After the book launch at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR on March 4, I’ll be following it up with a visit to Sunriver Books and Music in Sunriver, OR on March 7. Come and say hi!
After the book launch at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR on March 4, I’ll be following it up with a visit to Sunriver Books and Music in Sunriver, OR on March 7. Come and say hi!
I’d never heard of the Deer Mother until today, but this resonates on a deep level. Enjoy. https://vimeo.com/243566568?fbclid=IwAR3oJZJplcNkx01lD2cJ99OEuTsPPP-tWdJRRwpzEZJtFHanIkX7keulOJA
This short video is so good, so (sadly) necessary, so important. Don’t judge kids, just love ’em.
I’m proud and honored to have been chosen to present my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd at the “7 Coming-Up Author Showcase” at the recent PNBA Tradeshow held October 6-8 at the Red Lion on the River in Portland, OR.
The event–which rounded out the show, attracting booksellers, librarians, and publisher and sales rep exhibitors–featured seven authors from around the world, representing various genres, speaking for seven minutes on their books, which will appear from now through the Spring of 2020, after which book signings and giveaways took place. Joining me on stage were authors Gretchen Berg (The Operator), DJ Lee (Remote: A Love Story), Jody J. Little (Worse Than Weird), Daniel Mathews (Trees in Trouble), Abigail Hing Wen (Loveboat, Taipei), and Erin Yun (Pippa Park Raises Her Game).
(FYI, ELEPHANT SPEAK is due to be born on March 3, 2020, and will be available from Ooligan Press, as well as through your favorite independent bookseller and other online sites. Please support independent publishing and booksellers.)
(On left, with supportive Project Manager Julie Collins. On right, with Publisher Abbey Gaterud, who talked me off the ledge at least once)
Seven minutes isn’t a very long amount of time in which to convey something special about your book, something readers won’t learn by reading it. (On the other hand, seven minutes can seem like forever, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced.) I chose to focus on the evening I first met Roger Henneous. What follows is my talk, as given:
From 1968 to 1998, Roger Henneous cared for the largest captive herd of breeding elephants in North America and he did it right here, in Portland, at what was then called the Washington Park Zoo.
I met Roger in March 1997. He was the Senior Keeper of Elephants and I was a fledgling zoo volunteer drafted to assist in an around-the-clock medical watch on Belle, the herd matriarch. Surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had recently excised infected bone and necrotic tissue from her left front foot, the result of pododermatitis, an affliction better known by the evocative name “foot rot,” a chronic disease to which captive elephants are prone. The operation had been risky given Belle’s age, size, anatomy, and other health concerns, but she’d tolerated the procedure surprisingly well and there was every hope for a full recovery.
When I arrived in the elephant barn that night, I found Roger standing with Belle behind the glass of the front exhibit room. Not a big man, he seemed even smaller beside the towering elephant, his bearded face shadowed by the brim of a battered campaign hat. Belle stood in an attitude of deep concentration, her foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape, gently rocking from side to side as she listened to him.
Let me tell you a little about Belle. She was only a few months old when she came to the United States in 1952. She was so tiny that her owner, an animal trainer named Morgan Berry, drove her around in the back of an old Cadillac, the rear seat removed so she could stand with her trunk hanging out the window, waving at people.
Ten years later, in April 1962, Belle made history when she delivered her son Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, the event triggered a media circus. Belle and Packy became instant celebrities and, for the first time, the zoo’s annual attendance soared past the one million mark. Overnight, Portland was transformed from “The City of Roses” to the “The City of Elephants.”
But that was all in the past. What mattered most the night I met Roger, was getting Belle back to her old self.
When he eventually appeared on my side of the exhibit room glass, Roger brusquely introduced himself and offered me one of two metal folding chairs. I settled onto it and he took the other, elbows on knees, hands clasped, his eyes on Belle. He fretted over every elephant in his care, but she was indisputably his favorite, and had been ever since she’d held at bay another elephant determined to kill him.
Time passed. Belle’s constant rocking unnerved me. There were moments when she leaned so far to the right that it seemed she might fall. It was too easy to imagine her great body losing its balance and crashing sideways. Once, in panic, I blurted, “She’s going over!” because it seemed impossible that she could recover from so steep a cant.
“No, she isn’t.” Roger’s voice was gentle despite the grate of smoker’s gravel. My cheeks went hot, embarrassed by my outburst … by my fear that something bad would happen on my watch, or that I’d say or do something ridiculous and make a fool of myself—which, of course, I’d just done. Roger didn’t hold it against me. My obvious concern for Belle’s welfare granted me all manner of forgiveness.
Mid-way through my four-hour shift, Roger excused himself and returned to the exhibit room, lugging a large plastic garbage can with bright green fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. Belle took what he offered and dropped it on the floor, clearly disinterested. Roger dug deeper into the can, produced an apple, and held it to her mouth. She lipped the fruit, but didn’t eat. He offered a banana, and this she accepted, grinding it into pulp between her immense molars. She refused anything further, so Roger put the can aside, brought out a hose, and allowed her to drink her fill.
Later, he returned to sit by me again. “She’s got no appetite,” he said grimly.
“She ate a little, though,” I pointed out, “because you asked her to.”
He shrugged, reluctant to take credit for anything. Cocking back the brim of his hat, Roger folded his arms across his chest. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. For the first time that evening, a tiny smile curved the edge of his lips in an expression made up in equal parts of tenderness and exasperation. “We’ve known each other a long time and we respect each other, but neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.”
Some great love affairs never die. So it is with Roger and the elephants. More than twenty years since that night, he remains as enamored as he ever was and, I hope, quietly pleased by the mark he’s left on the field of elephant care. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with such immense and intelligent animals might involve confinement, abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger labored to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect. He cared little for the accolades gathered along the way, including the Marlin Perkins Certificate of Excellence. The only thing that mattered was the elephants.
“Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem,” he told me. “Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect. More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality.”
When Roger first arrived at the zoo in 1968, he was just looking for a job working with animals. He’d no particular interest in elephants, and no idea they would soon take over his life, affecting every part of it, ultimately influencing his notions of dedication, determination, empathy, compassion, and family. During his 30 years at the zoo, he inspired both loyalty and consternation among his coworkers, and never stopped moving from the moment his boots hit the ground in the morning until he took them off at night. Along the way, he dispensed common sense, sentimentality, and sarcastic wit. Once asked by supervisors to describe his job, he replied, “Days, weeks, and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.” Those who met him, however briefly, walked away with the experience indelibly stamped on their lives.
“I never met a keeper that cared more for his animals than Roger,” said a former coworker. “He was crusty and cantankerous on the outside, but a big soft jelly doughnut on the inside when it came to the elephants. He didn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize, but he loved them for what they were.”
Initially, Roger was reluctant to share his story, uncertain whether he wanted to relive those years, some of which had been indescribably painful. In the end, he chose to proceed not for his own benefit, but for the sake of the animals he loved.
“I don’t much care if anyone remembers me once I’m gone,” he said. “But I’d like it if they remembered the elephants.”
Thank you to my “author wrangling” team at Ooligan; to everyone at PNBA; to all the independent booksellers and publishers, librarians and sales reps who work long hours to promote books that might not otherwise come readily to a reader’s hand; and to my fellow writers wherever you are.
We earned this celebration! Denise Morales Soto (Design), Julie Collins (Project Manager), c’est moi, Faith Munoz (Social Media), and Melinda Crouchley (Managing Editor)
When I began the first tentative work on my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd (Ooligan Press, March 2020), I never anticipated the opportunities it would present over the course of almost five years.
Yup, you read that right; five years from my initial query letter to Roger Henneous asking if he would allow me to tell his story–through months of my then-agent offering the book to big name publishers around the globe–through the disappointment of rejection despite praise and encouragement from many editors–to my agent saying she’d done all she could and was parting ways with me–to my determination to not give up–to at last finding a home at Ooligan Press. Writing is not for the faint of heart, and anyone who thinks the work is easy, or publication guaranteed, is fooling themselves.
Despite the ups and downs, the nights when I tearfully wondered if I had it in me to write the book, let alone see it through to being an actual reality in my hands, I’ve had a wonderful time and gained so many precious experiences and memories. Chief among those is the friendship I’ve developed with Roger Henneous. He and his wife RoseMerrie and their extended family welcomed me into their home and their lives, generously throwing open not only numerous boxes of memorabilia of Roger’s years as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo), but also their hearts. Every author should feel so encouraged.
ELEPHANT SPEAK involved a great deal of research apart from my interviews with Roger. I hunted down his former colleagues where I could, and they kindly answered my questions. Present-day elephant people–those working in zoos and sanctuaries, those involved in research, and many others whose lives revolve around elephants–as well as people in such diverse areas as city governments, state police, and the Coast Guard, offered information and guidance, and I’ve attempted to acknowledge them all in the back of the book.
And then there’s Bob Lee and his crew of elephant keepers at the Oregon Zoo.
Bob made it possible for Roger to return not just to the zoo, but to the new elephant facility; to get a glimpse behind the scenes and reacquaint himself with his old friends, Sung Surin (aka Shine) and Rose-Tu. (You can read about it here.) During that visit, I half-jokingly inquired whether I might someday job-shadow a keeper. “Sure,” Bob said without missing a beat. “I think we can do that.”
It was something I couldn’t dare arrange until the book was done, the final edit complete, the manuscript in the capable hands of the folks at Ooligan. Only then did I feel my time was again my own and I could give myself a small vacation. I’d promised Bob I meant to work for my opportunity–I can shovel manure with the best of them and my vegetable-cutting skills are excellent–but if this is work (and I know it is), it’s no wonder the keepers each told me, independent of one another, how much they look forward to coming to work every day.
So, thank you Bob Lee and Pam Starkey, Tarah Bedrossian and Joe Sebastiani and Matt Miles. Thank you, Shine and Rose-Tu. Thank you, Samson and Rosko (aka Samudra) who, in my busyness, I didn’t get pictures of, and Chendra who accepted my offering of a cantaloupe with such delight. Words can’t do my visit justice, so here are the pictures:
In “Genuflection,” poet Billy Collins talks about the Irish habit of tipping one’s cap to the first magpie of the day and wishing it a good morning. We don’t have magpies where I live, but the poem made me wonder how it is that I developed the habit of greeting birds. I can’t remember when it happened, only that I’ve always done it.
I’m not particularly attuned to birds, although I like them. Truth is, they intimidate the shit out of me. I fear I’ll inadvertently do them harm. (There’s some basis to that belief, but that’s another story.)
There’s a surprising lack of birdish cacophony where I live on the edge of the woods. This is due, in part, to the presence of bird-eating raptors, but mostly, I believe, because our neighbors allow their cats to roam outside. Three of them routinely prowl through our yard, enraging our own cat, Ruby, when they dare to invade our back deck (excuse me, her back deck). Still, a fair number of birds make their presence known with song and shriek, staring danger in the face, daring those who would eat them to take note and do something about it, go ahead, I dare ya.
Two or three years before my mother’s death, when she lived with us, we installed a winter bird feeder for her enjoyment. We took it down after she died, not because we didn’t enjoy feeding the birds, but because the fallen seed drew mice and squirrels. I didn’t mind the red squirrel and his mate because they were quiet and polite. The gray squirrels, on the other hand, were marauding bastard assholes. God forbid the feeder be empty (or put away in the spring). These overblown little shits would glare at me through the slider and pound their squirrel hands against the glass. One even went so far as to try to intimidate me by scaling the side of the casement and hanging at eye-level. (I let the dog out after that one. There was no way Holly could catch him, but the mad dash for the trees made him reevaluate his trespass.)
But we were talking about birds.
The feeder gathered a pair of cardinals (I’d never realized the muted glory that is the female of the species until she landed right in front of me, separated by the glass of the slider), black-capped chickadees, northern flickers, raucous blue jays, a single Carolina wren (who, sated, would perch on the edge of the feeder, in the winter’s sun, and close its eyes in warm bliss), dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers (who often as not drilled the side of the house rather than the hanging blocks of suet), house finches, mourning doves, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse (titmice? titmeese?), nuthatches, and wood thrush.
Crows gather first thing in the morning to caw and gossip, and I always speak to them. When we first moved here, a red-tailed hawk would drop onto the same branch every time she saw me outside reading, and we’d talk, exchanging news, first her calling softly, then me replying. The morning sun is heralded from the top of a cottonwood by the mister of the cardinal clan (a service for which he’s thanked), and the autumn sky is slashed by the dark chevron of Canada geese, their bicycle-horn cry filling the air long before they’re seen and long after they depart. At night, it’s the owls–most often the great-horned–who greet me before bed. If I’m patient and sit still, I can call back to him and he’ll fly in close.
It’s much the same on the marsh trail where I walk the dog. The ducks we encounter (mallards, wood ducks, buffleheads, mergansers, and many others I can’t name) are shy, elusive, and would rather not converse. Geese warn us to “Keep that wolf away!” Hawks of all sorts. The baby owl who perched on an eye-level branch not two feet away and kept up a living dialogue for several minutes. (“Is this the world?! Isn’t it amazing?!”) The occasional glimpse of bald eagles (always silent, little more than a silhouette in the morning mist), an egret, and once, an astonishing pair of ibis with their curved beaks. The catbird who let me approach within inches. The orioles and their sweet music. Goldfinches bright as hoarded pirate doubloons, a rare waxwing.
I greet them all, speak to them en masse or individually, but the ones I never fail to herald are the heron; motionless, all but disguised among the upright trunks of drowned and broken trees, head dipped just so seeking the tell-tale flicker of fish or frog. Clad in blue-gray, they strike me as almost ecclesiastical, the priests and priestesses of the marshland. To them I accord a moment’s pause on my walk, a deep bow, and a murmured, “Good morning, Your Grace.” God knows what I look like from a distance to other walkers, bending from the waist like one of those “drinking bird” toys that bobs down to a glass of water back. Maybe I’m becoming the crazy lady of the swamp.
Works for me.
(Caveat: A different version of this essay appeared elsewhere, long ago and far away.)
It’s almost impossible for me to pass up an interesting consignment store, second-hand shop, or flea market. I love trolling for treasure because I never know what I’ll find. Sometimes nothing, it’s true, but more often than not I’ve walked away with something I truly cherish. Nothing expensive, mind you; that’s not what I’m looking for. My eyes are set on those things that speak to my heart.
Bit ago, I was puttering through an area Goodwill when I came across a CD of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. I bought it on a whim, mostly because of Bernstein’s name. (An aside here. When I was living in NYC many decades ago, the woman I shared an apartment with was given tickets to the NY Philharmonic by her boss. Not having a ready date, she invited me to go along. We dressed in our finest–not all that fine on our budget–and went, not knowing what we might hear or who would be conducting. And Lo, out walked Leonard Bernstein, five-thousand pounds of TNT in a 5’5″ frame. Watching him stride onto that stage was like watching the arrival of God, and I’ve never recovered.)
Anyway, I put the CD into the car play as I drove home. My God.
All this time later, I still can’t listen to it without spouting tears, never mind finding sufficient words to describe the beauty of this recording. When my husband first heard it, he remarked that it was impossible for him to not think of Hugo Weaving in the movie “V for Vendetta,” and the image of the Old Bailey exploding. (Similarly, those born during a certain time period can’t hear the William Tell Overture without wanting to yell “Hi-Yo, Silver, away!”)
It’s not such a bad thing to connect a piece of classical music to a cinematic image. Oh, there’re those who’d say it is; those who feel that the purity of classical music should be experienced without the crass trappings of Hollywood. For some, though, a movie soundtrack may be their first experience of classical music, and where’s the harm in that?
Case in point: my love of classical music stems not from my mother’s ballet music phonograph records (yes, children, music was pressed into vinyl discs once upon a time), but from Saturday morning Warner Bros. cartoons. Bugs Bunny taught me to appreciate Rossini (“Rabbit of Seville”), Strauss and Tchaikovsky (“A Corny Concerto”), and Wagner (“Long-Haired Hare” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”). Thanks to Bugs, Elmer, and the rest, I learned about passion and humor, turmoil and hilarity. I suspect watching those cartoons every Saturday also fed into my love of words and desire to write. Thanks, guys! (And if you’ve never seen them, run to YouTube and search them out. You won’t be sorry.)
Back in 2007, violinist Joshua Bell stood incognito in a cold Washington D.C. Metro Station and played six Bach pieces, some of the most intricate music ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million. The performance lasted approximately 45 minutes. Something approaching 2,000 people went through the station in that time. After three minutes, a man stopped for a few seconds, then hurried on. Four minutes later, a woman threw a dollar into Bell’s hat and kept walking. Six minutes later, a young man stopped briefly to listen before moving away. Ten minutes later, a three-year-old stopped to listen, but his mother pushed him along. This identical action was repeated by several other children, although every adult, without exception, forced them to move on quickly. In total, six people stopped to listen for a short while, and 20 gave money as they passed. Bell collected a total of $32. When he finished, silence took over. No one noticed when he left. No one applauded his performance.
This wasn’t a silly whim on Bell’s part, but a sociology experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities . The questions being raised were these: Do we perceive beauty when it’s presented to us in a common place environment, at an inappropriate hour? Do we recognize talent when it appears in an unexpected context?
If not, how much of the world are we missing?
Whether it’s music or poetry, the ocean or stars, a baby’s cry or the last breath of a loved one, when the opportunity comes your way to share in the mystery, the beauty, hang the clock. Feed your soul.
I usually drink my first cup of morning tea working at my desk. I’m most productive first thing and have always been an early riser, a bane to mother, who’d have stayed up late and slept in until ten every day had the choice been hers. I save checking email and Facebook until the day’s work is done, unwilling to sacrifice creative energy to those mundane chores.
This morning, however, I’m distracted by the appearance in our front yard of Barry White and his harem. Barry is our resident turkey cock, a massive and handsome fellow who puffs his chest feathers and spreads that Thanksgiving bird tail as he sweet-talks his ladies. Ooh, baby, ooh, baby. The hens alternately ignore him and egg him on flirtatiously. Yesterday, I inadvertently interrupted him and a lady-friend carnally engaged in the bushes. Oops! Sorry about that. They both gave me offended looks. Move along, pervert. Don’t you know these things take time?
It’s July, so of course people have begun to talk about winter, how it’ll be here before we know it. I give less conscious thought to it, but see indications every day when Holly and I walk the Airline Trail or meander around the yard. Day lilies are producing like mad, each bloom good for one cycle of the sun before they wither and drop. The bleeding hearts have gone to seed, the pods bursting to enrich the ground with what will become next year’s seedlings. (Anyone want plants? I’ve lots.) The hosta are in bloom, remarkably untouched by deer so far. Perhaps they’re put off by the astilbe, which they don’t care for. Grass seed is coming in on bare patches of soil, remnants of the work we had done to put a curtain drain in the back yard. My husband’s garden of potted plants–born of a whim to plant five-year-old packets of tomato, basil, and chard seed–have miraculously sprouted and are growing like the blue blazes with what little sun manages to get through the leaf cover on our south side. Days are hot and the evenings blessedly cool, without hint (yet) of autumn. These things, too, take time.
Holly is 10 1/2 years old. On the downhill side, as they say. So far, she’s managed to hold traction on that slope, but I wonder for how long. Last week, she became very ill with vomiting, diarrhea, fever, pain. We ended up taking her to the veterinary ER and they kept her for two days. We brought her home with meds and orders for a bland diet, which she’s still on as we work to erase all sign of illness. Diagnosis was gastroenteritis, ie, stomach ache. What’d she eat to upset her? Who knows. Could be wildlife excrement, dirt, or something from the garbage. (I blame the cat for that. Rudy taught Holly the joys of garbage surfing, so we’ve had to child-proof the cabinet door. As for eating poop, that one I lay at the feet of Holly’s former next-door neighbor boyfriend, Randy. She was the perfect dog before he got his paws on her.) It’s hard watching her get old, turn gray around the eyes and muzzle. When we left her at the vet’s last week, I honestly thought she was done. She looked ancient, worn out, used up. Not so, as it turns out. But I can see her wending her way toward the path that leads to the next great adventure. Please, I think. Take your time.
You’ve experienced the phenomenon – that fleet passage of time that makes no sense. One minute it’s July, and in the next you’re pulling on a sweater to go holiday shopping. Blink and it’s gone. Where did it go?
And so it’s been with me. I get caught up in the day-to-day, the things that need attending to, NOW and those other things that need attending to now fall by the wayside, gathering in little leaf-ridden heaps swept into corners.
I’ve been working all that time, beavering away on the book, and this week turned in the final edits on the manuscript. Gotta say that paging through it, seeing the copyright page for the first time, made me pause. Holy Cats, this is actually happening! I’m so proud of how far this book has come from its nebulous days back in February 2015. Kudos to the team at Ooligan Press, who have worked so diligently to hammer my words into the best shape they can be. Ongoing thanks to Roger Henneous and his family for showing unflagging support and enthusiasm for this project, no matter how many times I ask the same questions.
And, of course, life balances good with not-so-good. There’ve been worries – a bout of lingering illness for our dog Holly that only serves to underscore that she’s 10 1/2 and won’t live forever no matter how much we wish it. The chronic and debilitating illness of a nephew, as well as that of a good friend I’ve never met, but love nonetheless. They are both such warriors. My niece, mother of the nephew, who battles fear and heartache every day and somehow keeps going. Another friend, extremely near and dear, who had a minor stroke a few weeks ago, reminding me that he ain’t no Spring Chicken anymore.
And so it goes.