Orion Blog

The Five Most Terrifying Orion Stories This Halloween

This Halloween we asked Orion staff to identify some of the most skin-crawling Orion articles from the past four decades. From rabid bats to radical bicycle gangs and snake hallucinations, here are five staff favorites guaranteed to leave a mark.

 

 

Nuin by Max Porter (Autumn 2021)
We aren’t pretty pictures, we’re not even trees, we’re deep time survivors with complex needs.

 

 

Swimming with Crocodiles by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and Nils Bubandt (Spring 2020)
Nature is avenged by a prehistoric animal.

 

 

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.

 

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Your Own Particular Soil: A Conversation with Janisse Ray About Wild Spectacle

ALOVER TAKES NOTHING FOR GRANTED. A lover explores, wanders, takes delight in nuance. Says, viva la difference. A lover listens, savors, is patient. Janisse Ray is a writer in love with place and places. I see this in her newest book, her eighth, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans (Trinity University Press, October 2021). These essays roam from Montana’s Yaak River Valley to the Nicoya Peninsula, Vermilion Cliffs to the Blue Hole, Bryce Canyon to Apalachicola Bay, with Ray as the readers’ ever-present guide.

The risk in approaching the world this way, right now, is that you keep getting your heart broken. Eastern hemlocks, killed by hemlock woolly adelgids, lay fallen in the river beside my campsite last night. Smoke from forest fires in California, three thousand miles away, darkened the Appalachian sky.

Some years ago, I hiked through a mixed hardwood forest alongside Little Brier Brook, to reach the cabin of the Walker sisters, in what people used to call Seven Sisters Cove. It’s now part of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These sisters were born in that cabin and lived there until they died, the last one, Louisa, in 1964. They were rooted there.

One day in April, I stood in the Walker cabin, dim light gloaming in through the windows, and I read the walls. They would use the pages of Successful Farming magazine to paper the walls afresh every springtime. One fragment spoke of “Your Own Particular Soil.” It had to do with planting seeds you knew would prosper in your plot of land, given your sun exposure and typical rainfall, heat and cold.

If you approach the world from a dwelling place of love, if you carry, as Ray does, a little of your own particular soil with you wherever you go, then you will see your home everywhere. This isn’t always a good thing. It will make you more homesick. It will open your heart to more grief. But you will also know, in a deep way, that every place is someone’s beloved. Bright bald of granite. Copse of chestnut oak. Moss and liverwort greening a boulder in the Middle Saluda River. I give myself away.

One summer evening, Ray and I met to talk about food, music, and love: life’s whole wild spectacle.

We start with one of my favorite topics: Which South Carolina tree are you? I’ll find out Janisse’s in three questions . . .

 

Joni: First, tell me about a song you love.

Janisse: “Harvest Moon,” by Neil Young. I love its moody flavor, dark and pensive. And I just love the sound of the broom sweeping back and forth.

Joni: Okay, second, tell me about a cherished possession.

Janisse: A worktable my grandfather built out of cypress wood.

Joni: And third—this one is simple, but not easy—sun or shade?

Janisse: Sun.

Joni: Your tree, dear Janisse, is the bald cypress. One of our two native deciduous gymnosperms, and a tree of light green needles (later rusty) that loves places of dark water. When it drops its needles, it lets in the light.

 

Bald Cypress Tree

 

Joni: Tell me about kilometer zero in Wild Spectacle. What I mean is, point me to the place where the book began for you, its spark, its germination.

Janisse: It began with a hike Raven, my husband, and I took in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. Somehow we managed to get very close to an entire herd of elk, or actually they got close to us.

Joni: I love that moment in the book: “We were so invisible we were two spirits, crouched by a stream.” And the way in which you describe the elk is so vivid:

An elk has a shape unlike most ungulates. It has no tail to speak of. Its head and neck are like that of a small horse, its body like a zebra’s. It has a long head and a dark neck. Its hide is a richness of browns and reds and tans, moving like prairie grass in wind. Elk hair looks not like watercolors mingled, but like oils. An elk’s body has the wet richness of an oil painting.”

Janisse: I realized how often I write about those moments, when you get to the edge of this great big wildness and you get to peep in, but you can’t enter it, not yet. There’s a borderland between this world and that world. Almost everything I write is running that borderland.

Joni: Have a favorite (nonhuman) living thing?

Janisse: Right away manatee leaped into my head. Then cypress. Then soil. Earth itself. But if this is a stranded-on-a-desert-island kind of question, I’ll choose a horse.

Joni: Tell me about a particularly memorable drink of water you have had.

Janisse: We’ve lost so many things with industrialization, and one of them is a good, safe, quenching drink of water right out of the bowels of the earth. Finding this is getting  harder and harder. I know a spring-fed fountain beside a mountain road in Vermont—someone built a gorgeous stone basin for it. And I know an artesian well (one of the last) on a Georgia beach. Other than those, I don’t dare drink from creeks or springs. So anything that bubbles out of the earth that I can drink, I remember.

Joni: Desert or swamp?

Janisse: I’m going to say desert, because I’m in swamp all the time. And when I’m not in swamp, I’m swamped.

Joni: I love the way you write about the Okefenokee in this book. It’s the literal place, and it is also mythic. When you must save your son’s friend Zack from being poisoned, you paddle him out of the swamp as he lies in the back of his boat between life and death, and you write:

I became something more than I’d ever been as I rowed Zack out of the primordial gunk. As I fought, I also birthed. I birthed Zack and I birthed myself. I birthed too the power of any woman to not be afraid, to not let the fear of death stop her from doing what was needed, to fight for life.

We women forget that most of the time we are warriors fighting for life—to birth it, to protect it, to care for it, to honor it, to continue it. As humans, as women, that’s the biggest job we do.”

I love that passage. It’s one of many that shimmers in my mind when I think about the book.

Joni: Winter or summer?

Janisse: This is a lot coming from someone local to the subtropics, but summer.

Joni: I get that. I would always rather be hot than cold. What is the best time of day?

Janisse: Six a.m. And it’s especially good if the sky is blowing up with pink and gold.

Joni: Something you lost that you miss.

Janisse: A chance to live on a hippie commune.

Joni: Tell me about a surprising item in your fanny pack.

Janisse: Lipstick. I know all the arguments against makeup—feminism and health and piety (the one my dad used)—but I do love it.

Joni: What shade?

Janisse: Iced iris.

Joni: Tasty! Okay. You get one writer to read for the rest of your life. Who is it?

Janisse: You ask such tough questions. Is it unfair to ask for Shakespeare to be mine? (Mostly because I have avoided reading him, because I’m always reading everybody else. So Shakespeare, for better or worse.)

Joni: You’re going to a “meat and three.” For readers unfamiliar with the term, a meat and three is a genre of restaurant popular in the South, usually with a changing list of options: a couple of featured mains (e.g., fried chicken, meatloaf) and a series of sides (macaroni and cheese, pinto beans, tossed salad, banana pudding). What do you order?

Janisse: You have presented a daily quandary. What do I eat? I’ve been vegetarian, vegan raw foodist, paleo, GAPS.

Joni: GAPS?

Janisse: Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It’s a kind of ultra-paleo diet that utilizes a lot of bone broth, fermented foods, and vegetables. It is meant to heal the gut–brain connection and has been found to be effective in the treatment of some mental health disorders.

I think I’m finally at a happy place with food. At your diner, I’m probably not going to be able to order a meat, because I try not to eat industrial meat. We grow at least half our own food, maybe more, including meat. So let me put in an order at home. I’ll take tenderloin, rosemary mashed potatoes, sautéed garlic scapes, and a salad with whatever’s in the garden. Salad snobs think there’s a certain way to do a salad, but I believe you take a bowl to the garden and you throw in it whatever you can find, the more variety the better. Joni, can I order dessert, too?

Joni: Of course you can.

Janisse: Pavlova, with raspberries and strawberries.

Joni: I’m thinking now about your essay, “The Dinner Party,” which took place in Sitka, Alaska. About huckleberry cobbler and herring eggs on kelp, king crab, black cod collars, and halibut cheeks. You write:

If we eat from a place, don’t we become the place? Isn’t eating a direct way of filling ourselves with a place we love, of making it a part of us, of becoming it? If we eat wild food, can’t we become wild? Can’t wild food get us closer to the heart of wildness?

There is hope in that, too, in the food given and shared with community. You write, “After that, I trusted the world more. I had seen what I had seen. If wild plenitude still existed somewhere, then it was not a myth, and it could exist anywhere, again.”

Do you still believe that?

Janisse: I believe that there are places that still offer greater nourishment than others, and this is a factor of wildness or wholeness, meaning less fragmentation. I also know that atmospheric threats like glyphosate, climate disasters, and nitrogen from fertilizers are ubiquitous, and that no corner of the earth is left untouched by them.

Joni: One of my favorite moments in the book involves your description of a compelling, complex man, and the place in which your lives intersect—the wild Pacific coast of Costa Rica:

“‘My god,’ he yelled into the heavens. ‘My god.’ He whirled toward me. ‘This is my god.’ Suddenly he went down onto his bare knees in the brown sand, kneeling in frothing surf, long hair clinging to him like bark. ‘This is my religion,’ he said.”

Is it too much to ask you about what you see as your connection to the spiritual world?

Janisse: I believe that another world exists inside the one in which we live, and it is mostly invisible to us. But it’s there. And I no longer think that death is a dead end.

Joni: I’m thinking now about your manatee essay, and about your Okefenokee essay, too. If you love something, whether manatee or boy or little spiders in a Mississippi cemetery, you fight to protect it. It gets back to love.

Last question: What do you want people to remember about you as a writer (in five words)?

Janisse: I am not joking around.

 

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Fifteen Poetry Recommendations for National Disability Employment Awareness Month

ORION‘s poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends are back with another suite of poetry recommendations we’re excited to share for October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

In this gathering of books you will find important work from an expansive group of poets. Some are well-known voices in disability poetics, while others don’t consider their diagnosed conditions to be disabling on most or perhaps any days. Some live with invisible or hidden disabilities—autoimmune conditions, chronic depression, epilepsy—while others live with reproductive health issues, or varying degrees of neurodivergence. You will also find poets who are family members or caretakers of members of the disability community, poets who don’t use the word “disabled” to describe themselves, and poets who claim crip labels.

The following recommendations are less interested in these writers’ diagnoses and far more interested in the ways the poets’ writing can help us all connect more fully and completely with the planet on which we all live.

 

Camille Dungy Recommends:

 

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Gut Botany by Petra Kuppers


In work by Petra Kuppers there are always revelations and revolutions, and this is certainly true of the poems included in Gut Botany. Kuppers is interested in the ways the unstable language of “poetry provides a site to explore crip experience” (see Kuppers’s 2007 article “Performing determinism: Disability culture poetry), and also how the unstable language of poetry reveals the human role in ecological violence as well as potential environmental renewal. As has been the case in so much of Kuppers’s work, the poems in Gut Botany beg questions about culturally enforced binaries of all kinds. Kuppers moves beyond the limits of what separates the human body from the fish’s or the lake’s or the dinosaur’s, the female body from the male, the “disabled” body from the “able” body, a settler’s body from an Indigenous one, and more and more. Kuppers’s writing is additive, even multiplicative, rather than subtractive or divisive. The book explores myriad forms violence, but also makes room for bodies touching other bodies in wonder and in love. (Wayne State University Press)

 

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Another Last Day by Alex Lemmon


I wonder how many poetry book reviews use the words “liminal space” to describe the zone of wonder and horror good books can exist within. This book exists in such a liminal space. A space between the body and the mind, not quite fully in either, between sickness and health, care and destruction. The word “liminal” points to a threshold, where a body may as likely enter as exit. Each section’s set of couplets looks with striking precision on the living world that, day by day, we love and lose. This long, linked series is divided into fifty-four sections. The Roman numerals only go up to LIII, but look closely. Like Adrienne Rich, whose Collected Poems should also be of interest to readers drawn to the poets included in these reviews, Lemmon includes a floater. Stability and instability. Hope and dread. The world spins on its axis and, for a time at least, we’ll go along for the ride. (Milkweed Editions)

 

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In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown + Susannah Nevison

 

These poems! These poems! These letters between friends, lifelines and love notes, these acts of witness and rage. Every line in these pages guts me and sews me together again. “When I open / my hands, I’m never surprised by the birds they turn into” writes Nevison in one of the collection’s “Dear M—” poems. And Brown writes back, “Dear S— / The birds our hands become / are the ones with holes cut / in their cores so you can see / right through them to the world / they’re leaving toward…” Page after page, this book sees the body in the world and the world in the body, and both are flawed and routed with pain, and also lyric and lovely and, thank the Maker, most days still fully alive. (Persea Books)

 

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Anodyne by Khadijah Queen


The poems in Anodyne are carved out of the landscapes of this world, like rock art that seems to scream SOMEONE WAS HERE!! These poems refuse to be “invisible, unspoken.” Refuse to be “covered up / by made-up valor or resilience.” They insist on taking up space in the landscape, as painful as that might be. They remind us that our culture’s judgments suggest that “some / people are not worth saving,” and they resist such judgments and the actions such judgments unleash. The poems remind me that “Hordes of animals without teeth crash the window in a / dream & it means you’re not hungry enough.” These poems make me hungry, if hunger means I must look more closely at many types of pain and the roots of that pain too. If hunger means I will pay attention to the bodies that live alongside me, where they hurt and what it means to acknowledge the hurt bodies that are fully and fiercely HERE. (Tin House Books)

 

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Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon


Moon’s empathetic attentions seem boundless in these poems, her ability to hold the pain of others and still sing. “The Vulnerable Leading the Vulnerable,” is one way she describes the kind of love her poems describe. Moon’s previous collection, She Has a Name, holds the hearts of a family who love their autistic sister and child. In Starshine & Clay there are other families, other bodies, living and loving the best ways they can. Through surgery and recovery and surgery again, elegy and eulogy and eclogues and eyewitness, Moon never shies away from what it means, for some of us, to be alive. She’s a shapeshifter. One moment full of “sour seed” and “strange plums.” One moment “on a mountain all moonglow / toad moan & green majesty.” I’d wanted to write this review so Moon could celebrate with me the love so many people feel about her work. But we lost this brilliant mind at the end of September, and with her we lost worlds inside worlds inside worlds. (Four Way Books)

 

 

Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants, and Intimate Conversations by Lauren Crux

What if your superpower was the ability to see all things at once and to feel it all fully? That’s what it seems like must happen inside Lauren Crux’s brain. What a wonder woman she is! But, as is said in that other superhero story, with this great power comes great responsibility. Crux seems to hold the weight of the world’s burdensome beauty, aware of all that might capture an imagination: “flowers that open when they hear birds,” how “deer raise their heads, stand motionless, then spring into the dry glass,” that “between sky and navy blue is a color called, Tarantula Blue,” that “sharks are freezing to death on the East Coast,” and more and more. The language here is sheer poetry, but these are not meant to be read as poems. They are tiny letters, photographs, journal entries, “rants and intimate conversations,” all of these together and then some. On each candid page, Crux reveals what she sees, how she feels, how she hurts, how she celebrates. “It is the least I can do,” she says in one exquisite ramble, “bear witness.”  (Atmosphere Press, forthcoming)

 

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Iron, Ardent by Sheila Black


Where these poems happen is often as crucial as what happens in them. The happenings are wrapped up in the environments in which these happenings occur. There are yellowing trees “dying of / that odd, not-really-Dutch disease.” There are “those marks you made, / a line of tracks cutting/ the field.” There are eels inside a drowned woman. There is the gift to “turn myself into/ blue bruise, ragged flower,// chicory stalk by the railroad tracks.” The world of these poems is rich and wild (wild as in weird and, also, wild as in just beyond control), and that world acts on the people who inhabit these pages in deeply fascinating, often surprising ways. I love the almost gothic splendor of these poems, and I love the ways they strange the world so I see even oft-reviled things (and people) as beautiful too. (Educe Press)

 

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Letdown by Sonia Greenfield


If motherhood makes us mammal (both the women who bear and the babies who are born) then perhaps we are most connected to the greater-than-human world in the moments of live birth (or pregnancy loss) and just after. The long stretch of carrying and caring for an almost helpless human/animal child. Greenfield’s poems are planted in the earth like the bodies of children in a country graveyard and like the budding crocuses of early spring. Birds fly through them. Sometimes safely, other times greatly imperiled. These taut prose blocks live in hospital corridors, in the East River, on neighborhood streets and subway platforms, in a child’s bedroom, and in the heart of a mother learning—through her remarkable, delicate, human and animal child—about the spectrum of what it means to be alive. (White Pine Press)

 

Recommendations from Poet Friends:

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Allison Hedge Coke recommends Doomstead Days by Brian Teare

 

This book is a whole worldscape, with pathways through intense visual fieldworks, playing on functional white, silence and space, richly motivated with adept sonic play and succinct and surprising lingual effects. The beautiful and the terrible, the horrendous, are here, juxtaposed in some sound-waving vibe moving with us as we travel alongside Teare’s endeavors in a world whose flesh we share, we breathe through, feel ourselves with. Little floating cloudlike triplets engage with all we know and question in the changing world. Couplets stagger in vertical heaps, doubled up and rowed, hissing as they hit ice. Drop lines enhance both intersections and singular idea. The poetic is keen whether trampling fungus or bacterial earth. Teare’s world is a mighty one, undone, unclean, gorgeous, and miserable. What delightful madness, this is. Must read—again and again. (Nightboat Books)

 

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Khadijah Queen recommends: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

From the opening moment of The Perseverance, with the single line, “There is no telling what language is inside the body,” we understand that we are about to approach a new universe of information in Raymond Antrobus’ clear, unflinching poems. Through the lenses of Deafness and race and masculinity, we grapple with the existential struggle to understand ourselves through our parents and our childhood experiences, alongside the valuable yet mutable nature of perception. There is love in this work, difficult and frustrated and iridescent and traveling through comparisons and conversations with the self and with family, with strangers and with cultural issues at large. Antrobus writes in “Echo”: Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / palace where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am able to answer. We expand our comprehension of humanness in encountering these poems, and recognize the limits of language that is only spoken and heard—The Perseverance is language embodied and utterly present. (Tin House Books)

 

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C.S. Giscombe recommends The Last Custodian by Stephen Lightbown

 

It’s inventive and apocalyptic and profoundly energetic. (Burning Eye Books)

 

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Ashley Colley recommends Major Works by John Clare

 

I like that so many of Clare’s poems are unepiphanic. Whether he’s celebrating a snail or lamenting the destruction inflicted on the English countryside by enclosure, he looks closely at the natural world and doesn’t look away, doesn’t look for more meaning. I especially like his animal poems, which are descriptively surprising and humorous, and baldly empathic. (Oxford University Press, USA)

 

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Kimberly Burwick recommends Old Horse, What Is to Be Done? by Stephen Kuusisto

 

Kuusisto’s newest collection, makes intricate what think we know of blindness. On one level Kuusisto uses birds in motion as floaters to emote what the speaker cannot see, “As a boy I was loud / With rebellions, / Buying birds / For instance, releasing them / In parking lots / Where the grills of Chevrolets / Gleamed in heartbreak . . .” However, the more one reads Kuusisto it becomes clear that the idea of disability is more akin to “ability”. Kuusisto does not only rely upon the other senses, but on global mythologies where “second sight” becomes that visionary intuition. “Now you’re gone / I could transubstantiate / Become an ethereal megaphone / To tell and ask you things / As we did in Helsinki / Side by side / Bundled in raincoats / Scattered leaves flying . . .” (Tiger Bark Press)

 

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Denise Leto recommends The Clearing by JJJJJerome Ellis

 

The Clearing (released in tandem with an album of the same name) asks how “stuttering, blackness, and music can be practices of refusal against hegemonic governance of time, speech, and encounter.” Ellis expands conversations and creates space for new thinking around history, theory, and lyricism in this remarkable project.

 

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Brian Teare recommends Calligraphy Typewriters by Larry Eigner

 

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Larry Eigner published dozens of books with small presses that supported innovative mid-century poetry. I often return to the beautiful 1960s and 1970s Black Sparrow volumes in whose pages I first encountered his distinctive visual compositions, his brief lines drifting from the left to the right margin one tap of the tab key at a time. Eigner developed his own version of projective verse through voluminous correspondence with poets and editors and through voracious reading, and the manual typewriter was literally instrumental in helping him to realize the signature form his work took. He was fabulously prolific for over thirty years. Decades before the ADA was passed, his bios in Black Sparrow books always mentioned his cerebral palsy, and in later ones he also described himself as “non-ambulatory.” Though Eigner always acknowledged his disability, his poems rarely mention it; born in 1927, he was not shaped by the disability politics we have come to know. Reading his poems with that in mind, they model ways of attending to embodied experience—vision, audition, and proprioception in particular—and of allowing a poem to acknowledge both what’s coming from outside the poet and what’s coming from inside the process of writing the poem. “good   words,” he writes, “feel how / to do it.” Mingling his own spare lyric phrases with fragments of the views from his windows, of radio and television programs, of magazines and books and his correspondence, Eigner’s mode is transcriptive, notational, precise, associative, and full of white space that lets in both light and quiet. As ephemeral, seasonal, and local as the haiku he loved, his work is equally capable of levity and profundity. For many years, his small press titles have been out of print, but recently University of Alabama Press published Calligraphy Typewriters, a generous selection from Eigner’s singular—and singularly important—body of good words. (University of Alabama Press)

 

Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here

 

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They Knew: The U.S. Government’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis

 

I FIRST MET GUS SPETH in his role as a poet. He was sitting in the audience of a talk I was giving at One Hundred Miles, a conservation organization we both support on the coast of Georgia. He came up to chat about the talk and presented himself as nothing more than a retired gentleman who enjoyed writing and was working on a book.

When he left the room, someone whispered in my ear: “He’s being humble. Gus was in the Carter administration and the dean of the Yale Schools of Forestry and Environment.” This doesn’t even scratch Speth’s full range of interests and accomplishments, which include a Yale Law degree, cofounding the Natural Resources Defense Council, and serving as the chairman of Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality. He advised Bill Clinton’s transition team, held numerous posts within the United Nations, taught at both Yale and Vermont Law School, and continues to write poetry, among many other significant acts.

We have corresponded over the years, both of us having roots in the South and a love for Vermont. I have come to revere him for his extensive professional knowledge, but also the expansiveness of his mind. Speth represents the best of the humanities—he is a thinker, feeler, and reader, but has spent his life putting those impulses to work by taking real action, by bringing his expansive thinking to consequential, high-stakes matters.

In his latest book, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, Speth gets right to the heart of the government’s awareness, and painful culpability, on climate change. It covers the period from Lyndon B. Johnson through Trump. Those who are invested in policymaking surrounding fossil fuels will benefit from reading this history from the unique perspective of those who lived it, and have been fighting for decades for government action. I had a chance to chat with Speth about the book this autumn while we were both in Vermont.

 

MMB: Gus, can you describe where the idea for They Knew came from, and when? Was there a sense that our national narrative around climate change—and who is responsible—needed an update?

GS: The book is an enlarged and updated version of a report I did for the Children’s Climate Lawsuit, Juliana v. United States. They needed a well-documented history of what the federal government knew and what the federal government did, so this is it, covering the whole period from LBJ through Trump. It is the saddest story I know, but some sad stories need to be told. And it is hard to argue with original sources.

I hope the book motivates action, because it is convincing, if I may say so, on three key points:

First, the science justifying action has been clear for decades. Really clear and convincing. The climate denialism successfully and now widely propagated is the real hoax.

Second, the book shows that our federal government has known enough to act, and known enough how to act—what to do—since the Carter years, more than four decades ago. This is surely one of the great derelictions in civic responsibility in the history of the republic. Over those four decades, the U.S. could have led the world to climate solutions. Rather, we did pretty much the opposite.

Third, the book underscores that good science alone, even when joined with the comfortable activism of the past, will not produce the major results needed.

 

MMB: I find the title They Knew quite affecting—both potent and damning. Can you describe how looking back on earlier eras makes you feel, and was any of that harnessed during the planning and writing process?

GS: Well, the book is average in length but it was a huge undertaking and required a major effort to get right. I could not have done it without the amazing documentary research and other help from Our Children’s Trust, the excellent advocacy for children that is conducting the litigation. I was driven to do a good job, particularly for the sake of young people, including my own six grandchildren.

Now, as I step back from the result, I can say that this history makes me angry, quite angry, especially as we see the climate catastrophes unfolding around us already. I hope the book informs the new generation that did not live through it all, and, honestly, I hope it makes them angry, too. That is a springboard to the action we now need.

 

MMB: I want to go back to something you said—that this “is the saddest story” you know, but that “some sad stories need to be told.” I know that some people report feeling a saturation point with environmental stories, that things feel so bleak they turn away from the bad news. Can you speak to your relationship with grief? Does writing through it help?

 GS: Yes, this climate story is damn painful. But I think it is important for all of us to understand how things got the way they are. How else can we see our mistakes and learn not to repeat them? The past can shine a light into the future, and They Knew teaches many lessons we would do well to bear in mind, some of which I just mentioned. So instead of being discouraged and tuning out, we have to shoulder that pain and turn it toward activism.

Then there is the grief of knowing what has been lost, much of it irredeemably. Faulkner famously said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But, in truth, L. P. Hartley’s “the past is a foreign country” more accurately invokes the story of environmental loss. The ever-widening path of biotic impoverishment has moved through our lives. You can’t go home again because, for many of us, home is not there anymore. But that loss can spur us to save what is left, not to inflict even more loss on the future. And the biggest threat to the environment of the future is climate change.

 

MMB: How can this book—and these types of discussions—help push back on climate denialism? And why do you think denialism has gained so much momentum in the face of so much data?

 GS: We are here discussing a major political factor, so it’s important. I noted a minute ago that, as discussed in They Knew, climate science has been consistent and reinforcing in broad terms since LBJ. If that science had been full of inconsistencies, contradictions, flip-flops, and predictive failures, well, then denialism would have an argument to make. But the real climate science story is just the opposite.

So denialism is purely a political stance, not a scientific one. I hope the book will arm those carrying forward the climate fight with information that can help push back on denialism. Denialism, now on the rise in a major political party, builds on the widespread preexisting rejection and fear of science, prominent, for example, in the rejection of evolution. This predisposition is played on by corporate hucksters, antigovernment ideologues, and political charlatans to manipulate public opinion in a variety of spheres, including climate.

 

MMB: Whenever I write a book, I am thinking about my readership. What readership did you have in mind for this book—or, perhaps more important, who would benefit the most from reading this text? Whose hands should we press the book into?

GS: Well, not everybody is seventy-nine years old, yet! There are lots of people who did not experience the period covered by this book, and I think there is a hunger now, especially among young people, to actually understand how we got into this mess. The book is a history, and history is important. For activists, even moderately politically active, I hope this book will provide a ready source of useful information as well a source of motivation and reassurance.

Then, of course, we get to the doubters and fence-sitters. They really should read this book!

 

MMB: You have been in the trenches on climate change for longer than almost anyone else I know. Is there a particular moment, conversation, or decision point that stands out to you as critical, or a memory you revisit with the benefit of hindsight?

GS: I will mention three moments, all in the book.

One is when activist Rafe Pomerance and scientist Gordon MacDonald approached me at CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) in 1979 and, in effect, told me to get busy on climate change. That started me moving with the Carter administration. The second came in the aftermath of scientist James Hansen’s pointed congressional testimonies in the 1980s. We had told ourselves that when the climate change reality was rigorously detected amid the weather noise, as Hansen found, politicians would be forced to act because climate change had moved from theory to fact. You might say we were naive. And finally, there was the new momentum in the Congress in 2019 and 2020 to shift climate action into high gear, brought out most prominently by the Green New Deal.

 

MMB: Looking at all this increasing urgency, where do you advise Orion readers to find hope?

GS: I see hope coming from three possibilities. One is from a massive outpouring of civic action and activism, an unprecedented popular mobilization, strong and unrelenting. Definitely not the comfortable advocacy of the past. Bring it on! Second, we have witnessed continuing failure from the executive and legislative branches of our government, and the situation now demands judicial intervention. In particular, it demands a constitutional remedy that persists throughout coming administrations. That is what Our Children’s Trust is seeking in its litigation. And third, if we have learned anything, it is that our current political economy is not up to the climate challenge. Indeed, it is the source of the problem. What we have here is a fifty-year system failure. If we want fifty years of sustained solution, we are going to have to change the system, including its priorities. As the popular banner at climate marches says, “System change, not climate change!” There is hope, I find, in the number of people coming to see this imperative after all these years.

 

Purchase They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis here. 

 

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Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and How Strange a Season. Her short fiction has appeared in two volumes of The Best American Short Stories and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. She lives on a small farm in Vermont.

James Gustave Speth served as member and chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration, and from 1993 to 1999 was administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and served as chair of the UN Development Group. A retired professor of law and Senior Fellow at the Vermont Law School, he has also taught at Georgetown and Yale. He is the founder of World Resources Institute and a cofounder of Natural Resources Defense Council.

VIDEO: A Conversation Between Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane

IN AUGUST 2021, Orion released Old Growth, an anthology of essays and poems about the lives of trees. It’s a dynamic cross section of Orion’s long history of engagement with arboreal culture, featuring work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Terese Marie Mailhot, Michelle Nijhuis, Michael Pollan, and Arthur Sze, and printed as gently as possible—using 100% recycled paper, processed without chlorine, and free of plastic.

To celebrate the release of the book, Robin Wall Kimmerer (who contributes the foreword) held a public discussion with Robert Macfarlane and David Haskell. These authors brought a unique perspective on the legacy of trees in deep time, which they explore in their recent books Braiding Sweetgrass, Underland, and The Song of Trees, respectively.

Together, they discussed the idea of the personhood of trees, root communities, and the ways in which humans might foster the growth of our canopy. Moderating the event is Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-author of Journey of the Universe. This event was co-hosted by Orion, The Forest School at the Yale School of the EnvironmentYale Forum on Religion and Ecology, and Yale Environmental Humanities. Enjoy the recording of this event: