Orion Staff Recommends: What We’re Reading, Watching, and Doing Lately

Make, Do, and See



Merlin Bird ID App

My elderly dog, Boston, can no longer manage long hikes, so I’ve been taking shorter and more frequent strolls around my suburban neighborhood. To make the repetitive trips more stimulating for me, I’ve decided to use them to improve my notoriously bad birding skills with the help of Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app. Although I could decipher a mourning dove from a blue jay’s call, I may finally learn the difference between American goldfinch and a house sparrow. I think. —Tracie Butler-Kurth, Philanthropic Stategist



Thörn Alexander Needlepoint

Shortly before the pandemic started, I took up needlepoint in an effort to feel more calm and centered. It quickly became my go-to after a hectic day or when I needed to keep my hands busy. The needlepoint industry has had a youthful resurgence over the past few years, and one artist I keep going back to is Thörn Alexander. Inspired by the natural world, Thörn Alexander creates beautiful hand-painted canvases using sustainable materials and soothing colors. When I stitch a canvas from Thörn Alexander, I not only feel connected to the generations of women in my family who also did needlework, but also to the remarkable ecosystems around me. The first canvas I stitched was for my son’s room, and it embodied the excitement and spirit of the West. My most recent purchase was a canvas inspired by Vancouver Island’s blue herons. Stitching these pieces not only floods me with my own travel memories, but they also induce in me a type of meditative state where I reflect on nature and all of its beautiful intricacies. Nicole Perry, Digital Editorial Intern (Photo credit: Thörn Alexander)



Jazzing Up the Garden

This is my first summer growing tomatoes, and as it turns out, the neighborhood birds love those juicy fruits as much as I do. A gardening friend told me that, to deter hungry birds, I should hang bright red ornaments on the tomato plants, the idea being, I guess, that the birds would learn to associate bright red things with hard, inedible glass instead of soft, delicious tomatoes—and eventually stop trying to eat them. I put this theory to the test, and it failed. Miserably. There are more birds in the tomatoes than ever. But there are plenty of tomatoes to go around, the ornaments make my yard look very festive, and my feathered friends seem to appreciate how the new decor jazzes up their favorite lunch spot. Highly recommend.Amy Brady, Executive Director



Getting Back in the Saddle

“‘I don’t like people,’ said Velvet. . . . ‘I only like horses.’” 

Enid Bagnold

 Our first summer of the pandemic I signed my kids up for horseback riding lessons. Group sports were canceled, and all the pools were closed. But it’s easy to stay more than six feet away from someone when you’re in a saddle. Week after week, our anxieties were banished by the thickly lashed, liquid eyes of any of the horses we got to know. 

The decision to spend regular hours at the barn was also partly selfish. I love horses. As a kid, I was obsessed, and this obsession began with books. I devoured them all: every thin paperback in Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, and National Velvet, to name just a few. I was also lucky, relentless, and had indulgent parents. The horse stories I read eventually became new ones I experienced. “When Allah created the horse, he said to the wind, ‘I will that a creature proceed from thee. Condense thyself!’ And the wind condensed itself, and the result was the horse,” wrote Marguerite Henry. I rode that wind through the existential crises of growing up, all the way until I left home for college. 

By the second year of the pandemic, I had abandoned the vicarious entertainment of watching my kids ride and joined them for lessons. Riding again has been both like getting back on a bicycle (one never forgets) and humbling (there are profound differences between teenaged and middled-aged bodies). But mostly it has been an exercise in survival, a remedy to doom-scrolling and helplessness. Sometimes a lost technique returns, and for a blissful instant my mind clears, fixes on the precise movement I’m sharing with another creature. Hours later at home, the serotonin is still peaking, and then peaks again with childhood reveries, where, like Farley’s character Alec, I’m stranded on a desert island with a coal-black Arabian stallion, or like Velvet, I win a piebald in a lottery and take England’s Grand National. —Tara Rae Miner, Editorial Production Manager




I recommend attending a singalong of Handel’s Messiah . . . on a hot Sunday afternoon in late June. Indeed, so thatas the conductor of one such gathering explained about having chosen that piece for the first casual Summer Sing of the season—extracted from its familiar Christmastime context, a refreshed appreciation for the magnificence of the music might be enjoyed. But mostly for the experience of riding a tree-lined bike path home afterward with revitalized exuberance: clouds sweeping gauzy across the bright sky overhead, the scent of early summer wafting from adjoining fields and tufts of flora along the way, and the Amen chorus reverberating as a secret, silent soundtrack in time with the hum of the bicycle pedals.  —Ananda Bagiackas, Customer Service Specialist



Ceramics for Dummies

I will admit that I have been doing anything to avoid consuming content lately; the moment the workday ends, the computer is shut and I get to cracking the world open. Such avoidance recently led me to the halls of my local art school for a “continuing studies” program: a hand-building ceramics class. Each Monday, I plop onto a rickety stool and take the next three hours to knead, bend, carve, glaze, and fire red clay. Despite hours of practice, I’m nowhere closer to being better than when I started, and I have the weird-looking terra-cotta charcuterie plate to prove it. This recommendation is therefore for perfectionists only: Consider the creative pursuit you want to master, try it, and discover the humble glory in mediocrity. It’s a place where your brain might finally be able to relax. —Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, Digital Strategist



Decipher Fireflies

On muggy nights where bog prairie and ponds exhale over hardwoods hedged in tall grass and sedge, Lampyridae glow. A year or two belowground, young glowworms (or lightning bugs, or fireflies—all the same) dine by lantern on slugs, snails, and grubs hidden underfoot in soil and clustered root. Only their own light by which to grow. After too much dark myself, when ephemeral semaphores began glowworming Morse in mid-June, I found myself immersed in a language of dashes and darts, flash codes. Not synchronous like those of the Smokies, these beetles are probably common Big Dipper fireflies, just one of 2,000-some bioluminescent beetle species known globally. They emerged seemingly born of dew and lightning, with elytra like a breeze following rain and an abdomen flickering aurora. They pulse as campfire sparks with no ember, like sky lanterns holding prayers for love gone or love to come. While earthbound females sparkle and glisten in grass, males orbit in meteoric strobe—light-painting a ladle, signaling desire to form new constellations, the yard a glinting galaxy of tiny universes birthing stars. Too soon, eggs laid, their lights will wink out, adult beetles fleeting—a couple weeks, month or two at best. With time yet, I recommend finding a dark space near open water and meadow to behold the skywriters tracing poesy in summer’s vapors, to decipher their sticky sweet nothings, their blinking reminders that we are meant to shine in our short time.

Those not in firefly country might check out footage online—Radim Schreiber’s fireflyexperience.org offers beautiful videography. —Heather McElwain, Copyeditor





The Work of Svetlana Alexievich

When selecting my personal reading, I am often motivated by an internal need to bear witness. Undoubtedly this leads to some dark reading, the kind that requires pausing to stare at the wall—nothing we’d call summer beach reading—but it does help lend perspective to ominous times. Recently, I’ve been hooked on the work of Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings” around World War II, the Chernobyl disaster, and the fall of the Soviet Union, which the Nobel Committee called “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Reading these works, I am often left pondering the function and necessity of collective testimonies, truths of a time told in depth, in chorus.

A few weeks ago, I finished Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II. Fun, right? It had what her other books have in spades—heroism, atrocity, unfathomable trauma, resilience. It was just as emotionally pummeling as you’d expect, especially reading it while my young children slept in the next room. But one thing that I was continually struck by was how the natural world factored into so many narratives, how the outside world is suddenly home when all the buildings around you have burned to the ground. Everyone remembered what the sky looked like the day the bombings started. “Do you know how beautiful a morning at war can be?” They spoke of the smell of linden trees blooming, of watching birds, of grazing grass, eating bark and larch needles and every leaf in the park, just to stay alive. They spoke of foraged mushrooms, rare eggs collected in hats, a fist of tiny new potatoes freely given, and buying oil-soaked dirt to eat. They spoke of nature as something to be tasted, to be eaten, but also how the appreciation of it, of beauty, kept their humanity intact under unbearable circumstances. Again and again, when danger came, they ran toward the trees, into the wood, where the unknown was less cruel than what they fled.  —Kathleen Yale, Special Project Editor



Time to Think by Nancy Kline

This book has been a touchstone for me over and over again since I was in grad school. Nancy Kline has developed a beautiful system to create environments that encourage creative and productive thinking in a world where we often only solicit the “best” ideas.

One could assume that we all know how to think, and how to think together, but I have often found that many of us are frightened to think for ourselves, or to share our deeper thoughts with others especially when they are dissenting. We are often rushed through thinking and not given space or time to really dig into, and share, the insights that we have within ourselves. In Time to Think, Kline offers a collection of components that she says are essential for a healthy thinking environment, a guide to help structure thinking sessions that ensure a sense of invitation and appreciation for people to bring their whole selves to the table, and the space and time to think through the assumptions that are creating blockages in their work and progress.

She invites us to change the way we interact with each other and the world by giving ourselves the freedom to think deeply and fully about what lies before us. I have found both her philosophy and the way that she shares it through her own personal and professional experiences to be heartening and uplifting in a world that focuses so much on achievement, urgency, and efficiency. As we continue to face challenge after challenge with what can often feel like our very humanity at stake, I think we could all use a bit more space and time to think. Donovan Arthen, Director of Finance and Operations


Ognosia” by Olga Tokarczuk 

Maybe it’s the pandemic stress finally getting to me, or the looming threat of a midlife crisis. Maybe I’m feeling unusually vulnerable in the never-ending stream of collective Kafkaesque misery that makes up my Twitter feed—the ineffectual shouting, ineffectual grieving, the dispiriting lack of effect. Whatever the reason, I found a bit of meaning and renewal in “Ognosia,” Olga Tokarczuk’s long, meandering, esoteric meditation on the pleasures of the incomplete map. Not usually what I’d seek out on a warm evening after a long day of work, the essay mesmerized me into its rhythmic call for an uncharted future. We are a species lured by the spirit of adventure, she argues, and we’re only just beginning to appreciate the unnaturalness of having mapped the world so exhaustively so quickly. Favoring the eccentrics—those who abandon the centric point of view—Tokarczuk looks beyond the existing map for adventure. “I would like for us to give ourselves the right to create new stories, new concepts, and new words,” she writes, putting a name to a dream that perhaps others besides me might lately have dreamed. Sumanth Prabhaker, Editor in Chief


“A Family Supper,” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Fugu, or puffer fish, is a delicacy in Japan, and it is more poisonous than cyanide. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “A Family Supper,” the narrator, a young Japanese man, sits down to dinner with his family for the first time in years. The story unfolds, revealing the mother’s death by fugu and a deep loneliness that seems to have penetrated both father and son. While reading, my mind repeatedly returned to the fish and the poison ready to seep through its veins at the slightest mistake in preparation and how in eating—with friends, in a restaurant, alone, or with family—we are perhaps, if not prepared to die, prepared to recognize death’s presence in the moment of tasting, and to think more fully about life. —Remie Arena, Digital Intern




Feral Atlas

For a new perspective on environmental change, I recommend exploring Stanford University’s Feral Atlas. The Atlas, which is perhaps best described as a digital natural history museum, recognizes that the Anthropocene defies easy explanations. Instead, it tackles our era’s tangled web of capitalism, colonialism, globalization, and environmental change with artwork and analysis that reflect the complexity of the topic at hand. At the entry point of the Atlas, visitors select illustrated icons organized by theme (invasion, empire, capital, or acceleration) and enter a series of digitally rendered landscapes, each filled with clickable portals to short documentaries, poems, and field reports on driving forces of today’s natural and unnatural world. The project is a collaboration by several noted environmental scholars, including Orion contributor Anna Tsing, and features work by a bevy of scholars and artists—among them other names that will be familiar to loyal Orion readers. A warning: The Atlas can be difficult to navigate to the point of frustration—even seasoned digital explorers may find themselves wishing it were slightly more intuitively organized. But at the same time, its immense, overlapping mode of storytelling matches our moment, and a simpler approach would fail to serve as a useful framework for exploring anthropogenic change. This digital treasure is characteristically hard to blurb in just one paragraph, so please, just check it out—you’ll be glad you did. Ruby Rorty, Editorial Intern

This is a collection of Orion Staff contributions.