Penguins & Patagonia Adventure: Author talks at Rincón Chico

On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.

So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.

It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.

And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.

We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…

…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.

To see more of Susan’s terrific photos, visit the Facebook page of Adventures by the Book!

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Alex Lockwood

Alex Lockwood’s article “With a Hope to Change Things: An Exploration of the Craft of Writing about Animals with the Founders of Zoomorphic Magazine” appears in Writing for Animals.

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

A: Most fundamentally, I have chosen (as far as a writer can) to only take on new projects that foreground the nonhuman and their relations with humans, as much as possible to work towards texts, narratives, and stories that help bring our relationships to light, and to contribute towards a more equal and just sharing of this world across species. Although sometimes as writers we don’t know quite what compels us to write the next story or book or poem, there are conscious decisions we can make responding to the state of the world, and the disastrous state of our hierarchical and dominant current relations with nonhumans. As I come to know more about animals and the nonhuman world, the more I recognize my spiritual and practical responsibilities to attempt to redress through my practice the worst forms of these exploitative relations and hopefully envision new and more equal, kind, and loving relationships.

In particular, I have spent a lot more time working in the second person, and writing works that give serious credence to the voices and agencies of nonhuman others, to the existing and complicated relations between beings across species (in cross-species encounter) and the truly relational nature of who we are, in that without these relations we do not know ourselves and, when you get down to the biota level, we wouldn’t even be alive.

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

A: Compassion. Do not repeat or reinforce dominant speciesist practices in your writing. Question why it is okay to depict or represent particular animals in particular ways. Enrich your writing through learning in the three Es — ethology, ecofeminism, ecocriticism — to continue to forge new visions for ways of interrelating based on kinship and not dominance. Change your own name to that of an animal’s and see where that takes you. Don’t get bogged down by questions of whether or not animals can be fully represented in human language, because your audience is human, generally. But do nurture an understanding of nonrepresentational theories, politics, and practices that shift you and your ego out of the way. If you’re a white, Western male, as I am, do everything that you can to mobilize your white, Western, male privileges and give your writing over to the practice of centering the lives and leadership and needs of all previously marginalised groups, human and nonhuman.

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

A: Donna Haraway’s Camille stories are must-reads for how we are now thinking about our multi-species encounters. Cynan Jones has done plenty of good work around animals and viscerality. The animal poet Susan Richardson, whom I interviewed for my chapter, is an incredible writer, perhaps one of the leading animal poets of our day, following in and beyond the footsteps of Les Murray. Sara Baume, Melissa Harrison, Robin Lamont, pattrice jones, Barbara King, Carol J. Adams, Ceridwen Dovey, Lydia Millet are all women working in different genres and forms to respectfully and compassionately help us reach the lives of animals.

Q: Your Q&A with the editors of Zoomorphic magazine highlights the role of literature in a changing world. What other media do you recommend for those who care about animals and wish to write about them with authenticity and compassion?

A: Literature remains for me the art form that can transform our relationship with the world most fully, but of course many would suggest film is the same or better at doing so, and films such as Okja have had a recent huge impact on the ways in which people have changed their relations to animals. Short films and exposes such as Dominion and Land of Hope and Glory have recently, from the documentary perspective, really changed people’s visions of how to relate in cross-species encounters and spaces. I think children’s books are vitally important in beginning that journey of love and compassion, or exploitation and abuse, depending on the forms in which they are written and the ways in which parents and teachers communicate them, and of course how writers write them, so I cannot recommend people such as Ruby Roth enough.

Alex Lockwood is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), an exploration of the place of the body in animal advocacy, as well as senior lecturer in journalism at the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, Sunderland University, UK. He has published widely on human-animal relations and is currently working on a series of novels concerned with human-animal conflict.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Marybeth Holleman

Marybeth Holleman’s essay “Other Nations” appears in Writing for Animals.

 

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

A: It’s become more challenging, and more interesting. The more I learn and experience the more-than-human world, the more I see the need, as a writer, to be a conduit for them — for my writing to speak for them, in some way. This became very clear to me following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. This was a terrible industrial disaster that took thousands of wild lives, threatened generations more, and permanently degraded a huge swath of coastal wilderness. I witnessed the way humanity considered this disaster as compared to a disaster in which it was human lives that were lost. I realized then that the best I could do was try to give voice to these nonhuman lives, as best I can and in full awareness of the filters I carry as a human.

It’s very challenging, for they’re not like us, and yet, in ways, they are…how to write that? Not by being overly anthropomorphic, which is a disservice to other animals’ true selves, but also not by being anthropocentric, which is also a disservice and a lie. They are not, regardless of the unfortunate legacy of Descartian thinking, mere machines. And it’s fascinating, as a writer, to lean in on that, to step beyond the convenience of either/or thinking, to question pat answers, and to really witness the truths of their lives. In early June on the Kenai River, my husband and I watched salmon jump. Why, I asked my biologist husband, do salmon jump out of the water? He starting to recite theories – to loosen the eggs, to rid of parasites…Well, we don’t really know. And I love that; I love that we don’t always have some clear and constant explanation for what another being is doing. The salmon jumping: What if it’s just for fun, or just for the rush? What if there’s no reason at all, except joy?

 

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

A: Balance. Standing in the middle. Embracing both/and rather than seeing things as either/or. We wield great power when we write about nonhuman lives; it’s easy for stories about animals to be dismissed as overly romantic or anthropomorphic or complete fantasy. If we want our stories to reach as many people as possible, we must be prepared to straddle beauty and terror, loss and life, differences and similarities. We have to balance our own humility and authority.

Humility. We must remember that our human knowledge will always be limited, regardless of how deeply we try to understand other lives. They are, as Henry Beston wrote, “not brethren, not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” For example, just because I’ve published a book about wolves doesn’t mean I know wolves. Even if I spent years living with wolves, even then, I would not claim to know what it’s like to be a wolf. In fact, what I’ve found to be true in writing about the more-than-human world is that the more I learn, the more I see how little I know. How little all humans know.

Authority. We must root our writing in unmediated experience. Spend time with the animals we’re writing about; write about what we actually see, hear, smell, feel. Do tons of research, read all the scientific information we can, but be sure to root our words in direct, actual experience. Then embrace the authority of our own experience and knowledge. In The Heart of the Sound, I described watching a mountain goat swim from Culross Island to the mainland. Scientists later told me there were no goats on Culross Island, and goats do not swim in saltwater. But I know what I saw. And I know, from that, that as much as science can teach us about the world, it is always —always — an incomplete picture.

 

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

A: Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds.” Yes, it’s science fiction, and fantastical, but it makes you think about language among nonhumans in a different light. It translates to reality. Then there’s Gretchen Primack’s poetry collection Kind, and Lisa Courturier’s amazing essay collection The Hopes of Snakes and lovely poetry collection Animals/Bodies. Nancy Lord has a great short story on a wolf-dog called “Recall of the Wild.” And there’s Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” which is a brilliant description of one of those brief moments of unmediated connection with the nonhuman world.

 

Q: You rerouted your career from environmental policy work to creative writing. In what ways do you feel this is more effective and/or rewarding?

A: Oh, so much more rewarding! Effective in a longer-lasting way. Policy can be undone quickly, as we’re seeing right now with many regulations that took decades to put in place. We’d like to think policy is done with a rational, reasoned, careful approach, but it’s just not. When I began work in environmental policy, I learned fast that the problem wasn’t, as I’d naively assumed as a college student, some lack of information transmittal, some failure of communication between scientists and politicians. No, it’s a fundamental difference in intention and values and process. The political realm, in its present form, is fraught with poor decisions with no basis in scientific knowledge or rational thinking…much less the kind of both/and openness that I spoke of above. For example, here in Alaska, the state put in place a no-kill buffer for wolf protection along the boundary of Denali National Park…and then took it away simply out of spite over an unrelated political spat.

Writing, on the other hand, lasts. We still read stories — unabridged, unmediated — that are hundreds of years old. Writing can reach people on a deeper level, a subtle plane, one they may not even consciously recognize. Story bypasses the analytical mind and aims straight for memory and imagination. Story has power; it makes people more empathetic, more able to enter the world of the Other. It is transcendent in its potential to effect change.

The downside is that, with policy work, you can see the effects of your work — whether success or failure — very clearly and sometimes quickly. When they put the wildlife buffer in place, wolves stopped being killed, and more wolves were seen in the park. With writing, you can’t, for the most part, see the effects. There are exceptions, of course: consider Silent Spring. But mostly we writers, and really, all artists, rarely witness any far-reaching effects from our work. Every now and then I’ll get a note from some reader that confirms what I’ve hoped — that my work is reaching people, is having an effect on their view of the world. But mostly I just have to have faith in what I cannot, and likely will never, see—in the ripple effect of my words as they find their way out into the world.

Marybeth Holleman is the author of The Heart of the Sound, co-author of Among Wolves, and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. A Pushcart-Prize nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, among them Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Literary Mama, North American Review, AQR, and The Future of Nature, as well as on National Public Radio. Holleman has taught creative writing and women’s studies at the University of Alaska and has written for nonprofits on environmental issues from polar bears to oil spills. A North Carolina transplant, she has lived in Alaska for more than twenty-five years.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Rosemary Lombard

Rosemary Lombard’s essay “A Case for More Reality in Writing for Animals” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness has evolved?
A: That is a long story with many bends. In grad school, except for a single nonfiction course, I was schooled in academic writing in musicology, a discipline far from animal interests. Only when a female box turtle, Diode, joined my pet male did I begin to write about animals. The description of her first days was as precise as I could make it, but I still had a few courses to take and classes to teach and soon dropped the writing. Yet the behaviors of those first turtles, not at all what I expected from reptiles, fascinated me far more than the dissertation staring me in the face; so, after courses were done, I started teaching in Chicago universities and, instead of the dissertation, began my own self-education about herpetology, animal behavior, and interspecies communication.

Eight years after Diode came, I started writing again. She surprised me — amazed me! She had apparently planned a charade to show she understood the concept of classifying objects, and she followed it up by demonstrating that she understood the meaning of a few spoken words.

I was hooked. An exploratory collaboration with Diode and three others began, and, with games and choices, they learned quickly and with high motivation. Daily I wrote about what was happening. Those descriptive journal entries, volumes of them from 1979 to the present, were my writing teachers. Again, precision and clarity about behaviors were paramount — both in content and syntax. They were data but written as gracefully as I could.

Then I decided to take courses to fill in my self-education: many courses in biology, natural history, animal behavior, and communication, from Bio 101 back to another grad school, with plenty of writing. A monograph came out of a Stanford linguistics course; then a book about the turtle research began to form, and eventually, when I decided on my trade book audience, I wrote many chapters based on the journals, now my external memory.

The next step began with two poetry workshops at a conference and, finally back in the Northwest, a month of memorial birthday readings honoring my old prof William Stafford. Suddenly, poetry was in my ear, and as I became a poet and wide reader in poetry and prose, I found literary skills that could enrich my prose writing. Now I write both poetry and creative nonfiction with the goal to build more respect and empathy for turtles and other animals, especially as related to my concern about wild animal trafficking and the pet trade.

Still, I keep working to notice more as an animal observer and reader-become-writer — I taught several classes on sketching from nature partly to discipline myself to notice details and behaviors — and I participate in writing workshops as well as offering lectures and lecture-demonstrations. Diode and the now thirteen others, mostly second generation, still inspire me. Learning just keeps going.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: My belief is that writers should attempt to learn enough about the real animals and their places and ways of life in order to acquire and select genuine characteristics and actions as a basis for creating believable characters, whether they’re walking or flying or swimming in the real world or, with added imaginings, in a world of their own.

Elena Passarello, in her Oregon Book Award winner Animals Strike Curious Poses, writes about famed sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer and the photographic precision of his work, such as “the thousand-fold strands of watercolor fur on his Young Hare.” He admonished others to do the same, writing, “Don’t diverge from nature in your imaginings, thinking you want to find things for yourself.” Yet he could — and did — take details from life and produce wildly imaginative work. Yes, the details in our art too can transfer to fantasy and other styles.

Good writing about animals can be engaging and informative and go part of the way toward bringing an audience to take steps toward protecting them. However — and here is the bottom line — those of us who are intense about issues that benefit animals have another step available. Our writing, not only in nonfiction, needs — along with our empathy and skillful storytelling — enough reality that readers can respect and empathize with the characters and then be able to make the emotional transition to the real animals that need the readers’ help. As many have pointed out, we save what we love.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals? 
A: A catalog of books about animals would be daunting, and even my bookshelves are groaning. I’ll note a few that are both realistic and compassionate and have additional features worth study for the writer.

First, let’s consider a book, still beloved, from the mid-twentieth century, Nobelist Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring. The editors of the Time edition assigned to him qualities we’re looking for: “Every chapter of King Solomon’s Ring is enriched by the fruits of affectionate looking and hard reasoning.” And the author adds the necessity for real facts; he says, ” … I shall not aspire, in this little book, to improve on nature by taking any artistic liberties” — but we must say, not to the exclusion of charm. We must add his personal involvement in the stories of his investigations. Who could forget his account of the thickening naturalist — Konrad himself— “squatting and quacking” for hours on end through the meadow, followed by his adopted string of ducklings as he famously learns the details of imprinting on the “mother,” starting with the first quack they hear (and its continual instruction to follow the mom, whoever she or he may be).

A modern book I have recommended to many is University of Washington researcher John Marzluff’s Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart birds to Behave Like Humans, which includes fascinating accounts of research with wild-flying corvids and, a valuable bonus for some readers, elementary neurosci tech talk about the structure of the bird brain and how that structure has parts that are arranged differently from ours but has corresponding actions.

For perceptive and affectionate books by naturalists who lived with or worked closely with the animals described, I recommend Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds; Benjamin Kilham’s straightforward accounts of raising orphan bears on his wild land and his discoveries about bear behavior; and Julie Zickefoose’s Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods.

I’ll let Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote, represent the yowling multitude of dog books. I discuss it in my essay, pointing out that, though he translates the behaviors of the dog to language, that translation is based on keen observation of those behaviors and a close relationship with the independent Merle.

Books that include the elements of observation and story plus depth in the concerns of ethical philosophy and animal/environmental activism include Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies and a pair of books by philosopher/naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore. Moore’s exemplary novel, Piano Tide, integrates her keen knowledge of animals and the rest of southeast Alaska’s natural wonder into the story of the people of a coastal village and the ecoterrorist-in-hiding who has come to live with them. The book of essays paired with Piano Tide is Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. As reviewer Scott Sanders writes, “No one thinks more rigorously about how we should live on this battered, beautiful planet, or how we should treat our fellow creatures.”

Notable anthologies of short animal pieces include those from Ashland Creek Press, Creative Nonfiction magazine, and Orion magazine. In the latter, Animals and People: A Selection of Essays from Orion Magazine, I point out and, further, suggest books by contributors Jane Goodall, David Gessner, Brian Doyle, Mary Oliver (her ecstatic poetry), and Craig Childs: such intense lovers of animals!

In The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, Childs takes us skillfully on adventures with wild animals in ways armchair naturalists and writers would never venture. Charles Finn, in Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters, provides a set of delightful miniatures: richly described, sometimes funny, always memorable.

Finally, I want to comment on a new book, so new that, so far, I’ve read only the sample provided online. What I read, though, does a fine job of pulling the sensibilities and skills illuminating all these books together into a package so appealing to the general reader that it has risen to best-seller status, a far-off star in the minds of the rest of us. The buzz is about Buzz, which is about bees. Author Thor Hanson (Feathers) uses all the techniques of creative nonfiction, including lively, conversational language; first person involved; informal and informational chats with experts, visits to sites, historical background; and the care with language and diction of fine fiction. His own powers of observation and scientific background show on the page, as well as the fascination and love he has for animals, clearly including the bees.

Animal behaviorist/writer Rosemary Douglas Lombard enjoyed roles as biomedical librarian, naturalist, and university teacher but cherishes decades exploring turtles’ cognitive potential. She won firsts in nonfiction and poetry and published in Bay Nature and Verseweavers, among others. Writings include Turtles All the Way (Finishing Line Press) and WIP Diode’s Experiment. You can find Rosemary online at https://ChelonianConnection.blogspot.com.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Joanna Lilley

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.