Not that 2020 needs to be any more terrifying, but this Halloween we asked Orion staff to name some of the eeriest, most skin-crawling articles from the past three decades of archives. From rabid bats to radical bicycle gangs and snake hallucinations, here are three staff favorites guaranteed to leave a mark.
“Send in the Clowns” by Marc Svenvold (January 2008) Bicycle nomads, Texas utopianism, and the post-petroleum era.
“Fear Itself” by Melanie Challenger (Spring 2018) The biological and cultural origins of being scared.
“The Rabies Principle” by Sandra Steingraber (Fall 2007) Why some health dangers inspire precaution—and some don’t.
This dispatch is a follow-up by author Amy Irvine, whose Autumn 2020 feature, “Close to the Bone,” travels from the Mongolian steppe to southwestern United States to contrast the ancient hungers of meat eating with the ethical entanglements of our modern diet.
IN FAR WESTERN MONGOLIA, near the Russian border, there is a dusty, dung-spotted hill covered in black-purple boulders. At a distance, the rocks look glowering and contused. Creep closer, though, and things are anything but grim. There’s the lattice of pumpkin-orange lichen. The tenderly displayed skulls of the local herdsmen’s most beloved animals, now deceased. And the crude etchings of creatures—the earliest of which hail from the last ice age—their hides taupe and gray where the dark patina has been gauged away. Creatures both wild and domestic, creatures found together more often than apart, and in motion far more than fixed.
The rocks are as static as anything on the planet. But looking at the rock art, one almost sways, so strong is the sense of movement. Into grass. Toward water. Away from predators. The frames of these beasts all carried on the hard gelatin of hooves.
I can’t stop looking, even as the sun bows out and a cold wind menaces. So many of the animals depicted here are now gone. Like the grass in the valley below, like the river that cuts through it.
Even the stones erode.
Every year of my childhood, as soon as school let out, our family loaded into a station wagon full of flannel-lined sleeping bags and a mildew-spotted canvas tent, along with a cooler and a box of Red Vines. Tucked between these items were the guns and fishing rods that my father used in the Tetons of Wyoming, where his brother, my uncle, was a National Park Service ranger for several decades’ worth of summers. My sister and I would roll around in the back with loose shotgun shells and lead fishing weights. We squealed in protest at the spilled foam cup out of which crawled the fish bait otherwise known as earthworms.
The first night, we’d set up the tent in front of my uncle’s cabin, which stood in the shadow of Teewinot Mountain. Then my dad would hustle my sister and me out to the edge of Lupine Meadows, where in waning lavender light he’d make us crouch in the sagebrush and wait.
Eyes peeled, we’d look for the animals that seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if from a dream. We got a nickel for each mule deer spotted. A dime for an elk cow but a quarter for the bull—I chafed at the disparity between these. At least we earned fifty cents for a moose of either sex. And if you saw a bear, or a mountain lion, well that earned you a whole dollar, plus all remaining licorice.
Alongside that meadow, I learned to sit and wait and sight in an imaginary rifle on these animals. I could spot even the most stealthy, the most camouflaged creatures—even at long range, in bad light. With the money I’d earn from this game, my father would take me to some tourist trap in Jackson, Wyoming, where I’d blow it on plastic tomahawks, factory-made moccasins, and more candy.
Along the way, my father taught me to think of the animals as both art and food, but never as not living. Never as less than the miracles that they were, still are, and will be when they are gone. And they are going. Two-thirds of the world’s wildlife has vanished in the last fifty years, which is to say they have vanished in my lifetime. My father, were he still alive, would be hard-pressed to believe it.
In Mongolia, sidewinding through the bruised and scattered boulders, I hunt for animal images. There are deer, elk, yak, and horses. There are ibex, too, which I find a pair of, nose to nose. They both have an impressive rack on their heads—tall, ribbed, and curved. Because the female ibex has much smaller, shorter horns, it’s obvious this isn’t about conventional courtship. My mind defaults then to the assumption that these are two male ibex, about to clash over turf or mates or harems, things the male sex of most species have always fought for. To the death.
But these ibex—they just don’t exude violence. Or maybe it’s my projection. After all, it’s the end of 2019. I’ll be returning to a U.S. that is darker and more divided than ever before—and who knew then, just how low we’d go in 2020. Suddenly, what I need is for the meeting of these two beasts to be about love. It can be a pair of gay males, or it can be a fond greeting between two brothers, or good friends. Maybe the smaller one is a female with extra testosterone, maybe he/she is transsexual. Any explanation is fine as long as the two animals look like they are making contact with kindness, in kinship. Not like they are about to butt each other off a cliff.
These are the only ibex I will see in Mongolia—although there were many just a few years ago. Every day, from the saddle atop my one-eyed, hardscrabble pony, I strain my eyes and scour ridgelines and rock faces, looking for sign.
What would my father give me now, to see just one? O
TO BETTER UNDERSTAND what makes a perfect Orion cover, we recently conducted a survey. After 1,200 readers weighed in, this is what we learned: There is no perfect Orion cover. Sure, the ten most beloved covers had some similar themes, but each one exuded its own genius, its own idiosyncratic tone and character, its own resonance. Every Orion cover has its own unique story to tell.
Our Behind the Cover series attempts to tell these stories. We reach out to the artists behind the images to learn more. For the Autumn 2020 issue, we called western Massachusetts-based visual artist and naturalist Shelley Lawrence Kirkwood, to learn more about the pear, the bite, and the patterned perforations.
Okay, everyone wants to know: How many pears did you go through to get this shot?
I went through so many pears it was tragic. Orion’s editorial team had given me a painting of a pear they were particularly drawn to, so I worked off that as my guide. I was obsessed with getting the perfect bite—it’s not as easy as you might think! Also, pears are definitely not cooperative as subjects; they oxidize and turn brown almost immediately and love to tip over at the last minute. By the end, I had a pear graveyard. My kids got a lot of the runoff from that shoot, and my chickens were definitely happy to polish off the rest.
Tell us about the perforated patterns on the pear? (Also, try and say that five times fast.)
So initially I did produce a number of straightforward pear images, but I wanted to go even deeper. I was thinking about making an image that would ride the line between reverence and destruction, which so often defines our relationship with the natural world. Sometimes that tension becomes quite literal and visible.
For example, there is this incredible tree at the top of a clearing where I live, and one day I noticed that someone had carved their initials into its trunk. It was at once both a nostalgic remembrance of relationship and a selfish act of destruction. I spontaneously recalled that tree while working on this cover and immediately grabbed a carving tool. My first carving was the classic arrow piercing a heart. It replicated that conflicted sentiment for me, so I continued to experiment with a number of other techniques, which is what you see on the cover.
Do you often use fruit and food as subjects for your work?
I’ve been working in food photography for many years. I actually started as a food columnist straight out of college—before it was a big thing—and then did it professionally for several years before returning to graduate school. I resumed many years later, and it’s definitely a passion of mine. My personal work is based in the landscape and in botanical still lives, so the assignment dovetailed these two aspects of my professional and creative life perfectly.
You say on your website that you are interested in viewing nature at close range, “removed from its original context.” What draws you to that sort of intentional, ecological displacement?
My work has always been more about the practice than the result. It comes with foraging on an almost daily basis. It involves a lot of time, a slowness that’s just not replicated anywhere else in my life. It allows me to consider my environment, my sense of awareness in a given time. It helps me process what otherwise becomes a jumbled mass of memories and feelings, to truly examine the landscape that constitutes my notion of home.
In recent years, I’ve found that paring down objects from the landscape takes that experience a step further. It’s not a political statement, but almost like a meditation, where you focus on one object as a means of bringing certain truths forward.
I also became interested in looking at objects that were dying or otherwise imperfect. Wabi-sabi. I didn’t use this as an ideological approach to my work, but I did stumble upon it after having made a shift in my practice. It was a real aha! moment when everything made sense. That was one of the bigger breakthroughs I have had in recent years.
Your cover image evokes so much more than words rarely do about abundance, about fecundity and its passing, a taste of the ephemeral, a life savored then composted and offered back to the land with open arms.
It was a gift to be offered such creative latitude with this project. The work was made in the middle of summer, at the height of the growing season here, when you can find the most exquisite produce. And the fact that I was able to go through that whole growth and decomposition process in real time as I worked on the cover and photo essay (included in the print issue) was quite immersive. Although the fruit fly problem was out of control! I do a lot of work with mushrooms in particular, so my family has grown accustomed to having piles around the house of organic objects in various states of decomposition.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been collecting flowers and plants from my garden and the meadows near my house. I’m making dyes with these plants and using them to color eggs I gather from my flock. I’m also waxing fall leaves as a means of preserving a moment in time. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of freezing time beyond the act of photography itself. The wax seems to freeze the leaves as if they were suspended in midair, mid-flight. It’s so much fun and I’m totally compelled by all the texture, color, and fragrance. I’m homeschooling my two kids, which probably explains why I’m doing a lot of DIY craft-type processes. Maybe I should do a kid crafts book for adults next!
In our November/December 2011 issue, author and naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote “Deep Intellect,” which investigated the inner life of the octopus. Since its publication this feature remains the most-read Orion article of all-time. On this World Octopus Day, we reached out to Sy for an update on her continued relationship with these eight-armed, three-hearted creatures, and how they might help guide us in this moment of tumult and uncertainty.
T HOUGH OCTOPUSES have eight arms, they don’t have shoulders. If they did, I would be standing on the shoulders of giants, Giant Pacific or otherwise.
They all have names, of course. Athena was the first. An elderly female Giant Pacific Octopus who lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Athena rocked my world from the moment I saw her dominant eye swivel in its socket and lock onto mine. She turned red with excitement, jetted to my side of her tank, and the next thing I knew her eight boneless, muscular arms, each clad in two hundred grasping, chemically sensitive suckers, came boiling up out of the forty-seven-degree water to meet me. I plunged my hands and arms into the water so she could begin tasting me. I petted her all over, and to my delight, she turned white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus. We became friends.
My octopus friends captivated the world. The book became an international bestseller and has been translated into thirteen languages. It inspired OctoNation, the world’s largest octopus fan club, which thanks to founder Warren Carlyle, boasts 200,000 members committed to protecting the oceans and its creatures. It helped prime readers to enjoy other wonderful works on octopuses and other cephalopods, including Other Minds by diver-philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, Squid Empire by invertebrate biologist Donna Staaf, and the splendid recent Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher.
Photo: Tianne Strombeck | Octavia tends to her eggs.
Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma’s distinct personalities, playfulnesss, and intelligence were irresistible. Readers of all ages have written to me about the experience of knowing them through these pages. Some said that reading the stories of these individual octopuses helped them through ill health, the loss of loved ones, or fear and depression. Young people said the book made them want to work in the field of marine biology. Other readers confided that connecting with these octopus minds expanded their own consciousness.
Even if someone has a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and breathes water and lacks bones, you can still find common ground.
She teaches an invaluable lesson: Even if someone has a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and breathes water and lacks bones, you can still find common ground. You can find treasured friends among those quite unlike yourself.
“When the student is ready,” goes the proverb, “the teacher will appear.” I’ve lived my life according to this promise, and found that many of my teachers have appeared far from any classroom—good news for children whose schools are closed due to COVID-19. The trick is to realize that these teachers are all around us. We only need to recognize them and listen to their truths. And sometimes, as Athena the octopus and her successors have showed me, teachers have three hearts, blue blood, no bones, and eight arms. O
Photo: David Scheel | The author with a wild female Octopus cyanea who she met on Moorea.
OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, for my storytelling initiative Climate Stories Project, I’ve had the privilege of listening to people from around the world share their personal stories about the climate crisis. J. Drew Lanham told me how climate change is pushing ecosystems of the South Carolina Piedmont “closer to the edge.” Clifford Paul spoke about how Mi’kmaq cultural knowledge is facilitating adaptation to shifting climate regimes in Cape Breton. Marybeth Holleman shared her love for the disappearing “glaciers she’s known” from Prince William Sound.
I’ve learned far more about climate change—what it feels, looks, and sounds like—through listening to people’s voices than I have from any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or climate documentary.
Recently, I asked writer and playwright Jessica Lind Peterson, whose haunting, dreamlike, and humorous piece “Strange Season” appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Orion, to record herself speaking about climate change in her home region. Peterson describes a deep sense of connection to her home place and expresses a palpable sense of solastalgia, homesickness for her local environment as it becomes increasingly unfamiliar.
The Counsel of Trees by Jason Davis. Jessica Lind Peterson, spoken voice.
My own connection to the climate crisis is rooted in my personal story and, circuitously, music. In high school, I obsessed about “making it” as a professional jazz bassist. I practiced eight hours a day and ignored everything else, to the detriment of my schoolwork and social life.
Finally, during my first year studying music in college, my ears decided they’d had enough—a high-pitched whine began to dominate my field of hearing and never went away. All of a sudden, my career goals and personal identity fell apart, as playing music and listening to everyday sounds became temporarily excruciating. In this fragile state, I realized that if my sense of self could so suddenly dissipate, maybe the seemingly sturdy world around me could crumble, too.
And it was crumbling.
During the sweltering summer of 1988, NASA climate scientist James Hansen first testified before the U.S. Senate about the pressing reality of the changing climate. That oppressive summer reflected in waves off the pavement in front of my childhood home—the first time in my life I felt that it was too hot outside. I realized that worse was to come.
That feeling is now a reliable but unwelcome companion during the summer months here in western Massachusetts, where I make my home. My discomfort is not just with the endless sweltering days, but with the unusual seasonal patterns in this most seasonal of climates. What happened to the barreling thunderstorms that would sweep away the stagnant air of late July? Now weak rains patter to the ground, or tropical deluges leave the air as sodden with moisture as before. It’s as if the drama has been sucked out of summer.
Of course, musicians and composers have long been inspired by the drama of changing seasons. Igor Stravinsky memorably described the inspiration for his groundbreaking 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring as his childhood memories of “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” Would Stravinsky have been similarly inspired by the unprecedented heat of the Russian spring and summer of 2010, which led to devastating fires across much of the country? Similarly, what would baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi make of the fitful seasons and searing heat that now afflict Italy, not to mention the acqua alta regularly inundating his home city of Venice? Would he have composed his 1725 masterpiece The Four Seasons had he been confronted with an off-kilter primavera, estate, autonno, and inverno?
Recognizing that nature is no longer the bucolic or dramatic setting it may have been for Vivaldi or Beethoven, contemporary musicians and composers are drawing upon the climate crisis as ground for musical creation. Musicians of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg, Germany, used an algorithm containing climate data to transform the original score of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The resulting work, For Seasons, is similar to Vivaldi’s original, but disturbingly distorted.
I was inspired to find a way to portray climate change through music after listening to composer Steve Reich’s harrowing piece Different Trains. He composed the piece around the recorded speech of a family caretaker and a Black porter who worked on the cross-country trains on which he traveled in his youth. He also integrated archival recordings of Holocaust survivors speaking about their traumatic experiences of being transported on “different trains” to concentration camps. Inspired by the emotional power of Reich’s piece, I decided to use a similar approach by recording people’s personal reflections of climate change in their home regions, and setting sections of their narratives to music.
In 2015, I visited Shishmaref, Alaska—an Inupiat community suffering from sea level rise, rapid loss of sea ice, and severe coastal erosion. While there, I guest-facilitated a small high school science class focusing on the climate crisis. I asked the students to record interviews with grandparents and other relatives who described their personal responses to the impacts of a changing climate on their home village. Shishmaref elder John Sinnok memorably described the impacts of the rapidly changing climate in sonic terms:
Back when I was young We have always had north wind All the time And we would have blizzards And cold north winds for a good month And it would be like that for a long time But after that The snow gets so cold That you could hear people walking outside You could hear their footsteps outside Nowadays, it doesn’t get that hard anymore where you can hear people walking past The snow doesn’t get that hard, dry anymore Like it used to
A recording of Sinnok’s words, including his haunting passage about how warming temperatures in Shishmaref have altered the sound of people walking on snow, became the core of my piece for solo acoustic bass, “Footsteps in Snow.” I composed the piece around the imagery of Sinnok’s evocative words, with a persistent bass ostinato evoking the sound of footsteps:
My latest piece, shared above, is “The Counsel of Trees,” which features Jessica Lind Peterson’s words about her love for northern forests, as well as her deep unease with the speed at which they are changing. She describes how she left her house in the Twin Cities at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to settle with her family into a trailer on a lake in the woods of northern Minnesota, an area where she spent her childhood summers.
Based on my own disorientation with the warping of New England seasons, I related to Peterson’s reflection on the increasingly discordant seasons of northern Minnesota:
There’s a weird edge to each season that feels unfamiliar. Lakes freeze later, and thaw earlier, birds fly back sooner. Instead of steady rainfall in the spring and summer, we are seeing fewer, more devastating storms.
I also connected with her discordant mix of emotions about personal responsibility and the shameful lack of action by political leaders:
After all the harm we have done, I have a hard time being optimistic. I feel responsible and sad, and anxious for the future. It doesn’t seem that our leaders care that we are killing the very planet that sustains us. I don’t know what could be more important than saving it.
I tried to capture some of this discordancy using an off-center harmonic language and musical texture—my goal was to translate Peterson’s words into music, which brings out the murky substrate of her narrative.
This is what I know: Personal stories expressed through the human voice are music, and something essential is lost when those stories are transcribed solely into writing. I also know that first-person testimonies about the climate crisis are much more than vignettes to be pressed into service for political campaigning. My hope is that by creating this climate narrative music, I can inspire listeners to tap into and share their powerful, touching, and musical stories. O