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Thoughts on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference

To say my time at the Bread Loaf Orion Writer’s conference was transformative is not quite right. The change I feel is more subdued, more covert, still unfurling after a week. It will take a lot longer to fully unpack, but I suspect that something new has taken root, and that things have been shaken loose. Perhaps this is how one feels after summoning the courage to start going down a new and uncertain road. Fitting then that this came about in the presence of Robert Frost’s cabin, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Before change, acknowledgement. My thanks to the Bread Loaf Orion faculty, each of whom left me more convinced than ever by the power of story to move and connect. Luis Alberto Urrea’s reading of The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery was sheer performance art, weaving together notions of identities past and present while revealing beauty in changing cultural and natural landscapes. Sharing her stories with Fenton the dog and Willow the elk, Pam Huston makes heart-wrenching cases for why in an increasingly cynical world, we need, more than ever, to sit with our grief and nurse the soft wounds of our collective souls. In her lecture Creating the Future: Art in the Era of Climate Change, Alison Hawthorne Deming explored the possibilities when art and science collaborate (look for future Ekostories posts for examples), highlighting work done by artists in conjunction with scientists to not only further knowledge and understanding, but to examine the ethical, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions of being.

Middlebury river

On the storytelling front, Ross Gay’s rapturous readings infused his poems on fig trees, community orchards, personal gardens and childhood woods next to Philadelphia highways with an effervescence that proved positively infectious. Rick Bass’s Fish Story hooked me even as I was fully aware of being pulled along by a master of the craft, unable to look away from the giant gasping catfish that served as the focal point of the narrative. Craig Childs told his tale as only one with an oral-storytelling background can, so that it became a saga, full of locutions and episodes, specific and lucid, with comical interludes, mostly revolving bumbling into Burning Man, and mystical ones, like the meanderings through the Black Rock desert where time and scale fall away. Then there was the inimitable Scott Russell Sanders who demonstrated the ultimate act of courage and vulnerability by sharing his raw writing on kinship and kindness, extending to us the spirit of inclusiveness he so eloquently expresses in his work.

Each reading would have served as a singular highlight at any literary gathering. To have them all at one event, day after day, was a true privilege. I’m looking forward to revisiting them over the upcoming weeks, as the talks and readings are now available online, free of charge, on iTunes University. (Click on the link at the end of this piece)

Middlebury low stone wall

Thanks also to the Orion Magazine staff who made this conference possible. You took the time to make us feel welcome, leading bird walks and organizing face-to-face meetings, all the while growing even more sleep-deprived than usual as submission folders back at the office overflow and pages of emails scroll through inboxes unread. Thank you for your dedication, your mental fortitude and your strange, inscrutable desires to remain editors despite it all.

Beyond all that, beyond the craft classes and agent meetings, the amazing open-mic readings, the cozy barn socials, the lush scenery, the wonderful food, there was the workshop. Coming into the conference, my friend and writing mentor advised me to temper my expectations, as workshops are chancy affairs and things can often fall apart if the group dynamics and facilitation aren’t right.

Both were superb. I found myself in great company, and awed at the immensity of life experience before me: Scientists, academics, teachers, natural history experts, creative souls, voyagers, parents, survivors. To my group – Know that I was enriched by the brief time I spent with each of you, nine in all, by your words, by your wit, by the way you live life. Know that I treasured every inside joke and shared eye roll, every dropped guard and unexpected belly laugh, every breakfast chat and fierce hug, every obscure word choice understood, every utensil waved in excitement, every offered handshake, every act of personal courage. Community with those passionate about craft and subject matter was something I had sought for a long time. I think I was lucky enough to find it.

“I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don’t have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain’t no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night (Part IV: Telling the Truth)

To Stephanie, Jenna, Sharon, Rose, Mila, Jess, Christine, Amy, William, and Craig – my gratitude for pointing out the head of this strange new trail. I’m not sure whether it will be a relaxing jaunt down a forest service road or a goat trail that slopes off the northeast side of a rock face. I will let you know.

Click Here for Readings and Lectures


  1. Rose Fitzpatrick says

    Lovely essay, Issac! (And terrific quote from UKL!) I was so glad to meet you at Bread Loaf! – The Other Rose

    • Hi Rose,
      Thanks for reading. I was privileged to have met two equally amazing Roses 🙂 Looking forward to reading your work out there!

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