Visit to a World Upstream
“Dear Bear, it's no use, the world is like that. So stay where you are, and live long. Someday maybe we'll wise up and remember what you were: hopeless ambassador of a world that returns now only in poet's dreams.” - Mary Oliver, Upstream, 2016
When Irish poet and writer Cecil Frances (Franny) Alexander published a collection called Hymns For Little Children in 1848, the book contained a song that would become one of her most famous works. All Things Bright and Beautiful has had, and continues to have immense influence worldwide. It has become an anthem for environmentalists, and has provided inspiration for the wildly popular book and television series, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. The refrain and first verse appear below:
“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
This month, when I had the distinct privilege of visiting and interviewing Winston-Salem Writers member Jenny Bates, I soon realized that both Jenny’s life and writing are current embodiments of the spirit of those well loved, one hundred and seventy year old lyrics.
Her writing is a reflection of her philosophy of life. In her own words, “All humans have learned about being human by what we have gained from observing our fellow animals. People want to 'get away from real life' and turn towards nature, only to find like I did, that living with nature IS real life. And with a much longer history than humans, animals have learned perhaps not to accept, but to respect their differences.”
As a child in Southeastern Michigan, Jenny Bates was taught that animals were to be treated as siblings and equals and not as pets over which one had dominion. In a home filled with books, Jenny was a voracious reader from a very young age. Not only did Jenny’s parents nurture her love of literature, but in that special kind of universal magic that touches us all if we are very lucky, Jenny’s first grade teacher was poet, educator and author Margaret Hillert (January 22, 1920 – October 11, 2014). Hillert, a life long resident of the state of Michigan, was widely known for her children’s literature, having written over eighty books for beginning readers. Jenny maintained a lifelong relationship with Ms. Hillert via letters and visits, sharing her own writing with her childhood mentor. What a wonderful gift for Teacher and Student alike! Margaret Hillert passed away in 2014 at age 94.
Jenny became a reader and writer almost simultaneously. As a young child, she began making scrapbook like notebooks worthy of J. J. Audubon. It is a practice she continues to this day and I was astounded as I examined dozens of beautiful, leather bound editions filled with natural artifacts like feathers and plant material. Each page illustrated and reflected upon with beautiful drawings and thoughtful words; each a work of art. She was a member of The Quill and Scroll Society in high school and continues a regular letter writing practice – yes real paper and ink letters, stamps and all – to this day! On the day of the interview, a letter of half a dozen pages or so she had received from a friend in Devon, England lay on her desk.
After high school, Jenny’s life “beat a path” between Michigan and North Carolina: between colleges, jobs and loves. Jenny would make her final return to Winston-Salem on a very momentous day – May 5, 1989. If you are a local or longterm transplant, you will recognize this as the day of one of the largest tornado outbreaks in the history of the southeast. When the twister hit the Buena Vista and Ardmore neighborhoods, Jenny was having pizza at the old Rose and Thistle Restaurant, just underneath the Hawthorne Road Bridge. How ironic! For you see, Michigan is divided into Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula by the Mackinac Bridge. Those north of the bridge are called “Yoopers” (upper) and those south of the bridge or under the bridge are called “trolls.” How fortunate for us that one “troll” was not scared away that fateful night!
Jenny will tell you she has had at least three “incarnations” as an artist and has worked at many, many different jobs. But, as I read over my notes it seems to me each has been leading her in a direction that can only be described as part of a cosmic plan. Whether as a musician through her early twenties or as a visual artist for a time or as writer now, this woman’s life has been spent creating. Whether as an employee of The Salvation Army, or the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Public Library, or free-spirited women’s clothing stores, Jenny has been a nurturer and carer for all creatures she encounters.
While working at the library in King, NC in 2007, Jenny discovered a book that changed her life. Because of "The Wisdom of Donkeys" by Andy Merrifield, she is now a close supporter and
writer/contributor with The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, UK. She also works with donkeys in Stokes County and says she is grateful “for all the fairy tales and philosophies from many cultures and inspiration that come from the secrets of being. Most of all, to the transcendent and honest Donkeys throughout the world. The best compliment I've ever received is a reader telling me ‘You have a Donkey heart’. Thank you.”
Jenny Bates and her husband, Bob, have created an amazing habitat for humans and their animal kin on the side of a granite mountain in Stokes County near headwaters called Town Fork Creek. Their sixteen sided roundish home in the woods seems part of nature, itself. No room is without an incredible view beyond large, plate glass windows. Grapevines weave their way over walls and windows and any solid walls are decorated with art that tells the story of their lives and loves. There are portraits of the Idaho, Sawtooth Wolf Pack whose sanctuary they helped create. In 2002 when they were married, Bob and Jenny honeymooned in a yurt in Idaho and helped build the preserve for the pack. For this work, they were made honorary members of the Nez Perce tribe. There are portraits of beautiful donkeys with knowing, soulful eyes. And of course, though still with them only in her strong and enduring spirit, of their German Shepherd, Ahna, who “completed their trilogy.” In all things, The Bates create a brightness and a beauty about them and truly honor “all creatures great and small.”
Jenny Bates has two published books: Opening Doors: An Equilog of Poetry About Donkeys (Lulu Publishing, Raleigh, NC) and Coyote with Coffee (Catbird on the Yadkin Press, Tobaccoville, NC). Both books reside in the collections of Libraries and Universities (Vanderbilt and the University of Vermont) in the United States and England. Coyote with Coffee was purchased by Vanderbuilt University (rare books library) and The University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library Special Collections. This work is “a poem accompanied by woodcut illustrations of a coyote, its pawprints, and a cup of steaming coffee. Handmade endpapers have grass blades incorporated into pulp. Bound to blue paper covers with handstamped stars in white ink on both sides.” (Vanderbilt Library catalog card) Coyote with Coffee is a handmade artistic collaboration with woodcuts by North Carolina artist Terry Schupbach-Gordon. Her work has also been published in the literary magazine, Flying South. She is a consecutive contributing poet in the Winston-Salem Writers series Poetry in Plain Sight and in 2017 she was a top 10 Finalist in the Press 53 Single Poem Contest.
Jenny’s newest work to be published will appear in the Fall Issue 2017 of laJoie, a quarterly publication of Animals' Peace Garden, dedicated to promoting appreciation for all beings. All profits donated to animal and Earth-supportive organizations. Jenny currently volunteers as animal whisperer and helping hand at Plum Granny Farm, an organic local farm in Stokes County, North Carolina. The photograph that accompanies this article is of Jenny and her dear friend, Brix.