“Smeagull the Seagull: A True Story” is a delightful and heartwarming book for children, families, and anyone who loves animals, wildlife, and—most of all—seagulls. Written by Mark Seth Lender, a producer and the Explorer in Residence for Living on Earth which is the only nationally broadcast program on Public Radio dedicated exclusively to wildlife and environment. Each page of this hardcover book has full color spreads by Valerie Elaine Pettis, an internationally known graphic designer and creator of the United Nations symbol for the International Decade for Women. Both author Mark and illustrator Valerie live on the Connecticut shoreline and are constantly amazed and inspired by the environment and the animals that dwell within it.
“Smeagull the Seagull” (as the title implies) is a true story about a wild herring gull who learns to mooch at a beach shore home door and is subsequently adopted by the family inside, becoming something of an outdoor pet. In the story, Smeagull comes to the house near the shore every day and knocks on the sliding glass door. He knocks when he’s hungry, and the people who live there feed him sustainable fish scraps from the local fish market. At the House on the Shore, Smeagull rules the roost and keeping up with him is an exhausting job, but when Smeagull disappears, it makes clear what an important family member Smeagull has become.
Mark Lender has always admired seagulls. There are few places on earth without gulls which makes them ideal avatars to represent the Natural World. They are ubiquitous, voluble, intelligent and wild and they readily get to know humans as individual people. In fact, some studies suggest that seagulls recognize humans as individuals! While some people dislike seagulls, “Smeagull the Seagull” was written to convey how sweet and special seagulls can be, coupled with a deeper message about how wild animals are precious and have needs and feelings, and family, just like human beings.
Upon its release, the book proved to be incredibly successful. It won several awards (including a Feathered Quill: Be Kind to Animals Award) and received an abundance of fan mail. Through a successful Kickstarter campaign, Mark and Valerie were able to fund the production of an animated version, narrated by Mark and complete with all of Valerie’s drawings, the sounds of the Long Island Sound, and its own musical score. The animated version is on target for a release date of 2020. Moreover, “Smeagull the Seagull” has already been chosen as Living on Earth’s premium for the nationally broadcast Spring 2020 Public Radio Raiser.
Mark Seth Lender is radio host and a photographer whose fieldwork with wildlife spans a quarter of a century and seven continents. He lectures widely and has been a featured speaker at many schools, libraries, garden and photography clubs, universities (including among others Yale and Brandeis) and at the Explorers Club. He just completed a new collection of his wildlife writing, Cardinal Points, True Stories of Life on Earth, with an anticipated publication date of Fall 2020. In 2015 Mark was inducted into the Explorers Club in recognition of his 25 years of worldwide fieldwork, writing and photography.
Mark Seth Lender recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed this book, his career, nature and more.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for animals and how did that turn into a career as a photographer, lecturer, and radio show host?
Mark Seth Lender (MSL): One thing led to another, in the inexorable way that life unfolds itself. But you picked the right starting point: animals. I cannot remember I time when I did not love animals and my memory goes all the way back to my first year of life. Cats have always been my favorite – and since I was four, I have been deathly allergic to them. It never abated. So, the inability to have a cat, I think, drove me further and further from home and the quotidian in my search for animal companionship, and ultimately into the wild. I am first and foremost a writer. I love words and the sound of words and their effect. That really dates from high school, the discovery of poets and writers. But it took decades before I could write. I started taking photographs in grade school, with my father’s (already outmoded) Brownie, then graduated to his Rolliflex. Nothing serious, not until photography became an adjunct to my writing. My print editors drove me to it. They wanted illustration. I resisted but then by degrees discovered that the camera, unlike any other method of observation, could reveal animal behavior. That I write and do spoken word and take pictures is simply the kind of synthesis that is common to people like me. If they’d had Ritalin when I was growing up, you and I would not be having this conversation. Think of where we’d be if they’d had that drug in the Quinquacento! No, Michaelangelo, no DaVinci! And for that matter no Alexander Graham Bell. Someone when I was in my early teens, I knew a man who worked for Alexader Graham Bell. Bell was the type specimen. All over the place. His mind just wouldn’t stop.
MM: Growing up, which books did you like to read? For instance, as a little boy did you have a favorite animal-themed picture book?
MSL: I hate to disappoint but my favorite media were radio plays, classical music, TV. Particularly Disney’s early wildlife films. It has always been my contention that Disney more than anyone created my generation of Naturalists and Conservationists
MM: You are a professional writer but is “Smeagull” your first children’s book and can you tell us a bit about the real Smeagull and his fabulous family?
MSL: Smeagull is our first children’s book. We have others in the pipeline of course, including a Smeagull sequel. As to Himself: I should start by telling you that when we say “Smeagull the Seagull” is a true story, we mean it. There is nothing in the book that isn’t an actual event or series of events. But as to the backstory, we met Smeagull when he was a young adult. He was hungry enough that first winter to eat the birdseed we were putting out to help the migratory ducks. We let him, and eventually supplemented from fish scraps from the Star Fish Market. Within a month, Smeagull had our number. He knew our schedule, the sound of my truck, where the bedroom was, and the kitchen. Everything. The Pièce de Résistance of course was figuring out glass. We saw him studying the sliding glass door, and through simple observation he determined, entirely on his own, that glass was both transparent and solid, and that you could knock on it to attract the attention of human beings. This, if you knocked with the exact cadence and volume of a human being which is what he learned to do. Anyone who says “dumb animal” is a bloody fool.
MM: How did you come to work with Valerie and how long did it take to complete the entire book project?
MSL: Valerie and I have always sought out each other’s opinions and support of our respective work. I wrote the first draft right at the beginning of our relationship with Smeagull. That was twelve years ago. After we decided to do the book, it would then take Valerie almost seven years to complete the pastels in the manuscript. Then a year to get to press, and here we are.
MM: How come you decided to start your own company, Sea House Press, and what other books might you publish under this label in the future?
MSL: We could not penetrate the gauntlet of the publishing world. And we wanted the book to be done at the quality and in the format we wanted and without abridgment. To give you an idea of what was involved, it took Valerie four months of working with our Korean publisher, Pacom, to do the color corrections. By the way, they are wonderful and I cannot recommend them highly enough. What they did for us was extraordinary. That would not have been possible if the book were under a publisher’s control. Also, we have other books in the pipeline, so having our own house seemed to make sense.
MM: How did you get this book submitted to so many contests and what did it feel like to win awards, especially the “Be Kind to Animals” award?
MSL: Submission is much work. And it’s expensive. And the criteria are opaque to the point of inscrutability. Of the awards I will say we were especially pleased with the Feathered Quill “Be Kind to Animals Award.” We did not apply to them and this was a complete surprise. The unexpected ones are the best ones.
MM: What prompted you to start a Kickstarter to fund the animation of this beautiful story? What do you hope to do with the animation?
MSL: As our Kickstarter campaign said, we were concerned that at least half the children in this country haven’t got lunch money let alone the funds for a $25 book. We did not and do not want money to be the gatekeeper. So, this was another avenue to reach them – something visual and free. There are still technical and distribution issues with the eBook format. But using the same assets we have also created an animated video and we now feel this will be the vehicle to the largest audience.
MM: You have traveled the globe, so which experiences on earth stand out to you the most and why?
MSL: All the experiences stand out. It is a collective of experience not a single encounter that shaped my view. That said, the one that is most in mind just now, and which is the first essays Cardinal Points, True Stories of Life on Earth is about a paper wasp. You’ll have to wait for airtime or the book to be on the shelves to hear about that one. The book by the way is called “Cardinal Points, True Stories of the Natural World.” With that one we are trying the traditional route but so far while people love the writing, the publishers aren’t sure they can sell it. So, we may be back to Pacom and produce a small, very high-quality printing under our own impress. We’ll let you know how it goes…
MM: What do you wish more people knew about seagulls and animals in general?
MSL: They Are Us. That “Us” being animals with faces. Beatles ignore you. Unaccountably so do elephant seals. Wasps know exactly where your face is, where you’re eyes are and what they are for, that you can hear, and that your Mind – your Self – is located behind your eyes. Which implies of course that it is the same for them! So, it is not a matter of being vertebrates or mammals, or any species in particular but rather I think, interest. As to Smeagull, he is definitely interested. And by the way smarter than the smartest dog you will ever meet or ever heard of. Anyone who says animals are stupid has succumbed to the common wisdom or rather the usual misinformation, instead of paying attention. Smeagull feels pleasure and pain, he cares about his mate (herring gulls’ mate for life and he always insists that She-gull eat first when she accompanies him), and he moderates his behavior to avoid violent conflict. Don’t associate this with his size because I have seen big animals do it, in particular the time I saw an elephant, the matriarch of the herd, force all the resident crocodiles from the edges of a waterhole so the herd could safely drink and bathe. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for her and her four long tons to kill the crocodiles. But she never would. Or to put it another way: Smeagull you know, eats from my hand. His beak if he wanted to hurt me could hurt me. He never has. He takes things from my fingers with such delicacy and precision and care…
MM: What experiences involving this book have been the most rewarding and what other projects are coming up for you soon?
MSL: The great reward with Smeagull is reading to young children. They love the book and the reports we get back from parents are delightful. Interestingly they do not want to feed Smeagull, which is good because that is not the point. They want to meet Smeagull, they want to know if a gull they see is Smeagull, they love that he has family and that he has things to say and that he is an emotional being, just like them. This is exactly what we intended. Which is wonderful.
The other great pleasure of my life is my wildlife writing. Producing for broadcast on “Living on Earth” is my daily constant (interrupted by Smeagull of course–“when he knocks, we must answer!”). All of my writing is based on my fieldwork. Right now for example, I am actively looking for a tour group to host me in Alaska, as I have not done any fieldwork there in twenty years or more. I provide a great deal of PR to our wildlife-savvy audience, in exchange for having my on the ground expenses covered. If Alaska works out it will be one of two pieces of major field-work I hope to do in 2020. The other is Africa, in particular Botswana or Namibia. I’ve been in Africa twice, but in other countries, not Botswana nor Namibia. I hope we can find the support we need. We’ll see. Typically, I am able to produce at least two broadcast segments a day in the field, this if weather and animals are reasonably cooperative and they usually are.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
MSL: There is ineffable beauty in the Natural World. To watch a flock of geese in their V formation heading south in falling snow; To find an elephant staring at you with benign curiosity and recognition and to have her come to you when you nod in a certain way your permission for her to come; to see a whale; to have a penguin look you square in the eye with their very nearsighted eyes from much too close all to find out who and what you are; To have a full grown polar bear do the same; To see these things through the eyes of those who have seen even if you never get to go yourself… It replenishes the Soul. It is Soul-killing if these things cease to exist. Even the night sky is imperiled by all the pointless light we cast unthinking into the dark.
So, I want people to recognize what’s at stake, that life on earth is at stake and not just because of climate chaos. The direct destruction of animal life, through for example monoculture as supported by Monsanto and Bayer, through vacuuming the seas for fish that humans could eat and which instead goes into fertilizer and farmed fish food distributed by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, all this has to stop or we have no future. We will not survive when all the rest of life on Earth has been exterminated. Aside from the loneliness, the conditions for human life will have been breached. Anyone who thinks humanity will move to Mars is going to be sorely disappointed. We either save this or we perish, as if we never existed.
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To learn more about Mark Seth Lender, visit his official website.
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