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(Submitted August 5, 2019)
Fire and Grit was a wonderful experience, as was Watershed which preceded it. It was a great inspiration for my activism work.
(Submitted June 22, 2019)
I bought my first copy of Orion Nature Quarterly off a newsstand in 1986, in my ninth year of work as a park ranger. When, toward the end of that decade, I began thinking seriously about writing for publication, Orion was the place I wanted to be in print.
But it wasn’t until after the magazine published my profile/interviews with Al Gore (in the presidential campaign summer of 1992) and Wendell Berry (autumn, 1993), and Chip Blake invited me to join some Orion authors on one of Orion’s barnstorming Forgotten Language Tours, that I began to understand how much more than words and images on paper Orion really was. Orion was our society, eating, drinking, talking, taking walks in the woods, traveling together, and reading to each other.
From that 1994 road trip in the northwest with Chip, Marion Gilliam, Pattiann Rogers, Alison Deming, Bob Pyle, Gary Nabhan, Kit Stafford, and Barry Lopez (at a bookstore reading and party in Portland) through a series of public events culminating with Fire & Grit in 1998, the Orion Society became my incubator.
And of all of it, it is the sound of those writers’ voices that remains with me today.
“I learned a great deal about literature by hearing it read,” said Norman Maclean in 1987, “with the result that I depend heavily upon sound to guide me in my writing.”
Today, when I go to other authors’ bookstore appearances and talks, it’s extremely rare to hear a writer read a whole essay or story from beginning to end. But such was the form at the Orion events. And so, in the Forgotten Language Tours, and at Watershed in 1996, and at Fire & Grit and other Orion gatherings, I ate and drank and stood around campfires and walked through a field of luminaria weeping at Antietam battlefieild with the writers I most admired. And of all those impressions what I remember most were their voices, rising and falling and intoning their work.
Twenty years after Fire & Grit, the voices of friends I heard at these events such as Scott Russel Sanders, Patianne Rogers, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Janisse Ray, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, Bill Kittredge and others I didn’t know but was lucky enough to hear when they were still alive—such as Peter Matthiessen—keep me company and remind me that good work rises from the page and sings. From a time before the Gutenberg Bible it is song, it is alive in the body of the writer. Really good writing has a certain sound beyond print, but having heard it in its author’s voice, you will forever hear it reading that author in print.
I am forever grateful for the society I came into at the Orion Society.
Something unthinkable happened at Fire & Grit. It could have been just another conference, but it turned out to be a gathering that was far more than the sum of its parts. People had traveled from all across the country to Shepherdstown, West Virginia to talk about how to protect the earth. Orion had decided on a metaphor for the event, that of “little fires,” referencing a line by William Stafford; each person who had decided to do something for the earth was building a little fire.
All those small fires contributed to a gigantic blaze, a conflagration, the memory of which has remained hot within my mind these twenty years since. Speaker after speaker threw their epiphanies into the fire until it generated a wind of its own, blowing us all around, and all we could do was hang on to each other and to the landscape of soft green hills around us.
As for me, I was scorched. I had just finished an MFA in environmental writing at the University of Montana and within three months, my first book would be published by Milkweed. In fact, I had to skip the first afternoon’s talks to finish editing the galley, which had to be overnighted. By then the movement of nature writing had taken on a narrative arc, and I think of Fire & Grit, although no one knew it at the time, as a crescendo. Although I was on a different arc, still learning, still building tension, Fire & Grit to me was an apex, the highest peak of a trek, and everything that occurred in the years following would be an unwinding.
In my journal I scribbled pages of notes.
From Wendell Berry:
To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of redemption.
Life: we do not know how we have it, or why. It can not be controlled. It is holy.
To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.
We have to act on the basis of what we know and our knowledge is incomplete. How do we act in ignorance?
From Robert Haas:
We’re going to win battles and lose battles and we’re going to do it mostly in isolation in our own communities.
This is the work of being restored to the body of love.
What would we need to do to make every river a living river by the end of the 21st century?
From Bruce Babbitt: Before I leave office as secretary I want to personally preside at the destruction of one dam
From Barry Lopez:
Seek out elders.
Take care of the children.
He said that fundamentalism is the sign of a failed imagination. He said that you can fall in love with ideas and the world will pass you by with its wounds unattended. He said we want to be of use. “What if you devoted yourself to the maintenance and creation and elevation of beauty?” he asked.
From Gary Paul Nabhan:
In his talk “Food & the Politics of Place,” Gary first announced the idea of eating local, or using “food as a metaphor that weaves my life back together.” This was years before the 100-mile diet became a movement of its own. I spoke with Gary at length during a meal, in which he was eating food he had brought with him, dishes like cactus-pad salsa and mesquite tortillas.
From Richard Nelson:
patriotism = a profound love for the ground underfoot
activism = the act of tithing
From Bill McKibben:
Bill was the pioneering voice calling attention to climate change. He said that the instance of severe storms had increased 20 percent over the previous few decades. He said that spring was coming a week earlier. The scale staggers the imagination, he said. This is change on a huge scale and so quickly. He was saying this even then.
From John Elder: We have to throw ourselves into hope.
We as nature writers have evolved in the two decades following Fire & Grit. Were we to organize another one, it would look very different. Fewer of the plenary speakers and attendees would be white males. More would have brown and black skin. More would be women or non-binary. More would have names coming from languages not Anglo-Saxon in origin. We would have to collectively purchase a clearcut and spend a day planting trees to mitigate the costs of our carbon releases into the atmosphere. The gathering itself might be virtual, in which case we could get by with replanting fewer trees.
We might ask different questions.
However, I believe that the ideas, the wisdom, the concern, the generosity of spirit, and the courage that flamed around us could not be surpassed. The things that were said needed to be said and, most often, could not have been said any other way. I can not speak for everyone who was there, but I can say that the wisdom I heard burned me to the core and rebuilt me into a new person, and I departed West Virginia into my life as a defender of wild things, permanently charged.
I was there, twenty years ago. At age 57, I thought I knew all about nature and our environment. I was so wrong! I watched, listened to and absorbed so much more from all the thoughtful, expressive and wise presenters. There was SO much more to learn.
For me, the brand new, state of the art USFWS National Conservation Training Center, at Shepardstown, West Virginia was a comforting home; where meeting other attendees and sharing of ideas was easy on the beautiful woodland walks through the campus. On one of my inside wanderings, during a break, I came across the original document (and one of the pens used to sign it!) establishing the Land and Water Conservation Fund of September 3rd, 1964, by then President Lyndon B. Johnson. Public Law 88-578. I had been working with the Garden Club of America to make as much use of this Law as possible to save open space across the country. Seeing the original and knowing just how much that Bill had actually done to preserve land, took my breath away for a moment.
I was placed in the Collegium led by David Abram, a Seattle author and sleight-of-hand magician, who encouraged us to “take back” our senses. We each brought a rock from home: put our rock into a pile in the center of our circle and were encouraged to “pick up a rock if you want to talk”. He was so respectful: all thoughts were welcome. “Where we dwell is not our creation; we are it’s creation”, he reminded us.
Many of the speakers suggested that we re-dedicate ourselves to the sacredness of nature. They asked the question: “is our obligation to nature, different from our obligation to each other?” “What we don’t preserve today, we will need to restore tomorrow, if there is still time”.
We gathered at Antietam National Park for the final ceremony. I remember thinking “how COULD there have been such human (and horse) carnage in the waterway at the bottom of such beautiful hills”? Each of us was invited to light paper bag candle lanterns spread out over the slope. We created a “river of light” as we wandered silently, and tearfully, among them, as the darkness of night fell around us. There was no talking, but we could sure feel each others’ presence.
I know that I was inspired to carry on the vision of all the who shared their knowledge with us. And, I have carried on for these past twenty years and am happy to report that people are just now picking MY brains, for my thoughts on solutions. That is such an honor. Thank-you for this amazing Conference. Please have another one!!!!!
With appreciation to all who worked to put that amazing Conference together.
Something extraordinary happened at the Fire & Grit conference hosted by the Orion Society at the National Conservation Training Center near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, June 21-24.
People looked into the darkness of the terrible things human beings do to each other, and into the darkness of the continuing human destruction of the land and its plants and animals.
People faced “the desperate feeling,” as writer Peter Matthiessen expressed it, “that the world and life on earth are being destroyed with such a momentum that perhaps nothing can stop it.”
But people did not lose hope.
In the process of seeing and facing the darkness that is in each of us, there was a realization that coming to know our dark side is an essential part of learning to create better ways of life in harmony with each other and the land.
I was moved by the expressive voices at this conference. Fine writers of nature and place, including Barry Lopez, Jan DeBlieu and Wendell Berry, and diverse participants involved in conservation projects. They expressed their concerns, ideas and hopes with mind, heart, humour and soul.
In all, some five hundred people from across North America and overseas, came together for four nights and three days, from eight in the morning to 11 and later at night—to talk and listen on the themes of protecting, preserving and restoring the interwoven relationships of nature and culture.
I felt deep concern and enlivening hope. Though the journey is not going to be easy, there is a promising chance that we human beings can come through the darkness into light.
The chance is in each of us.
June 21. 1999
Out in a farm field of the National Conservation Training Center, we gathered in a large open-sided tent as the sun descended on Summer Solstice evening. Soft golden light shone into the northwest section of the tent, illuminating people as they listened to folk-singer David Mallet’s thoughtful and gently spirited songs.
After the sun had slipped away and twilight turned into dusk, Ann Zwinger, a well-known writer of nature from Colorado Springs, read an invocation—two poems by Linda Hogan, another prominent writer from Colorado, who is a mixed-blood Chickasaw. One of the poems told of watching a Deer Dancer—a human dancer wearing deer antlers adorned with flowers. As he dances, the man is transformed into a deer. A human being merges with the larger nature of the land.
After the invocation, there were readings by Jan DeBlieu, Peter Matthiessen and Wendell Berry.
Before reading from her book Wind: How the Flow of Air Has Shaped Life, Myth and the Land, which earned her the 1999 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History Writing, Jan DeBlieu spoke about the threats to her home—the Outer Banks of North Carolina—a place of richly diverse sea life and birds, threatened by oil companies looking for offshore oil.
Peter Matthiessen spoke of his concerns for the Everglades before reading from one of his trilogy of novels set in the Florida Everglades, Killing Mr. Watson. As he read in the vernacular of his characters, who were clearly venting many of his own thoughts and feelings about corporations and governments, Matthiessen captivated me with his artistry as a writer. How fortunate we are, I thought, in this dark and difficult era of human history to have his strong and creative voice.
Wendell Berry, another gifted and senior writer of our time, read a humorous and insightful poem on eating healthy foods to live longer. He spoke of how healthy eating could give you a long life, “beyond anyone’s living memory.” You could live long enough to spend 20 years in a nursing home, where you would be “too weak to get up and turn off the TV.” So, “pass me some gravy for the potatoes, and …”
We laughed well. Laughter is the best medicine.
As Wendell Berry read a short story of helping a neighbor during a flood, I listened closely to the resonance of his voice. Where does this voice come from, this voice of warmth and wit that invites one to listen with such engaging hospitality? I thought—it must come from living close to the land, and from being a long-standing farmer of the land in Kentucky.
The land teaches us to develop a keen mind and senses, and to think and act with humility.
The readings were finished at about ten-thirty. When I walk out of the tent and into the night, a silver crescent moon was shining in the northwest, and close by, was the clear light of Venus. Many stars and their constellations were also shining, with uplifting clarity.
There were plenary sessions each day. In the first morning session, Marion Gilliam, chair of the Orion Society, spoke of the meaning of community, including intentional community, the community of Fire & Grit, where people come together in a spirit of common purpose. Community, he remarked, includes more than the particular place where you live, or the people with whom you share specific interests. In its broadest sense, community includes the diversity of everyone in every place on the land.
Collegia met every day—conversations among some twenty people.
In a conversation guided by John Daniel, a writer of prose and poetry from Oregon, a fellow who knew his work asked him to read a few poems. John Daniel said he didn’t have any of his books with him. The fellow who proposed this said, “I have one of your books with me.” He slid it across the carpeted floor to John Daniel. It was a book of poems called Common Ground (Confluence Press, Inc., 1988).
Here is one of John’s poems:
When the throaty calls of sandhill cranes
echo across the valley, when the rimrock flares
incandescent red, and the junipers
are flames of green on the shortgrass hills,
in that moment of last clear light
when the world seems ready to speak its name,
meet me in the field alongside the pond.
Without careers for once, without things to do,
without dreams or anger or the rattle of fears,
we’ll ask how it can be that we walk this ground
and know that we walk, alive in a world
that didn’t have to be beautiful, alive
in a world that doesn’t have to be.
With no answers, just ourselves and silence,
we’ll listen for the song that waits to be learned,
the song that moves through the passing light.
(John Daniel gave me permission in 1999 to quote “Ourselves” poem.)
After John read several of his fine poems, someone suggested we go for a walk down to the Potomac River, which flows close by the National Conservation Training Center. Most everyone thought this was a good idea. John proposed that before doing this that we have a go-around where each person would say a few words about the rock she or he had brought to the conference, from our homeplace.
(As part of the conference plan, each participant had been asked to bring a rock, representative of the places where we live. The idea was that we would each carry these rocks with us for the duration of the conference, to remind us where we came from and to show others a sample of the land of our homeplaces.)
The conversation ended around noon.
On the way to the river, we stopped at the Commons Building to pick up a brown bag lunch. The path to the Potomac passed through a forest, where we saw what seemed to be an unusually large community of Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla). It is one of the first flowers of spring in the woodland places of western Virginia.
Down by the Potomac, we sat on rocks and ate lunches, and enjoyed watching birds flying along the river, including Barn Swallows and Belted Kingfishers.
We talked in the relaxed and quiet way that seems to come from being in a place of nature.
Shortly before we left the river for the afternoon plenarary talks, I went close to the river’s edge to see the water flowing by. There I came upon a lovely butterfly resting on a patch of sand among the rocks. Its wings were a rich dark purple colour bordered with bands of gold and inner edges of blue oval spots.
Such a gift, I thought to see and stand near to the beauty of this butterfly.
(Later, I found this butterfly’s name in a guide book, Mourning Cloak. To me, this had little to do with what I saw and felt. Since its colours are rich and it enjoys open places along watercourses, a more expressive name would be, Queen of the River…
Lorne Peterson writes and makes photographs of nature and place. At the time of the Fire and Grit conference, he was living in Spring Branch valley, Piedmont Hills of Arlington, Virginia. In July 2012, he returned to his homeplace in the Kichesipi River valley, Ottawa, Canada.
Part of the story was published in Audubon Naturalist News in October 1999. ANS News is a publication of the Audubon Naturalist Society, Central Atlantic States.