Come to Sourwood Forest Summer 2024

As I prepare to welcome artist Patricia Wallbertson to Sourwood Forest next week, I’m remembering other Sourwood Forest summers and hoping to find more artists and writers to visit this summer and early fall. If you’d like to spend time at Sourwood Forest, please contact me by searching for Judy C. Strang in “faculty and staff” on the Washington & Lee University website, and email me at the address you find there. (My technology wizard is working on a fix to prevent all the unwanted traffic we’ve been getting from the contact form on the website.) Here’s a testimonial about Sourwood Forest a former writer/artist-in-residence: “When I first arrived at Sourwood Forest, I was greeted by a particularly friendly wood thrush perched on a nearby fence post. For weeks I had spent my mornings following a thrush’s call near my home without ever spotting its source. But here, in this remote corner of Amherst County, VA, beyond the car horns, advertisements, and fluorescent linings of the city, I was met, immediately, by what I’d been looking for, as if the bird had been nudging me here all along. In the days that followed, during my short stay at Sourwood Forest, this suspicion was confirmed again and again–by the soft silence of the mornings, writing at the window overlooking a quilt of native flowers and shrubs; by the path of white oak, beech, and (yes) sourwood that bent through the understory; by a quirky family of goats, all congregating nearby for their next taste of tree trimmings; and by the birds, over and over again–the tenacious hummers battling at the feeders, that chance encounter with a yellow-breasted chat, the fiery coat of a scarlet tanager. Sourwood Forest not only offered a perfect place to write, to walk, and to witness, it offered me a place to be, to remember how to be. The wood thrush, with its one-bird harmony, knew what I needed after all.” (Grant Kittrell, June 2023) 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

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