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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


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.



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





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)






Concrete Progress: Walk On


The Mary Black Rail Trail, in Spartansburg, South Carolina. Courtesy of the City of Spartansburg.

Concrete Progress, which concludes with this installment, has been an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. The entire series, stretching back to its start in 2014, is collected here.


Walking home the other day, I mulled over what to write for this, my last Concrete Progress column. I wanted to get away from some of the twenty-second-century technologies that I’ve been focusing on lately and turn back to old stuff, to the rediscovered lifeways that form the basis for so much great, new sustainable infrastructure—those preindustrial solutions in a postindustrial age. But what? I looked around at the trees, at the road, at the fourteen-story Denny’s building that defines Spartanburg, South Carolina’s skyline.

Then I realized that I was walking, and that I was on a converted railway bed, not so different than the one I wrote about in my first column. So there it was, perfect as an episode of Firefly— my final column would be the path that takes me home. It may sound contrived but, as Dave Barry used to say back when he was funny, I am not making this up.

The path in question, which I walk every day to get to my office on the city’s northern border, is the Mary Black Rail Trail. From before the Civil War, this stretch of ground saw trains and trolleys haul people and freight in and out, from Spartanburg to the mills and villages in this part of the South Carolina piedmont. By the late 1990s, though, it didn’t make sense for Norfolk Southern, the railway at the time, to run trains there anymore. The line rerouted around the city, and the tracks got overgrown. Trains continue to run through Spartanburg—if you spend a day here, you hear that lonesome whistle blow many, many times—but this stretch of track seemed destined to fade into history.

Enter the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, an environmental group that conserves and promotes the nature of South Carolina. Its main project, and the one for which it’s best known, is the Palmetto Trail, a mostly complete four-hundred-plus-mile path that runs from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, near Charleston. The foundation was joined by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which is dedicated, as you’ve already guessed, to turning old railways into new public-use trails. The Conservancy saw an opportunity to add Norfolk Southern’s abandoned tracks to the section of Palmetto Trail that runs through Spartanburg. After some negotiations the deal was struck, and the railroad gave its right of way to PCF. (It helped that George Dean Johnson, a powerful politician and businessman, and an active conservationist, was on the Norfolk Southern board of directors.) The players cobbled together money—some from the state and some from private groups like the Mary Black Foundation, for which the trail is named—tore up most of the tracks, laid down asphalt, and opened up in 2006. By 2009 it got twenty-five thousand uses a year. By 2012 the number had climbed to sixty-five thousand.

It’s easy to see why: the Rail Trail works for everyone. When I head to work, the first thing I see as I hit the rail trail is a dog park (The Rail Tail, obviously), always full of boisterous dogs and their people. As I walk, I see all the faces of Spartanburg—kids on their bikes, young professionals walking their schnauzers, stone-faced runners, older ladies walking chattily along. It is probably the most racially diverse place in town. Whoever’s out there, early or late, we almost always say hi to one another unless someone is deep in his headphones. There’s a pretty lively bird population in the trees and bushes, and I must say that after ten years in the West I get a little thrill out of seeing blue jays instead of boring old Steller’s jays. In the fall—and I speak with the authority of a New Englander—the leaves are beautiful.

Farther on, the trail crosses a couple of streets with walking maps at the junctions. There’s a line of apartments for young singles, with porches and backdoors that open right up onto the trail. At the trailhead, there’s an interpretive sign that shares some of Spartanburg’s railway history. Opposite the sign is a rack of bikes (and a trike), part of Spartanburg’s B-Cycle program. All along the trail you can find art and scavenger hunt clues and little activities for elementary school kids. In the next couple of years, the trail will expand through downtown and into the parkland to the north. From there you can walk, presumably, all the way to the Blue Ridge.

Rails to Trails has transformed upward of twenty-one thousand miles of rail line to walking/biking/dog-walking trails in the past thirty years. That’s like walking from New York to San Francisco seven times. This is the epitome of Reimagining Infrastructure—the oldest forms of transportation rediscovered, the remnants of past economies reused, the newest good ideas embraced and promoted. Rail trails link communities, help people get and stay healthy, connect walkers with the natural world. They have—and I’ve found myself saying this a lot as I’ve written these columns—no downsides. They make the planet a better place and that’s all there is to it.

When you care about the environment, it’s easy to get a little down about the future, melting glaciers and all. But what I’ve found, throughout the years I’ve been writing Concrete Progress, has been hope. And more than hope, I’ve found solutions: I’ve seen dozens of great ideas and inspiring people who really are saving the world, step by step, place by place, day by day. My columns have skewed a bit toward the places that I’ve lived: California, Vermont, the Carolinas. But I’ve looked around enough to know that infrastructure is being reimagined everywhere, across the continent and beyond. Probably in your hometown, too.

Now, I’m a realistic man. I think back on the projects and ideas I’ve written about, and I know that, in the end, some of these things won’t work out. And some of them will only ever be small-time solutions for particular places. But as I think about the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, and the ideas I’ve allowed into my brain—as I think about the way that committed people are reimagining their transportation, waste, energy, food, and water systems—I know that I have seen the future. It’s been a joy sharing it with you.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

5 Questions for Stephen Trimble, Editor of “Red Rock Testimony”

The National Parks System celebrates its one-hundredth anniversary this year, but the work to establish monuments, expand public lands, and protect vulnerable biomes continues. A new collection of poetry and essays about one particular wild place, the red rock area of Utah, was published this summer by Torrey House Press. The project’s editor, Stephen Trimble, recently delivered the book, titled Red Rock Testimony: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands, to Washington, DC, in an attempt to help establish a new national monument. The proposed monument, to be called Bears Ears, could encompass almost two million acres of southern Utah. 


Tell us a bit about how Red Rock Testimony came about.

The book has deep roots. Utah writers have a long tradition of writing in service of the conservation community. In the 1950s, from his perch in “The Easy Chair” column at Harper’s Magazine, Bernard DeVoto (born in Ogden, Utah) fired broadsides at those who would kill the wildness of the West. DeVoto then bequeathed his post as Voice for the West to his friend Wallace Stegner, who grew up in Salt Lake City.

In 1954, Stegner edited the first Sierra Club “battle book,” This Is Dinosaur, and when he wrote his “Wilderness Letter” in 1960, his definition of wilderness came right out of his childhood trips to southern Utah’s red rock country. The view from Boulder Mountain propelled him to that last soaring paragraph that ends with “the geography of hope.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Utah wilderness became a national issue. Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire in 1968 and partnered with photographer Philip Hyde on a Sierra Club book, Slickrock, in 1971. This was my coming-of-age time, and I began joining these battles as a writer and photographer just as the tragic and unnecessary loss of Glen Canyon, submerged behind a dam, galvanized my Earth Day generation.

And so, at the beginning of 2016, when a confluence of threats and opportunities surfaced in western wildlands, the Salt Lake City writing community began to meet, called together by a couple of long-time activists—all of us ready to take action, ready to immerse ourselves in this long tradition.

We had one remarkable campaign to support, the unprecedented Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposal. Five Southwestern Native nations had asked President Obama to proclaim a national monument on 1.9 million acres in southern Utah, to protect extraordinary sacred lands from archaeological vandalism and destructive energy development.

We also faced a whirlwind of threats that needed countering, notably the release of Utah congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz’s Public Land Initiative. This legislation promised to address the big issues on Bureau of Land Management land in most of eastern Utah with a “grand compromise” supported by all, but turned out to be both woefully inadequate as conservation and dangerously precedent-setting in its promotion of fossil-fuel extraction.

How could we participate in these conversations and affect these decisions with our essays and poems and stories? Our concerned group of citizen-writers had at least one model, a 1995 limited-edition chapbook called Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness.

Terry Tempest Williams and I created Testimony twenty years ago at a similar moment of crisis. Congress was considering an anti-wilderness bill that would devastate Utah’s public lands. As colleagues and friends based in Utah, Terry and I decided we might have an impact by gathering short pieces from twenty writers passionately committed to preserving these special places. In just two months, we invited submissions, snagged a small grant to pay for printing, and took the chapbook to Washington DC, where we delivered a copy to every member of Congress. When Senators Bill Bradley and Russ Feingold successfully led the filibuster to defeat the bill, they read essays from Testimony on the floor of the Senate. When President Bill Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, he told Terry that Testimony influenced his decision.

And so, with this 2016 round of attacks on public lands—and the promise of the Bears Ears monument—we asked: Do we need a Testimony II?

Kirsten Johanna Allen asked that question most forcefully. She is both an ardent conservationist and the publisher of the small, nonprofit, Utah-based Torrey House Press. She believed we needed this book, and she made the commitment to publish a trade edition after initial distribution of a chapbook.

I volunteered to edit. With a bow toward the original Testimony, we called our new book Red Rock Testimony: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands. And, so, we went to work.

red-rock-testimony-chapbook-coverYou have this history of using art as a tool for activism. How do you see the two braiding together or diverging in the present moment?

The internet has democratized art and extended the reach of activism since the original Testimony. From Tahrir Square to 350.org, we now know the power of digital organizing. As we created Red Rock Testimony, we talked a lot about how to reach our intended audience of decision makers in Washington—and how to broaden our reach in rousing citizens to action.

We wanted to make sure that Red Rock Testimony carried the voices of the writers as powerfully and directly as possible. We aren’t associated with any conservation group. This is meaningful literature in service to the cause, not just another rallying e-mail from the environmental community. And so we have a beautiful and arresting design by Tim Ross Lee that draws you in, and then we have faith in the abilities of our writers to move, rouse, and inspire. Elegance and eloquence still count in 2016.

We extend the reach of the print book with interactive website, www.redrockstories.org, which gathers work from everyone concerned about the future of southern Utah’s red rock wildlands. The stories in Red Rock Testimony form the bedrock for this nexus of artistic responses to that special landscape.

We raised money for the chapbook from individuals. In a few months, we’ll release a trade edition for general readers, with additional material.

Red Rock Testimony includes work from both native Utahns and writers from around the country. Why include the out-of-staters?

The southern Utah red rock wilderness belongs to us all. The 1.9 million acres of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument includes virtually no private land. This is public land—Bureau of Land Management land, National Park Service land, Forest Service land.

Plus, writers and citizens from everywhere love this place—and we wanted to emphasize that universality. So we invited nearly sixty writers to contribute, writers with ties to Utah, but well beyond the circle of people gathered in Salt Lake. We included as many Native writers as possible, since the Bears Ears proposal owes so much to the sensibilities, traditions, and vision of the tribes. (Who, by the way, are asking for co-management of the monument, a brand-new idea.) Charles Wilkinson, an Indian-law scholar who is volunteering with the Inter-Tribal Coalition, helped us to reach out to Ute and Zuni writers.

We knew we were on a tight timeline. We gave writers little more than a month to deliver their pieces—leaving just enough time for printing before we took the book to Washington in mid-June. The invitees responded with amazing commitment, nearly all sending original work. We received more submissions than we could fit into eighty-eight pages, the maximum length for a saddle-stitched chapbook.

Kathleen Dean Moore wrote her piece while on a San Juan River trip and fired off her draft when she got back to cell service. Gary Nabhan wrote his piece, about a transformative backpacking trip into the Bears Ears as a young man, while recovering from knee surgery, writing in the middle of the night when his post-surgical pain kept him awake.

In the final tally of contributors, about a dozen of our thirty-four writers hail from Utah. The writers in Red Rock Testimony range in age from Brooke Larsen (whose words open the book), born in 1992, to Bruce Babbitt, born in 1938. Three generations of writers come together here to speak for a place that all of them cherish.

They’ve created a community chorus, a montage of heartfelt words that includes Native and Hispanic voices, warnings from elders and challenges from millennials, personal emotional journeys, and lyrical nature writing. Their pieces address historical context, natural history and archaeology, energy threats, faith, and politics. Together, they offer a remarkable case for restraint and respect for this incomparable red rock landscape.

Red Rock Testimony braids essays and poems. How do you think these pieces together build a case for Bears Ears?

We know that great writing can make a difference. So we simply send these pieces on their way and believe that here and there a congressional staffer or a mid-level Bureau of Land Management administrator or a deputy chief of the Forest Service might pick up the book and start leafing through the pages. Maybe she lands on Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk describing being “floored by the amount of disrespect I received” when rudely cut off by the chair of a legislative hearing at the Utah capitol. (She tried to speak of the “personal healing like nothing else” that she finds in the Bears Ears.) Perhaps Alastair Bitsoi catches that reader’s eye when he says, “Bears Ears will always be a significant healing space for young Navajos like me, who live in the concrete jungle that is New York City.”

We purposely offer many ways into the argument for protecting these endangered lands. Charles Wilkinson begins the book with a quick survey of Colorado Plateau conservation that places the events of 2016 in context. Mary Sojourner tells of meeting a guy named Bear Campbell in a Flagstaff bar and going camping with him in the woods below Bears Ears. Amy Irvine watches southern Utah dust churned loose by cows and ATVs and oil and gas exploration blow eastward, turning the snowfields of the San Juan Mountains red. The darkened snow absorbs more heat, melting faster, overwhelming the reservoirs downstream—“meaning there [is] less water for big desert cities.”

Anne Terashima writes as a millennial grateful for time in the wilderness, a chance to disconnect from Instagram and Facebook. David Gessner ponders the “freedom of restraint” and concludes that “here freedom becomes more than a jingoistic word used to wage war and sell trucks.” And Bruce Babbitt makes the case for Bears Ears as a former cabinet member: “The best way to defend the Antiquities Act is for the President to use it.”

With luck, the book will land in the hands of Sally Jewell or Barack Obama, inspiring the administration to pursue the proclamation of a new and innovative national monument. Or perhaps Senator Dick Durbin or Martin Heinrich or Congressman Alan Lowenthal—all champions of southern Utah public lands—will find words to use when it comes time to lead the fight against bad legislation like the Public Lands Initiative.

We can’t know just when or how these connections will be made. But Red Rock Testimony provides elected officials and public servants in Washington, holed up in windowless offices and dreaming of slickrock and sagebrush, vivid validation for their work, an alternative to partisan anger, a celebration of the places they labor to protect. It’s a collection of the kind of writing that Ed Abbey called “antidotes to despair.


Above: Video from the press conference for Red Rock Testimony, held in Washington, DC, in June of this year.


The writing here creates such vivid pictures and narratives in the reader’s mind. What drives your belief in the power of art to not only help us understand our wild places, but help us defend them?

Those of us who write know how crazy we are to dedicate ourselves to this discipline. It’s insanely hard work to get every word right, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Though we may have few if any readers for some of our best work, we write because we have to. We write as an act of faith.

But as readers, we know the power of a writer to move us. I’ve sobbed at the endings of novels and memoirs. I’ve gasped and chortled and seethed with spitfire anger as I’ve read strong nonfiction. I’ve melted at the perfectly chosen images in poems. And I’ve learned the language of every landscape I love from reading the writers who made these landscapes their home territories in life and work.

Here I’ll quote from my introduction to Words from the Land, the anthology of natural history writing I edited in 1988. I began that piece by describing the power of writers who write about landscape. That gift remains as strong as ever, yielding words to help us understand, to spark us into acting on behalf of the places we hold dear.

What they hear in the earth are the voices of what Henry Beston called the “other nations” of the planet. In their prose, their translations of these voices, they teach us, by example, how to see more clearly and feel more truly; they put into graceful words some of our most euphoric and serious experiences. They strive, as Barry Lopez puts it, “to create an environment in which thinking and reaction and wonder and awe and speculation can take place. I have to trust that in so doing, that the metaphorical depth will reverberate there, and ideas much larger than ones I could control are going to come out.”

Concrete Progress: The Fifth Mode of Transport

A rendering of the Hyperloop's passenger pod and elevated track. Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

A rendering of the Hyperloop’s passenger pod and elevated track. Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


When I lived in Santa Cruz, California, sometimes I’d drive to Los Angeles. It took a solid six hours. With something called the Hyperloop, I could have done it in thirty-five minutes.

I’ve been excited to share the Hyperloop with you since I started writing this column. It is, in my estimation, nothing less than the most innovative, futuristic subject in all of infrastructure. The Hyperloop will be the fifth mode of transport, after planes, trains, cars, and boats. It will be the biggest leap in transportation since the Wright Brothers. It will truly change the world. If it works.

Here is the basic idea: Think of a pair of metal tubes, about seven feet across, with the air pumped out to create near-vacuum conditions. The expected pressure in the tubes is 0.015 pounds per square inch (psi); ordinary air pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi. A pod full of people will start down a tube (one tube will take people north, the other south) and, with minimal air resistance, zip along at speeds above 750 miles per hour. The pod will ride on a cushion of air, much like a puck on an air-hockey table. The front of the pod will have a large fan that sucks in air, pushing some of it out the back, circulating some inside the pod, and using some of it to help the pod levitate. This will cut air resistance to hardly anything, so travel will demand very little energy once things start moving. (The system’s most important energetic demand will be pumping air out of the tube to maintain low pressure.) The tubes will stand on pylons, so land uses beneath and around the route won’t have to change. Solar panels on top of the tubes will produce all the energy the system needs. The pair of tubes would follow existing highways, for minimal disruption and maximum efficiency—if they have to turn a lot, the pods will only do about three hundred miles per hour, so sites along straight roadways are probably best for them.

The idea of the Hyperloop belongs to busy futurist Elon Musk, who is clearly a benevolent visitor from some more advanced planet, and who has already given us PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. Musk saw the plans for California’s long-debated high-speed train system and found them pitiful. In 2013, he and some colleagues put together a white paper laying out their vision for the Hyperloop. Musk estimates that the Hyperloop plan would cost a small fraction of the proposed train’s price tag and be much, much faster and more efficient. The only mode of transportation as remotely energy efficient would be—as Musk self-servingly but accurately notes—a Tesla Model S. Which would still take six hours to get from San Francisco to LA.

Now, I am not an engineer. The Hyperloop may fail due to technological problems that I cannot diagnose. But, while there are some concerns (heat in the tube, for instance), I have found no convincing argument for why the technology won’t work. The task now is to build it, and that effort is very much underway.

For several reasons, the SF–LA route is the focus of Musk’s white paper: the bullet train proposal, the fact that Musk lives in California, the ready-made customer base—six million people drive between the two cities every year. But the most compelling reason, to me, is that driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles is slow-cooked despair. At either end of the journey there is vile, crazy-making traffic, and in between you roll down a section of I-5 that contains mono-cultured farms and lung-scouring smog, with only the occasional rural slum and anti-environmental billboard to break the monotony. It always seems unbelievable that two of the world’s most dynamic cities, in one of the country’s most beautiful states, are connected through such desolation, but that is, in fact, the case.

But if the Hyperloop is not yet real, why write about it? Well, last year was a big year for the Hyperloop’s transition from an alien idea to a physical reality. A group called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is forging ahead and preparing to build a test track in Quay Valley, California. Its engineers do this work more or less in their spare time in exchange for future stock and glory. This past summer HTT announced a partnership with some of the most prestigious engineering firms in the world. SpaceX is running a pod-designing competition, which, if all goes to plan, will send pods zipping through a tube sometime next year. It’s important to note here that while Elon Musk got the ball rolling (or the pod going), he’s not actually involved in building the Hyperloop—he just wants to encourage it. HTT is building components of the eventual loop and pods. This is happening.

Fast forward five years. The test track works, the pod works, and the first functioning Hyperloop gets built—say, LA to San Diego in fifteen minutes. Once the line is established and people are whizzing back and forth day after day, surely every other part of the country will want one. It will change everything about the way Americans travel. You could work in Minneapolis and live in Chicago. You could live in Portland and have season tickets to Seattle Mariners’ games. You could live in Toronto and date someone from Montreal. Suddenly, we would live not so much in cities or counties as in regions. There would be far fewer cars on our highways and far less carbon in the atmosphere. The Hyperloop will allow more and more people to live where they want instead of moving reluctantly for work. It will keep families and friends connected throughout their lives.

Assuming that the technology works and tickets are not too expensive (Musk estimates twenty dollars), I think the only problem would be public acceptance. This is truly a new thing under the sun; people will not quite know what to think about it. It will change the psychology of distance, much as trains did. Once upon a time, horses and sailing ships were just as strange and revolutionary. I hope the Hyperloop works.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.