Orion Blog

Writers, Climate, and the Paris Agreement: A Short Interview with Christopher Merrill

Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and is the author of many books of poetry and nonfiction, including Things of the Hidden God and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. Chris served as the co-editor of Orion’s poetry from 1994 to 2003 and founded the Forgotten Language Tour, a program of Orion that was active in the 1990s. 

A few days after President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Orion editor Chip Blake sat down with Chris for this short interview.

CB: You travel to more different places than anyone I know. Based on what you see and hear, what can you say that explains the differences in the rest of the world’s willingness to take climate change seriously, as opposed to the U.S.’s willingness.

CM: For Americans, climate change can sometimes feel abstract. We can’t imagine, protected as we are by two oceans and enjoying the bounty of natural resources, that we will actually get caught by it. We think it will happen to other people.

I travel a great deal to places in conflict, where it is crystal clear that scarcity of resources and climate change are large contributing factors to the outbreak of wars and the resulting human migration. In parts of Africa, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, climate change is a real concern for people trying to live their lives. It is a tangible thing. Thus when we speak about the civil war in Syria, a precipitating cause of the refugee crisis tearing apart the fabric of the European Union is the war in Syria, we often forget the fact that it was not just a revolt against an authoritarian regime but a consequence of climate-induced drought.

It was thrilling, wasn’t it?, to see almost every nation on earth come together to produce the Paris Agreement, with people working together for the first time to solve the global climate problem. Which makes Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement all the more alarming: it signals to the world that our policy is not just America first, a doctrine rooted in the isolationism and anti-Semitism of the 1930s, but America only. When a large-scale problems occurs, as it inevitably will—let’s say an outbreak of Ebola or avian flu—who will to want to help us? If we forsake our tradition of enlightened self-interest, which among other things led to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II and the decision to bring Germany and Japan back into the community of nations, then we will be lost. Our values count, despite what we hear these days from the Trump administration.

CB: In drawing attention to climate change, what is the role of the writer?

CM: First and foremost, writers bear witness to what’s happening at any given moment. So those who write about human migrations are directly or indirectly addressing the climate issue. Writers also bring a level of complexity to their thinking, and when it comes to migrations and climate change it behooves us to recognize the complexity of the situation. Populism depends on simplifying things, on appeals to our sense of grievance, on summoning our darkest impulses. Writers in their various ways are after something larger. They tap into larger spiritual currents and enduring traditions. They try to figure out what’s right, even as they testify to all the ways in which we fail to act well or fall down. Writers give us a larger and more complex understanding of existence.

CB: Can you make a distinction between the way American writers write about climate, and way non-American writers write about climate?

CM: American writers are to some extent more alert to the threats posed by climate change and the scientific underpinnings of the evidence of climate change. The writers I meet in my travels are dealing more with the symptoms of climate change. My Syrian writing friends, for example, may not write directly about climate change, but they are dealing with the consequences of a brutal civil war spurred by drought.

CB: Where do you find any hope in the way people talk or write about climate?

CM: Writers generally have faith—in their language, in their ability to ferret out the truth, in their determination to document how people do or do not listen to their better angels. Directing the international writing program, I am surprised and heartened by the ways in which writers coming from dire circumstances make sense of what is happening around them. We have hosted writers from Afghanistan who live in horrendous conditions, and yet write with a kind of joy. A novelist from Damascus, Khaled Khalifa, told me early in the war that he felt obliged to testify to what is happening to his country. Not long ago, the Bangladeshi novelist, Anisul Hoque, who warned about the effects of rising sea levels, found himself in the Islamists’ crosshairs, his photograph plastered on the front page of a newspaper with a caption ordering the faithful to kill him. He sought refuge in this country, staying only long enough for the immediate threat to pass and then returning to Dhaka to continue his vital work, albeit accompanied now by armed guards. And I think today of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who endured one tragedy after another, insisting all the while on bearing witness to what was happening in Soviet Russia. Her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, said that in her work one hears “the note of controlled terror”—which is a note that every writer might hope to sing. Her heroism and her poems inspire. •

Learn More:
Read Chris Merrill’s “The New Face of War” (May/June 2013)
Visit the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa

Brian Doyle (1956-2017)

Brian Doyle (1956-2017)

I first encountered Brian Doyle when I was an editorial intern and then departments editor at Orion. He was such a prolific contributor that we had to institute a “Doyle Rule,” limiting authors to one Coda a year. Without it, he would have closed out every issue, and as it was, we usually had a couple of years’ worth of them lined up well in advance. But what I remember most about Brian then was how incredibly charming, generous, and genuine he was, even to a newbie intern. And he was that way with everyone.

On May 27 Brian sailed on to a new dimension. Brian was a friend to many, and a father, husband, son, and brother to a very lucky few. He was a storycatcher, a writer and editor who saw a good lesson or yarn in every direction he looked, and a guy who was constantly, delightedly, gobsmacked by wonder and grace, especially grace under duress. He was also a deeply spiritual, hawk-obsessed, hoops-loving, wine-sipping, run-on sentence-using, mustelid aficionado who laughed and wept in equal measure, and often punctuated his spoken sentences with this funny little mmm sound. It is the exact noise I would expect a small bespectacled mammal in an Irish children’s book to make as he enjoyed a taste of honey on a breezy summer day, and I know the great BD would grin at that thought.

I cannot pretend to have known Brian so well as many others, but we did keep in frequent touch after I moved back west, enjoying the odd lunch together when I passed through Portland, and exchanging years of his signature bright and brief email correspondences. Sometimes he’d pass along job announcements or ask what I was writing lately, and often enough I’d ask him to send something new to make me laugh. When he requested a photograph of my infant son, he responded with a simple and immediate: Ahahahaha! A fatty!

And so, my heart has been with him every day these past few months as his light began to flicker and shift. In my thoughts, I have spent many walks pointing out birds to him, and many nights in vigil at his bedside. I have read a dozen of his books and countless essays over the last two months, (this for a project about which I hope to have good news to share soon,) and the regular updates I’ve received from close mutual friends have left me by turns heartbroken, astounded, humbled, and incredibly moved and inspired by the love and grace of the Family Doyle. That is to say, he has occupied my daily thoughts, and facilitated some new friendships in a very real and meaningful way that has left me changed. And I know I’m not alone in this, because Brian, and his words, have moved so many people.

I have a long list of personal favorites when it comes to Brian’s essays, some of which you can read here, here, and here, or simply take a tour through some of his best Orion contributions right here. But a couple of weeks before he passed I found this one at the end of the last book in my pile, and it made me shiver. He died on a Saturday morning, and I heard the news with a baby sleeping in my arms. I looked down and remembered that morning I had dressed him in an otter shirt, thinking it was a day for otters. And so it was.

Brian, you are missed, even as you live on.

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Last Prayer
By Brian Doyle

Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever.

Personally I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!

And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we would not have children but then came three children fast and furious!

And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!

And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.

I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small. But no man was ever more grateful for Your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.

But hey, listen, can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life–make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay? Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon.

Remember–otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.

Five Questions for Michael Branch, Winner of the 2017 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award

Last week, I posed five questions to Michael Branch, Orion friend and contributor, winner of the 2017 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and author of Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness and Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert, out in June from Roost Books. The photographs below were taken near Branch’s home in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Tell us about your most recent project, Raising Wild, and about parenting with such deep intention and land ethic in Nevada’s Great Basin. What are some opportunities and challenges you’ve faced as a father, professor, and wilderness lover, in an era of wholesale digital distraction, funneling urbanization, and—hell, why not—mass extinction?

I appreciate your term “deep intention,” though I must admit that parenting often strikes me more as a kind of controlled free fall. Even the term “parenting” sounds more deliberate, certain, and authoritative than my own experience of it has been. I’ve written that “parenting, like jazz, is the art of improvisation.” You have a sense of the general rhythm, a kind of destination in mind, but the heart and soul of being a parent is seizing opportunities to riff and jam as they open up. For me, learning to be a father has been very similar to learning to dwell in the high desert. I’ve acquired new habits of attention, new ways of understanding and traversing the landscape, but mostly I just work to keep myself open to those moments of growth or insight that you can never fully anticipate. My favorite thing about parenting is that it demands spontaneity. It seems to me an endless string of interesting surprises. Raising Wild doesn’t pretend to give parenting advice. Far from it! It is instead an attempt to share the humbling, funny, and enlightening experiences I’ve had while being a father to two young daughters out in these remote, high desert wildlands.

As for the challenges, they are legion! The funniest of these challenges is the way my kids’ questions about what I believe and why I live as I do expose all kinds of embarrassing inconsistencies in my own behavior. The most innocent question from a little kid can instantly explode the elaborate self-image we’ve spent years cultivating and nurturing. I find that useful and, often, hilarious. The more serious challenge, of course, is how to be honest with children about the condition of the world we’re leaving them without at the same time paralyzing them with fear. Like love and creativity, hope is essential to action. Our kids need information, but they also need a vision for the future. In my experience, kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and more likely to believe that they can do better than we’ve done. I hope they’re right about that, and I believe they are.

Photos by: Eryn Branch

What are some of the most important action items or sweeping take-aways you hope the reader of Raising Wild will receive?

I suppose if I had to break it down I’d say there are three things most important to me about this book. The first is to offer a spirited defense of high desert landscapes. There’s a reason the Great Basin is the place where hundreds of nuclear weapons were tested during the Cold War—the same reason why Nevada is now the proposed repository for our nation’s high-level nuclear waste. This is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically diverse natural environment, but so long as it is viewed according to the usual stereotypes of barrenness and emptiness, it will continue to play the role of expendable landscape. I hope the book helps question these uninformed, negative views of the high desert. If I can help readers to reform their aesthetic assumptions about this place, I might also be able to help defend it against continued use as a national sacrifice zone.

“This is not a pastoral, Wordsworthian retreat. It is a bright, hard desert environment that is forcefully shaping my daughters, even as they are also shaping me.”

Second, I hope that Raising Wild helps readers think about the relationship between children and nature in ways that differ from the usual. By the usual, I mean that many books interested in kids and nature either bemoan a younger generation’s loss of contact with the natural world, or sentimentally wax rhapsodic about the angelic nature of children. I have moments of sympathy with both of these approaches, but my own interest is in looking at what we grown-ups can learn from the sort of playful, spontaneous interactions our kids have with the world around them. Part of that story must include scorpions and rattlers, bobcats and mountain lions, wildfires and blizzards. This is not a pastoral, Wordsworthian retreat. It is a bright, hard desert environment that is forcefully shaping my daughters, even as they are also shaping me.

Perhaps most important, I hope this book makes people laugh—gives them permission to laugh, and helps them to laugh at a time when so many of us are very much in need of laughter. I’ve been discouraged that environmental writing has continued to operate almost obsessively in the territory of anger and grief. In a world threatened by global climate change and rampant biodiversity loss, there can be no question that we should be both furious and wounded. But my job as a writer is to think not only about my own feelings, but also about the feelings of my readers. And many of my readers are exhausted, discouraged defenders of social and environmental justice whose pleasure in the world is too often sapped by their efforts to defend the world. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in environmental activism. We must! But I see comedy as a life-giving, community building, healthy, liberating alternative. If I can help readers to laugh, I think I’m contributing in a small way to the kind of sustainability that we need to nurture in ourselves as well as in our environmental practice. Laughter helps us survive to fight another day. I hope my work—especially my new book, Rants from the Hill—deploys humor in ways that help readers through what is for many of us a very trying time in our culture’s relationship to the natural world.

Let’s talk craft. You’re a prolific writer—you’ve published eight books, and over 200 essays and reviews. What are some ways you’ve discovered to sustain your creative practice? Writing place-based narrative seems to hinge largely on one’s capacity to notice, to be fiercely attentive. How in your hyper-engaged life do you find time for all the beautiful work you keep sharing with us?

I’m trying to figure this out myself, and I still have a great deal to learn. How do we make sure that in our attempt to be productive we don’t lose the opportunity to be creative? How do we balance writing time with family time, alone time, and outdoor time? How do we work to protect the environment while also making sure we find ways to actively enjoy it? How do we ensure that the excitement and stimulation of a busy, active life doesn’t drown out the quieter moments we need to connect with ourselves, our family, our place? That’s a constant balancing act, and not something I have a formula for. If you figure it out, please let me know your secret!

“I write about the high desert not only because I want other people to value this place, but because I’m endlessly fascinated by it.”

One thought I might share, though, is that the closer your work is to what you want to be thinking about, caring for, or aspiring to, the easier it is to be productive without feeling drained. This may sound obvious, but recognizing the wisdom of this insight and acting on it are two very different things. I write about the high desert not only because I want other people to value this place, but because I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I write about my daughters not because I have a parenting agenda I want to impose on readers, but rather because I enjoy the way writing about my kids helps me to understand and celebrate the richness of my relationship with them and the more-than-human world. And I’m a humorist not only because I like to make people laugh, but also because humor writing forces me to see the comedy in a world that is too often tragic. In my experience, the burnout we assume to be the inevitable price of productivity can be avoided if you can find a way to do the kind of work that feeds your imagination.

Who provides a guiding voice for you? Who have you sought advice and mentorship from, and what consistent attributes do those guides carry?

There are too many folks to name! The acknowledgements section of Raising Wild and also my new book, Rants from the Hill, begins this way: “Writers are very much in need of friends…” It’s true! Most important is my family, because these are the people who know me better than I know myself, who can temper my disappointments and help me remember what matters and what doesn’t. And, after all, distinguishing what matters from what doesn’t must be the chief art of a life.

Of course there are many writers, musicians, filmmakers, activists, and teachers whose work has inspired me. And many of these folks have graced the pages of Orion. But if I had to isolate one attribute that my most valued mentors—among whom I include my father—have had in common, it is an ability to not take themselves too seriously. Or, to put it another way, these mentors have helped me take myself less seriously. Caring, passionate people often feel a tremendous sense of urgency, which leads to a tendency to feel that everything is a sort of life-or-death proposition. And while that intensity can fuel good work, it can also lead to the sort of detonation we all need to help each other avoid. My best mentors have reminded me not only of what matters, but also of what doesn’t.

You were a cofounder of ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) and have built a robust life writing about the natural world and our interface with it. For decades you’ve seen how stories respond to and help co-create our experience of the natural world. What do you think is the future of ecological storytelling, especially given a future of runaway climate change and great uncertainty?

Having a front-row seat to what is going on in environmental politics these days is enough to make any sensible person pine for the nosebleed seat behind the pillar. It is hell out there right now. But, as always, it is also heaven. I think we have to make hard choices about how to temper our anger and grief with responses that can help us protect the world without destroying ourselves or each other. I understand why this may sound naïve to some folks, but for me there has to be hope and laughter along with the frustration and disappointment. ASLE is a good example of a community of folks that, much like the Orion community, finds ways to fight the hard fights while also buoying and supporting each other in the work. That network of mutual support is vitally important.

Our stories! We need to tell better ones, because stories don’t just express, they create. They don’t only share the experience of the past, but also imagine the world of the future. Raising Wild is full of stories, many of which are themselves about stories—about how and why we tell them, how they liberate or constrain us, how they tether us to the more-than-human world, and what they sometimes magically call into being and too often fail entirely to imagine. Because stories are the way we conceive and communicate the world to ourselves and to each other, we need stories that are more attentive, appreciative, compassionate, informed, and—I’ll say it out loud—funnier.


Learn More:

Read or listen to Branch’s Orion feature “The Adventures of Peavine and Charlie”
Visit Michael Branch’s author page
Explore more “5 Questions” Orion blog posts

The Winner of the 2016 Orion Book Award: “The Soul of an Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery

soulofanoctopus_bigcoverThe Orion Book Award is presented each year to books that deepen readers’ connection to the natural world through fresh ideas and excellence in writing. This year, we’re very excited to give the top honor to Sy Montgomery, an author we’ve admired for decades and whose latest book represents her writing at its very best.

In The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Montgomery introduces us to the incredible intelligence and physical capacities of octopuses, an animal whose biology and behavior suggest a kind of alien mind. But the real joy of this book—and of all of Montgomery’s writing—is the author’s ability to build emotional connections between herself, her subject, and her readers. Montgomery writes with such warmth, curiosity, and humanity that our understanding of the cold world of these beautiful animals is utterly transformed.

The Soul of an Octopus is published by Atria Books; learn more about the book, and purchase a copy, here. Congratulations, Sy!

Of course, this year’s winner and finalists represent only a fraction of the terrific books published in 2015 about the connection between nature and culture. Here’s a short list of some of our other favorites, including the finalists for this year’s award:

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett

The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, Summer Brennan (finalist)

The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, Thor Hanson

The Tusk That Did the Damage: A Novel, Tania James

The Wake: A Novel, Paul Kingsnorth

H Is for Hawk: A Memoir, Helen MacDonald (finalist)

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley: Stories, Ann Pancake

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Lauret Savoy

Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, Simran Sethi

What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice, Wen Stephenson

A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, Meera Subramanian (finalist)

The Jaguar’s Children: A Novel, John Valiant

Far Enough: A Western in Fragments, Joe Wilkins

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Learn more about the Orion Book Award, including its past winners and finalists, here. Congratulations to the authors of this year’s top books!

The 2016 Orion Book Award Finalists

Since 2007, Orion has given an annual award to books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about the relationship between people and nature, and achieve excellence in writing.

Read about previous years’ winners and finalists here—and congratulations to this year’s contenders!

The winner will be announced on October 17.

 

Finalists:

riverrunsagain_coverA River Runs Again
India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka
Meera Subramanian
(PublicAffairs)

 

 

 

 

soulofanoctopus_coverThe Soul of an Octopus
A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Sy Montgomery
(Atria Books)

 

 

 

 

oysterwar_coverThe Oyster War
The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America
Summer Brennan
(Counterpoint Press)

 

 

 

 

hisforhawk_coverH Is for Hawk
A Memoir
Helen Macdonald
(Grove Press)