On Grief and Celestial Bodies

In Review: An Orchid Astronomy​

Nature is not healing. The ice is melting. Homes are flooding. The native animals of the land are perishing at an unstoppable rate. Loved ones, unable to cope with their strife, vanish back into the Earth that made them and leave behind troubled souls that can only miss them and question why. Comfort comes from the stars in the sky and the stories they tell, but only because human greed and corruption hasn’t been able to find a way to exploit them, yet.

Canadian writer Tasnuva Hayden’s debut verse-novel looks to the stars to explore personal tragedy and the harrowing effects of climate change. A reflection nebula in the constellation Orion, via NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

This is the stark reality of Sophie, the narrator of An Orchid Astronomy, a powerful debut verse-novel by Canadian writer Tasnuva Hayden. Sophie lives in Veslefjord, in the frozen Norwegian North, where she contends with a personal tragedy and the harrowing effects of climate change. Norway’s natural beauty, its snow, ice, and creatures, who serve as national symbols of pride, is being corroded along with Sophie’s sense of peace.

“Can scholars negotiate with reindeer?” she challenges readers to consider; humanity may be past the point of talking its way out of the damage it has done. Sophie narrates the story of a single, vulnerable person recovering from a family death —“That mamma would choose suffocation. Buried alive under unyielding winter storms”— who is forced to face alarming events — “millions of tons of crude spilled into the ocean, day after day.”

In this easily imaginable present, the collective is guilty of despoiling the planet, while the individual, aware of the damage, is helpless to stop it. Through Sophie, Hayden depicts a world that has tragically forsaken centuries of knowledge in favor of quick profit and immediate gratification. She reflects on the struggle to exist as tranquil human beings and experience both natural and erotic sensuality — “A girl licks salt from parched lips. Inhales an entire ocean off a stranger’s skin”— when the anxiety of impending doom is ever-present.

book cover

An Orchid Astronomy is not just a commentary on environmental impairment, but a study of trauma. Sophie is unable to separate her two sorrows: the death of her mother by suicide and the slow death of her home. As she contemplates the disheartening state of the world in her own time, Sophie describes her late mother, who as an environmentalist also experienced climate crisis angst: “Her eyes bruised by grief—the colour of an oil spill. ‘Yes, we’re unfortunate, aren’t we? Dealing in such currency?’”

Even while grappling with such tremendous losses, Sophie is grounded in intellectualism. Rather than sink into emotional turmoil, she rationally evaluates her situation with allusions to ecology, mythology, philosophy, science, mathematics, history, and astronomy. Sophie tries earnestly, desperately, to connect the dots. She wants to create a new, individualized astronomy, one that explains everything, especially that which is out of her control.

Each chapter is named after an alignment of stars. Sophie has organized her thoughts like an astronomer: “All of that, which could lead to the unravelling of a carefully constructed life, measured by the rotation of gears and planetary bodies.”

Some readers may find the book daunting. The verse is detailed with Hayden’s encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences and the arts, which she uses to significant effect, but which can also be confusing. Readers may be obliged to occasionally look something up, though this is a fitting way to absorb the book.

Sophie’s story forces readers to learn new things and reflect on the world as an increasingly unstable entity. She also entreats readers to contemplate loss, an inevitable and inescapable condition which everyone will face: “As da Vinci’s successor, Hooke went on to make flight a matter of public inquiry. ‘If you look in the rearview, I’ve already left you.’ To the point of obsession. Sarvvis opens his mouth.”

Sophie as a narrator tends to drift, into memories, into ideas, and into the world she knows best, a world of literature. Neither is the story’s timeline linear; it zig-zags erratically. But there is joy, too, in the lush language, which makes up for the moments of disorientation a reader may experience.

Hayden’s work is poetic, abstract, and penetrating. Anyone who reads An Orchid Astronomy can afterwards look to the stars and see a new universe.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

Are Black Vultures Being Scapegoated for Livestock Deaths?

New bill would make it easier for ranchers to kill the protected birds, despite insufficient data on vulture predation.

Ian Rose

To Save Native Plant Communities, Diversify the Field

So says ecologist working to save one of California’s most endangered ecosystems and promote LGBTQ+ visibility in science.

Anna Marija Helt

Biden Attacks Republican Climate Deniers as He Unveils Extreme-Heat Rules

President hails proposal to protect millions of Americans from the nation's top weather-related killer.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Buying Baja

In Mexico's iconic peninsula, locals fight rich outsiders and rampant development that threaten to transform the coast and dry up aquifers.

Krista Langlois Photos and video by Kristina Blanchflower

Guardians of
the Forest

The rural community of Segunda y Cajas in northern Peru leads efforts to protect one of the most biodiverse areas and vital sources of water for the region.

Leslie Moreno Custodio

A Radical Way to Recover Forest

Deforestation has left scars in Ecuador’s San Andres Valley. But in one village, residents are giving nature a respite by protecting their micro forests.

Jonathan Palma Lavayen