Weener and me

This photo was taken in Michigan and the suntan is hiding the acne, which is actually improving, plus I’ve trimmed down. I am maybe seventeen. I’m pretty when I’m holding reptiles, even though I’m being a ham. Take away the reptiles and I start to look lost and afraid.

I just read this on my daily horoscope –I’m an Aquarius:

“The original version of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers did not chart on the UK Singles Chart until 2009, 38 years after its release. After certain disappointments you feel like no amount of time will resolve issues you have with your self-expression. Unfortunately, you might be right.

Still, there might be a possibility you were just set in the wrong crowd, and that you have given your heart and your creativity into all the wrong hands, bumping into everything but understanding on your way.”

OMG. It was one year ago that I went to Vermont College for the post-grad workshop and Martine Leavitt read my work. I remember whining to Martine, “Nobody understands lizards, nobody understands me.” She said, yes, that’s the story.

So I’m working on this bit:

When Grandpa looked at me that summer his blue eyes and worried face reflected pitiful back to me and I knew how sad and disturbed he felt about what was happening to his sweet, pretty granddaughter –because that’s what I was once, sweet and pretty and it made me want to die, the way I’d become so disgusting and how I wore that feeling about myself all over my face along with the zits.

Grandma’s expression was concerned and practical. She said, “I know it feels bad and it looks bad, too, but don’t pick, or it’ll get worse. Go lie in the sun.”

So I did, in my bikini with Weener. It had to be a bikini since my torso was so long that every one-piece I tried hiked up my butt, plus I had to have a top that tied around my neck and fastened securely around my ribs.

Grandma fixed lunch while Grandpa sat inside the screened porch with his feet up, drinking his midday martini. Weener and I basked in the sun, stretched out on the cement ledge that went around the pool and when we needed to cool down we slipped into the water like a couple of crocodiles and climbed out on the other side to heat up again.

When Grandpa looked at Weener, he didn’t see her. I tried to hide behind my lizard as though it wasn’t really happening. I’d dive down deep in the pool and transform into a lizard.

I reasoned that I must be part reptile since I was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. It’s so nuts how I tried to deny those immense mammalian things sprouting from my body right there practically under my nose.

In my memory I’ve conflated all the times adults asked how I was doing in school and then, “Still have those –what do you call them– iguanas?” I’d say, “Fine,” and “Yes.” There’d be a chuckle and shaking of the head. One time Grandma said, “Oh, she’ll trade the lizards in for boys soon enough.”

But I was quite clear, sitting very still and sober and solid when Grandma said this. Usually when an adult made a forecast about me, my stomach twisted in knots, believing it would happen because they said so. There wasn’t anything else I was ever sure of except that I would never “trade in” my lizards for anything, or anyone.

My Struggle with Hiding in Photos and Writing

From a book called ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS

Eve told me to sit and be with Spot (that’s Goober behind us). We were talking and I was barely aware of being photographed, so she caught me smiling. My lips are pulled back too much, since I’m laughing and wrinkling my nose at the same time Spot flicks out his tongue. Otherwise, it’s a good smile.

Me around ten

I love this photo, maybe the last one where I’m smiling and it’s pretty. The photo just below of me at twelve is so self-conscious and sad. You can see that puberty is hitting me and I’m breaking out.

Me around twelve

Since puberty, the minute the camera comes out, I stiffen. And when I write characters who are older than ten, I stiffen. I don’t mean to.

A lot of people freeze when the camera comes out. We’re all self-conscious to some degree. I think most of us love-hate having our picture taken. (There’s the tiny hope that maybe this time, the photo will reveal a beautiful me.) We say, “Oh, I look awful!” and our friends tell us, “You do not, you look great.”

I haven’t had a clue what hiding means, or how it affects my writing. I struggle to show myself, but I can show lizards. Martine read some of my pre-memoir stuff, and she said, “I don’t even like lizards, but you made me love them in these parts.”

Imagine if I could achieve this when I write about human characters.

When I face a camera, or write about a me who is more than ten years old, I retract like a rattlesnake coiling into her den, or a lizard trying to camouflage herself in the trees. Hiding the me who is anxious, afraid of looking ridiculous and awkward and slow and ugly and too female.

Any book on craft will tell you that Reader wants to see character vulnerability. Have I really been that scared? Why am I always the last person to know what I’m up to. The voice in my head says, “Get over yourself!”

Author photo

I like my “author photo” well enough. No awkward smile; my chin isn’t too clunky. And Sebastian is there to help me.

But I’ve been told, “You’re not smiling. Readers might think you’re not friendly.”

I love this thing Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her “Wild Woman Archetype” recording: “I’m really friendly. But I’m not quite tame.”


Mr. Boa and me many years ago

I live with lizards. I’ve lived with snakes, too. Boa constrictors, ball, reticulated and Burmese pythons, anacondas, pine snakes, rat snakes, and more. The only reason I don’t have snakes now is that I can’t give them the care and attention they deserve. My lizards are demanding!

Here is an excerpt about meeting a snake from LIZARD LOVE.

“I didn’t know where I could go and be okay. I walked, not caring which way I went, watching the lines of my swimsuit blur into the grass until I saw that I had come down the path where the brambles used to be.

“I stopped and held a tear between my eyelashes. It was like peering through a tiny prism. For a second I was back in the tunnel of green light, the way it used to be before Bob Ellis cut away the brambles. I squeezed out the tear and saw the snake, right there at the edge of the path.

“His neck was curved, because he had seen me and was being careful about coming out of the tall weeds. He held his head up, watching me, but I could tell that he wasn’t afraid. I knelt close to him and he didn’t run away. His red and black tongue flicked in and out. His eye moved, a black pupil inside a gold ring. He let me reach underneath his chin and touch his glossy throat. I pulled my hand away slowly and kept still and watched his sides move in and out with each breath.

“Soon he came out of the weeds. His brown-and-cream- striped ribbon body made S shapes across the path. He didn’t hurry. I wondered where he was going and what he wanted. He flicked his tongue in and out as he went, checking what was in front of him, and then he entered the weeds on the other side of the path. I watched him go, watched the dark tip of his tail slip away, and I caught my breath.”

Times when I’m upset and go for a walk, I see a snake. Either I am open to it, or he lets me see him, maybe both. It’s just the snake and me, breathing, being, and it’s as though our heartbeats and breath are at the same time. I forget why I was upset. He reminds me about what matters –that we are alive, sharing this moment.

On November 5th 2016 a RARR member shared a photo on Facebook: “They aren’t rattlesnakes, but it’s just as bad…”

The photo shows dead snakes that have been dumped in a heap on the ground, like garbage. There are perhaps a hundred dead snakes, maybe more, different species and sizes; adults, and juveniles. There isn’t much blood; the snakes were mostly beaten to death.

The caption says, “Describe this picture in one word…GO!” The edge of a red cooler is seen in the photo, suggesting recreation, as though to emphasize the tone of the challenge to “Describe” the picture in the spirit of fun.

I can describe the picture in one word: Hate.

Why? (This is not an isolated incident.) Whether it’s biblical fear of serpents, belief in entitlement to dominion, bullies who feel compelled to hurt animals, the complete absence of empathy and compassion is chilling. Each of the dead snakes had a life he or she was living, each had a right to exist and thrive.

If a person doesn’t like snakes, it’s totally fine to leave them alone. When I say this, I’m confronted with stories of being chased by cottonmouths, and if we don’t kill snakes, they will kill us.

In his article Blocked-flight Aggressive Behavior in Snakes herpetologist D. Bruce Means tells of an Eastern Cottonmouth who “rose up like a cobra and menacingly crawled toward me…When I stepped sideways…the snake maintained its original direction and did not turn to follow (or ‘chase’) me. Its ‘aggressive’ behavior obviously was a bluff to assist the snake in making its getaway into the safety of the swamp…”

Means repeated the study with different snake species, including rattlesnakes, and observed this behavior consistently.

You can also watch a video of Orry Martin setting the record straight about cottonmouth snakes.

Here’s what Melissa Amarello, co-founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation says:

Snakes are more like us than people realize. They learn. They care for their kids. They care for their neighbors’ kids. …they have families and friends… They have homes with favorite places to get food, meet friends and mates, rest, and shelter from predators and inclement weather…

“…I hope that by helping people see that snakes share many behaviors with us, behaviors we value, people will choose to treat them better, and cruelty like wanton persecution of snakes and rattlesnake roundups will no longer be socially acceptable.”

THE SNAKE by P.H.W. Bachmann, 1949

Gem-bright and patterned coils you weave,

A living stream of reasoned flesh and bone

Through the familiar grass, and then you leave

Ancestral markings on the sand, beside some stone:

More delicate than spider webs, or tiger’s bristles,

Your tongue’s twin tips flick earthward—smell and taste

What there is need to, amid twigs and thistles—

Something to feed upon, or love, or flee in haste.

Superb, unmindful of the Scripture’s curse,

You thread your ancient way triumphantly,

Around man’s ignorance (save a few) and nurse

No hatred in your calm fluidity.

That day is pleasant, if some pathway leads,

To your bright beauty, flowing through the reeds.

My Purpose

photo by Robin Moore

I carry this portrait in my heart beside the one of the Jamaican iguana that’s in my first post. It is from a series of photos Robin Moore took when the Goat Islands in Jamaica were under threat of development. Iguanas and people were under threat, but I only spoke about the iguanas.

I’m putting this photograph here because of the voice in my head that’s saying, Some people think you only care about reptiles. It’s not true. But I am on this earth to speak for them. Here is what my cousin Heidi wrote to me on Facebook:

“…I have a hard time coming up with the “right” words but here goes. I have memories of you as a child (8 maybe) at the lake devoting many of your waking hours searching the dark woods for life.

“I think we probably searched the nearby “cut” and Houghton Lake too. The point I want to make is I think you were born with a very specific purpose (gift) to observe and preserve reptilian life. I’m fascinated to read your blogs and learn what an advocate you have become in addition to the research you are doing. Keep up the great work!”

Heidi’s letter reminded me of something Jane Goodall said in THROUGH A WINDOW. (It is one of my favorite books.)

“Often I am asked whether I do not feel that it is unethical to devote time to the welfare of ‘animals’ when so many human beings are suffering. Would it not be more appropriate to help starving children, battered wives, the homeless?

“Fortunately, there are hundreds of people addressing their considerable talents, humanitarian principles and fund-raising abilities to such causes. My own particular energies are not needed there.”

Mark and Luna 2003

It is a challenge to be an advocate for reptiles and wildlife in these times.

I just found this and I like it very much:

The World Needs You To Do YOUR Thing

“There’s something about you. A quality you have, a skill you’ve refined, or a perspective you’ve honed that’s completely unique to you…

 The world doesn’t need you to replicate what they’ve done. It needs you to find a similar courage and tap your own uniqueness to create value for others.

It’s easier said than done of course. But it’s far from impossible.…”

Look who got elected, and I’m over here talking about saving lizards and snakes

This is my prayer place

I ride my bike up River Road as often as I can. The prayer place is where I stop and give thanks. I look across the Delaware River at the trees and the water. When I took this photo, to my right I heard a kingfisher and to my left, a barred owl (they sometimes call during the day).


River Road, Callicoon, New York.

One of my favorite trees. My bike is there so you can see how big it is.

What I hope to get across is that saving lizards, snakes, wildlife, is saving ourselves. We can’t do without a biodiverse environment to live in that will sustain us while we continue to fight for justice, equality, and human rights.

What we need is Rights of Nature written into our constitution. Right now, I’m not going to speak to the sarcastic and pessimistic voices in my head –the ones saying, good luck with that, we haven’t even ratified the ERA.

Reptile and amphibian people, bird people, fish and bug people, mammal people –all of us are speaking for wildlife and the planet, since they have no voice.

These past days I go to be with friends and we console each other about who our new leader is. We want to regroup, put our heads together. The extinction of wildlife is almost a non-issue, a non-topic, though climate change does enter the discussion at some point. How could it be otherwise, since we fear for our lives and for loved ones. I am reminded of this:

“… I am fighting for my future… I am here to speak for all generations to come… I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go…. I’m only a child yet I know we are all part of a family, five billion strong, in fact, 30 million species strong and we all share the same air, water and soil –borders and governments will never change that…”

–Severn Cullis-Suzuki, UN Earth Summit, Rio, Brazil 1992

Here is an article from The Guardian:

“Living Planet Index shows vertebrate populations are set to decline by 67% on 1970 levels unless urgent action is taken to reduce humanity’s impact

…Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, said: ‘The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it. Life supports life itself and we are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse.’

He said humanity was completely dependent on nature for clean air and water, food and materials, as well as inspiration and happiness. [italics mine]”

When I shared this article on Facebook I got shot down right away. Someone said, “don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” On another page I saw comments go up like, “Fear-mongering.”

Hmmm. All I know is that in the twenty-plus years snorkeling the reef in the Bahamas, I saw the decline in wildlife. I see it here in the Catskills. I never see green snakes anymore. Fewer wood turtles every summer, fewer spring peepers.

Our serpent predators are all but gone. Black snakes, milk snakes, and Timber rattlers are rare now, and we are having a real rodent problem. Rats and mice are out of control and most people I know have lyme, including me.

Here is what Ariana Gonzalez wrote. Find the complete piece on Facebook:

“I woke up yesterday with a heavy heart, full of deep sadness and fear. … People feel dehumanized, people feel devalued, people feel scared, people are literally fearing their lives and future… If you do not feel any of these feelings, consider yourself privileged.

“….If you are able to brush the feelings of sadness off quickly and move on with your day, and think others should do the same, consider yourself privileged. …If you do not support Donald Trump and know how dangerous he is, but also didn’t vote in a way that you knew would help defeat him out of spite or protest, consider yourself privileged… If you do not fear for your life, for your future, for your child’s future, for the future of your loved ones, consider yourself privileged.

“…If any of the above applies to you, I ask that you do not get angry. I ask that you reflect on it. It is ok to be at a place of privilege in society, but it is damaging if you deny this and do not work and fight for justice for those who are not… We are not safe until all are safe, we are not free until all are free.”

I want to add that we are not safe until our natural world –this world, the one we all live in– is safe, too. People first, one might say. But people cannot live without wildlife. I will strive to show this for the rest of my life.

what they did yesterday afternoon

by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered


Office Buddy

che-6This is Che’s tail –he’s in his hide box. He sleeps in there and goes in when he doesn’t like what’s going on. That could be whenever I forget he hates red and I have on a red shirt when I come in, or when my husband is running the skid steer or tractor, and he sees it out that window.

Che doesn’t mind the truck. He knows the difference between the F350 and the UPS truck. He learned that the F350 meant Mark was home and time for a treat vs. UPS guy –no treat.


Here he is! Che is a Cuban iguana, Cyclura nubila. Same genus as the Jamaican iguana. Che’s dormer is in my office, since it has a door –it’s actually the upstairs bathroom.

We live in a barn with open space. The stone-tiled floor has radiant heat. Che’s breakfast includes collard, spinach-mustard, tatsoi, dandelion. We’re in the autumn diet, when frost has killed most of his favorite weeds.

What Che sees every morning (besides the view out his window). The red chair doesn’t bother him –it’s inanimate.



This is Luna, Che’s girlfriend. They are like the Bickersons, which is why Che lives upstairs in my office, and Luna is downstairs, in her own room (with a heated stone floor).

That white patch on her cheek? Che bit her –they were having an argument. So now, they get to see each other during warm weather, when both go out on the downstairs deck to their separate sunning cages. Once there, they nod heads and make faces at each other.


Lizards and Snakes


Jamaican Iguana by Robin Moore


I’m starting my blog with some great news: The Goat Islands in Jamaica are saved!

When the battle for Goat Islands was hot I saw this beautiful portrait of the Jamaican iguana and burst into tears. Oh, please don’t let it happen. I see myself in that lizard and if he and his kind die, part of me dies.

I couldn’t do anything to save him, couldn’t make people care about a lizard. I was helpless and the despair made me want to hide and not have to watch the tragedy. But the iguanas and Goat Islands are safe for now.

Here’s a photo of Emo and me. Emo is a rhinoceros iguana, in the same genus as the Jamaican iguana:

The bad news is, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department failed to pass a ban on using gasoline to flush rattlesnakes out of their dens for the horrific rattlesnake roundups. Here’s the Center for Biodiversity’s film about why we shouldn’t gas rattlesnake dens.

I heard about rattlesnake roundups in the 80s, and I still carry images of what happens to the snakes. Here’s a bit from an essay I was working on:

“…The first time I met a rattlesnake in the wild he was in a coil by a path, his pattern blending in with the rocks and sand. I stood just a few feet away, holding onto my excitement.

“Being so close to a live rattlesnake heightened my senses –I wanted to know about him and didn’t want to miss a thing. I saw his breath, saw his body move slightly with intake of air. I watched for his tongue to flick out to see if he was awake and after a moment, it did, cautiously tasting the air.

“Of course he was awake, with a giant like me thundering up the path, he was keeping still, trying not to be seen. I saw his cat’s eye pupil move. He didn’t rattle and I didn’t want to make him by frightening him.

“I kept still too, taking in his angular head and keeled scales that would surely feel like the worn wooden handle of a garden tool, warm and dry in my hand. Time slowed and there was only the snake and me and I felt like I could really breathe and be just plain happy.

“After a while I started up the path, trying to understand why people feared and hated rattlesnakes. Certainly people got bitten, certainly the venom could cause pain and tissue damage, but death from rattlesnake bite was rare.

“If I’d tried to catch the rattlesnake, he’d have rattled, then struck if I didn’t back off. More likely, he’d have uncoiled and fled into the bush.

“I imagined the snake sunning himself on a porch step, and a child coming out of the house and trying to pick him up. The child would be bitten and rushed to the hospital, and the snake hacked to death. This is the story that becomes headline news…”

Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups is 3,453 members strong and growing.