Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Be a Galapagos Finch

I listen to RadioLab. A lot.

This past summer I've been digging my way through the archives, listening to episode after episode. Some of the freelance work I do is passive (i.e. taking photographs of textiles or whipping up simple graphics), so I keep myself company with a good podcast. Part of the reason I've velcroed myself to RadioLab is because of the brain-tickling topics that often call belief systems into question or approach a familiar topic with a fresh perspective. But another reason I listen is the hosts. Something about Jad Abumrad's inquisitiveness and Robert Krulwich's soothing voice makes me want to hang out with them at a bar and talk about life's big questions.

So, where do the Galapagos finches fit into all this?

RadioLab ran an episode on Galapagos that touches on some of the big questions and mysteries that surround the archipelago (If you get a chance, I highly recommend listening to the entire thing). I was immediately drawn into this particular episode because I studied in Ecuador and had the opportunity to visit this miraculous set of islands. When they began talking about the endangered finches, I had a visceral reaction.

My stomach knotted up and my lungs tightened. I could picture the sweet little birds; I could hear their songs fluttering through the trees. It made me incredibly depressed to think that those songs might be silenced one day soon.

As I listened to this episode of RadioLab, Jad and Robert began to paint a grim picture of the finch's plight. An invasive species of fly was swiftly desiccating the finch population by laying its eggs in their nests--eggs that would become larva, larva that feeds on baby finches from the inside out. The Galapagos islands are a sensitive area (untouched for centuries by man or any kind of non-endemic species). When an outside species is introduced, the natives usually fare poorly. This was the case with tortoises and goats. When goats were introduced to the islands, tortoise populations plummeted. The goats competed for resources, gobbling up grass and shrubs, leaving behind dust bowls, devoid of vegetation.

So, what's a poor finch to do when a flesh-eating fly is wiping out most of the hatchlings? Adapt.

Seriously. These finches have adapted in less than fifteen years. This is almost unheard of in evolutionary terms. Usually, a slow process of natural selection leads to the evolution of a species, but these finches appear to be evolving in real time. Pushed to the brink (five species of finches are in critical danger of extinction and six other species are in serious decline), the finches fought back.

Mother finches developed the skill to identify and eliminate larva from their nests. They even began eating them, which they would have never done fifteen years ago (scientists experimented with feeding adult finches fly larva in the year 2000 and had little success). Additionally, baby finches are beginning to climb up the nest walls to position themselves away from the larva at the bottom--an act that was never witnessed until recently.

Perhaps the most amazing adaptation of all is that different species of finches have begun to interbreed. This action defies the very definition of a species: under normal circumstances, animals do NOT breed outside their species.But the Galapagos finches were desperate. On Floreana island, the critically endangered medium tree finch began breeding with the small tree finch. They crossed a boundary that had been in place for hundreds of years for the sake of saving their species. A hybrid emerged. The new, cross-breed finch was better at combating fly larva and more likely to survive into adulthood. Even the song of the two species of finches began blending together (there's something poetic about that, isn't there?).

These finches are a lesson in survival and adaptation. Their situation seemed hopeless, but they fought through it and emerged stronger and better-equipped to deal with the perils of their world. We can learn from this tenacity, this will to survive. When the chips are down, don't walk away; don't give up. Devise a new strategy and get back in the game.

Be a Galapagos finch.

And if you're struggling to get back in the game? Don't be afraid to accept help. There are several instances on the Galapagos islands (and elsewhere) in which scientists temporarily supported a species to bring it back from the brink of extinction. The tortoise was not too proud to accept help. Let's learn from that.

Kate Bitters is a freelance writer and marketer. Her latest novel, Ten Thousand Lines, is a dystopian tale about a revolution, a witch hunt, and an unlikely friendship.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What $2 Can Get You (Plus, an eBook Sale!)

Hello friends and readers! Wednesday the 2nd marks the first day of a four-day eBook sale for Ten Thousand Lines. You can snap it up for a mere $1.99 from now until Saturday. What can $2 get you these days?

-A pack of gum
-3/4 of a gallon of gas
-A Wendy's cheeseburger
-Vending machine fruit snacks
-Suave shampoo
-8 gumballs
-2 postage stamps
-A candle
-37% of a McDonald's premium southwest salad
-3 (almost) single sliders from White Castle
-One ticket on the MSP Light Rail
-A package of shirt buttons
-A scratch-off lotto ticket
-5 colored photo copies at Staples (seriously!)
-A package of basil seeds at Target
-1/7 of a cocktail at Marvel Bar

Why not pay $2 and enjoy some literature? I dare you. Splurge!
Check out Ten Thousand Lines today :)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Space to Think

This past weekend, I found myself in the Badlands of North Dakota in 100 degree heat. As my partner-in-crime rode the 50 mile Maah Daah Hey bike race, I went for a 12 mile hike. Crazy? Maybe. Worth it? Absolutely.

I trekked through a petrified forest, stunningly stark landscapes, and near-dry creek beds. I ventured from the trail and bushwhacked my way through 3-4 miles. I saw prairie dogs (hundreds), bison, wild horses, a gigantic elk, a fox that had just made a kill, some grouse, and a red-tailed hawk. Mostly, I thought.

Being in the middle of nowhere is great for stimulating creative thought. The trick is to not try too hard; let the thoughts come to you as they will. This is something I've learned through meditation instruction--let your thoughts pass through you like clouds.

Sometimes you'll come up with brilliant ideas (for me, I often envision potential story scenes or even entire plot lines when I'm walking around aimlessly), and sometimes you'll think of nothing. On the days I think of nothing fresh/new/original, I try not to worry. At the very least I've primed my mind to receive new thoughts and ideas. I always capture some serenity through my treks that helps me fret less about day-to-day life and focus more on creative energy.

The main lessons: Get away. Be by yourself. Don't be afraid to turn your brain off for a while. And always keep a pen and paper handy (you never know what might pop into your head).


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Haircut Incident (On impulsivity and taking risks)

Today I cut my hair.

Ok, ok. I realize that's not big news. Thousands of people get haircuts every day. But this was a little different. My thought process went something like this:

Sure, this was a small, simple act. Yes, hair grows back. But it was thrilling nonetheless. I unearthed a part of myself I've missed--the reckless, impulsive part.

When I was a little younger, I'd dream up things and do them. When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I decided I wanted to drive to California one night. It was 9:30 p.m. at night and I was in the middle of the city when I had the impulse. I was having a rough day and a long drive seemed like just the ticket for climbing my way out of melancholy.

I walked over to my car and paused. I had a couple granola bars, a sleeping bag in the trunk, and a road map (this was before the days of GPS in every cell phone). I thought to myself as I opened the map, "I wonder how hard it is to get to California."

Turns out, not very hard.

I spent the next 24 hours driving along the Cali coast and into the redwood forest. I sang to myself in the car, journaled, and ate gas station food. I returned to Portland with a grin and a revitalized spirit.

Unfortunately, growing up inevitably means shedding some of that impulsivity. There are bills to pay, pets and kids to care for, meetings to attend. It's difficult for the typical person to hop in a car and drive away for a while.

But that doesn't mean we have to lose our impulsivity entirely. We don't have to become increasingly afraid of the unknown and foreign. It's easy, as an adult, to stay comfortably within our boxes, only socializing with close friends and family, only traveling to "safe" places with plush hotel room beds and chlorinated swimming pools.

I argue that living strictly within the confines of our comfort zone stagnates growth. We miss opportunities to learn, grow, and experience. We miss out on making mistakes and solving problems. We lose our ability to think on our feet.

So, maybe it's impossible to hop on a plane tomorrow to visit Fiji...but that doesn't mean you can't hop on that plane next month.

Here's to a healthy dose of recklessness and discovering new parts of yourself along the way!


I'm liking my impulsive haircut!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Writing Through Grief

It's been a while since I've published a post (a month, actually). The reason? My life was derailed by the sudden and unexpected death of my partner's father.

We were left dumbfounded, lost, and ladened with grief. None of it made sense. He was here one day--smiling, laughing, running a business, planning a trip to Japan--and gone the next. He had a lot of life left to live, a lot of ground to travel. Surely, this was a mistake. Surely, he would arise from the hospital bed, brush himself off, and ask for the score of his favorite soccer team's latest game.

writing as a tool to soothe grief and heal
His passing shook me to the core. I found myself questioning the importance of my own life--did any of it matter? Was I really making a difference? And I found myself breaking down at odd moments throughout the day and crying uncontrollably. And yet, I had to be a rock for my partner. I had to hold him when he felt weak and listen when he needed an ear.

Through it all, I wrote.

I wrote long, rambling stream of consciousness-type pieces. I filled pages in my sketchbook (which I use for free writes and idea generation; I like the lack of lines and quality of the paper). I found myself thinking in poetry, and I wrote it down.

I know writing helped lift me out of this dark time. It was an outlet for my tangle of feelings.

And it's something I've used in the past to slice through polluted clouds and find a lungful of clear air. I've used free writing to cope with troubled relationships, unemployment, and general listlessness. Sure, it doesn't solve all my problems or change circumstances, but it does clear my head and give me the courage to step forward. And sometimes, that's all it takes.

People deal with tragedy in different ways. If you're feeling lost, troubled, depressed, confused, I recommend picking up a pen and paper. Write without judgment or premeditation. Let your emotions do the talking. You might be amazed by what ends up on your paper.

Aside from free writing, I found myself thinking in haikus this past month. I can't exactly explain why, but I have a hunch that it had something to do with the reliability of haikus. They have a definite structure (three lines, 5-7-5 syllables) and there's something comfortable in their stability. I ended up calling my haikus the Loss Haikus.

Loss Haiku #1
The shuddering breath
We cry with bodies entwined.
Is he really gone? 

Loss Haiku #2
Eyes swollen from tears
Skin draped over tired bones.
Was it me who died?

Loss Haiku #3
Charcoal fog hanging
I bite into the sorrow
and keep on walking

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Would You Do?

Here's a simple message to meditate upon today. What would you do?

Have a Thoughtful Thursday.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Everything Has Already Been Invented: A Refute

“Everything that can be invented, has been invented." --Charles Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Patent Office, 1899

At one of my writing groups, a fellow writer said off-handedly (during a discussion about creating mythical beasts in fantasy writing) that, “pretty much everything has been written, so you shouldn’t worry about reusing or recycling known tropes, like unicorns or dragons. Around the room, people nodded and no one refuted him. The conversation moved on to whether or not your fictional creatures should have some sort of cosmology and the topic of inventing new storylines and monsters was dropped.

I moved on as well, but something about that statement bothered me. It seemed so fatalistic, so glass-half-empty. And I wondered if it was true. Has everything already been written in one form or another? Are we just revamping tired stories with new characters, settings, and technologies? Are we resigned to creating yet another Terminator sequel instead of coming up with a fresh plot?


I firmly disagree that everything has already been created, that every story has been told.

When Charles Duell said the above quote in 1899, he truly thought that nothing new could be invented. They had it all, right? Sophisticated transportation (horse and buggy), modes of communication (telegraph), and incredible home technology (the gas-lit lamp). Nothing new to invent, right?

Today, his statement is laughable. We’ve seen millions of new technologies and improvements since 1899.

Here’s the crux of what I’m getting at: Just because Duell couldn’t envision new technologies at the time, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t happen. His lack of vision didn’t stop Ford from inventing the model-T, Orville and Wilbur from taking the first flight, and Al Gore from inventing the internet (kidding, kidding).

In the same vein, I’m certain not every story has been told. Just because you can’t think of anything new, doesn’t mean there is nothing new.

In short, don’t impose your limitations on me.

Thousands of people write novels every year. Sure, many of them might recycle plot lines or character themes, but some of them are truly fresh and innovative.

So, keep writing. Keep imagining. And don't impose others' narrow-mindedness on yourself.

Kate Bitters is the author of Ten Thousand Lines and Elmer Left.