Memoir Excerpt –“It’s the Lizards!”

AVA

PROLOGUE

Around nine every morning my rhinoceros iguana Ava climbs down the ladder from her sleeping box and walks her dinosaur walk, kathump-kathump-kathump, tail swishing side-to-side, from the north end of the barn to the southeast-facing deck. Ava has free run, while Sebastian and Emo each have their own corral. On the deck are two big sunning cages, one at each end, and I carry the males out, otherwise they will fight and try to herd Ava, who is spayed and wants no part of it.

From the first cloudless day in mid-February to the last sunny day in September the lizards can bask on the deck. I join them every chance I get. I spread a towel on the oak boards and sit down beside Ava. She tilts her head and peers into my eyes to know my status and my throat aches with love welling up. Ava senses the emotional shift and stands up like a cat, nose and tail raised, eyes shut, while I run my hand down her dry-silky flank and spiky dorsal crest. I kiss her and tell her what pretty nose horns she has. When I lie down she climbs onto my stomach, scaly feet and claws not quite breaking skin. She rests her chin on my chest, her belly on mine, and her tail drapes over my leg. She tucks an arm back at her side the way iguanas do when they are content, like it is the most natural thing for her to have a human basking buddy. This is the life I have always wanted, not ever having to say good-bye to my lizards because it’s time to go inside a house.

Ava 4

People ask, “How did you get interested in lizards?” I fumble for a response and end up saying that lizard love pre-dates memory. But I do remember a bullfrog and I can see a clear line between him, and my first lizard.

I came into this harsh world where I was going to have to adapt and learn to live among humans if I wanted to survive. At first the world was not at all harsh, in fact it was downright luxurious and blissful and it would’ve been perfect if not for the problem of the distance that separated me from the pond where my bullfrog lived. My whole life I’ve been trying to fix this problem that I first became aware of when I was four-and-a-half years old, wearing my flower girl dress in Aunt Marcia’s wedding.

On St. Mark’s Place the rent was three hundred dollars a month. The apartment was on the first floor way at the back, like going back in time, and it faced a void between buildings and steel gates went across two tall windows, muddling the view, but letting in bright sunshine. I put my futon on the floor of what might normally be a living room. If one had furniture, there might be a rug, a small couch, stuffed chairs, a lamp, maybe a coffee table and in the adjoining area, a desk and book shelves, and in the wide closet that led to the kitchen, one might hang clothes, and I did put mine there, but it wasn’t much, plus I needed the space for Mr. Boa. He coiled himself in the back and I hung a clamp light from the clothing rod with a red heat bulb (snakes don’t see red).

It was my first apartment that I could set up the way I liked: Full of lizards. The Universe picked up on my intent. As soon as my phone was hooked up it started ringing about iguanas.

When I think of St. Mark’s I see the sunshine pouring into that little room where I put Spot’s branch –the tree limb—and he is basking at the top under his Vitalite, watching over his territory. He has grown and the bend in his spine has almost straightened. His dorsal crest spikes are getting taller. He’s lost the bright green that lets babies hide in foliage; he’s turning olive-tan-gray with the orange tones of a male coming of age. With swollen jowls and dewlap pushed out Spot shakes and bobs his head, talking to the new young females Pooky and Snooky. Spot has never seen females of his own kind, and he watches them with wide-open eyes, awakening to the new, exciting things coming alive inside him.

A few months before Gordon and I moved to Los Angeles, I got a fantastic job bartending in a Greek nightclub in Queens, where I dressed up wild, made lots of money, and had a ball with my fellow bartenders, especially Nikos. He asked what I hoped to find in L.A. I said I thought I would be discovered by me. Surely going three thousand miles away from home would push me into a grown-up life. I couldn’t be fifty years old in sparkly-lacy outfits, dancing behind the bar till two a.m. And wouldn’t I be so off-the-hook if Gordon and I got married. Settled into those roles where I cook and clean and Gordon gets the job. I admit there lives in me a little Martha Stewart who revels in making everything, and creating a comforting atmosphere in the home. I hesitate to say comforting, since my idea of that includes lizards and snakes and bromeliads everywhere, and I understand these elements do not say “comfort” to everyone. God, could I throw a fabulous party. I could get so out-of-control carving a pumpkin with lots of sharp teeth, and decorating a Christmas tree with hundreds of sparkles and baking a Yule log with bittersweet chocolate bark and merengue mushrooms. I have to mention kids. I didn’t want them and I didn’t think you got to be in that role and not have them. And should I put myself in a holiday apron basting a turkey, where are my lizards? The only sparkles are miniature Christmas trees dangling from my ears and soon I am on anti-depressants, losing a battle with rage.

Gordon didn’t get the job, I did –at a topless bar called Candy Cats.

I’m in the food court at a mall in the San Fernando Valley three thousand miles from home and I’m fine, I have a job and cash in my pocket, I have a driver’s license and a car. I’m drinking coffee and reading INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, which I found at Waldenbooks a few stores down. I am killing time between a double-shift at Candy Cats One and Too. What better time to get another iguana? I don’t know that’s what I’m going to do, I just get up from the table and wander into the mall on auto-pilot, into the pet shop, past the bubbling fish tanks and the screeching birds, past a hamster spinning his exercise wheel and into the blue-white of Vitalites and the particular motion of reptiles. I put on blinders so I can’t look at the baby tortoises, the ball python, the tank full of anoles because if I look at their eyes I’ll buy them all, I have the cash to do it. I see the baby iguana inside the big tank standing on her back feet digging against the wall of glass. One of her hands folds under because the wrist is broken. This is Goober. Splinting that arm will be like trying to repair a toothpick. I get the sales clerk and I reach in and lift the baby out to stop her from clawing at the glass with her broken wrist. With my free hand I take out my roll of cash and buy Goober, plus a ten-gallon tank, which she stays in on the passenger seat of the car, draped with a jacket, while I do my night shift. Driving back to the apartment I talk to this little person, this small, green presence asleep in the glass tank on the seat beside me and I tell her everything’s going to be okay.

In the morning Gordon says, “We didn’t talk about you getting another iguana.” That was true, he had a right to be mad. However, it was clear to me –the only thing that was clear—I needed the freedom to decide how many iguanas I would have.

 

 

 

Turtle Huggers

under the dock

A snapping turtle at Higgins Lake

My aunt gave me this book, VOYAGE OF THE TURTLE, by Carl Safina. I was looking at the blurbs in praise of the book and one said: “Carl Safina is a rare breed of writer who doesn’t just do research to get the story, but enters the story and lives it [awesome so far!]… The result is a fascinating narrative that will appeal to a reading public beyond mere turtle huggers.”

MERE TURTLE HUGGERS.”

Really?!

 Why not just say the book will appeal to a wide audience, or to readers unfamiliar with turtles?

This is from my memoir draft:

I am on the phone with my mother, trying to sort out the origin of my belief that I am a problem [illegitimate]. She points out that I watched my blue-eyed cousins grow up in big, fine houses with rich daddies while I was the child of an artist. My mother the artist says, “You were much more of a Sesame Street kid,” which puts the picture in my head of a little girl with dark eyes and pigtails skipping down steps onto the sidewalk. A gritty city kid. I line it up with other things said to me. Like when I was admiring some crystal and silver in a bridal registry and my mother-in-law to be said, “You’re a stainless-and-pottery girl.” And my sweet, rich cousin I used to babysit, who came to visit and stepped inside the barn I was living in and looked all around and said in a cheerful, bright voice, “Well, this is just right for you!”

I tell Mom how it makes me feel, being told, “No, those shiny things aren’t for you, Wendy.”

Mom says it’s interesting the way we hear things. She tells me that when she said “Sesame Street kid,” she meant Kermit the Frog, and Big Bird. She meant the frog and lizard and turtle dolls I made that were all packed away in a suitcase. “You made Sesame Street,” she says. “Those frogs were brilliant. You open that suitcase and magic comes out.” My throat aches from wanting to believe her completely this time. She has said this to me before. She would say, “You are so gifted with your lizards,” and she’d tell me how creative I was making those frog dolls, and it would piss me off and I’d say, “How am I supposed to pay the rent with that?”

I have a better understanding of why I had such a hard time pursuing a “career” in creativity and striving to show humans why we must stop destroying wildlife. I am a species of “tree and turtle hugger,” which gives the impression of a fanatic, semi-legitimate, overly emotional wishy-washy idle person, not serious and who doesn’t do much of real value. I realize I am defensive and I exaggerate. I don’t mean to be shrill. It’s so important to stay calm, and not alienate. But why do we shove animals and nature right out of the way, like it’s all about us humans? “People first,” we say. The clock is ticking on wildlife and biodiversity. I wonder how we will continue the everlasting fight for human rights, justice, peace, and ending world hunger on a planet that’s devoid of wildlife. What kind of world are we fighting for? What about the Rights of Nature –that little sort of grassroots “fringe” movement striving for legitimacy.

Here’s Birdfoot’s Grandpa by Joseph Bruchac

The old man

must have stopped our car

two dozen times to climb out

and gather into his hands

the small toads blinded

by our lights and leaping

like live drops of rain.

The rain was falling,

a mist around his white hair,

and I kept saying,

“You can’t save them all,

accept it, get in,

we’ve got places to go.”

But, leathery hands full

of wet brown life,

knee deep in the summer roadside grass,

he just smiled and said,

“They have places to go too.”

A Mess

Mao & Me 1993

Sebastian’s grandfather Mao and Me at Finca Cyclura, 1993

This is how it’s been lately.

I picked up cellulitis in my left foot. Don’t wear sandals to the airport. Mom urges me to the ER, for which I’m so grateful. All those antibiotics and shots in the butt. Years of restoring gut flora with probiotics and fermented foods gone. Start over. Filling out papers to get financial help. I burned my list of things to accomplish this month. A forced time-out. Sort of, since it is impossible for me to climb down out of my own ass. (I love that –from BREAKING BAD.) One good thing, I got my work in on time –my memoir draft for the workshop. And I’m not in the hospital and it is getting better. Of course my digestion is simply over. The “gut-brain connection.” I’m proof that gut flora imbalance causes terrible mood swings. Now we’re in the gut, for crying out loud. My life-long need for a slim tummy –can’t I let that go at 55– but more to the point, I need a clear head and palatable behavior. Because God forbid, I should be difficult. I had the foresight to schedule some self-help work for July, the one item from the burned list to keep me coming to my office every morning, to keep me from coming apart. I’m doing Dr. Schechter’s books, THINK AWAY YOUR PAIN and THE MINDBODY WORKBOOK. (This work has helped me more than any special diet or exercise! I recommend it!) Writing down responses to questions about emotions and tension. Trying to stop holding tension and fear and rage and anxiety in my gut, because I can’t breathe right or go to the toilet like a normal person. My whole life, herbs, acupuncture, veganism, juice fasting, yoga, Pilates, biking, deep breathing. Lizard time would really help, if I’d only let myself have it. My lizards keep telling me to slow down, take some time. “Be with us,” they say.

My writing trudges, isn’t snappy. I blame the antibiotics today. I am struggling to let go, struggling to not struggle. Struggling for self-acceptance. I remember when Norma sent me this poem:

God Says Yes To Me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she calls me that sometimes

she said you can do just exactly

what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph

my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I’m telling you is Yes Yes Yes

—Kaylin Haught

Am I a Dinosaur About to Go Extinct?

girl and baby dino

I joke with friends and colleagues about what a tech-luddite I am, that I struggle to learn how to use Dropbox and Twitter. I know it isn’t tricky, it’s just that I’m afraid, because whenever I get into it with technology there’s a glitch that costs me at least half a day and major frustration. I’m whining like someone who didn’t grow up with electronic devices.

If you’re drinking something now, swallow, because I don’t want you to burst out laughing and spray your screen: I don’t have a cell phone. 

I was so proud of myself for getting on Facebook and making a website and finally this blog. I was giddy like a little kid –lookee, I got it! I figured it out! But no, I don’t got it; it’s old news, everyone’s on Instagram now, and I better join the human race, because that’s what it is, a race. I don’t mean to be sarcastic. Sometimes I get that way when I feel sorry for myself. I’m left behind. Whose doing is that? Mine, of course. Unless I take charge of my tech-luddite schtick I will indeed go extinct as a dinosaur.

Since 2010 my writing workshops were full with a waiting list. But for the last year, not so. What could I be doing wrong? In the spring I had a couple of new students who told me they loved the class and would be back in the fall. My teaching evolves as I work on the next book and attend post-grad workshops and keep current on the craft of writing. I’ve worked with some of the best authors and editors. But something’s missing. Recently, I looked at a colleague’s course description. In the course’s title is the word “Publication.” Students who might not yet know what they want to write about will learn how to write a query letter to an agent. I don’t even know how to do that. I should, though. And scrolling down, under my colleague’s bio is her internet platform information –website, blog, Twitter, Instagram. She is a persona on-line. Prospective students can get to know her.

Meanwhile I hide at my little writing desk in the barn in the boonies of the Catskills. My editor warned me about this after SUNDOWN made the Kirkus Best Books of 2011 list. He said, “If someone puts their hand on your knee, don’t brush it off.” He talked about how I was hiding in the woods. I thought I was supposed to be relentlessly working on my writing; that I shouldn’t dare try to promote myself until I had something brilliant to show. I’m up here in the woods in competition with myself in a contest I can’t win. Going extinct.

But I am throwing myself a life preserver. This summer I am getting an iPhone! I’m going to learn how to use it and take pictures and be on Instagram and Twitter, and I’ll catch up with whatever’s next and new. Makes me sweat just thinking about it. Plus, I’ll be getting a new author photo. Oh, yes, with a lizard. A big one. (Not a dinosaur.) I’ve even come up with a name –I can’t wait, it’ll be so much fun. And I’m not being sarcastic.

A Bit Blue

Ava's blue
spring sunlight bringing up the blue in Ava’s tail

I have been kind of depressed on and off for a little while. I know it has to do with my work, my writing, not feeling connected to a writing community. Feeling under-utilized, ineffective. Last Friday I biked to my prayer place on River Road. I straddled my bike and looked across the river and asked, Why did I have to do everything kicking-and-screaming? Everything. Becoming a woman. Getting a job. Writing. The trees answered. I saw how I had to open a new file and start the memoir again. Revise it through this lens.

These past few years I kept thinking I was on-track, I show up every single morning for a few hours, including on teaching days. Working with what I learned in the MFA Program with the finest teachers, and working on three books with the best editor. Plus essays, and op eds. And still I get in my own way. Still I cannot stop trying to control the draft. Perhaps I’ve lost another year doing this. I know it’s learning, and you can’t just pole-vault over the crappy first drafts. Still. I am so frustrated with myself for being afraid. I am terrified to make a big leap; I don’t actually know how. I push myself, but I haven’t actually thrown myself off the cliff, I just stand on the edge.

My wise friend and brilliant reader said, “Maybe when it’s all down you will feel the freedom to go back in and tell the real story, in that [adult] voice, instead of the chronicle.”

I think she’s right. Though I haven’t been able to see how to tell “the real story,” I keep thinking well, that’s what I’m doing, telling the story! My friend did say my writing was “SO solid.” But so what. Why isn’t it working? I strongly suspect it is because I haven’t identified the very core of the issue until now. Jeez, I hope I’m right. It’s like this: When I look at my life, what is my problem? I am a problem, my very existence is a problem. That’s where, as Mom likes to say, the dog is buried. She was 15 when she had me. My family had a hard time with that. Nobuko, my therapist worked on me to get me to stop using the word “illegitimate” in reference to myself. “There’s no such thing as an illegitimate person,” she said. Near the end of our work she asked, “What do you want?” I said, “An adult life.” She told me I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. It’s nuts, but I actually puzzled over that to grasp that if I wanted an adult life I’d have to let go of being a child. Stop growing up kicking-and-screaming. I had to view taking responsibility for my life as freedom, not something punitive. Seems like the most basic thing.

A few weeks ago my horoscope said something about taking my rightful place. That went right in. You can interpret a horoscope any way you like. I took it to mean it was high-time I took my rightful place as an adult. This feels right for the memoir, too.

Self-Expression

me-lizards-and-rat-snake
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 (it’s rough, incomplete!) in the memoir, which now has a working title. Iguana’s Dance:

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 crack, 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’m not so sure he saw me, either, once puberty got a hold of me. 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, powerful, armored. 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.

Maybe I’d lost my prettiness, but what I still had in my favor with Grandpa was “scholarship and athletic prowess,” like on that bronze medal in his drawer. I was on the volleyball team and always getting Honors in my classes including Latin, which he’d studied. Sipping his martini, he would close his eyes and recite, “Sum, es, est. Sumus, estis, sunt.” Then his rumbly laugh warm with pride. I rode high on it.

In my memory I’ve conflated all the times adult friends and relatives 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

eves-pic-of-spot-and-me
From a book called ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS

Eve told me to sit and be with Spot (that’s Goober behind us). Eve is amazing, the way she uses a camera. We were talking and I was barely aware of being photographed, so she caught me smiling. My lips are pulled back a bit 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-age-10
Me around ten

I love this photo, maybe the last one where I’m smiling and it’s pretty. I can count on one hand –actually, I can’t even locate good photos of me smiling after I turned ten. 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.

awkward-me-2
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. I didn’t realize until I started writing a memoir that it has to do with hiding part of me/the character.

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.” Sure.

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 (including me).

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 vulnerable. Anxious, afraid of looking ridiculous and awkward and stupid and ugly and too female. What does that even mean. 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!”

sebastian-me-4
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.” It’s been ten years since that photo was taken. Time for a new one. I’ll try my best to let go, open up. Smile, even.

I love this thing Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her “Wild Woman Archetype” recording: “I’m really friendly. But I’m not quite tame.” I’m hoping for a photo of me that will show this. It won’t be without a lizard, though.

Snakes

mr-boa-me
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 my time and resources are limited, and I can’t give them the care and attention they deserve. My lizards are demanding!

Here is an excerpt 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. We need to expose Simmons Sporting Goods in Louisiana, as well as the East Carroll Parish Sheriff’s Office.” 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

 

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.

 

P.H.W. Bachmann, 1949

My Purpose

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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.”

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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

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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 and say prayers. 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).

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River Road, Callicoon, New York.

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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 say the following not to provoke an argument, but to provoke thought. Please read, and try to really hear what I’m saying.

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. This is a reality for many people. 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 are able to brush this loss aside as a natural consequence because at least the DNC got what it deserved (which also means that WE got what THEY “deserved”), 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.

At the beginning of this semester, I had to write an essay identifying five aspects of my identity… The purpose of this assignment was for us to recognize and reflect where we stand in society, because if we were going to discuss and reflect issues that stem from race, class, and gender in society, we first had to reflect on ourselves. 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. In order to address these issues in society, in our towns, in our country, we first need to reflect on ourselves. We are not safe until all are safe, we are not free until all are free.”

Thank you, Ariana.

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.

For now, this:

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
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.