Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Creature Feature

In 2005, my colleagues and I at the Institute of Humongous Natural Critters (IHNC) began hearing reports coming out of Indonesia of the discovery of previously unknown plant and animal species in the far east of that nation. A team of entomologists from the University of Dusseldorf had been searching for new bog-bug phyla in the humid jungles of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian part of New Guinea.

After their guides mysteriously disappeared, the group wandered for days in a vain attempt to reach camp. Finally and quite unexpectantly, they staggered from the jungle onto a large plateau surrounded by a ring of mountains. The Germans stared in disbelief, for it was if they had arrived at some terrestrial Atlantis.

All around, covering the lush plateau, were giant fern-like plants, unlike any they had ever seen. Here and there grew groves of giant evergreen trees normally found only in high Alpine areas. The unspoiled plateau was also home to a diverse population of never before seen animals, including giant arboreal wombats and laughing shrews.

For two days, the university team recorded twelve new plant and eight new animal species. The night before being rescued from the highland Shangri-la, they heard a commotion outside the tents. Rolf Jensch, expedition photographer, crawled outside just in time to get a picture of surely the oddest inhabitant of that alien land – an eight foot long goliath bog-bug, pictured below.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dr. Seuss, Renaissance Man

Growing up quickly in the small town South, I missed an opportunity to read the wildly popular books of Dr. Seuss. When Horton Hears A Who came out in 1954, I was nine years old and more interested in the Brooklyn Dodgers and earning Cub Scout merit badges. I read reluctantly and only for homework assignments.

Thirty years and some forty books later, when Seuss’ controversial The Butter Battle Book was published, I struggled with the twin efforts of relocation and career change. Reading then, started and ended with a morning newspaper.

Only now, in the reflective period of life, have The Lorax, The Grinch and Yertle The Turtle made their presence known and ended up on my reading list. Perhaps only now does The Lorax’ charming call for environmental conservation hit home. The Better Butter Book’s less subtle stand against nuclear proliferation has as much meaning today as it did in 1984.

And just now a Dr. Seuss art exhibition provides a look at two other sides of the amazing writer and illustrator. Syd Entel Galleries in nearby Safety Harbor has mounted a month long show, and on a recent afternoon I had the entire gallery to myself.

Wandering the chronological exhibit, I was struck by Dr. Seuss’ editorial cartoons and educational films made in the army during World War II. His stands against fascism and ethnic and racial discrimination reveal a strong humanitarian side that would resurface in his children’s books.

The gallery also presented personal works that the public never saw – colorful surreal paintings and sculptures of fantasy creatures – all created late at night. In his long career, Dr. Seuss won three Academy Awards, an Emmy Award, and in 1984, the Pulitzer Prize. He impresses me as that rare artistic genius who cannot help but create masterworks in everything he touches.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Critic's Choice

For several years I belonged to a writers group that met every Friday at the local library. I learned how to critique from this diverse collection of writers, a seasoned bunch who could tell a newbie in the most diplomatic way his flash fiction stunk.

For three hours we gave and took with the best, and if not exactly rescuing Western literature, we did become better writers. Afterwards, some of the longer-winded convened at a Greek restaurant to continue the dialogue with dolmas and black coffee.

I returned home late in the afternoon, full, perhaps a bit brighter, but useless for the rest of the day. Being a reluctant member of the working class, I knew my literary Fridays could not last.

Later an opportunity I couldn’t refuse landed in my e-mail box – an invitation to join an on-line critique group. This group gave me all the advantages of the one at the library, plus an added bonus – I could critique at home.

Working from home lets me enjoy my natural slothfulness, and, while the old nine to five forced me to wear a management approved shirt, I can now sport my favorite Muppets tee-shirt, or, if I choose, no shirt at all. I just hope the critique group doesn’t decide to add video conferencing.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Here

I just realized I’ve spent three quarters of my life here in the humid flatlands of Florida; the state of hanging chads and sticking sand-spurs. A place where catfish walk and people cringe at the approach of monster hurricanes with girlie names. Here comes Hannah!

In Florida we are never far away from terra primeval. Alligators hunt in urban lakes not far from my home. Sharks patrol off both coasts, and when I turn off the lights, la cucaracha comes out to play.

These are all grist for the writing mill, and animals have figured prominently in much of my writing for children. I have written three funny field guides of wild critters and recently completed a wild animal alphabet book. As long as I continue to live in this state that sticks into the Gulf of Mexico like a dog’s wagging tail, I will have great writing material.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Writing Like Rodin

It seems to me that writing starts out being more like painting and ends up being like sculpture. Painting is mainly concerned with putting media on canvas, adding and adding, building up the surface until the desired results are achieved.

Sculpture, in contrast, begins with something already complete, like a block of fine marble. The marble is slowly, delicately chipped away until much later a work of art emerges.

Writing, at the beginning, flows like an abstract painting; complimentary ideas blend together and stand in stark contrast to earlier passages. Swirling word pictures lie thickly on the page. These layered, unconnected thoughts and loopy sentence structures resemble a Jackson Pollock painting.

Writing enters its sculptural phase when the writer takes his editing chisel and chips away at the dense verbosity. This paring down and discarding bits of unneeded words goes on until an underlying form appears. Like a sculptor, the writer strives to get at the nub of the piece, that point where most everything has been taken away and there is nothing more to say. And like a sculptor, the constant companion of writers is the question, “Have I gone too far?”