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Concrete Progress: They’re Making Wooden Batteries

November 19, 2014, by Peter Brewitt

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: An enlarged image of wood splinters, which are pliable enough to be used as a key component of longer-lasting, more sustainable batteries.


This is not some sort of steampunk innovation. This is, quite literally, the power for a better tomorrow. To understand why this is a big deal, cast your mind back thirty years, and think about technology. It was an era of audiotapes and rotary phones, Apple IIE computers and black and white TVs and hand-cranked car windows. The hot new video game was Tetris. But batteries? Batteries were pretty much the same as we have now.  Our failure to develop efficient power storage at the same rate as we’ve developed other kinds of technology has been a huge problem for energy progress as a whole—if you can’t store energy, you’ll lose it, as anyone who has vainly whimpered as their phone died in their hand knows. But wood, the oldest technological material, may provide a way to hold lots of energy cheaply.

In an engineering lab at the University of Maryland, a team led by Drs. Liangbing Hu, Teng Li, and Hongli Zhu (the lead author on the group’s publication) has built a timber battery. Their batteries are not made entirely of wood—you still need metal components to take an electric charge—but the wooden part is replacing the metal through which ions pop. Over time, this popping (between the anode and the cathode, for those who remember ninth grade) wears down the material in between. The engineers had been hoping to replace the lithium ions that batteries often use with sodium, which is much more abundant and therefore cheaper. The problem is that sodium ions, while chemically similar to lithium, are larger and unwieldy, deforming the rigid tin material that the engineers had hoped to use to shuttle them back and forth. Wood, though, is pliable enough to maintain its strength as ions pass through. The team tried tiny slivers of yellow pine, to great success. The result is an economical, and more sustainable, battery.

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filed under: Concrete Progress



Letter from Nicaragua

November 14, 2014, by Douglas Haynes

The May/June & July/August double issue of Orion featured “Mango, Mango!” (selected as a web exclusive by the website Longreads.com), a report from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest marketplace. The author, Douglas Haynes, who spent a day with Dayani Baldelomar, an eleven-year veteran of the market, sent us this update.


In Nicaragua, October is the cruelest month—the month of heaviest rains, frequent floods, and, this year, even an earthquake. Fortunately, the 7.4 magnitude tremor that rattled Managua on the night of October 14th did little damage. But people poured into the streets, spooked by the memories of previous quakes that have devastated Nicaragua’s capital. In the Mercado Oriental (Eastern Market), where Dayani Baldelomar Bustos sells fruit and soft drinks, vendors fear chaos if a quake were to strike during the day, squeezing more than one hundred thousand panicked people out of the market through narrow evacuation routes. 

Managua didn’t escape October’s rains, though. Large swaths of the city flooded several times, and knee-high water filled the dirt street Dayani lives on. Rushing currents repeatedly carpeted low-lying parts of the Mercado Oriental with sodden garbage. For two weeks, trash lined the curb in front of Dayani’s stand—at one of the busiest bus stops in the city—until she and her neighboring vendors paid someone to take it away. The city garbage trucks responsible for picking up the trash never came.

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filed under: Then and Now



What Does a River See?

November 07, 2014, by E. Hoffner

Orion’s outreach coordinator, Erik Hoffner, was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month for the National Wilderness Conference, where he met with eco-artist Basia Irland. Photographs from Irland’s “Ice Books” project appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion. Above: The North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion National Park, photographed by Basia and Derek Irland.


Can you tell me about your next water-art project, “What the River Sees”?

Sure, and first of all, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time near rivers all over the world. It’s a blessing to receive invitations from museums, universities, and river advocacy groups to create art that helps people connect more deeply with their watersheds.

When we’re near a river, we are always looking down at the water as it flows by. But what view does the river see as it flows by the land?

To try to answer that question, I take underwater photographs. My new project, “What the River Sees,” began last December when I was in Zion National Park and realized that the ancient river there has had an amazing view of the huge red-rock cliffs for thousands of years.

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filed under: Orion Noteworthy



Concrete Progress: California Is Pulling Tap Water from Sewage

November 05, 2014, by Peter Brewitt

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


You’ve known this since the fourth grade: only 1 percent of the world’s water is fresh and readily accessible. Obviously there’s a little fluctuation—glaciers melt, rivers flow to the sea, shockingly expensive desalination plants get built in Saudi Arabia—but really, the water we have is all we have. While generations of fourth-graders have learned about how limited our water is, only now are grownups coming around to the need to use it carefully, efficiently, wisely. People in dry regions and in cities (and indeed in dry cities) are taking hard looks at how much water they use, limiting themselves to five-minute showers, using cooking water on their gardens, even installing greywater systems.

But over a quarter of household water use comes from flushing the toilet.  There’s a limited amount you can do about that – maybe put a brick in the tank, or Let It Mellow—but in the end, when you gotta go you gotta go, and eventually you gotta flush. The flush water—“black water,” in the public works parlance—flows to the sewer, on to the treatment plant, and then, typically, out to the river or the ocean. A lot of people squeamishly don’t want to drink this stuff, even after treatment. In Orange County, California, though, they’ve gotten over themselves. The OC (as it is sometimes called), one of the most conservative, least crunchy places in the state, home to Pastor Rick Warren and President Richard Nixon, has installed a toilet-to-tap water system.

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filed under: Concrete Progress



Postcard from the Nevada Museum of Art #2

October 31, 2014, by Aaron Rothman

Since 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, has convened its Art + Environment Conference, a forum for wide-ranging conversation about how art can help us better understand humans’ place in the natural world. This year’s conference went on earlier this month, and writer and artist Aaron Rothman was in attendance. He’s sharing a series of reports and reflections from the conference, the second of which is below. Top image: Fighting Stags by Moonlight, 1900. Oil on canvas, JKM Collection®, National Museum of Wildlife Art. © Georges Frédéric Rötig.


I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about my hopes for some unexpected revelations at Art + Environment. These hopes were met before the conference officially began, when I arrived early at the museum to get a good look at the exhibitions before the crowds and kibitzing started. Late Harvest, the largest of the half-dozen-plus A+E associated exhibitions at the museum, mixes classic wildlife paintings from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth century with works from the 21st century that are made, in whole or in part, from taxidermied animals. It is a genuinely bizarre exhibit, equally revealing and confounding in its exploration of our complex and contradictory relationship with wild animals.

The first thing that jumped out at me in Late Harvest was the amazing beauty of the paintings, from the collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming (whose curator, Adam Duncan Harris, curated the show with Nevada Museum of Art’s JoAnne Northrup). Working in a post-Darwin world, the painters of these images—including Joseph Wolf, Carl Rungius, Georges Frédéric Rötig, and many others—were influenced by the theory of evolution and an understanding of the interconnectedness of life. They undertook intensive field observations to present a high degree of naturalism and accuracy in depicting animals and their habitats. The paintings are indeed stunning in their attention to detail and visceral sense of reality.

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filed under: Letters from the Field



Sounds from Alaska: Winged Genius

October 29, 2014, by Hank Lentfer

When the phone rings for the first time, it’s a kid named Jason hoping I’ll send a check to the Alaska Democratic Committee; the second time it’s a pollster wanting just fifteen minutes to learn about which issues are important to me; and the third and fourth times I have the good sense not to answer. The radio, meanwhile, spills a growing pool of worry about Ebola and Middle Eastern thugs threatening to remove the head of another journalist.

Outside, a bird rings. The first time it’s a half-hearted whistle of a varied thrush gathering a few last grubs before the flight south. Next, it’s the squeaking honk of a nuthatch cutting through the high banter of a flock of chickadees. And then, from halfway up a huge spruce, a raven launches into a long, impassioned speech that starts with a solid series of croaks, then builds into twittering, beak-snapping yelps before sliding into an imitation of a flying bullfrog. While the content of the speech is way over my head, there’s no doubt about the sizzling style of the delivery.

And to think that right now, as I type and you read, there are thousands of such speeches spilling from trees in Finland and Kamchatka, from high rock perches in the Himalayas and low sandy basins in Death Valley.  Every day, from the snow-crusted tundra to the rain-drenched jungle, ravens, like rebel monks in their black feather robes, broadcast the bird’s-eye news.

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filed under: Sounds from Alaska



Postcard from New Mexico

October 27, 2014, by E. Hoffner

The recent National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque marked an important milestone for the Wilderness Act: it’s been fifty years since this radical idea placed certain areas of the U.S. into a novel management category. To celebrate, Orion helped sponsor the conference, and I made the trip west to be there alongside magazine contributors and friends Terry Tempest Williams and Basia Irland.

But after days of coffee-fueled discussion about the national wildernesses’ status, health, and future, I needed to actually see something wild—and so I drove Highway 25 out of town and charted a course to the Valles Caldera.

To get a sense of the size and significance of the Valles Caldera, a massive geological feature about seventy-five miles north of Albuquerque, imagine a volcanic eruption a million years ago in what is now northern New Mexico. Now picture that that eruption ejected five hundred times the material that Mt. St. Helens did in 1980, leaving a crater visible from space in the heart of the Jemez Mountains.

From a perch of 10,000-plus feet at the crater’s southern rim, I tried to imagine a power that could create a caldera thirteen miles in diameter. I could not. Instead, I munched an apple as a huge flock of bluebirds chatted in the fire-killed trees around me. I fell deep into thought, abetted by a great silence unlike I’d experienced in days, weeks—the occasional hiss of wind through branches and the conversational chirps of the tiny blue dinosaurs were the only sounds. It was perfect.

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filed under: Letters from the Field, Orion Noteworthy



Concrete Progress: Rigs to Reefs

October 17, 2014, by Peter Brewitt

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Photographs courtesy of NOAA Fisheries West Coast and Mark Edley.


It’s a long drive down the coast from Santa Cruz to LA, but the heart-lifting sweep of Pacific Ocean away to the right makes the miles roll by as easily as the waves. The coast is only lightly developed for long stretches—rugged cliffs lend themselves to BMW ads but not to towns—and the ocean-scape is only broken by sea stacks, foam, and the occasional gray whale.

But when you approach Santa Barbara, oil rigs* jut from the water like pimples on an eighth-grader. This is where our energy infrastructure begins, with enormous steel islands drilling almost a mile under the seabed. Sometimes, as you surely know, they rupture: in 1969, one of them leaked three or four million gallons of crude oil onto beaches and helped kickstart the environmental movement. There are twenty-seven such rigs bobbing off the California coast—operated by Chevron, Exxon, and smaller firms—and while they’re mostly well-maintained, the question remains: when the well goes dry, what should we do with the gear? In recent years, a movement has begun in coastal states from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean to turn these oil suckers into artificial reefs.

While it would be better for the environment not to drill at all, that’s not the question here. This stuff has already been built. Now that it’s getting old, is it better to blow the platforms off of their anchors, tow the metal out, and scrap it someplace? Or is it better to simply let nature assert its claim?

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filed under: Concrete Progress



On the Cover: “Odin’s Cove #1”

October 14, 2014, by Scott Gast

The cover of the September/October 2014 issue of Orion features “Odin’s Cove #1,” an image from San Francisco-based photographer Beth Moon. We asked Beth, whose richly toned platinum prints have gained international recognition, a few questions about the image.


Where and when was this picture taken?

I first noticed this pair of ravens perched up in the rocks overlooking the sea while hiking a portion of the northern California coast in summer 2010. This secluded part of the coastline is at the end of a 2.5-mile hike from the closest parking lot. The birds caught my attention, and I found myself watching their movements the entire afternoon.

I returned to the sea a few weeks later, and to my surprise I found the same birds in the same place. I returned many times over the next year to visit them, and I believed in time they recognized me, often flying down to greet me upon my arrival.

Is it likely that these birds live near this location, or are they from somewhere else? They appear to be waiting, or resting, or looking for something—do you know what they’re doing?

Ravens have specific territories, and this part of the coastline is their home. They are sitting on one of their look-out spots, a generous vantage point of the beach and the hills behind.

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filed under: On the Cover



Postcard from the Nevada Museum of Art #1

October 09, 2014, by Aaron Rothman

Since 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, has convened its Art + Environment Conference, a forum for wide-ranging conversation about how art can help us better understand humans’ place in the natural world. This year’s conference begins today and extends through the weekend. Writer and artist Aaron Rothman is in attendance; he’ll share a series of reports and reflections from the conference, the first of which is below. Top photo: Sunset from the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art, 2011, by Aaron Rothman.


Shortly after writing this, I will fly to Reno, Nevada, to attend the third triennial Art + Environment Conference (A+E). This remarkable event is held at the Nevada Museum of Art, home to the Center for Art + Environment and a surprisingly ambitious institution for a small city like Reno. I attended the conference in 2011 at the recommendation of an acquaintance, not quite knowing what to expect—“art” and “environment” are both big, nebulous categories that mean different things to different people.

But I was happy to find that A+E is open-ended in its approach, bringing speakers and exhibits from an array of disciplines, each with a unique perspective on the question of humanity’s place on the planet. Art proceeds from human experience, and A+E tends not to present the environment as something separate from us; instead, environment is the space that demarcates experience, be it natural, built, virtual, or, as most things are, somewhere on the continuum between all of these.

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filed under: Letters from the Field



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