The perfect small pet might be right under your nose

I can’t remember exactly how this pet came into my life, but I distinctly remember it being one of the coolest, most interesting, and easiest critters I’d ever had.

And grew up with a lot of pets.

Dogs and cats, yes. But also chinchillas, cockatiels, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, gerbils, fish, a rabbit, a hedgehog, and an assortment of frogs/toads. Oh, and a leopard gecko. And a bunch of hermit crabs. And one impulse-adopted escape-artist shrimp.

(Despite all indications to the contrary, I did not grow up on a farm or a zoo.)

I loved all those pets, in one way or another. Some were friendlier than others, some were challenging to keep, and some became my best friends. No matter the species, all of my many pets had the best home I could give them at the time, and were all special to me.

But one tiny pet made a big mark on my memory.

The stick bug.

aka stick insect, aka walking stick, aka phasmid

Now, I am not a bug lover. Insects play a vital role in the ecosystem, sure, but I wouldn’t be too upset if I never saw another spider in my house ever again. Yuck.

So for me to keep an insect as a pet was a pretty big deal.

The stick bug – which, sadly, I never named – was highly cool. It was about 8 inches long, greenish-brown, skinny, and a dead ringer for an actual stick. When I could spot it, that is.

There’s more than one in here! How many do you see? Image: Phasmid Study Group

There are a lot of ‘pros’ for keeping a walking stick insect as a pet.

  • Walking sticks are surprisingly friendly. When handled slowly and gently, they don’t seem to mind being picked up. It’s hard to tell, but they might even like it, since they’ll crawl onto your hand quite readily. Like any animal, they can bite when handled roughly, but it’s extremely unlikely.
  • They’re super chill. They don’t scurry, dart, scuttle, jump, or fly. All they do is walk slowly in a non-creepy way. They have no interest (or ability) to infest your home if they escape.
  • They eat romaine lettuce. In nature, stick insects eat whatever plants are outside, but in captivity, a leaf of lettuce is all they need. Now, this is species-dependent, so you really must do some googling to make sure you’re feeding yours correctly.
  • They’re silent, odorless, and clean. Your landlord will have nothing to complain about.
  • They’re low maintenance. A stick insect will live quite happily in a well-ventilated 10-15 gallon aquarium decked out with twigs and leaves. Room temperature is just right for them, and a gentle daily misting provides all the water they need. Of course, you’ll need to remember to clean up wilted lettuce and refresh the environments once in awhile, but other than that, there’s not a lot of care. Arguably, walking sticks are the easiest exotic pet there is.
  • They don’t have long lifespans. Time to get real. If you’re not sure how much of a commitment you want to make to small pet ownership, you’re in luck. Stick bugs only live about a year.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) care for a cat, dog, or hamster, walking sticks might be just the ticket.

Best of all, they live wherever you do.

Stick insects live on every continent except Antarctica, and if you have a keen eye, you can probably find one in your backyard right now.

I did once. I have no idea how I managed to see this little fella walking in the grass outside my home, but I did. 

Do you see it?

Sounds awesome right? Read this fine print before you bring one home.

  • Stick insects are just as fragile as they look. Only careful adults should pick them up, and even then only as gently as possible.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your bug’s environment, because they can get quite large. They like to hang upside down, too, so the top of the aquarium/terrarium should be mesh.
  • Purchase your insect from a reputable company. It’s not nice to take wild animals from their natural environment. On the other hand, non-native stick insects are illegal to keep as pets in the US, so do some research either way.
  • Important: If you have a pet stick bug, do not let it outside. Depending on the species you’ve adopted, it could be an invasive ecological pest.

If you do decide to get a pet walking stick insect, be a responsible pet parent (because it is a pet) and do your homework. There are over 3,000 phasmid species to explore!

But if you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, just take another look in your backyard! You might be in for a surprise.

Harness the power of social media to fight illegal animal trafficking

You love animals. Of course you do! That’s why you love seeing adorable animal pictures on social media.

But if you really truly love animals, you’ll learn the signs of trafficking on social media and use those same tools to fight back.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I know, baby tigers are cuter than anything, and you’ve always wanted to hug a monkey. Cheetahs riding in the back of Lamborghinis is the stuff of your most envious 1%er dreams.

That’s why Instagram shows it to you.

You can’t help but see perfectly-posed animals sharing our human space, and want to keep one as a pet. It’s science.

So whether it was intentional or not, social media has become the biggest driver for international animal trafficking, abuse, and the illegal wildlife trade.

That’s right. Black market animal trafficking doesn’t just happen on the darkweb anymore. You don’t even need to turn on incognito mode because happens right in front of our eyes.

And we “love” it.

A recent study of YouTube videos showed that when people see human-exotic animal interactions, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Today, there are efforts in place on most social media platforms to slow pet sales. In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals: exotic or domestic. Their seemingly-robust algorithms frequently flag harmless products that reference threatened animals in any way. (Try posting an innocuous item on the Facebook marketplace and describe the color as “ivory” or “mink,” I dare you.) This might make you think what you’re seeing has been vetted by the algorithm and isn’t abuse.

But it can be.

Photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash

Animal traffickers are smarter than the platforms’ AI. They’ll phrase things a certain way, use specific terms, or use posed photos that don’t tell the whole story. This is how they list wild animals for sale to unsuspecting people like you and me.

You’ve seen this practice, I’m sure. Don’t we all have some relative who talks about the pandemic as “c0v1d” or types “wax seen” instead of vaccine? The idea is to trick the AI into thinking you’re talking about something else. And it often works!

Many of these practices are just as easy to spot. If you see the phrase “baby tiger for sale” along with a WhatsApp number, you can be pretty confident that illegal endangered animal trafficking is going on.

Facebook is one of the biggest drivers for sales, but Instagram is where people get the idea of owning these pets in the first place.

Most of us feel like Instagram is the most picture-perfect aspirational social media platform out there. So when we see our favorite influencer snuggling with their ultra-exotic pet, we want to do that, too.

Instagram knows about this.

If you search a specific hashtag like #slothselfie or #petcheetah, you’ll get a popup telling you that animal exploitation is wrong. But it’s a one-click bypass to see hundreds of jealousy-inducing photos. Try it in another language — particularly Arabic, because the majority of cheetah trafficking takes place in Saudi Arabia — and you’ll see even more posts and NO warning popup.

Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Cheetahs are in especially hot water right now. They’ve come to symbolize extreme wealth, so owning one has become the ultimate status symbol, driving demand for this fragile species up. Way up.

In 2018, The Cheetah Conservation Fund found that 1,367 documented cheetahs went up for sale between 2012 and 2018.

That’s 20% of the entire cheetah population. In the world.

One fifth of all cheetahs were for sale, and most of them on social media.

And that’s just the ones that survived trafficking long enough to get posted.

Yeah.

The ACCO found that most wildlife trading takes place in broad daylight for everyone to see. No cloak and dagger, just public social media posts.

So here’s what we need to do.

  • Don’t like, share, or comment on any images that you think portray an illegal exotic pet or trafficked wild animal. Instead, like, share, or comment on images of animals living free in the wild or being cared for by reputable organizations. AZA-accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and reputable wildlife accounts that promote positive conservation and education get the green light.
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on touristy images of people snuggling with wild or endangered animals. It looks like an amazing bucket list experience, but it is abuse. This one can be hard to spot, since some of the hashtags and organizations putting them on look legit. These “encounter” experiences are often billed as humane or even as a conservation project, so many of us have fallen for this trap. But there are loads of humane wildlife tourism alternatives out there — support them instead!
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on anything that makes you think the animal (or a part of it) is for sale. Sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. Instead, report these crimes whenever you see them. If you think you’ve seen wildlife trafficking — including wild animals for sale, ivory or animal parts for sale, or abusive videos — report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by reporting what we see and refusing to support abuse, we can do our small parts to reduce the demand on trafficked animals.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Make the world your skatepark

For a real challenge, get outside and away from the concrete jungle 

Skateboarding is an urban sport. 

Right?

I mean, just look at any city’s downtown scene. Even if there’s nothing built specifically for skateboarders, you’ll see them flocking to stairs, handrails, curbs, and concrete art installations. Anything bolted down or built up, really. The DIY concrete skatepark movement is so ingrained in skate culture, that visiting historic parks has become a rite of passage.

But what if skateboarding didn’t have to have such hard lines?

What if you could take your board into the wilderness for a realer experience?

If you thought cracked concrete was crusty, you’re going to have to get real creative, real fast when you try to boardslide a fallen log. Skating in nature demands innovation. 

It’s imperfect, will definitely mess up your bearings, and requires a level of knowing one’s limits that not every city skater can achieve. Creativity unleashed.

And yeah, not everyone is up for the challenge, just as not everyone has access to choice skateparks and skater-friendly downtown areas.

So some skaters who don’t live in big cities, don’t have access to skate-mecca plazas like Kulturforum, or have done Burnside so many times it’s lost its appeal (heresy, I know!) – they’re forced to head out to the sticks. Literally. 

Others just want to feel that connection between their board and the forest it came from.

Inspiration

The idea of skating in the great outdoors isn’t a new concept. Element’s “Nature Calls” is only the latest installment in the years-long trend of raw nature skating. It’s just that this one’s gained a lot of traction.

In just one month, this video’s had over a quarter million views on YouTube alone. Even more impressively, almost nobody in the comment section can think of anything negative to say about it.

In “Nature Calls,” Jaako Ojanen, Madars Apse, Phil Zwijsen, and other Element Europe skaters brought their boards to the Pyrenees to dig up a whole year’s worth of unconventionally – but undeniably – skateable spots.

They found bike trails. Aqueducts. Mountains. Desolate roads. Fallen logs. I-beam bridges. Breakwaters. Even a cactus patch looked like a good enough spot for these guys. 

The creativity in this film is next-level. Not every trick was one for the record books, but how are you going to skate down a mountain or across a frozen lake and not be considered a badass?

Even if you’re not a skater, “Nature Calls” (and the subsequent extended version) is highly jealousy-inducing. Between shreds, the crew took breaks to go canoeing, swimming, throw rocks, and bother a cow. Like any outdoors adventurer, they couldn’t help but stop in awe and take photos that would never do the real thing justice. 

One viewer said they felt like they were watching Planet Earth, but with skateboarding.

Brand purpose

Like practically all skate brands, most of Element’s vids are city-centric. This time, they’ve released one that embraces their.. ahem.. true nature. And if the rumbles from the skate community mean anything, “Nature Calls” has put them firmly on the cool list. 

Element is not a new company, and it’s had its share of critics. Some snobs who insist on a minimum level of gnar (and a minimum pricetag) will turn up their noses at this affordable, tree-huggingly wholesome brand.

But for those of us who are interested in breathing fresh air while we enjoy outdoor sports, Element is a go-to. They know what’s up.

This brand is doing its best to be ethical, environmentally aware, and nature-promoting. Their sustainability commitments, recycled collections, and partnership with National Geographic have earned them some crunchy brownie points.

As much as Element’s trying to pioneer ethical skateboarding, Cariuma beat them to the B Corp punch. 

It’s the very first certified B Corp skate company, and for good reason. Cariuma has made sustainability and negative carbon impact their priority, been transparent about their impact, and are actually participating in reforestation.

This is a big shift in messaging from the major skate brands.

Most brands have no comment about sustainability. There’s very little supply chain transparency and they have nothing to say about environmental impact. 

And yes, skateboarding does have a significant environmental impact

Deforestation is a serious global problem, and this particular industry is a contributor in a way we can’t ignore. Maple logging for skate decks, specifically, needs to be confronted. That, and fast fashion. Nike SB, the hottest skate shoe brand du jour, is working on lessening their environmental impact, so that’s good. But considering the immense demand for constant wardrobe updates, high rate of consumerism, and the broader community’s “edgy” low opinion of eco-conscious brands, this is more than an uphill battle. It’s a vert ramp.

Find your natural skatepark

Skating in nature isn’t exactly an anomaly, but it’s not easy to find groups willing to get off the streets. The most common idea of a skatepark is decidedly free of vegetation.

Most of the info you can find about off-road, mountain, wilderness, outdoor, nature, or forest skating is almost exclusively geared toward longboarders. Sometimes electric skateboarders. Probably scooterers, too, but by then we’re way off track.

If you want to skate outside, just find a spot and do it.

Urban exploration is wonderful, but there’s something extra special about rural skating. If rural means farmland to you, skate it. If it means deep forests, beaches, deserts, or snow ramps, by all means. Skate it.

Bottom line? You don’t have to be a concrete surfer

But there is a catch.

If you do decide to skate off road, be kind. Ride safely on bike and hike trails, and be respectful of the plants, animals, and geology around you. Don’t trespass, don’t damage fragile ecosystems, and if you’re in a park, don’t stray from the trails. And don’t crash into any pedestrians, either. 

And nature skating has the same rules as hiking. Go with a buddy, tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to be back, keep track of your location, and bring a first aid kit. You’ll also want a first aid kit for your board because your bearings are going to be toast.

But there’s a lot to be said for nature skating. 

The silence, for one.

The challenge of making the most of the unknown.

The immeasurable, incomparable beauty of an untouched landscape.

Also, no cops. 

For more nature skating inspiration, check out these classic films.

Book Review ~ Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands

Part travelogue, part history lesson, part environmental plea, Our National Forests is exactly what we need to ignite a renewed interest in our country’s protected lands.

Turns out, National Forests (not National Parks, which are something else entirely) are much more than I thought. I was surprised to learn that not only had I likely visited a National Forest without even knowing it, they’re absolutely essential to the fabric of our nation. The National Forests are steeped in history — both good and bad — and the author doesn’t shy away from either. Whatever your mood (introspective, light, frustrated, or scientifically curious) you’ll be greeted with insightful stories and huge color images that you could easily get lost in.

Spotted Bear River, Flathead National Forest, Montana | US Forest Service | Flickr

Our National Forests is as varied as the lands in question: sometimes dense and textbooky with dates and figures, sometimes sprinkled with relatable anecdotes that’ll make you chuckle, and sometimes sobering. The author addresses challenging topics from the early days of the Forest Service as well as ongoing issues like human impact, apathy, and inequality. But just before the reader’s heart breaks, we’re presented with new stories of citizen science, advancements, and renewals. I especially enjoyed the historical chapter about the first planted forest in Nebraska. What an uphill battle it must’ve been to learn how to efficiently establish a forest where there was none!

A cool, clear mountain stream. A wide open prairie of tall grasses. A majestic range of western peaks covered in ponderosa pines. These are some hallmarks of America’s cherished national forests.

But, if we look more closely and shift our lens from macro to micro, a very different world comes into view.

-Greg M. Peters, Our National Forests

As the author points out, much of the forests themselves are millennia old, but the Forest Service is only 115. Clearly, there’s a lot more history to be written in this ongoing tribute to trees. If you love our lands and are interested in what’s protected, how, and why, Our National Forests belongs on your coffee table.

Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands by Greg M. Peters was published November 9, 2021 and is available now.

Thanks to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review ~ Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery

Ecologists want to see a healthier planet, and some have found a path to this recovery through rewilding — that is, reintroducing species to their native habitats after being wiped out. And as it turns out, there are wildly different approaches to this truly radical technique. From delicate moves (like replacing an extinct tortoise species with a similar one in the Mauritian Islands) to sledgehammer action (think bringing back mammoths), rewilding begs the question, “How? And more importantly, should we?”

“Rewilding” is a great introduction to the topic, which is multifaceted in the extreme. This book explores the history of rewilding — what’s worked, what’s failed, and what’s on the horizon — as well as the ripple effects. As an armchair ecologist, most of these approaches were new to me. But I did recognize a few rewilding efforts, including Pleistocene Park and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. I appreciated the mentions of plant and insect rewilding, too, which are often eclipsed by megaherbivores and other showy species.

While it is intended as an overview and introduction, this book sometimes get technical, so a background in biology would be helpful for most readers. The language drifts between pop sci and textbook, but there are lots of great illustrations to help clear up sticky concepts. Plenty of beautiful photographs and well-placed diagrams.

“Rewilding” is a fantastic conversation starter, leaving the reader with lots of food for thought. An excellent foundation for building new knowledge on this tangled topic.

Thanks to NetGalley, the authors, and the publisher for providing a copy of this ebook in exchange for my honest review.

Top 10 Awesome Animals that Inspired Me in 2021

As we finally turn the last page of our 2021 calendars, many of us are making our Top 10 lists to commemorate things we loved this year. Top 10 Best Songs, Top 10 Favorite Books, Top 10 Movies, and so on.

Those are all great, but I like animals. There are some pretty cool ones out there.

But I quickly discovered that I couldn’t simply pick 10 favorites. That’s too big of an ask! So instead, I thought about the animals that have ‘wowed’ me recently. Some have fascinating facts or backstories, others are weirdly wonderful, and some are just plain cute.

Have a look at all these animals that are close to my heart for one reason or another. Be sure to let me know which are your favorites, too!

Vicuña

I love the vicuña conservation story. Once hunted almost to extinction, wild vicuñas are now sustainably herded, shorn, and returned to their homes in the Andes mountains. This process is called chaccu and it involves hundreds of community members literally joining hands to create a human chain. The people slowly close the circle and guide the vicuñas to an enclosure so they can humanely harvest wool. Because this low-impact annual event doesn’t require domesticating vicuñas, the animals are simply released to the wild or dedicated nature preserves. Vicuñas’ extremely valuable wool supports the Peruvian economy and traditions, AND has increased the populations of these adorable little camelids. Everyone benefits!

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar waxwings are sleek (but clumsy) colorful (but drab from a distance) quiet (but incredibly annoying) and widely distributed (but often go unnoticed).


Also, they’re shameless drunks.

Vampire Bat

Yes yes, it drinks blood. Very spooky. But check out that nose! All leaf-nosed bats use their extra-sensitive noses to find their prey with astounding accuracy, and vampire bats use specialized heat sensors in theirs to zero in on blood vessels. Wild, right?

I had a close encounter with a (non-vampire) bat earlier this year which rather forced me to learn more about these amazing animals. I’ve always appreciated bats’ roles in the ecosystem and admired their unique skills, so as unsettling as the encounter was, it was a stroke of luck that led me to learning more about these amazing animals.

Walking Stick Insect

Unless you live in Antarctica, you’ve probably seen a stick bug without even realizing it. Despite its god-tier camouflage, I was lucky enough to spot one in the grass a few years ago! They’re very friendly, as far as bugs go, so the kids and I were able to pick it up and play with it for a moment before returning it to a nearby bush.

I haven’t seen one of these cuties lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking!

Okapi

Until 1901, okapis were cryptids. They have crazy looking bums, yet keep such a low profile that until then, most people considered them mythological creatures. Clearly, they’re real. You can’t help but wonder which other “impossible” creatures are out there just waiting to be discovered. The “jungle horse” is a great reminder to never stop searching.

Woolly Aphid

Woolly aphids are pests to most people, but I like finding these little cuties in my tomato garden. My kids call them fairies.

Okay, I admit it. I do, too.

Bobcat

Bobcats are firecrackers! They’re small, feisty, eat just about anything, live just about everywhere in the US, plus they’re cute and fluffy. What’s not to love?

I recently worked with The Felidae Conservation Fund on a research project to introduce these (and other!) beautiful cats to more readers. It was an absolute pleasure learning more about bobcats and putting them in perspective. Sadly, I found out that they live almost everywhere… except where I am! I’m holding out hope that I’ll see one from a safe distance someday — their numbers are steadily climbing nationwide and there have been recent sightings in my area!

Pufferfish

The “leave me alone” fish have surprisingly endearing personalities. Pufferfish are rather intelligent (for a fish) and can be trained to do tricks. How amazing is that!?

Poison Dart Frog

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the rainforest. I still am, but it was My Thing when I was about 9. Poison dart frogs are teeny tiny, ultra toxic, almost supernaturally colorful, amazingly varied, and are essentially the symbol of the Amazon Rainforest, so they’ve always been a favorite of mine. Whenever I visit my local zoo, I never miss the poison dart frog exhibit. No matter how many times I’ve seen them, I am always surprised how adorable they are!

Gray Squirrel

Squirrels. I just like ’em.

If you enjoyed this top 10, I encourage you to make one of your own! I’d love to see which animals inspire you and why, so please feel free to tag me in your post. Have fun and happy new year!

Saving the World One Mail-Order Lordship at a Time

Yes, it’s a lot of fun to run around and insist that people call me Lady Sarah, but it’s also a clever way to conserve the countryside.

That’s because I can’t call myself a Lady without actually owning a piece of land in Scotland.

Highland Titles sells souvenir Lordships, Ladyships, and Lairdships of Glencoe, each associated with a small dedicated plot set aside in the Highland Titles Nature Reserve. Mine’s near Kiel Hill.

And the land that came with my title is mine, mine, all mine. 

Nobody may do anything to it or on it without my express permission. And when I die, that property passes to my heirs. That means my 100 square feet of Scottish wilderness will remain untouched indefinitely.

Except by me, if I want. I can visit my parcel of prairie, set up a tent to camp, or hug my trees in the room-sized plot anytime I wish. As part of the nature preserve, it can’t be paved or built up. No fishing, hunting, or chopping down trees, either.

Scotland boasts some of the most amazing and varied landscapes on the planet. From staggeringly steep cliffs to marshy bogs to dense ancient forests, it’s home to a huge variety of plants and animals.

Watch the trail cams to see animals playing in the reserve. Badgers, red squirrels, roe deer, pine martens, golden eagles, and even wildcats have been spotted in the area.

No doubt they appreciate the space to roam.

Honestly, this is a win-win. I get to demand everyone call me by my rightful title and I do my part in keeping the wild wild. 

And you can lower that skeptical eyebrow when it comes to my ladyship.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually have a claim to peerage. I’m not a noblewoman. True, I have papers proving my landownership, but I’m more of a landlady than a land Lady. 

It’s clearly an honorary title as thanks for purchasing a souvenir piece of land. Not legal admission into the House of Lords, so calm down. 

The title is all in good fun and increases tourism in a positive way.

That’s because Highland Titles Lords, Ladies, and Lairds live all around the world. The nature preserve has seen upwards of 6,000 nature-loving tourists a year, many of whom surely wouldn’t have visited if they didn’t have a claim to it.

The preserve is staffed by volunteers so the maximum amount of profits go toward conservation. They make active efforts to set up the preserves, plant trees, promote rewilding, and stoke curiosity in Scotland’s wildlife. They’ve even set up a hedgehog rescue center!

So if you’re looking for a way to support conservation while poking fun at your snooty friends and family, Highland Titles should be on the top of your gift list.

I was given my ladyship as a tongue-in-cheek gift years ago, but the more I think about it, the more I recognize the true value of my Highland Title.

This article is in no way sponsored. I actually do have a mail-order ladyship and think it’s cute and clever. Whatever gets people to pitch in and fund conservation, know what I mean?

Those Ubiquitous Peruvian Alpaca Hats Interweave Culture with Nature in the Most Beautiful Way

You’ve seen them before. They’re super colorful cone-shaped hats with big earflaps, long ties, and are adorned with intricate geometric knitted designs. They’re a favorite among indigenous Peruvians, tourists, and snowboarders alike.

A must-have souvenir for almost every Machu Picchu tourist, chullos are much more than a fashion accessory. This cold-weather garment evokes the majesty, culture, and natural vibrancy of the Andes Mountains.

Andean culture has brought us some amazing things, not least of which is the chullo. These hats are traditionally handspun, handknitted, and worked on narrow gauge needles for firm fabric, maximum warmth, and space for intricate designs. The earflaps provide full coverage from the elements.

Sure, you can purchase solid-colored machine knit hats made out of synthetic fibers. But you’ll be sorely disappointed on all counts. The patterns are culturally significant, the local artisans who make them are skilled in their crafts, and the real alpaca, llama, or vicuña fibers are as luxurious as they are practical. These eye-catching hats are definitely worth wearing in the Andes.

First and foremost, chullos are comfy. Alpacas have super soft wool that is perfect for insulating against the frigid mountain winds. Because of the structure of alpaca fibers, there are lots of teeny tiny natural air pockets that will keep your head warm. And because it’s so insulating, you can use thinner spun yarn than you could with sheep’s wool or other fibers. This makes alpaca chullos perfect for tucking in your pocket.

Alpacas and llamas are domesticated but native to the Andes, so their wool is truly local. Vicuñas, their wild cousins, are still thriving in the mountains. This national animal of Peru produces eye-wateringly expensive ultra-fine luxury fiber. The price tag is largely due to the fact that most of these animals still live in the wild. Sustainable humane vicuña wool harvesting supports both the local community and species conservation efforts. So if you have the budget, vicuña chullos are a great way to support Peru as a whole.

Whichever natural fiber you choose, forget the plain hats and look for a regionally significant style.

The geometric patterns, exuberant colors, and design of each chullo are unique to the region and the makers. This mark of heritage represents thousands of years of cultural significance. In fact, the acts of spinning wool, weaving, knitting, and producing textiles is as essential to the fabric of South American culture as the Andes themselves. Traditionally, the vibrant colors are made from local plants, insects, minerals, etc. and each color has specific associations. Green represents lush forests, yellow for riches, red for warfare, and so on.

Most chullo designs feature repeated geometric motifs, but many modern styles include images. Jaguars, plants, birds, and of course, the animals who generously gave their wool for the hat. (It doesn’t harm them any more than a haircut, by the way.)

It can be very cold and windy in the higher peaks of the Andes, and tightly-knitted alpaca earflap hats are just the ticket to keep you from catching a chill.

This distinctly mountain-friendly style gained popularity from communities living in the Andes. For the longest time, chullos were nothing more than a functional piece of outerwear. What was once a humble stackable hat has become the most instantly recognizable garment of South America. Tourism has kept this traditional style vibrant and expanding.

It wasn’t always considered fashionable in Peru, but the chullo has taken hold as one of the most popular, iconic garments of the region. Customized to the local climate, knitted from the wool of animals who live there, and covered in unique motifs indicative of local history, chullos are quintessentially Peruvian.

If Lisa Frank was tasked with designing a bird, it’d be the ocellated turkey

Most wild turkeys look something like this…

Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Or this…

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

But then there’s this fella.

National Audubon Society

Meet the ocellated turkey — wannabe peacock and birdwatchers’ darling.

And one of the most flamboyant birds I’ve ever seen.

There are six types of wild turkeys: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and our prismatic friend. Most turkeys can be found in Canada and the USA, but the ocellated version lives exclusively on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their small region includes only a small part of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. 

And yes, if you visit Yucatan ruins like Tikal, you might get a glimpse of these seussical birds. They’re quite comfortable living and nesting near Mayan ruins.

Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal, Guatemala by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Though I’m pretty confident you could identify an ocellated turkey without a description, this bird stands out in more ways than one. This species is small as far as turkeys go, topping out at 12 pounds for males and 7 pounds for females. They have neon-blue heads decorated with garish hot orange warts, but no dangling ‘beards.’ Both sexes are blindingly colorful with females only marginally duller and greener. As a bonus, these turkeys’ voices are slightly less obnoxious than that of their blander cousins.

Ocellated turkeys spend most of their time walking rather than flying and enjoy a buffet of bugs, seeds, and leaves in their rainforest homes. The ‘ocellated’ part of the name refers to eyespots on their peacock-like tail feathers. Considering the brightness of the rest of this bird, you’d be forgiven for missing that detail.

Tim Proffitt-White / Flickr

These vibrant animals are Near Threatened and declining, thanks to overhunting and habitat reduction. But all is not yet lost — the ocellated turkey fanclub is growing, drawing ecotourists and conservationists to the region.

With continued conservation efforts and increased awareness of these eye-popping birds, more and more tourists can hope to spy an ocellated turkey. For some, ocellated turkeys are on the menu, but it’s my humble opinion that they’re better enjoyed visually. Maintaining their habitats and encouraging sustainable tourism to landmarks like Tikal will help get this glorious bird back on track. 

In the meantime, check out this desperate dance our rainbow friend does for a bunch of females who couldn’t care less. At least his fashion sense is on point.


How to say more with less

Over-writing kills your scene. Here’s how to keep it tight.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When you first bring your reader onto a scene, it’s tempting to give them the full picture. Floor to ceiling, head to toe — you want to show every tiny detail. You’re dying to give your reader a glimpse into your world so they can see it exactly how you see it.

But that’s just it. They only need a glimpse.

If your scene descriptions look like this…

I laid out four of my best bone china plates — remembering to turn the intricate blue iris pattern slightly to the left — in front of four dark oak lattice-back chairs, each with a white upholstered cushion. The six-foot mahogany dining table was finally picture-perfect when I set out my grandmother’s red satin runner with gold tassels on either end.

…I have news for you. That’s way too much!

The reader is lost in the details and can’t actually envision the scene anymore. They’ve been handed so much information, their imagination has stopped. And when the imagination has stopped, so has the story.

But you can still be descriptive. In fact, by saying less about the scene, you paint a much more interesting picture. There’s an easy trick to it, too:

Two visuals, one other sense.

That’s it!

Here’s how it works.

Choose two of the most pertinent (or most interesting) physical objects or visuals in your scene. You can use adjectives to describe them, but not too many. Now, pick another sense: taste, touch, smell, or sound. This rounds out the scene by grounding it in reality.

Here’s the dining table scene using the two visuals, one other sense trick.

I laid out my grandmother’s red table runner between four china plates. The scent of roast turkey filled the air.

This is a much more immersive experience. The reader now knows that it’s almost time for dinner, there will be four people eating, and turkey’s on the menu. It’s probably a fancy meal, too, because when else would you put out an heirloom runner and china plates? Your mind probably filled in side dishes, potential dinner guests, and even the preparation that it took to make the turkey.

It’s all there in the scene, too. I just took it away so you can imagine it yourself.

When you describe a new scene or a character, all you need to do is give the sense of the moment.

Two visuals, one other sense.

Here’s another example to prove that it works in fantasy, too. I’ll even do it backwards so you can see how your imagination gets bogged down with too much detail.

The clang of the knight’s bootfalls echoed in the high-ceilinged stone hall. Moonlight glinted on his sword as he slowly drew it from its sheath.

The two visuals here are the glinting sword and the high-ceilinged hall. We hear the bootfalls clanging, which makes the scene more dynamic. We know it’s late at night, his boots are probably made of metal, and there’s not much else in the hall because of the echoes. He’s drawing his sword, but we don’t know why. The reader has a lot of questions at this point, so they’ll want to read on.

Let’s try this scene with more detail.

At a quarter past midnight, Sir Lancelot entered the great hall where he and the other knights had dined on turkey legs earlier that day. Now, the great hall was empty, echoing, and moonlight streamed in through the arrowslits and pooled on the gray stone floor. He scanned the high-ceilinged room and slowly drew his jewel-encrusted sword from the leather scabbard at his side.

Yes, this scene gives a lot more backstory and some of the imagery is richer. Now you know the knight in question is Lancelot, he ate turkey with some other knights (off bone china plates, perhaps?) and the sword has jewels on it. You can see the hall a little better, too.

This is all great information, but you probably already mentioned it in your story. And if you haven’t, you have the whole rest of your story to flesh out the scene. We still don’t know why he’s drawing his sword, but I guess that’s what the next paragraph is for, isn’t it? We’ll get to it.

One more.

The burglar’s heart pounded in his chest while Mona Lisa’s tight smile peeked out from under his elbow.

Whoa! That’s a ton of information! You know there’s someone stealing the most famous painting in the world and because he can feel his heart pounding, you know he’s very nervous about it. You’re probably envisioning the Louvre, likely late at night. And given Mona Lisa’s smile, you might even get a sense of what the painting itself thinks about being stolen.

I could’ve put all that in the scene, but info dumps release tension. And nobody likes a tensionless heist.

Now let’s hear from you. How would you use the sense of taste to round out a scene? And feel free to use these prompts as the openings to your story! I’d love to see the stories continued in the comments below.

Previously published on Medium.