My interview and those of fellow contributors to the April edition of Dunes Review is at the link below. Many thanks to Brilliant Books of Traverse City, MI for interviewing us, and for hosting the release party, coming up on April 22!
Very happy news: I have a short non-fiction piece coming out in the April edition of Dunes Review (Vol. 22 #1).
Available for purchase from Brilliant Books of Traverse City, MI through this link:
In the ditch behind
The woods, sunny and shelter’d,
The birds sing early.
Back from south of here
Robins jump about, pouring
Streams of silver notes.
Spring in the air while
Under my feet stubborn ground
Resists, still frozen.
Nancy Squires, March 2018
The one with the ragged ear, damaged by frostbite, and the snaggletooth. I remember him. He’s a plump tabby, and he rubs and rubs his cheek against my hand every time I come visit. Such a contented, friendly cat, and such a happy ending. Here he is (with some friends) on Darlene’s bed, snoozing, getting up to greet us and be petted, while outside the snow is thick on the ground and even with the sun out the temps are in single digits. No more frostbite for him. He rubs his head on my hand again, and I feel that hard little tooth that sneaks out from under his upper lip.
I could not devote my life to rescuing animals as Darlene has. But I feel joy for this old guy, and the cat who got left when his owner went to prison and survived for two weeks on toilet water, and the kitten rescued from a cold attic whose heart condition the vet thought would kill him but two years later he’s going strong. And the new kid, a shy young tuxedo cat who is still hiding, tucked away in the bathroom cupboard. She had a big gash on her head when she arrived—someone hit her with a garden tool or something, trying to chase her away from the bird feeder, where she was eating seed. (And probably trying to catch birds, I imagine. But hey cats have to eat too…)
I got no pill for stupid, Darlene says, of the guy who contacted her again about kittens. She took in the first litter he called her about, and told him he needed to trap the mother cat and get her spayed. She even got a trap for him, was ready to arrange it all (she has contacts) but he couldn’t be bothered to put the food in the trap. So this time she told him she couldn’t help him, he needed to get a trap from the shelter. “Got no pill for stupid”—I chuckle, but I’m glad she put her foot down. We can only do what we can do, and Darlene does more—way more—than her share.
Meanwhile the new tuxedo cat, who won’t come to me but tolerates Darlene pulling her out from her bed under the sink, is safe, and warm. In time, I think, she may make some friends here. Or she may be like Ivan, the big white male cat who has his bed in the other bathroom. He’s a loner. But also sheltered and warm and well fed, as is everyone in this big menagerie, this rescue mission. The term fits perfectly: because Darlene definitely has made this her mission in life (I don’t get vacations, but I have purpose, she tells me) and these creatures have definitely been rescued. They seem to know it, too.
That’s what I think, stealing a last peek at the round tabby with the ruffled ear before I leave.
They know they have been saved.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the bookcase at the cottage.
There’s just one, it stands beside the north door. Made of pine; I think a carpenter friend of my maternal grandparents built it.
Like most everything at the cottage, it’s something of a repository for the past. A few of our old games are stacked on the bottom shelf: Parcheesi, Chinese checkers, Yahtzee. There’s an old scrapbook that my parents used to have visitors sign.
My two favorite Golden books are on the bookcase: Smoky the Bear (which came with a Jr. Forest Ranger’s badge, I still have it) and Bobby the Dog, the whimsical tale of a dog in France who eats croissants and crashes his bicycle. (Not to worry—he recovers nicely, sitting in bed, playing dominoes with his friends Tabitha the cat and Charcoal the mouse.)
We have a lot of field guides. What cottage worthy of the title would be without them? They’re a mix of old and new, now. A wildflower guide, in which my mom penciled notations next to the flowers they located and my dad photographed. One of my old favorites, Michigan Trees Worth Knowing. First printing: 1948, it says in the new-ish copy my dad gave me one year. (I think the one at the cottage is ’52). Every now and then I make a new find, like the newspaper clipping Dad tucked into a guide: a conservation officer’s account of sighting a sturgeon some fourteen feet long and three feet across, off Seul Choix Point in Lake Michigan in the 1940s.
There remain a lot of memories on the bookcase. But lately I’ve been thinking of books long-gone, the titles that were there as far back as I can remember. Some of them probably got tossed even before the Great Mouse Invasion of 1990-something, when we had to throw out quite a few.
There were mysteries, of course—my mom’s Agatha Christies. They all migrated down-state and I gave away what she still had—a grocery bag full—when she died. It’s good to have a detective story to read while you’re on vacation—but those aren’t the books I’ve had my mind on, either.
This is what I’ve been remembering:
Kon-Tiki, the book Thor Heyerdahl wrote about drifting across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. A copy of Born Free, with the cover falling off. I used to flip through the black and white photos in the middle, of the Adamsons and Elsa the lioness, in Kenya. We had the sequels, Living Free and Forever Free, too.
The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. My dad was a big fan and had several of Cousteau’s books. I remember looking at those photos, too. Explorations of the world’s oceans—at the cottage, they were shelved beside an inland sea.
And Rachel Carson: Paperback copies of both Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us were on our bookshelf. I was way too young to be able to read them. But I knew, vaguely, what Silent Spring was about.
And I knew the book was there.
I learned recently that in the past few years political extremists, in their effort to discredit and destroy all things environmental, have been particularly vicious to Rachel Carson’s legacy. They’ve claimed, falsely, that her campaign against DDT was directly responsible for the deaths of millions from malaria. In actual fact, her predictions about DDT and malaria have come to pass: Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have become resistant to DDT over time, in places where the chemical remained in use. I find it worse than sad—obscene, really—that anyone would compare Rachel Carson to Hitler (as one commentator did).
How do we get so far from truth?
Thinking about The Silent World, I read a little about Jacques Cousteau. He didn’t start out as much of an environmentalist. He was a spear fisherman, and an ingenious inventor. (He, along with some others, developed the first SCUBA system.) But as time went on, he became more and more a champion of conservation. I came across this Cousteau quote: “People protect what they love.”
So simple: Love.
We don’t get there by accident.
One morning last fall at the cottage I walked outside as the sun was coming up. I’d heard gunshots (a pretty common occurrence, in recent years) and wanted to know where they were coming from. I went down the steps to the beach and walked up on the bank, coffee mug in hand. And then I looked up—and saw a bald eagle soaring over me, its white head glowing pink in the sunrise.
Chances are, without Rachel Carson, there would be no eagles to see.
Thinking on those old paperbacks at the cottage, the ones I used to look at but could not yet read—I realize that growing up, I took for granted the ideas those books stood for. How beautiful and awe-inspiring is the world around us, what incomparable excitement to explore it. The responsibility we have, to be good stewards, and to be conscious that we are just one tiny strand in the web of life on this planet.
I don’t take any of that for granted, anymore.
I’m planning to recreate the old cottage bookshelf. I’m going to pick up a few of the old titles I remember, and add some new ones. Come to think of it, I’ve already started—I bought a 50th anniversary copy of Silent Spring a few years ago. I only read a couple of chapters—I found it quite technical, and after all, I do know more or less how it concludes.
But even if I never do read the whole thing, it still does me good, just to know it’s there.
My vision can’t be corrected to twenty/twenty.
It’s my left eye’s fault. I sit in the optometrist’s chair, looking out at that bright patch on the wall where there are supposed to be letters but I don’t see anything yet. Just a fuzzy pane of light. He makes some adjustments, clicks in a few lenses, his head near mine, like we’re conferring about something.
“Alright. What’s the farthest line down you can read?”
I scan the chart and can make out something halfway down, in the middle of a line. An E, I think? Or is it a B? I blink, and with an effort of great concentration, stare those letters down. Try to pin them to the wall. “C…U…I think that’s an E…” I hesitate.
“Good,” he prompts.
“Could be a T…” I’m losing conviction as the ink swims in the light. “W. 5.”
“Good. That’s a four,” he informs me. Nicely. Trying to help.
I lean back from the apparatus I’ve had my face pressed against. Rub my eyes. He writes something down. Then we get going again.
“Ok—one, or two?” He flips lenses back and forth. “One, or two?” I keep staring out, fixing on that E in the middle like it’s the North Star or something. Knowing this will go on for a while. “Two,” I say. Knowing that eventually, he’ll be asking, “Seven? Or eight?”
When we’re finally finished (what a relief when we get to my right eye, with which I do much better), I feel like I’ve taken a really hard test. Thank god for the science of optics, I think, climbing out of the chair.
It’s not often that I am so starkly confronted with how much effort it can take, to see.
Saturn’s rings are made of snowballs. Some of them are as big as houses, or small mountains. The Voyager spacecraft saw them—flew right over them, taking pictures. I remember sitting in a dark classroom at college, looking at those silent films (black and white, or for some reason, I think black and slightly golden?) of Saturn and its rings, coming up on the projector screen. There was something so profound and so transporting about it—the images, and the silence. I felt for a moment as if I were in space.
Galileo was the first person to see Saturn’s rings, in 1610. He needed a telescope to do it. (Optics!) Even then, he thought he was seeing a planet with a moon sticking out on either side. It wasn’t until fifty years later when a guy named Huygens with a better telescope could make out that Saturn actually had rings.
People kept looking, telescopes got even better—and bigger. But nothing we could see from Earth came even close to what the Voyager spacecraft saw. With Voyager, we threw an eye out into the solar system, and saw what was there. Voyager brought us close.
And paradoxically, took us far away.
I watched a documentary recently, about the Voyager mission. Near the end it was explained that as Voyager 1 passed Neptune, the outermost planet in our system, people on the project thought the spacecraft should take pictures, looking back. Voyager 1 had to be turned to do it, and there was no scientific reason to do the work required—so at first, they couldn’t get permission. Then Carl Sagan talked to some people (up the ladder, apparently) and got the ok.
The spacecraft was reoriented, the images captured. Beamed back to JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab), a series of photos showed bands of red, orange and green, the sun’s light scattered in the camera, way out in the cold blackness where Neptune orbits. In the middle of one of those streaks is a tiny speck of light. You have to enlarge the photo, a lot, even to be sure it’s there:
The scientists interviewed in the documentary said there was no real scientific reason, to get that photo. And yet…
I begin to think the most important thing space exploration will ever do for us is to give us sight.
In all that darkness, which it took a spacecraft even traveling at 35,000 mph decades to traverse, the only planet situated at just the right distance from the sun, the only place where there is light and warmth and air and water in the right form and proportion to sustain life as we know it, is that tiny, shining mote.
Human beings—it is our lot, to be nearsighted.
But when we’re handed the lens, when the picture is put in front of us…
What excuse do we have, not to see?
Nancy Squires, December 2017
I’ve been fantasizing lately about a hero, someone out of the past who could come back and save us from ourselves. There seemed an obvious choice for the role. I gave her superpowers. And imagined that if she did come back, she’d be swearing her head off. Not her usual style, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Screw this, Rachel Carson would say.
I see her, in pearls and a twin set, wearing a nice pair of slacks (better suited than a skirt for action) and a cape. (Because all traditional superheroes have capes.)
Screw this, she says, and tips over the table at the Monsanto board meeting. Or maybe it’s Dupont. Either way, the suited riffraff scatter like dried-up leaves. Like something that fell off a tree that died when their heavily marketed formula (which made them millions) was sprayed around it. You know—to keep the weeds down.
Her work at the board meeting done, Rachel takes to the air, flying with her cape streaming out behind her, to get to the home and garden center. Once there she commandeers a John Deere and rides it down the aisles, knocking all kinds of chemical crap off the shelves with a broomstick. (She could just fly down the aisles—but on the mower, she’s slower, and this gives people a chance to think. Think, god damn it. That’s what Rachel’s saying, in my daydream.)
When she’s hit a few Lowes stores and Home Depots (multi-city tour), she’s off to the fossil-fuel company. You can fill in the blank here—pick any one of several that fight with tooth, nail and huge sums of money to oppose the kinds of energy that don’t cause disasters or heat up the planet. (Sure it’s a cliché, but like Rachel says: Ever hear of a solar spill?) Their latest pipeline faced a lot of opposition for running through culturally and environmentally sensitive lands, but eventually politicians caved and protesters were forcibly removed. After the tear gas cleared the pipeline was completed; it leaked almost immediately.
Rachel swoops in for a landing at corporate headquarters, flies up the stairs and bursts into the CEO’s office. Takes him captive, then nabs herself a couple of VPs too, and a lobbyist on her way out—ropes ‘em up with her strand of pearls, which it turns out is a lot longer than it looks and works the same as Wonder Woman’s lasso. She takes them out to the spill, to the big cesspool of petroleum, mucking up someone’s neighborhood, killing flora and fauna, fouling the stream where kids are used to playing. Then she amuses herself for a while, rubbing their faces in it. Literally. To be fair, she is trying to make a point, which is: It doesn’t feel good, to be swimming in crude.
While she’s dunking execs in spillage, she thinks of another thing that really pisses her off: Seeds. She wrote a whole damn book—while she was dying of cancer, no less—about how the chemicals used to combat insects were killing everything and everybody in the process, and fifty years later, what did those jackasses do? They took over seeds. Seeds that are genetically engineered to tolerate their brand of herbicide (no guarantee for the fields next door). Seeds that are patented, so the farmers have to pay for them year after year and can’t just reuse them. She puts it on her “to do” list: Straighten out this seed bullshit.
Then she’s off to Washington, to the EPA (which some credit, some blame, her work for creating), where the foxes have managed to put themselves in charge of the hen house. Rachel storms into a meeting, grabs a couple of wolves in beauracrats’ clothing, and knocks their heads together like Moe used to do with Larry and Curly. Then she takes away their signing pens, along with their health insurance and their salaries. “You can have it all back when you learn the meaning of public service,” she says. “And environmental protection. That’s P-R-O-T-E-C-T-I-O-N,” she says, before opening a window and with a running start, flying away.
Even superheroes get tired sometimes. She heads home, to take a breather. After a nap she goes into her study, where she wrote Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us. She’s been considering writing a sequel to that one—but she hasn’t been able to get past the first line: “There’s a gyre of plastic in the Pacific stretching thousands of miles…” She takes off her cape, sits down at her typewriter. Looks out the window at the leaves that haven’t turned yet (warmest autumn on record). She sits for a while but the words just won’t come.
Shit, Rachel Carson thinks.
Wearily, she gets up and puts on her cape again. Heads out to another board meeting or a session of Congress. On the way she happens to spot my neighbor, spraying something on some unsightly beach grass growing along our shoreline. She swoops down and grabs the tank out of the woman’s hands.
Screw this, Rachel Carson says.
Of course, I know the real Rachel Carson would have done no such thing.
The real Rachel Carson was quiet, scholarly, soft-spoken and even-tempered. Also determined, and indefatigable. She would have adjusted her wig (the one she wore after her hair fell out from the cancer treatment) and got back to work.
She didn’t have superpowers.
Or maybe, in a way, she did.
If we’re going to make a difference, sometimes we all have to find a bit of superpower within.