Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Why Do We Need Raptor Centers?

On October 29th–from 1 -2 PM at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York–I’ll be upstaged by an owl.

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I love to do events for young readers around my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in partnership with the area’s local raptor rehabilitation center. Staff bring live birds on the glove and introduce audiences to each, telling a little about the natural and personal history of the raptors in their care.

I talk about what inspired me to write the book (volunteering at my own rehabilitation center with injured birds of prey while courting another volunteer who would eventually become my husband). I also talk about why we need raptor centers in the first place.

Raptors occupy the lofty top of the food chain. They’re an indicator species, which means we can study changes in the environment, including our climate, by looking at them. For example, thin-shelled eggs and babies not hatching? When scientists noticed this, they traced the issue back to pesticide use, and environmental activists worked to ban certain crop poisons which rodents would ingest and pass on to birds.

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This Western screech owl lost her eye in a battle with a cat.

Do you like rats and mice? Me, too. But I don’t want to wade through a sea of them on my way to the mailbox. Raptors keep our rodent population down to healthy levels. A single barn owl can eat 1,300 rats a year. Burrowing owls chow down mass quantities of insects and beetles; again, I’m fond of these, too, but a few of them go a long, long way.

The issue that threatens raptors (owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, vultures, and kites) is . . . well, to put it bluntly, us. We like to drive fast, and we end up colliding with birds that swoop across the highway in search of mice. We put up barbed wire fences, and owls get horrifically tangled in them. We put out rat poison, and rats ingest it, but then raptors eat them and become ill. We cut down trees with nests in them, and parents fly off, leaving owls orphaned.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Fortunately, raptor centers exist across the world to help preserve threatened birds of prey. Staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to providing them with medication, food, water, and clean and enriching home environments. Want to support your local raptor center? Here’s a list of rehabilitation centers by state. Many invite visitors to walk around and meet the birds. In some, you can even hold a birthday party or, in my case, a wedding.

 

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Me, releasing a rehabilitated hawk on my wedding day. No white dress here!

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation with staff and birds from Wild Wings, Inc. in upstate New York. They’re wonderful people devoted to caring for raptors and teaching us about the value and beauty of these birds of prey. Yes, their resident owl is sure to upstage me.

It’s totally worth it.

For more information on the Rochester, NY event, click here.  I’ll also appear at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Oregon on November 11th, 11 AM.

–Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

drake equation

On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

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Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks


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Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide!

Jakebook

Jake says “two paws up”

I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional book trailer. Typically, a book trailer’s a short video preview of one’s new novel or work of nonfiction or poetry. I’d made one for each of my previous books which, while quirky, followed a narrative about the stories I’d published. But my new book, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2106) is my debut middle-grade novel about a 13-year old boy who’s essentially saved by Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, so I wanted to create a video in celebration of nature–a quick documentary that would entertain viewers and teach them something.

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Enter the banana slug.

I love witty nature documentaries like this one on nutria by Ted Gesing, and funny book trailers like this one by David Gessner. I decided to create an alter ego to highlight one of the weirdest creatures in Oregon’s natural world–Ariolimax columbianus. (Bonus info: As a college freshman, I enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz because their mascot is the banana slug.)

My husband and daughter and I teamed up to create a three-minute documentary/promotional video for Avenging the Owl. I wrote the script and created a storyboard. Jonathan (who’s a professional photographer) filmed, and our kiddo provided sound effects and some physical comedy along with me.

Click here to watch the video, Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide

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Me and Ariolimax columbianus, BFFs

We spent several winter mornings hiking through Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, searching for banana slugs. Finally, we found one in the long grass under Douglas firs. The slug became our movie star for 24 hours, and then we returned it to the spot in which we’d discovered it, right next to the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.

For super-cool information on banana slugs, I relied on a brilliant nature guidebook written by Patricia K. Lichen. All of her titles sit on our living room bookshelf.

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Next up, we’ll be working on a three-minute documentary about owl pellets. Stay tuned, Northwest Nature Nerds, and stay outside!

–Melissa


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Oregon Spring Beach Cleanup Day

In what single place can you find a Russian vodka bottle, a Japanese fishing crate, and a Coke can from the United States?

On the Oregon coast!

This morning, we woke up early and headed to Florence, Oregon to join 4,800 volunteers taking part in Spring Beach Cleanup Day, sponsored by the non-profit organization, SOLVE Oregon. With gloves and buckets and our adventure terrier on a leash, we trekked over a sand dune to a long stretch of chilly beach dotted with other ocean-lovers and their gloves and buckets. Our goal: To remove as much litter as possible from the sand while other groups up and down the coast did exactly the same thing.

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The Adventure Terrier. (Photo by Jonathan B. Smith)

SOLVE’s literature let us know that along with large pieces of debris, we’d need to be on the lookout for tiny bits of plastic that fish and other sea creatures ingest. We crouched in the damp sand and began to pick up fragments of pink and yellow, blue and green among the brown and white shells and rocks. The plastic shards made a beautiful mosaic at the bottom of our bucket (better there than in some poor fish’s stomach).

Almost immediately, we spotted a woman dragging a heavy tangle of netting and crates across the sand. We ran to help; the woman turned out to be Julie Daniel—a passionate sustainability leader and writer who has long been one of our local heroes. She taught us to identify the pelagic barnacles clinging to the side of a big blue bucket, and later, made several more trips from one end of the beach to the other, loaded down with crates and more bucket fragments and rope and netting.

Along with trash, we saw some pretty wonderful creatures on the beach. The terrier chased little white sand hoppers across giant strands of bull kelp. We marveled at tiny blue and white velella velella (see my short essay about them here) dotting the sand and gazed at an immature bald eagle that periodically sailed over our heads, flaunting its six-foot wingspan. We were glad to spare the raptor the agony of ingesting a plastic luncheon.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

For three hours, we dropped rubbish into our bucket, surrounded by families and retired couples and high school students working to fulfill their volunteer hours. We learned that we loved getting outside in the gentle rain to help clean up the beach together. We learned that people discard an unbelievable number of plastic bottle caps. And we realized just how far litter can travel. We can only assume–after checking out the Russian and Japanese trash that washed up on our beach–that our debris washes up on theirs, as well.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

We gathered together around dumpsters in the early afternoon, checking out each other’s hauls before moving on to picnic lunches and ice cream at B.J.s in Florence. At the end of the day, SOLVE sent us an e-mail report noting that volunteers had removed 90,000 pounds of litter from 363 miles of Oregon coastline. Sure, our bucket weighed only about 10 pounds, but we’re thrilled to be a part of the Spring Beach Cleanup.

Want to get involved ? SOLVE sponsors numerous Earth Day projects across the state. And don’t miss the Washed Ashore Gallery in Bandon, dedicated to making art from those interminable bottle caps and other plastic pieces. Visit the gallery and help create massive sculptures of fish and seals and sharks that go on display across the country.

See you on the beach!

 


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A Rockin’ Good Time at Petersen Rock Garden

Say the words “Petersen Rock Garden” to native Oregonians, and a wistful expression may glaze over their eyes. “Oh,” they’ll sigh, “I remember that place from my childhood.”

Of course they do. This is the quintessential bizarre family roadside attraction, with something for everyone—rock castles and historical replicas, peacocks, an abandoned 50s diner, and a fascinating backstory.

Good Capitol

In the early 1900s, Rasmus Petersen—an immigrant from Denmark—made his home between Bend and Redmond, Oregon. He fell in love with the area’s rocks and began collecting obsidian and sunstone and jasper and thundereggs in an 85-mile radius. Until his death in 1952, he used the rocks as building material to construct a sort of fantasy landscape that struck me, on my midsummer visit, as way more interesting than anything Disneyland has to offer. (Don’t tell my eight-year old.)

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Pull up in a dirt parking lot, and the first things you’ll likely notice are peacocks strutting their stuff around wide lawns and a stone replica of a U.S. Capitol building (step quietly up the stairs and look inside to spot the resident cat). Other monuments include Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, standing stately between a rock castle, rock, bridges and a lily pond.

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Can you see the cat?

At the base of the depiction of the Statue of Liberty sits an unnerving plaque. “Enjoy yourself,” it reads. “It is later than you think.” We pondered that message in arid heat as we made our way over to the abandoned diner. Still decked out with classic 50’s Formica and salmon-colored wallpaper and a soda fountain and a menu on which sodas and sandwiches cost mere pennies, it struck me as the weirdest curiosity of the entire place.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

I stood for a long time peering in through a broken window as unseen dogs parked somewhere behind the building, trying to picture the people who’d once eaten and worked there. Did Petersen himself (here, you can buy an image of him on EBay) in his hat and striped tie periodically stop there for a root beer float in the midst of his work on a fanciful new sculpture? I could have asked his granddaughter-she showed up as we wandered around, but the place was hopping, and numerous people crowded around her to talk.

As the July sun walloped us with heat, I couldn’t help wishing we could step inside the diner to an icy blast of air conditioning and a cold Coca Cola. The attraction’s Wikipedia entry mentions the possibility of the owners opening up a café. Given that families like mine spend hours exploring the place, that sounds like a winning idea to me.

Castle

But my daughter seemed undaunted by the weather, and impervious to a tiny white freezer labeled “Ice Cream” in the shade of one building. She wandered, wide-eyed, through the peacocks and looked for tail feathers, finally purchasing one in the gift shop for two dollars. She walked around and around the castle—rock instead of ice, but still, it looked like something that Elsa from Frozen would inhabit. I could tell then that decades from now, she’ll feel a wistful sort of joy whenever she hears the words “Petersen Rock Garden.”

Petersen Rock Garden is located at 7930 SW 77th St., Redmond, OR. 541-382-5574. It’s open daily, 9-5. Cost is $5 donation, on the honor system. Find more information on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/petersensrockgarden .


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Oregon Country Fair–A Child’s Paradise

Veneta, Oregon—Here’s a list of the things I would have purchased at the Oregon Country Fair last Friday if I hadn’t blown my twenty bucks on tamales and Nutella-berry crepes:

  1. Dangly silver earrings with sparkly blue stones20150710_123510
  2. A giant eggroll
  3. A temporary henna tattoo
  4. A worm composting bin
  5. Tie-dyed boxer shorts
  6. A unicorn horn

If you live in Oregon, you know about Country Fair; it sprawls across 280 acres of forest and river every second weekend in July. If you’re new to the state, or you’ve shied away from attending because of the counterculture vibe and the presence of a handful of bare-breasted people, get over it and go. The counterculture is delighted to teach you how to juggle and belly-dance, and the bare breasts are canvases for beautiful paintings of sunflowers and goddesses.

Confession: My husband hates the fair. Early on in our courtship, he did the chivalrous thing and escorted me on our bicycles to watch the spectacle. Undone by crowds and heat and dust, he boosted me up to a stilt-walker’s bench (lately discouraged by Fair staff) and we spent hours watching parades of marching musicians, dragons, giant puppets. He tried to love it. He didn’t. Now, I attend with The Spud on the free shuttle from Valley River Center on Friday, 9:30 sharp so we can board one of the first buses out of the parking lot.

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The Spud meets her nemesis.

The Fair’s a child’s paradise, with opportunities for hands-on fun everywhere. Much as I’d love to organize my day with the schedule in the Peach Pit (OCF’s official event and entertainment guide) and move from vaudeville show to band gig to spoken word performance, with a child under 10, that’s not going to happen. Instead, we get off the bus, I point her in the direction of the ticket taker, and she’s off. Here’s what she got ahold of last Friday:

  1. A compost bin full of worms and lettuce
  2. A booth at which she learned to fold a cootie-catcher
  3. A hand drum on stage with a musician singing about the importance of recycling
  4. A table full of recycled inner tubes and leather, needles and thread and awls and stamps and rhinestones (she made a purse)
  5. A playground with a jungle gym on which frolicked some of her school chums, most of whom wore clothes
  6. A fairyland hideout built of moss and lichen and stones and other wonders

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Who needs Barbie? Kids play here for hours!

Go for the day, and give yourself over to the weirdness, or become part of it. We’ve painted our faces and danced in the drum circle and tried the giant hula hoop and chowed down on strawberry shortcake and ice cream and given quarters to the dozens of single and group musicians who play on the sidelines. We’ve taken refuge in the shady library when it all got to be too much, and we’ve stayed until the end of the day, until we’ve fallen asleep dusty and sated, standing up on the half-hour shuttle ride back to Eugene. There’s magic around every corner at the Country Fair–see you in 2016!

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Pay a quarter, get a Cat Fortune. Meow!


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Oregon’s North Coast: More Than Just Forts and Shipwrecks

“Mommy, was Pomp home-schooled?”

My eight-year old daughter (aka “The Spud”) and I stood in front of a statue of Sacagawea, famed Shoshone interpreter in Lewis’ and Clark’s Corps of Discovery of the early 1800s. The Native American woman gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste (nicknamed Pompey, or Pomp), two months before the Corps began their journey from Missouri to Oregon. She simply strapped the baby on her back and took off on the expedition which would take two-plus years.

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

One of the original multitasking moms, she saw to Pomp’s needs, saved valuable expedition documents from floating downstream, made peace between Corps members and Native Americans on the journey, and taught her growing son and 31 men about the flora and fauna around them.

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Jonathan and I have lately decided to home-school The Spud for a while. What better place to start than the Northern Oregon coast, rich with history? We popped in a CD by The Meriwethers, a charming Ashland-based band inspired by the Corps, and drove to Lewis and Clark National Historic Park to wander through an excellent little museum and a replica of Fort Clatsop.

“It that all?” The Spud asked after peering into a handful of rooms holding crudely-constructed beds and tables.

“That’s the point,” I told her. The Corps hunkered down in a similar fort among the Sitka spruce for three months, from December 1805 to March 1806, squashed together making maps and sewing moccasins for the return journey east while rain poured down.

This bright June day inspired us to hike the Netul Landing Trail beside the fort. With our intrepid terrier, we set out along a path picking salmon berries and pointing out bald eagles and great-blue herons. A family of adventurers could easily spend a day at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, watching films in the museum, studying the exhibits, participating in the Junior Ranger program, hiking, meditating on a forest stump surrounded by the ethereal warble of the Swainson’s thrush.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

Later, fortified by burgers and fish and chips and a puppy patty (a $1 dog burger) at Astoria’s kid- and terrier-friendly Wet Dog Cafe, we drove to Seaside to see The Salt Works. This tiny historical replica depicts the system by which members of the Corps boiled seawater to make much-needed salt for meat preservation and . . . well, you know, to improve the taste of half-spoiled elk.

While Seaside has plenty of attractions–boutiques and boardwalks and a glittering carousel–we opted to visit Fort Stevens State Park instead. We parked at Coffenbury Lake and checked out the anglers and swimmers, then walked the 1.5 mile path to the ocean. There, we found the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a sailing vessel that ran ashore in 1906. Families walked around and around the rusty hull, then dispersed to build sand castles and play Frisbee and brave the chilly waves. We lingered on the sunny beach, wishing we’d brought our bicycles to ride the seven miles of paved paths in the park.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

A walk through Astoria proved just as much fun, however. Jonathan and The Spud visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum with its displays about shipwrecks and fishing boats and the Coast Guard while the terrier and I rambled down near the piers where just a few weeks before, 1,200 sea lions congregated, prohibiting boat launch until a man scared almost 1,000 of them off with his faux killer whale. (See the hilarious story here.)

The north coast of Oregon makes for a splendid classroom. You can visit museums, observe sea lions at rest and at play, wander beaches and forests, take a ride on a tall ship, and cross the gorgeous Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington to gaze down at Clark’s Dismal Nitch where the Corps of Discovery once huddled against the rocks, stranded during a ferocious winter storm. Fortunately for us, the sun shone brightly this day, and we returned across the bridge to the Wet Dog Cafe for another couple of ciders, another Shirley Temple, and a puppy patty.

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Want to take a writing class with me? Check these out–enrollment ends soon!

June 29th-August 7, 2015–“Feature Writing for Magazines and Newspapers,” Whidbey Writers Workshop Post-MFA Course, 6-week class online, all writers welcome.

July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. All writers welcome.