Orion Blog

When Nature Breaks the Law: An Interview With Mary Roach, Author of Fuzz

 

MARY ROACH IS A SCIENCE JOURNALIST, top-notch storyteller, and Orion advisor. She’s the author of six New York Times bestsellers, including STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Orion editor Kathleen Yale connected with Mary about her latest publication, FUZZ: When Nature Breaks the Law, looking for a little extra insight into her writing, research process, and feelings on airplane seat ergonomics.

 

Kathleen Yale : How often do you set out to write about a particular topic, versus stumbling headlong into something unexpected and delightful? 

Mary Roach: It’s typically a headlong stumble preceded by months of blind groping. This book started out with a blind grope at the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. I’d stumbled onto a wildlife law enforcement guide entitled “Distinguishing Real vs. Fake Tiger Penises.” (Dried tiger penis is sold, illegally, as a virility booster in some parts of Asia.) I went up there thinking, maybe this wants to be part of a book—what book, I wasn’t sure. While I was there, I was told that for legal reasons, I would not be allowed to tag along with investigators on open cases. Which is a dead-end for me. So I sort of turned the topic inside-out: What about animals as perpetrators rather than victims? I was encouraged to head farther down this road by a blind grope on WorldCat, which led me to a strange 1906 book entitled The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. That’s when the idea gelled and started to make some sense, as much as my book topics ever really make sense. 

KY: I love the title Fuzz and the play on words you often bring in your zippy titles. Your books bring so much humor and outrageousness, but they’re ultimately serious and reverent in their own way too. I remember that really standing out when I first read Stiff years ago. Does that kind of tonal balance come naturally to you, or is it something you find you need to consciously map out? 

MR: With Stiff, Grunt, and Fuzz, especially, the issue of that balance was always hovering close by. Though I don’t go through assessing and pinpointing places where I need to add pathos or humor. It’s more that there’s a sort of internal tone thermostat that sets itself naturally as a consequence of all I’ve learned in the reporting. For me, tone is a vector of two sometimes competing forces: the desire to entertain and amuse the reader, and at the same time to respect and take seriously the people and issues I’m writing about. It causes me a fair amount of stress.

KY: You have a particular gift for writing delightful footnotes. I got excited when I saw one at the bottom of a page, which is usually not the case. Do you think most people are doing it wrong? 

MR: No, I’m pretty sure I’m doing it wrong. But no one can stop me now!

KY: For every funny anecdote about forensic role-playing scenarios or scarecrow antics, there is a sad or disturbing incident of human/animal conflict that leaves one or both parties dead. I live outside of Glacier National Park and spent years working on wildlife field study projects, particularly on large carnivores. Just last week our local FWP officials had to put down a food-habituated grizzly family. I wept reading the account, and I’m sure those agents wept to do it. I know some of them. Is there a particular story from Fuzz that haunts you?

MR: I spent time driving around bear country with a Colorado Parks and Wildlife agent. I asked him about that part of his job. The mood in the truck quickly went dark. He told me about having to destroy a black bear and her cub because the pair were regularly breaking into houses looking for food. He talked about how he wasn’t sure how he would do it, as he didn’t want the cub to have to see its mother killed, or the mother to see her cub killed. He ended up tranquilizing one of them first. To this day, I have a pretty emotional reaction when I hear about people leaving food out on the deck of their vacation rental because they want to see a bear and take some videos for YouTube. 

KY: That passage stuck with me, too, and I feel the same way about food violations. Before you began researching Fuzz, did you have a sense of the depth and breadth of human/animal conflicts across the globe?

MR: Not at all. I remember being shocked to learn that snow leopards cause enough problems in the Himalayas that researchers felt a need for an acronym (HSLC—human-snow leopard conflict). I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that elephants are a major conflict animal. Five hundred people a year are killed by elephants in India. 

KY: What’s the worst thing that has happened to you on assignment? 

MR: For me, nothing is worse than a reporting trip that yields little of interest. When things are awkward or disgusting or painful or embarrassing, I can console myself with the knowledge that it’s going to be a fun scene to write up—and, hopefully, read about. I once took an assignment that involved being a subject in an airplane ergonomics study. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was me and ten other people sitting and reading for six hours in an airplane seat. Why did I think I could make that fascinating?

KY: If you could be any animal for a day, what would it be? 

MR: Since it’s just for a day, I’d want to experience something utterly foreign and unimaginable. A fly, maybe, or a hammerhead shark or even some kind of bacterium.

KY: I love that thinking. No dolphin or falcon, give me a pair of compound eyes! You have such a curious mind and appreciation for wonder. To what degree do you think either can be taught or learned? 

MR: We all start out with curiosity and a capacity for wonder, but some of us seem to lose it as adults. In the 90s, I used to go down to Antarctica on an NSF reporting program. The first time I was accepted, I mentioned to a friend of my husband that I’d be doing some reporting at a remote field camp in Antarctica. He seemed puzzled by my excitement. “Why would you want to go there?” he said. “It’s just a bunch of snow and ice.” I was stupefied. How does a person end up like that? Was it something in his education? His upbringing? His genes? I really can’t say. 

 

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VIDEO: Walk Through This Socially Distanced Choir Forest

 

IN THE DEPTHS of the pandemic, when choral groups could not safely gather to sing indoors, The Crossing Choir of Philadelphia took their singing outdoors, into parks and open-air venues. Last October, they premiered a work entitled “The Forest” in Bowman’s Hill, a stand of mature trees, many over 200 years old, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy.

During the performance, the singers, unmasked, stood far apart among the trees, their voices amplified by specially-designed speakers, while audience members walked at safely-distanced intervals along a thousand-foot path through the forest. The libretto drew on the singers’ written accounts of life during the pandemic, along with excerpts from Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Mind in the Forest,” which first appeared in Orion. Read the libretto, with excerpts from “Mind in the Forest” in italics.

 

The virtual walk takes twenty minutes. We recommend full screen and full sound. Enjoy.

 

 

Scott Russell Sanders is an Orion advisor, and his essay “Buckeye” is included in the new anthology, Old Growth, Orion’s best writing about trees.

 

Eleven Poetry Anthologies Handpicked for Orion Readers

 

EACH MONTH, Orion’s poetry editor, Camille Dungy, and friends recommend poetry collections they think our readers might enjoy. This month we’re recommending a host of anthologies, and with them an opportunity to meet a diverse range of new and familiar poetic voices.

 

 

 

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson

One of the first pages of this collection of essays, poetry, and art asks, “Can you imagine/ trusting each other/ working together/ for our common home?” and the rest of the pages of the collections show just what such collective, intentional work can look like. Look for poems from the likes of Marge Piercy, Joy Harjo, Ada Limón, Ailish Hopper, Ellen Bass, Sharon Olds, Alice Walker, and Mary Oliver. (Random House)

 

 

 

 

Here: Poems for the Planet, edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman, with a forward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

This anthology draws together over 125 writers ages, six to eighty-six, representing many regions, races, and walks of life, all deeply aware of the acute climate crisis facing the world we all share. Part praise song, part elegy, this anthology is a call for collective action and includes a guide for activists written with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Look for poems by Gary Snyder, Anne Marie Macari, Fadhil Assultani, John Calderazzo, Natasha Sajé, Tishani Doshi, Kamau Brathwaite, Adam Zagajewski, Lorna Goodison, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Mary Ruefle, Jesús J. Barquet, and many more. (Copper Canyon Press)

 

 

 

 

Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan, with a foreword by Dana Gioia and introduction by Jack Foley

If you’ve been watching the news from the West and can’t quite figure out how the AQI there keeps topping out over 500, or why there are so many mudslides when there is also talk of drought, perhaps a poet’s view of California will help you understand what’s happening there, and how what’s happening affects the people, the animals, the plants, and the land. This gorgeous anthology is organized by region, to give a clear sense of what it is like to claim California as home in the midst of these perilous times. The 150 contributors to this anthology include Ursula K. Le Guin, David St. John, Jane Hirshfield, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Rebecca Foust, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Brenda Hillman, Ruth Bavetta, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Helen Wick, and Robert Hass. (Scarlet Tanager Books)

 

 

 

 

Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, edited by Melissa Tuckey, with a foreword by Camille T. Dungy

This collection draws voices from all over the world who think carefully and broadly about what eco-justice looks like in action. Poems here look at farming, war, water, resource extraction, resistance, resilience, resurgence, and more. It is one of the most comprehensive and compelling environmental poetry anthologies available today. Poets in these pages include Dorianne Laux, Purvi Shah, Patrick Rosal, Sam Hamill, Ruth Irupé Sanabria, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Mahmoud Darwish, Jiang Tai, Tim Seibles, Homero Aridijis, Pippa Little, Tara Betts, Monika Sok, Linda Hogan, and Ross Gay. (University of Georgia Press)

 

 

 

 

The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Laura-Gray Street and Ann Fisher-Wirth, with a foreword by Craig Santos Perez and introduction by Robert Hass

This re-release of the indispensable compendium of ecopoetry should be a welcome addition to any bookshelf. The anthology includes a historical arc that collects many of the key antecedents to the contemporary ecopoetry movement—including work by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Ezra Pound—as well as work by early foundational practitioners like Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Phillip Levine, Audre Lorde, Theodore Roethke, and C.D. Wright. And there are also over 150 contemporary practitioners such as Juliana Spahr, Gerald Stern, Jonathan Skinner, Patricia Smith, Evie Shockley, Benjamin Alire Saénz, William Pitt Root, Ed Roberson, D. A. Powell, Janisse Ray, dg nanouk okpik, Harryette Mullen, Arthur Sze, Sheryl St. Germain, and Sandra Meek. (Trinity University Press)

 

 

 

 

Mourning Songs: Poems of Sorrow and Beauty, edited by Grace Schulman

While these poems are not all what we might think of as nature poems or ecopoems, several of the pieces collected here do take their cues from the greater than human world. As we enter a period of mourning— for the human losses suffered since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the state of the planet around us, and for so much more— it may be helpful to have poems to turn to that put words to grief. This pocket-sized collection offers many gems. Look for poems by William Carols Williams, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ezra Pound, H.D. James Laughlin, May Swenson, and Bei Dao. (New Directions)

 

 

 

 

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy

Expanding the definition of what constitutes nature writing beyond wild or pastoral, this iconic collection features 180 poems from 93 poets who together provide unique perspectives on American social and literary history. Black poets have been writing about the natural world from the very beginning, and here you’ll find classic giants like Phillis Wheatley, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, and Richard Wright alongside more contemporary voices such as Major Jackson, Sean Hill, Natasha Trethewey, and Janice Harrington. (University of Georgia Press)

 

 

 

 

How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, edited by James Crews, foreword by Ross Gay

Readers looking for poetic antidotes to today’s chronic anxiety and frenetic news cycle might enjoy turning to this new and highly readable collection. Spend some time with joy and gratitude through deeply felt work from some of poetry’s most trusted voices including inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, Ellen Bass, Ted Kooser, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Hirschfield, and others often featured in the pages of Orion. Interspersed with invitations to write and reflect, this book is designed for discussion and is classroom-ready. (Workman)

 

 

 

 

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, with a foreword by Carolyn Forché

While not billed as a nature poetry collection, this ambitious and ranging anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today in the East, and frequently speaks to place, home, and the natural world. Originally envisioned as a response to 9/11 that imagined a future of words over violence, you can approach this brick of a book as a type of global journey. Look for the likes of famous contributors like Michael Ondaatje and Li-Young Lee next to a vast host of likely new-to-you work by South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as those living in the Diaspora. (W.W. Norton and Company)

 

 

 

 

New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich 

Gathered here is a deep and ranging well of traditional, experimental, and political work from a new and original generation of Native poets. Collected work from Natalie Diaz, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Layli Long Soldier, dg nanouk okpik, Craig Santos Perez, Tommy Pico, and others make this book sing with a chorus of languages, styles, and powerful words. As Erdrich says in her introduction, together “these poems create a place, somewhere we could go.” (Graywolf Press)

 

 

 

 

Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology, edited by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan

This astonishing anthology enters as disruptively (and thrillingly) as a thunderstorm. In order to talk about the weather, the book’s editors have compiled 300 entries of considerable variety and scope. Poems, essay excerpts, short notes, weather rhymes, letters, stage directions, and the fevered final journal entries of dying writers combine to describe the weather of all seasons, dawn to dusk. You’ll find the work of Virginia Woolf, Flaubert, Coleridge, Thoreau, Bishop, King Charles II,  the Book of Job, John Yau, Bertolt Brecht, Anon, Anon, Anon, Anon, Ruskin, Ryszard Kapuściński, Joan Didion, and Hölderlin, but each entry in this book appears without no formal announcement. All titles are removed, and the author’s names are not at the heads of the poems but instead scrawled in small print along the bottom of the page, so that one narration runs into the next the way a hailstorm might show up in the midst of fair weather. (W. W. Norton & Company)

 

Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here

 

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A Woven World: An Interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming

Poet, essayist, and Orion contributor Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World: On Fashion, Fisherman, and the Sardine Dress (Counterpoint, available now) and climate campaigner Alice Bell, author of Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis (Counterpoint, on sale September 21), recently wrote to one another about their new books. Here, they discuss the role of hope in the climate crisis, the problem of hiding in history, gaps in the archive, and the possibilities of being culture makers.

 

Alice Bell: I loved your book, Alison. It transported me to so many places. Places I’d never been, but also ones I had, like Paris just after the 2015 attacks (I was there for the climate talks). I was wondering about your writing process, and if, considering the timing, you ended up writing a lot of this book in lockdown, unable to go very far with your body, even if your manuscript was going all over the world?

 

Alison Deming: Thanks, Alice. Sounds like we just missed each other in Paris. That was a rarified time with the juxtaposition of the attacks and the promise of the climate talks. Those travels and research trips were so important to my project. Luckily, all the travel happened before lockdown, as did most of the writing. I feel so fortunate, in retrospect, to have had the freedom to explore all those talismanic places. Making site visits is an important part of my process. Place brings immediacy, sensory data, and, while history moves on, the geographic and natural and cultural qualities of place still speak.

Speaking of research, I was so engaged by the research in your book. You look at climate change through the lens of the history of science, and that somehow made me feel more hopeful about the human project. I was asking myself what our two books have in common, because they are very different formally. I think both of us have turned to history to find a hopeful way forward. I wonder how this long view into the past has shaped your sense of where we’re at today.

 

AB: There’s a line historian Charlotte Riley likes to say—repeatedly, sometimes in all caps—that there are no lessons from history. She’s right. We read the morals we want onto the historical record. So I reckon you’ll find hope in the history of the climate crisis, if that’s what you’re looking for, or doom, if that’s your thing, too.

That said, I think my research taught me a lot about how we made the world we’re living in, and I hope that makes me more canny when it comes to thinking about how to unbuild and remake it. If nothing else, I can call bullshit when someone tries to spin the line that we quit whale oil once upon a time so now we can quit fossil oil. (They are totally different, and if anything, fossil fuels helped people kill more whales. Yes, we can quit fossil oil, but don’t look to the whalers to show us how.)

Despite everything so painfully awful about the climate crisis, climate science is quite incredible—we should be thankful for it, and in my darker moments, I can find something sustaining there. I often think there’s a fair amount of pressure on people who work on climate to provide hope. I used to think that, because I worked for a charity focused on practical action on climate change. But more and more, climate people seem to be expressing this recently. I wondered if that’s something you felt, too, in writing your book in a different context, a pressure to offer people hope. Or, turning the question around, do you worry we’re sometimes hiding in history?

 

AD: I worry about both things—puffing on a pipe dream of hope and hiding in history. But I can’t stay with either for very long because it is in my nature to resist feeling desperate. Maybe there is something inherent in us, a force of nature that turns us collectively toward remaking whenever things fall apart. I hope so.

Our Biggest Experiment rightly pegs the climate crisis as a social crisis. The way you tie climate to the history of colonialism and racism seems precisely where we need to go in our thinking and environmental writing. Because social systems brought us here, the work lies in interrogating those systems and their injustices. You wrote that you worry less about hitting five degrees Celsius than you do about “geopolitical breakdown” brought on by the injustices of climate change. Yes, this clearly is not merely a technological crisis—though it is that, too. What a mad experiment with the planet this has turned out to be!

On the matter of hiding in history, I’ll say that I made a turn in A Woven World when I realized I wasn’t going to find the data about the couture business run by my great-grandmother and grandmother. That just amplified the sense of loss that their remarkable lives would remain unstoried. I understood then that the only way for me to move forward with this project was to make it a cultural story—to try and see the social milieu that had shaped their lives. With the fishermen who build those magnificent herring weirs, I was similarly motivated by a sense of loss. As this traditional way of fishing declines, I wanted to tell its story, to give it presence on the page as a way of life that was perfectly tied to its time and place, a sustainable method of fishing that was being subsumed by larger industrial practices. What are the ways of life that are perfectly suited to our times and place? Certainly not this planetary suicide pact that’s brought us to the brink.

I think I was also writing in resistance to some contemporary norms of the memoir. If hyper-individualism has become pathological in the U.S., then should not our memoirs reach beyond the self in search of a cultural story? Too many memoirs treat the self and its familial relationships as the whole universe of concern. I get it. Trauma and intergenerational trauma leave lasting wounds that must be addressed. But as a person of relative privilege, I feel a responsibility to get out of myself and into the world in my writing. I’m not down with Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.” I’m down with Denise Levertov’s “The world is / not with us enough.”

I’m interested in your thoughts on your question: Are we hiding in history? Of course, I don’t see you hiding as much as excavating, as you did in opening up the narrative about the transition from whale oil to fossil fuel.

 

 

AB: I didn’t feel like I was hiding in history while I was writing my book. But I did reflect that when it comes to the climate crisis, the past is perhaps easier to spend time in than the future. I think the historical side of the story is vital—it’s why I wrote the book, to share it with a larger audience—but we can’t stick to that alone. Just as you can’t understand climate change simply through the science or the economics or the politics, you need multiple time frames, too.

Your point about gaps in archives and loss of knowledge really resonates. There’s a particularly noticeable gap in the story of the history of climate science in that there is no photo of Eunice Foote (though it’s thought that one exists, just lost in archives, and the hunt is on to find it). To speak to an even bigger issue: there’s a line in Deborah Coen’s book Climate in Motion that’s stuck with me, where she weaves in a key point about colonization as a process of unlearning about the environment. So much modern science is rooted in learning that could only happen for Westerners because of colonization. It’s most obvious in botany, but it is there in climate science, too. Scientists trampled over so much existing local environmental knowledge as they went.

On a personal note, and this isn’t in my book, but one of the very minor characters—a whaler, Enderby—is an ancestor of mine. It felt so odd that I could learn about that bit of my family relatively easily, because for a while in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had money. It turns out that back in the seventeenth century, the Enderbys were tanners based about a mile from where I live now. During lockdown, we were allowed out once a day to exercise, and I’d often end up jogging round the old tanners’ district as a break from writing, imagining what life would have been like back then. That branch of the family tree had been to Boston, Antarctica, New Zealand, India, Egypt, and Aberdeen, as well as multiple other bits of London before I ended up back there, but I still felt an odd sort of connection to the space.

You said there is something inherent in us that turns us to remaking whenever things fall apart, and that echoes something that is so strong in your book, not just processes of remaking, but unmaking, too; whether that’s “falling apart,” violent destruction, accidental damage, or a more careful, deliberate unpicking. While I was reading your book, I was also reading at my day job a funding bid for a project to help people fix and repair electronic goods. The two documents—your lyrical book on one side and a businesslike bid on the other—got me thinking about the difference between fixing and remaking. I think the difference is pretty important for how we tackle the climate crisis. Maybe we need both, but they are different. I’m interested in your take. Should we be looking at the climate crisis as fixers or makers? Or destroyers?

 

AD: Your story about the Enderbys reminded me of a story ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan tells. He’s studied the relationships between Indigenous people and plants in the American Southwest and helped found Native Seeds Search. He wanted to learn about his Lebanese ancestors, so he made a trip to their homeland and discovered that one of his ancestors had been the village’s seed saver. It was one of those strange concurrences between past and present that sends a little shiver of wonder up the spine.

When I was writing my book, I started out with the working title “Lament for the Makers,” after Merwin. I was in that elegiac mood that comes with loss, thinking about female ancestors who had left the world without leaving their stories behind, the fishermen plying waters that are heating up faster than any other place on Earth, and what the future might look like as the planet suffers our heavy presence. But I didn’t want to get stuck in loss. I wanted to give some life on the page, ways of living I admired, and to suggest that the inventive wiles they lived by might guide us forward.

So, yes, fixing, making, destroying. I suppose we need them all. Destroying the myth of infinite growth. Destroying the lies that whitewash the past. Fixing inadequate policies and infrastructure. We are culture makers, and it’s clear now that the culture we’ve built has been about unmaking the natural world. Big mistake. Science keeps telling us that everything is connected. It’s time we got with the program, and that means culture making in concert with the natural forces that sustain us. Why is this trope of “making” so resonant for me when it can apply to both bombs and sonnets? I think it asks us to be mindful that our actions are making the world we live in, and that awareness comes with tremendous responsibility.

 

AB: You’re totally right about being culture makers. I think the role of cultural change is too often ignored in environmental activism. There’s research I often quote in my day job: if you give up flying for climate reasons and tell your friends, not only are they more likely to cut down on flying too, but also to support policies that’ll make sustainable travel easier for everyone. I think it’s reassuring to know this. If you’re doing something in your own life, you can have a ripple effect in other people’s behavior and policy change. I think you can clearly see shifts to plant-based eating, though it’s coupled with tech changes, such as electric cars and things like electrifying cooking.

Okay, we’re coming to the end of our conversation, and I had the first word so you should have the last. I’ll end by reflecting your first question back to you. Do you feel as if your digging into the past has helped you understand the present, or even the future?

 

AD: Oh, yes. We live in a time of radical loss and it can be difficult to look to the past for a sense of belonging and continuity. Who wants to belong to a past “drenched in the prosperity that slavery and colonialism offered,” as you wrote? We carry that weight as an obligation to do better. And to bring to light stories of human making that show our admirable capacities to create new knowledge, adapt to change, learn from the environment, and care for one another. For this book, I was also interested in the lost knowledges that disappears with unstoried lives.

As I write this, I am back on Grand Manan Island off the eastern coast of Canada. A new herring weir has been built in the bay just across the road from my house. It is a beautiful structure, a ring of lacy twine strung around birch poles. It waits there for the herring to come to shore. It waits there for the bounty that is a shoal of herring. They may or may not come. A herring weir speaks a language thousands of years old and, in this place, hundreds of years old. It is a sustainable method of commercial fishing. It is an expression of multigenerational learning and survival and hope. It speaks the language of the past and it holds hope for the future. Maybe that is a good place to rest.

 

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ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING’s most recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and Walt Whitman Award, she is Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

ALICE BELL is a climate campaigner and writer based in London. She co-runs the climate change charity Possible, working on a range of projects from community tree planting to solar-powered trains. She has a PhD in science communication from Imperial College London and a BSc in the history of science from University College London, and has worked as both an academic and journalist, writing about everything from the radical science movement of the 1970s to plastic recycling in labs.

Introducing Orion‘s New Book: Old Growth

 

TO PUBLISH AN ANTHOLOGY of Orion’s best writing on trees is ironic, mainly because these twenty-five stories are printed on, well, trees. With over two dozen contributors, Old Growth is our most exciting addition to a growing line of Orion collections. With a foreword by Robin Wall Kimmerer, the anthology offers a canopied compendium of Orion’s long history of engagement with arboreal culture, printed using 100% recycled paper, processed without chlorine, and free of plastic.

Old Growth features works by Rick Bass, Alison Hawthorne Deming, John Hay, Ursula K. Le Guin, Terese Mailhot, Emma Marris, Cecily Parks, Michael Pollan, Scott Russell Sanders, Arthur Sze, Katrina Vandenberg, Afaa Michael Weaver, and many others.

 

Order Old Growth today.

 

Five Questions for the Cover Artist. This week, we caught up with Patrik Svensson, artist for Old Growth, to learn more about the cover illustration—the book also includes thirty-two tree drawings—and his personal relationship with trees. Svensson is an illustrator and designer living on the top of a hill in Gotenburg, Sweden. His work has been featured the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others.

 

Okay, be honest: When was the last time you actually took a nap under a tree?

I have two young kids and don’t get much sleep at all these days. Does carrying a one-year-old back and forth under a tree at four in the morning count, nearly falling apart from fatigue?!

It totally counts. After all, your cover illustration transmits innocence and youth, intergenerational exchange, and interspecies mutualism. There is a softness to it, a sense of renewal and restoration. Nothing too radical. No exotic species hanging from misty cliff sides. Does this illustration in any way represent your past, present, or aspirant relationship with the arboreal community?

That’s a nice interpretation, thank you. Trees are probably more important to me than I’ve sometimes realized myself. I grew up with the forest as my neighbor and friend, and I’ve always felt safe when walking in the woods, hearing only the wind in the crowns above. To be honest, I’m one of those madmen who can easily stand for several minutes and stare as the sun hits a branch in a certain way. Nature to me is the easiest way to experience something larger than yourself. It doesn’t care if you’re stressed out or happy—it’s just patiently there.

Is it true that the world’s oldest tree was found in the Dalarna province of Sweden? A 9,550-year-old spruce. You also have sinuous troll forests. What are some general cultural attitudes and responses toward trees in Sweden? How are forested landscapes rendered in folklore and myth in your region?

I heard about this old spruce while working with an outdoor clothing company years ago. I suppose other trees around the world might claim they’re the oldest though. Who knows. The first feeling I have about Sweden’s national relationship to trees is that we’re proud of our trees here. There are vast areas forested in pine, with rich histories of wooden furniture. Regarding myth, yes, absolutely. I think mainly of John Bauer and his paintings of forests and trolls.

 

 

 

 

What compelled you to illustrate an anonymous, barefooted person taking refuge under something so sturdy and old. Is this some expression of unconditional giving? 

The process for this project was very intuitive for me, and its outcome is probably a result of me being more of a dreamer than an adventurer. I appreciate the Swedish writer Andrev Walden, who said, “I love nature, I just don’t want it on me.”

As an illustrator, what responsibility do you believe the artist has when depicting the natural world? What are some concerns you have when approaching the canvas to create artwork that responds directly to more-than-human form?

Simply put, I’m all for whatever makes a good image, whether it’s close to reality or the opposite. I think I have a sort of DIY approach when creating, where I try to go with what feels right and to not ask many questions. Sure, there is significant doubt involved in the process, but I like to trust that abstract mystery ingredient in art, that factor you can’t quite label or describe with words. I always aim to stick with that gut feeling, rather than traditional rules or knowledge.

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