I’d like to invite you to participate in a project I’m working on. For a show at the Missoula Art Museum several years ago with Jeffry Mitchell, and with the help of talented craftsman Ben Oblas, we made two story chairs. I had long had a vision of settling in to a chair and having stories told to me automatically. Jeffry and I made the upholstery together and recorded some audio and the experience was much as I had imagined. Comfy. Surprising. When you sit your weight triggers audio that is played through speakers concealed in the wing-back upholstery.
There were a few technical issues to address, and additional feedback let us know that more and varied audio was needed, so that return visitors could hear something new. Jack Straw Productions has awarded me an Artist Support Grant for studio time, and a place to site the chairs when the audio is ready, in their new lobby, at least for a time. So I am collecting stories to record, and challenging writers and storytellers to submit a story of about 600 words or less for the story chairs. You may record them or I will, and there will be credit within the audio and in a posted author sheet. I will have an online presence for the work as well.
The following story is an example of a series I am working on right now, on my own experiences with animals. It is 560 words and takes about 3 minutes to read aloud. I am aiming to keep these animal chronicles shorter, under 500 words. Let that be your guide. I will be recording in August, so let me know if you would like to contribute. I’d love it – fiction, poetry, song, non-fiction, old or young audience. I intend to mix it up.
It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest, even when you know where it is. I’ve seen very few.
One spring some years ago my friend Suzette and I drove up to Bodega Bay to visit Audubon Canyon Ranch, an egret and heron sanctuary where these water birds nest together in a stand of pines. The visitor can hike up the hill of the canyon and look down on the rookery. Depending on when you arrive in the nesting season you might see courtship behavior, nests being constructed, eggs being incubated or carefully turned, or the mated pairs feeding their young. It’s all good.
The Ranch was closed – we hadn’t thought to call ahead – so we parked by the entry gate and sat in the sun eating our sandwiches and looking at the bay. The Ranch has a garden at the house, which is set back from the road, and wildflowers grow by the gate. The hummers were busy and one made repeated trips to an oak tree.
Suzette, a great naturalist, got up and went to investigate, wrapping her sandwich carefully in its napkin. “It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest,” she said. “You hardly ever see one.”
Suzette is the type to turn over a rock in her spare time. She always knows what wildlife is in her place, and what that wildlife might be up to. Once, when we both got duped into going to church sleep-away camp, with deadly food and deadlier programming, the two of us snuck off when we were supposed to be participating in a treasure hunt. We climbed the hill behind the cabins, our feet quiet on the pine needles, greatly relieved to be heathens alone in the woods. As usual, Suzy started looking under rocks and very soon turned up something fast and reptilian.
Also unusual. A small lizard with an electric blue tail paused on the ground, alert, frozen.
“It’s a blue-tailed skink,” she said. “When it gets scared it sheds its tail.”
“Really?” I asked. The idea made me queasy. Plus, neon colors in nature never mean anything good. “Is it poison?”
“No,” she said, reaching out a finger to touch the tail. “See?” And just as she said the word the skink rushed off, leaving its tail writhing on the ground behind. It was thrilling and frightening and unexpected, the disembodied thing moving bright and shiny against the needle litter. I had to talk her out of taking the tail back with us.
Underneath the oak tree we both stood a respectful distance away and waited for the hummingbird. After awhile it reappeared – it had babies in the nest and was feeding them. If we hadn’t followed the bird’s flight we would not have seen the nest, so well was it concealed, with bark and lichen covering its exterior and the nest itself seeming to grow out of the branch it was built upon. We watched it for awhile and then looked out at the bay in time to see an egret cut its wings at an angle in its descent, change direction and cut them the other way, zig-zagging down to the water’s surface, showing off for us. The bay sparkled under an onshore breeze and the egret fished the shallows, stalking the reeds at water’s edge. We finished our sandwiches and drove home, content.
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