Some Habits Of A Sleepless Writer
Last Update September 8, 2014
Mastering Night Sherrida Woodley 2014
June 19, 2014
Upcoming Article in Bird Watcher's Digest:
In September 2014, I'll be thinking about Gene Stratton-Porter. Not that I haven't been for quite some
time now. After writing about her rare encounter with a bird believed to have been extinct for a dozen
years in the wild, I continue to be intrigued by this woman of the last century. We share some
preoccupations, she and I. Some of it hinges on where we were brought up. And some of it reflects our
Gene was raised in a time when Victorian ideals were still demanding and limiting, especially in young
girls. But, through a series of circumstances, one of them being her birth order as the last of a dozen
children, she was allowed almost unlimited access to the farm country in which she was raised. Rural
Indiana in those days, especially that of the Wabash country, teemed with bird life scattered among
orchards, sunny corners of dense vegetation, and a dismal swamp known as the Limberlost. Eventually,
she would scour these swamplands for herself, but before that her father assigned every bird that made
its home on his land to her, as an endowment from the Creator. The little girl, Gene, took it all very
seriously. She'd been given keys to the kingdom of birds of all kinds, hummingbirds to orioles, and she
visited their nests, sixty-four of them, daily. All of this was to prompt her lifetime fascination with
birds, in particular, and would later eventuate in photographic discoveries far beyond those of her
As a natural consequence of writing about Gene's single enchanted moment with a wild passenger
pigeon in about 1912, I thought about her upbringing compared to mine. As the only child of a
hardworking Midwest couple who'd relocated to the wild state of Washington after the war, I lived on
the outskirts of a rough-and-tumble town closely associated with logging and railroading. Until my sister
was born eight years later, I lived much as Gene did, free to explore close-by wildlands. Nowhere was life
as interesting as in two massive vacant lots behind our house. There I took the dog, a Boston terrier
named Suzie, and built mini tree houses and mud pies and watched birds and butterflies by the hour.
Not unlike Gene, I considered it all mine, eventually sharing it by coaster wagon with my little sister.
Then in the fall of my eleventh year groundbreaking began on houses to fill those two wooded lots. And
my entire world changed.
Turns out, Gene's childhood and mine would inevitably draw us toward nature. Born deep into the next
century beyond hers, my observations were still very similar. The natural world around me continued to
flourish---enough to bring in hordes of wildlife, including raccoons and robins, field mice and
long-legged killdeer. I probably felt some of her sense of ownership, of responsibility for animals
surrounding me daily. And I would've recognized many of them, even more, welcomed them, years after
they disappeared from my world.
This fall an article I've written about Gene Stratton-Porter, the novelist, naturalist, and photographer
who gave us a haunting look at the diversity of life within one of America's most beloved wetlands, will
spotlight her affection for one species in particular, the now-extinct passenger pigeon. I will be with her
all over again that day in the field when she was preparing to photograph a little hen goldfinch and in so
doing heard the plaintive cry of a male passenger, one alone right above her. Never confirmed as a
sighting, her essay "The Last Passenger Pigeon" nevertheless brings me closer to understanding what she
witnessed and carried with her the rest of her life---the belief that she'd seen perhaps the very last wild
pigeon on earth. I'm grateful she wrote of this personal moment in her life inasmuch as the world would
know little enough about passenger pigeons after they were all gone. Through her, I see the bird alive
again, hoping for some sign of recognition. I see it for the great lesson it gives and the woman who
valued it enough to share.
Please look for "The Woman And The Passenger" due to be published in the September-October 2014
issue of Bird Watcher's Digest at various bookstores and newsstands this fall.
Also, I hope to visit the Limberlost area of Indiana (Geneva, IN) over Labor Day Weekend, 2014, where
I'll be fortunate enough to visit with Friends of the Limberlost, a local Audubon chapter, and many
regional folks who remember Gene, her era, and her contemporaries. It's an honor and privilege to be
part of the celebration of her life and the 100-year centennial of the extinction of the passenger pigeon
that originally brought me closer to her life's work.
Sources for the contribution above:
At Home on This Earth, Two Centuries of U.S. Women's Nature Writing, "The Last Passenger Pigeon," by
Gene Stratton-Porter, page 123
Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist, Judith Reick Long, "The Hum of Life," pages 49-50
August 03, 2014
I've always been healthy. My whole life very little has gone wrong. There have been surgeries, one of them to
fuse a herniated disc with one of the most memorable recoveries I've never forgotten. But altogether, I'm
strong. . . hereditarily strong.
About ten weeks ago I noticed a different feeling in my right breast. Not a lump, and deep in the interior, I
was immediately stricken with a feeling that I might be aware, too aware of something vaguely disturbing. A
"leathery" feeling (or what's often referred to as "thickening") was actually the source of my suspicion. I
called my doctor, who found nothing out of the ordinary but sent me to mammography. A series of tests
later, I was diagnosed with an invasive type of breast cancer. Out of nowhere, I'd become a target, a patient,
and a statistic.
Now, in early August I'm recovering from a mastectomy. Given a reprieve, I realize how lucky I am, how
blessed. No one could've prepared me for this, especially its swift nature. From detection to recovery was
hardly the time most people plan a special vacation or confidently learn a new techno-gadget. Cancer has
come and hopefully gone. But not quite.
I will continue to write. Ancestral has become more important than most things. But so has family and dogs. .
. and sleep. I value what I've always valued, but in sharper focus. I've learned one-step-closer the uncertainty
of things, the importance of priority, the dedication to those things held dear. For now, this is the only
posting I'll write of this experience. But it's at the bottom of so much. . . including writing. There will be
more from me on this subject. In good time.
In the meantime, please don't think it presumptive of me to ask you to be aware of your own body, to be
attentive to change. We've come a long way in medicine, but, ultimately, the onus is on each of us to be
pro-active. I stopped everything to get checked. It might've saved me thousands of dollars of treatment, and it
certainly saved my life. You deserve the same. . . if only you're aware, then realistic. Because the truth is
almost unbelievable. The truth is wellness, interrupted. For a while it's surreal, and then, oh my. . . it's very,
Today, I prepare to write the next chapter. I move forward with gratitude and a deep appreciation of
purpose. I move forward, in part, because of you.
September 08, 2014
Cincinnati Zoo to The Limberlost of Indiana:
There's still a feeling of having been to one of the most magical places in the U.S.
Of catching only a fleeting glimpse, then coming back home. I don't visit zoos very
often, but to see the second oldest one in the country was a privilege, and then to
spend almost two days in the restored wetlands of northeastern Indiana was a
journey through rebounding nature. Animals and forests dominated my thoughts,
and the whimsical world of Gene Stratton-Porter at the beginning of the last
century. I wish I could do it all over again.
Zoos give me great joy. Without them I'd have never seen animals from around the
world. I wouldn't know a Sumatran rhino from a black one, wouldn't remember as
far back as childhood a snoozing tiger not over ten feet from me. But zoos also cause
vague feelings of mistrust, as if I can't be sure they're the best for every creature
therein. It's so easy to fall in step with assumptions. . . that the gorilla's downturned
lips spell depression, that the big cat's pace is neverending. Honestly, I don't know if
zoos do everything they can for their charges, but I do believe they work hard at
improving, at least most of them. And they certainly are the seed banks of many
threatened species of the world. The Cincinnati Zoo, in addition, has a unique
history with a bird, one very special female named "Martha," a passenger pigeon
who spent most of her life there. I've seen pictures of her aviary, a well-lit enclosure
that housed her most of 29 years to the end of her days. It was that renovated shrine
that I wanted most to see. And I did.
The Limberlost Historic Site in Geneva, Indiana, was at the other end of the
spectrum. . . exploring long stretches of restored wilderness slowly being knitted
back together by many who remember its beginnings. The Limberlost Swamp of the
last century was immense, covering some 13,000 acres in northeastern Indiana, and
spreading across this expanse in mostly undiscovered quagmires and thickets. Gene
Stratton-Porter, famous novelist of the early 1900s, roamed through its labyrinthine
tracts, discovering nesting birds, pristine waterways and velvety moths. She recorded
a lot of it in photographs and books, raising her profile as a naturalist in the wild.
Eventually, she wrote of seeing a passenger pigeon, one last male one summer
afternoon in 1912. Whether she did or not has remained legendary in itself, but I
wanted to see where this event might have occurred. And I did. . . uniquely at a place
that looked like every other, except for those who know the Limberlost.
And so, I came back homesick for a place I'd just visited, animals I'd just seen,
people who warmly welcomed my husband and me. The Limberlost, the Cincinnati
Zoo, and the haunting story of the passenger pigeon go together, intertwined in a
story of historic abundance, then a never-to-be repeated loss---- of land (draining of
the Limberlost swamp), the zoo's most famous pigeon, Martha, and extinction of
one of the world's most prolific birds. Only now are we revisiting each precious
resource in a hallmark celebration of appreciation. The wild pigeons will never
return, but the zoo and the Limberlost will continue to mark home for so many who
would be worse off without them. I'm grateful for their supporters and their
ongoing work, and always will be.
Home of Gene Stratton-Porter
Red-tailed hawk at Limberlost