The Reading Road at Lynn Meadows Discovery Center

Saturday, August 25, was one of those birthday party giddiness days for about 60 children (two separate parties) at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, Mississippi’s only children’s museum, in Gulfport. I had been invited to read my book and talk about all things bumblebee to a range of children from toddlers to upper elementary age. Oh, boy!

My morning began with a cup of tea, honey, lemon, and lots of encouragement from Jim as I headed toward the herb garden with my specimen jar. First, I had split a ripe, very juicy peach and wedged it into the bottom of the jar. Next, I clipped some of the bees’ favored herb blossoms, inserted them into floral tubes of water, and arranged them attractively (I thought) for a bee. Finally, I approached a likely candidate so busy sticking his head into basil blooms that he never saw me coming. He quickly found himself in a new place between my perforated lid and homemade jar garden. Frantic buzzing is not a strong enough term to describe his efforts. I felt that he would soon find the peach treat and settle into exclusive peach probing. Instead, he (yes, it was a male bee because like all males, he had no pollen pockets) continued to fly continuously within his glass world. He had great stores of energy, because he was aloft for a couple of hours until we arrived at the museum. As if on cue, he descended to the bottom of the jar in a state of torpor, until he could recover strength. Fearing that the children would think I had killed one of the very insects I was asking them to conserve, I placed the jar inside my large supply bag and hoped for the best.

Jim and I arrived toting cameras and armfuls, including the iPad loaded with my nonfiction interactive ebook, LEMON TREES AND BUMBLEBEES, The Magic of Pollination. To sweeten the presentation beyond the waiting birthday cakes, we took bee and seed specimens, large color illustrations, crossword puzzle page handouts, and coloring page handouts of some of the first black and white illustrations for the book. We also showed parents how to construct a place for a bee colony that might prove irresistible to a queen bee next spring. They liked the idea of burying a clay pot with a drainage hole almost completely underground, inverted over some dry brush, and protected from rain with a tile or saucer balanced on rocks so the queen could enter (a photo is below the post). As I settled myself on a bench in front of the colorful murals, I heard the encouraging buzzing of my guest-in-a-jar. He awakened just in time to delight dozens of children, as I had hoped.

During the next hour or so, a number of children heard the story, asked about bees, shared their love of honey and lemonade, and gave us a day as special as the one we tried to give them. They moved in, out, and about; several enjoyed hearing the story from the vantage point of rocking horses or while sitting in a gingerbread cottage shared with stuffed animals.

When we were home again, I took our bee jar out to the same patch of basil, uncapped the lid, and watched the little guy slurp a bit more peach juice before he buzzed off above the rooftop.

I’ll give you a feel for the day in some photos we had to be quick to get. Photos including some children have been purposely cropped to conceal their identity for safety. With all the action, there wasn’t time to get parental permission to show their faces, but we have the smiling photos to enjoy in our album. You will get a good idea of the fun.

Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, Gulfport, MS

 

The Reading Road Banner

Reading LEMON TREES AND BUMBLEBEES on iPad

Listening from a rocking horse

Listening with a buddy

Flying Bees

Owls in trees

Happy Walls

Enchanted Forest

Under the Sea

Specimen jar with male bumblebee

A Peach of His Own

How to Construct a Manmade Bumblebee Colony

Perfect Ending for a Happy Day

From Black Bears to Bumblebees

In an earlier post, I said that one thing always leads to another along the reading road, a.k.a., my life. Mental meandering has so often become fascination, so “over the river and through the woods” from black bears to bumblebees seems natural. Good science requires time and patience; getting to the last page isn’t exactly instant gratification. It’s more like a treasure hunt where you have to dream, delve, and, often, literally dig in the dirt. Complicating all this is the fact that I have a family, with all the maintenance, surprises, holidays, advice given and taken or not, and daily love which often present detours around any other project underway. During all the stirring of pots and bandaging of bumps, thoughts and curiosity tug and won’t leave, ever.

A few years ago, I returned to academic life and jumped into a course in environmental literature. While reading and researching, I began to think about black bears with their history and their present state. Their decline affects so much more than the bears, themselves. A phone call put me in touch with a wildlife biologist who introduced me to a couple of experts studying bears in other states, and we began a five-year discourse, including particular details of radio-collared bears and others in the wild. I tried not to be side-tracked by more creatures, like birds and bees, but habitats in two states were a big playground/discovery center for me. I couldn’t know that this would lead to a rare invitation to accompany biologists into the field one summer to capture a black bear. Armed with hundreds of facts and years of study, I joined them in Tensas National Wildlife Preserve in northern Louisiana. My husband, Jim, carried my cameras and field equipment, and off we went.

Our ATV rumbled along through dense brush beneath towering old giants of oak, American elm, green ash and sweet gum. Palmettos had been grouped to form a path to a brush-covered foot snare that would not harm the bear. A nearby paw-paw tree yielded its melon-shaped fruit as well as a sack of raspberry scent (visible in the photo below). The coup de maître were honeybuns hung from trees and scattered in the brush just beyond the snare. With five traps laid, would luck be with us?

Anticipation was palpable that early morning. After finding the first trap empty, we moved on toward the second a few miles away. We found bear tracks crisscrossed with raccoon tracks parallel to a row of randomly bent corn stalks and nibbled cobs along a corn field bordering the woods. Around a bend, suddenly, “There she is!” A female black bear had flattened a 15-foot circle of brush permitted by the length of her snare attachment and sat in the middle registering typical displeasure by an intermittent snapping of the jaws and blowing with the lips. Then noises in the brush directed us toward a huge elm about 20 feet into the dense embankment above a crook of a tributary of the Tensas River. We watched a fuzzy cub heed its mother’s guttural signals and scamper to a vantage point on a limb about 25 feet up the trunk. A small, solid black head would alternately peek and retreat behind the limb, tiny ears at attention. We judged it to be about five months old, and approximately 15 pounds – about the size of a cocker spaniel.

Female black bear secured by foot snare. Note raspberry scent sack in tree.

Black bear cub

We needed to work fast so Mother Bear could return to nursery duty. We tranquilized her with a dart, examined, weighed and measured, and then outfitted her with a radio collar for tracking and further research. Care was taken to allow for any weight gain before the collar would wear away in a year or two. A glance up to the leaf canopy revealed a fast-asleep cub stretched out full-length, squirrel-fashion, belly flush and four legs limply dangling from either side of the limb. I knew there were yet a couple of fleeting minutes for me to rub the head and back of this wild creature in repose — silent minutes eloquent enough to convey to the most skeptical the value of preserving its kind, indicator of the well-being of so many other species of our forests and, ultimately, man. There is much more about this day, and my longer account was published in the Louisiana Conservationist magazine.

Me, with female black bear

Not letting go of black bears, and that one special black bear, fast forward a few years through new technology and new ways of communicating and publishing. One sleepy spring morning along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I opened the back porch door and was overcome with the fragrance of blossoms, the incessant hum of an undulating halo of bumblebees around our Meyer lemon tree, the music of water spilling over the fountain bowls. I forgot breakfast, grabbed my camera, and that’s how my first ebook was born. The words wrote themselves in my head, and I forced myself to turn back to the house to write the story for children, to help them understand. They need to know that without these quiet, ongoing activities underfoot, out of sight, on the wing, here and gone in the space of moments, we would not exist. It really wasn’t such a stretch from black bears to bumblebees. It was logical/magical.

I hope you’ll let yourself enter the world with new eyes. Grab a book about what catches your imagination, really see, walk and hunt, poke under things, ask questions and find answers. There are friends connected to those answers. You will be comforted, surprised, thrilled. It works. Whether black bears to bumblebees, or anything else, you’ll see how everything is truly connected. You’ll make sense of your happy unlikelihoods!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Have a Winner!

The Reading Road Writing Contest for July has now come to a close after introducing a terrific group of entries. Competition was strong, but after careful consideration and a lot of milk and cookies, lemonade and cookies, tea and more cookies, the panel of judges has awarded the first place prize to a young lady, Logan D., age 12. Her imaginative photo really made us curious, and her story lines “hooked” us and made us want to find out what would happen next! Check out her winning entry below:

I was stricken with fear. It used to be only the animals knew  where I was hidden. Now that some human found me, was in danger every step, every movement, I made.

My hiding place was a secret tunnel through the bushes and into a hole in a willow tree. used to be the only person who knew that amazing place I call home. But that stupid boy, whatever his name is, knows my hiding spot now and is probably going to tell everyone. What, dude? Am I in some kinda zoo? Come see the amazing forest girl! She has wings, too! Yes. By the way, I am a mix of an elf and a wood sprite. I call myself a Grelfling. But if that kid comes back again, I’ll be called “doomed.”

 

There were entries which made us laugh, wonder, admire, feel inspired, and want to sit right down and finish the story. It was a tough decision to select a winner, and we munched far too many cookies trying to decide. But we had so much fun and much more wonderment than we could have guessed over the talent we discovered.

My congratulations to Logan, and bushels of thanks to each of our budding writers and photographers who made my first contest such a joy. Logan will receive a T-shirt with The Reading Road logo and motto, “Let your heart speak and the world will hear your voice,” and some other treats to encourage her writing.

I hope that you will visit The Reading Road “Just for Fun” page for future contests – and most of all, keep exploring, imagining, reading, and writing!

Surprise for the Eyes

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A writer must create pictures in the minds of readers, so exacting word choice is vital. For a long time, I have kept these words taped to my desk space. I do not know who wrote them, but they’re great:

         The written word is clean as bone,

         Clear as light,

         Firm as stone.

         Two words are not

         As good as one.

Some early mornings, I walk a garden path to find my word-pictures. My cameras go with me, and the surprises found out there often give me the words and the illustrations.

I look high into the wax myrtle and meet the gaze of an eye on me. She wants me to move along, but I return when she flies to the courtyard for a sip from the fountain.

The pine straw shifts slightly in the flowerbed, and a familiar shape is lapping rainwater in a brick crevice. He has a rival in one of the many garden turf wars. I am usually the loser in the assault on leaves and blossoms, whether we meet face-to-face, or I catch a mere glimpse of the offender.  

Doves and turtles share resting space in their pine straw bed, co-existing peacefully with other species.

The copper and brown of the wood thrush melds with the woodland floor or leafy undergrowth where he forages. He zooms out to scritch, scratch with with one foot and then the other, like a comical chicken, and turns over leaf after leaf to find insects. Then he races back under the shrubbery to hide. Perched on a limb, he looks a lot like the bark.

Here’s a fledgling wood thrush, but he’ll watch Mom and Dad and learn quickly.

Green on green is hard to be seen!

Whether fledging or spinning, the smallest creatures must find their way quickly to avoid predators.

I don’t know why this little chickadee looks so forlorn, but he finally seemed to find some purpose.

Wolf snails are cannibalistic and devour other snails, and even each other. They move much faster than other snails, and it’s not hard to imagine that they could terrify their prey with those “horned” heads.

A hummingbird snugs down over her two white pearl-sized eggs in the hanging cradle she has woven around a plant stem.

This walking stick and her offspring have found a perfect hiding place in a woven basket beside my back door. Their camouflage can get them into trouble if I don’t see them before I drop yard shoes into the basket. They are there often, so I look out for them now.

Back inside, I’m ready to write, but my garden friends have a little more to say before they leave me. I can’t resist a few more shots of them from my side of the windows.

It’s wild kingdom where I live, and I’ll return with more photo stories about my adventures. I agree with Thoreau that I can never learn everything in just my own square mile!

Attention All Junior Writers!

Since it’s summer vacation for students, this is a great time to enter THE READING ROAD SUMMER WRITING CONTEST. Go to the JUST FOR FUN page and click “Contests” to read all about it. The winner will be awarded a prize and be published here on The Reading Road where all your family and friends can see your entry.

While you are waiting to learn if you are the winner, you might want to try something I once did. During one summer vacation from elementary school, I made a neighborhood newspaper (which was a lot more work, but seemed like more fun than being in school). Since I was the roving reporter, columnist, editor, publisher, and then the delivery girl, it didn’t leave much time for getting into my usual mischief. The summer went really fast, and I loved writing about anything I thought would make a good story. Some of the neighbors weren’t too sure, but they seemed to be pleased to be featured, for the most part. They actually enjoyed my science column about birds, butterflies, and types of neighborhood pets. My cooking column was almost a disaster because I asked some of my mother’s friends for recipes. Some of them were ghastly, and I couldn’t be “choosy” without hurting feelings. I decided to share only my Mom’s and Grandmothers’ recipes because they were the best cooks. If you decide to try a newspaper or newsletter, you may want to include some friends and work together. A parent or neighbor would probably be happy to act as editor or type your stories and columns.

I’d love to hear about any reading or writing projects you do this summer, and I can’t wait to get your contest entries!

A Perfect Father’s Day Gift

On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of a gift from rather than for my father. When I think about it, though, his gift to my brother, David, and me turned out to be something we continue to give in his memory. It’s a gift he would have loved most of all – the continuation of what he instilled through the daily exercise of his story-telling, his wit and humor, his great humanity toward everyone, and his uncommon bravery. We absorbed all this as a completely natural part of our days.

This was never more evident than on the June day that David was born. Mother was welcoming him on the maternity floor of the hospital while I recuperated from a tonsillectomy in a room on the ground floor. Daddy divided his time, and my grandmothers made sure I had a flower in my hair each day from the huge bouquet Daddy brought. At that time, hospitals were not air-conditioned, and rules limited the number of overnight family members. Daddy stood outside my window, open just enough for me to hear him, and told me Uncle Remus stories in the authentic voice of each character until I fell asleep. I made sure this took a long time. When it probably seemed like an endless “just one more” from me, he launched into my favorite horse stories about the adventures of a girl named Diane and her pony. Happy dreams for me! Before we left the hospital, Daddy told me he had a big surprise for me. That was the day he took me upstairs, threw open a door with a grand gesture, and we saw my smiling mother holding my new brother. Daddy knew how to create an unforgettable moment.

There were special times with Daddy for David and me. We built homemade kites from newspaper comics, and learned to love the ocean. Whether shopping for groceries with him, making homemade ice cream, or doing anything, we had fun. He always shared food with family and neighbors, and always knew exactly how to make them laugh and feel loved. This, and a keen business sense, are traits that David, now a father, mirrors from Dad.

It’s remarkable that, though he didn’t live to see us grown, he was able to give us what every father strives to give his children. He gave us the gift of appreciation for each day, the confidence to believe in ourselves, and the strength that comes from strong family love. These are the building blocks of any life. We are so lucky!

 

 

 

Go To Your Oracle

 

Recently, I watched Stephen King on YouTube during an interview about his writing. Writers’ ears always perk up at the sharing of thoughts and methods, ways to balance life with writing, what makes other writers “tick,” – things of that sort. I envy Mr. King’s ability to turn his nightmares into megabucks. He has obviously found the how-to’s, and although he didn’t say it, something important came to me while watching his body language and listening to him talk.

King seems to have overcome a kind of self-consciousness which undermines the best writing. We can lose ourselves in an inspiration, we can be transported by an experience or a sight; but the moment that we become aware of it and begin to judge it, doubt the reaction, edit it, we lose the magic. At ease with himself and very forthcoming, King offered his own very simple writing prescription without seeming to be aware of it. He began to relate how he prepares himself for his writing day by describing his home environment. To paraphrase, he said something close to this, “I have a little cabin on my property, away from the house. It is reached by a path through some trees. I take something, maybe some coffee, and slowly walk toward it, relaxing. Then I sit down and take my time.” That’s where thoughts come to him. That uncomplicated place is the oracle that he associates with his flow of creativity.

Those of us who are afflicted understand. Some must have a particular type of music (Stephen King does and it’s surprisingly modern and loud). Others must have utter silence, or at least music which is soft, without distracting. I enjoy the sound of birds or ocean to embrace that primal state which allows me to express free thought. It’s just as necessary to write from this perspective in children’s stories as it is for adults. It might be described as feeling a bit like time travel originating in the right brain.

I’m writing when I’m doing anything else – listening to conversations, digging in the dirt, cooking for family and friends. EVERYTHING goes into the gumbo of story. Every memory, everything I do, seasons everything else. Since I often get “flashes” of beginnings, middles, and endings, or something I feel compelled to express, I’m rarely without pen, paper, and camera – tools which can then be translated to computer when I get to my “oracle” place. Many people and places are inspiring, and they become part of a particular tapestry once I get back home. My study/office has a necessary messiness, with favorite aphorisms taped to my workspace, stacks of research, folders of ongoing work, papers to file, photos to sort, people to call, and endless to-do lists. It changes every day, but here it is today – I tried to tidy up just a little. Not many are invited to share this space, but you reading here, are welcome.

Doors to my Study

 

My desk

 

Library steps on right side of bookcases

Easel to the left of bookcases

 

My watercolor sketches of Max, the lovebird I raised from a featherless chick

Nature walk discoveries which inspire me

A modern use for my great-grandmother’s cream pitcher

 

Photo of the boys watching a pigeon, on a day that makes me smile to remember

 

My photo gallery always plays on my Mac when I’m not writing

Mother’s tea cart holds cards and treasures. Windowsill stores family baby shoes.

 

A hummingbird nest sits atop a mini-pitcher from grandmother’s collection, held by great-grandmother’s teacup and saucer.

Reference Corner

 

My clipboard beneath Bobby’s first-place watercolor, painted at the age of five

 

Seats for visitors

Favored wren nest box just outside my window. Jeannette painted a house for each of the front porch columns.

View from my window. Now it’s time to get back to work!

 

Pure Potential!

When the words came to me, I was peering into a bluebird nest at four sky-blue marble-sized ovals nestled in pine straw. Pure potential. The female had flown away in search of an insect morsel, and the male regarded me from an oak branch. I instantly counted one-two-three-four holding those tiny beating hearts.

It’s impossible to go walking without being aware of the words.

 

 

 

 

I think them when young birds fledge, or a seed breaks soil and sprouts, when newly hatched turtles make their first precarious scramble toward the sea, and especially when I see the joy of discovery on a child’s face. Pure potential.

Imagine the influence and possibilities our words create in the hungry brains of our children. We can expose them to books and music in all the choices available to us in this 21st century. They will sample the array and take the best from it, re-invent it, and create it anew.

We can offer choices, take time to read with them, discuss and draw what they think about stories, act out the stories, and encourage them to write their own stories. It’s summer and time to see all the pure potential in our lives!

 

National Haiku Day

You aren’t the only one! I have to admit I have just learned that today, April 17, is National Haiku Day. I can’t let it slip past without posting some of my favorite musings in this classical Asian literary form. It’s only natural that I would favor haiku poetry since it’s a written reflection of the moments I’m always capturing with my camera. Haiku are excellent practice for children’s authors. They contain only the most evocative images in words clear as glass. Like children’s picture books which are anything but simple in conception or creation if they are to be fresh and memorable, haiku are flashes of realization. They should be lightbulbs of recognition and identification, or provide new ways of seeing. It’s scary to write one because of the danger of falling short of the ancient masters. Still, writers seek to join the tradition because of the zen which haiku creation brings. Here are some of mine which follow the three-line, five-seven-five syllable structure:

A green leaf withers             

Gobbled in mindless frenzy

Soon, a butterfly

 

 

Bumpy wrinkled thing

Some say you have no beauty

But your song is strong

 

You have gone away

I watch a small wren working

and find great comfort

 

 

 

Full skirts shield shy eyes

like fish among pond lilies

Youth and spring repeat

 

Cold and mist unite

trailing veils of winter white

snow is rain’s soft bride

 

Small bird sends his thoughts

speaking worlds in two bright eyes

before the singing