Rebecca Clark – Artist

“I make drawings of the natural world, transient moments of grace and beauty in an age of disappearance. Inspired by plant and animal studies of the Northern Renaissance, Netherlandish devotional panel paintings, and nature mysticism as expressed through various forms of art, music, poetry and prose, my art acknowledges interconnectedness in nature and our loss of connection with the sacred.

Our planet is broken because we’ve lost relationship with the earth, with our soul. My drawings serve as more than intimate portraits; they are testaments to lives lived. They are memento mori, reminders in this age of ecocide that humans cannot live detached from nature. May these quiet drawings remind us of our place on this planet and awaken our consciousness to the cosmos of which we are a part.

Rebecca Clark has had several recent solo exhibitions in the USA, including Finite and Alive (Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, MD), Animal Nature (Piermont Straus, Piermont, NY) and Anima Mundi (Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD). Her illustrations have been published widely, including by Orion Magazine, Corbel Stone Press, The Dark Mountain Project and Earthlines.

www.rebeccaclarkart.com

Header Image – Wing (for Manon), 2012, detail, graphite on paper.

 

Kestrel 1 (Again, Alive, for Richard Skelton), 2014, graphite on paper.
Kestrel 2 (Revenant, for Autumn Richardson), 2014, graphite on paper.
Oisin, 2014, detail, graphite on paper.
Stafford’s Deer (for Bill Willis), 2013, graphite on paper.
Whale 3, 2016, graphite and colored pencil on paper.
Owl 1, 2013, graphite on paper.

 

In all the wrong places

by Beth McDonough

Afraid, I anticipated him – reckoned
killer boxes in the owner’s shed. I sensed
that macchja dense with his lives, head-rattled all

those words he’d claimed – scratch
scuttle, rustle, scurry, gnaw.
He glutted
my dark. Nightly, I fretted him, sifted

seeds for scat. On the lane’s camber I
tensed, stared riddles in stink-wide
bins for humped moves. No shadow shot

from flag leaf drains. I detected no presence
in dykes. No quick through briar thicks. None. I
opened myself to planets and stars. There

Rat, sleek along telegraph wires,
cork oak to cork oak, smooth
on summer low cables. My linear acrobat.

Beth McDonough trained in silversmithing at GSA, completing her M.Litt at Dundee University. Writer-in-residence at DCA 2014-16, her poetry appears in Agenda, Causeway, The Scores and elsewhere. She reviews in DURA. Handfast, with Ruth Aylett (Mother’s Milk, May 2016) charts family experiences – Aylett’s of dementia and McDonough’s of autism.

Moments with Barred Owls

by 
Jenna Gersie

I spent a year under the gaze of wild birds. At first, I couldn’t look into their eyes, out of respect. Slowly, I gained their trust, and they reached a level of comfort with me that they had achieved with other trainers before. I wore a thick leather glove and a hip-pack filled with pieces of mice. They wore ferocity, stoicism, and dignity. The injured wild birds who came into our care bore a type of bravery I had never seen—to remain calm and still beneath the hands of humans, to be separated from the trees for a time. Those who were residents blessed us with their individualism—I never knew these creatures could have such personalities. I had only ever seen or heard these birds at a distance before. Up close, I was always in awe.

I.

On my first day working with the avian wildlife rehabilitation team, someone brought us a barred owl, lying on an old towel in a cardboard box with holes punched in it. The owl had been hit by a car, stunned. Tara called me over to the exam table. Carrie held the owl’s taloned feet in her leather-gloved hands, using her forearms to keep the bird’s long wings tucked in at its sides. There were no visible injuries. Carefully, Tara began a thorough exam, explaining as she adeptly felt each bone beneath feathers, stretched the wings, shone a flashlight to look into the bird’s deep brown eyes. She gently blew the bird’s feathers, causing them to part and reveal the owl’s ears. I leaned in, fascinated. I had never seen a bird’s ears before, or even considered them, for that matter. I peered inside the owl’s ear: the soft pink flesh, curling into a cavern in a pattern not so different from my own. Owls’ eyes are so large, you can see the back of their eyeballs by looking into their ears; their hearing is so phenomenal, they can hear a mouse scurrying beneath the snow. Looking into the pink swirl of that ear, my own sense of hearing rushed away. Tara’s voice, the metal door slamming in the next room, the other avian patients shuffling in their enclosures—all sounded incredibly distant. “I think I need to sit down,” I barely heard myself say as I found my way to the stool in the corner. Someone helped me from the stool to the cold, cement floor as lightheadedness and nausea overcame me. This vasovagal reaction: was it mere queasiness at seeing, up close, the anatomy of the barred owl? Or somehow, in that moment, did I absorb the owl’s trauma and pain?

II.

Julia, Amy, and I stayed after work one day to learn how to splint a bird’s leg. On the counter were toothpicks, pieces of wire, Popsicle sticks, and SAM splints cut into bird-sized pieces. We would choose our splint based on the size of the bird we would use to practice. If a bird ever died in our care, we wrapped it in plastic, made a label with masking tape and a permanent marker, and kept it in the freezer, and Tara had pulled a few for the evening’s lesson. They ranged in size from a scarlet tanager to a black vulture. I chose the barred owl. Tara slid it across the counter toward me. Something caught my attention as she did: a smell that was warm and comforting, so unlike the semi-frozen cadaver that lay before me. I attempted to discretely move my face closer to the owl, whose eyelids were closed in silence. The smell wafted toward me. I moved my fingers through the breast feathers of the owl, a million times softer than I could have imagined. “This owl smells good,” I said, feeling crazy. “You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that barred owls smell good,” Tara said, moving on to a diagram of a bird’s skeleton. I leaned forward again. The owl smelled like baking. Like flour, like sugar, like a kitchen warmed by the oven. The fringes of an owl’s feathers look like eyelashes. With each detail of the owl’s body as delicate as that, it didn’t seem so strange to imagine this owl flying through the kitchen, amongst pastries, its feather tips dusting flour on the counter as they dip and dust the fresh-fallen snow.

III.

Amy had let her dishes pile up again. They filled both halves of the sink, stacked one atop the other, teetering. Sometimes you had no choice but to do them for her. This time, she brought her laptop next to the kitchen sink to watch a TV show while she washed her dishes. The hot water produced steam that rose and enshrouded the kitchen window. There was still snow on the ground, but the days were getting longer, so there was some daylight left as Julia and I went about our evenings and Amy diligently finished her task at the kitchen sink, the water running. We were in an adjoining room when we heard her shout, “HOLY SHIT! It’s a barred owl!!” She slammed her laptop shut. We both came running. We joined Amy at the kitchen window, wiped away the condensation, and looked outside. Our backyard included a deck that had started to fall apart. A single post stood about five feet tall at one corner of the deck. Perched dreamily atop the post was a barred owl, hunkered down, its feathers puffed warmly around it. It looked perfect there, with the sky approaching twilight and the brown reeds of winter swaying in the background. Amy couldn’t explain her excitement, but it didn’t matter—we all felt the same. It didn’t matter that we saw our resident barred owls at work every day; it didn’t matter that injured ones were brought into our care each week. This was a wild barred owl. It wasn’t here for the lab mice that we defrosted each evening; it wasn’t here for rest and relaxation. It was on its own, it had survived the winter, it had found food to hunt despite the snow, which lay two feet deep from November till February. We stood at the kitchen window, our breath fogging the glass more than the hot water from the faucet had, watching the owl until the sky grew dark. We never saw it move from its perch.

IV.

When the snow melted, Julia and I put on wool layers and running shoes and ran from our home on Route 4 to a side street, downhill, over the bridge, past the golf course, past the homes we could never afford. I hadn’t run since the fall, and my quads quivered and my lungs felt shallow. I carried on, trying to keep up, as we began to ascend. Julia was several hundred feet ahead of me as the pavement wound uphill around the trees whose buds had yet to bloom. The forest was still made up of browns and grays; the green-to-come was several weeks away. Around a corner, I lost sight of her, but as I continued, I saw her stopped on the side of the road, looking at the trees. She heard me approaching, and without a sound, she made eye contact with me and then pointed into the woods. I staggered uphill until I was beside her, then looked to where she pointed. There, not ten feet from the side of the road, about ten feet above our heads, a barred owl perched on a branch, napping. Its chocolatey feathers made it nearly indistinguishable from the trees that surrounded it; I wondered how Julia had spotted it. Its eyes were mostly closed, perhaps left slightly open to observe us. I was ashamed by my ragged breathing as my lungs attempted to compensate for the hill I had just climbed. The owl was so silent, so still; I was nothing but a disturbance.

V.

We kept two barred owls in an enclosure together. During the spring health check-up we gave to each of the resident birds, we found that one of the barred owls was getting too skinny. She was as old as me. Maybe the other owl in her enclosure was eating most of the food, but more likely, she was just getting old. We brought her back to the rehab enclosures to more closely monitor her food consumption. In the evenings, if I was returning a raptor to its enclosure past normal work hours, I would hear the old barred owl call across the campus: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The hoots and caws of her former roommate would echo back to her. All night, I imagined them calling back and forth, finding comfort in the other’s calls even when they could not find comfort in the other’s presence. Through the darkness, their calls resounded, connecting them where human-made barriers prevented their union. After a few days of separation from her partner, it was decided that perhaps being in a new enclosure was causing too much stress on the old owl, that maybe she had a better chance of gaining weight in the home she had known for the past ten years. She was moved back to her original enclosure at the end of the workday. The next morning, I unlocked the padlock that kept the gate to the bird enclosures shut. I wrapped the cold chain around a post, grateful that I hadn’t yet given up winter’s gloves, slid the gate open, and began to walk past the enclosures. The barred owls’ enclosure was after the bald eagles, golden eagles, and great horned owls. Each bird looked at me with some kind of distaste, the quiet of their early morning interrupted. But when I reached the barred owls, my heart ached at what I saw. Despite the various places designed specifically for these injured birds to find a place to perch, the two had found their place together: they sat, side by side, on a branch that hung like a swing from the roof. Their commitment to each other, throughout their nights apart, and now, reunited, was almost too much to bear. I watched them, and they stared back at me in unison.

Jenna Gersie’s writing has appeared in Orion, The Goose, Dirt, and Kudzu House, among others. She is an editor for The Hopper and Green Writers Press and teaches literature and writing at The Island School. She is passionate about learning about new places and discovering meanings of home.

Swīn

by Philippe Atherton-Blenkiron

“Pigs […] are leading pretty miserable lives.” – Peter Singer

I exist under a pink sky;
a canopy of blankets lined with caricature,
stitched-up with greed and mud. A veil that paints me

a harlequin fool – nose pressed hard against the glass.
Staring through quasi-human eyes
in search of silver linings. My skies

are cloudless, by the way – if I’d the chance to look.
And look, no pot of gold either (or pearls for that matter)
ruddy with ombre spectrum. But, in my head,

I speak of a blue, and of the vivid grass’ hue,
in your child’s voice.
Hu-weeh, these Romantic words make nothing

but a proverbial “ear” of my cause.
(And French doesn’t help, with its nicknames.)
So give it to me Saxon, man. Call me sweeeen.

Give me shit! But don’t expect me to be happy.

Philippe Atherton-Blenkiron holds an MA in Creative Writing from Keele University, and is one-third of the editorial Triumvirate at the TheBeesAreDead.com. His debut collection The Pustoy – a dystopian novella in verse – was published by Dagda Publishing in 2014, and his other work can be found squatting in a collection of online and print publications. He works in education, maintains a vegan diet, and is heavily involved in music – playing various instruments in both metal and folk bands.

Giant Otters and Gold Fever

by Stephanie V Sears

It is a short flight between Cuzco and Puerto Maldonado in Peru yet the contrast is drastic, almost surreal between the severe Andean slopes and the lush jungle plain where I am headed in an attempt to see Pteronura brasiliensis or Giant otter. At close to six feet in length the mustelid  deserves this qualifier compared to its better known, smaller cousin Lutra lutra, the Eurasian otter. Diurnal, noisy and family-oriented in its habits, the marvelous Pteronura seems, nonetheless, to have passed, for the most part, under the general public radar. Many even well–traveled and educated people confess to not having been aware of the existence of a giant otter with a white fur bib as identification card, and the teeth and muscle to overcome co-predators such as caiman and anaconda.

As I look out onto the apparently endless expanse of jungle below, the oversight does not seem at first very surprising to me. My goal to find the giant otter looks like a real challenge. The species lives in areas that until fairly recently were known only to local tribes, hunters and the occasional field scientist.

But between the 1950s and 1970s the animal was easily targeted because of its native curiosity and communicative nature, and therefore hunted to near extinction for its highly valued, soft dark brown fur.  During those twenty years some 20,000 pelts are estimated to have been exported from Peru to Europe; a conservative estimate at that. Since 1973 some sixty-five otters in Manu National Park have, consequently, been put under full legal protection. Unfortunately, this measure and a more provisional protection law declared in 1990 for Madre de Dios, has not prevented otters from being either accidentally killed when caught in fishing nets, or intentionally so, by angry fishermen. Twenty-one giant otters were reported accidentally killed between 2006 and 2012, but over sixty of them were ‘executed’ by indigenous people competing with the otter for turtle meat.

If given the chance to thrive in the region, a total of 128 individuals recorded for the whole southeastern Peru are destined to become both the flagship and umbrella species, in other words, the magnet for eco-tourism and the measure of environmental health for the whole region.

Listed by the IUCN as either endangered or vulnerable, depending on the South American region, giant otters are indeed found in groups of varying size in parts of the Guianas, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru: groups as small as 30 in Paraguay, to an average of 250 in Ecuador, to the largest group of 2,500 in the Amazon Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland. Pteronura is officially extinct in Uruguay and Argentina.

Yet despite optimistic announcements of localized population increases, the number of giant otters is, on the whole, decreasing in numbers according to the IUCN.

The Madre de Dios region appears as a prime example of how human activity and conflicting interests can lead to disaster for all sides: a nature-disfiguring and health-hazardous gold-mining activity on the one hand, a depleted nature and eco-tourism on the other.  In 2004 a formal zoning and monitoring plan was created to handle problems in the Tambopata-Candamo reserve such as illegal logging and hunting, conflicts of interest between eco-tourism lodges, illegal building, poorly organized and intrusive group visits. Evidently, as I discover before even landing, these zoning and protection measures are still far from effective. For in the midst of the variegated greens of the tropical canopy, logged and agricultural patches cut out of the jungle signal the worst to come. Near the juncture with the Tambopata River the banks of the Madre de Dios River are blemished by huge red-brown ulcers spreading into the nearby forest like some bleeding leprosy. Unsure of what I am looking at from the plane window, but already pessimistic, my fears are confirmed upon arrival at the airport when my eco-lodge’s agent grimly announces that an illegal gold miners’ strike has blocked off all roads to the river with boulders and cut down trees. The river is what I and other eco-tourists have to reach so as to board the motorized canoes that will take us to our respective lodges at the brim of the jungle.

After a two hour wait in a butterfly farm we hope that our bus will be allowed through.  No such luck. We walk. Some leave their luggage at the farm, taking only tooth brush, camera and a change of underwear. Others, more mistrustful, like myself, drag all their luggage for an hour and a half under the hot sun through the main thoroughfare of Puerto Maldonado.  Solidarity, cemented by exasperation, is born among us during that time, as we wonder who among the locals staring at us from the houses are the gold miners. Some locals clap and cheer as we go by, drawing from us unambiguous if sotto voce reactions.  A police car drives back and forth, possibly in a vague attempt to foil a further deterioration of the situation, but, clearly, not to help us with our bags.

At last, with the fresh air of the open river on our faces, we leave behind the vaguely dangerous mood of Puerto Maldonado; though not quite, since, on our way, we notice gold mining equipment lying in wait on the beaches and further on, some miners busy working, notwithstanding the strike.

Finally, the jungle and the evening wrap us in a cocoon of squawks, roars, and the underlying quiet of an undiminished nature. The proximity of disaster is temporarily forgotten.

Two days later my guide Hugo and I make an attempt to see the giant otters. We walk for three quarters of an hour along a muddy path from Tambopata River through the jungle to the Sandoval Lake. A fairly easy promenade, a kind of eco-tourist thoroughfare under the canopy agitated by parrots, capuchin and howler monkeys, a number of furry tarantulas poised on the entrance of their nest like doormen.

A new lodge is being built just behind the first line of trees on the Tambopata bank, and for a while the sound of hammering follows us.

A the end of the jungle path, we find our canoe tied to a small dock and we glide onto the peaceful oxbow lake bordered by tall palm trees and bird-laden shrub, when suddenly we glimpse in the distance the telltale rippling under some over-hanging branches. In silence, we navigate towards it.

One or two otters are still reclining like Riviera sunbathers on low branches when we arrive; others, previously invisible to us, promptly dive into the lake. Seven, eight, twelve? It is a big family. They keep ahead of us, swimming close to the banks, then stopping, periscoping, aiming at us loud, explosive snorts, followed by a capella whining. Our careful pursuit, their strange approach-avoidance (which may ensue from regularly seeing tourists) continue. One adult breaks the surface with a fish in its mouth and devours it on the move, displaying impressive canines.  What is striking to me at this close range, however, is the comic-strip cuteness of these whiskered, more catlike than doggish faces, despite their local name of Lobos del Rio, and their demonstrative curiosity and evident intelligence.  I imitate their whines to see what reaction I will get and receive in reply a tirade of noises, some of which resemble the whistles and clicks of a dolphin. Hugo and I look at each other, cowed into silence by what sounds to us like a severe rebuke. Have I said something wrong?

Plunging and eating along the way, the otters progress toward the center of the oxbow while demonstrating the same combination of curiosity and distrust to a newly arrived canoe full of frantic photographers. But soon the otter family has had enough and retreats to their inviolable sanctuary forbidden to us, on the farther side of the lake.

Like their smaller cousin Lutra lutra, the giant otter is what scientists call a ‘bio-indicator’ of the quality of the surrounding environment. In short, if the environment is healthy for the otter it is a guarantee of healthiness for humans.  Pteronura’s reproduction and survival depends principally on an uncontaminated nature but also on very measured disturbances by humans.  A poorly managed eco-tourism, therefore, constitutes as much of a critical threat to the giant otter within its present limited protected territory, as gold mining and deforestation does.  Even our quiet visit by canoe affects the otter’s reproductive potential. Consequently, scientists now recommend, not only monitoring the number of tourists that visit the lake at one given time, but abandoning the use of canoes altogether in favor of observatory towers and platforms discreetly placed on the edges of the lake.

Joel Mendoza, a specialist of the giant otter at the Zoological Society of Frankfurt, explains that Tambopata-Cambano reserve is highly vulnerable because of a high and increasing human density, (the Madre de Dios population was around 49,000 in 1990), much denser than in neighboring Manu National Park. The lack of efficient and strict land management facilitates illegal activities that affect the forest. Gold mining attracts poor farmers from other regions of Peru such as the Sierra, Puno, Ayacucho and Apurimac and leads to a double disaster in that it also destroys forest, (50,000 hectares of deforestation found in 2012 to have been caused directly by gold mining in the region, reported by the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental) and simultaneously contaminates air, water, fauna and people.

The expedient, or ‘artisanal’, illegal use of mercury by which gold is extracted, embroiled with local politics, has had and continues to have catastrophic, long-term effects on the surrounding nature and human health. It has spread out of control to new regions: from the rivers Madre de Dios, Malinowski and Colorado to the rivers Las Piedras and Pariamanu.  For obvious political reasons, as explains an official contact at the Ministry of Exterior Affairs specialized in the sustainable use of the environment, the level of unemployment in some rural areas is such that the government has somewhat tolerated this ‘free for all’. One means by which the central government has tried to oppose illegal gold mining, adds my governmental contact, is by cutting off supplies in fuel needed for the dragas or mining machinery.

Thirty thousand illegal gold miners are said to operate in the region, organized in some five associations. Their essential ingredient to extract gold is mercury. Cheaply obtained, it is heated with an ore amalgam so as to isolate the gold and offers the benefit of rapid results in an operation necessitating only one person. But the mercury evaporates during the process so that an ill-protected gold miner, and anyone nearby, inhales the poisonous emissions. Called methyl-mercury after infiltrating water, mercury is then drunk unknowingly or absorbed through eating fish, themselves contaminated through the gills. The larger the fish the more mercury is taken in. Levels of mercury in urine and blood samples analyzed in the region have been found to be dangerously high, pregnant women and children being the most vulnerable to this neurotoxin.

A number of methods exist to alleviate the impact in the use of mercury; while   isolating the equipment prevents human inhalation and absorption into the environment; borax, a natural and cheap mineral used in detergent, is considered to be the best substitute for mercury. It obtains a higher weight of gold without the health hazards. If so, why has this shift from mercury to borax not been urgently made in Peru , when levels of mercury found in 58% of fish samples are considered to be above acceptable levels for giant otters, and in a lesser but significant percentage of the sample (17.6%), for humans?  In 2012, in fact, the UNEP drafted an agreement on reducing and finally, eliminating the use of mercury.

According to the IUCN, the 10 or 12 giant otters in Peru’s Sandoval Lake have particular genetic importance as an evolutionary unit, yet unfortunately, in all of South America, they are perhaps the most hard hit by man’s abuse of nature. Parts of the jungle in the region have been completely scraped off the ground for gold mining purposes and the replacement of this form of high-biodiversity in its integrity is virtually impossible once it has been destroyed. (Concerning the amounts of mercury delivered into nature, it is significant to know that mercury is already naturally high in Amazonian soils, therefore deforestation contributes to its release into water).  There are, consequently, few projects at the moment that attempt to reconstitute the destroyed jungle.  Nonetheless, between 2008 and 2011 the AIDER NGO based in New Delhi and founded by Mr. Virenda Kumar Jha, worked to recreate an organic base by using the plants Guaba and Kutsu for the regrowth of a natural forest. Any other type of reforestation is considered unable to re-establish the vital relationship between fauna and native flora and absorb as much carbon as the authentic forest.

With a predicted 40% reduction of the Amazon forest by 2030, those directly involved in the destruction of the Madre de Dios nature must urgently weigh the advantages and disadvantages in their choice of a livelihood: a hazardous employment both in terms of health and long-term earnings, or the prospect of a sustainable future dependent on a thriving nature that more and more tourists are eager to see? What is the most valuable asset, gold or a rich and rare biodiversity?

At the heart of this dilemma (a very real one for a poor individual), has emerged a change in the general attitude towards nature, and by the same token, towards animal rights. Is it humanity’s right to invade and destroy the way of life of other creatures as if these were disposable objects, as humanity has done for centuries? More to the point, is not such a mentality suicidal for our own species? The giant otter, in its intolerance to pollution – reflecting our own vulnerability to contaminated environments – offers a clear reply. It is.

Pteronura favors sandy bottomed and rocky ‘black waters’ frequently found in forested areas. The equation is a simple one: if we pursue our destruction of the Amazon forest the giant otter will disappear for good while our environmental troubles will worsen. This is how closely our own physical and psychological welfare is entangled with the sustainable survival of this species and of others.

Alas, my attempt to leave the region three days later is just as chaotic as my arrival. The strike has hardened despite governmental attempts at dialogue with the miners. We are forced to leave at 2 am in the morning and travel by boat well beyond Puerto Maldonado to avoid being blocked on our way to the airport.  In the dim grey light of pre-dawn, we wait by a dirt track where we are picked up and driven in a file of four or five small buses through back roads to the airport. This time we have the added protection of a small police escort.

Hugo, my Inkaterra guide and a passionate naturalist, informs me weeks later by email that the illegal gold miner strike continued well after my departure, forcing him and other eco-tourism professionals into indefinite economic inactivity.

Gold mining in Madre de Dios might be tolerated for economic reasons to continue in safer conditions, but it should take into account that other species, a fortiori, large mammal predators, literally need ‘their space’.  The space is the Amazon jungle in this case, as vital in its prime condition to us as it is to the other species that inhabit it. The giant otter’s fate will, therefore, essentially determine our own.

 

 

Stephanie V Sears is a French and American ethnologist specialized in South Pacific societies, a free-lance journalist, essayist and poet whose essays have appeared in CerisePress, The Cresset, The Montreal Review, Wildlifeextra, Insula.

Mei Lan

by Brenda Kay Ledford

Longs for a home
she’s never seen
ancient land, legends

a small creature
stretched out
napping on a limb

like any animal
caged behind glass
pleading for freedom

light bends toward China
nibbling bamboo
puddling rice fields

mountains roll
emeralds and sapphire
black patches round eyes

fear-rigid
she peeps at you
wanting to be alone

the panda cries
and reorchestrates
an elephant’s trumpet

Brenda Kay Ledford is a member of North Carolina Writers’ Network and listed with “A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers.”  Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies.  Aldrich Press published her poetry book, CREPE ROSES, that won the 2015 Paul Green Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians. 

Bigfoot

by Richard LeBlond

The day had been scheduled for cold air out of Canada, a lousy way to start up June. But by the time we had gathered at the parking lot near the beach, the wind had died, the sun had punctured those cold Canadian clouds, and we were treated to one of those fabled “what is so rare?” June days.

The beach belonged to a town on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, and our group included two members of the local conservation commission, a piping plover researcher, a citizen “activator”, and me, a botanist. A few hundred yards down the beach, up where the berm above high tide blends into the toe of the foredune, a pair of piping plovers had scooped out a small pocket in the sand and laid the customary four eggs.

These two sparrow-size birds and their nest had reached a statistical significance wholly out of reason. But these are unreasonable times.

There were seven breeding pairs on this beach in 1986, but in 1988 it was down to two. That had been the trend since monitoring began in 1983. In 1987 there were 126 breeding pairs of piping plovers in all of Massachusetts, the largest population within any of the political subdivisions of the Newfoundland-to-North Carolina breeding range of this federally protected species. The whole Atlantic Coast population was estimated to be no more than 700 pairs.

During our walk down the beach I was introduced to the particulars of this town’s foredune system by the citizen “activator.” He knew where every blowout and overwash had happened, even though the scars had been healed by new beachgrass ridges. And he knew when and how many piping plovers had nested in the old scallops and hollows of blowout and overwash.

Unassuming and always smiling, one sensed that he knew things would be set right again in some eon just around the corner. His information was infused with a quiet but dogged love for land and sea. I understood why one of the conservation commission members had said he was “an activator, not an activist.” He knew how things worked, from foredune to town meeting, and had learned to work with them.

A fortress of rope and warning signs had been erected around the plovers’ nest. It was risky, calling attention to the site like that. But the alternative was worse, and that was soon apparent.

“There she is,” said the plover researcher, scanning the nest site through her binoculars from our vantage point about a hundred feet away. The female plover had scooted off the nest and was standing about three feet from it, so I was told. Looking through my own binoculars, I scrunched my eyes into X-ray mode and still couldn’t see her, even though, as it turned out, I was looking right at her.

The piping plover has a distinctive black band around the neck, and another black band across the forehead from eye to eye. The rest of the body is the color of dry sand. In spite of the distinctive black bands, the bird as a whole presents what ornithologists call a “visually disruptive pattern.” When a running piping plover stops, it disappears.

The four eggs are even less visible in their nest of sand. But it is in this perfect mimicry that another danger lies.

The piping plover was a “hat bird” shot nearly to extinction for the millinery trade around the beginning of the 20th century. When that practice was outlawed, the bird made a strong recovery into the 1940s. The present decline began shortly after World War II with the rapid development of residences and recreational beaches along the Atlantic coastline.

Every year, some piping plover nests and their youthful contents are naturally lost to storm tides and overwash. Animal predation is on the increase from a mixed bag of natural and human-influenced causes. The adults will usually replace a lost nest. Four nesting attempts were recorded for one pair at this beach in 1986.

Habitat has declined. Gulls, profiting from our wastes, have overrun plover breeding sites. Natural predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes have also increased in number at the beach because of our edible wastes. Pets, especially unleashed dogs, add to the toll.

On top of all this is Bigfoot. The “perfect mimicry” of plover eggs on the beach has turned against itself. At this Buzzards Bay site in 1986, 12 of 52 eggs (23 percent) were crushed by unknowing human feet.

The wall of rope and signs strung around the nest of our visit would improve this pair’s odds. There are far more clumsy but innocent Bigfoots among us than there are vandals, though one vandal can undo it all.

The little lady standing invisible inside her human-built fortress needs all the help she can get against the tides she cannot see.

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.

Birdsong After the Storm

by Margi Prideaux

We are standing on the back porch. Dawn light where we live is always beautiful.

Most mornings the paddocks reflect a golden tone that undulates across the hills and valleys; deep in the shadows and luminescent on the crest of the ridge. The dense greens of eucalyptus snake along the creek, carving a sharp edge to the golden hues. Behind and above, the morning sky is soft, dove grey. A gentle echo of the closing night.

As the sun climbs above the horizon, there is an ephemeral moment when the tips of the trees shine back an ochre welcome—a brief smile—then the scene loses depth and intensity, and the world fully wakes. Birds and bugs and bees thrum with a frenzy of morning activity. But, today is different. There is a storm coming. Once we would have called it unseasonal, but that phrase is redundant now. The seasons have changed.

My husband Geoff felt the storm building in the dark of early morning. A heaviness in the air. Now we stand to watch a different scene—a magnificent but ominous performance. Beyond the tree-line, the sky is foreboding, deep and metallic. Sheet lightning cracks from left to right. A scale so vast my mind struggles to grasp.

Geoff quietly counts the seconds. Four, five, six, and then thunder rumbles overhead.

We sip our tea. The lightning was south-west, some distance off; likely still over the ocean. When lightning strikes the ground nearby, our day will focus on wildfire.

I know the sun is hovering just above the horizon, but it barely lights the scene. The only evidence is the illumination of a vast, swirling mass of currents and eddies above our heads.

Geoff begins a reassuring commentary. He tells me about wind-speed and direction, about high and low-pressure, and what this all looks like from above.

Lightning.

Geoff’s slow count.

Thunder and the report.

His story continues, drawing me above the clouds to look back from space. Below this mighty breath and sigh of the Earth, our home, our activities are minuscule.

No matter what we do, she will endure.

We might destroy the climate for ourselves and the billions of other beings who enjoy her embrace; her blanket of kindness that is our atmosphere. But, she will endure.

Lightning and I snap back to Earth. Geoff barely begins the quiet count when thunder rumbles again.

This time the inside of my chest shudders in sympathy. The storm is close.

The wind begins to wail a deep mournful tune. ‘It will move over us in a moment,’ he says.

The birds, normally a raucous joyous choir by now, are silent. Except for the wind, no-one sings.

Another crack of light, but only for a fraction of a fraction of second.

Geoff’s gentle count. Thunder. It is moving away, to the east where our neighbour will be standing on his porch with the same soft count.

Slowly, tentatively, almost haltingly, the birds begin a call to each other. The sky is still dark, the clouds still roll, but the intensity of the moment is passing.

We sigh and turn to the day at hand. Geoff goes to check if any fires have started on the farm.

I go inside and sit down to write.

A Storm is Coming

A massive storm is coming; a global maelstrom unlike anything we’ve experienced before. More ominous and dangerous than the storm I witnessed on my porch during that 2015 summer morning. The combined forces of climate change and political upheaval will be a tempest of our own making, at a time in human history when knowledge will not permit us to pretend we didn’t see it coming.

Global warming is not hypothetical. It is happening now. Wave after wave of data confirms it. Each of the past several decades has been significantly warmer than the previous ones. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts all report that, like the four years before it, 2016 was the hottest on record. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events like heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall around the world. It has already impacted all continents and all oceans.

Global average sea level has risen by about 17 cm between 1900 and 2005 at a much faster rate than in the previous 3,000 years. Arctic sea ice is retreating at a visible pace. After lifetimes in harmony with the ocean, people of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are looking across the waves to a bleak future. The homes of their ancestors will soon disappear: the sea engulfing their history. Europe’s glaciers are retreating. The United Kingdom is flooding. The Sahara Desert is encroaching on farmland across the African continent, forests are disappearing from the Congo to Madagascar and rising sea levels are swallowing homes in West African river deltas. North America is facing severe heat, heavy rain and declining snowpack. In 2015 the World Meteorological Organization Hurricane Committee reported that the Eastern North Pacific experienced nine major hurricanes above Category 3 levels—the most since reliable records began in 1971. In 2015, India and Pakistan suffered the traumatic and devastating effects of heat waves. Thousands of lives were lost. Record rainfall led to flooding that impacted tens of thousands of people across South America, West Africa and Europe. At the same time, unseasonal dry conditions in southern Africa and Brazil exacerbated multi-year droughts. Thirty per cent of the fertile land in the world has vanished in the past 30 years.

While society tends to focus on the human impacts, the natural world is also lurching. The current rates of species extinction are already one thousand times the pace that would be expected if humans were not a factor. At the global meeting of governments to discuss the state of the world’s biodiversity in late 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that, of the 85,604 species that have been assessed on their ‘Red List’, 24,307 species are threatened with extinction. In the near future, rapid shifts, caused by climate change, will exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust.

If we continue as we now are, the dawn of the next century will grieve the loss of icons—gorillas, polar bears, lions, tuna, warblers and orangutans, and with them the silent demise of thousands of species hardy known.

The freshly minted Paris Agreement almost turned a corner on decades of political disregard. Almost, but not quite. Countries agreed to limit emissions, and to continually review and strengthen actions every five years, beginning in 2018. They set an aspirational goal of 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels, to align with the scientific recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and they established a more politically expedient target of 2°C. Despite wrangling over the target for months, the actual pledges for what each country was prepared to do (formally called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) still have the world on a road to between 2.7°C and 3.7°C of warming. It is true, this is better than the 4.5°C trajectory before the Paris Summit, but it is significantly short of where we need to be.

They won’t revisit this figure again until 2020 at their ‘five year meeting’ when they will present updated plans on raising their emission cuts. It won’t be until 2023, that they will update the public on their progress. By then their window to achieve the 1.5°C goal will have long past.

I have worked in international environmental negotiations for a few decades. I know that governments only need to come back in 2023 (and every 5 years after that) and say they’ll ‘try’ to do a little more. That’s the extent of their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement. So long as they claim they are ‘trying’, other governments won’t shame them. It is a tragic and craven standard, but it is all we have.

It’s not that governments deny the threat of climate change. Almost all openly acknowledge the problem now. But, they are gambling and putting their trust in future technologies to physically remove huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today, instead of taking the steps that are needed now.

But, this is not an essay about climate change, although that is unmistakably the context from which it is written. There are already many fine books and documents describing what is happening and the steps we need to take to reduce the impact.

This is an essay about how we politically adapt in the decades to come as a result of the upheaval climate change will cause. It is an essay about the choices we make and who is part of making those choices. Using the metaphor of a storm, the impact of climate change is the unstable air mass that will form a dangerous thunderhead. This is an essay about how we navigate that storm—it is an essay about governance and how we ensure that the future includes the non-human world as well.

We stand at a point in history where kakapo, hairy-nosed otters and red wolves exist with a shadow of their former numbers. Polar bears, forest owlets and Philippine eagles face uncertain futures. Lesser known, but just as important species like the brown spider monkey live on the thin margin of survival. Yellowfin tuna may not survive ocean acidification. And, with each of these species are the communities of humans that share the landscape and seascape with them.

When I wake in the morning the sound I hear is a magpie warble. These birds, and their unique and haunting song, as well as the kangaroos that stand on the ridge at dusk, are a part of the culture I live within—the community to which I belong. People in Argentina, Japan, Cameroon or Norway will wake to different sounds and have different wildlife as part of their communities. We all know our non-human kin, the animals we live amidst. We know the seasons we share, what grows when and where. We know the ebb and flow of life in our shared place. For some, our vistas are forests. Others look out to the sea and some on endless frozen horizons. These are not empty places. They are filled with wildlife, with which we commune.

For hundreds of generations, we have managed our relationship with this wild part of our community. Some human communities have done better than others. Some, especially in the developed world, have done poorly with many local species and ecosystems already footnotes of history. But, the political shift towards globally centralised decisions is taking any choice about that association away from all of us. Decisions are now made elsewhere—in an international political space. We have become, in many respects, as helpless as the wild community we live among.

This international political space is hampered by our commitment to a system of independent (sovereign) states, with governments programmed to protect their national interest and their neoliberal agenda above all else. This is why governments are gambling with climate change. But the stakes are very high. Left on our current path, we will fail to protect what we need and what we cherish. And so, continuing with the metaphor of a storm, the desperate grip on the current world order will become the lifting force that feeds the thunderhead. We will have a perfect storm.

The tempest is coming. That cannot be changed now. How we prepare and what we do during the period to come will dictate what survives the storm. We can choose to save birdsong, but the choice must be a conscious one.

An Example in the Spiti

The small Buddhist town of Kibber, in the Spiti Valley of northern India’s Trans-Himalaya, offers important insights. In this wild region, the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, working closely with the Snow Leopard Trust, has walked a road less travelled. A path informed by their experience with snow leopards and the rugged, noble people who live alongside them. Their example illustrates a way out of the neoliberal snarl with morality and grace.

The endangered snow leopard is an integral part of Central and South Asia. They range from Afghanistan in the east, to Kazakhstan and Russia in the north, and across to China in the west. Their habitat is fragmented with little connection in between. Human communities across this region have a similar sparse and disconnected pattern. Finding effective ways to conserve large carnivores is challenging in almost every region of the world—in the Himalaya, their large home ranges and the threats the animals themselves pose to livestock makes coexistence with humans difficult.

Yash Veer Bhatnagar and Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, and their colleague Charudutt Mishra, focus their research in the Spiti, a desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayan Mountains. The name Spiti means ‘Middle Land’ and this is the land between Tibet and India. The region’s Buddhist culture is similar to that found in the nearby Tibet Autonomous Region and the Ladakh region in India. The Kibber village has around 80 homes, made by hand of stone. Life here is modest, harsh but proud.

I telephoned Kulbhushansingh early in my evening. The sun was setting over our farm, yet across the phone line the world came alive with the wonderful sounds of southern India’s mid-day hustle, careening along outside the Nature Conservation Foundation offices.

With an affable, resonant timbre, he told me his tales. In 2008, he was researching the foraging behaviour of bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, an important prey species for snow leopards in the region. He was in the Spiti Valley. It was cold and the snow was deep. These are tough conditions to work under, especially when you are investing days and nights trekking, watching and taking meticulous notes about mountain sheep habits. The leopards, often called ‘grey ghosts’, were unseen but always palpably nearby. He found fresh kills and pug marks, but the snow leopards remained beyond sight. After months of this routine, he was taking a rare day of rest in the village. The sun was out and so he sat outside his hut to relax. He wasn’t looking for wildlife so was surprised when a snow leopard and her cub suddenly appeared across a gorge, just a few hundred metres away.

Exhaustion and pain were banished. He scrambled up a nearby slope where he could watch the leopards, unseen. Joined by other researchers in the village and some of the local children, the group’s excitement was high. Hours went by while they watched this rare and mysterious mother and her cub lying and playing in the sun.

To see two snow leopards together was already extraordinary. Then a third leopard appeared high on the ridge. There was an electric tension between the animals. The cub hid behind a rock while the two adults studied each other across the distance. Dusk fell and darkness slowly masked the drama that would continue beyond human gaze.

Seeing these animals was a rare moment in a researcher’s life, but then Kulbhushansingh’s tale of wonder took an unexpected, very human twist. When he stood his feet were dangerously cold, after hours without movement. Frostbite was a real threat. He struggled back down to the village, his mind bouncing between jubilation and concern. Villagers bundled him inside and cut his now frozen boots from his feet, warming his limbs back to safety. While the commotion clattered around him, he recounted the day. An old woman sat quietly nearby. Perhaps she was compelled to speak to sooth the mixture of emotions flashing across his face. He expected admonishment for risking himself to see wild animals. Instead, her words touched his heart and in turn, years later, reached out and touched mine. ‘In my 80 years of living in this village and walking these hills I have never seen a snow leopard,’ she said. ‘It is through your work and your pictures that I hope I can.’ In that moment Kulbhushansingh recognised the deep desire we all share to see what is wild.

A few years later Kulbhushansingh was reminded of this core truth again. He received a report of a man who had shot a snow leopard near his home. The community had agreed not to kill snow leopards, so there was implied accusation of wrong-doing in the message. Kulbhushansingh knew there were many layers of motivation in these circumstances. So, he went to see the herder, to collect data and to understand what had happened.

The leopard had found a way into the herder’s livestock pen during the night and had killed 20 of his goats. This was a significant loss for the man and his family. Both men knew it could have become far worse had the herder not taken action. Snow leopards in these circumstances can easily kill an entire herd.

In telling his story the herder’s voice was conflicted—deep vulnerability and anger, mixed with regret. This single night would impact on his family’s wellbeing for months. But that didn’t diminish the man’s compassion. The herder understood the leopard needed to eat to survive. Kulbhushansingh had heard this often—a respect for the sameness between man and leopard.

He helped the herder to fix the enclosure to prevent further night attacks. Over the day they became friends and Kulbhushansingh would speak with him often in the years to come. There was a humorous twist to the story. The enclosure had a small window in it and another snow leopard was often seen looking through the window at the goats inside. The man would invite people to come and see ‘his snow leopard’ through this little window. The predator had become a familiar, a relationship with peaceful equilibrium.

These relationships and insights are only possible with time.

Illuminating a Path Through the Storm

It was then through a conversation with Yash Veer that I came to understand the depth of continuous work that had been invested in Kibber since 1995. The Nature Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust researchers had become part of the village family. Charudutt had lived in the village for extended periods, had helped the local school with teaching mathematics, played sports, shared their celebrations and sadness. The children Charudutt had taught were now the adults making village decisions. Over time a deep trust, friendship and respect had developed.

This allowed new insights and understanding to be uncovered. Each in their own way, Yash Veer and Kulbhushansingh explained that wildlife conservation must have context for people who are caretakers of this wildlife.

The Nature Conservation Foundation has invested the time to really understand the village’s problems. This helps them, as researchers, to work more constructively and collaboratively with the community to build long-term solutions tuned to the community’s needs. They are motivated by their belief that the future of snow leopards is in the hands of the people that share the region—the people who look across the same landscape, share the same seasons and feel the same wind, rain and snow. They strive to empower this community to forge a harmonious relationship with snow leopards (and wolves).

They work on better enclosures to protect smaller livestock. They work with the community to change herding practises like moving bigger livestock to areas where they are not as easily preyed upon. They have created an insurance scheme to compensate the community when snow leopards (or wolves) kill livestock. They are backing these plans with sustained research to confirm how many snow leopards and wolf kills there actually are, and what livestock is actually being taken and when. They are also exploring new problems like why snow leopards take large livestock.

With these solutions and relationships, the attitude of villagers towards wildlife conservation has also evolved. Most villagers have stopped killing carnivores or driving them away from kills. It’s a remarkable story of tenacious decades-long commitment to these villagers and these species. Indeed, in speaking with Yash Veer, I discovered that the Nature Conservation Foundation is coming to understand there may be no exit point for their involvement. The community needs their permanent presence to be a voice for the snow leopards.

As Yash Veer described the management plan they were developing with the Indian Government— Project Snow Leopard—I was hearing an example of the longer-term role of civil society in wildlife conservation. Project Snow Leopard builds participation from the ground up, flowing from village level ‘wildlife committees’, through ‘landscape committees’ and finally to national level management. The Foundation serves as a conduit between each level. It has a seat at the table to speak for the snow leopards, alongside community representatives and government officials. It is governance by the people; not governance by governments and their corporate comrades.

The Project Snow Leopard Management Plan is profoundly different from many others I have read. For a start, it’s designed and developed by an NGO and the community. It inherently recognises the value and role of traditional, democratic village councils and the presence of traditional land use rights.

In listening to the soft, expressive voice of Yash Veer—a gentleman of the snow leopards—I knew I was being given a tangible, real-world example of how conservation of the future can be designed. It was a gift. They were laying the foundation stones for civil society to project a genuine, unpasteurised voice of the Kibber Village—the old women who tended to Kulbhushansingh’s frostbite, the herder with the ‘snow leopard window’—to the decision making tables of international environmental governance.

Margi Prideaux is an international wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic. She has worked within the conservation movement for 27 years. You can follow her on facebook or twitter @WildPolitics. Her books, including Birdsong After the Storm, can be seen at www.wildpolitics.co/books

Rabbit in the Garden

by Karen Terrey

When I opened my hand I didn’t feel anything
which isn’t to say nothing was there.
A rabbit reaps my garden – at least,
I planted it – nipping even in this morning’s
drizzle near-perfect stars of blue lupine.
Before that, stubs of violets, mallow. For weeks,
only cut evidence without the perpetrator.
The opposite of faith: agency of belief without proof.
Then flash, russet in the corner. She started out small
and now bolder. What does a rabbit need of faith,
pushing herself into the reliable earth each night?
What do poets believe in order to be poets,
pushed up against what they have to say? Please,
sweet hand, be patient for the uncertain.

Karen Terrey’s poems have appeared in Rhino, Puerto del Sol, Canary, Cider Press Review, Grey Sparrow, Kokanee and Sierra Nevada Review.  Her chapbook Bite and Blood (2015) is available from Finishing Line Press. She teaches writing at Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra College. A graduate of the Goddard College MFA in creative writing, she lives in Truckee, CA with her Cattledog Stoli.

Outsider

by Amlanjyoti Goswami

fishes squibble, wiggle
at droppings nibble
at goings on, squabble

big fish, small fish
still fish
in the closed pond

one fish dreams
of oceans
and flies out of dank pond

turns into whale, crocodile
sting ray

that one fish,

is still changing brown stripes to blue

Amlanjyoti Goswami’s poems have appeared in publications in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, the UK, South Africa, Kenya and the USA, including the recent Forty under Forty: An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry  (Poetrywala, 2016). He grew up in Guwahati, Assam and lives in Delhi.