Monday, October 13, 2014

New Pictures of the Rarest Rhino

Five species of rhinoceros survive today. The smallest in number is the Javan rhino.

It is often said that the Sumatran is the most endangered species of rhino, even though at least three times as many of them live in the wild. Javans may be considered less under attack partially because of their elusiveness: in order to poach a rhinoceros, you have to be able to find it. No Javan rhino has survived more than a year in captivity since a male at the London Zoo, which passed away in 1885. Many recent expeditions have spent weeks on the trail only to come back without a single camera-trap photo. About 35 of these rhinos are estimated to live today in the jungles of the Ujung Kulon Peninsula. This is a geographical area of 1206 km2 on the western tip of Java, in stark contrast to their former range all over Southeast Asia.

Here’s where the story gets crazy: Ujung Kulon is in the path of destruction if/when the Krakatau volcano erupts again. This is the reason the area has been mostly abandoned by humans, allowing extraordinary flora and fauna to flourish in their absence. It also creates the terrible possibility that entire species—including the Javan rhino—will be utterly wiped out. My flash fiction “The Last Ultrasound” originally included a breakneck plot in which Krakatau erupts, but I abandoned it as too unwieldy for such a short story. Plantations of invasive palm trees that the rhinos can’t use further jeopardize their modest habitat.

To say that it’s unlikely I will ever see a Javan rhino in person is an understatement. Until recently, grainy low-res camera-trap photos were the only glimpse anyone ever got of these mysterious beings. The wonders of crowdfunding recently permitted professional photographer Steve Belcher to spend unprecedented patience floating along the rivers of Ujung Kulon in search of these rhinos—and he’s returned with some gorgeous treasures.

Also known as the lesser one-horned rhino, Javans have the same basic shape and coloring as Indian rhinos, but tend to be much smaller. Their skin lacks the bumpy quality of the Indian rhino and their features look softer, perhaps more juvenile. Unique among the species, it appears that females never grow the trademark rhino horn. Javans are also the best swimmers of all the rhinos. Rather than just standing in shallow water, they appear to be able to stay afloat and travel with purpose through the waterways of Ujung Kulon.

These pictures allow us to appreciate the finer details and perhaps some of the life force behind Javan rhinos even though we will never be in their presence. Let’s hope human beings and the massive volcano can leave these lovely creatures to flourish for much time to come.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Red-haired Beauty

A Greater One-Horned or Indian rhino (with ravishing locks of blond
hair on the ears only) at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
I recently made a promise to travel to Cincinnati, where a brown-eyed, red-haired beauty awaited, but probably not for long. The urgency to the pledge is that Harapan (“Harry” to his keepers) is currently the only Sumatran rhinoceros living outside of Indonesia. I believe he’ll soon join his kin and help freshen the DNA of the species.

Within Indonesia, only about 100 Sumatran rhinos thrive under heavy guard from passionately dedicated rangers. If only other people would leave them to it, the rhinos could thrive without the guard, but that’s the current state of the world.

A lovely black rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo. 
Sumatran rhinos are special beyond their rarity. They’re the only direct descendants of the extinct wooly rhinoceros, and they display that inheritance proudly with a unique coat of red hair. In contrast to their wooly ancestor, Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of the five remaining species, averaging a tidy half ton instead of an entire ton.

I’ve been the in presence of black, white, and Indian rhinos before and loved them all. I have a completist tendency, and when I heard about Harapan, his history as part of the success of Cincinnati’s breeding program made him all the more meaningful. When my day job slowed down, I asked my husband if he’d like to go on a road trip. We were concerned that we might drive nearly a thousand miles to arrive at an empty enclosure, so we wrote to the zoo to ask if there was any way we could be sure Harapan would be on public view on a given day. In the end, there was no way to be sure because of the Sumatran rhino’s “delicate” nature. Off we went, fueled by faith, through gorgeous fall colors and wind and rain. We stopped to see friends, but the rhino tension just kept mounting. Would we see this rarity or just go home?

When we awoke on the day, the rain was coming down so hard, I had the doom-and-gloom idea that Harapan wouldn’t even think about going outside to get pummeled by water and struck by lightning. Then my husband said the rain would keep the zoo from being very crowded, so we’d have him all to ourselves. I was a swirling yin-yang of hope and pessimism.

Coming in the zoo entrance, the Sumatran rhino area is tucked away where you have to be determined to see it, but if you are, it’s the first thing on the left. Visitors must go down a twisting ramp that keeps the exhibits tantalizingly out of direct view. I was running down the slope, holding my hood over my head against the rain, to see that the enclosure is covered by decorated tarps so no downpour can bother Harapan overmuch. All of a sudden, I saw him, coming out of his pool as if it were a day at the spa. I shouted back to my husband, and even to myself I sounded like Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: “There he is!” I guess we had the appropriate amount of sincerity.

Harapan the Sumatran rhino. 
What a handsome young rhino!

My impression is that Sumatran rhinos don’t photograph well. Before I went to Cincinnati, I couldn’t get much sense of personality from the pictures I’d seen. The camera picks up wrinkles and hairiness before what we might think of as more positive traits and often darkens the russet-colored hair. But as Harapan moved about with the casual grace of someone who knows he’s loved, I could find no fault with him.

He daintily probed the mud hole, considering whether or not he’d like to have a good roll, until he did, slathering his entire left side.

He looked a little like the Phantom of the Opera at that point. He rubbed against a post, looking as if he were in Indonesia marking the trees with his mud. He may have the chance to do that soon! Some more investigating all over the enclosure led him to the conclusion that the only way to clear the mud out of his eye was to get back in the pool.


At :43 he swipes near his eye with his three-toed foot—not a typical move for a quadruped, I don’t think.

Soon after, Harapan had had enough of our adoration and “left the building.” 

“These ten minutes were worth the thousand miles—or more,” said my husband. I couldn’t have said it better. We are fortunate beyond words to have been able to make such a meaningful journey. We now number among the lucky few who have spent a little time with a rare and enchanting Sumatran rhinoceros.

The sad fact is that there is another rhino species with even fewer living individuals than the Sumatran: the Javan. More on those extraordinary creatures coming soon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Road Trip, With Windmills

Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
The yellow plains undulate before you like a gigantic quilt. As you glide along, if you’ve seen three other cars today, it’s a lot. The quiet hum of a Spanish-engineered air conditioner insulates you from the explosive, desiccant sunlight. There are four big indicators that you’re not in Nevada or Arizona:

The three cars you’ve seen are Renaults or SEATs, like yours.

The speedometer shows a number that seems impossibly huge until you remember it’s in in kilometers.

There are no advertising billboards. Only the wordless Osbourne bull creates a black shadow on the horizon.

Over the a. c., you hear strumming guitars, hollow cajones, rhythmic clapping, and voices that are somehow mournful and the most joyous sound in the world.

Driving through Castilla and Andalusia is one of the greatest simple pleasures I’ve found in life. I last did this with the man I love beyond words during our honeymoon five years ago.

Recently, I discovered that through the wonder of the internet, I can listen to radio stations from Spain right here in the USA. The full sensory experience of Spanish road trips came rushing back to me. I want to send out my sincere thanks to whomever set up this miraculous web streaming.

And wish a happy anniversary to my sweet husband!


Monday, September 22, 2014

World Rhino Day 2014

It’s here! The greatest day of the year!

If you don’t know of any events taking place near you, you can still make a contribution simply by staying informed about rhino problems and also about what makes them so wonderful

The Stop Poaching Now! campaign includes practical, on the ground ideas for deterring and catching poachers as well as decreasing demand for horn, which is the only overarching solution. 

On October 4, the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos gives everyone a physical activity to do in support of anti-poaching efforts. There may be a march in a city near you!

My husband and I have supported rhinos every way we can feasibly think of, mainly with small monetary donations. Our up-close experience with two gorgeous white rhinos helped increase the joy quotient in the world, which is no small thing.

Additionally, on this day of concentrated rhinocity, I would like to make a couple of personal pledges.

Currently, I believe there is only one Sumatran rhino in the United States of America. His name is Harapan, and the future of his species may require that he be moved to Indonesia, where the few others of his kind live. If that happens, he’ll be that much less practical for my husband and I to visit. We pledge that we will visit Harapan within the year and tell you all about him. 

Second, I pledge that my next writing project will be for the rhinos. I’m planning it as a sort of thriller (which I’ve never attempted to write before, so we’ll just see how it works out) that will entertain at the same time it informs. When I’m writing a novel, I spend every spare moment thinking about and putting my passion into it. What better way to support the animals I most love than with the activity I most love?

Happy World Rhino Day. Celebrate rhinos today and every day and the world will be richer for it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Do You Want Your Books in Paper or Parchment?

Please welcome Kim Rendfeld to my blog. Kim's latest well-researched and heart-touching historical novel is The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar. I had a small part in bringing both of Kim's novels to publication, and she has read my Seven Noble Knights and provided invaluable historical insight. Today she's talking about something we of the 21st-century often take for granted: literacy.

Hrabanus Maurus presenting his book to Pope Gregory IV (Fulda, 831-840)
(Austrian National Library)
What a book was made of seems trivial, but that choice had consequences for the spread of knowledge in entire early medieval societies.

One thing that struck me in Jessica’s Seven Noble Knights was that literacy was so widespread on the Muslim side of the border in tenth-century Spain. Even the common soldiers could read and might own a book. No so in eighth-century Francia, the setting for my novels, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. In the world of my characters, few people could read, and even fewer could write.

The reason for this difference had nothing to do with intelligence. Rather, it was the material used to produce books. Muslims used paper, which was much more affordable than the parchment favored by Christians.

Parchment came from sheepskin, and one sheepskin produced two large pages. So, a large book required a lot of sheep. This meant that to have the raw materials for a book, you needed enough land to devote to feeding sheep instead of raising crops.

On top of that was the cost of labor. A normal size manuscript took a team of scribes two to three months to copy by hand, and then it was edited by the head of the shop. If the book had special merit, an artist would be brought in to decorate letters and paint leaves kept in reserve. After that, the book was assembled, and if expensive, bound, an innovation of the Carolingians. Really special books had gold or ivory in the binding.

So literacy – and the scientific, theological, and philosophic knowledge contained within books – was limited to the clergy and wealthy laity. In Francia, books were so precious that owners invoked dire consequences if they were damaged. One scribe wrote: “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

In an age where litanies were performed to gain God’s favor in an upcoming war, these are not empty words. If you borrowed a book, you would be especially motivated to take care of it. God’s anger was terrifying enough, but you certainly wouldn’t want to offend His Mother, whom you often asked to intercede for you.

Books are a new things for the main characters in my latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Not only are Leova and her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, illiterate Saxon peasants and recent converts to Christianity; they are taken to Francia from a culture that doesn’t have a written language as we know it. They are war captives sold into slavery, and although they learn a new spoken language, Roman, they never learn the written language of Latin.

In this excerpt, we’ll meet Thomas the clerk, one of the few literate people in this novel, and find out why it’s good to be friends with a guy who can read. Here, he is reading a message from Countess Gerhilda’s brother about the death of their father.

While Gerhilda bawled, Thomas silently read a few more lines, stared at Sunwynn, and squinted at the parchment. “I apologize, my lady, this parchment has been written on more than once and is hard to read.” He looked at Sunwynn’s face then at the parchment. “It has rained almost every day.”

Her brow furrowed, Sunwynn puzzled over Thomas’s actions. His explanation of why he had hesitated did not ring true. Why had he gazed at her after he read the message? Had he read something that concerned her? She had no idea what it could be. She was unimportant. Patting Gerhilda’s hand, Sunwynn felt ashamed for her relief that Gerhilda was too distracted to notice.

The clerk continued to read about spring planting and the number of men who went to war. When he finished the letter, he rolled the parchment. “I would advise against trading today, Countess.”

“No, not today,” Gerhilda said in a monotone.

Gerhilda released Sunwynn’s hand and wrapped her arms around her large belly. Sunwynn stood, stepped past her lady, and grabbed the half full cup.

“Let me fetch you some more wine, my lady,” she said softly, “to calm you and help the baby.”

“Don’t tarry.” Gerhilda’s eyes carried a plea, not an order.

“No, no, my lady. I promise.”

Hurrying toward the wine cellar, Sunwynn wondered how she could ask Thomas about the letter. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Thomas bow to Gerhilda and leave the hearth. Instead of going directly to the tower, he rubbed his forehead and said something about needing herbs for a headache. She slowed a little as she went through the door, and soon Thomas caught up with her. Walking alongside her, he did not seem ill at all.

When they were outside, Thomas looked over his shoulder, then directed his gaze toward Sunwynn. “There was something else in that letter,” he murmured.

“What is it?”

Thomas looked over his shoulder again. Sunwynn did the same. Servants were bustling about, but no one could overhear them if they kept their voices low.

“A Saxon slave has run away,” Thomas said.


Thomas offered his arm for support. Sunwynn grasped his forearm and leaned against him. She staggered forward, almost spilling the wine.

“So he is your kin?” Thomas asked.

“My brother.” Sunwynn gulped a mouthful of wine. “He must be mad. He will die out there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I needed to know. But why did you keep this from Gerhilda?”

“I’ve known of too many masters who punish the whole family for one servant’s misdeed. No good would come from punishing you and your mother, and I am…” Thomas shook his head. “You are a good woman.”

If circumstances were different, I would ask my brother to betroth me to you. Behind her, the sound of footsteps pounding against the hardened ground shook Sunwynn from her daydream. Releasing Thomas, she turned. The merchant was running toward her, his face pale, his eyes wide.

“Countess… in pain…”


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John Butt

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, like her on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to Do For the Rhinos?

There is far too little good news in the rhinoceros world. These extraordinary creatures have been on the brink for a few years now, and some now show that the poaching rate has overtaken the birth rate.

The good news is that there are easy things you can take part in to help!

The International Rhino Keeper Association's 2015 calendar is on sale now and will cost $22 until World Rhino Day (September 22). It's a huge bargain for twelve excellent rhino photos, 365 days of the year, and the knowledge that you will be helping to save the few remaining Javan rhinos.

The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos takes place October 4. Find out where the march is taking place near you and how to sign up. The postcards in this blog post have information for the one nearest me, Boston, Massachusetts.

Thelma and Louise will thank you!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Unusual Historicals: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

Alfonso X el Sabio as mediator in the F manuscript.
Today at Unusual Historicals I get to share with you the medieval phenomenon that occupied my every waking moment for three years, all told: the Cantigas de Santa Maria. I hope you can glimpse why there's so much to love about these thirteenth-century songs. Enjoy!