The Owl and the Maples

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The owl waits on the branch of a cedar tree. I drift closer. He looks at me. I pause, there, among the ferns, and atop the old, creek-sweetened leaves. I cross my arms over my chest. I stand still. The owl raises and lowers his wings. This is not a threat, but a stretch. Our eyes meet, for a moment. He looks away. Slowly, and with great patience. He’s not afraid of me. We are simply two animals in the forest. I stand for a great long while. I watch. Wherever the owl looks, I look. A crow calls from across the creek, and the owl’s head whirls backward. A squirrel whistles from the top of the maple, and the owl’s head shoots up. But after every disruption, the owl glances at the sky with something like reverence, and then he closes his eyes, just briefly. The wind blows. We both look up. All at once, the samaras fall from the maples. Like rain. Hundreds of them, twirling as they fall, a rust-brown the color of bark. I remember being a kid and throwing them up in the air, just to see them twirl down like helicopters. Now they are falling of their own accord. The owl and I watch. We breathe. Not one samara hits me. Not one. They fall around me, at my feet. I pick one up, and I throw it in the air.

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The Earth Itself

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After everyone has gone to bed, I sit on the sand. The lake pulls quietly inward, lapping against the velvet rocks. Above me, and above the purple lake, Ursa Major appears, star upon star, from the blue-lit ether. It pulls on me — the lake, and the deep-time silence that writhes in the wind, and in the mountains, and in the low, dark roots of the pine-mat manzanita. I feel the unfolding of blue, of sunsets sacrificed into the same tree-fringed hills for millennia. How this was once a glacier, high in the pristine paleolithic air, and now, kayaks and howling children linger on the bows of the lake. Behind me, the moon lines the trees with a white like salt. Mineral white. Desert white. I feel that I should draw in the sand. I should dance a slow, secret ritual, or kneel at the point where the moonlight hits the earth. Instead I turn back to Ursa Major, and I listen for the silence. It buzzes in my ears. The silence is its own music. It is the earth itself. It is the dance and the waters of time. I feel it pull up, and out, and around my chest, the thud of the night air, the unchanged lake, the windless millennia, the bright and ancient drumming of the earth. I have found something lost to me. I am whole again.

The Seas of Distant Stars

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My new book comes out August 7th! When I tell people about The Seas of Distant Stars, I say it’s about a human girl who’s kidnapped by aliens. Which is true, but here’s the official description:

Agapanthus was kidnapped when she was only two years old, but she doesn’t remember it. In fact, she doesn’t remember her home planet at all. All she knows is Deeyae, the land of two suns; the land of great, red waters. Her foster-family cares for her, and at first that’s enough. But, as she grows older, Agapanthus is bothered by the differences between them. As an Exchanger, she’s frail and tall, not short and strong. And, even though she was raised Deeyan, she certainly isn’t treated like one. One day, an Exchanger boy completes the Deeyan rite-of-passage, and Agapanthus is inspired to try the same. But, when she teams up with him, her quest to become Deeyan transforms into her quest to find the truth―of who she is, and of which star she belongs to.

My biggest inspiration in writing this book were the works of Ursula Le Guin. I wanted to combine the beautiful prose and strong character development of literary fiction with the limitless plot possibilities of science fiction. If asked what genre this book falls in to, I would say literary science fiction.

This is my third novel. My first two–Call of the Sun Child and Listenare for young adults, but The Seas of Distant Stars is aimed at adult readers. I wrote it when I was 22, and now I’m 25, which tells you just how long it takes to get a book published! I’ve been lucky to have the same great indie publisher–Homebound Publications–for all three books.

So far the reviews for The Seas of Distant Stars have been positive:

Lara Campbell McGeheeMidwest ReviewPublishers Weekly

You can find The Seas of Distant Stars wherever books are sold! Let the countdown to August 7th begin.

The Rabbit Kingdom

 

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Image courtesy of The Epoch Times

 

The aspen trees shimmered above us, silver as starlight, and the cottonwoods streamed, feral, across the grass sea. Something brown and close to the earth darted toward the stage. A rabbit. White cottontail. Soft brown fur, close-cut and smooth like moss. We crept closer. Two more rabbits surfaced from their bush kingdom. I tip-toed closer. I crouched. They took this as a threat and jumped silently into the brambles, to the dark, sunless underbelly of things. We continued on. I stopped to admire a carpet of wood sorrel, when another rabbit surfaced. Then two, then four. Around the bend and–three more, their noses twitching against the twilight grass, their leg muscles tense and stringy and poised to flee when we passed the threshold of their kingdom. Out of the trees and into the garden. Three more waited in the grass. And then they retreated to the blackberry bushes. They waited for our footsteps to wane, and at last they reclaimed their places in the setting sun.

Lake Powell

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I think I know why the desert seems alive; because it is. Because here you can see the earth itself, the shifting, deep-time rock, and you can see quite clearly that it’s as alive as any plant or animal. And you can see the place where the rain forms, the gray sea-like air as it churns on itself, around, around, dark enough to obscure a mountain. The water does not belong here. This would be canyons. It would be deep, smooth walls of red dirt.  Yet it is beautiful. Once a sea, water again. It joins the cliff-sides seamlessly. They reflect onto each other, the pinks and reds and pale-greens molded into one flat pool, like a painting, like spilled light, these colors that have not mixed in millions of years.

Magpies

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Photo credit: Yoo Chung.

 

Magpies know their own faces. Put a mirror in front of them, and they know it’s them, and not another bird. During one particular study, scientists placed a white mark on the chest of a captive magpie named Gerti. The mark, situated just below Gerti’s beak, was only visible in the mirror. Gerti, the clever bird that he was, noticed the mark immediately, and he began to claw at it, using his reflection as a guide.

 

As far as we know, only a few species can recognize their own reflections—Asian elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, humans, and magpies. Thus far, mirror-recognition studies have focused on the European magpie (Pica pica), but it’s likely that their new-world counterpart, the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia), has similar abilities.

 

Black-billed magpies are some of the most common birds in the interior west. They fly in short bursts, and their wings flick out like paper fans, exposing glossy, ivory-white undersides. A deep, jeweled blue runs along their sides and all the way down their tails. As magpies pump through the air, their long tails sail behind them, like pieces of blue-black ribbon aloft, and wavering.

 

They live among us, in small towns, suburbs, and cities. One can see them hopping across lawns, or swooping down over parking lots, their iridescent tails streaming behind them. To some, magpies are thought of as troublemakers—they’re slandered as thieves, and pests, because, at times, they dine on our blueberry patches, or snatch pretzels from our picnic tables.

 

Admittedly, magpies are opportunists. Unlike many other birds, magpies can smell, and they use this sense to help with their thievery. They steal meat from the mouths of coyotes. They scavenge ticks from the backs of moose. And, if they come upon more ticks than they can eat, they’ll store their catch for later, keeping the ticks alive so they can reproduce.

 

Perhaps because of the magpie’s trickster image, many humans feel animosity towards them. A quick YouTube search for “magpies roosting” turns up, not magpies roosting, but videos of dead magpies, laid limply on the soil, often next to the guns that shot them. One video is titled “Air Rifle Hunting – Magpies Pest Control”. Another is called “Air Rifle Hunting. Another Magpie in The Bag.” Yet another is called “Should You Hate Magpies?”

 

Few humans appreciate the magpie’s guttural squawk, which is a call similar to that of its cousin, the crow. Like crows, magpies are social, and brave—if provoked, they’ll stand up to owls, hawks, and other raptors, through a group-attack behavior known as “mobbing”.  In the bird world, magpies are both fearless and feared. Smaller songbirds hide from them, and, because of this, many bird-lovers shoo magpies from bird feeders.

 

To some, magpies are associated with superstition. In the British Isles, it’s considered bad luck to see a magpie flying alone. Magpies mate for life, and, if all is well, they rarely separate from their partner.

 

Magpie couples spend five months building nests from branches, roots, leaves, and grass. Often, multiple magpie families nest in the same trees or shrubs, forming colonies that can number in the hundreds. At night they roost together for protection and companionship.

 

Chicks stay with their parents for about two months, and then they fly out into the world, banding together with other young magpies in the community. In spring, unmated magpies meet up in congregations known as “Magpie Parliaments”, where they have the chance to mingle and find their mates.

 

When a magpie dies, whether by fault of a gun, car, or natural causes, his fellow magpies hold something like a funeral service. The first magpie to discover the body calls wildly—yelling, crying. A circle of magpies forms around the body. They stand watch over their deceased friend for hours. They fight off foxes or coyotes who threaten to take his body away. All the while, their cries of distress continue, again and again, over and over, their necks hunched, their eyes locked on their friend. Very carefully, they nudge his body with their beaks, grooming his feathers, tugging at them, remembering their particular sheen and softness. Their movements are slow, and full of deliberation. Every so often, they nudge him again, gently, with the edges of their claws, in a desperate attempt to stir him awake. At dusk they take his body in their beaks and drag him to a safe, covered spot beneath a bush. His mate lingers at his side, still plucking desperately at his feathers. At last, when the sun falls, she says her one, final good-bye, and, heavily, emptily, she flies away, and she leaves him.

The Fern Tree

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You do not sleep, fern tree. You stand awake, with moonlight on your shoulders. Behind you, Venus descends, slows, and dissipates, like a stone into water, but you do not move. At dawn the steller’s jays sway on your branches. Their feet clasp, and together you and the birds rustle, touched by the shallow milk of rising dew. The robins awaken. Yes, all of them. They call to each other—up-down-chip-chip-chip, in the smallness of morning.

 
At your feet, the creek migrates north, then east to the Willamette River. A decade ago one of your branches fell into the water. It remains there, spongy, softening, mossy. The current forms a diamond around it, and tugs it gently onward.

 
So, too, do your leaves join the soil. They sharpen, and crunch, and feather into lacey ghosts. The soil asks for them; demands them as a blanket so the salmonberries and the waterleaf may grow. You do not mind it, fern tree. You are blessed; you are a god, a great bridge across the forest, multi-trunked, invincible, your branches draped by thin-papered ferns that crisp in summer and glow sorrel-green in winter.  You will not die, not entirely. You will spout new trunks and the ferns will flock to you.

 
Two spotted-towhees rest in the elderberry bush. A cloud of chickadees joins them, along with a lone kinglet whose wings tremble like a hummingbird’s. They visit the cedars and the hemlocks; the baby ash, and your brother maples; but they do not visit you, fern tree. The jays have claimed you.

 
Night returns. You are silver; a strand of the moon, a keeper of wayward sunlight. Your leaves remain warm. The wind sifts in slowly, as though from the ground. You cannot help yourself; you sing your own night song, a whisper that is blue and ancient, and you join the birds in their nestling.

Behind the Fog

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When I see fog, I think of sunlight. I think of the string of clear days at the beginning of each December where the sky blushes blue and cold. I think of a stream I once saw, tucked into a shore-pine forest by the ocean, how I wandered there at dawn in a sea of fog and huckleberries, how, as an owl sang curtly in the distance, I stopped to watch two swans glide like ghosts above the mirrored water, their necks bent, their eyes calm and speckled with dew. I think of a hill in town, the douglas firs who grow there, how the fog peels off their branches in the mornings, how it rises, how it lifts, how it leaves behind a rich, dark green that makes me homesick when I see it elsewhere.

Past and Future

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How can we ever belong to this place? Here, lands were stolen and degraded, peoples were killed and sent away. Here, the future is threatened by rising waters, beetle-withered pine forests, dry winters; by emptiness, and loss.

What’s already happened, and what is to come–they are two stone walls on either side of us. At either end there is some sort of light, but it is milky and subdued, like the sun submerged in water.

Either way you run, the walls get longer. They stretch back to the time before humans, and forward to the time when you and I will be gone.

And what if you sit, down in this crevice, and feel the cold spread over your arm-skin, the shadow of the sun, the sun that is holy and sacred but is not your god and cannot be because it was already stolen from someone else?

And the soil, here, that is bled of life, by, not you, but your ancestors? The dark, moon-like soil that was once rich with thousands of lives? That is not yours either. You are not of it. You are not of anywhere. Not time, not place. That is the dilemma. That is how we got here.

Coyote Gulch

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Down low, in the golden grass, I sit and watch the scrub oak, bled of sun, and the cottonwood, who stands below us in the canyon, his leaves immovable in the warm silence, the bright walls, the dying sun, the painted light, the circular, dry plumes of wind, the crickets and the stream, the long stripes of black against the cliffs, and I, down low in the grass, I can feel the Earth, I can smell the sand and the leaf-decay in the water, hear the slosh of my boots against mud and stone. Above us, the sky drapes itself across the cliffs, an heirloom blanket, a dying world, the sky of ancient Mars, red rock smoothed into circles and fans and waves, the imprints of an aboriginal sea, the light of stars that have since died, the dying, the long shadows, humped, human-like, as they pour into holes in the stone, the windows, the eyes, the place where the stone watches us, the place where I lay in the grass, the place where the sun turns to stone.