Orion Blog, page 2

“Bioluminescence”

This dispatch is a follow-up to “Living Light,” a Lay of the Land included in our Winter 2019-2020 issue. 

 

The first time I saw bioluminescence I was sure my eyes were playing a trick on me. Eleven years old, I walked beside my father on a beach in Southern California. It was a warm, dark night, and the churn of the nearby waves seemed inordinately bright, and inexplicably blue.

Is the water glowing? I thought to myself, as another wave rumbled towards us, and again, the water appeared lit from within, as if pool lights had been embedded in the sandy bottom, casting a glacial blue among the skittering stingrays and slowly scooting sand dollars.

“Do you see that?” I asked my dad, a marine biologist.

“Bioluminescence,” responded my favorite voice in the world, as if he had been waiting for me to ask the question. And though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was smiling.

Another invisible wave peeled in the dark, sending a line of electric blue rolling right down the beach with a roar, and we both cried out with that sublime astonishment reserved for the likes of shooting stars, breaching whales, and now, water that gallops with light. In those days, all I cared about was Michael Jordan, but in that moment, I was abloom with wonder, because the water really was glowing, and my hero knew the six-syllable word that gave it its name.

It would be fifteen years before I saw bioluminescence again, and, like so many precious things that slip from our reach, I had forgotten about it. It was a few years after my dad had died suddenly that I returned to the sea. I was twenty-six, and some deep place in me knew that I needed to be surrounded by that much blue. That maybe, somehow, I’d find him out there in that never-ending waterscape.  

It was a moonless night in the Red Sea. I walked to the bow to check the sails and glanced down at the water below me. I froze. In what should have been total darkness, nacreous braids of light shimmered and quaked off either side of the bow. I stared at the rivery light, like water within water, and once again found myself wondering if my eyes were playing a trick on me. Then his voice rang in my mind as if he were standing right beside me again.

Bioluminescence.

A few nights later I lay in bed trying to sleep before my pre-dawn watch. We were somewhere off the coast of Sudan, and it was stifling hot belowdecks. I was flat on my back, wishing for some wind to blow in through the hatch. Staring into the dark, I thought of the first place I had learned about the sea—Duxberry Reef in Bolinas, California, where my dad would take me whenever the tide was out. I pictured him there, standing in his faded, red raincoat surrounded by little pools of water that all catch the sky, the sea pulled back like a curtain behind him leaving fields of kelp exposed to the light of a cool, clear morning. Poking out between the reptile-green and translucent-yellow ropes of kelp are shining rocks, furry with life, covered in mussels, barnacles, limpets, chitons, sea cucumbers, and gardens of anemones that resemble fluorescent green flowers made of gelatin and nerve endings. He’s holding a thermos of coffee in one hand and a twenty-armed sunflower star the size of a dinner plate in the other, laughing as he tries to help me pronounce the scientific name of the sea star.

Pycnopodia helianthoides,” he repeats slowly, smiling more brightly each time I stumble over the twenty-armed pronunciation. He knows all the names of the creatures that surround us, both the scientific and the common, and why each animal is as important as the next in this crawling, oozing web of intertidal life.

 

 

The author with his father, Henry Scott. California, 1987

 

I rolled onto my side in my bunk, facing the thin steel hull that was all that separated me from the rest of the ocean. It was then that I heard them.

Sitting up fast, I pressed my ear to the side of the ship—listening as the creaking clicks and high-pitched squeals grew louder and louder. I jumped out of bed and ran up on deck to peer over the bow. And there they were, the torpedo-shaped bodies of fifteen bottlenose dolphins, completely encapsulated in crystalline-blue bioluminescence as they zipped and darted and played in front of our ship. Baby dolphins no larger than sleek piglets zoomed along, never straying more than a yard from their parents, all of them wearing full suits of light as their every motion caused the dinoflagellates to detonate like unicellular fireworks by the millions all around them.

It began with those gleaming dolphins, and built from there. Surrounded by saltwater in every direction but sky, I finally stopped being angry at a world that had snatched away my favorite person with its metastasized cells, and instead fell more deeply in love with this planet than I had ever been before.

 

 

The author in the Red Sea. July 2010.

 

As we spilled from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden, and then out across the Indian Ocean, I sat at the bow every night, watching as the tightly knit darkness unspooled into long, twisting runnels of pearlescence beneath me. I finally understood why he had taken me to the tidepools all those mornings as a boy, why he had brought me to the edge of the sea. Those tidepools were a nest woven of kelp and shell, perched on the edge of a water planet, blue and briny, and without my knowing it, he was teaching me to look toward the horizon—preparing me to one day fledge the shore. And now here I was, flying out over the ocean, so far from home. It’s precisely what he would have wanted, whether he was there to fly by my side or not. As I sat with my legs dangling off the wooden bowsprit watching the water sparkle below as if a pouch of starlight were being poured into it, I could feel him sitting there beside me. And though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was smiling.

Learn More: 

Behind the Cover: Art Wolfe

To describe the photographer Art Wolfe as “prolific” would be an understatement. For five decades, his photographs have been recognized around the world for their mastery of color, composition, and perspective. Based in Seattle, Washington, Wolfe has worked on every continent on the planet, and his photos are included in hundreds of publications and dozens of books. William Conway, former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, named Art Wolfe the “most prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.”

Orion first published Wolfe’s work in 1992, and he has become a regular contributor ever since. His most recent contribution for our Winter 2019 cover image (above) made us curious: Who is this creature? What’s the backstory? What did s/he smell like? Why the serious gaze? We thought that, by asking, we might also ask to learn a trick or two about photography. Wolfe was generous enough to supply answers to both, and more. 
 

NT: I hear king penguin chicks smell like ammonia and rotting shrimp. True story? Tell us how you captured this cover image. 

The image was taken back in the days of film. I was working on a book project called The Living Wild, and this brought me to South Georgia Island. I had been there before, but instead of working off a ship for a couple days, my photo assistant and I were dropped off by an expedition vessel and were supposed to be picked up several days later by another.

While this was to ensure that I had the time the get the photos I wanted, it was enough of a risk that I actually had to take out a separate insurance policy in case I had to be airlifted out. The seas are a problem there, and, if it was too rough, there was a chance a boat couldn’t get in to pick us up.

We set up tents above the high tide line and proceeded to film through inclement weather. Between the howling winds and the elephant seal pups bumping into the tents at night, we barely got any sleep. But it was an exhilarating experience being alone with hundreds of thousands of penguins and seals.

The place was teeming with life, and no animal I found there was afraid of humans. In fact, it was the other way around. After a while you become inured to the awful smell of penguin excrement—it’s pungent and nasty, but it does come out in the wash…barely!

 

(Photos by Art Wolfe in the Summer 1992 issue.)

Your very first images in Orion were published in the Summer 1992 issue. CO2 in the atmosphere in 1992 hovered around 350 ppm. How has your photography evolved over time since this first image?

My whole system has changed along with the entire photography industry. In the early 2000s, I switched from film to digital, which enables me to travel lighter. While I’ve led a well-lived life, I do have a feeling of urgency that cultural traditions and the wild planet are being overwhelmed by commercialism and climate change. It is tougher and tougher to find true authenticity on the planet.

Do you remember the first photo you saw that you were deeply moved by?

I remember being deeply moved by Ray Atkeson’s color photo of Mount Hood. It was a very traditional mountain shot with golden light and a blurred reflection. My tastes have changed since then, but when I saw it for the first time, I knew that was the type of moment I wanted to capture in my photography.

Do you remember the first photo you took?  

My first wildlife photo was a moose I captured with a Brownie Fiesta when I was at a summer camp. There was an enormous bull moose feeding in the camp lake. Not content with a speck in the frame shooting from shore, I absconded with a canoe and paddled towards him. When he’d dip his head under the water to feed, I’d get closer and then freeze when his head came up, figuring he’d never catch on. I managed to get a few good close-up shots before he caught on and bounded out of the water and into the woods. Later, at a party with the kids and parents, I brought my prized prints in an envelope, along with the negatives to show off, only to have the photos disappear by the end of the night. Somewhere, someone out there has these original Art Wolfe wildlife images!

How has Orion met you over the years? In your opinion, what function does the magazine serve for this new decade?

With an eye for design I have always admired Orion, and I have enjoyed working with Orion’s designer Hans Teensma over the years. It is such a rough and tumble media landscape out there, that beauty and thoughtfulness get kicked to the curb. It is so important that magazines such as Orion, which have a philosophical and environmental bent, continue to be published. 

It is tougher and tougher to find true authenticity on the planet.


(Autumn 2018 issue.)

Many of Orion’s readers are also photographers. If you were to deliver us one piece of expert advice to improve their photography, what would that be?

Take a workshop from me or your favorite photographer! But if you can’t do that, I have a whole list of advice: 

1. Learn about the place you are visiting, but don’t be wed to preconceived notions of what to photograph.

2. Think small because even in the worst conditions you can still photograph a macro.

3. Try a tripod even though it ads bulk. It forces you to slow down and be more critical about the subject. It also allows for longer exposures.

4. Conversely, don’t be married to a tripod. With today’s high ISO cameras, you can be the roving street photographer and get great shots.

5. Don’t be discouraged by bad weather. Foggy days make for rich colors.

6. Take a lot of photos, especially when photographing animals.

7. Invest in the best lenses you can afford, rather than the camera body; good glass lasts forever, whereas the bodies are constantly being updated.

8. The best light is in the margins of the day; get out early and stay out late for the richest, most dramatic color.

9. Have a detailed packing list and start packing well in advance of your trip so you have time to obtain any necessary items, such as prescriptions, before you go. Don’t forget your adapters!

10. When flying with expensive camera gear, take your camera bag with the majority of your gear in the plane cabin with you. Check big, heavy lenses.

11. Always get trip insurance. Yes, insurance is a gamble. It will add expense to your trip, but it may save you a bundle as well.

12. Acclimatization is critical. Set your watch to the local time of your destination. Try to sleep on the plane or stay awake depending upon the time. Use earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, and an eye mask.

 



More Resources: 

Recommended Reading: Essential Books on Mexican Americans and the Environment

Editor’s Note: This list of readings accompanies “The Land Has Memory,” an interview between Priscilla Solis Ybarra and the playwright, poet, and essayist Cherríe Moraga in the Winter issue.

I had been wanting to have a conversation with Cherríe Moraga about the environmental aspects of her writing ever since I first came across her work at Sisterhood Bookstore in Westwood Village in 1997. I vividly recall visiting the store to buy the books for my Eighteenth Century British Literature seminar during my first quarter of graduate school at UCLA. I was a bit annoyed that I was kept from one-stop shopping at the campus bookstore. Little did I know, Sisterhood was one of the iconic feminist bookstores of the Women’s Movement in L.A., and I returned often after that first visit. I bought Moraga’s The Last Generation there and soon after decided that I had to write a book about the Chicana environmental imaginary.

The opportunity to finally interview Moraga came along twenty years later, in January 2017. Why did it take me twenty years? Once I got down to reading The Last Generation in 1997, I felt a deep urgency to engage with its warning that the culture of a people who foster a unique way of dwelling with the planet was under the threat of extinction. But I had no idea how to proceed. I was starting from scratch.

I used those twenty years to catch up on all kinds of history I never learned in school, to read other Chicana writings, to engage with Latin American decolonial philosophy, and to learn about various approaches from the then-nascent environmental humanities. This all eventually came together in my book, Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment. Moraga is the only writer to whom I dedicate an entire chapter in that book, and only after writing that did I feel I was finally prepared to speak with her.

 

(Photo: Moraga, left, in conversation with the author, right, at the 2019 ASLE Conference in Davis, CA.)

Here, I have gathered a list of ten writers whose books I wish someone would have handed to me alongside Cherríe’s book that day in 1997, which could have expedited aspects of my twenty-year journey. Of course, I recommend readers get their hands on anything by Moraga, including her essays and poems in The Last Generation and two of her most powerful plays: Heroes and Saints, about farmworker exposure to pesticides, and The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, set in a dystopian future after the ethnic balkanization of the United States. These are my suggestions for readers interested in learning from the Mexican American and Chicana/x/o culture about the way we uniquely dwell in place and with the planet.

I divide the list into two sections, although, to me, the boundary is porous. The first list includes books suited for everyday reading. The second lists books that show up in college classes, but they are still accessible for anyone to read. Most of these books are not directly about environmental issues. The Mexican American and Chicana/x/o writers included here do not often identify as “environmentalists,” yet their works and the culture they write from engage with everyday practices and ethical orientations that structure a reciprocal, respectful, non-possessive way of being with the land. This is what I call “goodlife writing,” because it’s not environmental or nature writing per se, and it resonates with the Latin American approach of buen vivir and a multiplicity of Indigenous approaches reflected in the phrases sumaq kawsay in Quechua, suma qamaña in Aymara, and ñande reko in Guarani.
  

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) by Gloria Anzaldúa and Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality (2015) by Gloria Anzaldúa, edited by AnaLouise Keating

Anzaldúa’s writing famously defies categorization—part personal essay, part poetry, part history. Her themes range widely, too, from spirituality, racism, oppression, heteronormativity, psychic violence, body and language politics, and more. A writer who grew up in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in South Texas, she consistently engages with the question of the false Western binaries imposed by the notions of mind/body and human/nature. She subverts these divides in a way that integrates histories of colonization, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her classic work was published in 1987, and in 2004 she died from complications of diabetes. Scholar AnaLouise Keating helped bring her last decade’s worth of writing to press in 2015.


 

Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes

This novel opens by putting readers in the backseat of a station wagon, riding along with teenage protagonist Estrella and her migrant farmworker family: her four younger siblings, her mother, and a man named Perfecto Flores in the driver’s seat. The setting is 1990s California, where the twin specters of deportation and pesticide contamination threaten these characters alongside the certainty of long, grueling workdays and constant movement. Yet Viramontes carves beauty and communion out of these lived experiences without holding back on her critique of a food system built on ongoing and radical injustice. Viramontes dedicates the book to her parents, who met as young migrant farmworkers.

 

 

 


  

So Far From God (1993) by Ana Castillo

Castillo depicts a family of strong women—a mother and her four daughters—who all defy structural boundaries imposed on them by the exploitative, patriarchal, and violent structures of late capitalism in the waning years of twentieth century New Mexico. The variety of ways in which they achieve this defiance is fascinating and sometimes mystifying. The youngest daughter escapes death in the opening scene and thereafter straddles reality and other-worldly powers, while her sister Fe enacts her faith in the system only to come up short of her fantasy life of consumerism and heteronormativity. Their eldest sister Esperanza blazes a path as a television news anchor but still seeks meaning, while the beauty of the family, Caridad, learns to value herself after experiencing trauma by moving beyond the superficial. Always helped by their stalwart mother, all five women learn the brutality of severing one’s relation to the land, and the healing that can result from reconnecting.

 


 

Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (1979) by Jimmy Santiago Baca

You can’t go wrong with anything by this poet. Illiterate when he was sent to prison for a five-year term, he learned to read and write there and create poems in exchange for cigarettes. He spent the bulk of his sentence in solitary confinement, and eventually sent some of his poems to Mother Jones magazine. Then-editor Denise Levertov was drawn to his work and published it. Immigrants in Our Own Land is his first collection, but he’s published many collections since, plus a memoir, several novels, and a short story collection. I regularly screen the documentary about his life, A Place to Stand, in my Chicanx Literature courses. His poetry captures the frustration of a culture whose relation with the land was manipulated by colonization and imperialism, to which he responds by transcending hierarchical relations and engaging with the beauty of the everyday world.
 

 

 


 

The Squatter and the Don (1885) and Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton was born in Alta California when it was still part of México, and she met and married her husband during the U.S.-Mexico War when he was stationed in California as a young captain. Akin to her life, her novels (the first published in English in the U.S. by a Mexican American author) tell the story of the peoples transformed by this land takeover. The families in her novels go through fundamental changes when Mexico loses half its territory to the U.S. in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war also promised to protect the rights of the roughly 100,000 Mexicans who chose to stay put. Her books show how that promise was broken, and how some families responded. The class and racial distinctions extant in nineteenth century Mexican culture are fully depicted here in their complexity and complicity, along with the discrimination against Indigenous peoples. These books fill significant gaps in historical knowledge about Mexican American history and culture, told in the compelling dramas of upper-class families and always centered on land, gender, power, and ethnicity.

 


 

Caballero (1930s, 1996) by Jovita González and Eve Raleigh (née Margaret Eimer)

This novel also engages with the U.S.-Mexico War, set during the war and on a hacienda located squarely in the disputed territory in South Texas between the Nueces and the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande that started it all. Readers journey along with the characters who attempt to negotiate the changing political, social, racial, and environmental terrain during the transition of power from Mexico to the U.S. Written in the 1930s by two friends, Mexican American González and Anglo American Eimer (whose pen name was Eve Raleigh), this novel was rejected by publishers at first, and didn’t reach publication until well after the demise of both writers. Scholars José Limón and María Cotera brought the book to Texas A&M University Press in 1996.

 

 


 

The writers and works listed below are most often categorized as scholarly texts, but anyone can read and appreciate the wealth of knowledge they offer.

Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest (1996) by Laura Pulido

Pulido is a visionary of Chicana/x/o environmental politics. A geographer by training, her writings engage deeply with the intersection of race, place, and power.

Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998) edited by Devon G. Peña and Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) by Devon G. Peña

Another leader in Chicana/x/o environment and culture, Peña speaks from the vantage of the field of anthropology, although his 1998 edited collection offers voices from various disciplines.

Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space (2002) by Mary Pat Brady

This was the closest thing to an environmental history of Chicana writing that I ever read, and Brady’s brilliant approaches to Chicana feminist writings consistently challenged me in my own work to reach for deeper readings that always respect the writers and the lived experiences of our ancestors.

The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (2011) by Walter D. Mignolo

I have been reading Mignolo since graduate school in the 1990s, but this book made most explicit for me the necessary ways we need to understand colonization as an environmental process as much as any other kind of phenomenon.

Listen: “Origin Stories”

Over two years ago, my mother died from lung cancer at sixty-one years old.
 
While she never smoked, she did grow up downwind from Rocky Flats, a major nuclear weapons complex which manufactured plutonium triggers from 1952-1989. Located fifteen miles northwest of Denver, this factory was responsible for leaking horrifying amounts of toxins into the air, water, and soil of the surrounding areas, including Wheatridge, Colorado where my mom grew up.
 

While I have participated in many forms of activist work and writing to spread awareness about the continued threat of this Superfund site, this audio piece honors the humanity and tenderness of the families impacted by such devastation. 

Billy Shaddox is a California-born songwriter living in the mountains of Colorado with several albums available for streaming online. April and Billy weave their work together in performances along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and are fortunate enough to call the same ponderosa pine and elk-laden hillside their home. 

Australia Under Fire: Three Articles from Down Under

With Australia’s bush fires engulfing many areas of the country, we reached into the Orion archives to pull out three of our most-memorable articles either set in Australia or written by an Australian author. Orion’s hearts extend to our friends — both human and non-human — threatened by the scale of destruction and loss.

    14 Smells That Remind you to Breathe by Megan Hippler (Summer 2018)
A writer from Queensland send us this fragrant Enumeration.“1. LIGHTNING. When the thunder begins to rattle your soul, throw open your windows. Count the seconds until lightning flickers or forks or explodes. As the wind whips around you, watch for the one bolt that illuminates the darkness and shatters molecules. Breathe in the burst of ozone…”
    The Nature of Violence by Jeffrey A. Lockwood (January/February 2006)
How does the will to live become a willingness to kill?“I HAVE BEEN ATTACKED by animals for thirty years. Working at a veterinary clinic in high school, I learned the skill of keeping snarling dogs at bay with a squeegee and the art of restraining injured cats. Later, in college research laboratories, I encountered the occasional frightened rat willing to use its yellowed incisors in self-defense…”
  Green Across the Globe by Polly Stupples (Winter 2002)
Activists from seventy nations met in Canberra in 2001 to forge a global Green network.“IT WAS A MUGGY AFTERNOON in Canberra. Australia’s capital city, deserted over the Easter holiday, was ghostly quiet. As I approached the National Convention Center, a vibrant hum spilled out onto the leafy grounds, rattling the air. A multilingual crowd thronged the lobby…”

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