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

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. 


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.


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.


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. 

After the Bear

by Matt Stansberry

We are always hunting something of our father’s, and he’s hunting too, and we’re sure we’ll know more of ourselves if we can get to him. – Michael J. Meade

We crept down the gray shore at dusk, glancing over our shoulders into the dense gloom of the forest, stepping gently on an inch of lapping ocean to muffle the sound of our approach.

The guide stopped, tucked us behind a pile of ancient logs for cover, where we could view the seal carcass two-hundred yards up the beach.

I’d followed my father to Alaska to watch him kill a bear, ursos arctic.

Prehistoric-sized animals waited in the near, dark woods. I’d dreamt about attacks. A brown sow with dead eyes and a mud caked belly standing over me, the stench of my bowels on its maw, claws pressing down on my throat.

I waited and watched with my father, for North America’s largest predator to stagger out of the Tongass Rainforest.

He struggled to carry his bear gun.

In the weeks before the trip, he still hadn’t recovered his upper body strength. He could barely shoulder the giant rifle he’d bought, couldn’t even get a shot on the paper at 100 yards at the shooting range. But he didn’t cancel the trip. He kept going to the range, the rifle’s recoil jarring the staples holding his ribcage together.
Six months before the hunt, my father complained about indigestion on the treadmill. Two weeks later, a surgeon with a bone saw split open his sternum and bypassed his left anterior descending and right coronary arteries. He spent a week in intensive care, with my mother snapping photos of him lying on his back, looking like a cadaver. He kept the photos tacked to the wall of his office to motivate him through physical therapy.

On the beach in the sliding twilight, I thought of my father’s shaky aim, and the guide’s advice.

“Your shot will be at night, and you will only see two black humps through the scope. Line up on the rear part of the shoulder, below the armpit. Don’t shoot high — don’t shoot the head.”

The second shot, hopefully, would be at the bear running away. “Aim for the tail. Break the pelvis and they go down,” the guide said. “You only have one second between your first and second shot. Force yourself to jack another shell into the chamber. If you wait, listen for a roar, I will take your second shot. Force yourself to shoot again.”

It rained till dark, and no bear showed. The tide came in, and we walked back to the small Boston Whaler skiff. We unloaded the guns and climbed aboard, hungry for dinner on the 50-foot boat, warm and well-lit a few miles away.


After the first night, the hunt settled into a rhythm of slow sunny days on the water, watching whales breach, pulling crab pots, glassing small bears with binoculars.

This ten day hunt was the longest stretch of time I’d spent with my father as an adult. I studied him closely: sitting at the dining table, chewing oatmeal, poring over an illustrated field guide from the boat’s shelf, flipping pages and not reading, not looking up. Still fiery red hair peaked out the bottom of a goofy black wool cap, but the skin hung wrinkled and loose under his eyes and chin.

The man I grew up with told hero stories. My father broke a guy’s jaw with a heavy glass beer mug for slapping a woman in a bar. He worked as a factory strike-breaker, and beat up three union picketers who tried to jump him in an alley, put one guy in traction and dragged the other guy’s face down a brick wall. One crazy night, he chased a UFO down a dark country road in his car and reported the encounter to the FAA.

I hadn’t heard any of those stories in twenty years. Part of the motivation for the bear hunt was to write new stories. The stories he told now, when we got together twice a year, were about his job, or the practical details of living with Type II Diabetes.

The poet Li-Young Lee wrote, “Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one… and soon, he thinks, the boy will give up on his father.”

When I was a boy, the phone often rang in the middle of the night. An 80-year old widow called my dad for rescue as high school kids smashed beer bottles into the side of her old farmhouse where she had raised her children and her husband had died. My dad would roar out of the kitchen with his twelve gage shotgun, running out into the dark to save her. The kids scattered at the sight of him.

I’d forgotten him. Now, what I remember more than his heroics, is that my father commuted over 100 miles roundtrip to work every day.

Decades later, he’s still selling computer network technology to the last dozen or so large companies doing business in Cleveland and carries enough insurance for our family to survive anything short of apocalypse. He spent the last twenty years turning into a piece of my mom’s furniture, into Willy Loman. Boringly fair, infallible.

I hated his job. I didn’t know what my father thought about anything that mattered to me. I didn’t know a single thought in his head.

And yet, here he was with an aching chest, withered muscles, doped down on beta blockers, pitting himself against one-ton of godlike mammalian rage.


I know exactly when the disillusion about the hunt set in. About halfway through the trip, my father and I sat unarmed on a pile of marshy reeds, feeling small and grateful for this unnamed creek, this place.

We were watching a mother bear and cubs playing together on a beach at sunset through binoculars.

In Robert Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter, he wrote “Every man has to brace a lion at least once in his life, and whether the lion is a woman or a boss or the prospect of death by disease makes no difference.”

But I couldn’t see how this bear would be my father’s proverbial lion. He’d picked the wrong fight.

The snowmelt poured off the mountain into the ocean, one of around 10,000 tiny estuaries in the Tongass National Forest, an impenetrable green tangle blanketing coast to mountain on the Southeast Alaskan panhandle, comprising one third of the World’s remaining temperate rainforest.

We were spending ten days in a plush boat with a private chef, in one of the last best places in the world. If we spotted a big male bear, my father could take a short boat ride, stalk a couple hundred yards, and shoot the damn thing. And if the kill shot went awry and the situation turned against my father, a young and capable guide would step between him and certain death.

For all of human history, men have been loved and admired for entering the realm of dangerous animals. My father, aging and broken, had battled back from the edge of death to face nature’s fury with decisive action and a well-made rifle.

He’d poured the last thirty years of his life into work, making a comfortable existence for my family. He’d spent his earnings, fifteen thousand dollars, on this moment. And I could not speak out against that.

But my father and I should have been defending those bears, not shooting them. We should have been facing down the congressional representatives signing off on subsidized clear cutting of 1,000-year old cedars to make pulp for disposable diapers.

Instead, we were tourists, extracting precious life from the wilderness. And unlike the loggers and the guides, I didn’t think we had loved or battled against this landscape enough to deserve or even appreciate the life we planned to take.

We huddled our wide shoulders together and watched the bear family walk away, and I said nothing.


The last day near dusk, we spotted a wide trail scrawled down a snowy hillside where a large bear emerged from its den. We scrambled, my father and I pulling our short fat legs into our waders and jumped into the little Boston Whaler to get a better look.

Our guide Chet Benson ran the tiller. He netted salmon in the summer, hunted big game all winter. A previous client had once bribed Chet’s way out of Mexican prison while hunting desert bighorn. Another had to call a rescue chopper on satellite phone after he broke an ankle hunting mountain goats in the Chugach Range. The rescuers threw a rope and hook down to the bottom of the canyon, and the client wrapped Chet in a body bag to keep him from freezing.

Chet could skin a bear, repair an outboard engine, and tell a story. We liked him and, naturally, wanted to impress him.

He steered the fourteen-foot piece of fiberglass over the rolling ocean that looked like heavy motor oil glinting in the setting sun. These deceptively calm waters had killed more people than the bears.

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder glassing a stretch of beach the guides called “The Boardwalk”, a long, wide gravel bar spread below a river valley that funneled all of the animals to the shore.

The guide spotted the mature boar first. It walked pigeon-toed, swaying down the beach and plopped belly down on a pile of kelp. It looked so much like a dog, holding down a favorite bone.

My old man nodded to Chet, and he pulled the skiff in shore a half-mile downwind of the bear.

I jumped out in waist deep water and held the boat steady and silently, keeping the noisy fiberglass from banging along the shoreline. My dad and Chet jumped out, and stalked down the beach toward the bear.

I held my breath, held the skiff in the clear sea-water, as they moved within a hundred yards, and they closed in for the shot. Spidery breezes crawled over my face, and I wished I was standing next to them.

I watched through binoculars. The bear pushed its snout down into the pile of seaweed, didn’t look up. It was a chocolate brown bear with dark, nearly black fur around its ears. It had a blonde diamond patch of lighter fur on its forehead, dipping down its nose.

Chet and my dad crouched and stopped, moved forward again, ten more yards. They crawled toward the bear, impossibly close, within fifty yards. My dad knelt, steadied his rifle and fired.

He missed, shot over the bear’s back.

I sprang into action at the gunfire. I had to witness whatever happened next. I pulled the boat ashore, heaved the anchor into the rocks and ran down the beach towards my father and Chet.

The bear looked up, groggy and confused. It started toward the forest. Chet yelled “shoot that bear!” and my dad took another shot.

That bullet broke the bear’s neck, dropped it in a somersault as it tried to escape into the trees.

I ran up out of breath. The bear lolled on its back, forepaw waving limply in the air, still trying to run.

Chet fired into its hump with his .416 and it shuddered once, stopped moving. He bounced a rock off the bear and it didn’t move. Dead.

Everything my dad had worked for had collapsed in a furry heap.

Chet left us to grab the skiff. My dad and I piled our bodies on top of the dead bear. We wanted to be close to it, to hold it. The idea of a grizzly bear is a very abstract concept, and we felt compelled to press ourselves against flesh and blood – the actual.

We didn’t say anything for what felt like several minutes. The bear felt like a giant dog, wet nose and paws still warm. I set a camera on timer, and we posed on top its body. We grinned, and I think we both hoped we’d done the right thing.

Now, in the photos I took of my father, he seems to me almost ready to cry, a sad smile on his face. The big beast’s nose is down in the rocks, and my dad is hugging its huge ribs. He looks like a man who got what he asked for, and isn’t sure whether or not he’s happy with himself. The bear lies sprawled, like its spilling across the beach. It looks like an accident.

Then the guide and captain came and posed the shots. The four of us grabbed a corner of the carcass and wrestled that goddamn bear into a more flattering position. It was the heaviest lifting I’d ever tried to move. The bear was placed so that it seemed to be smiling, propped upright over a piece of driftwood. My father, posed behind it, looked younger and more confident.

The bear taped out just under nine feet, what guides and guided would call a “representative animal” which is code for adequate, but no trophy.

If the bear would have been closer to ten feet, I would have written a different story. If it would have turned and charged into hail of bullets and dropped at my father’s feet, I would have written a different story. I would have written a sentimental hunting magazine article about a father surmounting great odds to do battle with nature, wrestling with death itself.

Instead, I’ve relived this hunt for a decade, struggling to make meaning of this dead bear.

I love my father, for his wildness, and for being the rational, sturdy man holding the cables of our family together. I love him for taking me along on his maybe misguided quest to find some kind of validation or approval by hunting a huge, dangerous animal. And I love him for those short minutes in the dark when we were saddened and humbled by that bear’s death.

My dad fully recovered, said he’s done hunting bears. He had a rug made, and kept the skull on his desk. We haven’t hunted much since that day, and I’ve had three of my own sons in the interim. I named my first born after my dad.

I don’t know what my boys will think about the time on the beach in Alaska when his grandpa shot a grizzly bear.

I think about this quote from Ruark:

You are not shooting to kill. You are shooting to make immortal the thing you shoot. To kill just anything is a sin. To kill something that will be dead soon, but is so fine as to give you pleasure for years, is wonderful. Everything dies. You just hasten the process… I can understand killing something that you want so badly that you are willing to go to weeks of trouble and great expense to collect it, so that you will have it and enjoy it and remember it all your life.

I don’t know what I’ll do, when my sons are bored of my old exploits, and I am the one who will have to go find a new story.

Matt Stansberry is an Ohio-based author focusing on natural history and biodiversity. He lives on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, south of Cleveland with his wife and three young sons and writes essays about the wildlife of the industrial Midwest. Belt Magazine published a collection of the first volume of essays titled Redhorse Volume 1. Follow him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish and find his other work at matthewstansberry.com.

Artwork by David Wilson www.downpourcreative.com

The Snakecatcher 

by Karen Jane Cannon

In Sussex fields we saw the wooden sign —
red letters warning us of adders hid
under tall nettles, long cow parsley, but
we never saw a tell-tale V slide by.

I’d heard of adders caught by magic, drawn
to circles marked out in dirt, the skin
then sold for medicine and oil so rare
to find. It took me twenty years to see

my first wild snake. We lived high up, lost
in leaded Lowther hills. Our cat came back
with sticky marks across his neck and shook
and spat until the venom passed — so strange

to find the wild so near to home. The snake
lay dead outside, her eyes fused shut, under
those see-through lids, with diamond patterned skin
still warm and soft to touch. I’ve heard it said

an adder will not die until sunset
and viper means in Latin birth and life.
Females will swallow young to protect them
from harm and symbolize wisdom and luck.

Maybe that Sussex CAUTION ADDERS! sign
in fact was meant for them, not us — for while
we’ve robbed their habitats and might yet wipe
them out, our own numbers remain intact.

Karen Jane Cannon’s poems have appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Acumen, Orbis, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House and Ink, Sweat & Tears, as well as anthologies such as Rewiring History and The Sea. She was commended for The Flambard Poetry Prize 2014

A Flash of Orange

by Dawn Wyndham

Her gentle elongated face was etched with tiredness. Delayed by giving birth two days ago, she was the last to flee. Amid the flames and smoke billowing around her, she held tight to the branch she hung from, high above a forest floor fanged with charred, fallen trees.

Subdued dawn sunlight shone through her long auburn hair, silhouetting her body in a foggy halo. Her instincts were sharpened by the coming of morning and she sensed the presence of danger as vividly as carnal pain. She felt a disturbing change in the rhythm of things as she lifted her head to sniff the acrid air and panic began to claim her. The sound of her baby brought her back to herself. Hearing him keening, she looked down at his tiny new-born face and made soft hooting noises to calm him. He groped the air, feeling her fear and coughing a terror all his own. A slow wind snarled at the hot daybreak like a sinister red beast, goading the fire on. Something evil was happening.

She searched the blackened tree canopy for a flash of orange, a glimpse of ginger fur, for another of her kind, but the smoke was so thick it was all she could do to keep her streaming eyes open. Although she was accustomed to prowling the forest alone, she sometimes made contact with the congress of orang-utan who lived here, especially the other females with their young. Now with an infant of her own she searched for them. Where were they? Feeling the perpetual bond of his hold on her, she cradled her son, lifting him to her breast to encourage him to latch on and cling more tightly; hoping the act of suckling would soothe him. Skin touching skin, she tenderly stroked his head, still shiny from the pickling of her womb, brushing his singed fluff of hair free of ash. Breathing in as he was breathing out, her keen sense of smell told her of the smoke filling his young lungs. He looked up at her with an ancient trust, instinctive and mysterious. His small hand sought the fur around her neck and he covered her nipple with his mouth and closed his eyes.

She had travelled a long way across the jungle canopy, her seven-foot arm span swinging her effortlessly from treetop to treetop, rasping for a full breath of air. The new day revealed the fire was at its worst here. At one point yesterday she’d had to descend from the trees to avoid the flames, but the earth had been on fire. As she relived the trial of it, she made small noises and rocked to comfort herself, as she had last night when darkness fell; murmuring ancient sounds only her kin could make in the hollows of their throats and which, somewhere in her head, fathoms deep, she kept close. Her feet and hands had got burned from just the short burst of speed to reach across the clearing and into the forest again with the baby clinging to her belly, climbing up and up as if the altitude would cool her blistered limbs. Listening out for the deep call of a flanged male, she felt the branches for food, but all she found were shriveled leaves. She was hungry. She must eat to have milk for the baby, to have strength to travel.

Which way? This was an alien place, no longer the lush green habitat that she lived in. Disoriented, her infallible mental map of the forest disturbed, she climbed as high as the charcoaled branches would bear her and gazed across the grey clouds of smoke to the distance. In the faded blue of the far-away, beyond the burned out trees, beyond the ranks of palm oil plantations, she sensed water. It was their only chance. She shouted a loud hoot, listening for the response of an answering call, desperation driving her, instinct and tenacity telling her she would be going in the right direction – towards the river; to the tea-coloured waters that flow in tributaries across Central Kalimantan; to the orang-utan sanctuary where she was raised; to safety.

Retired from a career in the technology industry, Dawn Wyndham is a new author focussed on exploring the use of the animal voice in fiction. This is an excerpt from her first novel. She holds a M.A. in creative writing and is a candidate for a PhD.