Orion Blog

Music and Climate Action: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore


With all the impending despair of climate catastrophe these days, we locate wellsprings of hope in new emergences and creative responses, like the recent collaboration between writer and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and concert pianist Rachelle McCabe. Their project, “A Call to Life,” pairs two leading artists and thinkers into a unified sound of possibility and action. I connected with Kathleen Dean Moore to learn about the project.

NT: What is your new project, “A Call to Life”?

KDM: “A Call to Life” is a concert performance that uses music and the spoken word to call people to action on the global extinction crisis. Words alone are not enough to express the enormity of the losses the planet faces – or the tragedy. So I’m collaborating with Rachelle McCabe, a concert pianist, to link the power of music and the power of prose, so that people can feel the moral urgency of action in both their hearts and minds.

We have been taking the performance on the road. The next performance (closest to Orion’s headquarters) is at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts on Friday, November 2, 2018, 5:30pm at the Razzo Hall at the Traina Center for the Arts.. I hope people will come. Or if they can’t, they can find a studio recording of the performance on our website, along with a calendar of our coming performances.

We can promise people an experience that will shake them to the core. Not another talk about statistics and doom, but, as Orion writer Mitch Thomashow wrote, an emotional connection:

“I was deeply moved by the power, eloquence, wisdom, urgency, and insight of the presentation…
an emotional connection to the planetary emergency.”

NT: What inspired “A Call to Life”?

KDM: Rachelle was in the audience when I gave a talk urging climate action. As I walked off the stage, she stopped me in the aisle and said, “When I listen to you speak, I hear Rachmaninoff.” When you have a brilliant friend who says something like that, and when your friend is a renowned concert pianist, you follow up.

In her studio a couple days later, Rachelle played me Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli.”  Its connection to the extinction crisis made me shiver – on the verge of madness, its strong and resolute heart; in the depths of grief, its moral courage. “A formidable piece of music,” Rachelle said, “for a formidable challenge.”

NT: How did you fuse your writing/speaking with Rachelle’s music?

KDM: Rachelle played the Rachmaninoff Variations over and over, telling me about the “hollow chords of despair, the augmented fourth of yearning, the perilous transitions from dissonance to consonance.” We both cried. As she played the piece, the narrative arc of the music – from sorrow and terror to bewilderment to resolute courage – caught me up and I began to write. My words weave into the silences between the variations or spill on top of the music.

NT: Where has “A Call to Life” taken you? What is the audience response?

KDM: We have performed in a wild variety of venues, from the World Congress for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Hawaii, to the community hall of an Alaskan hamlet half-drowned by the tide. Geographically, we have ranged north to south, from Calgary to Arizona, and east to west, from Wisconsin to Hawaii. We are headed for New York City now, and next year, we will be in Scotland – wherever people invite us to perform.


NT: Why is the fusion of science and art so important in inspiring conservation?

KDM: The truths that science tells us are terrifying. Let’s be honest about that — so terrifying and sorrowful that a natural response is to close your heart against them, to turn away to deflect the blow. So the challenge is to deliver those truths in such a way that they open people’s hearts without breaking them. That is the power of art – it goes directly to the places where we grieve, rejoice, and find courage.

NT: How does this relate to the work of Orion magazine?

KDM: People often ask me: What can one person do to protect this lovely, reeling planet? I always answer, Stop being one person. To join in common cause with people with widely varying expertise, but all with the same creative energy and moral courage, all with the same passion for the planet – that is hugely empowering. That’s what Orion’s fusion of ideas about art, nature, and culture does – it creates a community of caring.

And I would say, a community of courage.  Orion says it straight and strong. It has found, in art and literature, what Rebecca Solnit calls the “joy of insurrection.”


NT: What’s planned for the future of “A Call to Life”?

KDM: We are fully committed to taking this call wherever an organizer can put together a piano and a couple hundred people. We want to carry our message everywhere: The cosmic going-out-of-business sale that we call an economy is a moral outrage, a betrayal of the young ones of all species – and we must stand against it.

Rachelle and I are also expanding our efforts, about to create a new performance focused on bird extinction, using, among other pieces, Sibelius’ Impromptu No. 5. Oh, such music — it will send you out the door, stumbling with grief and resolution, to do what needs to be done to save the winged ones.

As for me, I am working on two new books. One is Breaking Bedrock, a co-edited work on fracking’s impact on human rights. The other is a book of personal essays about ferocious love in a time of dreadful loss on a planetary scale. As for Rachelle, she is in China now, to teach and perform. But we will be back in your area for three performances at the end of October. Then Mesa Refuge in California, the Oregon coast, probably Fairbanks, and others.

Stay updated by following “A Call to Life,” a collaboration of climate action by Kathleen Dean Moore and Rachelle McCabe, on their website here.

Four Questions for the Author: Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence; Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (with Marcus Boon and Eric Cazdyn); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, and other books.

His most recent book, Being Ecological (MIT Press), is “a book about ecology without information dumping, guilt inducing, or preaching to the choir.” I caught up with the author to learn more:

NT: Imagine I’m twelve years old. Explain your book Being Ecological to me in terms I understand.

TM: All of us—all life on Earth, including humans—are going through this horrible event called global warming. The way we talk to each other about it is also pretty horrible. We yell facts thinking that this will inspire and persuade people. We need an ecological language that doesn’t make the person who served me at my local fast food place feel stupid or evil.

Guilt is about individuals. Global warming is a billions-of-people scale problem. Let’s have a conversation about being responsible instead. If you can understand something, then you’re responsible for it. Instead of yelling about evil, let’s help people try on what it feels like to be a scientist: that sense of wonder and weirdness. I hope my book gives you the feeling of having accepted global warming without making you believe in factoids and yelling that we’re doomed.

NT: Your term hyperobjects references entities such as climate change “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Can you connect the dots between your ideas in Being Ecological and hyperobjects?

TM: I hear a lot from people that they like this word, and so do I, because I think it’s very empowering. It’s nice to have a word for something, you know? For example, mass extinction, which is what I sometimes like to call global warming (climate change is way too much of a euphemism for me). You wouldn’t believe how hard it is even for advanced biologists to point to mass extinction because it’s everywhere, because it’s so vast.

Isn’t that amazing? The most horrifying event ever and we can hardly see it. Hyperobjects are physically big and scary but they’re like titans, not gods. You can defeat them. There’s only one global warming.

The human species itself is a hyperobject: a massive heap of things including humans, computers, fields, ideas about humans, interviews in Orion. This heap is vague and can overlap with other heaps. “Hyperobject” is a relative term. To an electron, a glass of water is a hyperobject.

NT: You say that, as a species, we are going through the initial phases of trauma, that we are living in a catastrophic moment in history brought forth, in large part, by our very own species. What does that do to tear us away from gaining a more ecological understanding of our place in the world?

TM: Well, maybe it’s kind of the other way around. I don’t think there’s a fall from grace going on. I think trauma is what ecological awareness feels like, at least at first, if you’re part of some kind of post-Neolithic type “civilization.” How do we go from tragedy mode to comedy mode? Comedy doesn’t mean this is funny. Comedy means you allow all the emotions, not just fear and pity, to coexist, kind of like an emotional equivalent of biodiversity. I think comedy is deeper than tragedy. When you can laugh, you can cry. This is grief work.  

NT: “Parts are Greater Than the Whole.” This is a central thrust of your book. Can you explain how this relates to our understanding of ecology?

TM: The funny thing is, it’s childishly simple to understand, but every time I talk about it I see people getting ready to hit an invisible delete button. We’ve become addicted to this idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we say it to ourselves and sound all clever. But have you ever seen a proof of it?

And what does it really mean?

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

This is so empowering once you accept it. For example, weather is so obviously a symptom of climate. There’s no point at all in wondering whether this or that storm was caused by global warming. Everything is being caused by global warming. But that doesn’t mean that being a symptom of global warming is everything that your local weather is. Weather is this delicious sensation on my arm. Weather is an example of how the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

Neoliberal capitalism now covers most of Earth’s surface and is pretty horrid for most people. But there’s only one of it. This means that the famous line of Shelley, “We are many, they are few,” which Gandhi and King really loved (the poem it’s from is a beautiful hymn of nonviolent direct action) is not only historically accurate, but it’s ontologically true. Deep in the structure of being, not just at this moment in history, there’s so much more “down here” than up there. That’s good, right?

Rewilding your Lawn in the Anthropocene: An Interview with Author Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer, award-winning author of Borne and the Southern Reach Trilogy, is also an avid environmentalist. As part of his desire to make outdoor spaces more habitable for birds and insects, he’s embarked on a yard rewilding project that involves letting native grasses and plants (many of them deemed “weeds” by some less-than-pleased neighbors) take over his lawn.

If you follow the author on Twitter, you may have read his amusing—and educational—anecdotes about the project. Here, we discuss the yard project in more depth, including the benefits a wild yard provides for local wildlife and what others can do to improve their own neighborhood ecosystems.

AB: What inspired you to re-wild your yard?

JV: I was the writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York in 2016 and lived in a house with a very lively bird population. I started putting out feeders. Then Trump was elected president and my stress level went through the roof. We returned to our home in Florida and, to distract myself from the news, I put up a lot of bird feeders and tried to emulate the things that we’d loved about upstate New York.

We got several more birds than in the past, although I’d always been an avid birdwatcher. The feeders made me feel like I could help semi-urban wildlife and migrating birds in the moment, which was important at a time when I felt useless and worn down by the news.

I then began investigating how to make the yard more bird and bee and butterfly friendly. Given that our attempts at a “normal” lawn had always led to bare dirt, I figured nothing would grow. But as soon as we gave the yard over to whatever would naturally grow there, we had a great burgeoning of plant, insect, and animal life. We even have, ironically enough, a fair amount of grass in the yard now.

AB: What do you hope to achieve by doing this? Do you anticipate an environmental impact?

JV: I already know we’re creating a safe haven for migratory birds. We’re also helping to cement a corner of an unacknowledged greenway for raccoons and possums and other nocturnal animals, none of which have been a bother. They also eat insects and are beneficial in other ways. I’ve also seen more toads and frogs and in general a healthy little ecosystem quietly building up. Contrary to the generalizations people make about non-traditional yards, we’ve not seen any ticks. Either the possum eats those or they just aren’t present.

In addition, we’ve had some exciting finds, like Florida lupine growing in one part of the yard. Florida lupine is rare these days and should be encouraged.

Does all this mean much in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know. But it acknowledges that in addition to dealing with things on the macro level, you can support the environment in your own backyard by not using pesticides and, while not letting things look totally unkempt, support life rather than a mono-lawn that nothing else can thrive on.

AB: You’ve said on Twitter that your neighbors are less than thrilled. How would you sum up their response to your yard?

JV: I think it’s accurate to say that the “neighbor complaint” has become in my mind an existential threat from The Neighbor. By that I mean I feel like I need to anticipate the possible objections to what I’m doing, and thus The Neighbor is always on my mind. This is probably very unfair to the actual neighbor in question, which is why I keep everything very anonymous [on Twitter] and try to acknowledge that it’s the system and our assumptions at the neighborhood association and city government level that are flawed.

We also have lots of lovely neighbors, and even the neighbor who complained is not automatically not-lovely. But the system is crap. The fact that I can grow weeds only so long as they’re in a straight line and look like a garden—or put up a white fence around a part of the mayhem to ritualistically create a “lawn”—is hilarious and also a bit depressing to me. A traditional “lawn” is really about signs and symbols and status. What we’re really talking about is whether you admit life onto your property or decide to kill it off.

AB: What kinds of wildlife have entered your yard since starting this project?

JV: In addition to a regular polite possum and raccoon, we have many more bats out at night. We also have a wealth of birds that we didn’t have before. For example, the thrashers are out in force and very comfortable. We’ve had migrating grosbeaks, a first, and we have almost all of the Florida woodpeckers in our yard: downy, hairy, red bellied, flickers, and pileated. They used to be much rarer sightings. We also have a resurgence of snakes and tree frogs and toads of all kinds. We used to have a few skinks, pretty big ones, and now we have a lot more. And more bees. And tons of different kinds of plants—too many for me really to go into. Except, of course, the famous one, Fred the Weed, a giant wild lettuce.

Fred blew down in a storm, but is currently convalescing and plotting his return. I’m only just learning more about the plants in our yard, and some are likely invasive, but I must admit that paying attention to what’s growing in the yard has made landscapes so different for me in general. I used to think of plants as the backdrop for animals, but now I see acutely the plant life and how it’s growing. I feel like when we visit other people’s houses I can tell a lot about them just from the yard. I’m grateful to Jenn Benner, an Orlando friend, who helped me identify a lot of these plants.

AB: Have any of these lifeforms inspired new characters or settings in your writing?  

JV: This sense of plants being in the foreground will definitely seep into my fiction. The fact that I know individual cardinals and individual downy woodpeckers—that I can see them interacting with other individual birds—is also something that will influence my work. Somehow the whole world is now more alive than before, which is, to be honest, also painful, because suddenly I’m aware that even yards that seem green and healthy are actually sterile spaces.

That’s hard to take. It’s also quite frankly hard to take when I find a vole dead in the yard, a victim of some passing cat. Luckily, we don’t get cats much—I chase them away and sometimes squirt them with orange juice, which they hate. In a sense, I feel very connected to this little piece of land and I feel it in my body when something goes wrong.

AB: Do you have any tips for readers who’d like to do something similar with their yards?

JV: I’d say let the space speak to you and really observe what’s going on. Go with the flow of what seems to grow well—don’t try too hard to push back against what nature tells you needs to happen. And before uprooting a plant, make sure you know what you’re doing. Early on I wound up taking out some beneficial plants and leaving some that weren’t from pure ignorance. And be aware that herbicides aren’t really any better than pesticides in many cases.

Bring in a local specialist for a consult, even if you don’t want them to do any actual landscaping. Finally, where possible, do leave some dead leaves around, especially in places in shade, where they’ll help form good habitats for toads and worms. These are really beneficial creatures that will only add to the richness of the place.

AB: Do you have any suggestions for people living in urban and suburban areas who want to have a positive environmental impact but who can’t, for whatever reasons, let their yards grow wild?

JV: You can always do something. Even a few potted plants that your local nursery says are good for butterflies or birds can be of use. Even a small bird feeder can be of use, too. In that case, I’d learn what migratory birds pass through your area, what they tend to eat, and when they tend to appear. Keep in mind that birds might take as long as a month to find a new feeder and deem it safe. Finally, and this is controversial in some areas, keep in mind that outdoor cats do kill lots of birds. There’s no two ways about it. So keep your cat inside if at all possible. If your cat seems too energetic for that, all apologies, but you may need to increase your efforts in engaging and playing with your cat inside.

AB: What has been the most rewarding thing about this project?

JV: Rewilding the yard has largely saved me from situational depression, which means I can be more effective in my other, wider environmental efforts. Also rewarding has been the daily connection, in some form, to our environment. It is so important to our health in general to understand what it is we’re losing and what we need to save and why.


Amy Brady is the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Dallas Morning News, The Awl, Literary Hub, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

Under the Cover: An Interview with Photographer Bjorn Olesen

Magazine covers often have stories of their own. For our Spring 2018 issue, we came across a photo that stopped us in our tracks, one of a spectacled spiderhunter in Borneo. The image had originally been featured in A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife. Editor-in-Chief Chip Blake reached out to its photographer, Bjorn Olesen, for a little background on the capture.

CB: Can you tell us more about the image that appears on the cover of this issue of Orion?

BO: I was in the Penrissen Mountain Range, which sits on a plateau more than 1,000 meters above sea level between the states of Sarawak and Kalimantan in Borneo. I had spent the whole morning trying to capture photos of the Spectacled Spiderhunter. It was a delight to watch these spiderhunters slurping nectar from wild banana flowers, but photographing them was unsuccessful because of bad light.

Just before I was packing up, I heard a chi-chit call from a shady collection of fern and pine trees. I went over to investigate, and there I saw a newly fledged Spectacled Spiderhunter trying to attract the attention of its parents above by calling and flapping its wings. It was one of those moments where everything fell into place for a perfect photographic opportunity.

CB: What are some particular challenges when taking photographs in a place like Borneo?

BO: Taking photographs in the tropical rainforest is always a challenge. Light conditions are rarely good, and on top of this, visibility is often poor. As in many other Asian countries, hunting pressure is often high outside protected areas, resulting in wildlife that is difficult to approach.

CB: What first drew you to work in Borneo in the first place?

BO: One of the first travel books I remember reading was The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, an inspiring publication about Asia’s most spellbinding region. My addiction to Borneo started much later in 1998 when I moved to Southeast Asia. After having climbed Mount Kinabalu, I visited the Kinabatangan River to see the real thing.

CB: Compared to other places you’ve traveled, what’s unique about Borneo? How is it different?

BO: Borneo’s humid rainforests and climate deliver near-perfect conditions for a variety of species to thrive, many of which are endemic to the island. It is this diversity that makes Borneo special. To mention a few: Borneo Pygmy Elephant, the Bornean Orangutan, and 15 other species of primates (not counting humans). Birds are, without a doubt, the most conspicuous elements of Borneo’s fauna, with more than 600 species, 40-60 species of which are endemic.

CB: Looking through your book, I am reminded of 19th-century collecting expeditions that took place in the tropics. It seems that photography has become the new way in which things are collected.

OB: Digital cameras have taken photography to a whole new level, and it is now possible for the general public to take photos of such excellent quality under difficult conditions. In practical terms, this means that we have a much better chance to record rare animals and rare animal behavior, and this can be done without damaging the environment.


About the Photographer: Bjorn Olesen is a retired corporate executive, award-winning wildlife photographer, author, and engaged conservationist. A Singapore resident, he lived for 16 years in Malaysia and Indonesia. His images and articles have appeared in various overseas and local publications, and all of his photos are available free of charge to non-profit NGOs.

About the Book: From the publisher: “Illustrated with more than 350 images, taken by Bjorn Olesen and other wildlife photographers, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is a photographic tribute to the most spectacular wildlife species on the second-largest tropical island on Earth. Based on the latest research, it is filled with captivating little-known facts about the wildlife that modern-day travelers may come across when visiting this enchanting island. It also describes the top 16 wildlife locations in Borneo, with a comprehensive list of recommended reading, websites and blogs provided.”

All royalties from the sale of A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife will be donated to Fauna and Flora International for their nature conservation work in Southeast Asia.

Five Questions for the Author: Brooke Williams, Open Midnight

Brooke Williams’s book Open Midnight (Trinity University Press) is an important meditation on ancestry and the spaces where inner and outer wilderness meet. Williams’s career in conservation spans over thirty years, and Open Midnight is a dedication to better understanding his place in the world through such advocacy, and through the lens of another: the ghost of a great-great grandfather.

I caught up with Williams to ask some questions about Open Midnight, about writing a narrative that braids memoir and fiction, and about some of the book’s prevailing themes.

NT: Open Midnight is a nonfiction book and yet you portray one of its main characters, your great-great grandfather William Williams, as a ghost who joins you along the way. Some of his experiences—meeting Charles Darwin, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean—were some of the book’s most compelling sections. Tell us about the process of rendering him in this book.

BW: I discovered William Williams while looking for my “homeland”—where my ancestors had come from. It turns out he and Charles Darwin were born within a five-minute walk of each other, and a year apart. I found no evidence that they ever met. However, since Darwin has always been a hero of mine, I wanted them to have been friends, so I began drawing two timelines on paper. One line marked the dates of Williams’s life events that I’d researched. The other line marked corresponding dates for Darwin. At the left and right ends of both lines, for example, I marked their births and deaths respectively. I noted when William left for America, when Darwin left on the Beagle, etc. Whenever these two men were in the same place at the same time, I wrote a story about them meeting. As I say in the preface, I don’t know that these meetings actually took place, but I don’t know that they didn’t.

NT: Along a similar thread, Open Midnight explores various thresholds of reality: fiction and nonfiction, inner and outer life, conscious and unconscious, dreaming and waking. What’s the main takeaway here between edge zones, liminality, and wilderness?

BW: My belief is that beneath our civilized lives there exists a wild core, and this applies to each of us as individuals, but also to the landscapes themselves. Immersing oneself in wild places is a way to tap into that wild part, and this, to me, is important because contained in that part of ourselves is an entire evolutionary history, including everything we’ve ever needed to save ourselves.

NT: Evolutionary history references a primary thread I found in Open Midnight, where you follow Charles Darwin, evolution, and human progress. Are modern humans, based on how we’re currently treating the planet, an evolved iteration of our species, or is the reverse the true?

BW: At its simplest, evolution is adaptation to changing conditions. Modern humans—especially white, male, and modern—act as if we are now responsible to guide our troubled species into the future. This is dangerous on many levels. The assumption that we have the capacity to understand, let alone replace, a biological phenomenon that’s been at work for over three billion years is the height of absurdity, arrogance, and danger, and it’s leading us quickly into extinction.

NT: Much of this book is you traveling through wild spaces alone. Actually, it’s often you, your dog, and a ghost. Tell me more about why solitary witnessing of wild places is so important.

BW: That wild core, say that it does exist. And say that it might have the evolutionary answers we need. But say those answers are antithetical to the corporate, for-profit forces now loose upon the world, a paradigm that is doing everything it can to keep us from knowing that wild core. Solitude, then, is a powerful and effective way to quiet the distracting noise that constantly tries to sell us things, to sell us a fake self. Solitude helps us listen better, to listen for how the planet can best make use of us.

NT: It appears you’ve come to the conclusion that wild spaces might actually save us in the end. Why is wilderness necessary? 

BW: Wilderness saves us because of the access it provides to our evolutionary selves living in our core. It is something worth being exposed to, immersed in, and surrounded by. It’s the life force, intact, at work in wilderness, all around all the time, whether or not we’re aware of it. I try to be aware of it, and this awareness must have evolutionary implications.

Brooke Williams has spent the last thirty years advocating for wilderness. He is the author of four books, including Open Midnight, Halflives: Reconciling Work and Wildness, and The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jeffries, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams. His journalistic pieces have appeared in Outside, Huffington Post, Orion, and Saltfront. He and his wife, Terry Tempest Williams, divide their time between Utah and Wyoming.