…is often how it goes in this game of writing, or at least that’s my experience of it. Famine, feast, famine. It’s an oft-used example, but it really is a lot like one loose pebble on a hillside. Once it begins to roll, you can either end up with a landslide or it’ll get lodged against something else, halfway down the slope.
I gratefully take the work of progress as it comes. And it is work, make no mistake.
So I’m happy to announce the next little progression in the life of ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. It’s very early days yet, but on January 13, 2022, from 6:30pm to 7:30 pm, I will be guest of honor on Zoom courtesy of the Estacada Library in Estacada, OR (https://www.cityofestacada.org/library). The thing I love about these online meetings is that people from all over the globe can tune in, so please pass the word along to those you know who have an interest in elephants. I plan on showing pictures from the life of elephant keeper Roger Henneous, telling a bit about him, and maybe sharing a story or two that didn’t make it into the book. I hope you’ll join us.
“What a year” has become so cliché that no one is saying it much anymore; we merely give one another that look and move on. We all know where we’ve been, at least to some degree. No need to belabor the point.
Like many creative sorts I’ve spoken to over these many months, I’ve run into a rough patch. I’m envious as hell of those who’ve experienced little negative impact on their work, or who’ve actually increased their output. Well done, you! But that’s not me.
This fallowness, for want of a better word, began well before the onset of COVID, back around the time I sent in the final final manuscript for ELEPHANT SPEAK. I chalked it up to exhaustion. I’d been working steadily on the book for almost six years without a break: writing, researching, crafting, editing, more researching, and many wonderful telephone calls with Roger Henneous. Once the book was in the hands of Ooligan Press (all hail Ooligan Press!), it’s no wonder I felt the desire–nay, the need–to kick back and relax a bit, let the old creative batteries recharge. I’d been writing (and lucidly dreaming) of nothing but elephants for so long, it seemed impossible that state of affairs wasn’t going to continue. But, of course, it didn’t. The book was done, the elephants celebrated, Roger introduced to the world. Then COVID hit, and not quite a year later, Roger was gone.
After a couple of weeks, I felt eager and ready to begin my next project. And that’s when the trouble started. Kurt Vonnegut said one should write from one’s areas of deepest passion. I agree. The problem was, I felt passionate about nothing. Old snippets and ideas of stories lay before me like seeds dead in the ground. I couldn’t seem to jump-start anything.
I did have a bit of reprieve last fall/winter. From October 2020 to this past spring I had a steady run of poems pouring out the ends of my fingers. Some of them were even good (although most weren’t). Then even those passed and I was left with…well, pick your metaphor: the sound of sand blowing across an open courtyard; silence that echoes loud as a cathedral bell; the open vistas of a dead planet.
Really, it kinda sucks.
I’ve even tried to make the words come, although that’s patently ridiculous. So I’ve now given myself permission to back away from the computer and all those old ideas. Maybe if I clear the way of ancient stuff, something new and wonderful will appear. (If the universe is listening, I’d love to do another elephant book, maybe one about the elephants in captivity, before they’re gone and we no longer know their stories, a coffee table book with lovely pictures.)
That’s not to say wonderful things haven’t happened. To whit:
I just returned from a short visit back to Connecticut during which I connected with some much-loved and much-missed friends, and presented a talk on ELEPHANT SPEAK hosted by the wonderful Bill Library in Ledyard, CT:
And I’ve recently been contacted by the folks at the Estacada Library in Estacada, Oregon to do a Zoom presentation for their Adult Winter Reading Program in which they “offer the most engaging programming.” I’m honored to be asked, to have accepted, and I look forward to working with them.
Last year, just after Thanksgiving, my nephew Lucas Perkins lost his battle with Cystic Fibrosis. In the weeks that followed, a poem emerged which I subsequently posted to Facebook. (I say emerged, but it was more like the work was generated through me by the hands of another, maybe Luke himself.) Singer/Songwriter Ray Agnew read it and asked if he could put it to music. The result of our collaboration, “Heaven’s Highway” will be available for purchase on Ray’s website, http://www.rayagnewsongs.com/, beginning November 1. (You can also find out about it on his Facebook page, Ray Agnew – Singer/Songwriter.)
Thanks for being there.
A quick shout-out to the Kent Free Library, librarian Kristen Pool (acting manager, Adult Services), and the lovely folks who joined us for a Zoom event last evening to discuss ELEPHANT SPEAK and the world of Roger Henneous. We had a terrific turnout given that many people are forgoing Zoom now for outdoor events, and a lively discussion afterward. (And a special thank you to listener–and raffle winner!– Geoff Thompson who offered excellent questions, insight, and a recommendation that I talk to his local bookstore in California about stocking the book. Thanks, Geoff!)
Last year, at the end of August, my new-found friend Doug Groves was killed by a wild African elephant.
Doug, a well-regarded conservationist, had dedicated his life to working with elephants. His career spanned 48 years and included not only his work in Africa (since 1987), but stints at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo) and with animal importer/trainer Morgan Berry, among others.
With his wife Sandi, Doug created the nonprofit Living with Elephants Foundation which provided African elephants with a safe home in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. For nearly 30 years, they worked together to save orphaned elephants, many of them rescued from culling operations in the area. Since Doug’s death, Sandi and a core group have strived to continue the work of caring for Jabu and Morula, the two elephants presently in the program.
This morning I learned that Jabu has died. Sandi stresses that he was not poached. When found, he’d been dead a few days and hyenas had been at work on his body, but it’s believed he suffered a mortal wound from a wild bull.
Please join me in sending Sandi all the love and support we can at this awful time. If you’re of a mind (and able to) please consider a donation at the website above to help her continue her work. Thank you.
There aren’t words enough to thank writer/book reviewer John Valeri for his interest in, and continued support of, my career. In Episode 2 of his podcast, Central Booking, we delve into the story behind my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. Click here to see the episode on Youtube.
When I began this website many, many moons ago, blogging had just become the latest hot thing. Someone said I should do it. My natural response was “Why?”
“Because,” they somewhat impatiently replied, like it was so obvious I must be a total dunce to not understand, “everyone’s doing it.”
Really? I thought. Everyone? What could everyone possibly have to say? And if everyone was writing blogs, who was reading them? (It certainly wasn’t me.)
“What would I write about?”
<A somewhat insulting eyeroll> “About writing!”
Now there was a terrifying thought. I knew just how much I didn’t know about the business of writing, so no way was I going to put myself out into the world like some font of wisdom. (There’s too many of those sorts of jackasses already.) As for being a writer, well, even after nearly thirty years as a professional, I’m still so wrapped up in the PFM (pure fucking magic) of writing that I’m reluctant to talk about it except with a select few. Magic should be handled lightly, and with respect, and one must be careful in choosing the members of one’s Fellowship.
But I gave it a shot. I wrote a few pieces about my particular writing process, and things I’d observed or experienced for myself and with other writers, and I bored my socks off. I felt like such an imposter. I was still learning (God willing, I’ll always be learning the craft, right up until they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers), and I guess hearing from someone who is learning can be beneficial, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Instead if felt like ridiculous posturing. So I stopped.
Then I was told to pick a subject–any subject–and make my blog about that, so readers would know what to expect from post to post, and know they can come to me for that one thing. Now “that one thing” can be pretty diverse within itself, but I have one of those jackrabbit brains that leap all over the place. That’s not to imply lack of discipline (you don’t write books or stories or articles with lack of discipline), but I wanted to engage with myself as much as I wanted to engage with my (hoped for) readers. And I wanted to give the readers some credit. They’re not mindless bovine feeding on silage (okay, well, yeah, maybe some of them are…), but I hoped to connect with those whose interests are as wide-ranging as my own, those who might reach out with opinions and engage in dialogue.
So I couldn’t stick with one topic. Oh, I go on stints of one topic. Animals are a big part of my life and they show up frequently (especially elephants over the past six years), as do human relationships and my own difficulties with managing same….or good books I’ve read….or something I witnessed….or…..
Maybe I am undisciplined, at least in this respect, but it seems to me that if I’m going to take time from my “real” writing (whatever form that may presently take), I need to enjoy it and find some intrinsic worth in the words I put here. So if you choose to visit now and then, be forewarned that I’ll continue to write what calls to me.
I read an interview with Neil Gaiman some time ago, and in it he mentioned (not by name) a science fiction writer he knew who’d written a fantastic western, but couldn’t get it published because he was “a science fiction writer” in the eyes of those with power, and couldn’t possibly be anything else. Ursula LeGuin wrote about being asked what sorts of books she wrote and she replied that left to her own devices, she’d called them novels. Not fantasy, not science fiction, just novels. How freeing!
I deplore labels. Don’t call me a writer of <blank>, just call me a writer. If you’re compelled to write one sort of thing (poetry, science fiction, fantasy, romance, western, you name it), good for you! I celebrate you! But if, like me, you’re bound to a capricious Muse who grins with wicked delight every time she drops an idea into my brain and whispers, “What about this?” then you ought to have the freedom to play in whatever sandbox you choose. And if the powers that be won’t let you, build your own sandbox.
And make it BIG.
A year ago today, my husband and I were in the air headed to Portland, Oregon to meet up with one of my dearest friends for the launch of my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd, a memoir of the life of Roger Henneous.
A lot has happened (to all of us) in the year that’s passed. Looking back, I’m overwhelmed by how lucky we were (myself and Ooligan Press*). Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world, agreed to host the launch event, and (bless them) didn’t cancel at the last minute because of the emergence of COVID. Likewise, Sunriver Books & Music and Roundabout Books (both located in Bend, Oregon) welcomed us with open arms and enthusiastic crowds. We enjoyed good times, good friends, new friends, and made it safely home before the bottom fell out a week later and we were all quarantined.
All of the east coast venues I’d arranged promptly cancelled. The Newburyport Literary Festival was able to host a Zoom event with the authors slated to speak, so that was wonderful. Sadly, though, arranging for the other events to occur at a much later date has not proved as fruitful. However, I persevere and hope the time will come when I can meet readers in person or online. (And for those of you involved in book clubs, if your club chooses to read ELEPHANT SPEAK, I would love to Zoom or Skype or FaceTime with you and be part of the discussion.)
Like many of you, we’ve had our losses this year and we’re all coping as best we can. My hope is to gradually put the sadness behind me and move forward. I hope you’re able to do the same.
One of the world’s greatest elephant men died today.
Roger Henneous knew nothing about what he came to call “the great gray clowns” when he took the zookeeper job at the Portland (Oregon) Zoological Gardens back in 1968. All he knew was that he wanted to work with animals more than anything in the world. His 20 years of experience with farm stock laid a good foundation upon which he knew he could build the necessary zoological training. As he told the curator who interviewed him, “Near as I can tell, all animals need pretty much the same things: clean water, good food, adequate shelter, and protection from people who might do them harm.”
For the next 30 years, he provided all that and so much more to the animals in his care. As he put it, “Caring for livestock is a seven-days-a-week, twenty-four-hours-a-day, fifty-two-weeks-a-year proposition. Animals don’t know that it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday or whatever and wouldn’t give a damn if they did. They’re standing in their own crap, they’re hungry, they need a drink, and some need medical attention. If you’re worth half a shit, you’ll do those things. If you’re not prepared to, then you need to get a desk job shuffling papers.”
During that first year as a fledgling keeper, Roger did all that and more. He scrubbed the odious duck pond and cleaned his share of garbage cans (keepers also did a lot of maintenance in those days), but he also learned to teleport (figuratively speaking) when a full grown African lion pounced at him; earned welts the size of half-dollars from the punishing beaks of geese; pedicured sheep, goats, and even a giraffe; served as bait to an enraged bull elk; nearly lost his job for (unknowingly) threatening to kick the ass of the director of the zoo; met his first new-born elephant; learned that some keepers are abusive; and came to understand that sometimes even those in charge don’t get their way.
But the best part was the elephants. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love, and he was struck uncharacteristically dumb when, just after that first year, he was nominated to be their senior keeper upon the retirement of his mentor, Al Tucker. From that moment on, Roger had two families: a human one, and one made up of elephants.
“Elephants have no manners whatsoever,” he said. “And that trunk will go where it pleases. But, boy, when they’re checking out your gender, it’s a bit disconcerting.”
Over the years, Roger earned the reputation of a dedicated keeper who would fight for his animals, as well as one with a somewhat unique view of animal care built upon the “Laws of Tucker”:
He advocated seeing problems from the elephant’s perspective, and based every moment of every day on trust.
There were wonderful days in the elephant barn (newborns, successful training, and any time he could be in the enclosure with “his girls”), and not so great (human-human conflict, human-elephant conflict, arguments with administration, and elephant deaths), as well as the day-to-day grind of hauling feed, shoveling manure, trimming feet, and dispensing care. Roger took it all in stride, blessed (most) of the keepers he worked with, and reveled in the good days.
I met Roger in 1997, the year before he retired. I was a fledgling volunteer assigned to the elephant barn as part of a program to maintain watch on Belle, one of two matriarchs. Roger was the keeper stuck with having to keep an eye on the elephant, but also on me. Belle had undergone crucial foot surgery in an attempt to save her life, and Roger was understandably more interested in her than he was in me. Still, something clicked between the grizzled veteran and the nervous novice. We lost touch after I moved from Portland, but that time with Roger and Belle haunted me until, nearly 20 years later, I tracked him down, and we resumed—and recreated—the close connection that began that night in the barn.
Now he’s gone.
Roger, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Thursday afternoons now that you’re not at the other end of the phone. Thank you for being a best friend and, in many ways, a father to me. Thank you for the occasional arguments (my God, you were stubborn….but so was I). Thank you for facing your reluctance to relive the zoo years, and for telling your story to me and to the world. Thank you for having faith in me to do it right. Thank you for facing your fears and revisiting the zoo after nearly two decades to reacquaint yourself with Sung-Surin and Rose-Tu, and meet the other elephants.
Roger used to tell me that if there is an afterlife, he figured he’d be met by a bunch of angry elephants for the way he’d let them down (somehow believing he had the power to keep them alive forever). He’s wrong. I know exactly what happened:
“Roger opened his eyes the other side of death and saw gray – a massive elephant head looking down at him, turning side to side to view him from one eye, then the other. A gentle trunk snuffled his chest, armpits, face, and hair. Not quite believing, he reached to touch behind Belle’s ear, that special place, soft as silk, where he used to pat her. Her rumble of welcome filled his soul. “
Bye, Roger. I’ll miss you forever.
I had a lot of ideas about what my next post would be, but then life intervened, as it does, and so here we are.
My nephew, Luke Perkins, died on the evening of November 30. He was 13 days short of his 31st birthday, and died from complications related to Cystic Fibrosis.
I could easily use this space to bitch about the disease that stole Luke from us, but I don’t want to dwell on that. What I want is to celebrate his life.
Lucas never let CF beat him. Even in death, his spirit has not succumbed, I can promise you that. In the wake of such a diagnosis, many families would have rolled over in pain. Not Luke’s. His parents and older brother Tony (who also has CF) faced into that particular shit-storm determined to make the best of it. Not once was Luke (or Tony for that matter) ever cautioned not to try something, not to do something, to take it easy. It wouldn’t have done any good because that wasn’t Luke’s way.
He was a warrior-born and embraced life by grasping it hard in both hands. When most little kids are just venturing nervously onto bicycle training wheels, Luke grabbed his brother’s two-wheeler, hauled himself aboard (he couldn’t reach the seat) and rode off down the driveway. That’s the perfect example of how Luke approached life, eating it up in big bites.
He was stubborn….opinionated….determined. He was also loving….devoted….loyal. We saw each other rarely, but each time he’d give me that little smile and a quiet “Hi, Aunt Missy” and a hug. I cherish those memories, and so many others.
The best Luke stories will undoubtedly come from Tony, as well as his other friends – the folks with whom he hunted and fished, rode motorcycles, and fought fires (yes, he was a member of a volunteer squad before CF put and end to that). He loved animals and the outdoors and video games. He loved his family, the mish-mash of great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. He loved his brother as his best friend, so close that in some ways they remind me of twins.
He was a stellar act. The world was fortunate to have him, and it’s our great loss that he’s gone. I will love and miss him every day.