This afternoon Ellen and Christa showed me a secret or two about how the magic is done. Master welder, painter, and fabricator, Christa is one of seven sculptors who work in the design section at the NC Zoo. We had just been looking at models of the new polar bear exhibit that will open in stages over the next two years. I noticed a lichen-encrusted slab on the work table. I picked it up. It was a light sheet of some composite material painted in layers – I’ll still swear it was lichen.
Christa said, “When the visitors don’t even notice that the stones are hand-made, then we’ve done our job.”
Does that mean that the Zoo’s mission is to create illusion? No, the mission is to transcend and transport: to transcend illusion and transport the visitor into a larger reality. It is no accident that the sections have titles like “forest edge,” “African plains,” “rocky coast.” In one day’s stroll you can enter all these habitats and, for however briefly, become part of that which makes each place unique and notable. And you get to see wild animals.
It’s called education. The mission of the Zoo is to teach. In five hundred acres or five hundred thousand acres the Zoo can’t conserve the world, but if we who come here to share the lives of these creatures gain even a glimmer of understanding and compassion, then we may become engaged in conserving the world for all creatures. And for ourselves.
So why poetry at the Zoo? The displays and installations are already various and superb. They employ photographs, diagrams, puns (“just lion around” indeed). You can walk right into a bush-copter hanger, a chimpanzee research station, a jungle, a desert. Why do you need poetry?
Poetry can teach in a way that exposition and rhetoric cannot. You are shaken by an unexpected metaphor. You are halted in your tracks by an arresting image. Poetry has slipped through the bars of your logical, calculating mind and has begun to teach directly to your heart. Maybe, just maybe, you are transported into a larger reality.
You don’t even notice you’re being taught. Poetry has done its job.
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Advice for Long Life
Keep simple, as simple as you can.
Like the heron who stands one leg on the sand.
Like the maple who stands one leg on the land.
Like the robin who, thirsty, gargles the worm.
The spider is simple if the web is not.
The tern is simple in a watery spot.
To be flexible, fluid, adored as a druid,
cryptic, mystic, blessed, lurid,
love simple as you can.
Plural by purpose, design, and make,
the effort to give is the urge to take.
Keep a hambone of joy at your right side.
Live broad, long, deep, wide,
but ride simple as you can.
Imitate wind and creep of dark –
as much as you can, the natural stark,
sun-driven crops and gradual shoat,
a frog spilling basso from a plum-blue throat
at river’s edge. Be simple if you can.
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Anna Wooten-Hawkins grew up in Kinston, North Carolina and received her MFA in creative writing from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was a poet and professor of English at Gardner-Webb University, and later at Campbell University, St. Mary’s College, North Carolina State University, Peace College, and Meredith College. Her accomplishments include being the faculty editor of The Lyricist at Campbell University and coordinating the annual Muse Literary Festival at St. Mary’s College. Before her untimely death in 2000, Anna won many honors for her poetry. Her collection “Satan Speaks of Eve in 7 Voices After the Fall” won the 1986 North Carolina Writers’ Network Chapbook competition in 1986. In 1985 she received the City of Raleigh Arts Commission Award for her excellence in writing and service to the arts. Some of her works have appeared in The Green River Anthology, The Lowlands Review, The Lyricist, The Greensboro Review, and Pembroke Magazine.
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Today my friends and fellow poets Guy and Carolyn York stopped by to see me at the Zoo. If you’re intrigued by the Hippo Beach sculptures, that’s where we’re holding our adult workshop on Saturday, 7/14, at 10 a.m. As Robert Frost would say, “You come too!”
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One more postscript: on July 6 the Zoo was blessed with a new arrival. Juma (means born on Friday) weighs 150 pounds and is 72 inches long.
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