About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about zoos, the natural world, and writing. Welcome to the erratic thoughts of a zoo mystery author! See ZooMysteries.com for more photos and information about my books. Click here for cool sites about elephants and conservation organizations.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Owl on the Road to Medford

After three mystery novels with a mainstream mystery publisher--Poisoned Pen Press--I have embarked on a different fiction journey. I wrote a short story, it won a contest, and my muse said, "Let's do more of that!"

The original Owl on the Road to Medford was an experiment in voice and indirect story. (Yes, I just  made up that term.) You can read it HERE.  Calyx literary magazine picked it up after it won the 2014 Oregon Writer's Colony first prize for short fiction. Woo-hoo!

So I wrote six more short stories with the same narrator in the same setting--a wildlife rehabilitation clinic somewhere in western Oregon. I got to use a bunch of anecdotes from my zoo days and thereafter. The central character is an amalgam of men I have known and liked and sympathized with. Why a male voice? "Why not?" says the muse. Just because, say I.

These seven stories turned out to have a story arc, an adventure of the heart. Together, they seemed to me to make a novella--not as big as a novel, but not a short story collection in the usual sense.

As far as I can tell, publishers have no interest in novellas, so I set out to self-publish, as many authors are doing these days. After a short but intense struggle, The Owl on the Road to Medford is now available as an ebook. Click HERE to take a look. It soon will be available on paper, assuming that I figure out how to do that.

If you buy it and like it, do me a favor and post a little review. I'd appreciate it and my muse might, too.


When hope fails--a poem

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

"The Real Work" by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983, Used by permission of Counterpoint. (buy now)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Littlewoods at the Climate March

The Berlin Wall came down. The USSR broke up. We elected an African-Amercan president. Wyoming wolves are (maybe) back on the federal endangered species list and safe(r) from state management by shooting. Surprises happen and some of them are Good Things. This is what I think about when I am overwhelmed by climate change.

We went to New York City for the big march. We showed up. Showing up is not much, but it's what we COULD do. Paid for carbon credits since we flew from Portland, Oregon. Had tee shirts made for us and the friends and relatives who joined us. And we had a great time.

The weather was warm and the air was fall-sparkly. The crowd was huge and cheerful. Police were scarce and relaxed. The signs and chants and giant balloons and musicians were all fun. And, as Naomi Klein pointed out at a reading last night, the crowd was reasonably diverse, not just a bunch of us glum environmentalists, not just white folks,  a mix of ages. You can't see much in a huge crowd, but sustainable agriculture and living-wage and many other groups were well represented. I met Peter Galvin, one of the founders of Center for Biological Diversity, and saw Kieran Suckling, another, as they accompanied Frostpaw the polar bear. Whoever was inside that costume suffered--it must have been HOT! But that bear sure got a lot of press.

And the next day, we did it again. The Flood Wall Street march was smaller and edgier, billed as an "arrestable event." We weren't up for arrest (maybe in our own town), but we marched and helped carry an enormous banner apparently targeting cameras in helicopters because no one on the ground could possibly read it. The giant "carbon bubble" balloon got stuck under a traffic light at one point and we all cheered when it got through. The march never actually got to Wall Street, which was well-barricaded. (Lots more police evident at this march.) It stalled near the New York Stock Exchange, alongside the big gold bull sculpture. Tellingly, there is no bear sculpture. The point of the march seemed to be that capitalism is the problem and prevents solutions to carbon pollution. The enormous sums the oil companies are making back that up. Naomi Klein said that energy companies spend $400,000 a day on lobbying Congress, contributing to the corruption and paralysis of our political system.

These marches are oddly tiring and we packed it in after three or four hours, but our daughter toughed it out. The police played a waiting game, and it was getting dark before they finally started arresting people. Hunger and a lack of portapotties had thinned the crowd to a hundred or so by then. You had to work at getting arrested--it was cold by that point. But our daughter managed it. She said the officer who zip-tied her hands muttered that a lot of them agreed with the march. From what I saw, the cops were tired, but calm and professional. She ended up in a cell with a mountaintop removal activist from West Virginia and emerged the next morning physically and emotionally unscathed. Whew! You never know in these situations. We want to help pay her fine, to ride her brave coat-tails.

After the marches, we took the train to Boston for our grandson's first birthday. The party was wonderful--the under-two set was well represented. The babies ate cupcakes, chased balloons, took toys away from either other, and splashed in ecstasy in three inches of water in an inflatable pool.

We can't afford not to hope.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver trained as a biologist, she's passionate about environmental issues, and she sure can craft a sentence. Flight Behavior (2012, HarperCollins) is as compelling as it is informative. Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother in Tennessee, finds a new monarch butterfly wintering area and her tiny world, constricted by poverty, babies, a lack of education, and a diffident husband has the door thrown open to unexpected winds from outside. The story weaves together the heart-breaking science of climate change and the heart-break of a weak marriage. Salvation for the monarchs remains unlikely in this fictional disaster, but Dellarobia may get her chance.

The climate change theme is information-dense without being (oh, dreaded word!) "preachy" and this is an excellent way to catch up on the biological aspects of this issue. I've been tracking this for years and didn't flinch. Less familiar to me was how people live in these United States in rural poverty--bad housing, bad food, bad schools. In a brilliant scene, Dellarobia has to laugh at an earnest enviro's plea to reduce and reuse, turn down the thermostat, etc. Lack of money long ago made those decisions for her. Kingsolver represents Dellarobia's world with respect and understanding as well as with sympathy.

Dellarobia's desperation over her lot in life is palpable and touching. The first third of the book establishes her world and the "miracle" that disrupts it, but this moves slowly. Flight Behavior is a novel more to be savored than rushed.

The charms of this story include the varied characters: relatives, a best friend, scientists, and the unusual people attracted to any unusual event. No stereotypes here of either rural eccentrics or over-educated nerds, no one who does not carry their own gravitas and produce a surprise or two. Then there is Kingsolver's enviable way with language. "She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater." You'll have to search hard to find a weak sentence.

Kingsolver created an appealing heroine in Dellarobia: bright and funny, a kind and dedicated mother who struggles to keep her marriage alive. I have to ask, however, if instead of a petite red-haired cutie, could the story have worked with a big, homely woman? Must all our heroines be beautiful winners?

A big-hearted, sad, gorgeous book. I'll be reading it again.

It also has good information about raising sheep.
A version of this review was also posted in Goodreads. The book was a Christmas gift.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book review: Skulls by Simon Winchester

Most people who like natural history and the outdoor world are, in my experience, entranced by skulls. We find them beautiful (assuming the stinky parts are long gone) and they tell tales about the species and the individual. The individual tales are often tragic--a horse skull with a broken lower jaw, a coyote skull with a bullet hole, a smashed skull from a road-killed raccoon. The species tales are less freighted. Teeth and sagittal crests imply how the animal made its living and defended itself.

I lept at the chance to hear Simon Winchester discuss his new book Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection.  He gave a nice talk to a big crowd at Powell's Books here in Portland. We would, of course, sit still for anyone with a cool British accent (not to mention his previously very successful books), but he also had an app of the book up on the screen (iPad only, not iPhone). In the app, the skulls rotate--wonderful.

The hardcover is a beautiful collection of Nick Mann's photos of skulls that were prepared by a private collector, Alan Dudley. Dudley came to Winchester's attention after getting busted buying an illegal howler monkey skull. He pleaded guilty, did his service and paid his fine, and the implication is that he isn't normally one to slip up in this way. I find this pretty satisfactory--he does a great job with the skulls and shares his expertise AND he serves as a lesson to other collectors not to get carried away and promote a market for slaughtering rare animals. (Replicas of many species are readily available, by the way.) Dudley gets almost all of his skulls from zoos.

Among this book's virtues are a plethora of bird, fish and reptile skulls. Photographs of mammal skulls are widely available as they are the taxonomic touchstone for mammals. The others, not so much. Partly they are less common because (I know from trying) fish and reptile skulls can be the very devil to prepare. The skull bones are often not fused and fall into separate bits when the connective tissue is gone. I wanted to learn more about Dudley's  methods, but this isn't a how-to book. Fair enough.

Of special interest: a great assortment of hornbills, odd and fragile skulls of venomous snakes, wild pigs with their seemingly self-destructive curving tusks.  Be sure to take a look at the domestic dog skulls and consider what we have done to the sturdy wolf.

Most of the photos are by Nick Mann, who has done great work on other Workman Publishing science books as well, and most are excellent. Many of the smaller skulls are out of focus, however. Printing the images against a black background works very well for most skulls, but much detail is lost for black bird bills (such as the Northern Shoveler) and the black horns of some bovids.The photo of Holbein's large painting The Ambassadors lacks details discussed in the text. Most of these weaknesses are demerits for the printer, not the author or photographer.

The photos are interspersed with  text about skulls in art, history, human evolution, etc. These are interesting, written for a non-technical audience, but this is primarily a visual book.

You won't be able to derive the species of that squirrel skull you found in the woods from this book, but you will see an enormous variety of skulls well presented. A beautiful addition to the natural history library.

Don't even think about it.