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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

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



Wilderness at 50: The New Stewards

October 07, 2014, by Kasey Rahn

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion is publishing special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the fourth of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.


This year, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary officially recognized the word Yooper, a term used to identify residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Bordered by Wisconsin and several Great Lakes, the U.P. isn’t exactly on the beaten path. It’s even occasionally omitted from national maps.

The U.P. is a place of harsh winters and thick woods, where the maple stands of the south transition into northern boreal forests. It’s a wild place, with moose and wolves and the occasional cougar slinking eastward to explore. And tucked away in the Ottawa National Forest is one of the U.P.’s most primitive places: the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness.

Designated in 1987, the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness covers 16,728 acres of steep hills and deciduous forest. It boasts the Wild and Scenic Sturgeon River, waterfalls, and a 300-foot-deep gorge. It’s a place of sweeping views and open spaces, the perfect place for a college kid to come into her own.

I moved to the U.P. in August 2009 to begin my freshman year at Michigan Tech, a small but mighty science and engineering university. I visited Sturgeon River Gorge for the first time that September. At eighteen, I didn’t have much experience camping and virtually no experience in wilderness areas, but I was certain I’d be a natural. To say that I was unprepared is an understatement: I showed up to that first trip sporting a hot-pink JanSport book bag, thinking that’s what my new camping friends meant when they said I should “bring a backpack.”

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Concrete Progress: The Night-Heron Solution

October 02, 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. Top photograph courtesy of Ellen Land-Weber.


The herons glared at me, and I suppose that I deserved it. When I arrived at the wastewater treatment plant in Arcata, California, I had guessed that it would be interesting but I was sure it would be gross. When you visit a sewage plant, you expect to smell it, and while I’d been promised that Arcata’s marsh was a clean and nifty place, I was prepared for a little stink. But no: What I found was a dense and verdant wetland—far more plant than sewage.

I was glad that I’d brought binoculars for the occasion (you can find birds at wastewater facilities the world over), because after a couple of standard ducks I spied a black-crowned night heron, still puffed up against the early morning mist. He gazed skeptically down at me over his feather ruff, the way that one of the nastier kings of Middle Earth might regard a hobbit. And he wasn’t alone. As I hiked on, I found another night heron, and then another, and another—one perched in every bush, each as smug and disapproving as the last. No doubt they were blaming me for making assumptions about their marsh.

But how could I have known? Where other cities build sludge digesters, Arcata has a wildlife sanctuary.

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filed under: Concrete Progress



5 Questions for William E. Tydeman

September 30, 2014, by H. Emerson Blake

Bill Tydeman is the author of Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination, recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press. In three long dialogues, each captured in this book, Lopez and Tydeman discuss nature, Lopez’s work, activism, social responsibility, the life of the mind, and all things literary. Lopez’s writing has appeared in Orion since 1984 and includes, most recently, “Landscapes of the Shamans,” published in the July/August 2013 issue.


You’ve known Barry Lopez and his work for a long time. Did you find yourself thinking differently about Lopez or his work as a result of working on this book?

I did not realize how the quest for social justice has shaped his life and thought. For nearly fifty years, this is a constant in his work. Remarkable.

What do you think Conversations with Barry Lopez adds to what we know about Lopez and his ideas?

I hope the book succeeds in eliminating any fixed categories like “nature writer” to explain his work. The central themes of intimacy, ethics, and identity provide a more complex, nuanced platform for appreciating and understanding Lopez’s work.

Barry Lopez is deeply committed to the role of the artist in society. How would you characterize his stance toward the arts and why he sees them as being so critically important?

I think Lopez has long understood that complex and subtle thinking takes place in the search for patterns we call art. Art, and emotion it evokes, carries with it the possibility of the transformation of consciousness.

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filed under: Authors on Books, Five Questions



A Different Kind of Light

September 24, 2014, by Rick Bass

We’re happy to share one more dispatch from the People’s Climate March, which was attended by so many on Sunday and seems to have lifted the movement to halt climate change to new heights. Orion friend and contributor Rick Bass, who made the trip to New York all the way from his home in Montana, sent this letter. Pictured above: Brooke Williams, Rick, a New York City police officer, and one fuzzy representative from up north.


I’m going to write a dangerous sentence here.

The police were wonderful. They gazed with awe. They had seen some things, but not this.

I have had unpleasant encounters with the law: have had my nose bloodied in Mississippi. Call me cynical, but I believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. An Orion staff member at the march, Madeline Cantwell, commented on how much she was enjoying watching people’s faces, and how different they looked—how expectant, how open—how unlike the way people usually look when they’re walking down a street, as they were doing this one day, roughly 400,000 of them—of us.

And she was right, it was very cool. It was as if a different kind of light was landing on our faces: the way you sometimes hold your face up to even the mildest of sun after a long winter. And it was a very sweet thing to see, to watch.

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filed under: Letters from the Field



When the Unimaginable Becomes Inevitable

September 23, 2014, by Kathleen Dean Moore

The main event of the People’s Climate March took place on Sunday in New York City, but demonstrations were held around the world. Orion contributor Kathleen Dean Moore sent us this note from a gathering in Eugene, Oregon. Photograph courtesy of Mark Watchman.


This is a bad day for pipelines and export terminals and tankers and coal trains.

This is a bad day for the Koch brothers, and Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil, and anyone else who would trade the life-supporting systems of the Earth for obscene profits.

This is a bad day for universities, holding on to their last investments in fossil fuels, insisting on their right to profit from death and extinction—even as their own scientists warn them, warn them that fossil fuels will carry us, smoking and stinking, to the end of life as we know it on this planet.

This is the last day for despair. It is the last day to say it’s too late, that there is nothing anyone can do. It is a day to awaken to the fact that we are not helpless at all, that we have the knowledge and the courage and the joyous communities it will take to make the great turning away from death and toward a reinvented life.

This is the last day for lies and excuses and delay. It is the last term in office for elected officials who will not or cannot protect the future. It is the last day that anyone can be silent about climate change.

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filed under: Letters from the Field



River Walkers

September 22, 2014, by Terry Tempest Williams

Nearly half a million people filled New York City’s streets yesterday as part of the People’s Climate March, an event some are calling America’s largest political protest in at least a decade. Orion contributing editor Terry Tempest Williams, who was in attendance along with climate activist Tim DeChristopher and fellow Orion contributor Rick Bass (pictured above), sent us this letter from the middle of it all.


They just kept coming in waves, in torrents, a river of people convening on the streets of New York City in the march for climate justice. They just kept coming, hundreds of thousands of individuals, indigenous, black, white, brown, yellow, and red, a rainbow of colors winding through the canyons of Manhattan.

This movement of climate justice is no longer segregated, is no longer privileged, is no longer young or old, or the radical fringe moving toward the center. Instead, this movement resides in the core of a collective concern: Earth has a fever. There is no Planet B. What we witnessed on Sunday, September 21, was 400,000 individuals standing in the center of this crisis with love.

At one o’clock, the River of the People’s March became quiet, silent in a haunting moment of stillness. And then, a rolling cry of care rose from the street with undulating momentum like an animated heat wave blown by the wind that electrified the crowd like thunder and lightening followed by a rain of voices.

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filed under: Letters from the Field



Wilderness at 50: Our Wild and Civil Rights

September 15, 2014, by Rue Mapp

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion is publishing special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the third of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.


Conservationist and civil-rights activist Frank Peterman was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil-rights issues—an urgency that did not carry over to environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis was the era’s galvanizing event, one that called for equitable access to jobs and quality of life for blacks in America and an end to institutionally protected physical brutality.

“As a part of the NAACP effort to advance the Civil Rights Act, we did not discuss the Wilderness Act,” Peterman says, “and we were not invited to participate in their caucus.” Even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, he says that those driving the wilderness-protection agenda might have deliberately avoided including African Americans. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild, not people.”

It appears that the Wilderness and Civil Rights Acts did not share a public platform during the 1960s, and some believe an opportunity was missed that could have altered the course of both movements. Dr. Carolyn Finney, assistant professor at the University of California, was a young child during the ‘60s, and while she remembers few events of the era, like most African-American children of her generation she grew up with the movement’s tales and heroes evergreen on the family tongue. “Civil rights? Yes,” she says, “I always knew what that was about!”

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filed under: Wilderness at 50



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