EARLY THIS YEAR, Orion lost a bright light, founding member, and key figure: Aina Niemela Barten.
After a successful early career on stage and screen including television, a starring role in Hollywood, and a world tour for the U.S. State Department with the inimitable Helen Hayes, Aina turned her love for words into a new career.
It was the 1970s, when Aina, along with her husband, David Barten, and friend Robin Dulaney, noticed the era’s boom in environmental literature, and together created a newsletter that reviewed those books. Orion Nature Book Review launched in 1979 and the community of writers that she cultivated through it set the stage for Orion Nature Quarterly, which debuted in 1982 and eventually became Orion. Aina served as its managing editor until 1992 when she transitioned to editing features to give her more time at home in her beloved home of Conway, Massachusetts, before retiring in 2007.
As her near-town neighbor and Orion’s outreach coordinator from the early 2000s onward, I enjoyed Aina’s company during countless carpool rides through the wooded hills of western Massachusetts to the Great Barrington office. Here she shared the organization’s lore and guided me through writing my regular column on grassroots activism. Sometimes we discussed our other loves like gardening and wildflowers, or how she played the violin.
The list of writers Aina worked with is a who’s who of American environmental writing. A gifted editor and proud Finn who embodied that culture’s concept of sisu— a term that adorned a sticker on her car’s bumper and translates as something like “endurance in the face of long odds”— she always brought the best out of writers, no matter how famous or stubborn, with her characteristic determination, patience, and cheer. Her relationship with writers was not about merely correcting copy or forcing change but was rather a collaboration, one that brought forward the best possible writing for readers’ enjoyment and understanding. A mentor to many editors over the years, the whole editorial team absorbed her sense of what makes a good Orion article, which became a cornerstone of her legacy. She was known by all for her incredible kindness. After an extended illness, she passed peacefully in her sleep. She will be greatly missed by the entire Orion community and a huge extended family of friends.
Sometime soon, when you find yourself in a favorite place, sprouting seeds for spring, watching a busy birdfeeder, or leafing through the pages of Orion, whisper a word of thanks to Aina Barten, for her vision and her example. Remember her with the return of wildflowers. The early-to-bloom marsh marigold was always one of her favorites, so bright and cheery among the stubborn last snowdrifts, and I delighted in alerting her each year when they first appeared near my home. I know I’ll be watching for their return with extra attention this year.
We welcome you to share any memories of Aina in the comments below.
Erik Hoffner is a freelance photojournalist and an editor for the award-winning environmental news service Mongabay.com. Find his work via erikhoffner.com or on social media via @erikhoffner.
In honor of Aina, we’d like to share the Autumn 1999 issue essay “Plate Tectonics” (PDF) from our archives with an introduction by its author, frequent Orion contributor BK Loren:
For me, it’s hard to separate Aina from the landscape of New England—how, as a Westerner, I was so astonished to see the tapestry of bare November trees heavy with red apples dusted with snow, a quiet and delicate beauty, something numinous about it. I’d never been to New England before, but I had come to meet Aina, who after years of study, finally taught me to write. Though I’d worked on “Plate Tectonics” for months, it was an utter mess before Aina touched it. But she knew what the essay could be and she let it become exactly that, not by telling me what to do, but through peeling back my writerly ego and getting to the core. Not one word falls from my heart/mind to the page these days without Aina’s fingerprints on it, without her intelligence and spirit imbuing it. She was so generous; I know there are authors everywhere whose words grace the page today on wings borrowed from Aina. Her life, her generosity, her quiet and delicate beauty will truly live on through the work and words of so many.
BK Loren is the award-winning author of the novel Theft, and the essay collection Animal, Mineral, Radical. Her short fiction and essays have garnered many national awards and have been published in The Best Spiritual Writing Anthologies, Parabola, Yoga International, Orion, and elsewhere.
I am a bit of a late comer to Orion. I’m 64 living in my desert home base of Terlingua, Tx. Barry Lopez brought me to Orion and his recent death inspired me to subscribe as a show of support for one of his connection to his world. It has been a delightful experience. Aina was thought of today as I spotted some of our big bend bluebonnets that are all ready over 12″ tall in the 2nd week of January! Clearly she will be missed. My thoughts go out to all those that loved this women as well. Hard to believe that spring comes to Terlingua during our coldest month of the year. I yrs ago lived for 2 years in Amenia, NY and Sharon, CT. Worked outside for 2 tough winters as a carpenter. Lovely part of the world for sure.
Hello, im only now so late learning of Orion …compliments of Florence Caplow who offers study groups at a
Zen Center in New Mexico. Immediately upon seeing Aina’s photo and reading about her passing and hearing all the love she engendered and gave birth to with her kindness, and intelligence and guidence ,In my 80s now my heart only craves to hear the earth and the animals and Owls and wolves, the poets and writers of the earth, Thank you for slaking my thirst.
I also sent my best friend of fifty years a subscription for her birthday. A Deep Bow to you all
I worked with Aina for 6 years from 1996-2002 while at Orion. I’m sad to learn of her passing but thankful for the flood of memories. I was lucky to sit in on the Orion editorial meetings during that time and watch Aina work her subtle magic. She was one of the most poised and thoughtful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Such a light touch and such authority of being. In Orion, among other things, she’s leaving a beautiful legacy. Sending love to all her close friends and family.
She edited my first three features for Orion. Talking on the phone, bouncing emails back and forth, I became quite fond of her, and I suspect she felt the same. She brough out the best in my work.
I had not heard of Orion before Aina contacted me in 1986, asking if I would consider writing an an essay about how children experience nature in cities. As it happened, I was at MIT that year, and my family was living in Boston, so I had a cityscape to draw on and an eight-year-old inquisitive son to roam around with. With gracious guidance from Aina, I wrote about those rambles in what became “Tokens of Mystery,” the first of some two dozen pieces, mostly essays, that I would eventually contribute to this vital, irreplaceable magazine. In all my dealings with Aina, she radiated intelligence, high spirits, and concern for others. She was a kind soul, through and through. I cherish her memory, and I celebrate her work in that founding generation at Orion, alongside the work of George Russell, Marion Gilliam, and Chris Nye. Visionaries, all of them.
Aina nurtured me as an editorial intern and assistant from 2003-2005. I remember attending Orion editorial board meetings, with Peter Sauer’s dog under the table, orders of sandwiches, and cover image debates. Aina would listen intently, hands folded on the table as they are here, in the photo you shared of her, eyes intently and softly following language around the room. While everyone was voicing their advocacy, making counter arguments, or facilitating discussion of what makes an environmental magazine, Aina would listen. Once there was little left to say, Aina would speak, integrating the vastly different perspectives into easy alignment, gathering together all of the pieces we insisted were separate, like a wild bouquet, and eloquently bringing us all down to earth. There are so many moments in my professional and personal life where I remind myself of Aina’s quiet, distilling power, its momentum and direction, as a call to listen, and to add when it is summative to do so. She lent me her trust, which I hadn’t earned, to venture bravely into words, ideas, and worlds with patience. It was as if she knew the future and found that her role was to help bring it alive. I feel shaped by her like a river shapes its banks, slowly and forever.
Very sorry to learn of Aina’s passing. Aina’s grace — as a woman, as an editor — is certainly her legacy. I had the good fortune to know her and work with her in the late 1980s when I worked at Conservation International and the organization had an association with Orion. No editor since has offered more incisive or supportive guidance to my own writing. I will miss Aina.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write an article for Orion in the late 90s. Aina was my editor which meant she poured herself into helping me to write a decent piece. I remember her attentiveness, thoughtfulness and persistence. As we saw in the Jewish tradition, ‘May her memory be a blessing.’
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