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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I may well be the last person to read Vampires in the Lemon Grove. (I hope not! I hope many more readers discover its delights!) But I just heard the news of the title story from Karen Russell's first collection being developed for ABC. That is a beautiful event that deserves celebration: a wonderfully strange piece of literature of the type I most admire and aspire to, translated to other, more popular media! So I'm going to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about her second story collection, which happens to have a title appropriate for the week before Halloween.

It's hard for me remember that Karen Russell is a bestselling author. Of course I'm glad she is and don't begrudge her any other honors—just the opposite. It's just that when I read her stories, I always think she's speaking directly to me and no one else could possibly enjoy this writing as much as I do. That illusion of intimacy when apparently the books appeal to tons of other readers is the sign of literature that will last.

There are some pretty creepy stories in Vampires, if you like that kind of thing. Each story is memorable for its startling way of presenting weird images as familiar. Take, for example, a mangy seagull. Anyone who's spent time living near the sea knows them to be pretty annoying. But as annoying as the seagulls in Karen Russell's world? I had no idea. And most readers know that if a character bullies someone, he'll be haunted—but never before quite like this.

I don't lean toward the darkness in general. While there's plenty of darkness here, in contrast to the first collection, in Vampires it serves to cause real change in most of the characters and, in some cases, to contrast with the light at the end of their journey.

For me, the most amazing journey takes place in "The New Veterans." A massage therapist with her own issues comes into her power as a healer when working on a man with PTSD. In her dealings with him, the implicit question is whether it is more important to uphold "the truth" or to heal. I know what I think, and apparently Karen Russell agrees.

If you've missed Vampires in the Lemon Grove so far, don't hesitate to pick it up now. There's something here for every reader.

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.