Viewscapes

Hunting the western toad, recognizing courage, and delving into the novel Stripland

September 01, 2020 Washington State Magazine Season 1 Episode 2
Viewscapes
Hunting the western toad, recognizing courage, and delving into the novel Stripland
Show Notes Transcript

Erim Gómez lives his childhood dream: catching frogs, toads, and salamanders. The doctoral student in environmental studies hunts for the western toad along the Snake River, as he works to determine the biodiversity of amphibians on the Palouse prairie. 
Also in this episode:

  • Carla Peperzak risked her life and freedom in World War II as a member of the Dutch Resistance. She was only 16 when she secretly saved a number of Jews by making fake IDs. Now a 96-year-old Spokane resident, Carla was honored as Washington state Person of the Year for 2020.
  • Joan Burbick, a retired English professor at Washington State University, talks about Stripland, her novel that explores trauma, perceptions of reality, violence, and connected relationships in the aftermath of a shooting of a Nez Perce man by a white police officer. Her powerful and moving book references the steep stretch of road in Lewiston, Idaho, that slices through the valley from the Snake River to the Nez Perce reservation.

Read more about disappearing amphibians, Carla Peperzak's life, and the novel Stripland.

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Erim Gomez:

It's a five-year-old's dream to be able to do the work that I get to do. I get to catch frogs and salamanders.

[music]

Narrator:

Welcome to Viewscapes, stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. Hi, I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. In this episode, we'll search for the Western toad, listen to memories from World War Two Dutch resistance fighter, Carla Peperzak, and delve into the powerful, moving novel Stripland with author Joan Burbick.

[music]

Erim Gomez:

Almost fell in

Narrator:

Erim Gomez is at the Snake River searching for the western toad. Erim is a doctoral student in natural resource sciences. He worked with associate professor Rodney Sayler in the WSU endangered species lab, where he conducted the first comprehensive survey of frogs and salamanders on the Palouse Prairie since the 1930s.  Though, it is estimated that only 2 or 3% of native Palouse Prairie remains, he was pleasantly surprised to find a healthy biodiversity of amphibians. A large part of the research involves developing wetland conservation plans, specifically tailored to protect the different types of Palouse amphibians.

Erim:

As a kid, I used to go and catch frogs and toads and salamanders. And now as an adult, I go out and catch frogs and toads and salamanders. Five-year-old me would be really happy with myself. It's a five-year-old's dream to be able to do the work that I get to do. We're at Wawawai Park down by the Snake River where I'm on a little inlet here. Um, we have bullfrogs and Western toads here before. So hopefully we find some today. One of the things that's different about these toads compared to other toads is that they're pretty aquatic. You'll see them floating in the water versus other toads. You won't see that. Um, cause I what I want to do is walk down and see if I can find any. 

So I'm going to get closer, uh, to the wetland here and walk through some blackberry patch. Hopefully I don't get scratched up and, and also see if I hear that chirp that's a western toad chirp.

You'll find bullfrogs along. Uh, they're pretty common along the Snake River. Uh, they do well with, uh, invasive species, other invasive species, so they can coexist with the bass that have been introduced. And the carp had been introduced into the area. I've been really successful catching amphibian larva using, uh, the small meshed minnow traps. I put an empty water bottle in them. So the minnow trap floats. 

So one of the things that I look for when I'm looking for individuals is looking for those eyes that I see. So if you look there, you have a patch of algae and you see these two big eyes sticking out of the water. It's in that middle patch of algae halfways out about three fourths of a meter out into the algae. And what'll probably happen as soon as it is. If this is a Western toad, it would probably just stay there. But since it's a bullfrog, as I approach, it's probably just going to jump into the water.

And there he goes, jumped in. Working with amphibians is like working for the little guy. Um, people don't have strong emotions about amphibians one way or the other. It's not like other creatures that have political and economic issues. But what I have found is when I've talked to landowners, they're more than happy to try to do things and improve land habitat, if they know what to do. I found out that no one had done extensive surveying of clues, period, amphibians, at least on the Washington side. So to be able to come in and do basic ecology work was really fun and exciting to do. 

Amphibians are the most endangered vertebra group. The reason for this is because they both depend on land and aquatic ecosystems. They started their life on aquatic ecosystems and often move to a terrestrial form. And if one of those ecosystems isn't healthy, it'll disrupt their life stage and the populations can become threatened.

[music]

Carla Peperzak:

A lot of people in hiding were betrayed. So I was lucky that nobody was betrayed between the people I knew.

Adriana Janovich:

That's Carla Peperzak. Carla is a 96-year-old Jewish woman living in Spokane. She's originally from the Netherlands and 80 years ago when she was a 16-year-old living in Amsterdam, the Nazis invaded and occupied her homeland. That changed everything for Jews who were now the focus of intense persecution.

Carla Peperzak:

Um, I started out, uh, helping people to go into hiding and, uh, followed up by, uh, having them, you know, rationing cards and sometimes visit them about once a month. And, um, uh, actually doing all the time they were in hiding.

Adriana Janovich:

She did all this in secret hiding the fact that she herself was a Jew. By Nazi decree, her movements were strictly prescribed. The Nazis issued ID cards, and the ones given to Jews were stamped with a “J.” Jews, including Carla, also had to wear it, the infamous yellow star, in public. Carla's father worked with an attorney who produced ID cards. He was able to secure an identity card for Carla without a “J.”

Carla Peperzak:

So once I did not have the “J” on my ID card, I could take off the star and I could do things that a lot of Jewish people were not allowed to do anymore. Like taking a streetcar with stain or a bus or being in certain stores. And I, you know, had, I had quite a bit more freedom so that I could start helping a lot of people.

Adriana Janovich

One day, Carla learned that her aunt, along with her five cousins were being deported.

Carla Peperzak:

I wore a German nurse's uniform, which I had bought. I worked, because of my training, in hospitals. And I could purchase a German nurses uniform. I put it on, I went to the railroad station. I found her and the family at the train.

Adriana Janovich:

Carla was only able to save one: her two and a half year old cousin Lutia.

Carla Peperzak:

And I took her with me. I was stopped, but I spoke fluent German. And I explained to them, the Nazis who stopped me, that I was, uh, uh, you know, his mother and that he was ill, that it got him out to an hospital and they let me go. And so I was very fortunate.

Adriana Janovich:

Not only was Carla smart, she was young and she was pretty, and she would use those attributes to keep herself and the people she was helping out of the hands of the Nazis. It was a survival tactic.

Carla Peperzak:

Absolutely. Several times I was being interrogated, you would say, I did smile at them. And I did. And I'm normally not a flirt, but I did float with them. And really I'm convinced that that helped me again.

Adriana Janovich:

Carla was part of the Dutch resistance and underground network working against the Nazi regime. Shipments came from England. After sending encoded coordinates to resistance members, small planes made deliveries of all kinds of things, including the means for Carla to falsify ID cards.

Carla Peperzak:

And I got those cards and they also gave me a little machine to make the thumbprint and also the frame, which goes around to picture. And I learned how to make false IDs. And I made about a hundred. I became pretty good at it. So that's, uh, but I kept them in a little suitcase. 

I was being interrogated by two Nazi officers who came to the house. And again, I, uh, I passed the test. And, um, I answered the questions, I guess, correctly. Anyhow, they left and they had left. I had to leave too. And I had my little suitcases, a little machine and the cards in there. And, uh, they were being very polite. “Let me carry it for you.” And if they had looked inside or the suitcase had fallen open, I wouldn't be sitting here.

Adriana Janovich:

Maybe Carla did have a bit of luck, but what courage, too. I’m Adriana Janovich for Viewscapes.

[music]

Joan Burbick:

I learned a tremendous amount through writing the fiction. Which is odd, an odd way.

Brian Clark:

So what did you learn?

Joan Burbick:

Oh, I learned that, um, reality is not what we perceive it to be. Reality is always invaded by other perceptions.

Brian Clark:

That's Joan Burbick. For many years, Burbick was an English professor at Washington State University. A few years ago, she retired and she said to herself, no more excuses and out poured a novel, Stripland. Stripland is set on 21st street in Lewiston, Idaho. This wide boulevard is steep and both sides are thick with strip malls and big box stores. Burbick's finely realized characters wander through this landscape as they deal with the aftermath of the shooting death of a Nez Perce man by a white cop.

Joan Burbick:

I was able to spend some time with one of the Nez Perce elders who is now deceased and the shooting happened on his property. And so he and his wife were very, very gracious. And, um, in allowing me into their home and talking with me, um, usually about other things besides the shooting, the shooting happened rather late in my spending time with them. And it just brought home to me how this violence lingers and these acts of violence cannot be taken away. They are there, and they are like almost like permanent stains on the people who are left behind. They have to understand this, and they often don't understand why these things happen. 

I thought about writing about this shooting as nonfiction, and I spent some time kind of going over that. And I realized that the story I wanted to tell was so much more about the place and the people than nonfiction was going to get at there. Nonfiction was going to have a way of progressing that never got under the skin of the characters and let them speak for themselves. I mean, there are, of course there are techniques where you can do that, but never in a highly imaginative way, which I felt this topic needed. It needed the freedom to follow out these characters.

Brian Clark:

Burbick is in fact, the author of several works of nonfiction, including a 2006 book called Gun Show Nation.

Joan Burbick:

So working on the gun book, I realized that people were talking to me about guns as if they were talking about fantasies about guns. And so, you know, how do you come to terms with that? You know, you, you listened to, if you listen to people, they often move away from realism and to dream or, or even interesting lies. [laughs] So, uh, so I think that's what fiction can get at. If you allow it to do that.

And I guess I don't, I don't want to fall into the trap of talking about conflict for its own sake, because certainly, uh, working on the gun book, I saw that talking about guns invited immediate conflict. And in fact, the conflict was the fun. The conflict was the trap. You know, it was almost like a ritual. Uh, that was how you did good radio. That's how you do good TV. You know, that was the game.

Brian Clark:

But back to 21st street, back to Stripland, just beyond all the boxy blown trash clutter of capitalism are the dry rifted hillsides thick with brush. This hidden world is where the homeless, the disenfranchised, and the grief-addled weighed out the bright hours before reinventing the reality of Stripland at night. There's the man with a heavy rope tied around his waist as if he needed a grounding wire or an anchor to keep him tethered to the earth. And then there's the lawyer of impossible cases who is trying to find the man with the rope before the cops do. And then there's a pair of tween-age girls who, together with their wise and pragmatic Nez Perce aunties, become the heroes of strip land.

Joan Burbick:

I think there are like millions of these stories in the United States and how that's going to affect, uh, neighborhoods and families loved ones, people who were indifferent or angry. I mean, it's just there. It's in the community. Yeah. So, so I think that, um, made me really want to write this book as best I could.

Brian Clark:

This story that Burbick guides us through is very real, but it shifts and rifts through dimensions beyond the standard four. Dimensions, perhaps spiritual, perhaps haunted, and definitely connected via ecosystems that defy science and demand the music of poetry for description. Here in Stripland, the power of spirit is a kind of physical force that sometimes shoves people around rudely or launches them into grace. Here in Stripland, to be haunted is a gift or a reminder of the ways we are all interconnected, both through tragedy, but also through love. I'm Brian Clark.

[music]

Larry Clark:

Thanks for listening to Viewscapes, a monthly podcast from Washington State Magazine

Our theme music was written by Greg Yasinitsky. 

For more WSU stories, videos and photos, visit magazine.wsu.edu.