NORFOLK — Insects, reptiles and birds are not typically welcome guests inside a library, but four special friends from Sharon Audubon were greeted with open arms at Norfolk Library on Wednesday, Jan. 31.
Bethany Sheffer of Sharon Audubon educated and entertained a group of 12 children who departed the school bus at the library. She brought with her a stick bug, a box turtle, a ball python and a dove, along with a table of touchable items like turtle shells and snake sheddings.
Each of the critters resides at Sharon Audubon nature sanctuary and are unfit for release for various reasons. Sheffer shared both the individual histories of each animal with the group as well as the unique aspects of the different species.
Stick bugs, also known as “walking sticks,” Sheffer explained, are a unique species of insect that are highly adept to camouflage. At a quick glance, they look identical to wooden sticks and can sell the act to predators by posing in unusual stances.
“See his arm in the air right now? He’s like, ‘Maybe if I pause with my arm up, all of you guys won’t see me,’” said Sheffer.
The stick bug at Norfolk Library did not have a name, so Sheffer requested suggestions.
“Princess,” shouted one attendee.
“Twiggy,” exclaimed another.
“Princess Twiggy,” remarked a third.
Sheffer then brought out a box turtle named Bao who was sent to live at Sharon Audubon after a dog cracked his shell. The damage restricted Bao from being able to recluse into his shell and left him vulnerable to predators.
Guests took turns holding the turtle to get an up-close look.
“He feels wet,” said one child as she hesitantly held Bao.
A ball python then made an appearance. Named Togo, this snake was originally a pet that was surrendered to the Audubon. Sheffer explained that ball pythons are native to West Africa and are constrictor snakes, not venomous snakes.
“Animals only ever bite if they’re scared and feel they need to protect themselves or if they’re hungry and they’re biting their food,” she said.
Finally, Sheffer shared a white dove named Paloma who arrived at Sharon Audubon in need of recovery.
Paloma was released as part of a ceremony, probably a wedding, and was found injured. She was reportedly featherless upon arrival in Sharon. Through treatment at the Audubon, Paloma’s plumage has returned but she remains flightless.
After learning about each animal and getting a feel — literally — for how each one lives, the children concluded by touching all of the related objects on the display table.
“This feels like bubble wrap,” said one child while rustling a snake skin.
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Early evening in West Cornwall, twilight descending, the lights of the Cornwall Library glowed as a capacity crowd found their seats to spend the next two hours in the presence of three local authors Saturday, Jan. 27.
Cornwall resident Roxana Robinson was the moderator of the Author Talk in the library, part of a series of scheduled events. She began the evening by introducing the women seated on either side of her: “Dani Shapiro and A.M. Homes are two of our most interesting contemporary writers. Through the lenses of fiction and memoir, they have explored the world as we know it. It’s a choice all writers face — which genre, which form, will best allow me to explore this subject?”
Robinson, the biographer of Georgia O’Keeffe, has written six novels and three collections of short stories. She was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. She is an environmentalist, master gardener and scholar of American paintings. Robinson teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.
The evening in Cornwall felt like a university seminar. Robinson spoke of the transformation of the genre of memoir in the last 20 years following the “blazing memoir” ["The Liar’s Club"] written by Mary Carr, who once wrote of “the sheer convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”
Robinson said, “Dani Shapiro has chosen primarily to use memoir as a means of exploring the world, writing about her rather sensational coming of age, in 'Slow Motion,' the question of faith in 'Devotion,' the story of her marriage in 'Hourglass,' and the revelatory discovery of her biological parent in 'Inheritance,' while writing novels that explore similar themes.”
Shapiro has written four memoirs — "Hourglass," "Still Writing," "Devotion" and "Slow Motion" — and five novels. Her work has been translated in 14 languages. She has taught at Wesleyan University, the New School, New York University, and Columbia University.
Robinson asked Shapiro how she chose her form. She answered: “It is dictated by what happens — a shimmer — and my obsession becomes the theme. Writing 'Slow Motion' was a conscious choice, but I was not in charge. 'Slow Motion' was a curative for my fiction.”
Turning to her right, Robinson asked Homes, “How did you choose memoir?”
She replied: “I was adopted, I was a replacement for a child who had died, and my biological family found me in my 30s. Time and history change things. I think the relationship between self and story IS the story. I was writing about secrets, but I WAS the secret.” She was the product of an affair between a married man with a family and his young mistress. Homes said she had grown up fascinated by George Washington, written about him, and was freaked out to learn from her biological father that she was related to Washington, and her family once owned all the land that is now Washington, D.C. Her prescience was uncanny.
Shapiro added that in psychiatry that is called the “unthought known” — what we know in our bones. She referred to her own “genealogical bewilderment” upon learning that the man she had adored as her father until 2016 was not her biological father. Her true identity had been hidden from her for 50 years. Shapiro marveled that she had written over 100 pages describing a certain male character, and then learned later that her biological father was a dead ringer for the fictional character she had summoned up.
Robinson explained: “A.M. has focused on the sociological aspects of the world, exploring the possibilities of transgressive behavior in her controversial novel, 'The End of Alice,' which was about a homicidal pedophile, and 'Music for Torching,' about subversive currents in the well-behaved suburbs, and now in 'The Unfolding,' which imagines a group of rich, entitled men who can’t tolerate the election of a black man for president, and who set out to undermine the American system in response. Her memoir, 'The Mistress’s Daughter,' explores her own discovery of biological parents who intrude on her life in an unsettling way.”
Homes, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, has written 26 books that have been published in 22 languages, and is the writer/producer on television shows including "Mr. Mercedes" and "The L Word." She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She collaborates on book projects with artists including Carroll Dunham of Cornwall and has written the libretto for three operas. Her newest book, "The Unfolding," is oddly prescient as she began writing it when Obama was elected, and it centers on a character known as “the Big Guy” who organizes a group of wealthy Republicans to form the “Forever Men,” a secret cabal who will do anything for their species to stay in power.
The friendship between these three women was palpable during their dialogue. They know and respect each other’s writing. The sensibility of Homes and Shapiro are polar opposites, yet they write about the impact of their parent’s decisions, and family secrets, on their own emotional, psychological development. Homes is irreverent, witty, and creates “the least likely characters, and then I inhabit them — I want my characters to be someone I would like to spend time with.”
“A.M., you make people love your unsavory characters, they have a strange dichotomy,” observed Shapiro, and Homes replied, “Dani, your characters are beautifully struggling with that, but they are way more tender.”
Each author asked questions of the other. “Dani, you are renowned in the mentoring teaching world, what was the evolution of that?" Shapiro answered that moving up to the country changed everything and she began running writing classes, creating a creative bond with her students that has continued for 25 years. “I teach at Kripalu once a year — real generative work with small groups with prompts, and in 2007 started the Sirenland Workshop in Positano, Italy." Shapiro’s podcast "Family Secrets" has 30 million downloads.
Homes: Writing a memoir is like doing surgery on yourself.
Shapiro: Writing a memoir is not cathartic, it drills down your own story more deeply. What haunts us is part of our DNA.
Homes: Dani, how do you translate memory?
Shapiro: Annie Dillard said follow the line of words.
Shapiro: Dolly Parton said, “figure out who you are, and do it on purpose.”
Shapiro and Robinson will be in discussion again on Feb. 13 at The White Hart Inn in Salisbury at 6:30 p.m. to discuss Robinson's newest novel, "Leaving."
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In the eyes of Christopher Koppel, there is no better garden designer than nature itself.
Koppel was the guest speaker Thursday, Jan. 25, at the first of the three-part lecture series Bad Grass 2024, returning to The White Hart Inn after the success of last winter’s inaugural program.
The Bad Grass series is brought to the public by the recently formed Silva et Pratum group — “forest and meadow” in the Latin tongue — led by Salisbury resident Jeb Breece with the effort of informing area gardeners on better practices to support insect and flora cohabitation when it comes to private land care. Last year’s Bad Grass series inspired Salisbury School students Sachem Ramos and Russell Judge to successfully launch the Pollinator Meadow Project, planting 45 species of flowers and grasses on a 6-acre plot of land on the campus of their private boys preparatory school.
Ticket sales from 2024’s Bad Grass series will directly benefit Falls Village’s Native Pollinator Pathway Project, which began on the town’s Main Street, where village gardeners like Page Dickey and Deb Munson planted native perennials to provide a nurturing habitat for bees, birds and butterflies. Now the group hopes to extend the pollinator path up to the steps of David M. Hunt Library, a horticultural endeavor it hopes will be funded by ticket sales and additional charitable donations.
Koppel, a lively speaker to launch the 2024 program, is a self-described nurseryman, gardener and naturalist who has previously overseen the woodlands and trails of Martha Stewart’s historic Seal Harbor estate, Skylands, in Mount Desert, Maine, and now serves as an estate manager in Washington, Conn.
Wild nature, unrestricted and growing in uncommon ground, is Koppel’s source of inspiration: “Everywhere I walk in the woods, the roadside, I see design and plant combinations.” For example, Koppel showed the audience a photo of a rocky cliff he spotted while kayaking off of Long Island. Despite the rough terrain continuously sprayed with saltwater from the sound, there was a veritable bouquet of native plants artfully arranged, disregarding the hostile scenery. Grouped sprouting from the rocks were liatris novae-angilae, an explosive purple bud commonly known as the New England blazing star, paired with andropogon gerardii, a North American grass with a lilac hue widely known as big bluestem, and juniperus virginiana, an evergreen known as Eastern red cedar. These natural formations are the kinds of combinations in size, color, texture and placement that influence Koppel’s designs in private gardens.
“Growth like this teaches you so much about soil, about what the plants truly want, as well as about pruning, about how we don’t have to be as nice to our plants as we intended to be, which saves us time and lets us enjoy the garden more,” Koppel said. “What I’ve discovered is that nature is better at everything than me. Nature is a better nurser than I am at raising plants from seed. Nature is a better gardener than I am and a better designer.”
The Bad Grass speaker series at The White Hart Inn will continue Thursday, Feb. 15, with a lecture by Christoper Roddick on tree care in the age of climate change; and Thursday, Feb. 29, as Leslie Needham, Dee Salomon and Matt Sheehan discuss the role humans play in maintaining natural landscapes in a conversation with Breece. Tax-deductible gifts to the library’s pollinator project can be made by going to www.huntlibrary.org
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Simon & Schuster
The war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s motivations. The way Americans perceive Russia, and Putin. The state of American democracy. These large topics and others were explored in a conversation with an expatriate Russian journalist Saturday, Jan. 13, at the Cornwall Library.
Mikhail Zygar is a journalist, writer, filmmaker and founding editor-in-chief of the Russia-banned TV Rain, an online broadcaster now based in exile in the Netherlands. Some have described his journalistic approach as a new form of literature. At age 42, Zygar, a Moscow native, has acquired a seeming lifetime of experience, having also served as a war correspondent in Iraq, Lebanon and Darfur. In 2014, Zygar won an International Press Freedom Award.
His latest book, “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” begins with a confession on Zygar’s part, and he adds in other contemporaries and forebears that include writers and historians who are “complicit” in promoting the notion of Russia as a “great empire,” he writes in his introduction.
“We overlooked the fact that for many centuries, ‘great Russian culture’ belittled other countries and peoples, suppressed and destroyed them,” he continues, adding that the words and thoughts perpetuating this notion of greatness in fact sowed the seeds of fascism and allowed it to flourish.
Before a full house at the library, Zygar talked with Joel Simon, an author, journalist and founder/director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Zygar began by discussing what he termed the “four phases” of his career in journalism. It began at age 21, when he was sent to cover the Iraq War for the Russian business daily Kommersant. He said he landed the assignment because “I spoke Arabic” and the assignment led to more war correspondent work. After Iraq, he covered the war in Lebanon and then genocide in Darfur.
“At age 29, after all these bloody massacres, I needed to quit. To stop,” he said.
Simon asked Zygar about his role in 2010 as one of the founders of the TV station Rain, which was the only independent news channel in Russia.
“We were not only for the young people,” Zygar said. “It was mostly for the middle class to be able to get unbiased information about what was happening.” And Zygar said, during the first years of operation, Rain was very popular, with 20 million households watching daily. Then, in 2014, a month before the occupation of Crimea, Rain was effectively shut down by an order for all Russian cable and satellite networks to switch it off.
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“One by one, we lost 95% of our audience in one week,” Zygar said, who said he then began to focus his thinking on Russian history.
“Somehow I realized that broadcasting news for an audience was not enough,” he said. “I realized that I need to talk about history.”
“You’re a journalist,” Simon interrupted. “Why history?”
“If I’m thinking about the future of Russia, I should focus on a younger audience, and talk about values with them.”
Zygar, understanding that the “20-minus” age-based audience is riveted to social media, he created something to meet them where they are. Together with historians, journalists and others he launched “Project 17,” a simulated social network that retraces the Russian Revolution on a daily basis. Go to www.openhistoryarchive.com.
The new book was started before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Bringing a journalistic framework to history, Zygar takes apart the narrative around the idea of Russian greatness, describing how the myth was constructed. How Putin justified the invasion. How Russian history justified all that Putin approached. “My mission is to start addressing … why we as Russian intellectuals missed that point. We have never started thinking about the propaganda approach to Russian history.”
Audience questions sought answers to where the war in Ukraine will be in one year, and if a longer war poses the threat to Putin, to which Zygar commented. “He’s gotten rid of the people who protested, and oil and gas revenues are enough.”
Asked another question about rising autocracy across the world, and whether the author thinks Putin might have intentions to expand beyond Ukraine, Zygar said, “It’s important to make Russia great again, not bigger.”
“He needs the war to be continued,” Zygar said in a nod to three and a half centuries of Russian myth-making. Zygar also is the author of “All the Kremlin’s Men” and is the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists 2014 International Press Freedom Award.
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