Barry Fleming: Mastering the Art of Observation

Barry Fleming is one of my favorite humans on the planet and this “Alabama People” feature, which came out in the September 2019 Alabama Living magazine, offers just a glimpse into the many reasons I adore this brilliant naturalist, artist and philosopher.

You never know what Barry Fleming might be up to — spinning mud into art, slapping a watermelon slice on a homemade biscuit, provoking and inspiring creativity in his art students, fueling his “live music problem” from backstage at Bonnaroo or scanning a Gulf Coast shoreline for marbled godwits. Fleming is a man of diverse talents, from gifted artist and arts educator to world-class birder, and many interests, from nature to culture to human nature. He’s also a firm believer that life’s experiences, especially those lived in the moment, are essential to the artistic process, and he’s a master at immersing himself in an experience and taking note of every detail. Those observational skills are invaluable to Fleming’s birding, art and teaching, but also to another of his talents – storytelling. When Fleming, who now lives in Opelika, bends your ear in his Tennessee twang, you never know where the story might be going, but you can bet it will be entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking. 

– Katie Jackson

You have a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, plants, animals and the environment. When did that affinity for nature begin for you?  

I was born in Laguna Beach, Calif., but I was transplanted to Tennessee at age 3, first to Inglewood and then to Hendersonville, which was a growing town at the time with lots of woods and creeks all around. I was a mischievous little kid and my parents pretty much let me go, so I got to be a serious fisher and also got into collecting snakes that I’d bring home and keep in my room, along with crawdads and mice and fish for the snakes to eat. My mom is not an animal person — she doesn’t even like a dog or a cat — but she let me have all those varmints, including the snakes that would escape sometimes in her house. It was a great way to grow up.

When did birds become part of that mix? 

It was one bird on one day that did it. When I was in high school, I was fishing out in the headwaters of Drake’s Creek and up on a tree limb right above my head was a black-crowned night heron sitting there in full breeding plumage. I thought, “That’s something I need to know about. I bet you there’s a book that has this stuff in it.” So, I eased myself up to the Hendersonville public library, got me a bird book and started learning all the herons. Once I had those down, I thought I shouldn’t discriminate, so I started learning the other birds. 

You admit to having a “live music problem,” an obsession with hearing really good music performed live, and you’re an expert on several musical genres. How did this music thing get started? 

A lot of Nashville musicians lived in Hendersonville, so they were always around. I played ball against Conway Twitty, and Barbara Mandrell would show up at church and cry — I don’t know why she cried so much. We’d see Johnny Cash at the drugstore a lot, too. One of the original Oak Ridge Boys, who also sang backup for the Carol Lee Singers at the Grand Ole Opry, lived down the street from us and his son was one of my buddies. He’d take us with him when he sang at the Opry and we would hang out backstage and listen. We knew it wasn’t “cool” music, but we knew some of it was good and we’d show up at the junior high and tell people “Grandpa Jones is just as good as Jimi Hendrix.” They would say “NO WAY!” 

Even when you were quite young, I understand you showed a real talent for drawing, but during grade school you were more interested in sports than art. What brought you back to art as a career? 

When I got out of high school, I was working construction and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in the local community college. I took a drawing class there and during the final critique at the end of the semester the teacher asked us, “Why does someone become an artist?” Someone answered, “To make money.” “No,” she said. “For fortune and fame?” “No.” “To hang out with good looking people?” “No! You become an artist because you have to.” I was sitting there having a religious experience. I thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this.” So, I transferred to Western Kentucky University, where I got a BFA (in painting and ceramics, 1985), and then got my MFA (in painting, 1988) from the University of Tennessee. 

During the three decades you taught art at Auburn University (1988-2017), you developed a reputation as an easy-going, supportive professor, but also one who challenged students to think and work harder. What was the most important lesson you wanted your students to learn? 

I think my main job is to flip my students’ minds and teach them to be observant and remain open to new things. I think inspiration often comes from life experiences, so I tell them, “If you open yourself up to different kinds of art, or music or ideas, you’ll enrich your life and your art even more.”

Igniting Memories: How to be Firefly-friendly

This article ran in the June 2019 issue of Alabama Living magazine and sparked a great deal of conversation about protecting and enjoying fireflies.

Turn off the outdoor lights and step into the dark this summer and you may find yourself in an enchanted landscape where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fireflies—and perhaps a few children carrying Mason jars—streak about in the night. 

Or you may not. 

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, if you prefer) are the stuff childhood memories are made of, but these bright little beetles, and possibly future memories, are also at risk. 

The twinkling that attracts us to fireflies is caused by bioluminescence, a chemical reaction in their bodies that allows them to produce and emit light. Fireflies use that light to ward off predators and attract mates, the opportunity for which is but a spark in time.

The lifecycle of fireflies starts each summer when females lay eggs in or on top of the soil. The eggs hatch in about three weeks and the larvae then spend another year or two, depending on the species, maturing in the soil or in organic litter on top of the ground. Beginning in the spring (I saw my first 2019 firefly in March) and continuing through the summer, the larvae pupate and take wing as adults on a tight schedule: They have only a short time, usually two to four weeks, to procreate before their lights go out forever. 

The process is much more complicated, and fascinating, than I have space to cover in this column, but suffice it to say that among the more than 2,000 species of fireflies found throughout the world (170-plus of which are found in the United States) there is wide physical, behavioral and bioluminescent diversity—including some species that group together in synchronized light shows. 

Fireflies not only delight us visually, they are also important to our ecosystems. Firefly larvae eat—and thus help control—a number of pests such as slugs, snails and worms. Adult fireflies eat very little, if at all, because they are focused on reproduction, but they help pollinate a variety of plants, may be eaten by other animals up the food chain and their bioluminescent chemicals have medical and scientific uses.

Unfortunately, fireflies are also at risk, a problem that was first detected a decade or more ago when scientists and enthusiasts began noticing a decline in firefly populations. The exact causes of this decline are still being studied, but most experts agree that habitat loss, light pollution and over-use of pesticides are the main culprits. Other human activities, changes in hydrology and—believe it or not—predation by earthworms may also contribute to the problem, as does commercial harvesting of fireflies. 

Without conservation efforts, there may come a time when firefly lights go out in Alabama (and elsewhere). But luckily fireflies have advocates working to keep their lights shining, including Texas biologist Ben Pfeiffer who founded http://www.firefly.org, a website filled with information on fireflies and how we can help protect them. 

Those of us with gardens and lawns can help the effort simply by making our landscapes firefly friendly using Pfeiffer’s simple suggestions.

  • Reduce light pollution by keeping outside lights off as much as possible and closing curtains or blinds to limit escaping interior light.
  • Create firefly larvae habitat by leaving fallen logs, limbs and yard litter in place. 
  • Maintain or establish a water feature such as a small pond or stream or a wet or marshy area. 
  • Reduce, or better yet avoid, the use of pesticides, especially lawn chemicals, and limit the use of mosquito over-spraying to times when fireflies are least active. 
  • Leave areas of tall, uncut grass, a favorite hangout of fireflies during mating season, in parts of the yard. 
  • Plant native trees, shrubs and grasses. 

These measures, along with many others that can be found through Pfeiffer’s website (www.firefly.org), may help ensure that we and our children and grandchildren continue to step into enchanted summer landscapes for generations to come. 

Creative Resiliency: A Mississippi Gulf Coast Primer

There’s nothing like a road trip, especially when you take it with friends who love books to visit an author whose writing and heart you adore.

That’s the kind of trip members of my book group and I took to the Mississippi Gulf Coast earlier this month, an adventure hosted by our long-distance book group member, writer Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who put us up, fed and feted us and gave us an education in people and place.

For starters, Rheta arranged a call-in visit with Melissa Delbridge, the author of our May book selection, Family Bible, Delbridge’s hilarious and heartbreakingly honest memoir about coming of age in 1960s Tuscaloosa.

And that was just the beginning of a two-day (not long enough, by the way) exploration!

Thanks to Rheta, we breakfasted on the balcony of Pass Christian Books–a must-visit for book lovers and authors alike–and toured Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis. Rheta also gave us a taste of the area’s creative community, such as her friend and the amazing artist Kat Fitzpatrick and another friend who transformed her Katrina-flooded home and yard into works of art.

The trip was bookended by visits to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art and his family’s Shearwater Pottery shop in Ocean Springs and a quick stop at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art to see the work of the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” George Ohr. But most of all, the trip was a reminder that this part of Mississippi best-known for casinos is much more–it’s a place filled with talented, generous, welcoming people who combine creativity and resiliency to survive and thrive many a storm.

Trespass

It was early, that time of day before birds find their voices or vagrant dogs begin their morning rounds, when I rose from my childhood bed. I’d crawled into that bed the evening before, tired and looking forward to a rare sleepover at my parents’ house, but sleep had been elusive.

Being in a place that seemed so familiar, yet so foreign, made the night strange and my slumber restless. The house still smelled like home and it was still furnished with the same books and chairs and most of the same people I’d always called mine. But I’d been gone from there for so many days and nights that it no longer felt like my home.

I felt like an interloper, a feeling made even more uncomfortable because the reason I was there was to ease my worry about my ailing mother. She and my father didn’t really want me there in their business, so I felt like I was in my parents’ space—and also like a turkey buzzard circling and waiting to poach the remains of my past.

I was far too awake to ease back into even a fragment of a dream, so I slipped on my shoes, crept out a side door near my room (the same one I might have used as a teenager to slip away with a boyfriend had I had the courage to do such a thing back then—but I never did because it would have meant crossing boundaries) and set off for a walk down the lengthy dirt road that leads from the main highway to the house our family has inhabited since I was four years old.     

I walked slowly at first, feeling unsure until my eyes had time to adjust to the ashen moonlight. The road seemed unchanged through all the years of my absence, except the azaleas and pine trees on either side of it had grown taller and denser over time. Just as I was feeling more secure in my surroundings and settling into an easy gate, the sound of snorts and cracking branches stopped me in my tracks. My footfalls had flushed several deer from their bed in a privet hedge. 

They were startled. I was too. They dissolved into the predawn dark, fast and jerky as a ragged breath. I stood stock-still, my brief moment of fear fading into a saddening insight: The road belonged not to me, and not even just to my parents, but as much to those deer as any of us. On a road I thought of as my own, I was trespassing.

Trespassing is a sin in the South—a shooting offense if not a hanging one. Ownership of land is a status symbol that surpasses cash wealth, and protecting land lines is an almost religious duty. We are fond of our fences, gates, and “posted” signs, and we are indignant, if not incensed, when people fail to honor them.

For me, a product of the South and the progeny of families that have passed land down for several generations, this attitude not only seems normal, it is ingrained in me. I am protective of any land that belongs to us, and I resent anyone who dares trespasses upon it.  

My upbringing also ingrained in me an almost absurd respect for the territory of others. When I travel, I am often intrigued by odd side roads or striking landscapes just across barbed-wire fences, places that I would love to explore. But I am well brought-up—or perhaps cowardly—so I do not go there. 

Instead, I limit my detours and ramblings (my chances at discovery…) to numbered roads and public spaces, such as the wooded, watery landscapes of the South’s parks and wilderness areas, or the barren, arid landscapes of the American West, where I can gaze upon and wander in acres and acres of open soil and sky owned by no one—or is that by everyone all at once? 

As fiercely protective as I am of “my” land, knowing that someone relinquished ownership of their land to give us those communal spaces makes me feel greedy and guilty, but also thankful. Without their generosity (intentional or coerced) I would never have climbed through a thin mist to reach the top of an immense, ancient Indian mound in west Alabama, or been greeted (from a safe distance) by the dry warning judder of a timber rattler along the Bartram Trail in north Georgia, or glimpsed the sun shining through Delicate Arch in Utah, or become paralyzed with vertigo and awe while scaling Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

As I stood that morning in the half-light of a breaking day on my family’s road, I felt like I might be a sinner, but not so much for that moment’s trespass against the whitetails. The accidental indecency of my intrusion on their sleep was likely no worse than the way blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and wrens that flush one another from branches and feeders outside my kitchen window. They briefly claim a territory of comfort or sustenance. They leave. They return. It is a constant ripple of removal and return. Instead, I felt suddenly guilty of the sin of arrogance and the fear of irresponsibility.  

Do I have the right to own land? If I own it, is it moral to hoard it from others? Can I overcome my raising and find a way to possess it, yet still share it? And most important of all, can I protect the landscape of my childhood and all of its inhabitants, now and into the future?  It is not a matter of trespassing upon it. It is making sure I do not trespass against it.

In Praise of Birds in Barrels

It may not be obvious here since I am such a slacker about posting to this site, but I have been writing…writing furiously in fact. And it is glorious!

The things I am writing? Some are articles–my beloved gardening column in Alabama Living magazine top among them–and some are books (I’ve published two in the last year). But recently the things I have been writing have been much less structured because they have been straight-from-the-soul words spurred to life by writing prompts from Birds in a Barrel.

Birds in a Barrel is a writing program developed and nurtured by Robin Razu, a professional writer and editor who discovered the usefulness of a daily writing prompt and shared it with others.  As her website explains: “BIRDS IN A BARREL IS A PROGRAM FOR RELEASING NONFICTION CREATIVITY INTO THE WILD.”

Some of my writerly friends–a small pack of women who are already accomplished, acclaimed writers but, like me, are always looking for the next inspiration or catalyst–suggested it to me. I am forever indebted to these women for many things, Birds in a Barrel being the most recent and life-changing thing they have given me. It’s all about 40 days and 40 nights of writing, which can lead to 40, 000 words (just kidding, but it does help rack up the word count AND the ideas for future stories).

I write this post to encourage others to sign up for B-n-B. I’ll leave it to you to discover the details of it at http://www.birdsinabarrel.com, but suffice it to say that, if you’re willing to undertake it, it’s amazing.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit…and a Red Bird

Before my feet hit the floor this morning—the first day of 2019 AND the first day of January—I made sure to speak these three words aloud: “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.”

I heard about this monthly rite from the late Alabama storyteller, Katherine Tucker Windham, a woman who believed in ghosts, in the richness of tradition, and who found fun in life and afterlife. (She kept a handmade pine casket in the shed beside her house for years, using it to store crystal and china until she claimed it for herself in June 2011.) 

Windham often talked about—and I’m pretty sure practiced—the tradition of starting the month with “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” which is purported to ensure good luck for the entire month. There are a number of versions on how to perform this ritual—some say “white rabbit,” others just say “rabbit” once or twice instead of three times; some believe it must be said before rising, others think it should be said just as their feet hit the floor. Whatever the practice (I’m obviously in the three-rabbits-before-rising camp), I like the idea that I can do something to attract good luck rather than simply ward off bad luck, so I adopted the “rabbit” habit a year or more ago.

I come from superstitious folk, which engrained in me a mild obsession to strictly follow any known rituals that may affect luck—good or bad—or cause harm to myself or others. My mother passed away a decade ago, but I still wince every time I step on a crack (though I wonder, is a crack the same as a seam?), and I cringe anytime I accidentally lay shoes on the bed. I also worry that performing these rituals poorly or forgetting them entirely can bring on bad juju, and I’ll be honest, my “rabbit” practice is not perfect…I’ve missed a few months and wondered if missing it will now bring on bad luck? 

Thank goodness for my friend, Leigh, who offered an antidote: If you miss the first morning of a month, just say “tibbar, tibbar, tibbar” (“rabbit” backward) to reverse any bad karma. I’m on the hunt to figure out the exact implementation of that practice before I use it. Should I say it at the end of the first day of the month after I forget to say my morning “rabbits” or at the end of the month? I’m not positive, though this episode of “A Way with Words,” http://www.waywordradio.org/rabbit-rabbit-tibbar-tibbar/,  offered a few ideas, along with a number of other traditions that I may now have to add to my superstition repertoire.

I’ll ignored the temptation of adopting new practices right now, though, because so far I’ve started the new year off well.  Just a while ago, as I walked our dogs in a dripping rain, I spotted my first bird of 2019, a female cardinal.

2019, The Year of the Female Cardinal (though male cardinals are welcome, too.)

She’s supposed to be my “theme bird” (www.birdnote.org/show/bird-year-lyanda-haupt) of the year, but she is also a symbol of hope, joy, health, rejuvenation, and celebration (as well as possessing other powers and meanings: https://animals.mom.me/meaning-red-cardinals-native-americans-9087.html). I’ll think of her as my companion for the rest of the year. She and her sister ilk are abundant here, so I’ll never be far from cardinal grace and song.  

And I’ll cap it all off tonight with greens and black-eyed peas. I should have all the bases covered for the start of a successful 2019 before I lay my head down tonight to dream of rabbits and red birds.

Fresh Starts

A new year is approaching–rapidly! As in any day now…how did that happen? It’s true that the older one gets, the faster time seems to pass. And while I wish I could slow it down, I’m looking forward to a fresh start in 2019.

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago–they just seemed so un-doable. Instead, I create biannual “manifestos”–one in January and another during my birthday month of July. I stole the manifesto idea from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, along with her belief that if I write down my desires, they are more likely to be realized. So my manifestoes are actually lists of things I hope to accomplish in the coming year, not things that will make me feel like a failure should I not accomplish them. Truth is, through the years some of them have happened, other’s haven’t; some remain on the list every time I create/recreate it, others I check off as “done” or take off because they no longer matter to me–I have been known to change my mind about things.

Regardless of whether the lists change (they never become shorter, by the way), they become a compass for me–each item a direction that I can take from one day to the next. I tape the lists to my desk top and use them to send myself on to a new adventure or journey, especially when I find myself bogged down in the day-to-day of things. Each item is a reminder that I have bigger, brighter hopes to reach for.

So here’s my list for 2019. It may change between now and New Year’s Day, its official publication date, but it captures the gist of things.

2019 Manifesto

___Start a new book.

___Carve out writing days each week at home.

___Meet deadlines.

___Use time more wisely.

___Work outside more.

___Plant wildflowers & native shrubs.

___Thoroughly clean one room each month.

___Write better.

___Take a solo trip.

___Go on at least two writing retreats.

___Be a better person.

___Ride a horse at least once.

___Have adventures, alone and with friends.

___Take pictures.

___Be honest!

In addition to this personal list, I tacked up the following quote that a writerly friend of mine recently shared–a decades-old New Year’s wish from Neil Gaiman (see more of his journal entries at http://journal.neilgaiman.com):

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. 

I second his wish for all of us!