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Submission window is now open for the 4th annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

Now in its fourth year, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature is now open for submissions of published and unpublished manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections..

The 2017 prize will be judged by New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Balcombe.

The winner will receive a cash award of $1,000 and a four-week residency at PLAYA. The submission deadline is September 30, 2014. For complete writers’ guidelines, click here. All unpublished manuscripts entered for the Siskiyou Prize will be considered for publication.

New environmental literature” refers to literary works that focus on the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife. The prize seeks work that redefines our notions of environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to animal protection. The award isn’t for books about hunting, fishing, or eating animals—unless they are analogous to a good anti-war novel being all about war. Under these basic guidelines, however, the prize will be open to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction with environmental and animal themes.

The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. Considered a global center of biodiversity, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is an inspiring example of the importance of preservation.

For more information, click here, or visit the Ashland Creek Press submissions page.

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Book Review: Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir

Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts is an absolute delight, and not only for animal lovers. This smart, whimsical novel takes readers not only into a world of “invisible beasts” but into the mind of a charmingly quirky character.


The novel is written in a nonfiction style, as a personal bestiary by a woman with a genetic gift (passed down from her granduncle and occurring again, she learns, in her nephew)—the ability to see invisible animals.

“Why have I written a book that could expose me, and my family, to ridicule and imputations of lunacy?” Sophie asks in her introduction. The answer sets the tone for this wonderful journey: “Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. If we did, we would think and act differently. Instead of believing ourselves to be above animals, or separate from them, we would understand how every aspect of our lives—spiritual, psychological, social, political—is, also, an aspect of our being animals.”

In addition to an introduction and epilogue, Invisible Beasts is divided into five sections, including Common Invisible Beasts, Imperiled and Extinct Invisible Beasts, and Rare Invisible Beasts—yet while carefully structured and grounded in science, the voice is anything but staid. The novel begins, “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended). The moments blur into a warm blush on your brain, from which it’s hard to extract the details later, if you want to brood over them and confirm just how he did what. So it’s lovely to find a Couch Conch in your bedroom the morning after.”

This first beast we encounter, the Couch Conch, appears in one’s bedroom the morning after and displays, “in the film of pale shell that overlays its radiant pink,” what transpired the night before. “It’s wonderful that mollusks, who don’t care about us, can show us what our bodies express,” writes Sophie. “But mollusks are full of lessons. They know all about the balance of hard and soft, rigidity and acceptance, firmness and flexibility, from the way in which they compose their nacre, the iridescent glaze that makes pearls precious and conches beautiful.”

This mix of magic and science, fantasy and reality, appears throughout, among the many invisible beasts Sophie introduces. The invisible Grand Tour butterflies out-distance the monarchs; in the embryonic stage, “humans, basking sharks, and Beanie Sharks look exactly the same.” And just as it’s wonderful to be visited by a Couch Conch, so it is to be accompanied by Truth Bats (who only show up among non-liars) or an Oormz, which restores memory like “a bandage between your animal past, sadly forgotten, and your present.”

The novel isn’t all animals, however; there are lovely moments between Sophie and her practical, straight-talking biologist sister, Evie—and in one chapter, we witness Sophie’s discovery of her nephew’s gift. A few passages, despite the mythical qualities of the book, are firmly grounded in reality: In the chapter on the Foster Fowl, Sophie wonders to what extent her own selfishness led to its extinction; the chapter “The Riddle of Invisible Dogs” was inspired by the author’s year of volunteering with animal cruelty officers of the Humane Society and is tinged with the sad realities of animal abuse.

Throughout this small, compact book are allegorical gems—Sophie’s sister Evie tells her, “Without imagination, we can’t stop extinction”—and laugh-out-loud observations: the Wild Rubber Jack, we learn, is “an invisible American ass” that stands as tall as a man. “To this day,” Sophie writes, “we lead the world in the enormous size of our asses.”

Invisible Beasts is a wildly inventive novel that invites us to consider, in ways both fun and serious, the depth of our connections with non-human animals, as well as all that they can teach us.

Learn more from this Q&A with author Sharona Muir here.

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Opportunity for writers: The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

Ashland Creek Press has just announced its new book award, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. The 2014 prize will be judged by New York Times bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler, whose most recent book is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Check out Shel Graves’ review of the book here.)


The contest is open to unpublished, full-length prose manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections. The winner will receive a cash award of $1,000 and publication by Ashland Creek Press. The submission deadline is September 30, 2014. For complete writers’ guidelines, click here.

New environmental literature” refers to literary works that focus on the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife. The prize seeks work that redefines our notions of environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to animal protection. The award isn’t for books about hunting, fishing, or eating animals—unless they are analogous to a good anti-war novel being all about war. Under these basic guidelines, however, the prize will be open to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction with environmental and animal themes.

The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. Considered a global center of biodiversity, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is an inspiring example of the importance of preservation.

Prize judge Karen Joy Fowler is the New York Times bestselling author of three short story collections and six novels, most recently We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her books’ honors and awards include two New York Times Notable Books, the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Prize, and the World Fantasy Award.

For more information, click here, or visit the Ashland Creek Press submissions page.

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Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you managed not to hear about the animal rights theme before reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), do comment with your experience of the novel. Or, it you haven’t yet read the book, maybe stop here, skip the cover blurbs, and go directly to your naked experience of this exquisite novel.

The book is finely structured so that the identity of the protagonist’s sister may come as a revelation — it won’t spoil the novel to know ahead, but will it change your experience?

Readers of EcoLit, however, might be enticed to read the book precisely because they know this is Fowler’s chimp novel, includes a sympathetic character who takes action for animals as a member of the Animal Liberation Front, and takes on animal testing. It addresses animal cruelty, “the world runs on the fuel of an endless, fathomless animal misery” and the definition of person, “Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the relatable story of a young adult re-examining the events of her upbringing and trying to understand them with maturing perspective. It’s told in a first person point of view and alternates between 1979, Rosemary’s childhood, and 1996, her college years. As a child, Rosemary competed for attention with her sister, Fern, a chimpanzee raised as a human family member in an elaborate experiment to study language development. For true-life examples of this, see The Washoe Project (1967) and Nim Chimpsky (1973).

This upbringing shapes Rosemary’s character. In college, she befriends a physically expressive theater major, a wild child trouble magnet — just the kind of person someone raised with a chimpanzee would find familiar. As a child, Rosemary bests Fern only with words and becomes loquacious (this gives the novel a lovely — eliding, Melpomene, gamesome, psychomanteum, hypnopompic — vocabulary too).

Rosemary’s father displays scientific detachment, “Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.”

Her mother nurtures and intends to raise Fern, too, as a “forever” child. Yet, when Rosemary is five, Fern disappears and the family breaks. The experience scars Rosemary and represses her talkative nature. Is she the reason Fern has been exiled? Could she be gotten rid of just as easily? Was it something she said?

Fern’s departure causes a rift between Rosemary and her older brother, Lowell, as well. He cannot silently accept Fern’s absence and eventually takes action on her behalf. While society deems him a criminal, Rosemary notes, “Lowell’s life has been the direct result of his very best qualities, of our best qualities — empathy, compassion, loyalty, and love. That needs to be recognized.”

The book contains a call to action for women to add their voices to the animal rights movement. Rosemary eventually seeks out her sister, and allows herself to confront the horror of what Fern’s life must have become, “What did they do to her in that cage? Whatever it was, it happened because no woman had stopped it. The women who should have stood with Fern — my mother, the female grad students, me — none of us had helped. Instead we had exiled her to a place completely devoid of female solidarity.”

Rosemary doesn’t talk about her sister and, if so, doesn’t mention that Fern is a chimpanzee. She knows that revelation will irrevocably shift people’s perception and invalidate her own experience: Fern is her sister. As her mother puts it, “So much like you, only with a lot of suffering added.”

There’s not an anti-science message here, but a strong critique of methods: “I didn’t want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that’s the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me.”

As her awareness grows, Rosemary realizes that she must use her words on her sister’s behalf, for Fern, for the voiceless animals.

“The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up. So rise up already.”

What to read next?
For a perfect pairing, go to Pat Murphy’s Nebula award-winning story “Rachel in Love,” (1991) about a girl who comes of age in a chimp’s body. Kafka’s short story “A Report to An Academy” (1917) referenced in Fowler’s novel is also worth a read. RachelinLove

For another smart, well-crafted novel that contains a perception shift, read Monique Troung’s novel Bitter in the Mouth (2010) on themes of identity.

In nonfiction, Fowler’s novel mentions Donald Griffin’s Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001), and for examples of how women’s voices and participation in rights movements (human, civil, homosexual, women’s, and animals’ and, in general, “…a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation.”) do make a difference read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).

Inspired by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
Visit Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest and Save the Chimps.

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Book Review: Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

It’s been wonderful to see new books about animal minds and emotions, from Barbara King’s How Animals Grieve to Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (Crown, 2013), which offers a fascinating look at the emotional lives of a wide range of animals.


Morell writes that it was in part due to her dog Quincie that she began to think about writing Animal Wise—when Quincie created her own game to play, Morell realized the extent to which animals have imaginations. As a science writer, she’s reported on animal studies before, including the work of Jane Goodall, with whom she witnessed chimpanzees being as clever, cunning, and resourceful as humans. In one example, a chimpanzee named Beethoven ate his fill of bananas without sharing with a younger female, Dilly; when Dilly was offered a banana later, she cleverly waited until Beethoven was asleep, then gulped it down as he snored away. Morell recalls how Goodall noted that she couldn’t record this behavior in a science journal because “everyone will say, ‘Oh, Jane, how silly of you. That’s anthropomorphizing.’”

Morell’s book, while filled with its share of anecdotes, aims also to show through science the ways in which animals think and feel—and the stories and research presented in the book leave no room for doubt. Animal Wise features the usual friendly suspects—dolphins, elephants, birds—whose gifts many readers may already know; yet one of the great aspects of this book is learning about the animals we think about more rarely as being emotional and/or intelligent: for example, fish, ants, and rats.

As Morell mentions in her introduction, our world is largely human-centric, and she hopes that Animal Wise helps us rethink this view: “I don’t know if knowing more about animal minds will help improve the lives of humans, although this is usually the rationale scientists, particularly neuroscientists, must use to justify their research. But knowing more about the minds and emotions of other animals may help us do a better job of sharing the earth with our fellow creatures and may even open our minds to new ways of thinking about and perceiving our world.”

Among the most fascinating sections of the books in the first chapter, “The Ant Teachers.” In this chapter, we learn that ants teach one another—and we’re shown this world by Nigel Franks, University of Bristol in England, who calls the ants he works with “people.” When Morell corrects him, telling him, “They are ants,” he replies: “ ‘I don’t like thinking of them as machines as most people do. Most people think ants are stupid, to, but they’re not. They have very sophisticated behaviors…and they’re very generous in giving up their secrets.”

To tell his ants apart, Franks paints dots upon their backs, and thus he can see them as individuals and watch them solve problems, teach one another, and build and rebuild their homes. Morell also points out that this research fits in with other insect studies that show that insects from wasps to crickets to honeybees have cognitive abilities that most humans cannot imagine. “What is true for computers also holds for animals,” she writes: “a big machine isn’t necessarily a better one, nor is a big brain a good measure of one’s ability to think or solve problems.”

Also fun and surprising is to learn about the emotional lives of fish. In the German lab of Stefan Schuster, we witness archerfish lining up in their tanks as if awaiting researchers, and shooting them in the eyes with water (normally the way they hunt their prey, mostly insects). This act is something one of the researchers, Thomas Schlegel, suggests they might be doing for fun, to enjoy the reactions. “ ‘Sometimes I get the feeling they’re watching me,’ he said. ‘And when I turn to look at them, there they are, lined up like this, waiting like dogs for their humans. They try to catch their attention.’” The archerfish studies focus on the way the fish learn to hunt, with amazing speed and accuracy—Schuster’s studies show that they make precise calculations regarding distance and force, and that the younger fish learn from the more experienced ones: “ ‘That means it is cognitive; it is not because of some built-in, hardwired neuronal machinery.’”

One of the interesting questions about the implications of this book for how we treat animals comes up in the fish chapter, when Penn State fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite brings up the difference between pain and suffering. It is clear that, with pain receptors on their heads (trout have twenty-two of them), fish do feel pain—but Braithwaite notes that in science, this is different from suffering. She poses the question: “ ‘Do fish suffer when they sense that pain? Suffering is the cognitive side of pain.’”

Braithwaite’s research indicates that fish, which have an amygdala (a part of the brain that processes basic emotions), do suffer. When given lip injections of pain-causing substances, trout react by rocking back and forth, by rubbing their lips on the sides of the tank, and showing other signs of having suffered from pain. This is information that anyone who eats fish might consider before taking another bite.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that one of our least popular animals, the rat, is also among the most playful and affectionate. In Jaak Panksepp’s Washington State University lab, rats play and laugh, and are tickled by researchers in order to show their capacity for joy. Other chapters cover territory many animal lovers may already know—Alex the African gray parrot, who learned not only words but their meanings and how to communicate; elephants, who memorize the voices of other elephants and who caress the bones of the dead; chimpanzees, who are so humanlike; and dolphins, who exhibit signs of self-awareness—but they’re important nonetheless, if nothing else to remind humans that the way they are treated (forced into captivity, for example, or used for medical research) needs to be reevaluated based on what we know about their emotional lives.

Animal Wise brings up a lot of important questions but offers few calls to action; I’d have loved to see connections made between how animals think and feel and suffer, and how we treat them (usually not well). This book shows so clearly that we need to do better, from animal testing to using animals for food, and my hope is that readers will make these connections for themselves.

Morell poses a question at the end of her chapter on fish —“even if an animal could talk, would we listen?”—and unfortunately, the implication here is that we would not. This Q&A with the author offers some insights into Morell’s personal thoughts on what she learned in the writing of this book and the ways in which it has, and hasn’t, changed her own view on animals.

I would recommend Animal Wise for anyone who cares about animals, not only for the wonders it reveals but for the chance it offers to make a difference in their lives. As Morell writes:  “What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves? That, like us, they think and feel and experience the world. That they have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin. Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?”

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)


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