Other Writing by Robert Ronning
Why I Write What I Do
AS I APPROACHED mid-life and unemployment for a time, I began a thriller novel set in New York City. I had just read a Trevanian page-turner and decided to try to write one myself. The climax of the story takes place on Fifth Avenue during a St. Patrick’s Day parade—there’s a shoot-out that would be tame by the real-life craziness of today. I wrote and edited it over a few months, typed out a fresh copy on my Selectric typewriter, and peddled it around to kindly friends who gave me some favorable comments. I sent my manuscript to a few agents and got some positive responses about my writing style, but as one agent indicated, there wasn’t much of a U.S. appetite for Anglo-Irish politics, in spite of the thrills and mounting mayhem taking place in and out of my fictional world. Nevertheless, I followed it up with a crime genre set in a big Manhattan publishing house, but my unemployment insurance ran out and I had to go back to work at a “real” job.
THOUGH I DO recall my initial run at writing novels was quite stimulating—likely the most fulfilling experience to that point—it led in fits and starts to freelance writing, as I sensed this was a path for me to follow. My route had many detours—the longest, a position as a corporate author-editor and later as a “team coach” herding a bunch of engineers—but eventually I got back to writing about my own interests and passions. I would revisit Trevanian’s oeuvre and write a critical work about Rodney Whitaker, the author behind the Trevanian bestsellers.
THEN IN ANOTHER personal turn, I lost interest in academic projects. My fiction writing career actually began when I made a pivot into the field of ecology and animal conservation: I had become fascinated with the writings of ethologists who studied animal behavior. Today, this novice is especially interested in those who find a way to write creative nonfiction about their passionate experiences in wilderness, mountains, and oceans. They observe wild beings directly—up-close and often over a sustained period, sometimes off and on for years.
I ENJOY ACCOUNTS by Craig Childs, Doug Peacock, Carl Safina, Jack Turner, and Mark Bekoff, but my reading list includes so many more. Aldo Leopold, an early nature observer, claimed in his ecology classic A Sand County Almanac that he could not live without wild things. Ethologist Joe Hutto would likely nod to that. Hutto devoted intensive stages of his life to the study of living things under natural circumstances. In The Light in High Places, he confesses: “I find it impossible to avoid falling in love with the particular individuals that are observed, and more troubling, I am then predisposed toward an obsessive affection for the species. My life appears to be a promiscuous series of such love affairs as I obsessively drift from one passionate association with a species to the next—and as with all affairs of the heart, and not uncommonly with any personal involvement with a wild creature, heartbreak is often bound up in the bargain.”
NEED I ADD, Joe Hutto and others are passionate earth and animal conservationists, but they carry out their missions with minimal preaching. As I’ve observed, people don’t like their noses rubbed in the dirty details of what an invasive species we humans are.
I hope you'll come back again--you just might find more portraits like Joe’s and others whose passions and insights have stirred my interest in Earth and its animals. Please tune in from time to time.
Just a Pup
The blur of a small, tawny-colored, long-legged animal darts across the road in front of us. I feel a bump at the front of the car. A dog off leash, on the loose? More likely a young coyote dashing across Oracle Road, one of the most commercial and trafficked in Tucson.
I hope it was only a nudge, that somehow the animal missed the tires. Coyotes must learn quickly and pups have much to learn. Older, wiser brethren know the ways of traffic and assess its direction before crossing human-made busy pathways.
I glance in my rear-view mirror but see no lifeless form sprawled out on the pavement. I tell my wife I must stop, and I quickly pull over to the median. I check the front of the car—no sign of damage. I rush back to where I judge we bumped, dreading what I’ll find, with no idea what I’ll do. I look up and down the center strip, sparsely dotted with cactus and desert bush.
Wonder of wonders, the pup appears to have vanished. Has the critter survived and scampered to the other side of Oracle and found refuge in a nearby neighborhood?
Coyote, eternal underdog, a free, sentient being. Coyote and I have had our share of chance meetings, including several in city parks. I’m walking along and snacking on a peanut butter sandwich. I turn around and less than ten yards away, there’s a perky yearling eagerly awaiting a share of my snack. Akin to a bouncy, young German shepherd, a kindred spirit that radiates
a unique personality, a carefree canine interacting with humankind. I wave the little opportunist off, though I enjoy the close encounter.
From our suburban home in Tucson, I watch them show up in the cul-de-sac—one, two, rarely three at a time. They have their routines and early routes along the dry wash, bolder ones parading nobly down the sidewalk past each house. From my window at a getaway cabin in Arizona’s White Mountains, I spot a mangy loner on a mission, loping along the loop. Yet in these distant mountains, just a short walk from National Forest with bears, mountain lions, and wild horses, numbers of our fellow humans express shock when feral animals show up near their doorsteps. Wherever there are homes in the wild, there are humans debating over what to do because a neighbor spotted
a coyote, a skunk, or a racoon … on their property.
A cabin high in the wilderness offers quiet, but the reality of living among wild critters may not be so peaceful for town folk. At times I’m tempted to remind certain neighbors that it was only a speck in time since our cabins sat on natural habitat that crawled and jumped with wild things among the pinyon pine, oak, and juniper trees. Though lecturing seldom works, I could
point out that one day the ground where our cabins now stand
will again become wilderness or desert, natural domain in a not-too-distant future. But better not to lecture neighbors involving one of the most graceful, resourceful, and despised wild predators ever to inhabit North America.
Coyotes have always owned the night, but now they pop up in broad daylight in surprising places—riding on buses and subway cars, nestled inside car engines. Biologists and naturalists tell us how rugged, smart, and adaptable these mid-size, wild canines are. Most people have no idea the extent to which they recycle and help keep pests and vermin at bay.
How can this keystone species ever be confined to national parks and forests? They travel through street culverts, roam inside our malls, and thrive among cities and suburbs. They are part of every habitat and as we gobble up more space, they are still supreme survivors. By luck or chance, we have the good fortune to revel in their calls and songs from our golf courses, ballparks, streets, alleys, our own backyards. But will humans ever practice benign coexistence with these animals?
I’ll never know the fate of the pup who looked the wrong way on Oracle, but I hope for the best. How ironic an incident, in view of my fondness for the creature, one so close to its cousin, the beloved dog, and yet forever wild.
Coyotes were here before us, and hallelujah, they are here to stay.
Sheltering Among Wildlife
El Rio in late April 2020
Will our new normal slide back into the old after Covid? Will “normal” even exist as we carry on? Many of us wonder how humans will stumble along with the old, messy habits that deplete more land and threaten more species. Some of us imagine animals reclaiming ancient pathways and habitats, ones that were taken away in a relative speck of time. But in his book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman reminds us: “For all the havoc we have wreaked in this battle royal, nature is still very present.”
As pandemics go, I’m among the lucky ones so far, even as an old codger, presumably at greater risk. Sheltering in place for me stretches for miles rather than a precious few hundred square feet like poor urban souls stuck in condos, apartments, or tents. My self-isolation covers elbow-room suburbia in northwest Tucson, where I’m able to maintain some semblance of a routine. Hardly confined, I can choose to stay stuck in my home office or putter in the garage, or bike to a wildlife habitat near the desert foothills.
My wife and I are usually up and walking the dog just before sunrise. We take a wide berth around a few early-birds like us, wending our way along a huge arroyo that splits our neighborhood in half. Some mornings we see scat on the walkways, evidence of local coyotes taking nightly runs along age-old wildlife trails. Neighbors are reporting a mountain lion lurking about in broad daylight—the nerve of such a cat ... But to the untrained or excited eye, a bobcat could be mistaken for a bigger feline. Perhaps the same bobcat we saw stalking for rabbits, ten yards from us when my wife took pictures on her cell phone. How exciting to share space with a bobcat light-footing it down the wash, looking for a morning meal. What a delight to see a coyote ambling along, as we walk the dog and keep him on a tight rein. Exciting and delightful that we’re sheltering among the wild.
Our paths and borders are abundant with cactus, prickly pear a favorite for nesting pack rats. At sunrise, rodents and rattlers keep subterranean, each with its own hole size pockmarking the pathways. A bevy of birds serenade us, finches and woodpeckers prominent. The ever-present cottontails take refuge in-between the rows of houses; human presence discourages the predators in broad daylight—in theory.
We wait for the evening sun to drop below the Tucson
Mountains before we take our nightly walk. I wonder what critters I might observe moving through the wash at night, if I built a makeshift blind. I imagine how active our piece of shared patch must be while we sleep. I envision a variety of predators treading down from the foothills; in darkness they own the streets, breezeways, driveways, and patios. The seventy-five-yard-wide arroyo of grass, bush and thorn-scrub, relieved by acacia and mesquite trees, becomes a wildlife freeway—or so I like to imagine.
On a sunny morning, I bike north through the neighborhood, and often peddle west to the El Rio Preserve, a 100-acre site of wide-open flood plain along the lower Santa Cruz River. The river flows north from
Mexico and runs parallel with Interstate-10. But the Santa Cruz
is mostly a dry wash where we are, except during the monsoon season. When it overflows, it turns part of the preserve into a shallow lake and a lush riparian habitat for nesting and migratory birds. Bird watchers claim to have spotted more than 200 species. On a recent visit before our weather turned hot, the lake had water. I counted a dozen or so Great Egrets patiently waiting to spear anything moving in the shallows. In just one month, from March into late April, I watched this seasonal lake turn to sod and clay.
While humans shelter in place, scientists tell us a lighter carbon footprint has been recorded around the globe, our temporary inactivity a blessing for Earth’s many creatures. I find hope in the science community and straight talk from epidemiologists, whenever they’re given a voice. Lay folks seem more attentive when scientists anthropomorphize a deadly pandemic. Can you believe it, scientists adding a human touch to their research? Scientific voices even resorting to metaphor—we’re battling a voracious virus that spreads, feeds and kills as it goes, a relentless invader that will reach every human on Earth. Not quite Dr. Fauci, but media-speak.
There is much to learn and so little time to break through old habits in order to salvage a livable world. Can we change old, unworkable ways to benefit all living beings? In Weisman’s book about Earth without humans, he refers to that famous coyote that showed up in Central Park in 2000, suggesting the critter a “harbinger of a future that might revive the past.” “That first advance coyote scout,” he calls him, one that could signal the “rewilding of New York City” even before the people disappear.
In the small zone where I reside, the wild and free surround and mingle with us; we just have to open our eyes and pay attention. Among them and us, we shelter and respect each other, and share the same habitat.
El Rio, one month later in May 2020
How I Pivoted to Write Wild Call to Boulder Field
I went through a reordering of values a decade ago. Until then, my writing had covered a range of tame topics—I had enough articles on golf and golf humour to fill a book of essays—but I felt such efforts a soulless pursuit. Considering the direction my country was heading, I ceased writing about so-called non-partisan subjects; I took a pivot and resolved to write what some call activist literature or what I call conscience writing.
The transformation began with a big project: I wrote a literary retrospective of Trevanian (the pen name for author Rodney Whitaker). Whitaker, a superb storyteller and a satirist with integrity to spare, was a natural transition from the frivolous subject matter of golf. He once described his fan base, rather whimsically, thus: A Trevanian buff “is a strange and wonderful creature: an outsider, a natural elitist, not so much a cynic as an
idealist mugged by reality, not just one of those who march to a
different drummer, but the solo drummer in a parade of one.”
An idealist mugged by reality, I connected with this. To my mind, few other top-notch, best-selling writers compared with Whitaker’s blend of action-romance, intertwined with masterful harangues over human foibles, especially those in American culture.
At heart, I have a strong romantic streak and, like Whitaker, in my youth I was attracted to heroic adventure tales (Don Quixote, Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo, Les Misérables). As an adult, I acted in a rep production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and I still tilt at windmills, these days more often from my writing desk. I’ve always been intrigued by those who are passionate about causes. In my theatre career, I once directed an Off-Broadway play about George Bernard Shaw, an ultimate iconoclast.
Now I focus on research and writing about animals and wildlife. In effect, I shifted my empathic and imaginative focus from humans to animals, though by nature, I still have the same core spirit for causes, only now they’re mostly animal and enviro. In one sense, this was a radical change because I had no background in wildlife study or animal biology. But through my experience in literature and theatre arts and a Ph.D. in Communication Arts, I came to writing wildlife stories with a ready supply of empathy, discipline, and research skills. I’m using those techniques to explore the lives of animals, perhaps imagining and even tapping into their emotional inner lives.
This brings me around to what prompted these shifts in value, some of which are reflected in Wild Call to Boulder Field, my first conscience novel. A new member of the family—a West Highland White Terrier puppy—gave us great comfort from the age of angst that most of us have been living through—on, off, and back on with Covid—in the 21st century. Jake, our Westie, has passed on at the age of thirteen.
Wild Call to Boulder Field, an eco-adventure story, will be followed by a second in the series that moves to eastern Arizona in the remote Blue Range Primitive Area. This is an ambitious sequel because it tells the story of a small coyote family. Even more, it presumes to explore the inner life of a coyote pup that, against type, shows an uncanny easiness around humans.
I have the good fortune to live six months a year in the White Mountains, only a few minutes’ walk to the Sitgreaves National Forest where coyotes, bears, wild horses, and other critters are often spotted.