A glimpse into the Heart of Hell

I cannot even imagine how terrified and worried the people of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming are with this fire season literally blazing away.  Watching the news, viewing the pictures and video of the fires makes me shudder.  Most of the state of Wyoming is under a no burn ban…no wood campfires, no open fires of any kind, including a charcoal fire.  Heck, they’re even telling people they aren’t allowed to smoke in these areas, unless it’s in an enclosed vehicle or home, or unless you’ve cleared an area nine feet square.  And, when they say “cleared” they mean down to bare ground.  When Ken takes me “home” this summer, we’ll be taking the propane camp stove and grill.  Making ‘smores over a propane grill won’t be the same as over a campfire, but hey! I’m not going to burn down what’s left of the forest.
Despite the damage and destruction these fires are causing, there are bright spots.  So many of my Facebook friends are “dog people.”  We share a common interest in showing, raising, and breeding dogs.  When the fires started to threaten populated areas of Colorado, the word went out on Facebook that Person A had space to take X amount of dogs for the duration.  Person B had space to a few others.  Person C not only had room for dogs, but room for horses, as well.  One by one, forwarded message by forwarded message, dogs, horses, family pets, and families were given shelter from the infernos raging across the Intermountain west.  This is a good thing.
Yet, when I read the reports—that so many of these fires are burning in areas of old growth, with a lot of old, downed trees—I have to shake my head.  Didn’t those people who manage these forests learn anything from the Yellowstone fires?  In the “Summer of Fire” in 1988, precipitation was 150% above normal.  But, by the end of May, there was no rain.  And, no rain in June…sounding familiar?
Grant Village as Yellowstone burns during the Summer of Fire
Prior to the Yellowstone fires in 1988, the Forest Service had a policy of attempting to put out EVERY single fire, regardless of the cause.  Yellowstone National Park paid the price for that policy.  By not allowing fire—a natural event that often clears away dead brush, overgrowth, and downed trees—to wipe clean the landscape, the Forest Service literally created a tinder box.  Decades of mismanagement, by not allowing the forest to be cut (GASP!  Yes, I said “CUT!”) to thin out the trees, by not allowing the undergrowth to be removed, because for every ecologist/environmentalist who says we MUST thin the forest to sustain a healthy forest, there are at least ten environmentalists who will tie up a proposed cut or even a controlled burn for years in the courts and now coupled with devastating drought has created this glimpse into the heart of hell so many in the West are viewing. 
America’s public lands have undergone radical changes during the last century due to the suppression of fires and a lack of active forest and rangeland management. In healthy forests, low-intensity fires help rejuvenate habitat by clearing out underbrush and small trees, leaving an open forest with strong, fire-resistant, mature trees. Today, the forests and rangelands of the West have become unnaturally dense, and ecosystems have suffered.  Representative Doolittle (CA) stated back in 2003 that “Due to decades of mismanagement, the thinning of these forests remains largely unpracticed within our state, leaving forests that historically contained just 30 to 40 trees per acre, now filled with 300 to 400 trees per acre.”  That was in CA.  It’s no different in the Intermountain West.
Perhaps one of the most famous images of a forest fire: elk escaping a crown fire by standing in the middle of a stream
In Oregon, federal officials identified the Squires Peak area as a high fire risk in 1996, and began planning a project to thin crowded trees and dense underbrush on 24,000 acres. After six years of analysis and documentation, administrative appeals and two lawsuits, work was allowed to begin on 430 acres of the original 24,000-acre project. When lightning ignited the Squires Peak fire on July 13, 2002, with only a fraction of the area thinned, the fire quickly spread to 2,800 acres. The thinned area was unharmed by the fire. In un-thinned areas, the fire killed most trees, sterilized soils, and destroyed the habitat of threatened spotted owls. The fire cost $2 million to suppress, and $1 million will be needed to rehabilitate the devastated area.
I am certainly not advocating burning our National Forests, Grasslands, and Parks to the ground.  However, I am advocating that the forests must be thinned to allow for more mature trees, capable of withstanding a rapidly moving fire, to sustain the forest.  Yes, I know, some trees actually need a fire to cause the cones to open and disperse seeds.  A fast moving fire will do just that.  The problem is, even though most of the fires now in the west are spreading fast, they’re not moving from origin, because there is too much fuel for the fire.  They’re just growing larger.
Yellowstone management learned from the fires of 1988.  The policy was changed that if a fire in Yellowstone started because of natural causes (lightning strikes) the fire would be allowed to burn as it willed, and only man-made structures would be protected.  The Yellowstone eco-system is healthier for it.  There is no longer an accumulation of decades’ worth of tinder, granting fuel to a fire.  The new-growth trees that are growing in Yellowstone are now at least 20 years old.  Lightning started fires are allowed to burn, and they burn off the dead timber, destroy much younger trees, and keep the forest floor cleaner and less filled with combustible materials.
This really isn’t rocket science.  For thousands of years, forest fires raged, keeping the forests healthy, with mature trees, and rejuvenating the forest floor.  Maybe, it’s time to look at how we manage the forests and maybe, this time, it won’t be just Yellowstone where the fires are allowed to burn.  Maybe, we’ll finally admit that perhaps…just perhaps…Mother Nature might actually know what She’s doing. 
Or not…
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Rising from the watery depths

A few weeks ago, I went back to a dog show site I loved.  I loved the site, the town the show was held in, the ease of getting around and the comfort and security provided for the dogs at the show site.  I hadn’t been to this show site in a long time—not since a few months before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. 
flooding in Biloxi days after Katrina–courtesy of NOAA
Biloxi, a town I loved, was utterly devastated by Katrina.  I remembered what Biloxi looked like.  I saw the pictures of what Katrina did to my favorite town on the Gulf coast.  (For just the slightest idea of some of the destruction, go here http://llroberson.com/mskatrina.htm)  Even looking at the before/after Katrina pictures couldn’t have prepared me for the current reality of Biloxi.  Empty lot after empty lot stood gaping at the Gulf, like so many missing teeth in a smile.  Some of those lots had a house’s foundation, scrubbed clean by the power of Katrina.  Or, there were wide brick steps, leading into openness.  There was the occasional driveway, marking where a home had once stood.  Almost every one of those empty lots had realtor signs in them.  A few had braved tempting the Fates and rebuilt.  Many had not and will never rebuild.  I chose not to drive north into the other sections of Biloxi because I had been told along US 90 it had been a priority to clean up.  The interior of the town hadn’t been such a priority, I am assuming because that isn’t where the tourists go. 
My friend and I arrived in Biloxi a little after eleven  in the evening.  In the dark, the emptiness of those missing homes between Gulfport and Biloxi wasn’t so obvious or painful.  We went to the show site to set up exercise pens and give the “fur kids” a chance to potty.  After taking care of that, instead of heading back to Gulfport to check into our hotel, I told my friend I wanted to head east on US 90 and see how bad it still was.  I already had a good idea.  All the bright lights of the casinos that used to line the Gulf side of 90 were gone: The Presidents, The Grand, Treasure Bay’s massive boat…gone.  As I turned east onto 90 out of the Coliseum, I started crying.  Right next to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum and Convention Center had been Beauvior, Jefferson Davis’s home.  I knew it had been damaged heavily – to the point that there was speculation it would never be repaired.
Brilliant light flooded the area, and like a shining beacon, Beauvior rose into the humid night, completely renovated and gleaming in white.  I’m not making any judgment on the politics and thoughts of the Civil War but I know how my gut twisted when I saw what that hurricane had done to Beauvior.  To see her standing tall, and proud, and restored, bathed in spotlights, brought tears to my eyes.  That home housed history and no matter how anyone feels about the personalities, politics, beliefs, and cultural norms of a society which shaped events to create history—history is worth saving and learning from.  History is neutral.  We bring the connotations: good, bad or indifferent to history. 
We continued to drive east along what used to be Casino Row.  What I saw was long stretches of beach.  Daylight didn’t make it much better.  Those gaping holes on the beach front hurt, until I saw what had been done with the jetty were The Presidents’ Casino used to stand.  It has been turned into a park and campground.  My friend and I looked at one another and just started to grin.  Biloxi is recovering.  Katrina dealt her a terrible body blow, but she is recovering.
That first evening, after showing, we took Jadelynn down to the beach, so she could go play in the sand.  I took a picture of her playing in the gathering twilight at water’s edge and realized when I uploaded the pictures that the jetty encroaching into the Gulf was where The Presidents casino had been.  We were on the beach just west of where the massive pirate boat of Treasure Bay Casino had been “moored.”  The following pictures show the boat in all her glory, just hours before Katrina hit.  The leading edge of the center of the storm is visible on the left side of the photograph.  The next image was taken during a lull in the storm.  Note where the boat is in relationship to the turreted entrance.  And, the last shot is what was left of the boat after Katrina was done.
One last look
ripped from her moorings
all that was left
The section of the coast from Pas Christian to Biloxi (and parts of Mobile) were hit the hardest by Katrina.  The damage done to New Orleans was not from Katrina directly but from arrogance and stupidity. (“Let’s build a football stadium to bring in more tourists and tourist money instead of shoring up the levy system—which even though the Army Corp of Engineers has been saying for half a century needs to be done—we’ll just hope for the best and pray we don’t get hit by a major hurricane.”  In a nutshell, that was the thought process of the elected officials in New Orleans and Louisiana.)   However, as I wrote, Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are slowly recovering.  The gut punch of the BP oil spill didn’t help the recovery.  The white sand beaches are pristine.  Just don’t dig down more than a few inches into the sand out past the water line.  You will find oil. 
the grayish green showing in the wave sculpted sand is shallowly buried oil from the BP spill
All that being said, I intend to return to Biloxi.  It was always one of my favorite show sites.  I intend to spend money there.  And, I will help with the recovery of the Gulf Coast.  So, come on down, y’all.  

blowing in the wind

It’s hot.  Here in central Indiana, it’s really hot.  The actual air temperature at 6:00 PM was 96 degrees.  It’s also so dry here that even the usual summer humidity can’t build up, so there wasn’t a heat index today.  Small blessings, I guess. 
Most of the time, the heat doesn’t bother me because about 6:00 AM, I bring the doggies into the house, put them in their crates in the basement, crank up the fans for them, shut the lights off and they snooze the day away in a climate controlled, dark basement and I find all kinds of things to do in the house.  Unfortunately, our central air unit gave up the ghost on Sunday and it will be at least a week before the parts needed to fix it will be in, so the fur kids have lost their fans.  They’re still in the basement during the day because it is cooler (85 degrees instead of almost 100), but they’re without the fans.  And, we’re old schooling it—windows wide open, fans pulling in the cool night air or reversed to pull the heat out of the house during the day.    
It’s very interesting the memories that the sound of a fan blowing in a window has evoked…most of the memories good ones.  When I was a kid, my brothers and I had bedrooms on the second floor of our house.  I had the good room—totally shaded all day by a huge old elm tree.  At night, we all had our fans running because to install central air in that old house would have cost a fortune my parents just didn’t have.  Mom and Dad had a window unit air conditioner in their bedroom and looking back, I don’t really recall a night when it was too hot to sleep or that any of us three kids asked to sleep in the air conditioning.  Most nights, because of that window unit, Mom and Dad couldn’t hear me and my brothers giggling and talking until all hours of the night, planning the next great adventure we would undertake in the morning.  During my childhood, our suburban life was nestled into a part of an old forest.  We caught tadpoles, and later frogs and toads, waded in ponds, played in mud, built a tree house and fort, made bike paths through the trees…things I wouldn’t dream of letting a kid do now in that neighborhood, even if the trees were still standing.  
Later, during my first marriage, I lived in a small town in Wisconsin called Palmyra.  The house we rented had a covered, screened-in back porch.  That house was so brutally hot during the summer because of its design.  There wasn’t a single window lined up with another to provide a cross breeze, no matter how many fans we had.  I remember writing—on a Brother typewriter—one of my first complete manuscripts on that screened-in porch.  I wrote in relative comfort on that porch because I had two big fans out there providing incredible cross ventilation—no matter how hot it was.  I had a table out there, a couple of chairs, and when it got too unbearable in the house, I moved the two kids out there to sleep at night—or at least until the house cooled off about one or two in the morning.  Even at two years old and the other at fourteen months, they both thought it was a grand adventure to sleep out on the porch where Mommy wrote.  There was a window unit in the “master” bedroom, but I couldn’t tell you how well it worked because I tried not to spend too much time in that room.  (There were a lot of reasons why we’re exes…)
It’s the drone of the fans now that bring to mind those hours spent on that screened in porch, writing until the very small hours of the night.  Over the hypnotic whirling of the blades, I could always hear the crickets in the grass, and the buzzing of the June bugs, the chirping and peeping of the tree frogs, as well as the distant barking and yapping of coyotes (and one of these days, I’m going to blog about what a survivalist and adaptive genius the coyote is).  It was on that porch that I first realized I could write a whole novel.  It was on that porch I learned to listen to the voices in my head and that hearing those voices didn’t make me any crazier than the next person.  It was there that I began to develop my own voice. 
I’m sitting at keyboard, instead of a typewriter and once more, I’m listening to the drone of the fan blades.  And, I’m finding that I kind of like that sound again, because even though not all of the memories that sound brings to the surface are good memories, they are memories of times that shaped who I am and gave birth to my creative voice. 
Now, if only the parts for the central air conditioning unit would come in sooner…

SHUT UP!

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a let-down after sending that last round of edits to an editor.  There is still one more round of editing to go, but that’s mainly for typos, missing punctuation, and formatting.  That’s not changing words, tightening story lines, or filling in plot holes. 
And, I’m not even sure if it’s a let-down or if it’s the realization that I’ve finally let my baby go into the world, where it will sink or swim on its own merit.  Any author will tell you, there comes a time when as a writer, you have to stop tinkering, stop puttering around with the words, and let that writing go out into the world.  The other night, I was re-reading the critical introduction to my master’s creative thesis, and while I thought, “Dang!  That’s good!” there were still places where I wanted to change things.  And, I’ve had my master’s for almost three years now.  If I was honest with myself, I could have written more in that critical introduction, could have changed a lot of things—but there came a point in time when I had to let it go and give it to my master’s committee. 
The same with any novel.  There is a point when as an author, I have to say to myself, “Stop!”  If I don’t say that, I would never stop writing and rewriting a manuscript.  I have to admit to myself that it’s not perfect, it never will be, but the manuscript is as good as I can make it and live with. 
For a while, I was hung up on making the first draft PERFECT.  Needless to say, I never got past the first couple of pages, because I was so concerned with making it perfect that I couldn’t keep writing.  One of my friends, who wrote for a while, never got past that “It has to be perfect!” in the first draft stage.  And, I think the world lost a wonderful fantasy writer because she couldn’t make that internal editor shut up.  I read some of her early stuff and was blown away with the detail, the richness, and the depth that she wrote.  It’s a real pity that she could never get past the first ten or fifteen pages because her internal editor wouldn’t let her go on until those first pages were perfect.  And, because she couldn’t make that internal editor happy, those first pages never were perfect.
What got me over needing to make the first draft perfect were a couple of things.  The first was I learned how to turn off the internal editor.  Even when the editor was screaming things weren’t perfect, I forced myself to keep writing.  I told the editor that I could go back and fix what wasn’t perfect.  And, to reinforce that resolve to keep writing, I made a sign to hang over my desk that was a quote of Ernest Hemingway.  That quote reads, “The first draft is always SHIT.” 
I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway, but seeing those words allowed me to turn off the editor. 
I could also mention the other quote I have hanging over my desk, but then I’d also have to try to explain Derrida and his literary theory and I don’t think there’s enough time left in the universe to explain deconstructionist theory.  (Even though I admit, when it came time to write critical literary papers during my master’s program, that was my favorite form of literary criticism to use, because all of life is about assumed and imposed binaries.) 
The second thing that got me over needing to make that first draft perfect was my friend.  It was so frustrating to hear the excitement in her voice when she got an idea for a new book, and she’d start writing, and a few weeks later, to hear the absolute dejection in her voice because she couldn’t make it perfect.  And, for her, it had to be perfect before she could continue.  I refused to allow the characters who spoke so strongly to me—strongly enough that I had to sit down and write their story—die a quiet death because I couldn’t get past the needing to make it perfect.  So many wonderful characters that my friend created died, their voices never heard, their worlds never explored—all because she couldn’t make her internal editor shut up.  I wasn’t going to do that to my characters, and I wasn’t going to be that author.  If my characters die, it’s because I wrote their deaths—crying (or in some cases, feeling a grim sense of satisfaction) the whole time.

It’s Here!

It’s here!  The cover for The Devil’s Own Desperado arrived while I was in Biloxi for the last five days playing dog show.  It’s beyond what I imagined.  All I can say is that the art department at the Wild Rose Press is full of talented, creative people.  Debby Taylor, who did my cover, took my suggestions and created this.  I am so pleased with this cover.  Maybe because it’s my first but I am just over the moon with it.
And, the cover now has me believing that it’s finally real.  I am going to be published in book length.  All the years of hard work, all the rejection slips, all the false starts (including one with an agent that was more predator than anything else) are finally beginning to pay off. 
I’ve been writing since I was in high school.  Some of those stories I still have, in hard copy, and when I go back and reread them, I shudder.  What in the sam hill was I thinking?  Oh, wait…I was starting…and it shows in the writing.  The writing was full of purple prose, over the top descriptions, choking with clichés, stereotypes, cardboard figures…you name it, it was in those first tottering steps.  Others, written later (much later), were better.  One of my favorites, which probably will never see the light of day other than the few very close friends who have read it, is tightly written, fast paced, and has a hero who is very near and dear to my heart.  He’s beyond wounded—he’s completely crippled by the events that have shaped his past, and the manner that he chose to shape those events.  (I think that’s the reason why I like dark, tormented, Gothic heroes so—can anyone say “Severus Snape”?) 
And yet with each story that I wrote, each attempt to land an agent or a publishing contract, I grew as a writer.  I learned.  I honed my craft.  I will be the first to admit that I am still learning, growing, and honing my ability as a writer. 
Someone once said that the writing life isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s usually a long, hard slog.  There are setbacks, disappointments, dismal failures—and then comes the request to see the complete manuscript.  And then comes the statement “I’d like to offer you a contract for publication.”  Even after signing the contract, after joining the list-serve board for the authors at my publication house, even after working on now two rounds of edits, I still wasn’t sure it was real.  Part of me kept saying it couldn’t be real, it was just a dream…
This says it’s not a dream.  That’s my book’s cover!