Orion Blog, page 2

Behind the Cover: Chip Thomas

JETSONORAMA is a photographer, public artist, activist, and physician who has been working between Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon on the Navajo (Diné) Nation since 1987. He coordinates the Painted Desert Project, a community building project that manifests as a constellation of murals across the Navajo Nation, aimed at reflecting the love and appreciation of the rich history shared by the Navajo people.

Chip is a member of the Justseeds Artists Cooperative, a 2018 recipient of a Kindle Project gift, and, in 2020, was one of a handful of artists chosen by the United Nations to recognize the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations’ founding. Thomas still practices family medicine at the Inscription House Health Center, a clinic outside the village of Shonto.

We reached out to Chip, to learn more about the story behind the cover.



BELIEVE. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory behind the Winter 2020 cover image?

I was curious about the subject’s—Jordan Nez’s—tattoos and asked him to share with me his story. Here’s an audio interview with Jordan, where he shares the story behind his BELIEVE tattoo at 00:12:00:

“Believe. That has basically been my motto when times get tough. When things get hard I have to look at my fingers enough to tell myself, this is it, Jordan, you gotta believe in yourself. Don’t fall. Things may get hard on you. People may die around you but believe in yourself. Be proud of who you are because God gave us all the shoes to fit ourselves, so all we can basically do is just put them on and wear them.”

Meanwhile, in early April 2020, shortly after lockdown started, I was approached by the editor of Art Journal Open about doing a project around the uniqueness of this moment. I approached five poets and two other visual artists to collaborate on an online zine and physical book to express our feelings about the pandemic. I bring this up because there was a Navajo poet named Esther Belin who also chose this same cover photo image to write a poem about, a poem that imagines a time post-pandemic when we’re all able to breathe deeply and freely:



What would you say lives at the deepest core, the bones, of your creative practice? 

I’d say a time investment in getting to know the people I’m photographing, and attempting to use compelling imagery to tell an engaging story. My work is influenced by photographers like W. Eugene Smith, who was considered a humanist photographer and storyteller.

I was interviewed in 1995 and was asked a similar question. At that time I was going out into the community where I live on the Navajo Nation, spending time with people and photographing in black and white, then developing and printing the film in my home darkroom. I told the interviewer that my work has a bias as I attempt to challenge negative stereotypes of people of color in the media. 

Now I hear from viewers that my large-scale public art of Diné people gives visibility to people often forgotten, often overlooked, or thought to have been exterminated—preserving the shared humanity element I was pursuing thirty years ago.


Photo: Ben Knight


Is there a specific physical structure or surface that haunts you, or some ultimate canvas upon which to display your work? And is the art piece set in your mind first, or does the structure inform what work you choose for it?  

On the Navajo Nation there are lots of Quonset huts and roadside stands made of oriented strand boards (OSB). Those surfaces are tedious and frustrating to work with. Invariably, the OSB panels have gone through many cycles of getting wet and drying such that the particles protrude off the surface of the boards. In trying to install on Quonset huts, one has to try and get the paper into all the grooves to enhance the life of the piece.

In terms of the ultimate canvas upon which to display my work? I like walls that have doors and other obstacles to make the installation difficult, because once the installation is finished the viewer gets to see how architectural elements have been incorporated into the piece, to complement the work rather than it being something to be avoided.

Place. Belonging. Creation. Creativity. Justice. Celebration. Joy. These all come up in response to your work. What’s missing? 

Integrity. Humility. Sincerity. Trust. Faith. Universality. Love.


Photo: Ben Moon

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Five Articles on Gratitude and Forgiveness

Despite an unnerving year of confusion, loss, and outrage, there is still so much for which to be grateful. This Thanksgiving, as everyone hunkers at home distanced from their loved ones, our staff put together five Orion articles that best express gratitude and forgiveness. Enjoy, and stay safe out there.


  Uncommon Gratitude” by Trebbe Johnson (July/August 2015)

On giving thanks to wounded places.

  Freebirds” by Michael P. Branch (November/December 2011)

A Thanksgiving lesson in forgiveness.

  Ode to the Fish,” a poem by Ellen Bass (November 2010)
  World at Dawn” by Diane Ackerman (July/August 2009)

The pleasure of life rekindled

  Sharing the Table” by Samantha M. Harvey (Winter 2019)

How artists and activists find space to thrive on a working farm.




THE KNIFE in my right hand carves through a limb of bitter cherry and slices into the tip of my left thumb, denser than air but more porous than wood. I pull the blade out of me and it is clean. A bead of crimson from my thumb meets the November air. It swells and bulges, threatening to spill onto earth. Just as surface tension succumbs to gravity, I press my thumb to wood, and blood enters the bitter cherry, which, dead and sapless, drinks it in all the quicker. I hold it there and resume carving a spoon.

Rain plinks and plunks all around as if we are in an air bubble at the bottom of a river, our bubble a tarp shelter and our river a rainforest. Cedars bob and shimmy and cottonwoods sway like prehistoric grasses and waterfalls form where we’ve secured the plastic to branches.

The back of my wool sweater is moist and glistening, but the front is warm and dry because, at the center of our circle of fir benches, a fire devours cedar logs and exhales heat. A human animal squats nearby, hands open to the glow, while another spears a piece of deer flesh onto a green alder stick and holds it above the flames.

The rest of us sit around the circle, carving, sanding, weaving. I don’t know them, not in the way we normally speak of knowing. I don’t know their histories, families, jobs, or aspirations. I barely know their names. But I do see the firelight in their eyes as they must see in mine, and I recognize different shades of experience in them. The pained squint of a young man intent on perfection. The surprised satisfaction of an elderly man fingering his callouses. The relieved smile of a woman gripping a sharpened blade. All just as palpable as the soft throbbing in my left thumb.

I put down knife and wood, and I stand. Shavings cascade onto the packed earth below. I stretch my aching back, spread my cramped fingers, and wonder how many hours I’ve been hunched over. I start to think about the class schedule, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, and then firelight catches my eye again. I watch the colors follow the wind, trying to see beyond the yellows and oranges to find the blues and violets. Exhale. A cloud of breath swirls away from me and disappears.

Breathe in rain mist and cedar exhalation.

Breathe in wood smoke and sawdust.

Breathe in sizzling venison.

Breathe in wet wool and human musk.

Our bodies, they remember this. Bodies rendered from the bodies of those who came before, who sprang from those before them, traveling up tributaries to that mysterious river who dispatched us all. These ancient bodies pierced and porous, precarious bubbles flowing through all that is now.

And if we must return to this? What we’d lose is obvious, but what we’d gain is harder to put into words, maybe because it flows from a time before words, a time before mind and body split, when body was mind.

I pick up the green fire-tending sticks and stir the coals at the edge, drawing them closer to the blaze. I push a smoldering log apart from the others to give it air so it snaps into flame. Wood ignites, becomes heat, becomes the sweat on my brow, the flush in my cheeks, the fire in my body.

My body, a tool to taste this earth.

Someone hands me a piece of roasted venison and I take it into my mouth, grind it down with my molars as its warm juices slide down my throat. I swallow, lick my fingers, and pick up my steel knife and wooden spoon. I raise the spoon, admire the wavy patterns of the grain, like flame, like shadow. I run my thumb over it, feel the smooth curves where it’s almost done and the rough edges that need more work. I squat by the fire and carve as blood-soaked shavings fall to the flames. O


Heather Durham is a naturalist and writer currently living in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, where she works at Wilderness Awareness School. This essay is to appear in her second collection, Wolf Tree: A Personal Ecopsychology, due out in 2022 from Homebound Publications.


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Orion Readers Ask Five Questions for Jackie Morris, Illustrator of The Lost Spells

Orion’s Autumn 2020 issue includes a booklet of spells written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris, as part of The Lost Spells, recently published as a follow-up to their previous collaborative sensation, The Lost Words. 

Our readers were so enthralled by the illustrations that we decided to offer a select group of subscribers a sneak peek of The Lost Spells, then asked them to send us their questions. Here are five of our favorites, answered by Jackie Morris. 



“Even more so than in The Lost Words, this new book seems intent on asking us to imagine the real loss of many of these marvelous creatures and beings—most explicitly in ‘Goldfinch’ and ‘Heartwood.’ I wonder why you chose to conjure this so much more directly in this work of spells?”

For me there was an urgent need for this loss to be taken seriously. Imagination is a curious thing. We imagine monsters. We scare ourselves. People love horror movies, but it is hard to really imagine real loss. It’s hard to see those flocks diminishing year after year. When I was a child, this time of year thrilled me with the dancing flap of lapwing flocks. My father’s eyes would feast on flocks of hundreds. Now sometimes I see twenty. Sometimes only one.

For me, this loss is the true horror story. And yet I don’t wish to terrify people. Rather, I seek to inspire in them the wonder of nearby wilds, to put into the hands of children a tool they might use to reawaken that childlike wonder in their parents. Because everything begins with the imagination. We cannot continue to pretend that everything will be okay. We need to imagine better ways to live, to put life before economics, to see the problem and make a change—more so now than ever.



“I was interested in the inclusion of ‘Moths’ and would be interested in learning more about why you two chose them. How did you come to appreciate them? Was it as a child or did it come later in life? I had never thought about (or said) their names before. How did you come to appreciate the mystery in their names and texture? Was it through a scientific study or more organically?” 

When I was a child I would read in bed with the lights on, and the room would fill with moths. I loved the brush of their wings against my face. I was fascinated by how the light drew them in, even as their shape drew me in.

I grew up in the Vale of Evesham, and there was a big moth called a Bobowler. These names, to me, read like poetry. They were often given names by artists. Years ago, artists and scientists were the same creatures; there was no separation. Scientists drew their own images or employed artists to draw them. So it was artists, writers, and poets who traveled the land picking up the names, making them up when they couldn’t find them.

I love the scales of their wings, the way they communicate through scent, how they play a long game of evolution with bats, how they dance in the night. And like Rob, I wanted children to understand that, as with the word bird, the word moth is not enough to encapsulate the utter wonder of the moth world.

Moth numbers are falling. Some may look at the world and wonder why they should worry about such loss. How will it harm us? We are all connected in this world. We all need a healthy environment, free from pollutants in order to thrive. I do not wish for a world without that soft wing brush, that flit of twilight movement, that beautiful sense of otherness that loves the night. 



I was immediately drawn to your exquisite illustrations, Jackie, as they evoke so much more than words ever could for me (though Macfarlane was so masterful with every spell!). Might you speak to the relationship between the two—image versus words?” 

“Image versus words” suggests something adversarial. Indeed, in some illustrated books the images fight with words, but I hope they don’t in our books. Part of this is because we have an amazing designer in Alison O’Toole. Robert and I worked closely together in shaping the book. Words complement images. Images complement words. But the strength I think is partly bound up in our growing friendship.

We met in The Lost Words as strangers, and I knew Robert through his words. He had read a couple of my books too. Robert lives in Cambridge, and, even though I live two countries away, across England and the width of Wales, we work closely, throwing ideas through the internet. Now and again we meet to talk and learn from each other.



There is power in both words and images, and if you can get it right, the combined power can cast a spell. Words are just images to represent sounds. Read aloud, or in your head—it’s all the same. I think the strength of our books lies in the respect we have for each other, for words, and for images.

One of the accidental consequences of our book can be told in this story:

A woman returned to the U.K. from Australia to visit her ninety-six-year-old father, living in a care home with dementia. She brought with her a copy of The Lost Words for him. He’d not spoken for maybe a year, and it was thought that he was in the stage of dementia, where his language and memory were gone. He turned the pages and, when he arrived at the “Bramble” page, he pointed to the blackbird and said, “Blackbird. They would sing in early spring. Then we would know summer was coming.”

Words and images bringing to mind an almost lost memory. In fact, the book has been used widely with dementia sufferers, as well as reluctant readers. Words, images, design. Together.

“I am an expat in London and enjoy seeing windbreak lines of Lombardy poplar in north London. I’ve always thought that it was a tree that gets no credit, so I was glad to see it in the glossary with a nice illustration. I wonder if you two considered it for an entry, because it’s a tree that doesn’t get a lot of appreciation, as far as I know, but is very common to urbanites seeing nature around them.”

Yes, I remember lines of poplars in the landscape of Worcestershire where I grew up. Poplar is in the “oak” spell, which is how it earned its place in the glossary. And the glossary came late in the design of the book, when I realized I had threaded so many species into the images that weren’t actually in the words, and that it would add a curious “puzzle” element to the book.

I’m falling in love with trees at the moment, in particular, the aspen. Birch and silver birch were promised spells begun early in the year, but the words eluded Robert. He knew how I loved to paint them, but somehow it didn’t sit right. Then, right at the end, the words came, and with them, a lullaby for our times—shelter from the storm.

I thought ‘Heartwood’ was a different sort of entry, a sort of nonliving one, and was curious why you both felt strongly enough about heartwood to include it along with all the ‘living’ species?”

“Heartwood” was one of the first spells written after The Lost Words was published. Not an acrostic, but a charm against harm for the trees and the people of Sheffield. Sheffield is a city in England, known for its industry, but astonishingly, when seen from the crags above, it looks like a forest with a city built inside it. Everywhere, mature trees. These trees were being felled because of an inexplicable contract between the council and a private company.

People were out on the streets and up in the trees, doing their best to prevent this vandalism. Brave people who, in many cases, had not stood against the law before. They weren’t diseased trees being felled. This is why Robert wrote “Heartwood,” which became a charm hung on the trees, then sung around the trees, then a charm translated into many languages and sung by people who saw their trees and landscapes threatened by logging. It earned its place in the book.

That’s my first answer.

The thing that perplexes me about this question is the statement that “heartwood” is a “nonliving” entity. Even a tree cut down is a place that abounds with life. Even the stump of a tree will regenerate if left to do so.

The world made no sense to me growing up in the U.K. until I discovered myths, stories, beliefs of First Nations people: Australian Aboriginal people, hill tribes, those who believe in the life and spirit of all things, that the land, river, mountain, and rock are all sacred, that decisions made on governance should consider seven generations to come.

These days I grieve when I see trees cut down to make way for roads. In the U.K., ancient woodlands and orchards have been swept aside for the folly of HS2, a behemoth railway to shave minutes of one’s journey but that will damage ecosystems for centuries. For me, the value of life is far more precious than the value of money. A goldfinch is far much more precious than gold, and heaven help us when all their gold is gone. O


Learn More

  • Orion features The Lost Spells in our Autumn 2020 issue, which you can purchase here.
  • Order your copy of The Lost Spells and The Lost Words.
  • Read “Landspeak” by Robert Macfarlane, in the May/June 2015 issue. 


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COVID: Etymologies of the Word That Changed Everything

  covid: n. ~ co (corona) vi (virus) d (disease)

Abbreviated name of the novel corona virus 2019. A nonword/word spreading virally, a word used in an attempt to understand, in a shared half-understanding, a word that looms above any shared meaning. Virus, scourge, a respiratory issue mild in most cases. A dry cough, a shortness of breath. Or death. A blood heart kidney lung clot stroke attack damage of unknown proportions. An invisible thing-being, alive/not-alive, so powerful it can freeze vast cities, upend entire economies, make Republican administrations give money to poor people, keep grandmothers from hugging grandbabies. Under close examination, shaped like a crown.


covid: adj. ~ co- (L. with, together, in association) vid (video abbr.)

Together through video and only through video. Video book club, video preschool, video choir, video sex. Video hair cut, video birthday, video funeral, video walk. Four bored kids staying late after video school to play hangman on a digital whiteboard. Video wedding. Email divorce. 



covid: n. ~ cove (ME a recessed place) –id (L. body or particle)

A body from a recessed place, a body alone, a body—or are we just particles, recessed in our houses? Is a human a human if no one can hug them?



covid: adj. ~ co- (L. with, together, in association) vid (dir. Spanish vida, life)

Living with people, the people we live with, the ones who use up the toilet paper, who complain about our dishes but leave ketchup fingerprints on the refrigerator, who talk too loud on Zoom. We used to simply share a sink but now we stare down days with them.

These people may be other people. They may also be ourselves.



covid: adj. ~ co (company abbr.) vid (L. see)

In the interest of public health, in the lack of healthy public interest, the companies can see us, track us, tell us when we’ve seen someone whose breath might kill us, help us (they tell us) be OK (is this OK?). We gave our privacy away already anyway for words like cheap, like now, like easy.



covid: n. ~ cov (covert abbr.) id (L. it)

The id, the lovely covert id, unconscious aspect, instinct, need, the power of the hidden and unseen. (How much these days we go unseen.) Our horny lonely late night selves. Strange quaran-dreams. Our surging fury at unmasked neighbors holding barbeques, our scorn for the man buying lemons in a hazmat suit. What leaps in our blood when a drop of rain taps a lonely, open lip.



covid: trans. v. ~ var. of coved [v.] in its two-syllable Shakespearean form

Hollowed, hallowed, caved and carved by loneliness by fear by grief by love by loss by love by love by the emptiness of busyness the vast and feral rooms inside. The green insistent thrumming leafing earth.



covid: n. ~ co- (L. mutually) vid (L. seeing)

We begin to see each other, our mutuality, equality—we see we are a we—we see the inequity, the injustice, the fragility. The sequestered lucky, the sacrificed essential. All suddenly more visible to those of us who imagined we were solo, separate, clean-handed, uninvolved.



covid: n. ~ CO (cardiac output abbr.) vid (L. see)

We see how big our hearts can be. How much love, grief, generosity, and courage they hold and how much rightful rage. How loudly they beat out of the stillness. How much they can do with each breath.



covid: n. ~ CO (conscientious objector abbr.) vid (var. of veered sudden change of direction)

No longer participating in what we see that goes against our consciences, we stop. The air clears, planes ground, oil becomes at least briefly unprofitable, neighbors wave, children on bicycles circle in the street all day like flies. A pause. A crunching halt. A thought. Perhaps inertia does not have to slide us off the cliff. Perhaps injustice does not have to just roll on. We get off the bus. Stand around. Shake out our legs. Survey the unstained horizon. Decide: get back on, or start to walk. We walk. Please tell me we walk.


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