Alchemy

by Carol L. Deering

The fox on Riverview, beautiful
as it lay. Small pointed face,
black-tipped snout, white fur lifting
in a paw’s sweep of pathos,
its coat the colors of autumn
fading. Three magpies feasting,
its ribcage a nave.

The fox lay elegant, delicate
for days, until all carnage
rose.

_____A swoon of leaves
rides down the wind. I doze
in my den, let images spin,
editing out
the raucous birds

raising
_______my forepaws,
stalking
_______the foothills
for pinyon-spirited words.

 

Carol L. Deering has twice received the Wyoming Arts Council Poetry Fellowship (2016, judge Rebecca Foust; and 1999, judge Agha Shahid Ali). Her poetry appears in online and traditional journals: recently in Soundings Review, forthcoming in Gyroscope Review and The Kerf. She also has poems in the anthology Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region. Once she had the privilege of interviewing Richard Hugo; that interview, published by Art Notes (Columbia Basin College), was reissued in CutBank.

Please Take Care of the Valuable Livestock

by Ian Dudley

I was taking a walk,
(I thought)

but the walk
had second thoughts

and abandoned me in the middle of fields of unseasonal wheat,
trim, knuckled hedges, and English grass, passive-aggressive green.
It was so quiet you could hear the pins dropping in your head.

It wasn’t natural like the city, unkempt, sprouting, doing its thing:
the land was so worked it practically sat up and begged.
A sheep stared at me. My eyes followed the tear tracks down

its long snout
to a restless mouth

sadly consuming
the universe.

 

Ian Dudley’s most recent publications have been in LossLitInk, Sweat and Tears, and The Rialto. He has won the Oxonian Review (2015) and Aesthetica (2017) poetry competitions, and featured in Eyewear’s The Best New British And Irish Poets 2016.

Two Poems by Joanna Lilley

Short-faced bear

I snort and suck the air for distant
carcass stench to clench my craving.
I run as far as sun-drop,

as far as mammoth, slick and spilled.
I watch the huddle-feast yet do not
undo my persistent pace.

These stocky cats will see me,
barge back to let me in and rip.
Or I will swipe their bites

across this stiff savannah.
For I must shove my muzzle, my cranium
in corpses, crack and fissure

borrowed bones – or eat a cub
or kit a day. My hunger serves me,
now that I must run from, as well as to.

The upright creatures stink of the chilling lands
they came from. They stare, I flee, as they fling
their pointed limbs to split, unblood me.

 

Desmostylus hersperus

Slide in, sand or shingle,
I am sturdy, broad, fixed footed.
I have found my rock
to straddle, slosh and anchor.

Water-sleep is sluggish grace
for the bulky on land.
Water is the colour of me,
flat-headed, only eyes and nostrils
popping surface tension.

Low-bellied, forelegs right-angled,
braced, to aim my trowel head
at mud roots. I move up the estuary
for the food I know I eat,
though my stone-turned bones
will leave no dietary confirmation.

I bequeath my bullet casing teeth,
my barrel of ribs, my spine
of wooden cotton reels, my neck
as thick and cluttered as a fir cone.

My genes will perish with my progeny.
Yet I am elephant.
I am hippopotamus.
I am every swim and wallow
in the cooling waters
of the ring of fire.

 

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collection, The Fleece Era (Brick Books), which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, and the short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press). Her second poetry collection If There Were Roads was published by Turnstone Press in 2017. Joanna is from the UK and has lived in Yukon, Canada, for the past 11 years.

Doubting Finches

by Scott Edward Anderson

The house finch nest in my porch light
has a curious architecture,
made entirely of found things:
dried seed heads from last year’s columbine,
dusky strands of my daughter’s hair,
small sticks, rose thorns, bits of string,
a gold thread from a cigarette pack wrapper.

Inside, wool-lined, cotton and fleece,
it holds three eggs, blue with tawny flecks.
The female finch sits on the nest
for an unusually long time; so long,
I fear she is mistaken or my messing
with the nest has disrupted gestation.
She picked her mate for the redness
of his head and chest, proxy for feeding prowess.
(I guess.)

In a few weeks all will be gone:
cherry blossoms drifting on air,
dogwoods blooming, oaks leafing out,
and the female finch finding another mate,
to start a second family this season.
Who was it that said, “Doubt is a privilege
of the faithful”? At least, I think someone
said it or should have. Then it was me,
me finding another mate, another home,
another reason. And I saw they swept out
the finch nest from that old porch light
as soon as I was gone.

 

Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award.

Spokesbirds for the Spokesbirds

by Katie Fallon

I sat  cross-legged on  the  pea-gravel floor of the enclosure, as still as stone, half of a dead  mouse resting in my outstretched palm. Lew the turkey vulture stood about three feet away and wuffed at me. He roused, shaking out his feathers, then stretched both  wings  back; each flight feather of the right wing was glossy,  silken, and impeccably preened.  The left wing, however, did not extend well, and several  feathers in sheath jutted at odd angles, like porcupine quills. The injury— several  fractures near the  shoulder joint—had already  healed by the time we’d admitted the bird to the acca for rehabilitation.  We knew he would never fly again. The vulture kept his good eye fixed on me. Like the left wing, the bird’s left eye was damaged and not functional.

I swallowed, just a subtle movement, and Lew wuffed again. A few weeks earlier we’d received a permit from  the  US Fish and  Wildlife  Service to keep this vulture for use in environmental education programs, and  I was  working to train him. Or perhaps he was  training me. Our  goal  was for Lew to become an ambassador for turkey vultures everywhere—to allow folks  to admire a vulture up close, to give them a chance to know a turkey  vulture a little bit better. We wanted Lew to be a confident, comfortable bird,  which  might allow audiences to glimpse a turkey vulture’s typical “personality,” and not that of a stressed, panicky  creature (which  is, unfortunately, sometimes the case with  wild,  non-releasable birds used in programs). We were only using positive reinforcement and operant conditioning with  Lew; it could  take some time, but we were confident the result would  be worth it.

Recently, bird-training experts have begun to recommend that  vultures not wear  anklets or  jesses, the leather straps around the legs used to leash hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls.  Because vultures excrete liquid droppings on their legs and feet, equipment can wear out or become encrusted, which in turn could harm the bird.  Also, a vulture’s legs  are not  as strong as a predatory raptor’s, and  a vulture jumping (also known as bating)  while jessed could result in injury. In addition to the potential physical problems with jessing vultures, the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators explains in a position statement that “there is a gradual movement toward giving birds more power over their environment. The scientific community has shown control is a primary reinforcer for animals. When a bird  is empowered with control over its  environment it will often perform with more reliable behavior.” The position statement further states, “Trainers are now discovering that  jesses are often  associated with negative reinforcement and positive punishment,” which could result in a bird that engages in “escape avoidance behavior, aggression, apathy, phobia or generalized fear of the environment.”

I certainly didn’t  want  to  punish Lew or cause him  to  be fearful; I wanted us to be partners. I wanted us to trust each other. Still,  I was a bit nervous without jesses. Although I’d given  educational programs in  the past with  un-jessed macaws,  cockatoos, and  African  gray  parrots, I’d never worked with an un-jessed hawk, owl,  falcon, or  vulture. But  bird- trainer extraordinaire Erin  Katzner and  I had  worked  out  a plan for training Lew, and although I remained a bit apprehensive about a truly wild  vulture’s ability  to trust me—and for me to trust him—in public without jesses or a leash, we were willing to give it a try.

Lew lowered his head  and  took a step  toward me. I sat perfectly still. He took another step, and as he drew closer he lowered his whole  body, almost slinking as he approached. When his toenails reached the edge of the blue  mat—our target, the place he was supposed to learn  to stand on to be fed—the vulture began to stretch his neck in my direction. I held my breath. The  bone-white hook  at  the  end  of his  beak  was  only  a few inches from my fingertips. I smelled the musky warmth of his feathers. His good  eye, a deeper brown color than the eyes of other vultures I’ve worked with, rolled in his red head, searching my eyes,  my face. He inched his other foot onto the mat, stretched, and  deftly nipped the piece of dead  mouse from my fingertips. In a flurry,  he retreated about three feet away and watched me as he swallowed the morsel. He opened and shut his beak a time or two and kept staring at me, and perhaps relaxed just a bit.

I exhaled. A wild vulture had  approached me and eaten from  my hand. This was day twelve of our training. The first day, I’d dropped food on the mat, then left the enclosure. After a few days of that, I stood just inside the door. Then  I moved a few steps closer,  and then I began sitting near the mat, moving a bit closer to it each day until  today,  when I rested my hand on the mat,  food in hand. It took me sitting like a statue for almost twenty minutes, but it worked. Tomorrow, he would be more confident.

A turkey   vulture without the  ability  to  fly is  tragic.   The birds  are built to soar,  to  master the wind.  Should we have humanely euthanized this vulture, who now stood just  a few feet away from me? That would have been a reasonable decision.  Lew’s enclosure is equipped with  various pieces  of furniture to accommodate his handicap. He could  only reach  his roosting box (complete with  a floor heater for chilly winter nights) by climbing a ramp we’d built  with “stairs,” much like a ramp you’d find in a chicken coop. A series of gently  sloping logs, branches, and large rocks allowed Lew to run along them without having  to use his wings. From  the  enclosure’s highest perch, he could look out  across a field and see the woods beyond. Other vultures often swirled on thermals above  the acca. Lew would  cock his head and watch them.

Perhaps Lew’s unfortunate fate could save other turkey vultures. Up close, he is an  impressive bird:  the  bronzed-black contour feathers, interlaid like soft scales; the  bone-white hook of his beak; the small, black-pupiled brown eye set in his blood-red face; the  delicate black velvet on his wrinkled forehead; the deep, close-mouthed hiss. Even the warm, musty smell is surprising. And when the wings unfurl, you wonder, for a moment, how the bird’s been hiding them, how he manages  to neatly  fold such great  capes over his back. The quick turns and bobs of his head show how sensitive he is to  his surroundings, and when he fixes his eye on yours,  you realize you’re in the presence of something trying to figure you out, of something that’s thinking.

Perhaps I’m overreaching and  anthropomorphizing. Perhaps not. Regardless, this  broken bird  had  a very important job—to  be a spokesbird for the spokesbirds, to give folks an up-close-and-personal introduction to the most widespread and numerous scavenging raptor on the planet.

I smiled and  reached into my pocket for another piece  of mouse.

 

Excerpted from Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. http://www.upne.com/1611689716.html

 

Katie Fallon is the cofounder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, a nonprofit research, education, and rehabilitation center for injured birds. A member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, she has glove-trained a wide variety of raptor species, including turkey vultures, hawks, owls, and falcons. She is the author, previously, of Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird. She lives in West Virginia.

Vixen

by Stella Wulf

She lies low, watches the last crow
________fletch the bloodshot sky,
________________straight as a quarrel home to roost.

A tatter of bats whisk like rags mopping up the dusk.
________Night pitches in, its skin nicked by a sickle moon.
________________Stars break out in a bristling rash.

She sensed he wouldn’t come back
________when the dawn cracked – cracked – cracked,
________________when she felt the pound and bellow of men,

________________________rumbling in the earth’s belly.

Alert on her toes she levels her tail,
________pricks her ears for the squeak of mouse,
________________the plop of frog, the feather-flick of nested grouse.

She hugs the shadow of his scent, rootles
________the empty space of him, stalks his wake,
________________tomorrow lurching inside her.

Tonight she’ll shake new life out of the dead,
________and when the day breaks, yolk-yellow,
________________she’ll bear his blood in a feathered bed.

 

 

Stella Wulf lives in South West France. She has an MA in Creative Writing, from Lancaster University and her work has been widely published, both in print and online magazines and journals. Her poems have been included in several anthologies including, The Very Best of 52, three drops from a cauldron, and the Clear Poetry Anthology. She is also an artist and her work can be seen on her website: stellawulf.com

Brave Bird

by Isaac Yuen

While doing laps at the pool one day, I came to the conclusion that the penguin is the most courageous and admirable of birds, because swimming is a meditative act, and a cleansed mind occasionally entertains notions of avian mettle. Not the eagle, I decided, which coasts by on piercing looks but is secretly not above scavenging, nor the owl, whose fame for foresight is wholly unearned, bested in wit by any parrot or common crow. No, I concluded as I flipped and pushed off into another length, it is the penguin I revere in all its awkward, earthbound glory.

~

I admit my bias. When I think penguin I conjure Emperor – all else falls away. It is unfair to the Adelies and Gentoos and the delightfully numerous Macaronis, but like most I cannot help but gravitate towards grandeur. Yet Emperor seems an ill-fitting label upon initial inspection. There is nothing regal about the bird’s stiff-legged gait, nor are rulers, whether they be enlightened or despotic, generally renowned for diving down half a kilometer in search of squid and silverfish. Monarchs have subjects and serfs and entire underclasses that cater to their cravings, while each metre-tall bird fishes alone, holding no sway over one another within their hamlet-sized rookeries. Perhaps Emperor refers to another trait. Perhaps George Robert Gray, the British zoologist who first described these birds, regarded them as I did, by their solid temperaments and sense of self-masteries, coming to believe that unlike men, each indeed contains strength enough to be an island upon itself, as a lord amongst lords.

~

One may think that this courage is found in the penguin’s ability to thrive in its kingdom of rock and firn. That is partially true. Some credit must be given for dwelling in Desolation personified, a realm of katabatic winds and roiling seas which even the most intrepid of mariners deem beyond the reach of law or God. Yet there are other reasons. Of all birds penguins seem the only ones that possess the ability to endure; by their very nature they eschew the concept of escape that comes so easily to chickadees and ostriches, which flit and flee at the first signs of stress for clear skies and warm climes. Emperor resolve, like their bones, is stout and solid; there is no away or south or retreat in their script. Instead they hold fast against the jeers of blizzards and needle-ice, withstanding the alternating judgment of darkness and unshadow. “Despair!” they moan and wail. “One day,” the penguin replies without response, abiding as granite, “but not today.”

Yet as ice trumps rock and cold outlasts all, even stone courage is not enough in the end. Instead Emperors count upon their tender cores and gain fortitude through community. On darkest nights they shed their egos and come together to share precious body heat. In these huddles magnanimity reigns supreme, with each bird rotating from center to periphery and back again, giving with all that they have, accepting with all that they are. In this utter pitch each flipper brush becomes a benediction, each faint touch a deliverance from oblivion, affirmations of penguinhood. “Solidarity,” Emperors murmur, alone, in unison, laconic.

~

Like most forms, penguin courage also has roots in love, for Emperors are versed in the language of promise. After laying one egg the female departs to feed, leaving her mate with months of incubation duty, with each pinning their future entirely upon the other. For many couples this hope fails, for the seas are perilous and populated with leopard seals and orca whales – there are no guarantees in life. Yet Emperors choose to take the risk, being too ignorant or wise to evade suffering by avoiding commitment, and so for the partner who sees his vision return from the void after days uncounted, sleek and plump and reeking of fish; for the other who trudges a hundred icy miles home to see her beloved grim and gaunt but still standing over their progeny, the exaltation in knowing their bond is stronger than all that tried it must be beyond measure. This secret spheniscid bliss we are not privy to may not surpass the one we humans weave into song and poems. Yet perhaps it is not less.

~

But the courage I admire most about penguins stems from their clarity of conviction. Swimming in my lane, rope floats on both sides, square tiles beneath my feet, length after length, stroke after stroke, I realize that despite fleeting moments of elation and freedom, mine is still a contained life, a chlorinated existence. The search for kinetic joy and durable meaning involves shedding solid ground time and again to embrace a world of depth and risk. The penguin understands that it can only be performed over the black abyss, and is never very safe. Getting out of the pool, I decided to one day take up open water swimming, to follow the currents of fear and hope so thoroughly charted by my aquatic brethren, the bravest bird of all.

 

Isaac Yuen’s creative nonfiction can be found in Flyway, Hippocampus, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, and Orion, among others. He is the creator of Ekostories, an online essay collection that connects narratives in art, media, and literature to nature, culture, and identity. Isaac lives in Vancouver, Canada, on unceded Coast Salish First Nations territory.

Fluke

by Rebecca Gethin

People wander the shore looking to sea as though waiting
for a god to manifest, or a sign of an epiphany, an oracle

from the expanse. We stare at the jostle of isosceles triangles
playing leapfrog over one another before they collapse

on the shingle, sibilant and fricative. Plenty of fish out there –
a gulp of cormorants sit poised on what can’t keep shape,

their outstretched wings a black witchery of fin. Gannets quarter it,
strike it like lightning. After a pause they materialise, almost

gagging on their swallow, then plunge upwards to free themselves
like a shooting star. All water is of a mind to rise, the force

of waves pushing up from behind. A boom of a wave detonates,
spraying rainbows. Ground shudders. A snort like a horse.

Spouts of white spray as a shining hump back with a dorsal fin
arcs through the water, arc after arc, leaving roundels

of flat calm in its wake, printing stillness on the higgledy water.
Its winged tail lifts before diving beyond our ken.

And that’s when it seems the air is a hymn, the sea
a psalm in counterpoint.

 

 

Rebecca has been reading from her new pamphlets, A Sprig of Rowan (Three Drops Press) and All the Time in the World (Cinnamon Press) in a number of places this year.  Cinnamon Press published her second full collection, A Handful of Water, in 2013 as well as her two novels, What the horses said and Liar Dice.   She currently runs the Poetry School’s monthly seminars in Plymouth and was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2016. Her website is www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com

Warts and All

by Jessica Groenendijk

I am passionate about cats. I admire their fluid grace and their shape pleases me. Not for me the slavish neediness of dogs, I prefer the take-me-as-I-am independence of a cat. And in my eyes the leopard, queen of cats, is the pinnacle of animal splendour. Those gorgeous rosettes, that unfathomable, yellow stare…

In short, there is almost nothing I would not forgive a cat. But some years ago, my profound admiration for all creatures feline suffered a punishing blow.

Living in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, a young warthog family visited us daily. We often had lunch outdoors, enjoying the view of the Lubonga River, and the mother and her four pert piglets would trot jauntily into camp, in single file, tails like antennae. They enjoyed the succulent grass growing at the edge of the pond and seemed secure in our presence, tolerating my children’s excited voices with equanimity.

I grew fond of those warthogs. They had an air of brisk optimism that never failed to make me smile. The antics of the irrepressible piglets were a constant delight. They chased and tumbled over each other, in staccato bursts of breakneck speed. Sometimes they fell asleep next to their rootling mother, their compact bodies fleetingly stilled.

One day, a piglet scampered onto the kids’ trampoline – which we had sunk into the ground – and shot off it in a soaring bound. As soon as its little hooves touched earth, it hurtled out of sight. The other warthogs stood frozen in mid chew, not understanding what had happened. My kids fell about in giggles at the spectacle of the flying piglet and its bewildered family. Then the mother galloped purposefully after her panicked baby, its siblings in pursuit. We didn’t see them for a while after that.

As it turned out, the trampoline incident signaled the end of carefree times. When the family next appeared, it was minus a piglet. Three days later, another had gone missing. We watched with dismay as the mother walked quietly into camp, tail limp, her two remaining offspring glued to her side. Gone was their perky confidence. They were subdued, uneasy, shying violently when a kingfisher darted into the pond nearby. My children looked at me with troubled, questioning faces.

I knew who the culprit was. I had seen the spoor of a leopard, a female, in the dust of the path behind our house. For the first time in my life, I resented a cat and wished it elsewhere.

Late one morning, the final tragedy struck. Shrill screams came from the opposite bank of the river, shrieks so loud and piercing, their source could only be an adult warthog battling for its life. I grabbed my binoculars and glimpsed a blur of piglet streaking over the sun-scorched grass. Had the mother confronted the leopard when it targeted her remaining babies? Filled with frustrated pity, I tried to think. Was there something I should do? Was it right to interfere? The agonised shrieks continued unabated.

I couldn’t bear to listen any longer. Yelling to my kids to stay inside, I ran to the Landcruiser and drove across the dry riverbed. A vague plan of saving the mother by somehow intimidating her attacker took shape and I stopped briefly to listen for the struggle. A choked squeal nearby, from the tall grass just off the road. Willing the warthog not to give up, I plunged towards her.  The car rocked and lurched over the rough terrain. I knew I was just a few metres away, though nothing was visible. I considered climbing on top of the car for a clearer view but reason took over. A leopard, so close and in the throes of bloodlust, is not to be trifled with. And by now, the warthog’s cries had diminished to tired, hopeless grunts.

Finally, there was silence.

Determined to confirm my suspicions, I drove back to the track and followed it a few metres to where it bisected a shallow ditch. Picking up my binoculars, I scanned along it. Sure enough, through a haze of curving grass stems, I spotted the haunch of a warthog. Then I saw the leopard. She paced up and down, panting, too hot and flustered to eat.

She was breathtaking. Perfect. My anger melted. I could not resist her, could not begrudge her that hard-earned meal. After a few minutes I left, trying not to disturb her.

Over the following weeks, I hoped, despite myself, that I was wrong, that our warthog friend hadn’t been the victim. The children and I watched out for her every day. But we never saw her, or her last two piglets, again.

 

Jessica is a Dutch biologist, conservationist, and nature writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Follow her @WildWordsAuthor on Twitter and Facebook and find her Words from the Wild at: http://www.jessicagroenendijk.com.

Footnotes

by Brian Johnstone

It’s the pattern
of a dance,
not slow, slow,

quick, quick, slow;
but slow, slow, slow:
the macro prints

that show the steps
– not feet, but foot
in singular;

not tripping
the light fantastic
but out there

in the dark,
a ritual dance
as if in Balkan style,

a circle of steps
accomplished
while we humans

slept and slugs
in stately,
mute procession,

turned slime-borne
about each other
in pursuit

of what? – not
the leaving
of this trail for sure

their signature
in residue
on slabs of stone,

a ring of silver
chanced upon by light
fantastic in its way

of finding out
the veiled and covert
footwork of the night.

 

 

Brian Johnstone is a poet, writer and performer whose work has appeared throughout Scotland, elsewhere in the UK, in North America and across Europe. He has published six collections, most recently Dry Stone Work (Arc, 2014). His poems have been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2015 his work was selected to appear on the Poetry Archive website. His memoir Double Exposure was published by Saraband in February 2017. A founder and former Director of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, he has appeared at various poetry festivals, from Macedonia to Nicaragua, and at numerous venues across the UK. http://brianjohnstonepoet.co.uk/