Our Spring 2023 issue speaks to the language of nature and features works in or about translation. Here, Orion staffers and friends pulled together a list of their favorite fiction and nonfiction books that in some way reflect this literature of etymology.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance
Irene Solà, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
In the Pyrenees Mountains, there once was a poet named Domènec. One day, as he was gathering chanterelles and singing, the storm clouds above became too joyous, and in their over-giddy state, they struck Domènec with their lightning. When I Sing, Mountains Dance is a novel unlike any I’ve read before. Constantly moving forward through time, you, the reader, are shown the generational traumas of Domènec’s mountain village through the eyes of his descendants and through the eyes of the land, animals, and forces of nature that surround them. Sometimes you find yourself in a chapter being told by Mia, Domènec’s daughter, or one told by a lone roebuck in the forest, or even one told by the ghosts of a war long since passed. All told in striking prose, these chapters weave together into a novel rife with beauty and with grief, a novel that, when I finished it, I wanted to immediately read again.
The Facts of Winter
Paul La Farge
This one is some tricky business. According to the book itself—to the cover, the so-called author photo, even the metadata—the author is Paul Poissel, a struggling turn-of-the-century French writer “unable to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time.” La Farge credits himself as an archivist and translator of this collection, which presents, in French on the left and English on the right, edited transcripts of dreams dreamed and recounted by people in Paris in early 1881. None of this turns out to hold any truth whatsoever, though; the book is a novel by La Farge, Poissel was never a person, and the dreams are Calvinoish flights of imagination attending to the natural material of winter. La Farge passed away recently, and, revisiting this book, I was moved by what, behind all the fuss, ends up being a sweet and simple premise. It’s a story of documentation, trying and failing and trying again to speak from beyond one’s own years. This is what it was once like to be alive, the book says. We slept and we awoke and it was cold and it was beautiful.
The Blue Fox
Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This slim fantastical novel reads like an incantation. Set in rural late-19th century Iceland, its braided, lyrical, fugue-like narrative is tender and electric. Here we find a cruel priest named after a monster, trapped in an ice cave, raving at a dead fox. But too, a kindly herbalist burying his friend with her feather collection—a young woman with Down syndrome who spoke a language of her own—who he rescued from an unthinkable fate. This was my first encounter reading Sjón, who is apparently so big in his home country he doesn’t need a last name, but the book’s otherworldliness made perfect sense when I learned he writes lyrics for Björk. This one will haunt me for a while.
Why Fish Don’t Exist
Simon and Schuster
In Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist, naming becomes an imposition, an attempt at order and, sometimes, hierarchy. In this book—part memoir, part biography—Miller is searching for a reason to keep living, a sense of order in a chaotic world, and she does so by looking to a taxonomist who spent his life naming the creatures under the sea: David Starr Jordan.
The result is a deft and moving book full of revelations about Miller herself, the United States and its history of eugenics, and the strange discovery that the fish David Starr Jordan devoted his life to simply do not exist. Miller experiences an “unknowing,” a search for order that unveils only more chaos, but in doing so she also reveals the new avenues for potential knowledge, hope, and a nomenclature less oriented around hierarchies that keep humans on top.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.” As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the idea that plants and animals are our teachers, providers, relations, and companions. Yet how can we consider the personhood of life-forms that we refer to as inanimate? Her intervention is to propose a new pronoun, ki (from the Anishinaabe word bmaadiziaki for “Earth-being,” that allows us to speak of the living world from a place of humility, wonder, and respect. The plural would be kin. Kimmerer shows us that awakening of ecological consciousness requires the knowledge and practice of a reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman living world, starting with language. I love teaching this paradigm-shifting book. It’s changing the discourse.
Tell Me How It Ends
Coffee House Press
In 2015, shortly after the publication of a novel written in collaboration with a collective at the Jumex factory, the author Valeria Luiselli volunteered to translate for migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. The experience is captured in a slim volume, Tell Me How It Ends, which takes its structure from the mandatory questions on the Citizenship and Immigration Services paperwork. “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” the paperwork asks, and Luiselli documents her struggle to articulate an answer that isn’t an endless scream. The exercise grows into a meditation on the impossibility of translating a history into words, and the stories told by a forensic reading of nature. On her way to a town called Animas, for instance, the author, looking for signs of children, finds only “a trail of flags that volunteer groups tie to trees.” In the absence of language, the trees bear witness.
Beowulf: A New Translation
Maria Dahvana Headley
MCD X Fsg Originals
“They, too, were cursed, yet thought themselves clear. // Bro, lemme say how fucked they were, // in times of worst woe throwing themselves // on luck rather than on faith, fire-walkers // swearing their feet uncharred, while // smoke-stepping. Why not face // the Boss, and at death seek // salves, not scars?” Entitlement. Encroachment. Violence. Revenge. Justice. Mother-love. It’s all here. With a new eye toward genre, gender, and history, Headley’s translation (which delightfully incorporates modern terms like swole, stan, and hashtag) is a smart, darkly funny, and relevant take on a familiar classic, asking: Who is the real monster? Bonus points for Headley’s fascinating introduction which includes a meditation on the word bro and its various usage.
Hānau ka Ua: Hawaiian Rain Names
Collette Leimomi Akana with illustrations by Sig Zane
Collette Leimomi Akana’s Hānau ka Ua compiles over two hundred Hawaiian rain names, from oral tradition, songs, chants, and Hawaiian-language literature and newspapers. In the beauty of an Indigenous language developed within the Indigenous ecology across the islands, her work codifies a precious, nuanced legacy of observations about “when a particular rain would fall, its color, duration, intensity, the path it would take, the sound it made on the trees, the scent it carried, and the effect it had on people.”
The Lost Words (audiobook)
Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris
When, in 2015, Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped around fifty nature-related words in favor of technological entries, many were alarmed. Shortly afterward, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris published their response. The Lost Words is, thanks to Morris’s enchanting illustrations, a feast for the eyes. But though words like adder and heron and willow appear on the page as acrostics, Macfarlane writes that these are not poems but spells meant to “summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” That’s why listening to the audiobook is so magical. Each of the spells is incanted by one of four narrators, or so it seems. When you hear, “I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the / boxer’s swagger,” there is no doubt that Raven has just presented himself, haughtily eyeing you from his treetop perch. The cadence of the spoken spell—interspersed with recordings of birdsong, leaves rustling, animals calling—conjures the shape of these words from the natural world. You may choose to sit and savor the ethereal images, or, now that you know the spell, go outside and see if you can summon them in their tangled, leafy, feathered, furry, slimy, furrowed forms.
—Tara Rae Miner
The Language of Trees
Katie Holten, with a foreword by Ross Gay
Inspired by the medieval Ogham alphabet, which employed limblike characters called feda (trees) or nin (forking branches), Irish artist Katie Holten created her own tree alphabet (think: Apple, Birch, Cedar) by transforming Latin letters into twenty-six distinct tree characters. She then collected centuries worth of leafy wisdom, distilling seeds and snips from an eclectic roster that includes Zadie Smith, Amitav Ghosh, Ursula K. Le Guin, Winona LaDuke, Plato, and Radiohead, translating their words into her arboreal font. Every letter, a tree. Every paragraph, a forest. The translations are brief, each confined to a single celebratory page, and the delightful conceit flourishes down to the punctuation—every period an acorn ready to sprout. The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape is lovely as both exercise and artifact. Each page is a reminder, as Richard Powers wrote, “This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” May we be worthy of their instruction.