WINTER SOLSTICE CHEER

DSC03760.JPG After spending the past five years in the north, I am happy to return to the place where I lived for so many years in north Florida. We spent some time this past weekend taking advantage of nice weather while sending some of our warm thoughts back to those of you in the throes of an early onset of winter.

Tonight, it’s a bit chilly outside, but remembering the time spent on the Wakulla River and at Wakulla Springs warms me. For the winter solstice, I hope to light a fire in the yard in a symbolic gesture for hope in 2017.

I wish you all the happiness of the season and peace in your life. Take a break from wrapping presents, baking cookies, cleaning house, and shopping to see how the “wild” side spends the holidays.

CELEBRATE THE EARTH BY REMEMBERING THE PAST

Florida Setting 1Sometimes an anniversary involves a celebration of some sort. The events marked today are separate, yet inexplicably connected through virtue of their messages.

Six years ago today, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven men working on the rig and doing untold damage to the environment and wildlife as a result of an uncontrollable spew of petroleum into the fragile and precious habitat off the coast of Louisiana. And just two weeks prior to that, twenty-nine men lost their lives in the Massey coal mine in West Virginia when gases and coal dust ignited.

Deepwater Horizon, BP oil spill

Deepwater Horizon well BP oil spill 2010

These two events have several things in common. The disasters could have been prevented if proper safety standards had been followed by the companies, and if the government who created those standards had actually enforced them. And in both cases, the workers toiling away at bringing fossil fuels to the surface for us and for the profits they garnered for Massey and BP.

As a writer, I felt drawn to both stories because of how they touched my life. But that book, Trails in the Sand, also addresses several personal issues about family and finding a way to heal the wounds that stretch back generations. All the while the oil spills and the West Virginia community deals with the shock of losing so many lives.

Both tragedies continue. BP is being held accountable but that doesn’t help the wildlife that swallowed all the oil. We may see the impacts of that for years to come. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was recently sentenced to one year in prison for his blatant disregard of safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine (New York Times editorial). Some are surprised he received any punishment at all. The families of those killed feel it was merely a slap on the wrist as they believe the blood of their loved ones stains his hands.

BP oil spill, oiled wildlife

Now to the celebration part. It’s Earth Day, which began forty years ago as a way to celebrate the Earth and the start of the environmental movement in this country. Let’s all take a moment to think about how we can be a part of the solution by doing something positive for the environment this year.

To mark all of these books, Trails in the Sand, can be downloaded for free on Amazon. While a work of fiction, the novel follows the real-life tragedies in the Gulf of Mexico and West Virginia. Please grab your copy today and tomorrow (April 20 and 21), if you haven’t done so already.

 

Sand

Click the cover to download

 

TRAILS IN THE SAND CONTINUES

 

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Click on cover to download for FREE on Kindle December 8, 9, 10

I wrote Trails in the Sand in 2013, two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The two events occurred within two weeks of one another and killed a total of forty men. Both tragedies could have been prevented if safety standards had been in place and enforced. The book uses both events as the backdrop to the disasters occurring in the lives of the main characters as families mourn and oil gushes from the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Lives were lost unnecessarily and wildlife and their habitats were threatened. And are still threatened to this day.

Last week, the CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of “conspiring to violate federal safety standards,” which led to the death of twenty-nine men. This is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one-year in prison. He was exonerated on three felony charges. It seems to be a ‘slap on the wrist,’ but it is the first time that a major coal executive has ever been held accountable for decisions made at the top of the chain that impacted the workers far below the earth, who put their lives in jeopardy every single day. To read more about Blankenship and his date with the jury, go to the New York Times article.

Someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to know that when regulations are in place, they must be followed or there are consequences. Someone must enforce the regulations.

I maintained in Trails in the Sand  that we will not be able to live without the energy and fuel from coal and petroleum, but we don’t have to retrieve them in a way that endangers human and animal life and their habitats. Yet it happens and those responsible are rarely asked to pay for their crimes.

There are forty families in the United States who will celebrate the holidays this year for the sixth time without a member of their family because of greed and the quest to bring us gas for our cars and electricity for our homes.

Here’s an excerpt from Trails in the Sand  from two different chapters – one a factual recounting of mining disasters in the U.S., and the other from the main character, as she and her husband travel to West Virginia to visit family members directly impacted by the mine disaster.

 

CHAPTER 7

History of coal mining disasters in the United States

Wildlife exhibits the first signs, acting as the harbinger of coming environment disasters. Coal miners knew it to be true. That’s why in the earliest days of coal mining, the miners would take a caged canary down into the mines with them. This small songbird could detect the smallest quantities of methane and carbon monoxide. If the canary kept singing, the mine was deemed safe. If the singing stopped, the canary keeled over, and the miners escaped.

The early miners in West Virginia in the 1880s were mostly European immigrants and African-Americans, and they served a sort of peonage in those early mines. They rented or bought their own equipment and lived in company houses, and their pay went to the company store for food. It was a hard life, during the day and during the night. The fear of death never left their doorstep because the owners of those mines did nothing to ensure the safety of those workers. West Virginia’s safety record was one of the worst in the nation, and that distinction was sealed in 1907 when the worst mine disaster in history occurred on December 6 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. Methane most likely ignited coal dust in two mines, killing at least 400 men, if not 500. Now it’s an accepted fact that to keep coal dust from becoming combustible, it needs to be coated with lime. Rumblings among the families of the victims at Upper Big Branch hinted that more than one hundred years later coal dust sometimes accumulated because Massey was cutting corners, and not enough workers were available to make sure the lime was applied to keep the dust levels low. When the workers went down into the mine on April 5, 2010, more than one hundred years after the disaster in Monongah, a caged canary might have warned the miners to the danger lurking in the air.

CHAPTER 9

Caroline

We left for West Virginia early on Friday morning with coffee mugs filled and snacks packed in the cooler. We planned to be at Simon’s parents in Morgantown sometime before 9 p.m. As we drove we listened to NPR when we could, but at times, especially driving through South Carolina, it was difficult to find any station not broadcasting country songs.

As we sped up I-95 through a small bit of Georgia, we heard a commentator remark on how large corporations such as BP and Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and even citations.

“We can point the finger at the companies all we want, but why wasn’t the government enforcing the regulations?” I asked at one point. “It took twenty-nine miners to die for the mine safety folks to suggest that perhaps they should be using the powers granted to them decades ago.”

“Our greed for energy, as cheap and as quickly as we can pull it out of the ground, fuels the energy companies to bring it to us fast and cheap,” Simon said.

“It sure looks as if both disasters could have been prevented with a little more precaution,” I said.

Simon and his family moved to Calico in 1974, so Bob McDermott, Simon’s father, could take a job teaching at nearby University of Florida. When my father-in-law retired a couple of years ago, Simon’s parents did a reversal of what most folks did; they moved back to Morgantown, almost two hours south of Pittsburgh.

“I’ve never understood why your folks moved back to West Virginia,” I said as the wildflowers of spring streaked by us in the median of the highway.

“They never stopped missing that part of the country,” Simon said. “I’d move back, too, if it wasn’t for the winters.”

“You’d move back alone,” I said. “I’m a Florida girl, born and bred. You’re lucky you got me to come back to north Florida after living in the Everglades for so long.”

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Don’t worry. I’ve no desire to move back to coal country,” Simon said.

My family had its own history with the coal mines. My grandfather, Arthur Stokley, came from England in the 1920s to work in the mines of West Virginia, right near where the explosion occurred. He escaped a life underground in the mines by the grace of God and the owner of the mine where he worked. My family never said much about his life prior to becoming a worshipped doctor in Calico, but the story always intrigued me. It was probably one reason I wanted to write about this latest disaster. I read enough to know that not many young people ever found the means to leave the mines all those years ago when the miners lived in company towns. The conditions left them beholden to the mining companies raking in the dough while the workers lived in cobbled together houses huddled close to the mines.

“I’ve often wondered about my grandfather and how he managed to escape the life of a miner to become a respected doctor,” I said. “He came to this country penniless.”

“Wasn’t there some story about a canary in the mine he brought back to life?”

“I never believed that one. And why would that make him such a hero? Didn’t they take those canaries down in the mine knowing full well they’d die if the gas fumes were too strong?”

“Maybe he slept with someone important,” Simon said.

“Right. The Queen of England, perhaps. Except when he left his mother country, there was a King in charge over there.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

In honor of the men who died in both disasters in 2010, Trails in the Sand is available for free downloads on Kindle this week, December 8, 9, and 10. In addition, if you still enjoy reading real books you can hold in your hands, please leave a comment here, and I’ll send the first two requesters an autographed copy of Trails.

 

 

 

 

Five Year Anniversary of #Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Florida Setting 6Five years ago today I sat in bed reading the morning papers and listening to Good Morning America. A little passing news story took up less than a minute of air time to let us know that an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico had caught on fire. No big deal.

Until it was. Eleven men died in that fire. The environmental effects aren’t over just because the cap was sealed on the gushing fire. Click here for some comprehensive articles from the Wall Street Journal  on what is being done and what has been done in the past five years.

We know for sure that we lost lives, both human and wildlife. We know that habitats were disturbed. And we know that if full safety procedures had been followed, this disaster might never have happened.

Today, please remember what we lost.

I wrote my novel Trails in the Sand as an appeal to make sure we never let anything like this happen again. At the time it happened, I worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public relations director. One of my jobs during the spill and subsequent threat to Florida beaches was to head up the media portion of the effort to move sea turtle nests from the Panhandle beaches to the east coast where once hatched, the hatchlings would march to sea in safer waters. I hope they remained safe.

3-D1webFor the month of April, Trails in the Sand eBook is only $.99 cents. Click below to grab your copy.

Amazon

Nook

Apple iBook

Kobo

Or download for free at Smashwords, using coupon code FR84H.

 

 

#Kayaking – Sign of Spring

Raccoon Lake in western Pennsylvania

Raccoon Lake in western Pennsylvania

We brought the kayaks down from their storage place, where they hang all winter upside down under a second-story balcony. Before we could load them up in the truck, we had to remove the very large nest taking up residence in one of them. I felt badly about that, but we have some robins that set up shop in some very strange places around our house.

We live about twenty minutes from Raccoon Creek State Park, but for some reason we’ve spent very little time there. We’ve never been on Raccoon Lake which is created from the water dammed on Traverse Creek. Raccoon Creek doesn’t even touch the lake but travels on the outskirts of the park. We had an adventure on Raccoon Creek several years ago when our kayaks capsized after ramming into a large tree downed over the creek where it runs its fastest.

The cruise on Raccoon Lake this past weekend didn’t bring any adventures, except when my kayak banged up against what I thought was a rock as we approached the end of the lake and shallow, muddy water.

“It’s not a rock,” my husband said. “I saw it raise it’s head. It’s a turtle.”

Sure enough, the red, green and brown shell looked ancient and massive–two feet long at least. I didn’t have my good camera, so this is all I could manage to shoot of the creature in Raccoon Lake. It’s an outline at best.

freshwater turtle

freshwater turtle

I’m guessing it’s a snapping turtle because I couldn’t really get a clear view either with my naked eye or through my camera lens. When my kayak nudged him, I worried it might wake the sleeping giant, but it just swam away from me leaving me intact in the kayak.

We also saw an osprey guarding its nest. I will never again leave my good camera with zoom lens at home for even the shortest of nature explorations. My little pocket camera couldn’t zoom far enough to capture the osprey standing on a branch high above the banks. I didn’t even try to pull the camera out of the ziplock baggie. In a way, there was relief in not worrying about capturing the moment. I could just enjoy the majesty of this bird and rejoice in its population resurgence in western Pennsylvania.

The warm spring day makes me yearn for more lovely days when the trees are green and flowers bloom along the shore. We plan to spend more time in this lovely spot in our backyard. After all, the day we found our house four years ago, we were on our way to the Wildflower Preserve within the park. I haven’t been back since 2010, but this is the year to explore nearer to home.

Eastern Painted Turtle sunning

 

Raccoon Lake in Raccoon Creek State Park

Raccoon Lake in Raccoon Creek State Park

#BP Oil Spill Four Years Ago – Let Us Not Forget

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

BP’s oil spill in 2010 still haunts us today as scientists study the lingering effects of the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the spill, I worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public relations director. Immediately, our agency became watchdogs for oil headed toward Florida’s waters and beaches. I wrote about the oil spill in my novel, Trails in the Sand, using it as the backdrop for a family racing to save itself from destruction.

April 20, 2014 represents the forty-fourth anniversary of the first Earth Day, and it’s also sadly, the fourth anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

Click here to grab your #.99 cent Kindle copy

Click here to grab your #.99 cent Kindle copy

Trails in the Sand is on sale during April for .99 cents on Kindle. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Trails in the Sand:

As I sipped the aromatic brew, I glanced at the morning’s headlines before the television and George Stephanopoulos diverted my attention.

It was only a blip on the charts of the day’s news stories. I would have missed mention of it if I’d gone to the bathroom when George said an oil rig had caught on fire in the Gulf of Mexico the night before. On the morning of April 21, 2010, other news took precedence over this minor incident occurring miles off the coast of Louisiana.

As I flipped the channels to find more news, I learned that volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland was costing airlines $1.7 billion to combat the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Matt Laurer announced the death toll after the April 14 earthquake in China now topped 2,000.

CNN reported that a former coal miner at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia decided to give an interview detailing the unsafe conditions at the mine prior to the explosion two weeks earlier.

But nothing more on a little oil rig burning in the middle of the ocean. Since the fire occurred the night before, the morning newspapers contained no reports.

I took another sip of coffee, trying to determine the level of my reporter’s barometric pressure climbing up the back of my neck.

“Were you listening to NPR in the kitchen?” I asked Simon as he came back to bed with his cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.

“No. Why?”

“Just a curious little footnote to the news this morning, but I’ve only heard it on ABC so far,” I said. “It seems an oil rig caught on fire out in the Gulf last night. The report said eleven men are missing, but officials are confident the men are on lifeboats that haven’t been found yet because of the smoke on the water.”

“It sounds like it has the potential for a real disaster,” Simon said.

“They also said a former miner decided to talk about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine,” I said. “Sure wish I could have gotten that interview.”

A couple of the channels gave a brief account of the oil rig fire, but all agreed everything was under control. I hoped that was the case, but it bothered me when all the reports said the fire still burned. How did they have any idea what lay below the surface of that fire?

“Yesterday, April 20, was the eleventh anniversary of Columbine,” I said. “And the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day is tomorrow.”

“And the West Virginia explosion occurred on your mother’s birthday, April 5,” my husband said.

He knew very well I kept track of dates and wondered at the curiosity of so many significant occurrences in history coinciding with other dates important to those closest to me. In my family, birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths more often than not occurred on important historical dates. Two of my aunts had been born on December 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – a day of infamy. My best friend Holly was born on Christmas Day, and my sister died on the Fourth of July just two years earlier.

“I guess I better make some calls,” I said. “I’m a little skeptical that all is well in the Gulf.”

“Getting one of those hunches?” Simon asked.

“My ears are starting to tingle, so I better listen.”

I wouldn’t say I was clairvoyant or possessed powers of prescience, but I had a journalist’s instinct for news whether I was dealing with my job as a freelance environmental writer or as a woman assessing a person’s intentions. I learned over the years to follow those instincts. First, I felt something akin to hair rising on my neck. However, when I felt the tingling in my ears that sent a shiver down my spine, I began to pay attention to every little detail. The skeptic in me was still simmering beneath the surface even though my marriage to Simon the year before took some of the sharper edges off the knife of my cynicism. Love works miracles, but my transformation was still a work in progress. For the sake of my career, that was probably a good thing. I needed to question everything, or I’d never have a story.

I wondered where to start finding out about the fire. For nearly three decades, I made my living by writing about the environment and wildlife, with human interest thrown in the mix. One of the most recent stories took me to the Panhandle of Florida where a bear wandered into a residential neighborhood only to be darted with a tranquilizer by a wildlife biologist with the state wildlife agency. The drugged bear stumbled into the Gulf of Mexico before collapsing from the tranquilizer. The biologist wanted to knock the bear out temporarily, not drown him. He swam out to rescue the unconscious animal, dragging it back to shore. Photos of the rescue taken by a resident went around the world.

I wrote investigative pieces about illegal dumping of hazardous waste in rivers in far too many places in the United States. I wrote about environmental disasters and crimes whenever I received a tip from my sources that I’d cultivated and coddled over decades of trying to find the perfect quote. I wrote a story a few years back about a wildlife CSI lab in Oregon. I traveled across the country for stories filled with dramatic flourishes that somehow touched lives. I waded through the swamps of the Everglades hunting the invasive Burmese python, and I followed a group of camel traders in the deserts of Morocco, all in pursuit of the story.

When Simon came back into my life, I made the decision to give our marriage my full attention. I curtailed the scope of my writing, concentrating on stories from the southeastern Atlantic coast.

“Just when I thought our lives might settle down,” Simon said as he sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through the newspapers.

“You and I will never settle down. It’s our karma to be perpetually stirred up,” I said as I leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek.

 

Here’s to remembering the past lest we repeat our same mistakes.

 

Mutant Ducks of Raccoon

I’ve written about the mallard ducks in our neighborhood in previous years. And then there were threeThey come in March. Three males hang out for a bit with a female until the female goes to her nest either out by the mailbox or under our deck. These ducks have been inbreeding for years. A creek is just down the hill in the our backyard yet they stay in the neighborhood, mainly at ducklings6-13-12 010the farm where they originated.

I’m guessing that years ago someone bought a couple of cute ducklings for Easter presents. Now those ducks number in the dozens and really have forgotten that ducks belong near water. When it rains they play in the mud puddles at the farm. A few go in the tiny puddle while the others wait on the sidelines patiently. We don’t have mud puddles. However, this year when my husband lay plastic on the raised beds so the soil wouldn’t get too wet, the dips in the plastic formed places for water to collect.

Yep, we now have a duck pool.

Raccoon Creek Pond

Raccoon Creek Pond