Orion Blog

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.

 

Blog_SalishSeaTradingCooperative

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.

Simran Sethi on Her New Book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate

BreadWineChocolate_Sethi_CoverJournalist and educator Simran Sethi’s new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, is about the rich history—and uncertain future—of what we eat. It’s out today from HarperOne.

 

This is a book about food, but it’s really a book about love. It’s about that moment when you find yourself savoring something so wholly and intently you never want to let it go. I thought this love, at least in the culinary sense, could only be found in superlative places: a secret supper club in London, a hidden bistro in Paris or a roadside dhaba in Mumbai. But I know now the greatest love is found in humble places: in my morning coffee, in a morsel of bread or in a bite of chocolate. And that to pay closer attention to these ordinary pleasures isn’t just to see them anew but to experience them in a whole new way.

I had forgotten how to do this. I had forgotten how to be present to what was right in front of me, knowing only how to love what shouted for my attention. Until I realized I could lose them.

I spent the spring of 2012 researching this book in Rome, Italy, where the saying “When in Rome” took on a life of its own. When in Rome, start the day with un caffé e una sigaretta! When in Rome, mangia un gelato every afternoon! When in Rome, start drinking at five: In bocca al lupo!

Four months later, I returned to the United States chubby and tired, primed for a cleanse. And primed I was as I walked through San Francisco’s Embarcadero to the headquarters of chocolate maker TCHO (pronounced “cho”), basking in the virtuous glow of the no-sugar-no-dairy-no-gluten-no-alcohol-or-cigarettes-or-anything-that-could-be-construed-as-sinful cleanse I had started days before I was to interview the company’s head chocolate maker, Brad Kintzer.

I stepped into the chocoholics’ lair and asked for Brad. (If you ever eat a TCHO chocolate bar, you’ll find a photo of him smiling beatifically on the wrapper’s inner fold.) About five minutes later, he walked out, apologized for running late and requested another 15 minutes to finish his work. He invited me to order a cup of hot chocolate from the café to pass the time and sweeten the delay: “Order whatever you want.” I thanked him, waited until he left and ordered a cup of water. I was cleansing—and virtuous. So virtuous.

***

To be inside the original TCHO space (they have since moved) was akin to placing myself inside a Willy Wonka dream: Simi and the Chocolate Factory. Brad brought me into the conference room and explained they were putting the finishing touches on a new hazelnut bar. The room was heady with the aromas of nuts and chocolate; broken samples were scattered all over the conference table. “Help yourself,” he said. I smiled, beatifically. “I’m okay. Thanks.”

The 20-minute interview stretched to almost two hours. I was captivated by Brad’s story, his journey from a man who had started off studying the biology of sugar maples to now making award-winning chocolate. At one point, he described the moment he shared some of that chocolate with the farmers who’d grown the cacao—men who had never before tasted a finished chocolate bar—as “one of the most sacred moments in all my life.”

I was starting to regret my cleanse.

As we wrapped up the interview, Brad asked if I wanted to tour the factory. Of course. Willy Wonka was giving me a tour of his chocolate factory. Brad and I slipped on mesh hairnets, smooshed in orange earplugs and walked into the outer perimeter of the factory where bars are molded and hand wrapped. It was chilly; the area is kept below 66 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain the consistency of the chocolate. And it was loud; Brad shouted over slappers that hit chocolate bars out of their molds, plus cooling and packing machines that churned out roughly 5,000 TCHO bars per hour.

He then pushed through a thick plastic curtain and led me into the inner sanctum, a cozier 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The aroma of chocolate grew stronger as we approached the refiner, a machine that grinds and melts solid cakes of cocoa into a warm, gooey mass.

That’s where I nearly buckled.

As Brad explained the transformation of solid into liquid, I closed my eyes. The scent of chocolate was so overwhelming, my mouth started to water. “The fat in chocolate is solid at room temperature,” he said. I swallowed; I could taste the chocolate without tasting it. “Chocolate melts just below the temperature of our mouths.”

I caressed the refiner as if I were touching a lover. The drum was so warm, the smell so intoxicating. Brad was shocked. He stopped mid-sentence and asked if he could take a picture. I was still in my hairnet, covered in various shades of brown—brown skin, brown jacket, brown bag, brown boots—looking nearly post-orgasmic. I was embarrassed, but Brad understood. He smiled and said, “We’re born loving chocolate.”

***

He’s right. Chocolate has been my constant companion: every birthday cake, my wedding cake, the food that got me through my divorce. It, along with coffee and the occasional cigarette, has fueled every single page of this book. But despite this love, I had never thought deeply about where it came from, or where any of my favorite foods came from, beyond a fuzzy notion of “farmers in fields” and “workers in factories.” They were people whom I considered in the abstract but did not know.

Yes, I’m friendly with the farmers who sell me eggs and seasonal produce at my local farmers’ market, but most of the people who cultivate what I consider life staples (including chocolate and coffee) don’t even live on my continent. Despite my passion for food and agriculture, and my deep care for land and people, my relationships with the foods I love have been long but not deep.

I didn’t spend most mornings thinking of where my coffee came from.

I didn’t spend any mornings thinking about where my coffee came from.

Now I do.

Because coffee, chocolate, bread, wine—every food we care about—is under threat. While we debate GMOs and the merits of Paleo, while we count calories and queue for Cronuts, we’re losing the foundations of food. That’s what I learned when I traveled to Rome to research challenges in modern agriculture. Embedded in every conversation about feeding people, conserving natural resources and ensuring a healthy diet, both now and in the future, is the threat of the loss of agricultural biodiversity—the reduction of the diversity in everything that makes food and agriculture possible, a shift that is the direct result of our relationship with the world around us.

Once I learned about this, I knew I had to go to the places that hold the keys to the future of food. So I quit a job I couldn’t get fired from, sold my house, gave away my car and embarked on a journey to learn how we could save the tastes we love.

***

“Eating,” author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry says, “is an agricultural act.” Food connects us to all living things, and to the lineage of who we are and where we come from. It isn’t farmers in fields and workers in factories who bring us our food; it’s people like us. People who dedicate their lives to creating something that we take into our bodies. They transform nature into culture, as what they touch becomes part of us. This intimacy is astonishing and humbling.

We treat our food system as an abstract thing; however, it’s a dynamic entity made up of these relationships, ones I have come to fully appreciate through the journeys on these pages. But this isn’t where I started. The first wine I loved was a peach Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. The first coffee I tolerated—heavily diluted with half-and-half and sugar, and chased with a glazed doughnut—was at the world’s original Krispy Kreme. My favorite chocolate bars were Whatchamacallit, Twix and Nestlé Crunch—in that order. Until a year and a half ago, all I knew of coffee was that I preferred a cappuccino to a latte. But now I grill baristas about coffee origins, beg friends to bring back chocolate from various countries and quiz breweries about the source of their hops.

I am not trying to be precious. I have learned, by traveling to the places where some of our favorite foods and drinks began, that these foods are precious. I had no idea how hard it was to get a coffee bean from a forest in Ethiopia to my local café, or how much work and care went into making a premium bar of chocolate or a hearty loaf of bread. I had no idea how endangered the best, most delicious versions of these things are. This awareness is what makes them precious, and, meal by meal, makes my life better.

By helping you more deeply understand foods that are already a part of your life, and develop a sensory map for exploring new ones, this book will enable you to discover and appreciate flavors you may not have experienced. It will give you the tools to define your own deliciousness—and reach for more.

That’s been this journey’s greatest reward: finding a new appreciation for what I already loved. And understanding what it takes to sustain and save that love—in farms, on our plates and in life—lies in recognition that how we eat is a reflection of how we live. By sustaining agricultural biodiversity, we sustain ourselves.

“Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance,” Berry adds, “is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”

 

Simran Sethi’s short essay “Faith” appears in 30-Year Plan, an anthology of writing published on Orion’s thirtieth anniversary, describing thirty things we’ll need to build a better future on Earth.

The piece above is excerpted from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Copyright © 2015 by Simran Sethi. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers. Author photograph by Cem Ersavci for Dumbo Feather.