Orion Blog

Four Winged Poems to Celebrate National Poetry Month

THIS TIME OF YEAR, the birds catch my attention and hold it. The robins are back, or maybe they’re just bolder. I see them most in this early spring season, when the worms are warming up out of the soil. The goldfinches are muted still, their diets not yet offering the delights that turn their plumage bright. And the mourning doves are crying all day long.

I love how focused I can be on the birds right now, without the distraction of foliage to block me from seeing them clearly. I love the way that watching them helps slow me down. This time of year, life can start to seem crowded and hectic. The school term is almost over, though there is still much work to complete. Longer days seem to come with more demands. I am grateful, then, for the birds. Grateful for the nuthatches who duck behind the arborvitae then pop out again with a precise attention honed, perhaps, by hunger. Grateful for the pair of finches whose coupled flights to the feeder entertain us every morning. They offer new ways of seeing the world.

Here are some poems I’ve selected for you:
 
 

  The Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Jane Satterfield, Autumn 2020 issue.
  His Eye on the Sparrow, Airea D. Matthews, Autumn 2020 issue.
  The Hummingbird, Blas Falconer, Winter 2020 issue.
  from Separation Anxiety, Janice Lee, Spring 2021 issue.

 

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Behind the Cover: Nikki McClure

 

NIKKI MCCLURE IS AN ARTIST and writer based in Olympia, Washington, and our featured artist for the Spring 2021 cover. McClure’s latest book, 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea, features some of her favorite creatures with whom she lives in Washington. We connected with McClure to learn about the cover’s backstory and about her illustrations in the magazine, set alongside a television script by Rachel Carson. 

 

Can you tell us how this lucky cumulus cloud made the cover?

The assignment was an experiment. I usually work with black paper, but clouds are never solid black. And if I cut out the shape of the cloud, the cloud would be a hole; it would be nothing. But clouds are there.

I painted sheets of lovely handmade Japanese papers with sumi ink: bark and soot. I cut this paper into cloud shapes. The first clouds I cut were robustly cumulous. They were cartoon clouds, the clouds that I thought clouds were. I went outside and drew clouds, lots of clouds, all kinds of clouds, training my hand to open up to all the shape possibilities of clouds. I then started cutting clouds after my hand had been trained. I’d run outside to photograph them, holding them up to the blue sky because a soot painted paper cloud looked more alive when held up to the deep blue of space. I sent these photos to Orion to share my experiments. Look at this cloud! How about this cloud? How about this one? Send Orion enough pictures of clouds held up to the sky and they’ll ask you to do the cover.

 

 

Once I knew I was taking photos for the cover, the play became work. I had to worry about light and wind crinkling the paper or bending it backward—it is not stiff paper!

I would reach back far enough and high enough with my phone to not see the opposite shore, and try to touch the right part of the screen with my thumb to take a picture. The other hand would be holding onto the cloud and trying to make it stay flat and not curl with the wind.

 

 

I’d run down to the beach each perfect moment, sometimes in my slippers, to catch the cloud with a rainbow behind it. But Orion decided it should be at sunset or sunrise. Sunrise, where I live, happens behind a forested hill. I never see the morning glow. Sunset is easier. I live on a beach that faces west and the sky is expansive for the forested Northwest. But the sun is setting there and the paper would be backlit. And it was winter. Sometimes the sky is gray for weeks and the rain lasts all day.

The cloud on the Spring 2021 cover was the cloud that survived all that. For the final cover, a background sky was added by Orion. The winter sky in Olympia, Washington, proved to be too unpredictable, too wild to photograph by myself. In a pandemic. On a wet rainy beach.

 

 

In “Head in the Clouds,” your illustrated piece in the Spring 2021 issue, I love Rachel Carson’s depiction of clouds as an airborne ocean moving right above our heads. Ocean below, ocean above. Water on all sides, the texture of moving currents in the sky as cloud scripture. In your illustrations you seem so masterfully to blur these lines, as Carson did in her writing and thinking, between cloud and ocean, sea and sky, human and more than human.

I swam in the ocean all winter. November. December. January. I kept swimming. My favorite way to swim is to have my eyes set at the water’s edge, in the space between sky and sea. Winter swimming has bigger waves from stronger and denser winds. I love it more than summer swimming. The relationship between clouds and sea and me is intimate. I also sail and am the most timid of the crew, so I am the one always looking to the sky and reading the clouds and watching gusts darken the water. I count to twenty to know that they will pass and we won’t capsize. I am the one who reads the weather. I listen to the weather forecasts, jot them down, and know three ideal anchorages at all times.

 

 

Yet I am also the one who hangs on to the boat rail to feel my toes cut into the water. I love feeling the waves inside me. Swimming or sailing on rough water, the waves slosh the cells of me. I can feel it for hours, days afterward, this memory of the sea. So it was natural to respond to Rachel’s writing of the airborne ocean with water and sea images. She felt it, too. And I call her Rachel because I really did feel that I was collaborating with her. I imagined sharing my experiments with her and getting her feedback. I imagined walking into the water with her and swimming with her. Rachel wears her hat in the water. I wear mine. We dive in and talk about clouds and feel the effect of them overhead. Clouds make wind. Wind makes waves. We have a continent between us, and death, and time, but we collaborated on this project. It was an honor to work with her.

 

 

The last time Orion published your work it was in collaboration with a Mary Oliver poem, a person whose words were influential to your life. How has Rachel Carson shaped your worldview, your creative life?

Silent Spring. When I take rainy morning walks, I see earthworms crawling across the road. To find drier accommodations? Out on their morning walk as well? I carefully pick them up. I touch them and wait for them to wriggle into a loop to pick them up from the rough road without squishing them. I carry the worms to the forest and find a softer, drier bit of ground under a maple tree for them to continue their progress. Robins party overhead and I think of Rachel Carson then. She was brave and strong. Maybe an introvert? She noticed. She wrote. She spoke and she did not look away. I need to read her again. I am nearing the age she was when she died. I want to think with her and feel with her. It is why I have subscribed to Orion for twenty years. Orion continues her voice.

So much of your work seemed calibrated on subtraction, on cutting away to the essentials, to clearing out as opposed to adding to.

Yes. I like “calibrated.” It makes it sound like I plan it all out with a micrometer when I don’t do that much planning. I sketch, then draw on the paper, then cut to draw out shapes and lines to the essential line.

For this assignment, I worked with painted paper. The more I tried to paint what I wanted, the worse it looked. So I let the vagueness of the ink suggest, rather than tell the story. The paper told me what to do. I also couldn’t draw on the paper because I couldn’t erase the pencil lines without making the paper fuzzy or smudging away the ink. I had to just go for it. So I played. I just let go and played. It was an experiment and you fail all the time experimenting. It was fun not knowing what would happen. No calibration! Just a knife dancing across paper.

 

 

Living in Olympia, perhaps you’re all too familiar with cloud cover. Sometimes I find people describing clouds as little more than that which obscures us from the sun, the light. Do you see clouds as obscurations, or more in the revealing, celebratory way of wonder, the way Carson sees clouds?

I know clouds more than I know blue sky. Living in Olympia is living with clouds. Yesterday, the fog swirled like smoke as it dissipated. Today the skies are white and there is a fine rain. Rachel’s depiction of currents and waves in the ocean sky widened my perception and connection to the whole Earth. This sky above me, these clouds, are part of a whole system swirling and moving, bringing rain and sun, wind and cloud, pushing and creating.

 

 

Awareness of air currents expanded last summer with the West Coast ablaze with fire. We were concerned not just about the weather today, but from what direction the wind would be blowing, what the air quality index was. We wore respirators outside. But that is not wonder. That is hard scientific reality that we are air-breathing organisms who suffer lung damage from smoke and every year there will be fires burning drier and drier forests.

Wonder? Celebration? We survive and yes, we will again lie on the grass with a small child, smelling sweet warm sunshine and making clouds into shapes that change from elephant to whale before our eyes. We will laugh at the duck pulling a train that now is a snake and the duck breaks off and dissipates into what? Was it there? Where did it go? We will always wonder. O

 

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Young Readers Ask: All We Can Save

Young Readers Ask is an Orion web series where young readers interview authors about books.

 

GERONIMO LAVALLE, age nine, is a fourth grader at Dos Puentes, a public dual-language elementary school in Washington Heights, New York City. He prefers animals to humans and looks forward to volunteering at the Manhattan Animal Care Center when the pandemic is over. His favorite podcast is Story Pirates, and he’s currently rereading the Harry Potter series.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and Brooklyn native. She is cofounder of the nonprofit think tank Urban Ocean Lab, codirector of the climate initiative The All We Can Save Project, and cohost of the podcast How to Save a Planet. Her mission is to build community around climate solutions.

Geronimo LaValle interviewed Dr. Johnson about a new anthology she coedited with Katharine K. Wilkinson, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (One World, September 2020).

From the publisher: “All We Can Save illuminates the expertise and insights of dozens of diverse women leading on climate in the United States—scientists, journalists, farmers, lawyers, teachers, activists, innovators, wonks, and designers, across generations, geographies, and race—and aims to advance a more representative, nuanced, and solution-oriented public conversation on the climate crisis. These women offer a spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can rapidly, radically reshape society.” 

 

 

Geronimo LaValle: Is there a way to give a medicine to keep coral alive?

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Right now, the most important medicine to keep corals alive is seawater at their favorite temperature, because corals get stressed out and can die when the water gets too hot. The best way to keep the water from getting too hot is to address climate change by (1) stopping the burning of fossil fuels, and (2) protecting and restoring ecosystems that absorb lots of excess carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise warm the planet and the ocean. 

There are lots of other steps we can also take to help keep corals healthy. We can protect the areas where they live by establishing parks in the ocean where fishing and drilling and mining are prohibited. We can protect the species that help keep reefs healthy, like parrotfish that eat algae off of coral reefs with their beak-like mouths. And they poop sand (some species over 800 pounds of it per year!), keeping beaches beachy. 

Some scientists are also experimenting with putting up sun shields to protect corals from the sun on really hot days, and breeding corals that are better able to withstand the heat. That might help on a local scale, but since there are coral reefs all over the tropics, intensive options like this probably won’t work on a global scale.

GL: I’m worried the world is already too destroyed to get better.  How can we convince people to stop polluting the ocean with plastic?

AEJ: A lot of people already know that plastic is bad for the environment, and for the ocean in particular. The big problem is “single-use” plastic that is meant to be used only once, like straws or candy wrappers or grocery bags—these are very hard to recycle! So, yes, we should each reduce, reuse, and recycle. But right now, for lots of products, there aren’t yet good alternatives to plastic. For example, if you want to buy a bag of chips, they almost always come in a plastic bag. (And I really like chips.)

GL: Me, too. Sour cream and onion is my favorite flavor.

AEJ: We need to shift the focus from individual people who consume plastic (many of whom are doing their best and are just too busy or overwhelmed to focus on plastic) to the big companies who are making plastic. Getting these corporations to stop polluting the ocean with plastic is going to be hard, because right now they are making heaps of money by turning fossil fuels into plastics. And much of the plastic they make is packaging that gets used only once before it is thrown away and then takes hundreds of years to break down, hurting the environment in the process. So we need to get together and put pressure on the companies and the government to change their policies. We need to push for better recycling, more environmentally friendly materials (like making packaging out of seaweed!), and to stop plastic before it gets to the ocean. 

GL: Are there sea creatures who can help us de-pollute the ocean?

AEJ: Yes! Shellfish—like oysters, clams, and mussels—are excellent de-polluters. These types of animals are called “filter feeders,” meaning they get their food by filtering nutrients and plankton (teeny animals and plants) out of the seawater. So, as they go about their normal day, they filter out things like some of the excess agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that run down rivers to the sea and cause pollution. 

Sea creatures can also help us de-pollute the ocean by absorbing carbon dioxide pollution. About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that is released by burning greenhouse gases gets absorbed by the ocean, which ends up making seawater more acidic. Shellfish are important for carbon pollution too because they absorb it to build their shells, but ocean plants like seaweeds and mangroves and sea grasses are the real heroes for absorbing carbon pollution in the ocean. However, right now there is too much pollution and these creatures can’t keep up. So, to give the ocean a break, we need to strengthen and enforce the laws that prevent pollution.

 

 

GL: Why aren’t more Black women marine biologists?

AEJ: Let’s start with the false reasons. It’s not because Black people and women love the ocean less, and it’s not because Black women aren’t interested in becoming marine biologists. It’s because Black women have less access to the training and advice and funding that would help them make their marine biologist dreams come true. Between racism and sexism and all the factors of America’s brutal history that have disadvantaged both Black people and women, there are just lots of hurdles to overcome. 

Despite these hurdles, there are a bunch of us Black women marine biologists out there, and some of them recently created a group called Black in Marine Science. Here is their website so you can learn more about some of them and about their scientific research.

GL: How did you become a marine biologist?

AEJ: When I was five years old, I went on a family vacation to Key West, Florida. My parents took me for a ride on a glass-bottom boat and I got to see a coral reef for the first time. It was amazing!

GL: I’ve been there, too! I held a sea star and I petted a nurse shark.

AEJ: I got to hold a sea urchin in my hand and feel its hundreds of tube feet crawling on my palm. My mind was blown. I fell madly in love with the ocean and decided right then to become a marine biologist. 

After that, it was a combination of being stubborn and lucky and working really hard that made my dream come true. I took a lot of science classes, I asked a lot of questions, I read a lot of scientific articles, and I did my own research and wrote my own articles. To get a PhD, you have to write a really long report called a dissertation that explains all the research you’ve done—I did my research in the Caribbean, trying to figure out how to sustainably manage coral reefs, and my dissertation was 202 pages long with lots and lots of graphs.

GL: That’s long. That’s as long as a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.

AEJ: Then you give a lecture that explains your dissertation. A group of professors read the report and listen to your lecture and then, if they decide it’s good enough, you earn a doctorate degree and then you are a doctor of marine biology.

GL: How can we make the ocean cooler again?

AEJ: The first step to making the ocean cooler is to stop making it warmer. Again, the most important steps are to stop burning fossil fuels and to protect and restore ecosystems—really that would solve so many things! Burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, which traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Much of this heat is then absorbed by the ocean, warming its waters. If it weren’t for the ocean helping to absorb all this excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, Earth would be 36°C hotter. We’ve got to switch from getting our energy from burning fossil fuels to getting our energy from renewable sources like the wind. This switch to renewable energy is already under way and we’ve got to get lots of people involved in the work so we can make it all happen super-duper fast. 

GL: But not enough people are helping! And the fossil fuel people don’t care. Melting glaciers scare me because I think I will drown. Can people help the glaciers to stop melting?

AEJ: Sea level rise scares me sometimes, too. The planet is changing a lot because of climate change and it is important to make plans for how to stay safe. But the good news is that the sea level is not going to rise so fast that you will drown. According to scientists’ best estimates, sea level will rise somewhere from 0.5 to 2 meters over the next eighty years. So you will have plenty of time to move out of the way. Similar to the previous question about ocean heat, the best thing we can do for our melting glaciers is to switch to clean, renewable energy, and to protect and restore ecosystems. 

We need to focus on planning to make sure towns and cities near the coast have a way to help people move to higher ground. It’s going to take a lot of effort to figure out how to do this, so we should start now. My contribution to helping to figure this out was to cofound a nonprofit organization called Urban Ocean Lab to get lots of smart folks working together on this topic.

GL:  Can we keep sharks and other sea animals okay even if Earth gets warmer?

AEJ: The sad answer is that they won’t all be okay. Some sea animals are able to adapt to warmer waters better than others. Bowhead whales, for example, are actually doing better now that the ocean has warmed up a little because it has allowed for their food source, little creatures called krill, to grow. Some species of fish are adapting by moving toward the poles to find cooler waters. But some animals, like corals, can’t just swim to a better spot. Overall, just like humans, every species has a specific range of temperatures where it is comfortable, so we should be doing everything we can to keep the ocean’s temperature as close to that comfort zone as possible.

GL: What are scientists like you doing to help the ocean and the land?

AEJ: Beyond conducting research to help understand exactly what is going on and how to best prepare for the changes that are coming, scientists are doing something else that is extremely important: we are talking to people about climate solutions. Most people in the U.S. know that climate change is happening, but only a fraction of those people believe that climate change will affect them in their lifetime. But, in fact, climate change is affecting us today, and the faster we switch to clean, renewable energy and protect and restore ecosystems, the safer and healthier we will all be.

So we’ve got to talk about all the solutions we have—from solar and wind power, to regenerative farming, to more public transit and bicycling, to packaging made of things like seaweed instead of fossil fuel–based plastics, to more energy-efficient appliances, to planting trees, to creating more parks to protect nature, to electing politicians who are committed to making sure we have great climate policies. It is important to talk about all this stuff so that we understand what’s going on and then think about what we can each do to help.

GL: We can use electric cars, and they should make them less expensive and faster.

AEJ: Talking about solutions, about all the things we can do, is way less scary than doing nothing and worrying about it. And it feels really good to team up with friends and family and each do our part to make these big solutions happen. You certainly don’t need to be a scientist to help. Everyone has a role they can play, and it’s up to each of us to figure out how to best use our skills and resources to contribute. And the best news of all is that it can be fun! If you team up with people you like, the work of dealing with climate change can be super interesting and creative and joyous. Sometimes I feel like that’s the best kept secret of it all. 

GL: Maybe it would take a big group of people because humans have polluted Earth so much.

 

 

A follow-up note from Geronimo’s mother, Emily Raboteau: Although All We Can Save is above Geronimo’s reading level, I appreciated that its solution-oriented approach to the climate crisis may help with his climate anxiety about living in a coastal city. I read the book with gratitude and summarized parts of it for him, based on his questions and concerns. I also showed him Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s TED Talk, “A Love Story for the Coral Reef Crisis,” to prepare him for this conversation. 

 

This Young Readers Ask was coproduced by Orion reviews editor Kerri Arsenault and Orion contributing editor Emily Raboteau.

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Questions for the Author: Matthew Gavin Frank, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers

SIX YEARS AGO, back in April of 2015, author Matthew Gavin Frank came to DePaul University, here in Chicago where I teach, to read in the Visiting Writers Series from his then-new nonfiction book Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. NPR called that book “an act of love and erudition.” As I listened to him read, I was struck by the accuracy of that description in the way that Frank set out not merely to teach his audience about the amateur naturalist Moses Harvey and his tentacled subject, but also how much passion and admiration he clearly possessed for both man and beast.

When his latest book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa was about to be released and he reached out to see if I’d be interested in being in conversation with him at his Chicago event, I leapt at the chance. Having admired his work for years, I was thrilled to hear that he had turned his lyrical ear and investigative skills to a subject near to my own heart: homing pigeons. Slim, dense, and poetically lilting, Frank blends memoir and research to craft an account of the rapacious corporate avarice inflicted by DeBeers on the geography of this area and the people and animals who call it home.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of five nonfiction books and three poetry collections. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Northern Michigan University, where he also serves as the Hybrids/Nonfiction editor of Passages North. In early March, we spoke by email about how trained homing pigeons have come to be some of the world’s smallest smugglers, how the diamond industry has concocted its false narrative of scarcity, and how common and even “ubiquitous” things can become quite extraordinary when we begin to pay attention.

 

You’re dealing with material that could potentially be exoticized or romanticized, but you don’t do that. How did you settle on this clear-eyed, matter-of-fact approach, and were you ever tempted to go bigger or become more sentimental about the land itself, the child smuggler Msizi, or the birds?

Well, there was little romance in the worlds and constructs I was researching. Often, I didn’t feel as if I needed to lard observation with undo sentiment. Turning these issues (as they pertain to the inhumane and environmentally destructive side effects of corporate colonialism) into something romantic would seem disingenuous. I didn’t want to mitigate the impacts of real atrocity with romance. I felt the beauty of the birds could be evoked simply by watching them on the page, without overstatement. And I wanted to honor Msizi’s voice and stay out of the way when he was telling his story. His story doesn’t need my constant running commentary in order to illuminate or romanticize it.  

What was your relationship to, or stance on, diamonds before you started writing this book, and did it change as you got more into the project?

Before researching and writing this book, I had no real thoughts about diamonds. I never considered them. I discovered what was to become the subject matter for this book serendipitously—during a conversation with a former diamond diver in a bar one night in Port Nolloth, South Africa, after which I became obsessed.

He told me about the ways in which workers would sometimes use trained homing pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of the mines, and that if pigeons are overloaded with too much weight, they can lose their natural GPS, and begin landing at random. This happened along coastal South Africa—diamond-bearing pigeons dropping from the sky onto the local beaches. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. A rain of birds, burdened with gems. It was that image that eventually led me to investigate further. And the more research I did, the more I began to feel that diamonds—and our near-mythologizing of them, our compulsion to turn them into a symbol—have compelled us to do damage to each other, tipsy on greed and false narratives.

Relatedly, why do people tend to love and obsess over diamonds?

Most simply, when cut and polished, they’re pretty rocks. They’re shiny. The eye is drawn to something that catches the light and refracts it. But I feel the main reason pertains to De Beers’ business practices and marketing machine. The corporation was permitted to buy the entire output of the South African diamond fields. After paying off government officials—and often infiltrating the government themselves—they were allowed to completely control the release of gems onto the world market.

Diamonds are not rare, it’s just that De Beers retained a stronghold on the booty and released them ever so slowly, fabricating a narrative of preciousness and rarity in order to invent and justify obscene prices. It’s a fiction that depends on fear. On the Diamond Coast, unless you’re directly working for De Beers, it’s illegal to pick up a diamond that, say, happens to wash up on the beach. It’s illegal to hold it even for just one second. The beaches are patrolled by security, and the punishments are severe.

Further, the corporation’s advertising department launched a campaign to impact the ways in which we should communicate our love for one another in a socially functional way. A diamond has, en masse, become a condition of marriage. The more money one spends, the bigger the rock, the more intense one’s expression of “love.” Sociologically, De Beers’ narrow narrative on proper gender performance has seduced so many into believing that, to be a man, one must woo a woman with a diamond, and to be a woman, one must want to be wooed in such a fashion. It’s how they prevented the occurrence of a viable secondary market. “A diamond is forever,” De Beers has us believing, and you can’t resell it, because then you’d be selling your love. And we have become unwitting enforcers of these edicts. The corporation started it, but now we’re running with it. We put the social pressure on ourselves, and on each other, to buy diamonds for this reason. It’s absurd, but so many of us remain under their spell.

I feel there’s a more elusive reason people love diamonds, too, perhaps rooted in a desire to possess something so ancient, so hard, forged during a period of the Earth’s history in which we did not yet participate. A stage of fire, lava, pre-humanity. As we humans tend to want to possess things and rule the world, buying and wearing a diamond may represent a claiming of ownership of the very thing that survived a geological stage which we could not.

Same question about pigeons: How did you feel about them generally and then did that feeling alter as you worked on the book? Relatedly, why do people tend to hate and complain about pigeons?

I’ve always liked watching pigeons, actually, but in a casual way. Now, I’m just in love with them. They’re brilliant animals that have—for better or for worse—been variously used by us humans to “advance” ourselves (communicating over long distances, delivering essential medicine, etc.) Maybe people dislike them because they’re so ubiquitous. It’s like the inverse of our thinking about diamonds. If we tend to equate rarity with worth, we also tend to equate the common with the worthless, the boring. The common can be dismissed, and the common pigeon, which tends to thrive in human settlements (roosting in our eaves, eating our crumbs, and yes, sometimes crapping on our cars) can easily be reviled.

Perhaps, in our innate territoriality, we don’t want to share space or food or other resources with pigeons. Do their sheer numbers threaten us? I think of the passenger pigeon—once the most abundant bird in North America—whose extinction we hastened. Perhaps, in beholding another species that seemingly, via a complex network of cooperation, wanted to consume everything, wanted to dominate both earth and sky, we also felt a sense of communion with them that we couldn’t quite bear, a plurality that unnerved us. Communion begat competition, and we felt the earth was ours, not theirs, to pillage. And so they became our enemy.

When you’re talking to MacDonald who’s speaking on behalf of the diamond interests, he says “Look, we want to rehabilitate the environment, but not at the expense of the surrounding economic area. This is still to be mined for diamonds once Trans Hex comes in. There are still an estimated 4.5 million carats here that they know of. It’s just not economically viable for DeBeers to take them out right now.” Why do you think corporations and men like him always frame this question as a binary: a competition between the environment and the economy?

MacDonald is parroting the edicts of the corporation, and the corporation has the personality of a sociopath. It cares only for its own perpetuation without regard for land or people. I think mass protest can help raise awareness that such things are happening, which hopefully can lead to innovations set to addressing the problem. De Beers recently had to create an Environmental Division to address the environmental impact of their mining endeavors, and to attempt to rehabilitate the land they so thoroughly ravaged. Even though the Environmental Division is pretty ineffectual, the fact that De Beers had to create it in response to shifting public opinion, awareness, and resistance, provides a small glimmer of hope.

Your book is full of trivia and little nuggets of information that are—I have to say it—diamonds themselves that the reader stumbles across. My favorite was about how B.F. Skinner found that pigeons are susceptible to superstition. Can you talk about his findings, as well as how you found that in your research and why you decided to include it?

Oh, I had to cut so many amazing pigeon facts from the book, but I was able to retain a few of my favorites: That pigeons have demonstrated the capacity to recognize all twenty-six letters of our alphabet (and other alphabets, if so trained); that they can differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph; that they pass the “mirror test,” meaning that a pigeon recognizes its reflection as its own image, and not as another bird—which is unheard of in the animal kingdom, for the most part.

I included the information on Skinner’s study because I was also amazed by it. Skinner kept a bunch of pigeons in cages and deprived them of food. For a few seconds each day, a mechanism would dispense a meager pile of seed. And soon, the birds developed what Skinner determined to be superstitious behavior. They seemed to believe that by acting a certain way, or performing some kind of action, they could compel a feeding. One pigeon came to believe that if it turned around three times in succession counterclockwise, that would yield a feeding. Another was compelled to swing its head like a pendulum six times, three to the right, three to the left. And another nodded in bursts of five. Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes.

 

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is the author of eight books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including the novels O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, 2014) and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), and the novel in poems Robinson Alone(Gold Wake Press, 2012). With Eric Plattner, she is the coeditor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Her most recent novel is Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020). She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.

 

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Wolf Rock: On Safety in Art and Science

 

AT THE RESEARCH STATION, I’m greeted by calls to safety, five pages of instructions provided by the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, two of which are laminated. There are exhortations to slow down, to drive no faster than fifteen miles an hour, to not walk alone at dawn or dusk for risk of cougar encounters. Clear directions are posted at waste disposal sites to not contaminate the surrounding area, and the debris flume used to study erosion dynamics during landslides is festooned with warnings: OFFICIAL USE ONLY. Inside the laundry room, each dryer has a sign taped on it reminding you to clean the lint cage before and after use, lest a spark ignites a fire, lest you send the entire Willamette National Forest up in smoke.      

I’ve come here to spend two weeks writing, surrounded by an old-growth forest a few hours east of Eugene, Oregon. More accurately, I’ve come to write inside my climate-controlled, heated-floor apartment that abuts an old-growth forest. I’ve come to escape the city for a bit, a city where I’m constantly on alert for dangers, only to find that there are just as many things here that can kill me, too.

 

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Much of the work at the research station is executed in the name of safety: charting the deepest point in Lookout Creek during heavy rains; plotting the physics of debris during a flood; finding reclusive spotted owls and encouraging the doomed species to breed. Even the microscopic examination of decay inside a fallen tree begs the question: How quickly does everything fall apart?

In science, safety is paramount, and yet this is no requirement for art. To the contrary, work that “plays it safe” too often panders to those in power, and the most visceral art is not created from a place of safety. Although art that is risky is generally considered positive, risky science is not.

I am a safe queer to invite to a research station, funded by federal money. I am white. I pass as a cis man in public, especially in my hiking clothes. I am quiet. My art exists largely on the page, which can be dangerous. But so far my art has not been particularly safe. It looks at the quiet realities of lives like mine, how lives like mine exist in rural spaces, how lives like mine often fly under the radar for safety. As a writer and an artist, I hold strong to the belief that art is necessary to change the status quo, to confront power, to force it to reckon with the realities of the other. But my work does not always do this; it doesn’t even usually do this. It doesn’t feel risky, like the work of artists I admire most for putting a stamp on the world.

 

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Soon after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, the artist David Wojnarowicz embarked on a solo road trip to the southwestern United States. At one point, he recounts driving a stretch of desert highway while playing a risky game:

“I play games with the road to shake myself up, at times squeezing my eyelids closed so that I drive quarter-mile stretches without sight and it becomes a fight to open my eyes before the side of the road overtakes me. It’s as if a second person is sitting within my body at the wheel. The body that holds the wheel understands the danger that mounts by the moment and the second body smiles in the dark interior of the first. When the eyes finally open, they reveal nothing new about the world except a slight shift in landscape proving that increased mortality teaches me nothing.”

Wojnarowicz’s paintings don’t get much attention compared to the rest of his work, and it’s easy to see why. They lack the fierce immediacy of his films and photographs, like Fire in my Belly (1987), which caused an international incident in 2010, when the Smithsonian censored the film, part of which showed ants crawling over a crucifix. But his paintings, whether on purpose or due to the medium, are reminders that even the most provocative artists can also be meditative.

One such painting, WATER (1987), depicts a coal-fired power plant on the horizon painted in muted blues and oranges. Over this background are a half dozen or so circles framing scenes of gay sex, frogs, and sperm, something he describes “like looking into the interior of something, like looking at a spot of blood and seeing the cells. For me the circles are like cells that contain information. . . . I see them as microscopic views, and I also see them as telescopic views.”

WATER holds both a macro and micro view of science within its floating orbs. “That says something to me about surveillance,” Wojnarowicz goes on to say. WATER is a work about opening up pockets in the environment for queer life to thrive, in full view of the telescope or microscope. And yet, this painting would not be the first to come to mind when thinking about work that draws its power from the land. This kind of art often remains limited in the popular imagination, limited to simple descriptions of waterfalls, photorealism, paintings of trees, Andy Goldsworthy’s arrangements of rocks and leaves, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Work like this is meant to spur its audience to remember how important nature is, but only when it’s separated from the human subject. It’s safe, because humans are nowhere to be seen.

Though surface-level safety protocol in the field of science sometimes obscures a much larger planetary moment of, say, climate risk, to perform quality scientific work, safety is critical. A wounded scientist cannot complete a good experiment, though I suppose neither can an injured artist, although when they do, it’s usually arresting, like Hannah Wilke’s documentation of her losing battle against lymphoma in Intra-Venus (1992–1993), or Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), in which the bright red cuts on her back make up a childish illustration of a happy family. Safe science is good, vital. Safe art is boring.

 

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After a week of walking through the research station’s ancient forests, one day I drive to Wolf Rock. When planning my trip, I didn’t realize I’d be scaling a mountain, the approach being a forty-five-degree angled dirt road. I drove past large piles of brush covered in black tarps, a miniature quarry, and orange signs warning of oncoming logging trucks. Not a single other person. I kept going.

 

 

Back home, in Portland, whenever I left my home, I felt unsafe—rationally or not—and so I sought out the tranquility of the natural world, the comparative safety of the woods. Of course, there are other dangers here in the forest, but I’ve come to think that danger and safety are not directly related. For any reliable scientific experiment, rigorous testing must be required to establish causation, but feelings of danger don’t always, or even usually, decrease as safety increases. As I acquire more trappings of a middle-class life, do I feel any less vulnerable, less in danger? I wonder whether safety is actually a quantity pinned to health, survival, and well-being; and if not, what else might it measure?

There came a moment when I doubted what I was doing, and then the sheer rock face of Wolf Rock looked up in front of me and I broke into a smile. At one point, I turned around. It was worth it to feel increasingly unsafe, to see something interesting, turn around, and head back to safety.

 

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During a period when David Wojnarowicz was experiencing severe depression and using heroin, he met up with his mentor and friend, photographer Peter Hujar. David was dissociating badly as he held out his arm of track marks, “like a long-distance scientist showing another scientist a weird animal relic.” Instead of offering sympathy, Peter told him to keep away if he continued using: “I won’t be friends with you if you’re going to do that.” Peter reached out and rubbed David’s arm. Harsh words, gentle touch. David wrote that he never used heroin again.

There are limits to the dangers we put ourselves in and still survive. We need friends to call us back, individuals and communities who will step in and care for us when we’ve gone too far. Especially for artists whose experiments are too risky to be supported by institutions—universities or museums—these relationships are the only HR available to hold us accountable for the risk we pose to ourselves.

 

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On my way back from Wolf Rock, I stopped at a stream and found a rock that had been polished into a perfectly smooth cradle. Despite the fact that it was October, I undressed, set the timer on my camera, and after some ungainly splashing around in the freezing water, I took a picture of myself. Until that moment, I’d never seen a body like mine in a nature photograph. For some, to perform such an action would be too unsafe. For me, after I put my clothes back on, I looked again at this clearing I had known only for fifteen minutes and felt like it belonged to me in a way it hadn’t before. Though I’d felt incredibly unsafe and shaky while taking the photograph, skinning my knees on stones, now, having gone through the experiment, I felt transformed. Perhaps that’s what safety really is, not the quick fix of a hard hat or guided trip, but, rather, a variable to be measured over time, something we must pass through and remark upon, and, ultimately, to leave behind on the way to making work that will shape the world.

 

Callum Angus is a trans writer and editor currently based in Portland, Oregon. His first book, A Natural History of Transition, is out in April from Metonymy Press. More of his work can be found at calangus.com.

 

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