Friday, July 8, 2016

Writing From Nature

(Early Sunday morning, writing at dawn)
For the first thirteen years of my life, nature and the natural world were constant companions. Apart from Saturday afternoon creature double-features, I spent most of my days outside, exploring and dreaming among the acres of dark pine forest and overgrown fields that surrounded the enchanted cottage where I grew up. I remember the panic when dump trucks and earth movers entered the woods the summer I turned five -- horrified and thinking they were there to bulldoze down the woods, I frantically raced about, digging up pine saplings and transplanting them into our backyard so they would be safe. Once, I watched through a back window in both terror and amazement as a bobcat streaked up one of our trees (it was a sabertooth in my young imagination). The brook that ran through our yard, the lake, and eldritch corners of those woods still haunt my dreams and manifest in my stories.It was this writer's beginning point, and a good one to claim, I think.

This past winter, I read about Writing From Nature, a workshop held at a country house in the wilds near Mount Monadnock, facilitated by editor and powerhouse writer Chris Woodside. 2016 has been a year of wonderful literary adventures -- big book launches, writing awards, and retreats to familiar destinations. It's been a long while since I've hung out in the woods, despite a hilly backyard whose wilderness is home to black bear, raccoon, and silver foxes, who occasionally make visitations. Perhaps it was nostalgia and a nod to those long lost years in Windham, New Hampshire, and equal parts joie de vivre for the Here and Now. I signed up and, on a balmy June Friday, departed for the southern reaches of our fair state.

(Standing outside the retreat house)
I arrived at 3 p.m. -- a bit early, and our wonderful hostess was still in the process of getting ready for the rest of the weekend retreaters. I busied myself reading a copy of Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which was given to us as part of our welcome packet, and absorbing my amazing surroundings. The country retreat house was a wonderland of bookcases crammed to capacity, artwork, and comfortable furniture, presided over by a towering field stone fireplace. Wild tangles of fresh herbs (which found their way into the exquisite cuisine served up by Chef Mac) surrounded the front patio. My imagination prospered as my fellow scribes arrived alone and in twos. Among them, a romance novelist, an airline/former fighter jet pilot, an environmental sciences student, and a passionate writer working on her second novel, all of them quite wonderful and gifted. We enjoyed a welcome meal of cranberry and fresh sage risotto served inside baked acorn squash (unbelievably delicious!), homemade pesto, sauteed Swiss chard, and heritage tomato salad. It was the finest of dining!

On Friday night, forest ecologist Peter A. Palmiotto treated us to a presentation about nearby Mount Monadnock, and why the summit is 2/3rds bare rock. Chris hosted a night hike down to Stone Pond, but I opted out and instead hunkered down in my private room with the Muse and my short story, "The Shut-in". Slept beautifully, and, at sunrise on Saturday morning, I moved into the great room, uncapped my fountain pen, and began work on my second project for that weekend, "The Tree Surgeon." The sun rose higher, and fresh pages flew from my fingertips. Then Chris sent us out on timed hikes, sans notebooks and pens (the horror!). I moseyed down to the little chapel on the lake and dreamed more about my story, "The Shut-In". Upon return, we began a series of timed writing exercises which coincided perfectly with the direction of "The Shut-in".

Saturday afternoon was devoted to another presentation and exercises by famed nature writer Elizabeth Rush, who inspired with tales of her journeys. As Chef Mac worked on an amazing dinner (swordfish, cauliflower crusted in espresso, decadence had in every bite), I wrote some more on my stories, read from the book, and soaked up the creativity. That night, as a homemade apple pie baked, Chris gave a keynote speech on her journey as a writer (she edits Appalachia Journal, which has published since 1876).

(Listening to Elizabeth Rush)
After another fantastic night's sleep, I woke and resumed writing "The Tree Surgeon," opting out of a morning hike up the mountain. Breakfast was bountiful, as was our departure lunch, which included homemade Caprese pizza and rhubarb mint iced tea. The mostly vegetarian-friendly menu was beyond exquisite, and the company first rate. Chris put on a wonderful event, which invigorated body and soul. Throughout, I kept thinking back to my boyhood days, reminded of my many blessings now that I'm navigating my fifty-first year on Spaceship Earth. Chris's weekend retreat and workshop ranks among the best of the many I've attended, and I can't wait to return next year. So much so, in fact, that I've added one more adventure to 2016's calendar: in September, I'm returning to Star Island in the Isles of Shoals for a five-day retreat and workshop, which I attended four years ago. Excelsior!

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