On the Cusp of the First Frost

October 31st, and I’m afraid many a child will be disappointed by today’s weather for trick-or-treating. It likely won’t even hit 50 degrees, rain is a real possibility, and the winds are supposed to pick up in the late afternoon. The brilliant autumn colors are falling down, down, down as the continued drought conditions push the trees into letting go of their leaves. While Sourwood Forest is mostly about woods and wildlife, I also share part of this place with four goats: Cocoa, Bertie, Iris, and Captain Fantastic (in order of seniority). And the book I’ve been working on for the past seven years–about the woods and goats–is finally in print. So this post is pointing at that, to remind readers that this place is also an inspiring place to create. Several amazing artists contributed images to make the book visually beautiful. A few of them have websites: James Cicatko , Cathy Leather , Ted Moore, Rhea Nowak. I encourage you to check them out. If you’re interested in knowing more about the book, Contact me. I only printed a limited number, and they are not available online. Tonight the first real frost is likely to happen here at Sourwood Forest, which marks the start of my search for artists and writers who would like to be next summer’s residents, spending some time here between May and October 2024. Contact me if you’d like more information about possibilities. I chose the title after surveying over forty friends and colleagues to make a choice from five possibilities. Two of the titles got 75% of the votes, and What Holds Us Here won by a nose. I like it because the book’s content speaks to just about every way to interpret each of those words, making the title both a statement and a question. Continue reading

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

A Cool May at Sourwood Forest

I was tempted to draft this post on the back porch, but Mr. Wren, whose partner is nesting in the potted coleus plant nearby, stood not four feet from my chair and scolded me. The nest is holding five eggs that are getting very close to hatching. May brought so many cool mornings, like in the old days. And today, June 1, the cool seems even more precious. That’s why I headed out first thing, with my tea cup in hand, to be in the woods at the time of birdsong and deep shadow. I’m working on a loop trail that could be used all summer, something Sourwood Forest doesn’t have. My husband and I like our woods to feel unpeopled, and trails make the presence of people palpable even when no people are there. But I think the benefits of this trail for artists who will visit Sourwood Forest justify it. On May 6, artist Siobhan Byrns (University of Lynchburg) and poet Grant Kittrell (Randolph College) generously gave their time on a Saturday to lead an art-in-the-woods event. Sioban had prepared materials for everyone, including specially dyed paper that, when activated by UV rays from sun, imprinted likenesses of whatever materials were captured between sunlight and paper. As we wandered into Sourwood Forest to choose our materials and create our images, we focused on the richly detailed diversity making up the decaying duff of the forest floor and delighted in the patterns of new leaves on every living plant.  Dappled sunshine made bright pools of light into which we could set our projects to soak in the rays, as the background paper turned from blue to white. We finished the projects on the back porch of the house, using shallow trays of water to “set” the image into the paper, then hung what seemed like subtle miracles in blue on a clothesline to dry near the blooming irises.  After lunch we gathered on the front yard deck under a circle of old oaks to hear Grant Kittrell read poetry. And we engaged in a discussion that wandered from the subject of black snakes to the powers of old trees, both real and imagined. Birds sang, a slight breeze whispered through the young leaves in the forest canopy, and the spectacular light of a May afternoon made everything (including us!) glow with the light of spring.  I was happy to… 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

Winter in All Its Glorious Forms

I have not written in December because I’ve been outside in the woods, through temperatures high and low, winds calm and raucous, days shortening and, just recently, beginning again to grow. That intoxicating slant of winter light drags me outside before I’ve even finished my first cup of tea and again in the afternoon when I should be staying glued to my screen for another hour. Recently, there was a cold spell. A period of below freezing temperatures for several days in a row, unlike we’d experienced for many years, it seems. I did my best to thaw the birdbaths a couple times a day to save the birds from having to fly to the creek to drink (knowing they had to conserve energy), and I put birdseed out in more places and types of feeders than ever before. And, of course, the goats had to be fed twice daily instead of once, have warm water added to their plug-in buckets (which keep water just above freezing, but not warm enough to entice them to avoid dehydration), as they munched through the hay in their net and racks at three times the usual rate. The extra outdoor work was worth it, though, for the chance to see ice art at the creeks! No way can I stay inside long enough to do any decent writing, so I’ve posted these photos (I’m too entranced by the woods, though, to even photograph anything properly..); and I’ll insert a poem from a few years back, though it requires a windy day and large white pines to picture it, something I don’t have in my photo gallery, sadly. So just imagine. Wind and the White Pine Tree It’s just another one of those days, another one of those windy days like so many others you’ve stood through. And so you just trust to your internal structure, to the joinings with neighbors below and above ground, and ride out the whims of the wind. Perhaps all will calm and you’ll still be standing, mostly whole and able to grow on. It’s in your DNA: this knowing what to do, what you can do, and when to do nothing. But there’s more to it than that. What I see is your motion inside the wind: your branches dance, along with the other trees’ branches powered by invisible air, and grace comes from how you bend to… Continue reading