Natalie Merchant: Gardener, Mom, Green Activist

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Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant has been out of the limelight for several years, but she is about to re-emerge this spring with a new album, Leave Your Sleep, on the Nonesuch label. Merchant recently turned up on Britain’s Ecologist website in a Q&A that revolves around her environmental activism, which apparently is still as important to her as when she sang the green anthem “Poison in the Well” with her band 10,000 Maniacs and collected Greenpeace donations at her shows. A resident of rural New York and the mother of a young daughter, she says she supports local environmental groups like Scenic Hudson, Clearwater and Riverkeeper and has thrown her weight behind area campaigns like one opposing logging in Allegany State Park. Here are some snippets from the interview:

What book or film would you recommend all politicians read or see?

Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio with an astounding soundtrack by Philip Glass, is the film I would suggest everyone see. I saw Koyaanisqatsi in a theater when it was first released in 1982, and the impact that it had upon me is still felt. This film is a prophetic vision of a world gone mad, out of scale and out of control. Without a single word spoken, it hints at the vastness and beauty of the world and then explains that we, tiny and insignificant creatures, have swarmed together to do irreparable damage to it.”

What is your favorite meal, made by whom?

“This year I put in a huge vegetable garden and every morning I would find myself drawn to it. I would be in my nightgown weeding and grazing on whatever was ready to harvest (snap peas, basil, cherry tomatoes, dill, carrots or blueberries). It is so gratifying to eat from your own garden.”

Where do you live and why?

“I live in rural New York. I need to live where there are more trees than people.”

Can you describe a typical day?

“Until I had a child there really was no typical day for me, but now they all seem to revolve around sensible meal times and early bedtimes. I’d say the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the frenzied pace of activity in my day. I was made with only an on/off switch. There is no relaxing during my day, only collapsing at the end of it.”

The interview doesn’t mention Merchant’s latest green gesture, her music’s appearance on the soundtrack of Coal Country, the new documentary film about mountaintop removal coal mining. Merchant’s rendition of “Which Side Are You On?,” from her underappreciated 2003 folk album The House Carpenter’s Daughter, is the perfect backdrop for the film’s trailer: The song was first written and sung during the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal labor fracas back in 1931 by a union organizer’s wife. Today, it might just as well apply to the pitched, divisive battle over mountaintop removal. Watch the trailer here:

Sources: Ecologist, Coal Country

Image by Mark Seliger.

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