Orion Blog, page 3

Letter to the Editor: In Response to “Native or Invasive”

(This owlet and her two siblings were raised, over a two month period, in the crook of this Eucalyptus tree, as have been 13 previous clutches of Great Horned Owls. Photo: Janet Kessler)

This March, we published a thought-provoking article “Native or Invasive,” by Anjali Vaidya, a writer who divides her time between Bangalore, India, and Southern California. What resulted was some interesting conversation and responses, one of which we’d like to share below:

We applaud Anjali Vaidya’s bold and poetic “Native or Invasive” (March/April 2017), which suggests a parallel between the native plant community’s rampant hostility toward “invasive” species and xenophobia regarding human immigrants. “Othering,” whether directed toward plants, non-human animals, or humans, has never done much to advance either science or human rights.

Fortunately, a sea change is now under way in the scientific community, as more and more researchers acknowledge that migration is a fundamental right of nature, and that in our militaristic assault on “invasive” species, we have hubristically done more ecological harm than good. Here in northern California, a group of environmental activists have fought—successfully, so far—against a plan to clearcut, on public lands, hundreds of thousands of a stigmatized tree species (eucalyptus). The shortsighted folly of such a plan–in an era of climate chaos, when every tree is a precious carbon sink—cannot be overstated. Like many “restorationists,” the plan’s supporters—who, shockingly, call themselves environmentalists–hitch their wagon to the heavy use of pesticides, including Roundup (which the World Health Organization has pronounced a probable carcinogen) and other toxins intended to kill “weeds” and prevent regrowth of the hated species.

Readers interested in exploring a more enlightened approach to the native/invasive divide might check out: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration, by Tao Orion; Where Do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species Aren’t All Bad, by Dr. Ken Thompson; and The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, by Fred Pearce.

Finally, a blog recommendation: https://milliontrees.me/.

Jean Stewart, El Sobrante, CA
Marg Hall, Berkeley, CA

View more of photographer Janet Kessler’s work.
Learn more at the San Francisco Forest Alliance.

Running for Climate: An Interview with Pavel Cenkl

Pavel Cenkl is a man on the move. A well-published writer, Associate Dean of Academics and Director of Athletics at Vermont’s Sterling College, Cenkl weaves together his love for humanities, wild space, and endurance running in response to today’s ecological crises. Two weeks ago, Cenkl returned from his latest project: running over 200 miles across Scandinavia to raise awareness about climate disruption and community resilience. I caught up with Cenkl to learn more about his motivation, the worst moments along the way, and what’s next.

NT: Tell us about your most recent expedition. 

PC: Between August 1 to 8, 2017, I completed a run of 360 kilometers (224 miles) along the Nordkalottleden from Sulitjelma, Norway to Abisko, Sweden as part of a multi-year project to foster conversation and build community around individual and ecological resilience. At the heart of this project is an intention to change the narrative about climate change from resistance to resilience by focusing on the individual’s relationship with place through endurance activities.

On this most recent run I typically averaged between 50 and 65 kilometers a day (30 – 40 miles) and was self-sufficient for several days at a time between resupply points. This run proved to be a far departure from my 2015 Climate Run: Iceland. The terrain was more consistently mountainous and remote; the route was significantly longer; I was largely self-supported and carried everything I needed for days at a time (from tent and sleeping bag to food to extra clothing, navigation tools, and solar panels).

NT: What is Climate Run and how did it all start?

PC: Climate Run is a project I launched in 2014 in preparation for a solo 3-day, 150-mile run across Iceland in 2015. The goal was to bring attention to the relationship between endurance athletics and the broader ecosystem that we all share.

I began my planning convinced that the project would focus on ways that we in the outdoor recreation community could change habits to lessen our global ecological impact – buying more locally sourced equipment, recycling and repurposing used gear, and being more intentional about how we choose to access the outdoors. Over the course of the run I realized that these small individual choices, though important, distract our attention from the much broader concern of how we engage with one another in our communities. Only by building resilience in communities can we hope to develop a lasting relationship with the non-human world and shift our conversation about climate change from one of resistance to one of resilience.

Since then, I’ve given over 20 presentations and workshops to groups ranging from middle school students to outdoor professionals. I’ve nurtured partnerships with gear manufacturers, retailers, and nonprofits to spread the mission of Climate Run. Based on feedback, the project has served as an inspiration for hundreds of people to engage in running events, conversations, and initiatives that integrate ecological thinking with sports.

NT: Have you always been a runner? 

PC: My love of mountain trails began on family hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest in the 1970s and 80s. This led to a series of summers working in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hut system and moving quickly over trails. I didn’t sign up for my first official race until a nearly a decade later, and I didn’t run a marathon until 2011, and even then it was a trail run that I organized in support of my wife, Jen, who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Since then, I’ve finished several races of 50k to 100 miles, as well as my two multi-day Climate Run events, and I started the nation’s first Trail, Mountain, Ultra Running Team here at Sterling in 2014. I continue to teach and coach running today.

NT: What makes endurance activities such a strong medium for raising awareness? 

PC: At the most basic level, endurance running – with its many hours of pushing one’s body to its physical and mental limits over a range of challenging terrain and weather conditions – exposes our vulnerabilities as humans in a larger world. I revel in both the literal and the more subtle ways in which I find myself bound up and immersed in so many different interconnected systems – whether fording rivers, plunge-stepping through late season snowfields, bounding across spring-loaded heath of mosses and arctic birch, falling into bottomless bogs, or following reindeer tracks to find an easier route.

These adventures force me to explore how the boundaries between self and world begin to blur when we bring our intention and awareness to our experience. And, finally, sharing my stories with audiences around Europe and the U.S. can become a foundation for conversations about building resilient relationships between humans and the environments in which we live.

A long conversation I had with Alexandra Messerli, a glaciologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, helped to crystalize the profoundly complex relationships of snowpack, glaciers, permafrost, and both local and global ecological systems. In Norway, glacial melt and recession are critical issues because of the country’s reliance on hydroelectric power, which sometimes ties directly into sub-glacial water flows. Recognizing and measuring glacial recession is nothing new, of course, but with it comes dramatic changes to local ecosystems and impacts on marine life, reindeer populations, and the changing nature of arctic flora in a post-glacial landscape.

I’m both by training and by passion an environmental humanist, endurance athlete, and teacher. I believe that by embarking on these longer high-profile endurance adventures in the Arctic, I can leverage my experience to make significant change to the conversation about our relationship with the non-human world.

“It is at the limits of ourselves that we come
in closest contact with the world.”

NT: Illustrate for us the most challenging moment(s) of your run. 

PC: The unforeseen challenges were principally weather-related: Norway and Sweden had a very snowy winter, cold spring, and cool summer, so according to locals snow melt was 4-5 weeks behind seasons norms. I chose August because it typically offers less snow and drier conditions, but I encountered late June conditions on my run — many undermined snowfields, deep rivers, endless small streams, bogs, and sunken bog-bridges. Temperatures were, though, fairly typical for August — lows approaching 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night and highs of 65 or so in the daytime.

The biggest physical challenge was the toll this mileage and terrain took on my body. I was spent by the end — specifically, I started to suffer a lower-leg pain similar to something I had experienced in Iceland in 2015. By the end of day 8, I was ready to stop, although I still had half the trail left to complete. I felt it was a good decision, for reasons I talked about on my blog, and I had also had several terrifically generative conversations with biologists, glaciologists, and social scientists about the role that climate change is playing in Arctic Norway, along with many experiences both before and during the run itself that underscored my thinking about the deep relationships between the human and non-human world.

NT: What did you eat along the way?  

PC: I carried about 25 pounds of equipment. This included a tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, clothing, food, and other equipment. For food, I had hot oatmeal and coffee for breakfast and a two-serving re-hydrated freeze-dried meal for supper. During the day, I ate constantly: bars, nuts, chocolate, energy gel, and electrolyte tablets in my water. Despite taking all these calories in, I noticed a decrease in weight by the last days of my run, and for about a week post-run, I simply could not stop eating. 

NT: Are you planning to return? What’s next? 

PC: I do plan to return to Scandinavia, though not necessarily to complete the second half of the Nordkalottleden. I made many good connections during my time there, and I am hoping to return with students on a Sterling College field course, possibly in 2019. In the short term, I am planning a tour to share my experience and perspectives on the human/ecological relationship with as many diverse groups as possible. In 2018, I plan to travel to Hokkaido and run the Daisetzusan Grand Traverse with a group of students as part of a collaborative college-level field course on climate and culture.

For more information, visit Climate Run or contact Pavel Cenkl at [email protected]

From the Vaults: Blessed Inheritance

One year ago, Orion Magazine featured “Blessed Inheritance,” an article and photo essay written by Sierra Crane-Murdoch and photographed by Terray Sylvester. The piece covered land policy issues on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. Here in the Great Plains, a mutualistic relationship between the Blackfeet and white cattle ranchers continues to provide both opportunities and challenges in the wake of the 1887 Dawes Act, a paternalistic move on behalf of the federal government to divide reservations into allotments and encourage private land ownership.

Since publication we’ve experienced several plot twists: Standing Rock’s fierce resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, an incendiary new president, and growing land policy questions—native lands, public lands, wildlands, homelands. Because of this, here are some words and images from “Blessed Inheritance,” a work that remains just as relevant as it was a year ago.

“Lately, the question of what to do with Indian land has caused fierce debate. Some would like to do away with allotments altogether — this vestige of paternalism — and return the land to tribal governments to hold in common for their people. There have been various federal efforts to do just that, but they have met resistance from Indian landowners who do not want to give up their land, even to their tribes. Some say, Why cling to a system designed to ruin us—a system that rendered Indian land functionally useless? The reply: There is no sense in trying to go back; the tribe will never be what it once was. Besides, my grandparents are buried here.

“There are no clear fixes to the problems wrought by the Dawes Act. But a thin yet durable thread still ties some people to their land: it exists in the cemeteries that top the hills, in the creeks where people go to fish, in the pastel prints — each one a prayer — cinched around the trunks of trees. It is also in the pastures people keep. One day that October, we visited another Indian rancher, a man named Al Boy, who managed his own small herd. We rode with him to the corral, where he fed his cattle, and then out across the dry, brittle prairie. He stopped to show us a circle of half-buried stones, a tipi ring more than a century old. This, I thought, is what people mean when they say they want to “go back to the land.” The feeling is not an abstraction; it is the desire for a physical thing. It is the wanting to be in the place that reminds you every day of where you come from.”

Learn more: 
Read Robin Kimmerer’s “Speaking of Nature” in this month’s issue.
Subscribe to Orion Magazine
Find a Back Issue

Writers, Climate, and the Paris Agreement: A Short Interview with Christopher Merrill

Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and is the author of many books of poetry and nonfiction, including Things of the Hidden God and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. Chris served as the co-editor of Orion’s poetry from 1994 to 2003 and founded the Forgotten Language Tour, a program of Orion that was active in the 1990s. 

A few days after President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Orion editor Chip Blake sat down with Chris for this short interview.

CB: You travel to more different places than anyone I know. Based on what you see and hear, what can you say that explains the differences in the rest of the world’s willingness to take climate change seriously, as opposed to the U.S.’s willingness.

CM: For Americans, climate change can sometimes feel abstract. We can’t imagine, protected as we are by two oceans and enjoying the bounty of natural resources, that we will actually get caught by it. We think it will happen to other people.

I travel a great deal to places in conflict, where it is crystal clear that scarcity of resources and climate change are large contributing factors to the outbreak of wars and the resulting human migration. In parts of Africa, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, climate change is a real concern for people trying to live their lives. It is a tangible thing. Thus when we speak about the civil war in Syria, a precipitating cause of the refugee crisis tearing apart the fabric of the European Union is the war in Syria, we often forget the fact that it was not just a revolt against an authoritarian regime but a consequence of climate-induced drought.

It was thrilling, wasn’t it?, to see almost every nation on earth come together to produce the Paris Agreement, with people working together for the first time to solve the global climate problem. Which makes Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement all the more alarming: it signals to the world that our policy is not just America first, a doctrine rooted in the isolationism and anti-Semitism of the 1930s, but America only. When a large-scale problems occurs, as it inevitably will—let’s say an outbreak of Ebola or avian flu—who will to want to help us? If we forsake our tradition of enlightened self-interest, which among other things led to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II and the decision to bring Germany and Japan back into the community of nations, then we will be lost. Our values count, despite what we hear these days from the Trump administration.

CB: In drawing attention to climate change, what is the role of the writer?

CM: First and foremost, writers bear witness to what’s happening at any given moment. So those who write about human migrations are directly or indirectly addressing the climate issue. Writers also bring a level of complexity to their thinking, and when it comes to migrations and climate change it behooves us to recognize the complexity of the situation. Populism depends on simplifying things, on appeals to our sense of grievance, on summoning our darkest impulses. Writers in their various ways are after something larger. They tap into larger spiritual currents and enduring traditions. They try to figure out what’s right, even as they testify to all the ways in which we fail to act well or fall down. Writers give us a larger and more complex understanding of existence.

CB: Can you make a distinction between the way American writers write about climate, and way non-American writers write about climate?

CM: American writers are to some extent more alert to the threats posed by climate change and the scientific underpinnings of the evidence of climate change. The writers I meet in my travels are dealing more with the symptoms of climate change. My Syrian writing friends, for example, may not write directly about climate change, but they are dealing with the consequences of a brutal civil war spurred by drought.

CB: Where do you find any hope in the way people talk or write about climate?

CM: Writers generally have faith—in their language, in their ability to ferret out the truth, in their determination to document how people do or do not listen to their better angels. Directing the international writing program, I am surprised and heartened by the ways in which writers coming from dire circumstances make sense of what is happening around them. We have hosted writers from Afghanistan who live in horrendous conditions, and yet write with a kind of joy. A novelist from Damascus, Khaled Khalifa, told me early in the war that he felt obliged to testify to what is happening to his country. Not long ago, the Bangladeshi novelist, Anisul Hoque, who warned about the effects of rising sea levels, found himself in the Islamists’ crosshairs, his photograph plastered on the front page of a newspaper with a caption ordering the faithful to kill him. He sought refuge in this country, staying only long enough for the immediate threat to pass and then returning to Dhaka to continue his vital work, albeit accompanied now by armed guards. And I think today of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who endured one tragedy after another, insisting all the while on bearing witness to what was happening in Soviet Russia. Her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, said that in her work one hears “the note of controlled terror”—which is a note that every writer might hope to sing. Her heroism and her poems inspire. •

Learn More:
Read Chris Merrill’s “The New Face of War” (May/June 2013)
Visit the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa

Brian Doyle (1956-2017)

Brian Doyle (1956-2017)

I first encountered Brian Doyle when I was an editorial intern and then departments editor at Orion. He was such a prolific contributor that we had to institute a “Doyle Rule,” limiting authors to one Coda a year. Without it, he would have closed out every issue, and as it was, we usually had a couple of years’ worth of them lined up well in advance. But what I remember most about Brian then was how incredibly charming, generous, and genuine he was, even to a newbie intern. And he was that way with everyone.

On May 27 Brian sailed on to a new dimension. Brian was a friend to many, and a father, husband, son, and brother to a very lucky few. He was a storycatcher, a writer and editor who saw a good lesson or yarn in every direction he looked, and a guy who was constantly, delightedly, gobsmacked by wonder and grace, especially grace under duress. He was also a deeply spiritual, hawk-obsessed, hoops-loving, wine-sipping, run-on sentence-using, mustelid aficionado who laughed and wept in equal measure, and often punctuated his spoken sentences with this funny little mmm sound. It is the exact noise I would expect a small bespectacled mammal in an Irish children’s book to make as he enjoyed a taste of honey on a breezy summer day, and I know the great BD would grin at that thought.

I cannot pretend to have known Brian so well as many others, but we did keep in frequent touch after I moved back west, enjoying the odd lunch together when I passed through Portland, and exchanging years of his signature bright and brief email correspondences. Sometimes he’d pass along job announcements or ask what I was writing lately, and often enough I’d ask him to send something new to make me laugh. When he requested a photograph of my infant son, he responded with a simple and immediate: Ahahahaha! A fatty!

And so, my heart has been with him every day these past few months as his light began to flicker and shift. In my thoughts, I have spent many walks pointing out birds to him, and many nights in vigil at his bedside. I have read a dozen of his books and countless essays over the last two months, (this for a project about which I hope to have good news to share soon,) and the regular updates I’ve received from close mutual friends have left me by turns heartbroken, astounded, humbled, and incredibly moved and inspired by the love and grace of the Family Doyle. That is to say, he has occupied my daily thoughts, and facilitated some new friendships in a very real and meaningful way that has left me changed. And I know I’m not alone in this, because Brian, and his words, have moved so many people.

I have a long list of personal favorites when it comes to Brian’s essays, some of which you can read here, here, and here, or simply take a tour through some of his best Orion contributions right here. But a couple of weeks before he passed I found this one at the end of the last book in my pile, and it made me shiver. He died on a Saturday morning, and I heard the news with a baby sleeping in my arms. I looked down and remembered that morning I had dressed him in an otter shirt, thinking it was a day for otters. And so it was.

Brian, you are missed, even as you live on.


Last Prayer
By Brian Doyle

Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever.

Personally I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!

And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we would not have children but then came three children fast and furious!

And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!

And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.

I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small. But no man was ever more grateful for Your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.

But hey, listen, can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life–make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay? Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon.

Remember–otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.