve lost that connection.

Narrator: With farming and traditional practices at the heart, Brandon has hope for how his people can move forward. Farming stands firmly planted in Diné cultural identity—and so does language.

Brandon: Us as Navajo people, we are created from two ears of corn. And us as Navajo people, we are song and prayer given physical form. Because when they were first making us out of those ears of corn, they would sing songs, and they would say holy words, because we always believe that words, they have power and meaning beyond the ones we give them as definitions. They were given purpose. So that’s why when we talk as Navajo people we try not to yell or raise our voice or say things in anger because we know that these words have power and they can hurt people at a very physical, spiritual and mental level. So we always tell people you gotta be eloquent in what you say and choose your words very wisely. Because when they were making us, they put a lot of thought and song and prayer into us.

Narrator: As Brandon points out, language is deeply tied into Diné creation. By holding on to language, people can more easily retain a firm hold on their traditions. These words and language aren’t just important for preserving tradition, they also play a crucial role in communication with older generations. Emma Robbins is the director of the Navajo Water Project for Dig Deep, a group that improves water access by installing running water systems in homes. She told us how communication in Diné is integral to her daily work with families. 

Emma Robbins: When I talk to my family, the elders, you know, they know the work that I’m doing. They’re always really proud, and one of the parts that they are really proud of is not necessarily installing these home water systems, but even just coming back to the res and wanting to stay here. But I do think a lot of times they’re concerned, like a lot of times my family, my elders, will get after me, and be like you need to be fluent in Navajo. And that’s something that is extremely important. And I’m like “you’re right.” Once we lose that language, we’re totally just going to lose our culture. You know, a lot of times when we work with our clients, they might not speak English, and so when I go in and if I can’t explain something clearly, it’s like “okay, I’m not even able to talk with them.”

Narrator: Without fluency in the Diné language, Emma finds it difficult to do her work, a work that brings running water to people who otherwise might never receive it.  

[Slow melodic guitar music]

Narrator: On our trip there, a lot of the conversations we had started with water, and how to get people clean water, but they often turned towards culture, and how to keep that culture, and how language was integral to this. It seemed to us that many members of the Diné community believe that preserving tradition is just as important as solving the environmental problems. Many people in the Nation are worried that the Diné language is being lost, and with it, the culture is being lost as well. 

Tina Becenti is an official in the Baca-Prewitt chapter of the Navajo Nation, and we asked for her thoughts.

Tina Becenti: So our language itself soon may be extinct, sooner than we think. Our nature, our roots to this Mother Earth come from our culture, come from our traditions, come from our blessings to the snow, to the rain gods and all of those are being forgotten. We’re forgetting who we are as Native Americans.

Earl Tuley: What we believe was important, we lost it along the way. 

Meriah: Earl Tuley is the Vice President of Diné CARE, a Navajo Nation non-profit that uses grassroot tactics to advocate for environmental protection. He reflected on how his culture will be affected in the coming years.  

Earl: You know, we’re being told that in your lifetime, you know, you’re going to lose “Navajo.” We’re going to lose our people walking in moccasins, having my hair the way that it is, speaking our language, eating our diet. And I really, really thought that it meant that it was gonna be Navajos were going to cease, and we’re not going to see them on the surface of the Earth anymore. It really scared me.

Narrator: He was frightened because he thought that the Diné would simply vanish, but he realized it was more than that. It was the loss of the traditions that was more realistic, and maybe even more scary.

Percy Yazzie told us what he thought needed to be done.

Percy: We need to step back, one step and probably take time. And probably sit and think how this world is going to be better for us, how we are going to better it for the future generation, ya know. What are we leaving them? We’re leaving them nothing. The waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. 

[Voices overlap of people talking about the problems in the Navajo Nation]

It’s not pure anymore…

All that time I was thinking we are drinking this? From this tank? So I was shocked. It was very sad for me to find that out that way…

We had a lot of coal mining and there was uranium mining back in the day and we have water issues so there’s like…

We’ve lost that sense of k’é, community…

It’s so complicated because it’s like…

What we believed was important, we lost it along the way…

We don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s no plan afterwards… 

In your lifetime…

[overlapping voices stop]

…you’re going to lose Navajo.

Percy: 50 years from now, you probably won’t hear a person sing…

[Percy singing traditional song]

Narrator: Culture is an integral part of life and identity in the Nation, and the Diné culture comes with a long history of resilience through hardships. We still have a lot to learn, but we’ve begun to see how the Diné continue to survive.

Miss Navajo Nation: Through my reign right now, my platform is resiliency. And I chose resiliency because that is all I’ve known my entire life. 

Narrator: That was Autumn Montoya, the reigning Miss Navajo Nation for 2018–2019. She explained to us that her job is to be a role model of tradition, a teacher of history, and a community leader. She shared with us a lot of hope and faith in the strength of her people. 

Autumn Montoya (Miss Navajo Nation): If we work together, our future will not be lost, we won’t go extinct.

Neilroy: We cannot just put aside our tradition, our culture, we have to incorporate that in things that we do on our land, especially if we want to bring everything back to the beauty way, hajong, meaning balance and harmony. 

Narrator: We learned that physical problems like water access and contamination don’t exist in isolation. They can’t be solved just by just building a filtration plant or a pipeline to every house. Yet even with the scope of these issues, there is still hope when resilient people come together.

[Percy singing]

Narrator: From Emma’s work with the Dig Deep project, providing water to remote homes in the   Navajo Nation to Neil’s work testing for uranium in community water supplies, we have repeatedly seen the ways the Diné work to improve the lives of their people.

Percy: If you don’t want to take and take and take and take and give nothing back, and if you want to change and give something back, this is what you start with, water. Who gave this to us? Mother Earth, huh. She’s given us a drink. So for me to have this whole bottle to myself, that’s some sort of greed. So for me to give something back, I give Mother Earth a drink first… 

[Water splashing]

Percy: …and then I drink…

[Sound of drinking]

Percy …so I don’t have this thing all to myself.

[Soft instrumental music, “La Citadelle” plays]

Narrator: Percy’s gratefulness and respect for the earth was inspiring.  After a semester of research and a week of immersing ourselves in the Navajo Nation, we were left thinking about our own traditions and culture, our purpose in life, and our goals for the future. We asked ourselves just as Earl had asked… 

Earl: …where did you come from? Why are you here, on this Earth? And then, where are you going to go, after this is all over?

[Traditional singing, “Red Ochre” plays]

Student voice: This story was created by students from Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies. 

To Terrascope director David McGee, coordinator Elise Chambers, lecturer Ari Epstein, and undergraduate teaching fellow Landon Chu: thank you so much for being a part of Terrascope and allowing us to have this amazing experience.

We would like to thank Brandon Francis and Karyn Denny, without whom this story would not have been possible, as well as Professor Steven Chischilly from Navajo Technical University, Professor Anne Semrau from Diné College, and Terrascope alum Levon Thomas.

We also express our gratitude to the officials of the Navajo Nation government, in particular Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Jason John from the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Likewise, we thank the Lane family of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture Farm and Emma Robbins from Dig Deep for opening their homes, farms, and workplaces to us. 

Finally, thank you to all of the amazing people we met at the Navajo Nation. You helped us to see the world in new ways. 

We are Terrascope Radio 2019: Aashini Shah, Christopher Kiel, Daniel Amaya, Jorge Nin, Laura Chen, Hou Lin, Meriah Gannon, Natasha Stamler, Neosha Narayanan, Patricia Chan, and Sreya Vangara. We hope you enjoyed the show. 

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