Diana Belchase is Now Top Secret Washington!


Hi everyone!

First, I want to thank you all for being such wonderful supporters all these years. If this sounds like a retirement speech, it most definitely is not. I’m still around, but I’ve moved the content of this website elsewhere.


Being a writer and a reviewer, I am constantly being asked to give my opinions on books and I alway want to support deserving authors. But the reason I wanted to write a blog, wasn’t to focus on books, but on my life, as an author, here in Washington, and as I travel the world. There is so much I want to blog about, but the message was getting a bit muddled.

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I’ve been lucky enough to be invited into D.C. embassies, into homes that are closed to the average person, into places in the government or private sector that people from outside of D.C. often wonder about. So, Top Secret Washington: Diana Belchase Behind Closed Doors will focus on those things. Here is the website address: TopSecretWashington.com.  I hope you’ll join me there. 🙂

But for those of you who love the bookish side of me, don’t despair. Those posts and reviews are now on BookSmartTV.wordpress.com which is where you’ll also see news about my new TV show, BookSmart and also my latest author video interviews. I hope you’ll join me there, too!

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And for your convenience, the two sites are linked.  Look in the top tab of either site and you’ll see the other site listed. Click on that tab and you’ll be able to go seamlessly from one to the other. And in the right hand corner, you’ll see what’s new on the other site and be able to click on those articles directly.

So, I hope you’ll continue to support me and like the new look.  If you have any questions, you can use the contact form here or on either site to get a hold of me.

Sending you great big hugs!

Diana Belchase

Dark Secrets of the Chincoteague and Assateague Island Ponies

This summer, before you take your horse-crazy teenaged daughter to Chincoteague to see the pony swim from Assateague Island, there are few facts you might want to know. The story is dark, less than romantic, and a hard truth about how women are perceived by men yet today.

The wild ponies of Chincoteague belong to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department in a grant from the Federal government.  Each year the ponies are moved from Assateague Island to Chincoteague to allow vets to inspect them and to auction off animals that exceed the 150 horse herd limitations.**  The average price of a Chincoteague Pony, also known as an Assateague Horse, is about $1300, though prices as high as $11,700*** have been bid.  The money goes for a great cause, buying equipment for the volunteer firefighters. ****

The men who round up the horses are affectionately known as Salt Water Cowboys.  Many are from the fire department, but not all.  They are not only bound together in a brotherhood of spirit, but also of blood, as sons often follow in their father’s footsteps in this labor of love.

Notice I said men, fathers and sons?


The Salt Water Cowboys appear to refuse to let a single female, no matter how qualified, into their tight knit group.

Perhaps the women and girls who go this year should bring picket signs with them asking where the female riders are?

If you check the internet, you will not find any reference to this possibly discriminatory practice – at least none that I could find.  The stories are romantically portrayed – the beauty of the horses, the wonderful charity and wildlife refuge supported by these men’s efforts.  However, my neighbor is one of these Salt Water Cowboys.  His twenty-year-old daughter is one of the best equestrians in the state.  This is a young woman who has worked in a landscape business moving trees with her bare hands during the day, and in the evenings and her days off, works her own business taking care of and training horses.  Not only is she knowledgeable and strong, with blue ribbons lining her bedroom, her sweet attitude and hard work make her one of the neighborhood’s most adored females.

I am extremely troubled when her mother tells me that this young woman has been directly and frankly informed that she will never be permitted to join the Salt Water Cowboys, nor ever ride to gather the herd and pen the horses, merely because she’s female.

DSC02229In a fit of compassion, this year, she was told she’d be allowed to muck stalls and clean tack – as if playing Cinderella to her often less accomplished male cohorts somehow makes things better!

What I’d like to know is how this potentially discriminatory practice continues in a society where we feel we’ve conquered the most overt forms of discrimination against women.  I’d also like to know why no news correspondent has jumped at the chance to cover this story.

To be fair, when I contacted the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s PR Spokesperson and member since 1992, Denise Bowden, she told me that “It’s not that females aren’t exactly not allowed to join, but there is a many years long wait list, and they are only allowing fire volunteers to join at this time.”  She did confirm, however, that there is not a single female currently riding among the Salt Water Cowboys.

Considering the number of qualified horsewomen in this area, and the long tradition of penning ponies, doesn’t this seem strange?

My neighbor lives more than three and a half hours, from Chincoteague.  It is unlikely he is an active member of that fire department.  In addition, quite a fuss was made about a young boy, Tyler Marks, being inducted into the Saltwater Cowboys at the age of 16 in 2010.*****  My neighbor’s daughter has been involved with the group as an observer and supporter since she was born.  How many years on the wait list does that account for?  Stories of fathers and sons abound, but not even the two token female officers, Denise Bowden, V.P. or Cathy Repsher, Asst. Sec.,****** the only women on the roster, currently appear to ride with the group.


There are female firefighters throughout the country, are none of them qualified to ride with the Salt Water Cowboys?

In a July 2007 article in the Washington Post, group member, Eddie Thornton, was quoted as saying, ” There’s really no training.  I mean, you have to be capable of riding a horse and know how to control a horse.”  When reporter, Karen Hart, asked “So, if someone who wasn’t a part of the fire company wanted to be a saltwater cowboy, how would they go about joining the roundup?” Thornton replied, “They would have to talk to the pony committee chariman and tell them how long they’ve been riding.  And if they have an available spot, they may be able to go, they may not.”*******

Too bad Ms. Hart didn’t ask him whether or not they had to be male.

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The Newbery winning children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague (1947) inspired generations of girls to take up riding.  The 1961 film, Misty, based on that book, is still a favorite among girls today.  At the roundup onChincoteague during the last Wednesday and Thursday of every July, the number of women and girls far exceed those of males.********  They look on with glee, never knowing that the event will possibly forever mark them as different, as inferior and separate, by a band of men known as the Salt Water Cowboys of Chincoteague.71XzmB2j3ML._SL1000_

* Wikipedia

** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony Penning History

***Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company// Pony FAQ

**** Wikipedia

***** “Youngest Salt Water Cowboy in First Pony Penning” by Misty Thornton and Robert Boswell, July 27, 2010, Enfold (wildpoytales.info/archives/1283) Island Life, Pony Tales

***** Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company List of Members (cvfc3.com/members/volunteer)

******* “A Cowboy of Cincoteague’s Pony Express” by Karen Hart, Special to The Washington Post, Sunday, Jully 22, 2007

******** “Chincoteague Island: “Saltwater Cowboys” Round up wild Ponies. (Local) by Erika Reif, Staff writer, The Virginian-Piolot, July 31, 1997.

Celebrating Earth Day with Shannon Baker: Aliens, Polygamists, and Hopi, Oh My!

Wonderful Shannon Baker, author of 3 books and several short stories, img_3189-web1is back again to celebrate Earth Day with us — this time with her friend Laura Kamala. Laura  has lived in the spectacular Canyonlands of southeast Utah for thirty-eight years. During this time she was variously incarnated as a filmmaker, writer, artist, business entrepreneur, and Director of Utah Programs for Grand Canyon Trust.

Diana: This is a new twist for me, Shannon. Usually, it’s me doing the interviewing. I’m so glad to meet Laura, but why is she here today?

Shannon:  Although Tattered Legacy is fiction, the inspiration came from my dear friend, Laura Kamala, who is a conservationist living in Castle Valley near Moab. For this Earth Day, I thought it would be fun to talk to Laura tattered-legacy-1about what inspires her to work so hard for Canyonlands National Park.

Diana: Well, that’s a really great reason — and your research shows in this amazing book. I know my readers — environmentally conscious or just plain, die hard mystery fans, will love it. Before we go on, here’s a blurb:

Set against the iconic red rocks of Moab, UT, Tattered Legacy’s heroine, Nora Abbott, risks her career as she gets involved in a documentary aimed at persuading Congress to expand the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park. But someone is desperate to keep the secrets of the land hidden. When her best friend, the director of the film, is found dead, Nora is convinced it wasn’t an accident. As, she draws deeper into danger, she uncovers an unlikely intersection of ancient Hopi legends, a secret polygamist sect, and one of the world’s richest men. 

Diana: Do plots get any better than that? So without further ado, I’ll turn over this interview to Shannon Baker. 

 Shannon: Thank you Diana for inviting me back to celebrate Earth Day and letting me interview Laura and bring attention to her film.  Laura, briefly tell us why the borders of Canyonlands National Park need to be expanded.

Professor Creek at sunset, Photo courtesy Laura Kamala (c)

Professor Creek at sunset, Photo courtesy Laura Kamala (c)

Laura: During my long tenure as a conservationist I worked very closely with local, state and federal agencies and elected officials on concerning environmental issues in southern Utah, gaining a deep understanding of the politics here. That is why I believe the only way to protect the very sensitive and extraordinary landscape surrounding Canyonlands National Park is through the executive order of the President using the Antiquities Act to designate Greater Canyonlands National Monument. It has been heartbreaking for me to see how, in recent years, oil and gas development has ravaged lands on the borders of Canyonlands National Park.

Shannon: Why is it important to create a national awareness of the risks to Canyonlands National Park? 

Filmmaker Laura Kamala with cinematographer Doug Crawford and Brooke Williams, Photo courtesy Debra Anderson

Filmmaker Laura Kamala with cinematographer Doug Crawford and Brooke Williams, Photo courtesy Debra Anderson

Laura: Utah’s current political agenda includes no more wilderness designations, no more national monuments, taking away the President’s power to designate new monuments under the Antiquities Act, and demanding that the federal government turn over all its lands held in trust for the public, to the state. Left to Utah politicians, public lands here would all be sold off to the highest bidder for the development chopping block

Shannon: Why make a feature film about the issue and not just do a local campaign?

Laura: Lands surrounding the national park are owned by the American public, which means everyone no matter where you live; they are under the care of the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency operates under a multiple use mandate and they invite the public’s input about how these lands should be “used,” not just as a public commons or wildlife sanctuary, but for sale to the highest corporate bidder to extract whatever resources that may be exploited. Most people outside Utah don’t even know they have a right to say how Utah public lands should be managed.

Shannon: Tattered Legacy brings together several disparate elements, including Hopi and Mormon belief in life from other planets, as well as Canyonlands expansion. Did you find the connection between Hopi and southern Utah area strange?

Laura: I loved the part of your story linking the Hopi people to Moab because there is a significant connection. I had a neighbor in Castle Valley, Hershel Nokes, who passed away in 1998. Every year, Hershel would bring me Hopi blue corn piki bread from an elder of the tribe who came to perform a ceremony nearby. One of the sacred places where Hopi elders perform annual ceremonies to keep the balance of the natural world intact is close to Castle Valley. They do this on behalf of all forms of life.

Filmmaker Laura Kamala with Terry Tempest Williams, Photo courtesy Debra Anderson

Filmmaker Laura Kamala with Terry Tempest Williams, Photo courtesy Debra Anderson

Shannon: What did you hope to inspire, besides Tattered Legacy, of course, with your film?

Laura: Visual media is so powerful for storytelling and getting inside people’s feeling bodies to effect change. I conceived my film project hoping to introduce the threatened landscapes of southern Utah to people who might never actually visit them, in a way they could virtually experience the euphoria engendering nature of this place and be moved to care enough to act on behalf of the Canyonlands region.

For more information on the Canyonland Expansion or Laura Kamala’s film please go to her Facebook page, or visit the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. More information can be found on Shannon Baker at her website.

For a chance to win a copy of Tattered Legacy, tell us how you’re celebrating Earth Day or ask a question below. (U.S. residents only).

Mark Catesby: the Curious and Ingenious Naturalist

91fyceeC6xLDiana: Editors E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott have compiled a book about a man I’d never heard of: Mark Catesby. One of the earliest naturalists, as well as an author and illustrator, Catesby studied the fauna and flora of North America over a seven-year period. He influenced Audubon, Darwin, and the explorers Lewis and Clark. The book, The Curious Mister Catesby, is a treasure and I’m lucky today to have E. Charles Nelson do a guest post telling us more about this intriguing man.

E. Charles Nelson: The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands is undeniably a rare book, and a very remarkable one, too. Its author and illustrator, Mark Catesby produced the book himself beginning soon after he returned to England from South Carolina and the Bahamas sometime in 1726: “The whole was done within my house, and by my own hands …”. He learned how to etch on copper, and then etched the 220 copperplates, signing most of them with his distinctive “MC” monogram. After the plates had been printed by Godfrey Smith, Catesby hand-coloured them, or supervised the colouring. It is easy to see that to create the 170-odd copies of The natural history … that comprised the original printing required an immense personal investment of time and energy.



Mark Catesby had the first copies of the first part, containing the first 20 plates and accompanying letterpress, ready in mid-May 1729. Several contemporary British newspapers reported that Catesby, introduced to Court by Lord Carteret (one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony), personally presented a copy to Her Majesty Queen Caroline. That Catesby and his book about the natural history of North America merited this personal introduction to the Queen Regent was exceptional, as was the praise the book received: “… a Work superior to any Thing of the Kind” being one comment. Dr Cromwell Mortimer, the Secretary of the august Royal Society of London, went so far as to claim that Catesby’s Natural history … was “the most magnificent Work I know of, since the Art of Printing has been discover’d.” The superb copy which Mortimer owned, bound in full russia with his armorial design stamped in gold on the covers, is today in the Smithsonian Institution’s library.


Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society©.

Carolina Parakeet and Bald Cypress. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society©.

Mark Catesby continued to draw and design, etch and colour, and write for 18 more years until his book was completed in two volumes, each with 100 plates, and with an appendix of another 20 plates. It was no pocket-book: the pages of bound copies measure around 52cm Ă— 35cm (more than 20ins tall, by 12ins across).

Born in 1683, Mark Catesby grew up in the east of England. His father was at one time mayor of Sudbury, a market town situated about 50 miles (as the crow flies) north-east of London. Mark inherited houses and land in Sudbury, as well as

Digital realization or original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Cashew. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

houses in London, after his far died in November 1703. Thus he was truly a “gentleman of small fortune” and this legacy surely enabled him totravel to Virginia in 1712 in the company of his older sister, Mrs Elizabeth Cocke. That first visit sparked Catesby’s enthusiasm for exploring the natural history of North America, and by the time he returned to

Digital realization or original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Magnolia Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

England in 1719, he was already lauded as “a very ingenious gentleman” and had been labelled “that curious Botanist … of Virginia”. Plants raised from the seeds Catesby had sent to nurserymen were blooming in London gardens by 1715.

Although somewhat elusive, Mark Catesby’s links after 1728 with several parishes situated on the eastern side of London indicate that that was where he set up home with his partner Elizabeth Rowland. Between April 1731 and December 1737 the couple had four children, but, unconventionally, they did not get married until October 1747. Mark died “at his House behind St Luke’s Church” on Old Street, London, on 23 December 1749.

Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Bobolink and rice. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.


Mark Catesby’s sumptuous Natural history … was  never intended as a “popular” book. The handiwork of one curious and ingenious man, it was grand in execution and ground-breaking in conception.

© E. Charles Nelson

Ten Fingers Touching & Victorian Fairy Tales

I wanted to let you all know about a real treasure of a book I recently came across. It’s called Ten Fingers Touching. What makes it unique is that it’s a fable for everyone. Ellen Roth spins a tale that has excitement for adults and kids alike. The illustrations by John Blumen are breathtakingly beautiful.



I love that Roth is reviving a tradition of story-telling that we’ve only recently lost. From the most ancient times when tribal people gathered around their fires, to the Brothers Grimm, and throughout the 1800’s, we grownups were expected to enjoy these kinds of stories as much as the little ones did.

Here’s the trailer.

This became even more apparent with my next pick, Victorian Fairy Tales. I started reading this merely because I do love a good fairy tale. But these were extraordinary.

If you liked the Princess Bride, the kind of story with a plot that twists and turns unexpectedly — and always with a droll sense of humor — you will LOVE this book. After I got through a few stories, I had to research the writers.


Imagine my surprise when they were written by the likes of Oscar Wilde, W.M. Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling. These aren’t just tales, they are literature. Michael Newton, the editor, does a fabulous job of explaining the role of fairy tales in society, their evolution, and puts together a wonderful volume filled with original illustrations. Who knew Thackeray was originally an artist? His story, The Rose and the Ring, was one of my favorites.


Isn’t this a gorgeous cover? I hope to interview Ross, Blumen, and Newton  in the upcoming months. Stay tuned.

There’s no reason for us to always be so serious and to discount little gems like these. Besides, don’t even we adults need a little fairy magic in our lives? Both books are now on sale. So, enjoy, dear ones, and above all, keep reading!

Finding Love in Your DNA

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do away with  dating and failed relationships merely by  doing a DNA cheek swab? It sounds simple and pain free, doesn’t it? In our cells lurk genetic markers that just might indicate who is an ideal spouse and who is an utter cad.

My guest today, Peter Schattner, is an award-winning scientist, educator and writer with 30 years experience in molecular biology, genetics, biomedical instrumentation and physics. He is the author of numerous research articles, scientific reviews and a textbook. Sex, Love and DNA is his first book for nonscientists.  In his post below, Peter will explain a bit about research being done in this field and whether single people everywhere need to run out to take a DNA test.


Peter Schattner: How much would you pay to discover find out your partner’s genetic predisposition to kindness or to marital fidelity?

Sex Love and DNA FrontCoverV2In 2008, Genesis Biolabs, a small company in Arizona thought an appropriate price was $99 and claimed its genetic test would assess those qualities.

Unfortunately, deciphering the biological origins of human traits such as love or marital fidelity is not easy; our behavior is influenced by our individual experiences, something that can’t be measured by a genetic test. So in order to learn more about human love, scientists instead often study animals, hoping to get clues about how biology affects the experience of love in humans as well.

No animals have taught us more about loving behavior than small rodents called voles. Voles look a lot like mice, and in some places are referred to as field mice or meadow mice. Over 150 species of vole are described in the scientific literature. The DNA sequences of the species are similar, and so are their appearance and behavior.

But vole species also have striking differences, especially regarding what we might describe as feelings of love. In most vole species, the males are not exactly model lovers. Most male voles – such as male montane voles – are promiscuous, and after mating, they lose interest in their partners and move on in search of their next romantic conquest. These solitary creatures rarely make long-term associations even with other male voles. And certainly, they aren’t interested in wasting their time taking care of little vole pups (These are typical male behaviors in many species by the way, which may not surprise human females!).

Not all voles behave this way, however. Prairie voles, for instance, are very loving. Male and female prairie voles form long-term pair-bonds, and once pair-bonded, show little interest in new romantic partners. What could be the reason for this difference?

Love on the beach. Can voles tell us something about human sexuality?

Love on the beach. Can voles tell us something about human sexuality?

As montane voles and prairie voles already differ in social behavior at birth, their differences regarding pair-bonding and pup rearing likely reflect innate biological differences. Scientists focused on the voles’ sex hormones, including one called vasopressin, in their efforts to understand the differences between these two species.

To test vasopressin’s influence on voles, scientists injected male prairie voles with vasopressin. Now as I’ve mentioned, after mating, male prairie voles are devoted partners. Despite this fact (or perhaps because of it), male prairie voles take a while before selecting a female partner. Nevertheless, if a male prairie vole is injected with vasopressin, it’s as if he’s been shot by Cupid’s arrow. The next time he comes in contact with a female, the vole will act as if he has already bonded with her, even if they have never mated. Apparently, for male prairie voles, a shot of vasopressin has as big an impact on the psyche as sex.

The observation that hormones such as vasopressin affect pair-bonding and nurturing behavior in rodents raised the question whether they also influence human behavior. To explore this idea, a team of Swedish scientists tested whether people with an unusual genetic variant in a vasopressin-detecting protein might display different pair-bonding behavior. In their widely cited study, published in 2008, approximately 1000 human volunteers filled out questionnaires assessing their “pair-bonding status.” The Swedish study reported “statistically significant” correlations between self-reported pair-bonding history and gene variants in men, though the difference in the pair-bonding behavior between the two groups of men was actually quite small.

Prairie Voles Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Prairie Voles Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Nevertheless, the Swedish team’s results were intriguing enough to influence the world of 21st-century matchmaking. So many people want information on their perfect mate, that several companies have proposed genetic testing to find a better “match”. Although Genesis Biolabs went out of business in 2012, other companies – such as ScientificMatch.com, GenePartner.com, BasisNote.com and Chemistry.com have had more commercial success.

That said, the existence of these companies shouldn’t be construed as evidence that DNA-based matchmaking is actually useful. In the words of Larry Young of Emory University: “I do not believe that any service that claims to use genetic information, or any estimation of neurochemistry (based on personality or genotype) [to find a perfect romantic match] has any basis in reality.” And Professor Young is as likely to know as anyone; after all, it was his laboratory that carried out the key experiments on hormones and pair-bonding in voles in the first place.


schattnerAuthorImageThis essay is adapted from the chapter “What is Love?” from Peter Schattner’s recent book Sex, Love and DNA. Other book chapters explore how our biology affects our intelligence, athletic ability, sexuality, emotions and a wide range of other fundamental human traits. To read an excerpt please go to: Excerpt.