Dad loved to birdwatch. He was an armchair ornithologist observing from his cozy chair near a picture window in his condo in Florida.
He kept binoculars and a bird guide on a stack of crossword dictionaries near his post as well as tobacco for his pipe.
Regular as a clock, I could keep time by the sound of that first pipe being lit, the front door opened if warm, and bright warbles and shrills from a cardinal pair on his feeders, or the chitter chatter of chickadees.
Because Dad kept the feeders and his vigil for more than two decades in the same location, his observation post would have been very useful had he taken the time to record his observations. But alas, he did not.
Scientists and conservationists missed an important record of changes over time from a citizen scientist. Well, Dad simply watched for the esthetics not the science. But my generation and those coming behind me are critical participants in helping ornithologists track bird movements all over the world – for the first time.
Today is the Big Day 2018 See video below. Then go to the link and establish an account. Download the mobile app on Google Play or Apple Store. Start recording!
Read from John J. Audubon’s Birds of America printed in 1834 and presented online: you can explore and read by species and you can download a high quality print image of many of Audubon’s matchless paintings.
My writing practice began with love for nature writers. Rachel Carson in particular seized my imagination with her ability to combine science and lyrical language. No one in my view achieved what she was able to do–immerse readers in nature. Most of us know Silent Spring as her “manifesto” on the interconnections among humans, wildlife, and the earth. But, how many of you have read Under the Sea Wind? In this small book, her first, Carson writes life stories of three particular individuals: a Black Skimmer, a Mackerel, and a Sandpiper during one season bringing each alive as characters in a novel. The Black Skimmer (Rynchops), Sanderling (Blackfoot), and a Mackerel (Scomber) live, breed, avoid predators, and follow the urgings of seasonal changes, migrating, nesting, and feeding–all within exciting adventure writing. Readers dive deep into unseen lives nevertheless connected to them by large forces in seas, winds, and landforms. Under the Sea Wind is an immersion experience much like a 3-D visual experience today. Note: Under the Sea Wind was published about the time the U.S. was drawn into WWII. It was not until a dozen years later that it seized the popular imagination. For a superb biography of Carson’s life, read Linda Lear’s Witness for Nature, and for an excellent glimpse into Rachel Carson’s writing life, read Paul Brooks’ The Writer at Work.
Watch American Experience for the latest film about Carson’s life. It chronicles her writing and features the commentary of her biographers.
For a regional writer of nature, I can think of no one better than Jack Rudloe who writes about the Gulf near his home and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center. Jack was inspired by Ed Rickett’s whose work and life were enshrined in the popular imagination by John Steinbeck. Jack Rudloe, the 19-year old would-be scientist and nature writer, corresponded with Steinbeck in the latter year of Steinbeck’s life. Read any of Jack’s books for a another immersion adventure in: The Living Dock, The Sea Brings Forth, and the Search for the Great Turtle Mother. Anne Rudloe, his wife and marine scientist, wrote books with Jack that are reminiscent of Carson in their deep love for and accurate science about the landscapes they love and defend. Anne Rudloe passed away in 2010, and Jack and his sons carry on as Titans for Nature–like Carson in Silent Spring.
Enjoy Jack’s video about his book, The Wilderness Coast.
If you have time to sit down to read the record of Ed Rickett’s and John Steinbeck’s travels in the Sea of Cortez–The Log of the Sea of Cortez–you will be treated to a glimpse into evolving ideas about ecology as an ethical basis for living. Then, treat yourself to the film Cannery Row with Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, and John Huston. John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, is based on Rickett’s marine supply business in Monterey, California when the coastline abound with sea life.
In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.
Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.
Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.
Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.
In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]
Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.
On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!
In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder. It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.
The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)
My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.
This video of an interview with Rebecca Solnit, columnist with Harper’s Magazine, prolific author on climate change, environmental issues, and other culturally relevant issues, is a clear point for those of us who feel disoriented by the sweeping changes being made in D.C.
From this interview on Democracy Now on March 28, 2017, this excerpt is most important for those of us who are engaged in resisting the dismantling of hard won environmental protections and action on climate change. I recommend listening to the whole interview at the link above. Solnit has a comprehensive perspective on “where we are” and what is the work now.
What concerns me, after 30 years of activism, is that a lot of people will think, “Well, we did something today, and we didn’t see results tomorrow.” So one of the things I’ve been writing about for The Guardian and elsewhere is just trying to remind people that this is a long process, that we may be in, you know, the early stages of really redefining what democracy is going to mean in this nation, reforming the systems that were already moribund and stagnant before—you know, Trump is a consequence of a dysfunctional system, not a cause of it. So we have enormous transformative work to do. And people are actually doing it. If we keep at it, if we’re smart, if we’re skillful, if we’re more passionate about solidarity than the kind of perfectionism of nitpicking small differences, I think that extraordinary things could happen, not that they’re guaranteed. It depends on what we do. But it’s an exciting and even exhilarating moment, as well as a heart-rending and terrifying one. And those things can coexist.
A friend of mine, Mark Hainds, is a forester and author, who has challenged himself to walk the entirety of the U.S. – Mexico Border. In doing so, he is noting the conditions of the landscape, meeting the people who live there, the people who are passing over the border in hopes of a better future, and experiencing the deep peace from long hours of silent walking. Be sure to visit his site above.
On Friday morning I dropped him off at mile marker 40 on highway 82 near Sonoita, Arizona. This is grasslands – basin and range territory – home of historic ranches, antelopes, and hardy people who love the land.
To a visitor is can seem very still but to locals who know its subtle changes, it is an exciting place to call home.
Luckily, the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management had foresight to preserve large tracks of riparian habitats (those areas where water flows near the surface of the ground, and in wet seasons, runs in streams and rivers). When you gaze out across expansive grasslands and see a line of bright green trees, you have found water.
Today I followed the traces of water across the landscape by looking for those trees. While I walked the fields and paths, small herds of tawny pronghorns on far hills bounded in the high grass, white rumps flashing in the sunlight.
At the historic Empire Ranch, I listened for the voices of families, ranch hands, and cowboys lingering in the old structures of the house, cottages, corral, and barn.
Wandering the paths into a cottonwood gallery, I felt spirits walking next to me. A time gone but with lingering energies, whispering to us modern day visitors.
What are they telling us?
Would it be a cautionary tale? The ranch was passed through many hands, each family working it for 35-50 years, then to developers, and finally into the protection of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Yet these images show a time gone by, when the big cattle ranches reigned, and then died as water receded, and the demand of beef declined.
Perhaps we live in a more enlightened time. But, that remains to be seen. Will we remember the lessons of the past, or are we doomed to repeat mistakes with forgotten memories?
The ghosts of the land whisper to us. What are they telling us?
One whose spirit speaks to me is Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Well, that second novel has been “cooking” in my mind for many years, and builds on years of experiences that reach back to 1990. That year I moved to Yuma, Arizona to teach middle school students at Crane Junior High School. Yuma first introduced me to the Sonoran Desert, and naturally, I experienced the hottest part of it first. Yuma temps that first summer hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit. My friends and neighbors taught me how to stay safe while traveling, and how to get out early in the morning before the heat made it impossible.
All around the school and neighborhoods where I lived, agricultural fields stretched out in long even rows with canals as borders, while row upon row of blue water soaked into the ground, evaporating in the intense heat. Surrounded by a sea of broccoli, my school was embedded in the large-scale industrial farming operations in which many of my students’ parents labored. On these intensely hot days, I wondered at the ability of human beings to endure hard labor in those fields.
Then, the fact that the water came from the high Wyoming plateaus and Rocky Mountains was only vaguely in my awareness. Precious river water poured down through deep canyons into the dams that controlled the North American Nile, and by a complex system came to Yuma and the Imperial Valley to grow 90% of America’s leafy produce between November through March. Then, I was focused on my students’ daily struggle to learn and grow up under harsh conditions of poverty and discrimination. But, all around us was a BIG STORY about a river, its people, and how it came to be the most controlled and overused body of water in North America. Indeed, the Colorado River is so over-allocated that it no longer winds its way to the Gulf of California as it did for thousands of years. The magnificent delta region, one of the world’s largest and most productive wetlands, literally dried up and died.
This is the subject of my second novel, The American Nile: Voices of a River and Its People. I am working with a talented editor and should have a solid draft completed before I return home from Tucson in late April.
“Changing climate equals changing water” is the phrase that many water and climate experts in the southwest are using today. As the temperature increases, and less rain falls, soils are depleted of moisture in a cycle that turns healthy soil into barren landscapes.
The seeds that we use, the means of careful water use to grow them, and the quality of the fruit and legumes produced are now in a precarious time when climate is less certain. Seeds that are specifically adapted to a region with long genetic history may become more important due to their unique resiliency to heat and drought.
Our commercial, industrialized food system is highly dependent on predictable conditions not only in the agricultural fields but also in the transportation systems that now intersect with a global market system. If too hot, planes may not be able to fly; if sea level rise or large storms destroy ports, cargo ships are not able to pick up or drop off cargo. When food is not shipped in a timely manner, it can rot as it sits in place as with fresh fruit and vegetables.
In Threshold, Ed Flanagan, food bank operations director and climate change denier, has to confront his beliefs as his normal food supply sources are in turmoil.
The dependable food supply we are accustomed to in developed countries is at a threshold with current and predicted climate change realities. Protecting our food supply personally, nationally, and internationally should be part of the work we all can do to build resilience to changes in our climate.
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.
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