In Print

Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God

by Jane (Hudson) Knuth ’80 and Ellen Knuth

Letting go of her daughter, Ellen, was a 6,000-mile proposition for alumna Jane Knuth. Ellen, a recent college graduate and eager to get a grip on the adventure of life, was on her way to a remote part of Japan to teach English.

It wasn’t so much that Jane was afraid of the long distance. She feared more that her daughter might hit a bump or two in her life path, perhaps even a crisis, and not have a Christian church nearby. Jane’s faith is important to her, and she had worked lifelong to share and cultivate that importance in her daughter. The nearest Christian church was two hours away from Ellen’s new residence. Ellen wasn’t worried. Her concerns centered more on her new job and life in another country than the one in which she had been raised.

Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God is a collaborative book by Jane and Ellen. It is Jane’s third book and Ellen’s first. (Thrift Stone Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time and Thrift Store Graces: Finding God’s Gifts in the Midst of a Mess are collections of stories from Jane’s volunteer work in a Kalamazoo thrift store.) Chapters lean heavily to Ellen’s story, with Jane mostly writing in response to her daughter’s musings.

The two keep in touch often by calling each other over the Internet, using Skype. “I’ll call you in your morning,” becomes their mantra. They trade stories of teaching, because Jane finds herself teaching eighth-graders in Kalamazoo, an unexpected job. Ellen’s work with Japanese children teaches her cultural differences and common universalities among children.

When Ellen writes of religion, she explores the beliefs she finds in Japan. She discovers a statue near the school where she teaches, nearly obscured by trash and weeds. It is a jizo, a Japanese figure of divinity, offering protection in the Buddhist tradition. This one appears to be a protector of children, and during the months Ellen teaches at the school, she tends the jizo, cleaning the statue and filling its offering cup with water (rather than the traditional sake, since alcohol is not allowed on school grounds). While her faith remains important to her, she expresses it effortlessly through a variety of other faiths.

The shared story takes an unexpected turn in 2011, when a tsunami crashes against the shores of Japan, leaving a path of destruction. In the tsunami’s wake follows a nuclear disaster, and while Jane at home prays for her daughter’s protection, Ellen joins a group of volunteers and heads into the fray.

Love Will Steer Me True is less a conversation than a daughter’s story reflected on her mother’s heart. Both reach a higher level of respect for the other in the process. Both gain new facets to their individual journeys of faith. Both learn to let go, and in letting go, strengthen their bonds.

Guardian angels and jizos work side by side, it appears. During parental visits to Japan, mother and daughter meet as equals, and in Jane’s willingness to abide by local culture and faith traditions, the reader becomes witness to the blending of two worlds. Jane gives a string of a thousand folded cranes to the Japanese she meets, their symbol of hope.

After five years of teaching in Japan, Ellen has returned to the United States. She works as a manager for a company in Clinton Township, Michigan, that specializes in study abroad and international internships. Jane lives with her husband, alumnus Dean Knuth ’78, in Portage, Michigan, and continues to volunteer at the thrift store as well as write a monthly column for The Good News, the newspaper of the Diocese of Kalamazoo. (Reviewed by Zinta Aistars)

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

by Nicolette Hahn Niman ’89

One doesn’t usually think of eating as a political act, let alone a revolutionary one, but for many, what lands on the dinner plate can provide not only nourishment, but has also become a means for saving the planet. What should and should not land on that plate and how it gets there is where the controversy, and the politics, begin.

Large-scale agricultural processes (or BigAg) have been linked to global warming, increases in obesity, and animal cruelty. Hahn Niman’s first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (William Morrow, 2009), in which she explored such controversial costs of BigAg, paved the path to her current work. Arguably, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, creates even more controversy.

For decades, the public has been told that eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for human and ecological health. It raises cholesterol and contributes to heart disease. Raising cattle turns lush land to desert, draining it of water and devastating plant life. Wildlife is adversely affected, soil becomes eroded, and pools of manure ruin air and land.

Citing meticulously researched international sources, Hahn Niman debunks these assertions and defends a return to more traditional farming practices.

A cattle rancher herself, Hahn Niman and husband Bill Niman offer an example of how livestock should be raised. At their ranch cattle are grass-fed; they receive no growth hormones, antibiotics, or corn feed; and the ranchers accompany the cattle right to the end of their lives at a local slaughterhouse, ensuring their last moments are as humane as possible.

Beef can be served to us in healthier form from healthier and happier animals, Hahn Niman contends. And, she adds, grass-fed cattle can contribute to solving the problem of global warming. Large ruminants, when allowed to graze naturally on pasture, enrich grasslands, prune back plants, encouraging new growth, and aid in sequestering carbon in soils.

Hahn Niman argues that overgrazing is less a matter of too many cattle and more a case of grazing mismanagement. She refers to the work of ecologist Allan Savory and his system for grazing herds of cattle in a manner closest to their natural behavior, allowing them to travel in dense herds, eating all in their path, then moving on to fresh pasture. The cattle press seeds into the soil as they pass through, and their manure serves as fertilizer for the field. Unusable land has thus been returned to productive grasslands.

Hahn Niman disagrees with the notion that beef is unhealthy in our diets. She cites statistics that American consumption of beef has fallen by approximately 22 percent while rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease continue to spike. And she argues that increased consumption of sugars and sweeteners in our diets as the real culprits.

Hahn Niman points out that approximately 1 billion of the poor worldwide rely on cattle for food and income, keeping livestock in places where cultivated food plants cannot take root.

Defending Beef is not an argument to eat more beef. Hahn Niman is, in fact, a vegetarian. To base the decision of being a vegetarian or vegan on concern for healthier ecosystems or personal health would, she states, be unwarranted. Rather, her mission appears to be to join all at the dinner table in a concern for farming practices that might heal the planet and help all who walk upon it, two- and four-legged.

Defending Beef urges readers to look beyond the shrink-wrapped package in supermarket aisles to the source. Whether dining on a plant-based diet or one that includes meat, the well-educated consumer knows her farmer and her rancher, knows what goes into the soil and into the animal before it goes onto the plate and into the human. (Reviewed by Zinta Aistars)