An interview with Janée J. Baugher on ekphrastic writing

By Midge Raymond,

Poet and teacher Janée J. Baugher is the author of two collections of poetry, The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and her new book, The Ekphrastic Writer, is an amazing text filled with art, poetry, prose, and inspiration for all writers. I’m thrilled to have had this email chat with Janée about her new book.

Q: With so many museums being closed due to the pandemic, are there any virtual spaces you’d recommend for ekphrastic writing inspiration?

A: I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and when he told me that on July 31st the Art Institute of Chicago was opening I raged with envy. I immediately opened that museum’s website and beheld an incredible article called, “Protecting Art in An Empty Museum.” Isn’t it curious to know that while many of us are jobless, distanced from our family and friends, and spending too many hours before the newsreel that fuels worry and fear, there are countless numbers of tireless museum stewards working around the globe to ensure that works of art remain safe? If you cannot experience art firsthand, museum websites are the best option. So, to answer your question, here are some resources:

  1. This website allows you to click on the world map, which brings up a list of museum website links for that particular region.
  2. The Smithsonian Art Museum, though still closed, recognizes that people remain hungry for art-viewing experiences. Since COVID-19, the organization has revamped its homepage—“Experience American Art from Home.”
  3. The Getty Center is also still closed, but their internet presence is just stellar. Visit the website and you’ll see information on art conservation, research, education, and, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy tens of thousands of images from their collection.
  4. Technology has certainly allowed for an easier way to weather the pestilence, and museums have embraced groundbreaking methods for virtual art engagement. You can search “virtual tours” and “art museums” on the internet, or you can simply visit your favorite museum’s website and see if those types of features exist. Are you lamenting your canceled trip to Paris? Now’s your opportunity to visit the Louvre virtually. What’s the good word from St. Petersburg, Russia? The Hermitage Museum is open! Can’t get there? Yes, you can.

Q: You recently participated in an art project for the City of Shoreline in which you wrote poems in response to scenes in the city’s parks. A lot of people are spending time outdoors during the pandemic. Can you talk about the possibilities within nature and ekphrasis?

A: Years ago I had a revelation about the similarity between writing on nature and writing ekphrastically. With both categories (objects in nature and objects d’art), the journey begins with aesthetics, reverie, and mystery. In my book I write, “Writers write concretely of the things they see, feel, and can name. Art of any type can be an extension of reflections on what you are looking at and how you are processing what you are seeing” (page 46). The possibilities within nature as it pertains to ekphrasis are infinite! While you’re spending time outdoors, keep in mind that public art is always open, and many museums boast sculpture gardens as part of their collection—most of which are still accessible for viewing and experiencing. Here’s an article that was highly informative to my chapter on nature writing: D. W. Meinig’s “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” which is available online. Read this article and then venture out into a landscape and you’ll see it through an entirely different lens, which can be a stellar start to ekphrastic writing.

Q: In your book, you wrote that you first “committed ekphrasis” in 1995. How much of your own body of work is based in ekphrasis? What is it about ekphrasis that captured you and continues to inspire you?

A: One summer during graduate school while I was drowning under the pressure of writing a book, I went to Europe in the hopes that I could find the poems there. Within two days of arriving I found myself in a Berlin museum swooning over a little Dutch painting. I opened my notebook on the spot and out poured a ekphrastic poem. The process was systematic—the poems, I discovered, were at museums, so I visited a new one every other day for six weeks. And the approach to writing was easy—if I just freewrote while in the presence of art, the poems composed themselves. By the time I returned home, I had 100 poems, half of which were ekphrastic. Ultimately, that trip resulted in my first collection of poems. Most of what I write now is ekphrastic. My current work-in-progress is dedicated to a single artist, Andrew Wyeth, which is a new challenge for me in that it’s an opportunity to deep-dive into one artist’s complete oeuvre and to see what connections can be made among his many paintings and drawings. My original impetus for turning to the visual arts is the motivation that holds true for me today: I seek to extinguish the personality. Ruminating on an artwork is, for me, a mode of transcending the quotidian experience. In other words, in the spirit of writing imaginatively, the approach I take to squelch the ego is meditating on an object of beauty.

Q: Which of the twenty-six types of ekphrastic writing from the first chapter of your book—from personifying the artwork to addressing the artist to considering historical context—do you most often employ?

A: In compiling a list of conventions for this book, I studied scholarly articles, as well as read hundreds of ekphrastic prose pieces and poems, including analyzing my own work. Some of those conventions include #3, narrating the artwork; #17, writing the absent; #19, adopting the artist’s artistic style; and #26, transcending description. Unless it were an assignment, I don’t suppose that any of us is truly conscious of what convention we employ as we’re in the drafting stage of writing. It would be a worthwhile exercise for a student of ekphrasis to take one artwork and attempt all twenty-six conventions. For me, the desires I have for my poems take a backseat to the desire of the muse. It’s only during the revision process that I look closely at whatever convention is at play and then work towards consistency therein. For my third collection of poems (on Andrew Wyeth), I write in the first-person point of view, giving voice to Wyeth’s thought process as he paints and draws. That is to say that I’m currently using convention #8, giving voice to the artist.

Q: If you could make one recommendation to a beginning ekphrastic writer, what would it be?

A: The best ekphrastic writing is born from a writer whose aim and delight is to look deeply and for whom there’s some feeling associated with the artwork they’re engaging with. In other words, writing to an artwork for which you’re apathetic will result in a piece of writing that’s dead. Additionally, if you’re too close to a work of art (you’re the artist, for example, or your lover is the photographer), you might be unable to plumb the depths of its mysteries. To rephrase, if you gravitate towards an artwork for which you feel something, and it’s an artwork that you’re willing to scrutinize deeply and well, and through which there’s space for your imagination, then perhaps you’re on the journey to making an ekphrastic writing of literary quality. Even if you have no literary aspirations, writing freely to any type of art is a blast.

Q: And lastly: Would you be willing to choose a writing invitation from the book to offer to readers?

A: Yes, there are 200 writing invitations in the book, but here’s a new one—Since most of us can’t currently access museums and galleries, let’s take this opportunity to start ekphrastic writing at home. What art exists in your home? For example: original art hanging on the walls, posters, postcards, or images of beloved art in a book? Select one piece and place it on a table. Cover the entire artwork with a sheet of paper. While the artwork is cloaked, spend a few minutes remembering its details. What’s the medium? Who created it? What mood does it evoke? What do you most recall about the piece? Next, move that sheet of paper (on the horizontal or the vertical) centimeter by centimeter thereby slowly revealing the image. Take notice of the lines, brushstrokes, hues, shapes, forms, and negative space. Once you’ve truly looked deeply at the artwork, perform a 10-minute freewrite. Afterwards, spend 5 more minutes writing about why that artwork exists in your home. How did you acquire it and from whom? What are your personal associations with it? What’s its significance? Lastly, involving family members in this exercise can be an interesting way to explore others’ relationship to the art that you share.

Janée and Midge at the Northwind Arts Center in Port Townsend, Washington.

For more information on Janée and her work, visit her website. Also, be sure to check out this interview in Boulevard Magazine, and her upcoming classes in October and November.



Pandemic Writing

By Midge Raymond,

Even as I wrote the title of this post, I confess I found the notion of “pandemic writing” to be an oxymoron. As I’ve heard from many other writers, it’s difficult to be creative when life is so very stressful. For some of us, it feels indulgent or frivolous, in light of all the suffering in the world; for others, it’s simply hard to focus when so much of life is scary, out of our control, and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.

I’ve found great solace in reading, and it’s in part thanks to the many wonderful books that have given me respite from the stress of current life — or have illuminated aspects of current life — that I’m finally feeling inspired to jump-start my own writing again. Reading is a wonderful reminder that we cannot exist without books — without art in general — and this means that each of us must do what we can to contribute to a world that needs art more than ever.

I was delighted to rediscover this article by Janée Baugher, author of the poetry books The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and, most recently, the writing book The Ekphrastic Writer. In this thoughtful piece, Janée challenges us to find fifteen minutes to spend on our art, whether it’s playing piano or writing. (When I re-read this article, I had only five minutes between reading the last sentence and leaving for an appointment, and I was so inspired that I spent those five minutes writing. And you know what? It was worth it, and helped me get back into a long-neglected project.) You can read the article here.

At a recent virtual reading by the Writers Guild at Bloomington’s Spoken Word Series, I was inspired not only by the music and prose and poetry readings but by reader Katy Yocom’s advice to find an “accountability buddy” with whom to check in daily to keep each other accountable for the day’s writing. As the author of the award-winning novel Three Ways to Disappear and associate director of the low-residency graduate writing programs of the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University, Katy practices what she teaches. Learn more about Katy here, where you can find Three Ways to Disappear, see her upcoming virtual events, and sign up for her e-mail updates.

One of the best ways I’ve found to say inspired is to do one literary thing per week. This may be attending an online reading or event (in addition to seeing what your local bookstores are doing and finding your favorite authors online, check out LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel for a list of virtual events, or Book Riot’s list of reading series now being held online), or listening to a bookish podcast like Books Are My People (Book Riot also has a great list). You might attend a writing practice (such as San Diego Writers Ink’s Brown Bag, Pen to Paper, and Thursday Writers meetings, now online and offering critique-free free-writing sessions led by instructors; sessions are one hour, with a $5 donation for Brown Bag and Thursday Writers). And don’t forget that buying a book from your local bookseller or from a small press will not only enrich your literary life but will help support the literary arts during these tough economic times.

In the spirit of starting to write (or continuing your established writing practice), below are a few writing prompts from Everyday Writing, the book I wrote when I realized I would never have the time to write every single day but could still be a productive writer. (You can check out an excerpt of the book here.) In addition to writing tips I’ve gathered together (from my own experiences as well as those of my brilliant writer friends), the book includes prompts for just about any amount of time you may have, whether it’s five minutes or a week-long writing retreat.

The prompts below are for those who are short on time (which most of us are, these days); they may seem totally random at a glance, but sometimes that’s the idea. Don’t question; just write.

I hope you enjoy them and that they inspire you to be creative during those strange times we’re all living through. Happy writing!

Five-minute writing prompts

  • Write about what you’re wearing on your feet (if anything). Use as many details as time allows.
  • Describe your best friend as a two-year-old.
  • Write about forgetting something at the store.

Fifteen-minute writing prompts

  • Write about a time you guessed wrong about something, whether it was who might be calling, whom your daughter would marry, or how the polenta would turn out.
  • Write about a lie someone told you. Include everything, from how and when you knew it was a lie to what might have been different if you’d been told the truth.




It’s World Penguin Day

By Midge Raymond,

I loved researching penguins for My Last Continent, but World Penguin Day is as special to me as it is bittersweet because every year, the world is a little harsher for penguins: fishing, climate change, and warming oceans are endangering a great many species.

There are many ways we can learn more about penguins and how to protect them, and many ways to help them directly, even if we’re (very) far from where they live.

For example, since most of us are currently staying home during the pandemic, one great way to help scientists (and to glimpse these amazing creatures in their natural habitat) is to join this citizen science project, Penguin Watch, which allows you to count penguins from your computer screen.

And here are a few ways to help penguins every day, all year:

  • Re-think your consumption of seafood. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (such as krill) or because they get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints — and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support such conservation efforts as the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.




How safe are cruise ships?

By Midge Raymond,

One of the reasons it took me a decade to write My Last Continent is that at the center of a story is a massive shipwreck; since they are very uncommon I wasn’t sure how credible my narrative would be — in fact, cruise ships are actually very safe (a study by G.P. Wild referenced in this article noted that while cruise-ship capacity increased 55 percent over the last decade, the number of “operational incidents” declined 37 percent, and man-overboard incidents dropped 35 percent).

Still, as I learned during my research, anything can go wrong on a cruise ship — and often does. It was when the Costa Concordia sank in 2012 that I finally realized my fictional Antarctic shipwreck was not only plausible but all too possible. And so I (finally) finished the novel.

As this article reminded me, while cruises are generally safe, it’s wise to take precautions and to consider such things as not only where your muster station is but how to find your kids, your partner; what to do if you can’t get there. It’s nothing anyone wants to think about when starting a vacation — but it could make all the difference.

When I was in Antarctica on a small ship many years ago, I was struck by the onboard naturalists’ worry about the much larger cruise ships making the journey. These massive ships were far too large for search-and-rescue operations, should anything go wrong — after all, at the bottom of the earth, how can several thousand people be rescued when there aren’t enough humans (or boats) for miles? when you are separated from civilization by the wildest seas on earth?

This is great material for fiction, of course, but it’s also a reality that everyone traveling to Antarctica should consider. In 2007, a tourist expedition ship, the MV Explorer, did sink in Antarctica — but thanks to having only about a hundred passengers, as well as having another ship nearby to take them on, all were safe. But if the weather conditions had not been favorable, if the Norwegian ship had not been nearby to take on the stranded passengers — or if the ship carried thousands of passengers, as the fictional Australis does in My Last Continent, this incident could’ve looked a lot more like the disaster in the novel.

This is not to say no one should visit Antarctica; the dangers are real, but this is part of what makes the journey a life-changing trip. Most important, I think, is to travel in the most eco-friendly way possible, especially when it comes to fragile places. Visit IAATO (International Association for Antarctic Tour Operators) for more on Antarctic tourism and for how to be an educated, environmentally conscious traveler.



Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

Happy World Penguin Day — not that I ever need a reason to celebrate these amazing little creatures, but it’s great to have a designated day on which everyone thinks about these birds and how they’re faring in such a rapidly changing world.

Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguins, photographed in New Zealand by John Yunker.

So, how exactly are the penguins doing? According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, of the eighteen species of penguins listed, four are stable (the Royal, Snare, Gentoo, and Little penguins), two are increasing in numbers (the Adélies and the Kings), and the status of the Emperors is classified as unknown. This means that, when it comes to the rest of the penguins of the world, their numbers are decreasing — and in some cases, they are decreasingly alarmingly fast.

King penguins on South Georgia Island.

The penguins in the most danger of becoming extinct are three species I’ve been very fortunate to meet: the Galápagos penguin (with an estimated 1,200 individuals left), the Yellow-eyed penguin (with fewer than 3,500 left), and New Zealand’s Fiordland-crested penguin, also known by its Māori name, Tawaki, meaning crested, which the IUCN lists at between 2,500 and 9,999 individuals (yet when I visited in 2017, local researchers’ estimates were only 3,000 individuals).

These are pretty scary numbers — and the fact is, the lives of each of these species make them very hard to accurately count, which means that while there could be more than we think, it’s likely that there could be far fewer than we realize.

So what can we do on World Penguin Day to help make the world a better place for them? Here are a few ideas to start.

  • Re-think your consumption of seafood. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (such as krill) or because they get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints — and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support such conservation efforts as the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.

 

Yellow-eyed (Tawaki) penguin, photographed in New Zealand by John Yunker.



Bookstore Geek: Boutique del Libro in Puerto Madryn, Argentina

By Midge Raymond,

Strolling around Puerto Madryn during our Penguins & Patagonia tour, we almost missed this lovely bookstore, Boutique del Libro, which is on the first floor of a shopping mall on the main street through town (“first floor” in Argentina is what we Americans think of as the second floor). This is the view from the street:

Boutique del Libro has a robust online store and branches throughout Argentina, including Ushuaia, Calafate, and several in the greater Buenos Aires region.

Once inside this Puerto Madryn location, this small bookstore revealed an abundance of books, from local and regional authors to international bestsellers — with an ocean view as a backdrop.

It’s a very quaint store with a lot of gift items as well as books — a wonderful place to browse, even if you aren’t a fluent reader in Spanish.

It has an especially sweet Patagonia section, with art books, calendars, journals, prints, and so much more that highlight the flora and fauna of the region.

If you’re in Puerto Madryn looking for gifts (or Spanish-language books, of course!), don’t miss this lovely bookstore on the first floor of Puerto Madryn’s main street.



Bookstore Geek: The Antique Book Shop, Buenos Aires

By Midge Raymond,

One afternoon on our recent Penguins & Patagonia Adventure, we walked through the glamorous Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta, an area with an abundance of beautiful boutiques and shops. Bookstore geeks that we are, we couldn’t resist stopping into this beautiful antique bookstore.

There’s something so appealing about old books, and this store is no exception; it even has a wonderful old-book smell, like that of a vast library. The store offers myriad old and rare books, all in Spanish, most of them about Argentina, with a great many about Patagonia.

It’s a nice place to browse, but for security reasons you have to be buzzed in, and because the books are so old and some are so fragile, it’s a better place to look than to touch. But that was just as much fun for us.

The Antique Book Shop also has maps and illustrated books; we visited twice, enchanted by a nearly 100-year-old map of Chubut Province, a copy of which was also hanging in the living room at Rincon Chico. The map was made in 1928 and outlines the parcels of land that makes up the Peninsula Valdes. Because the peninsula is all privately owned, the map has the family names of all the landowners, the vast majority of whom pass down the land from generation to generation.

If you’re in interested in the history of Argentina — from literary to geopolitical to natural history — this bookstore is a must-stop on your visit to Buenos Aires. The store owner and employees are very helpful and speak both Spanish and English.



Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo’s Florida Street branches

By Midge Raymond,

When I first visited El Ateneo, I had no idea this amazing bookstore had two additional locations. But then, this shouldn’t have been a surprise: Buenos Aires has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world, according to a study by World Cities Culture Forum. And while the large former theater that is now El Ateneo Grand Splendid on Avenida Santa Fe is perhaps the most famous, a short walk from there are two more branches, both on the pedestrian avenue Florida.

We decided to visit both, in part because we wanted to see more of El Ateneo (who wouldn’t?) and also because we were looking for a book on birds of Argentina that was in both English and Spanish.

El Ateneo, originally founded as a publishing house and bookstore, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it’s heartening to see the bookstore thriving in not just one but in all three locations.

The two smaller El Ateneo bookstores are located with a few minutes’ walk of each other — it’s hard to imagine a city in the States with so many bookstores, so close together, all doing well. (If the stores look empty in these photos, it’s because we were there in the early evening, which is quite early by Argentinian standards: In Argentina, people go out for dinner at 8 or 9 p.m., then shop afterwards. Shops are usually open until at least midnight.)

While neither of the two smaller stores have the grand decor of the El Ateneo Grand Spendid on Avenida Santa Fe, this larger branch has several stories, beautiful columns throughout the store, and a lovely marble staircase.

All branches have a large selection of books in dozens of genres, and even if the books aren’t in your native language, it’s still a joy to browse, and even to buy; I found several coloring books that were perfect for my little niece.



Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo, again

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Buenos Aires for the Penguins & Patagonia Adventure with Adventures by the Book, it was my third visit to the glorious El Ateneo bookstore (known as El Ateneo Grand Spendid; there are two other, smaller branches of El Ateneo in Buenos Aires). And it was just as magical a place as it’s always been.

I’m not alone in my admiration of this store: more than a million customers visit it each year, and while many are tourists (on one visit I could barely walk around for all the visitors taking photos), on this last visit everyone in the store seemed to be local; they were browsing, reading, and buying.

The English-language section shrank from two sections to just one, and the selection comprises mostly thrillers and romance. The cafe, while quiet on the day we visited, is still open where the stage used to be.

Perhaps the cafe wasn’t crowded with readers because the former theater balconies make such great reading spots; we found an empty one and decided to get a group photo with My Last Continent.

If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires, make sure you set aside some time for this bookstore. It’s not only a gorgeous place to visit, but even if you don’t read in Spanish, there are a lot of gift items as well as books, so it’s a fun place for souvenirs as well.



When being a naturalist (or a filmmaker) means letting nature take its course

By Midge Raymond,

I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.

This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.

Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”

As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”

As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.



Surviving Antarctica the modern way

By Midge Raymond,

The stories of the twentieth-century explorers of Antarctica are harrowing — Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance being eaten by the ice-choked Weddell Sea; Robert Falcon Scott reaching the South Pole after Norwegian Roald Amundsen and then losing his life and his entire party to the elements upon their return.

And yet, despite history’s harsh lessons — the most recent being the fate of Henry Worsley, who died in 2016 during his attempt to complete the first solo, unassisted crossing of Antarctica — twenty-first century explorers continue to set out on their own expeditions.

Yet the new explorers do have one advantage: modern science. And this article in Outside magazine is fascinating for its look at the energy needed to navigate the vast frozen continent (thanks so much to Susie Dana Stangland for sending this to me!). As the article notes — and as anyone who’s spent time in Antarctica knows well — it’s not just the cold but also the wind, the altitude, and the extreme dryness (Antarctica is the biggest desert in the world) that contributes to energy consumption when trekking across the ice.

Robert Scott, for example, brought along rations that added up to between 4,200 and 4,600 calories per day. However, the Outside article notes:

No one really knew how many calories a polar expedition like this burns until Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes made a two-person unsupported 1,600-mile crossing of Antarctica in 1992 and 1993. Careful measurements of energy consumption using isotope-labeled water showed that they were burning an astounding 7,000 calories a day for 96 days. During one ten-day period while they ascended the plateau, they averaged 11,000 calories a day.

Given that the average person is advised to eat about 2,000 calories a day, this number is staggering. The question then becomes: How do you get enough calories to make an expedition while not weighing yourself down with the vast amount of food you’ll need to stay alive?

Colin O’Brady, one of two men currently attempting solo crossings of Antarctica, will be taking along specially created energy bars to give him the 8,000 calories per day he’ll need to make his solo journey across the continent. Click here to read more about the science behind the fuel for this trip.



Penguins & Patagonia: Exploring Península Valdés

By Midge Raymond,

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

 

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!



Penguins & Patagonia: Rainy afternoon happy hour book club

By Midge Raymond,

On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.

So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.

It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.

And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.

 

We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…

…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.

To see more of Susan’s terrific photos, visit the Facebook page of Adventures by the Book!

 



Penguins & Patagonia: Back at Punta Tombo

By Midge Raymond,

John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).

Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.

As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.

We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.

We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.

Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.

Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.

 

And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)

We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.

As ever, for more great photos of the tour, visit the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Penguins & Patagonia: Puerto Madryn

By Midge Raymond,

After a couple of sunny days in Buenos Aires, the next stop on our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure was the much cooler, windswept oceanside city of Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The amazing two days we spent here were arranged by Carol Mackie de Passera of Causana Viajes (indeed all the Argentinian details of the trip were arranged by Carol, but our visit to Puerto Madryn was specially and thoughtfully curated by Carol to fit our literary theme). Also a naturalist and guide, Carol arranged for a tour of the local history museum, Museo del Desembarco, followed by a traditional Welsh tea with Argentinian authors in the beautiful historical building of the Welsh Association.

We (below, from left: Marcelo Gavirati, Silvia Iglesias, and Carlos Dante Ferrari — plus me, John, and Susan) had a wonderful chat about writing, culture, travel, and the fascinating Welsh history of Patagonia (the Welsh arrived in Puerto Madryn in the 1860s) and its thriving community here, all as we devoured scones, bread, pastries, and tea.

Carlos Dante Ferrari is the author of eight books, including one translated into English, The Patagonian Rifleman.

Marcelo Gavirati is a professor and has published many books and articles on the history of Patagonia, including this article in True West Magazine, which focuses on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s arrival in Argentina.

Silvia Iglesias is a journalist, teacher, poet, and novelist. She has published two books of poetry — Perfect Bodies and Strange Bodies —  and a novel, Yaoyin.

This next photo features our entire group as well as association staff, all of whom were wonderful and so much fun to spend the afternoon with.

Thanks to Susan for the terrific photos, many more of which can be found on the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.