Giving In

By Rebecca Lawton (USA)
Previously published by Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal for the Arts

American Robin
When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on. Thirteen more days to go.

Common Poorwill
The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses. Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.


“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”


Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

Mountain Bluebird
At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here. Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

Franklin’s Gul l
At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

Calliope Hummingbird
On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.
You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.


Keeping the Mali Elephants Alive from Poachers

By Susan Canney (ILCW member UK)

Previously published on the WILD Foundation Blog


Three things have been keeping the elephants alive: the local people, Malian military patrols and the elephants themselves.


Last year the sudden dramatic escalation of poaching in the first half of 2015 was the result of a new development whereby international trafficking networks were directly targeting individuals in the elephant range to recruit them as guides and accomplices. At the same time local military were re-deployed to deal with unrest elsewhere in the country related to the signature of the Peace Accord between the Government and Tuareg rebels, and personnel changes in the Malian government delayed the training and deployment of the anti-poaching rangers, substantially increasing the Mali Elephant Project’s (MEP’s) workload.



While working on getting the rangers operational, the MEP continues to engage local communities (as funds and time allowed) to provide a continual reminder:

  • of the benefits of solidarity and that fighting poaching improves security;
  • of the benefits of elephants and of coming together to improve livelihoods for the benefit of all through collective resource management;
  • that those who poach are thieves as they steal for themselves that which belongs to the community;
  • and that poaching does not go undetected: the community knows who the poachers are.


Village meeting

Like people everywhere, there is a spectrum from those who are completely law-abiding to those who are criminal and need to be constrained by law enforcement. Between these extremes there are those who might be tempted if they feel they are in a situation where it’s “everyone for themselves”, as is often the case when there is an absence of government, lawlessness, uncertainty and threat to their security and livelihood, and the likelihood that their actions would be undiscovered.


Mali Elephant Project ranger in the Gourma

The MEP’s community work counters this by building solidarity and social cohesion through helping communities come together to create mutually beneficial systems of resource management that require collective work but benefit the livelihoods of all. Elders which constitute the management committees establish the social norms, including the branding of poachers as thieves, while the “brigades de surveillance” ensure that illegal activity is detected.


However law enforcement is also required to deal with those who kill elephants regardless of social norms, as well as to demonstrate the government presence that supports the rule of law, and supports community collective action.


Military patrols

Mali had no capacity to deal with the advent of elephant poaching in 2012. Since then the MEP has worked with the government to create a new ranger force from scratch.


Mali Elephant Project rangers

To cover the period until the ranger force was operational, the MEP raised money for patrols by the Malian military from local bases in the elephant range, who are so poorly resourced that they require additional money for fuel and food to be able to leave their bases. These were greeted with much enthusiasm by the local community who suffer from the thieving and lawlessness.


The elephants

The elephants have been helping by behaving very differently this year. Normally they would be in the north of their range moving between the series of semi-permanent water bodies formed by rainwater that collects in depressions. These lakes and drainage-ways are surrounded by dense thicket forest, which although it only covers a tiny proportion of the land surface, is a vital habitat for the elephants who spend over 90% of their time there, because not only do they find water and food, but also shade and refuge from humans. Normally they prefer the lakes and forests in the remote north where they are far from human settlement and their interaction with humans is minimized. As one lake dries they move on to the next until they all congregate together at Lake Banzena to pass the last few months of the dry season, as this is the only lake that holds water year-round, and is accessible to elephants.


Elephants and cattle at Banzena

This year, however they are not frequenting the forests and lakes of the previously tranquil north, even though good rains meant they are full of water. The elephants have changed their behaviour. Apart from a small group of around 14-20 in the Gossi corridor, they are gathered in large groups in the centre of their range, in the more secure areas close to the main road.


This may be because they remember that last year they experienced very heavy poaching in those northern areas, particularly in the vicinity of Banzena, and so have tried to avoid those areas. Another reason may be that there are jihadists and bandits hiding in their favourite forests. Or it may be a combination of both.


The left hand map shows the locations of poaching incidents in 2015 in relation to the elephant migration route shown in grey, as recorded by Save the Elephants’ GPS collar data. The right-hand map shows the 2016 distribution of elephants in red in February (as an example) compared to where they would usually be shown in green. As the year progressed elephants have been gradually moving to join the large herd at Inani. Usually they would spend several months at Lake Banzena but this year only one group of about 75 individuals “commutes” 35km from Inani to Banzena to drink but does not stay.




Unfortunately staying in the centre of their range brings them close to human settlements and increases the risk of conflict, particularly as the elephants are reported to be more aggressive and restless than usual. A large herd of over 100 spent the first months of the year at Lake Korarou far to the west of their usual range, in an area they haven’t used since the 1970s when human population densities were less. Unfortunately the people in these areas are not used to living with elephants and two people were killed through surprising elephants in a thicket forest. The MEP immediately visited the area and together with local dignitaries held community meetings to discuss the reasons, how to prevent such occurrences, how the MEP is working to prevent these kind of tragedies, express condolences and offer a small gift to the families afflicted. The communities of this area expressed their wish for help to develop the resource management systems established by the MEP.


The result

As a result of these three things poaching rates decreased from an average of 9.43 elephants killed per month from December 2014 to June 2015, to 3.90 elephants killed per month from July 2015 to April 2016.


This is despite a worsening security situation due to the emergence in 2015 of a new jihadist group called the Macina Liberation Front, allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One indicator of the level of security is the number of attacks registered in the elephant range by the Long War Journal which has increased sharply from none in 2014 to the numbers shown in the graph below. More attacks undermine the rule of law, deter government presence and embolden poachers.


Although poaching levels must be reduced further, this reduction extends the estimated date of population extirpation by almost 3 years, from August 2018 to June 2021. This assumes the current rate of loss continues, however it is unknown whether this would be the case. It may be that as elephant numbers are reduced, they are more difficult to find, poachers are less likely to encounter them, and the rate of loss slows. On the other hand this may make little difference because information on elephant locations is shared across the elephant range, and the poachers are willing and able to travel.


More information is required and the gathering of that information and acting upon it will be the task of the rangers … Who will hopefully be in action very soon.


To see all photos and other articles about the Mali Elephants go to the WILD Foundation Blog.


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