America’s Wildlife Refuges: the Last Stand

Crane fledgling_illustration_nwf
Crane fledgling_illustration_nwf

On my journey to Tucson I decided to visit some of the nation’s wildlife refuges, beginning with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane refuge, near Moss Point, MS. The refuge is comprised of private holdings, public lands, and joint agency wildlife management areas. It is beautiful. The cranes are a native species. There are 139 cranes in the whole refuge which spans thousands of acres. When I asked why so few, the docent asserted the current population was a huge success: the population had declined to a few dozen at the time the refuge was established.

Many specific efforts have been ongoing from restoring the habitat to its natural condition  to hand-rearing crane infants to adulthood, and releasing them into the refuge.  The Mississippi Sandhill Crane is considered an “umbrella species” by scientists; it is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The latter protects habitats through the keystone or umbrella species that are specifically shown to be threatened or endangered. This results in thousands of other species being protected under the umbrella.  Restoration of the watershed, forests, and marshlands benefits humans with beauty, hunting and fishing opportunities, research, clean watersheds, and flood control.

I spotted three Sandhill cranes under that shade of a large oak in a privately owned home adjacent to the refuge–along with a rooster and hen. Looked like a leisurely commiseration among species.


I also visited the Atchafalaya NWR and the Lacassine NWR. They are both located in Louisiana and are wild places. I saw hunters and fishermen, boating, and wonderful old hunting camps and clubs at Atchafalaya, and flocks of egrets, cranes, geese, and ducks at Lacassine. The latter has a 16,000 acre fresh water pool that is mostly filled by rainwater. The marshes are wild places alive with birdsong and the croaks and bleeps of habitat teeming with life. This refuge is at the juncture of the Central and Eastern flyways and provide overwintering and stopovers for thousands of migrating birds. Louisiana is this kind of contrast: all around the refuges are oil refinery plants, and gas pipelines thread through the land and water resources along the I-10 corridor. So while the state may support a highly polluting energy source (one we all use without a thought), the state also highly values wildlife. It is a cognitive dissonance that lingers on my mind as I head out into the Texas plains. I plan to stop at the Prairie Chicken NWR today.

Threshold – Readings Scheduled in Tucson

Starting in November, I will be reading from Threshold, my new novel published by Fireship Press. I hope to schedule many kinds of readings from bookstores, to organizations, to private book clubs in Tucson, Phoenix, and the region. I am also happy to talk with nonprofit groups working toward similar goals who may wish to fund raise with the boo–a portion of the book sales to go to your mission.

November 12 I will read and discuss the book at the Annual Membership Meeting of the Tucson Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, PSA Chapter Arizona, to be held at the Amity Foundation.

PSR Arizona works toward a sustainable society, mitigating climate change through clean energy production, resiliency building among neighborhoods, and a nuclear weapon-free world.  PSR developed Climate Smart Southwest, a training program for neighborhood leaders and associations to begin to build relationships and knowledge in their residents for combat climate change and also to work toward more sustaining ways of living. Clean energy, local food production, and emergency procedures are all part of the training. The hope is that Tucson and the region will  respond to climate change with a blend of old and new technologies that will protect people’s health while building a sustainable future in the Southwest.

In Threshold characters are dealing with impending water shortage while managing frequent power failures in the Southwest during increasingly hot temperatures. Hyperthermia and heat stroke are common, and without specific knowledge and action on the part of citizens, an increase in fatalities shocks the community. As the story progresses characters make decisions, allowing readers to consider what they might do in similar conditions, or how their own community can plan to mitigate climate change in their own region.

Other Scheduled Readings:

November – Reading at Private Home with Neighbors and Book Club

November 12 – Annual Meeting of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, Tucson Chapter, at the Amity Foundation

November 26 – COAS Bookstore, Las Cruces, Book Signing

December 19 – National Writers Union, Tucson Chapter at Bookman’s

March – Date TBA – Mission Garden, Tucson’s Birthplace


A Brand New Kind of West

In 1878, John Wesley Powell submitted A Report on Arid Lands to the U.S. Congress. In it he proposed that land grants to settlers in the arid lands of the country be determined by the geology and physiology of the land. That may seem perfectly logical to modern readers, but in that time, myths about the productivity of the land dominated over reality. Manifest Destiny was a locomotive roaring across the lands of the west.

Powell’s ideas were based on science, as Wallace Stegner, in his brilliant biography of Powell’s service to the U.S., Beyond the 100th Meridian, dramatically illustrates.

NPR’s 2003 Program on The Vision of John Wesley Powell

Powell proposed that tracks of land for raising cattle or sheep be 2, 250 square acres, and irrigable land for farming be only 80 acres with water rights. Both of these proposals were based on the aridity and productivity of landscapes in the west which, for grazing, required much more than the 160 acres provided in the Homestead Act to find enough water sources for animals to thrive. He also demonstrated that the productivity of desert soils with the addition of water required only 80 acres–all one farmer and his family could reasonably manage.

Had government agencies deeding land to settlers west of the 100th meridian used scientific reasoning, we would have a different west today. As we did not, most of the settlers who obtained 160 acre allotments soon failed. Their land was not returned to the U.S. lands in public trust but rather it went to the banks who financed farmers production. Powell points out that the Homestead Act resulted in millions of acres of public lands going to corporations. Again, using scientific research Powell busted another popular American myth.

Powell further proposed that the government require land owners planning to use a given water source, such as a river, be required to form an irrigation district made up of nine potential land owners, to demonstrate they could successfully share the water over a three year period before obtaining title and water rights.  He based his recommendation on successful models of the Mormons in Utah and Spanish land owners of New Mexico Territory with their ejidos resource commons.

Science was the basis of Powell’ prescience regarding the development of the western lands of the U.S.  Today, science must help major Southwestern cities and regions rethink how to manage water among themselves. We will not be able to return to zero, but we can try to develop policies today that fit the landscape.

For the entire history of water development in the west, science has not dominated decision making but rather economics. Millions of Americans now live in cities where a reliable source of water is threatened, and millions of acres of agricultural lands, supporting American households and the world are on the brink of collapse due to long term drought conditions projected to last hundreds of years.

What kind of thinking and planning will be required to move us in the direction of a sustaining system for water usage in the West? How will our economic models need to change to run concurrent with the physical realities of the land and resources we wish to use?

On the Trail, Again

img_4857Last week I began a long journey to promote my novel, Threshold, in Tucson and the Southwest.

I am currently setting up readings and book discussions. You can contact we here or on Facebook at Susan Lee Feathers to set up a reading.

Before actually heading west, I am at a writing residency in Sewanee, Tennessee at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

Rivendell Writers’ Colony is inspired by the literary legacy found in Sewanee, Tennessee. The Sewanee Review, which has published a long list of literary geniuses such as Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and T.S. Eliot, as well as many other prominent and promising writers, was founded in 1892 and is renowned as the nation’s oldest continually-published literary quarterly.

The work at Rivendell is fostered by its natural beauty and the coming and going of  writers who each demonstrate the range of “writing lives” among us.  Poets, short story writers, screen writers, and even serious readers.

The new book I am drafting at Rivendell takes place among groups of people living near the Colorado River from 1500 to 1998. These stories encompass the River People – original people of the river –  and the steamboat business that responded to the needs of settlers and gold seekers crossing to California. It follows the development of the river as a thoroughfare for supplies and a source of water to turn the desert into gardens, and to support the growth of cities.

Like Threshold, the novel focuses on the values of a people and how they impact the land beneath their feet. My inspiration for the book is based on personal experiences in Yuma, Arizona and the works of Aldo Leopold.


Who Owns the Water, Air, and the Land?

As the people gather in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, and the voices of Native American and justice activists are heard, I want to consider the issue at hand as fundamentally a land ethic issue.

Energy Transfer Partners and Dakota Access LLC are in the process of hooking up an extended pipeline that will connect existing crude oil pipeline to a tunnel pipeline to shunt crude oil to Illinois. The tunnel pipeline is planned to go underneath the Missouri River, and Lake Oahe–near the point where the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s reservation uses the water for drinking water and irrigation. They are a poor nation whose water infrastructure is aging and constructed in such a manner that if a leak were to occur, it would essentially shut down the water supply for the people at Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Read More: dakota-pipeline-article from Inside Climate News.

The truth is that water, land, wildlife and people can not be owned. Each has the inalienable right to exist free by virtue of our common creation. What we can do is equitably share and protect resources to ensure that all people and wildlife have basic needs fulfilled within the limits of the land to provide them. In other words, human needs have to work within the ecological ability of the land and waters to provide them. This requires an ecological awareness.

Aldo Leopold advanced a land ethic in his writing, as he grew in his understanding of what a community really is:

Leopold understood that ethics direct individuals to cooperate with each other for the mutual benefit of all. One of his philosophical achievements was the idea that this ‘community’ should be enlarged to include non-human elements such as soils, waters, plants, and animals, “or collectively: the land.”  Aldo Leopold Foundation

Should the Energy Transfer Partners and the Dakota Access Pipeline operation have the right to build a pipeline underneath Lake Oahe and near the Missouri River that flows past the land  of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation? And will flow through four states and other communities?

The 1134-mile pipeline will carry 500,000 gallons of crude oil each day to Illinois. Seventeen banks stand to profit and are advancing money to make it happen.

Three U.S. agencies warned against it, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used a corporate report from Dakota Access Pipeline to rule in favor of the construction. After a federal judged ruled in favor of the pipeline going forward, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Interior, and the Army together enacted a stay on that decision so that the EPA can reassess the original assessment of its safety.

As climate change impacts the world, should our society support continued drilling and transportation of crude oil to be burned and thereby increase warming of the planet and acidification of oceans? Of course not.

In the Southwest, where access to precious water will bring municipalities, tribal nations, corporate interests, and the U.S. government into negotiations over water rights, what values and ethics will we use to determine who gets what?

It is a question we must answer now.

Read about the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline


When the rains come!

Tucson and Southern Arizona are getting a soaking from Hurricane Newton as it passes over them. With this rainfall, the area will receive its normal rainfall for the year.

Living in Tucson, I recall what a blessing rain is in the summer. You can bet the flora of the desert is soaking up rain. The fluted trunks on the tall saguaros will swell outward as its long-reaching roots soak up precious water gushing over the desert pavement (fine particles of sand and pebbles that form a mat on the surface). Some Tucson residents who harvest rain into cisterns will also collect hundreds of gallons of water they can use later to water their gardens.

Brad Landcaster is a local leader of water harvesting, has been for decades.


Climate change is not the problem: it’s the symptom

IMG_8235In Threshold, Carla Connor – a climate scientist – is on a quest to change the minds of local leaders to respond to what she perceives as a life threatening path.  She is haunted by a terrifying nightmare. Her focus is about how to make things happen to save her hometown.

We learn that Carla’s Irish ancestors taught her the value of family. Yet, Carla is singular in her approach to her life and work, preferring to keep relationships at arm’s length. Over the course of the novel, Carla begins to feels the need to be in a more intimate relationship. She struggles with commitment.

Through the novel, we see the forces of climate change disrupt the lives of all the characters, causing each to explore what is most important in their lives.

Climate change focuses us on relationships–with each other, with the earth, and with life itself. Perhaps this precarious time may lead to greater awareness and a new set of values and ethics that are not only durable but joyful.



This September of Our Lives


My cultural heritage is one of linearity. Americans progress, move forward, dream of the future and its possibilities. Yet, this conceptualization of time is not shared by many cultures on earth.

Now, some westerners are reconsidering whether time is linear. Einstein demonstrated that space and time bend at certain velocities of light. Physicists document the structure of the universe as part of “parallel universes.” It might be possible one day to travel in a worm hole to other times, future or past.

In Threshold, Luna Lopez, a Tohono O’odham youth, is learning basket-making from an elder. She discovers the recurring pattern of a maze on her teacher’s baskets and queries what it means. Rather than tell her outright, Mrs. Romero tells an old Pima story. Luna is left to interpret it in her own life.

As the narrative unfolds, Luna recognizes circularity in things around her: seasons, natural history of trees and plants, and her own circulation system. She begins to intuit that the “man in the maze” is about her inner life.

Does time bend each September allowing us to return to it, to perhaps increase our understanding? If so, let us approach it with reverence.



Creating a Character: It’s a Wild Ride

A friend recently asked me how I created the characters for Threshold, my first novel. As all new writers do, I took classes, read books about character development, and read great character writers. Yet, nothing prepared me for what happened as I began to write the story.

Carla takes over!
Carla takes over!

In Threshold, Dr. Carla Connor took over. She did not follow the path I had planned for her. She emerged as a person who changes considerably over the course of the story, finding new parts of herself not even in her own plan for her life. She impacted other characters so that I had to reshape them as well. Yet Carla was perfect for my intent.

Nobody tells you about this phenomena. Just Google “How to Develop Character” and see what comes up. There is nothing about the character coming alive and driving the narrative.

Louise Erdrich, whose characters pop from the page, explained this phenomenon recently with the release of her National Book Award novel, The Round House. Listen to this interview. If you do not want to listen to all of it, advance  to 4 minutes where she explains how a 13-yr old boy took over her story, how she lived his experience, and even how she misses him now that the book is “out there”

So go be kidnapped by characters; let them show you the way to the end. Just a warning: the process also comes with mile-high drafts, buckets of sweat and tears, emotional ups and downs, and slings and arrows.

Wonder who I will meet in my next book?