5 Minutes of Awe

On the back porch last Sunday morning, I felt awe three times in under five minutes. First, from the sound of the wood thrush’s song high in the trees across the middle pasture from me. Second, from the arrival of a nuthatch, who stared at me as he stood facing downwards on the locust post waiting for the other nuthatch to finish his (or her?) turn at the suet cage hanging about five feet from where I sat. He turned his head left then right, tilting it each time. Then he faced me straight on, deciding he wasn’t afraid enough of me to change his meal plans. And third, a hummingbird flew into the scene to feast on the rhododendron blooms just off the porch’s corner.  (The pictures here aren’t from that morning, though, but from a few days later as I stood at the kitchen sink trying to photograph a very active nuthatch feeding at the same suet cage I’d watched during my minutes of awe. The awe that arose from those happenings was a feeling like I was invisible but yet not invisible, and so somehow part of everything. That kind of feeling is part of the official definition of “awe” being thrown about purposefully within psychology and health care circles these days. There’s a lot of new science supporting what we’ve known forever: that awe is good for us.) After the awe, when I was thinking about the fact that I’d experienced awe but still sitting and watching, I was happy to know that the birds, while wary, weren’t afraid of me. That made me think of the snake I’ve been seeing a bit too often in the past couple of days. I would prefer he were a bit more frightened by me. He’s a young black snake (a teenager by the size of him) who has been slithering around the back porch and sunning himself on the front patio. Too close to the house’s doors for comfort. And he’s so casual about my presence that it’s making me a little nervous. But I have enjoyed the opportunity to watch a snake move, imagine what he’s intending or how he’s responding to me, an incentive to stand there and adopt a snake’s pace—not the fleeing pace but the decision-making pace, as he chooses how to get from this point to that point. I wonder how my presence may… Continue reading

What is Sourwood Forest?

It is the name I’ve given to a part of the woods on the property where I have lived with my husband Scott since 1992. Large Beech, various Oaks and White Pines form the highest canopy and a diversity of other beings make up the rest, from high above our heads to down deep into the forest floor duff. Sourwood Forest is the part of our woods where you’ll find a couple of meditation benches in places we love to visit from season to season. It is where we walk and wonder at how the forest is growing more engaging as it ages, where we recognize how fortunate we are that our property happens to be home to a diverse natural community of beings living and thriving because we don’t interfere. All logging stopped here in the late 1970s. The only trees felled in Sourwood Forest since then are the pines that are now part of our house. I named Sourwood Forest after the tree species who has become my favorite. Sourwoods are mid canopy species. They have subtle beauty to offer at every season, from their lovely bark, arching trunks, and delicate flower sprays to their glorious range of fall colors. The Mission of Sourwood Forest is to encourage creative inquiry and artistic expression in connection with nature, but in a larger sense, it’s about helping people envision the changes humans must make in order for any of us to survive anywhere. Art, in the largest sense of the term, has always provided insight into a bigger picture. In this case, I’m hoping it can help nurture awareness that the human animal is part of nature. That understanding is key to our making wise choices as we live from day to day within the climate crisis and ecological peril that is our time. I am seeking a few creative people to come here each fall and spring to stay in the house for a week or two, spend time in Sourwood Forest, and translate their experiences into art, writing, scientific inquiry, or improving the well being of themselves and others. It is an experiment in the beginning stages, having started in May of 2022. And as more people come here, the forest will grow, change, and nurture the humans who spend time there. The first Sourwood Forest Residency took place in May 2022. During their time here, residents engage… 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


As a tornado ended its short but dramatic life in my neighborhood last May, it dipped its tail into the woods surrounding my house and also into the forest on a neighbor’s adjacent property, between us and the Pedlar River. I didn’t come upon evidence of any of this until a few days later, after I had talked to my neighbor. He was out haying his field across the county road from my house, and I went out to find him because I wanted to ask him about buying one of his bales for my goats. His observation about the storm was that “there was stuff in the field from as far away as Boonsboro.” Boonsboro is the part of Lynchburg across the James River from us, and quite a few miles to the southeast. His observation about debris coming from somewhere else rang true with what I’d witnessed after that storm. Our back pasture seemed to be decorated with droppings from pine and deciduous trees, many from species other than what grew around the perimeter. The twigs and branches seemed evenly distributed, spaced all throughout the clearing, as if the storm had been a giant food processor picking up ingredients from all over the place, chopping them into similar sizes, then dropping them. But mostly my neighbor had been talking about the huge old oak trees the tornado had brought down, here and there across a large stretch of his woods on the edge of the hayfield. And that had led him to ask me, “Have you seen what happened at the end of the road?” I walked to the end of the county road the next morning, and that was when I realized why his eyes had been so big as he had asked me whether I’d seen this. Less than 1000 feet from our driveway, a huge hole in the sky had formed in the woods next to the road, created by the absence of a mess of very big trees, oaks and pines that had filled that space since before I had moved here almost thirty years ago. It was disconcerting. It made a part of the world that had become very familiar to me look suddenly strange and ominous. I was not able to get a picture of it because the scale didn’t translate into what my IPhone could see. My neighbor and I had… 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

A Long, Long Fall

“What color would you say they are?” my husband asked yesterday as we were sitting at the small table in our living room, eating lunch by the window. He was writing in the journal we keep about what’s happening outside. It was December 10th, and bright red, orange, and burgundy leaves from the Bradford Pear tree were scattered all over the yard, shining out against the muted browns of our other yard trees’ leaves, most of which were raked away two weeks ago. He was asking about the leaves still on the tree, though. The last to let go of her green, the pear tree shifts colors as she fades, her leaves taking on just about every autumn hue before her leaves finally drop and eventually fade. Her twigs only began to let go about ten days ago. At the moment when Scott asked that question, the sunlight backlit the smattering of leaves still left on her branches and made them glow. I told him neon-peach. The pear is my autumn clock. Winter is officially here when she’s finally bare. Or at least that’s how it has been since I first met her in 1992. This decorative pear was planted in the front yard by my husband‘s ex father-in-law a few years before this place became my home. The type is non-native and generally considered invasive. From where I stand in the yard today, I see the pear tree’s sapling children in several places, all still holding some peachy leaves. They look like harmless shrubs, but I know better. I won’t let them reach flowering age. Today is cloudy, so I’m chastising myself for not coming out yesterday in the sunshine to take photographs. As I move around taking photos with my phone, I hear the train–another sign I associate with winter coming. When the train crosses the James River, the water and cliffs south of the river make the sound echo so it sounds close once the leaves have dropped in the forests between here and there. This year, the time of colorful, falling leaves came late and lingered long, longer than I can remember for more than a decade. But memory is a tricky thing. What I do know, though, is that the white snow drop flowers bloomed in November, and they are still blooming. These early spring bulbs should bloom on the other side of Winter Solstice…. 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

The Threads that Hold Us

I’m not sure if a spider in any way benefits from having a dead oak leaf hanging from her thread. More likely the thread that’s holding the leaf I can see through my window –about three feet down from the high branch it attempted to fall from, which hovers in the empty air as if of its own accord –is probably attached to a long abandoned strand of silk. Several days ago I’d seen another leaf hanging in mid air. That one was caught in a morning sunbeam, spinning in a slow, weaving dance made surreal by the fact that the leaf wasn’t falling but staying at the same altitude while it moved. I knew right away that it was held by a spider’s thread, though I couldn’t see it, but I tried (as I stood at the kitchen sink marveling at the sight of it) to see it as magic, as miracle, as a good omen for my day. Today I tried again to pretend I didn’t know what held the hanging-in-empty-space leaf suspended against a backdrop of smooth white clouds. I wanted to forget I knew what held it up, to be amazed as a child would be, one who understood that autumn leaves did not stay in the air indefinitely but who had not yet learned about spider’s silk. Though I rarely encounter dangling leaves, mushrooms offer great practice for beginner’s mind as well. In fact, I find them magical even though I know what they are. Yet another being attached to invisible threads, mushrooms are propelled by the unseen mycelium that feed them to rise up through the forest duff or push through decomposing wood into their full glorious, fruiting form. Fungus flowers of many shapes, colors, and textures are appearing in great numbers in the back woods recently, as the nights have cooled slightly since the last rain. Clouds and humidity are keeping the world moist enough to coax them into the air. In both what grows and what dies, Autumn seems particularly suited to remind us how things really are; what we’ve forgotten we are reminded of again: mushrooms a visible sign of the unseen life under our feet, without which we wouldn’t be here; the dangling leaves of the death that awaits us; and the threads that hold them, visible and invisible, of how the world entangles us, regardless of how we decide… Continue reading