September 18, 2019 10:50:49 AM
Curiosity killed the cat, but it does not appear to have done Ulf Nils Rasmusson any harm.
Rasmusson is a trim, energetic 72-year-old with a ready smile. He listens intently and leans in during conversation.
On Sunday, Rasmusson, was flying from his home in Stockholm, Sweden, into Columbus to visit an old high school classmate. By chance, he was seated next to Dispatch publisher Peter Imes on the flight and struck up a conversation.
Rasmusson was curious about the newspaper and happily accepted the offer of a tour of the newspaper on Monday morning. He spent the rest of Monday wandering around Columbus, even touring an antebellum home because, naturally, he was curious about those old homes and their history.
On Tuesday, he roamed around in the county, visiting Artesia, mainly, he said, to see if what he had heard about the poor, rural South was accurate. He was delighted to see the little library in Artesia and a daycare center. He made note that many of the children there attended daycare at no cost. He was delighted to see government-subsidized housing, too. He didn't see much evidence of the idle poor. People had jobs, all kinds of job. It was not as he had been told or as he imagined. He was delighted to have been wrong.
Tuesday evening, he attended the Columbus city council meeting because he was -- you guessed it -- curious about how government works in a small Mississippi town, for some reason.
He enjoyed that, too.
After the council meeting he joined me at Coffee House on 5th. He ordered sweet tea, because, well, you get the picture.
Rasmusson has always been curious, he admits.
And he's turned that curiosity into a cause.
As a young man, he had inherited some forest land in Sweden, so he had a natural interest in forests and read everything he could get his hands on about them. He came across a book -- The Sinking Ark. Published in 1981, the book examines the threat to species of animals and plants. That book, along with what he had read about the shrinking Amazon rainforest, aroused his curiosity. "This is what I want to do," he remembers.
Beginning in 1984, and for seven years, he traveled at his own expense to Latin American countries to learn and volunteer, three weeks at a time. He must have made an impression. In 1991, the World Wildlife Federation offered him a job, letting him write his own job description.
He published a book about the encroachment of beef cattle farmers on Brazilian rain forests, the biggest single factor in the major deforestation that has ominous implications for one of the world's most complex and diverse ecosystems. Eighty percent of the trees cleared in Brazil are attributed to the expansion of the beef cattle industry.
He's written articles, conducted seminars, developed projects and raised funds to protect a 100,000 square mile area of the Brazilian rainforest that is home to the indigenous peoples, who depend on the rainforest for their livelihood. About a third of the entire indigenous population of Brazil lives in that rainforest.
Rasmusson also works with ranchers, helping them implement more efficient operations that will reduce the need for more and more grazing land.
For 34 years, he has been a man on a mission, 6,000 miles from home.
All because he was curious.
Curiosity may not always be a sign of intelligence. There are some mighty dim people who are naturally nosey.
But intelligent people are almost always curious.
If you ask me, I think we could all stand to be a lot more like Ulf Rasmusson.
Somehow, so many Americans appear to be content with what they are told. They stay in their ideological bubbles, taking as fact what they are told, refusing to examine any idea that conflicts with the collective group-think of their tribe.
Climate change, gun violence, health care. There's a pretty long list of important things people seem to have an alarming lack of curiosity about.
It takes a degree of courage to critically examine our own ideas and honestly explore unpleasant ideas.
Courage, yes, but first comes curiosity.
Our nation was founded and settled by curious people, after all. Every advancement in medicine, science, the arts and industry began because somebody was curious.
For all that divides us as a people today, maybe the best tonic is a healthy dose of curiosity.
That curiosity, that search for truth, may break down the walls that separate us.
Ulf Rasmusson is on to something here, I think.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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