Category Archives: Nature

Cephalopod Awareness Days

October 12 is the last day of International Cephalopod Awareness Days, which is celebrated each year from October 8th through the 12th.

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In case you’re wondering, cephalopods are a class of mollusks that include octopuses, squids, cuttlefish, and nautiluses.

The timing of this celebration has nothing to do with the spooky Halloween holiday, although cephalopods have been haunting oceans for millions of years. No, the dates were chosen because cephalopods have either 8 or 10 appendages.

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Cephalopod Awareness Days celebrate our curiosity and love of books, movies, and TV shows that feature cephalopod characters. For instance, ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘SpongeBob Squarepants,’ and the Harry Potter series, to name a few. Video games like Minecraft and Pokémon have cephalopods, too!

For the sake of keeping this post from growing as long as a giant squid’s tentacle, I’ll share with you just a few interesting facts about octopuses:

They’re extremely intelligent and have excellent memories. It’s no wonder they’re so smart since they have nine functioning brains, one behind the eyes and the others in each of its eight arms. They have four pairs of arms, by the way.

Some octopuses have been known to use tools. Watch the 39 second video below. Home sweet home!

They’re so smart, some have been observed opening everything from screw-top jars to the cap on a childproof medicine bottle.

If an octopus gets bored, they’ve been known to eat their arms. Ew! Do you think that’s gross? It might make you feel better to know that they’re able to regrow their limbs.

They have three hearts. (I wonder if they love Valentine’s Day three times as much?)

They have blue blood. (For a tongue twister, try saying “blue blood” three times as fast as you can.)

Octopuses can change colors to blend in with their surroundings and hide from their enemies. It takes less than a second for them to change color. They can also change their texture to disguise themselves. This is a cool 24-second video:

If a predator confronts them, they can squirt dark ink to dull the sense of smell of their attacker, giving the octopus a chance to escape.

They also have venom, but only the blue ringed octopuses’ bite can be deadly to humans.

They don’t have a skeleton, so they’re able to squeeze through small spaces. Their bodies can fit through any cracks that their beaks fit through. This 1:42 minute video shows an octopus slithering through a crack in a boat:

Do you think Harry Houdini would have been impressed by that escape?

The last interesting fact I’d like to share is kind of scary, like something right out of a horror story. Once a male octopus mates, it dies soon after. The females can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they guard with their lives. When the eggs hatch, the mother’s body quickly deteriorates until she dies. A haunting tale, for sure.

To learn about other cephalopods, here’s one website among many about these amazing creatures.

So what do you think of cephalopods? Do you find them fascinating? What’s your favorite creature, either real or fictional? Can you think of a book or movie that has a cephalopod in it?

If you love fun, creepy stories, my Monster Moon series coauthor, Kathryn Sant, and I have three thrillers you might like. We write under the pen name BBH McChiller.

Book 1 – Curse at Zala Manor (Great read for Halloween):

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“This tale will rattle yer timbers, squiffie, and chill ye to the bone!”

It’s almost Halloween, and twelve-year-old AJ Zantony’s world is threatened by an ancient curse that releases wicked pirates who had been trapped for centuries in his Aunt Zsofia’s creepy mansion, Zala Manor.

Available in print or eBook formats.

 

Book 2 – Secret of Haunted Bog (Fast paced and full of action):

Lynn Kelley Author, BBH McChiller, Secret of Haunted Bog, Monster Moon mysteries

“Beware the bog, landlubbers.

If ye venture into that haunted place,

Yer every step be filled with danger. Yarr!”

Available in print or eBook formats.

 

 

 

Book 3 – Legend of Monster Island (Perfect for Cephalopod Awareness Days):

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Cover illustration by fellow Emblazoner, Mikey Brooks

“Listen, swabbers, to this kraken tale.

Treasure and scoundrels and setting sail.

Sinking ships and a ghostly wail.

Can AJ survive, or will the beast prevail?”

Available in print or eBook formats.

 

 

 

 

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Lynn Kelley worked as a court reporter for 25 years while she and her husband, George, raised their four little rascals, but nowadays she’s a goofball in the highest degree who’s susceptible to laughing jags. She tries to control herself out in public, but it’s not easy. She’ll jump at any excuse to wear funky get-ups. For instance, making wacky YouTube videos, entertaining her grandkids, or hanging out at  a costume party.

She recently became a Master Certified Health Coach through the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute.

 

 

Don’t Destroy Good Writing

Sometimes writers don’t trust themselves. We write a paragraph, reread it, backspace (a lot), and write it again. And then we repeat the process. Several times.

For me personally, I’m not so sure if the sixth time I write the same paragraph is really all that much better than the first attempt. What I do know, however, is that writing this way takes forever and turns something that is naturally hard to do into something that is excruciatingly difficult.

Lately, I haven’t been making progress because I keep writing the same stuff again and again. I’ve decided to take a lesson from history and break this bad habit. Let me explain:

Over Thanksgiving break my family went on a little adventure. Our favorite stomping ground is Southern Utah (near the Kanab area). First we hit Cutler’s Point, which is a fabulous cave (albeit shallow) inside the side of a mountain plateau. (See pictures below.)

We drove back from the hike using an old highway that used to be the
main road into Kanab.  On some of the red cliff walls right next to the old highway are Native American Fremont petroglyphs dating from 700 to about 1300 A.D.

writingOn top of some of these wonderful writings from a culture lost hundreds of years ago, business men from the mid 1900s wrote big advertisements in black paint—everything from law services to painting for hire. It was a “natural” bill board of sorts. People noticed the cool petroglyphs, so writing a business advertisement right over the top of them would ensure better visibility for their ads.

Seriously?

What were they thinking?

I’m starting to ask myself the same question when I “write
over” my own writing again and again, hoping to improve it. Am I actually making things worse?

My new game plan is to write whatever comes out and move forward. In the end, I know I’ll be going back and rewriting/cleaning up my manuscript. I don’t need to keep writing over myself during the creative process. After all,  I may be destroying things that should be left alone.

Here are a few more pictures from our outdoor adventure:

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It Makes Sense to Use All Your Senses

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Do you have a sixth sense? How about a ninth sense?

If you’re human you have at least twenty-one senses according to recent studies and writers can use every single one of them to bring our characters to life.

For years everyone has been taught, from kindergarten through high school biology, that we have five senses–seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, and maybe possibly a sixth sense for those into the paranormal. But this is old news. Really old news. The idea of five senses dates back to Aristotle and science has progressed a great deal since his time.

So, if you ask researchers today how many senses humans have, you’ll receive a variety of responses. For years, scientists have been arguing about the actual number. Recently, the most common answer is around twenty-one.

Some researchers believe that our basic five senses can be split into sensory subgroups. Sight, for instance, can be further divided into the senses or perceptions of brightness, color, and depth.

Other scientists argue that senses are unique entities, not subgroups. In this theory, each sense consists of cell types that respond to a distinct phenomenon and then sends a signal to a specific region of the brain. With that definition, we have more than five senses.

The increased number of senses surprises most people, until they become aware that they are using most of them every day just to survive. Writers can utilize these senses to enliven and enhance their writing.

In addition to those already mentioned, here are the remaining senses:

Equilibrioception. This is balance, that sense that keeps us standing upright, coordinated by the vestibular region of inner ear with a little help from our eyes. You can use this sense in describing fast-moving sports, fights, or states of drunkenness.

Interoception. These are multiple sensory receptors found on internal organs. They each have a different function depending on location:

The feeling of being full or satiety is controlled by stretch receptors in the stomach after one eats. We’ll take notice of this sense on Thanksgiving. And likely ignore it.

Then, there are chemoreceptors in our blood vessels monitoring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which will quickly inform us that we can’t get enough air or that we are suffocating. That’s where the panicked feeling that you can’t breathe comes from.

There are stretch receptors in our lung tissues that sense how full our lungs are.

Your breathing rate is controlled by the combination of how full your lungs feel and how much oxygen you are receiving. Some people also believe yawning could be a response to these sensory inputs.

Then there are those pesky chemoreceptors out of our control which tell the brain you need to vomit. Now!

Itch. Another annoying but necessary sensory perception is itching, which can occur with or without touching anything. It tells your brain something is irritating your skin, which could be anything from bugs or poison ivy to dry skin. Sometimes just thinking about it makes our skin itch and we want to scratch. This sense draws our attention to a specific location on our skin.

Magnetoreception. Some people have a natural sense of direction and/or navigation and always seem to know which way is north or how to get home. They, like homing pigeons, are employing a sense of magnetoreception. They’re ‘feeling’ the surrounding magnetic fields.

Nociception. This is the sense of pain. In the past, pain was considered a response to touch, but it’s really a specific experience in its own part of the brain. Current researchers suggest that pain is actually three different senses, each relating to different kinds of pain occurring in different locations: pain in our skin (like a sunburn or a splinter) is different from pain in our bones (broken bones), and different from pain felt in an internal organ (for example, angina is heart pain, while gas and bloating are intestinal pains). All pains have a similar function, however, which is to tell your brain you are in trouble.

Proprioception. This is body awareness. If you close your eyes or go blind, you still have an idea where your hand is or if your legs are crossed.

Try going downstairs in the dark or with your eyes shut. You have a sense of where your hand is as you reach for the banister. You know where your foot is and you know when you expect it to touch the next step. (What if that step wasn’t there?)

Without this ‘sense of yourself’ you’d have to watch your hands every second to see if they are going in the correct direction and grabbing the right thing. Or you’d need to stare at your feet to see when your shoe is nearing the floor. Without this sense we couldn’t walk or even pick up a fork without problems.

Body awareness is affected by one’s alcohol consumption and by some illnesses. Police are checking proprioception in some of the field sobriety tests.

Thermoception. This is the sense of temperature, of feeling warm or cold. It comes from temperature sensors in our skin and travels to the brain via our spinal column. It helps tell your brain to do something quick so you don’t freeze in the snow, walk into a fire, or dehydrate in the desert heat.

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Temporal perception or Chronoception. This is the basic sense of time passing, the sense that controls our circadian or daily rhythm.

Time passing may seem different depending on what we do (we tend to think time passes fast if we’re having fun) or at different stages of life (younger people are more accurate in guessing the passage of time, while older people feel time passes faster and faster every year), but we all have a sense of time passing.

Finally, some people believe in ESP, the extrasensory perception, which could now be relegated to being the twenty-second sense instead of the sixth. More studies, of course, are needed to see if this is a true sense. Anyone with ESP care to make a prediction?

In the natural world we notice that many of the animal senses are more powerful than the human versions. In addition, there are a vast range of senses that humans do not have, often quite strange and unbelievable. (A debate exists whether perhaps some unknown senses are hidden in human DNA and we just haven’t developed them, or maybe we aren’t aware of them. Not yet, anyway.) But we can still write about them.

So, if you write about animals or superheroes or alien forces, you should investigate some of these:

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We know dogs have a limited sense of color vision, but they have an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, millions of times more sensitive than humans. Much scarier, bears have an even greater sense of smell than dogs, picking up scents miles and miles away. Some animals can also smell across time (wow!), knowing which scent came before another, like they’re stacked in layers.

Cats can see at night, their large eyes requiring a small fraction of the light required by people. Eagles and some other birds have spectacular distance and night vision.

Bats and snakes can see infrared light, which is beyond red on the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared is invisible to humans. The main source of infrared is thermal radiation, which allows warm objects to be seen at night by those creatures with infrared vision. Snakes use their tongues to sense heat signatures of prey and can follow its movements.

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Bees and dragonflies and jumping spiders see ultraviolet (UV) light. Seeing ultraviolet light means you can see beyond violet, the shortest wavelength on the visible spectrum. So these creatures see patterns and markings that the human eye cannot see. UV light is used by art historians and curators to see the layers of pigment in paintings and to discover what might be in deeper layers.

Certain kinds of shrimp can see ‘all the above’ plus they can also see polarized light and, to boot, they can move their eyes different directions and see all 360 degrees around them. Next time you eat shrimp, think about that.

Birds, bees and cows can navigate by using their sense of the magnetic fields. Monarch butterflies can navigate across generations, hatching somewhere in the USA and later migrating to trees in Mexico where their ancestors once lived. Imagine taking off and going to the exact ancestral home of a long dead ancester in another country or on another continent without having an address nor a living relative to guide you. That is one unbelievable sense.

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Sharks and the platypus sense electric field changes in the waters around them. Most naturalists feel that alligators have the most acute sense of touch of all creatures, feeling the faintest of faint vibrations with sensors on their skin.

Cephalopods, like the octopus, have chemoreceptors in their skin to sense their surroundings, so they can change their own skin color, texture, and patterning to camouflage themselves. Some beetles (that need to lay their eggs in dead trees) can sense a fire many miles away.

Elephants hear low frequency sounds that are infrasonic, which lie far below our hearing range. They can also sense seismic vibrations in the earth with the pads of their feet.

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Dogs and mice hear higher frequencies than we do, hence dog whistles and plug-in pest repellents.

Some birds and other animals can sense what nutrient is missing in their diet (without a blood test or a dietician) and then seek out the necessary food. Don’t you wish you could do that?

Amazing stuff! And scientists aren’t done researching our sensory worlds. They’re likely to discover many more extraordinary abilities in nature and then utilize that information to invent things to enhance human existence.

Sensory details add depth to any description, so feel free to explore more than just the original five senses in your characters’ experiences.

Do you have a favorite sense to write about? Can you imagine a sense you wish you had?

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Kathryn Sant is a retired obstetrician who has witnessed the births of thousands of future readers. She has published a middle-grade novel, Desert Chase (Scholastic), and under the pseudonym BBH McChiller she is a co-author of the fun, spooky Monster Moon mystery series. Curse at Zala Manor is Book 1, Secret of Haunted Bog is Book 2, and Legend of Monster Island is Book 3. She is currently working on two middle-grade boys’ adventure novels and the next Monster Moon book.

Her interest in adventure, research, and genealogy has led to a love of world travel, exotic adventures, and museums of all kinds. But she also enjoys quiet evenings reading with her dogs at her side.

(Clock photo by dreamtime. Other photos by Kathryn Sant.)

 

 

 

 

 

A Cauldron of Herbs

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A Cauldron Of Herbs by Christina Mercer

In honor of this Harvest/Autumn/Halloween time of year, I decided to stir up some magic for you. Plant magic, that is! Nature is quite amazing, and humankind has utilized its wondrous magic since our beginnings.  I became a Certified Herbalist many years ago, and when writing my first Tween/Teen books, I enjoyed weaving herb lore throughout them. In addition to herb lore, I had fun with Celtic tree lore to show the marvelous magic of trees. I used the (totally fun!) folk names for herbs and trees, and had my main character use plant remedies for wounds and ailments that she and her loved-ones endured.

A little trivia about remedies found in nature . . .

The Doctrine of Signatures dates back to ancient times, and was studied in depth in Western Europe. The idea was that certain plants resembled the body parts they healed. Also, the names given to certain plants correlated to their healing properties. Some examples:

Walnuts—resembles a brain and helps memory

Ginger Root—resembles a stomach and helps nausea

Kidney Bean—resembles a kidney and helps kidney function

Eyebright—helps with “pink eye” and other eye irritation

Bloodroot—has red sap and helps purify the blood

In addition, herbalists found that certain “cures” grew near “causes.” An example is Jewelweed, an herb used to heal skin conditions, which is often found growing near Stinging Nettles and Poison Ivy.

Folk names were the early names given to herbs, and often eluded to their healing function. Some names, however, are perplexing or quite silly sounding. In fact, some of these silly-sounding herbs were used in healing remedies and not at all the literal meanings that their names may have suggested. Here are a handful of some fun “Halloween-ish” herb names:

Lion’s Tooth—Dandelion

Graveyard Dust—Mullein

Bloody Fingers—Foxglove

Little Dragon—Tarragon

Bat’s Wings—Holly

So, this year, while enjoying the festivities, if you happen to hear, “In the cauldron, Toe of Frog; watch it bubble with Tongue of Dog,” you might just find a neighborhood herbalist brewing up an herbal remedy.

ARROW OF THE MIST (currently 99 cents!) & ARMS OF ANU

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Christina Mercer is an award-winning author of fiction for children and young adults. She enjoys life in the foothills of Northern California with her husband, sons, pack of large dogs, and about 100,000 honeybees. For more about her and her writing, visit www.christinamercer.com

 

Keeping it Real

There’s more to writing “tween” books than making characters come to life, crafting unique plots, and weaving suspense and humor throughout.

You also have to keep up with the times—what’s cool nowadays? What do nine to thirteen year olds think about? Are you using phrases or similes that relate to them?

This concept became obvious to me a few weeks ago when my husband and I decided to take my kids on a hike in Southern Utah.

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We were in an area with lots of natural red-rock formations. Some of them were high up on mountain tops, like the “elephant rock.” Other face-like formations were on the sides of dangerous cliffs. There was one outcropping of rocks on the top of a plateau, however, that was within our reach. By the locals it’s called the “milk bottles.”

“Huh? Milk bottles?” my kids asked. “What are those?”

It’s true. My children have never seen a milk bottle before. To them, milk comes in one gallon plastic jugs at the local grocery store.

We pointed to where the milk bottles were. They couldn’t see them. We then explained the precise location. Still nothing. Then we did one simple thing that changed their entire perspective.

“Think of them as water bottles,” I said.

“Oh,” my children said, “we can see them now!”

So, in the morning hours of that late summer day, I hiked, with my husband and children, to the “water bottles.”

Fifty years ago kids would have been stumped if you’d called them water bottles. Who drank their water out of bottles? But in 2014, that’s what our kids know.

One word can make all the difference.

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