Saturday, July 29, 2017

Rest and Rekindling

Vanessa Blakeslee
Winter Park, Florida
July 2017

Rest and Rekindling

On my first day weeding in the tomato beds, I made sure to be on constant lookout for snakes. I dislike snakes and always have, and South Carolina, is, after all, rattlesnake and copperhead country. But, turns out what struck and caused my hand to swell for five days was my upsetting a wasps’ nest—two sharply painful stings. Moral of the story is: don’t get too fixated on a suspected threat, because you might just overlook what is right in front of you. This was my first residency where I’d signed on for work exchange, and I have wanted to get more hands-on experience with gardening for a long time. What was the experience of taking on tasks in new surroundings, plus accomplishing my own writing, going to be like?  

While I took Benadryl and iced my hand, I wasn’t in optimal shape to write, especially to rethink the novel project I’d come here with or to revise the stories for my forthcoming collection. Was something telling me to first rest and reflect? Let go and roll with the punches, I told myself, and set off to explore. First the library, where I stumbled across several books that I’d been curious about for a while. I felt an urgent need to reconnect more deeply with myself, to grieve and finally accept the state of our planet as climate chaos and mass extinction unfolds, and I found the space to do that in my studio at Rensing.
Several times I brought along a book, hiked the path to the waterfall, and enjoyed the cooler temperatures at trail’s end. What better place to read The Hidden Life of Trees? Walking back, I looked at the mosses, fungi, and stumps anew, my view of the interconnected ecosystem transformed.  

The swelling in my hand subsided, and I carried on tending to “The Secret Garden,” as I dubbed the well-laid but overgrown upper garden. The scent of ripening tomatoes mixed with earth refreshed my senses, and soon enough, after a few mornings of gardening, I returned to my studio, washed up, and felt the creative urge reawaken. Sometimes I worked at my desk, but more often, and when the temperatures cooled off enough, I wrote on my back porch. And kept reading: The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, Morningstar by Ann Hood. One day a fairly large creature crushed branches below; I crept over to the screen. A deer picked her way through the underbrush, eating leaves. I look up from my laptop and the cardinal and his mate fly from tree to tree. Late afternoon and into the night, the bullfrogs groan. We may not resemble one another, but we are all cousins—trees, birds, insects. Our DNA is more related than not; we emerged from stardust.
Here I revisited an older story of mine that I very much liked, drafted a new dystopian fiction and expanded another piece started earlier this year. Upon these pages you’ll find images of Rensing, from the Foxfire book on my shelf to the goats in the pasture. I have been struggling for much of this year with how to make art in a world that appears every day more ugly and insane—writing takes time to shape, even longer to publish and find its audience. Is there even a point? A visit to the nearby petroglyphs reminded me that humans have been making art for as long as we have been gathered around a fire in the wilderness, surrounded by many different threats, and will continue to do so. We make art because we are terrified and enthralled by the grand cosmic mystery, and because out of our lives we must make beauty, justice, and meaning. All we ever have is this moment.

There will be green beans, tomatoes, and figs to be gathered this week, and more weeds to be pulled, wasps to look out for, and snakes. There will be thunderstorms, rousing breezes. There will be conversation, cherry cobbler, and laughter. From my porch the sunlight strikes the leaves, bright green, and a blue butterfly dances. What else might make its imprint on my fiction, now, and after I leave? I’m ever grateful to the Rensing Center for the solitude, contemplation, and reconnection I’ve found here.   

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Portholes, Porches, Waterfall

Thomas Heise
Brooklyn, New York
July 2017

Portholes, Porches, Waterfalls

Three weeks ago, I arrived from Brooklyn, NY to the Rensing Center in rural Pickens, SC with the goal of finishing a draft of my novel, tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones. In a little less than two days, I’ll head back north with a completed draft of the manuscript and a thousand memories of the wonders that unfolded and revealed themselves to me while I was here.

Each morning for the first week, I looked out through the porthole window at my desk in the Guest House at the trees and climbing vines as if I were writing in a bathysphere lowered into the depths of the ocean. When it rained and water sluiced around the sides and down the concave window, I easily could imagine, as well, that I was sailing on a boat through the forest.

Eventually, I traded in the perspective of the window for the screened-in back porch. Since part of the Guest House is perched on a hillside, the porch is literally up in the trees. I could look up from my laptop at cardinals and butterflies lighting on the branches in front of me. This place is full of life and full of birds. In late June and early July, the days here are beautifully warm. Every few days a thunderstorm would roll in and the rain would fall so hard over the porch in a curtain that it was like writing from behind a waterfall. These “scenes of writing,” inspired by Rensing, have made their way into my book: they make a cameo in the novel.

The waterfalls were not just off my back porch. I discovered that the area is home to Twin Falls, a seventy-foot cataract (actually two of them) that is a short distance by car, but hidden away at the end of some winding mountain roads. Turn on your GPS, because there aren’t any signs. After getting lost for a bit, I eventually found the entrance to the trail up to the falls. A quick and easy hike and twenty minutes later, I was eating lunch near the rushing water and reading Werner Herzog’s Walking in Ice, his gripping and hallucinatory account of his trek on foot from Munich to Paris in early winter. Twin Falls seemed the perfect place to get swept up in Herzog’s thunderous prose.

I could go on about the magic of the place – from the simple pleasures of eating vegetables harvested that morning from Rensing’s garden, to the discoveries to be found at Pickens’s sprawling and completely amazing flea market, to the world’s two best goats whom I fed animal crackers daily, to the chanterelles that I foraged in the nearby woods, and – most especially – to the many enriching conversations I’ve had with the people who in their various ways are tirelessly contributing to Rensing’s ongoing experiment in art, culture, environmental consciousness, and fellowship. The South has always been a complex and fascinating part of the country that defies easy characterization. Coming here confirmed that for me again and again.

I found the Rensing Center, specifically, to be a place I could go into myself to do my work I came here to do and come back out of myself to reengage with the culture, nature, and people around me. I found it revitalizing to turn off the noise, the clatter and clamor of the rest of the world, for a time and sit outside and listen to the crickets electrify the air and watch the bright stars drift overhead.

Thomas Heise