Friday, March 26, 2010

I Love the Wild LIfe

 An essay for my local newspaper. Setting: Greenville, SC:

Downtown Greenville is urban wild.  It’s what I love best about this place. The wild life is not all in the bars.  
Take an afternoon walk downtown, veer off in one of the parks, and you’re likely to see some uncommon birds, resourceful mammals, and a few sly reptiles who manage to live and raise their young in a people-crowded territory.

The Great Blue Heron hangs out in McPherson Park on Park Avenue, wading in the stream, feeding on fish and insects. The heron is solitary and aloof, and well hidden, but if you’re lucky enough to see this creature, it’s a privilege you won’t soon forget. He (or she?} stands tall and slender, with a wingspan of six feet.

The leafy hardwoods in the North Main area are home to owls. Their hooting at night sounds like Vincent Price maniacal laughter and crazy lady screams. It makes me think of all the folklore about owls—as harbingers of death, predictors of storms, or as wise and powerful. They are magnificent.  Last year, in the summer dusk, I happened to look up and see a very big one gaze down at me from a telephone pole on Bennett Street. The owl was cool and collected. Unflappable. Of course, he saw me first.  I got the feeling he didn’t miss much.

In Cleveland Park, I’ve seen raccoons washing their paws in the stream. After heavy rains I’ve spotted Belted Kingfishers flying and diving. The Red-Tailed hawks circle, and call their kak kak predatory warnings. They’ve fed on squirrels in our yard—it’s scary and fascinating to watch. They shriek, they target, they fly in and strike, and they fly off with dinner waggling. Even when they occasionally stake out songbirds at our birdfeeder, I know they’ve got to eat.  Hawks have a hard life—their natural life span is 35 years, but I’ve heard most of the young don’t make it past five years.

In the spring, any day now, the snakes come out of hibernation, sunning themselves on rocks and in crevices of the Reedy River. I’ve seen people walk right by snakes, even picnic by them, without seeing them.  The snakes don’t bother me, and I’m certainly no going to bother them. In fact, there’s a black snake that hangs around our yard we’ve gotten used to. Black snakes aren’t poisonous, and they eat mice and rats. Also bird eggs, judging from the songbirds’ alarmed cries when he appears. He stretched across our bedroom windowsill one morning last summer, sunning himself. We named him Licorice, “Lick” for short.

The bats don’t bother me either. In fact, I’m pretty crazy about them. We can sit on our front porch stoop with a glass of wine, and watch them chatter and flop in the purple evening, gobbling up mosquitoes. When I started inviting the wild life to our yard, I added a bat house in the back yard. Bats need protected habitats.
The opossum visits, too, lumbering in her marsupial way, snorkeling up leftover bird seed. 

The Eastern Bluebirds, who prefer meadows, nest in our front yard, in the house we put up just for them: facing east. I feed them live mealworms I keep in the refrigerator. The bluebirds raised two broods last summer.  I watched the brilliant blue of the male bluebird—that sapphire wink—as he flew back and forth, feeding his mate—who was feeling peckish on the nest.  Both of them worked their tail feathers off feeding their young. I’ve never seen parents work so hard.  It was impressive.

The tenacity of the wildlife in Greenville is amazing. I love that nature is squeezing through the fist of concrete and condos. Creatures are doing their best to carry on with their lives in the green strips of trees, in small parks, and on all-too-rare undeveloped land. I highly recommend walking along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, through Cleveland Park, or any of the other small downtown parks when you’re feeling stressed. Leave behind your iPod and cellphone, and really pay attention: you’ll see some wild things.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Self-Reliance

Sunday-- no planning, not much doing, reading and walking. . .

Relaxing, snoozing,

and stumbling on the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson and into the lush soothing meadow of transcendentalism:

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how chaste the persons look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary!  

My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.   

Nature cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere. 

hunger for wealth. . .reduces the planet to a garden.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Great House Mouse Relocation Program

It became clear a couple of weeks ago that we had a wee house visitor.

He was a night owl mouse, if that makes sense; he slept all day [and played mouse Wii maybe]  and came out at night to help himself to Otto's left-over dog food. One kibble was a full meal, I'm sure, with all the daily recommended vitamins needed for a house mouse.

I don't mind a wee mouse once in a while, but this critter was clearly making himself at home, getting a bit brazen about lurking in the dark kitchen corner looking at us with an Are you going to eat that? expression. The other members of  my household were freaked out and demanded house mouse eviction.

So I used our compassionate mouse catch and release trap. Because I will never have poison, wee-bone crushing traps, or glue that tortures and  starves creatures to death.

Also, I'm a big Beatrix Potter fan, and if you've ever read The Tale of the Two Bad Mice about Hunca Munca's frustrating and hilarious adventure about crashing a doll house and trying to eat the painted plaster ham, then you will never want to harm a mouse again. 

So I got out our compassionate relocation contraption and inside placed peanut butter and goldfish crackers. No dice. In fact, our wee mousekin left wee droppings on top of the contraption, which I took as a  I don't want no stinking crackers message.  I added a Pepperidge Farm cookie and that did the trick. This morning--as pictured at left-- he looked back at me with his giant bulbous glistening nocturnal eyeballs. I'm pretty sure he was a he. I glimpsed mouse yarbles.

If I had a hamster cage, I think I would have kept him. He was unflappable, and clearly enjoying the cookie. But I don't, and he probably wouldn't like spending the rest of his mouse days in captivity.

I took him to a local park with sheds, picnic tables [with crumbs]  and a strip of woods, and released him, along with a care packag of  seeds and cookies. I'm not naive-- I know it's an owl/hawk/snake-eat-mouse world out there. But he's in Nature's House now, and he's alive. I wish him all the best.

Friday, March 5, 2010

On Keeping the Barnacles Off my Hull I'd like to age gracefully.

I recently had a birthday...the kind of birthday that puts me in a whole new [less valued] category for marketers and poll takers.  I'm no longer young...but not old...not elderly...yet. I'm about the same age as Michelle Obama, Conan O'Brien and Mary Louise Parker [nice company!]

I started  thinking about what kind of old lady I want to be.

I don't want to have a lot of barnacles on my hull. [Bear with me here.]

Of the people I know who in their 70's to late 80's-- there are just a few who have aged gracefully. 

I don't mean their appearance-- I mean their wisdom.

There's a tendency, as we get older, to resist change, to want to hold on to what we know, to look at the young generation as hopeless, reckless, lazy. As people age and lose their health, their family and friends, their station in life [all natural parts of  the cycle of life] they can do two things:
  • Get ornery and suspicious, and greedy about sharing resources with the younger generation [keep your government hands off my medicare]
  • Or surrender to the natural arc of life [and death] and  notice the wonder of life as it continues, keep an open mind about youth and change. Be wise.

The former group [which, by the way, is a powerful voting block in this country-- nuff said] have hulls covered with barnacles. Hulls being one's life; barnacles being negative stuff. They seem to hold onto every slight they've ever experienced, every fear in their lives. They are suspicious of change [The Beatles, Elvis, Twitter]. They are convinced no one works as hard as they did [I walked to school 10 miles in the snow. . .]

The second group. Ah, they are a pleasure to be around. They listen, they don't judge, they tell their own stories but not as a finger-wagging lesson.They are still curious about the world, curious like a child. Their hulls are barnacle-free. I have friends in this category, and have had some relatives, and they bring such light to this world. The writer Dot Jackson is just one example. The memoirist Diane Athill by is another example. That's the kind of old lady I want to be.

I think it helps to remind oneself-- am I getting rigid about my own beliefs? Am I feeling bitter and suspicious of change? Am I writing the younger generation off?

If I live to 80 or beyond--I'm going to do my best to keep the barnacles off my hull.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Few Tips to Keep You Out of the Slush Pile

From Jillian Weise's excellent class for the Writing Room, a few do's and don'ts  that drew gasps from the audience. [Okay, I'm exaggerating-- not gasps, just mad scribbling as they wrote everything down.] Jillian-- prolific and talented poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor of the South Carolina Review,  suggests these Do's when you submit your work to magazines:

Use 12 point Times New Roman font.

Include a header with your name, address, phone number and email on every page.

Simultaneously submit, and keep a spreadsheet of your submissions. Jillian submits new work every 3 months, wave after wave. When rejections come in, she deals with them in the next 90 day wave. When acceptances come in, contact the other publications to which you submitted and let them know. 

Do use Duotrope's Digest to research and target magazines appropriate for your work. And--of course-- read and subscribe to magazines, and be thoroughly familiar with the publications you submit to.

Write a clear and succinct cover letter
...and speaking of cover letters:
  •  Keep it short and to the point.
  • Address to the editor by name if possible.
  • Don't end with "Cheers." 
  • Don't mention your blog unless it has higher number than Slate.
  • Don't kiss ass, with gushing compliments about how wonderful the publication is. Save that for a separate letter to the editor. [In other words, let your work speak for itself.] 
  • Do mention if you haven't been published before. Seems counter-intuitive, but magazines love to be the first to publish someone, and discover talent.
call the magazine to check on your work...withdraw your call...don't call the magazine for any reason.

forget you can also submit online.
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