Orion Blog

Introducing the September/October 2015 Issue

SepOct15_336X406Fall in New England is glorious and quick. It seems like only days ago that katydids chattered from the green trees, and already the air is crisp and the hills ablaze with color. People from the big cities have arrived, walking the quiet roads in their wool jackets, staring up at the leaves. The season is so vivid in this corner of the world that it makes a kind of sense that it barely lasts a month—it’s unsustainably beautiful.

Fall, of course, marks the earth’s yearly transition from fecundity to rest, from birth to dormancy. It’s a season that might encourage a sort of maturity: like the earth, we, too, could learn to accept loss with grace, even gratitude. That’s one of the lessons in Julia Alvarez’s piece in the new issue of Orion, “The Practice of Gracias.” It’s about her visits with Johnny Rivas, a Haitian man imprisoned in the Dominican Republic for attempting to organize on behalf of his fellow Haitian workers—and a man who has maintained such grace throughout his situation that, according to Alvarez, he’s “far richer than most of us.”

But one need not face such harrowing personal circumstances to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what one has. Our harrowing energy and climate circumstances will do just fine, says Charles Mann, whose essay “Peak Oil Fantasy” also appears in the issue. In it, Mann attempts to dismantle the popular idea that we’re running out of fossil fuel—because the real problem, he says, is much bigger and more dangerous: climate change.

Also in the issue are other variants on the theme of loss and grace: there’s a piece by a young woman whose relationship with amphibians helped her overcome anorexia; a dispatch from immigrant communities planting gardens in the image of their native landscapes; and a profile of a musician who’s turning the winds of New Orleans into song.

As usual, though, there’s much more in the print edition of the magazine, from J.B. MacKinnon’s short story “The Trial of Christopher Columbus,” to photographs of playgrounds around the world, to a meditation on one writer’s favorite natural object—the acorn. To read it all, pick up a copy of the September/October issue of Orion at our online store, or simply subscribe.

Concrete Progress: Border Walls Aren’t Just Political Objects—They’re Ecological Barriers, Too


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.


We have wild jaguars in the United States. Did you know? Right now, as you read this, powerful two-hundred-and-fifty-pound cats with dappled golden fur are cruising the canyons of southern Arizona. Jaguars are immensely strong—they can crunch turtles like an Oreo, and they carry around prey four times their weight. But, as with so many apex predators, they’re endangered: the Fish and Wildlife Service has set aside more than a thousand square miles along the Mexican border as critical habitat for jaguars. The prime threat to our American jaguars? A wall, which is a uniquely infrastructural problem.

When we think of infrastructure, it’s almost always in terms of connection and exchange: roads, bridges, pipelines, telephone lines, waste sites. But walls (and fences) are one kind of infrastructure that, obviously, does not connect people. They have, of course, been tremendously important throughout history, from China to Berlin. Usually these walls are meant to keep people out (or shut people in), but sometimes they’re for wildlife. Probably the most famous example is Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (actually several fences) that was supposed to exclude invasive rabbits.

The barrier threatening southern Arizona’s jaguars is the U. S. – Mexico border fence. This is a series of barriers built along about a third of our 2,000-mile southern border at a cost of about $2.3 billion. (I need to say, before I go further, that I’m not talking about the fence in terms of immigration policy or human rights or the economy or electoral politics. All of that is important, but it’s for someone else’s column. I’m only talking about it in terms of ecology.) Animals are not aware of the border as they cross from Mexico to the United States of America, and they are not able to hire a coyote, of any kind, to get them across.

My first year in graduate school, I read a paper in which the authors laid out the state of twenty-first-century nature. There was a great map of the world’s remaining High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas. There were only five: the Amazon and Congo rainforests (aka the Usual Suspects), Papua New Guinea, a patchy swathe of southern Africa…and the arid region around the U. S. – Mexico border, covering most of the American Southwest and north-central Mexico. The area near the border is dry, but it’s mountainous, with many microclimates and hardly any people. I once spent a week in the desert where California meets Nevada, and an ecologist out there told me that it’s not unusual for a dedicated naturalist to find plants, even trees, that haven’t yet been described by science. The border fence cuts right through these kinds of places.

What does this mean for the jaguar? Jaguars, like most large predators, consume a tremendous number of calories every day and therefore require big territories, full of deer and javelinas, in which to hunt. An individual male jaguar may demand up to fifty-three square miles, and pretty much all the jaguars that have been documented in the United States have been male. The source population is in Sonora, Mexico. The fence will impede all of this: it will limit their territories and intensify competition between individuals. It’ll also make it much more difficult for jaguars to re-establish a breeding population north of the border, effectively reducing our jaguar population to a few escaped zoo animals. To ensure contiguous habitat south of the border, conservationists from Panthera (a group that advocates for wild cats) are at work on the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, which seeks to link the cats’ habitat from Argentina to Mexico. It would be a shame if such a mighty project—and a mighty cat—had to halt at the border.

Of course, jaguars are only the most charismatic predator in the border region. The area also hosts ocelots, pumas, Mexican wolves (which the Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to reintroduce to New Mexico), and a few brown bears. The border fence will affect all of them.

Fortunately, parts of the fence line are relatively passable for wildlife; some spots are engineered to stop vehicles rather than people. But these areas are more likely to correspond with roadways than heavily-used wildlife corridors. Going forward, with border security only likely to tighten, hopefully a few of those billions of dollars will go toward ensuring that wildlife can readily cross the border where they need to. But many wildlife laws (the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act) are waived as the Department of Homeland Security builds out the border wall. Scientists and wildlife advocates have been pushing for a more intelligent approach—via wildlife passages, for instance. We’ve seen them work in Canada and the U. S. Perhaps they can be part of the conversation about the southern border wall, too.

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.


3 Questions for Benny Bunting, Farm Advocate

Photograph by Rob Amberg.

Photograph by Rob Amberg.

As Dean Kuipers reports in the July/August 2015 issue of Orion, a hopeful new model for providing family farmers with money to continue their work is paying dividends. But another recent trend involves Wall Street: in the last ten years, over $25 billion has flowed from large banks, hedge funds, and exchange-traded companies into U.S. farmland (and not of the family-owned variety), all with the expectation of fast profit.

To shed light on the challenge and importance of preserving family farms, we spoke with Benny Bunting, a farmer advocate whose twenty years of work has assisted hundreds of family farmers. Between 2010 and 2013, he’s helped preserve about $50 million in assets for agricultural families. Benny is with Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and is allied with Farm Aid, one of the leading voices for American family farmers, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.


You’ve been an advocate for family farmers, with Farm Aid and other organizations, for more than twenty years. Why is it so important that family farms—as opposed to other kinds—thrive in this country?

Family farms retain a rural community’s most valuable resource: children. Traditions of hard work, commitment to land, and community involvement (via institutions like Little League baseball, volunteer fire departments, churches, and local government) are passed to the next generation. Not many professions allow for shared time between children, teenagers, and parents as they work side by side toward the same goal.

Family farmers also live, buy, and sell locally. But as the scale of farming increases, the scale of local participation tends to diminish.

In the last decade, Wall Street has invested billions into U.S. farmland, with the hope of making a fairly quick buck. What do you make of this trend, and what impact do you think it has on family farms?

I’ve been around long enough to see both prosperity and financial disaster on family farms. Most of the disasters were weather related or government influenced. I believe that when Congress eliminated protections from the low prices of products from overseas, the floodgates opened, allowing multinational companies to siphon off the profits of family farmers. When farm profit margins shrank, the notion of “get big or get out” became self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems to me that the new influx of cash from Wall Street is simply a continuation of that mentality—and a system that’s not designed to be operated by its owners looks a lot like share cropping in Sunday dress.

What’s your vision for American agriculture? Where do you hope we’ll be in, say, fifty years?

My vision is of consumers helping farmers achieve a consistent living wage, which is a matter of personal-health security, community security, and national security. It’s a vision of where the next generation choosing to stay on the farm is a smart career decision, not just a family obligation. It’s where mega-farms are parceled out to invite new and beginning farmers, where the bankers involved are located in the communities in which they work, and where farming is no longer considered a huge financial risk but viable and worthwhile work.

Orion Welcomes Submissions, September 1 – 15


Do you have writing that fits the pages of Orion? If so, we’d be honored to take a look.

Beginning September 1, the magazine welcomes submissions of essays, short stories, and nonfiction that address the nexus of ecology and the human experience. The submission window opens on the first day of September, and closes at 5 p.m Eastern on September 15.

Click here to learn how to submit. And before shipping that dazzling piece of prose, be sure to take a look at our writer’s guidelines.

We look forward to reading!

—The Editors

Letter from Colorado: On the Dirty, Deep-seated Origins of the Animas River Spill


In early August, the EPA accidentally released three million gallons of contaminated water from the Gold King mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of Colorado’s Animas River. Jeff Snowbarger, who’s at work on a novel about the development of the region, spent time on the banks of the Animas, where he’s discovered connections between the river’s past and present.


“Mustard-colored”: that’s the hue various commentators used to describe the shocking plume of thick orange mine waste that snaked across the Colorado Plateau earlier this month. But to anyone who saw the sickening photos, much less saw the color in person, this description is unappetizing at best, at worst almost offensive. To me, the color looked more like liquid Hell.

I’ve spent the best part of my last three summers jeeping around the rugged mining district that encompasses the headwaters of the Animas River while researching a novel in progress. Three weeks before the horrendous ooze was tickled to a gush by EPA contractors, my five-year-old son and I drove right past the offending mine adit. Even then, large swaths of the old Gladstone mining district were scabbed the color of Lucifer’s tears.

In mining country this color is common, from retention ponds to the waste rock piles that pock the Rocky Mountains, marking the test adits early prospectors blasted into the slopes with burro-loads of TNT. But this more recent disaster is a dramatic finale of sorts. It’s like the raucous Fourth of July display that follows an evening of kids waving sparklers, scribbling their names upon the dusk. This bold stain fouling the Animas River had a quiet lead up, and to better understand this odd color, one needs to know its origin.

The San Juan mining boom took off in the early 1870s. Before the Brunot Treaty of 1873, this wilderness was home to the Utes, who hunted the high country and used it to hide stolen horses. But the Utes were only part-timers here. Winter made the region uninhabitable. Some sources suggest that this pocket of Colorado was the last permanently settled region in the lower forty-eight. Fifteen-foot snowfalls, negative-sixty-degree temperatures, avalanches, and the constant threat of Ute justice leveled against trespassers gave even the most leather-skinned pioneers reason to steer clear. Did I mention this place is rugged? The earliest footpaths into the mining district were so steep in sections that prospectors, miners, and teamsters had to raise and lower their usually sure-footed burros over the passes with ropes wound around snubbing posts to slow the pack animals’ descent. Bones blanketed many of the ravines, and not just from burros and mules.

Despite these formidable obstacles, the region boomed. There was gold in the hills, at least a little, and silver, mountains of the stuff. Riches were there for the picking, shoveling, sorting, milling, transporting, smelting, and stamping into lots of pocket change. Back then, if Americans were good at anything it was resource extraction. Just ask the North Woods timber barons, the prairie buffalo hunters, market duck hunters, egret feather milliners, and the generation who rendered billions of passenger pigeons extinct. In a similar manner, the San Juans went boom and did what booms do. The bust in these parts was largely due to the 1893 Silver Purchase Act repeal. Another factor was logistical. After much of the easy silver had been gobbled up, what deposits remained were deeper and more difficult to extract.

Water, tons of it, posed one of the biggest hurdles to the San Juan miners. Many of the active mines in the 1890s and onward regularly flooded, and by regularly, I mean always. But it wasn’t so much the amount of water, but the kind of water—seepage so corrosive it destroyed iron pipes and pumps and drill bits in a matter of weeks, if not days. The water drowning these ore-rich shafts was so toxin-laced it snacked on metal. Imported wooden pipes, fashioned from western redwood wired together, remedied the plague somewhat. The pipes looked like peeled logs with long, skinny snakes coiled around their girth. Despite the rugged, nearly unscalable terrain, and despite the bitter, burying snows and avalanches, and despite market crashes and the economic toll associated with extracting these excellent mineral formations, it was toxic water that eventually broke the region’s ore fever.

Slowly but surely, mining corporations and magnates ceased production and abandoned the wealthy shafts and adits. One drive down The Million Dollar Highway, the gut-wringing stretch between the mining-towns-turned-tourist-havens of Ouray and Silverton, reveals everything else the miners abandoned: ghost towns, bunkhouses, rusted steam boilers, powderhouses, the skeletons of rotting churches, one-room cabins, and towering mine headframes. The sites are still littered with busted whiskey bottles (now legally protected from pillagers and plunderers), shattered tea saucers from Japan, twisted ore rails, toppled ore carts, rusted hinges, spikes, brackets, and tons and tons of sulfur-tinged waste rock, once hauled cart by cart from the earth’s gaseous bowels. These piles of rock are the discarded tailings that buried the ore from which some magnates made a killing and the miners themselves earned three dollars a day, true riches for an 1890s working man. Also abandoned in the mining exodus were mountains full of the foul water that helped drive the operations to their knees.

Back then it was a collective, generational decision to leave the water—to let it pool, fester, and build—just as it was a collective decision to “reserve” land for the Utes, slick the North Woods from Maine to Minnesota, and feast on delicacies like buffalo tongue, wild duck liver pate, and baby pigeons. This was how a free people behaved. And this is what seems buried in our current disaster, the notion that decisions collectively made in the name of freedom almost always have detrimental consequences for those who follow.

Today we’re stuck in the same pattern America found itself in following Appomattox. A hundred-and-fifty-years ago, feeling like the Civil War had decided its most pressing generational issue, our post-war nation staked its claim on the short term, come hell or high water. Our history has come full circle. Ever since the Cold War warmed and Afghanistan moved to page two, it seems we’ve tired of our generational responsibilities and collectively buried our focus in other distractions. I’m an offender, I admit it. I’ve scrambled up and down these slopes, where men once wielded picks and blasting caps to bore through quartz veins and pre-Cambrian granite, my eyes glued to my smartphone. It’s a wonderful research tool. Strangely enough, maybe perfectly enough, my smartphone requires just what the Old Timers flocking to the San Juans hoped to find: rare, precious metals. Today, instead of blasting holes in the Animas valleys or the Klondike, I give my cash to the Bolivians and Chinese to holler Fire in the hole! on my behalf.

In situations like the one we’re currently facing the hard truth of things is a precious commodity, and often the thing most hid. While this most recent display of our material lust actually occurred on Cement Creek, it’s the Animas River—The River of Souls—that’s been commanding headlines. This makes sense enough. Cement Creek tumbles down a sparsely settled valley north of Silverton, while the Animas parts the pasturelands of Hermosa and cuts through the heart of Durango, both more densely populated.

If my research and time spent bumbling around these hills and derelict camps—where a generation of men once wagered everything and won or lost, or just earned enough to pay the Chinese launderers and painted ladies on Blair Street—has taught me one thing, it’s that the San Juans are a far more complex place than meets the vacationing eye, however visually dramatic and stunning it might be. Where most eyes today see splendid massive peaks, long gone prospectors saw a packed treasure chest. Where the Utes once saw a sacred realm, jeeps and four-wheelers now see a wild playground. Where once-pristine streams babbled, now flows a big orange slug.

Even a closer look at the river’s name reveals something deeper and perhaps more meaningful. It’s thought the first Spaniards to ford the Animas actually dubbed it Rio de las Animas Perdidas, The River of Lost Souls. Truth be told, this early nomenclature is historically speculative, and today we just call it the Animas. But, it seems to me, this river of goo had finally lived up to its fuller appellation. Why? Because the raw color we saw last month wasn’t simply “mustard-colored.” The River of Lost Souls flowed like liquid Hell. Its color reflected a nation’s worth of short-sighted missteps. The hue was so riveting and sulfuric you could almost picture the Devil himself, dropping his towel and giddily flapping his arms, before landing one wicked bellyflop after another.

Jeff Snowbarger was featured in Tin House as their New Voice in Fiction, and Best American Short Stories 2010 declared his story “Bitter Fruit” one of the year’s notable publications. He is an Assistant Professor of fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. His novel in progress about the San Juan region is tentatively titled The Continental Spine.