Reconnecting the Music-Making Experience: Supporting Small-Scale Local Craftsmanship in the Academic Percussion Community

by Alex Smith


In this essay, I propose a framework for musical instrument manufacturing that draws upon ideas of disconnection and reconnection as they relate to sustainability in order to show how composers, performers, and instrument makers might work together more effectively. As effects of globalization arguably “disconnect” (or obscure linkages between) producers, consumers, and natural resources (Harvey 2009, Robbins 2011), there is a general lack of awareness by consumers in terms of the processes required to craft musical instruments. Fostering reconnections between these actors through more active consumer participation in resource-to-product production processes is one way that disconnection between them can be alleviated (Moran 2006, Renting 2012), allowing for a more ethical, environmentally considerate, and overall more sustainable music-making experience. In this paper I will employ this framework to discuss small-scale, local marimba craftsmanship in the academic percussion instrument market in order to show how reconnecting human and non-human actors might lead toward more sustainable cultures as understanding and appreciation is developed between them.

The environmental impacts of the musical instrument industry have recently become a topic for discussion mainly in terms of the rare and endangered natural resources used for their production. Authors have discussed the scarcity of Brazilian pernambuco for violin bows (Rymer 2004) and guitar woods used by American luthiers (Curtis 1993), for example. The case of the guitar has received mainstream attention as well after the two federal seizures of Malagasy ebony and rosewood from Gibson Guitars in 2009 and 2011 due to their alleged violation of law in international trade (McKinley 2011). In each case, the consumption of such natural resources have wide-ranging impacts on musicians, instrument makers, indigenous populations, and the environment.

Beyond environmental impacts, sustainability more broadly has often been defined as a tripartite concept that deals with negotiations not only in relation to the environment, but also with ethics, and economics (Collin and Collin 2010). Ethics deal with where, how, and by whom products are made and considers embedded inequalities or power dynamics that might exist between the human and non-human actors of production-consumption chains. Economics considers the pricing of goods or natural resources in relation to the extent to which they are environmentally and ethically considerate. The relationship between these three components is hotly contested and can often be the product of self-interest. This is particularly visible in the market for food. At the grocery store, for example, consumers are confronted with a variety of labels such as “organic,” “all-natural,” “local,” “cage free,” and “fair trade.” While some labels carry more weight than others, this overwhelming multitude of sustainability rhetoric might of course be recognized as a form of greenwashing. Nevertheless, the fact remains that growing consumer awareness and demand for transparency is spurring such changes, reflecting positive shifts and “cracks in the neoliberal façade” (Watts, Ilbery & Maye 2005).

Thus, despite the fact that sustainability has a variety of meanings and is often highly politicized, co-opted, and/or contradictory, the tripartite conceptualization can help to reveal sensitive environmental, ethical, and economic concerns within the market for musical instruments. In this study it is applied to the musical instruments used by the academic music community, specifically for percussion. In this community, musical ensembles contain large inventories of percussion instruments, yet musicians rarely know much about their origins, specifically in relation to the natural resources and production processes necessary for their construction. Additionally, the production processes of our globalized political economy often involve the outsourcing of labor and the allocation of international, and often rare, natural resources. Thus, the actors of this music-making experience (makers, players, and natural resources used in musical instruments) are disconnected from one another, resulting in a lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation. While a fundamental assertion of ecological systems theory is that everything is connected, and while processes of globalization in some senses “connect” us more than ever, this study uses the term “disconnection” in reference to consumer distancing from the various actors involved with production processes and from the environmental and ethical impacts their consumption may have.

In considering these disconnects, the marimba is particularly intriguing due to its extensive use by middle and high school band programs, higher education conservatories and music schools, soloists, professional ensembles, drum corps, and community bands. Most marimbas used by these communities are constructed by large-scale percussion instrument corporations that are often purchased with the click of a button on one of the many percussion instrument distribution company websites. After making a purchase, marimbas usually arrive at one’s doorstep in boxes with no effort required from the consumer to construct the instrument other than basic assembly. As a musical object so integral to the identities, livelihoods, and expressions of musicians—and one with its own meaning, agency (Dawe 2001, Bates 2012), and intrinsic value—I argue that the marimba-musician relationship should be characterized by a much deeper connection.

Fostering reconnection between these actors, then, can lead to more sustainable music cultures, as musicians are able to develop stronger understandings for their musical instruments, and the people, labor, and natural resources required to make them. Additionally, the more direct participation of musicians in the making of their instruments can lead to embodied experiences, positive emotional investment, and relational learning, further intensifying the potential of reconnection (Anderson and Guyas 2012). Like “disconnection,” “reconnection” is a term that is used largely in relation to agro-food systems. Alternative agriculture is increasingly allowing consumers to engage in more local and sustainable food systems as opposed to more global systems of food production (Sage 2011). In other words, reconnection can be contextualized through a more active consumer participation in resource-to-product production processes.

Yet making such reconnections within the academic percussion community is not simple. Far from being confined to agricultural or music communities, disconnection is a systemic and large-scale issue inherent in the broader global political economy. Actors within the marimba production-consumption chain are making economically rational and indeed necessary choices in order to make it in life as performers, makers, distributors, educators, etc. Jeff Todd Titon describes a similar setting of “economic rationality” when coal miners support environmentally destructive practices of mountain top removal due to their economic dependence (Allen, Von Glahn, and Titon 2014). While acknowledging these complexities, however, there are still important entry points and new avenues for reconnection that the academic percussion community might take to begin working toward more sustainable music cultures.

This paper explores one such avenue for reconnection in the academic percussion community: a more active consumer participation in marimba production processes via the support of small-scale local marimba craftsmanship. In the sections that follow, I will discuss small-scale local marimba craftsmanship as a consumer option that fosters reconnections between percussionists, percussion instrument manufacturers, and the instruments they build. In order to better understand the potential of these connections, I conducted interviews with consumers who purchased instruments from small-scale local marimba craftspeople. Consumers were asked about their motivations for selecting the specific maker of their instrument, as well as their experiences and interactions working with them.

Additionally, I employ the ecomusicological conceptualization of sustainability in order to expand upon the tripartite model through the incorporation of a fourth component: “aesthetics.” Known as the “four-legged stool,” this model suggests that not only does sustainability require consideration of the environment, ethics, and economics, but it also requires sustainable efforts and products that are aesthetically pleasing (Allen, Von Glahn, and Titon 2014). More connected musical settings lead to environmental, ethical, and economic benefits, but they also result in unique conceptions of musical artistry. This paper, then, also examines the musical artistry of such settings in relation to the ways small-scale local marimba craftsmanship both require and result in creativity and innovation by drawing from ethnographic research with one small-scale local marimba craftsperson—Matt Kazmierski and his Michigan-based marimba company Planet Marimba. Though I admit my own biases as a student and friend of this marimba craftsperson, I believe that the artistic contributions offered by small-scale, local marimba craftspeople such as Kazmierski can offer valuable insight in relation to our conceptualizations of sustainability.



Connections and Relationships

Overall, interview respondents expressed appreciation for closer connections to the maker of their instrument. For example, Michigan-based percussionist Kelly Krayer (pseudonyms are used for all consumer participants) was asked about her motivations for selecting Planet Marimba over other options in the market today:

Most of it [was] just to be able to talk to someone that is taking the time to hear every bar, to hear everything about the bar, to construct something for me… [it] was more intriguing than anything, and to me better than calling up a factory and going, “Hey, I need a marimba,” and then they’re like, “Cool, we have 70 over here!” … And just seeing Matt and his family; going up there to see the workshop, going up there to hang out with them. Those are pretty much all the reasons. I feel like I’ve kind of gained another family with Matt and Penny too. (Krayer 2014)

Kelly articulates an appreciation for the connection and understanding between herself, Kazmierski, and Kazmierski’s family. This also demonstrates an appreciation for Kazmierski’s understanding of and skills working with the natural resources that are repurposed into her future instrument. Kelly values these connections and understandings in relation to alternative consumer options that might not allow them to exist in the same ways.

Consumers of other small-scale local craftspeople have articulated similar connections. Maryland-based percussionist Brocke Nelson was asked about his experience purchasing an instrument from Matt Coe and his company Coe Percussion in Tallahassee, FL. Brocke and Coe exchanged emails and phone calls over the course of several months discussing the nature of Coe’s craftsmanship, specifics related to Brocke’s instrument, and payment and deadline details. Upon picking up his instrument, Brocke was actually able to visit Coe’s shop:

That was actually a really cool part of the process. You know, he invited us over. He runs everything out of his garage. Like the bottom floor of his house is just a garage woodshop place. And it’s just him, it might be more now, because he’s kind of gaining some clamor and all in the last few years… But when I went down there it was just him doing everything on his own. And yea, it was really cool just to see one dude in his house making these pretty cool instruments. I felt like I’m getting a very personal kind of instrument. Because, like I said, one dude does it all… You can tell the amount of detail and care that this guy puts into everything he does. You can see that in the instrument, and I could see that meeting him and stuff as well. (Nelson 2014)

Brian Peters, another Maryland-based percussionist, was also able to visit the maker of his instrument when he picked up the finished product from Doug DeMorrow and his company DeMorrow Instruments in Arkadelphia, Arkansas:

… So we went down there to pick it up, … and [we] asked if we could visit the shop and kind of see what he does… And, another thing that I really like is that all of his family kind of helps with his marimba making. Like I think his daughter does the bars… and his son does the resonators, and then him and a lot of his friends do the frame. So they kind of all work together as a family… I thought it was really unique that I had the opportunity to do that. Just to see like who makes the instrument, and what they are all about. You know, in terms of their craft. (Peters 2014)

Brocke and Brian express sentiments of connection between both the maker of their instrument and their instrument itself. However, here they also express an appreciation for understandings related to the production processes and labor required for their instrument’s construction.

The support of small-scale local craftsmanship, then, might be considered a transformational experience. This idea is drawn from the discussion of transformational tourism, a concept described as human experience that then leads to a significant change in perspective and action (Reisinger 2013 and Zimmerman 1988). By purchasing marimbas from small-scale local makers, consumers are able to reconnect in terms of knowing their instrument’s maker, developing understandings for instrument production processes, and interacting with the natural resources that comprise musical instruments. For Kelly, Brocke, and Brian, these experiences served as a source of value that could only be obtained by consuming specifically in these ways. If consumers continue to desire the benefits associated with an initial experience of small-scale local craftsmanship patronage, then a consumer transformation has occurred. Transformed consumers in this sense might be considered sensitive to both the sound of the instrument they intend to buy as well as what it takes to make it.

Initial connections between musicians and instrument makers can also lay the groundwork for longer-term, enduring ones. These connections can ultimately lead to the sustained lives of musical instruments since musicians have more accessibility to repair and upgrade work because of their direct relationship with instrument makers. According to Kelly Krayer:

… You know, if you break a bar… maybe Matt can repair it, maybe Matt has another bar, that, you know, probably won’t cost that much. Or if a resonator breaks or gets scratched… he was telling me that its just brushed aluminum or polished… so if it gets scratched then just polish it back and its fine. So there’s the ability to not be afraid that life is going to happen. Which, you know, is nice reassurance to know that that’s there. (Krayer 2014)

Additionally, Brocke Nelson decided to purchase a low-cost practice instrument from Matt Coe because it could be upgraded at any time rather than having to wastefully purchase a completely new instrument later.

… It was $3000 for what I purchased. But the only thing that separates it from a full fledge instrument is the lack of resonators. I think at the time I purchased, which was around four years ago, it was like $5,000 for him to build the resonators. But he said he could do it … at any time. I heard a lot of people actually do that. (Nelson 2014)

Instrument upgrading and repair are some of many benefits of these enduring social connections between consumers and small-scale local craftspeople that end up allowing for sustained lives of musical instruments.

These same social connections allow musicians and institutions to purchase marimbas in economically sustainable ways that would ordinarily not be able to afford them. Buying a marimba is often considered a substantial financial endeavor and a lifetime commitment. Because of the direct relationship between musicians and small-scale local marimba craftspeople, there is an increased understanding of and willingness to negotiate for a product that is appropriate for a given consumer’s finances, yielding an instrument that uniquely conforms to budgetary guidelines. For example, all of my informants mentioned that a major determining factor for choosing the maker of their instrument was related to the affordable options they were offered; some of these options include payment plans, cost-effective designs, starter instruments that could later be upgraded, and remodeling older preexisting instruments. Regardless of budget, musicians that support small-scale local marimba craftsmanship still often contribute in the process of designing their instrument. Michigan-based percussionist Astrid Lam had this to say about her motivations behind choosing Matt Kazmierski as the maker of her instrument:

I wanted a marimba, but the large-company marimbas are really expensive, and Matt has offered me a really good deal. And also I can choose whatever height or what kind of wood I want [for the frame]. (Lam 2014)

In Astrid’s experience, not only has she and Kazmierski successfully negotiated an instrument that can match her budget, but she is still able to take part in personalized elements of its design.


Critical Considerations

The positive aspects of reconnection aside, it is also necessary to acknowledge the ways that small-scale local craftsmanship might fall short in terms of sustainability. From an environmental perspective the production of marimbas often requires the consumption of the increasingly rare and endangered rosewood for the production of its “bars” (Carmenates 2009). Additionally, rosewood’s incorporation in the production of any American marimba requires that the resource be acquired internationally, which globalizes the production chain and greatly enlarges the carbon footprint of the production process. In other words, small-scale local craftspeople incorporate these materials on their products just like large companies, meaning that they too are confronting issues of sustainability associated with the woods they use.

Select individuals and organizations within the academic percussion community have begun to address these issues through experimentation with alternative bar materials. The most common of these materials are the synthetic options offered by large-scale percussion instrument companies. Though synthetic options reduce the amount of instruments that are produced with rare woods, the same disconnected production processes are at play in that consumers of these instruments are removed from their production. Additionally, and due to lower material costs, financial considerations seem to be motivating producers to make and consumers to purchase these synthetic options rather than environmental ones.

A second setting of bar material substitution is seen in my own work as an instrument craftsperson. My short film entitled The Michigandered Marimba [external link] documents the making of a marimba comprised of all-Michigan woods and recycled resources. I tested six domestic wood options and selected Michigan sassafras as the wood for the bars on this instrument. Also, my most recent work with the Michigan-based sextet Los Banditos experiments with glass as a bar material substitute. These two examples are by no means the first or only attempts at using alternative woods and materials for bars. For example, Minnesota-based percussionist Jeremy Johnston has made experimentation with bar material substitutions to rosewood a large component of his DMA research in an attempt to present comparable alternatives to the percussion community. The Brazilian percussion group Uakti is well known for not only making glass marimbas, but also many other instruments from unconventional materials. Not to mention that a simple search on YouTube will reveal a small number of people from around the world who have done their own experiments with these materials and beyond. Despite these efforts, alternative materials are often not valued or integrated by our larger percussion community in the same ways as the more traditional and environmentally problematic bar materials.

A second aspect of small-scale local craftsmanship that could be considered less-than sustainable is the power tools these craftspeople use. In competing with the production speeds and slick designs of large-scale companies, small-scale local craftspeople of the marimba, too, must incorporate certain power tools that might have similar disconnected histories as the percussion instruments being discussed in this paper. The reliance of the marimba craft community as a whole on such tools inevitably adds to these ideas of disconnection between the actors of the music-making experience. It also complicates the carbon footprint of marimba production in relation to the types and amounts of power required to run them. The incorporation of rosewood for marimba bars and the use of power tools for instrument production both present similar structural and systematic issues of sustainability within the larger marimba craft community.



Despite these sustainability issues facing the larger marimba craft community, the elements of reconnection associated with small-scale local craftsmanship remain significant. However, though reconnection is a consequence of supporting small-scale local craftsmanship, and for some consumers an actual motivation for buying from a particular maker, the artistry and innovation of such craftsmanship might provide an additional source of value (Allen 2012). This aspect suggests that supporting small-scale local marimba craftsmanship not only leads to a more sustainable music-making experience in terms of ethics and economics, but it also results in products that are aesthetically pleasing.

Small-scale local craftspeople offer products that transcend instrument standardizations associated with large-scale craftsmanship, even though they are also often the result of idiosyncratic restrictions. For example, Kazmierski’s dedication to self-sufficient production processes allows him to transcend personal limitations—such as tool availability and a lack of metalworking skill sets—with an innovative, artistic voice. Because of these limitations, Kazmierski relies fully on his trade as a wood craftsperson and thus does not incorporate any metals on the instruments he makes. Kazmierski’s notable innovations include all-wooden frames, all-wooden posts, and extended range. Emphasizing the innovative and artistic aspects of small-scale local marimba craftspeople such as Kazmierski may serve as an incentive for consumers to choose such makers, allowing reconnections to happen more broadly.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Kazmierski’s artistic voice is most noticeably and publicly known for his mission-style and shaker-furniture frame designs. Constructed from local Michigan wood, this aspect of Kazmierski’s trade makes his product distinct and easily recognized (Figure 1). Even more interesting is that each of these designs is the result of negotiations between the consumer’s aesthetic preferences and Kazmierski’s offerings as a wood craftsperson. For example, Kelly Krayer had this to say about her participation in designing her instruments’ frame:

… He just asked me what I wanted it to look like: What color? What was I looking for in the frame? And I honestly had no idea because we are so used to the generic looking marimbas… I wanted a light color wood so that the bars would come out, and I gave him that information and I told him, “You know more about wood than I do, so do what you think looks best…” So he made it out of oak and the texture of the oak is just so cool. And it smells good. (Krayer 2014)

Beyond his frames’ apparent aesthetic value, they are also functional and practical. The only metal hardware on Kazmierski’s marimbas is minimal, eliminating common rattle sounds that often result from marimba frames with metal-on-metal contact.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Another area of artistry and innovation in Kazmierski’s craftsmanship are his all-wooden posts. Posts are small pieces that usually reside between marimba bars; they support a cord that threads the bars and allows them to resonate. Kazmierski’s all-wooden posts support the marimba bars from the underside, rather than in between, reducing the total size of his marimbas by over a foot (Figure 2). Kazmierski has received mixed opinions with regard to his all-wooden posts. Some of his customers and colleagues have expressed concern that reducing the size by an entire foot makes it difficult to translate repertoire to other marimbas (Kazmierski 2012). Kelly Krayer, on the other hand, has had a much different experience with Kazmierski’s all-wooden posts:

… Just how he puts the bars on the posts instead of in between posts so that makes them closer… it’s a slight difference, but its enough to make it much easier to play the extended ranges of things. Just the ability to play octaves comfortably in my left hand, because when you get to [wide-bar instruments], there’s no way I can play an octave. I have always played in pain trying to over extend myself in difficult repertoire. Now, I can play all this rep without pain. I’m more centered. I don’t have to over extend my arms and jump around like a maniac. Who knew all those years of pain could have been fixed by playing an instrument that actually was made for me. I could probably play Merlin now, and other pieces like it. (Krayer 2014)

For Kelly, reducing instrument size is a significant innovation, as wider intervals are often difficult to play. Kazmierski’s consolidation of space facilitates the performance of such intervals, opening the door for new performance techniques, note combinations, and repertoire.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Extended range is a final way that Kazmierski’s trade is not only innovative and artistic, but also environmentally considerate. In today’s market for marimbas the most common instrument size is five octaves (C2-C7). In addition to a marimba, academic percussion organizations most often own an entirely separate mallet percussion instrument called a xylophone (a higher pitched version of the marimba often with a range of three and a half octaves [F4-C8]). Kazmierski’s instruments might eliminate the need for many organizations to own both of these instruments since he often extends the range of his marimbas by twelve notes in the upper register, producing a six-octave marimba/xylophone hybrid (C2-C8) (Figure 3). Not only does this potentially eliminate the need for two separate instruments (marimba and xylophone), but, according to Astrid Lam, Kazmierski’s innovation also allows for new conceptions of artistry in relation to composition and performance:

Matt’s marimba combines a regular marimba with a xylophone, so that will be an interesting point for composers to think about. For example, if you’re going to switch from a marimba to a xylophone, you have to give the performers time, but if we use Matt’s marimba we can easily play both. (Lam 2014)

Kazmierski is one example of an artistic and innovative small-scale local craftsperson, but these aspects are certainly not limited to his trade alone. Both Brocke and Brian articulated sentiments of uniqueness and aesthetic value associated with the instruments they bought from Matt Coe and Doug DeMorrow. These sentiments have and will continue to influence the decisions of consumers to consider small-scale local alternatives. Making the artistic and innovative aspects of small-scale local craftspeople better known to the percussion community might boost their consumer base, leading to more reconnections between the actors of the music-making experience.



As globalized markets increasingly delink production from consumption (Harvey 2009; Robbins 2011), the academic percussion community should be aware of social, economic, and environmental consequences in the making of percussion instruments. Specifically, strides toward more sustainable music cultures (Allen 2014) can be made in the production of marimbas by first fostering reconnections between the actors of this music-making experience. In this paper I have explored a few types of reconnections being made by supporting small-scale local marimba craftsmanship.

Though this form of production is not free from sustainability issues surrounding the incorporated natural resources (Carmenates 2009) and tool usage, the elements of reconnection associated with small-scale local craftsmanship remain significant. Supporting such craftsmanship permits more direct producer-consumer relationships, allowing for more interaction and collaboration between producers and consumers in the instrument design process. These reconnections help to create a strong cultural foundation for sustainability.

As seen in the work of Matt Kazmierski and Planet Marimba, small-scale local craftsmanship can be an artistic and innovative form of marimba production, transcending instrument craft standardizations associated with large-scale production. Such artistry and innovation can serve as a promotional tool for small-scale local craftsmanship. A larger consumer base may result if these aspects are emphasized to the percussion community, allowing reconnections to occur more frequently.

Moving forward, this discussion of reconnection and small-scale local marimba craftsmanship poses ongoing questions about other forms of reconnection that might exist in the academic percussion community: How might stronger relationships between human and non-human actors, by way of incorporating more environmentally considerate natural resources and more sustainable production processes, produce alternative conceptions of sustainability for academic percussionists? How might a direct consumer participation in instrument production processes also be influential? Small-scale local craftsmanship presents one avenue for reconnection in the academic percussion community, but other avenues should be investigated as we strive for holistic sustainability.



I would like to thank Dr. Michael Largey, Dr. Jon Weber, Professor Gwen Dease, Dr. Ken Prouty, and Dr. Laura Johnson for their ongoing support of my work. I would also like to thank Dr. Aaron Allen and Andrew Mark for their assistance in preparing this paper.



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