Here one day, gone the next

Since the small milkweed patch finally appeared in our front garden several years ago, monarch caterpillars have been a part of September for me, and I’ve learned not to get too invested in the whole thing. That said, I am still thrilled when I first spy them (usually when they are smaller than my pinky fingernail), and I look in on them every day, amazed at how fast they can grow. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when they sometimes just disappear. I try to convince myself it must be because they have found their way to a secret location and are beginning to “hang J” in preparation for what comes next. This week I decided to photograph the current residents one morning when I was lucky enough to see four of the gaudily striped critters, quite healthy and sizable, and (in my opinion) way to close to the top of the milkweed they were feasting upon. When they reach the top and all that’s left is stem, do they climb all the way back down (some four or five feet) and proceed to crawl across the dangerous ground to climb up another stalk? I’ve never seen them on the ground or headed in a downward direction. They always seem to be moving up and very focused on eating. Today was rainy, and I wasn’t able to find any of them in my brief foray into their milkweed neighborhood. I’m going to believe that does not mean they are actually “gone” from the world. It is so metaphorically rich, this monarch life cycle, that the actuality of it can sometimes get lost in all the meaning I can assign to this particular creature’s way of being in the world. So my point here is just to document that “they were here,” that they had reached (at the time of having their pictures taken) a size that meant they were ready to pupate, to move into their next phase. I’ll post these pictures now and not speculate on the uncertain future they have already entered. That said, I’ll be looking daily in the neighborhood of my front gardens where these photos were taken for a gorgeous green chrysalis. Or maybe four. Continue reading

Pedlar River Institute’s Sourwood Forest Residency Program Begins!

Nature offered us a perfect spring day for the opening celebration of Sourwood Forest’s first artist residency week! Thirteen people went into the forest to draw using charcoal pencils made from the trees that grow there. Judy Strang, Christine Forni (multidisciplinary artist) and Amy Eisner (poet and teacher) collaborated to create an event where guests were treated to poetry, group conversation, refreshments, and a chance to try their hands at sketching in the woods. Everyone left energized, having been nurtured by the forest and by each other. The opening celebration forecasted what future half or full day workshops may include: a mix of art making, poetry, reflection, and environmental understanding. Event leaders Judy, Christine and Amy had first met when they were residents at Vermont Studio Center in June of 2017. Even then, Judy was speaking of her desire to host artists at her house, but it wasn’t until late in 2021 that the three began to talk about the start of Sourwood Forest: it would be marked by Christine and Amy coming to Judy’s place as the first “residents” for what Judy was calling “an experimental week.” When Judy indicated she’d like to host a public event as part of that week, Christine described her “drawing you outside” (see her instagram #drawingyououtside for more information). Christine offered to make charcoal pencils from trees in Sourwood Forest ahead of time, so Judy sent her a box of twigs in March, having carefully chosen them and documented their harvest. As a poet and teacher of poetry to visual artists (at MICA in Washington D.C.), Amy used her talents with language to integrate Christine’s “drawing you outside” activity with Judy’s intention that guests connect and reflect within the forest. She chose and arranged words—her poems and the writing of others—to weave the two and a half hours into one whole experience rather than a series of disconnected activities.  “We’ve just begun to imagine what could happen here,” Judy said, remarking on the positive responses from her guests to the event and to possibilities for Sourwood Forest in the future. She had started with a list of six invitees, and several of those had reached out to their contacts, resulting in a wonderfully diverse group–one that will likely help Judy find more creatives to take part in future residencies. If you’re interested in a Sourwood Forest Residency, send your inquiry through our Contact… Continue reading

Doily Bowl Spiders in Spring

Bowl and Doily Spider webs seem magical, spun during a warm night in early spring and visible at first light because the dew was heavy. On two days in a row, in two different places, I happened to time my walk perfectly: the moist air made the exquisite architectural enterprises shine as if powered by their own light. A delightful though precarious synchrony of physics and biology, this integration of light, water, spider spit, and twig. And poignant, since the fact that I could see the webs meant that they would likely fail in their intended purpose. Covered by water droplets, backlit by slanting-in sunshine, they were beautiful but useless. Maybe not useless. Perhaps, as the day warms, the strands will dry into invisibility, maybe even before the insects that the spiders want to catch warm up enough to fly. In my thirty years wandering their territory, I’ve never seen a Bowl and Doily Spider, probably because I only remember that they exist when their webs are impossible to miss, when both spider and prey are absent. I have yet to see a dry web with prey caught in it. I may know what they are called, but these spiders are a mystery to me. What does any human really know about the intentions or fates of these unseen multitudes? I only know that when I witness their artistry revealed by a trick of light and water, the vision always stirs mixed feelings in me. Joy from the heart-stopping beauty; awe at the spiders’ craft; empathy, even sadness, for what seems like fervent hopes dashed. Here is a poem I wrote in 2005 about the metaphors conjured by a field of glowing webs I walked through one January morning. At the time it seemed to me that the spiders had been duped by a weather pattern that might destroy not just the webs but the spiders. Bowl and Doily Spiders in January (2005) You labored all through the long, strangely warm January night to be finished before the morning mist-rising time, as if it were spring already. But snow ended this false start at sunrise. On my way to feed the goats, Tiny crystals hung in the centers of your webs: hundreds of glistening doily bowls suspended amidst dead grass blades and the damp stalks of last year’s wildflowers. It occurred to me that you might starve, your webs too… Continue reading

In Praise of February

It’s about to start again—spring, I mean, in all its frantic frenzy. The birds have begun singing courting songs in the mornings despite the birdbath water being solid frozen. Daffodil buds may be shut tight, but their stems grew two inches earlier this week, when we had one of those weirdly warm nights in the midst of what has been a graciously, seasonally cold six weeks.  Before spring springs, I want to honor winter, praise the quiet glory of the winter woods, a time of shapely silhouettes, of shiny, silent stillness. What inspired me to write was the walk Scott and I took a week ago to the skunk cabbage realm, guessing that there might be blooms. They grow in an out-of-the-way bit of bottomland spreading out from a small stream that runs through a forest on a neighbor’s land. All the way there, the forest floor was a smooth orange-brown mottled mat of frozen leaves. It was unusually pressed down and uniform because of the extended snow cover in January, which had melted and refrozen several times before disappearing altogether a few days ago. It was a look we remembered from another decade, a more wintery look than we’ve witnessed in years. On our skunk cabbage walk, we enjoyed a beautifully open, mostly frozen February forest. Being a creature that listens to day length more than temperature, the cabbage plants had already pushed up their hooded-alien-head blooms in the thawed places of the bog. It was exciting to try and guess at where the ground was frozen enough to hold us as we wandered into the muck where the cabbage lives. We folded ourselves close to the ground to take photos (which, though we take them almost every year, are never nearly as interesting as the real thing). We headed home a different way and happened into a new patch of woods, for us. This is saying something, since we’ve been wandering these forested hills for thirty years. We knew the fields below and the ridge running parallel, but we’d never walked through those actual acres. The size and height of the trees enthralled us, and we noticed a broad diversity as we moved among them up and down the folded hills. There was a secret feeling to the place, no visible evidence of human disturbance. No mounds or trench scars from skidders, no stumps from previous logging. The… Continue reading

Grandmama Oak

Good morning, Grandmama Oak! And what a lovely, misty, mild December morning it is. I wonder, did you feel those turkey toes scratching in the dirt before you felt my footsteps descending through the forest?  I spooked the gang as I opened the east pasture gate at the edge of the woods. A dozen or more of them scooted off, and several opened their wings and stepped into flight where the hill sloped steeply beneath them on your north side. They’ve landed again, and I hear them moving far below us, their footsteps percussive in the crackling, leafy duff. If it were raining, I’d say they sound like water falling from trees; if it were windy, they could be the music of still-hanging leaves rustling on twigs. I come here for the chance to be still. You are my mentor for that. I’m sure you are feeling this rare wet air moistening your dry limbs and seeping slowly into crevices against your trunk. It must be a welcome feeling in what has been a dry winter until now. From my bench-seated view, I can see four very long, quite dead limbs among your many live ones. Still attached to your trunk, they are thick as my torso, thicker than most tree trunks in the forest surrounding you. One of them, if standing straight up, would be as tall as my house. The dead ones are small in number compared to your live limbs. But you had no dead limbs when I first met you nearly thirty years ago. Sometimes when I’m with you, I try to imagine you in your earlier life, before me, way back when you were at the start of your “growing up” years. You sprouted two hundred years before I met you. And in my time here (as your dead limbs testify), you have crested over into the “growing down” part of your life, which could take two or three hundred more years. Since you are on our land, you’re safe from being cut down by a person, at least. For now. But other humans and less obvious foes may challenge you after I’m gone. I plead with the universe as I gaze at you: let Grandmama Oak have a full life, the rarest thing for any tree in the world today. This morning’s fog shrouds you. The misty air rolls through the world behind you… Continue reading

Gifts from Old Trees

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to take people out into these doomed forests again—doomed because they would be logged within the next year, altered suddenly from nearly old growth to nearly clear cut. I told myself, as I had when I led hikes last spring, that it was a way to make something good out of a bad situation. And I think I was right. Because we had to scout a good route, Scott and I walked the lovely old forest tracts twice. The scouting took place a week before the advertised hike, on a cool, sunny day. It happened to be at the exact point of supreme color in this year’s unusually beautiful autumn. That afternoon we walked slowly. We often stopped, stood still, and let stillness settle, since walking through the thick carpet of new-fallen leaves was loud. But more often we were halted by the beauty itself, ceasing our chatter, stretching our chins up to the sky. Our eyes followed the delicate gesturing patterns of flying leaves and soaked in the brilliance of glowing red, yellow, orange all through the canopy. Feeling the weight of my body held up by these old beings, their widespread roots woven through the ground unseen beneath me, I felt nurtured. I heard the deep duff as I walked, aware of gravity as my body moved, alternately graceful and hesitant, carefully stepping over decomposing branches and trunks. What luck, I thought, to be in a forest that has been allowed to become itself, that has been undisturbed by humans for at least one hundred years. There were places where I could see no signs at all of previous logging– no stumps, no stump sprouts, no scars from skidding roads.   The scouting hike was a good thing. And after the planned hike (which was also a good thing), I realized that the good kept going. Each person who had walked with us on Sunday had been touched by the place and kept a piece of it with them to carry forward. So it had been what I’d hoped: a memorial in celebration of the old trees’ last autumn. By next year, changes imposed by machines and men will render the place unrecognizable and destroy the integrity of its ecological fabric. But this week, fifteen fortunate folks had witnessed that community of tightly entangled organisms from the inside: above and around… Continue reading

I Love Winter Trees

Snow is so rare here in recent years that when it does happen, I drop everything to witness water’s winter performance art, the way the trees participate in the spectacle. Lacy lines and curves, intense dark-to-light contrast, the even whiter clouds, and behind everything that luxurious blue. It is worth neck craning and getting a little dizzy to look up for minutes at a time, spin around slowly in place, as if inside a kaleidoscope of beauty. As I sit here more than a week after that snow, outside ice is falling so lightly I can’t see it in the air but instead notice the gradual coating that’s happening: whitening along the top of the pole gate, for instance, and evergreen leaves on the pyracantha bush going grey as if painted in glass. After the one-inch storm that brought me out to take the picture above, we had a real snow event–six inches! Piled high and delicate along every tree branch, the woods were filled with snow art from ground to sky. I couldn’t remember ever seeing that kind of balancing act. But no photo I took looked anything like what I saw, standing as I was on the forest floor, surrounded by trees. So I put the phone in my pocket. Then, gratefully, I let my range of vision widen to its natural animal breadth. Continue reading


Winter days when the temperatures stays below 32 degrees have become exceedingly rare in my Virginia home, so when I wake up and see frost sparkling outside of my bedroom’s ground-level window, I make haste to get outside. Frozen only until the rising sun lifts the temperature, frost is fleeting; made of crystal structures so small it’s hard to see them without a magnifier, its beauty is intricate, delicate. What I like most is how it transforms the familiar forms of moss, dead leaves, twigs ends and fence wire into a particular kind of beauty, the kind of art only frozen water has the power to create. No matter how often I witness it transform my world, frost always strikes me as an original and unrepeatable event. Continue reading

Why Feed the Birds?

I’ve found a new reason to feed the birds this year: it makes me look up at the sky. Twice a day I’m reminded of a bigger, brighter world during this time when my eyes and mind so often sink under the ugliness of human society in this time of pandemic panic and what seems like the death of decency and democracy. Because I feed the birds, twice a day I let my whole self really look up. The wire that stretches across the west side of our yard is well above my head when it has no weight on it, so I have to reach my arms up to my full height and sometimes jump up a bit to hook on the first few of the six feeders. That’s when I see the morning sun slide in and shine across the naked branches of persimmon, tulip poplar and oak trees reaching across the air above me. Sometimes I’m stunned into a stand-still state of surprise, my head tipped back, unhung feeder in my hand, the process interrupted completely for a minute. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it that only this year I’m being struck by the sight of illuminated twig patterns against a brilliant blue sky? At night, I wait until just after dark to bring the feeders in, after the birds have had their fill and disappeared to mysterious roosting spots. I have to look up to grab each feeder and lift it off its hook, and that’s when I see through the patterns of black leafless trees into a spectacular starry sky. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it only this year that the stars are numerous enough to take my breath away, filling more of the sky than I’ve ever seen in my decades living here? Maybe it’s just that we’ve had a stretch of seasonable cold, dipping into the twenties at night like old fashioned winter weather here. Through a mosaic of black bare-tree lace I see a thousand points of light shining from endless space, as I unhook one feeder then the next from the long wire. More than once I’ve stopped mid process–a few feeders still hanging and swinging because I let go of the wire so abruptly, let go so I could just stand and wonder at the drastic… Continue reading