Pedlar River September Morning

I am choosing a Pedlar River photo to put at the end of my book, which is about to go to print once I decide on this last image! It was a cool morning, so I braved the risk of ticks to walk down to the river and take photos, carrying my wading boots since I knew it would be low and that the best views were likely to be had from inside the river. Below are the four I’m trying to choose between. Continue reading

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

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

Little Irish Creek–celebrating freedom from diversion!

On March 5, 2023, a perfect Sunday afternoon, 14 people gathered along the banks of Little Irish Creek to celebrate! In November of 2022, the City of Lynchburg had removed the diversion pipe and its apparatus (mortar, bracings, etc.), which had been cemented into the bottom of the stream and syphoning flow from Little Irish into Lynchburg’s reservoir since the early 1960s. The permit that had allowed for the water diversion was scheduled to expire on December 31, 2022. In July of 2022, the City made the decision not to renew that permit. The people sipping sparkling cider by the banks of Little Irish Creek on March 5 had something to do with this fortunate change in Little Irish Creek’s circumstances. I first saw the absence of pipe and presence of free-flowing current in Little Irish Creek on February 24, when Scott and I drove up here to scope out a good place for people to meet on March 5. My heart leapt to see the whitewater creek roaring through waterfalls and swirling in pools, a stream doing what is was meant to do, being the lifeblood of a thriving community of plants and animals. We shared tasty snacks brought by group members, and people who had only met virtually before stood chatting happily together in the same place. I was cheered by the friendly energy in the group: people from very different walks of life getting to know each other. And I was touched by the bond between us:  our love for the Pedlar River and concern for its health and future. Most in the group live on land bordering the Pedlar and its feeder streams; most have been residents of the Pedlar River watershed for decades. All of us were warmed by the early spring sunshine and by our attachment to the common ground we were standing on: the Pedlar River watershed; the place we call home. See Shannon Brennan’s column in the News&Advance here. + In 2002, the renewal of the 20-year-permit had slipped by, unnoticed and unpublicized, only a month or two before I learned about it. I vowed to myself then that if I were still around in 2022, I would make sure this pipe was noticed and contested. As the winter of 2020 turned to 2021, I was already having discussions with fisheries biologists I knew from working with them on field trips for… Continue reading

When the River Runs Muddy

This winter brought much needed rain to the Pedlar River watershed. With rain comes runoff, and with runoff comes sediment. Sediment is the fancy word for the loose sand, clay, silt and other soil particles that are dislodged from the land by rainwater and transported by stormwater runoff towards bodies of water. While runoff and erosion are natural processes, human activities on the land can drastically increase the rate at which sediment enters our waterways, making sediment pollution the #1 type of water pollution in our region of the James River watershed. (State of the James Report Card 2021, James River Association). Our local waterways have been looking cloudy after the big rains this winter. Sediment is what makes that cloud in the water.  The color of that cloud varies depending on what kind rock, soil, and clay runs off the land or makes up the stream bottom and sides. In the Pedlar River, the sedimentation cloud often looks orange, like our clay soils. Activities that expose soil are the main causes of sediment pollution in the Pedlar River watershed–such as logging, removing trees and shrubs from steep slopes and near streams, farming practices such as tilling, use of pesticides and fertilizers near streams, unprotected streambanks in fields and livestock pastures, and construction practices that do not follow Best Management Practice guidelines. Here’s the quick dirt on why we need soil to stay on the ground and out of the water, plus info about how you can make sure your property keeps its sediment to itself. Please, read on and do your part to protect our streams and rivers. Sediment is considered a pollutant because it degrades the quality of water for drinking, wildlife and the land surrounding streams in the following ways: It clouds the water, preventing animals from seeing food and harming aquatic vegetation. In streams, sediment disrupts the natural food chain by destroying the habitat where the smallest stream organisms live–organisms that are food for fish. And sediment can clog fish gills, reducing resistance to disease, lowering growth rates, and affecting fish egg and larvae development. Sediment increases the cost of treating drinking water and can result in odor and taste problems. It fills up storm drains and catch basins to carry water away from roads and homes, which increases the potential for flooding. Nutrients transported by sediment can activate blue-green algae that release toxins and can… 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