September 2010


In all the excitement of the move and classes, I almost forgot to tell everyone:

Haunted Legends is now available!

This book, edited by an unprecedented team-up of eminent, award-winning anthologist Ellen Datlow and notorious, also-award-winning outlaw sf-er Nick Mamatas, features my latest short story “Face Like a Monkey” (which, despite the title, is actually about a stork. Or is it….)

It’s available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook! Buy it today! Hand it out to trick-or-treaters!

Like John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction, when you’re someplace new and strange, it’s the “little differences” that get you. Although Missoula does not have the Royale with Cheese (it does have a surprisingly credible assortment of pizzas, but that’s another story) it does have plenty of stuff to throw a Brooklyn gal into culture shock.

Sticking strictly to the birds:

Of the primary-color feeder bird trifecta, there are no Northern Cardinals or Blue Jays here. The cardinals don’t seem to have a close local equivalent; the jay family is represented by Gray and Steller’s, but in town their niche seems to be occupied more by the boisterous and snappy Black-billed Magpie. The Goldfinches are abundant, but their calls are slightly, subtly different. I can hear their accents more clearly than the accents of the people. (Some people would say that I have always had this problem.)

The chickadees also sound different. The nuthatches sound much the same, but in addition to White and Red-breasted, I have to keep an ear (and eye) out for the aptly-named, adorable Pygmy Nuthatch. The waxwings are all Cedar now, but the mountain ash is fruiting abundantly and people speak of Bohemians as though they’re expected, not a rare treat. And speaking of not-rare treats, I go out my back door and see Pine Siskins routinely, instead of braving the cold and mud for them in vain.

And the woodpeckers. Ah, the woodpeckers. If anything sums up the way the avifauna here is just familiar enough to make the differences jarring, it’s the Picidae. It’s flicker time here too, and ostensibly the same flicker, although they look very different indeed from their east-coast conspecifics. Especially compared to something like the Red-naped Sapsucker, which looks an awful lot like a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but is no such thing. We have Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, although more of the latter than I’m used to. We have Black-backed Woodpeckers, which look like you expect woodpeckers to look like, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers, which look like nothing so much as Betsey Johnson’s idea of a woodpecker makeover — although happily without frills.

We have Western Phoebes and Screech Owls, which look virtually identical to their Eastern counterparts but aren’t, perhaps to make up for the damn flickers.

The Osprey is just an Osprey, as it is all over the world. They fly along the river, and the young cry plaintively from their nesting platforms, not eager to fledge, just as they do at Jamaica Bay. It’s nice for some things to stay the same.

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If you’re reading this, you’ve heard of Yellowstone. America’s first and most iconic National Park, home of the geysers, the bison, the majestic elk. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read about it in all manner of books, seen it in all manner of nature programs. You’ve thought about the bison as symbols and the geysers as abstractions. As you can imagine, I was excited to see the real deal.

Unfortunately, our entrance into Yellowstone was not auspicious. We’d spent the day driving across the entire state of Wyoming, which is much longer than it looks, because it goes up and down so much. We’d stopped to refuel both the car and ourselves in Cody, where the copious meandering tourists agitated the living shit out of the Inimitable Todd (thus proving that our IT is a New York City Boy at heart, as if there was ever any doubt) and didn’t exactly relax me. We’d debated the location of our next bed and breakfast, and after an unsuccessful attempt to look it up on the phone, debated whose fault not knowing about it was. Now evening was imminent, still had no cell phone signal, and we were being charged more than twenty American dollars to enter a park that we would now have to jet straight through if we wished to find ourselves a place to sleep for the night.

Jetting was a bit of an ambitious verb, though,what with the circuitous route that we’d have to take, and the construction that the map warned us of (“expect delays of up to 30 minutes!” I read with some trepidation, and the IT groaned) and of course ALL. THE. FREAKIN’. RVS.

Now, I don’t like to judge other people’s lifestyles… oh, who am I kidding. RVs are an abomination. I’m sure they have their place, perhaps for the very infirm, or maybe at the bottom of the ocean serving as artificial reefs. They should really not be found in vast herds, rumbling up narrow, twisty mountain roads, or down narrow, twisty mountain roads, or coming to a dead stop in the middle of narrow, twisty mountain roads so that the occupant can get yet another picture of some bison.

I have to admit, I was not expecting to be impressed by the bison. In my mind I had them filed under “wild cows”, and I already know more than I ever wanted to about cows. So I also knew more than I wanted to about bison.

This was a misapprehension on my part. I realized it as soon as we came to the front of a line of stopped traffic and discovered that it was stopped because of a bison meandering down the middle of the road, forcing cars (and RVs) to go around him. This was a huge, obviously powerful animal, but it wasn’t just that. I’d seen huger, more powerful creatures in zoos. It honestly was the wildness, the fact that despite the record-breaking number of tourists, despite the brutal history of near-extinction the bison had overcome, despite the fact that it was confined to the park at the pain of hazing or death, here was an individual animal going about its own business. An individual very freaking large animal.

That was the highlight of the day; most of the rest of the evening was consumed with navigating around construction, getting lost, and similar unhappiness. We arrived at our lodge in Idaho well after dark, had a picnic in our room, and fell asleep.

The next day we went back, still on a deadline but with more time to spare. We were determined to actually stop the car and look at things this time. Things of our own choosing, not just whatever wandered up onto the road.

The RVs didn’t make it easy, mind you. They stopped for damn near everything – elk across a river, bison on a distant meadow, a bear minding its own business at the bottom of a precarious cliff that we were all driving a narrow paved strip on the side of. I can’t fault the urge to take a picture – humans have always invented tools to aid and shore up memory, and I would be profoundly ungrateful if I knocked the urge that led us to develop books. But like so many things, from peeing in a river to cutting down a tree, what was acceptable, nearly harmless behavior in individuals became completely overwhelming and a giant pain in the ass in the aggregate.

After observing this, and checking the time tables, we came to a mutual agreement to skip Old Faithful and visit some of the other, less famous geysers instead. This meant instead of insanely crowded, the boardwalks we walked and the viewing areas where we stopped were merely very crowded.

I tried to blank it all out. Not just the tourists, but the boardwalks and protective fences, the sound of cars and goddamn RVs in the distance, the photos and videos I’d seen, the books I’d read, the knowledge of geological processes that informed me about exactly what was going on under my feet. I tried to put myself into the position of a person who had, perhaps, heard rumors, but was seeing this with fresh eyes, with genuine awe in the old sense of the word, in real danger and probably in even more imagined danger, believing that there might be literal demons responsible for this process that resulted in steam and peculiarly cobalt water oozing up from the crusted earth.

I couldn’t do it, of course – the observer always affects the experiment – and moreover, I got the impression that if I’d succeeded it would have been very unpleasant (potential for a fatal scalding in the absence of those boardwalks aside.) But somewhere in the middle ground, between terrified ignorance and jaded familiarity, I caught a glimpse of what the science fiction crowd calls ‘sense of wonder’ (and so abuses in trying to recapture it that it’s now been tattered down to sensawunda, the continued absence of which explains why we’re not on Mars.)

I wasn’t expecting that.

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We interrupt the road trip for an update from The Future (dun dun dun….) which is to say, the present.

Classes have started at the University of Montana, among them my first nonfiction workshop! Among my tasks for the semester is to select, read, and comment from a writer’s perspective on four nonfiction books that have something to teach me about the craft.

I’ve decided to pick four books on birds and birding (or on nature with a strong bird component), but with different forms and themes. Unfortunately, books I’ve already read are discouraged, which rules out some strong contenders like Of a Feather and Season at the Point. Some of the possibilities I’m looking at include:

Wild America by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson (maybe paired with Weidensaul’s Return to Wild America if I get hardcore ambitious)
Life List by Olivia Gentile
Birding Babylon by Jonathan Trouern-Trend
Flight Maps by Jennifer Price
The Birds of Heaven by Peter Mattheissen
Mama Poc by Anne LaBastille

Please throw out suggestions in the comments, if you have any! I’m looking to cast a wide net, so the bird-ness of the book need not be the central focus. All selections do, however, have to be nonfiction.

And please, don’t suggest Jonathon Rosen’s The Life of the Skies. I already know that one can be a beautiful writer and wrong as hell*. And you’ll hear more about Rosen’s wrong as hellness in this very blog, in The Future (dun dun dunnnn…..)

*I learned from Annie Dillard, actually.

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