Ranae Lenor Hanson Q&A

May 31, 2022
Ranae Lenor Hanson connects her health with the health of the earth.

“Growing up in a house my family built together, eating food that we mostly grew or harvested ourselves, sewing our own clothes, walking out into storms – all these things taught us to notice what threats might come and to plan ahead for them. If you assume that all will work out somehow on its own or that nothing difficult will happen, things tend to burn up or crumble around you. We prayed, yes, for sure we prayed, but the message from Mom and Dad was clear — prayer without works is dead. We worked.”


I like how you tied personal health to global health in the book. When did you get the idea to make that connection?

When I was in the hospital with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a doctor told me that, even though I was now diabetic, I could still go to the woods for three months. All I’d have to do, he said, is find a deep, cold lake to store my insulin in. “Right,” I thought. “But if we don’t fix the climate problem, the lakes in northeastern Minnesota will become warm and gradually dry up.” At that moment, it was clear that my focus on ecological stability was necessary for my own short-term future as well as for the next generations that I had, so far, been thinking about.

The parallels revealed themselves over the next weeks as I struggled to come to grips with my changed body. I was dependent on outside intervention in order to be able to eat. I couldn’t walk a block without checking on and adjusting my carb and insulin intake. Forgetting one small thing could cause hypoglycemia, and I’d plog onto the floor in shakes and drenching sweat.

The weird weather Minnesota was experiencing – drought some years and in some places; deluges other months, often in the places that had just had drought – were calling for similar sustained attention. We had to make rain gardens and dig catchment basins and tear out drainage tiles or the soil would wash away in floods and we’d have no stored water to get through the droughts. Just as I no longer had beta cells to automatically release the insulin I needed into my body system, so we no longer had enough swamps and stable precipitation patterns to release water into the soil system when it was needed.

Thinking of the taste of acid in my mouth when I was in DKA, I connected directly with whales and corals in the ocean who must have a similar acidic taste in their mouths. My body and the earth are obviously one and the same, but my body was offered a way of staying alive. I accepted that offer — recognizing that I was one of the privileged few to get this chance — in hopes that I could find a way to give similar relief to coral and whales, and to my own home lakes.

Of course, I was already aware that if trees died in a landscape because of increasing heat and accompanying invasion by pests, then the rain wouldn’t fall and the humans and other animals would also become sick and either leave or die. My own body’s manifestation of drought and acidification brought the global trouble home. It both gave me a way to write and insisted that I begin that writing.

Have you heard from readers with diabetes who have expressed similar climate concerns? Have you been able to form a community of support?

Yes, a number of people with diabetes have reached back to talk with me. One young woman, who’s lived with type 1 her whole life, has also lived her entire life with the threat of climate collapse. She’s designing insulin pump systems and thinking of how similar systems might have to be designed for the earth. She and I shared our dismay that so many adults avoid talking about the threat to the earth community with younger people. Those younger people will not be able to hide out in retirement vacations as my generation too often seems willing to do.

I have a close colleague, a climate activist, who is also diabetic. When one of us is overwhelmed by the challenges of either diabetes or ecological awareness, we can talk together and find comfort and ideas. The parallel works also with people who have other health crises, and especially with those who have a chronic condition such as asthma.

For the most part, though, my diabetic community and my environmental activist community have remained separate. For many people with diabetes, the task of managing their condition almost precludes their ability to become activists. Perhaps the people who talk to me are often the ones who are struggling with diabetes.

I think that the analogy works better the other way – people who are climate-aware are interested in and inspired by the parallel with diabetes. We as humans have made progress in the coping with diabetes. We’ve made less progress toward coping with the results of climate disruption, so knowing we made headway on the smaller disease helps give people a boost in facing the bigger one.

As for a community of support, I’m lucky. I have a younger cousin, now deceased, who was type 1 from adolescence. He gave me a model for pushing through this disease no matter how few resources one had. My adult children are my best support people. When things with diabetes get challenging, their existence reminds me that I’ve got to show up to the task. Even when I have no idea how to count the carbs in the delectable meals they present me, they support me in making my own decisions about what to eat and how much and in doing whatever else I need to in order to stay healthy and alive.

How is your health these days?

My health is good, largely because, as a 71-year-old person with a family tendency to arthritis and type one, I also have some serious privileges. I’ve got a good insulin pump and CGM, doctors who work with me, and reliable insulin (though, since I retired from teaching I’ve found Medicare to be a major time-drain – hold tight, if you’re diabetic and on Medicare – just keep calling, keep calling, keep calling, and eventually you’ll get your vials). I’ve met great physical therapists who get me back into shape for long walks, swimming, biking and canoeing even after I trip on a sidewalk or mistake rumble strips for black lines in a bike path. I’ve got two new titanium hips (and some research to do about where that titanium comes from, whose backyard).

Deciding to buy a house with my son and daughter-in-law that is also close to my daughter has been a super good decision. Even during Covid episodes, we have space for safe community gathering and for dinners together. My personal rooms are on the top floor so I climb up three flights of a wide, plant-filled staircase multiple times in the day. It wasn’t best for me to continue living alone, especially looking ahead ten years or so, so why not set up the benefit of intergenerational community now? Now I’m not a solo gardener; we can plan together.

The greatest challenge to my health is the grief and despair that can come with awareness of wars, refugee trauma (human and also animal), and continued degradation of living earth systems. What allows me to sleep peacefully most night is that I am working with others to take action to try to return humans to a right relationship with all our companion relations. Even if the bottleneck we’re facing is narrow, our task now is to envision and establish a life in which the interconnections between all living is held as an ultimate value above the competitive jostling of each human against other lives.

You taught for 31 years at Minneapolis College. Do you miss teaching? Do you still teach?

I miss getting to know 160-some new students two times a year, but I don’t miss the strain of preparing for and maintaining five writing-intensive courses every semester. I’m lucky to have ongoing connection with a good number of my students, and more showing up in response to the book, and memories of the thousands of them. Because of all they taught me, I’m able to meet new people with greater attention than I would have been without these decades at Minneapolis College.

Do I still teach? In the real sense of teaching, which is to learn with and from others, yes I do. Retiring from my academic position has allowed me to be present for other aspects of life. I still work on the Sustainability Committee at the college; we’re making podcasts together and working to increase campus awareness of ways to support the community of all life, human and non-human equally. We started food composting stations near campus and are tackling the horror of single-use plastic and celebrating the many former students who are improving lives all over the world.

An important aspect of my life these last years has been an informal group we call The Desegregation Party. Five years ago three former students came to me individually, but with a similar complaint. They said that, after graduating, they found themselves associating primarily with people of their own ethnicity. We decided to alter that. We’ve met about bi-monthly since then, each time inviting others who are also working on cross-cultural community. Representatives of even more cultural and age groups have joined us. This is one of the most living communities I am part of.

And, of course, each reading I give or set of interview questions I respond it is “teaching” to a degree. What I do in these events is very like what I did in teaching, especially when the events allow for give and take, for community-making, and for mutual learning.

You grew up in northern Minnesota in the Bois de Sioux Watershed. Have you always felt that water is life?

The part of northern Minnesota where I was born was the start of the Mississippi Watershed; my cousins’ farms, where I spent a lot of time, were in the Red River of the North Watershed. For a few years of my childhood, I lived in Bois de Sioux Watershed, which is in west central Minnesota.

Most of my growing up was in the White Iron Chain of Lakes Watershed, maybe better named the Kawishiwi Watershed. I lived there from the time I was 9 until . . . well, until now because there has never been a year that I haven’t spent significant time on that land. The small house that my parents and siblings and I build sits on a slight hill at the edge of Birch Lake a mile from Babbitt, Minnesota. Birch Lake flows into the Kawishiwi River and then through the whole White Iron Chain. That chain feeds the western side of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

No, I probably didn’t realize from the beginning that water is the foundation of life. I recognized more early on that clean air was a necessity. That was made clear to me when my dad told me not to breathe the sweet-smelling fumes from a gasoline dispenser because, he said, those fumes would poison my brain. I was alarmed, even at a young age, that we were putting toxins into the air, poison so bad that I wasn’t to breathe it.

Water was something I took for granted. There was always a lake nearby to settle my spirit, to cool me on hot days, to freeze over in winter. Water’s holiness shone on me gradually. By the time I was a teen, I knew the sacredness of lakes and rivers and rain and snow. From that point, it took just a bit of logical thinking to realize that, without water, there would be no life. One experience of drought let me see that all living depends upon water.

You write in your book how when in a canoe facing the storm is the safest bet, instead of turning sideways. Is that life advice you were taught when you were young?

It was canoeing advice I was taught, probably by my dad, but even more by the waves and wind and canoe itself. It takes but one good wash over the side of a canoe for a person to learn to turn into the waves. There were times when our lives depended on not capsizing, literally. When they do, you squint your eyes, grab the paddle tightly, tuck your feet under your body, and paddle into the waves no matter how the rain may pelt. You do not stop until you reach quiet water or a safe shore.

Growing up in a house my family built together, eating food that we mostly grew or harvested ourselves, sewing our own clothes, walking out into storms – all these things taught us to notice what threats might come and to plan ahead for them. If you assume that all will work out somehow on its own or that nothing difficult will happen, things tend to burn up or crumble around you. We prayed, yes, for sure we prayed, but the message from Mom and Dad was clear – “Prayer without works is dead.” We worked.

Unpleasant as looking into a storm may be, taking its measure and letting it feel our measure back has been the way to survive. I am, as you know, Adam, shocked by people who try to push down their alarm about ecological collapse. I give a pass to all those who are completely weighted down by the task of daily survival and to those who have personal life traumas to mend first, but those numbers do not include everyone. Some otherwise capable, alert people seem to think that, even if the trees all die, the people they care about and they themselves will find a way to carry on. Maybe big tech will save them; maybe those of us who are activists will do the work for them; maybe God will intervene maybe it’s all such a mess that it is better off gone. Those, in my opinion, are cop-outs when the children of all species are the ones who will suffer directly. The trees are our canoe. If we let them go down, we will go down too.

So, folks – let’s look this storm in the face and each bend over our unique paddles. If I paddle hard in the front, but the paddler in the stern slacks up, then the canoe turns and we all spill.

What gives you hope for the future?

I don’t ask for hope. I ask for today and I ask myself to show up for today now.

On this particular day, the UN is working toward a binding agreement to halt plastic pollution; I can support that work today. Today Minnesota is trying to stop putting salt into the Mississippi by spreading it on roads; I can love that great river today. Today people are working to send solar and geothermal generators to Eastern Europe to help the people there do without oil; I can support that.

When I notice all that is being done today to turn the ship of our culture around, something like hope bubbles up in me. When I talk with my neighbors and the trees I wander by and the rivers flowing near, when I listen to the conversation of birds, when I feel the crumble of living soil in my fingers, then I know again that we are many who are bonding together on behalf of life, and then a song of joy rises in me. Maybe we have tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, but, just now, we have today.

What is next for you?

I feel called, as I think most of us are, to do the work today of trying to give all children (bat children, elder bush children, elk children, oak children, morel mushroom children, human children) a chance at a full-life future. Each day I try to discern which things I could do would be of service to that greater communal calling. Today that is answering your questions; tomorrow it will be gathering wood for new raised garden beds; the next day I plan to work with my children on reducing our expenses. Each day, its own attention.

Two major projects are calling for my weekday work focus. One is primarily a writing project and the other primarily an activism project.

As I remove the reed canary grass my father planted among the sedges native to our lakeshore, I ponder how to distinguish between loving, life-giving inheritances from settler ancestors and ethnocentric, human-deifying, hierarchical inheritances. As I nurture plants that may survive the coming heat, I wonder whether restorative earth-care can model restorative internal care.

Quakers of the past sponsored boarding schools that separated American Indian children from their families and colluded in destroying Indigenous culture. One such school was near my paternal grandparents’ birth homes in Iowa. How can I work with settler descendants and Quaker groups to address historical and ongoing wrongs?

A friend of color asked me whether my white family talked openly about histories of racial injustice, whether we had secrets. The story of a family murder I had been told individually came to mind. Was it a secret from the others? Was it linked to racism?

My friend elaborated: “Many white friends were in college before they learned about atrocities against indigenous and African-American populations. Rarely does a white person say that their families discussed racial injustice at home. As a kid in a country at war, I heard my parents speaking everyday about the unfairness of receiving a privilege just because of ethnicity. We learned words to describe these painful occurrences. If people don’t hear those topics discussed, they assume they should keep silence. Through silence people keep secrets without knowing they are keeping them. When I came to the US, I noticed people of color having conversation about race. But I have never before talked about race with white people.”

I told her the story my aunt had told me about a strawberry birthmark that was, perhaps, the clue to a family murder. Was that a family secret? My friend urged me to write and post the story. I did. Though I had never before found a historical account of the event, I tried once again the next day. The record appeared. I had not known that this murder, too, happened in Iowa.

The farm where the 15-year-old white girl was killed lies in a county next to the one where Native children were held, where many children died. Neither the girl from my family nor those children were protected during their lives, but the murder of the white girl became a sensation and led to a dramatic court case. It was passed down word-of-mouth in my family while the children at the school were never mentioned in any history I received.

Something asks me to investigate these connections further. How do we of settler blood root out evil we’ve inherited while loving the abused children of the past and honoring the good our ancestors passed on? What secrets do our families that hamper our emotional expression? What can I offer toward healing this generational damage?

The lake beside my family home and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area are both dramatically impacted by climactic changes. My hometown is a taconite mining town. A strip with copper, nickel, and other heavy metals used for catalytic converters and solar panels (among other things) lies by and under our lake. Currently, controversy swirls about the sulfur-bound ore. Should it be mined to bring economic stability and to provide metals the US has no other domestic source for, or should mining be refused in order to protect wilderness waters?

Most environmentalists oppose sulfate mining; they tend to ignore the sulfate damage occurring from taconite mining. My hometown people need jobs and feel that “those liberals” shouldn’t use metals that they won’t allow produce in our own country.

I wish to foster dialog because this polarization is dangerous. The Iron Range was, traditionally, a liberal union-supporting stronghold. Now Rangers are moving against environmental controls. Without cooperation between the Twin Cities and the Range, Democrats will lose control of Minnesota politics. Without compromise, the state will be controlled by those who opposed to regulation.

Copper-nickel mining could permanently poison the lake. If sulfide mining begins, I want strong environmental oversight. In addition, change is needed in the processing of taconite to reduce the massive carbon cost of steel production and to clean up the sulfide in taconite tailings ponds. If no new mining comes in, I want to know what is happening in the places where these minerals are mined. Either way, the taconite industry must be corrected.

I wrote a Minnesota Women’s Press commentary on the Range/City divide, using my own experiences to help others consider their roles in the hostilities. The article received positive feedback, especially from Range liberals.

Later in March, I’ll be participating in a Zoom brainstorming session between a journalist from the Range, an expert on sulfate, taconite, and mining issues, a leader for the “Save the Boundary Waters” organization, a climate expert from Ely, and a funder who did not invest in the BWCA because of the mining-environmental conflict.

I’m hoping that this conversation will stimulate others with wider involvement, and especially with involvement from artists who can, I believe, allow people on the varied sides hear themselves as well as one another.