In The Story Who Came to Visit, I mentioned I would be doing an Open Mic event here in Bend. Yes, it does take a bit of courage to do something like that. Yesterday I read a short piece from the children’s book I wrote during NaNoWriMo. The audience was eager to hear the work of local writers.
I read a story about a bullied girl who finds her courage after talking with a magpie and a badger. They both have hidden weaknesses but found their inner strength. Nuǎn, the main character in the story, finds her strength just when she needs it most. A snow leopard that had attacked her and left her scarred is about to attack another child.
Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
Snow Leopard’s ears perked up, and
he turned towards her. “You again, Nuǎn?” He hissed and bared his
teeth. “Yeowrrr! I already marked you once. Stay out of my way.” Snow
Leopard struck out at her, scratching her arm with his long claws.
“You marked me again!” Nuǎn
held her hand over the wound. “The first time you marked me, it made me weak.
Nuǎn grabbed an ax in the yard
and swung it down, chopping off the end of Snow Leopard’s long tail. The big
cat yowled in pain and leapt over the fence.
“Now you are marked!” Nuǎn yelled at the leopard as it bounded away.
I have a lot more editing and revising to do, but my work in progress was well received by the audience. 🙂
Last month, The Darkness of Hills, The Lightness of Wings came to visit me for 25 days. Yes, that was a long visit. She spoke a little bit to me each day until she was 50,129 words long.
I started her as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge. That’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. It’s a commitment I wasn’t sure I could make, but I did it.
I knew I wanted the story to take place in the late 1800s and I wanted to include a Chinese girl who moves to Oregon to work with her grandfather. He’s a doctor and she knows how to make herbal cures. That’s all I knew when I started writing.
I found my inspirations to build a story from several sources.
To help create my main character, we visited the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, Oregon. This amazing place was an apothecary in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s like a time capsule from the time period I wanted to focus on.
One of the medicines the main character uses is called Tiger Balm. This pain reliever, invented in China, has been around since 1870 and its scent is calming yet spicy. I have a jar of it and used it when I got in a terrible bicycle accident years ago. Its unique scent reminds me of healing.
If it’s a story written by me, of course it includes animals. I thought back to a ring-billed gull I nursed back to health at Malheur NWR. I was there for four weeks as part of a 12-week immersive ornithology class. The seagull in my story is the narrator; a first person secondary character narrator. Am I crazy? Here’s an excerpt:
“So who am I watching from above? I have wings but I’m no angel. In fact, I’m a seagull and what happened that day changed my life. Here is the story of dark hills and light wings. Yes, my wings are a part of this tale, but on that day they weren’t so light. This tale starts with me but it has been passed down beak by beak.”
There’s also a magpie character in my story and I thought I’d write about a magpie and another animal. I considered using a badger since they live near magpies in my high desert home. I did a little research and found out I had made the right choice.
Huān 獾 is the Chinese word for badger. It sounds just like huān 欢, The Chinese word for ‘joyous, happy, pleased’ according to Chinasage. Magpies in flight are often portrayed with badgers and this represents happiness both in heaven and on earth. A picture of a perched magpie represents a wish for future happiness. This was a happy coincidence for me that I tried to weave into the story.
We visited the Painted Hills, near John Day, for further inspiration. That setting added a touch of magic to my tale. The hills have a way of communicating with the main character in my story that only she can understand.
I used a little of this and that to build this story. The first draft is complete but the hard work of editing and rewriting has just begun. Lots of hours to go.
I signed up to read from my book for five minutes at an event in Bend, Oregon in January. Yesterday I worked on editing four pages to present to the public. How long could that take? Much longer than you might think! I’ll let you know how it goes in January. Stay tuned…
The ground trembled beneath a stunted sagebrush shrub. The Toad Queen emerged from her burrow to a changed world. Clouds of smoke hung over the land from a wildfire. The spadefoot toad gazed at this new world through golden slitted eyes. Sand tumbled down her spotted back.
A purple larkspur plant stood near her burrow. Its head of flowers tilted toward the earth, wilted from the blistering heat.
The Toad Queen heard a meadowlark singing nearby. The song stopped abruptly, interrupted by a fit of coughing.
“What happened while I slept in my burrow?” She glanced around at the desert landscape.
She and the other spadefoot toads had pulled moisture from the soil as they slept underground and it helped them survive. Other creatures had not been so lucky. The carcass of a sage sparrow fledgling lay near her burrow. A few feathers clung to the tiny dried out body.
“Wind and fire are taking the water from the land,” her mate said. He had emerged from his own burrow. The toad shook the sand off the black spades on his hind feet.
“The sun is drying everything,” she said. “We must call for help.”
A call for help
Her mate called the spadefoot toads. His loud croaking call carried far over the sagebrush steppe. Other toads joined in and soon the air was filled with a chorus of croaks.
Over their heads, dark clouds collected in the smoky skies. Thunderheads formed. The patter of rainfall on the earth woke other spadefoot toads. They emerged from their burrows and joined in the chorus. The air was alive with the energy created by their song.
Rain fell, dousing the fires. White smoke rose from the burning trees and shrubs doused by the rain. Hours later, the fire was out.
“Thank you,” the Toad Queen said. She smiled at the group of spadefoot toads gathered around her.
The meadowlark alighted on a greasewood shrub near the Toad Queen. His melodic song of gratitude echoed across the landscape.
Renewal and change was coming to this land, but it would take time.
After living a life full of leaps and bounds, she settled down in her favorite aspen grove. The bunchgrass waved goodbye. The rabbitbrush shaded her in her final moments. The rosebush provided fruit in celebration of her life. And finally, the aspen covered her in leaves of gold.
“Its trunk had twisted and turned over the years as the roots sought water far below. The tree was more than a thousand years old. Crinkled yellow-green lichens adorned dark bare branches reaching skyward. Clumps of scaly foliage and tiny silver-blue cones clung to a scattering of branches.” – Description of Enebros de Sueños, the Juniper of Dreams, in a magical realism story I’m working on.
I have lots of western juniper trees on my property but this particular one serves as my muse. I have included it in many photos – see Juniper Muse – but now it is also a mysterious character in a children’s book I’m working on. The tree is old and twisted with age, yet it persists.
Do you enjoy watching the HBO series Westworld? When I first watched the show, I wondered where some of the stunning outdoor shots had been filmed. Interesting land features and sunny skies serve as a backdrop in this series. I found out that several filming locations were in Utah so we visited them on a recent trip.
Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
Origins of Westworld
This series is based on the 1973 Westworld movie, written and directed by Michael Crichton. In this sci-fi classic, wealthy tourists visit an Old West-themed amusement park where they can indulge in any of their fantasies with no consequences. The “hosts” in the park appear to be human but they are actually androids. Though the skies appear to always be sunny, there are dark plot twists involving the hosts in both the movie and the series.
Castle Valley near Moab, Utah
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy worked on the screenplay for the new series. It debuted on HBO in October of 2016. You may have heard of Jonathan’s brother, Christopher Nolan. The two of them co-wrote the screenplays for The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and several other successful films. Jonathan worked as a writer, director, and executive producer on the Westworld series, roles he also held for the Person of Interest series. Continue reading →
An amazing example of petroglyphs can be seen on the road into the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Wow! I have seen petroglyphs before but never so many in one spot. There are more than 650 drawings on a rock wall at this state historical monument. The dark desert varnish provides a nice contrast to the messages carved into the stone.
The first carvings at this site have been determined to be 2,000 years old. People of the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures have carved their messages into the rock over the years. Unfortunately, it looks like some more modern graffiti artists added to parts of the scene.
The meanings of the messages here have been difficult to figure out. Do they tell a story or are they merely scribbles? The Navajo refer to this site as Tse’ Hane – translated as “Rock that tells a story.” It does indeed appear to tell many stories. Only the people who made the carvings know exactly what those stories were.
Sometimes you can be trudging along with a little dark cloud hovering over your head and you almost walk by something intended for only you to see. I had one of those moments years ago at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. I had been doing research there and often saw pronghorn on sagebrush covered hills in the distance.
Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge
The refuge was created in southern Oregon in 1936 to protect pronghorn, otherwise known as antelope. This icon of the Wild West is an interesting creature. More closely related to giraffes than deer, their uniquely shaped horns have a bony core that is covered with a sheath that they shed every year. They are capable of running at speeds as fast as 55 miles per hour for short distances.
On that long ago day, I took a hike by myself to sort out my thoughts. I walked on a trail that bordered a willow-lined creek. My head was down, focused on the gravelly trail ahead of me.
A close encounter
I almost didn’t notice the pronghorn next to the trail. It was so close I could have stretched out my arm and touched it. I stopped and looked at it as it stared at me. Pronghorn have enormous eyes shaded by long lashes. The pronghorn looked at me curiously with those expressive eyes. The disc of white hair on its rump started to stand up as it does when they are alarmed. I stood stock still.
I’m not sure how long we both stood there regarding each other. The pronghorn eventually made a soft snorting noise and moved on its way. I stood there for a while and the thoughts of anger I previously had disappeared.
Steps in the right direction
Sometimes you just need to move on from things that make you angry or sad. I had a big loss this week but I decided to try to focus on some of the good things in my life. I also took steps towards more happiness.
Here are some of them:
• Rejoiced at having 150 followers on my blog as of this week (Thanks followers!)
• Joined a new children’s book writing group that meets locally
• Joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators group
• Signed up for eight springtime hikes
• Took pictures of wintery scenes
• Continued “research” on coffee shops in Bend
• Wrote, wrote, and wrote some more
I hope you find ways to dissipate the dark clouds in your lives!
Oasis moments sometimes happen in the desert. While hiking to Chimney Rock near Prineville, Oregon, we came across a patch of bitterroot flowers. The small flowers burst forth from cracks in the sandy soil in shades of pink and white. The flowers are only about an inch and a half across. The plant is delicate yet hardy at the same time.
I had never seen so many blossoms in one place. Bitterroot has always been a plant that amazes me. It was hard for me to keep walking with our group when a part of me just wanted to crouch down to their level and marvel at their perfection.
What Meriwether Lewis wrote about bitterroot
Beneath the soil, a taproot gives this plant its name. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, first saw the bitterroot plant in Lemhi County, Montana on August 22, 1805. Lewis tasted the root and described it in his journal:
this the Indians with me informed were always boiled for use. I made the exprement, found that they became perfectly soft by boiling, but had a very bitter taste, which was naucious to my pallate, and I transfered them to the Indians who had eat them heartily.
Baskets & photo of digging stick, Warm Springs Museum
Usage by Native Americans
Bitterroot can be found in much of western North America in drier areas with well-drained gravelly soils and several tribes made use of the plant. Shoshoni, Flathead, Nez Perce, Paiute, Kutenai, and other tribes used digging sticks to collect the roots in the spring. The roots were dried and were often mixed with berries and meat.
The roots were traded and bartered and were considered to be of great value. A bagful was worth as much as a horse. They were used as food but also had medicinal uses. Bitterroot was used for several ailments including heart problems and sore throats. They were also used to treat wounds and to increase milk flow in nursing mothers.
President Thomas Jefferson had asked Lewis to collect plant specimens on their expedition. Bitterroot plants were collected on the return trip in June of 1806. The area in Montana where the plants were collected is now known as the Bitterroot Valley. Specimens were given to the botanist Frederick Pursh in Philadelphia. Pursh named the plant Lewsii redviva in honor of Lewis.
Fun fact: The species name redviva means “reviving from a dry state.” The specimens presented to Pursh came back to life even though they had been dug up many months before.
Sky. Where I live in central Oregon, it’s big and bold. The sky is rarely shrouded in shades of gray. Sunsets are painted with bold strokes of golds, pinks, and purples.
Scattered clouds on sunny days are referred to as “beauty clouds” by the local weatherman. My daughter thinks they look like the clouds in The Simpsons cartoon. Flat on the bottom with perfectly sculpted puffs on the top.
Wild creatures and plants
The colors of the sky are reflected in the local plants and wildlife. Mountain bluebirds surprise with their intense colors. Wildflowers like Oregon sunshine shine forth in warm golden tones. Perfect pink bitterroot flowers provide punctuation. Ancient twisting western juniper trees frame the scene.
Volcanoes bordering the High Desert are often encircled with crowns of clouds. Cool white clouds appear to temporarily cool the hot magma rumbling below.
The sky here is an ever-changing message. Clouds, rainbows, and rain and snow are the emojis on the big blue screen. Wind sweeps them to the side to create another conversation. Look up and notice what the sky is saying and listen to its meaning.
His twittering voice kept leading me on through the wilderness. It seemed like every time I raised my binoculars to my eyes, he would make a quick getaway.
I followed him on winding trails bordered by bubbling and spouting geysers. He flitted through pine forests doused by thunderstorms. Gusts of wind kept pushing him just out of my reach.
Finally, finally, I came eye to eye with the mysterious beast. A Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni. This pint-sized songbird perched in the tree and stared at me as if he was shouting, “Ollie, Ollie in come free!” Our game of hide and seek was over and he stayed in plain sight on his home base.
The tree clung to the side of a cliff overlooking Tower Fall. The little bird had lead me to an important spot in Yellowstone National Park.
In 1871 the U.S. Geological Survey sent an exploratory expedition to the Yellowstone area. Artist Thomas Moran was a member of the team and he painted a picture of the falls that showed the public one of the area’s natural wonders. William Henry Jackson was also part of the expedition and he took black and white photographs of the area. Due to the Moran paintings, Jackson photographs, and the observations of early explorers, the area was designated as the world’s first national park in 1872. Moran’s colorful paintings were instrumental in convincing Congress to preserve the region.
So you might say that this twittering bird had lead me to the place where a short message – in the form of an image of the falls – saved the land for generations to come. It was like a “tweet” in its time that was seen by thousands.
Jays have insisted on being a part of my life since I was a young child. They are brash, bold, raucous, and not easily ignored.
As a five-year old living on a wooded lot in Maryland, the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, introduced itself to me with little formality. Its loud voice and striking appearance said, “Notice me!” Its frequent companion, the Northern Cardinal, also made it hard for me to look away. I guess that must be why I have a thing for birds with crests on top of their heads.
When I moved back across the country to Washington State, I met more Jays. On camping trips with my family, the Gray Jay, Perisoreus canadensis, made its kleptomaniac presence known. Otherwise known as the Camp Robber, this gray bird has a way of sneaking in and taking what it wants.
I had a boyfriend in high school named Jay. One winter I was out of town for a couple of weeks and when I came back he broke up with me. He told me he had started going out with “Mary” while I was gone. He said he had gone outside in the middle of the night and shouted to the world how much he loved Mary. Like I said, Jays have a way of being loud and taking what they want.
The next Jay played an important role in my life for many years. Steller’s Jays, Cyanocitta stelleri, are a deep azure blue topped with a black crested head. They like to imitate Red-Tailed Hawks and other birds. Steller’s Jays also have an appetite for other bird’s eggs and young. They especially like to prey on the endangered marbled murrelet, a small seabird that breeds in inland forests. While working on a project to preserve a forest where murrelets nested, I learned more about the football-shaped seabirds and their predation by jays than I knew about any pigskin football.
Western Scrub Jay
The latest Jay in my life is the Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica . When we first considered moving to the high desert of Oregon, I remember looking at potential houses and thinking, “What is that bird I keep seeing?” The bird raised its white eyebrows, cocked its head, and regarded me curiously. When we found the place we eventually bought, the blue, white, and gray Western Scrub Jays were in the backyard shouting a welcome.
Jays, with their distinctive appearance and mannerisms, always seem to be a part of my life.
Looking out of my window, I see a Townsend’s solitaire beating its wings and attacking its reflection in the side mirror of my parked car. It has been there for hours. Long strokes of white droppings adorn the side of my car. At first I assume the bird must be a male defending its territory.
Townsend’s solitaires are a drab gray relative of the American robin that most people wouldn’t even notice. They are not showy.
Male birds are usually the ones with colorful plumage but that is not the case with solitaires; the male and female look almost identical. I guess they decided not to follow the theory that a male is more brightly colored to attract females and the female has duller colors so she can sit undetected on a nest.
I watch the bird pause in its attack on my car as it flies into a nearby Western juniper tree. An orange crescent of plumage flashes on its outstretched wings only to disappear again as it settles into the tree. The bird is camouflaged by the gray bark on the twisted form of the tree. Its darker flight and tail feathers blend into the cracks and crevasses of the tree’s bark. It pulls off some of the juniper cones, tilts its head back, and gulps them down quickly. I see the flash of orange again when it flies up to the top of the tree.
In the fall and winter months, solitaires develop a one-track mind about what they will eat. They feed almost exclusively on the small purplish cones, otherwise known as berries, of the juniper tree. While we may think of these cones as being good for nothing but the production of gin, they provide all that solitaires need. The adaptable and much maligned Western juniper tree is being removed in parts of the West but solitaires and other animals often rely on it for food and shelter.
As their name implies, Townsend’s solitaires spend much of their time alone. They are a Greta Garbo type of bird. Solitaires often perch atop a juniper in a very upright position like a guard standing at attention. The bird will remain quiet and motionless until there is a need for defense.
The bird in my yard opens its beak to sing. The melodious song is surprisingly complex. The clear flute-like notes ring out and fill the sky. It starts calling. The one short note is a loud attention-grabbing whistle that is repeated over and over again. It’s like a bird version of a smoke alarm.
Male songbirds defend their territory by singing and calling around its borders. They essentially create a musically-charged “fence” around the boundaries. Townsend’s solitaire females also defend their territory. They will aggressively defend an area long past the breeding season. The females take an active role in protecting a productive juniper patch.
The solitaire returns to my car and perches briefly on the mirror. Its head is cocked to one side as it peers at the image of its perceived foe with a dark eye lined in creamy white.
I have learned to accept the unexpected. Those that first appear drab and dull may surprise you. Their colors may be hidden. Their voices may be quiet. They might be female. Give them a chance – look for the flash of color, listen to their song, and admire their strength.
I moved to the high desert a couple of years ago and thought I left some of my favorite friends behind. One of my favorite birds where I lived before was the cedar waxwing. I felt lucky when I saw one.
If I could use one word to describe cedar waxwings it would be “smooth”. Whenever I see one I have an urge to reach out and touch it. Its tawny feathers ombre into a creamy yellow on its underparts and gray near its tail. The feathers connect together so tightly that they give it a silky smooth appearance.
Cedar waxwings get their name by a unique feature on the tips of their wings and tail. They look as if they got too close to a craft project that involved melting crayons. The tail is tipped in Sunshine Yellow. Small waxy droplets of Sizzling Red tip the wings.
They seem to wear a disguise on their faces. Black masks bordered with white frame their eyes. They raise a small crest of feathers on the tops of their heads as part of their communication. It alters their appearance so that they look like someone else.
Their voices are a wispy series of notes. I always recognize it even if I don’t see the bird. It is very high pitched making them sound smaller than they actually are. One time I saw a grosbeak feeding one and thought it might be because it mistook the call for one of its young.
At some times of the year, waxwings flock together. I see specks flying high across the sky announcing their identity with their distinctive calls. I used to be happy to see one or two waxwing birds at a time but now I see flocks in my yard.
I left behind people I had grown close to to move here. I thought I was leaving everyone but now I flock with different crowds. Sometimes they remind me so much of someone I knew before. Are they wearing disguises or did a special piece of my past follow me to my present?
Black and white and full of chatter. No, it’s not a newspaper; it’s a bird.
Distinctive black and white plumage and raucous calls make this bird easy to identify. Its unusually long tail gives it a unique silhouette. A magpie.
Their loud calls are often heard in the wild places they live in. They are also master imitators. Is that hawk you hear or is just a magpie?
From a distance they just look like a black and white bird. Look a little closer. Their plumage catches every little bit of light and reflects it back in an iridescent glow.
Some see them as smart opportunists while others see them as pests. Are they using their voice and brains to get ahead or get under your skin?
Not everything you see in black and white should be taken at face value. Look for colorful reflections. Listen beyond the chatter. Forgive those who use what they think will get them ahead to their advantage.