Orion Blog

Editor’s Choice: “Of Birds and Barley”

“Is humankind so intrinsically ugly that we seek deliverance by not only yearning after, but also actually imitating other creatures, such that the aping of swans by skilled dancers has become a paragon of beauty and artistic ambition? … Is there some reason, some human need, to imagine swans as majestic?” – Shauna Laurel Jones, “Of Birds and Barley,” Summer 2020. 

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was from a teacher whose nose wrinkled at my dumb, preacherly notions of what I thought literature is “meant” to do. The books I cared for during graduate school were painstakingly curated; you could almost hear the authors sitting next to you as you flipped the pages, telling you which words to pay attention to. I loved those books, for whatever reason—let’s not get into why right now—so it’s no surprise that my most terrifying sight back then was a blank sheet of paper on my desk. I would sit before that open white space, imagining the intricate machinery of the books on my shelves, and wonder how I might ever start. My teacher, seeing the smoke come out of my ears, would casually suggest that I try a different approach. “What if you thought about all the things you like in the world,” she asked, “and just put it all on the page?”

 

Photo: Wang LiQiang
 

I love Shauna Laurel Jones’s story from our Summer 2020 issue, “Of Birds and Barley,” because it feels in many ways like a grab bag selection of everything that captured one person’s interest at a certain moment in her life history. There’s the eye, trained on the sight of swans—Icelandic swans whose plumage disappears in the blank white landscape. There’s the author’s insistent sympathy with the situation in which the swans find themselves, driven by endless hunger for the taste of barley. And then there’s this deep humanism that urges her, over and over again, to hear from the farmers experiencing the fallout of that hunger, even as they want her to do things like watch them click on their own Facebook photos. (She watches, and so lovingly.) There’s a helplessness to the allure of the swan’s elegant stature and an equal-sized anxiety over the wreckage they leave in their wheat binges. There’s art criticism, somehow, and debates over carnivorism, and the poetry of one’s own youth.

I think this is what people mean when they talk about something being a snapshot of the world through someone else’s eyes. You read a story like this, and not only do you get to see everything to which Shauna is drawn, but you actually become drawn in yourself, brought into a bright and unknowable world filled with birds who swim, the intricate machinery of their bodies, and the mystified people seeing them up close for the first time.

 

Read the full article “Of Birds in Barley” here

 

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil Reflects on Five Years as Poetry Editor

“The land knows you, even when you are lost.” I’ve lost track of the times I’ve thought of this sentence from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass since I first became Orion’s poetry editor in 2015.

After five years gathering bouquets of poems for each issue, I’m stepping aside. In reading hundreds and hundreds of poems for Orion over the years, I can truthfully say that reading such a wide array has helped ground me, even during these tumultuous political times when I’ve felt lost.

I’m so grateful to former editor-in-chief Chip Blake and my predecessor Hannah Fries for reaching out to me in the first place—I got the text while I was boarding a plane. O, travel! Seems almost quaint now in the midst of a pandemic! I said yes immediately, for Orion has always been a magazine that I’d greedily read from cover to cover when it arrived in my mailbox.

More than that, it promised to be a place where I could help shape and collect a different vision of environmental poetry than what had previously been offered from any place else. This meant plucking unknowns from the slush pile and nervously asking my poetry heroes and superstars to consider sharing their poems, while I also fielded wonderful recommendations from nature writers across the country. Just look at this gathering of writers (published in Orion from 2015 to June 2020), re-defining what is written about the environment:

Joseph O. Legaspi, Paisley Rekdal, John Poch, Michelle Bonczek, Fatimah Asghar, C. Dale Young, Jennifer Chang, Teddy Macker, Brian Doyle, Michelle Gillette, Kathryn Hunt, Phil Metres, Rita Dove, Deborah Cummins, Jim Daniels, David Roderick, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Dave Lucas, Janice N. Harrington…

Erica Dawson, Anne Haven, Sierra Golden, Kimiko Hahn, Joan Naviyuk Kane, James Thomas Stevens, Christopher Cokinos, Natalie Diaz, Chloe Honum, Rigoberto González, Katherine Riegel, Ellen Bass, Layli Long Soldier, Ilyse Kusnetz, Amanda Hawkins, Todd Davis…

Deborah A. Miranda, Toni Jensen, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Heid Erdrich, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Keetje Kuipers, Traci Brimhall, David Tomas Martinez, Sean Hill, Catherine Pierce, Liz Kicak, Robert Wrigley, Jessica Jacobs, Duy Doan, Kazim Ali, Tess Taylor, Jessica Gigot, Urvashi Bahuguna…

Rebecca Morgan Frank, Susan Elbe, Martin Jude Farawell, Kelli Russell Agodon, Zoe Brigley, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Oliver de la Paz, Brandi George, Donika Kelly, Javier Zamora, Jane Wong, Christopher Bakken, Jenny George, Jane Hirshfield, Noah Davis, Roger Reeves, Lisa Russ Spaar, Tyree Daye, Adrian Matejka, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Camille T. Dungy, Sally Wen Mao…

Dorianne Laux, Major Jackson, Catherine Pierce, Eloisa Amezcua, Rajiv Mohabir, Kevin Young, Stuart Dybek, Cecily Parks, Ilya Kaminsky, Paige Quiñones, José Olivarez, Ada Limón, Luisa A. Igloria, David Baker, John Freeman, Brenda Hillman, W. Todd Kaneko, Tina Chang, Craig Santos Perez, Janine Joseph, Sandra Meek, Su Cho, and Kwame Dawes.

During this time we’ve had several of these poems anthologized, selected for the Academy of American Poetry’s “Teach This Poem” series, included in prize-winning books, and, just last month, we found out that Ilya Kaminsky’s broadside insert, “Letters of Recommendation” (Winter 2019) won a Pushcart Prize!

But we’re not done yet.

When I thought of passing the torch to someone who could guide and celebrate new pathways into environmental poetry, I had only one name in mind, and I’m grateful she accepted: Camille Dungy will be taking over as poetry editor starting with the Autumn 2020 issue, and I am so excited to watch her unique vision unfold in this position.

As for me, I’ll be joyfully transitioning to being a contributing editor of Orion with a brand-new column called “A Taste of Wonder,” that I envision will bring environmentalists to the table. Like sharing a meal with a good friend, we will nibble a bit of wonder around the world. Look for it in an upcoming issue.

For now, I’m going to try and see if my first attempts at growing blackberries in Mississippi’s famously hot summers will succeed, or if the mockingbirds will snatch them all in the next few weeks, and I’ll try to prepare to teach online classes this fall.

But first, there are walks to be had (with masks on), and fireflies to catch (and release!) with my sons. My collection of nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments will be ushered into the world in September (via Milkweed Editions) and I’m all kinds of nervous and excited about that.

This isn’t a goodbye, but a wish: I hope you find yourself a little less lost, or a little less lonely when you read the upcoming issues of Orion. Thank you for your support over the past five years. It’s been so lovely to make this a more inclusive space for environmental writing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next on the horizon.

 

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The View From a Desert Ridge

Long-time Orion contributor Kathleen Dean Moore wrote to Ben Ehrenreich, author of Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint Press; July 7, 2020), about topics of creosote-time, the end of endings, and the paradoxical role of writers during these unstable times.    


KDM
: You wrote Desert Notebooks in the midst of the climate and extinction crises, but before the Covid-19 virus sprang into the world—a cosmically dangerous time, coming when the moral tissue of society is perilously thin. Your book is an invitation to sit with you on a desert ridge, watching the catastrophes unfold from the flawed premises of the “modern” world, as inevitably as logical conclusions. The failure is spectacular. To the extent that we sensed we were on the wrong track but could not imagine another, the failure is shameful.  And now here we are. Is this crisis the birth of a new, redemptive paradigm?

BE: That is the question, isn’t it? Because as nightmarish as this outbreak is, putting the world on pause is also an opportunity to see everything afresh, to insist that we not just dive back into the same old death-spiral. Suddenly with cities on lockdown we’re seeing clear skies, air cleaner than most people can remember, the world loud with birdsong. It’s as if the planet were rejoicing at our absence. And at the same time that this virus is revealing all of our society’s pre-existing conditions—the severely uneven distribution, along racial and class lines, of vulnerability to early death—the calls for a hasty re-opening have made the murderous premises of our economic system all too clear. So yes, I think the spectacular failures of this system have never been more obvious. All over the planet people are casting about, looking for other ways to do things. What we come up with, and whether we do it fast enough, is entirely up to us.

 

 

All photos by Ben Ehrenreich
 

KDM: By the evidence of your book, you are a desert philosopher, in the ancient tradition of those who walked into a sere, severe landscape to encounter truths beyond the politically given. What is it about deserts that calls to radical seekers?

BE: I wish I could be a desert philosopher. For the last two years I’ve been living in cities again and telling myself and my friends in the Mojave that I’m coming back soon. I miss the subtlety and clarity of the light, the expanse of the sky, the way the desert forces you to reckon with the cosmos as a place in which human dramas are very far from central. People who don’t know deserts tend to think of them as a place of absence, barrenness, and death, but if you spend any time there and pay close enough attention, you come to understand it as a place that hums with life. It’s very hard to forget that you’re alive there.

 

Everything carries its past within it, and to the same degree carries the future too. We are not individual and discrete selves any more than the present exists as a discrete and autonomous entity—look and it’s already gone.

 

KDM: I expected Desert Notebooks to be about the desert or about notebooks, but nope: the book is truly about time. Among all the competing images of time that you offer, the one that intrigues me the most is your analogy between time and the creosote plant that grows outward from a central, original plant by cloning. How does creosote-time work?

BE: Moving to the desert pushed me to think hard about time: those huge night skies and their rhythms, the intimacy of geologic time, the harsh cadence of the seasons. To even begin to wrap my head around that I had to make myself aware of the specific blinders that our own inherited sense of time puts on us, and by that I mean the relationship to time that has emerged in Europe and North America since the mid-18th century. That sensibility, which is very hard to shake off, is always bound by implicit hierarchies: the future stands above the past in the same way that the West stands above the rest of the world and whites stand above other races.

What struck me, the more I read and thought, was that everything about those hierarchies was nonsense. Nothing is ever superseded, much less superior, because nothing is ever self-identical. Everything carries its past within it, and to the same degree carries the future too. We are not individual and discrete selves any more than the present exists as a discrete and autonomous entity—look and it’s already gone. I began to think about time outside of those hierarchies, not in terms of linear growth or directional flow—not as a tree trunk or a river— but as kind of fractal reproduction that happens largely out of sight, as an ever-expanding web of connectedness just beneath the surface of the seen.

Living in the desert I had a model for that kind of growth all around me, in the most common and humble plant in the Mojave, the creosote, which also happens to be one of the oldest living things on the planet. I don’t think this idea is too far off from what you refer to in Great Tide Rising as “the sacred unfolding of the creativity of the world.”

 

 

KDM: If your book is a “Roadmap for the End of Time,” let me ask the child’s question, “When are we going to get there?”

BE: Ha! We’re already there, of course. I mean that in two senses. First, that something is clearly collapsing. This path that so much of the world has been on for the last century and a half—we convinced ourselves that it was progress—has reached an end. From here it only gets worse, unless we radically change our relation to each other and to living things. And second, time is always ending in the same way that it is always beginning, that every ending unfolds into a beginning and vice versa all within the nucleus of each moment.

KDM: I’ve always resisted novels that imagine the apocalypse riding on the back of climate chaos. I want novels that imagine what might be if we started over and got it right this time. You write:

Apocalyptic literature is a form of resistance literature, a coded attempt to envisage some outside in a political present that has become unbearable, even if it means the death of the known world.

And now I am having second thoughts. What is our work in a morally intolerable time, we writers?

BE: I’m really hesitant to answer in any way that will aggrandize the role of writers, because we are self-important and obnoxious enough as it is. That said, I’m going to self-aggrandize: In secular, industrial societies, we understand writing as a semi-respectable career and imagine writers as rational contributors to a civil discourse. We are nothing of the sort. If we are anything other than hacks, then we are engaging in battles made of the very stuff of the cosmos, battles for the shape and destiny of our world. We can fight those battles with humor and irreverence and a keen sense of our own absurdity, but we cannot back away from them, especially now.

 

 

KDM: You see our civilization as “a brutal, gleaming, plasticized absurdity that we will recall less with nostalgia than with befuddlement and wonder that a whole species could consent to live that way?” Look at what a mess we have made of the gifts we have been given, and the arrogance to view it with pride. And the timidity and dullness, to think it is the only way. But these last few months have taught that humans can change, and change fast, in ways that serve the common good.

BE: Yeah, it’s been extraordinary. Not just that everything has changed so quickly, but this strange phenomenon: we’re all isolating ourselves, staying indoors and away from one another, but we’re doing so out of concern for one another. People are afraid of getting sick themselves, but I think most of us have been complying with the quarantine because we know it’s the only way to halt the spread of the virus, to protect our friends and families and everyone else’s too. It may not feel like it, because the anxiety and dread and anger tend to dominate, but whatever else this is, it’s also an act of love on a planetary scale. We will need a lot more of that in the decades to come, and it will involve a lot more than staying home and watching too much Netflix.

KDM: So let me ask, What would the world lose if it lost us and our sorry souls?

BE: I think the universe will be fine without us. I don’t mean that cynically, but I think humankind could do with a lot more humility. I’m hesitant to assign us any central role in this drama. In the book I quote the great French insurrectionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui quoting Pascal, who is actually quoting Giordano Bruno, who is in turn drawing on much older Hermetic texts with roots stretching back to Egypt—this is what I mean by creosotal growth—all of them expressing the same thought, that the universe should be understood as a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose surface is nowhere. An infinite universe has infinite centers. It reflects through all other living things too, and even in things that are not, by our standards, alive. Everything is always singing. Not just us. I think other beings are perfectly capable of hearing that song too, of understanding it, and singing it back with every breath and movement.

 

 

KDM: You write about many times when new worldviews brutally exterminated the old, leaving only the smallest, saddest signs, erasing ancient wisdom and disparaging whatever is left. Now that we are completely immersed in the worldview most convenient to radical extractive capitalism, we imagine that this is the only way. The beliefs enable the wreck and plunder, and the wreck and plunder reward the beliefs, and who could get out of that circle? As you brilliantly write, “Only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.” Yes, and only once we imagined human beings as selfish and competitive could we dedicate ourselves to making them so. Do you think we are on an edge, like a subduction zone, when one worldview is plowed under and another emerges?

BE: I do believe we’re on the edge. I think my daughter’s life and the lives of most people already on the planet depend on the emergence of a different way of relating to the world. The current worldview is inseparable from fossil energy, from extractive capitalism and the colonial relationships that forged its birth. The eighteenth century’s fantasy of progress thrived as an ideology in part because it appeared to be confirmed by the newly abundant energy, and enormous wealth, that came with coal in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century with oil. As long as we were free to access the energy stored in fossil carbon, we could imagine that there were no limits to what we could do and no consequences that could not be evaded with some clever technological fix. It’s now very clear that we were wrong.

But we should be careful about that “we”: most human beings had no role in any of this. A very small number have enjoyed great wealth over the last two centuries at the expense of virtually everyone else. A relatively tiny elite has made it clear that they will fight to the death—even if that means everyone else’s—to hold onto the privilege that exploiting fossil fuels affords them. So it’s not an abstract question of creating a worldview. There is a real fight coming, one in which we will have to choose sides. It has arguably already started. A new way of seeing things will be forged in that struggle. It is already being forged.

KDM: Thank you for your book. It’s an important and beautiful book. Thank you for this conversation. I like the way you think. Stay safe, keep on writing. O

 

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Crossing a Riven Country

IN THE SPRING OF 1919 the McGarrity’s rode out from their North Dakota homestead, where, back of the house, they left spaded into the prairie earth four graves, their children, born in successive years, the youngest not yet a year old. They themselves, Mr. and Mrs., were both shy of twenty-five.

What they left behind, I do not know. I’m sure they burned the children’s clothes and few wooden toys. I imagine many other household items met the flames—blankets, shuck and feather pillows, spoons that touched lips. The measure of their grief must have been immense, wider than the smoke-stained sky, as impossible as all the many grasses waving on the plains. But somehow they managed to pack a wagon, to hitch the horses, to ride away. Which route they took, whether they followed the Missouri and then the brown roll of the lower Yellowstone, or whether they instead rode south before crossing the border into Montana just north of the Humboldt Hills and aiming, then, for the pass between the Wolf and Rosebud Mountains—here, I travel blind. And whether on such a journey he turned away from her, or she from him, or whether across the unpredictable days of wind and sudden rain and now the prairie summer cranking up, they began to heal, again, I do not know. I don’t even know their given names, or where exactly in North Dakota that house they left was left to rot.

What I do know is the McGarrity’s found their way to St. Xavier, an outpost town on the Crow Reservation of southeastern Montana, where they took over the dry goods store and in time built a new life. They met another young couple, Michael and Catherine Ahern, who farmed a small spread twenty miles south of town, on a creek called Mountain Pocket, and in time the McGarrity’s daughter—Nancy, the daughter who came to them after sickness, after their long journey west—would become the life-long friend of Michael and Catherine’s daughter, Mary, who would years later become Mary Ahern Maxwell, who would become my grandmother.

The Aherns, too, had come through the plague. Mary was born in September of 1917 and fell sick with the Spanish Flu not long after her first birthday. Michael, an Irish immigrant, the youngest of a slew of brothers, had known pestilence and want, but this new contagion laid him low. Catherine sent frantic messages north to St. Xavier, where a traveling doctor came through a few times a month. The doctor finally replied with two glass bottles of medicine. One, the doctor stressed in his note, was formulated for the man, one the tiny child, though in his haste or tiredness, he had failed to label which was which. Catherine wouldn’t risk killing her child with too large a dose, and all through the fevering days the medicine sat on the kitchen counter, untouched. Though so many didn’t, they both did—they lived, and by that grace or luck, I, too, am alive. 

 

The poet Robert Wrigley writes: “Some days, / all I want is no news, none of the time.”

On those days, I look to other stories to try to reckon these past months, our own season of plague and distance, death and injustice. The grieving McGarritys set up shop on the Crow Indian Reservation, bought the dry goods store and the land it sat upon, and so even after it was promised, the borders drawn, not even the ancestral homeland of the Apsáalooke, it seems, was truly theirs. And the 1918 flu, which killed Native Americans at twice the rate it killed whites, was just the latest in a long line of introduced epidemics that had decimated Native communities for centuries. By 1920—my great-grandparents even then making their way on Mountain Pocket Creek, making the life that would lead to me—of what had historically been a thriving nation of 16,000, around 1700 Crow people were left in all the world.

Thinking of this, and trying to make sense of the sudden images out of Minneapolis and D.C. and so many other places, as I do at least once a year, I pulled the other day James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from the shelf. One evening, I brought the slim paperback into my daughter’s room to read as she read her own book before bed. I must have made a noise—of grief, assent, or understanding—because my daughter—curious, insistent, so attuned to sadness—asked me to read aloud the lines I’d just read in my head. So I did: “And here we are,” I read, as she curled more tightly in her covers, “at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”

 

We—myself, my wife, Liz, my ten-year-old son, Walter, and my nine-year-old daughter, Edie—began sheltering-in-place on the evening of Saturday, March 14, which was when I flew back from teaching an environmental writing workshop in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, flew back to the North Country of New York State. This academic year I’ve been on sabbatical from my permanent teaching post in Oregon and was lucky enough to secure an endowed chair for visiting writers at St. Lawrence University, which came with a light teaching load, plenty of time to work on my next novel, and a big, rambling house on campus. We’d had a busy year of readings and events for my first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, and having never lived in the Northeast, we’d been trying as well to see as much of this part of the country as we could. We had this spring trips to New York City, D.C, Maine, France, the Thousand Islands, and the Adirondack wilderness on the docket—but that cool March evening, Liz and I put the kids to bed and started planning otherwise.

We were, of course, privileged to be able to plan.

I had a steady paycheck and could shift to remote teaching. Liz, who had taken the year off from subbing, is an early childhood educator and could take the lead on homeschool. With the help of the kids’ teachers—who have been phenomenal—we organized math blocks, book clubs, art and creation, community service, writing projects, and social studies. Liz and the kids started doing observation stations, picking one place in the yard to sit with a notebook and observe for fifteen minutes each day. Edie leans up against a white spruce, watches the black-capped chickadees flit to the nearby feeder. In the grassy quad across the street, Walter climbs hand-over-hand right into a spruce, sits there trying to mimic on the page the sounds of wind, of calling cardinals, of slow-falling late April snow. Later, during our haiku unit, he wrote:

The sun shines,
the snow falls.
What do I call this wonder?

It’s not that we were looking forward to this time, but we found ourselves filling up with it, falling ever more deeply into it. Liz grew up on a goat farm in southwestern Washington State, I grew up on a sheep and hay ranch in eastern Montana—we are both children of landscape, isolation, and enormous afternoons, the kind where boredom compels invention and adventure. The kids wrote and edited a newspaper, they studied photography, they put on elaborate sock-puppet shows. One Saturday they set up a tent in the backyard, got a fire going in the ring, and declared it backyard survival night. When an elderly neighbor, the one whose gardens we always admire, was sick with Covid-19, we wrote and decorated a big get-well card—Edie drew blossoms all over it—and taped it to his kitchen window.

Across the weeks and months, our neighbor got well, the ostrich ferns slowly unfurled, the buds of maple, beech, and poplar began to break. In the afternoons we bike and hike the trails along the Little and Grasse Rivers, catalogue the wildflowers—trout lily, painted trillium, spring beauty. Come evening, we play cards, listen to music, dance.

 

What country, in this time of pandemic and social protest, will we be crossing?

 

Yet, as any parent knows, these months haven’t been all puppet shows and spruce trees. The kids miss their friends, miss sports and Battle of the Books. Walter delights in learning math at his own pace online, but loathes having to stop for, say, an art lesson—his Baby Yoda drawing ended up crumpled on the floor. Edie could do without math entirely, and often tries to do exactly that, if she can get away with it, while Liz and I struggle with being, day after day and often at the same time, everything: parent, teacher, playmate, coach, cook, provider, spouse.

And just yesterday we sat the kids down and asked them what they knew about the police, what they knew about racism. We told them the story of George Floyd and together sat in silence for a time. We talked about protests, about our rights as citizens, our duties as human beings. We began to collect things for a help-yourself, donations-only garage sale, all proceeds going to Campaign Zero, whose ten point plan for just policing we also talked through. At the vigil in the park, we knelt. The bells rang and rang. Walter turned to me. “Nine minutes,” he whispered, “is a really long time.”

 

We have three more weeks here in far northern New York—two of homeschool, one given to packing and biking to the river in the warm evenings to throw ourselves in the slow, tannic waters of the Grasse. That first week we started sheltering-in-place, Liz sat down with the kids and made big, colorful posters about what the coronavirus was and the danger it posed, about why we were doing what we were doing—“To protect Nana, and Grandma and Grandpa, and everybody’s grandparents!” Edie wrote in bright blue marker—and how we would do it: by not going to work or school, by seeing just our family, by staying close to home.

But now, our time here in the North Country ending in a far different manner than we expected, we have to do just that: we have to leave this home. We have to plan and pack and travel back to the Willamette Valley, a journey of nearly three thousand miles.

With the Canadian border stilled closed, we’re not sure yet of our route. We study maps, the veins of roads. Which cities, we wonder, will we travel through? What rivers will we tally?

And what country, in this time of pandemic and social protest, will we be crossing? O

 

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Behind the Cover: Anuar Patjane Floriuk

The Summer 2020 cover photograph was taken by Anuar Patjane Floriuk, an anthropologist, photographer, and diver born and raised in Mexico. His photographs have won many awards, including the World Press Photo Award (second place, 2016), the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest (first place, 2015), and the Cannes Bronze Lion (2018). We connected with Anuar to learn more about the photo’s backstory, and about his love for the sea.

 

Can you tell us the story behind the Summer 2020 cover image? 

One of my all-time favorite places for diving is the Sea of Cortez, Baja Sur, Mexico, and my favorite spot there is Cabo Pulmo. Every year I go there and it just keeps getting better and better. The variety of species is constantly increasing. The cover image was taken during one of those visits to Cabo Pulmo in 2017. The school of fish are bigeye trevally and the diver in the image is Martin Estrada, a friend and underwater guide from the region.  

So there’s a success story behind this cover, that overfishing had previously destroyed the reef in Cabo Pulmo but then it recovered, and with it, the fish populations. Do you often find hope reflecting back at you underwater?

As a diver, the sea provides a beautiful and powerful energy, and the hope is that my photography reflects that back to the viewer. I believe we can be hopeful and expect the best, but we should always prepare for the worst. We’ve seen a reduction in hunting for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) in the last few decades, and marine protected areas have increased in the last decade. We’ve achieved great momentum in reducing plastic waste. We’re going in the right direction on those issues. Environmental discourse is finally beginning to consider racial, class, and ethnic disparities, issues that are interrelated but that had been set aside by mainstream environmentalism. I have a lot of hope for how that will evolve.

But to be honest, I’m also worried. I’m worried about this new trend in political agendas worldwide. I don’t see our politicians expressing much interest in protecting the oceans or the environment at all. Somehow demagogy is winning over reason.

 

 

Do you remember the first photo you ever took?

I have a photograph in my first photo album that’s dated more than thirty years ago, when I was around eight years old, so perhaps that’s the first. It was of the ocean—surprise!—at a beach in Veracruz. Ugly photo but a bit prophetic. Thirty years later, I’m photographing mostly underwater.

I read somewhere that your mother was a marine biologist and that you’ve been diving since your early teens.

My mother forced me to learn to dive when I was seventeen years old. In 2012, I went on a diving expedition in the Galápagos Islands, and that’s when I really connected with the ocean and underwater photography. I love the calm of the ocean, but mountains also play an important role in my life. My hometown is near Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in México, so I visit that volcano often. Whenever I’m far from the sea, I climb. I like the desert too; its calm reminds me of the ocean.

What’s been your most terrifying or transformative experience while photographing our planet’s oceans?

I’ve experienced some scary events underwater but nothing too bad. It’s our own mind that creates the terror down there. Even the most dangerous situations can be fixed if we remain calm and follow procedures. Probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen while diving was an interaction between a humpback mother and her three-day-old calf, and how two orcas began hunting the calf. To witness the mother protect her newborn with such intensity, against formidable orca intelligence, really left an impression.  

 


How do you see your photography intersecting with ecological awareness?

The right photograph with the right story can change things, for better or worse, so why not use it to protect the places I love the most? I see this as a kind of reciprocity. After years of diving, it’s inevitable that you’ll create a strong bond with the ocean, and if divers don’t document and denounce what goes on underwater, no one will. Biologists and oceanographers do, but they can’t be everywhere. The more eyes we have down there, the better.

As is expressed on the Summer 2020 cover, whenever you choose to include a human in your frame, they appear to be rendered small and ancillary to the more-than-human world. Is that intentional?  

Yes, you are right. In most of the compositions, humans are used for scale only, or to transmit the sense of being there as witness. Sometimes it’s just a silhouette of a diver. But when the opportunity arises, I try and use the human element to show the connection between us and the sea. After all, the sea is also our home. O


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