Issue #64, Adaptation
The Scene Is In Flux
A Conversation with Lawrence Lenhart
The Scene Is In Flux
Lawrence Lenhart is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s “Adaptation” contest. His essay “If the Ferret Crosses the Road,” selected from almost 200 submissions, is framed by a reintroduction event for the black-footed ferret, one of North America's most endangered mammals. Inspired by the ceremony at Double O Ranch in Arizona and his travels between Flagstaff and Seligman, Lenhart explores the borders between civilization and nature.
Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19) and a dozen essays about the black-footed ferret. His prose appears in Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, teaches creative nonfiction and cli-fi at Northern Arizona University, and is the reviews editor of DIAGRAM.
CNF: The essay is about the black-footed ferret, an endangered species. What got you interested in the black-footed ferret, particularly? Did you know early in your work that you were going to write about them, or did the desire to write about them develop the longer you worked with them?
Lenhart: In 2011, I moved to Tucson to study writing. At the time, I was working towards a novel and had little interest in creative nonfiction or black-footed ferrets. My partner at the time, though, had three domestic ferrets of the charismatic pet-store variety. For a few months, it seemed that I couldn’t write a sentence without being distracted by ferret thoughts. After one of our ferrets died of pancreatic failure, my partner moved to Nevada for an internship in biological conservation. I was left to care for the ferrets. Feed them. Shampoo them. Block them from crawling up the fireplace. Mist their faces when the swamp cooler didn’t cool. Make sure the appropriate holiday-themed hammock was clipped to the insides of their cages.
During the full moon phase, my partner got a few days off from her research. She invited me to join her in the Aubrey Valley outside of Seligman to spotlight for black-footed ferrets. I hardly knew the difference between the two ferret species at the time. I agreed to join. She was building her résumé (a résumé that would eventually lead her away from us for good), and I was happy to help. I remember when we trapped our first ferret for inoculation; it was a remarkable feeling, having one of North America’s most endangered mammal species as a passenger in my car. We named him after the ferret who died the fall before. Shortly after, I wrote an essay about the breakup. Upon revision, the essay became more about ferrets. Even more so by the next revision. When I applied for a faculty position at Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff is a little over an hour from the Aubrey Valley), I invoked my interest in the species. I think that cover letter was the first time I ever said it outright: “I am currently working on a book-length essay about the black-footed ferret.” A couple years later, and the book is nearly finished.
CNF: You've written a dozen essays about the black-footed ferret. This essay is specifically about the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret at the Double O Ranch in Arizona. What are some of the other essays focused on? How do you see the project as a whole?
Lenhart: As of today, my wife is eight months, two weeks pregnant. While I think the pregnancy and our preparation for parenthood would have manifested regardless of the subject matter of my writing, black-footed ferrets and impending parenthood are now inextricable subjects to me. Living just north of Phoenix—“sprawl of sprawls” as I call it in the essay—I’m always aware of the ways in which human populations are crowding out keystone species like the prairie dog. To procreate is to contribute to that crowding. One of the central questions of the book then is: Am I, as a father-to-be, undermining my own advocacy for the rewilding of the ferret?
So, while the essays in this book are about the individual stories from the conservation effort—about habitat fragmentation, about prairie dogs and plague, about nocturnal spotlighting, about cryopreservation and hydroejaculation, about cooperation among federal, state, private, and tribal actors, about the effects of border walls on biodiversity, about Mexican cartel interference in ferret reintroduction, about Hopi and Navajo ceremonies revolving around the pelage of the ferret—it’s also about my unborn son. In one of the more “domestic” essays, I travel to an Astroturf field and watch strangers’ kids score soccer goals. I’m loath to cheer along because I know this field exists because of the displacement (some have called it “genocide”) of thousands of prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret’s favorite menu item. In a more sanguine essay, I practice the linguistics of ventriloquism on a ferret puppet in a mirror in the baby’s nursery.
CNF: The essay starts with you at the reintroduction event for the black-footed ferret and then it moves to a section about the Roadkill Café, back to Double O, then to you driving, and it continues to move between the event and other settings. Did the piece start like this, or did that nonlinear movement come out as you were writing?
Lenhart: Before even sitting to write, I can safely assume there will be some nonlinearity. It helps establish and sustain flow throughout an essay. It allows me to bring disparate ideas close together. To manage pacing by arranging lulls so that they’re adjacent to the most kinetic scenes. To make cognitive, narrative, and emotional leaps that complicate the technology of the essay, and to allow the reader to linger in these in-between spaces where they can generate their own resonances. At some point, though, you have to justify that style of composition; otherwise, it feels disingenuous. In the case of this essay, much of it about habitat fragmentation due to roads, a fragmentary writing style seemed like an important way to explore topics like road mortality, animal adaptations to infrastructure, and to stage intersections between obscure rural roads with America’s most celebrated road, Route 66.
CNF: You engage with research and source material throughout the essay. You quote from Edward O. Wilson's manifesto published in Sierra magazine, which calls for immediate and large-scale changes to protect Earth's ecosystems. Later you use David M. Marsh's and Jochen A.G. Jaeger's Roads and Ecological Infrastructure to discuss how animals' road crossing behaviors are inheritable. And you cite an article from Conservation Genetics to provide the specific amount of black-footed ferrets that should be reintroduced to an are for optimal reproduction. How does research play into your writing process? In this essay particularly, how did you keep scientific research from becoming overwhelming for the reader?
Lenhart: Usually, after I’ve accumulated enough interrelated experiences (which is its own kind of research), I sit down to a few (20+) books in the natural and social sciences and transpose notes—compelling quotes, methodologies, etc. So the essay begins as a wall of notes—anywhere from 10-15 pages—that serves as a disjointed research bank submerged beneath the evolving draft. Once I start writing about my personal experiences, I’ll call up blips of research as needed; whatever remains when the essay is finished gets copied and pasted into a supplementary document—just in case.
It’s not an easy balance to strike. In the creative writing classroom, I’m often making one of two workshop comments to students dealing with research in the sciences. I challenge some essayists to “risk boring their reader” (i.e., we need more), while I tell other students there’s TM(S)I, or too much scientific information (i.e., we need less). I’ve heard Ari Shapiro boil down his science writing method like this: Drop the details. Search for the story. Wander in the wonder. D-S-W. By this last one, he means that we should be curious about “the reality that we live in that we didn’t know about.”
It’s a daily goal of mine to uncover peripheral, new-to-me realities. Some people are only interested in truly novel discoveries, the hitherto unknown. But there’s so much out there that’s been investigated and forgotten. I like encountering decades-, centuries-, even millennia-old research on phenomena that has somehow eluded me—in classrooms, books, conversations, television, podcasts, etc. So much hides in plain sight. I appreciate science research for its naturally recursive approach to the natural world—the way investigators are always recalibrating, refocusing. In that way, it reminds me of the essay. If technology is one of the major forces contributing to scientific discovery (and it is), then I don’t see why the technology of the essay should be exempt from that process.
CNF: As you talk about the way the stage is set for the event, you say, "It’s ready-made for all the illustrators, photographers, videographers, and journalists in attendance. It’s ready-made for me, too. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but this angled illusion that we’re standing on virginal wilderness is too far from the truth for my pen." Did you feel you had more of a responsibility to show the "whole" scene? How did that responsibility shape the essay?
Lenhart: Because this is but one moment from a book-length work, I have to resist the seductive thought that this could be The Moment where it all coheres. I have to reject the delicate staging and remind myself there’s literally more here than meets the eye. For documentary artists working with visual media, it’s not always possible (i.e., conventional) to capture more than what’s there. For a photojournalist, re-presenting the scene comes with the territory. I’m not sure that’s the case with a writer of creative nonfiction. My main responsibility is to be responsive to my environment, to acknowledge the scene is in flux.
That being said, photography is an important tool for writers. When I’m trying to reconstruct a scene, I’m always struggling against my deleterious memory. This is why I take a camera with me everywhere I go. Photos can be powerful aids. But they misremember too—whether in composition, distortion, or the limit of the lens. Usually, it’s something like 162 degrees. It’s hard to divine anything from a landscape when you’ve got blinders like that on. It’s important to remember: photographs are more mnemonic than they are memory.
CNF: When we have discussions about the environment and conservation, we struggle to move beyond a human-centric approach, in which we need to save the environment or fix certain issues to do something for ourselves. How did you write against that formula? What proved to be difficult in moving away from that approach?
Lenhart: To some extent, it’s always going to be about me. I am charting my own species loneliness, preparing for a century of profound zoological impoverishment. You know, Edward O. Wilson has always preferred the term “Eremocene” (the Age of Loneliness) over Anthropocene, and I kind of agree. In overdeveloping the world, humans have inadvertently converted our ecosystems into a tomb complex. We will be utterly bereft. I don’t think a book can ever reconcile that.
There’s a moment in Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” when she sees her first wild weasel and says, “We could live under the wild rose wild as weasels, mute and uncomprehending.” She goes on to say that she could “very calmly go wild.” I love Dillard’s writing, but this moment feels self-serving to me. When I saw my first weasel during a spotlighting event, for example (ferrets are in the weasel family), I was the one who was mute and uncomprehending. For its part, the weasel was shuddering, chittering. He was the only one who knew exactly what was going on: he was being snatched from his burrow.
While I don’t think humans can “go wild” per se (there have been some noteworthy failures out there), I do think that zoomorphism is more challenging, more useful than anthropomorphism. I’m not even convinced nonhuman animals are all that wild these days. How wild is the black-footed ferret if their populations must be sustained through captive breeding, cryopreservation, habitat monitoring, methodical inoculation, and chance? It’s a refutation of the Thoreauvian premise (“in wildness is the preservation of the world”).
CNF: In one scene, you run over a snake on the way to the event. Yo usay, "I braked for the bend and approached the bump like a gas station bell hose – as if the snake would ding when I rolled over it." You get out, "studying the middle third where a tire had flattened it." This scene leads to a discussion about road-crossing patterns, which comes up again later when you say increased traffic on Route 66 may lead to more small animal deaths, and the idea of "crossing the road" is even in the title of the essay. Why was that experience so formative?
Lenhart: Originally from Western Pennsylvania, my instinct is to regard road kill (especially deer) as a necessary evil for population control. At least this is what my parents’ neighbors say. Being in Arizona now, it’s not unusual to encounter the carcasses of elk, coyote, prairie dog, skunk, etc. on the roadside. Earlier this week, I actually saw a javelina on the interstate north of Sedona. The impulse is to zoom past or swerve around these mammals, but with the snake, it’s not always an option. This particular snake extended across portions of both lanes, so it was unavoidable. What made it even more dramatic is that it occurred just after a bend in the road where a sign reads “Welcome to Seligman: Birthplace of Historic Route 66,” so it was especially difficult to disambiguate the road from its kill. Drive another mile into town, and there’s an infamous diner known as the Roadkill Café whose “You kill it, we grill it” policy reinforces the lethality of the road. At some point, though, all the kitschy bravado just feels sadistic. Considering Seligman is not just the birthplace of the Mother Road, but also the rebirth place of one of the continent’s most endangered mammal species, it seems critical to protect against road mortality, not to celebrate it. It’s not just some vague fantasy either; at least three ferrets have crossed 66 for new habitat. Other ferrets have even crossed the interstate, whether by median or culvert. A single ferret fatality would be a huge loss to the reintroduction effort in Arizona. The longer I spent with that snake carcass, the more I realized that.
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