Orion Blog

Eight Questions for the Author: Bryce Andrews, Down from the Mountain

Our Spring 2019 issue featured a hair-raising article, “The Edge of the Stand,” about following—or being followed by—a hungry grizzly bear at the edge of a Montana cornfield. This complicated relationship between predators and people rests at the core of the piece, excerpted from Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) by Bryce Andrews.

We caught up with Andrews to learn more about his work in Montana and the lessons embedded in these edge zones, pairing people and carnivores, domesticated and wild, settled and indigenous. Included is a short film, “Corn Bears,” courtesy of the nonprofit People and Carnivores.   

NT: Say I’m new to your book, your work with People and Carnivores, and to Western Montana. Tell me, in three sentences, what Down from the Mountain is all about.  

BA: Down from the Mountain is about a grizzly bear’s life and death, and how farmers collide and coexist with large carnivores in Montana’s Mission Valley. It’s a simple story that opens onto larger challenges—issues like climate change and the subdivision of rural land. It’s about the urgency of our present moment and the hard work necessary to help grizzlies thrive in the crowded landscape of today’s West.

NT: What’s been your scariest encounter with a grizzly bear?  

BA: Given the amount of time I’ve spent recreating and working in grizzly country, I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to bear encounters. I’ve seen and been near a lot of grizzlies, and have been impressed by their restraint. For the most part, bears treat us very well.

My scariest encounter was near Yellowstone National Park. I was gathering cattle for a ranch where I worked, and ended up finding a steer that had either been killed or scavenged by a grizzly. The carcass had been partially buried in a grove of thick timber, and as I got off my horse and went to remove its ear tags, I realized the bear was nearby. I never saw that grizzly, just heard it breaking brush.

(VIDEO: “Corn Bears.” Field testing a new electric fence design to keep grizzly bears away from
agricultural food sources. Courtesy of People and Carnivores.)

NT: When chronicling these grizzlies and their lust for sweet corn, a word kept surfacing for me: diabetes. What are some major health concerns for wild animals as they begin to consume disproportionate amounts of calories from corn and other human foods, as their communities are brought ever closer to ours?

BA: That’s a good question for a biologist to weigh in on, but I can speak to what I’ve seen in the field. Corn and other similarly plentiful, starchy crops do the same things to bears that they do to us when we eat them in excess. Cornfield bears end up obese—sometimes to the point where they struggle to run. Their teeth tend to fail and decay at a faster rate than bears using natural food sources.

Bears feeding on agricultural crops are also exposed to pesticides and herbicides—to substances like glyphosate. As our farming practices grow increasingly reliant on chemicals, as in the case of corn that has been genetically modified to resist herbicide, wild animals will encounter and ingest whatever substances we spray or spread on our fields.

NT: Down from the Mountain takes place on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana. What are some traditional mythologies surrounding the grizzly bear? How are they expressed by tribal members in response to these animals today?

BA: While I’d recommend talking with a Salish, Kootenai, or Pend d’Orielle person about grizzlies in tribal mythology and culture, one thing is obvious even to an outsider like me: The tribes of the Flathead Reservation care deeply about their bears. The tribal government has protected grizzlies with impressive consistency and diligence. As grizzlies spread south and move from their current core habitat, we should all thank the tribes for their good work and management.

A significant portion of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness is reserved for grizzly conservation, with all human entry prohibited in key seasons. That restriction is a rare one, and it’s hard for me to imagine a state government or national forest taking a similar position. Banning human entry to key habitat is a bold step, and one worth considering in essential places. What I’m saying is that the rest of us can learn a few things from the tribes about living with grizzlies. 

NT: Your relationship to modernity, to technology, gadgets, and urban atrophy seem to be a central tension in the book. Drones, for example, were a tool you learned to use for monitoring grizzly bear movements. How do you view these technologies now? 

BA: Drones and other technologies are useful in my work because they allow us to see into the lives of animals. What we learn from a bird’s-eye view, or from data uploaded by GPS collars can help us avoid conflict with other species. If we know where a bear dens, or how it tends to cross a highway, we’ve got a better chance of keeping that animal and others alive and out of trouble.

A rancher once said to me of his rifle: “It’s a tool, like any other.” The same thing applies to the technologies we’re discussing here. Drones, like chainsaws or guns, don’t have a bias toward good or evil. Whether we use them well or poorly comes down to our own judgment and restraint.

NT: Why is it important for humans to live among predators? Not everyone can (or would like to) live in such intimate contact with resident grizzlies. What are some takeaway lessons you might share from your time living and working in grizzly country?

BA: Grizzlies are an essential part of a complex whole, as pistons are necessary to an engine. That’s well established and proven, but I want to touch on something more immediate, emotional, and selfish. Here’s something I wrote in the book: 

“There is something about grizzlies that fascinates and pulls at everyone who encounters them. Half of it is their odd mix of bulk and grace. A healthy bear is a walking paradox — a heavy, seemingly ungainly creature that can turn swift and lithe in a moment. Near Yellowstone, I have seen a boar running faster than a sprinting horse can, stretching out and loping across an open meadow. Coming to a stand of brush, that bear stopped short. Losing all evidence of strength and speed, he went lumpish and shambled from sight. The phase shift was as complete and unlikely as water flashing to steam, and I never forgot it.

Then there are the eyes, which are not unlike ours in shape, size, and distance from each other. A bear’s eyes—small in their wide heads—seem made for looking back, for focusing on and assessing us. When grizzlies are not afraid or raging, there is something tranquil, sympathetic, and even shy about their eyes.

When a human meets a bear, their gazes join like halves of a split stone. A charged arc is struck between two creatures, and the rest of the world disappears in the glare. That fire is treacherous and tends toward destruction. It also contains a measure of recognition.

Nobody can say what a grizzly makes of that moment, but I know what it means to me. Looking bears in the face—an experience as consuming as falling—has given me a better grasp of what I am and how I fit into a wild older world.”

Here’s the heart of it: I want to share these mountains with grizzlies because they remind us that human beings once lived in a community that exceeded our species. When I am alone and I encounter a grizzly, I am always humbled by its power. When the bear does not eat me, I’m left feeling grateful. Those emotions—humility, gratitude, and even fear—are good things for a human being.

NT: Would you say there is a sense of wildness removed, even from free-roaming animals, when their habitats are becoming snuffed out, increasingly limited, managed, and fenced over time?

BA: Yes. When grizzlies learn to feed on corn, their lives become simple and more sedentary. Instead of climbing peaks in search of insect colonies, an important late-summer food, they stay low in the valley. Instead of stitching together a complex, varied seasonal feeding ground, they focus on our activities and begin to live more closely with us. Much is lost in this transition, which amounts to a form of domestication.

NT: Near the end of the book you find yourself in a zoo with captive grizzly cubs. I enjoyed how you rendered this tension—sure, they’re survivors, but is there any remnant dignity in such a spectacle, placed into a life encaged, domestic, controlled?

I can’t say whether a life in captivity—even with dedicated care, which the cubs certainly have—is better than death for a wild thing. I looked for a long time at those two cubs, and still don’t know what I would have done if their fate had been left to me. I do know what’s better for us, though. It’s better for us to have those cubs alive, because they’re doing us and the rest of their species a service. People visiting that zoo have a chance to connect with wild animals. That sort of connection is too rare these days, particularly in cities. Some people who see those grizzlies and learn their story will be moved to action. That, in any case, is my hope.

More Resources:
Learn more about People and Carnivores. 
Purchase this back issue.
Subscribe to Orion. New subscribers receive one year for only $29.

Editor’s Choice: Top 3 Articles on Population

For U.N. World Population Day, here are three of Orion’s best articles on the challenges of overpopulation:​

 
State of the Species by Charles Mann.
Art by The Petri Island Project
November/December 2012  (This essay was a finalist for a 2013 National Magazine Award in the Essay category.)

The problem with environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria). Read more.

 

 

Crowded Planet: A Conversation with Alan Weisman. Art by Alain Guiget.
September/October 2013  

Over the course of the past one hundred years, we humans have grown in population at a rate rarely seen outside of a petri dish. Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling The World Without Us, spent two years traveling to twenty nations to investigate what this population explosion means for our species as well as those we share the planet with—and, most importantly, what we can do about it. Read more

 

 


The Centroid
 by Jeremy Miller. Photo by John Trotter
March/April 2013  

On a warm day in March 2011, I find myself in the back seat of a white, government-issue Chevy Suburban, rolling over spongy pasturelands in the sparsely populated foothills of the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. The vehicle is being piloted by Brian Ward, a geodetic advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dave Doyle, the chief surveyor with NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey division, sits in the passenger seat, looking intently at a dashboard-mounted GPS screen. “Almost there. Just a little farther on,” Doyle mutters as Ward slaloms through an agitated herd of beef cattle. Read more.

Father’s Day: Top 5 Articles about Dads

This Father’s Day, Orion’s editorial staff curated this list of our five favorite articles about fatherhood. 

 

He Sets Me in the Streamby David James Duncan
September/October 2007 issue

The old storytellers of India, according to my brother Peter, said that when you reached the end of even the longest story you should still be able to remember all the way back to the beginning. I have to work to remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Read more

 

21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by my Childrenby Brian Doyle
September/October 2014 issue

1. If you shake hands with an evergreen tree and the branch bites you, that’s a spruce.
2. Insects rule the world, but they don’t talk about it.
3. The reason the ocean is salty is because all the animals have been peeing right in it since before there was even time. Read more. 

 

To the Dairy Queen and Backby John Landretti
January/February 2009 issue

My two boys, ages three and six, love a good bike ride and I take them out often. We travel on a single vehicle that includes a bicycle, a tag-along, and a trailer. My boys call this elaborate rig the “Burley Train.” Come Friday evenings, if the weather is fair, we board in the garage and make the long trip north to a Dairy Queen. Read more

 

The Trumpet of the Swanby Kim Todd
July/August 2009 issue

When I was five and my sister was two, my father started to lose his balance. He stumbled down the sidewalk, tripped up the stairs. Clumsiness became extreme. Newspapers were reporting that children who had radiation to reduce their tonsils were developing thyroid cancer as adults. He went in for a thyroid examination, only to have the doctor note his swaying and order a CT scan of his head instead. It showed a tumor on his brain stem. Read more

 

“Gaze Upon This World” by Amy Weldon
Spring 2018 issue (print only.)

I’m biking through the dark in the smoky chill of October. Overhead, a great-horned owl gathers itself and lands on a snag, its swiveling, feather-crowned head wider than my palm. I stop the bike and stand still. For a while, the owl and I watch each other. Then, hearing some creaturely snap in the brush, it ungrips its branch and springs into the dark. This article is only available in print. Subscribe today.

 

Questions for the Artist: Nikki McClure

Every issue of Orion includes a poetry broadside bound into the back cover, illustrated by a different artist each year. Orion is honored that Nikki McClure, a papercut artist living in Olympia, Washington, will illustrate this year’s series.

McClure is widely celebrated for her images made from black paper and an X-Acto knife. Her first broadside in the series—included in the Spring 2019 issue—pairs with Mary Oliver’s poem “At Blackwater Pond.” We caught up with McClure to learn more about what it meant for her to work with Oliver’s words, her process, and what she’s currently reading.  

NT: Your first Orion broadside was included in the Spring 2019 issue, papercuts paired with a poem by Mary Oliver. What is your personal connection to Oliver’s poetry? 

NM: I was introduced to Mary Oliver’s work by a good friend and older mentor, Georgia Munger. She was a retired elementary school librarian who gave me my first art shows and encouraged me often by reciting inspiring poems at just the right moments. I would take a book of Oliver’s poems with me when I volunteered in my son’s classrooms, teaching “art.” Really it was teaching chaos, so I would read a poem each week to center them, to get them thinking about time in a certain place. What is our time now? Here?

I wrote to Mary once to see if I could illustrate a book of her poems for children. The request was denied. She wasn’t interested in that idea. I kept reading her poems to children anyway. Then when Orion contacted me to do a series of broadsides, I said I couldn’t right now, but in a year I could, and I would do it if I could illustrate a poem by Mary Oliver. Orion conducted some editorial magic and made that happen, and I was able to pick any poem I wanted of hers.

I sat down and read every poem I had, including books Georgia Munger left to me when she passed away. All day I read and thought about her words and life as I perched in my window seat. The next morning, I started drawing images for “At Blackwater Pond,” but everything I drew looked like a woman crying rivers of tears into her hands. I sent in a rough sketch to Chip Blake. It was then when he told me she died that very morning.

Without knowing it, I held this feeling of murmuring, singing, and listening to her words all day while she was passing. I never met her or spoke to her, but her ripples have met mine.

NT: What did it mean for you to work on this Mary Oliver piece? 

NM: It was a life honor.

NT: All-time favorite Mary Oliver poem? 

NM: “At Blackwater Pond” is one of them. Others include “Sleeping in the Forest,” “The Summer Day,” “Wild Geese.” I memorized “At Blackwater Pond” for a Mary Oliver tribute night at the local bookstore. I memorized it in honor of Georgia. I was the only one who did. We should all have a poem memorized. It helps.

 
NT: X-Acto knife and paper. It appears that your style, like writing, is more the art of subtraction than addition. Is that accurate? 

NM: Yes, I use paper to reveal a story. I start with a piece of black paper that I cut away. Writing is adding and piling and making, marking up white space, and then paring away, trimming down to the essential. My visuals are probably most like poetry. I seek the elemental shape or line that makes an apple leaf different from a pear leaf.

“I never met her or spoke to her, but her ripples have met mine.”

NT: How many times a week do you prick yourself?

NM: Never. I often extract splinters imbedded in my fingertips from dry firewood or thorns from impromptu weeding using my X-Acto knife and dissecting microscope. Any unintentional cuts usually involve making lunch too quickly, or while chopping kale.

NT: Papercuts are your signature style. How often do you veer from this form? 

NM: I mostly cut. But the preparation for cutting involves drawing. And the preparation for drawing is writing. And the preparation for writing is living. So I do all of those things, then I sit down and make a papercut. Earlier in life, I painted watercolors when on vacation. But now any spare creative energy is consumed by making interesting and nutritious dinners, spontaneous pagan celebrations, mending clothes, and tending my strawberry garden, though the “tending” part is usually just watching native bees travel from blossom to blossom. I spent all day yesterday trying to indigo dye turkey tail fungi onto fabric.

NT: What is your process for responding to something written and making it visual?

NM: I have the reminder “Show what words cannot” taped to my cutting desk. To illustrate is to enlighten, to make visible and clear. I try to add what the writer left out, without taking away the image that comes from within the reader. Illustrating other authors’ words is different than illustrating my own texts. It is a challenge to enter into their world. For my work, I often see the image first, then add the text.

The process is backward in the case of the Orion broadside project. I know nothing of the poets’ lives, except a bit of Oliver’s. They are mysteries. I only have their words and maybe some magic can happen and I can add a new feeling to the poem. I have to rely on deep intuition. That can be a gamble. But when it works, it works deep.

NT: How does poetry influence your work? 

NM: Poetry reminds me to honor this place, the southernmost finger of the Salish Sea, the edge where I live in a cedar forest with twenty Band-tailed pigeons clearing off the feeder when they tumble down from the tree and sky. I have to refill the feeder with sunflower seed three times before lunch. The pregnant Douglas squirrel does her best to clean up the scattered seeds. But I am typing and doing this work of sharing indoors, a window and a wall away from the constant feeding. Poetry reminds. Art reminds. When successful, they resonate and vibrate within into practice. Poetry does that to me. It stirs me and I become a keener observer.

NT: What are you reading right now? 

NM: Urusla K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, recommended by a poet who sings, Daniel Higgs. I’ve only just begun reading science fiction, to keep up with the world my son has entered. We are a long way now from Blueberries for Sal.

NT: What are three of the most influential books you’ve ever read, as it relates to understanding the human/nature relationship? 

NM: Wow, this one is serious. Since I just mentioned Blueberries for Sal, I want to say Time of Wonder, also by Robert McCloskey. The line “Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?” strikes me as an important question for children and adult humans to wonder, to consider what is outside of themselves.

As far as our relationship to nature, my husband says I should read Edward Abbey, though I have to admit I haven’t yet. I’ll work on that. Another book is The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, which shows how a curious question, “Why are there no storks in Shora?” posed by a child, unites a community. The environment is made better and the human interactions are as well.

I’ve been thinking of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson a lot this season as I walk in the woods and see so many people with earbuds in. Will they even notice when the birds stop singing? The dawn chorus is getting quieter. Carson’s sense of urgency for the planet is something that we all need to start having. Here in Olympia, it has already been 88 degrees in mid-May. Today there are twelve American white pelicans on the beach. All migration maps do not show western Washington as part of the pelicans’ range, but this is the second year I’ve seen them here. I’ve lived here long enough to recognize this change.

Carson was direct. What book is our modern equivalent? Sandra Steingraber’s essays in Orion feel close. But what can we sound an alarm with? Food shortages? Climate refugees?  Carson did it with the loss of bird’s songs, the loss of beauty. We know our interconnectedness more than ever now, just as we have become more disconnected. No wonder I turn to children’s books. We need to raise noticers and we are failing.

“I have to rely on deep intuition. That can be a gamble. But when it works, it works deep.”

NT: What is the artist’s responsibility during a human-caused mass extinction event?

NM: Notice. Record. Interpret. Share. And do so without excess consumption in its creation. I wonder what the trees would think of what I make from their fibers and forests and streams. 

Artists can navigate and help to understand. They can turn science into emotion. They can be examples of living, where creating isn’t just making stuff. Personally, I don’t know how to respond myself. Grief and despair and tears or reverence and wonder, so I just gaze out the window and watch the birds and dragonflies doing their best to keep this whole ecosystem going.

NT: Who are some artists that you think are moving the human/more-than-human conversation in generative ways? 

NM: I’m not aware enough to know. I’m a bit of a hermit. I see more birds in a day than people. I don’t browse the internet; I spend enough time inside. I hope that I am helping move something good forward in my own small way.

NT: You’ve been a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest. How does your watershed’s landscape inform your art? 

NM: It is it. I’ve only ever lived here. My art would be different if I lived somewhere else and I would be different, too. My son is now a tall cedar tree and I am becoming more like a seal who watches birds and falls asleep trying to feel rocking waves. This is just the physicality of Self, the art-making part is the same. I walk every morning and things happen that spark images. I want to make pictures precise in place and time.

NT: What, in your estimation, does the visual artist have in his/her/their toolbox in response to the more-than-human world that a writer might not? 

NM: Time. Writers take more time, in crafting and then in reading the words. Art can be seen in an instant. People don’t make time for more than images, a barrage of them all day long. And striking, well-made images that ignite emotion are memorable even after one has spent just seconds with it. Words sink in deep, but they take more time. Keep writing, writers! We all need to be adding our voices.

Silent Spring pertains to humans now, and we are the ones who have been silenced.

Additional Resources: 

  • Nikki McClure’s first broadside was featured in the Spring 2019 issue. Her second broadside will be included in the Summer 2019 issue, due in stores at the end of June 2019. Subscribe today.
  • Learn more about Nikki McClure on her website.
  • Here’s a short film about Nikki’s work. 

AUDIO: “The Spiral Labyrinth,” a Poetry-Sound Collaboration

Four years ago I lost hearing in one ear while backpacking in western Montana.

Despite many visits to doctors, acupuncturists, and naturopaths, the cause of the loss was never fully determined. It was an uncertain, worrisome, vertigo-spinning time out of which came my essay in Orion’s Spring 2019 issue, “The Silent Labyrinth.”

All these years later, I still can only hear muffled, underwater sounds in my left ear. The vertigo has subsided and I am adjusting to living in a hearing world with only one “good” ear.


 

My mentor, Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, was also hard of hearing. He used to say that this made him draw nearer to the ones he loved. He encountered the world as a poet, looking for windows and doors to new experiences. “Aguzar ese oído,” he advised. Sharpen that ear and listen to new things, to the inner ear that is knocking at our door. “Se nos presente con humildad.” It appears before us with humility to offer its gifts.

Eduardo has since passed away, and the hearing in my left ear has not returned. Still, I try to heed my mentor’s advice and encounter the world with wonder and gratitude. One of the gifts my left ear presents is the necessity of listening closely and deeply, questioning the sounds I once assumed to know in an instant. Now, I must pause and really focus on the distant siren, the bird call, or a child’s voice.   

I believe that sound artist Gretchen Jude also listens in this way. Here, we collaborated on a sound piece that reflects and ripples back my experience with hearing loss. We met over a series of weeks in Mānoa Valley on the island of O‘ahu—our home. Photographer Gen Fujitani captured some of these creative moments in the forests of Mānoa.

Listening to Gretchen’s work, I am flooded with memories: learning to read by breaking familiar words into phonic parts; waves of overlapping sound at parties and noisy restaurants that make me feel foreign to myself; nodding politely without really understanding; and those moments when, threatened with nothing (no sound, no hearing), I wanted everything, even the ugly, even the horrible buzz or blare.

Those sounds too, all of them, are beloved.

Gretchen Jude is an experimental composer and performer born and raised in Idaho. Growing up in Idaho inspired Gretchen’s improvisatory style of interaction with earthly environments, from urban to wilderness ecologies. Gretchen worked extensively with choreographers and filmmakers, most recently on the soundtrack for the award-winning documentary, Midnight Traveler. Gretchen has studied a variety of performance practices and holds an MFA in Electronic Music & Recording Media from Mills College, a P.h.D. in Performance Studies from University of California, Davis, and certifications from the Sawai Koto Institute (Tokyo) and the Deep Listening Institute (New York).  Gretchen’s work has been released on Full Spectrum, Susu Ultrarock, and Edgetone Records. More at: www.gretchenjude.com.

Laurel Nakanishi was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.  Through her work as a writer and educator, she has lived in Montana, Nicaragua, and Japan. She is the author of the Berkshire Prize winning poetry book, Ashore, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Her poetry and essays have appeared in national literary magazines and a chapbook, Mānoa|Makai. Laurel has been fortunate to receive grants from the Fulbright Foundation, Japan-US Friendship Commission/National Endowment for the Arts, and Wrolstad Foundation. Laurel received her MFA in poetry from the University of Montana and her MFA in creative nonfiction from Florida International University.  She lives with her family in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. For more: www.laurelnakanishi.com.

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