Winter 2022

The world is full of tinier ones, each with its own set of rules, cultures, natural ways. Orion‘s Winter 2022 issue, Microcosms: Reading the miniature worlds around us, tells the story of these tiny habitats. In this issue, Ilya Kaminsky curates a portfolio of Ukranian writers reflecting on the small ways in which the war has changed the landscape. Rafia Zakaria follows the movements of crows in Karachi, Pakistan, to tell a story of industry, gentrification, and cultural identity. Kyo Maclear enumerates on why children sympathize with the insects of picture books. A longitudinal citizen science project measures nuclear residue in 400,000 baby teeth. Kaitlin Smith looks at depictions of the acorn as nourishment and protest in the work of Octavia Butler. And much, much more.

Digital Subscribers:
Access your subscription here


The Skunks of San Francisco

A skunk stands near a tree stump in front of a grey brick wall. The green grass beneath its feet is littered with dry brown leaves
Jack Bulmer / Unsplash

TONIGHT, AFTER THREE YEARS IN THE skyscraper shadows, the ratty abandoned lots bordering tech-money opulence, the soul-wringing poverty and relentless ambulance scream of it all, I saw my first San Franciscan skunks. As in plural. As in two of them. As in black-and-white and bounding across the street, their tails lush and large, their pointy snouts pointing them ever deeper into the great adventure of Being. Maybe I cried a few joyful expletives, or maybe I wet myself a thimble’s worth, or maybe I merely stopped and stared and smiled over the unexpected encounter. It was a rush, a fantastic Mephitis mephitis blur.

Understand, dear reader, that the bulk of my discretionary time is spent rambling and roaming, combing shrubs and climbing trees, poking into the nooks and cramming into the crannies of this intricate sprawling megalopolis. Nature/civilization binary? That’s bullcrap, skunkshit. I’ve got red-tailed hawk nests on speed dial. I’ve got trash cans that bat .400 in terms of raccoons. I’ve got golf courses for coyotes, municipal playgrounds for fat-cheeked gophers, a special comfy rock high above the Pacific for surfing dolphins.

Skunks, however, had eluded me. Until tonight.

To be precise, when I set out from my apartment—as usual without a map, a plan, a friggin’ clue—it wasn’t proper night but rather that pervasive blue softness of a summer evening. Venus and Jupiter perched atop a distant three-story Victorian, a smidge left of a mockingbird’s silhouette. I made for them, ascending steep hills, then got distracted, then got distracted from my distraction. A flier for an upcoming Fourth of July parade promising a “Patriotic dog costume competition (new this year)” grabbed my eye, and soon I was on a cute, quaint, quiet lane that curved and curved and sort of looked familiar. Hmm, Laidley Street, have I been here? Is this where the jumbo jade plant grows? Where that daddy longlegs webbed my face? I remembered an acquaintance from college named Scott Ladley. We shot baskets. He played with his elbows. Hmm.

Are you getting a sense of what it’s like to ambulate aimlessly with this guy called Me? And do you see why, a handful of neighborhoods later, far from Laidley, the apricot sun well sunk and darkness rising, I might be startled from a half-formed quasi-thought by the bounding (bounding!) bodies of a famously tuxedoed and infamously pungent species?

As in black-and-white and bounding across the street, their tails lush and large, their pointy snouts pointing them ever deeper into the great adventure of Being.

The duo hopped a curb (like a couple of skateboarding teens) and disappeared into a rosemary hedge (like a couple of weed-smoking teens). Gone, so quick. But vivid, veritably glowing inside the guy called Me, the guy who could not blink, would not move, was not himself for an instant that became an hour, an eternity.

Consider that specific phrase, its ontological flavor: was not himself. If I wasn’t Me, then what was I? Was I Mephitis mephitis? Via the magic of perception, the magic of raw reality-drenched rendezvous, was their adventure of Being rendered my adventure of Being?

Like many people, I too often sit indoors and too frequently feel as though I’m shrinking away from the expansive elemental embrace of tints and timbres and tangs and trembles, as though I’m coagulating into a lame little gunky clot of isolated Me. In response, I lace my beat-ass sneakers tight and head off to save myself by establishing contact with a world outside myself. John Muir said that by going out we inevitably go in—to our truer self, our grand earthly self. Deep ecologists say the same. And mystics say it. And thirteenth-century Zen masters such as Dogen say it: “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.” And silently, boundingly, beautifully, skunks seem to say it in their own strange language.

Did I really wet myself a thimble’s worth? Did an instant become an hour and an hour become an eternity? Do I have any idea what the heck I’m talking about? All I know for sure is that during these three years in San Francisco I’ve covered fifty or more miles a week, heart booming, lungs ballooning, eyes open, ears open, dinky human life open to the hidden-in-plain-sight wilds of this place, to whomever slinks, skitters, dips, dives, swoops, or swerves across my path, and that tonight—as usual without a map, a plan, a friggin’ clue—I walked me right out of Me, right into a nondescript rosemary hedge.

Reckless, but whatever. I wanted to smoke what they were smoking. At the very least, I wanted to catch a whiff.


Subscribe to Orion Ad

Leath Tonino is the author of The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, a collection of essays about adventures in the Northeast. A second collection, The West Will Swallow You, will be released this fall.