No Words

This is not my usual type of post. But these are not normal times.

I’m heartbroken. For the unthinkable has happened. Our son-in-law, who was diagnosed a few weeks ago with an aggressive tumor, left us a week ago. Only realizing the devastation caused by the disease when my daughter called me in tears, I heard the distress in her voice. Please come to the hospital immediately. Naturally, my husband and I dropped everything and took an agonizingly slow taxi ride–traffic was horrendous in Manhattan. (Why didn’t we take the subway?) We spent an anxious several hours that evening with our son-in-law’s mother and some of his siblings. (They have the blessing of a large family.)

The next morning, my daughter called again. Come now, she cried. Things were different: instead of nurses’ adamant refusal to allow more than two visitors in the room at a time, there were no limits. The next six and a half hours were spent watching the monitors, hearing a nurse practitioner spell out the reality of the situation, calling nurses whenever a machine started beeping, checking out the tubes running into and out of my sedated son-in-law, watching a ventilator help him breathe, and waiting, As evening approached, two of his sisters arrived. I asked my daughter if she minded if I went home. She was agreeable, so I left.

About midnight, there was another tearful call from our daughter. It was over. She was alone in the hospital. In shock and filled with remorse that I didn’t stay with her, there was no chance of my sleeping. Our younger, usually upbeat daughter was a widow. Their three children were orphans.

Since Jewish tradition mandates a funeral as soon as possible, the family made lightning arrangements. The next morning, we spent a short time at the funeral home to pay our respects and offer what consolation we could, then formed a procession to the cemetery. Heartbroken, we watched their nine-year-old son approach the coffin, heard him recite the prayer loved ones say (and will recite daily for eleven months), and said goodbye.

How could a man so young, who miraculously survived severe Covid two and a half years before and didn’t come home for four months, be gone? At this season, when Jews the world over make a spiritual accounting, offer prayers for a year of life, health, happiness, and good news to share, and express the wish to everyone we meet that they be remembered Above for these things, there is a different aura surrounding everything.

Yet, even though we are numb with grief and feel like crying–and sometimes do–when we speak about it or something reminds us of our son-in-law, there are already bright spots. Members of a congregation started a fundraiser for his family that people are generously contributing to. Friends, relatives, and the children’s schools are reaching out. The owner of a fish store our daughter patronizes told us that she should come in for, I’m sure, anything they want for free. And there is our daughter: in the face of an unspeakable tragedy, she is there for her children and planning for a gradual return to a normal routine.

There is a song with a memorable line: “There’s no such thing as a silver lining. It’s a golden world created just for you.” Even if the gold is dull now, in time it will regain its luster. We look forward to the day when it will shine with a brilliance that is more marvelous than we can imagine.

Empowering Books

On a flight this past winter, I scrolled down the generous list of available movies. One, in particular, jumped out at me: the screen adaptation of an unforgettable upper-elementary level novel I obtained for my school library and read—and was enthralled by—more than a decade ago. I naturally watched the wonderful movie, then decided to reread the written work to refresh my memory and compare the two.

Upon my return home, I made tracks to the nearest public library branch and checked out the novel. (I also borrowed the DVD, thinking some of my grandchildren might enjoy it.)

And, since it is too difficult to leave a library without seeing what else will catch my interest, I continued browsing the juvenile fiction shelves–and made a delightful discovery. An upper-elementary novel as memorable as the one that brought me to the library has a sequel. Without further ado, here are my impressions of two blockbuster stories that aren’t for kids only.

Auggie Pullman is an ordinary ten-year-old. He likes things many kids do: riding his bike, computer games, Star Wars, and more. And like a lot of youngsters, Auggie dreams of being an astronaut one day. Yet there is one thing that sets him apart from most people. Due to a genetic abnormality, Auggie’s face is far from normal. His features aren’t where they usually are, and he’s endured many surgeries to enable him to see, hear, and eat, and to repair his face as much as possible. Because of the extraordinary amount of time spent in hospitals and recuperating–and his unsettling appearance–Auggie’s mother has homeschooled him.

Yet that is about to change. Feeling that she can no longer teach him at home, his mother believes that the first year of middle school, because many children are new, is the ideal time for Auggie to begin regular school. Fortunately, the Pullmans are financially able to choose Beecher Prep, a private school whose principal accepts the bright youngster. So, the parents set aside their anxiety and encourage their reluctant son to give it a try, and an apprehensive Auggie Pullman begins his school career.

We hear Auggie’s story through first-person accounts of our hero, his teenage sister Via, classmate and new friend Jack Will, and others. Through their alternating stories, the people in Auggie’s world speak in their own voices and describe the same events and experiences from their own vantage points. Each speaker does more than tell the tale; readers are taken into his or her mind and heart and discover how their lives are intertwined. As the young hero experiences the frustrations, successes, insensitivity of classmates (who feel they will get the Plague if they so much as touch him), and encouragement of some special teachers, we hurt and rejoice along with him.

After readers reluctantly turn the last page of Auggie’s story, they don’t have to say goodbye. Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories gives us a special glimpse into his world through the eyes of three classmates. 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Precepts details the inspiring teacher’s insightful quotes that he shares with his students. And younger readers can experience Auggie’s world in We’re All Wonders, a marvelous picture book telling his story and promoting kindness and empathy. P.J. Palacio performs the extraordinary feat of telling Auggie’s story (or, more accurately, allowing her characters to tell it) for an audience ranging from preschoolers to adults. And, of course, there’s the blockbuster movie that piqued my interest in revisiting Auggie Pullman and his world.

One of my first impressions, which I remember to this day, upon reading Out of My Mind was the way the author’s profession colored her story. Sharon M. Draper brought her teaching experience into play from the very beginning of the novel. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to tell the story of a girl like Melody in her own voice. For the preteen has cerebral palsy, a disorder that has left her with little use of her body and unable to speak.

Confined to a wheelchair and a special education class run by a teacher who does not challenge her students’ minds (and occupies them with music tapes geared toward young children), Melody possesses a keen intelligence that is recognized by very few people. It is only when her mother, aware of her daughter’s intellectual prowess, visits the class and demands that Melody be mainstreamed that the girl’s fortunes begin to change. Upon discovering, during a session with her aide, a computer that can be programmed to “speak” for her, Melody acquires such a device–and her gift becomes obvious to educators and classmates alike.

However, even though the machine gives Melody the power of speech, her difficulties are not completely resolved. Misunderstandings about the girl’s abilities and a failure see her as a human being with desires and feelings like anyone else result in a devastating event with far-reaching consequences. We rejoice, feel indignation, and applaud as Melody’s story unfolds. Readers will never again see people with physical and mental challenges in the same light. (News bulletin: filming is scheduled to be underway this spring for a movie adaptation of Out of My Mind!)

As Melody’s story continues in Out of My Heart, a unique opportunity to attend summer camp (one geared for kids with special needs) introduces the almost-teenager to experiences she once thought impossible for someone like her. Melody makes friends (for the first time in her life) and realizes that she has talents and abilities beyond anything she could have imagined. Readers discover along with our heroine that, as she approaches her teen years–achieving goals for the first time and encountering people who understand the challenges she faces–there is, under the surface, a talented budding young woman with so much to offer the world–and who just wants to have fun.

Once Upon a Camel

Last summer, I asked readers to stay tuned for a review of an unforgettable children’s novel. Life happens, and my promise went unfulfilled. So, at long last, here are my thoughts on a story that adults are sure to enjoy as much as young readers. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait.

Once Upon a Camel

Zada is a camel with a fascinating history. When we meet her in 1910, she is enjoying a comfortable old age in the west Texas desert with her companions: American kestrels Pard and Perlita and their babies.

Early one morning, Zada is awakened by the panic-stricken kestrel parents. They claim a huge mountain is coming toward them, devouring everything in its path. Noticing the absence of the usual morning sights and sounds, Zada sees what frightened the kestrels: grains of sand carried by the wind and, instead of stars fading before dawn, a wall of dark brown. The horrified camel realizes that the “mountain” is a haboob, a fast-moving wall of sand and dust

To make matters worse, the kestrel chicks, Wims and Beulah, are too young to fly. The adults decide they must head to safety with the babies riding on Zada’s head. However, no sooner are the little ones safely aboard when a gust of wind carries Pard and Perlita away. Zada has to think quickly: telling the youngsters they are a caravan, she heads toward a shallow cave, hoping its resident mountain lion will not be home.  Once inside the cougar-free cavern, Zada distracts the frightened babies with a story.

On the other side of the world from the Texas cave is the ancient city of Smyrna, Turkey. It is here, at the palace of the ruling Pasha, that two baby camels are born in the year 1850. The youngsters, Zada and Asiye, are offspring of the Pasha’s famous racing camels and literally become fast friends. As the youngsters grow in the care of their mothers and Teodor, their loving cameleer, they delight in racing each other around the paddock at lightning speed. When the girls turn three, their training begins in earnest.  

After three years, the young camels’ lives are once again about to change. Members of the U.S. Army arrive in their part of the world to buy camels to bring back to America. Among them are nine of the Pasha’s finest, including Zada and Asiye. Along with these magnificent animals, the ruler sends Teodor to teach the Americans how to handle a camel caravan.

Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime. Far away from their birthplace, Zada and Asiye are proud to be representatives of the Pasha. However, their new life is not what they envisioned. Instead of being elite racers, they suffer the indignity of becoming pack camels. How can Zada and Asiye represent the Pasha when they cannot accomplish what they were born to do? Teodor, understanding their resentment, tells them theirs is a very special duty.

From the first page, Kathy Appelt’s monumental story grabs the reader’s attention and does not let go. The author takes readers into the minds and hearts of all the characters and makes their personalities come alive. The extraordinary events are seen almost entirely through Zada’s eyes, and her insights, actions, and reactions add a personal touch and relief from the suspense and uncertainty permeating the tale. As readers watch Zada take charge of a dangerous situation when she would rather be resting her aching joints, they feel the discomfort, fears, joys, and determination of all the players as if they are experiencing them.

While Zada and the others seek safety and each other, the author provides insights into their characters that ring true. Wims and Beulah show themselves to be typical siblings: their squabbles, misbehavior, and doing risky things in the name of having fun, along with their outbursts of peepeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeep when they are scared or unhappy, are sure to bring a smile of recognition to the face of anyone living with young children. And Zada’s inspiration to tell stories to distract and calm her young charges also rings of familiarity. (The stories, based on Zada’s experiences, serve another purpose: they shed light on her early years and the events leading her to her present abode in the west Texas desert.)

Like any memorable story, there is a healthy dose of humor: when the babies are being rambunctious, Zada tells them, “Don’t make me come up there,” knowing it is impossible to climb onto her own head. Expressive black-and-white oil paintings by award-winning artist Eric Rohman match the story’s atmosphere and capture the body language and facial expressions of each character. Readers and listeners of any age will, like Wims and Beulah, be enamored of the stories Zada tells and want to continue until the magnificent, beyond satisfying conclusion. Reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and The One and Only Ivan (and its sequel, The One and Only Bob) by Katherine Appelgate, Once Upon a Camel is sure to join these novels by blockbuster authors on the shelf of memorable, must-read novels.

A Reason to Browse Library Shelves

I always say you can take the librarian out of the library, but you can’t take the library out of the librarian. Even though it’s nearly seven years (!) since my position was eliminated for a sad reason: the school was moving to a new location with no room for a library, such places are among my favorite spots to visit.

Some weeks ago, I made a visit to our local library branch (which, to my delight, fully reopened last summer). After I returned my most recently borrowed materials, the shelves beckoned. Being in the mood for something inspirational, I gravitated towards the religion shelves. Among the materials written for a religious Jewish readership (I’m proudly in that category) there was an intriguing title. Even though it theoretically speaks to a relatively limited audience—observant wives and mothers—I found this little book so delightful and meaningful I decided to share it.

Rather Laugh Than Cry: Stories from a Hassidic Household by Malka Zipora (pseudonym) is the memoir of the mother of a large brood (twelve children) living in Montreal. After introducing herself and providing insights into what it means to be an observant Jew, Malka paints a humorous (and occasionally thoughtful) portrait of her life and the world she lives in. The author spices her essays with witty and spot-on illustrations.

Malka does not shy away from exposing her very human side and pointing out her foibles, eliciting a few chuckles and a nod of recognition from her readers. Mothers everywhere will recognize themselves in the author’s story of the red pants. The adorable, too-expensive piece of clothing she buys on a whim for her little Moishy becomes the property of his younger siblings as the seasons pass. Even when the pants are no more than a rag, Malka refuses to let them go—until a now-adult adult former wearer uses them for the only thing they are good for.

“Whoever coined the phrase ‘million dollar smile’ must know all about orthodontists…For the parents it is the ‘million dollar cry.’” So begins a tongue-in-cheek description of life dominated by unending dental visits in pursuit of a perfect smile and their financial, time-consuming repercussions–and the difficulties of living with a mouth full of hardware and rubber bands.  

And there is the story of an acquaintance who becomes convinced one must eat a natural diet, eschewing anything that smacks of contributing to a long list of diseases and conditions. It is only when the young mother says she is sick of being healthy that Malka comes up with an ingenious solution.

True to Malka’s devotion to observant Judaism, she writes about events and traditions that are part of her life: baking challah (special loaves of bread central to Sabbath meals), constructing and using the sukkah, a temporary structure where people eat (and sometimes sleep) during the joyous holiday of Sukkos, and more. The entertaining and enlightening musings shed new light on these activities so central to religious Jewish life.

Malka’s little gem of a book shows that you don’t have to be a religious Jewish mother of a dozen children to enjoy and feel a connection with the stories she tells.

A Whale of a Tale

This book is an example of why I loved being a school librarian. Any opportunity to share such gems with young readers (and their teachers and parents) made my day.

Twelve-year-old Iris is smart, possesses a healthy curiosity about the world around her, has a talent for making anything electronic from old radios to computers work, and is Deaf. Since she is the only such student in her school, relying on a sign language interpreter, people often act like she lacks intelligence—making Iris feel like no one is listening to her. There is one exception: Sofia Alamilla, who teaches science, the sixth grader’s favorite subject.

It is in Ms. Alamilla’s class that Iris’ world begins to change. The teacher is showing a video about an unusual whale called Blue 55. Singing at a frequency and in a pattern unlike that of other whales—meaning others cannot hear or understand him—he lives alone rather than in a pod. Iris understands Blue 55’s plight: singing in a language nobody else knows, continuing to call with no one to hear him.

Learning about the whale plants a seed in Iris’ mind. What if someone else sang like Blue 55? Enlisting the assistance of a helpful music teacher and providing downloaded sheet music of the whale’s singing patterns, Iris records a song played by members of the school band that would be familiar to Blue 55. Yet there is a problem: the whale is thousands of miles away. How can Iris get close enough to play her song for Blue 55?

To say that Lynne Kelley’s second novel is a masterpiece is an understatement.  The author’s work as a sign language interpreter combined with a gift of language makes Iris’ story a compelling one.  The first-person narrative allows readers to see the world through the heroine’s eyes. Facts about sign language and Deaf culture are woven seamlessly into the narrative, providing a sense of realism without detracting from Iris’ story.

The author paints such a vivid picture that one relates to the protagonist’s frustration and what gives her life meaning, perceives the sights and sensations she encounters, and feels like those in Iris’ world are people we know. The result is an attention-grabbing, sensitive, and appropriately humorous tale about a determined girl’s efforts to ease the loneliness of a creature with whom she feels an affinity. Like Kathi Appelt’s phenomenal Once Upon a Camel (review coming up), The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, this gem will keep readers riveted—and cheering for the heroes of the story—from the first page to the wonderful conclusion. Song for a Whale shows us that, like Iris, each of us has our own song—if only people will stop to listen.  

A Journey of Discovery

When browsing my local public library’s virtual shelves for some inspiring reading, I saw this title. Intrigued, I placed a hold (the only way to choose a title prior to the library system’s full opening) and awaited its arrival. When the volume came, I beat a path to the closest branch library’s door and returned home with this treasure.

And a treasure it is. Here is my humble (and, as usual, wordy) review of this delightful book.

This is the tale of a journey, one that begins during author Judy Gruen’s childhood. The young girl is blessed with loving parents, and Judy’s grandparents are a big part of her life. It doesn’t take her long to discover that the two sets could not be more different. Cece and Papa Rosenfeld, her paternal grandparents, are modern atheists and proud of it. Papa is a successful businessman and Cece a physician (at a time when female doctors were a rare breed) in upscale West Los Angeles. In stark contrast, Nana and Papa Cohen are faithful to Jewish tradition. During their frequent visits, Papa devotes his time to religious activities—and Nana shows herself to be a classic balabusta (a time-honored wife) who combines homemaking with working to supplement her husband’s limited income.

However, traditional Sabbath night meals and synagogue attendance are the extent of the Rosenfeld family’s observance. As a teenager, Judy ponders the possibility of living in both of her grandparents’ worlds: is it doable to be true to Jewish tradition and live an intellectual and pleasurable life? Growing up in the turbulent 60s and 70s, and experiencing a devastating family tragedy, Judy has questions about G-d and His existence (and she believes He does, because such a complicated world must have a designer), and no one she feels she can ask them.

It is an adult Judy, after graduating from college with a degree in journalism and working in a profession she loves, who embarks on the next stage of her journey. It all begins when, still heartbroken after the end of a romance, she receives a phone call from a young man named Jeff. Newly relocated to Los Angeles, he got her name and number from a mutual friend. When they meet, she discovers that her new acquaintance is moving toward more religious observance. Judy finds this unsettling: how can she believe there is truth in a religion she equates with outdated, close-minded, sexist attitudes? However, Judy and Jeff, comfortable in each other’s company, continue to meet, even as she prepares to attend graduate school in Chicago.

Before departing for Chicago, Judy reaches the next stage of her journey. She finally agrees to accompany Jeff to a class given by the Orthodox Rabbi Lapin. The charismatic teacher, speaking to a group of people with backgrounds similar to hers and Jeff’s, delves into the deeper meaning of the subject with a dedication reminiscent of a good journalist. Intrigued, Judy agrees to attend future classes, where she is always ready to challenge Rabbi Lapin’s statements even as she finds meaning in his insights.

Author Judy Gruen tells the story of her journey from worldly youngster to devoted (yet still worldly) member of the religious fold with the skill of a talented writer. Her lively narrative is spiced with humor, descriptions that will resonate with contemporary readers (she refers to her nuptials as My Big Fat Jewish Wedding), and honest accounts of her internal and external struggles to fit into her new roles as a wife, mother, professional, and observant Jew. Judy’s openness will resonate with readers from many backgrounds: religious, those searching for meaning and purpose in their lives, non-Jews, and anyone who enjoys an uplifting, well-written story of self-discovery. Anyone who begins reading this memoir will be inspired by the author’s journey and rejoice as the tale comes full circle.  

An Amazing Journey

In my long hiatus as a blogger, I haven’t changed the types of stories that catch my fancy. My latest book isn’t about animals as impressive or fascinating as wolves, panthers, beavers, or seals, but one that nevertheless is a lovely part of the landscape. Without further ado, here is the story of a tiny but amazing critter.

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In 2013, Sara Dykman and a friend conceived an ambitious plan: to follow the annual migration, by bicycle, of monarch butterflies from their Mexico wintering grounds to destinations up north. Three years later, she decided it was time to make the adventure of a lifetime a reality and chose a start date. As the biologist (no stranger to lengthy bicycle tours) prepared to travel from Mexico to Canada and back along the monarchs’ routes north in the spring and south when summer gave way to autumn, she knew this would not be an ordinary bike tour. Sara was doing it for the monarchs, promoting their conservation and that of milkweed, the only plants their caterpillars could use for food.

In the winter of 2017, the author waits in a forested mountain part of Mexico for signs that the monarchs are about to begin their journey. When they take flight, Sara mounts her bicycle—loaded with camping supplies and other necessities—and heads north. As she travels, the adventurer takes every opportunity to share her message. Spending the night in a variety of locations—camping sites in both suitable rural and urban locations, pre-arranged homes, and residences of locals offering a place to stay—Sara fills her days with presentations. Catering each talk to her audience, she describes the plight of monarchs as habitats fall victim to development and milkweed to mowing, details what people can do to positively change the situation, and provides a demonstration of her mode of travel. Along the way, Sara mourns the loss of wildlife to traffic and mishaps (and rescues many critters from roads) and milkweed plants mowed from highway medians, golf courses, and impeccable lawns. And she celebrates the discovery of eggs, cocoons and monarch caterpillars chomping their way through milkweed leaves.

Author Sara Dykman’s first-person narrative of her remarkable trek is an eye-opening account of an even more extraordinary journey: the autumn flight of monarch butterflies to their overwintering grounds and their return north in the spring. Her description of her subjects’ awareness of changing seasons, navigational skills, and knowledge of appropriate egg-laying spots is a fascinating look at an amazingly sophisticated system for such a tiny creature.

The author’s account is peppered with events and encounters both memorable and humorous. Her story comes alive through descriptions of details of life on the trail: ensuring her tent will not flood when rain is on the horizon—and dealing with it when it happens, setting up camp in places as unlikely as a commercial parking lot, finding her own brand of “sandwiches” (ingredients eaten one after the other instead of combined between two pieces of bread) less time consuming to prepare after a long, exhausting day, and doing laundry in a shower stall.

Sarah Dykman’s fascinating account is spiced by passages that are sheer poetry:

One “can only dream of the millions of bison that once chomped, wandered, and produced the prairie under the gaze of visiting monarchs. Looking out at the broken scraps of what once was, my heart is broken, too.”

“Humans keep taking, and wildlife keeps trying to make do.”

All these elements combine to make the author’s story one readers will have a difficult time putting down until the satisfying conclusion. We, like Sara Dykman, cannot help but be enamored by these tiny but amazing creatures and hope they have a future on our planet.  Her journey is an enlightening learning experience for her even as she teaches others, and readers will discover truths about our world and its human and animal inhabitants. This book deserves a place alongside memorable and inspiring wildlife rehabilitation books like American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee and Eager by Ben Goldfarb. The author’s mission, to enlighten people of all ages and three countries about the creatures whose path she follows, makes Bicycling with Butterflies not her story, but the monarch’s.  

After reading this story, I have another reason to look forward to spring: a chance to spot a monarch butterfly flying overhead or flitting around our part of the world.

The Little Seal That Could

I’m continuing my literary love for all the marvelous animals who populate the Creator’s magnificent world.

Author Terrie M. Williams takes readers on a journey of discovery. She introduces us to a creature not familiar to many: the Hawaiian monk seal.

The story opens on a stormy spring evening off the coast of Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. Six paddlers aboard a canoe have lost their way in a downpour. As the danger grows with the triple threat of growing darkness, hypothermia, and tiger sharks swimming below, a more benign creature spots them. One paddler recognizes the visitor as KP2, a ten-month-old Hawaiian monk seal who took up residence a few weeks before. The human-loving youngster is looking for playmates but responds when the paddlers tell him to “go home.” KP2, sensing something is different, swims away and the canoers follow. Within twenty minutes, humans and seal enter the calm waters of a harbor. KP2 swims off and climbs onto a docked boat to await morning and the return of children with whom to play.

The author turns her attention to her own younger years. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be a dog. Even though this did not happen, the little girl discovered she could understand animal “language” and predict their next moves. As she grew, Terrie’s affinity for animals developed into a career of wildlife research in all corners of the world. Yet, there was only one creature who could “read” her in return.

On May 1, 2008, a Hawaiian monk seal dubbed KP2 (Kauai Pup 2) was born. Almost immediately, the pup found himself under attack by a male who saw him as an obstacle to mating with his mother. Unlike most mothers of her species, she did nothing to protect her newborn—and even attacked the baby herself. Fortunately for the pup, members of the Kauai Monk Seal Team were watching. Since his species was endangered, the observers decided to rescue him.

In faraway Antarctica, Terrie is one of eight researchers working with Weddell seals. While there, she receives an enticing email: would she like to care for KP2 in her California lab? Knowing the danger of extinction monk seals face, she consults with Beau Richter, one of her trainers working with her in Antarctica, and agrees. Terrie travels to Hawaii to meet the young seal.

Despite the locals who protest the removal of “their” seal, Terrie arranges for his transportation to San Diego aboard a Navy plane. Awaiting his arrival are Terrie, Beau, and fellow trainer Traci Kendall. The trio loads KP2 onto a rental truck and they begin the nighttime trek to Santa Cruz in northern California. Upon their 3:00 a.m. arrival, excited student volunteers welcome the young seal and ask his name. Terrie responds with the moniker given him by Hawaiians when he left: Ho’ailona, a special seal with a special purpose and a sign from the ocean. Now she must fend off curiosity seekers and reporters who have somehow learned that a celebrity seal is hidden at the lab. Knowing that he is vulnerable to disease caused by microorganisms different from those in Hawaii, and wanting him to remain healthy and able to “meet” the other lab animals, Terrie refuses permission.

However, even when KP2 is found to be healthy, everything is not rosy. The youngster refuses to eat until ingenious Traci, understanding his need for human contact, tricks him into accepting the fish he usually rejects. Training KP2 to follow commands that will enable Terrie and others to examine and work with him is difficult: he, like other monk seals, is stubborn, and his poor eyesight means he must employ other means to maneuver around his world. Just when the team is making monumental discoveries that could save KP2’s species, a combination of events conspire to throw a wrench into their progress.

Author Terrie M. Williams’ affinity for and empathy with all the critters inhabiting our planet spring forth on every page. This quality and a gift for storytelling combine to bring the tale of KP2 to life. All players in the young monk seal’s drama have a voice: from the Hawaiians who want to keep Ho’ailona home, to the government representatives who must follow (and occasionally bend) the rules, to the dedicated and clever animal care experts so instrumental to KP2’s well-being, to members of the public with a wholesome concern for all creatures and a healthy, unpolluted future for our planet.

Williams’ recognition that the scientist does not have the final say in determining the course of study, but that his or her subjects often take the lead and provide surprising and enlightening insights into their behavior and abilities, is refreshing. She interjects a healthy bit of humor into the adventures and day-to-day realities of those whose lives and careers are dedicated to the survival of KP2 and his fellow monk seals. Readers from teens to senior citizens will be inspired by the little seal that could—and those who have given him a voice—and cheer for him every step of the way.

 

Beavermania

Since I, like so many, find myself spending a lot of time at home, there is a bright spot: more time to read and share books with any audience who is willing to listen to or read my musings. And since I have a sense of wonder about our world and its many inhabitants, volumes featuring any critter naturally catch my attention. So please join me in discovering an animal many don’t think much about but is worthy of our attention.

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This is the story of humans’ relationship with members of the Castor family: rodents who, according to author Ben Goldfarb, are some of our “closest ecological and technological kin.” We are both creative tool users who choose to live near water (especially agriculturally productive valley floors made by rivers), have a penchant for designing elaborate structures, and are compelled to reorganize our surroundings to better provide shelter and food rather than be satisfied with the status quo.

However, these striking similarities do not necessarily endear us to beavers. These misunderstood rodents were viewed by newcomers to North America merely as a source of fur perfect for wearing apparel, especially hats. In fact, the fur trade—and the wealth it brought and territorial conflicts it generated—played a role in early American history from the Pilgrims to the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the western United States and Canada became denuded of beavers by the middle of the 19th century, their former habitats became towns, farms, and industrial sites.  Castors were not missed: the critters were viewed as pests whose dams flooded farms and ranches and destroyed desirable trees and other vegetation.

Things began looking up for North America’s largest rodents as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Between 1872 and 1905, national parks, refuges, and forests were created and wildlife-protective legislation was passed. The powers that be discovered the vital role that the humble beaver plays: as a keystone species responsible for a healthy ecosystem that supports a variety of creatures up and down the food chain. For well-watered areas created by dams and their vegetation provide homes and sustenance for ducks, moose, elk, and deer—and the wolves and mountain lions relying on them for food. (The big predators return the favor, as controlling the numbers of their prey makes more room for beavers.)

As a result, in the first two decades of the new century, beavers were reintroduced to a number of states, where they thrived and their numbers mushroomed. However, their return was not always welcome. Beaver dams, even as they increased all-important water levels and replenished underground aquifers as their ponds’ contents seeped into the soil, also caused roads and crops to be flooded.

Enter Mike Callahan and Skip Lisle, the geniuses behind Beaver Deceivers: flow devices allowing ponds to partially drain into creeks, with pipes enclosed by a fence so the animals cannot plug them. At a yearly price tag that is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of road restoration, together with the miniscule outlay for beaver-created wetlands ($14 an acre as opposed to an average of $38,725 per acre for wetland restoration), these deceptively simple devices are a win-win situation for landowners and Castors alike.

With a major hurdle out of the way, landowners whose property suffered damage at the hands of beavers began to increasingly call on not trappers but removal and relocation specialists such as Kent Woodruff and Washington State’s Methow Beaver Project. Their techniques are being adopted throughout the nation with extraordinary results. In Woodruff’s words, “We’re not smart enough to know what a fully functional ecosystem looks like. But beavers are.”

Author Ben Goldfarb’s gift of language turns a historical record of the relationship between beavers, their fellow creatures, and humans into a mesmerizing read. His fascination for his subject fills every page.  Chapter titles like “Dislodged” and “California Streaming” add spice to this delectable account. An animal that takes a back seat to wolves, cougars, deer, dolphins, and many more charismatic players on the world environmental stage comes into its own under the author’s capable pen.

Yet Goldfarb does not expect his readers to take his word for it. He deftly describes up close and personal encounters with Castor advocates and habitats on both sides of the Atlantic and, more importantly, with beavers themselves. With healthy doses of humor, the author presents his case—and that of beaver aficionados everywhere—in a manner that will resonate with readers on both sides of the debate.

Goldfarb’s eye-opening, informative account is more than an attention-grabbing story. He has obviously done his homework; copious footnotes provide sources for historical and contemporary quotations, research, and events, and a detailed index provides quick access to the subject matter.

As a bonus, several pages of photographs demonstrate the efforts by human and animal participants in the cause of beaver restoration. (There is a small detraction in this book: the author makes occasional use of strong language that may be off-putting to some readers.)  All in all, Eager is a fitting tribute that will make readers see beavers in a whole new light.

Turkey Tale

Last week, National Geographic published a timely article; timely, because of the date—close to Thanksgiving—and the topic—turkeys. Once, wild gobblers were plentiful throughout this country. However, by the Civil War, their numbers were decimated because of excessive hunting and loss of forest habitat.

This drastic decline led a New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife biologist to reintroduce 25 birds in 1975. Expecting at most a few thousand turkeys to descend from them, he has watched their numbers to explode to 40,000. With neighboring states boasting similar population increases, wild turkey introduction has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

The birds themselves are largely to be thanked for the population explosion: they can live almost anywhere and thrive near human habitations. People who keep feeders well stocked with birdseed for their hoped-for avian visitors (of whom turkeys are almost certainly not on the expected guest list) provide a ready source of nourishment. Add to these factors a dearth of traditional predators like wolves and cougars, and the stage is set for one of the most fruitful wildlife reintroduction events in the nation’s history.

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Turkey Crossing Guard

Actually, the unfortunate disappearance of wolves and cougars from their ancestral habitats brings to mind two other wildly successful reintroductions. Naturally, I learned of them through books chronicling the (largely man-made) decline of these magnificent apex predators and the often hindered efforts to restore them to their proper place.

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Back in the late 1890s, Yellowstone National Park’s powers that be believed predators would decimate elk and bighorn sheep—animals which brought visitors in droves. These officials saw one solution: entirely eliminate wolves, a goal which was achieved by the mid-1920s. However, the plan backfired, as the population boom in prey animals wreaked havoc on their populations as well as those of other Yellowstone critters. To remedy this situation, wildlife officials—after hearing from proponents and opponents of the plan—okayed the release of 32 Canadian wolves in 1995 and 1996.

By 2009, under the watchful eyes of biologists, park rangers, amateur wolf watchers, and a filmmaker, 1700 wolves belonging to numerous packs called the northern Rocky Mountains home. Now the challenges became ensuring that the big canines remain protected and convincing elk hunters that wolves are not responsible for the reduction in numbers of their quarry.

Nate Blakeslee’s story of the return of wolves to Yellowstone is as captivating as a great novel. The author’s admiration for these smart, devoted, social creatures is obvious; yet it does not prevent him from open-mindedly presenting all sides of the restoration question. Blakeslee has a gift of combining a historian’s detachment with an advocate’s passion about the subject. Readers interested in environmental issues, social concerns, wildlife, and history will want to add this account to their shelves. It’s vital reading for anyone preparing for or following a career in biology, wildlife management, the national park system, or social concerns. Even people who have not given wolves much thought might find themselves aficionados by the time they finish American Wolf.

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Now it’s the big cat’s turn. In a book scheduled for publication in January, 2020, Craig Pittman introduces us to the puma, aka cougar, mountain lion, tiger, catamount, and panther. Like all apex predators, these cats are necessary for a viable ecosystem. And like wolves, puma subspecies once thrived in varied regions of the U.S. yet fell victim to people’s fears for their safety and their livestock.

Today, cats live in only one state east of the Mississippi: Florida, where they are known as panthers. Even there, their survival has been endangered by fear, loss of habitat due to development, highway expansion, corporate greed, and–amazingly–government  wildlife officials bowing to lobbyists and undermining their staffs’ recommendations for panther protection. By the time they began to actively improve the cat’s lot in the 1960s, biologists and veterinarians faced the grim possibility that there were no panthers left outside of the Everglades. It has taken a diversified cast of characters, some with their own agendas yet united by one goal, to stand up to all opposition and ensure a future for Florida’s state animal.

Craig Pittman, a not-so-secret admirer of panthers, uses his journalistic talents to tell their story with a blend of humor, passion, irony, and objectivity. He brings the hopes, plans, and schemes of heroes and villains alike to life. Readers feel the dreams, exhilaration, outrage, and frustrations of those who have devoted their careers and lives to ensuring that America’s cat overcomes its challenges and be a source of enjoyment and admiration for generations to come.

During and after reading these heartwarming tales, I began to think about my affinity for creatures of all kinds. What makes a woman entering—and now in—her golden years feel for the plight and express concern for the future of wildlife? True, there have been remarkable women like Marjory Stoneman Douglas (the author of Everglades: River of Grass) who became a panther advocate in her late 70s and spent the next thirty years actively working to preserve the environment. Yet I have not extensively researched or written anything on this topic or worked in a professional or even amateur capacity to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

The answer has to be my religious tradition. Judaism places a premium on animal protection; teachings are full of rules governing treatment of our feathery and furry friends and the avoidance of physical and emotional cruelty. In fact, the guidelines all people are expected to live by (the seven Noahide laws) stress the importance of this idea. And the reward is great for one who sends away a mother bird so she will not suffer the anguish of seeing a person take her young. In addition, we are enjoined to emulate the positive characteristics of various creatures (the strength of a lion, for one) in service of our Creator. There are so many more examples of the proper and requisite attitude we must have towards the animals with which we share this world; to enumerate them all would fill volumes. Yet it can be summed up in a nutshell: Judaism is a compassionate way of life whose emphasis on kindness extends to all the inhabitants of planet Earth, animal and human alike.

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