I recently returned from my first in-person writer’s conference (this one, the Wine Country Writers’ Festival in Penticton, British Columbia (https://wcwfestival.com/)) in more than three years. To say that it was a pleasure to again be amongst avid writers and readers would be an understatement. And of course, there was wine…
Aside from the fact that the festival took place in my home town, which in itself brought back fond memories of high school English classes, where I had my first glimpse into narrative, satire and character development, it was inspiring to be back with other writers and poets who were excited and passionate about their craft.
During the festival, I was a member of a fun panel on the writing process with fellow authors Miranda Krogstad, Andrew Buckley, and Laura Thomas. We’d not met until we sat down at the panel table, but I was fascinated to see the differences between our approaches – when we write, where we write, how and when we use beta or first readers, and how we deal with writer’s block.
I also gave a workshop on plot development in environmental mysteries and thrillers (sharing a “what if?” decision tree tool about which I’ve written in a separate post here on Free Range Writers). I loved encouraging lively discussion and sharing opinions, and engaging with participants in a fun exchange of questions and answers.
However, one of the most fascinating sessions in the festival took place on the last evening, when I participated in the slush pile exercise.
For those who are unfamiliar with slush piles, this is how they’re defined by Wikipedia:
“Inpublishing, a slush pile is a set of unsolicitedquery lettersormanuscriptsthat have either been directly sent to a publisher by anauthor, or which have been delivered via aliterary agentrepresenting the author who may or may not be familiar to the publisher.The responsibility of sifting through slush piles is usually reserved either to editor assistants or to outside contractors calledpublisher’s readersor “first readers”. If the reader finds something of interest and can convince a senior editor to accept it, they may earn credit.” (Wikipedia)
Normally, if your writing is in the slush pile, it means it has some … uphill challenges.
In this festival, imagine a panel of four experienced publishers and editors sitting on a slightly raised dais at the front of a large ball room, facing the audience. Another author and I stood on the floor below them at standing microphones, our backs to the four, also facing the audience.
One at a time, we were given the first page of manuscripts to read aloud (as an aside, I – like most authors I know — like to practice before doing public readings; in this case, we were
reading cold, which was a new and demanding experience). These single pages were submitted anonymously by members of the audience, and we had no idea whose work was whose.
As we read, the publishers and editors behind us listened intently, at least one with her eyes closed, but any of them could raise their hands as soon as they had heard enough. When at least two of the four raised their hands, we heard a signal from the audience – “stop!” We ceased reading immediately, no matter where we were in that first page. Despite what my fellow reader and I thought was some quality writing, I don’t recall either of us finishing a complete page before we were told to stop.
The opportunity to learn came when the publishers then explained why they had raised their hands, why they’d heard enough. For some, it was too much ‘tell’ vs. ‘show,’ while for others, it was too many characters too soon or cliched descriptions. It was surprising to hear the number of times that the panelists talked about their dislike of starting the story with a dream, or with a character just waking up. In one case, we heard all four express their distaste over the discovery of a woman’s body in the opening paragraphs.
Once the feedback for each page was complete, the panel’s chairperson asked if the author in the audience wished to identify themselves. Some did, some didn’t. For the most part,
those who did courageously raise their hand (“that was mine!”) thanked the panelists for the frank and honest feedback and were able to explain what they were trying to do. One woman was asked by a publisher to submit more of the story, which I’m sure was worth the price of the festival ticket. However, the author of the first manuscript we read took great umbrage to the feedback he received, stood to aggressively disagree with the publishers, then left the room. It was a startling reminder that successful writers need to have thick skins.
For those of us who listened carefully to the feedback from the publishers, it was a fascinating and rare opportunity to learn and to ponder our own writing.
But most importantly, it was a much-needed reminder for all of us that we must grab our reader’s attention in those first few paragraphs of a story.
If we can do that, they’ll keep reading.
If we can’t, our work will be delegated to the bottom of the slush pile, or to the round metal can beside it.
(editor’s note: The Wine Country Writers’ Festival will occur Sept 22 – 24, 2023 if you’re interested. It’s a great time of year to be in BC’s Okanagan Valley)
In April, I joined a panel of writers of environmental mysteries at the Left Coast Crime 2022 mystery convention. Our books address serious issues, so much so that one audience member asked, “Is there any reason at all for hope?”
My answer? You bet! Humans have created the undoubtedly challenging problems we face, yes. However, creative and tenacious humans are working on solutions. I’ve mentioned a few instances below and would love to hear about others you know of.
Hope beneath the earth: Tucson is part of the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile system to bring Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona. To get drinkable water to Tucson required some innovative thinking, the use of ground water recharging, and extensive conservation efforts. Tucson now uses the same amount of water as we did in the 1980s, with 200,000 more people. More recently, other groups are working with Tucson Water to restore wetlands and some water flow in the Rillito River that once flowed freely in our community. Still others are working to restore the flow of the Tanque Verde Creek in Tucson, by removing destructive and thirsty invasive Arundo donax.
In Arizona and elsewhere many farmers have moved to sustainable farming, making the most efficient use possible of non-renewable resources, and switched to crops that use less water. They’re planting more heritage wheats, for example, that consume 30% less water than modern varieties. Once other farmers learn that there’s a way to conserve energy (save money) and continue their operations, they’re likely to go greener, as well.
Release the Beavers! Here in southern Arizona, the Watershed Management Group and other organizations are working to restore beavers to the Santa Cruz and San Pedro watersheds. Wiped out by trappers in the 1800s, beavers are now recognized as vital to restoring desert creeks and rivers. Their dams slow water flow and help that water sink into the aquifer below and recharge groundwater. They also create wetland habitats for our diverse Sonoran Desert ecosystem.
Hope for the birds: My first novel in the Adventure Calls Ecotouring series, Murder, Sonoran Style, was inspired by a fight over a huge development (28,000 houses) on land near the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a prime habitat for native and migratory birds. Opponents argued it would deplete the aquifer; proponents touted the favorable impact on the small town of Benson, AZ. I learned about this dispute in 2014 although research shows it began in 2003; it continues now into the fall of 2022, as a variety of environmental groups plead the case for the aquifer.
Hope from the oceans:Seaweed is better at absorbing CO2 emissions than trees are and scientists and entrepreneurs are working on ways to exploit this capacity. Some are building artificial reefs to restore kelp forests, placing them in areas of the ocean that are cooler, because kelp forests have been diminishing with raising water temperatures. Others are planting kelp and other seaweeds and harvesting it for use as food, in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and bioplastics. You can even buy seasoning made from kelp flakes.
Yay, Tigers! Globally, the Word Wildlife Fund recently reported that, “In an amazing show of progress for wildlife, Nepal is on track to become the first of the world’s countries to double its wild tiger population since 2010. According to results from the country’s most recent tiger survey, there are now an estimated 235 wild tigers, nearly twice the number of tigers counted in 2009.
Nepal is one of 13 tiger range countries that pledged to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022—part of an initiative known as TX2.
Yes, there’s hope. With hard work, there’s more than hope.
Award-winning author Kathy McIntosh writes humorous environmental mysteries that aim first to entertain, second to enlighten readers about some issues facing the world today.
Her first novel, Mustard’s Last Stand, humorously recounts the fight to stop a fake safari camp (canned hunting) in North Idaho. Her second, Foul Wind, features a wind farm amidst hogs, murder, blackmail and more. Her third displays the diversity of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and is based on a fight to save an important aquifer and wildlife refuge. In her most recent mystery, Murder, Cottonwood Style, a guide and chef for an ecotouring company sets out to enjoy Arizona’s red rock country but gets in hot water when she discovers the body of a crusty former client.
Kathy’s books—paperback, ebook, and audio—are available on Amazon.com. Her website, www.KathyMcIntosh.com, includes recipes, travel tales and writing tips.
A novel about a real life strong woman—Beryl Markham.
As is the case with most authors, I have done many presentations in schools, libraries and bookstores about my books and the craft of writing. And I often get asked about the challenges of creating strong female characters. The implication being that particular writing task must be especially hard for a male author. I mention three things: tap into your feminine, model your characters after strong women you know and admire, and read as many books with strong female protagonists as you can.
I also enjoy sharing the creation story of Jake Goddard and Susan Brand for the first in my eco-thriller trilogy, The Straw That Broke. I wanted a strong man and a strong woman, (both flawed but smart and capable), to eventually form a team. In this case, the pair would be searching for Lyndall Burke, a young woman who is abducted in Jackson Hole when the story begins.
As things progressed Susan was indeed strong and was doing some impressive things whereas Jake seemed to be spinning his wheels. Try as I might, I couldn’t resolve this dichotomy. (But wait! Aren’t you the author, I hear you insist. Truly, I say, characters take on a life of their own but that is a subject for another post.) So, as I often do, I consulted with my daughter, Jamie, a published poet. “Well, Dad,” she said. “Perhaps you’re just channeling your inner Susan.” I have come to believe that is exactly what was happening. And as tiresome as it may sound, that is my first piece of advice for any male author asking for guidance. Get in touch with your feminine side.
What the cover doesn’t mention is that Sonya had to struggle to create a work (spying) life (children) balance.
Because she is a cop, it was easy for me to imbue Susan with elements that are traditionally male. She is damn good with a Glock, for instance, and uses it to wound and disarm a suspect. But being certain she was nottoo tough was the challenge and it required me to think like Susan. She is a nurturing mother and a dog owner. She is a good friend. She can get gussied up and flirt with the best of them. Those softer elements were the challenge. I had to imagine what it would feel like to be doubted simply because of my gender. I had to imagine the stresses on a hardworking single mother.
The lines demarcating gender are far too blurred for me to say definitively what is feminine and what is masculine. A woman might derive every bit as much pleasure as a man out of getting her hands greasy while pulling an engine from a car. But most people would agree that would be an unusual woman and that that interest is mostly considered a male pursuit. Yet there are many men, me among them, that hate to get their hands greasy. So, I encourage aspiring male authors wanting to create strong women to determine the aspects of their make-up that are generally associated with the feminine and capitalize on them. I tell them it’s their personal wealth of material for creating strong female character that don’t come off like men with women’s names.
Secondly, base your female characters on women you know. Women who do not back down from a challenge. Who tackle hard jobs and situations and and aren’t beaten down by defeat. Women like Beryl Markham who flew through glass ceilings.
Third, read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction featuring strong women. In the last year, for example I have read: Circling the Sun by Paula McClain,Three Ordinary Girls by Tim Brady, The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict, A Woman of no Importance by Sonia Purnell, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones, American Dirt by Jeanine Cumins andAgent Sonya by Ben Macintyre.
While Googling Beryl Markham to learn more about her life, I noticed two photos. The first depicted her at a dinner party beautifully and femininely made-up and dressed right down to the pearls. The second showed her wearing a pilot’s helmet, flight jacket and trousers as she boarded her plane, hoping to complete the first crossing of the Atlantic from east to west (she did). That photographic contrast illustrated the challenges and joys of capturing powerful accomplished women.
While preparing this post, it occurred to me that female authors might have their own special challenges when creating strong female characters. So I posed the question to my colleague, Pamela Beason, a strong woman in her own right. “Interesting question, Greg. I think that those of us who are strong characters don’t have much of a challenge in crafting one, but some readers may think strong female characters are too tough and too cold and uncaring, so it’s best to create a cast of supporting characters that the strong female interacts with and obviously cares about. But a strong female character should never change her behavior to defer to a man’s wishes unless it serves her purpose to reach her goal. And then there’s the ambition and appearance angles that always must be dealt with. As witnessed every day in politics, even today, ambitious women are considered bitchy while ambitious men are admired; and women’s clothing and appearance are always commented on. When was the last time you heard a critique of what a male politician was wearing? Creating a strong female character with soft edges and vulnerabilities is always a challenge.”
The first in the Jake Goddard and Susan Brand eco-thriller trilogy. Followed by Some Say Fire and Rare as Earth.
Can fiction – particularly eco- or environmental fiction – be too political?
Recently, I had the honour of joining authors Merrilee Robson, Candas Jane Dorsey, and Hyacinthe Miller on a panel in the Crime Fiction stream of When Words Collide, an inspiring annual writer’s/reader’s conference based out of Calgary, Alberta. We were told that we all “successfully work social/political/environmental themes” into our mysteries. I’ll humbly accept that description.
Our panel was titled “Message in a Novel” and we focused our hour-long discussion on the question of whether topics are too political to be written about, so much so that readers will be turned off, or whether there are ways to write about sensitive topics without making a novel unsalable or unreadable.
It was a fascinating discussion that ranged between heated debate and gentle consensus. In only an hour, we didn’t arrive at a clear answer to the question.
However, like my posting here at Free Range Writers in April of 2020, the panel’s conversation did encourage me to think more about the role of ecofiction as an agent of social change.
First, The Cambridge History of the American Novel defines ecofiction as “an elastic term, capacious enough to accommodate a wide variety of fictional works that address the relationship between natural settings and the human communities that dwell within them. The term emerged soon after ecology took hold as a popular scientific paradigm and a broad cultural attitude in the 1960s and 1970s.” In many ways, I see ecofiction offering an integrated view of reality, where the ecological elements of stories do not simply provide background but instead are deeply essential to setting, plot, character development and even point of view.
Considering that definition, and given the potential for ecofiction to cover a wide range of issues from climate change, protection of wildlife and wild spaces, to environmental degradation from human activity, can ecofiction be too political?
The answer to that, I suggest, is largely in the perceptions of readers.
However, there are many authors throughout history who successfully tackled contentious topics with an environmental theme, and whose works stand the test of time, cultural perspective, and social media rankings. From Jack London, D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath linked drought and poverty in 1939) and Arthur Herzog (whose 1977 novel Heat is often described as the first anthropogenic global warming novel), to Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonegut, Peter Matthiessen and Edward Abbey, many of our most beloved authors tackle tough issues with skill, pushing readers to think and care and change their behaviour.
Some use satire, a popular tool to tackle difficult issues through applying humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, often in utopian or dystopian genres. Think George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945); he described it as his first book in which he “tried with full consciousness of what he was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” Orwell’s most famous work – 1984 – left us with terms we still use today: Orwellian, Big Brother, and newspeak.
Even more common is the skillful description of places in a way that creates sympathy and caring on the part of readers. Edward Abbey’s description of desert landscapes fits in the category as well as any. Similarly, developing likeable characters (with unlikable characters as counterpoints) that evolve through compelling characters arcs encourages readers to care.
One of my favourite fiction-writing tools, however, is shining a spotlight on the complexity of environmental and land use issues by offering a suite of characters with a range of perspectives and motivations. If one character is a rabid environmentalist, another (either protagonist or antagonist) might be a greed-driven developer lacking in ethics and morals.
But that’s too easy – create a good guy and a bad guy, then call it a day.
Instead, it’s the disparate range of characters between those two bookends that in my opinion adds flavour and depth and sophistication to a story. A recent example that I felt did a truly admirable job of this is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020; Orbit – Hachette Book Group Inc.). Robinson creates a series of fictional eyewitness accounts to tell how climate change will affect us all. It is masterful, thought-provoking, and hopeful, and yet, is close enough to what we’re already experiencing to avoid a dystopian label.
In a final analysis, I believe that ecofiction is only too political ifan author is so focused on a single perspective, a single way of seeing the world, that she/he misses the nuances, the shades of gray in these complex issues, and as a result, angers or turns off at least half the potential readers.
As ecofiction writers, we do have the opportunity to have our works act as agents of social change. But that must be done with skill, nuance, and ensuring we present a range of perspectives in an entertaining, authentic, and compelling way. If we can do that, we just might encourage readers to think about the world in a different way.
I recently told my sister that after several weeks of attending conferences and having relatives visit, I was feeling desperate to get out in nature. She asked, “What do you like so much about nature?”
Frankly, at first the question confounded me. How could it not be obvious that the natural world is absolutely fascinating and rewarding? There’s a reason I write mysteries with wilderness settings. But after thinking about it, I decided that the question really deserved an answer from me. So here are my personal thoughts on the subject.
For me, nature has always been magical. The world is so much bigger and grander than human civilization, and we know so little about the plants and other creatures we share our planet with. Even plants have superpowers; they can absorb sunshine and water and soil to create their own food before they become food for us. Mosses and lichen and fungi inhabit mysterious and extensive ecosystems. Scallops and snails use their bodies to synthesize shells from the elements in which they live. Birds and many insects can leap into the air and fly. Bats can not only wing their way through the sky but find food through echolocation.
As a scuba diver, I’ve watched an octopus hunt along a reef at night, squeezing its boneless body through tiny holes and narrow crevices, changing its colors and skin patterns as it explores. I’ve hung motionless in seawater among a school of big-eyed squid for long moments before they jetted away at warp speed. I’ve peered through the bodies of jellyfish—how can a creature that we can see through be alive? And like so many of my diving compatriots, I’ve spent hours searching through books and websites trying to identify some otherworldly organism that I observed on the ocean floor.
Many creatures are shape-shifters. They spend their lives in several different forms. How amazing it is that a caterpillar and a butterfly are the same animal! Some fish appear completely different as juveniles than they do as adults. Larval forms of most sea creatures look nothing like their final shapes.
Some creatures can change genders. Others have no gender but simply clone themselves to perpetuate their species. Wouldn’t that ability change our lives if humans possessed it?
Watching an elephant pick up a small nut with its trunk makes me wonder if dinosaurs had the same dexterity. Observing porpoises and whales always causes me to contemplate whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be an air-breathing creature that lives in water.
Even meteorological forces are captivating. How can anyone not be impressed by the crystalline formations of snowflakes and frost? By the ferocious forces of lightning and tornados? I’ve enjoyed meteor showers so dense and bright and seemingly close that I expected to hear the impacts of the streaking objects as they hit the earth. My brief and limited experience seeing the aurora borealis nearly brought me to tears; visiting a place where I can witness its full majesty is definitely on my bucket list.
Perhaps, as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, familiarity breeds contempt, but it has always seemed to me that, when compared to the natural world, humankind is limited and repetitious and self-centered. After all, humans are only one species. We are forced to invent supernatural beings and imaginary powers, when they abound in nature all around us. The natural world promises an infinite variety of species and experiences. How can anyone not be awed by that?
It’s your “little girl” checking in. You asked for it. Here goes. My first nightly yelk as promised. (Now, let’s see if I actually do it.) Thought I would start each yelk with a review of my day here in the world’s first national park, as well as my evolving plans, such as they are, for my First Year General Science “report” on this scholastic adventure. I may have mentioned it is due next week just a few days after we return to Columbia. I’m determined to NOT let it go until the last minute. Grrrrr. My topic will be how Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—that is a much larger contiguous wild area—have changed over the last 100 years. Let me begin by telling you how stunningly beautiful this wonderful place is in late spring. Like another world—deep blue skies, hushed green forests, rushing streams, bubbling and boiling hot pools, meandering rivers. And the animals are amazing! We started our morning with a classic “bacon” and pancake breakfast (Nice, for a change, to eat breakfast, not just drink it. Of course, the bacon was plant-based.) at our historic lodge on gorgeous Yellowstone Lake. The lodge is made of ancient logs from trees and sits right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake that seems to stretch all the way to the horizon. Then we jumped onto the hoverbusses to visit the site of a wolf kill. I sat beside a woman from Stanford University named Rachel. I think Rachel and I are going to be friends. When we arrived at the site, a forensic biologist, Dr. Jeanne May was examining the carcass. Sad. Like a large dead dog. Apparently, unlike the early 21s century, unnatural killing of these majestic apex predators (learned that term today—impressed?) are rare. Even more reason to determine if this was human caused. On the way to the Craig’s Pass area and the wolf, I noticed signs of the horrific climate change-driven forest burns from the middle of the last century, now growing back nicely, and vague impressions where the roads had been removed late in the last century. The few roads remaining throughout the park are maintained for human powered conveyances only. The last straw on vehicles happened when self-driven electric cars, supposedly the “green” solution, kept colliding with large mammals in the park. All cars had to go and fortunately they did. I noted both those things on my device as “changes” that will go into my report.
I’ve been thinking about the next 100 years in Yellowstone as well as the last 100. In my wildest and most radical dreams, I envision a future in which the volcanic instability in parts of Yellowstone radiate out for many miles in all directions and people decide it’s just safer to abandon the area and leave it to the wildlife. However, I think it’s more likely that Yellowstone will be preserved by making it off-limits for most people, and only lucky lottery winners will get to experience its incredible variety of landscapes and wildlife on any given day. Either way, Nature wins! But, of course, that is not my topic. My topic is Yellowstone in the last100 years. Oh, speaking of the anniversary, can you please yelk me a couple of eK? There are some souvenirs mentioning this being Yellowstone’s 250th year I want to buy and, of course, I spent all my money already. Yellowstone— established in 1872—can you believe it? Also, I want to purchase some surprises for my loving Mum and Da. That’s all from Day One. More tomorrow. Love you. B
Day Two, Tuesday Evening (actually, Wednesday morning)
Hi M and D,
We had a long day yesterday and Rachel and I stayed up late last night talking by the digital fire in the lobby. Pretty amazing, they actually generate a comforting heat. How about installing one in our Brooklyn apartment now that we are sure it is not going to be underwater? Sorry. Bad climate change joke from another era. Anyhow, I must run and meet the group soon and will keep this yelk short. Oh, you won’t believe what we saw at dinner in the lodge last night! White people. My first ever! Some were pink from too much exposure to the sun. Compared to our brown tones they looked sort of sickly. I asked around and was told they are members of a religious sect that until recently has been living in isolation in southern Utah and Northern Arizona. It is rumored they have chosen inbreeding over the years to keep their bloodline “pure.” The members of the sect dressed in long cotton robes, men, and women. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not look like anyone else—except for your extended family members. I mean skin color. Sad and strange. When R and I walked back to our rooms for the night, you wouldn’t believe the stars and the bright smiling sliver of a moon. Beautiful! Gotta go. Sorry, this has to be so short. Hugs and kisses.
Day Three, Wednesday EveningMama grizzly and cub.
Got to thinking today how the last war ever fought was right around 100 years ago. When Russia tried to colonize Ukraine. So great that wars will soon be ancient history. Not sure how that works into my report but it’s pretty important in terms of the reversing of climate change (and basically saving Yellowstone) which, as you know, occurred after the Great Awakening in the middle of the last century. War ending (China turning its back on Russia), fossil fuels being eliminated, going to a plant-based diet and even the end of the electric era after the GA, all have influenced preserving the beauty and serenity of Yellowstone, which was established in 1872 (but I may have already mentioned that), “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Oh, and ending extraction of minerals and precious metals close to the park after mining undermined its plumbing and the geysers fizzled out is obviously important too. Energy companies used diagonal drilling to tap thermal or hydro-electric resources underneath the park and the geysers died! I’ve seen pictures of them. They were majestic spouts off superheated water shooting hundreds of feet into the air. I have been wondering how the Great Awakening ever came about. I’ve read that the country and the world were still really divided on the importance of climate justice even up to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. Rachel told me there was even an American President around that time who denied climate change,calling it a hoax! Neither of us could remember his name. I’ll search for it later tonight. Many rural Americans were dug in on that and other similar issues and some even attacked the capital, which was in Washington, D.C. at that time. So how is it the GA happened in the middle of the century? I’ve read, and will include in my report, it was apparently the common experience of seeing huge forest burns, game animals suffering, fish die-offs, crops and livestock loss, lakes and rivers like the Colorado drying up, including the impact on heavily populated areas of toxic dust storms from the depleted salt lakes, air you could barely breath and extreme weather events. Hard to ignore that evidence. That is thought to be what finally convinced people to collaborate on a solution. And of course, national parks like Yellowstone on the brink of destruction. That was the canary in the coal mine to use an ancient expression. A bridge too far. The last wild areas like Yellowstone facing extinction contributed greatly to people finally taking action to reverse climate change. That appears more than anything to have brought people around the country and around the world together. Whew. My thoughts are all jumbled together, I’m going to have to organize them better for my report. We were studying the geology and biology of a fumarole today near Hayden Valley when I slipped away to pee behind a tree. Too much coffee, some things never change, right? My device suddenly warned me that a bear was within 100 yards. I switched to Bear Away and quickly finished up and tried to find it on the slopes above me. No luck. It was gone. At least my bear shield worked. Got an early day tomorrow studying hydrology in the park. Better get my REMs. More tomorrow night.
Harlequin Ducks at LeHardy Rapid on the Yellowstone River.
Day Four, Thursday Evening
M and D,
Some other changes to the park in the last 100 years for my report. No signs now, just point your device at QR codes from the hoverbus and you have the link to all the information you could ask for in your hand. No visitor passes required. Visitors’ devices send a signal to robotic rangers, etc. showing that the visitors have purchased passes. And tourists must be guided by professionals to prevent getting too close to wildlife, jeopardizing fragile soil around delicate features and wild souvenir gathering. Can you believe 100 years ago people were allowed to drive by themselves all over this park in polluting vehicles? And some got so close to bison they were killed! Others died in thermal features. That was the wild west, I guess. Nothing good about those old days!
I asked, Maddie, the robotic instructor said to be the staff historian, what caused the GA in a country that earlier in the century seemed to be on the brink of civil war with some parts of the country threatening secession. Let me check my notes from talking with her. Oh yeah, here we go. Had to find my pack. Maddie said that if you think in terms of issues that have been tackled successfully by the US literally in the time that Yellowstone has been a national park: slavery (abolished just before the park was established), two world wars, end of Jim Crow and school integration, space exploration, ending tobacco use, vaccinations for pandemics and the defeat of Russia in Ukraine without NATO ever firing a single shot. Andthe end of fossil fuel production and successful extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (She mentioned wealthy nations stopped producing oil and gas in 2034 and the poorer ones around 2050.) All that resulting in the Great Awakening and ultimate reversal of climate change doesn’t seem that farfetched. “Good triumphs over evil and light over darkness, etc.” Maddie said. She made a convincing case that ultimately human beings stumble onto the right thing. And she used as an example the recent post Great Awakening end of the electricity era (twenty-five years ago in 2097). Not bad for a machine.
Let’s see, what hasn’t changed? The beauty and solitude that this natural area offers the troubled mind. Today, after learning about the rivers of Yellowstone, I ended up sitting for two hours during our free time overlooking a beautiful valley containing the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers forming the Madison River. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it must have been before the GA to see these rivers mostly dried up. I watched a huge bull elk with massive antlers graze the grassy meadows by the Madison. Above the bull an osprey hung in the air wings a blur until diving down on an unsuspecting fish. Did you know that while flying their dinner in their talons back to the nest they align the fish parallel to their bodies because that is more aerodynamic? Down the valley I watched a bison herd grazing the streamside meadow. The babies look like little cinnamon bears as opposed to the massive shaggy chocolate brown adults. The serene beauty of the forest, meadow, and meandering flow of water was stunning, but still my heart was aching. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Rob. I know what you’re thinking, parents. No, I haven’t gotten over them as you told me you were certain this trip might help happen. We’ve been together since high school which feels like forever. I love them and miss them. But I want them to be happy. I have promised Rob to be their best friend while in the process of transitioning. I’m struggling to imagine them as Roberta. I don’t, don’t, don’t ever want this love to end. I’m just … not … certain I can be in a romantic relationship with a woman. But of course, I could change my mind. It wouldn’t be the first time, right? Just makes me weepy and I feel so very alone right now. Lucky I’m surrounded by such stunning beauty.
We met a ranger from the Native American run part of the park today. Forest explained how five tribes manage most of the lower half of Yellowstone National Park. He is Shoshone. We did a sweat lodge with him as our spirit quest guide. We were asked if we would like (assuming we were of age) to alter our consciousness in the sweat. I passed. As you know, just hate being out of control. I sort of regretted it after Rachel told me about her amazing vision. I’ve included it, as I remember it, in italics.
A Native American man from a reservation in the Midwest with the help of a medicine man comes to grips with his anger and resentment about his ancestors being forced off their land. He is told to travel to Yellowstone where the white man first showed respect for nature. There he not only finds harmony and peace but learns from a vision quest how to unlock the secrets of snow and water. His knowledge makes it possible to produce much more water from snow than the one-to-ten ratio (maximum) that is common. The enlightened man then joins forces with a wealthy white businessman who has also come to Yellowstone for spiritual renewal and the two men decide to work together. Thus, the powerful combination of the natural beauty and serenity of Yellowstone, forgiving, healing, and collaboration solves many of the climate change related water shortages in the West.
Wow! That girl has a lot going on upstairs! Forest told us about the monkeyflower discovered by Lewis and Clark (mimulus lewisii). Later we found some along the stream we cooled off in after the sweat. Lewis’s monkeyflower is pink (as you know, my favorite) and grows along steams among rocks. Yawning and stretching. Time to go. Sleep well.
Otter pups curl up for a nap on mama.
Five, Friday Evening
I wandered away from the group this morning (I know. I know.) to look at a beautiful cluster of columbine flowers in dappled sunshine slanting through tall conifers. I found myself totally absorbed in the one whitish-yellow multi-faceted flower head I held gently between my fingers when I heard a snuffling sound nearby. I looked up and saw something small, furry and brown moving through knee-high grass. I froze when I realized it was a bear cub and my device had not warned me. Panic! I heard a snort. Then, out of nowhere, in a blur, a mama grizzly bear charged me! I yelled and the mama stopped, gathered up her baby and headed off through the pines. Whoa. Scared the you-know-what out of me. The ranger explained, lucky for me, the mama bear had done a bluff charge. So beautiful and yet so terrifying! You will be sooooo mad at me when you hear why my device didn’t warn me. Dead battery. Forgot to leave it on the windowsill this morning. Just tossed it in my pack. Stupid!! Ten minutes in decent light is all it takes and yet, I forget. Fortunately, the ranger speaking to our group saw the griz and heard me yell and put his Bear Away on. Another reason she left so quickly. I’ll have nightmares about that for a while. Oh, the report on the wolf is in. Good news. Died of natural causes. Poison was the biggest concern.
Speaking of wolves, the group was hiking on a trail to the Upper Yellowstone Falls today when our devices started buzzing all at once alerting us to wolves in the area. Across the canyon several gray wolves (Canis lupus) appeared and frolicked for our benefit. William, the interpretive ranger for the day, took the opportunity to inform us that these beautiful animals were hunted near to extinction in the early 20th century and then reintroduced in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the late 20th century. Less than 100 years later. Before the wolves returned the park was suffering from overgrazing, after wolf populations became healthy again the benefits of them naturally culling elk herds “cascaded” (learned that term today) down to healthier streams and healthier mammals. The fish in those streams, and birds living by those streams also thrived. All thanks to the wolf doing what comes naturally. Even beaver and riparian (streamside) plants and trees returned stronger. Many ranchers hated wolves because they wrongly accused them of predation on food animals. (Bleck! Eat an animal? Can’t even imagine.) That lasted right up until the Great Awakening and the end of meat eating. Ranchers also wanted to shoot bison to prevent them passing disease to their precious cattle. That also ended with the end of meat production for food. The cows didn’t belong here in the first place. Tomorrow, we are going to do a quick tour of where the major park geysers once erupted before hoverbussing to Boseman and flying home. Da, your great grandparents lived in this area roughly 100 years ago, right? Have you ever heard how they felt about wolves being killed? They weren’t animal killers, were they? Please tell me they weren’t animal killers. But do you think they maybe ate animals that others killed? If so, Father it explains why your masculine side is almost as strong as your feminine side. You have barbarian in your blood. (-.
Love you both. Home soon. B
Author’s note: Just as collaboration is the best hope for the future of the planet, this piece was creatively crowd-sourced. Several friends suggested hopeful elements for the future of Yellowstone—not all writers. I’m grateful. Any mistakes and oversights are mine. GZ
Because Pam, Greg and I write in the genre of eco-fiction, I want to focus this week on the importance of getting details right when it comes to incorporating natural history elements into our writing. As we all know, though, it’s not about overwhelming (or trying to impress) our readers with pages of facts, but when some component of the natural environment becomes key in plot or setting, the devil isin the details.
When I wrote a Free Range Writers post about home landscapes back in July 2019, I only scratched the surface about that need to strive for accuracy when it comes to writing the natural world.
This is as true for geography as it is about trees or animals. From my experience, we environmental authors get as many letters from readers telling us we’ve erred in describing a piece of geography as we do about almost anything else … such plot or character development or point of view.
Even with flora and fauna, however, it’s critical that we know what we’re talking about, that we do the research, that we get those facts straight when it comes to describing what plants or animals look like, sound like, smell like, and/or where they can normally be found (not only the general location, but the ecosystems they inhabit). There’s nothing worse than writing a description of a tree species in a setting where it doesn’t grow, and won’t, even after a few generations of climate change.
Because I live in the SE corner of British Columbia, just north of the joint Washington, Idaho and Montana borders, I like handbooks and field guides that don’t give the impression that the Rocky Mountains (or any of the other major western mountain ranges for that matter) suddenly stop at the 49th parallel. Are the “northern Rockies” really in Montana, or are they more accurately in northern British Columbia? I digress; it’s a rhetorical question that flows from a personal annoyance of mine.
It’s easy to identify my favourite natural history field guides by the degree to which they are dog-eared, faded, soil-stained, and/or fall open where the bindings have given out.
Here’s a sampling of the books that sit to my left in my reference cabinet (I can’t guarantee that any or all of them are still in print.).
Two of the most dog-eared in my personal library are the field identification guides on ‘Birds of North America,’ and ‘Trees of North America,’ from Golden Press in New York. The drawings are clear and simple, the descriptions effective, and the maps obvious. In fact, the field guide to trees was invaluable in helping me score high grades in dendrology at the University of BC. I still use it to this day.
Plants of the Rocky Mountains (A Lone Pine Field Guide) is a great example of a field guide that uses the botanical (or diagnostic) key system, where by looking at a plant, and answering a series of yes or no, or true or false questions,
you move from family to genus to species with confidence. The photos are generally good, the descriptions not overly scientific, and the book is helpfully divided into trees, shrubs, wildflowers, aquatics, grass-like plants, ferns and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), and lichens.
“Land Above The Trees” (by Ann H. Zwinger and Beatrice E. Willard; Johnson Books) is a self-styled guide to American alpine tundra that is an enjoyable mix of narrative and line drawings, as much a love affair of high places as it is a technical field guide.
For mammals, I often refer to David Shackleton’s “Hoofed Mammals of British Columbia.” It offers detailed and accurate descriptions of individual species such as mountain goats, mountain caribou and bighorn sheep, but it also includes thoughts on evolution, adaptations, and behaviour. It’s one of
the many handbooks produced under the imprint of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
If you live in the west, and are truly excited about wildflowers, I recommend Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest” by Lewis J. Clark (Gray Publishing). It’s not a field guide, coming in at a good 5 lbs, but it is the kind of coffee-table book you can refer to when you get home from a trip, comparing field photos to descriptions and photos in the book.
A favourite all-around guide that I use often is the seminal work by Ben Gadd – “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies” (Corax Press). It’s engaging and wonderfully written and covers everything from geology, climate, and weather, to plants, fishes, birds,
mammals, and human history. And it recognizes that the Rocky Mountains aren’t found only in Canada…
If you’re thinking that I’m a complete luddite who carries around a pack full of tattered field guides, I do admit to an increasing reliance on cellphone apps such as iNaturalist(California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society), eBird(The Cornell Lab) or Plant Snap. They not only make field identification easy, but users can see who else has made similar observations in their area. Once I discovered the life-lists in these apps, I knew they would bring out the competitive spirit in naturalists around the world. And they do.
These are my favourites amongst the thousands of field guides written for western North America. With such a wealth of information on bookshelves and at our digital fingertips, it’s easy for environmental writers – fiction or non – to get the facts right. And, perhaps, to cut down on those nasty letters accusing us of being sloppy, misinformed, or worse.
I’d love to hear from you about your favourite field guides and natural history handbooks.
My life has been particularly chaotic in the last week. June 24-26 was the Chanticleer Authors Conference here in Bellingham, which was held both in person and via Zoom this year for the first time in three years. I normally teach one or two sessions or appear on one or two panels during the three days, but this year, due to travel disruptions and unexpected positive COVID tests, several guests failed to arrive, so at the last minute those of us who were capable of sharing anything beneficial to authors were recruited to fill in the gaps.
Many might not believe it after seeing me “on stage” so often, but I am an introvert at heart and after three days, I was definitely ready to be alone. That said, it was wonderful to see old friends and meet new ones in person; after the COVID lockdown, I can never take face-to-face communication for granted again. And all of us authors learned so much from each other, because this conference focuses on the skills and knowledge you need to be a professional author.
On top of my human interaction overload were all the political machinations going on in the other Washington (D.C.). I fear for our democracy; I really do. Every day the US seems to become more like Gilead, the horrific ultra-restrictive, anti-woman nation originally created by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, and brought chillingly and skillfully to the television screen in four seasons.
I could go on about politics and life forever, but that’s not the point of this blog post. As I was driving across town, feeling tired of being a human, I spied a lone seagull flying way up in the sky. And I thought, how wonderful and restful that there are nonhumans in the world. I wanted to be that seagull, soaring above the human world.
In high school, my creative writing teacher told us to find “a friend” in nature—a stick, stone, or leaf, to keep it with us for a week and write about everything “our friend” told us. We were supposed to bring “our friend” to class every day and talk about what we had learned from that friendship. Not being a particularly cooperative girl, I had a different “friend” every day, because I would forget what I had picked up the day before and have to grab something new before class. While other students told elaborate stories about what their “friends” had told them, every day I said that my friend had not spoken to me at all. And I said that was the beauty of sticks and rocks and birds and animals; they did not speak our language, they did not think our thoughts, they were amazing and incredible in their non-humanness, and should be valued as such.
We are lucky to share our planet with so many other species, and with amazing landscapes. I will always celebrate the nonhumans that add variety and tranquility to my world.
P.S. – The creative writing teacher asked me to do assignments over and over again, in hopes that I would produce exactly what he wanted, but how creative is it to force all students into one mold? He wanted to give me a D. But he knew I was capable of creatively writing to the principal, so I believe he settled for a B.
American Dirt: A Must Read for all North Americans who Read.
“I want to convince people that their way of thinking is out of date and use words as a means to change minds.” The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis.
“Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” ― Barry Lopez.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is exhilarating, terrifying, heartbreaking, and exhausting. Everyone residing on North American soil should read it. Because first and foremost, American Dirt is an eye-opening education. It schooled me and changed me. I will never view the same way again a person who is migrating in search of a better life.
The novel opens with crushing tension that rarely lets up as the owner of a bookstore tries to make it to el norte(the U.S.) with her son, her only surviving relative, after an attack on her family by a cartel.
We here at Free Range Writers ask that our posts address one, two, or all the following: the environment, mystery, and the writing craft. So how, you may ask, does reviewing American Dirtmeet those criteria? What is the migrant issue on this continent if not a humanitarian and environmental crisis of the greatest magnitude?
We here at FRW pride ourselves, you might even say, are even a little smug about the fact that our stories (mysteries and thrillers) not only entertain, but also educate. In general, if I may speak for all three of us, our novels are allegorical. Cummins’s extremely well-crafted novel is the gold standard in accomplishing the dual goals of educating while entertaining. Although I feel a little guilty using that rather light term (entertaining) to describe the fictional depiction of such a traumatic journey, the reader cannot look away. American Dirtis riveting.
If I have one criticism it is that, except for a brief stay in a seemingly typical Mexican village including central fountain and Mariachi Band (a moment when the reader exhales), the ever-present pressure, tension and danger of the odyssey is unrelenting to a fault. I found myself thinking, “Well, this is way worse than I ever imagined and I’m certain these heroic people go through Hell, but can it really be this bad?” But then, what do I know? Perhaps it can and is.
I’ve observed that any artist today likely to be dunned for cultural appropriation (and Cummins endured withering criticism which probably drove her sales through the roof) has to a) apologize for her privilege and b) refer to a notable person of the culture in question who has endorsed her work. That happens in the author’s note.
It is my personal belief that the author should have written this book because a) she can, which is no small feat and b) she was inspired to write it. Cummins should be judged solely for her craft and by her audience.
“To a large extent, a mountain is a mountain because of the part it plays in the popular imagination.”
American geographer Robert Peattie
When I was growing up, enchanted by all things outdoors, the name Harvey Manning was synonymous with Pacific Northwest guidebooks and what was then (and still is) a bible for many outdoor enthusiasts — Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.
However, until reading Katie Ives’ wonderful new book Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, I was ignorant of the role that Manning played in a clever hoax perpetrated on the mountaineering community in June of 1962. In that month’s issue of Summitmagazine, readers saw an unattributed article describing the adventures of three Austrian climbers. It was accompanied by a dramatic black-and-white image of peaks that were unlike any that North American climbers had ever seen. The photo caption described the “unclimbed summit of Mount Riensenstein (sic), approximately 8,100 feet, near Prince Rupert in British Columbia. It can be reached in two days by bushwhacking up the Klawatti River.”
The article left its readers with a single challenge, punctuated by a tantalizing question mark: “who will be the first to climb it?”
At its heart, Imaginary Peaks is a biography of three men known for their off-beat humour — Harvey Manning, Ed LaChappelle and Austin Post – and an exploration into the reasons behind, and results of their hoax. While the world of mountaineering and climbing is full of tall tales and exaggerated exploits, the three men’s article describing the unclimbed peak in remote coastal British Columbia led some mountaineers to doubt that such a mountain existed, while it sent others off on wild summit chases that ended in disappointment and frustration.
For Manning in particular, the hoax was a natural result of his increasing concern about how the mountaineering community seemed to care more about bagging peaks and grabbing headlines than it did about the special, wild places where mountains exist. He was turning a mirror on that community, on its greed and longing, on its seemingly pretentious race to first ascents and glory and admiration, on its growing perception that summits were prizes to be won. It also reflected Manning’s own shift toward conservation, toward a deeper understanding that being in the mountains was more about camaraderie and honest delight in sharing the beauty of the natural world.
However, with incredible skill, impressive research, and lyrical writing that encourages readers to pause, appreciate and ponder, Ives – who has an MFA from the Iowa’s Writers Workshop and is editor-in-chief at Alpinistmagazine — blends history, geography and human psychology into a captivating story that goes well beyond biography.
Imaginary Peaks uses the Riesenstein article to illuminate how humans have viewed mountain landscapes and unknown spaces (terra incognita) through history, and how those often-frightening places played – and continue to play — a role in our collective imagination.
Recognizing the critical move to reconciliation with First Nations (particularly in Canada), Ives also notes the tendency of stories and maps created by climbers and mountaineers to erase prior knowledge and world views of local and Indigenous peoples. She suggests that terra miscognita is a much better phrase to highlight the failures of explorers through history to acknowledge that others had been there for thousands of years and had developed their own names and trails and stories.
In Imaginary Peaks, Ives also speaks to humankind’s deep-seated love of maps, and the challenge we had – at least until the advent of GPS satellites and Google Maps and hand-held navigation devices – of accurately depicting a three-dimensional landscape in two dimensions. Ives digs deep into the notion that maps are as much about what is not there, and how we are losing the art of getting lost. However, given the changes in technology we’ve experienced over time, she also poses intriguing questions about whether the same kind of geographic hoax perpetrated by Manning and his colleagues would be possible today.
Toward the end of Imaginary Peaks, Ives honours her readers with her own ruminations:
“I think it is still possible to find places beyond the gridlines of longitude and latitude or the furrows of contour intervals and marked boundaries. Even the most sophisticated modern cartographers can’t capture all the infinite complexities of ice and stone. They can’t fully express the changes with time or the vagaries of our own emotions and perceptions. … Yet by comparing physical and imagined geographies, we can remember that there are other reasons for approaching mountains besides those of conquest, appropriation, and possession. And we can ask ourselves what it might mean to unmake the maps. To search for everything that escaped from them – and everything that only seemed to be lost.”
“Once you begin to look for imaginary peaks, you start to see them everywhere; each furrow of crag and hill has its own local myths; each square of map conceals forgotten phantom heights. Each human mind contains innumerable ranges, speaking like starlight and like snow.”
Imaginary Peaks is a marvelous book, an enchanting, delightful surprise on many levels. It begins with a single, well-crafted hoax but goes deeper, offering a thought-provoking treatise on mountains and myths in the human imagination. It is a wonderful story, well-told, a must-read for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or dreams of doing so.
Imaginary Peaks; The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams