Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Divergence of Birds

Carolyn Monastra

Brooklyn, New York
May-June 2021

Divergence of Birds


My two-weeks at the Rensing Center passed so quickly that my time there almost feels like a dream I might have had while napping in my New York City apartment. Rensing is indeed a dreamy place: meandering trails, cascading waterfalls, twisted mountain laurels, flitting bluebirds, chatty mockingbirds, a picturesque pasture with cows, and pieces of artwork that punctuate the landscape. These pieces of eye-candy greeted me as I wandered the Center’s grounds during the day, location-scouting for spots to photograph when the light was “just right.” At night, flashing fireflies, cooing whip-poor-wills, chirping crickets, dramatic displays of heat lightning and summer thunderstorms also made my time there seem other-worldly. 


Although the natural environment was the main attraction for me when applying to Rensing, the people I met there and the social activities I engaged in, will remain a  significant part of my memories. After nearly fifteen months of near isolation during the pandemic, the first few gatherings almost felt transgressive. But mingling with nearly a dozen strangers at the first Sunday potluck was also exhilarating and the perfect way to re-enter the world.  Ending that night with a bonfire under the stars and listening to the more musically-talented among us sing while strumming banjo and guitar, I knew that the next two weeks would be idyllic. And they were. 


I came to Rensing to continue work on “Divergence of Birds” – my conceptual photography project about climate impacts on birds. Inspired by the National Audubon Society’s “Climate Report” and the futuristic dystopian story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” for this project, I am photographing paper cutouts of climate-threatened birds to allude to the fact that, in a future warming world, facsimiles of our favorite species might be all we might have left to enjoy. 


Rensing and neighboring locations, provided the perfect backdrops in which to set up and photograph paper cutouts of the birds that are typically found in this region: Brown Thrashers, Worm-eating Warblers, American Goldfinches, Eastern Meadowlarks, Ovenbirds, Tree Swallows and many others, whose range of habitat is changing due to climate impacts such as increasing temperatures, early Springs, and heavy storms. 


Ellen did a wonderful job of setting the stage for me to immerse myself in my work by selecting a book from the impressive Rensing library for me: “Home Place” by J. Drew Lanham, an ornithologist and professor at nearby Clemson University. Although Lanham grew up in Edgefield (about two hours southeast as the crow flies), his memoir, which relates his early love of birds and nature, was the perfect literary companion for my residency.


Ellen also aided my work by connecting me with Imtiaz, another Clemson professor who is also an avid birder and wildlife photographer. We had tea with Imtiaz and his wife Mary and discussed birds, photography, and how to try to effectively engage people with art and the environment. 


Engagement is a key word here. Ellen, Ashley and Rensing’s cohort of board members, volunteers and friends, are very engaged with the local community and want us temporary visitors to enjoy the region as much as they do. Thus, besides the Sunday Potluck dinners, this included a tour of the carnivorous plants at the South Carolina Botanical Garden with naturalist Dr. David Bradshaw, the weekly Bluegrass jam at the Alehouse, John’s tour of his gorgeous permaculture garden, fresh produce and goods from the Clemson Area Food Exchange, a late afternoon glass of wine and conversation with the elegant Evelyn, and a send-off breakfast on my day of departure. I also visited the flea market, Hagood Mill and did some solo birding on the Doodle Trail where I saw a Brown Thrasher literally thrashing about in some kudzu.


Field research is an important part of my artwork. Since I still consider myself a beginning birder, before leaving Brooklyn, I reached out to local birders to see if there were any upcoming trips I could attend. David, the president of the Greenville County Bird Club (GCBC) invited me to join a club trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway during my first week in South Carolina.


For years, I considered myself a night owl but working on “Divergence of Birds” has reluctantly turned me into an early bird – rising before the sun to see and learn about the real birds whose existence are threatened. Despite early gloomy skies and forgetting my binoculars (thankfully Denise, a club member, loaned me a pair!) the day turned out to be beautiful, educational and fun. We saw a total of sixty-six bird species – several of which were firsts for me including four Flycatchers, a Red Crossbill, Blue Grosbeak and the diminutive and charming Canada Warbler. A few days later, I met several of the GCBC members again at an Advocacy Day sponsored by the SC Audubon Chapter at Lake Conestee. The workshop focused ways to reach out to legislatures to engage them in protecting the environment for our benefit as well as that of the birds.  


My time in Rensing flew by, but, was so packed with engaging conversations (with the locals as well as the artists-in-residence Hilary and Doreen), the sweet sounds of birds and banjos, walks in the woods, food and lots of photographing, that I know the connections I made and the memories of my time there will stay with me for months and years to come. I am so grateful to Ellen, Evelyn, Ashley, Ron, John, and everyone else I met for making this re-entry into a post-pandemic world so stress-free. 


As a parting gift, Ellen gave me a jar of compost from the Rensing garden. I plan to re-pot some culinary herbs with it. Then, when I cook with them, I can think back on my dreamy time at Rensing and the nurturing spirit of this special home-away-from-home place.  

To learn more about "Divergence of Birds" go to my website and/or follow me on Instagram to see the work I will soon be posting from my residency.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Elastic Experiences

Hilary Hawke

Brooklyn, New York
May-June 2021

Elastic Experiences

“The world is not what I thought, it is different and more, and I have seen it with my own eyes” - Mary Oliver, after watching a spider in a web for many days. 

There’s a knot in my stomach as I’m about to board the plane heading back to LaGuardia airport, NYC after being at Rensing Center for 3 weeks.  I am aware this post is public so I need to state a disclaimer that I’m writing this from the heart.  Honesty is messy, and that’s what happens if you let yourself be honest. So here it is, knowing without a doubt that we will have different experiences depending on our mindset and how elastic we allow ourselves to be. 

Today, Ellen drove me to the airport, which she proclaims is one of her favorite moments with the “Rensings” because we really get to talk.  She’s right, it’s a good time.  The Prius pulled us out of town, but not before she started telling me about a podcast she heard about how the brain becomes more flexible and elastic with the more discussion, interaction, and stimulation it has. I began to wonder if this also meant that the more you get used to stimulating your brain, the more enjoyment you will obtain out of life. 

The thing is, I am really comfortable residing in my creative mind. I love being there, and after a year of having the music world shut down, and only surviving creatively on livestreams, I was ready to be alone and isolated at the Rensing Center to solely work on my music and writing.  Being alone and isolated is not what happened the whole time though, and while at the Rensing Center I felt my mind pull and stretch as I adjusted.   I won’t keep you in suspense, so I’ll tell you right away. The support I felt at the Rensing Center was unlike anything I had received in my artistic career.  There were aware and positive people in the community and on-site, all devoted to making the Rensing Center successful as well as celebrate my time there. 

The day I arrived, everything was feeling perfect as I met the talented residents (Doreen and Carolyn, and then Kayla and Heather) and saw my peaceful space in the Forge.  I had an amazing communal dinner that night with the brilliant John Fritz, Ashley Felder, Ron and Benny, and (eventually met dear Evelyn and many other volunteers and friends at these dinners).  

The next morning, weary from a night of bizarre dreams from all the travel,  I went to the waterfall and walked all the way to the end.  I walked straight there quickly, only stopping to read the clay markers that named some of the highlighted plants and trees on the path. I  made a goal to memorize all those markers so I would know some of the plant life in this part of South Carolina. Feeling very acute, determined, and much too disciplined I walked all the way to the end of the trail and found my fellow resident there enjoying a sit on the lawn chairs that marked the end. I briefly said “Hi”, and then went on my way, sure that I would find more trail to continue on.  There wasn’t a visible path anymore, but I still crossed the stream and walked through tall weeds and wiped away wispy spider webs until I slipped down the embankment landing on my rear, and letting out a loud “whoop!”  Feeling embarrassed, I was hoping that my resident friend didn’t hear me. So I sat there on the green spongy ground, and realized, my mind wasn’t really there.  I started thinking something was wrong with me.  Why wasn’t I more comfortable being social, and being around people? I wondered.  I hiked quickly back home to the peaceful solitude of the forge and settled into my space.  That night, and the next morning I wrote and wrote like there was a geyser of thoughts spurting out of my mind dissolving and transforming onto the paper.   It was like I was all bottled up until I got to Rensing Center, and now, like the waterfall, it was pouring out of me.   When I needed a break I returned to the waterfall, again and again. Everyday I went and wandered through the stream, right into the water with my shoes off. I walked on the stones as the stream bended and curved deeply through the woods.  I stared up at the sun splitting it’s light through the branches that hung like giant umbrellas over the stream. I took pictures of the tendrils and vines, and of the bent tree and mossy logs and put their images into my writing. I was completely, hooked and utterly spellbound.  I was surprised it didn’t hit me the first day, and it occurred to me what a state of mind I must have been in to miss this moment.  

How many other moments do I miss when I’m in that state of mind?  Am I utterly starving for this connection to nature?  So, this is why I included the Mary Oliver quote at the beginning. To me, it’s about perspective, and the state of mind that we allow ourselves to be in.  If we go to a new place, and only see the world through what we need to accomplish there is only a small part of our surroundings to see.  If we decide to allow some of the surroundings to effect our state of mind, we see further and deeper into what is really around us.  So, it begs me to ask, what is the reason I craved a residency?  What is the reason you want a residency?, as you sit here, possibly reading this far into my blog post.  

Ellen reads a Robert Louis Stevenson poem before our communal dinners every Sunday. Call it a toast, or a prayer, it is a wonderful perspective to keep in mind.  The line that calls out forth, loudly to me is, “Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind”. When she would finish reading this, I always would say in my mind, and sometimes out-loud, “Quiet mind, quiet mind, a quiet mind!”.  It’s worth cheering!  It is what I found at the Rensing Center!  It’s what I was craving from a residency. 

As I conclude my post, I would just like to add a note about the music from the community and the wonderful nature opportunities in the surrounding areas.  Do go see it, experience it!   Gaze into the different spider webs you’ll see on a trail and think a million thoughts!  Get lost in the brilliants sounds of a fiddle as it plays an old Appalachian tune.  Allow yourself to stretch and be pulled into these moments because they are your moments to enjoy!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Windows and Wombs: The Rensing Experience

Doreen Dodgen-Magee
Tualatin, OR
May-June 2021

Windows and Wombs: The Rensing Experience

I sit, with the Guest House’s round, bubbled window offering me a portal into the small of the wider world. A tiny, dried up spider corpse remains plastered to its external surface while ants, some the length of a quarter, scurry across its smooth protruding surface. Busy, busy, busy… they are always so busy. 

I can relate to their rush, the sense of responsibility to the wider community, the need to be part of the colony, pulling my weight. 

I have come to this place to try a different way. To worry less about the clock. To think less about productivity. To try something other than the grind of playing my part in the never ending ant parade. To create. What I didn’t know when I planned to come (packed my bag full of books and writing tools, added in a package of dried split peas in case there was no food to be found, stuffed dehydrated coffee flakes into baggies, and tucked in a bit of makeup…just in case), was that everything I needed was already here.

 On my second evening at Rensing, I ventured up the path toward the Pottery, clueless as to what I would find. Ellen, on her way down from Evelyn’s, encouraged me to hike down to the waterfall. “Look for the ‘chain link’ guide marker then follow the trail to find Shelby’s colored karate belts. Go along the pasture. Don’t stop until you get to the platform. It should only take about 10 minutes.” 

I am, I should note, a city person and am used to the world of maps and guidebooks and phones with GPS and the ability to call someone if lost. I hadn’t planned on departing the gravel path so was wearing sandals and didn’t have a phone or watch with me.

 I walked, timidly, for what felt like 20 minutes and saw no pasture, no karate belts, and no waterfall. I was a bit on edge. The sun was setting and I felt uneasy, uncertain as to where I was and where I was going. I turned back, wondering if anyone would notice if I had never returned.

 The next day, with plenty of light, better shoes, and a fully charged phone, I went back. I was one more day in to my decompression, my entrance in to a way of being that could roll more easily with the punches, that wasn’t on the clock, that was about discovery rather than productivity. I breathed deeply, I looked up and around, I spotted the karate belts and the pasture (which had been there all along), and found the deck. I stayed for hours. I timed the walk back…it only took me ten minutes.

 I had been so off kilter the night before, the fear of the unknown warping my ability to tell time or notice details. On this third day, however, I was finally settling in. My Rensing dwelling was becoming like a womb, nurturing new parts of me to be birthed while here. Slower parts, solitary parts, the internal eye that’s finding it ok to be more concerned with my own noticing whether I’ve returned home than with others taking note.

 Like this widow that reaches out into the wild, I have found myself venturing further and further into the unknown parts of myself in these three weeks at Rensing. Being here has turned my attention from the minutes that pass and the number of words that I write to the exploration of that which has been “out there,” just beyond the self imposed boundaries that make up the me that I present to the world. Just as this bubble brings the sensations and sights of wind and rain, flora and fauna, insect and squirrel inside, I have discovered, here, a window into my own self in a powerful new way. I now see/feel the markers on the path to my own being…just like a series of chain link, karate belts, and, pathways lead to the waterfall, I am becoming aware and attuned to the journey inside. I’m getting more comfortable with it, more available to the process.

 I have found loves here…Ellen, Evelyn, Ashley, Ron, John, Will and so many others. I have been inspired by them and by the residents that I have been honored to share space with. More than anything, however, I have begun a journey toward loving my self, honoring my need for solitude and silence, and finding a new voice in my writing…the reason that I am here. 

May every one who graces this space be filled with its peace, inspired by the creativity in every breath and blink of those they encounter here, and be cocooned, as I was, in such a way that they are able to give birth to new ways of being. 

May it be so.

 (Thank you to Ellen, and her team, for selecting me for this experience. I am leaving a part of my heart here to return to in time. I will never be able to say thank you enough.) 

Writing on Humidity and Humility

Margaret Foster

Chapel Hill, NC
May 2021

Writing on Humidity and Humility

Carmen Maria Machado, the writer whose work I came to Rensing to emulate, writes that setting is made alive by perspective.  Places are not neutral, any more than their inhabitants.   

Nothing about Rensing is neutral.  Everything has a story, a history: the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of books by Rensing residents; the blue double-doors exiting the library that no one uses, designed by one of Ellen’s non-biological children; the art on every wall and surface; the antique furniture; the garden.  Here, everything feels precious: the moments I spend brushing my teeth, normally empty, become a geography lesson as I contemplate the maps that paper the bathroom wall.  Every afternoon invites a new hike, new live music, a new sky over the cows’ enclosure. 

Each day, I switch through writing-places like the rooms in a Roman bathhouse: first in the tepid Forge while my coffee brews, then in the atrium off the library, which I think of as an especially hot sunroom, then the cool interior of the library, then the Forge again to boil more water for more coffee.  In the late afternoons, when the sun is low enough that I can avoid sticky sunscreen, I sit in the chairs outside the library, reading or typing away.  It’s in these quiet moments that I find myself wishing for more time here, yet feel so grateful to leave my own footprints in a place so full of life and memories. 

I’m not a professional storyteller; I’m more like a curator, describing and archiving people and things, arranging them just so in an attempt to make meaning.  Being in a place that has been marked by so many footsteps and handprints is impactful, to say the least; I’m not sure I have the words or the language to express what it feels like to be here, except that it seems to be the loveliest of dreams.  It’s humbling, too: going to the Wednesday flea market, Ingles, and Bee Well is all a reminder of how much I am an outsider, a temporary visitor.  This is marked most acutely by my mask, which I still wear in public even outside.  But it’s marked in other, subtler ways, too: I don’t quite know how to engage in this kind of small town small talk, but I let the folks around me take the lead and try to let myself get swept up in it. 

At least on the latter point, I’ve been successful: two weeks’ time is not enough here!  I can’t wait to visit again, see Jon’s garden in a different season, spoil Charlie the cat some more, and enjoy more of Ellen’s cooking and conversation. 

The recipe for gluten-free peanut butter cookies:
Ingredients: 2 cups coconut sugar (or 1.5 cups brown sugar); 2 eggs (preferred fresh from Jen and Mike’s farm); ½ teaspoon vanilla extract; ¼ teaspoon salt; 16-oz jar of peanut butter (or your nut or seed butter of choice—about 1.25 cups); chocolate chips to taste; sea salt garnish to taste. 

Whisk the sugar and eggs together in a bowl.  Add in the vanilla and salt and mix until smooth.  Mix in the peanut butter until texture is smooth (make sure you get the bottom of the bowl).  Add chocolate chips to your heart’s desire.  Then cool in the fridge for at least half an hour (don’t skip this step!). 

When your half hour is up, preheat the oven to 350F.  Then roll into cookies and put in the oven.  Depending on how big your cookies are, this could be 5-10 minutes.  I usually make tiny cookies, start at 4-5 minutes, and check on them every minute after that.  They’re done when the top looks a little crinkly and has some small holes.  Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with sea salt to taste. 

Link to original recipe: 

This is the recipe I used for the homemade caramel (I usually make the brownies, too, but I didn’t have baker’s chocolate):
And for the brownies that I stirred the caramel into (no baker’s chocolate required):

Retreat Indeed

Ame Gilbert

Brooklyn, New York
May 2021

Retreat Indeed

Why even go on retreat after a year of lock-down with no work, no place to go. I was working on my manuscript anyway, getting by. I don’t think I could really see past the toll a year of fear, loss, death, environmental hellfire, murders and shootings, and insurrection takes. 


It’s a helluva drive after having hardly driven (only once or twice over the Bklyn Bridge to gawk and cry at the blacked-out Great White Way and the silence of Chinatown—where else had there been to go?) 


I white knuckled the steering wheel—had to talk myself into breathing as folks sped past at 90mph. Had to deep breath away my southern fears: Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham—they and everyone by default becoming a monolithic Orange threat—had to get over to the slow lane and force myself to laugh at my own lefty knee-jerk Northern redneckism.


A trip to the flea market—guns, junk, but also strawberries, early peaches—sold by a Black farmer! Sweet sweet dirt cheap shrimp. Boiled peanuts. A trip to town to sit outside for fiddle, banjo, twang. Few wear masks—is this ok? Here I am in a tiny town in a tiny bar more social than anytime this past year, learning again how to breathe. 


Bless my heart, I pop into the health food store for local honey and a barista-made double decaf cortado over ice, then into Ingles to replenish the kombucha I dragged from Brooklyn not trusting I’d find it past the Mason-Dixon Line (I’m not such a jerk really—I just liked how that sounded—it’s not just North/South prejudice needs wrangling—urban/rural too). A stop at the PO—it’s tax day—I am late, the door is locked but the postmistress pokes her head out and takes my envelopes anyway. We joke about the IRS. Over to Hagood Mill for obligatory stoneground grits. One of the women who works there also sells her  handmade jewelry—she buys vintage beads and whatnot from the flea market and combines them with tiny delicate bones she gathers from road kill. Get this!!—she keeps a colony of flesh-eating beetles in a retro fitted chest freezer she keeps in a shed. The beetles clean the bones! The stuff is beautiful! Buy it! 


I walk to the waterfall for mid afternoon sound baths. At dusk, the frogs start singing. We are out of the Brood X zone but there are beetles (?) the size of quarters that knock against the screens—thwack, thwack, another rhythm. One night the high drama of a thunderstorm. One day we pick honeysuckle blossoms and make syrup which we eat the next day poured over toasted iron skillet cornbread. I pick over-wintered greens for supper.


All the “Rensings” I meet, as Ellen calls them, are collectively wonderful. Out, left, outspoken, eclectic. No one is the ‘scary southern film loop’ I’d played in my head driving down. But everyone is southern hospitality. Warmth.


And writing? Yes! I’m taking the time to re-read the manuscript looking for holes to fill, looking where to add layer of richness. Mornings I handwrite on the screened in porch. Afternoons I am at the computer, at the desk. From either view there are treetops filled with birds that catch my eyes between words. Of course momentum builds inversely with days left—if only, if only it were another week, or two. 


As the sun sets I toss my shrimp into rice congee I’d let simmer all afternoon and drizzle it with the chili crisp I’d tucked in my suitcase. The cupboard had a surprise bottle of Shaoxing cooking wine, so a splash of that too. And for dessert, Maggie, the sweetheart other resident has brought me a tin of the peanut butter chocolate chip coconut sugar balls she made in excess during some break from her writing.


It is not till I am home several days do I realize how deep was my sleep. And today, sitting at my computer I realize how undistracted (is that called focused?) I was. Hacking away today I hear the workmen upstairs and must go check on their work, and the hardware store because I need new window screens, and the newsletter I’m late to put out.

A retreat indeed, maybe especially after lock-down. Especially the reminder that there are wonderful art loving, earth loving, people loving people all over, still. How precious to have received the gift of time, space, quiet, support, honeysuckle syrup.