Monday, 22 October 2012

How to Spot an Elk

For our second day in Mammoth Hot Springs we decided to drive south toward Norris, with the aim of seeing the Norris Geyser Basin. I was driving this morning, which meant that Dave was chief wildlife spotter. We had quickly learned that one of us had to keep our eyes on the passing scenery every second, as although some animals were easy to see – such as bison, which were everywhere – others were shy and secretive and you could so easily miss something spectacular.

I was still finding the memory of my first bison encounter quite funny. I’d been so excited to see those animals behind their wire fences, insisting we stop so that I could take pictures of the iconic beasts in case we didn’t see any others during our stay. And now here we were becoming quite blasé about seeing truly wild bison, which were clearly extremely common in the park. We’d seen them laying down, rolling in the dust, quietly grazing, standing still in the sunshine, and strolling casually down the sides of the road. I was even beginning to feel a little guilty when an interesting dark speck in the distance turned out to be “just another bison.”  
Just another (magnificent!) bison
Our wildlife vigilance was to pay off this morning, though. As we drove out of Mammoth and on toward Indian Creek, Dave suddenly said, “Stop, I’ve just seen a coyote!” Fortunately there was nothing following us, so I was able to bring the Jeep to a stop and slowly reverse back up the road. Dave used his “man overboard” sailing training (you never take your eyes off a person who has fallen into the sea – they are astonishingly hard to find again if there is even the smallest swell) to keep the spot where he had seen the coyote in his line of sight. I have to say that I didn’t expect it to still be there when we reached the right bit of road, I knew coyotes were shy. Luck was smiling on us however, because just as we drew abreast of where Dave had seen it, there it still was, its head just visible behind some sage brush. We didn’t have time to get the camera on it because as soon as it realized we had seen it, it slunk off. We caught sight of it a couple more times as it moved further away, and then it was gone. Yet another animal to tick off our list! It wasn’t quite a wolf – the one animal I longed to see and was quite sure I wouldn’t – but it was pretty close. I was proud of Dave for seeing it because it had been quite well camouflaged.

We drove on to the Norris Geyser Basin and spent the morning looking at the geysers and hot springs. It was another hot day but there was some light cloud which muted the sun’s glare. The calcified deposits around the springs could be startlingly white and even with sunglasses the brightness hurt our eyes. Once we’d finished at Norris we went on to Canyon Village, where we treated ourselves to ice creams. Dave wanted to video the lower falls and left me sitting in the shade – my foot was sore after the mile and a half walk around Norris and I was happy just to sit and wait.
Canyon Falls

After such a busy day, we headed early back to the hotel. For supper we had decided to go into Gardner, which was just outside the National Park and also just over the border into Montana. There was a nice restaurant where you could sit overlooking the Yellowstone River. As we arrived back in Mammoth though, we found something to delay us. Yet again my preconceptions about how hard it would be to spot Yellowstone’s wildlife were completely swept away by the large herd of female elk that were milling about in front of our hotel. There were around 30 animals altogether, and some of them were youngsters. These were so sweet with their dappled coats and large, soft eyes. The adults seemed totally unfazed by the cars and people surrounding them as everyone tried to get good photographs. The elk grazed the lawns around the hotel, or lazed in the shade of the trees growing on the roundabout, or strolled casually down the middle of the road, making the cars creep slowly behind them. I was entranced and we took many photos and even some video clips, getting pretty close to one mother and her fawn. Not too close, though – those mother elk were pretty large!
Elk babies at our hotel

Friday, 12 October 2012

A Song in My Heart

For this week’s post I’m taking a break from the tale of our Yellowstone holiday in June. I feel like telling you all about something completely different.

This week I have been in the recording studio, laying down the vocal track for The Ballad of Tallimore, the song that appears in my second fantasy novel, King’s Champion. It will be offered as a free download to accompany the book, just as The Wheel Will Turn was for King’s Envoy. The Wheel has proved so popular that I simply had to record a second song, and Tallimore did already feature in King’s Champion.
Why are there songs attached to my books? Well, some of you may already know that before I was a writer, I was a folk singer. I wasn’t anyone you would ever have heard of – my singing was either for myself, or on a very local level such as nearby folk clubs, our village drama group, with a group of friends, or in church. (Yes, I have sung folk-type songs in church – they went down very well!)

Music has been a constant in my life from a very early age, and I taught myself to sing by listening to and singing along with my favourite artists. When I began writing my fantasy series Artesans of Albia, I found that the right music could help with setting the mood I wanted to create, especially as my world of five realms is contained within a medieval setting. Music would have been extremely important to people in medieval times, as it was one of the easiest and cheapest forms of entertainment. It helped workers get through tough days of labor, and tingled the jaded nerves of the wealthy. You didn’t even need an instrument except the one you were born with!

On searching my music collection, I found many pieces that perfectly matched the scenes I was writing. Artists like Enya whose melodic and haunting airs wove themselves through my words. And those included in the Global Journey label, for example Boann’s Clan, Dance of the Water Gods. That album definitely influenced the cadence of my writing. If I wanted to get more contemplative still, I turned to Gregorian and other meditative chants, such as those on the Gift of Music label. Here you can find music to fit many moods and scenes, and I used them frequently to aid my immersion in my world.

On a prior holiday in the States I was fortunate enough to visit the Grand Canyon. A truly spectacular place on an epic scale – too epic, I’m afraid, for my nerves! I don’t care for great heights and I found the vast vistas just a bit too vast for eyes more used to the limited horizons of England. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the place, but I would have liked to feel more of an intimate connection to it. Maybe one day I can take a trip down into the canyon and raft along the river. That would be awesome!
The Grand Canyon - I wasn't going any closer to that edge!

But I digress. While at Canyon Village, I bought a CD that caught my fancy. It was an album of Native American music arranged to incorporate the natural sounds of the canyon. Entitled Spirit of the Canyon, it was by a group of people called Ah*Nee*Mah. As soon as the gentle sounds of the very first track – Light From the East – began to play, I was hooked. Here was a track that epitomized and created in sound all the essential qualities of my female lead, Major Sullyan. It could not have fit better had I written it myself. The opening strains reflected her gentler, tenderer qualities and her fascination with the world around her. I could hear the galloping hoofbeats of her warhorse, Drum, and feel the exaltation of her soul every time she used the powers Life had given her. Here too, were the sounds of battle, reflecting her stronger, dutiful side, and also the softer strains of her love for her friends, and for Robin. I doubt if any piece of music has ever fit a character so well.
This, coupled with my continuing connection to and love of music and singing, meant that it was inevitable that songs should appear in my books. The opportunity to actually record and release a song – The Wheel – came about through my brother, who also sings, plays and writes his own music. He and his song-writing partner came up with the melody for The Wheel, using the poem contained in King’s Envoy. We recorded it and even played it live in our local shopping mall on the day of King’s Envoy’s book launch in August 2011. (See video link below.) Since then, it has proved a very popular download on Rhemlda Publishing’s website. It has also been played on various internet radio stations and was played as Single of the Week for three or four weeks running on my local station, Radio Basingstoke.
So now I have recorded song two, The Ballad of Tallimore, and once this is mixed and finalized – probably around mid-November – it will join The Wheel as a free download. And I have decided to write and record seven more songs – one for each of the books in my Artesans of Albia series – plus an overall instrumental theme. These will form an album which will hopefully add to the pleasure of reading my books. Judging by the popularity of The Wheel, and the wonderful reader reviews my first two books are receiving, people are already enjoying them!
I will return to the subject of my Yellowstone holiday in my next post. Until then, happy listening and reading!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Who Wants to See a Dead Tree?

After our fabulous encounter with the black, brown and cinnamon bears, we continued along the Tower-Roosevelt road, enjoying some truly spectacular scenery. We were travelling along the edge of the Blacktail Deer Plateau and actually caught sight of a deer among the young firs and dead wood. We managed to get a picture of it but whether it was, in fact, a Blacktail deer, I couldn’t tell.
Possible Blacktail deer

According to the map we had there was a petrified tree somewhere close by and we thought it would be well worth a look. We found the turn out and parking space for the tree and drew up close to the other cars already there. The tree, it seemed, was not right by the road we had turned off but was a short walk along another road leading into the hills. It was stiflingly hot by now but we really wanted to see this tree, so we decided we could cope with the heat and began walking along the new road.
Soon we saw people coming toward us, returning from having seen the tree. Some smiled at us and some ignored us, but they all seemed pretty happy. I thought, this tree must be a really incredible sight to make all these people so smiley. And that was good because I was beginning to regret deciding to walk in such oppressive heat. The next people we met, however, soon told us what it was that had made the first ones look so excited. It wasn’t the tree at all, it was more bears! Apparently there was a mother black bear and two cubs somewhere up ahead, and this made me forget all about the heat, and even the tree. Bear cubs were far more exciting!

After another few minutes we came across groups of people standing by the road looking off into the brush. The terrain was sloping and grassy, and the grass was dotted with both standing and fallen trees. Following the direction of people’s cameras we soon spotted the bears. The mother was black, but her two little cubs were quite light brown, I thought maybe they would end up cinnamon like the older female bear we’d seen earlier. Again, all three bears were oblivious to the crowds of people gawping at them and taking photographs, and were simply going about their daily business. The mother seemed to be grazing, and she was moving slowly about the area. Her two cubs were playing, scrambling over the fallen tree trunks or walking along them, doing whatever bear cubs do. I had been surprised by the unconcern of the first bears we’d seen but I was even more surprised by this mother’s relaxed attitude to the crowds, seeing as she had two quite young cubs with her. But maybe bears in the Park get used to seeing humans, and as long as they are left alone, are happy to tolerate such intrusions.
Mother bear and her cubs

Soon the mother bear began moving out, and her two pudgy cubs scurried to keep up with her. The show was over and we suddenly remembered why we’d walked all this way in the heat. It was then that I turned round and discovered that the petrified tree had been right behind us all the time. No one was paying it any attention now, so we trudged up the sloping pathway that led to the railings surrounding it and stood to admire it. It was an ancient redwood and there was really only a stump of it left. The plaque beside it told us that before the area became a National Park, people would chip bits off it, and off the two other petrified trees that had once stood beside it, and taken them as souvenirs until there was hardly anything left. Such a shame! Now this lone specimen was protected behind iron railings and we had to imagine what it would have looked like before. It must have been very impressive.
Petrified redwood tree
We were glad to get back in the air-conditioned Jeep and leave the stifling heat outside as we continued our journey to the very beautiful Tower Falls. The spray from the Falls also made a welcome change to the dry heat of the air.
Tower Falls

The heat was getting to us so we made our way back to the hotel. But the local wildlife hadn’t finished with us because as we came around a bend in the road we saw the most magnificent bull elk grazing quietly beside the road, just on the other side of a small stream. Some people were already out of their cars with their cameras, of course, but there were only a few of them. We couldn’t resist this really close view of such a superb animal and braved the heat one last time. Then it was back to the hotel to shower and rest until we got up enough strength to search for a supper location!
Superb bull elk