Orion Blog

Chris Cox Is Orion’s New Editor-at-Large

Christopher CoxWe’re delighted to announce that Christopher Cox has been named as Orion’s Editor-at-Large. His work will mainly involve editing feature articles for the magazine. Chris is the former editor of Harper’s Magazine and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. Work he has edited has won the National Magazine Award, the PEN Literary Award for Journalism, and has been included in several Best American collections.

Like the rest of us at Orion, he graduated from Harvard and earned a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge. Just kidding. None of the rest of us went to Harvard or Cambridge. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter but travels to Orion’s home base in the Berkshires whenever he can.

The Rebirth of the Twitter Feed @OrionGrassroots!

OGN Twitter FeedRecognizing the importance of grassroots activism to the betterment of the planet, Orion supported grassroots environmental organizations through the Orion Grassroots Network for many years. The work of OGN included a Twitter feed to share news, tools, and ideas that help activists do their good work. In recognition of this critical activity, Orion has invited OGN’s former coordinator, Erik Hoffner, to revive the Twitter handle @OrionGrassroots so that it can continue inspiring and informing grassroots action.

For more information contact Erik at erik.hoffner@gmail.com.

Jason Mark on His New Book, “Satellites in the High Country”

SatellitesInTheHighCountry_coverimg_blogSince its inception, environmentalism has been concerned, one way or another, with the concept of wildness. The nature and identity of what’s wild—and the question of how humans ought to relate to it—is the subject of constant, and constantly shifting, investigation on the part of people who are interested in the interface between nature and culture. In his new book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, author Jason Mark pulls these questions into the modern context of climate change and the global reach of human civilization, and attempts to locate wildness wherever it still resides. 

 

As a journalist of middling stature (at best), I’ve grown used to ephemerality. A writer labors alone, head down, trying to tease a story out of a jumble of facts and determined to trick sentences into lines that will slip into the reader’s mind. Then the piece—essay or detailed reportage or measly blog—is cast into the great maw of the media. Maybe the piece is greeted by a wrenching silence. Maybe it manages to make a slight ping—a twenty-four-hour burst of Twitter mentions and Facebook likes. And then the labor of love evaporates into the ether of ones and zeroes, or is dropped into the recycling bin. Even when writing for, say, The New York Times, all the hard work will be wrapping fish tomorrow.

So it came as something of a surprise when, in December 2012, an essay of mine ignited something of a firestorm in the community to which I belong—that is, the San Francisco Bay Area environmental scene. My article, “In Defense of Drakes Bay Oyster Company,” was part personal essay, part just-the-facts-ma’am journalism that offered some opinions on a seven-year-long battle over the fate of an oyster farm in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore. I wrote: “It seems to me the debate over the ecological impact of Drakes Bay Oyster Company is all backwards. The issue isn’t whether shellfish farming is compatible with the ideal of wilderness. Rather, it’s whether a wilderness is compatible with the pastoral landscape that surrounds Drake’s Estero.”

The blowback was withering. One reader, a veteran environmental attorney in San Francisco, said the piece was “intermittently childish … ignorant … and myopic.” The executive director of a Northern California green group called the essay “stunningly disappointing” and said I should be “ashamed” of writing it. Another reader said he was “gobsmacked and appalled” that such an argument appeared in Earth Island Journal (where I was then editor), which was founded by the legendary twentieth-century conservationist David Brower. A few readers came to my defense, fueling a heated online exchange that stretched for months.

The intensity of responses didn’t surprise me. I had been following the Drakes Bay Oyster Company controversy for a while, and I had seen how it had divided people of similar values. On one side of the oyster farm controversy were folks with solid environmental credentials—people like farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters, writer Michael Pollan, and scientist Peter Gleick—who felt that the oyster farm represented the best ideal of the green economy: a family-owned business, producing food for the local economy, and in a manner that had a (relatively) light ecological footprint. According to this point of view, we could have our wilderness and eat it, too. On the other side of the issue were most of the major environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club—who argued that the oyster farm should go, and the estuary in which it was located restored to how it looked for millennia. By the time I wrote my essay, the controversy had become so red hot that it had split apart friendships and families in the bucolic communities north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Still, even if the response wasn’t entirely surprising, the intensity of the emotions was shocking. The oyster farm controversy seemed so parochial—a battle royale over bivalves!—and yet it had driven a wedge deep within the environmental movement (at least in Northern California). I couldn’t help but notice a vibe of defensiveness—a sense of persecution almost—among some commenters, a fear that the longstanding passion for wilderness had been cast aside as environmentalists increasingly focus on the existential threat of climate change.

The old faith in the value of wildness appeared to be melting under the glare of a hot, new sky. For many people—including those who would call themselves environmentalists—human self-preservation had come to trump the preservation of wild nature. For others, however, such a reorientation was akin to surrender. “If this is the New Environmentalism, I want the old … kind back, thank you very much,” one commenter wrote.

The oyster farm controversy had cast into sharp relief some of the most difficult questions about our relationship to Earth. What do we expect from wild nature? Wilderness on a pedestal? Lands that we garden and tend? Or something in between? And perhaps the biggest question of all: with the human insignia everywhere, is there any place—or any thing—remaining that is really, truly wild?

***

To answer those questions, I spent a couple of years traveling to some of the most rugged and remote places in America. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I floated down the Aichilik River to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, on the way encountering caribou herds in biblical proportions, a giant red fox displaced by climate change, and one overly curious grizzly bear. In the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, I tracked the Mexican gray wolf, one of the most intensely monitored and managed wildlife species on the planet. I went to a Paleolithic “ancestral skills camp” in the eastern Cascades, where I learned to start a fire with two sticks and how to brain-tan deer hides. In the Olympic rainforest, I tried to experience one of the quietest places in the Lower 48 (a place I had first read about in Orion).

Those travels, and others, became the basis for my book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. In the end, what I discovered surprised me. And, if you read the book, I think it will surprise you, too.

My most important revelation was discovering that “wild”—along with “wilderness” and “wildness,” those cornerstones of modern American environmentalism—doesn’t necessarily mean “pristine.” In fact, it never has.

Go back to the etymology. Wild comes from the Old English wildedéor, or wild deer—the beast in the woods. Go further back into the etymology and the meaning becomes more interesting. In Old Norse, a cousin of Old English, the word was villr. “Whence WILL,” my Oxford English Dictionary says, meaning that wild shares the same root as willfulness, or the state of being self-willed. A description lower down the dictionary page makes the point plain: “Not under, or submitting to, control or restraint; taking, or disposed to take, one’s own way; uncontrolled. . . . Acting or moving freely without restraint.”

Notice that there is nothing about being “unaffected” or “untouched”—words that have more to do with the pristine than with the wild. Rather, the meaning centers on the word “uncontrolled.” To be wild is to be autonomous, with the power to govern oneself. The wild animal and the wild plant both rebel against any efforts at domestication or cultivation.

Here, now, in what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene—the Human Age, or the Age of Man—this distinction between “untouched” and “uncontrolled” is more crucial than ever. With the evidence of human civilization everywhere—from nuclear radioisotopes scattered in the geologic record to satellites embellishing the firmament—there is no pristine nature left. There is no wilderness that’s completely untouched. We live in what you might call a “post-natural world.”

It is much more useful, then, not to ask what is natural, but to seek out what is wild. Because even in its diminished state, the wild still holds a tremendous power. When we search out the wild, we come to see that there is a world of difference between affecting something and controlling it. And in that difference—which is the difference between accident and intention—resides our best chance of learning how to live with grace on this planet.

In short, what I have been preparing to say is this: I was wrong about the Point Reyes Seashore oyster controversy, an error that only became apparent to me as I wrote my book.

***

The word essay comes famously from the French essaier, which means “to make an attempt.” Satellites in the High Country is very much a book-length essay, an attempt to figure out what wildness means today. At its best, an essay should feel like a journey. The writer arrives at some place different from where she began, and the reader comes along for the ride, a hitchhiker of sorts.

For me, there were the actual journeys to wild places and then, happening simultaneously, the intellectual journeys. Eventually, my original glibness gave way to the complexity of facts on the ground. Ultimately, my views began to change.

Any decent book, whether fiction or nonfiction, should prompt the reader to look at the world differently. And even if a book doesn’t completely blow the mind, it should, at the very least, cause the mind to bend in new and unexpected ways.

I’d like to think that readers who make the commitment to Satellites in the High Country will come away from the book with a new, expanded understanding of humans’ relationship to wild nature. Especially for those readers who consider themselves environmentalists, I’d hope that the book would force them to reconsider their assumptions about wilderness and wildness in the twenty-first century.

I don’t think that’s too immodest of an aspiration. After all, I know this: In the writing of it, the book changed my mind.

 

Satellites in the High Country was published by Island Press in September. From 2007 to 2015, Jason Mark was editor of Earth Island Journal. He is now the editor of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club. 

5 Questions for Taylor Brorby, Editor of “Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America”

TaylorBrorby_blogIn the past decade, fracking for natural gas has brought rapid change to landscapes and communities across the country. A new anthology of writing on the subject, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, investigates its nature, extent, and significance. The collection includes work from many Orion contributors, including Rick Bass, Kathleen Dean Moore, David Gessner, and others; it’s out now from Ice Cube Press. One of the book’s editors, Taylor Brorby (who’s also Reviews Editor at Orion), took our questions.

 

Tell us about the origins of Fracture. Why produce a collection of writing about fracking? What’s your connection to the subject, and how did your interest turn into a book-length project?

Fracture happened on a whim. I went to a book release party in Ames, Iowa, and met Steve Semken, the publisher at Ice Cube Press. We discovered that we shared a mutual love for the writer Paul Gruchow and the conversation flowed from there. Steve asked where I was from and I told him how I had just moved to Ames from the Bakken oil fields, where I spend my summers writing. I mentioned how shocked I was that no one had done an anthology of creative writing on fracking. Steve said that that was a good idea, and I took the cue—I rushed home, sent Steve a query letter the next day, and the project began.

My interest in fracking came about because my home is on fire. I come from western North Dakota, where the badlands are my backbone and the Missouri River is my main artery. It’s the land I know better than any other. I’ve climbed buttes, been chased in the badlands by a swarm of bees, sat among sweet sage to watch the sun set. But this is also a place that’s been ripped open due to fracking (and not for the first time: North Dakota has had two previous oil booms). But because fracking often happens in the middle section of the country, in states like mine, it’s not really news. Most people go to the coasts for vacation—they don’t go to rural North Dakota or Oklahoma—and so it’s easy for them to forget about what happens there. I wanted to help create a book that made people fall in love with those places; I wanted a book that helped highlight the fact that fracking isn’t just relevant in the middle of the country. Its effects are felt from coast to coast.

I took Wallace Stegner’s This is Dinosaur, Rick Bass and David James Duncan’s Heart of the Monster, and Terry Tempest Williams and Stephen Trimble’s Testimony as my examples. All of these books were produced in record time in response to a particular, urgent subject—I think we took a little longer (about a year) to assemble this brick of a book.

Fracture addresses the ongoing story of fracking in America in a variety of ways, including through nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. What do you feel literature can bring to our understanding of fracking, and what can, say, a poem or a short story do that a piece of reporting cannot?

The question I’ve been mulling over is this: Can a poem stop a pipeline? If we have art that speaks deeply to us, doesn’t it make sense that art can also move us to re-envision our place on the planet, our connection to other animals, to ecosystems? We are bombarded with journalism every day, but stories, poems, and essays have a way of staying with us. I had to memorize poems in school—can you imagine someone reciting a poem about fracking at a public hearing? I’ve seen it done; people go silent. That’s the power of what good art can do.

Literature is complex. It forces us to pay attention, to listen, to consider, to contemplate. And literature doesn’t just allow us to see what’s happening in the world, it also allows us to see what’s happening in us. Literature can move us to be new people, and that’s what I’m hoping this anthology can do for readers.

All of the pieces that appear here have their merit, but do you have any personal favorites? Or do you have any stories about the making and editing of these pieces that you’d like to share?

You’ve put me in a corner! You might as well ask me to name my favorite nephew. The entire collection is designed to be read front to back, but also with the idea that people will skip around—so we’ve organized recurring themes to help the reader however she might encounter the book. We wanted to begin with how oil forms, so Barbara Hurd’s “Fracking: A Fable” made sense to put right at the beginning, with Mary Heather Noble’s “Seduction,” on the process of how families sign over (or don’t) mineral rights, coming next. What these writers do in less than seven hundred words each is incredible! We progress from there: stories from the frontlines in New York, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Iowa, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, California, Texas. The anthology ends with Alison Hawthorne Deming’s stunning poem, “Homeland Security,” which takes the reader to the orbits of space to contemplate what fracking on a cosmic scale might look like.

I have to say this work was a joy, if that is the right word. What I mean to say is that I felt like I was a part of a choir rather than a lone voice with a message. As a writer who cares about the planet, it’s easy to fall into grief or despair, and pulling together this anthology helped me know that I’m not alone. That’s partially due to some of my own favorite writers saying yes to this project—Alison Deming, Linda Hogan, Bill Roorbach, Bill McKibben, Barbara Hurd, Patricia Limerick, Rick Bass, Dick Manning, Kathleen Dean Moore. For some of our other writers, this will be their first time in print. That’s what I think the future of environmental writing can look like: making space for conversation between emerging and established environmental thinkers, which is where things get interesting.

As the anthology came together—as you began to read, consider, and order these pieces into a book manuscript—what sorts of feelings or insights did you arrive at that you hadn’t had before? Did any of them surprise you or move you?

I think I developed a new, deeper awareness about what writing that is a part of the world—rather than apart from the world—can do. We are entering a time when the ability of humans to live on the planet is at risk, and that brings us face to face with moral and ethical questions. I think of Linda Hogan’s poem in the anthology, “Greed,” or Derrick Jensen’s essay, “Insanity.” I often feel as if those of us already concerned about issues like fracking sound the alarm and no one listens. But people are listening. Just look at this anthology: fifty-one people are gathered here to bear witness in their own way to what fracking looks like, both now and in the future.

What kind of effect do you hope Fracture will have on its readers? Who is your ideal reader, and what kind of reading experience do you hope they’ll have? What sorts of questions, or ideas, do you hope to leave them with?

I really hope Fracture will get us to wake up to the reality of our dependence on oil. North Dakota alone has over 10,000 reported oil, chemical, and saltwater spills. The train derailment in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, last January set the river there ablaze. Pipelines are being slated to carry Bakken oil throughout the country. If I’m being honest, I hope the anthology will anger people—and then inspire them to take action.

The ideal readers for the book are grandparents, school teachers, plumbers, social workers, welders, farmers, grocery-store workers, chefs—by which I mean people who bring disparate perspectives and thinking to issues. This book isn’t intended only for environmentalists. It’s also full of really good literature, and I think that’s important to highlight. It is possible to write serious literature about serious environmental topics. So often we have the idea of the writer doing her or his own work, the state of the world be damned. But the writers I’m most interested in aren’t narcissists; they’re people like Kathleen Dean Moore and Carolyn Raffensperger, both of whom contributed to Fracture, who help us think about future generations. Ultimately, I hope the book will inspire others to share their stories, get active in their local communities, and, ideally, raise a little hell.

A Conversation with David Lukas, Author of “Language Making Nature”

David LukasDavid Lukas is a professional naturalist and author of six books, including the just-published Language Making Nature: A Handbook for Writers, Artists, and Thinkers. This book expands Lukas’s past writing about birds and natural history into wholly new territory—an exploration of techniques for creating new words to bring the richness of language back into our lives. Orion editor-in-chief Chip Blake asked him a few questions about the book.

 

Chip: Dave, you and I have known each other for a long time, and I mainly think of you as a hot-shot birdwatcher and expert naturalist. How did you arrive, then, at the idea of writing a book about language?

David: The funny thing is that I arrived at language directly from my study of plants and animals. From an early age I started wondering about those weird-looking scientific names attached to every common name and for me they came to symbolize some kind of secret key into the magical kingdom of scientists. I soon discovered that you could break these scientific names into their Greek and Latin components, and that these pieces told small little stories. So I became comfortable with the idea that you could break words into pieces and use those pieces playfully, and as I grew up it was natural for me to continue doing this as my experiences and questions about the world deepened. The book tells the story of why these word-making pieces and processes are valuable tools for leading us toward the visions we want to create.

Chip: Can you give an example of such a “small little story”?

David: The scientific name of the yellow-headed blackbird is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, which means “yellow-headed yellowhead.” It’s a fun new way of thinking about this colorful bird!

Chip: A number of recent books (like Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks) investigate the ways in which the loss of vocabulary that describes landscape diminishes our experience of the world. Your book is related to that, but pushes in an additional and more proactive direction: that by creating new words, we might create new ways of thinking about, or even solving, the many urgent problems we face. Tell us more about how that might work.

David: Yes, many books have bemoaned the loss or diminishment of language and Macfarlane does an amazing job of capturing finely nuanced old words and making them appealing again. My goal is to take this one step further by turning word-making into an art and an exercise that is both playful and highly creative. I believe that if we start “sketching” and playing and experimenting with words as if they were malleable and open to our imaginations, then our language becomes juicy and fun again. And when language has a lot of juicy material to work with it starts to shift and sift out jewels that challenge our thinking and endure over time.

My understanding is that words are vessels which are filled with meaning, and when those meaning-spaces are filled we can’t easily use those words to convey new meanings or values. Thus, if we think of lumber or plywood or paper when we hear the word “tree” then it becomes very difficult to use that same word to communicate other, deeper values. New ideas, new values, and new visions for the future require new words to carry those new meanings—our task then is to create new words that lead the way forward.

Chip: Some years ago you studied Barry Lopez’s papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library housed at Texas Tech University. Barry’s a master of language about the natural world. What kind of effect did that work have on your thinking about the relationship between words and natural history?

David: I spent two months immersed in the University’s archive of eight-five boxes of manuscripts, drafts, and audiotapes on a Formby Fellowship. Barry’s thinking about language and landscape is highly formative. He asks a lot of important questions, and then models in his own thinking and writing, how language and landscape inform each other. This asked me to go deeper in my own questions. For instance, I have been reading for years that we “need a new language of nature” and I started wondering why someone didn’t create this language. Barry courageously tries to answer questions, even when there’s no right answer, so this inspired me to answer my own question.

Chip: How has your immersion in thinking about language changed your experience of being in the field?

David: I live in language now. When I look at the world I no longer merely see trees and rocks and mountains; I now see fragments of words, I see threads and webs of history and meaning, I see a malleable and claylike media that my mind is constantly engaged in playing with. It’s a bewildering (in the true sense of the word “be-wild-ering”) and exciting way to engage with the world. One of my long-term goals is to start leading nature walks that focus on language, where we explore nature and web effortlessly through linked etymologies and word fragments as if we were exploring a natural history of the mind.

Chip: Can you imagine ways that readers might use this book? What have you been seeing and hearing since it was published?

David: I imagine this book as a user’s guide that combines practical tools (lists of prefixes and suffixes, lists of word elements, lists of contributions from older languages, etc.) so it can be used as a reference, alongside highly readable sections about the deep power, energy, and potential of language to express our experiences. As a naturalist, I love books I can carry with me in the field and that is the goal of this book—that it can be used to inspire and guide new thinking about language in the field, in the moment when readers are most open and curious about the world. Already I’m getting e-mails from people who are using the book to create new words, or have started book clubs to discuss and play with these ideas—that’s it, that’s how culture is created and moved forward, word-by-word, conversation-by-conversation.

Language Making Nature is available directly from the publisher through Amazon.