A Place to Connect, Create, Inspire: Sourwood Forest is Seeking Writers for Summer 2024 Residencies

Sourwood Forest in Western Amherst County, Virginia inspires through direct experience in nature, fostering curiosity, artistic expression, and wellbeing. We are currently seeking writers* for residencies in May, June, July, August, and September, offering flexible dates and rates. The spacious home is on sixty acres of untrailed forest, where the nearest human neighbor is a mile away. Inside is space for two residents, affording each a private bedroom, desk or table, and comfortable chair. Residents share a bathroom and are welcome to use the house’s main kitchen and communal spaces. Want to know more? Contact Sourwood Forest to plan your custom residency today! *Visual artists who don’t need much indoor space and who work with natural materials are also welcome. 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

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

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

The Tiniest of Trees

The moon arcs lower in the sky, and soon the sharp-lined, bare tree shadows will blur as buds take shape then burst into spring’s tiny versions of this year‘s leaves. When the sun rises, a brilliant blue sky spreads widely behind a forest canopy of dark lace branches, and the forest floor lights up in places where it won’t in another month or so. Spring is on the move through wet winter ground, the water table high and seeping out in unusual places. Sap rises, invisible and unstoppable, inside all those quiet trunks. Meanwhile, I’ve been grieving the pending loss of a thousand acres of 100-year-old trees in scattered parcels, all part of a logging project that will take away a century old biotic community, fifty acres at a time, in dozens of different places inside my home watershed. I’ll step away from that to join the green pom pom celebration:  tiny white pines stretching to their two or three inch height all over the drab brown, still-wintery ground of my backyard woods. I admire these little green beings, standing sturdy on lean stems, needled heads photosynthesizing furiously, unhindered by fear of the future. Starting as seeds released by a long-ago pine cone and now standing my finger’s height at two or three years old, they have planted themselves here, with a bit of help from the wind, water, and gravity. Take that little one I’ve photographed, its elderly relative a blurry trunk in the background. Look how she reaches up and out, all needles toward the light, regardless of the consequences. Maybe a poorly placed human foot will smite her unwittingly in her infancy. Maybe her top will snap in a windstorm when she’s only twenty or so, barely a toddler by human standards. Or maybe she’ll weather it all for more than two hundred years, stand a hundred feet tall, her diameter measured in feet instead of inches, making her own song of the wind. Maybe one day her blurry trunk will be surrounded by hundreds of tiny green pom poms. Thank you, tiny tree, for reminding me of possibilities. 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

Looking for Big Trees

I knew I wasn’t going to save the lovely beings I was walking among, but I do think they made a big impression on the young photographer walking behind me and taking pictures (by young I mean at least ten years younger than me). She was not an experienced hiker, but very game (”I’m not used to walking where there’s no trail,” she said). She soon felt lucky, though, to be the one chosen for this photo shoot, which was only happening because one of the paper’s regular columnists had managed to convince the editor that big trees were worthy of a Sunday spread. Especially big trees that would soon be no more. That patch of forest had been marked for skidders and chainsaws, based on the USFS forest plan of 2014, still in force in 2020, which designates the Pedlar District for timber interests. Age class average for trees in this parcel, so they said, was 94 years, and 94 (though more than ten years older than me) isn’t old for a tree. I was thinking to myself how much has changed since 2014. The way the world is now, many people never see trees as old as these. Ever. But what the young person following me was learning first hand was that forests are so much more than trees. I was happy about that. The place had been left alone for more than her lifetime, I imagine, and it had begun to become itself. It had forest magic. When the next forest plan revision comes up, will there be a call for more old growth allotments in the Pedlar District or anywhere in the National Forest? These trees are almost there. Too bad they won’t be here when USFS plan revision time comes around. To tell the USFS what you think about how this forest should be managed, send comments to Nicholas.redifer@usda.gov. For a recent News&Advance article on the project see News&AdvancearticleSundayOct4 Continue reading