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Letter from Poland: Seeking Birds

July 16, 2014, by Kateri Kosek

Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the last in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.

There is a bird blind at the edge of my uncle’s hayfield. Around it, the remains of a fire, a few bottle caps on the ground. It looks rough but sturdy, draped in rubber and camouflaged with branches. My uncle told us about it when he learned I liked to watch birds. Someone had asked his permission to build it there, so he could film the birds. Just out of the way of the tractors, it doesn’t seem particularly well situated, unless he is after the storks. No one seems to know anything more, so I am left to wonder what draws him here, why this field, and who he is, this person who, like me, seeks out the birds.

When there’s nothing to do, I slip away to the woods that border the hayfields, looking for the birds that are singing, but they are hard to find. The lushness of these stands of forest is surprising for such open country full of cultivated fields. Pines with red trunks dominate, tall and straight and thin so that the sun reaches the mossy understory. The soil—pure sand—recalls a beach.

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filed under: Letters from the Field

Concrete Progress: Stadiums vs. Solar Panels

July 14, 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: The controversial Arena da Amazônia, which required tonnes of stainless steel (shipped from Portugal), and cost the lives of three construction workers. Photograph courtesy of Jose Zamith de Oliveira Filho/Creative Commons.

The most visceral match of this World Cup, for me anyway, took place in the jungle, in a sweatbath of a city called Manaus, nine hundred miles up the Amazon River. Forty thousand people saw the can-do U.S. Men’s National Team allllmost beat Portugal and super-villain Cristiano Ronaldo in the brand-new Arena da Amazônia. Most of the American and Portugese fans there had flown in; some of the more adventurous ones presumably got there by boat; Manaus is almost impossible to reach by road. They all undoubtedly enjoyed one of the most memorable nights of their sporting lives. Goals were scored early and late, control of the game tipped to and fro, brilliant athletes flew across the grass. Fans chanted and swayed and roared and wept. Somewhere nearby, unseen by human eyes, a jaguar ate a monkey.

That stadium cost $300 million to build. Its World Cup is over. They played four matches there. Now it will be empty most days. Collectively, this World Cup’s twelve stadia cost $3.6 billion. This sort of athletic boondoggle was much criticized before the tournament. Perhaps you read about the massive protests that convulsed Brazil’s cities; there are many articles discussing the situation in devastating depth. The whole thing seems to have mostly been forgotten while people watch the futebol—they even mentioned this on ESPN recently—fading into a larger narrative about the corruption of sport along with the Putin Winter Olympics and the moral Superfund site that is college football. It’s real panem et circenses stuff.

You may be wondering why I’m discussing it in a forum like this. The reason is that $3.6 billion, and indeed the $11.3 billion that was supposed to be spent on public works as part of the World Cup, represents a massive opportunity to reimagine infrastructure, which Brazil has grandly thrown away. Sports arenas are funded and built for the public good, with public money, from the same source as roads and water treatment facilities. The important difference is that 40,000-seat soccer stadia are not actually important.

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filed under: Concrete Progress

Letter from Poland: Neatening the Rows

July 09, 2014, by Kateri Kosek

Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the second in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.

Waking up early, I see my uncle and his wife already scurrying between the outbuildings. The cows lumber out of the barn, across a shaded lane where a man riding his tractor gives me a wave, and into the pasture that stretches until it hits the slopes of the coal-ash landfill, courtesy of the power plant beyond. The milk of these cows is fragrant and sweet, and all week I drink it raw. They eat nothing but grass, as they should, and in winter, hay.

In a stroke of good timing, the hay has just been cut. After a few days, it is dry and ready to harvest. The hayfield, a few kilometers from the farm, is all motion and excitement. Neighbors have come to help, people dart about, and my uncle chugs by in the tractor, trailing a machine.

A few white storks, a common sight in Poland, hang back like gulls behind a fishing boat, waiting to scoop up the frogs stirred up by the machines. They fly off if I get too close, but my uncle says he counted sixty the other day, so fearless he had to shoo them out of the way.

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filed under: Letters from the Field

Sounds from Alaska: Richard Nelson’s “Wild Sounds”

July 03, 2014, by Hank Lentfer

My recording partner, Richard Nelson, is a raving advocate for the beauty and diversity of the never-ending concert of natural sounds playing throughout the valleys and beaches of Alaska. For the past decade, Richard’s passion has been channeled into the production of a radio program called Encounters: Radio Experiences in the North. Each half-hour segment, whether focused on caribou or caves, moose or mosquitos, porcupines or polar bears, is saturated with the man’s infectious enthusiasm. Whether recorded from a kayak in front of a tide water glacier, a cliff edge surrounded by mountain goats, or alongside a bearded seal’s breathing hole in the Arctic sea ice, each show is created live to tape. Richard’s insightful narration combines with the voices of the place to transport and engage listeners like no other program I’ve ever heard.

Here’s a link to a recent show called, simply, “Wild Sounds.” It’s a tour through the most riveting sounds to pour through his microphone throughout the past ten years. Listen in and hear musk ox bellow, bears fight over fish, ice tinkle in an Arctic river, petrels purr and patter in sub-terrain burrows.

And here’s a link to the entire archive of radio shows. 

I listen to them while doing the dishes. No better way to make a dull chore fun than to listen in as Richard slithers and scrambles through the wildest places he can find.

Hank Lentfer, author of Faith of Cranes, is ear-deep in a new career recording the whistles, clicks, groans, and splashes of his wild neighbors.

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filed under: Sounds from Alaska

Letter from Poland: Awake and Humming

June 26, 2014, by Kateri Kosek

Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the first in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.

On a damp, rainy afternoon, we turn into the yard my father grew up in, an inviting square of farm buildings sheltering a mostly dirt yard. Barn swallows, just like those in America, whiz by inches from our heads, cobalt bodies sharp with purpose.

A first cousin I’ve never met has just driven my father and me two hours north of Warsaw to the countryside near Ostrołęka, Poland, a small city whose power plant, paper mill, meat and dairy processing plants, and general lack of attractions have failed to earn it even one mention in the Polish guidebook. On the plane, I have been studying two languages: the Polish in my phrasebook and, somewhat more in my comfort zone, the Birds of Europe, second edition, specially ordered.

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filed under: Letters from the Field

Concrete Progress: No Fruit Left Behind

June 23, 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.

I strode into the strangers’ yard and climbed one of their trees. The branches were strong, with convenient hand and foot holds, and I knew that I’d be able to perch up there for a long time. Reaching cautiously into the foliage, I started plucking ripe lemons and dropping them into a bag below my feet.

Do not worry—your columnist has not turned to thievery. I was there with the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project, and everyone—me, the people I’d come with, the public, the strangers themselves—stood to gain from our gleaning. The Fruit Tree Project is devoted to harvesting the sweet juicy bounty that California’s Central Coast is blessed with nearly year-round; this week, it’s citrus fruits. There are fruit trees everywhere here. My house alone has three, and I live in a dense urban neighborhood. It is routine for people to eat a little something as they walk around—California law dictates that branches over the sidewalk are in the public domain.

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filed under: Concrete Progress

Speaking Orangutan

June 18, 2014, by Susanne Antonetta

“I fly to speak with an orangutan named Chantek. He lives in a habitat on the grounds of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he was placed after a stint at Yerkes Primate Center and before that, life in the home of his ‘cross foster-mother,’ as anthropologist Lyn Miles calls herself. She raised him as a signing infant from the age of nine months, rearing him as much as possible as a human child.

When our van pulls up to Chantek’s habitat he swings out onto one of its inside branches and asks for bottled water, which he calls ‘car water,’ since Lyn usually has some in her car. He’s particular about bottled waters, preferring Naya. Chantek appears as harmlessly shaggy as a Sesame Street figure, the color of a November pumpkin, the size of an enormous easy chair. Because of his strength, though, we’re not allowed into his habitat, so he kisses and strokes Lyn through the bars.

I know very little sign, so Lyn asks Chantek to teach me some. Chantek has an active vocabulary of about three hundred words and a passive vocabulary of a thousand or more, which he can comprehend either by speech or by sign. We start with the basics.

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filed under: Encounters

Postcard from Bread Loaf

June 16, 2014, by Orion staff

The weekend concluded the first annual Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, a week-long gathering of writers located in the green hills of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Campus. And what a week it was—from workshops and lectures by conference faculty and guests, to readings and conversation long into the night, we’re pretty sure something special happened at Bread Loaf.

To celebrate the week, meet a few of the conference participants, who share some of the best advice they received from their classes, workshops, and one-on-one meetings with this year’s faculty, which included Orion contributors Camille Dungy, Rick Bass, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and others.

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filed under: Orion Noteworthy

The Place Where I Write: Ross Gay

June 13, 2014, by Ross Gay

I spent about three years thinking about my perfect writing studio, designing it in my head, sketching little mock-ups from time to time. I pored over books like Shelter and Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, trying to get ideas for the simple yet elegant shed I’d build. I found myself talking about the importance of thresholds and window height and variety of chairs. I even enlisted my dear pal Cootie, a beautiful architect (he’s beautiful and he designs beautiful things), to help me think about my perfect writing studio, and even to consider a commission.

My perfect writing studio was going to be tiny, something I could bang up in a couple weeks at most with a few friends. It’d have a little comfortable chair near the door and a simple desk and chair tucked into the corner. Of course (of course!) everything that could be reclaimed would be. Maybe some nearby school would re-do their basketball court and I could scavenge the hunks of wood. Maybe I could dribble a basketball in my perfect writing studio! If we got ambitious there might even be a sleeping loft, so that the shed could double as a sleeping space for visitors.

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filed under: The Place Where I Write

The Future of Wilderness, June 19

June 09, 2014, by Scott Gast

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, one of the environmental movement’s key victories. But is the Act and the idea it represents still relevant in 2014? In an era of climate change, rapid technological change, and increasing urbanization, the concept seems to face existential questions.

On June 19, at 7 pm Eastern/4 pm Pacific, join a panel of writers, thinkers, and advocates—including Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro; David Sobel, author of Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors; and forest advocates Jimmy Gaudry and Doug Scott—for a live discussion of wilderness and its future. Another topic of discussion will be a national conference in Albuquerque this October, celebrating the Wilderness Act’s fiftieth anniversary. Visit to learn more.

“The Future of Wilderness” is free to join, will be moderated by Orion staff, and is open to all readers and friends. Register here.

Orion hosts live web events every month. Sign up to be alerted by e-mail when a new one is announced.

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filed under: Orion Noteworthy

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