Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that
the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
These words, inscribed on a panel by the enclosure where the last of his race, the Pinta Island tortoise called Lonesome George, are no longer needed. George died on June 24, 2012, at an undetermined age, but likely more than 100 years. Even so, his actual death is merely a symbol of extinction, since he was the only one of his kind left. Without a mate for George, this species was doomed.
Perhaps George’s death, however, will impress people with the power of our own species to doom or to save others. The thoughtless short-term thinking so common among humans ignores the long-term effects of our actions. During the 1800s, whalers, fur sealers, and other seafaring folks raided the Galapagos Islands for food. The giant land tortoises that populated the islands were perfect for long-term storage, as they could survive for a year or more on a ship without eating or drinking. Their diluted urine provided drinking water as well. The Pinta tortoise population was hit the hardest by this exploitation because Pinta is the farthest north of the islands and thus the last one visited when the sailors left for the open sea.
By 1959 the tortoises had just about disappeared from Pinta. Some fishermen released three goats there, knowing they would reproduce to make island meat once more available to ships. The goat population exploded, devastating the island vegetation and dooming any animals that depended on it for survival.
In 1979, a scientist studying snails came across George, who was soon brought to the Tortoise Center on nearby Santa Cruz Island for protection. But hopes of finding a mate for George and thus saving his species faded with the years, and Lonesome George became what he remains after his death, a symbol of careless exploitation by humans.
Now, after careful restoration of his remains, Lonesome George was on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 2015, after which he was returned to Ecuador. The plaque overlooking his old corral now reads, “We promise to tell your story and to share your conservation message.”
Some good news! Unlike the Pinta subspecies, conservationists have managed to help bring back the tortoises on the Galapagos island of Espanola from a low of only 16 to a population of more than 1,000 now living on their home island. Here, scientists are recording information about the tortoises in their native environment. Photo : Flickr: Sebastian Keynes via Christian Zeigler
Read how one endangered species got returned to its natural home and thrived in Dorothy's book, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone. She says " I loved writing this book, which describes the positive changes in the ecology of the park that are happening since the wolves came back--healthier willows, more beavers and small predators, more song birds, and more. Wolves have also returned to several western states around Yellowstone, including Montana, and their presence there is also helping restore the natural environment."
Dorothy Patent is a member of Authors on Call. You can bring her to your school via our Zoom Room. Here's a link to her program on wolves.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Lonesome George: The Face of Extinction." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Lonesome-George-the-face-of-extinction.
The Master Chef of Kids' Hands-on Science
I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books. Let me give you an example:
The other day, when I was walking in a neighborhood park, there was a man doing whole-body lifts on a piece of exercise equipment with a huge, brilliantly–colored parrot on his shoulder. It was so unusual that, without thinking, I called out: “What a beautiful bird! May I take your picture?” I was full of questions so we chatted for a while.
Me: “What kind of bird is that?”
Scotty, the parrot-man: “She’s a green-winged macaw.”
Me: “What’s her name? How old is she?”
Scotty: “Her name is Lucky. She’s 2 ½ years old but she can live more than 60 years. She’s a vegetarian, like me. Her beak is a nut-cracker. ”
Lucky repeatedly kissed Scotty on the lips with her giant hooked beak as he turned to talk to her. She had been an expensive gift to him—they cost about $1500 at Bird Jungle, our local bird store. She couldn’t fly because he kept her wings clipped; it’s dangerous for a 2 ½ pound bird to be able to fly around the house. He had given her a bath that morning. She had communicated that she wanted one by putting her head under the faucet and looking at him.
“Why did she want a bath?” I asked. “Was she dirty?”
Scotty wasn’t sure why, except that it rains every day in her natural habitat—the rain forest. Then he pointed out a new feather on her neck. It was encased in a white sheath. A bath makes the sheath fall off and the feather fluffs up. Maybe that feels like undoing a pony tail
This is often how I get ideas for books. I find something interesting and start asking questions. Of course, I paid a visit to Bird Jungle. What a noisy store! There I found more people to interview. It’s amazing how much you can learn from people who are experts.
After a while I ran out of questions. That’s because I didn’t know enough to keep going. How can I remedy that? Go read a book or two about green-winged macaws and other rain forest birds. It could lead to a book idea about the rain forest like: This Place Is Wet.
When I write, I don’t write just about content. I write what interests me about content. There’s a big difference.
Vicki made a trip to the Amazon rain forest with her good friend, Alaskan artist, Barbara Lavallee. You can find out what they learned there by reading This Place Is Wet. For more information about the book, click here.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "I Met a Man about a Parrot." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
I-Met-a-Man-About-a-Parrot. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.
The Running Encyclopedia
In the early 1900s, becoming the first to reach the South Pole was a huge source of individual and national pride. English explorer Ernest Shackleton came within 97 miles of that goal in 1909 before being forced to turn back.
Fellow Englishman Robert Scott made well-publicized plans to succeed where Shackleton had failed. He was therefore dismayed to learn that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had his own secret plan to reach the Pole. Amundsen hadn’t even told his crew members where they were going until they were at sea.
The two expeditions landed in Antarctica at roughly the same time and spent months preparing for their respective treks. Amundsen departed on October 18, 1911. He was fortunate to encounter relatively good weather. On December 7, he passed the southernmost point Shackleton had reached. One week later, on December 14, he and his four men stood on the South Pole. Each man grasped the Norwegian flag. They celebrated in the evening with seal meat and cigars. Before returning, they erected a tent and put letters for Scott and Norwegian King Haakon inside. Amundsen and his men arrived back at their starting point in late January and sailed to Tasmania, where Amundsen sent a cable trumpeting his accomplishment. Even though the response was mostly favorable, some people in England thought Amundsen had played a dirty trick by being so secretive about his plans.
Meanwhile, Scott and his four men left from their base three weeks after Amundsen. They encountered some of the worst weather Antarctica could throw at them. Several times they had to stay in their tents for extended periods, eating valuable food. They finally arrived at the Pole on January 17, only to have their triumph replaced with bitter disappointment. They found Amundsen’s letters and knew they were five weeks too late.
Their difficulties worsened on the way back. Two men died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Scott and the two others made what proved to be their final camp on March 19, confined to their tent by horrific weather. They were about 10 miles from a food depot that would have ensured their survival, but couldn’t reach it. Searchers found their frozen bodies eight months later.
Amundsen died in 1928 in a plane crash during a rescue mission in the Arctic Ocean. Shortly before his death, he told a journalist, “If only you knew how splendid it is up here, that’s where I want to die.”
Aristotle discovered Antarctica nearly 2,500 years ago, though no one set foot on the continent until the 1800s. Exploration went into high gear several decades later during the Heroic Age. The peak came in 1911 when Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the Pole, followed soon afterward by the tragic deaths of Englishman Robert Scott and four companions. This is one of many of Jim Whiting's books.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "To the Ends of the Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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