Nov 30 2014

Nature Nerd

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Back in October, I experienced a bit of a surprise as I was weeding our rock-wall shelves. Perhaps more surprising to some may be my reaction to what happened – a true indication of just what a nature nerd I am.

Bending under an acacia bush and tugging at weeds, I felt a sharp sting and instant numbness on and beneath my shoulder. I won’t lie – I freaked out, slapping at my back, running toward my husband screaming, “Is there something on me? Is there?” (My fear was that I’d been bitten by a black widow, since they are in abundance).

He saw nothing, but the numbness intensified, and by the time I got into the house, this is what I saw:

Hubby: “Um, should we take you to the hospital? That doesn’t look good.”

Me (much calmer, now … I mean, my airways weren’t closing, so I figured I would live): “I think there are caterpillars that spit venom. Let me see if I can find the culprit.” Armed with my camera, I discovered this:

Indeed, the offender was a caterpillar – incredibly camouflaged. (Where I got the “spitting caterpillar” theory, I’m not sure). Moving beneath the tree, I must have brushed against the caterpillar repeatedly, completely unaware. Click to enlarge.

The next logical step – in my mind – was to Google what kind of caterpillar I was looking at to assess its threat. My best guess: a hemileuca juno buckmoth caterpillar, which I learned is covered with venom-tipped, dart-like hairs that are shed in defense. For safe measure (after seeing the word venom!), I consulted the Arizona Venom/Poison Center. Of course, I offered to email photos – of myself and the culprit.

I was told to use tape to remove any caterpillar hairs, wash with soap and water, then add some cortisone cream. (Click the above & below photos to see the incredible detail of those spines!)

Shortly after my first conversation with the poison/venom center, I received a call back indicating that the photos were fabulous – could they use them for publication? And, yes, they thought my ID of the stinging caterpillar was accurate.

So this is where my nerd-dom makes itself abundantly clear: I was SO excited. “Yes!” I nearly shouted into the phone. “Use my photos.” And if that weren’t enough, I received another call a few minutes later from an M.D.-researcher at the University of Arizona who said, “We never get photos like this. I would love to submit these for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

My excitement now (forget the pain on my arm) was off-the-charts! The M.D. told me that their entomologist was also working on an official ID of the caterpillar. **Cue sirens of joy!** An entomologist? Woo hoo! (I later learned that the entomologist had never seen one of these caterpillars. So I obliged him with more photos):

It turns out, my ID was on target. The caterpillar is a Hemileuca Juno, tricolor, sporting venomous urticating spines. Lucky me!

It turns out, my ID was on target. The caterpillar is a Hemileuca tricolor (same genus as Juno), sporting venomous urticating spines. Click to enlarge.

These caterpillars were everywhere this year, including one on the screen, which caught Macho’s attention. I slammed that window down quite quickly so that he could avoid the sting.

These caterpillars were everywhere this year, including one on the screen, which caught Macho’s attention. I slammed that window down quite quickly so that he could avoid the sting. Click to enlarge.

The greatest irony of this tale? This stinging sucker becomes a gorgeous moth with grapefruit-colored underwings – one I have admired for years, and have nicknamed a “Muppet” because of its furry gray toupee and all-around cuteness:

These months appear right now -- when the weather gets cold -- and each year I take them into my hands during the winter months, in the mornings, to warm them back up and set them into the air. Ironically, touching them at this stage of their development is like touching silk. Click to enlarge.

These moths appear right now — when the weather gets cold — and each year I take them into my hands during the winter months, in the mornings, to warm them back up and set them into the air. Ironically, touching them at this stage of their development is like touching silk. Click to enlarge.

For Readers, Writers, Everyone: Lesson learned: sometimes the things we love and admire can hurt us.

That lesson is a theme we often see in the best fiction. Can you recall any favorite books that highlight some kind of betrayed love or loyalty? What about books – or incidents in real life – where beloved Mother Nature turns on her doting admirers? What about family members who turn on those they love? When you write, do you add this element to your storylines?


Nov 16 2014

The Artist’s Road

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Everybody loves a road trip. But what if a work-related, cross-country trip led you to so much more than sights and scenes – to things both frightening and revelatory?

One of the many sights seen by Patrick during his journey.

Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In his literary memoir, Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road, author Patrick Ross shares this very story. His story.

“[Patrick’s] task is to interview a range of artists about copyright infringement,” explains author Jessica McCann in her 5-star review of Committed. “The interviews and conversations with the artists begin to lean more toward creative passion, life and balance than toward the legalities of copyright. His road trip soon evolves into a journey of inspiration, reflection and self-discovery.”

On the book jacket, Patrick is described as “a Washington, D.C. journalist-turned-lobbyist who disguises his bipolar disorder as well as his estrangement from his parents and heads out on a five-week cross-country U.S. road trip, engaging with creative and generous individuals who trigger a yearning to pursue an authentic, art-committed life. To embrace that life, however, would require tremendous change. He would need to break with his funders, face down his fear of a bipolar spiral that might endanger his relationship with his wife and children, and come to terms with his family legacy of mental illness.”

Today, in the spirit of What I Saw, Patrick shares photos not contained in his newly released book. I met Patrick, by the way – a former Arizona dweller with a fabulously inspirational writing-creativity blog – on Twitter four years ago, and while I haven’t yet read his memoir (it’s loaded on my iPad and ready to go!), I am even more inspired to read his courageous words after seeing this piece about him in the New York Times last week.

Enjoy this visual journey through Patrick’s camera lens, with captions excerpted directly from his memoir. Click to enlarge all photos. (Then get your butt out there and buy his book!)

Newmarket, New Hampshire: "'Let's head down to the river,' Ernest says. 'Maybe we'll get to meet the girls.' Was that a wink? I grab my coffee and follow, anticipating sun worshippers in bikinis, the sworn enemies of the purple-haired girl behind the counter. Instead, the 'girls' Ernest introduces me to by the river are three non-migratory geese."

Newmarket, New Hampshire: “‘Let’s head down to the river,’ Ernest says. ‘Maybe we’ll get to meet the girls.’ Was that a wink? I grab my coffee and follow, anticipating sun worshippers in bikinis, the sworn enemies of the purple-haired girl behind the counter. Instead, the ‘girls’ Ernest introduces me to by the river are three non-migratory geese.”

Charleston, South Carolina: “This day has been perfect, and I’m not letting a literal freak of nature–frozen rain on a hot summer day–destroy it. We press forward, deeper into the water. Marisa squeals, I believe more in delight than fear. Waves erupt from both sides of the car like a crystalline angel’s wings.”

Savannah, Georgia, with Savannah College of Art and Design professor Meghan Woodcock: "Then she warns us not to touch the Spanish moss hanging down over our heads. It descends enticingly from the tree branches like spun taffy in the window of a beach boardwalk store. Chiggers live in the moss, she says, and will burrow their way into your skin. Once they're in there it's nearly impossible to lodge them free, and you'll believe you'll never stop scratching."

Savannah, Georgia, with Savannah College of Art and Design professor Meghan Woodcock: “Then she warns us not to touch the Spanish moss hanging down over our heads. It descends enticingly from the tree branches like spun taffy in the window of a beach boardwalk store. Chiggers live in the moss, she says, and will burrow their way into your skin. Once they’re in there it’s nearly impossible to lodge them free, and you’ll believe you’ll never stop scratching.”

The Toledo Botanical Garden in Ohio, location of an interview with singer/songwriter Leah Martensen: "I stop at the Herb Garden and set up such that Leah will be seated on a mount for a now-missing sculpture. She finds me not too long after that, floating into the garden a shimmering vision. A billowy blouse reflects against the sun nearly as many shades of green as are found in the garden."

The Toledo Botanical Garden in Ohio, location of an interview with singer/songwriter Leah Martensen: “I stop at the Herb Garden and set up such that Leah will be seated on a mount for a now-missing sculpture. She finds me not too long after that, floating into the garden, a shimmering vision. A billowy blouse reflects against the sun nearly as many shades of green as are found in the garden.”

Lake Whitmore, outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan: "This stretch of lakeshore is also lined with chain-link fencing, but it allows approach almost to the water's edge. I walk up to the fence and grab links with each, hand. Leaning forward, I press my face into the wires and gaze upon a thin slice of moonlight cutting its way across gentle ripples. I can't reach you, I say silently. Can you hear me? I can't get through."

Lake Whitmore, outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan: “This stretch of lakeshore is also lined with chain-link fencing, but it allows approach almost to the water’s edge. I walk up to the fence and grab links with each, hand. Leaning forward, I press my face into the wires and gaze upon a thin slice of moonlight cutting its way across gentle ripples. I can’t reach you, I say silently. Can you hear me? I can’t get through.”

Downtown Madison, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Mendota: "The waterline is at most five feet below where I am standing. I look across the lake at glass-lined mansions sitting just up from the shore. How is this possible? Do the residents of Madison not understand that water does not always stay at the same level? It can create the illusion of a permanent state of calm, but with no warning water can rise. A wave can propel itself across formerly languid surfaces, destroying everything in its path."

Downtown Madison, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Mendota: “The waterline is at most five feet below where I am standing. I look across the lake at glass-lined mansions sitting just up from the shore. How is this possible? Do the residents of Madison not understand that water does not always stay at the same level? It can create the illusion of a permanent state of calm, but with no warning water can rise. A wave can propel itself across formerly languid surfaces, destroying everything in its path.”

The Hormel SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota: "When I pick up a sample of the pretend meat, I find it is a bean bag with a rubber exterior, not ready to let go of the surprisingly comfortable toy. I don't question the fact that this assembly line is a fiction. It presents itself as such."

The Hormel SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota: “When I pick up a sample of the pretend meat, I find it is a bean bag with a rubber exterior. Not ready to let go of the surprisingly comfortable toy, I don’t question the fact that this assembly line is a fiction. It presents itself as such.”

Sioux Falls, South Dakota: "I step out on a dry slab of rock. Below me a small vortex has formed, water trapped in a circular flow. It strains to break free, to join its brethren in downward motion. I understand that feeling."

Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “I step out on a dry slab of rock. Below me a small vortex has formed, water trapped in a circular flow. It strains to break free, to join its brethren in downward motion. I understand that feeling.”

The Columbia River upstream from Portland, Oregon: "I'm chasing along the Oregon Trail now, pursuing the ghosts of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. I wonder what Lewis' mental state was when he knew he was approaching the end of his journey. It's hard to know, because his journal falls silent

The Columbia River upstream from Portland, Oregon: “I’m chasing along the Oregon Trail now, pursuing the ghosts of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. I wonder what Lewis’ mental state was when he knew he was approaching the end of his journey. It’s hard to know, because his journal falls silent.”

Portland, Oregon: "The rain is fitting. It is Portland being authentic to herself."

Portland, Oregon: “The rain is fitting. It is Portland being authentic to herself.”

For Writers: Curious about creativity and living an art-committed life? This memoir may be just what Santa recommends for your stocking this year!

For Readers, For Everyone: I’m sure the above photos and descriptions have inspired you in the same way they did me.

Head on over to buy Patrick’s book at Amazon, or visit his website to learn more about the author, the book, and additional places to purchase. Patrick took a courageous first step in writing this memoir. Let’s keep this important dialogue about mental health (and the stigmas surrounding it) going.