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Celebrating 40 Years of Orion

This year Orion celebrates 40 years of publishing the best in environmental writing! Deeply rooted in a history of storytelling about the natural world and conservation, we are continuing to expand our canopy with writing and art reflecting the diverse people and landscapes that make up our cultural ecosystems.

The occasion will be marked with a virtual 40th Anniversary celebration held on Tuesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m ET. Join us and continue to support new thinking about how humanity might live on Earth justly, sustainably, and joyously.

The event will include the inauguration of two new award programs. The Orion Barry Lopez Award for Achievements in Letters and Environments, which celebrates authors whose work reveals a complex and compassionate relationship with the natural world, will be presented to Margaret Atwood by Rebecca Solnit. The Orion Jane Goodall Award for Inspiring Courage in Action, which celebrates activists and educators whose voices provoke environmental stewardship, will be presented to Vanessa Nakate. The Anniversary event will also include appearances by Camille T. Dungy, Ross Gay, Lauren Groff, Major Jackson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Emily Raboteau, Jeff VanderMeer, Alice Wong, and many others.

The magazine’s landmark 40th anniversary issue, an exploration of the tangled origins of the Anthropocene, will be released in June. Contributors include Jane Hirshfield, Samantha Hunt, Amy Irvine, Lacy Johnson, Maira Kalman, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Kolbert, Drew Lanham, Ken Liu, Kyo Maclear, Andri Snær Magnason, John McPhee, Lulu Miller, Lydia Millet, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Maria Popova, Elizabeth Rush, Ella Frances Sanders, Scott Russell Sanders, Martin Shaw, Meera Subramanian, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Arthur Sze, and Krista Tippett.

“It’s been forty years since the publication of its first issue, and Orion has never felt more relevant,” says Executive Director Amy Brady. “In an age of staggering planetary change, this magazine is a leader in exploring how we can all take better care of the earth–and each other.”

Orion’s Editor in Chief, Sumanth Prabhaker, adds that “Orion has not only published some of the finest and most influential writers and artists of the last 40 years, but also created a platform for voices that haven’t historically been included in American literary culture. In the years to come, Orion will continue to celebrate the possibilities of environmental storytelling by questioning and diversifying the ways in which we write about our world.”

Register now for this completely free celebratory event! To register yourself and others, as well as make a donation or bid on auction items, visit our 40th Anniversary website.

Twelve Poetry Recommendations for Black History Month


Camille Dungy and poet friends are back with another list of stellar recommended reading. From new titles to seminal classics, you’ll want to check out these environmentally-engaged poetry collections by Black poets today, and every day.


Camille Dungy recommends:




“i”: new and selected poems by Toi Derricotte

Reading “i” is like sitting next to a woman I’ve known for years, have loved for years, and love even more in this moment. I am ever grateful she trusts me enough to whisper secrets she’s never told anyone, sometimes not even herself. Everyone seems familiar to the “i” of these poems. Even the palmetto bug, who terrifies her but who she will not kill, and who returns with a larger brood, not to terrorize the poem’s speaker, but to sing her a song. In this new and selected collection, Derricotte writes with her characteristic candor and grace. And Telly! Telly! Telly the goldfish, “his swishy tail a magisterial emblem/ of the Living God.” The “i” of these poems is not afraid to love a goldfish, not afraid to write that love into poems full of trusting sincerity and deep connection. She knocks me out every time. (Pitt Poetry Series)



Playlist for the Apocalypse by Rita Dove

Rita Dove’s first book of new poems in over a decade, Playlist for the Apocalypse is as beautiful and insistent as a cricket song. She writes of the Venetian island covered in foundry slag and made the first ghetto. A cloud of yellow butterflies a girl who will never return thinks of when she recalls home. A river. A blue sky. Chronic illness. Everyday horrors and everyday hope. Her formal dexterity and wide-ranging historical knowledge always dazzle, yet Dove writes in such a way that even the most rigid forms and difficult stories feel plain-spoken, down to earth. (W.W. Norton)



Then the War, and Selected Poems 2007-2020 by Carl Phillips


I think of the word “incandescent” when I think of poetry by Carl Phillips. Something that gives off light via its own heat. As if the intensity of passion in his language lights the page. The eye Phillips casts on the human- and greater-than-human-world is brightly alert. An eye that seems directly connected to his ear. His language is vibrant, reverent, and sonically rich. Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s reverent. It’s always wholly alive. What a wonderful thing to have so many new poems from Carl Phillips. As well as many of my favorites from the last decades, arranged in tighter, bolder constellations so they appear hot and bright. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)



Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Sometimes, in the midst of one of his intense, politically charged, compelling narratives, John Murillo stops. Not to smell the roses. That would be too simple, too expected, and there is nothing simple or easy to anticipate in Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. But there are birds sometimes, swooping down in a way that cannot be ignored. Swarming off a page scrawled in grief. And there are broken-necked flowers and well-tended ones, too. Beauty and hurt Murillo carries into his poems, like flowers meant for a lover. Or for a grave. (Four Way Books)



Such Color: New and Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Smith’s work has long been steeped in concern for the environment. Poems from her first 2003 collection, such as “Drought,” “Mangoes” and “Wintering,” were already conscious of the interplay between the human and non-human worlds, and by the time she published her 2007 collection, Smith’s “Words/ whittled and stretched into meaning.” Her 2018 book centers the toxicity of our environmental catastrophe at its core. And new poems in Such Color clarify that, for Smith, who has always attended to interplays between history, the present, and our threatened environments, “The Wave after Wave is One Wave Never Tiring.” (Graywolf)



Un-American by Hafizah Geter

In this stunning debut collection, Hafizah Geter “demonstrates how/ what’s uprooted can return/ to solid ground.” But what’s found in the soil is just as likely to be grief as relief. Even before the mother at the center of this book dies, she is already gone, and so we pass through these pages mourning alongside the family Geter describes. “In the Ohio dark,” Geter writes, “coyotes nuzzled the neck of a swan,” as if horror and beauty are always this closely aligned. (Wesleyan University Press)



White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino

It would be folly to overlook Kiki Petrosino’s White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia on a list of environmentally-focused books. I can’t read about the landscape of Virginia and the Upper South (which Petrosino vividly describes) and not think about the blood and sweat soaked into that soil. Petrosino’s exacting eye challenges reductive and redacted narratives of her native place. In this wondrously innovative collection, she renews understandings about what has grown up from that land. (Sarabande)


Poet friends also recommend:



Major Jackson recommends Rice by Nikky Finney


One of the important environmental books of poetry that needs further study and discussion is Nikky Finney’s Rice. Through poems and family photographs, Finney brings to the fore the important contributions of enslaved Africans to the coastal region of South Carolina. The tradition of planting and harvesting rice becomes allegory and lens by which to explore the cultivation of Carolina’s gold crop, but also the emergence of the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands and the spirit of resistance as embodied by her ancestors. (Triquarterly Books)



Teri Cross Davis recommends Let the Dead In by Saida Agostini


Guyana becomes a presence, its landscape a character, in Saida Agostini’s Let the Dead In.  These poems explore the murky mermaid-infested waters of the Pomeroon River, the abundant lilies, and other flora that blossom in its wake. To read this mythologically-driven poetry is to step into a lush environment and come out soaked to the skin. A good science-fiction book succeeds because of firm world-building and in this collection, Agostini crafts a world where the dead talk and we listen. (Alan Squire Press)



Michael Kleber-Diggs recommends Nebraska: Poems by Kwame Dawes


“I limp out just after the delicate chaos / of flurries covers the driveway and I shovel…” Kwame Dawes writes in Nebraska: Poems, his 21st collection, which often features the Ghanaian poet, inhabiting midwestern spaces and sensibilities. He shovels his driveway, walks his dog among geese, and draws his hand over a lavender plant, all while taking in the people who move among him. The verses here have a meditative charm that is wistful at times but straightforward like the landscape Dawes now calls home. “…There is a heaviness / that comes with being a stranger…” he notes in “The Messiness of Place,” eventually arriving at an attunement that could only result from an intimate connection to the land — not land as a place, land as a practice. The skills Dawes has acquired in a lifetime of noticing and being present seem so endemic to who he is that they travel with him wherever he goes. “I read the sky, the chase and swirl, the deep / hues and light filigree of wispy clouds, and soon / I could predict the arrival of storm…” And he was right, a storm has come to America. In Nebraska, Dawes takes it all in as though he’s seeing it for the first time, but he is too wise and self-aware, too knowledgeable of history to claim he’s witnessing in new ways or through a different lens, though he knows it may be perceived that way by some. His efforts allow us to observe his setting plainly and directly, for what it is, for what it might have been, for what it can be. (University of Nebraska Press)



Kiki Petrosino recommends Daughters of Harriet by Cynthia Parker-Ohene


Daughters of Harriet is an ecstatic debut, and I’m ecstatic about it. In poems full of oracular fire, Cynthia Parker-Ohene proclaims the beauty of Black life across complex terrains of time and space. These intimate, yet wide-ranging lyrics move with virtuosity from the remembered “sheen of buttercups” in a beloved grandparent’s garden to the “disturbed wavelets” of the Middle Passage still resonating, as collective memory, in the Black body. This a work of deep remembrance and song-craft, drawing innovative poetic language from the luminous, multidimensional network of Black consciousness. I find something new to cherish whenever I turn these pages. Richly textured and keenly observed, this is poetry to keep close. (Center for Literary Publishing)



Teri Cross Davis also recommends No Ruined Stone by Shara McCallum


Shara McCallum writes letters to the past and to the present in No Ruined Stone, making the epistolary poem a reliquary of what-could-have-beens. Within these lines is a sure and graceful voice, and with a handy timeline in the appendix, I hungrily skipped between Scotland and Jamaica, fingers greedy for the next page. This is a collection I eagerly return to, it’s freshness so enveloping and jolting. I love how it makes me question why we let history lie. (Alice James Books)



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



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Fourteen Articles to Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science


FRIDAY, February 11, 2022, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and Orion staff pulled together fifteen of our favorite features on female leadership in the sciences.



Chronicles of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich – November/December 2004 Issue

A meditation on the shrinking world embodied in the soul of a glacier.




Deep Intellect by Sy Montgomery – November/December 2011 Issue

Inside the mind of the octopus.




The Science of Citizenship by Belle Boggs – November/December 2013 Issue

What’s at stake when schools skimp on science?




10 Words Technology Borrowed From Nature by Sue Thomas – September/October 2015 Issue

An enumeration of adopted words.




Speaking of Nature by Robin Wall Kimmerer – March/April 2017 Issue

Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world.




The People’s Forest by Alexandra Tempus – Autumn 2018 Issue

How the Menominee are facing climate change.




Biking with Butterflies by Sara Dykman – Summer 2019 Issue

Seeing the world through the eyes of a monarch butterfly.






Swimming with Crocodiles by Anna Tsing and Niels Bubandt – Spring 2020 Issue

Nature is avenged by a prehistoric animal.





The Shadow of Humanity and the Spirit of Animals by Jane Goodall and Krista Tippet – Autumn 2020 Issue

A conversation.




Nature of Plastics by Meera Subramanian – Spring 2021 Issue

Explorations at the edge of the artificial.




Upriver by Rebecca Altman – Summer 2021 Issue

A researcher traces the legacy of plastics




Woman in the Woods by Sandra Steingraber – Summer 2021 Issue

A study of resilience in does and other female creatures.




First Passage (& Web Extra, “Notes from the Icebreaker”) by Elizabeth Rush – Summer 2021 Issue

A journey toward motherhood in the age of glacial loss.




What Slime Knows by Lacy Johnson – Autumn 2021 Issue

There is no hierarchy in the web of life.



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Green and yellow deciduous forest in western Montana, as seen from an aerial view, looking directly down. It appears to be the beginning of fall.

From the Oldest Forest in Montana

Aerial view of old-growth forest proposed for regeneration harvest logging in the Black Ram project, unit 45.
Kootenai National Forest, Yaak Valley, northwest Montana. Photography by Randy Beacham.


I HAD TO GO INTO THE OLD FOREST seventy times before I heard it speak, and then it was only one word, urgency. Each time, I had been listening, hoping I’d hear something, as I walked carefully across the rotting spines of fallen giants, which lay in dizzying geometries atop older fallen giants, which lay upon other now buried giants—still holding their carbon, deep down into the earth, deep down into history, and yet still in service to the living—a sarcophagus of the ancient forest. No place for bulldozers.

Emerald mosses bejewel the old wood carcasses, and when you step even lightly upon them, clean water oozes out. The forest is continuously sinking in on itself, continuously lifting itself up, giant old trees rising from it and then falling like towering waves far out at sea, seen by no one, but absorbing, here on the Canada–Montana border.


A fog sits over much of a wilderness forest, with dark mountains in the background and a blue sky with wispy clouds. Mountains poke through the fog like islands.

Overlooking the Purcell Mountains and fogbank at sunrise. Yaak Valley, northwest Montana.


In the manner of a researcher who eventually becomes accepted, or at least tolerated, by her subjects (imagine gorillas, or bears) to the point where they go about their daily business, paying her no mind—I began to fall asleep in this old forest. It took me a long time to get to that point. I’m a geologist, wildlife biologist, and a continuing student of conservation biology, but here I will step back from science, for that has been largely, if puzzlingly, ineffective.

When the life of a loved one is on the line, who among us does not pray? As Merwin says in his poem “Berryman”—


he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally


So, I kneel, then lie on my back, looking up. I do not dream. Instead, I merely sink into the sarcophagus of all that ever was, in this cold frost pocket of a valley. I fall, tumbling through the centuries, caught and supported by the arms of hemlock, fronds of cedars. I become, in my ten-minute nap, one of the rotting bodies myself.

When I sleep, I am not aware of the threat of doom. The thousand-year-old forest that well may not live to be 1,001. All of it, obliterated, shattered, bombed.

The fuse has been lit. The fuse is burning. The government, under the previous administration, but abetted yet by the current one, says it’s time for this thousand-year-old forest to become “resilient.” Says that logging it down to dust—effectively, a thousand-acre clearcut—is the way to teach it resilience. They’ve named this proposed project, this fever dream, a remnant zombie from the previous reign, “Black Ram.”


I fall, tumbling through the centuries, caught and supported by the arms of hemlock, fronds of cedars. I become, in my ten-minute nap, one of the rotting bodies myself.


When a forest gets to be this old and untouched, it becomes something more than a forest. It becomes what we would think of as a mind, with history, knowledge, memory, and foresight. It has a pulse, and a spirit incomprehensible to us—but we can feel it when we’re in its presence. There aren’t many like this one left. Maybe none in Montana. Regional minor timber barons and public servants in the Forest Service’s timber shop will scoff at such an idea, but when you step into this ancient garden, you feel not just all that is above, but also so much of what lies below. It’s humbling, recognizing that, though we may be in the middle, we are not the center. Through the phenomenon of gap creation, the forest is in perfect balance, growing and rotting. Never burning. Though rot, of course, is but a slow gentle fire of its own. The circular amid the linear rot, the ancient geometry of the disassembly building a nest that is, before our eyes and all the other senses, a miracle of reassembly. Life, lived slowly; life, lived so large.

I will not tell you that the old and mature forests store 70 percent more carbon than do the monoculture plantations planned for these public lands. I will tell you instead that I can no longer go into this old forest without falling asleep. Maybe in that fashion the universe is, even now, seeking to balance itself, as it used to do once upon a time, before we broke so very many things. Maybe my sleeping creates a space for someone else to wake up. Please, God, let that person be the current president, himself but a grain of sand and gnat-blink to this forest, and to time.


Old growth forest with dead logs on the ground, and orange lines spray painted on trees, marked for cutting.

Old-growth forest proposed for regeneration harvest logging in the Black Ram project, unit 45.
Kootenai National Forest in the Purcell Mountains, northwest Montana.


An aerial shot of a forest with a few stray green trees toppled. Otherwise it's a clear cut landscape of grey and brown, with no life.

Aerial view of clearcut logging unit in the OLY project near Yaak Mountain. Kootenai National Forest, Montana.


The previous administration, in the summer of 2018, built a 200-foot-wide road they called a “fire line,” the year after they first proposed the massacre, hidden on the Canadian border. There was a little four-thousand-acre fire up high, in the rocks, some miles distant and moving away. Climbing, as fires do, and moving slowly north and west, as they do. Creeping into Canada’s swamps, where it quickly petered out.

But all summer, the United States Forest Service bladed this road into the ancient forest that was the target of Black Ram. I think of it as Montana’s first forest; it’s a primary forest—never burned and never logged. If science were still revered in this country, it would possess what scientists call baseline data. But we are not going to talk about science here. Science went away in the previous administration, and we are waiting to see to what extent the current one will bring it back. We’re still waiting.

The USFS logged many of the old trees in the way of the fire line, gashed artesian springs, and drove bulldozers through blackwater ponds seething with frogs and boreal toad tadpoles and salamanders. A straight line of bright light and heat and wind delivered straight to the edge of the old forest.

A fuse was lit. How ironic that they said they were worried about a fire.


When a forest gets to be this old and untouched, it becomes something more than a forest. It becomes what we would think of as a mind, with history, knowledge, memory, and foresight.


Before such annihilation, I will not present here the science of ancient life and complex, sophisticated systems we don’t yet completely understand. The billions of miles of mycelium snaking underground a primary forest like this one, completely unmarred: the terrestrial world’s most powerful and mysterious communications system.

To lie on a bed of ancient carcasses that are thrumming, communicating, while you sleep, is to know a different world than the one you were told existed. Were told did not exist.

Know that we will fight for this forest with everything we have.


This is the pupped installation that is on the cover of the Winter 2021, and depicts a collaborative project of creating a puppet with wheels and horns and flowers made of yellow, purple, and pink dyed materials. The puppet is set to a dark forest but with light angling in from the top left, a spotlight on the puppet.

Artwork by Marina Tsaplina. Photo by Brian Christianson | Cover Image for the Winter 2021 Issue


What I will tell you is that a poet began dreaming a puppet, part human, part ram. She began weaving it in a garden in New York City, brought it all the way to Montana—an offering—a flash of time amid ancient beauty. She carried a creation made by members of New York’s disability and arts community, who sent it on its voyage with hope and strength, to hang for a day and be photographed, sung to, slept beneath, before disassembling it. As if the puppet itself was a thousand-year-old creation destined to live in the forest but a single day.

More artists are coming. They are as numerous as the trees in this old forest. More poets, more sculptors, dancers, writers, bookbinders; musicians, too; a puppet-maker. More dreamers. And scientists. They will come. They will be drawn to its mystery—if only we can hold on to it a bit longer.

In these possibly last days, or possibly first days, I will not tell you how many tons of carbon per acre the old and mature forests absorb. Know that it is a lot. That data and science are out there.

What I will tell you is that finally there came a day when I went into the old forest, despite it being a place of strife, conflict, beauty, and war for me, that I, and everyone else, lay down and fell asleep and knew peace. And a thousand years rushed by, as if in a single breath, single thought.


More Resources:

A photo of the editor, Georgina Kleege, smiling with a green shirt. The image is two panels: one portrait of Kleege on the left, and the cover of the Winter 2021 issue on the right, the "Dream Puppet" set in Montana's Yaak Valley.

Seven Questions for Georgina Kleege, Guest Picture Editor for the Winter 2021 Issue


IN THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE, we scrutinize the ways in which the body informs our perception of and engagement with our surroundings. What we understand of the natural world is intimately connected to how our bodies interact with and experience the world. For this issue, we turned the pages of Orion over to writers and artists with the lived experiences of being disabled.

The guest picture editor for Winter 2021 is Georgina Kleege, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller and More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. We reached out to Georgina to ask about her experience of editing the issue as a blind person.


When Orion originally asked if you’d be willing to be the guest picture editor, your first thought was, You’ve got to be kidding. Tell us more about that response and your eventual decision to say yes.

At first, I just thought it was funny for obvious reasons. Why ask a blind person to perform such a visual task? I have written a lot about disabled artists, so I thought it might just be a matter of recommending some of them, which is something that happened. But Sumanth Prabhaker, Orion’s editor-in-chief, was interested in my opinion about more than just that; he wanted me to weigh in on the whole selection process, as well as on design and layout questions. I contend that blind people live in visual culture as much as anyone else. In fact, we may have an advantage because we are aware of things that sighted people take for granted and don’t think much about.

I thought it would be interesting—if challenging—to learn about the role images play in a magazine like Orion, about the specific interplay between images and words. And I enjoyed talking to Sumanth, so I agreed.


Can you take us through the process for selecting the visual work for this issue?

It was a very collaborative process. At first, I gave Sumanth the names of some disabled artists I know, or know about, and he did his own research. Some of these folks ended up submitting work for the issue. After that, I read drafts of all the texts as they came in. As I was reading, I asked myself if there was something that a sighted person would like to see to understand the text—a literal illustration.

Elsewhere, I sensed that what was needed was something less literal and more evocative, something representing a mood or other emotional quality in the writing. All along the way Sumanth and I had back-and-forth conversations. Sometimes he agreed with my instincts, sometimes he didn’t, and vice versa.

I also sat in on a couple of design meetings (on Zoom) where the editorial team talked through the issue, page by page. I found this fascinating. They talked about everything from the specific placement of images, to the font color and size, to the layout of text on the page, to background colors, and so forth. It felt as if my job was simply to ask questions, to ask, Why? What difference does it make if you put the image there versus over there? Sometimes, the answer was that it’s the way they’d always done things. Sometimes, the questions made them stop and think, Why do we do that? I learned a lot. I think they learned a lot too.


What was one interesting anecdote during the process of selecting art for this issue?

In our earliest conversation, I suggested including art by Pete Eckert who belongs to a collective of blind photographers in California (there is, or used to be, a similar collective in New York City). I thought of him, in particular, because his work is interested in scenes of nature—redwood forests and the like. He uses very long exposures to create images of himself with complex double and triple exposures, or afterimages, that look—I’m told—like auras or some other supernatural phenomenon.

Sumanth liked the images, but at first, we didn’t know where to put them. Then Sarah Capdeville’s story “The Long View” came in, and the images really seemed to fit. They have an eerie, mysterious quality that seemed to work with the story.



For anyone who’s curious about blind photography, it is a medium that is attractive to many blind and visually impaired artists worldwide. In many cases, these are photographers who used to be sighted, and so they already know how cameras work and can adapt their artistic practice to blindness. I don’t remember Pete’s exact story, but I know that, like others, he spends a lot of time planning and setting up shots, employing careful measurements to place the camera and himself (or whomever he’s photographing) and timing the exposures.

Another decision I was happy about was the choice to illustrate Amy Irvine’s article about her daughter’s seizure dog with some images of cave paintings featuring dogs. When I was reading the article and she was explaining the long history of human–canine coexistence and coevolution, the idea of cave paintings just popped into my head. I’m very interested in cave paintings in part because I gather there is no consensus about how they came to be. Were they merely decorative? Did they have some religious significance? Were they a record of events? Did they tell stories? For me, it’s really interesting to think about how it occurred to anyone to make a two-dimensional projection of three-dimensional objects and creatures. Also, they were produced in very low light, and the artists may have been guided more by touch than by sight. But simply on the level of an illustration of the article, they do provide ocular proof for what Irvine says about the long collaboration between canines and humans.



What was it like as a cocurator of a museum’s “touch tour” for the blind? What does that include?

My one experience as a cocurator of an exhibit of tactile art was at the Mosesian Center for the Art in Watertown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2019. The sighted curators were aware of work I’d done at San Francisco Bay Area museums, a role I call a touch docent. Because I’ve enjoyed the privilege of touching art that museums around the world offer to blind people, I felt like I should return the favor and describe the experience to people who don’t have the opportunity.

The show at the Mosesian was a juried exhibition. Artists submitted images of their work, but they were also required to include a detailed verbal description with specific references to the tactile and haptic qualities. When the description made it sound like something I’d like to get my hands on, I gave it a high score. Then the sighted curators and I had some back-and-forth. In some instances, as in all such exhibits, decisions were shaped by the dimensions of the exhibit space.

I was adamant that this was not to be an exhibit for the blind. Rather, it was an exhibit that did not exclude blind people. Exhibits of tactile art and tactile representations of art have been around since at least the nineteenth century and almost always, in my experience, have a patronizing quality, and a rather reductive understanding of tactile aesthetics. We wanted an exhibit where everyone was welcome to touch. In fact, the name of the exhibit was Please Touch the Art. About fifty pieces in the show included sculpture of various kinds, textile art, mosaic, and mixed media. Several artists were blind or visually impaired. We used the artists’ own descriptions as wall labels because these often gave some sort of instructions about the best way to experience the piece. One of the most gratifying things for me was the opening reception where, unlike a typical art opening, people were incredibly engaged, interacting with each other and the art.


This is a three panel preview of artwork Kleege curated for the Winter 2021 issue. The left is a woman facing away from the viewer, naked and holding a red piece of clothing, and a black brace on her right ankle, up to the knee. She is in front of a black panel, and the floor is multicolored. Middle: A bouquet of flowers in a blue and white vase. There are bugs on the table, the orang spotted table cloth, and the flowers are all shapes and sizes, red and orange and blue and green. Right: a doll figure with two blocks for head and torso, and it wears a dress, black and white striped. The boxes have yellow striped on their tops, and there is what looks like roots or neural circuitry painted on the white front.

Artwork featured in the Winter 2021 issue by Katherine Sherwood. Left: red robe, 98 x 62 inches, mixed media on found cotton, 2020. Middle: companion piece (after msm), 57 x 50 inches, mixed media on found cotton, 2020. Right: neuron nurse, 92 x 48 inches, latex paint, digital prints, and fabric, 2010.


You mentioned in the Winter 2021 issue that a growing field of AI is helping to meet accessibility standards (alt tag prediction and generation, for example). Have you found AI accessibility technology to aid or hinder the visually impaired community?

AI for alt text is really in its infancy and is therefore pretty crude. For instance, these systems are really pretty bad at such tasks as facial recognition. For the most part, when I encounter alt text generated by AI, I find it pretty funny. As I say in the article, the convention now is for it to say, “Appears to be . . . ,” which immediately makes me think that it must be something else. Depending on the context, I think the most honest alt text should simply say, “There’s an image here that’s really for sighted people and does not provide any additional information beyond what you’ve just read. So feel free to move on.”


How do you experience landscapes?

I’m often struck by how often sighted people seem to experience landscapes as if viewing a landscape painting or photograph. Think about the designated lookout points in national parks, or the turnouts on scenic highways. Someone has determined the optimal viewing position, and people stop and look, and probably take a picture, then move on.

For me, landscape is something I experience three-dimensionally, kinesthetically, by moving through it. I train my awareness all around me, 360 degrees. I’m listening and feeling, even smelling, what’s occurring on every side, behind me, underfoot, and overhead. The experience is about change: the changing terrain, sounds coming and going, the effects of air movements. Sometimes it seems that sighted people are so focused (pun intended) on vision alone, and the particular vision required to spot what’s straight ahead. Does it turn everything into a static two-dimensional image?


I was particularly struck by your description of the precision of language necessary to describe an image you are looking for. Do you find today’s visually obsessed culture to come at the expense of knowing language? Do you think that the more sighted people rely on visual media, the more they lose intimacy and nuance with language?

It used to be that when people asked me for instructions on describing images to blind people, I would say, “Pretend you’re doing it on the phone.” I was trying to communicate that talking to a blind person is not unlike talking to a sighted person; there’s no need to come up with a totally new vocabulary. Of course, now it seems that people rarely talk on the phone, or if they do and they want to describe something they’ve just seen, they are more likely to take a picture and send it to the person.

We have more and more visual technologies and perhaps that means we’re becoming less and less verbal. I don’t know. It has been my experience that people who are involved in the visual arts, art history, and visual culture are still intensely verbal. They use language to draw attention to features of an image that another viewer might have missed at first glance. Show a bunch of people an image and ask them to say something about it, and it’s likely that they will each point out different things. And by “point,” I mean both with their fingers, and also with their words.

When the first person does this, the others will notice something they might have disregarded before. For a blind person listening to this, or participating in the conversation by asking questions as it goes along, there can be a slow accretion of understanding about what an image says to people. It’s almost always the case that different people see different things, which refutes any notion that images are a universal language.


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