LAURENCE PRINGLE'S BLOG
March 7, 2017
I recently had the great treat of reading, and observing, Melissa Sweet's book, Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White. I say 'observing" because the book is so richly illustrated by Melissa Sweet and with many photos that trace White's life from childhood onward. I've long admired White's writing, especially in Charlotte's Web, and was intrigued by details about his work on that book. I can recite the first sentence (beginning, "Where's Poppa going with that axe?") but learned that White had several other beginnings before choosing that. And the evidence is there on the page: actual copies of White's handwritten first page, his crossed-out sentences. A couple of typewritten pages are shown too, again with White's revising and editing marks. For me these are treasures, revealing the writing process of a great writer. Today most writers, great or not, often edit on a screen or on a printed page. They make changes, save those changes, and instantly print a new version. The first draft, the 4th draft, the 20th draft, etc. vanish, probably never seen again. Maybe this is not a great loss, but I'm glad that some bits of E. B. White's writing process can be seen today.
February 2, 2017
Groundhog Day is special for me. Long ago on this date I gave gifts to my children Heidi, Jeffrey, and Sean. Their presents were wrapped in plain brown paper, and marked with the "paw print" of the Great Groundhog. And I always link February 2 with spring. Why spring? In the northern half of Earth the day length grows through January and into February, a trigger to male songbirds to give their spring mating songs. So by February 2 we can hear at least 7 or 8 species singing--daily reminders that real spring is on its way.
I'm fond of groundhogs, also known as woodchucks (though not when one feasts on plants in the vegetable garden). However, the myth that a groundhog has the power to predict weeks of future weather is beyond silly. You know the story: if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. On a cloudy day there is no shadow: an early spring! It occurs to me that we don't need a groundhog for this "prediction." We can use a stick in the ground, or a pole, or a tree, or a person--anything standing outdoors! All casting a shadow--or not. Give it a try. Go outside during the day on February 2. If it's sunny, you will see your shadow. If it is cloudy, you won't. Congratulations on your amazing powers of weather prediction!
February 1, 2017
Many people who put out seeds and suet for birds in the winter get to see "the freeze." This is what I call it. Ornithologists (scientists who study birds) and others might call it something else. It is common bird behavior, fascinating to witness. Here's what happens:
A variety of birds are busy, coming and going, grabbing sunflower seeds, pecking at suet. Then they freeze in their positions and don't move. Minute after minute (for as long as 7-8 minutes) they stay--clinging to tree bark, perched on branches and twigs or on the wooden seed feeder. You can probably guess why this happens. A bird gave an alarm call. Sometimes I hear it--for example, the loud cry of a jay. Often I don't hear it, but the birds do. They heard a warning, a "predator alert." Around here the threat can be very real, as a sharp-shinned hawk sometimes darts in to catch a bird for its own food. (By attracting doves, woodpeckers, juncos, and others, I am running a feeder for hawks!) Frequently, the alarms are "false." No hawk zooms in. But the birds always heed the warning and stay still, in "the freeze." Eventually, one or two of the smaller birds move, fly to the feeder, go back to life. Then all species "thaw out"--until the next "freeze."
January 10, 2017
Yesterday I submitted a manuscript of a book--Elephants! Strange and Wonderful--that will be published a long time from now, 2019. I'm excited about it, about the process so far, which includes research on these extraordinary animals, and the writing just ended. The rest of the long process includes comments from my editor and an elephant scientist, both of whom will help make the book better. Then artist Meryl Henderson will devote several months creating her usual wonderful illustrations.
In all writing, and maybe especially in writing nonfiction, a lot has to be left out. That seemed particularly true on this subject. I felt I could write much more about one elephant body part: the trunk. There is no other animal part quite like it. (It can be used to sniff odors, spray water, hug, grab food, and much more.) And so much can be written about the awful reality of wild elephants today, with great loss of their natural habitats, and being killed so that people can have jewelry, trinkets, and other objects carved from the ivory of their tusks. Fortunately, my writing ended on a slightly hopeful note as the Chinese government just vowed to end the whole ivory business in that nation (where more than half of all ivory-made products are sold). Say No to Ivory!
December 22, 2016
For many years, I put beef suet in a wire feeder attached to an oak tree near our house, easily visible from my office window. I watched as birds came for this highly-prized food. I watched red-bellied woodpeckers boss the blue jays and the jays boss the smaller downy woodpeckers and the downies boss the smaller white-breasted nuthatches, etc. There was sharp competition for the "honor" of being at the feeder. (This could be called a "pecking order.")
Witnessed the waiting lines, I tried something new: put a piece of suet in the feeder but also smeared suet on the rough bark all around the general area. Wow, what a difference! Here is what happens at, say, 7 a.m. I spread suet around the rough bark. A nuthatch calls, a long excited message, maybe just meant for nuthatches, but other species hear it. Even before I'm back in the house, several species of birds are sharing the suet. The battle over one specific spot is gone. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, 2-3 species of woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals come in. Even juncos and white-throated sparrows, usually ground-feeders, leap up to share the feast. Of course the suet supply doesn't last a long time, but witnessing this sharing is always a treat--another special moment in the life of a nonfiction nature- and science-writing author!
November 29, 2016
In Trevor Noah's newly published autobiography, BORN A CRIME, he writes this about his childhood: "I didn't have any friends. I didn't know any kids besides my cousins. I wasn't a lonely kid--I was good at being alone. I'd read books, play with a toy that I had, make up imaginary worlds. I lived inside my head. To this day you can leave me alone for hours and I'm perfectly happy entertaining myself."
Though our childhoods were vastly different, mine was like his in this one way. You could say I was a neglected child. My brother and I were very different. We clashed and competed for scare parental attention. So I was alone a lot, but not lonely. I had books to read and--especially--I had the outdoors to explore, usually alone. And it was there, in the woods and fields, and beside the creeks and ponds, in the Hopper Hills area south of Rochester, NY, that the foundation was laid for my fascination with the natural world.
This led to college degrees in wildlife conservation, and writing quite a few books!
So, given my experience, I believe that "being alone, but not lonely" is a good quality,
and one that parents might consider encouraging in their children.
November 4, 2016
As an author of children's books, I love to visit schools and present programs about my work and the writing process to students. Writing can be a very solitary life; I love to hear from students, teachers, librarians in schools. One step I made a few years ago was to hire a company to make it easier for people to find me, to inquire about a school author visit. That company, called Main Street Host, advised me to add a "landing page" to my web site. These words, "School Visits, Learn More" were prominently displayed. Clicking there led to the landing page AND a simple form to fill out, to reach me. The form stated "someone will respond soon."
Some schools did reach me that way. Then, over many months, nothing. So I filled out the form myself (testing the system) and sent in several inquiries. No response. I contacted Main Street Host. Oops, they had deactivated that contact form. No apologies. And they had no way of retrieving the information of anyone who had tried to reach me. I assume that some teachers, librarians, or other school staffers concluded that I don't respond when they get in touch. Not true!
I apologize if anyone out there tried to reach me via that method. The simple word "CONTACT" on my home page definitely works.
October 5, 2016
There are no Trader Joe's stores in Montana, and this presents a serious problem for Sneed Collard III of Missoula. Sneed and I met last century (1987) and became steadfast friends. We are far apart geographically but close in other ways. He is a prolific author, mostly of nonfiction but also of novels. Most recent title: Hopping Ahead of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival. One reviewer (me) called this book "a gem of excellent science and environmental writing."
Now about the chocolate. Sneed claims that his writing falters when he lacks certain kinds of chocolate. One kind he treasures (bittersweet with almonds) is available in one
pound packages from Trader Joe's. In West Nyack, NY, I'm fairly close to a Trader Joe's.
Thus, several times a year, Sneed receives a special package from me. It is rather costly
but I want his wonderful writing career to continue. And he is on a short list of really good friends.
August 21, 2016
At this time of year, my wife Susan and I are glad we are NOT on vacation. Why leave paradise in West Nyack? The vegetable garden is producing a bountiful crop, especially of cucumbers and tomatoes. Arriving guests are told that they must take away some fresh produce. Many song birds are fairly quiet these days, but the dog-day cicada chorus is steady. Hummingbirds visit cardinal flowers and jewelweed blossoms. The cicadas are still going at about 8 p.m. when we hear the first katydids and crickets.
Some evenings, about 8:30, I go to watch the sky over our yard and gardens, and am
sometimes rewarded with the dodging, darting dance of a little brown bat, chasing moths. And the night can bring a mix of sounds: the delightful "whinny" of a screech
owl, or the worrisome howls, barks, and yips of coyotes. A mom coyote and her young seem to be in the neighborhood quite a bit--so far not seen but those sounds are unmistakable, and scary. We make sure the three cats are in for the night!
July 13, 2016
On Friday the 8th, I send my editor the manuscript of Dolphins! Strange and Wonderful. And it felt wonderful to do that! When it finally becomes a published book, it will be my 119th. But first, a lot has to happen, and some of it is work for me. For example, I went through the pages and decided what the key illustrations would be. That information will be sent to the great artist, Meryl Henderson. And I'm now I'm making copies of illustrations and photos from various sources that can help Meryl do her work. (That's called "art references.").
As usual, I learned a lot when writing a book. And, as usual, I had to leave out many fascinating details. I could have written a whole book on the subject of dolphin intelligence, and what has been learned about that so far. However, in a fairly short book about dolphins in general, there isn't much space to explore anything in great detail. And, as usual, from now on I will be on the lookout for new research findings about the intelligence of dolphins--and many other creatures that are also smart in a variety of ways.