People live inside us. Sometimes we talk to these people, and sometimes they answer back. Sometimes they are simply a presence, almost a dream, living in the darkness of the body. Sometimes they are four hundred years old, sun-blistered, whip-thin, speaking the Spanish dialect of sixteenth-century Seville—which would be the case with the real-life conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a man who has intrigued me for decades, whose story I have read over and over, whom I have written about again and again, and who finally set up camp in my frontal lobe, roasting fish and roots, sketching maps in the sand, praying, scheming, surviving—as indomitable as a gust of wind, sea, and salt.
My new young adult novel Teresa of the New World is a historical fantasy set in the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest. The daughter of Cabeza de Vaca and a Capoque mother, Teresa is betrayed by her hero-father, sent to live as a kitchen servant in the household of a Spanish official, and alienated from the magic she knew as a child when she could listen to plants and animals and sink into the trickster earth. Plague stalks the land. Measles decimates native villages. And Teresa goes on her own journey, befriending a Spanish war horse and were-jaguar as she struggles to reclaim her power and sense of self. It has taken me twenty years to write this book. Now I think of it as my autobiography.
You can order Teresa of the New World at bookstores or on online.
You can also find Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World (Oregon State University Press) at OSU or Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Diary of a Citizen Scientist was listed by The Guardian as a top ten nature book in 2014. I’ll be speaking next on citizen science at the Audubon Woodend Nature Center at Chevy Chase, MD on April 4.
I have always wanted to be a field biologist. I imagine Zen-like moments watching a leaf, hours and days that pass like a dream, sun-kissed, plant-besotted. I imagine, like so many others before me, a kind of rapture in nature and loss of ego. John Burroughs, an early American naturalist, wrote that he went to the woods “to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune.” In my own walks through the rural West, this echoes my experience exactly. I enlarge in nature. I calm down. The beauty of the world is a tangible solace—that such harmony exists, such elegance, the changing colors of sky, the lift and roll of land, a riverbank, and now a beetle flashing in the sun, an entrance into its perfect world. I am soothed, I am thrilled, and at the same time, eventually I get bored. Eventually I go home because my work (my writing, my students, my laundry) is elsewhere.
But what if that employment, my engagement with the world, was right there, in the largeness and calm of nature itself? “Blessed is the man,” Burroughs continued, “who has some congenial occupation in which he can put his whole heart, and which affords a complete outlet to all the forces there are in him.” And what if the opportunity for me to become a field biologist or a lepidopterist or a geologist was right now and quite real? The world of citizen science is one in which hundreds of thousands of people are following their bliss counting stars for NASA, tracking the migration of birds, cataloging galaxies, and excavating mastodons. Renaissance and transformation! A revolution in how research gets done and in what kind of research gets done.