Orion Blog

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.

Paula Bohince on Her New Poetry Collection, “Swallows and Waves”

Bohince.SWALLOWS-AND-WAVESThe sixty poems collected in Paula Bohince’s newest book were inspired by the scroll paintings and woodblock prints of Japan’s Edo period (1603 – 1868). One of them, “Mandarin Ducks and Snow-Covered Reeds,” which appears below, was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Orion. Swallows and Waves is out now from Sarabande Books. 


The way that nature is represented by such artists as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Koryūsai, and others resonated with me so deeply, so quietly, that when I began Swallows and Waves, I found myself responding to the art as one would the company of a patient friend, by turns listening and confessing.

Their emphasis on clarity and harmony seemed to suggest an egolessness, and it made me want to try and respond with the same kind of attitude, which felt like a years-long spiritual exercise. I came away changed.

I’ve always found nature to be profound, overwhelming, almost frightening in its imperative to stand inside of life and be awed. Inside the paintings, everything had a consciousness with which to wrestle: the peonies, the sea, the wind, Mount Fuji.

A sated owl in a tree, a moonlit lotus blossom in a pond, a tiger licking its leg at dawn—all of these seemingly simple depictions provided moments to pause and consider what might be true, universal, eternal. A waterfall’s tragic trajectory: to die, over and over, and again and again be revived as ghostly foam; the heavy heads of chrysanthemum transformed into the heads of exhausted new mothers, remembering their youth.

These artworks became a great solace. Their constancy and generosity felt parental, or like stroking the mane of a horse, seeing myself reflected in its huge, patient eye. In their presence, I felt the miracle of art, how it forges new thoughts and emotions across centuries, culture, language. The hands that made them now less than dust. And yet.


Painting by Itō Jakuchū.

Painting by Itō Jakuchū.

Mandarin Ducks and Snow-Covered Reeds

After the painting by Itō Jakuchū, 1716 – 1800, Japan


When one dives, separate from her mate,

death is mere illusion.

She peers through water, assuring this.

When the crippled reeds rehabilitate, begin

their constant arc toward Spring,

pain seems impossible. So distance. So change-

of-heart. From above or beneath, how

a body will twist, intuiting fear

and replacing it with here-ness, exhibit of

faithfulness. Wordlessly saying Be not afraid,

Beloved, for the present exalts us!


Paula Bohince is the author of The Children and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods; her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Pennsylvania. 

Eva Saulitis’s Eloquent Goodbye

eva_head_shotLess than three weeks old, this particular revolution around the sun has already been defined by cancer. It took David Bowie first, quietly and then not. He kept his diagnosis to himself for eighteen months, and when he died it was like an explosion, radios playing and replaying his songs, writers overflowing with words, a funeral that echoed and reverberated the world over.

Alan Rickman was next, four days later, pancreatic cancer. Again, the world mourned his death and celebrated his life in equal parts. Again, his struggles against dying were private, until they weren’t.

I observed all of this with a degree of detachment. I wasn’t a huge Bowie fan, and I’m not much of a movie person. But this Saturday, absently scrolling through Twitter, cancer punched me in the chest: I learned that Alaskan writer and marine biologist Eva Saulitis had died. I looked out the window, at pine boughs brushing the sky, the sunlight catching beads of snow on their needles. I looked back at my computer screen. I searched for an obituary, and didn’t find one.

I didn’t need to, though. Eva had written about her breast cancer for years. She wrote honestly and bravely. She wrote about her own mortality while she watched the Chugach transients, a group of orcas she studied for decades, die one by one. The group hasn’t birthed a single surviving calf since before the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, and Eva’s husband and research partner, Craig Matkin, once told me that’s because the orcas are at the top of the food chain, absorbing all the BPAs and oil and other chemicals ingested by everything below them. They’re victims to their own strength and grace, repositories for all the toxins we’ve injected into their environment. Into our environment.

“Studied” isn’t a verb that aptly describes Eva’s relationship with the Chugach orcas. She was a respected and meticulous scientist, but less interested in flashy breakthroughs than in understanding a single, genetically distinct group of orcas and the world they live in. The orcas weren’t entries in a log or blips of GPS data on a map. They were a manifestation of a place Eva loved, a place of green-shouldered mountains dropping into a cold ocean, of tannin-colored salmon streams plunging through dark forest, of rocky, seaweed-strewn beaches and nights punctuated by the breathing of whales. She spent hours rolling on the sea in tiny boats, watching and taking notes. She could recognize individual orcas by sight.

Though she and Craig published papers showing unequivocally that the Chugach transients are going extinct, Eva found that scientific language wasn’t adequate to explain their peril. So she turned to creative writing—to poetry, essays, and memoir that interwove her story with the stories of the orcas she loved. It only made sense that after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she wrote about that too; it was tragically fitting that her own life and those of the orcas were spiraling into the sea together. “No one teaches us how to die,” she wrote in Orion in 2014, after the cancer had metastasized into her right lung. “Facing death in a death-phobic culture is lonely.”

Eva Saulitis gave that loneliness a voice, one missing from other high-profile losses of 2016. Her passing may not shake the world as Bowie or Rickman’s have, but her courage in sharing it gives the rest of us a beacon to follow into the darkness. It offers us a brutally real, painfully beautiful glimpse of what it’s like to carry a body battered by cancer through a world that’s also battered by cancer.

And though much of Eva’s most memorable writing is about loss, loss is not her legacy. As I read and reread her essays, I found myself pushing away the computer and walking outside until I was knee-deep in snow, breathing its sharp cold smell, spinning under the pine trees, my head tilted to prisms of sunlight. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over.

“In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News and is based in Durango, Colorado. 

Concrete Progress: The Return of the Sailboat Economy

Credit: Vermont Freight Sail Project

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


When I ran tidepooling expeditions on Orcas Island, Washington, I often looked out past the islands to the Strait of Georgia and thought of the old explorers that sailed these waters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I thought of the square-rigged frigates, gliding silently through the mist, the water only broken by a bird or orca. I thought of the captains, who must have struggled between taking in the distractingly gorgeous scenery and worrying over finding a decent anchorage to get fresh water. I thought of the natives, sitting in their canoes and watching the billowing sails—maybe from the very beach I was on—and wondering what they were about. This was usually as far as the daydream got before I had to turn my attention to my twelve-year-olds and urge them to refrain from whacking one another with bull kelp. On the way back up from the beach, I reflected, a little ruefully, that all the ships I ever saw on the Salish Sea were powered by oil.

Until now. For the last five summers, the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative has been sailing vegetables, cider, and other produce between Ballard, north of downtown Seattle, and Port Ludlow, on the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound. Sometimes, the ships bring Seattle products (like transcendently delicious Theo chocolate) out with them, but in this region, as in most places, the hinterland supplies the city.

The co-op takes a very progressive approach to its business. It is essentially a CSA, with twenty to thirty members, driven by wind and a belief in the future. The co-op is worker-owned and runs on a peer-sharing system, wherein its sailors use their own ships. It’s still early in the venture—the people of the co-op have other jobs as well—but they expect to make a profit some time this year.

Yet the co-op is a pragmatic organization. It was launched in the depths of the Great Recession, and since then members have married idealism and business, building up partnerships with other nonprofits, insuring their vessels for commercial use, and finding a lawyer who understands their mission. As of last year, the co-op is a USDA food stamp acceptor, allowing it to reach people not often served by CSAs. In order to strengthen the co-op’s fleet, members plan to add a small (thirty-five feet or so) cargo boat, and to fill that boat with diverse goods, not just food but bike parts, marine supplies, even malt for Seattle’s craft breweries. They’re looking to expand beyond Port Ludlow to Bainbridge Island, and perhaps one day there will be routes into the south Puget Sound and farther to the Olympic Peninsula and even the Canadian side of the sea.



Members of the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative ship produce between Seattle and the islands of Puget Sound. Photograph by Kathy Pelish.


I expect the business to thrive. Partly because Western Washington embraces progress and is open to sustainable ideas, but also because the Salish Sea is a difficult place to serve by road. If you try to drive from Seattle to, say, Port Townsend (only about forty-five miles as the cormorant flies), you have to ride all the way down to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then up the narrow, winding stretch of Route 19 to the Kitsap Peninsula and across the Hood Canal. That’s 111 miles. When people cross (as they often do—many live on the islands or peninsulas and work in the city) they use the big, lumbering Washington State ferries. In my Orcas Island days, I rode those ferries many times, and I feel some ongoing affection for them, but they burn more than one thousand gallons of diesel a day. The co-op’s ships do not do away with oil use—they have motors for crew safety and port rule compliance, and to make the Coast Guard, which has been supportive in general, comfortable with the system. But about 80 percent of the ships’ run is powered by wind.

This wind is blowing well beyond the Salish Sea. In the Great Lakes, Dragonfly Sail Transport is zipping produce around northwestern Michigan. In the East, the Vermont Sail Freight Project is performing a similar trick, running maple syrup and potatoes from the Lake Champlain watershed down through the old Champlain-Hudson waterway to New York City. On the high seas, the Dutch vessel Tres Hombres is running chocolate and rum from Latin America and the Caribbean across the ocean to Europe. Columnist, inventor, and DIY rockstar Tim Anderson calls these “heirloom technologies;” we’re rediscovering the sail just as we’re rediscovering the delights of heirloom apples. But it’s not about returning to the days of the HMS Constitution; much as modern wind turbines don’t look like old Dutch windmills, twenty-first-century sailors are combining modern technology and communications with the old-fashioned know-how of our great-grandparents to build a new, old shipping economy. Look for sails on the horizon again.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 


Remembering Doug Tompkins, Conservationist, Adventurer, and Entrepreneur

DougTompkins_blogDoug Tompkins—a man whose life influenced a generation of thinking about the relationship between business practices and the environment—died early this month in Chile. Diana Saverin, who in 2014 wrote a profile of Tompkins for The Atlantic, offers this remembrance.


Two years ago, I sat in the rain, waiting out bad weather on a sea-kayaking trip in Chilean Patagonia. At the time, a few friends and I were eight days into what was supposed to be a three-day trip. We sat around a smoky fire, dried our soaked-through raingear, watched the white-capped waves pass by. We had no way to communicate the reason for the delay to our families, who were biding the time by assuming the worst. But when Doug Tompkins heard from the parents of one of the kayakers on my trip that we were overdue, he decided he was going to take action himself. He walked out of his house more than 100 miles to the north and headed toward his Cessna, determined to find us somewhere in those wild fjords of the far south.

I first met Tompkins a couple of months before in the office of one of his parks in southern Chile. He had wispy white hair, bushy grey eyebrows, and wool socks— he didn’t let anyone wear shoes in his buildings. When I summoned the courage to ask him for an interview, his reluctance was palpable. “We have a website, you know,” he told me. Tompkins was not exactly a “let’s-discuss-it” type. But he eventually acquiesced to my plea after I used the magic words deep ecology.

His eyes brightened and he leaned back in his chair.

“Well,” he said, “I always say that before jumping to practical solutions you have to have a systematic analysis.”

He launched into an hour-long lecture, during which time I learned about the myth of progress, the collision course humanity is on with nature, and the perils of cell phones, the use of which he equated to sticking your head into a microwave every day. The only pause he took was to give advice to one of his employees who was hanging up a framed picture of a puma on an office wall.

“A little bit higher,” Tompkins said, switching to Spanish. “And I think that color is off.”

The picture came down and his talk resumed. That was Tompkins—recalcitrant, pedagogical, passionate. A perfectionist with big ideas, for whom no detail was too small. A man of action, through and through.

At the time, I was traveling through Patagonia and writing about the work he has done in South America. After founding the outdoor clothing companies The North Face and Esprit, Tompkins decided he wanted to fight consumer culture rather than promote it, so he sold his stake in Esprit and moved to a small farm in southern Chile. He worked to conserve land in the region ever since. He and his wife Kris purchased and conserved more than 2.2 million acres of land in Chile and Argentina—the rough equivalent in area to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Grand Teton National Parks combined.

Their bold actions drew quite a bit of controversy. Though it usually takes the mention of Esprit or The North Face to garner name recognition in the United States, Tompkins’s name often draws immediate acknowledgement in Chile—and much of the time, it’s not a good thing. Rumors about his true motives traveled with the winds of Patagonia: locals believed he was breeding pumas, fulfilling a Biblical command to make Patagonia the next Israel, or providing refuge for rich foreigners in the case of nuclear war. The idea that he was spending his personal fortune to save the environment—the huemules and pumas, the calafate bushes and lenga trees—was just too hard to believe.

Tompkins’s employees loved telling stories about the man, too. Some of them told me, half-in-awe, half-in-exasperation, about the way he’d drop out of the sky in his small plane to check in on every aspect of his parks’ development: he’d ask for the garbage cans to be replaced, the campsite layouts to be rearranged, the toilet paper dispensers to be moved. He was obsessive and determined, vigorously involved.

I wasn’t without my own frustrations with this complicated man. But since hearing the news of Tompkins’s death, I have kept thinking about how the very characteristics that could make him so frustrating were the same characteristics that made him so effective and ultimately, so inspiring. He took action—no matter the cost, no matter the backlash, no matter the amount of work.

Many well-intentioned people feel helpless in the face of the environmental crisis to which Tompkins responded. What should we do, many of us ask, Give up our cell phones? Move to small farms? Donate our extra pennies to the Sierra Club? Rather than remain paralyzed and enraged, helpless and discouraged, Tompkins did everything in his power to make things better. “Sentiment without action,” Edward Abbey writes, “is the ruin of the soul.” Tompkins turned his sentiments into actions. He devoted his energy to fulfilling his vision for a better world.

Tompkins never had to rescue my friends and me from that beach in Patagonia. His wife Kris got the message that we were fine, and she was able to run out and stop him before he climbed into his red and white Cessna to fly south to search for us. Tragically, the rescue sent for Tompkins last week didn’t come soon enough. Though an experienced kayaker, credited with twenty-one first descents of rivers in Chile, the swells of almost ten feet were hard to fight. On top of that, the rudder in the double kayak he shared with a friend malfunctioned. When a wave hit them broadside, the pair capsized. By the time Tompkins reached the nearest hospital, his body temperature was 66 degrees, and he died of hypothermia.

In Tompkins’s writings, he often alluded to how short a human life is in comparison to the life of the land. In one essay, Doug and Kris wrote that they didn’t consider themselves landowners, even though they had purchased more land than nearly anyone else on Earth. On a geological timescale, they wrote that the moments in which they held titles to land are “nothing more than a wink of an eye.” In another essay, the pair asked, “What judgment can be made about a conservation program after just two decades, when the work of ecological recovery need last millennia?”

Because of his commitment to action, and the power he was able to accumulate in his short life, the environmental work Tompkins did is now imprinted on the continent. The land he set aside, which might otherwise have been exploited, is protected. It is a legacy that may very well last for millennia to come. The other legacy he deserves to leave is less tangible. When Tompkins knew a frame was off-color, or a garbage can was ugly, or a species was endangered, or a mega-dam was proposed, or a consumer culture was misguided, or a techno-industrial society was rampant, or a few kayakers were in trouble—he did something, whatever he could. The best way to honor his memory is to do something, too.