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Gene's photos 10-3-13 008Welcome to my writing blog. Please note that all material is  © Gene Twaronite and The Twaronite Zone. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gene Twaronite and The Twaronite Zone with specific direction to the original content.

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The Well-Equipped Naturalist

The Absurd NaturalistAbsurd-Naturalist-EDIT-300x221

I have commented elsewhere on the need for naturalists to be well dressed whenever setting out into the field. It is no less important, however, to be properly equipped with the essential paraphernalia that will identify you as a working naturalist. Otherwise, you may run the risk of being picked up as a vagrant or worse.

A lot depends on whether you plan to specialize in a certain area of natural history or prefer to be simply known as a GN—generalized naturalist. A herpetology (reptile and amphibian) buff, for example, should always have a couple of cloth bags hanging from the belt in which to transport captured snakes or lizards, a snake hook or tongs, along with an assortment of plastic containers to hold frogs and salamanders as well as potato salad. Entomology (bug) enthusiasts, on the other hand, should always carry a butterfly net. Even if you’re not into bugs, there’s just something about a butterfly net which makes others take notice and lends just the right je ne sais quoi quality to your outfit. Bug people should also carry plenty of small bottles and some sort of killing jar, at the bottom of which is placed an absorbent material soaked with a chemical to asphyxiate insects. I am told that used foot pads work very nicely.

All naturalists worth their salt carry binoculars. It’s a safe bet to say that anyone observed carrying binoculars in the field has to be one of two things—a naturalist or a peeping Tom. Come to think of it, all naturalists are peepers in a sense, forever peeping through an open window at Mother Nature’s enchantments. The most important thing to look for in binoculars is not image quality or durability, but how much they cost, the more the better. Nothing can so ruin a naturalist’s good reputation as a pair of binoculars that look like they came free out of a cereal box. Always make sure the brand label stands out clearly for all to see. Size is a matter of individual preference. Many naturalists consider 7×35 a good, all around size, though some go for the additional power and light-gathering ability of a jumbo 20×80. I have found, however, that such instruments tend to leave scars on the chest when carried too long.

Various field guides are always useful, especially in showing others that you are not some illiterate boob running around trying to look like a naturalist. It is particularly important that you open the book every now and again to make it appear as if you’re scanning the contents. It also helps if you mutter something in Latin. More affluent naturalists may go in for real field guides—those who, for $500 a day and all expenses, will lead their clients to all the natural hot spots and maybe even prepare a nice champagne brunch.

A few additional items are worth mentioning. A small notebook or journal is handy for recording field observations as well as the philosophical prose inspired by the sight of a rare Orinoco crocodile as it chews on your leg. Some naturalists, like Henry David Thoreau, have been known to get carried away with this to the point of spending their entire lives keeping journals. I end up mostly doodling in mine.

A camera is also nice to have, especially if you have just spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker or a sasquatch. Various telephoto lenses will help you take otherwise unobtainable close-ups of certain kinds of wildlife. For grizzlies, a 1000 millimeter lens is just about right.

A magnifying glass will help you examine natural objects more closely, or burn ants when you’re bored. It can also help start a forest fire in the event you become lost.

Those not overly fond of handling slime molds or scat might also wish to carry forceps. They are also handy in plucking leeches or nasty eyebrow hairs.

And the most important equipment of all, especially for those naturalists seeking out some of the more interesting and less primitive natural areas—Tahiti or the French Riviera, for instance—is a little piece of plastic to pay for it all. A naturalist does not live by birds and bugs alone.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses September 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-well-equipped-naturalist/

 

 

 

Favorite Humorous Stories – Mark Twain

No survey of humorous stories is complete without including those of Mark Twain. Having assigned myself the recent task of choosing three of my favorites, I have spent many happy hours immersed in the pages of his funny tales. My chief resource has been Mark Twain. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by The Library of America, (1992), from which all quotes are taken. My choices are completely personal, based not so much on a story’s literary merit but on its capacity to make me laugh. Some people will immediately take issue with me for not including Twain’s famous story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (first published November, 1865), which was later reprinted as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” True, it’s a great funny story, but for me it lacks the sheer absurdity and audaciousness that characterize Twain’s best stories. So here are my three favorites. You’ll just have to read his stories and make your own list.

When I read “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper (first published July, 1870), my first impression was how well it applied to our current fact-challenged times. Twain did write for a variety of small newspapers and magazines, so I suspect there is a seed of truth upon which the story is based. It begins as the narrator temporarily fills in for the editor of an agricultural newspaper, who goes on vacation. Upon his return, the editor reacts indignantly to what his temp has written in his absence: about turnips growing on trees, the “moulting season for cows,” that “the pumpkin, as a shade tree, is a failure,” and discussing oyster beds under the heading of landscape gardening. Twain comes right back at the editor in equally indignant terms, claiming that he his articles have greatly increased the newspaper’s circulation (as fascinated readers clamored to find out what the new guy would write next). Twain’s final rebuttal to the editor makes this story as fresh as the day it was written: “… I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger noise he makes and the higher salary he commands.” Remind you of any “news” commentator or talking head you know?

“The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (first published May, 1870) tells the story of a boy named Jacob who “always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were…” So right off the bat, with the title and opening line, we are given ample clues of the writer’s own attitudes toward childhood and the prevailing popular sentiments surrounding it. We learn in the story that Jacob read his Sunday-school books with great passion, and admired the little boys portrayed there. In fact, his greatest ambition was to be put in such a book himself. But no matter how hard he tried, nothing ever went right with him. He tried so hard to be good but, unlike the good little boys in the Sunday-school books, never got his reward. In his life, it was always the bad boys who came out on top. Finally, he encounters one such group of bad boys, as they tethered together a pack of dogs and were about to attach some empty cans of nitro-glycerine to their tails. Jacob happens to sit down on one of these cans and, well, you can see where this is going. I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens to poor Jacob. Let’s just say, it was not a pretty sight. Twain concludes, “His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for.”

Last but not least of my favorite Twain stories is “Cannibalism in the Cars (first published November, 1868). On a train to St. Louis, the narrator tells of meeting a stranger, a “mild, benevolent-looking gentleman,” who sits down beside him and relates a “strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.” (I love that introduction. Not only does it set the mood for the story, but it’s an apt description of the way the author himself wrote and spoke.) The stranger relates the events of an evening train ride from St. Louis to Chicago. Aboard were twenty-four passengers, all male. Later that evening, it begins to snow hard, and eventually the train comes to a complete halt, trapped in the middle of nowhere by a huge snow-drift. Days go by, and the men get hungrier and hungrier. They have plenty of wood aboard with which to keep warm, but not a lick of food. On the seventh day, one of the men makes a grim announcement: “Gentlemen,—It cannot be delayed any longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!” The methodical manner by which one of them is elected, with the passengers voting on the issue as if they were members of Congress, is hysterical. It also demonstrates my long held opinion that no topic, no matter how repugnant or unthinkable, is taboo for a humorist. Remember this story was written when the tragic fate of the Donner Party (1847) was still fresh in people’s minds. At last, the train survivors sit down to their gruesome feast, “with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days.” In delicious detail the stranger recounts the culinary qualities of the man they had just consumed as well as the others to follow (yes, they went on to elect and eat others). I will leave it to you, dear reader, to see how the writer could possibly end such a tale. Bon appétit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Police and the “Infernal Stranger”

The recent abuses of police power in Ferguson, Phoenix, and other cities are nothing new. Police officers, in spite of their extensive training, are all too human, reflecting the values of the communities they serve.

In his brilliant satire “What Have the Police Been Doing?” (1866), Mark Twain starts out praising the San Francisco police force of his time: “Ain’t they virtuous? Don’t they take good care of the city?” But then he goes on to say, “… isn’t it shown in the fact that although many offenders of importance go unpunished, they infallibly snaffle every Chinese chicken-thief that attempts to drive his trade.”

Twain gets to the heart of the matter in recounting the case of a man accused of stealing some flour sacks who, after being bashed in the skull, was locked up in a jail cell and allowed to die overnight unattended by a doctor. “Why shouldn’t the jailor do so? Why certainly—why shouldn’t he—the man was an infernal stranger. He had no vote. Besides, had not a gentleman just said he stole some flour sacks? Ah, and if he stole some flour sacks, did he not deliberately put himself outside the pale of humanity and Christian sympathy by that hellish act? I think so.”

Written almost 150 years ago, Twain’s words are still eerily relevant. When police react to a suspect as some infernal other, someone less than human, we lose something of ourselves.

All Twain quotes are from Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by Library of America in 1992.

 

 

 

Note to Amazon: Holding books hostage not a good business plan

I joined over 900 authors in signing Douglas Preston’s excellent letter protesting Amazon’s recent strong arm tactics with book publisher Hachette and its authors. It was published as a two-page ad in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. (For the first time in my literary career, my name appears on the same page as Stephen King, Avi, Paul Auster, Scott Turow, and Barbara Kingsolver!). I have been a long time supporter of Amazon and, like the other authors, do not take sides on the Hachette-Amazon dispute. But what Amazon is doing is wrong. As Preston notes in his letter, “None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”  You can read the entire letter here  http://www.authorsunited.net/

 

“On Getting Rid of Nature” by the Absurd Naturalist

Absurd Naturalist3As a naturalist, I’m supposed to study nature, though it’s hard to know where to start. It’s all so nebulous and confusing. So I propose that we get rid of nature completely. I am referring here, of course, to the word, not the thing itself. Despite the plethora of books published with smug titles such as The End of Nature and despite the efforts of dedicated despoilers around the globe, the complete termination of nature is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

We all know what nature is. Or do we? Does your definition of nature include slime molds? Bat ticks? Lizard scat? How about that disgusting sound Uncle Ralph makes after dinner? Or Uncle Ralph himself?

Does it include time and the curvature of space? Quantum energy, quasars, and quesadillas? Does it include Big Bang, Big Bird, and bigamy?

Suffice it to say, it is all these things and more—anything and everything in the entire known universe, not to mention all the unknown universes.

One nice thing about being a naturalist is that you never need to worry about running out of material. Indeed, nature is material, and all the energy wrapped up in it.

By now you have probably noted that I don’t capitalize the word nature. Those who do so are beyond hope.

When we try to put a spin on nature, things get even more befuddled. There are almost as many quotations for the n word as there are for life, truth, and God. Thus, we find writers down through the ages referring to nature as a kind parent, but a merciless stepmother; a diseased thing from the grave, but also the art of God; too noble for the world, but equaling the stupidity of man. And we are told that nature does nothing uselessly, never deceives us, never makes blunders, and that all of its models are beautiful.

Oh, please. Have you ever taken a good hard look at a platypus? Or an aardvark? Or even your own belly button? Can such a nature be trusted? And when I hear about quarks, muons, and hadrons, pulsars, hyperspace, and imaginary time, killer asteroids and mass extinctions and the vagaries of continental drift, I cannot help but think that here lies a nature out of control.

Though I might excuse an 18th century poet like William Wordsworth for writing something so fatuous as: “Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher,” naturalists should know better. Yet there are some today who, while poking about in ant hills or contemplating bear dung, still insist that by studying nature closely we might learn more about its inner workings and come to understand its overall scheme of things.

Poppycock! What can we possibly learn from a nature that spends over 135 million years developing dinosaurs in every shape and color and then, for no apparent reason, makes them all go extinct so that today children have nothing but plastic models to play with? Is this the sort of role model you want teaching your kids?

And what kind of order is it that gives us brains big enough to invent H-bombs, CD’s, and silly putty, but denies us what we really want—which is wings—and instead gives them to houseflies, flying fish, and even fruit bats?

In fact, the more scientists discover about this supposed nature teacher of ours, the stranger it becomes. We are told that nothing is as it seems, that everything is relative, and that someday the universe may get all squished together again, unless it keeps expanding forever, which is fine by me. Indeed, nature is not only strange, it’s more ridiculous than the human mind can ever comprehend.

We need a more realistic term, elegant but concise—a word that says exactly what we mean and won’t be put up on a pedestal. I propose the word “stuff.” Say it softly and let your lips linger on that final “fffff” sound. What better way to capture all the bounce and fluff of our weird wild universe? Now say it loudly and let it echo through your head with primordial force. STUFF! Now go back and say “nature.” See the difference?

Thus, nature study would become simply stuff study. Cereal companies would label their products 100% all stuffy. Mother Nature—whoever she is—would become Mother Stuff. And naturalists would become stuffalists.

On second thought, maybe we should stick with the old word for now.
                                                     ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses August 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/on-getting-rid-of-nature/

Writers: On Learning to Fail Gracefully

Ever heard of the Fitz-Greene Halleck? Didn’t think so. How about Herman Melville? Sure, everyone’s heard about him. Yet both were failures, in a sense. At one time, Halleck was one of the most famous poets of his century. Now he’s pretty much a nobody. And while Melville’s classic Moby Dick continues to be read and revered today, it was largely ignored by the reading public of his day, who much preferred his early inferior works. These and other examples are explored in this wonderful witty essay by Stephen Marche in the NY Times Sunday Review. It is a must read for all writers as well as would-be writers – “those who have failed to be writers in the first place.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/failure-is-our-muse.html?_r=0

“…a fantastic children’s story book. I LOVED IT!”

DDN-kindlecover3-1Here is the latest review of my book Dragon Daily News by Lynn Worton. Thanks, Lynn.

Review 5*****

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.

This is a fantastic children’s story book, I LOVED it!

When I was first contacted by the author to read this book, I was quite excited. I love stories that get the imagination juices flowing. I am just sorry that due to my rather large reading list, that it has taken me so long to get to read it.

Every single story in this book takes the reader (or listening child) on an amazing adventure. Although I was a little disappointed that the stories were not as long as I would have liked, they are the perfect length to capture, and keep, even the most fidgety youngster enthralled. The author has taken some very ordinary, everyday objects and has woven magical tales around them. There are some fantastic stories in this book, and it is difficult to pick a favourite one. However, I loved the following stories: How to Stuff a Rhino, Dragon Daily News and The Jet Who Wouldn’t Fly. Each story in this book has an obstacle that the characters have to overcome, such as fear or bullies, but they also have a message such as asking for help when needed or believing in yourself. I was sorry to come to the end of the book, as these stories were highly entertaining.

Gene Twaronite has written a fantastic children’s book that sparked my imagination, never mind a child’s. I loved his writing style, which was fast paced enough to keep even the shortest of attention spans hooked; every story flowed wonderfully. I would definitely read more of this author’s books in the future.

I highly recommend this book as a bedtime story for youngsters aged 5-7, a read-along for readers aged 7-9 (depending on reading ability) and as a read-alone for readers aged 9-12. I also recommend this book to adults who love reading Young Adult novels or stories. – Lynn Worton

Posted by the reviewer on:

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/review/RVPAYCM9RM96N/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B00B78QUIK

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B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dragon-daily-news-stories-of-imagination-for-children-of-all-ages-gene-twaronite/1114696762?ean=9781481998086 (as notrow1)

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“Gardening in Difficult Places” by the Absurd Naturalist

Gardening is always a challenge. Even in the mildest climates, with abundant rain, keeping our plants alive and looking good is no small achievement. But there are places in this world with such extreme limiting factors as to sorely test even the most determined gardener.

Consider Antarctica, for example. You wouldn’t think water would be a limiting factor there, when the continent contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. Only problem, it’s frozen. There’s not a lot of soil, either. 99.68% of the land area is covered by an ice sheet. The mean summer temperature, by the way, is -30 degrees C.—a considerable stretch for even the cold hardiest garden plants.

Gardening on a live volcano also poses challenges. While volcanic soils can be quite fertile, gardeners should be advised to wait at least until the lava cools off and hardens a bit. Although a common roadside plant called noni is one of the first plants to colonize cracks in lava flows around Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, so far as we know no species of plant can tolerate molten rock. It’s also really tough on gardening shoes.

Sometimes the challenge lies in a place not commonly thought of as a potential garden. Sitting on a jetliner as it taxied down the runway one day, I got to thinking about the depressingly boring landscape of its wings and why no one ever tries to plant anything there. Do other passengers feel the same way, I wonder? While I can understand some of the gardening problems posed by traveling at 600 MPH at an elevation of 30,000 feet, that is no excuse. Think of how much more pleasant our air travel might be if we had nice hedges and beds of colorful flowers to look at against the backdrop of clouds. All plants would have to be kept severely pruned back, of course, in the name of both visibility and aerodynamic efficiency, but every garden has its compromises.

And think of how much more pleasant our daily commute might be, if we allowed ourselves the time and space for a little garden inside our cars. It wouldn’t have to be grandiose in scale. Perhaps a neat little rock garden of low growing plants on the dash, and maybe some beds of day lilies or irises in the back seat. Particular emphasis should be given to plants requiring a minimum of deadheading, pruning and other maintenance, as these can get a bit tricky in heavy traffic.

Even our bodies present abundant opportunities. Just think of all the unused spaces and orifices in the average body. For instance, instead of bemoaning a lack of hair on one’s head, consider the possibility of trying out new kinds of vegetation there. With a little site preparation and adequate irrigation, the hair challenged gardener could grow a nice head of fescue or bluegrass—a far superior alternative to most toupees. For a more exotic, full-headed look, one could try pothos or Algerian ivy. Speaking of ivy, it would be a far more welcome sight across the dinner table than the ugly growth of chest hair curling out from under your open shirt. And think of all the little pockets of opportunity in our clothes. I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when no well dressed man or woman would dare venture out into open society without some strategically placed little flowers and ferns growing from every pocket, hem, and trouser cuff.

Perhaps someday we’ll even have gardens in outer space. We could start with the International Space Station. Sure, they’ve got a few experimental plants up there, but how about a nice rose garden or veggie patch for those astronauts? They’ll have to make the station a whole lot bigger, and haul up tons of soil, water, and fertilizer, especially if they want trees and turf. And they’ll need more gravity, too. For some reason plants are fussy about growing under weightless conditions.

Who knows, maybe we can even get some gardens going on Mars. True, it makes Antarctica look like a resort. The average temperature at mid-latitudes is a chilly -50 degrees C. The thin atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. And what little water there is remains frozen beneath the ground or at the poles. So we’d have to find ways to heat things up to melt the ice, and get some oxygen into the atmosphere. But I’ll bet the soil’s good. Maybe we could send some gardening robots there to prep things first. If we can put a man on the moon, we can plant some petunias on Mars.
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses July 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/gardening-in-difficult-places/

The Handshake

In the market we meet,
soldiers of civility.
I see his arm rise,
fingers unfolded.
We clasp and engage,
hiding behind
our small talk.
Worlds apart, we
might just as well
squeeze rocks.
So much to ask
of a handshake
but it’s all we have.
For one more moment
we press and touch
the thin skin
that binds us.
Then silently
we step back
from the other in
ever widening circles
to fortified trenches
we left behind.
This and two other poems first published in 
Wilderness House Literary Review #9/2.   
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