Reflections from Alice on Day 13 of her 21-day retreat in the hills of western NC.
It has been an unprecedented experience!
I am in Flat Rock, NC, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. It's where the prolific and numerous-Pulitzer-winning Carl (everyone here calls him Carl, and they all love him) spent his last 20 or so years, after his life in Chicago, and died in the late 1960s. In the first week, I had some adjusting to do, logistically as well as emotionally, or psychologically. I was given the grand tour of the grounds--a couple hundred acres of fields, hills, lakes, and woods, plus many pre-Civil War and more recent buildings, such as barns, main house, slave quarters (it took my breath away to stand there, never having been so close), headquarters, and farm manager house (where I live). I learned the (very few) rules and regs, and met the heirloom goats, all descended from Carl's wife Lilian's prize goat milk--and amazing goat milk fudge-producing--herd. Lilian, by the way, was the sister of Carl's best friend Edward Steichen, the famous photographer. The goats are adorable, some pregnant and due before I leave. They are used to keep their lineage alive here, to teach kids about genetics-and just to be lovable. There are also chickens I can get eggs from.
In the first week here, between my preparations for, and teaching at, a local high school (I loved the teacher, and the kids were exactly like the kids at home--it's America), and doing a reading and a warm community meet-and-greet, I spent time in Carl's old Greek Revival house, full of his things--books galore, photos of Ed's, bohemian easy-going decor, grand piano. In the dining room, the toaster is on a small side table with a lamp beside it, between armchairs they hung out in, so they could pop up their toast while they read. In the canning kitchen there is a vintage Aga oven/stove, and more books, of course. Carl not only won awards for poetry (his collected volume is almost 800 pages) and prose (an exhaustive project on Lincoln and lots of children's lit such as the popular "Rootabaga" stories) and movie scripts, but was also a Grammy winner for his folk music. And he read widely-extraordinarily widely. A few days later I visited the museum archives, where there is a ton more of their stuff-Saturday Reviews and Sports Illustrateds, and so many other magazines and books that you can't imagine where they fit in the house-from the 30s onward, plus drafts, journals, furniture, exotic rugs, more artwork and photos, even closets full of their old clothes, all climate-controlled and acid-freed. There are also boxes and boxes of preserved samples from plants, identifying where and when they were found, and what they are. Back at the main house, I watched some videos of Carl reading poems (sounding just like Frost, with whom he was a contemporary, and perhaps in competition) and being interviewed. The man was very dry. The interviewer asked him to give advice to people who want to write. He said, with utmost seriousness, "If you want to write, you have to put down one word at a time. If you try to put down two or three at once, you're sunk." I have sat and written in his bent-wood chair on the granite slab behind his house.
The people who work here seem thrilled to have me; I feel like Queen-for-Three-Weeks! Some of them worked hard for 8 years to implement a once-a-year writer-in-residence program to keep that aspect of Carl's life alive here. I am the third one; the first two loved it so much, they've stayed in touch with people here, and even sent me letters in their enthusiasm for what I was about to do. From the board members and selection committee who are responsible for choosing me, to the office workers, from the people injecting anti-woolly adelgid treatments in the ground to save the hemlock trees, to the goat keepers, from the many volunteers to the educational and visitor outreach people, and even the young fellow with the most thoroughly southern accent of all who came to break the painted-shut seal on the windows as the weather got warm-they love having a writer here and introduce me to anyone visiting every time I pass them on the paths. They are all friendly, lovely people. It's really true about southern charm.
In that first week, I was suffering somewhat from something like shock at my being given this blessing of free time in a gorgeous, spring-bloom, historical park site. I felt guilty and undeserving, and scared that I'd blow it--fail to do anything meaningful to show my appreciation and desire to fulfill their--and my family's--generosity in letting me be here. At the same time, I knew that I needed to just experience what I was experiencing and keep on through it. And after the first four days or so, during which I got familiar with my surroundings, I hit a stride and a routine (of a sort) of daily full doses of hiking, writing, reading (poetry or fiction or prose about poetry, and my physical geography texts to learn more about mountains, since that's what I want to write about), writing and reading some more, taking a walk around the lake, visiting the goats, reading and writing some more, drinking tea as the evening comes down from the west, where my porch faces, the sun setting behind the old barn and pasture and through the branches of the gigantic old trees. Jupiter and Venus, and the crescent moon, have been shining out there on clear nights. I think I love these long and late evenings best, and it's when I do my most intense writing.
In my house, I have a desk, two couches (covered with my books), a comfy bedroom, a kitchen looking off into the woods. I go shopping at a beautiful natural grocery store in Hendersonville, 10 minutes up the road, and do my own cooking. Flat Rock has one gift shop, a great bakery (best oatmeal raisin cookie I ever either saw or ate--when it was put in my hand, I thought it was a muffin), a post office and a few other businesses. I figured out a way to walk through the woods and a neighborhood to get to town, less than a mile away. It's a wealthy little town--old, manicured, stately places, pillared houses, long driveways, ivy and moss halfway up the trees and stone walls, flowering trees everywhere--that originally was the summer place for well-off South Carolinians in the 1800s to get away from the oppressive heat and malarial mosquitoes of Charleston.
The grounds here are well-kept and the plant life is abundant and breathtaking, and it all feels very natural and cared-for, like living on a genteel and beloved old farm (which is exactly what it is). At night it is totally dark-I can see the lights from a local playhouse over the hill and maybe one or two other places-and I hear owls, squirrels, and an occasional rumble of thunder. There has been a mama bear with her two cubs sighted, but not by me. This is not that different from where I live at home in NH, except that during the day it's such a public place, which makes it feel both weird and very cool to "live" here entirely alone at night. "My" house in the park is off the beaten path, on a sort of gravel driveway that no one takes since it goes nowhere else, but I can see people go by on the gravel park road (authorized vehicles only) up the slope, and there is often a family or school group or an older couple or--plenty of these--a middle aged woman like me walking by to visit the goats, on the way back to the main house, or coming back from a hike up the mountain. Two mountains, really--the Little Glassy (about 3/4 mile round trip), and the Big Glassy (about 3 miles round trip), which has a fabulous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north and west from its huge granite top. People come from all over to be here, and it also says a lot that it's very used by the locals as a great place to hang out and watch the sunset or walk your dog.
I really wanted to sit and write on the mountain top. The first day I climbed it, there was a huge black cloud and a giant clap of thunder just as I got there, and it started to rain. By the time I got down (I didn't stick around) it was sunny again. The second time I went up, I'd forgotten paper. The third time it rained again. I let go of the idea of writing up there, though I go up just about every other day. But I also learned that nobody cares about the rain. It seems a bit tropical here, at least this spring, ready to rain or raining at intervals on many days, but only lightly and briefly between sunny or partly sunny skies. There was only one really rainy stormy day so far, and it was lovely to watch it from my porch, and walk out when it lightened up. I've also been hiking in the nearby Dupont State Forest, which has many gorgeous lakes and waterfalls, and one day I visited the artsy, hip town of Asheville about 25 miles north, to get good doses of inspiring artwork in galleries, and some of the kinds of places I like that I don't see much of at home, like a cool bookstore and a fabulous tea and spice shop where I found a coconut oolong that practically puts me in a trance.
I feel very much at home now, and after feeling stuck and unsure and then figuring out how to write poems again, wanting to sort of start from scratch with a new approach, I have been cranking out multiple drafts in an almost off-hand way-months' worth in this short time. This is a good way to do it; I want to come home with a pile of possibilities to chisel away at later, not nail down too soon. It's going to be hard to leave here; I'll miss so much about this beautiful place and what it's given me. But I think 3 weeks is a good amount of time for this incredible freedom for creating; it allows for that initial shifting of norms, the immersion, and the readiness to reincorporate newness into the more established routine back home. And it's perfect to be doing it in the spring as all this life is bursting forth-outside of me as well as from within.
PS: Two of the goats had their babies this week-5 perfect little kids!