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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Maria Henson

Spanish lessons? Put a bird on it

My single biggest regret about my academic life at Wake Forest is that I failed to spend a semester abroad at Casa Artom or Worrell House. Alumni I meet never hesitate to wax nostalgic about their happy days during their semester abroad and, in some cases, will tell you how they fell in love with their spouse during those months across the pond.

You will find a shortage as acute as cheap Facebook stock shares if you look for recent alumni and current students who made my mistake. Study abroad is de rigueur these days at Wake Forest, and abundant choices include Flow House in Vienna and various programs that can be tailored to our students’ aspirations, from Managua to Madrid.

This semester I heard an entirely fresh take on the study-abroad experience that will have our Wake Forest heroine telling tales for the rest of her days. As far as I know, Clare Rizer, a rising senior from Charlotte, N.C., did not meet her future spouse during her semester in Madrid last fall. She did, however, meet one very nosey, sassy parrot.

"Last night was a blast, eh?"

I’ll let Clare tell you her story. (By the way, she  is a rising senior majoring in history with a minor in Spanish and sociology. She’ll be a Wake Forest Magazine intern next fall.):

“While it is common for Wake Forest students to study abroad in a country with a language barrier and experience firsthand the difficulties of grappling with the unfamiliar, it is uncommon, however, to learn a new language from the mouth, no, beak, of a caged, avian amiga. Cuckoo was my sister abroad, my very loud, obnoxious and narcissistic sister. She was an African Grey Parrot with a red tail and, for some inexplicable reason, she chose to pluck herself of all hairs on her breast. Comical appearance aside, Cuckoo had a voice that filled the apartment (and that of our upstairs neighbors) with daily, intermittent cackles, questions … and even catcalls.

“Cuckoo lived in the parlor of my host mother, Elisa’s, apartment. As her husband was living in the southern region of Spain with his ill mother for the majority of the fall, Eliza found in Cuckoo a joy: her pet, companion and child all wrapped into one. I first encountered Cuckoo as I strolled down the apartment entrance hall for the first time. I heard a mysterious voice say “Hola, Guapa” (“Hello, beautiful”) in Spanish. I immediately assumed it was an overzealous male of the household, but then glanced over to see the thing that, in a few short weeks, would become both my teacher and my nemesis.

“Spain is a country that never sleeps. Or, in my opinion, sleeps at the most inconvenient hours of the day (don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of siesta). I experienced this aggravation firsthand. Cuckoo enjoyed the hours between dusk and dawn and used the quiet time to her personal advantage. When all the lights were out and the house was silent, Cuckoo began to coo. She had a whistle that I can still mock perfectly to this day. She made her own music while I simultaneously attempted to drown out her late-night noises. One night, however, she silenced her whistling and instead began to speak Spanish words. It was that night that I realized this bird and I would form a special bond. I removed my headphones, eagerly absorbing her impressive dialogue.

” From that day forward, I embraced Cukoo as my personal tutor, and we gabbed away many afternoons together.

“Cuckoo: ‘Hola, guapa.’ Como estas? (Hi, pretty. How are you?)

“I : ‘Muy bien chica. Y tu?’ (Very well, and you?)

“She taught me Spanish sarcasm and slang — ‘Noche fue una juerga, eh’ (Last night was a blast, eh?)  — and through her guidance as my renegade tutor, I was the most ‘in the know’ study-abroad student at my school. The incessant ‘Hola, guapa’ chants were also an exciting self-esteem boost each day before and after school, and I do selfishly miss that daily comfort and frequent question: ‘Es tu tarea muy muema?’ (Is your homework very dull? I would respond, ‘Obviamente, chica.’ Obviously, girlfriend!)

“At my ‘last supper’ on my final day in Spain, Elisa let Cuckoo out of her cage for the first time since my arrival and, as dignified as ever, my little friend pranced around the living room, accentuating her human qualities in full. Tipsy on Spanish wine, Elisa, my roommate and I laughed until our stomachs hurt, giggling at our pompous and loquacious companion. This semester, bookended by the antics of a small bird, was truly what I would call, ‘unrivaled by any.'”

There you have it. While Cuckoo will remain a singular pal, Clare experienced a study-abroad semester that is typical from what I hear from Wake Foresters everywhere. It was “una juerga” alright — a blast.

Joni James (’89), a Pulitzer finalist

The 2012 Pulitzer Prizes announced this week failed to include a prize for fiction or editorial writing, but for finalists in those categories there is still cause for celebration to be named among the top three contenders for the awards.A Wake Forest alumna was among them. The Pulitzer board cited the work of Tim Nickens, Joni James (’89), John Hill and Robyn Blumner of the Tampa Bay Times as an award finalist “for editorials that examined the policies of a new, inexperienced governor and their impact on the state, using techniques that stretched the typical editorial format and caused the governor to mend some of his ways.”

Here’s an excerpt from an editorial critical of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s record on open government: “The reality is that the administration has a high number of public records requests from the public and the media because it is so secretive in the way it conducts public business. This is not about newspapers. This is about the public’s right to be informed about the business of the state and the importance of transparency as a check on government.”

Joni James ('89)

A native of North Carolina, James is deputy editorial page editor of the Tampa Bay Times. Her list of newspaper stops along her career path includes the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and The Wall Street Journal. She joined the Tampa Bay Times in 2003 and its editorial board in 2008.

The other Pulitzer finalists in the editorial writing category: journalists from Bloomberg News, who wrote about the European financial crisis, and the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press for an editorial campaign that resulted in the state’s first reform of open government laws in 35 years.

Steve Duin’s view from the West Coast to the Grand Canal on Words Awake!

Steve Duin (’76, MA ’79) joined the crowd of Wake Forest alumni writers who returned on March 23 for the Words Awake! writers conference, but he didn’t leave the experience behind after he landed at home in Portland. He treated his Oregon newspaper readers to his take on what made the event special, including his appreciation for his time at Casa Artom in Venice and the guidance provided by the inimitable James Barefield, Wake Forest history professor and purveyor of the comic view.

Portland's Steve Duin

Duin is metro columnist for The (Portland) Oregonian and is the author or co-author of six books, the latest of which is “Oil and Water,” a graphic novel illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. He served on the Words Awake! panel titled “Writing Sports,” an appropriate topic for someone who penned a compelling cover story for Wake Forest Magazine last summer about baseball coach Tom Walter’s gift of a kidney to then-freshman and centerfielder Kevin Jordan.

“Some of us are lucky. We happened upon Wake Forest, often by chance, and when we’re asked why we love the place, we remember Sunday mornings on the Quad, Saturday nights at the stadium and Wednesday afternoons with the romantic poets,” he wrote. “But everyone else? This is the story they will remember. When they hear the words ‘Wake Forest,’ they will celebrate the kidney that passed from Tom Walter to Kevin Jordan, a gift as big as life. And when they become fathers, this is the history they will tell their sons.”

Look for Duin’s next story that explains the University’s literary tradition in the Wake Forest Magazine summer issue, arriving in mailboxes in June. Here’s a preview of what’s in store: “And there were few checkpoints where we had to flash credentials, pay our dues or beg for permission.  When we were still clueless, Wake Forest allowed us to make waves and mistakes.  When we were still searching for God knows what, the University encouraged us to push the limits, exploit our immaturity, even take our innocence abroad to London, Venice or Ireland. You want to know why so many Wake grads became writers?  Because when we walked into the room with a novel idea, someone’s eyes lit up.”

Joy Goodwin ('95) and Steve Duin at Words Awake!

In the photo above, you see Duin with Joy Goodwin (’95). The two share a love for Barefield. (The upcoming summer issue also features a Goodwin piece about the peripatetic professor who enjoys being a character.)

In the meantime, don’t miss Duin’s tribute in The Oregonian to Barefield in which he writes, “He and I have remained close over the years, a friendship that owes as much to the intimacy of Wake Forest as it does to the intensity of the Venice program.”

Carlton Ward Jr.: Extreme explorer with Pro Humanitate spirit

Biology Professor Bill Conner stopped me at TedxWakeForestU a few weeks ago to ask whether I’d heard what one of our graduates was doing in the Florida swamps. With an obvious hint of admiration — Bill has a fair measure of Florida wilderness experience himself as a scholar — he announced that environmental photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr. (’98) was slogging through swamps and into remote areas on the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000-mile trek up the Florida peninsula over 100 days.

Carlton Ward Jr.

The expedition began on Jan. 17 at the tip of Everglades National Park. Ever since, Ward, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, bear biologist Joe Guthrie and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus have been traversing swamps, ranches and the backwoods to demonstrate the need for a corridor that connects Florida’s natural lands, waters, working farms and ranches all the way to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Their goal is for the state to safeguard a functional ecological corridor for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds.

For Ward and his band of explorers, the trek is intermodal and includes miles of kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding to reach the 1,000-mile mark, not to mention camping under the stars. Stoltzfus’ film about the expedition will air on public television.

Blue Head Ranch in Florida

By email I caught up with Ward, and he managed to send The Deacon Blog a Q&A dispatch from his journey and give us permission to display some of the gorgeous images from the trip. You can follow the group’s progress here and see more examples of Ward’s photography at his site.

Maria Henson: What are the environmental challenges Florida faces?

Ward: Florida faces many environmental challenges — depletion of the freshwater aquifer, draining of wetlands, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are a few that come to mind.

Henson: How did you become involved in the expedition?

Ward: The expedition was my idea as a tool to raise awareness for the fleeting chance we have to keep Florida’s natural lands and waters connected. It was born out of my work photographing ranch lands in central Florida over the past seven years combined with expedition co-leader Joe Guthrie’s work on black bears and their wide ranging habitat needs (a story which was also my focus for several years).

I organized a steering committee in early 2010 to shape components of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network science by Tom Hoctor and colleagues into a more publicly accessible Florida Wildlife Corridor vision.

Henson: I love the notion that the journey is the destination, but I can’t help but ask what do you hope to achieve through this adventure, and will there be a book or documentary?

Ward: There will be a two-hour film for PBS for release this fall. My photography will be the basis for a traveling exhibit, online geostory and ultimately a book. These products are all part of the journey, tools to raise awareness for the importance of protecting connected habitat. The ultimate goal is for the Florida Wildlife Corridor to be protected.

Scrub Jay

Henson: What has been your most awe-inspiring moment so far?

Ward: The answer to that question changes every week. Paddling though the Everglades for a full week was definitely a highlight. We used push poles to push our way though the sawgrass for 3 days and nights without encountering another person. The wilderness experience was phenomenal. More recently, our team rode on horseback through ranches and conservation lands in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, all areas proposed for protection through the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.

We were joined and hosted by nearly 20 cattle ranchers, many who I had known for years from my previous work and many from the newly formed Northern Everglades Alliance of which I am a member. It was a powerful and encouraging felling to traverse the piney flat woods with so many heroes who are taking the conservation of their land and heritage into their own hands.

Galloping Horses spotted on the expedition

When the ride ended at The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, Rick Dantzler and LeeAnn Adams presented me with a limited-edition print of the Florida Wildlife Corridor map I had commissioned in early 2012 bearing (a) handwritten inscription from President Obama, which read, “Thank you for helping preserve our natural wonders! Barack Obama” Friends at the National Wildlife Refuge Association had arranged for (this from) President Obama at a White House conservation event the week prior.

Henson: What has been your most distressing moment?

Ward: We recently crossed Lake Kissimmee to Brahma Island facing a serious headwind. I had lent my Kayak to a visiting journalist and was making the crossing on a standup paddle board. When we emerged from the maiden cane fringe of the lake, the waves were 3-4 feet tall. Overall paddling was very difficult for all of us, and I realized that our guest was making little forward progress. Meanwhile the sun was dropping quickly and I had little control of how fast the wind was sweeping me and my paddle board away from the kayakers.

Before picking my own line across the waves for a nighttime arrival, I made a precautionary call to a friend with a powerboat. Our guest journalist was happy to accept a ride to shore. I would have considered it myself if I wasn’t so committed to the integrity of our continuous route.

Eastern Indigo Snake at Archbold Biological Station

Henson: I heard about your expedition when I saw biology professor Bill Conner at TEDx. It made me wonder how you chose Wake Forest for college? Who were your mentors? What’s your best Wake Forest memory?

Ward: I was attracted to the liberal arts education at Wake. Bill Conner was a mentor, though I didn’t have class with him. He and the bio department gave me a scholarship one summer that allowed me to study wildlife management in East Africa and marine ecology at the Duke Marine Lab.

Ned Woodall in anthropology was another mentor. His intro anthropology course really expanded my perspective about the course (of) humanity on the planet and instilled much of my concern for preservation of cultural and natural heritage. My intro to journalism course helped me earn my post-Wake internship in the photography department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Henson: How has your liberal arts education helped you in your profession, assuming that it has?

Ward: As a journalist, I need broad understanding of a variety of fields and how they interconnect. The liberal arts base provided by Wake is the foundation for my more specialized ecological knowledge. The LA (liberal arts) education and many essay based tests also helped me develop writing skill essential to my work today. The LA philosophy allowed for my undergraduate education to be a process of discovery.

I came to Wake thinking I might major in physics and go on to grad school in engineering. I also considered majoring in business and going to law or business school. Then I discovered biology and anthropology, which led me down the career path I am following today.

Experience shooting for the Old Gold and Black and (Howler) was also very influential on my development as a photographer.

Henson: Tell me about your growing up.

Ward: I grew up on the Gulf coast in Clearwater, Fla. I was constantly in the water, swimming, fishing, diving, surfing, and still think I have salt water in my blood. I am also an eighth-generation Floridian with deep family roots in interior Florida. I was always connected to that world too and have been reconnecting to my heartland heritage through my work in recent years.

Scene from the expedition

Henson: What were your first camera and first shots that made you proud?

Ward: My first mechanical camera was a Pentax K1000 followed by a Pentax LX. One of my first successful landscape shots was on the Wake campus. I predicted a fiery sunset based on a growing cloud formation I had seen the previous September. I ran into position and created a number of intense sunset photographs of campus and the (chapel), which I ultimately sold to Wake as my first professional photography transaction. I think Wake bought nine photographs from that roll, and they were published regularly in campus and alumni literature.

Henson: You’re a world traveler. What’s on your list for future expeditions or adventures?

Ward: Well, I still have 45 days to go on this expedition! You know, I spent the first decade of my career traveling to the far corners of the globe to find stories of consequence that hadn’t been told in the U.S. media. Right now I am looking at another decade’s work focusing on untold stories of potential influence right here in Florida.

Highlands County ranch in wetlands reserve program

The pressing nature of conservation issues in Florida commands my attention and I am motivated to help foster a truer sense of place for the 18 million people (12 million who were born somewhere else) who call this place home. I still enjoy working abroad and will continue to do so when I have an opportunity and can make a difference. Continued work in Cuba and Latin America would be good fits for me.