Orion Blog

“We Here Now, But Later We All Gone”


It’s hard to lose things—particularly things we’ve created, and especially things we love. But loss is natural, observes Julia Alvarez in the March/April issue of Orion. Her piece, which appears in the Lay of the Land department of the magazine, describes the arrival of two Buddhist monks to Middlebury College, where Alvarez is a teacher. The monks build a mandala—a circular pattern, carefully made from colored sand—on the school’s campus. After allowing onlookers to admire it for a moment, they quickly destroy it, pouring the sand into a glass and then into a nearby river.

“Don’t you feel sad destroying something you’ve worked so hard to create?” asks Alvarez.

“It’s natural,” one of the monks replies. “We here now,” he says, gesturing to the crowd around him. “But later we all gone. Like death. Is natural.”

Here, below, are photographs from the event, plus a poem by Gary Margolis, another member of the Middlebury College faculty who was in attendance. Read Julia Alvarez’s short piece “It’s Natural” in the print edition of the March/April 2015 issue of Orion—purchase a copy here, or subscribe.




The Monk’s Taking Pictures

of what he made, this sand

painting in the lobby

of our library. We’re standing,

waiting for what will happen

to his million colored grains.

One of Buddha’s born designs.

He’ll sweep into his hand,

to let his prayers sift back

into Compassion’s vase.

I thought I was only here

to browse, to take out a book,

this late Sunday afternoon.

And not to walk by

and stop. To want

to hold what he was holding

for the mean time. Our invisible

hour glass. When a woman

nearby asked if he felt sad

letting go of what he made—

all that beautiful mind.

He didn’t quite say No.

Said. It’s natural, like death.

instead. Dismantling what

it took to free this kind

of love-making. What I found

myself doing as quietly

as I could, taking a picture, too,

for another time.

—Gary Margolis

Gary Margolis is Director of College Mental Health Service, Emeritus and associate professor of English and American Literatures (part-time) at Middlebury College. His memoir is Seeing the Songs: A Poet’s Journey to the Shamans in Ecuador. His new book of poems, Raking the Winter Leaves: New and Selected Poems, is recently published.

Finally, for the mandala-curious among us, here’s a short video of the creation of one of these ephemeral sand sculptures. (Fans of the Netflix series House of Cards might recognize this footage from a recent episode of the show.)

Concrete Progress: Farming the Fifth Floor

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.

Strictly speaking, every city is a desert. No matter how rainy the climate or how fertile the soil, no city is capable of supporting all the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work and drive there every day. There is not enough land, and there is not enough water. And yet 80 (!) percent of Americans live in cities. How do we get our food? How should we?

You know the answer to the first question. We grow our food in Kansas and California and Java, and we boat or ship or truck it around the world at enormous ecological cost. And though we’ve seen better choices begin to assert themselves—farmers’ markets and CSAs and food hubs have been popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm—the inescapable fact is that food is usually grown outside of cities and away from the people who eat it. Urban real estate is just too valuable to devote many acres to crops. But in Chicago, they’ve found an answer.

FarmedHere is a vertical indoor farm in Bedford Park, Illinois, just south of Midway Airport. The key words are indoor (they use old corrugated box factories left over from Chicago’s industrial heyday) and vertical—the buildings house five levels of crops covering, all told, about 93,000 square feet. The people of FarmedHere grow arugula, kale, basil, mint, and salad greens, along with making their own basil vinaigrette. FarmedHere’s produce first appeared on grocery shelves in 2011, and is now available in dozens of spots across the Chicago area. Once it expands into its full potential—150,000 square feet are planned—the farmers expect to grow a million pounds of greens a year. FarmedHere is probably the biggest indoor organic farm in America.

How do they manage all this indoors? Isn’t it ruinously expensive and wasteful? Not at all. With no pests and minimal weather, the crops don’t need the same sort of artificial (and expensive) inputs that outdoor vegetables would, and there is no soil. FarmedHere cultivates its herbs and greens using only nutrient-rich water. The system is called aquaponics. FarmedHere raises tilapia on-site (which they sell to wholesalers), feeds them organic fish food, and cycles water through the fishes’ tanks. The water absorbs nutrients (aka fish poop), which is pumped along to feed the arugula, mint and so on. After the plants have consumed the waste, the cleansed water flows back into the system, and 97 percent of the water is conserved. Targeted growing allows FarmedHere to use about 10 percent of the water demanded by most farms. Power is expensive, but the company is switching its lighting system to super-efficient LEDs, which is also expected to increase their yields as well as lowering costs.

Chicago is not known for organic food (though I will never say anything bad about deep dish pizza or kielbasas); its growing conditions are not exactly stellar most of the year (the last time I visited, the thermometer read 18 degrees below zero); and it doesn’t have very much green space. Nonetheless, Chicago is in the vanguard of urban agriculture. Beyond FarmedHere, Green Sense Farms cultivates organic vegetables under LED lights, and The Plant, which also uses tilapia, raises mushrooms and shrimp along with greens and fish. The Chicago Botanic Garden runs a project called the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm, where hundreds of young Chicagoans farm in locations around the city, from schools to rooftops. The movement is growing elsewhere, too, with vertical farms all over the country. FarmedHere, for its part, is looking to expand to other site, and I confidently expect that in the future, more and more Americans will buy super-local food raised indoors in their home cities.

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.

Sounds from Alaska: Wolf Encounter

In celebration of the spring equinox, Orion contributor Hank Lentfer continues his “Sounds from Alaska” series, which debuted two years ago on the Orion blog. Listen to sounds from last spring, summer, and fall here.

The most fun and vibrant days of my life have involved chasing sounds with my good friend Richard Nelson. Early mornings recording warblers and thrushes, afternoons in tern colonies or alongside salmon streams, evenings filled with the cavernous breath of whales and sharp whistle of murrelets. Listening, day after fantastic day for the last two years, has added up to what Nels and I both agree to be the most joyful summers of our lives.

Thinking back through all the hours, headphones clamped tight, microphone held steady, there is one sound that rises clear for each of us. I invite you to listen to the story of Richard’s favorite sound.

Hank Lentfer, author of Faith of Cranes, is ear-deep in a new career recording the whistles, clicks, groans, and splashes of his wild neighbors.

Postcard from California: “What Do We Love Too Much To Lose?”

Geography of Hope conference banner

The first of several dispatches from The 2015 Geography of Hope Conference, of which Orion is a media sponsor.

“The emptiness of the West was for others a geography of possibility,” writes author and poet Gretel Ehrlich about pre-settlement Wyoming, in her essay “The Solace of Open Spaces.” But what began as a geography of possibility—vast stretches of land, untrodden forests, untamed coasts—soon became a geography of self-serving speculation, ruthless destruction, and enforced boundaries. “The integrity of the land as a geographical body, and the freedom to ride anywhere on it, were lost,” she writes. “There is no wilderness left.”

It was Wallace Stegner who suggested that wilderness provides us with the geography of hope, an idea he described in a 1960 letter to the Wildland Research Center, pleading that wild country, “a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth,” be left untouched as “a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures.” Today, though, the opposite has happened: pollution, extinction, desertification, and climate change are worsening. But while we grieve, we must act. As we confront these global catastrophes in both small and big ways, we ask ourselves, where is the hope left in all this? Is there a geography of hope at all?

On the Pacific coast of Northern California, in the little town of Point Reyes Station, a biennial literary conference fittingly called Geography of Hope seeks to address these questions—not with a singular vision or a simple solution but with a multiplicity of voices, and with special attention to the voices of women. The theme of the 2015 conference, which takes place March 13-15, is Women and the Land. It is chaired by Orion friends and contributors Kathleen Dean Moore and Robin Wall Kimmerer. “We will need to mobilize all our human capacities—to celebrate and to grieve, to dread and to take heart, to embrace and to resist, to radically reimagine who we are and how we live,” said Moore. “In the coming time of storms, it may be that this is the new geography of hope.”

The first Geography of Hope Conference, held in 2008, was dedicated to Wallace Stegner, and in subsequent years, the panelists have largely been men—powerful writers connected in some way to the tradition set forth by Stegner. In developing the theme for this year, the conference founder, Steve Costa of Point Reyes Books, and fellow organizers decided to look at environmental issues from the feminine perspective. The presenters at this year’s conference include 16 women and 2 men, running the gamut from writers and activists to an ethnobotanist, a vocal artist, a Buddhist poet, and a Coast Miwok elder (See the full list of presenters here).

Gretel Ehrlich was invited to present at the conference by chair Kathleen Dean Moore. They met under circumstances not dissimilar to Geography of Hope, at the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, also a gathering that focused on women’s relationships to environmental crises and with each other. The council was composed of 12 women. who met periodically over the course of 2014. “I think women are really fantastic communicating with each other,” said Ehrlich, regarding the council. “Women have a sense of seeing the whole,” says Ehrlich. “Women can accommodate complexity. We can hold more in our arms at one time—more diversity, more contradictions, more joy, more sorrow.”

The Geography of Hope conference will be a multi-layered experience, with the hope that the diversity, contradictions, joy, and sorrow made manifest in conversations and interactions will spur people to action. Participants will take guided field trips led by women naturalists, ranchers, and farmers in the surrounding Point Reyes area, enjoy lunch from nearby farms, and attend panels featuring the presenters in conversation with each other and with the audience. One central question that will be asked of participants is: What do we love too much to lose? What will we do to protect it? which is reminiscent of a line by Rachel Carson who wrote “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see this again?”

Perhaps a survey of the geography in front of us—through observation, self-examination, deep questioning, and education—will open our eyes to new ways of thinking about the future. Perhaps it will prompt a revision of Stegner’s idea, or demand a renewal, a resurrection of possibilities. “I’m wondering where the hope is in the geography,” says Ehrlich. “That will be my question to myself and to everybody at the conference. I think we have to really ponder that word ‘hope,’—what its real meaning is and the ways it calls us to action.”

For more information about the Geography of Hope conference, please visit the website. Follow this weekend’s events via the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, and stay tuned to the Orion blog for more dispatches from the conference.

Natalie So is a writer, editor, and photographer based in San Francisco. More importantly, she is an avid hiker and a wild plant-eater. She is the editor-in-chief of Edition Local, which tells stories about artists, craftspeople, and the places in which they reside.

Concrete Progress: Night Riders

Glow bike rsz
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 lived in California, I kept a stick of deodorant in my desk drawer. My pants had grease stains and a raggedy cuff on the right leg. I carried a fresh shirt, folded and pressed beside my laptop. My morning commute took forty minutes; my evening commute took twenty. I biked to work.

The rise of the bike commute is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of reimagined infrastructure in America today. Now, obviously, bike commuters make up only a small portion of the American population (just over 1 percent in most big cities). But their numbers are large enough to change the face of a city, make bikes part of the conversation year-round, and give bike lanes an active constituency—all of which leads to more lanes, more bikers, and the cycle (ahem) goes on. All over the country, old railway lines are turning into bike paths, and they are filling up. Check out this Census Bureau map, below:

Bike Commute Map

If the weather’s good and you’re in decent shape, there’s very little downside to biking to work: it’s good for you, it’s cheap, it’s fun, and it’s better for the environment than driving a car. I came to love the hill atop which my office sat, especially in the evening, when I would barely have to pedal as I whizzed home, sunset on my right, meadows on my left, Monterey Bay spread out before me. All over the country, people are discovering the same joy, blackening their pant legs in just the same spot.

There is, of course, one significant downside to the bike commute: cyclists get hurt sometimes, and the risk is higher at night. But help is on the way. In Boston, some enterprising entrepreneurs who call themselves Hub Powderworks have figured out how to use highway paint to make bikes glow in the dark. As this Boston Globe article notes, this seems like a pretty obvious thing to do—it makes you wonder why nobody has done it before. Especially in Boston, where the sun sets an hour before the end of the workday in December and the drivers all think they’re playing tight end for the Patriots.

The technology is pretty simple: the paint reflects light back at drivers. It does this with thousands and thousands of glass beads made from recycled glass. Engineered to be baked on to an aluminum or titanium bicycle (not carbon at this point), the paint allows drivers to see an entire bike frame shining in the shoulder. Retroflection, it’s called. This isn’t the bike commuter’s only safety option—I used to know a guy who sold systems of lights with which to bedeck your bicycle—but this durable paint really seems like the best option, alerting drivers while also giving riders the neat bonus of pedaling on what appears to be a ghost bike.

Is it perfect? Of course not: a bike will never be as big as a car, and accidents are inevitable. It’s expensive, too—nearly $500 for a full coat—although I imagine that the price will drop quickly as the technology spreads. But honestly, this seems a small price to pay for the liberty of the night. We may get a post-car world out of highway paint.

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.