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Introducing the Center for Humans and Nature

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I’m pleased to welcome a new contributor to EcoLit Books: The Center for Humans and Nature.

This is an amazing organization and I thought a Q&A would be a great way for you to get to know them.

What is the Center for Humans and Nature?
We are an organization based in Chicago that explores and promotes ethical thinking and dialogue—particularly as it pertains to ideas of environmental responsibility, ecological stewardship, and bettering the relationship between humans and nature.

What are your goals?
We believe that solutions to today’s challenges begin with big ideas. In order to inspire the great actions needed for transforming humanity’s relationship with nature, we share ideas that help us reimagine how to live responsibly on planet Earth. Our overarching goal is to share these ideas with students, teachers, conservationists, policy makers, and the larger thinking and caring community. We bring together philosophers, ecologists, artists, political scientists, anthropologists, poets, and economists, among others, to think creatively about how people can make better decisions—in relationship with each other and the whole community of life.

Can you tell us about a recent project/success story?
Our Questions for a Resilient Future series poses big-picture questions that explore and challenge our thinking about who we are and how we ought to relate to other living beings. Our most recent question is: What are our moral and civic responsibilities to water? Artists Betsy Damon and Patricia Johanson sparked the conversation with essays on reimagining a more responsible water infrastructure and valuing the essential connections between water and life. Others, including Lakota activist Tioksin Ghosthorse and Grand Chief Tamale Bwoya of the Buganda Kingdom, have added their voices on the importance of fostering a water ethic.

Beyond our Questions series, we also house an active and engaging storytelling blog called “City Creatures.” Connected to our City Creatures anthology (University of Chicago Press, 2015), this story forum invites people to submit and share their reflections on urban wildlife and how cities can offer opportunities for transformation, intimacy, and connection with other species and one other.

What projects do you have in the works?
We recently launched a new project called “Curations.” Inspired by a current event or topical conversation—such as ideas on identity and place or discussions around political polarization—we curate a collection of essays, videos, and question responses to highlight relevant insights from our diverse group of contributors.

We have also developed a new “Center Artist of the Month” series, and we are currently partnering with environmental youth organizations and university programs to share ideas from the next generation of nature-minded scientists, artists, and activists.

Additionally, we publish insightful articles in our triannual Minding Nature journal, and we create videos, organize events, and produce books by our staff and our Center fellows.

What books inspire you and do you feel deserve a wider audience?
Our individual reading lists are fairly diverse, but collectively Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is probably our organization’s desert island book. We also love Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature, Lauret Savoy’s Trace, David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, and, of course, the many books by our friends and contributors.

To learn more visit The Center for Humans and Nature.

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A Q&A with author Jennifer Longo

Jennifer Longo is the author of the novel Up to this Pointe (learn more about the book here). Thanks to Jennifer for chatting with me about her wonderful book!

Q: Your author bio refers to your “obsessive love of Antarctica” — what led to this obsession?

A: Oh, my favorite topic! In 1998 I was in grad school doing research for a play about the history of photography, and I went to the Kodak website (on the new-fangled Interwebs). The entire site was devoted to Frank Hurley, Ernest Shackleton’s expedition photographer. All the plate glass negatives and photographs were there, and the images were just unbelievable – Antarctica was another planet. Those images led straight into my obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Age of Exploration, Shackleton, and Antarctica in general. I’m just completely taken with the beauty and savage existence the animals, microorganisms, and people experience there, and how it all kind of exemplifies our lives on Earth in one beautiful continent. The sky and the water and the ice and the volcanoes are indescribably beautiful, it’s Nature basically showing off: Look how badass I can be!

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Q:  From the first lines of the book (“The thing about Antarctica that surprises me the most? The condoms. They’re absolutely everywhere.”) and throughout, you capture life at McMurdo Station so well, including not only all the natural beauty of winter in Antarctica but the quirky and often challenging reality of overwintering. What was your research process like, and did it include a visit to Antarctica?

A:  I am so sad to say I have not been to Antarctica; it remains a dream of mine. I did apply for the NSF Artists’ grant twice, but have not yet been accepted. So the research I did was relegated to the many excellent books, memoirs of scientists and artists living at the stations there, and talking with Winter Over-ers via Twitter and email. There are a ton of really wonderful documentaries, of course, about living at the stations during winter, and about the natural world there in all seasons. And I have a good friend who Wintered-Over twice – he was there as a civilian – and he provided that first line! He’d called me from McMurdo, I said, “I can’t believe you’re there, how is it?” and he’s all, “There are so many condoms – they’re everywhere!” This was like, fifteen years ago, and I thought “Huh. Well, there’s a story.”

Q: In your author’s note, you mention the difference between facts and truth in fiction, and how in reality, a teenager wouldn’t be allowed to overwinter in Antarctica. Were there any other facts you had to overlook or stretch in order to tell the truths of this story?

A: Oh my gosh, I love author’s notes! Some examples of truth-stretching involve the ballet world, like the students not knowing the status of the YAGP results and their teacher keeping it a mystery – with the internet that’s basically impossible! And I’m sure the day-to-day activities in Antarctica (could a brand-new arrival really be taken on a snow-mobile to a rookery right off the bat?) are not exactly as they occur. Having never been to Antarctica, I used the real details I got from interviews and books and documentaries, but a fiction writer, even a contemporary one, is still world-building, still storytelling with specific narrative structural building blocks, and so it will never be completely one hundred percent accurate. And it’s not supposed to be, so long as there’s no pretense that it isn’t fiction.

I wrote this Author’s Note specifically (in case anyone was interested) because of responses I got from my first book (Six Feet Over It). Some readers will take issue with contemporary books if the events in the plot don’t ring absolutely true to real life, or at least, real life as each individual reader understands it. (Oddly, the things in SFOI that some readers scoffed at the most were always the parts that were actually true, so that was funny.) I wanted to acknowledge and kind of get in front of people discrediting the story just because everything in it isn’t completely modeling real life – because, again, this is fiction. And I was also aware that citizens and scientists of Antarctica and people who dance for a living get (justifiably) mad when people write books about their home and take lazy, dumb liberties. So the note was really all about sharing the resources I used for research, so people could explore the actual truth of a life in Antarctica and in ballet, and still enjoy this fiction story based on those truths.

Q: This novel has such strong senses of place, both in San Francisco and Antarctica. What is it about these two places that made you choose them for the settings of this book?

A: I’ve begun every play and book I’ve ever written with place. These two places both spoke the same story to me – two different plots, same story, if that makes sense? Surviving after failure, thriving because of failure, exemplifies the story of both San Francisco and Antarctica. Both are incredibly beautiful, both demand a punishing amount of effort to live in their beauty, both have, and continue to, survive human destruction of their natural state, both are home to some of the planet’s most unique and striking creatures on the planet, and the people and animals who do thrive there are ones who are devoted to, and changed by them, for life.

 

Q: I loved the structure of this novel—the story of Harper’s arrival in Antarctica alternating with the slow reveal of what happened to inspire her to go south. How did you decide to tell the story this way?

A: I’m so glad you liked it! When we began telling the story in straight liner narrative, it felt stagnant; it didn’t move the way we wanted (“we” meaning my editor, agent, and I). We played around with past-tense reversed plot, and holding out with the mystery of the end of Harper’s career but in the end, we realized the mystery, or the fact of or reason why her dancing career did not happen, was totally beside the point. The story was how she accepted and lived with the the failure, and learned to let it change her. When we focused on that, the structure kind of revealed itself. It was so fun to write, good hard work to get there.

Q: Cam you tell us about what you’re working on now?

A: I am loving working on my new book! This one I’m writing for my daughter, and for my new home, the gorgeous Pacific Northwest. It involves adoption, thru-hiking, and holding on to who you know you are, no matter what people (even those who love you) try to make you mistrust about yourself. I am so grateful my editor lets me write these stories, which are not so typical, and that readers have found some comfort and humor and exploration in them, too. Thank you so much for having me today!

Visit Jennifer Longo’s website to learn more…and don’t miss Up to this Pointe!

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Introducing Zoomorphic

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It’s always exciting to see a new literary journal launch with a focus on environment writing.

So please welcome Zoomorphic, a new online journal founded by James Roberts and Susan Richardson and “dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.”

I recently conducted a brief Q&A to learn a bit more.

Here we go…

Tell us a bit about Zoomorphic and how it came to be.

Susan and I had both been involved with the Dark Mountain Project, a creative community that shared our own environmental concerns. Susan has been writing about animals for a long time and has worked with many organisations such as WWF and Friends of the Earth. We are both deeply concerned about the level and rapidity of biodiversity loss and wanted to curate a space for a community of practice where writers and artists could create content that both celebrates and defends wild animals.

What types of writing are you looking for?

All types, as various as possible. Creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, essays. What we’re mostly looking for is writing that is accutely observed, that communicates clearly the author’s passion for the subject. We also want to work with conservationists and scientists and help them produce stories that can be enjoyed by non-scientific readers. What we don’t want to publish is stories that use animals as metaphors for people.

Tell us a bit about your background and writing.

I have been involved in a very wide range of literary and creative projects, starting out writing and producing plays, working on lots of multimedia projects commercially while also publishing poetry and essays in literary journals in the UK. I am a professional digital designer so I’m also responsible for the visual side of Zoomorphic.

What writers inspire you?

I’ll stick to living writers: The poet W.S. Merwin, whose work has been rooted in the earth for decades. He has managed to build a life around his practice that is utterly authentic. For me, he is the finest poet writing. In fiction, Cormac McCarthy, for much the same reasons. I agree with George Monbiot that The Road is the most powerful piece of environmental literature written for years. And I must mention Alice Oswald, who is a magician.

What advice do you have for writers of environmental prose?

My advice is that there has never been a better and a more urgent time for writing about the environment. We need many varied voices from all places and all backgrounds. Most of all, we need writing that is rooted in and that passionately defends the author’s own “square mile.”

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PS: Here is our growing list of literary outlets for environmental writers.

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Q&A with Barbara King, author of How Animals Grieve

 How Animals Grieve is an important book about the inner lives of animals.

In April, author Barbara King was kind enough to answer of a few of my questions about the book and what inspired her to write it and how people have reacted to it so far.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, please add it to your “must read” list.

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What inspired you to write this book?

It was the animal themselves who inspired me, as I gradually began truly to see the grief that may sear a survivor when death steals a loved one away. Elephants, apes, and dolphins, horses, rabbits, cats, dogs, some birds—depending on individual personalities and circumstances, all of these creatures (and more) tell us through their actions how profoundly they feel their lives.

In writing two of my earlier books, I started to find hints of animal mourning in the scientific literature. So I settled down to answer in How Animals Grieve the questions that compelled me the most, about the scope of animal grief, what does and doesn’t credibly count as grief, what animals’ grief means for our connection with other species.

I was particularly moved by the story of the two ducks Kohl and Harper. What story moved you the most?

Kohl and Harper opened my eyes wide. These two ducks, fragile in body and spirit after their rescue from a foie gras factory, formed an unshakable bond at Farm Sanctuary in New York State. Fast friends, they spend their days together. When Kohl was euthanized to spare him untreatable pain, Harper was allowed to watch. The only word for his response is “heartbroken,” not only on that specific day but for weeks. He never did recover. How many of us think about ducks in this light, as experiencing such bonds of friendship and loss? I hadn’t, but I do now.

An equally moving story for me was about Willa and Carson, two Siamese cat sisters who lived together for 14 years, at the home of good friends of mine. The sisters ate and slept together, enjoying sun patches and warm blankets as a pair. Carson developed some health problems, and one night was settled into a warm incubator at the vet’s office for treatment. She never woke up. At first, Willa seemed mildly distressed. Then she began seek out her sister in all their favorite places: as she roamed the house, she would pass by one of those favorite places and let out a keening sound. She was terribly sad, for a long time.

In each case, I find solace in thinking not just of the sadness, but also of the strong love that linked Kohl and Harper, and Willa and Carson—and knowing that in each case, loving humans surrounded the survivors and gave them as much comfort as they could.

Have readers contributed stories as well that you could share?

Oh yes. I’m slowly reading and responding to emails, because it’s an honor when people want to tell me about their own animals. This topic matters to people who love animals.

I will share a dog story from Cristina Chuecos who sent it to me by email last month. For almost a year now, Cristina’s 8 year old shih tzu, Milou, has been grieving for his friend Cobi, the older dog in the household who died at age 14 The two lived together for 7 years. Once, when Cobi needed surgery and was away from home, Milou’s distress was so great he would only eat when hand-fed.

When Cobi went into kidney and heart failure, his human family knew it was time to help him. Thus they left home, for the vet’s office, with Cobi and came home without. For a few days, Milou looked for Cobi but then he underwent what Chuecos calls “a deep personality” change from his usual upbeat demeanor, a change that persists. “Milou now spends his days sitting in the same spot, looking in the same direction, as if he was looking out a window,” Chuecos wrote me. “We have a three floor townhouse, and in every floor he sits in the same area, looking at the same spot. Occasionally he whimpers or growls. He is has been standing alert for hours at a time, looking at the same spot. I recently moved his bed to that area, so that at least he can lie down, and he has started taking breaks in what appears to be his watch. He only relaxes completely when we bring him up to lay down next to us on the sofa.”

Chuecos detailed for me a number of things she has tried in her efforts to help Milou, who is lucky to have such a loving and supportive caretaker. Milou’s sadness has perhaps eased somewhat, and I hope he will regain some of his previous joy in life.

You talk about the importance of allowing time for animals to grieve their dead companions. What additional recommendations would you offer to humans to help animals when one of their companions moves on?

I’m so impressed by the sanctuaries, farms, and zoos that encourage animal survivors to spend a bit of time with the body when a relative or friend dies. That’s a very enlightened approach. Although from my research I found that this helps only some survivors, it’s definitely worth a try. In terms of our companion animals, many—but again not all– respond with a fairly sudden uplift of emotion if a younger animal is brought into the home, after an appropriate time for quiet sadness. This strategy won’t be practical for everyone, but even occasional visits from “a therapy companion” to a grieving animal may help. Love and time are the best emotional medicine, as they are for people too. The thing to remember is that animals vary individual by individual, just as we do—some may not grieve at all.

What animals did you wish you had covered for the book but simply ran out of time or space or both?

The study of animal grief is so new that credible cases—those either published in the literature or offered by astute “animal people”–are still relatively few. I’m hoping that How Animals Grieve may help change that: a database of examples is now emerging due in part to the book and in large part also to scientists who more and more record animals’ response to death at their field or captive research sites. That said, I have an article to come out in the July edition of Scientific American magazine (on the stands in June) that includes a stunning example of giraffe grief that I became aware of after the book went to print.

As people become enlightened about animal grief, do you see any positive developments regarding animal welfare in general?

Yes, I do. As we come to know that many other animals love and grieve, we will, I believe, see them as creatures whose lives matter in their own right. How could we not, then, work to end the practice of using chimpanzees, cats, rabbits or other animals in biomedical laboratories? Of asking dolphins and whales to endure life in small tanks and to entertain us in shows? Of eating animals without a thought to the cow who gives birth but grieves when her babies are taken away for slaughter time and time again? We’re in the midst of a sea change in how we think and act towards animals.

How has the writing of this book changed your own relationship with animals?

I’ve always felt close to certain individual monkeys or apes whom I have observed or filmed or spent time with, and with our own (very many!) rescued cats. Now my sense of connection to animals has rippled out in an unexpected way. The tree in our front yard frequently hosts a raucous group of crows, and from what I have learned about corvids I now realize when they chatter, they’re expressing something (I’ve no idea what specifically) about their tight network of bonds. And during the writing of this book I stopped eating chicken and turkey, adding to my already-in-place practice of eating no beef, lamb, veal, or pork.

What’s your next writing project?

An exciting change in my life is underway: I’ve become a part-time freelance science writer. This year and next year, and perhaps beyond that, I am teaching only half-time in order to immerse in more writing. The College of William and Mary, where I’ve taught Anthropology for 25 years now, has been supportive of my efforts at public engagement through science. Now, I have the best of both worlds: in fall semester, I’m paid to teach a fabulous group of undergraduates about biological anthropology and primate behavior, and during spring semester through the summer, I’m making a go of it as a freelancer. At present, I’m busy with articles for science and literary magazines, and just barely starting a new book about animals, with a chapter underway about octopus. It’s too early to say more, but I’m blown away by octopus cognition and emotion!

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About Barbara King

Barbara J. King has taught Anthropology at the College of William and Mary since 1988. Originally focused on primate studies through her observations of wild monkeys in Kenya and captive apes, she now takes up intelligence and emotion in a wide variety of animals. She writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and the TLS. In Gloucester County, Virginia, she lives with her husband and many cats. Besides cat rescue, she enjoys attending her daughter’s college choral concerts and reading as much fiction as possible. Her website is www.barbarajking.com

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A Q&A with Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise

A Q&A with Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

 

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Q: One of my favorite stories from this book is about the archerfish—how they lined up in a row to look at everyone, and especially how they liked to spray water into the eyes (and noses, and gemstones) of researchers and visitors. Of all the research you did, what is your favorite animal story?

A: This is a tough question because I loved meeting all the animals. The archerfish were some of my favorites because I had not expected them to be so curious about me and other people, and of course, it was a hoot to have them “hunt” my eyes, etc. The shots they fire aren’t “spray”—they are hard, like a water bullet. You flinch when you’re hit. But if I had to pick only one animal as my favorite, I would choose Alex the African Gray Parrot. It was so remarkable and delightful to listen to him speak, especially when he chose to comment on the other parrots’ pronunciation (“Talk clearly! Talk clearly!”) or when he told Irene Pepperberg, his human colleague, “Wanna go tree.” That just broke my heart. He was molting the day I visited, which is a bothersome condition for birds, so he wasn’t feeling that great. And I was there—a stranger—which is always a bit scary for parrots because they are neophobic, afraid of new things and people. And he was quarreling a little bit with Irene. She spoke a little harshly to him at one point, which is when he asked to go to the tree. The tree was growing outside, but he could see it through a large window if she walked him down a hallway. You could see Irene’s eyes and face soften when he asked for the tree. She kissed the top of his head and walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light—a story I tell in my book.

Q: For me, one of the biggest and most delightful surprises in this book was learning that rats have such a great capacity for joy—that they’re playful and that they laugh when tickled. Which discovery about animals surprised you the most?

A: Like you, I loved the discovery that rats laugh; it just makes so much sense because they play, too. But until Jaak Panksepp discovered rat laughter in the 1990s, no one knew they did. We miss so much about animals—either because we can’t hear them, as with the rats’ laughter, or because we just think they are incapable of certain things, such as love. I still marvel at the discoveries that ants teach, earthworms make decisions, and that lab rats dream about how to solve their mazes. Maybe I was most surprised by Karl Berg’s study showing that green-rumped parrotlet parents name their chicks. Nothing like this had ever been found or suggested for any species of animal; it’s groundbreaking. And, although Berg still has some work to prove this definitively, I’m convinced he’ll nail it. Once you have a name—and can call the names of your friends and family as the parrots are doing (dolphins do this, too)—then there’s little reason that you shouldn’t be able to exchange information vocally—or even have a conversation, as Berg thinks the parrots are.

Q: In the chapter on birds, you captured a poignant moment with Alex, the famous gray parrot who had been raised in captivity: “‘Wanna go tree,’ Alex said in a tiny voice,” and yet he could only look at the tree from inside. So much of the research that shows proof of animal emotion and intelligence takes place in labs, with captive animals—did any of the researchers talk about this irony?

A: Yes, I did discuss this with several of the researchers. Like you, I was curious about why many of the animal cognition and emotion studies involve captive animals. Partly, it’s the history of the field. In its earliest days, it was mostly based on things that people (sometimes great scientists, such as Darwin) had observed in the field; some of these “anecdotes” were hard to believe, or so colored by anthropomorphism (such as saying ants have friends or play) that they spoiled this type of science for almost 100 years. Darwin also did experiments with captive animals. For instance, he gave earthworms a choice between materials (a thorny leaf versus a smoother one) for blocking their tunnels’ air holes—and was quite astonished to find that the worms actually made a decision between the two. Laboratory studies were often more convincing about animals’ abilities because researchers could control the conditions—just as Darwin did in that earthworm test. But lab studies also miss a great deal, and there is the moral question about keeping animals in captivity, especially those whose cognitive abilities seem closer to our own, such as the cetaceans and primates. Researchers are wrestling with this issue; some have called for an outright ban on captive studies, at least for apes and dolphins and whales. Others think that we will still learn more about their abilities by having captive populations; they argue that it’s largely because of these captive studies that we know how sentient these animals are—and that such studies provide necessary ammunition for arguing for more conservation areas and legal protections for these species. I think many of us in the general public are wrestling with the same issues. Look at all the attention the movie Blackfish, which is about the problems of keeping orcas in captivity, has drawn. I saw a recent headline in the business section of a newspaper wondering if this documentary is going to spell the end of the marine-mammals-on-display business. After writing my book, I realized that I no longer enjoy watching animals in captivity.

 

Q: After learning that trout have twenty-two pain receptors on their faces and heads, you wrote, despite having grown up fishing, “I wasn’t sure I would enjoy fishing again.” How has the knowledge that fish experience pain, as well as the other things you’ve learned about animals, changed the way you view the myriad ways animals are used, from fishing to animal testing to raising them for food?

A: Well, I haven’t been fishing since I met Victoria Braithwaite and listened to her discuss her group’s discovery that fish suffer pain. I do eat fish—so I can’t really claim any moral high ground here. And I would probably go fishing again, although with barbless hooks. We just haven’t been on the right type of camping trip, but may do one later this summer. If I do go fishing, I only want to catch stocked fish—not those hatched in the wild; wild populations need to recover from our overfishing. As for eating animals, again I cannot claim to be a vegetarian, although I eat far more fruit and vegetables than meat. I started cutting back on beef, pork, etc., about two decades ago for health reasons and now don’t enjoy that type of meat. I’m still fond of chicken, but find myself questioning if I shouldn’t stop eating that, too. However, I don’t think that my personal decisions are going to stop people from eating meat. That’s something that the human animal does, as do many other animals. We are different in that we raise most of our meat animals, so I think it is imperative that we give those animals a decent and good life. Using animals to test biomedical, pharmacological, and cosmetic products needs to stop. It is wrong.
Q: You write in your epilogue that, like us, animals “think and feel and experience the world…Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?” What do you think are the societal and political implications of what you reveal in this book? Do you think it will inspire change?

A: I’ve actually received letters and emails, and had comments from friends, saying my book has changed them—which touches my heart. Some have even said they can no longer bring themselves to harm the ants they see in their kitchens. If readers come away from my book concerned about the ants in their kitchen, then I’ve done my job! After spending time with these scientists and writing about their research, I find I no longer think about animals in the same way. They’re not just stumbling through life; they have brains and minds, and they are using them to make decisions, form relationships, find homes and food—all of which we do, too. I think that perspective brings us much closer to the animal world—and I hope, makes us kinder and gentler toward the creatures in it.
Q: Anthropomorphism is clearly a concept that scientists seek to distance themselves from. Do you think scientists overcompensate at times in their efforts to keep emotion out of their experiments?

A: The scientists I met for my book study animals because they love them; they love biology, which is the study of life. All of them enjoy thinking about what it is like to be their study animal, whether it’s a fish or a wolf. And they sometimes get insights or ideas for tests to give their animals by thinking that way. It’s how Jaak Panksepp discovered that rats laugh. He saw that rats often have their  mouths open when they play—and he imagined that they must be laughing, just as our kids do when they play. Think of all the people who’ve worked with lab rats or had rats as pets—and finally one, a scientist, realized that they must be laughing. Now, to prove that, Panksepp had to draw back; he had to put aside his own thoughts and emotions. He had to figure out a way to show that the rats were in fact laughing—and that meant setting up a series of test situations to document when and how rats laugh, and to record their laughter in a way that would prove to others that this sound (which we cannot hear because it is out of our range) was laughter. It wasn’t easy to do, but that’s what science requires: a demonstration that stands up and can be repeated no matter who does it or where it’s done. So Panksepp had to figure out a way that other scientists (or anyone) could test their rats for laughter—and get the same results he had. It’s too easy to dismiss scientific thinking as cold or heartless, when in fact, it’s because of this type of rigor that we know these things about animals.
Q: As you’ve presented your book to audiences, what types of reactions have surprised you the most?

A: That people who’ve read it now worry about ants. Of course, not just ants, but that it affected them so deeply, they now take a second or third look when they come across ants—and all animals, I hope.
Q: What’s your next book project?

A: I have several ideas—but haven’t started focusing on one just yet.

 

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Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

 A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.

I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.

Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?

 A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.

Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?

A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.

Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?

A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.

I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.

Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?

A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.

Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?

A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.

Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?

A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.

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Q&A with Float author JoeAnn Hart and cover artist Karen Ristuben

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float, a “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey) novel about family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine. Karen Ristuben is an award-winning artist and educator whose work is environmental advocacy at its core.

Float: A Novel

JoeAnn and Karen, who both live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, recently talked about their work and their passion for environmental awareness.

Q, from KAREN RISTUBEN: JoeAnn, when did you become aware of the problem of marine plastics, and how did you get inspired to write about it?

A: JOEANN HART: Living in Gloucester, where I have lived for over thirty years, you can’t not be aware that the beaches are lousy with plastic washed up from the sea. During the summer, beach crews arrive at dawn to groom the sand, taking away the plastic debris with the seaweed, so tourists are spared the unsightly mess. For those of us who are here year-round, we watch marine plastics wash up, and we watch them wash back out, twice a day with the tides. So when I started writing Float, I realized that if I was going to write about life in a coastal town, plastics were going to play a part, because they’re all around us in increasingly menacing ways. Float begins when the protagonist, Duncan, rescues a seagull choking on a plastic six-pack holder that the bird tried to eat, mistaking it for food. Plastics are not just an issue of unsightly litter on the shoreline, they’re a killer.

Q, from JOEANN: Karen, how long have you been focused on plastics and the ocean? What was the moment when you said to yourself, I want to follow this thread of ocean pollution in my art and my life? 

A: KAREN: In 2010 I was in graduate school and, in the midst of a tough critique, one of my very wise professors said, “If indeed we are interested in nature, we need to seriously consider what that means today. The illusion is that we have access to unspoiled, unpolluted ocean. But our relationship with nature is so tenuous. When we romanticize nature, we re-inscribe the illusion that everything is fine, that nature is a contemplative space, a nurturing space. But we can’t undermine the urgency of the moment. So be careful, he said. Ask what the community needs. Ask: What is at risk? What is at stake? What is urgent?”

This was a watershed moment for me, as I’d been using the ocean as an aesthetic subject rather than considering what it needed from me. When I started picking plastic off the beach and researching the complex, global issue of marine plastic pollution I realized that I could try to do something about it.

Q, from KAREN: How did you go about researching the plastics issue for Float, and were you surprised by anything you learned?

A: JOEANN: Once I began to explore the issue of marine plastics in books and articles, online and off, I was stunned by the enormity of the problem. Not just the sheer amount of plastics in the oceans, estimated at billions of tons annually, but the toxicity of it. There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. It never goes anywhere; it just continues to break down into smaller bits, eventually to the size of plankton. The fish eat the plastic and incorporate the toxic chemicals into their flesh, including endocrine disrupters. Then we eat the fish. Or we feed fishmeal to our livestock. Plastics are so new—the soda bottle was only invented in 1977— that it is only in the past few years that the scientific evidence has emerged about their danger to human health, including infertility and a host of other problems, even obesity.

Q, from JOEANN: Tell me about your art before you became interested in environmental themes. For example, what was your medium and subject matter? 

A: KAREN: I worked in glass for a long time, combining it with other materials, like rusted metal, into sculptural forms. Then I began to look at the properties of glass—reflectivity and transparency—and thought about those properties coexisting and interchanging as the light source changes. And I realized that water does the same thing, so with photography and video I studied the refractions and reflections generated when water and glass meet.  Living on the ocean, I had a constant visual source for wave patterns and shifting light.

The cover of Float came from that body of work. I have a collection of car windows, and I would take them out into the watery places of our environment here on Cape Ann—vernal pools, ice patches, ponds, the beach—and photograph how they reflected, distorted, and inverted the surrounding landscape. Multiple windows would produce multiple dimensions of sky, water, whatever. And sometimes a breeze would move the water surface so the photograph would catch that one moment of a manmade object obstructing a wave or a ripple.

Q, from KAREN: The phrase “God Help Us” is forever stuck in my brain now that I’ve read Float.  Do you hope for the book to inspire change and if so, how?

A: JOEANN: There are all different ways to inspire change. I have been to your program, “Just, One Word …,” where you share what you discovered firsthand on a research vessel in the Pacific Gyre. You make it visual and personal. You tell your story, and people connect and are able to better understand the problem. I tell a story, too, in Float, only mine comes from the imagination in fictional form. Having said that, in fiction, it is death to proselytize. All a writer can do is tell a good story, bringing in environmental challenges, and let the characters wrestle with the issues. It would be great if readers were then inspired to change their behavior and use less plastic. It would be even better if they lobbied for funding to invent a truly biodegradable plastic. Recycling is good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We can try to use less plastic, but in the modern world, it is almost impossible to live without it. The computer I’m writing on is mostly plastic. New cars have 300 pounds of plastic in them. We need safe alternatives to what we use now.  When I realized that, invention became the moving force in Float (think plastic made out of jellyfish). Now we just need smart science to make it come true.

Q, from JOEANN: I know you’ve developed a presentation called “Just, One Word …” to bring attention to the Pacific Gyre, where you travelled to see the mess we’ve made of the oceans. Where do you bring “Just, One Word …,” and what’s been the reception?

A: KAREN: I’ve presented “Just, One Word …” to a few thousand people over the last two years and yes, many of the images and information came from my voyage across the North Pacific Gyre with Algalita Marine/5 Gyres scientists in 2011. The presentation covers the issue of marine plastic pollution through the lenses of industry, science, politics, and economics. I’ve presented it in colleges, high schools, middle schools, art venues, community centers, and marine science conferences all over the country. The reception has been incredibly positive, I think, in part because it presents the issues clearly, in lay terms, and based on an accessible narrative. Also, its multimedia components of video, photography, sound, music, charts, and diagrams are presented as a performance/lecture rather than a straight didactic lecture.

Q, from KAREN: Can you talk about the role of humor and irony in your writing? It’s a great window into the gritty subjects you tackle! 

A: JOEANN: While characters are wrestling with the dangers of marine plastics, readers must be entertained and totally involved if they are going to keep on reading. Humor is one way of doing this. It helps us deal with our own absurdity. Laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves, whether individually or as a species. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.

Q, from JOEANN: What do you see in the future, in terms of how your art will evolve, and what are you working on now?

A: KAREN: I believe that art is a representation of our human response to the world, so I expect that my art will continue to evolve as I respond to events affecting our natural world. I’m currently working on the Synergy Project, where eight artists are linked with eight marine scientists from MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. We are making work that will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science from February to June 2013.

I’ve collaborated with Sophie Chu, a marine chemist studying how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting the ability of pteropods—shell-bearing plankton—to survive. One-third of the excessive carbon dioxide we dump into our atmosphere—coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, cars, air conditioners—is absorbed by the ocean. This causes a chemical reaction resulting in lower pH, which means that the ocean is becoming more acidic and causing shellfish to corrode.

I’ve acidified 350 white eggshells and will show them in a large sculptural installation with a video component. The work demonstrates the effects of ocean acidification of calcium carbonate structures (eggs and shellfish). And there are 350 to signify the 350 parts per million in atmospheric carbon that most scientists agree we need to strive for so as not to face a major marine extinction. We are now at 390 ppm and rising.