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What We Can Do

Chera Hammons on Writing about the Natural World

By Nancy Holochwost, Associate Editor • June 8, 2023

Chera Hammons’s hometown of Amarillo, Texas, is part of the region once known as the Great American Desert. In an email she sent me a few weeks before we talked, she described seventy-mile-per-hour winds turning the sky brown with dirt. By the time we spoke, the prairie wildflowers were in full bloom. The landscape and wildlife around Chera’s home informs much of her writing, including her poem “Curve-Billed Thrasher” in our June 2023 issue. “It’s a strange place to live,” she told me. “I feel like it gets in your blood.”

Chera (pronounced like the singer Cher, followed by “ah”) is the author of the novel Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom and four poetry collections: Maps of Injury, The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, Recycled Explosions, and Amaranthine Hour. We discussed donkey breeds, the challenges of gardening, and writing as a practice of forgiveness.

To hear a recording of Chera reading “Curve-Billed Thrasher,” click the play button below.


Chera Hammons smiles while holding Daisy, a mammoth donkey, by the muzzle.

Chera Hammons at home in Amarillo, Texas, with Daisy, a mammoth donkey.

Nancy Holochwost: “Curve-Billed Thrasher” is about a bird that destroyed the potatoes in your garden, a type of loss that is familiar to gardeners everywhere. What made you want to write about it?

Chera Hammons: Writing is a good way to process experiences. Whenever I’m a little dissatisfied with something, working on a poem helps me find out why and allows me to forgive it or reconcile it. And every time we try to garden on our land, something ruins it. We get grasshoppers the size of my hand, and we’ve lost entire plants to them. The rabbits have killed saplings we’ve planted. We have wind all the time, and it’ll blow plants out of the ground, roots and all. They fly up against our front door. It’s a constant struggle.

Nancy: At the end of the poem you say the bird is “trying . . . to learn how to love the world” by “allocating to himself / just a little bit more of it.” That pairing of love with destruction is unexpected. How do you see the bird’s claiming the potatoes as an act of love?

Chera: I see it that way because it’s something we do ourselves. I love wildlife, and I have animals and houseplants all around me. But I can’t get over the fact that no matter what kind of life I live, it’s going to do some harm. You can’t be alive without consuming something. The trick is to mitigate the harm. Sometimes, if we substitute one harm for another, we don’t do as much damage. To me that’s what the poem is about: picking our harm.

Nancy: You also say the bird is “the same as we are.” What kinds of human behavior were you thinking of when you made that comparison?

Chera: I was thinking about humans living in a world where we take so much for granted. When I worked for the City of Amarillo, for example, an engineer in the water department told me the city had just bought two hundred years’ worth of groundwater rights. He joked that there are actually only twenty years’ worth of water left. I don’t know how serious he was about that, but we’re often in drought conditions. When I see people in town with their sprinklers on, it’s mortifying to think someday that water is going to run out, and we’re just throwing it on the ground. I feel like we’re surrounded by selfish acts that don’t have to happen. It’s hard to get away from them.

“Curve-Billed Thrasher” is from a chapbook about climate change and conservation. In the book I consider the reputation of the American naturalist John James Audubon, who created detailed illustrations of hundreds of North American bird species, and how he attained that icon status despite unsavory elements of his life. Audubon has been accused of fraudulent scholarship, for instance, and his granddaughter is said to have rewritten some of his journals to portray him as more of a conservationist than he was. He was a childhood hero of mine — I imagined him as a gentle sort of man, going about with his sketchbook to admire natural beauty — but delving into his work I’ve realized he was a businessman, slaveholder, marketer, and hunter who knew how to use what he could around him to benefit himself. I also wrote about my neighbor, a nature lover who turned his yard into a habitat for birds, bees, and other wildlife, and compared his kind of conservation with Audubon’s. The chapbook is called Birds of America, after Audubon’s book of paintings. I am chronically ill, so I’m housebound and spend a lot of time looking out my office window at the natural world, and that’s what’s in most of my poetry these days.

Nancy: It’s interesting to contrast Audubon’s work with someone doing a homegrown type of conservation like supporting animals in their backyard.

Chera: Right, and if we all did that kind of backyard conservation, it would make a big difference. I should mention that we covered our potato plants with netting this year to keep the thrasher out, but we found a birdseed mix he likes to make up for taking away his fun.

Nancy: The first piece of yours that appeared in The Sun (“Home Range,” April 2020) was about adopting a wild mustang. When you and I were scheduling this conversation, you mentioned caring for various animals, including a “mammoth donkey.” Can you tell me what it’s like at your house?

Chera: We have three cats and one dog, a border collie. Then we have three donkeys, two horses, five chickens, and five chicks in our garage that my husband brought home from his fifth-grade science classroom. And about six weeks ago a feral cat decided to have kittens in my barn. Once the kittens are old enough, we’ll find homes for them. I try not to keep more animals than I can take care of.

Our property is seven and a half acres, and I love the wild things that live here. We have mesquites and harvest the beans to make mesquite coffee. It’s kind of sweet and roasty, and it’s supposed to be good for you. We have wild onions. We also have scorpions! There are jackrabbits and antelope and roadrunners, too. We had a mountain lion outside once. It didn’t harm any of our animals, but one of the donkeys freaked out. Donkeys are very territorial, so if they view something as an intruder, they’ll usually run it off. For some reason this rule does not apply to the coyotes that sometimes come through our land, but it does apply to wild turkeys. The donkeys all lose their minds when they see a turkey. They don’t understand it.

Nancy: What made you want to keep donkeys?

Chera: I had to switch from riding horses to riding donkeys because horses were hurting my neck and back. Donkeys are narrower than horses, and they move differently; you don’t get the rocking that you do on a horse. We have two large standard johns now, which are donkey geldings, and then my mammoth donkey, Daisy. Mammoths are a breed that was developed by George Washington, and they’re on the Livestock Conservancy’s conservation list. We looked for a mammoth donkey for about six years, but they were all priced way out of our budget. One day I found a Craigslist ad with a picture of this big donkey standing next to a horse. I went running in to my husband and said, “Look, there’s a mammoth donkey for only three hundred dollars. The guy doesn’t know what he has!” We bought her sight unseen, and when she came out of the trailer, I thought she was the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen. Daisy wasn’t even halterbroke when I got her. Her favorite trick — and this was why the guy sold her — was to try to push me into a wall when she didn’t want to do something. I’ve done all of her training, and this year I should get to start riding her.

Nancy: What writing projects are you working on now?

Chera: In addition to the Birds of America chapbook, I’m trying to place a literary novel as well as a full-length poetry manuscript. I’m also writing a young-adult book about the Dust Bowl. I have way too many irons in the fire. I have trouble keeping them all straight!

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