Category: On nature


Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Paula MacKay

By Midge Raymond,

Paula MacKay’s essay “Rewilding Literature: Catalyzing Compassion for Wild Predators through Creative Nonfiction” appears in Writing for Animals.

 

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I’ve come to recognize that creative storytelling about animals (and people) is key to wildlife conservation. Early in my career, my writing tended to be more journalistic and scientific: magazine and journal articles, newsletters, op-eds, and the like. But as I’ve become more knowledgeable about wildlife through my work in conservation and field biology, I’ve increasingly found myself trying to imagine life and landscapes through the eyes of the animals I study — and wanting to share this imaginative empathy in my nonfiction writing. A few years ago, I enrolled in the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University to learn how to improve my craft so that I could inspire readers about wildlife in a more compelling and personal way. This is a work-in-progress, and I still very much value science and science-informed writing. But I hope my writing continues to evolve such that I can help inspire readers to love and care about our wild neighbors through their hearts as well as their minds.

 

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: We shouldn’t be afraid to let our passion for animals shine through. Of course, we can never truly know what it’s like to inhabit an Other’s reality — and, in the case of nonhuman animals, we should take care not to project too much humanness on the animals we’re writing about (for example, my sense is that malevolence is mostly a human attribute). Nonetheless, I think it’s important to recognize the intelligence, social and family bonds, curiosity, personalities, and other remarkable traits of animals in our writing, and to reveal our own inner worlds as they relate to animals so that readers can emotionally connect with us, our stories, and the animals themselves.

 

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I’ve read numerous books in this category and I hope to read many more (and maybe even write one myself!). But here are a few off the top of my head:

Rick Bass, Ninemile Wolves
Marc Bekoff, Rewilding Our Hearts
Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope
Ted Kerasote, Merle’s Door
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (who doesn’t love Winnie-the-Pooh?)
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig, The Soul of an Octopus
David Quammen, Monster of God
Carl Safina, Beyond Words
Eva Saulitis, Into Great Silence
John Vaillant, The Tiger
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Essays of E.B. White
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (okay, trees aren’t animals—but they are living beings)

I’d also like to recommend Wild Hope magazine—a relatively new publication (to which I contribute) that does an excellent job of blending wildlife science and storytelling.

 

Q: In what ways can humans use nature to reconnect with animals, both on and off the page?

A: My time in nature — local forests and beaches, and especially wilderness — is key to reconnecting with other animals and myself. The human world is full of distractions and distressing events these days, which create so much inner noise that it can be difficult to hear ourselves think or to tune into the sounds of nature. When I walk through the woods or in the mountains, I’m reminded that there are many, many realities out there (imagine the life of a woodpecker or a wolverine!), not just the personal and political realities that tend to occupy my mind, and I find a sense of peace that escapes me on the streets of Seattle. With this quietude, I feel a deep communion with other animals and the inspiration to give them voice in my writing.

Paula MacKay completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University in 2015. For the past seventeen years, she has surveyed bears, wolverines, wolves, and other wildlife with her husband, Robert Long, with whom she co-edited Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (Island Press, 2008). Paula has written about animals and conservation for numerous organizations, scientific books and journals, and magazines. Her essay “My Sister’s Shoes” was recently published in Siblings: Our First Macrocosm.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Kipp Wessel

By Midge Raymond,

Kipp Wessel’s essay “Meeting the Wild Things Where They Are” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I’m a fiction writer, and my strongest artistic instinct is to write solely from experience and imagination. But when it comes to wild things, I also incorporate disciplined research. I want the animal lives in my work to live and breathe and shape their own personality as much as anything else I write about — I want them to be just as complicated and messy and unpredictable. I don’t want to be a writer of test-tube wildlife. But I also want to make sure their presence and energy are grounded in the reality of how individual species cope and react. Also, when you start unraveling the layers of what animals are — that research expands narrative possibilities.

The other significant change stems from how animals have changed my life. I’ve never shared my life with an animal I haven’t fallen in love with. Completely and irreversibly. I don’t know if I’ve ever met one I haven’t fallen in love with. And when you fall all the way into that dynamic, when you love someone with your complete heart, no matter who it is, it changes you. The animals in my life are constantly teaching me about attachment, play and meaning — and those are themes and qualities infused in my creative work.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: Here’s the most important thing I try keep in mind — the act of emptying it. My preconceptions. It’s so easy to interpret the behaviors of other beings through the veil of our own instincts, drives and emotions. We’re hard-wired for that. I’m pretty sure all species share that myopia. But when we misinterpret wild things and places within our work, when we don’t do the hard work of setting our preconceptions aside, our work doesn’t just risk inauthenticity. It can also mute or miss the raw and untamed energy we could be tapping.

I remind myself to forget what I think I know, but also be suspect of what others think they know. About animals. Including biologists and scientists. Because science gets it wrong, too. We are constantly underestimating the intellectual, emotional and social lives of animals. When we wade into the lives of animals, it’s a deep pool. We have to be open minded about all that’s hiding in those waters.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?
A: When I immersed myself in the subject of grizzly bears for my novel, I was moved by Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness. I really admired how he used his own personal curiosity of grizzlies to fuel an intense and vital exploration of the animal. Rick Bass writes beautifully of wild things (and everything else). He has written several books on animals that unfold like mysteries. And his eloquence when writing about the wilderness where wild things thrive serves as inspiration and a nudge for us to make sure these unique places, and the animals within them, remain. Mary Oliver writes beautiful poems about our connection with animals. Jane Goodall demonstrates equal parts compassion, study, patience, and nothing short of sainthood. Those are a few I admire.

Q: In your essay, you write that animals are as sentient and multifaceted as humans, if not more so. What in your own experience with animals brought you to this realization?
A: Every experience. Every time an animal has stood or crouched or bounded in front of my eyes, I’ve only viewed them as fascinating worlds with their own complex emotional lives.

But I often wonder that question from the opposite direction. What is it within the human subconscious or ego that pushes us to subvert the sentient truth of animals? What inspires us to deny the emotional capacity of species separate from ours? For what purpose? Because it’s not our initial reaction. Watch a child observing an animal, before that child is verbal, and her entire being is locked in wonder. The child sees the animal as the individual being it is. She doesn’t question if the animal feels or is conscious, because both things are so obviously staring back at her. She doesn’t weigh the animal’s existence, abilities or merit on a scale against her own. Her sole response and interest is contained in the act of seeing the animal.

She asks: What are you? Who are you? Both questions.

When I was four years old, I came face to face with my first wild rabbit — a furry, piked-ear alien that vaulted and then froze in the tall grass of our backyard. The two of us, young child and rabbit, stumbled into that moment on equal footing. Between us, our astonishment was divided evenly. I stared into the rabbit’s wet, round eyes. My breath clutched in the hollow my chest. I watched her twitching, soft nose and the way her whiskers trembled the wristwatch drumming of her heart.

That’s the moment I try to experience every time I’m fortunate enough to find my way into the presence of an animal. It’s a bi-directional moment. We observe, contemplate and react to each other. Me to her — she to me. If she isn’t conscious, how can I be? It’s both of us or neither. We’re either in this together, or neither of us is.

Animals feel. They think. They play. They attach. They mourn. They are. Animals are sentient, fully conscious beings that demonstrate a tapestry of emotions, from the pronounced ones of joy and grief, to the more nuanced ones of empathy and worry. They feel pain. They suffer. They collaborate and compete. And those are just emotions and behaviors we have in common. Imagine the universe of others we don’t share or aren’t even aware of. They are individual nebulas of personalities, emotions, and perceptions.

And here’s the thing — the sentient ability of animals doesn’t confine or constrict the gravity of our own weight in this shared universe. Darwinism needn’t be garbled into interspecies cage match incoherence. Our continued understanding and appreciation of the complex and diverse beings sharing our homes, yards, and planet only amplifies the significance and possibility of our own experience and existence. It widens, not lessens it.

Maybe that viewpoint isn’t universally shared. I don’t know. It’s impossible for me to see it any other way.

Kipp Wessel’s debut novel, First, You Swallow the Moon, a novel of heartbreak and wilderness, was a BookLife Prize in Fiction finalist and earned a Writer’s Digest first-place award. His short stories have been published in a dozen commercial and literary magazines, and he’s taught fiction writing at the University of Montana (where he completed his MFA), the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and regional community arts programs.

 

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Joanna Lilley

By Midge Raymond,

Joanna Lilley’s essay “Do We Have the Right to Write About Animals?” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I think animals have always been part of my writing or perhaps nature more broadly. I remember when I was a child I would write poems about my worries about squirrels and trees being unappreciated or mistreated. I wasn’t especially aware of this tendency, though, until I was on an Arvon writing course when I still lived in the UK and the tutor, author Patrick Neate, pointed out that there were references to animals in every sample he saw of my work. Indeed, Patrick Neate himself of course writes from the point of view of pigeons in his novel, Pigeon Wars. At that time, I was working on a fiction project about wildlife crime and that’s when I started writing more consciously about animals, doing research in my very non-academic way, and more consciously exploring humanity’s relationship with other species.

I hope to return to that project one day but, in the meantime, five years ago I started working on poems about extinct animals. That project is making me think and write much more deliberately about our planet companions. I’m reading far more about animals than I ever have, trying to sense their own experiences, explore my anthropomorphism and craft something new from that learning. I hope that my writing is becoming more respectful of animals, more of a listening sort of writing than my own bellowing. I hope I can continue to learn and let the animals change my writing.

 

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: That humans are animals, too. We are not separate. We are a species just like everyone else. We share air, food, physiology. In Frans de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he quotes Werner Heisenberg as saying, “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Humans seem to have to start there before we can accept that animals are sentient, thinking creatures. It’s ridiculous, really, that it even has to be said. It’s as if sapien minds are dark, cramped rooms and we’re afraid of turning the light on for fear of seeing that not everyone looks the same as we do.

 

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I feel I’m not at all well-read and so the examples I’m going to give are very much based on my limitations. There are perhaps three categories for me. There are the novels I read as a child that helped me find and form the language that I still use for my relationships with animals, particularly Joyce Stranger’s wonderful books. She wrote accurately about animals without anthropomorphism, and I’m so glad I was introduced to her stories when I was young.

Then there are the non-fiction books I always mean to read more of but sometimes have trouble reading them because they can be so difficult emotionally and because I am not a very disciplined reader. For example, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, from the 1970s, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which was published just a few years ago.

And then there is the poetry. I so admire the many poets who are helping us articulate our existence in the anthropocene era and our complex relationships with nature and animals. For example, in Canada there’s Stephanie Bolster, Eric Cole, Basma Kavanagh, Alice Major, and Catherine Owen, and in Britain there’s Susan Richardson, Alice Oswald, and Helen Cole.

 

Q: You’ve studied endangered species for your work. How do you stay positive amid the depressing realities of disappearing wildlife?

A: I’m not sure I do stay positive, to be honest. That’s where the poetry helps me. I find that writing poetry helps me cope with life and am not sure what I’d do without it. In my writing, I’m trying to connect emotionally, spiritually, intellectually with the experiences of animals who are extinct, sometimes recently by human hand, sometimes long ago in one of the planet’s five mass extinctions. I’m trying to sense these animals and somehow, to me, that is a positive act, albeit minuscule in the context of the enormity of impacts on the planet. I also try to remember that extinction is natural. I mean that evolution is a constant shifting, not that I’m justifying human beings’ eradication of species such as the great auk, passenger pigeon, and western black rhinoceros. No species, including humans, will stay the same forever. Our own species will evolve, and our current forms will become extinct. It is possible that we’ll evolve in a way that will have a positive effect on the other species in this world. I don’t hold out a great deal of hope for that most of the time, but writing about extinct species as far back as trilobites and ammonites has helped me take a long-term view!

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collections The Fleece Era (Brick Books), which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, and If There Were Roads (Turnstone Press), and the short story collection The Birthday Books (Hagios Press). Her debut novel, Worry Stones, will be published in fall 2018 by Ronsdale Press. Joanna emigrated from the UK to Yukon in Canada twelve years ago. Find her at www.joannalilley.com.

Meet the Fiordland-crested penguin

By Midge Raymond,

If you’ve read My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail you’ve met the Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and Magellanic penguins. Last year, we delighted to meet a new species: the Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguin. (Tawaki is the Māori name, meaning crested; these birds are found only on the South Island of New Zealand.)

The amazing Tawaki live in the rainforest, nesting under tree roots and bushes. They hike from the ocean across sandy beaches, over sharp rocks, and up steep banks to get to their nests. Sadly, there are only about 3,000 of these incredible penguins left on earth.

The Tawaki are endangered due to several factors, including predators on the island (non-native species such as stoats, possums, rats, and feral cats), climate change, and human disturbance (from tourists to the fishing industry). Tawaki are very shy, and it’s rare to see them — and when you do, you have to be very careful to keep your distance; if they come back to shore to feed their chicks and a human is near their path to the nest, they will get frightened and return to the ocean, leaving their chick to go hungry.

How can you help penguins like the Tawaki stay with us forever?

  • Consider giving up seafood, or even cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.

And keep learning! The more you know of these majestic creatures, the more inspired you’ll be to help save them. Join us in Patagonia in October to meet Magellanic penguins up close and personal at the largest colony in the world. This journey will be a small group of travelers who will meet with local researchers to learn more about their work with this colony, and with any luck, we’ll get to meet Turbo the Penguin as well (the inspiration for the Admiral Byrd character in My Last Continent and for Diesel in The Tourist Trail). Learn more here.

And thanks to John Yunker for these wonderful photographs.

Meet the king penguin

By Midge Raymond,

It was a big thrill to meet the majestic king penguins on a recent trip to South Georgia Island. The second-largest penguin in the world, kings are even more colorful and striking than the emperors, and they are social and curious. (None of these photos was taken with a zoom lens. If you sit on the beach, they will walk right past you, and sometimes even come up to check you out.)

The colonies we visited ranged from 7,000 breeding pairs to 50,000 — and due to horrific weather, we didn’t get a chance to see the biggest colony on South Georgia. But seeing thousands of penguins at sunrise was pretty spectacular. The chicks were huddled in the middle of the rookery, but many curious adults came over to visit.

As you’ll see in the video below, kings (who have no predators on land) are unafraid of humans. Visitors are not allowed to approach or touch them, of course, but if you sit quietly you’ll receive many visitors, one after another. (And hearing their trilling call is an amazing experience, as you’ll hear in this video.)

 

The total population of kings is 1.6 million, but as this article outlines, like all penguins, they are vulnerable to climate change and could lose as much as 70 percent or more of their current numbers in the years to come.

Despite this romantic photo below, king penguins actually don’t have high fidelity rates — which is likely due to their very long breeding cycles (nearly 15 months from courtship to when the chicks fledge) and the fact that while they return to the same colony, they don’t molt at the same time.

Like the emperors, the king penguins do not build nests but carry their eggs around in a little pouch above their feet. They are now in the IUCN category of “least concern,” which is a good thing … but climate change and the fishing industry are bound to change this status if both continue moving forward at the current rates.