Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

What the Cats Think

November 7, 2018

Kel and Ruby: Supervisors of PT

Many thanks to all who sent Jim good wishes for his knee replacement surgery.  I’m happy to report that overall things have gone well.  He’s up and walking again (with a walker) and diligently applying himself to his PT.  Sure, there have been rough times, and there are certain to be more rough times, but he’s doing as well as could be expected.

Before the surgery, Jim and I did everything we could to prepare our household for the disruption that was certain to follow.  We stocked up on groceries.  We did lots of laundry.  We made up the bed in the guest room, just in case one or more of us would need it.  (We have.)  But there was one important issue we couldn’t deal with in advance: We couldn’t prepare the cats for all the changes to come.

(This is not to slight the guinea pigs but, although they interact with us, as long as someone shows up with treats and rotates them through their various domiciles, they’re not too picky as to which of their humans it is.)

Halloween night, when I staggered in from more than twelve hours at the hospital, the immediate question of “Where’s dinner?  In fact, now that we’re on the topic, where was lunch?” rapidly changed to “What did you do with Jim?”

The most immediately upset was Ogapoge, who thinks Jim is his personal property.  However, when I crawled into bed, I felt every cat take a turn walking up the bed and inspecting where Jim should be.  When they didn’t find him, they came and poked me, as if I might be hiding him.  However, they weren’t overly upset.  The last few months, Jim has had to be away for several days at a time, and they figured that this was more of the same.

They were more indignant when I vanished again on Thursday to spend most of the day at the hospital with Jim.  I work at home, you see, so I am supposed to be available at all times.  It probably didn’t help matters that I came home with Jim’s scent on me.  I found myself imagining the cats conferring, wondering if I might be keeping Jim imprisoned somewhere.

When on Friday I brought Jim home, the cats’ initial jubilation changed to consternation.  Jim smelled wrong.  He was walking funny – and never without this horrible rattling thing in front of him.  Again, Ogapoge was the most upset.  His pet was back but changed.  Kwahe’e was fairly mellow about matters but, at sixteen, he’s seen the world.  He came over, buffed Jim’s shoes, then went back to his basket.  Keladry was watchful, while Persephone – who is the most social – was mostly concerned because Jim would not let her jump up to sit on his lap from the right (the surgical side), only the left.

By this writing, the cats have all adjusted to the change.  Keladry has appointed herself Supervisor of PT.  Ogapoge forgave Jim when he learned Jim could still play with him and feed him – and that the rattling monster didn’t seem inclined to do anything without Jim’s supervision.  Kwahe’e figured out he could get up on the guest bed to check on Jim, so that was fine.  Persephone decided that the amount of time Jim spends sitting means there is more lap time available.

So we’re settling into a new normal here.  I’m not back to writing yet, and I probably won’t be for a while more, since my creative energy is going into finding new ways to do old tricks.  However, like the critters, I’m relieved to have Jim home again – and I appreciate how the rattling of the walker lets me know when he’s up and about and might need my help.

I hear it now.  Later!



Visiting the Wild Spirit Pack

May 2, 2018

Welcoming Wolf

A while back, our friend Melissa Jackson suggested that we plan a road trip out to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, New Mexico.  Jim and I had been out a couple times before, but we hadn’t visited for several years, so we were eager to go.  But one thing led to another, and we never quite got around to making plans.

However, as I started working on the newest Firekeeper novel (working title, Wolf’s Search), the urge to see some wolves up close and personal became very strong.  I spoke with Melissa and we firmed up plans.   Last weekend – in company with Rowan Derrick and Cale Mims – we made the two-plus-hour  drive out from Albuquerque.  (For those of you who might want to visit from out-of-town, estimate a drive of two and a half hours from the Albuquerque Airport.)

Wild Spirit has a spiffy new website that explains its mission in detail, but it can be summed up by their slogan: Wild Animals Are Not Pets.  This is a message I’ve tried to share via essays prominently displayed on my website.  I’m fully aware that lots of us – me included – would love to have the sort of relationship Firekeeper and Blind Seer share, but I’m also very aware that what I’m writing is Fantasy fiction, and that such relationships are more likely to end up in tragedy – and often with the wolf or wolf-dog dead.

That’s what makes going to Wild Spirit so special.  The wild canines there are not expected to perform for humans.  Even those on the tour trail have places where they can retreat if they don’t feel like company.

Jessica’s Pal Flicker

The basic tour is very affordable and includes a slow ramble with a knowledgeable guide.  On this trip, our guide was a relatively new volunteer named Jessica.  Jessica had only been at Wild Spirit for a month and a half, but she knew every one of the many wild canines on the tour trail by name, as well as some tidbit of personal history.  It was evident that the wild canines knew her, too, and considered her a friend.  Several came over to say “hello” with no other incentive than a chance to greet Jessica.

All the pictures featured here were taken by my husband, Jim.  He has a nifty new telephoto lens that enabled him to focus past the chain link fence, so you’re actually seeing the wolves without the impediment of the barrier.

Although every enclosure was a delight, there were a couple encounters that will stick with me for a long time.  One was when we stopped to see wolf hybrid, Koda.  Koda is a magnificent creature whose great size actually comes from his dog heritage, not his wolf.  He was up close to the fence (which is why Jim couldn’t eliminate it from the photo) and seemed to be posing.  At one point, he did something incredibly cute that caused all the humans in the group to coo “aww…”  Immediately, he snarled.  Apparently, Koda doesn’t like “baby talk” one bit.

Koda: Don’t Babytalk Me!

Another encounter was more personal.  Any of you who have gone to my website have seen the picture of me with a very large wolf puppy named Dakota in my lap.  I’ve retained a fondness for Dakota all these years.  In fact, I’ve been one of his sponsors for most of his life.  I didn’t expect Dakota to remember me, but I did hope we could see him, since I hadn’t for a good many years.  As Jessica brought us to the enclosure where Dakota lives with two of his childhood buddies, she said, “This is where Dakota lives.  He doesn’t usually come down when I do a tour but…”

She trailed off because Dakota was making a beeline for the fence, his nostrils flared, intently sniffing.  Maybe I’m just indulging in a sentimental moment, but it seemed to me that he remembered me and Jim perfectly well, and was coming over to say “Hi.”  Yeah.  Melt…

(I don’t have a picture of Dakota here because he was so close to the fence and so active, we couldn’t get a really good shot, but you can see him on the Wild Spirit website.  He’s grown up to be a very good-looking fellow.)

At the end of the tour, as we were viewing the Nola Pack – a group of very wolf-like dogs, Wild Spirit’s director, Leyton Cougar, came wandering out with a tub of a new, very green, health food he’d been making up for some of their residents.  He offered me and Jim a taste, and we took the dare.  It was actually quite good – like dense scrambled eggs with a dandelion tang.

After our trail tour, we had arranged to have an “extra” – a private educational lecture.  This was conducted by the Assistant Director, Crystal Castellanos, and her husband, Research and Development director, Ramon Castellanos.  Crystal and Ramon told us they had a new presentation on the Canine Continuum they’d like to try, and asked if we would be their first audience.  Needless to say, we were thrilled.

Me and Leia at the Educational Talk

The focus of this talk was about the connections between different types of wild canines.  We began with three of the resident New Guinea Singing Dogs, moved to the wolf/ wolf-dog, then moved to the dingo.  For each part of the presentation, Crystal brought out a leashed representative.  The educational encounters are “hands off” with the caveat that if the canines are interested in looking at the humans, and the humans welcome the chance connection, then this may happen.

We five humans sat in a row on the bottom of the bleachers, ears, eyes, and hearts open.  We were very lucky and had a chance to get closer to our canine hosts than we had dared hope.  The most out-going was Leia, the wolf-dog, who at two is still young enough that she is inclined to trust.  Ramon and Crystal’s talk was very informative – even for me, who is something of a wild canine junky – which is a high recommendation, indeed.  I’d happily listen to the same talk again, just to soak in more.

As you probably can tell, we had a wonderful time.  Many thanks to Josh who helped me with reservations; to Tina in the gift shop, who helped us in many ways; as well as to Jessica, Leyton, Crystal, and Ramon.  We’ll definitely be coming back, and we hope to encourage many of those who are reading this to visit as well.

Come and See Us!

Zoos: Changing Faces

April 25, 2018

Tiny Teacher

I’ve almost always lived near a good zoo.  I grew up in Washington, D.C.  which hosts the National Zoo.  My dad took us there frequently when we were small.  These were the days when you were still encouraged to feed the elephants peanuts, so my first memories of those magnificent creatures includes looking up into questing trunks while my feet crunched on peanut shells.  We also always made a point to go visit Smokey the Bear.  My dad would hoot at the howler monkeys and they would hoot back at him.

For the longest time, I treasured a memory of patting a white tiger kitten that had been let run around in an enclosure that was little more than a chain-link fence surrounding a grassy area.  I squeezed through the towering adults, hunkered down, and pushed my hand through to pat the big kitten.

As I grew older, I decided that I had probably imagined that incident.  Then, when I was a freshman at Fordham University, I went to the Bronx Zoo, which was an easy walk from campus.  There, in the building that housed the big cats, I read on a sign how the magnificent white tiger lounging on the other side of the bars had been born at that National Zoo at just the right time to match my memory.

What do you know?  I probably did pat that tiger.

As much as I treasure those memories, one of the things I am happiest about zoos is how I’ve seen them change.  When I was a child, many animals were kept in iron-barred, concrete-floored cages.  The exception to this were hoof stock.  They at least had dirt-surfaced or grassy holding areas.

The change started when I was a kid.  Signs began to include the little antelope head emblem that indicated an endangered or threatened species.  Holding areas began to include toys or play areas.   The message that the older style “zoological garden” had sent was “Here are animals for you to look at, just as you might go to a flower garden to look at flowers.”  Now the message was, “Here are rare creatures.  Treasure them.  They might not be around much longer.”

Change was a slow process and one that didn’t happen overnight.  My first visit to the Bronx Zoo was definitely a mixed experience.  While I delighted in finding my childhood dream had been a childhood reality, I also teared up when I saw that many of the big cats were being held in cages of the sort that had long vanished from the National Zoo.   However, during my eight years in the area (I stayed for graduate school), I saw exhibits change.  By the time I left, the concrete-floored cages were either empty – their occupants moved to much nicer areas – or the cages were being used to house much smaller creatures.  Enclosures had also been adapted so that vertical as well as horizontal space was useable.

Jim tells me that the Rio Grande Zoo – now part of the Albuquerque BioPark – has undergone a similar transformation during the years he’s been going there.  I’ve certainly seen changes during my twenty or so years as a visitor.  Many of the larger animals are housed in exhibits that are lower than the walkway, giving the animal room and privacy, freeing them from being encased within four walls and a ceiling.  Even those animals that live in more traditional “cages” often have access to more than one exhibit area.  Best of all, they can take themselves off exhibit if necessary.

I’ve heard some older people complain about how these changes make it harder for “the kids” to see the animals.  Funny, but I don’t see “the kids” doing much complaining.  In fact, they seem delighted with the need to search for the animals.  What used to be a shuffle from cage to cage is now closer to a treasure hunt.

During our visit to the building that housed reptiles and amphibians, we were right behind a trio of energetic kids – probably eight or nine years old.   They paused at every exhibit, no matter how small, searching for the snake or lizard or turtle or frog.  Every discovery was crowed over, the cleverness of the creature’s natural camouflage a never-ending delight.  Often they paused to read the sign, exclaiming over what the creature ate or some other neat fact.

There’s also a greater emphasis on preservation and breeding programs.  No longer are we just warned that a creature is endangered, we’re given a chance to be part of saving that species.  Recently, the Albuquerque BioPark has hosted events encouraging responsible purchasing, recycling, providing education about renewable resources, and similar topics.

In addition to giving humans a chance to see living representatives of exotic animals (as opposed to the taxidermy displays that were common in museums when I was young), zoos also provide homes for representatives of the local ecosystem.  On our last visit, Jim and I had a very nice visit with a Western screech owl who – because of a damaged eye that meant she couldn’t be safely released into the wild – is now a member of the education staff.  Several avian exhibits housed injured roadrunners along with the more exotic birds.  On another visit, we met the education team’s porcupine.

Zoos are no longer gardens for viewing animals; they’re places that seek to educate humans about the vast biosphere in which we live.  It’s a change I really enjoy, and one reason that – even though I usually don’t have time to visit the zoo more than a couple times a year – I have a membership that costs me more than the price of admission would.  It’s my way of saying I appreciate what they’re trying to do.

Love and Writing

February 14, 2018

This week I have good news to share.  My short story, “Can’t Live,” has been accepted for publication by Lightspeed Magazine.  I’ll definitely let you know when it’s available.

Pretty Persistent

I’ll come back to “Can’t Live” in a moment.

First I’d like to mention that a piece by me is featured in  Lawrence M. Schoen’s “Eating Author’s” blog.  In this regular feature, he invites authors to talk about memorable meals.  Since Lawrence has a wide view of what makes a meal “memorable,” I decided to talk about teaching Roger Zelazny to cook crepes – as well as a few other things that happened during the year we lived together in Santa Fe.  If you’re interested, the full piece is here.

Those of you who are regular readers of my Friday Fragments, where I list what I’m currently reading, may recognize Lawrence M. Schoen as the author of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, which I finished a week or so ago.   Barsk shares the same line between hard science fiction and sociological science fiction occupied by works such as Dune, where precognition and the question of what would happen if people could reliably foretell the future play a central role.  However, Barsk takes the concept in a complete different direction – for one thing, some characters can talk to the dead – providing an interesting read.

Since today is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to talk about love – in this case the love an author feels for a story – and how that love is tested when the author sends the story out into the world with the intention of placing it in a commercial marketplace

I’d love to brag that “Can’t Live” sold the very first time I sent it out.  Instead, I’ll note that the story was completed on December 2, 2016, sent out immediately, and whenever it came back, it went out as soon as I could manage.  I finally sold it on February 9, 2018 – some fourteen months later.  Along the way, “Can’t Live” had several near-misses, mostly of the “I love this but it doesn’t quite fit our needs” type.  It also suffered from a perception by some editors that it was horror, while purely horror editors did not see it as such.

I felt confident that “Can’t Live” worked.  Did this mean I didn’t feel doubt when it was repeatedly rejected?  I did.  At one point, after several rejections,  I sent “Can’t Live” to a friend who admitted she didn’t get what I thought was an obvious reference.  I considered her comment, then added a sentence to clarify.

I didn’t want to, but I did because her comment reminded me that writing is about communication, not about showing off how clever you are.

In August of 2017, when “Can’t Live” still hadn’t found a home, I decided to make it my reading at Bubonicon.  To my relief, the response was not only enthusiastic but spontaneous, generating a lot of discussion.  If you were in that audience, let me offer my sincere thanks.

At this point, this Wandering is probably looking like an object lesson in persistence.  Write.  Send out.  Send out again.  Eventually, you’ll find the right editor.  Happy ending.  And you’re probably wondering why I included a picture of a hawk.

(Other than that it’s cool, which it is.)

Persistence is not what I want to talk about.  What I want to talk about is how love can be blind.  Persistence is not a virtue if a writer refuses to think that her precious darling of a story is anything but flawless.  I’ve met far too many people – and not just writers – who think that pushing toward their dreams is in and of itself a virtue.  They love the dream, not the reality.

The best love you can give your dream balances a solid dose of realistic assessment against persistence toward a goal.  Don’t abuse your dream by refusing to see that maybe you need to make a change, add a sentence, cut a clever phrase.

Be like a Cooper’s Hawk that hunts not only by the classic soaring associated with hawks, but also by diving into bushes and shrubs, and even stalking on foot along the ground.  (We watched the hawk in the photo do all of these things in the yard right outside the office window.)

Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry.   Love means being adaptable.  Love means doing the very best you can.

Tiny But Amazing (Toad)

August 16, 2017

Life lately has definitely been a celebration of the microcosm.  The little guy in the picture is a New Mexico Spade Foot Toad.  He’s taken up residence in the alyssum bordering our patio; his entire realm measures about four inches wide by eight feet long.

Tiny Toad

Some of the bricks in the wall against which the alyssum grows are beginning to crumble.  One has a hollow in it.  When he’s startled (as when we start to water the alyssum), the tiny toad jumps up and takes residence in the hollow.  When he does this, he looks rather like an amphibian variant on a Mesa Verde or Puye cliff dweller.

In addition to tiny toad, we have numerous first-year lizards (both blue tails and fence) racing around the yard.  They don’t hold still long enough for pictures.  Speed versus stillness as defense mechanisms.

The baby birds are now mostly fledged out and are learning how to be birds.  It’s a good thing that the monsoon rains have started, because we have plenty of grass seed and bugs for them.

Tiny Toad in Cliff Dwelling

After an unusually hot early summer, we’ve settled into high nineties, with the high temperatures remaining at their peak for a much shorter duration.  That’s a relief both for me and for the garden.  This year I discovered that when the temperatures go about about 106, thinking becomes a real challenge.

And I have been thinking, researching, and even writing.  I made significant progress on a few reprint projects over the last few weeks, including reaching a new stage in the production of Asphodel, the novel that is in line to be my first self-published original novel.

After a couple of very stressful weeks – including the phone company accidentally disconnecting our phone and internet for four days (which, when you run your own business out of your home, is not trivial) – I’m hoping to settle in and get more writing done.

In fact, much as I enjoy chatting with all of you, that’s what I’m going to do now.


Kee Kee Mystery

August 3, 2016

“Kee!  Kee!  Kee!  Kee!  Kee!”  The birdcalls came in through the open windows of my office, an evenly-spaced series of five, followed by a pause, then the same five calls again.

Source of Sound

Are You My Mother?

Jim was heading outside to bring some apple core to the guinea pigs.  I stopped him.  “Listen!  I’m not sure what that is, but it reminds me a little of when we had the mother quail in the yard, calling to the chicks.  It’s not quite right, though…”

Jim stood inside the door of the sunporch, trying to narrow down the location.  “It’s in the southeast corner.  I don’t think it’s a quail.  It’s from up in the tree.”

I moved to join him.  “Quail do go up in trees, but this doesn’t sound right.  Let’s go out quietly.  Maybe we can see what it is.”

We did so, shutting the door very slowly, so it only clicked into place.  The “Kee!  Kee!  Kee!  Kee!  Kee!” started up again, but from the cadence, I didn’t think the bird had noticed us.  Moving carefully, we came to where we could look up into the tree branches.  Almost immediately, I spotted the source of the calls.

“It’s a hawk!  A young one, I’d guess.  I think it’s lost.”

Jim nodded.  “It does look young.  Smaller. Not as bulky as the hawks we usually see.”

The young hawk heard us talking but, rather than being afraid, he (courtesy pronoun, I have no idea what the young hawk’s sex was) seemed interested.  He sidled up and down the branch, repeating his call.  I spoke to him reassuringly, and he moved closer.  For a moment, I wondered if the young hawk might have been in training with a falconer and would mistake us for his handler.  That would have been interesting, since neither Jim nor I were wearing anything that would have protected us from even a young hawk’s talons.

Once young “Kee Kee” had decided we weren’t his mother, he went back to calling, periodically stopping to listen when any new sound broke the neighborhood’s relative quiet.  He was very excited by the mail truck, calling repeatedly as it rumbled along, its progress punctuated by an occasional squeak as a mail box was opened.

Eventually, Jim moved quietly back inside to get his camera.  While I waited for him, I got a good look at the young hawk’s feet.  There were no signs he was familiar with humans at all, no bands or jesses, so I guessed Kee Kee was just reassured by any company, even if that company was as peculiar as a pair of humans.

Jim had just finished clicking off a series of pictures when I heard the new call, so faint I thought I imagined it at first.  Then I heard it again, the classic, high, piercing call of a soaring hawk.

Young Kee Kee heard it, too.  All at once, he resumed calling with less of a pause between intervals.  Then, without warning, he swept off the branch and glided east, vanishing into the branches of one of the taller trees in our tree-challenged neighborhood.  A few moments later, two matching silhouettes, one slightly smaller than the other, dropped from the tree and soared north.

I heard one more high, shrill call, but no more of the plaintive youngling cry.  Kee Kee was back where he belonged.

Flowering Determination

April 6, 2016

On Sunday night, we heard our first toad of the year singing in our tiny (120 gallon) backyard pond.  This makes it officially Spring.  Mind you, nighttime temperatures still frequently drop to below freezing.  Forty-degree temperature shifts are not at all uncommon here, where a mile-high elevation means I can find myself wearing a short sleeved tee-shirt in the daytime and a sweater at night.

Amaryllis with a Twist

Amaryllis with a Twist

So I’m fighting a desire to put in a garden because, even though part of me is dancing around saying “Spring is here at last!”,  it’s quite likely that seeds would rot in the ground and plants just sulk and/or get frostbite.  Or broken in half by high winds.  Our catalpa trees made the mistake of starting to leaf out and currently show some bad burn.  They’ll recover, though.

As a sop to our gardening Cerberus, we’ve planted some tomato seeds in our little seed starter.  Are you familiar with Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro?  If you are, imagine me as little Mei checking the garden after she and her sister Satsuki have planted the nuts and seeds the totoro gave them.  I don’t quite hunker down like a crab and stare, but I do check the seed starter several times a day, just in case.  I will not admit to whether or not I do the “totoro dance.”  My dignity needs some preservation.

A much more rewarding plant-watching activity is watching our two amaryllis grow.   Amaryllises surge forth visibly in the course of a day.  On the first day we brought them out, only one bulb showed a tiny green leaf tip.  Today – about two weeks later – they’re already flowering.  Very satisfying indeed.

These amaryllis plants are descended from one given to me for Christmas by a friend many years ago.  Last year, I had to split the bulb, which resulted in the very odd stalk that you can see in the accompanying picture.  I like the determination it illustrates.  Visual depictions of determination are something every writer needs.

Yes…  It’s spring in New Mexico, which is about as different as you can get from the “drip-drip-drop little April showers” you may remember from Disney’s Bambi. Still, it’s nice looking out the window and seeing some green, even if the green is largely what most people would call “weeds,” but we consider valuable stabilizing elements in our very sandy yard.

What else is going on?

This coming Saturday I’m the “Featured Speaker” at the UNM writer’s conference.  My slot comes up right after lunch.  I’m still putting my talk together, but I’ve collected some neat material and looking forward to it.  Perhaps I’ll see a few of you there.

I heard from David Weber, and he likes my story for the forthcoming (but as of yet unscheduled) “Safehold” anthology.  My story is called “Brother Against Brother,” and is set during the colonization of Safehold.

I’ve also finished typing up the “handwritten project” and started reading it aloud to myself.  It came in at around 54,500 words.  No idea whether my read through will end up making it longer or shorter.  What I do know is that I’m feeling increasingly excited about it.

Yes.  It does have a title: Asphodel.

Now I’m going to go emulate my amaryllis and see how I can make my writerly garden grow!

Toads in the Pond

May 13, 2015

We have toads in our pond.  Several generations of toads, to be precise.

To clarify why this is a wonderful and exotic thing, let me explain.

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

First, where I live is exceptionally dry.  Although the Rio Grande river is not that far away – just a couple  miles’ walk in a straight line east – when judging proximity to water, we might as well be on the Moon.  Okay.  Maybe not the Moon.  But take it from me, it’s dry.

Second, calling the water-feature in my backyard a “pond” is a grand over-glorification.  Our pond is a black plastic shell that holds maybe a hundred and twenty gallons.  And that would be its maximum capacity if we didn’t have anything but water in it and filled it all the way to the brim.

Instead, we have plants in our pond – a dwarf water lily, a blue pickerel weed, and an ornamental plantain that has flowers like baby’s breath.  Between them, the blue pickerel weed and the plantain have created a little marsh firm enough to hold the birds that land to drink.  We have aquatic mint growing around the edges (and into the water, whenever it can).

We have a pump that displaces a couple of gallons.  And a school of goldfish, three generations, all descended from feeder fish we rescued from the pet store.

So there’s not a lot of water there.  But it’s enough water to attract toads.

Our toads are spadefoot toads, specifically, New Mexican spadefoot toads, which are the state amphibian.  Spadefoot toads can live without much water at all.  Using a special digging toe on their hind legs, they burrow underground, emerging when there is water to lay their eggs.  Because usually all they have are puddles, spadefoot tadpoles develop very quickly – often going mobile in as little as forty-eight hours.

I have a friend who makes a point of transferring spadefoot tadpoles from puddles that are drying up to ones that still have water.  I know she has occasionally wondered if this is at all helpful to the toads.  I can now reassure her that a few hours can make a big difference.

Spadefoot toads usually dig backwards, excavating behind them, then backing in and closing the hole after them.  This can lead to startling encounters for those who share their territory.

One year, I noticed that an alyssum I’d planted where it would artfully spill over the edge of a flowerbed had apparently turned triffid and was preparing to go walkabout.  After I gently moved it and prepared to widen the hole and replant it, imagine my astonishment when I looked down and saw a toad looking up at me reproachfully.  It had found a nice, damp piece of real estate, complete with floral ornamentation for the roof.  Now I was messing everything up!

Needless to say, I moved the alyssum to one side, and both toad and plant had a happy summer.

As the years have gone by, we have progressed from the occasional toad sighting, to our current thriving colony.  There’s the toad who lives near our back porch door, waiting to dine on the insects that are attracted by the light spilling out from the kitchen.  There is the toad that lives down at the western edge of the bean netting, doubtlessly enjoying the dampness of the soaker hose we use to water the beans.  There are the toads we see as evening gathers (spadefoot toads are nocturnal) hopping their way from various points in the yard to have a splash in the pond before going hunting.

Last year, we had a transitory turtle spend some time in our yard.  In hopes of encouraging it to stay, we put a shallow dish of water out so it could have something to drink and a splash if it so desired.  We don’t know if it ever used it, but we did see little toads sitting in it, shyly requesting we ignore that they were there so they didn’t have to pretend to be scared and run away.

Most of the year, spadefoot toads are quiet cohabitants.  However, this time of year, they are quite noisy.  Their call is hard to describe.  It’s deeper than you’d expect from such a small creature (most of our toads could sit comfortably in the palm of my hand, many could sit on a quarter).  It’s all on one long, somewhat harsh note, a sort of elongated sound like “cat” without the “C” and with the “T” barely audible.

I’m not sure it’s exactly a “pretty” sound, but Jim and I really like it because it’s a sign that our yard is a vibrant, living organism.  Our cats (who are “indoor only” cats) find it fascinating.  One evening, as a toad was warming up, the toad would go “aaat” and Ogapoge, our big, sixteen pounder, would call back on almost the same note.

We’ve had a relatively damp (for New Mexico), relatively cool (for New Mexico) spring, and the toads are loving it.  So, as you can probably gather, are we.

Kids and Critters

April 29, 2015

News Flash! April 30th through May 3, the e-book of Changer will be on sale at most major e-retailers, including Kobo and I-tunes.   Don’t have an e-reader?  Changer is also available in trade paperback (although not on sale) from Amazon Create Space or directly from me via my website bookshop.

Now to our regularly scheduled Tangent…

The questions I get most frequently asked in interviews is why I write about animals so often.

Kel and Nora

Kel and Nora

My automatic response is, “Why wouldn’t I?  Animals are fascinating and a lot more complicated than humans give them credit for being.”

This past weekend, we had an excellent illustration of just how complicated animals can be.  Nora Bartel, age six, loves animals and was very eager to meet our cats and guinea pigs.  We explained to her that our cats don’t have a lot of contact with children, so she should be prepared to have them be shy  and take time to warm up to her.

Nora understood.  At first the cats were a little shy, coming up to sniff, but backing away when Nora tried to pat them.  Then Jim went and woke up Kel, who had been napping in the back.  Kel is a gentle soul, but she doesn’t put up with any nonsense.  However, she warmed to Nora very quickly.

Soon I saw Kel inviting Nora to play, prancing away a few steps, them pausing and looking back over her shoulder in an invitation for Nora to follow.  We explained to Nora that Kel didn’t want to be chased fast, but that she wasn’t running away scared.  Within a very short time, Kel had flopped down and was inviting Nora to pat her.

Nora was delighted to oblige, and soon they were great friends.

I found myself wondering why Kel had such a different reaction than the other three.  Kwahe’e is very social, but he was content to watch and take an occasional pat.  Persephone, who, at age three, is the most likely to fling herself into the middle of things, didn’t shun Nora, but she was definitely more cautious.  Ogapoge eventually decided Nora was great, but not until Kel broke the ice.  So why was Kel’s reaction so different?

Then I remembered.  When Kel was a kitten, our nephew Christopher came to visit with his mom.  Like Nora, Christopher was very interested in getting to know our cats.  As with Nora, Christopher was told that he’d probably need to wait until the cats got to know him before they wanted to be patted.  He showed superlative restraint, even when Kel (who was an impossibly cute fur ball) came right up to him and put her paws on him.

We told him it was okay to pat her, since she’d “patted” him first and before long they were great buddies.  A six-year-old (especially one who loves baseball) will patiently throw balls for a kitten to chase for much longer than even indulgent adult cat lovers will do.  Kel would play until she literally fell asleep on her feet.

However, this was a long time ago.  Christopher is now in junior high.  Kel is seven.  Kel’s encounters between with small children have been limited.  But, based on her behavior, she remembered that a small child could be a lot of fun.

Yet “everyone” – including scientists who study animals – will tell you that animals have no long-term memory.  That certainly a few days in the life of kitten Kel would not be remembered seven years later.

Oh…  And despite the widely believed “fact” that cats are anti-social and only care about humans as sources of food and comfort, all four of our cats spent the evening hanging out with us in the living room.  All four looked to interact, including settling into bits of furniture to be part of the party.  They didn’t need to be fed or indulged.  They just wanted to be there.

One thing I think gets in the way of people writing about animals is that even those who live with animals often don’t really see them as they are, they only see the human-imposed stereotypes of behavior.

Cats are standoffish, selfish, and aloof.  Stereotypes applied to dogs vary and are often highly contradictory.  Some of these are because different breeds behave differently.  This really complicates the picture when the traits bred into one breed are applied to all dogs.

The same is true of wild animals.  Human-imposed stereotypes are applied, as if animals are instinct-driven computers.  The worst thing is that these stereotypes are often highly incorrect, based on insufficient information and a generalized series of behaviors.

A great example of this is the hyena.  Everyone “knows” that hyenas are filthy, cowardly scavengers.  They don’t hunt for themselves.  Instead they skulk around, eating what lions leave behind, and carrion when other animals drop dead.  They laugh slyly and, despite being cowards who don’t hunt, are – oddly enough – often represented as highly dangerous.

Guess what?  Just about all of this is completely wrong.  High-tech studies using devices that could capture animal behaviors on film, even at night, provided a completely different dynamic.  Interestingly, initially, the studies weren’t of the hyenas, but were of lions – because lions are (in human stereotype) the dynamic “king of the jungle.”

Turns out that the scavengers aren’t the hyenas…  It’s much more likely to be the lions.  Hyenas have long front legs and shorter back legs.  They have heavy heads, especially around the jaws.  The combination of these traits make them seem to skulk when human body-language is imposed on them.  Leaving out human prejudice, they’re actually excellent hunters.   Lions (especially those noble “kings”) are more inclined to get a meal the easiest way possible.  Because lions live in groups (prides!), they can chase the hyenas from their kills.

And the evidence was there all along, but was ignored, because it didn’t fit the superimposed pattern.

Fascinating stuff!  The fact is, most animals, even those we assume we know “well,” including domestic animals, are very different from the stereotypes imposed on them.

The same is true of children.  It seems a pity to me that children are so rarely included in fiction, unless that fiction is written for children.  If children are included in fiction written for a presumably adult audience, far too often, the child characters are treated much as animals are – not as three-dimensional characters, but as collections of stereotypical traits.

Those traits have much more to do with adult perceptions of children than the reality.  The other day, a friend solemnly explained that most boys bond with their mothers and girls with their fathers.  Certainly there are “mommy’s boys” and “daddy’s girls,” but the reverse is as often true or those terms wouldn’t exist at all.  We’d just accept the pattern as normal.  In fact, there are plenty of kids who aren’t either.  They find traits in each parent that create a bond.

I don’t know why it is that many people – including writers, who I would like to think should be a bit more observant – find it so much easier not to see what’s around them and to instead choose to impose simplistic patterns.

Me?  I’ll keep writing about animals and including children in my adult novels because, despite the adult human prejudice, animals and kids are as much – or more – a part of life as adult humans!

Remember the Cascade Effect

October 29, 2014

The other day, a friend sent me a link to a video about the impact of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park and its surroundings.  The video does a really good job of condensing a complicated process into a few minutes.  I have a few quibbles – for example, most of the time the animals the narrator refers to as “deer” are actually elk, and the role coyotes played was oversimplified – but I think it’s worth watching, so here’s a link.

Part of a Wolf Junkie's Stash

Part of a Wolf Junkie’s Stash

Because I’m a serious wolf junkie, I was already familiar with the impact of wolves on Yellowstone.  The cascade effect works on a smaller ecological scale, too.  When I moved into my house, the back yard was pretty much sand and weeds, prone to erosion when the winds blew, and supporting very little in the way of wildlife.

Over the last decade and a half, Jim and I have made a lot of changes, including encouraging native plants that provide food for birds, lizards, and insects.  We have two small water features (a tiny pond and a bird bath) and these have put us on the migration route for various birds.  The result is pretty cool.

As usual, this has gotten me thinking about writing, most particularly about the world-building that’s so important to SF and Fantasy.

As the piece about the wolves and Yellowstone demonstrates so superbly, make one change and you need to think about what other things might change.  This doesn’t only apply to what you take away – it applies to what you add in as well.

I’ve talked about dragons back in “So You Want Dragons” (WW 2-29-14), so I won’t repeat myself, but remember that many other typical fantasy “monsters” also fall into the peak predator category.

Here’s one example.  Traditionally, the favorite food of griffins is horses.   Don’t you think griffins might choose to live where horses are easy to get?  How would a society change when horses can’t simply be turned out to pasture because the griffins will fly in for an easy lunch?  Griffins are a lot more dangerous than wolves, so would the equivalent of shepherds be enough?  Would griffin patrol be a way to train young warriors?

The cascade effect applies to much more than predator/prey relationships.  In our modern world, people tend to forget that energy doesn’t come from flipping a switch.  That’s just the final stage of a complex delivery system, one that involves a power plant on the other end.  Electricity and gas are both often referred to as “clean” sources of heat and that’s certainly true when compared to burning wood in your fireplace – at least until you take a look at the process needed to produce and deliver this energy to your house.

What about solar energy?  Passive solar is certainly clean heat.  Because I live in a very sunny climate, my sunporch actually heats much of my small house, even during the coldest parts of winter – at least during daylight.  However, passive solar won’t run my computer.  From talking to a friend who relies on solar power, I’ve learned how complicated gathering and converting solar energy can be – especially if the person lives off the grid and needs to rely on batteries.

If you’re writing SF, a little technological hand-waving can get you past the difficulties of providing energy for even the biggest city or starship.  A breakthrough that makes safe fusion power practical is one of the most popular gimmicks.  Another is a quick sentence along the lines of “ever since Alice Seagull came up with the voo-voo panel that let solar power be more efficiently gathered and stored, most archaic forms of energy have fallen out of use.”

In a Fantasy setting, how to provide enough fuel for a large population can have a tremendous cascade effect.  The New England region of the United States was originally heavily forested.  However, twin demands for farmland and fuel led to a tremendous amount of clear- cutting.   If advances in technology had not created both easier ways to acquire food (grow it somewhere else, ship it in) and to deliver the means for providing heat, it’s likely that the area would have become unable to support its population, triggering a migration to unused (“unspoiled”?) wilderness, until that, too, became spoiled.

Today, New England is becoming reforested but what would happen if a true “locovore” movement became established?  Would it be able to sustain itself for longer than a couple of decades without providing a serious environmental impact?

What about these static Fantasy worlds where warriors clank around in steel armor (making steel takes a lot of fuel) and use steel weapons and have done so for centuries?  Where do the resources come from?  Why are there any forests left?

Well, historically, socially-enforced poverty for the majority of the population was one way to keep from exhausting all the resources.  The folks who mined the iron ore didn’t necessarily have iron tools and weapons.  The woodcutter didn’t have a blazing fire on his hearth.  The logs went to the gentry.  He felt lucky to have the scraps and twigs…  Most of his neighbors were burning cow patties.  (And that’s not hamburger, for you urban dwellers.  It’s cow shit and it stinks.)

I’ve quite enjoyed S.M. Stirling’s “Change” novels.  Salvage from the pre-Change world solves a lot of Stirling’s immediate supply problems, but for that economic/ecological system to persist, the humans had better keep having massive wars to provide population control.

But what about magic?  Can’t it solve all these problems in a Fantasy setting?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  After all, even magic needs to come from somewhere and be channeled into useful forms.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a gamer.  The adventure I’m currently running takes place in a world where magic is common and the dominant race is very ecologically sensitive.  What’s the major type of employment for these magically skilled people?  Creating the basic magical infrastructure that enables them to have magical light, heat, hot water, and all the rest.

My gamers assumed that finding the “cool” magical items would be as easy as walking into the magical equivalent of Walmart.  They figured they just needed to find a city larger than the small village in which they live.  They’re now learning that the cool stuff is, in fact, quite rare, because the magical resources are diverted into sustaining a fairly high standard of living for the majority of the population.

I find that, far from restricting my storytelling, the cascade effect stimulates it.  Whether you build a story around it or use little elements to provide a richer environment, it’s worth considering.