Exploring the intersection of animal and human

  • Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium view a hammerhead shark in a million-gallon tank.

    Stuart Isett
 

Survival Skills
Jean Ryan
197 pages, paperback: $15.95.
Ashland Creek, 2013.

Early in Jean Ryan's debut collection of stories, a woman in a wetsuit strokes an octopus' head while it caresses her face with the tip of one arm. The scene illustrates one of the author's favorite themes: We're at our best, we humans, when we allow ourselves to interact intimately with the natural world –– even if it's just a matter of hanging out in, say, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Ryan, a Northern California author who describes herself as a "horticultural enthusiast," has long been interested in what she describes as "the vulnerability and interdependency of all living things." The intersection of flora, fauna and humanity informs the stories in Survival Skills; one narrator finds solace in Palm Springs' citrus and eponymous trees, while another meditates on the resiliency of stinking orchids. Ryan's prose particularly shines when she's describing animals – whether beagles, hummingbirds or tattletale parrots – and their relationship to people.

Her first story, "Greyhound," parallels a rescued race dog's recovery with that of the narrator's girlfriend, who is afflicted with an angst that explodes into eczema. The rash disappears as the dog is rehabilitated, but the narrator is wise enough not to take either for granted: "How long this state of grace will last," she says, "is a question we don't need answered."

These are stories about relationships – heterosexual and gay – told by patient narrators, often in their 40s and 50s. They've learned to look past the dramas of divorce and infidelity for the kind of comfort offered in the flash of a moth's wing under moonlight, or in a spider rescued from a sink. In "Migration," a newly divorced woman finds healing in the form of a Toulouse goose that shows up at her Lake Tahoe cabin for a daily walk. The narrator in "Paradise" looks to a parrot for insight into a doomed relationship. Resignation informs many of these tales, but –– just as powerfully –– so does redemption.

"There were countless mysteries," Ryan writes, "observed or missed, unfolding every instant." Survival Skills reminds readers of these mysteries, of how meaningful relationships extend beyond the romantic and the human. We can bond with a charismatic goose, with an enigmatic octopus, even with an irritating bird, and our life will be richer for it.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...