Pugnacious Beasts

by Andrea Lani

One morning I held a snapping turtle in my hands. Her shell was the size of a dinner plate, oblong and slick with a coating of greenish-black algae. Although she wasn’t the biggest turtle I had seen over the previous few days, her smooth carapace indicated she was an old one, lacking the ridges and keels that corrugate younger turtles’ upper shells.

I gripped the edge of her shell, at eight and four if she were a clock, with the tips of my fingers. She was not heavy, no more so than a couple of dictionaries, but she was angry. She snaked her furrowed neck out and arched it back, glaring at me from small dark eyes. Her hind legs paddled beneath my forearms, each one fringed with four sickle-shaped claws. I began to lose my nerve.

I’d only ever picked up one snapping turtle before, a tiny one, smaller than my hand. Before that, I once stopped for an old grandmother snapper who glared at me with her beady eyes, opened her beak, and hissed. I wished her the best of luck in crossing the road and scurried back to my car.

The snapping turtle is built for defense; everything about its physique says “armor”—from thick skin pebbled with tubercles, to a ridged and serrated shell and saw-toothed tail. But unlike its more advanced cousins, which can withdraw their appendages fully into their shells, the snapping turtle, a creature that has changed little over the last 100 million years, does not have a full plastron, or lower shell, but merely a cross-shaped bony structure. This arrangement allows for greater mobility, but also makes the beast more vulnerable. To compensate for an inadequate hidey-hole, the snapper has developed an attitude. When cornered on land, a snapping turtle will open its menacing, beaked jaws, hiss, and lunge its thick neck, which stretches to almost the length of its body. My field guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine describes the snapping turtle’s personality on land as “pugnacious.”

T.H. White, in The Goshawk, writes of the bird he is attempting to train: “Gos had on the whole a pessimistic and apprehensive expression, a characteristic of most predatory creatures. We are pugnacious through our inferiority complexes. Even the pike’s ironic mouth has a hint of depression in it.” I doubt my turtle that morning had an inferiority complex. Inasmuch as they consider other creatures at all, I imagine the snapping turtle sorts them into three categories: food, threat, and, occasionally, mate. And yet that turtle, and all the others I’d seen on recent mornings, had much to be pessimistic and apprehensive about.

It was early June, the time of year that female common snapping turtles here in Maine emerge from their watery resting spots in marshes, ponds, and streams and seek out soft sand or soil for laying their eggs. Snapping turtles often return to the same area to nest each year, traveling from several hundred yards to up to two or more miles to reach a suitable site. With her hind legs, the turtle digs a depression about seven inches deep into which she deposits twenty to forty eggs, each slightly smaller than a pingpong ball. She scrapes a thin layer of soil over each egg and, after she finishes laying, smooths more dirt over the hole in an effort to erase any sign of her presence. She then returns to water, maternal duties complete.

The eggs incubate in the soil over the next three to four months, if they escape raids by raccoons, mink, foxes, skunks, and other predators, a fate that can befall up to ninety-four percent of nests. In late summer or early fall, those that survive emerge from the nest make their way to the nearest body of water, where they will continue to face danger in the form of predators and freezing weather until they are three inches long, at around three or four years of age. So precarious is the existence of a snapping turtle egg and hatchling that the chance of a female surviving to breeding age is less than one percent.

However, once a snapping turtle reaches maturity, it faces few natural predators—otters may eviscerate turtles hibernating underwater, but few animals will face off these feisty testudines when they have all their faculties—and thus can live a long time. The female reaches sexual maturity when her carapace grows to nearly eight inches in length. This takes about seven years in the south and up to twenty years here on the northern fringe of their range. Common snapping turtles are thought to live around 50 years, and possibly up to 100 or 200. A platter-sized turtle could be as old as I am, if not older, and still well in her breeding years. The snapping turtles’ long lifespans and low adult mortality ensures their ability to maintain stable populations, despite high egg and juvenile mortality.

Yet there is one factor that today affects snapping turtle survival that they did not have to face for the first 100 million years of their existence: the car. Snapping turtles historically laid their eggs in old muskrat and beaver lodges, but human activities have created more attractive nesting sites in gravel pits, dams, and roadsides. Every spring, I see at least one snapping turtle dead on the side of the road, its shell crushed by tires. I can’t help but assume that the driver ran it over deliberately; a lugubrious turtle is unlikely to dart in front of the car, like a squirrel, and the shattered corpses almost always lie on the shoulder, as if drivers swerve off the pavement to hit them.

Before I picked up the turtle that morning, I’d seen three snapping turtles attempting road crossings over the previous two days. The day before, on my way to work, I came across two different turtles partway across the road. Both times I stopped my car, got out, and stood behind the turtle, trying to shoo it to the edge of the road. At first, each turtle crouched down and withdrew her leathery neck, but when I clapped my hands and stomped my feet, she picked up her turtle’s pace and skittered—inasmuch as such a ponderous creature can skitter—the rest of the way across the road.

Rescuing a saucer-sized painted turtle exhilarates me, but my encounters with snappers that morning left me anxious. Was it the prehistoric appearance of these beasts that unsettled me? While a painted turtle is beautiful, with a salmon-colored plastron and delicate red and yellow designs on its limbs and shell, snapping turtles look like the dinosaurs its ancestors shared the earth with, and trigger an instinctual—or Jurassic Park-fueled—dread. Or perhaps it was my fear that the animal would not make it across the road on the return trip that raised my heart rate.

At work, I posted to Facebook a plea to my friends to drive slowly and stop to escort turtles across the road. I acknowledged that I was not brave enough to pick a snapper up myself. One friend remarked, “The only dangerous part of them is their front end, so lifting them up by their sides or by the back of their shell should be fine.” I found videos online that demonstrated how to move a snapping turtle across the road by lifting the beast by the back end of its shell. But I get jumpy picking up any kind of animal, even those that don’t have the potential to inflict serious injury with a vice-grips beak. While several friends agreed that herding was the prudent course of action and that snapping turtles became “very very angry” when picked up, another reiterated what the first had said, “You can hold them by the other end. Even if angry, it beats them getting squished.” This was a sweet, gentle woman, slim as a sapling with arms slender enough to be snapped in half by the turtle’s jaws. Next to her, I’m a strapping farm gal. If she picks up snapping turtles, I thought, I should be ashamed not to.

When I told my family about my turtle rescues and subsequent Facebook exchange over dinner that night, my husband agreed that he wouldn’t care to pick up a snapping turtle, either. “It’s the claws at the back that I’d worry about,” he said. I hadn’t thought of the claws, but I had considered the danger of holding the hind end of a turtle in front of me when it decided to let loose its stream of pee, which smaller turtles I’d picked up had done.

The next morning, driving my oldest son to his school bus, I came to the place where our road crosses a small river and saw a snapper nosing into the road. I slowed to a crawl, but a car pulled up behind me and I couldn’t stop. With my car looming nearby, the turtle turned and made her way back down the bank and I drove on. “Why,” I wondered out loud, “doesn’t she just swim under the bridge?”

I didn’t see that turtle on the road on my return trip, nor a half-hour later when, after putting my other two kids on their bus, I drove by again on my way to work. Either she made it across safely or took my advice and swam under the bridge. I wondered how long it would take, given their long life spans and slow rate of reproduction, for natural selection to favor snapping turtles who avoided roads during their egg-laying pilgrimages. Probably too long.

A couple miles later, I came across another turtle lumbering into my lane. I stopped my car and jumped out, planning to herd her across like I had the two on the previous day, but she would have none of it. Instead of skittering across, she turned toward me, opened her mouth and hissed.

She was smaller than the turtles I’d seen in the day before, and while the others appeared dry, with rough, warty olive-green skin and keeled, taupe-colored shells, this one looked as if she’d just emerged from the primordial ooze, her smooth carapace covered in dark, shiny algae.

While the road wasn’t busy, we were in a blind spot, with a rise in both directions, and I was running late. I couldn’t face off this turtle forever. I thought of my friend, her willowy arms wrestling a giant turtle and I reached out and grasped the hind end of the shell. It was wet and and slippery. The turtle snaked her long neck up and back over her shell, toward me, and opened her mouth wide.

I snatched my hands back and reassessed the situation. My car idling in the middle of the road. This prehistoric beast directly in front of it. Blind spots in both directions. I grasped the turtle’s shell again, lifted her up and hurried across the road. She kept her neck arched back, beaked mouth wide open. The flesh inside was a pale greenish-white, like the underside of a fish. She exuded a terrible, deep, anaerobic odor, like the inside of a septic tank or the bottom of a swamp. I held my breath.

Halfway across the road I remembered what my husband said about the hind claws. I looked down at the pebbled flesh of her legs, the four white sickles that adorned each foot paddling below my hands. Fortunately her legs could not reach my arms. As I neared the shoulder, the inevitable stream of pee began to flow from her back end. I crouched down and flung the turtle the last two feet, into the grass at the edge of the road. She rolled as she landed, settling with her yellowish, cross-shaped plastron up. Before I could think how to flip her right side up, she stretched out her fleshy legs and righted herself. I turned and scurried back to my car, without waiting to see her lumber off into the woods, casting a last pugnacious glance over her shoulder at me.

***

Months later, long after the snapping turtles had finished breeding and laying eggs, I was once again taking my son to the bus when I came across another snapping turtle at the four-way intersection at the end of our road. It appeared silhouetted against the horizon as it lumbered across a high point, where a crosswalk would be if we lived in the city. I skirted my car around behind the turtle and pulled in to my usual bus-waiting spot alongside a row of cedar trees. There is a murky pond downhill from these trees that looks like snapping turtle heaven. But this turtle was ambling away from the pool. Because it was not egg-laying time, I had no way of knowing whether the turtle was a male or female. The only visible difference between the sexes is the distance from the cloaca—the single opening used for both excretion and reproduction—to the tip of the plastron, but I was not about to get close enough to take that measurement. In fact, still shaken from my close encounter with the turtle the previous spring, I declined to pick up the turtle, even though it was smaller than the others had been, and instead herded it the rest of the way across the road.

That evening I came home from work on the cross road and saw, a few dozen yards from the intersection, the crushed body of a snapping turtle the same size as the one I had helped across the road in the morning. It lay diagonally across the center line, ridged tail splayed out, pointed toward the spot where I had left it, head stretched in the opposite direction. I had not thought that morning to consider where the turtle was headed. If I had, I might have assumed it was going to Joy’s Pond, half a mile down the road, on the same side that I had left the turtle on. It’s a pleasant pond, with cattail shallows along the road and a twenty-two acre expanse of clear blue water stretching toward the undeveloped opposite shore. But the turtle appeared to have other ideas, aiming instead for a red maple swamp closer by but across the road.

Every day over the next week or so, until the last scraps of turtle were taken away by scavengers, whenever I passed that spot, I saw in the turtle’s carcass a rebuke. I had failed it, when I thought I’d saved it. Or I had saved its life, only to gain it a few minutes or hours before it succumbed to fate. I had a vague recollection of a rule of the universe—something, perhaps, from Eastern religion—that if you saved a life you became responsible for it. I searched for this proverb online, hoping for guidance or solace, and found instead that it has no spiritual roots and is actually a trope used in action-adventure movies, often as a way to introduce a native side-kick to the white hero. Not only had I failed to save the turtle, but at least part of my emotional response to the turtle’s death was based on a racially problematic pseudo-philosophy spoon-fed to me by Hollywood.

Another part of my emotional response came from my feeling tender at the time, having just found out my son’s best friend had been diagnosed with cancer. All week, I had alternated between weepy and angry that a sweet fourteen-year-old kid had been afflicted with cancer when truly terrible people walk around the world in perfect health. The crushed turtle was one more reminder of the impermanence and unfairness of life, how there are no guarantees and nothing can be taken for granted, and that the universe can be a cruel place.

***

My son’s best friend completed his cancer treatments over the winter, coming out the other end thin as a waif but in good health. He and my son, meanwhile grew apart, attending different high schools, finding new friends and interests. Or perhaps it’s just the way of teenagers; now they spend their time texting each other where once they played army guys, mailed coded messages, jammed together on their guitars.

June is coming and I face turtle season with dread. I saw the first crushed shell in mid-May—a small painted turtle at a low spot on our road, a place where I see dead turtles every spring. How, I wonder, can there be hope for an ancient creature whose top speed is four miles per hour when our own species is hell-bent on pavement and power and speed? What good does it do for me to pick a turtle up or escort it across the road when it will likely get crushed on its return trip or next spring or the next, while meanwhile each of the eggs it laid before dying has less than a one percent chance of surviving to reproduce?

As a mother, the hardest thing in the world is for me to acknowledge that there is no guarantee that turtles, or any wild thing, will outlive humans’ depredations, that there will be a wild world for my children to grow up in, that any of us will survive until old age or to next year or tomorrow. But I know it is true. I also know that it does very little good for me to save a handful of turtles each spring. But still, come June, when I see a prehistoric creature crossing the road, I will stop my car, place my hands at eight and four, and carry the pugnacious beast across, to whatever fate awaits it on the other side.

 

Andrea Lani’s writing about family and the natural world has appeared in The Maine Review, Snowy Egret, and Saltfront, among other publications. She lives in Maine and can be found online at http://www.remainsofday.blogspot.com

Two Poems by Angela France

Brock says

delve deep
_______under stone
claw sharpstrike into roots
___________________and earth
find allworld below
________for shelterness

my jaws make a hallowing
of sinless worm and slug

I am needful of night-swart
uncleft in my woodside ledemark

leave sun-tide
________to aquern and wort-cropper
_____________beingless to me

 

Fox

___is my namen
_______man slurs me elles
__clithe not to my ruddy hide
my ledemark tithing is all
___the dun I tread
________coneys and wort-croppers
are underyoke to me
__bow to my holyroom
_____under delvern and root

niht-time is mine_ evenleether
with brock and nadder
____leafworm and wanderlight
my wif is a bale-fire at swart-time
_calling wellstemned

I wend where I will
_____seave and rede
_______fox is my namen

 

First published in the collection The Hill (Nine Arches Press 2017)

 

Angela France’s publications include Occupation (Ragged Raven Press, 2009), Lessons in Mallemaroking (Nine Arches Press, 2011) and Hide (Nine Arches Press 2013). Her latest collection, The Hill, was published in July 2017 by Nine Arches Press. Angela teaches creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire and in various community settings as well as working for a local charity. She runs a reading series in Cheltenham, Buzzwords.

Autopsy of a Whale

by Danny Adcock

Grey skies scurry South as if they have somewhere to be, and are in a hurry to get there. The sea is still some way off even though I am several hundred yards down the beach. There is a confused chop on its drab, brownish waters, and it does not look very inviting. The shifting sands that slope gently down to meet it are covered in the scrunch of emptied razor shells, and old tide lines like contours on a map segue into one another, and delineate the beach into different shades. This is the precise curve of Norfolk coast where the Wash becomes the North Sea, between Holme and Hunstanton; where North West Norfolk becomes North Norfolk, and where arcades, caravans and chalets give way to gourmet pubs, swanky holiday homes, boutiques and delis.

A few hundred yards away what I am here to see lies forlornly on the sand, its head facing the sea that it must have struggled so desperately with the evening before. This is the last of a group of six sperm whales that were seen together in the North Sea, to become stranded and die on the beaches of Norfolk and Lincolnshire in recent weeks. I have seen sperm whales off the New Zealand coast, but there is little to equate that experience with this. I guess it is between forty and fifty feet long, but it is not the whale’s size that enthrals me, everyone knows whales are big; it is the creature’s head and jaw that are extraordinary. If people wear the scars of their lives upon their faces, then so do sperm whales, and if a face can ever be said to tell a story, then the life and character of these whales is writ large in theirs. Its head and jaw are a blotchy grey-blue, stained in places with white patches in a pattern like blooms in a petri dish; it is scored, striated and scarred from its deep-sea battles with its favourite prey, giant and colossal squid (that is not a superfluous use of epithet on my behalf for both species exist). There are perfectly circular pock-marks, as if someone has placed a cup on the whale’s skin and drawn round it, which can surely only have come from the suckers on a squid’s tentacle. Imagining life in those harrowingly inky depths conjures up images of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and of course, nobody can ever see a sperm whale without thinking of Herman Melville’s sprawling, mythic epic of life, death and obsession.

Though the whales that died here didn’t belong here in life, in death it seems they do. The tide has already left a slight hollow around this one’s body, and its great tail is partly covered with sand. It is already sinking into, and becoming a part of this landscape and, though it is alien to it, it does not seem nearly as out of place as the two four-wheel drives parked incongruously next to it. Left to nature, gradually this whale would melt into the landscape, like the ice sheets that created it hundreds of thousands of years ago. The gulls, fish, foxes and other creatures of land and sea would be provided with a bounty to last months. But, eventually, time and tide would have scoured all away; skin, blubber, bones and memories, all ground down a little more with each wave, each tide. But that is not this whale’s fate. This whale’s fate is to be ignominiously shovelled onto the back of a low-loader, driven away, and buried in a landfill site or incinerated somewhere far from where it lived and died. Anthropomorphism aside, there is an undeniable sadness in that.

About twenty people are standing around the dark bulk of the whale which lies on its right side, its long, slim, lower jaw agape, and punctuated at regular intervals by large pairs of white teeth. Most are photographers or journalists. There are a few dog-walkers, and others here specifically to see the whale, as well as four camera crews, and an ex-Springwatch presenter. Another car is approaching across the sand from Hunstanton. Most people are taking photographs, whether professionally or on their mobile phones, and I take a couple myself.

The coastguard begins to cordon the body of the whale off. Eventually everyone is behind the tape which flutters wildly in the wind. Whereas before, everybody was milling about, walking round and round the body of the whale, now we are static, and side by side. Conversations begin. One man, who is so inadequately dressed against the cold wind in a thin blue hoody that he is visibly shivering, is so committed to staying he has found some sort of plastic sheeting which he stuffs up the back of his top to try and stop the wind scything through it. He groans every now and then, I presume at the cold, and attempts to re-position his makeshift clothing. As another four-wheel drive pulls up next to the whale’s body, this one belonging to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program, he groans again.

‘Once they arrive, the experience seems to belong to them somehow,’ he says, as if he has some previous knowledge of ‘them’ and of what they are about to do.

I understand what he means. Now we are beyond the cordon, it seems almost as if we’ve lost contact with the whale, lost the intimacy that there was in proximity. It feels almost as if when we were able to get close to it, to touch its cold rubbery skin, we were afforded, or were affording, comfort somehow. To their credit, those within the cordon seem to understand this; there is a palpable sense of embarrassment in their avoidance of eye contact with those of us who were here first, but are now forbidden from approaching the whale.

The autopsy begins with a small square of blubber being cut from the whale’s flank with scalpel-like precision. Then its eye is removed. Though I can tell what is happening, the scientist performing the autopsy is obviously sensitive to those watching, for he keeps the eye slightly hidden by his body, and then slides it gelatinously into a specimen bag which he hands to one of his colleagues, who removes it quickly to the car. Whales engender strong feelings in people, whether dead or alive, and when a hacksaw is produced and, with some difficulty, the lower third of the whale’s jaw is sawn through, blue-hoody mutters under his breath.

‘I wish they wouldn’t do that,’ he groans.

‘What’s the point of it, that’s what I want to know?’ someone else demands. ‘Why can’t they leave the damned thing in peace?’

I don’t reply, but I do know that this whale is dead. If in death it can give up some clue from its enigmatic life as to what caused it, and its pod-mates, to leave their normal deep-water habitat somewhere North of Scotland, and strand themselves in these shallow seas then, though what is taking place here may not be pleasant, its death may prove to have some meaning.

The autopsy continues with a ten-inch blade on the end of a four-foot handle. It must be just the sort of implement the whalers used. Its salient sharpness slices through the ten-inch-thick blubber with ease, but at the same time it causes disturbing waves to ripple through time like the angry flapping of an unfurling sail: this is what we used to do to whales. The well-known history of human-whale interaction is a predictably and notoriously bloody one, as is the history of our interaction with many species, not least ourselves. But the figure clambering over the dead whale, eviscerating it, dismembering it, is not just an anachronism, a brutal ghost from the past, he is also a symbol of hope, of beneficence, even though the physicality of what he is doing makes that hard to perceive.

There is a sense of loss and sadness here, tragedy even, when you take in to account the fact this whale is one of six to have died. Though they swam together in life, they died separately, in ones and twos. Sperm whales communicate using a series of clicks and whistles like dolphins, and there is some research to suggest different groups use different dialects. This whale would certainly have known that it was alone when it died. To imagine its unanswered calls reverberating through the cold, grey slabs of waves sliding across the North Sea is to invoke a quite heart breaking poignancy. Whether it was capable of understanding why those calls went unanswered, of understanding and feeling the sense of its own impending death, and the death of those it swam with, is a question it does not feel good to dwell on.

As I stand amongst the small crowd still here, I wonder why it is that people seem to love and value whales over many other creatures. I passed the half-rotten carcass of a seal at the top of the beach, but I barely glanced at it, and it certainly wouldn’t have produced the reaction here today. People attribute value to many things, often subconsciously. Pounds and pence are the most obvious, but not only currency, and whether our car is newer than our neighbour’s, our house bigger, our holiday more exotic, are the yardsticks that society sets us. Society even rates and assigns value to individuals. Usually we perceive family, friends and those we trust to be more valuable to us than others. And in some way we also assign value to the natural world. Dead deer on the roadside here in Norfolk rarely attract more than a passing comment; rabbits, hares and pheasants none. The familiar is also the insignificant. I am guilty of this myself even as I write these words, and the inconsistencies of my flawed, human nature are clear. I can find words to write on the regal magnificence of deer; the beauty of a cock pheasant’s plumage under a Winter sun; the mad-eyed speed of a hare over a field in the Spring, but I struggle with the rabbit. We assign value by quantity and size too, and both of these attributes contribute at least partly to why we often give whales more value than we do other creatures. Rabbits are inconsequential in size, but seemingly superfluous in number, whereas whales are spectacular in size, but depleted in number. Other factors, besides those we consider to hold an intrinsic value, affect our perception of worth, with some of the photographers and camera crew here today being responsible. The media tell us some people are worth more respect, and are more valuable to society than others, and they do the same with animals. There are creatures far closer to extinction than whales, but they are smaller, less intelligent, are not washing up dead on our beaches, and have little mainstream news value.

If somehow the death of these whales brings the wider problems the seas have to the attention of an audience who might not otherwise have thought about their existence, perhaps there is a semblance of positivity to be gleaned from the scudding granite skies of today. The loss of this wonderful animal, beautiful and awe-inspiring even in death, is undoubtedly a tragedy that has affected more than those of us usually interested in the wild. As well as sadness there is anger and concern here today. We do not, and may never, know the real reason these whales came into the North Sea, somewhere they could never survive. Perhaps the value of this whale is that even in death it has the ability to move, to enthral, to excite, to foster curiosity in an ever-shrinking natural world. And it is important to give the whale’s death value, because by doing so we can give value, in turn, to its life. Without the death of this whale and the others, none of them would have existed in our lives, in much the same way we speculate whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound when there is nobody there to hear it.

This whale has made a sound, and its death and life have value and meaning to us, both as individuals, and as a society. In our increasingly dystopic, modern world beset with the constant threat of financial catastrophe, of ecological meltdown, of deepening ethnic and religious divides driven by hidden agendas, it is the value of wildness, of freedom, of beauty, of awe; the value of nature.

Danny Adcock is a contributor to Caught By The River, and The Island Review, and also writes for angling magazine Fallon’s Angler. As well as writing about nature and landscape, he is a keen fly fisherman, cyclist, and amateur photographer. He lives in North Norfolk. His blog can be found at: https://naturelines.wordpress.com

Blackbird

by Kathy Miles

In his stern black feathers
he swifts from elm or oak
to claim his patch of seed.

His song drips into sluggish veins,
the fluency of music, as blackberries ripen,
dark and sleek as his body,

and rooks canvas the sky in late sun.
He chides the chough and jay who stray
into his territory. Feels the tightening

of light like a catch in the syrinx,
as evening unravels and dusk settles
down on fuschia and opening primrose.

This song is shared through generations,
a gift of merle, and he, proud of his heritage,
shouts it loudly from the branches,

from roof and chimney, heralds it
from blackthorne and rowan.
He offers this soliloquy to me,

the one who has stolen his land,
who does not sing the litany of dawn
or the last high notes of summer

but whose bread, hesitantly offered,
he takes as a mutual bond.

Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. She has just completed an MA in Creative Writing, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.

Kirsten Furlong – Artist

“My current artistic practice engages with a series of questions about our culture’s multifaceted relationship to nature and the geography of human/animal interactions in urban and wilderness settings. These inquiries are utilized to contemplate various issues about the natural world and the concept of representation of animals and the environment. I create artworks based on first-hand observations and internal responses to objects, illustrations, and texts about various species. In the work, animals serve as emblems of nature and as metaphors for human desires.”

Kirsten Furlong was born in Milwaukee, WI and currently lives and works in Boise, ID (US). She received a BFA from the University of Nebraska (Omaha, NE) and a MFA from Boise State University (Boise, ID). She is the gallery director of the Visual Arts Center at Boise State University where she is also a lecturer in the Art Department.

Her work explores ideas related to humans’ multifaceted relationship to the natural world and includes drawing, painting, printmaking, and installations using paper and wood. She utilizes detail, repetition and patterns inspired by those she encounters in the natural world and found in the objects, images, and texts created to describe various environments, animals, and plants.

Header image: You Don’t Know Me (Wolf), acrylic, ink drawing, and chine colle’ on paper, 10″x 8″, 2016

 

Where did all the blue skies go?, ink, acrylic, colored pencil, and cyanotype collage on Tyvek, 48″x 45″, 2016 Title comes from the 1971 Marvin Gaye anthem Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) about the loss of clean air and water
Promise and Purpose, the Ancestors’ Dream, Collage, ink, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 60″ x 60″, 2015, collection of the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR

 

We Can’t Love You Enough (Ivory-Billed Woodpecker), ink on paper, 30″x 22″, 2016 From a series of drawings about the longing to restore extinct bird species lost to habitat destruction and loss.

 

Repeat and Shift: Badger, charcoal, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 60″x 60″, 2015
View from the Anthropocene: Grassland (Prairie Chicken), ink and collage on paper, 11″ x 9″, 2016 From a series of drawings about birds and mammals of the US living in habitats that are under threat.

By The Time The Trucks Arrived

by Pippa Little

Baltard, County Clare, 2014

Finisterre by cliff. Nothing to see
but wheeled gouges, hooves’ half moons in a mud nowhere
the northerly never lets alone.

When a man, lost,
discovered what was done, it was News
with flash and strobe that brought

officials in topcoats, too, conferring
before the trucks arrived.
But by the time the trucks arrived

everyone was gone. The sea frayed
beyond mending,
down the steep track

they juddered to the bottom of the cliff, men in aprons
loaded ten mares, four cows and three calves
into the cold interiors. Where they were taken

would never be photographed. The papers turn
mousy and soft, up-curl on a window ledge,
absorb leakings-in of rain.

Ears cut off,
forced alive over the edge,
necks, legs broken,

left to die slow. Who will mourn
this pearl-eyed cargo,
paperless and stateless?

Eire has a problem with unwanted livestock, mainly horses, too expensive to keep or to slaughter humanely. There is widespread press outrage.

Pippa Little is a poet, editor, reviewer and creative writing workshop leader. Twist, her second full collection, is published by Arc. She lives in Northumberland with her husband, sons and dog and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

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.