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

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

Blessed Rain

Hurricane Ian’s outer flank is stirring up the woods, dropping much needed rain all over the Pedlar River watershed today. Yesterday, before the rain started, I took photos of the river at a place very familiar to me. I don’t remember ever seeing the Pedlar here so low. I’m sure it must have been this low during the drought (circa 2000-2002), but my memory isn’t what it used to be. What I do know is that area friends and neighbors have been noticing the low water this year more than ever before. Is this because we have reached a certain age where we can feel sure about our comparisons of “these days” with the past, perhaps? Or maybe it is because the swings from rain to dry are extreme enough for even those who don’t pay much attention to notice. This time of year is unsettling for many reasons–day length changing fast, trees changing color, squirrels racing about and all those signs we don’t even realize are triggering the oldest part of our animal beings into a sense of “Winter is coming! We must put up food and get the nest insulated!” These brainstem instincts are much stronger than the civilizing forces that allow us pretend we are somehow above and in control of nature. But the usual anxiousness of Autumn “these days” occurs within the larger context of climate change. What I think is different for me this year is the degree to which I’m accepting disruption as the rule. I know that my time of becoming more familiar with this natural place I call home has ended; and for the rest of the time I’m able to live here, home will continue to become less familiar by the season–because of climate change. The familiar becomes strange and strangeness becomes the norm. October is still a beautiful time, even in this topsy turvy world. What is here now is worthy of witnessing and celebrating. I’m reminding myself of this daily, hourly, and this minute while I look out at the neon red berries on the dogwood tree, her leaves shiny wet and tinged with burgundy, her soaked branches swaying in the wind. The thirsty world is drinking blessed rain, and for the moment that’s what matters most. 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

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

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