A storied life
Local author Phyl Manning puts her many adventures into words
Phyl Manning stands on the bank of a stream that flows into the Zambezi River. She is caught up in a spectacular sunset—all pinks and purples, flame and cerulean, viewed through the black lacework of wintry trees.
But she is wary. Crocodiles line the bank at regular intervals like sentries, sleepy eyes deceitful. Facing the stream, they are fully alert, ready to rush upon any unsuspecting prey that venture down to drink. In a deep, shady pool, a hippopotamus wallows at ease—the crocodiles will not attack this most dangerous of all the jungle creatures.
The year is 2003, and Manning is a long way from Chico.
It would be three years before this wild, transcendent experience became the children’s book Here Is the African Jungle. Just published, the book was produced entirely within Butte County.
“The rhymes are mine, Paradise wildlife artist Steve Ferchaud created the full-color, full-page art, and Wizard Graphics of Chico printed the book,” she said. “How great is that?”
Now in her early 70s, Manning is still as active as ever—traveling and writing about her adventures. And her life story is just as interesting as one of her expeditions.
She always knew she would write. When Manning was 4, she took first place in a local poetry contest for kids with her poem “If I Could Fly.” Her prize? One dollar, a bag of potato chips and her poem published in the Omaha World-Herald.
At the age of 15, she majored in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, one year later she began teaching in a one-room rural school. The curriculum spanned nine grades. A condition of her contract was that she not reveal her age to the students, who included three 15-year-olds..
After graduation, Manning taught junior high and high school. She married, had a son and a daughter, and in 1962 traveled to Micronesia, where she and her husband taught English.
Micronesia had a profound effect on Manning. “I was reborn on the island of Saipan. I learned first-hand what’s basic to life—air, water, food and a roof overhead,” she said simply.
In Micronesia she experienced an “underwater world,” where mask, snorkel and a sturdy camera let her film the glowing damselfish, angelfish, barracuda and sharks in the West Pacific’s crystal waters. Saipan also provided her first contact with people from another culture and language group.
Later, after her children went off to college, Manning and her husband traveled to Thailand, where she served as director of activities and information at International School Bangkok. Manning’s husband refused to rough it in the outdoors and during free time she camped out in the teak forests of the high Thailand jungle with other groups. Returning to California, she served as a K-8 school principal in Los Molinos and as a superintendent and principal in Glenn County before retiring in 1992.
Many of her experiences have been captured in her writing: Her night in a Northeastern Canada igloo at age 19 may have inspired her novels Kiti on Ice and Arctic Circles, which depict Inupiat Eskimo life. Kiti was published in 2003 and Circles is under consideration by a publisher in Anchorage.
The Thai and other jungle experiences are preserved in stories such as “Predator and Prey” and “Jungle Nights” while Manning searches for a literary agent, and some of her articles about exotic cats appear in the periodical I Love Cats.
After fulfilling her lifelong dream of adventuring in Africa, Manning in 2003 flew to a preserve in Zimbabwe where, abandoned by a harried tour leader, she found herself in a lodge near the Kalahari Desert. Choosing to walk there from town one unforgettable day, Manning was startled to see a herd of Cape buffalo emerge from the brush and congregate on the road, blocking her way. Wary as ever, she allowed these unpredictable animals the right of way, reversed her steps and went back to town to find a taxi.
This incident will no doubt turn up in a future work.