Orion Blog, page 2

Photo Essay: Birth of the Shack

(Editor’s Note: David Gessner’s “Hurricane Diary” was featured in the Autumn 2019 issue.
As a follow-up, the author shared this update as Hurricane Dorian developed offshore.)

When I wrote my Hurricane Diary a year ago I had no idea we would have an anniversary storm here in Wilmington, North Carolina. Today I am standing out on a dock where my writing shack once stood, floating on the rising waters as I wait the arrival of Hurricane Dorian. This time I am not evacuating, whether out of inertia or overconfidence I’m not sure. One can take only so many emergencies. Scratch that. A better way to put it is that emergencies have become the norm. Ask anyone in Paradise, California or the panhandle of Florida or the Bahamas. It is a new world and this new world is relentlessly scary.  To think of the big picture is overwhelming, so let’s take it down to the small.

A year ago, after Hurricane Florence, my writing shack, where I wrote and studied the natural world, was flooded and almost floated out to sea. My neighbor snapped this picture as the water started rushing in:


When I returned to Wilmington I happily discovered that the shack had not floated out to sea as I feared. It was battered but still standing:


After I cleaned up the debris, I found I could still sit inside it, though it leaned like the lair of the TV Batman’s villains. Oddly, the roof remained snug: the shack lost fewer shingles than the house.

Which brings us to the house. In the larger ecosystem of disasters, never forget that some human animals smell profit. The word “gouging” usually surfaces soon after, and even during, the worst of times. I will never forget being stranded in Denver after the flights had been grounded after 9-11, only to find that the rental car companies had responded to our great communal tragedy by tripling their prices. And so it was in Wilmington after Florence. Roofers descended on town, charging unheard of rates to those who wanted to keep the water off their heads. Others descended on town with chainsaws and dreams of profit. One friend called from out of town to get a tree off his roof and when he returned was presented with an invoice for $12,500. Meanwhile the usual blather about rebuilding and how we had come together was the preferred story. There was even some bantering of the phrase, yuk, Wilmington Strong.

Our own roofers proved inept enough to leave our house uncovered during a major rainstorm. So while the insides of our house stayed dry during Florence, they were flooded two months later during Thanksgiving week. Water flowed through the roof into my study, hitting my desk and books and papers right about where my computer would have been, had I not taken it with me that day. From there the water continued down through my study floor into the space above our dining room and then finally into the dining room itself. Which meant that for us, as for so many people, the hurricane was still blowing. 

When it finally goes, when it finally hits the ground, here is how it happens. The shack survived for five months after Florence but it was leaning, leaning, leaning. Sometimes I thought it was just my imagination that the angle had changed. But on February 13, 2019, I was sure of it. That was the evening my daughter snapped this picture: 


Two days later I was in the house when I heard a hard crashing noise. I chocked it up to the nightmare neighbors across the marsh who were building yet another house on their property. That night I hewed to my usual routine, walking down from the house with a book, a beer, and my journal. I turned the corner and stopped, startled. Here is what I saw: 

Adaptability and creativity are the keys to living on the coast in the coming times. That is what my coastal mentor, Orrin Pilkey, stresses. 

He points to the efforts in New York in the wake of Sandy to buy land and then not rebuild. He mentions the architect Adam Yarinsky who won a $10,000 History Channel prize for envisioning the Manhattan of the next century as a modern Venice. His design, based on predictions of sea level, included canals running where some streets do now. Is this far-fetched? Perhaps. But perhaps we are just not looking, or thinking, with a large enough historical perspective. 

As Orrin and I walked the ravaged beaches of Wilmington after Florence what he said had never been more relevant. The rise of the sea, he tells me, is nothing new. Over the last 2.5 million years or so the oceans have risen and fallen as much as five hundred feet. It is hard for my mind, for any human mind, to really understand this. We can think about where houses should or should not be built, but those are human worries, human concerns. It is hard to think beyond ourselves, beyond our time. But hard is not impossible.

There are plenty of practical reasons why our rush to live at the beaches is problematic, but one challenge is philosophical. We are not quite ready to live on land that suddenly, by the whim of tide and current and weather, might just go away. We come to the beach because we love its wildness, but then we try to impose our own terms. We try to take a fluid changing landscape and make it definite and controllable. But the place will not allow it.



“Firm ground is not available ground,” wrote A.R. Ammons. Exactly. Consider the way a pitch pine grows, gnarled and small, leafing to leeward, adapting to constant coastal winds. This is just the sort of deal the coast asks us to strike. And to get what it offers, we must give something up.

Perhaps we must get smaller, more permeable, more shack-like. Perhaps we must learn to float, to surf. One of the true challenges of living on the coast isn’t to try and control what can’t be controlled, but to learn to live in uncertainties. This, understandably, is not an easy thing to do when an individual or family has invested hundreds of thousands, or more often now, millions of dollars in a property or home.

We can talk tough about how we will always rebuild and maybe we should. Maybe human beings are made that way, and need that sense of drive and control. But there are forces much larger than us that are at work here, and it might be worth factoring those into our thinking, as much as humanly possible.

Why? Because if we owe something to human resilience, to hope, then we also owe something to the truth. When someone bounces back from disaster we say they are tough. But there is a different sort of toughness, one that involves staring down the facts. At the moment there are some pretty scary facts to stare down. But it just so happens that they are our facts.

It requires not just adaptability but creativity to live on the coast today. I’m not sure where or when the idea of a floating shack came from. But one day I got a group of my graduate students together and we went down to the marsh by our school’s Center for Marine Science. There we salvaged a 10’ by 8’ piece of dock that had washed up there during Hurricane Florence. We lifted that dock into a truck and then wrestled it down to where the shack had been. Over the next couple of weeks I built another dock that I nailed to the one we salvaged. While the section of old dock had Styrofoam blocks below it, I didn’t want to add more Styrofoam to the new dock. But what would I use for flotation?        

The answer, when it came to me. Boogie Boards. Sixteen of them, bought at the local beach shop, attached below the new section of dock. A practical, and colorful, solution. Orrin, I thought, would get a kick out of it.

Does it work? Well, I am floating on top of it right now as Hurricane Dorian approaches. Over the last week we have had a series of king tides, extreme high tides, and the new dock has ridden high on them, the boogie boards proving their worth. True, I have not yet built my shack on top of the dock. I thought I would wait until this hurricane season passed through to do that. 

There is no guarantee, of course, that the boat-shack will survive future hurricanes. At this point in my life, I realize there are no guarantees. It will be a shack that can rise on the water. A shack that, if I am so inspired, I can take for a spin, or paddle, out on the creek. A shack for the watery future. I make no claim that it will last forever.

Related Resources: 

Photo Essay: Youth Climate Summit

“Young people have the tools to communicate effectively, we just need to have the courage to spread our ideas. No matter how old you are, or your gender, or where you’re from, you can spread your message.”

– Faouzua Bahloul, from Tunisia (26 years old), winner of the 2016 Global Youth Video Competition.

On September 21, 2019, one day following the Global Youth Climate Strike, hundreds of young climate activists from around the world came together in New York City for the United Nations Youth Climate Summit.

Orion collaborated with photographer Michael Benanav to document several of these international leaders, all courageous, direct, and shared in their message: Change happens now.


Introducing Autumn 2019

Autumn 2019 reaches homes and bookstores everywhere over the next two weeks, and we think you’ll love this issue. One staff person said that Autumn 2019 is “undoubtedly one of the most visually stunning issues” he’s seen in the past few years. We’re excited to share it with you.

This issue of Orion explores what happens when borders come down and the outside mingles with the inside. Here’s a preview of what to expect:

  • Anya Groner covers Solitary Gardens, a public art project that passes freely through the walls of prison facilities around the U.S. The gardens are designed by prisoners in solitary confinement, resulting in community spaces that reflect the inner workings of the minds of the unseen.
  • In “Filling the Democracy Gap,” attorney Thomas Linzey challenges the United States Constitution and some of the ideas that were excluded from it. (The word “nature,” for example, does not appear a single time in the document.)
  • In “Essence of Lavender,” Katrina Vandenberg reflects on the distillation of essential oil, a process by which the essence of a plant is extracted from its body and sealed in a bottle; and on her late first husband, a hemophiliac whose medicine was itself a distillation of proteins culled from the blood of tens of thousands of anonymous donors.
  • Andrea Carrubba’s Prison Village explores a self-governing prison in Bolivia where the absence of regulatory procedures has allowed a full-functioning society to grow entirely within its walls—an inside-out city.
  • In “Hurricane Diary,” David Gessner witnesses, from afar, a hurricane flooding the streets of his hometown.
  • Craig Childs tracks cross-border migrations between desert and sea in “Shell Trade.”
  • In “Gods Among Us,” Terry Tempest Williams illustrates that humanity is not the center of the universe but part of an expanding, contracting, and uncertain future.
  • In “The Animal Inside,” John Freeman addresses the connection between inequality among humans and inequality among the earth’s species.
  • We conduct an interview with illustrator and graphic novelist Chris Ware.
  • Lay of the Land dispatches: a story by Leath Tonino about a grandmother’s love for clouds, as her memory becomes clouded by dementia; backpacking as a woman of color; borderland jaguars in Arizona; the art of seed collecting; owl tracking during a meteor shower.
  • Poems by Camille T. Dungy, Major Jackson, and others. Broadside poetry by Ada Limón, artwork by Nikki McClure.
  • Jamie Zvirzdin outlines six ways to calculate a universe in flux. 
  • Books reviewed: Who Owns England, The New Enclosure, Animalia, China Dream, Losing Earth: A Recent History, and the Collected Schizophrenias.


Our Winter 2019 issue will feature red crabs, archaeological digs, Freud, pilgrimage, climate denial, decolonizing environmentalism, and, of course, the end of civilization as we know it. 

Subscribe or renew today to start your issue cycle with this issue. Already a subscriber and wish to deepen your support? Consider donating or becoming a sustaining partner

Radical Joy for Hard Times: An Excerpt

In a world devastated by human interaction and natural disaster—from clearcutting and fracking to extreme weather and urban sprawl—creating art, ritual, and even joy in wounded places is essential to our collective healing. When a beloved place is decimated by physical damage, many may hit the donate button or call their congressperson. But award-winning author Trebbe Johnson argues that we need new methods for coping with these losses and invites readers to reconsider what constitutes “worthwhile action.” She discusses real wounded places ranging from weapons-testing grounds at Eglin Air Force Base, to Appalachian mountain tops destroyed by mining. These stories, along with tools for community engagement—ceremony, vigil, apology, and the creation of art with on-site materials—show us how we can find beauty in these places and discover new sources of meaning and community.” — North Atlantic Books

Trebbe Johnson is an Orion contributor, author, and speaker on the relationship between people and nature. Here’s an excerpt from her latest book, Radical Joy for Hard Times:

I thought I was prepared. I expected an embattled shade of green in the grasses and bushes, probably a few dead trees, and perhaps, in the distance, an old relic of a building exiled behind a fence. However, as we walked around the curve of the trail that contoured Blue Mountain high above the Lehigh River, we stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” gasped my friend, Liz Brensinger. What we had never expected was an entire vast, gray, dead hillside plunging all the way down to the river.

Only a few sparse patches of grass managed to survive on the bare soil, so depleted by erosion that the stony substrate of the land was exposed like a body wounded to the bone. Trees lay strewn on the ground, their spindly trunks offering clear evidence that they had died long before they reached maturity. The few leafless, skeletal trees that did remain upright stood only a few feet high. Everything about the place looked so abused and hopeless, it was as if all life had given up even attempting to root there.

The only thing my imagined picture had gotten right was the old relic. Behind a chain-link fence on the slope across the river stood the zinc smelter that had been shut down decades earlier, a long brick box of a building with four or five stories of broken windows and a rusting metal roof. The place was silent, and there was no sign of birds.

But we had chosen this patch of the Appalachian Trail on purpose. I had begun to feel that something was missing from the way the environmental movement thought about and addressed the problems it encountered. I witnessed lots of efforts to protect pristine, endangered wilderness areas and clean up places that were already damaged. But there was another kind of place that nobody seemed to be paying attention to, and that encompassed the ones that were neither currently beautiful nor slated to receive remediation to restore their former beauty. Paved over, broken down, polluted, drained, they were often nothing but eyesores, useful to none and despised by many, including those who had once cherished them.

It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were.

What about those places, I wondered, those sad, decrepit, onceloved places? I had been mulling over this question for a few years, so when Liz learned about the Palmerton Zinc plant, she suggested we go for a visit. But now that we were here, it turned out we had no idea what to do.

We couldn’t think of anything. We stared. We looked at each other. 

We left in silence, feeling almost as hurt by our helplessness as by the condition of the land.

Psychology reminds us that we can’t be whole and healthy until we confront old secrets and shames and accept them as part of who we are. Surely acceptance and reconciliation were also needed to heal the relationship between people and places. It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were. Then I wanted to be able to pull out some tool that would help me and the place and others who cared about it to live with it in its current state and even to find new meaning and value in it. This tool had to be so handy and convenient that anyone could use it at any time, without having to go to a meeting, get training, phone a stranger at dinnertime, yell at somebody in power, get arrested, or give money. It also had to be serviceable enough, even pleasurable enough to use, that those who tried it would want to pick it up again and again.

(Excerpt from Radical Joy for Hard Times by Trebbe Johnson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Trebbe Johnson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.)

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Happy Birthday, Mary Oliver

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the late Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019), poet and long-time friend of Orion. Here’s a simple offering of gratitude from Editor-in-Chief H. Emerson Blake: 

“When I was moving some things around on my desk the other day, these fell out of a folder. Immediately I was filled with love and gratefulness for Mary Oliver. She was always kind and helpful to Orion’s staff, and we were extremely privileged to publish more of her poems and essays than any other magazine or journal. She was, in many ways, the quintessential Orion writer—fully devoted to taking notice of nature, and unflinching in her investigation of the emotional relationship between people and nature. I miss her very much. Happy birthday, Mary.”


Here’s one of our all-time favorite poems by Mary Oliver, “Blueberries,” originally published in our Summer 2014 double issue: 


I’m living in a warm place now, where
you can purchase fresh blueberries all
year long. Labor free. From various
countries in South America. They’re
as sweet as any, and compared with the
berries I used to pick in the fields
outside Provincetown, they’re
enormous. But berries are berries. They
don’t speak any language I can’t
understand. Neither do I find ticks or
small spiders crawling among them. So,
generally speaking, I’m very satisfied.

There are limits, however. What they
don’t have is the field. The field they
belonged to and through the years I
began to feel I belonged to. Well,
there’s life, and then there’s later.
Maybe it’s myself that I miss. The
field, and the sparrow singing at the
edge of the woods. And the doe that one
morning came upon me unaware, all
tense and gorgeous. She stamped her hoof
as you would to any intruder. Then gave
me a long look, as if to say, Okay, you
stay in your patch, I’ll stay in mine.
Which is what we did. Try packing that
up, South America.

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