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Sounds from Alaska: Seaside Wolf

August 19, 2014, by Hank Lentfer

Photo courtesy of Richard Nelson.


Breakfast on the beach at 3:30 a.m. High gray clouds, calm silver sea. My recording partner, Richard Nelson, and I stashed the electronics in the kayaks and were on the water by 4 a.m. We wished each other good luck and paddled in separate directions to chase the morning’s sounds. I drifted through a group of harbor seals, recording a few gruff growls, marbled murrelets whistling in the background.

On shore, I set up the mics along a little stream, the songs from a grey-cheeked thrush and a yellow warbler mixing with the bubbling pop of the creek. On the paddle back to camp, a porpoise rolled past my bow, the sharp quick puff of breath loud in the headphones. 

It was a great morning of recording by any measure—but nothing like the sounds that had filled Nels’s ears. Over second breakfast, a mid-morning breeze tickling the sea, Nels tells the story of a wolf right there in the beach grass, unconcerned with his nearby kayak. The wolf glanced casually at the boat, turned around once, lay down, lifted its snout to the sky and cut loose.  That close to a howling wolf, it takes great concentration to keep your excitement from rattling the hand-held microphone. But Nels pulled it off. Here’s a piece of that magical morning. 

Thanks to the wolf (and Nels) for sharing. Check out more of Nels’s recordings here.



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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Wilderness at 50: The Mountains Are Empty

August 14, 2014, by Mary Emerick

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion will publish special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the first 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.


I was born in 1964, the year the Wilderness Act was signed. As a result, maybe, I’ve always felt a sense of ownership, or at least association. I grew up near wilderness, balancing in canoe seats at five years old, carrying a backpack the immense distance of one mile. As a ranger, twenty-five-years old and under-fueled by a diet of Pop-Tarts and Snickers, I charged up trails looking hard for outlaws. I cleared the downfall of thick-waisted trees, chopping for hours with a double-bit axe. If there was another tent at the lake I came to at day’s end, I moved on to the next lake. I didn’t want to share.

I wanted wilderness all to myself, and I had earned it, I thought, by virtue of the trash I carried out, my backpack sometimes swelling to ninety pounds on the last day of a hitch. I hoped that people, with their propensity for littering and pooping indiscriminately, would stay away and quit messing things up. Wilderness was a twin sister I had to protect with a ranger’s shovel and ticket book, and I went to sleep enraged by the sight of trenches dug near tents and branches hacked off at eye-level, a sort of human browse line.

But that was years ago. Where I live now, the mountains are empty. The trails, unused, are covered over by tall grasses. Everyone stays home, enraptured by their gadgets, people my age declaring they’re too old to sleep on the ground.

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Concrete Progress: Old York City

August 11, 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. Photograph by Nicolas Vollmer.


In the beginning, New York City was a wilderness. The Hudson River flowed in from the forested Adirondacks to the little archipelago where Long Island meets the east coast, the spruce-cloaked hills rose on Manhattan Island, and beaver worked their way through the swampy bottoms. According to landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson (from an excellent article in National Geographic a few years ago), this confluence of ecosystems was incredibly bio-diverse. It was the kind of place that, had history unfolded differently, might be a national park today.

But of course, history didn’t go that way—the Dutch bought Manhattan, the city boomed, the immigrant ships poured in, and, eventually, despite the landscape’s natural productivity, New York outgrew its food supply and had to ship in its sustenance by train. The trains were hazardous to pedestrians, though, and in the early 1930s, the city decided to build an elevated track, thirty feet above the streets of Chelsea, in Manhattan. It was called the High Line.

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In the Magazine: Douglas Haynes on the Mercado Oriental

July 31, 2014, by Scott Gast

The special section of the May/June-July/August double issue of Orion begins with “Mango, Mango!,” a report from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest marketplace. We put a few questions to the author, Douglas Haynes, who spent a day with Dayani Baldelomar, an eleven-year veteran of the market. She’s featured in the video below.


The Oriental is located in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital and a city that’s experienced a series of physical devastations over the last century. Can you tell us more about its history?

I think Managua prefigures a number of global trends that will define the increasingly urban human future. The first is rural-to-urban migration. Managua’s population has sextupled over the last fifty years to more than 1.2 million people. Managua is also one of only ten cities in the world that face high risk of more than three kinds of disasters, according to the United Nations. Earthquakes, storms, and floods have vanished entire neighborhoods and hollowed out the city’s historic center. On top of these physical transformations, the city’s people have suffered a series of economic crises: a U.S. embargo in the 1980s, government austerity forced by the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank in the 1990s, and, more recently, skyrocketing food prices.

So as jobs disappeared, the cost of living rose, and migrants flooded into Managua from the impoverished countryside, many families turned to selling whatever they could where the most customers were: in the Mercado Oriental. The crowds in turn drew wholesale retailers from all over the region. The result is not just one of the biggest markets in all of Latin America; it’s a city within a city, a microcosm of what’s both vital and dysfunctional about Managua.

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Concrete Progress: Pedal People

July 28, 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 photo by Samuel Belmonte.


BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP RUMBLErumblerumblerumble thud CRASH!

That’s the sound of my Thursday mornings. It’s trash day in the Lowbright neighborhood, and the garbage trucks roar through the street at the perky hour of 5:45 a.m. I am grateful for this service, of course, but it does seem like a bit of a noisy, annoying, resource-intensive way to move our waste. After six years in Santa Cruz, I had resigned myself to this as part of life—like the barking of the sea lions—until I heard about Pedal People.

Pedal People is a worker-owned co-op that bike-hauls trash, groceries, CSA farm shares, compost, domestic cats, solar panels, Christmas trees, and anything else that needs moving in and around Northampton, Massachusetts. The bikes let them do this with minimal pollution, noise, or carbon emissions, and at a cost reasonable enough that the city contracts with them instead of with a traditional diesel-run trash company. It’s the lowest-impact hauling service to hit New England since the Ox-Cart Man.

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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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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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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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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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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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