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Archives 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 inner nature.

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 contemporaries.

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

Wellness, Interrupted

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, very real.

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.
Martha's Exhabit
Home of Gene Stratton-Porter
Red-tailed hawk at Limberlost
Cincinatti Zoo
Cincinatti & The Limberlost