Orion Blog, page 3

The Most-Read Orion Articles of 2021

 

As we wrap up 2021, take a look at the most-read Orion articles available online. This year, our web-only content had its highest readership ever, so we’ve included our top ten print features and web exclusive articles. Subscribe to Orion today. All holiday gift subscriptions are 20% off through January 2022.

 

Top 10 Most-Read Features From Orion Magazine:

 

10. Now That It’s Come to This by John Freeman (Summer 2021)
On the life, mind, and heart of Barry Lopez

 


 

9. First Passage by Elizabeth Rush (Summer 2021)
A journey toward motherhood in the age of glacial loss

 


 

8. The Ghost Crop of Goa by Sharanya Deepak (Autumn 2021)
Heirloom rice hangs by its last stalks

 


 

7. Upriver by Rebecca Altman | Photography by Ansel Adams (Summer 2021)
A researcher traces the legacy of plastics

 


 

6. Figs by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Autumn 2021)
A taste of wonder

 


 

5. Woman in the Woods by Sandra Steingraber (Summer 2021)
A study of resilience in does and other female creatures

 


 

4. The Nature of Plastics by Meera Subramanian (Spring 2021)
Explorations at the edge of the artificial

 


 

3. Spark Bird by Emily Raboteau (Spring 2021)
Bearing witness to New York’s endangered species

 


 

2. Brutes by Amitav Ghosh (Autumn 2021)
Meditations on the myth of the voiceless

 


 

1. What Slime Knows by Lacy Johnson (Autumn 2021)
There is no hierarchy in the web of life

 


 

Top 10 Most-Read Orion Web Exclusive Features:

 

10. The Endling by Christina Cogswell
Exploring extinction denial through the eyes of the last vaquita

 


 

9. Celebrating Old Growth: A Conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane
Orion cohosted a live web event with record attendance, a conversation between Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert Macfarlane, and David Haskell, in celebration of Orion’s new anthology, Old Growth.

 


 

8. A Case for the Porch by Charlie Hailey
We don’t have to go far because stepping out on a porch brings climate change to us

 


 

7. How to Write Love by Leslie Jamison and Sarah Sentilles
Kinship, craft, humus, tattoos


 

6. The Stability Fantasy by Emmett Fitzgerald
Why the pace of change is unraveling our myth of a stable planet

 


 

5. Out of Breath by Tishani Doshi
The more unbelievable something is, the more we reach for our mouths

 


 

4. A River Reawakened by Jessica Plumb
Ten years of rewilding the Elwha watershed

 


 

3. Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment by Jeff VanderMeer
Hummingbirds help a writer become a lover of the natural world

 

 


 

2. The Ecological Imagination of Hayao Miyazaki by Isaac Yuen
A retrospective on four fantastical worlds

 


 

1. My Five Summer Yard Hacks by Jeff VanderMeer
A list that includes the world’s first armadillo obstacle course

 

Want more? Take a look at Orion’s top twenty-five articles of the past decade and the ten best Orion covers since 2013.

 

One Women-Led Nonprofit. One Hundred Photographers. One Million Dollars for the Planet.

Photographer: Jasper Doest. During a blizzard in Joshin’etsukogen National Park, on the island of Honshu, a Japanese macaque shakes off snow and water drops while resting on a rock that’s poking out of a hot spring. “For a year I obsessed about the wind swirling over the famous hot springs within the park. It resulted in this photo of a Japanese macaque that seems to fly through the galaxy on a magic carpet.”

 

ONE HUNDRED TOP PHOTOGRAPHERS have come together to offer an extraordinary selection of 200 fine art prints, including over fifty highly sought-after limited edition prints, to raise awareness and much needed funding for conservation efforts around the world. The initiative is called Vital Impacts and its mission is to support organizations working to protect endangered habitats for humans and wildlife and the storytellers who amplify these critical stories.

 

Photographer: Reuben Wu.Field of Infinity XT2011.” A continuation of his Lux Noctis and Aeroglyphs series, Reuben explored the landscapes of Bolivia on a weeklong road trip, photographing in remote and extreme locations, in combination with his modified drone to illuminate the landscapes at night. Reuben Wu is a visual artist and music producer. He is also a co-founder of Ladytron and an official ambassador for Phase One Photography.

 

Photographer: Anand Varma. The forked tongue of this Anna’s hummingbird can be seen through the glass vessel from which it’s drinking artificial nectar. To fuel their energetic flight, hummingbirds may consume more than the equivalent of their body weight in nectar each day, via a tongue that makes a sipping motion up to fifteen times a second. To keep the birds healthy in captivity, the artificial nectar they’re fed contains protein powder and other nutrients, seen here as white specks. Anand Varma is a National Geographic Explorer and award-winning photographer based in Berkeley, California.

 

Photographer: Jane Goodall. In her early days at Gombe, Dr. Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest below for chimpanzees. She took this photo of herself with a camera fastened to a tree branch. “I was really excited to see that that photo of me looking out at the valley at Gombe with my trusty lightweight telescope was chosen. It was taken in, I think, 1962. I was on my own, very high up in the hills and I thought what a great photo this would make.”

“I had to find a place where there was a tree that was just right for balancing the camera. I had to set up the tripod and fiddle about until I had the tripod and the imagined image of me framed just right. That was in the days before digital so I had to wait a long time before I got the results back from National Geographic. I was pretty proud of myself. I love that picture.”

Vital Impacts is led by women—founded by award-winning National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale and the visual journalist Eileen Mignoni. Vital Impacts provides financial assistance, and expands and strengthens the narrative of community-oriented organizations dedicated to protecting and preserving human and wildlife habitats.

The photographers who have been selected for this collection are renowned for their dedication to the planet. They have demonstrated a deep commitment to conservation efforts around the globe and are donating to support the grassroots conservation campaigns: Big Life Foundation, Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program, Great Plains Conservation Project Ranger and SeaLegacy.

Dr. Jane Goodall DBE, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and conservation hero to many, has contributed exclusive, signed prints from her time working in Gombe, Tanzania, sixty years ago. These newly available images include a self-portrait, as well as two other images showing the remarkable lives of chimpanzees she has been working to protect for sixty years.

 

 

Just a few of the contributors taking part are Paul Nicklen, James Balog, Cristina Mittermeier, Nick Brandt, Gideon Mendel, Ragnar Axelsson, Mitch Dobrowner, Tamara Dean, David Doubilet, Jim Naughten, Maggie Steber, Joel Sartore, Tim Flach, Carol Guzy, Matthieu Paley, Xavi  Bou, Beth Moon, Ami Vitale, Stephen Wilkes, and Reuben Wu.

 

Photographer: Ami Vitale. Edition: 5 of 50. Joseph Wachira comforts Sudan, the last living northern white rhino on the planet, moments before his death on March 19, 2018 at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya. He died surrounded by love, together with the people who committed their lives to protecting him. From the moment I heard about the bold plan to airlift four of the last northern white rhinos from Safari Park Dvör Karlove Zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa in 2009, until today, when Najin and Fatu, his daughter and granddaughter, are the last two remaining of their kind, this story has shaped the lives of countless dedicated keepers, scientists, and conservationists.

“I believe this moment can be a catalyst to awaken humanity to the reality of the losses we face and inspire action. In a hopeful twist, scientists from The Biorescue Project have already created twelve pure northern white rhino embryos which are awaiting implantation in a southern white rhino surrogate.”

 

For the past twenty-five years, I have been reporting on stories about humanity’s impacts on the planet for publications like National Geographic, among many others. Human activity has placed one million plant and animal species in immediate danger of extinction, causing what scientists have identified as the sixth major extinction event on this planet. This extinction event is different—not only is it driven by humans but it is happening at an incredibly fast and accelerating rate. Removal of a keystone species has a huge effect on the ecosystem and impacts all of us. These giants are part of a complex world created over millions of years, and their survival is intertwined with our own survival. Without wildlife, we suffer more than just the loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.

What happens next is in all of our hands. Nature is resilient if we give it a chance—if we give it our time. We all have the capacity to get engaged and use our voices to make a difference. Each of us will be a much more powerful voice when speaking to the people in our lives. I believe we must first fall in love with the world around us. Love gives us the courage to make a difference. But I know it’s not just about loving this planet. In fact, that’s not going to save us.

What’s going to save us is believing in the wonder of this world. Wonder allows us to get beyond routine ways of thinking and to reimagine our future together. Wonder shows us how deeply connected we are to one another and that our choices are profound in their impact. We all want to be on the right side of history, and that can only happen when we realize that history is our story and our story is the story of every living thing on this planet. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that this issue is too big to deal with or that someone else will take care of it. It is up to you. It is up to me. It is up to us.

 

Photographer: Dudley Edmondson. “Great Grey Owl in a Snowstorm.” For three decades Dudley Edmondson has photographed nature and wildlife across the country.

 

Photographer: Jimmy Chin. “Charakusa Valley.” Karakoram, Pakistan, 2001.

 

Photography has the unique ability to transcend all languages and help us understand our deep connections to one another and to all of life on this planet. It is the ultimate tool for creating empathy, awareness, and understanding across cultures, a tool for making sense of our commonalities in the world we share.

The genesis of this initiative is to use photography and powerful storytelling images to support organizations working to protect endangered habitats and amplify these critical stories. This is a moment to reimagine our relationship with nature and to one another. We all need to do all we can to care for the plants and critters that inhabit Earth. They are fellow travelers in this universe. Our future happiness depends on them.

 

Photographer: Jody MacDonald. “This is Rajan. He is a sixty-six-year-old Asian elephant brought to the Andaman Islands for logging in the 1950s. He and a small group of ten elephants were forced to learn how to swim in the ocean to help bring the logged trees to nearby barges and then eventually swim onto the next island. When logging was banned in 2002, Rajan was out of a job. He spent the rest of his days living out an idyllic elephant retirement on one of the islands he helped log. I photographed him and his Majout (caretaker) named Nazroo, who had been with him for thirty years, and documented Rajan spending time sunbathing on the beach, swimming in the ocean and foraging in the forest. Rajan was the last of the group to survive until his death in 2016. He was truly the last of his kind. This image is from the artist series ‘The Last of His Kind.'” An award-winning photographer, Jody MacDonald is no stranger to adventure and exploration in the last untamed corners of the planet.

 

Photographer: Nick Brandt. Harriet, a giant eagle owl, has lived at Kuimba Shiri Bird Sanctuary for thirty-five years, rescued when she was a chick as a result of deforestation. This image is the first part of a global series, The Day May Break, portraying people and animals that have been impacted by environmental degradation and destruction. The people in the photos have all been badly affected by climate change—some displaced by cyclones that destroyed their homes, others such as farmers displaced and impoverished by years-long severe droughts. The fog is the unifying visual. We increasingly find ourselves in a kind of limbo, a natural world now fading from view. Created by fog machines on location, the fog is also an echo of the suffocating smoke from wildfires, intensified by climate change, devastating so much of the planet. However, in spite of their loss, these people and animals are the survivors. And therein lies possibility and hope. These animals can never be released back into the wild. As a result, they are habituated. So the animals and people were photographed together in the same frame.

 

Photographer: Tim Flach. Best known for his stylized portraits of animals, Tim Flach is known for the originality he brings to capturing animal behavior and characteristics.

 

Vital Impacts is minimizing environmental impact by offsetting emissions. The printing, shipping, ordering system, and web platform for the sale are all carbon neutral. Click here to learn more.

 

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Ten Books for Every Transformational Change Bookshelf

IT’S NOW INCREASINGLY APPRECIATED that our current system of political economy is failing us right and left. The search is on for a new economy and polity that can routinely deliver good results for people, place, and planet. Fortunately, a growing public interest in social and political transformation has been matched by an outpouring of exceptional books addressing what that means and how to accomplish it. My reading shelf is full with these books, and my goal here is to share some of my favorites with you.

From the outset, then, the list that follows reflects my preferences and biases, and, inevitably, the books that have somehow come to my attention. I made the tough decision to limit my selection to only books published from 2020 on. What follows are neither book reviews nor book summaries, but instead brief vignettes that should introduce the book and, I hope, whet appetites for more. I will start with books that deal with the sine qua non of transformative change, the movement from destructive values and habits of thought to a new consciousness appropriate for the situation ahead.

 

 

There’s no better place to begin than Tim Jackson’s Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press, 2021). It’s a prosaic title for a passionate and poetic book that, among much else, seeks to shatter our enthrallment with the reigning economic paradigm. A key quote:

“The relentless pursuit of growth has driven us to the verge of ecological collapse, created unprecedented financial fragility, and precipitated the terrifying spectre of social instability. Capitalism has no answers to its own failings. . . . Capitalism’s core belief in eternal growth lies trembling in the ruins. The myth itself is moribund.”

 

 

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (Knopf Canada, 2020) aims at new values and visions that can lead us out of the current horribleness. Starting with a rejection of both despair and idle hope, he explores the paths to new and inclusive worldviews that can provide the wellspring of deep change. A key quote:

“Commanding hope recognizes the possibility of negative outcomes, but these outcomes aren’t seen as inevitable. Without succumbing to delusion and dishonesty, this hope keeps those negative emotions from penetrating into and infecting [our] vision of the future. . . . In this way, that vision can continue to sustain the powerful agency that can help make the vision real.”

 

 

 

Let’s shift now from hearts and minds to the critical process of envisioning alternative systems and developing specific ideas for change. The twenty-nine essays in The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy (James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier, eds., Routledge, 2020) cover possibilities ranging from twenty-first-century social democracy, to democratic ecosocialism, to alternatives for even deeper change, including full-blown reconstruction. A key quote:

“‘There is no alternative’ threatens us with expulsion to a barren desert if we dare to demand some set of arrangements that transcend the possibilities of our current capitalist configuration. But as the plenitude of alternative visions we have collected show, far from a desert, what we have is a thriving, diverse ecosystem.”

 

 

One necessary and fundamental transition is the shift from today’s runaway consumerism to new lifestyles drawing on what we know about human well-being, happiness, and fulfillment. Our admirable guide here is Kate Soper’s eloquent plea in Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020). A key quote:

“. . . [E]ven if it were possible to sustain the consumerist market indefinitely [which she seriously doubts], it would not enhance human pleasure or happiness. It would inhibit and stunt the discovery and development of other ways of meeting material needs and other sources of pleasure and satisfaction.”

 

 

Ever wonder why so much weight is put on co-ops as pillars of a new economy? If so, you will want to read Melissa Scanlan’s excellent Prosperity in the Fossil-Free Economy: Cooperatives and the Design of Sustainable Businesses (Yale, 2021). Drawing on careful case studies from the U.S. and Europe, her book convincingly presents the most attractive alternative to the now dominant investor-owned corporation. A key quote:

“Not only can cooperatives be successful organizational models for the transition to a fossil-free economy, they . . . offer the opportunity to reinvest surplus revenue in the community . . . exercise democratic governance . . . and provide greater equality in incomes.”

 

 

The current series “The Case for . . .” from Polity Press deserves our attention for its fine exploration of path-breaking policy directions that move toward a new order. These five books in the series show what I mean: Andrew Cumbers’s The Case for Economic Democracy, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy’s The Case for Universal Basic Services, Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill’s, The Case for Community Wealth Building, Louise Haagh’s The Case for Universal Basic Income, and Pavlina R. Tcherneva’s The Case for a Job Guarantee. These books and others in the series lay out paths to a future that is radically more egalitarian, caring, and community centered.

 

 

A first cousin to this Polity series is Peter Barnes’s exceptional Ours: The Case for Universal Property (Polity, 2021). Barnes begins with the insight that most of today’s productive capacity is not due to the entities that benefit overwhelmingly from it, but instead to the ongoing accretion of scientific and technical knowledge and access to Earth’s natural resources. He argues successfully that these storehouses of wealth rightfully belong to each of us, and he has ideas to move this realization into action. A key quote:

“Universal property is needed to supply what markets currently lack: self-regulating brakes on external harms and money pumps that lift everyone up. Without such additions, inequality will split us apart and nature will become our mortal enemy.”

 

 

Why is there enough money to save the economy but not the environment and its inhabitants? Modern monetary theory (MMT) is not so much a theory as a practical explanation for how money is generated and allocated in our economy today. In The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (PublicAffairs, 2020), Stephanie Kelton debunks the myths that have constrained federal spending in areas now desperately underfunded. A key quote:

“MMT teaches us that if we have the real resources we need—that is, if we have the building materials to fix our infrastructure, if we have people who want to become doctors, nurses, and teachers, if we can grow all the food we need—then the money can always be made available to accomplish our goals. That is the beauty of a sovereign currency.”

 

 

I feel that I have spent sixty years climbing a high hill only to find the younger Kate Aronoff already there on top. Her Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—and How We Fight Back (Bold Type Books, 2021) is a sustained, historically grounded reflection on how we got to this unfortunate moment and what that means for “how we fight.” Included in her prescriptions is public ownership of controlling shares in the fossil giants. A key quote:

“How capitalism has developed as an economic and belief system shapes not just the carbon content of the atmosphere but world governments’ continued inability to respond. . . . Without a major course correction, capitalism will define, for the worse, how the US deals with the consequences of having waited so long.”

 

 

With mainstream economics in tatters, at least outside the economics departments, many recognize the need for a new economics to help guide the transition ahead. One of the most seminal and relevant efforts to forge a new economics has progressed under the banner of “ecological economics.” (It’s badly misnamed.) Peter Victor’s stimulating book about one of its leading proponents, Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas (Routledge, 2021) engages with the many debates kicked off by the ever thoughtful Daly, including his sustained challenge to GDP growth. A key quote:

“Daly argues that there is a logical policy sequence starting with sustainable scale, followed by just distribution and then efficient allocation. . . . Mainstream economists, Daly says, concentrate too much on efficient allocation to the neglect of sustainable scale and just distribution.”

 

Read a conversation with Megan Mayhew Bergman and Gus Speth, as they discuss Speth’s newest book, They Knew: The U.S. Government’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis

 

 

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This is a simple mosaic of all the list's book covers. Set on a dark blue background.

Fifteen Poetry Recommendations About Grief and Mourning for our Darkest Nights

 

IN THIS SEASON, lists like this often focus on celebration. And of course we hope you find plenty to celebrate as another year comes to an end, but for many, there will be a great deal to mourn. The books Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends recommend here offer ways to hold grief. Grief for people we have lost or people we might be losing, grief for an imperiled planet, for hardship, and change. “Poetry is the closest grief has to expression in language,” wrote Ilyse Kusnetz. Here are some books to open when nights are heavy and hard.

 

Camille Dungy Recommends:

 

 

 

Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz


In these electric meditations on living while dying, Ilyse Kusnetz reminds us of what it means to dearly love an impermanent world. Kusnetz was in treatment for cancer at the time she wrote Angel Bones. Sometimes, as in “Scientists Prove Chemo Brain is Real” and “Chemotherapy,” she writes directly about those treatments. In other poems (“A Notion of Time According to Physicists (After I Die)” and “I’ll Be Your Sweet Poltergeist”), she speaks frankly about her hopes for “When I don’t have a body anymore. When/ I’m ash and fragmented bone.” As much as this book is centered on the poet’s personal and ultimate loss, it is deeply grounded in the world around her. The universe around her, really, as there as many poems in Angel Bones about the magnificent continuity of stars and space and time as there are poems that center on blue herons, dragonflies, butterflies, bees, sanderlings, parakeets, and “the wild delight of wild things, my Love.” (Alice James Books)

 

 

Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


These self-portraits of a woman facing her own mother’s death drop us into a world of grief and recognition. A poet and photographer, Rachel Eliza Griffiths includes both her art forms in Seeing the Body, so there are pages of photographs in addition to all the book’s honest and revelatory poems. Refracting and refining her gaze page after page, Griffiths seems to be working toward seeing her own body, as well her dying-then-dead mother’s, within the changed landscape of grief.  (W. W. Norton)

 

 

Brightword by Kimberly Burwick


What if someone you love lives always on the brink of death? And what if that someone is your child? And what if that child worries about imminent and potential disaster, but not so much about their own heart failing as about the wreck we’ve wrought on the world? Brightword writes into the “green unowned awe” of existing in an impermanence that brightens the joy and terror of survival. Each of this book’s taut, five-couplet poems, which Burwick wrote in partnership with her son, convey a mother’s worry about her son’s congenitally precarious heart and the son’s worry about the environment and the many lives humans have imperiled. Not all grief writing has to be about what happens after loss, after death. I love this book for many reasons. One of them is how it handles the complications of being, of staying, alive. (Carnegie Mellon Press)

 

 

Prognosis by Jim Moore


Let me begin this brief review by quoting a few of Jim Moore’s lines: “If you are closer to being old / than you would like to be and slowness / begins to redefine the idea of difficulty / into something you would much rather / take a pass on, then it is time for the sky / to grow larger than the earth, than the sea even . . . ” Throughout this book, Moore embraces this matter-of-fact outlook on the world, an outlook that allows him to slow down and see possibilities for pleasure even when the prognosis is dim. Like a man walking through a blizzard with a bright orange snow shovel (“Useless Shovel”), Moore writes and writes again “Poems That Keep Me from Forgetting Who I Am.” Moore wrote Prognosis in Minneapolis during the COVID pandemic, a time of heightened calls for social justice, the turbulence of a presidential campaign, and ever-increasing recognition of ecological peril. All that is in these pages, as are several of Moore’s dead or dying family and friends and his growing awareness of his own proximity to death. And yet, “I am seventy-seven, have no time to waste,” Moore writes. “It is time for me too, even now, to begin again.” (Graywolf Press)

 

 

The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse by Sam Taylor


An elegy for the earth and for the poet’s mother. An excavation of the heart. A cry to recognize our culpability. A long cry. A heap of sorrow. This book burns with anger and exhaustion and disbelief and grief. It is at once a collage and a straight-forward narrative. There are images throughout, built of words and photographs and paintings. There are erasures and revisions and gradations of gray and deep blackness. Verse and prose. A short lecture on plastics and a “Fool’s Glossary.” Maybe it sounds like a mess when I describe it this way. The world is a mess and so are most of our hearts. The Book of Fools is one startling arresting effort to make sense of it all. (Negative Capability Press)

 

 

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith


Divorce is another kind of loss, which often brings its own kinds of grief. In Goldenrod, Maggie Smith applies her canny attention to the world around her as she learns to recalibrate her life on new terms. She’s not quite alone, the poems make this clear. She’s got her children and, also, there are “beams of light” supporting an invisible architecture all around her. As Goldenrod progresses, we walk with Smith as she learns to lean into this light. (Atria/One Signal Publishers)

 

 

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds by Peter Markus


Here are the last three lines of Peter Markus’s poem “Whatever It Was It Was an Honor, Call It a Privilege”: “The night my father died I had to brake three times / to avoid hitting an animal crossing in front of me. / One was an opossum. One was a deer. The third thing / I could not tell what it was. It happened that quick.” Throughout When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds, interconnections between the human heart and the greater-than-human world sing up from the pages, reminding me that the perception of loss is partially a failure of the imagination. Not to say that this book is intolerant of grief nor that it placates with empty platitudes. No. Not that. There is nothing empty or intolerant about how Markus weaves “the language of leaving” into everything he sees and says about the living world. (Wayne State University Press)

 

 

Forever by James Longenbach


Longenbach’s lyric poems hold in them the leaf-lost trees, rising waters, and salt-corroded bricks of a tenuously balanced life. It is hard, sometimes, to differentiate life from loss, love from longing, or Venice, Italy from the stream-strewn coastal stretches of New Jersey. Everything is connected in the taut, interwoven poems contained in Forever. (W.W. Norton)

 

 

A Forest of Names by Ian Boyden


In his role as a curator, Ian Boyden mounted a 2016 exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s Fault Line, in which Weiwei reckons with a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed thousands of people, 5,196 of whom were children. To cover up the catastrophe and the shoddy construction that exacerbated it, the Chinese government refused to disclose the names and identities of the dead. Ai Weiwei risked his own safety to uncover the children’s names, ages, and birthdates. Mounting the Fault Line exhibit, Boyden realized, “Each name brimmed with love, the hopes and dreams of parents, and a challenge from the children who bore them to not be forgotten or have the tragedy of their death be covered up.” For a year, Boyden worked with the names of children, names that translated into English as luminous little songs: “Swim the Lustrous Pool,” “Observe,” “Ripple,” “Ocean,” “Golden Duckweed,” “Long Flower,” “Sandbar Lord,” “Lustrous Field,” “Daylily,” “Daybreak Treasure,” “Flower Bud,” “Small Beauty,” “Poem Dream.” He wrote small, bright poems around each name, conveying the urgency of each child’s existence and the horror of each death. A Forest of Names collects 108 of these meditative memorials, ending with “Vast Swelling Waves”: “His absence an abyss. / Today, may his name overflow.” (Wesleyan University Press)

 

 

Revolutionary Letters, 50th Anniversary Edition by Diane Di Prima


The ferocity of these poems is intensely refreshing and instructive. One of the common questions in times of deep grief is What do I do with all this rage? Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters has clear and direct answers: “hoard matches, we aren’t good / at rubbing sticks together any more.” First published as part of City Light’s Pocket Poetry series in 1971, this fiftieth anniversary issue is an expanded edition of Di Prima’s life-long project, including poems written from 1968 until her death in 2020. Di Prima grieves for lost friends and lost leaders (by lost she sometimes means dead, and she sometimes means morally bankrupt). She worries about water and rivers and oil spills and both the first and second Gulf Wars. She mourns the fabricated divisions that keep good people from treating each other with mutual love and respect. Revolutionary Letters gives clear instructions about what to do with such grief and rage and worry: there are instructions on how and where to hold a protest, instructions on why guns won’t save the day, lists of what to carry in an emergency bag, instructions on how to train a body to survive with less food, and why it is best to avoid processed food entirely. For the reader who finds themself asking, What do I do with all this grief? These are practical poems with realistic answers. (City Lights Books)

 


 

Recommendations from Poet Friends:

 

 

Kimberly Burwick recommends The Solace is Not the Lullaby by Jill Osier


The English language, gorgeous as it is, often leaves us stranded. If there is a towline it may come from other cultures—or dead languages—which arrive from the past with an intricacy made fleetingly available as is the case in Jill Osier’s stunning The Solace is Not the Lullaby, winner of the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize in 2020. “Grief” is one of those words. In Japanese, the phrase “Mono No Aware” is closer to a sadness for the passing of time. In Old English, “Wintercearig” (literally translated “winter-care”) whose etymology is more akin to the strength of one’s own sadness as the years vanish. Osier writes, “The years have continued / to drop, like a steady rain, / their tiny stones.” It’s as if, miraculously, she has cocooned within these short lyrics a microcosm of the untranslatable. An elegy to the disappearance of small-town life across America, Osier confesses, “Something else beautiful: / I remembered, the town I’m from, / people there went about their day / and work as if they thought / no one was watching.” (Yale University Press)

 

 

Amanda Moore recommends Focal Point by Jenny Qi


Jenny Qi’s debut collection mourns a mother who has died young from cancer, and the focal point of the book’s grief shifts to behold other losses as well: loves and friendships, elements of the natural world, racial identity, the shifting landscape of San Francisco, and even strangers lost to acts of violence. Stylistically varied, Qi’s poems tend to their mourning through deft craft—a satisfying mix of mostly free verse that makes compelling use of the page—and careful recording of the living world: vanilla Chapstick, burning incense, “the spongy tang” of Ethiopian flatbread, neon dance floors, and sunsets over the Pacific, all of which are left to the grief-stricken to hold in memory and love. As both poet and cancer researcher, Qi searches for certainty and comfort by pivoting between the metaphysical and the practical, drawing on biology, literature, dreams, memories, and hope for the future in these exquisite poems that invite us into a transformative experience of our own grief by “teach[ing] us how to hold this weight.” (Steel Toe Books)

 

 

Ellen Bass recommends Obit by Victoria Chang


When her mother died, Victoria Chang wrote dozens of poems in the form of obituaries for all that was lost. In Obit she mourns the many and varied casualties of death, such as “My Mother’s Teeth,” “Approval,” “Oxygen,” “The Bees,” and several for herself,  “Victoria Chang.” The sensibility, imagery, strangeness, and imagination of these poems is mesmerizing. I rarely read poetry books all in one sitting from beginning to end, but I couldn’t put this down. I’ve returned to these poems over and over and they grow richer with each reading. In these times when we face so much death and loss these poems are especially meaningful. Victoria Chang turns grief into art.

 

 

Kimberly Burwick also recommends Spot Weather Forecast by Kevin Goodan


If Carpe diem translates to “seize the day,” then one must instead attribute Kevin Goodan’s Spot Weather Forecast more appropriately to Carpe omnia, or “seize everything.” In full disclosure, I have been married to Kevin Goodan for over a decade and know first-hand his complex relationship to fire. However convenient that fact, I find this book to be a staggering sixth collection. To Goodan, a former elite wildland firefighter, the body isn’t always metaphor, but a fierce articulation of the ecstatic threshold of pain—every muscle, bone and organ in perpetual scarification. “That is the passion of incineration, / Yes? The scabs they leave, / The scars they own / Are their homes in our bodies” he writes. There is grief yes, but it is a highly specific longing for one’s youth and the “feral, brunt-of-storm” comradery specific to each body in “hotline” against flame front. But Goodan doesn’t stop at the corporeal. The real genius of Spot Weather Forecast is that it also transforms the physical criterion for what a soul and the earth can withstand. “So many names in the smoke / As the inversion sloughs / Toward us, we who torched / this Eden, and will again.” (Alice James Books)

 

 

Amanda Moore also recommends West Portal by Ben Gucciardi 


In addition to being a neighborhood in San Francisco, West Portal is, as the book’s epigraph explains, “an entry into the afterworld—the westward motion of the soul after the body dies.” West is also the direction in which these stunning poems gesture, leaning ever-westward toward where sun sets each day, an occasion that, like the book, is marked by beauty as much as darkness. Winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, West Portal is a lamentation, born of mourning but conveyed in song, offering solace as it shines its light on loss. The poems function as portals themselves, providing passage into other lives, landscapes, and griefs, bringing us close to the speaker’s students—young men who bear physical and emotional scars of their youths—and his sister’s ghost, called upon for guidance and insight into the afterlife. Gucciardi’s speaker is both guide and fellow mourner, his own perspective and pain a wellspring for compassion and tenderness as the reader is ferried through a bevy of emotion. (The University of Utah Press)

 

Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here

 

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Review: The Shimmering Is All There Is by Heather Kohout

 

The Shimmering Is All There Is: On Nature, God, Science, and More
Heather Kohout
Texas A&M University Press, 2021. $27, 280 pages.

 

HAD HEATHER KOHOUT BEEN ALIVE during the Winter 2021 Texas deep freeze, which left millions with no running water or power for days, I suspect she would have written about it. The short essay would have touched on infrastructure, but it might also have drifted into other topics—climate change, big corporations, and perhaps a walk into the hills that surrounded her ranch, to see how the flora and fauna were bearing up under the cold. Her mind, a palace, simply couldn’t satisfy itself with one subject; to her, everything was related.

Texas A&M University Press posthumously published Kohout as part of their Women in Texas History series. The book features her Madroño Ranch website writings, edited and compiled by her husband, Martin Kohout, as well as a small selection of her poems. The Kohouts owned Madroño, a Center for Writing, Art, and the Environment, which was a fifteen-hundred acre ranch in Texas Hill Country, near Medina (the family sold it after she died). In the five years before Kohout’s death from cancer in 2014, she and her husband hosted a wide variety of artists, stewarded the land and raised bison, and traveled between their home in Austin, family in Colorado, and Madroño. The heat, dry dirt, wild boars, and rattlesnakes of Hill Country radiate from the pages. Interludes in other places still feel as if the Texas sun is drilling down from above.

Kohout was the daughter of a diplomat and granddaughter of a society woman and a state governor. Born to privilege, she spent her life thinking, writing and engaging with the world around her, giving back as a philanthropist, artist, teacher, and land steward. This could have made The Shimmering Is All There Is into the musings of a dilettante; it is not.

The short essays in this book range between a thousand and two thousand words, and flit effortlessly from idea to idea. Though they are the length of blog posts—one takes about ten minutes and would make good reading aloud—their subject matter bears deeper attention. Kohout is an excellent writer; musings about purple martins or dogs turn effortlessly into a treatise about sin or an investigation of human responsibility in the world. The result is not capricious but rather, as described by her son, a sustained and thoughtful “dialogue with the world, whether the world knew it or not.” That dialogue is in turns hilarious, reverent, frustrated, cajoling, and always intelligent.

Kohout’s primary preoccupation is thinking her way through the quandary of being alive (I refer to her in present tense, because the energy of her writing makes it hard to acknowledge that she left this world seven years ago). What is our relationship to the planet and its various species? How must we do better? What relation or concord can science and religion come to? Or science and environmentalism? To these questions she brings environmental writers who have asked similar questions—Wendell Berry, Catherine Mary Bateson, Emma Marris, Kathleen Dean Moore, John Muir, Bill McKibben, David Abram—and puts them in conversation with the heat and drought of Texas Hill Country, with literature (Milton, Pope, Gregory Orr), with religion, and with spirituality. Kohout read the Bible regularly in a group after church; her essays examine her own beliefs in the light of the connection she feels to place and her respect for scientific knowledge. However, the book never comes across as prescriptive. Instead, Kohout is persistent, self-deprecating and full of care for the ways in which people live various sorts of lives and endanger or tend to the world through their choices. She circles many of Texas’ contentious topics – gun ownership, ranching, hunting, politics, oil, religion, environmental management. Her charm, grace, and guileless curiosity keep the conversation and possibilities open. Part of each essay’s success is its lack of satisfaction with the answers that either science, environmentalism or religion are giving on their own.

Before Kohout’s final year of struggle with metastatic cancer of the spine and pelvis, her essays are lighter. She addresses her frustration with large corporations that threaten small farm producers like her family. She explores her love of and frustration with the various dogs she has owned, travel companions on her long walks into Texas Hill Country (Kohout’s family nickname was Deathmarch). There are dialogues with herself and with others on the concept of private property, how a community should react to climate change, and the role of beauty in the world as gratuitous and collaborative. This is not to say the essays are glib; writing of morality and beauty, she argues, “We have to love the world in order to preserve it. . . . when we know—really know—the beauty of nature, we know our own beauty and thus will be saved.” In a couple of sentences, she’s rolled together thinking on place, aesthetics, divinity, and environmental ethics. This happens all the time.

In the final third of the book, the tone deepens. Entries are more sporadic (the dates widen from once or twice a month to once or twice a season, with a six-month gap around what seems to be her terminal diagnosis). The essays and poems turn more and more to her essential topics: how to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her interest in other kinds of spirituality, and how her beliefs might clash or carry her through this unexpected turn toward death. In her poem, “Proof,” migrating monarchs unglue the “surface of reality” to expose “some thicker world beneath it,” while cicadas’ song collects, “dissolves,” and “gathers . . . to a single/pulse once more,” undoing “earth’s divide from heaven.” The essays segue from the lively “interstices that link the living and the dead,” to the Nicene Creed, which she struggles with even as she writes her own version, “. . . I believe this mostly at night, in poems and music, and when I don’t think too hard.” Again and again, she questions how to heal the world:

In a culture that so often measures itself by efficiencies of scale and measurable, predictable outcomes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to seek out irregular marriages between powerful and humble enterprises, between unlikely partners like science or technology and the arts, rather than seeking to separate them, as so often happens in times of economic stress. In these unlikely partnerings perhaps we’ll see some repair of our moth-eaten world.

Kohout provides a path forward, a way to heal the divisions that mark so many parts of America: by talking, by thinking, by conversing with and offering love for everything we do and don’t understand.

 

Maleea Acker is a poet, environmental journalist, and geography postdoctoral fellow in Victoria, BC.

 

 

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