In the city, the urban glow makes for a kind of endless dusk. The night in Shenandoah is completely different. One night while I'm staying there, I walk to an amphitheater about a half-mile from my room to hear a park ranger talk about animal calls. During the day, this walk is negligible, a leg-stretcher. Nightfall changes everything. Without streetlamps, I am reminded of what true darkness is. I switch on my flashlight.
The funny thing about flashlights is how they pull your focus to the tube of light ahead of you and nothing else, so you ironically see less. With my light on, I feel intrusive and conspicuous, seen rather than seeing. I decide to turn off the flashlight for the walk back to my room. I let the darkness envelop me, covering my body in a way that feels charged, almost erotic. After a while my eyes adjust and I see shadows cast by the gibbous moon. The stars look like sugar spilled across my walnut dining table back home, grain piling on grain. All my other senses are heightened too. I hear the call of a coyote in the distance and the breeze whirling through the high canopy of trees--trees I can’t really see, but whose immensity I sense all around me. The ground is hard beneath me, holding me up.
“We don’t sing of the night anymore,” the environmental writer Thomas Becknell once wrote. I find that I want to sing.
I was pleased to moderate a panel at the annual AWP Writing Conference in Washington, D.C., this past week, focusing on being an artist-in-residence in the national parks. Here is the text of a corresponding handout from the panel with information on being a national park A-I-R:
Dozens of sites in the National Park System have artist-in-residence programs, and most support writers. Some parks might have open calls for all kinds of artists to apply, whereas others might put out calls for certain types of artists, so that writers might have to wait until applications for their specific discipline are requested. Most A-I-R programs are run by the National Park Service, often with support from private donors and trusts, but some residencies are administered by educational institutions or art foundations in partnership with the park.
Park A-I-R programs vary widely, but generally the resident artist will be provided lodging (doubling as work space) for a period of 2 to 4 weeks. The artist is generally expected to provide food, transportation, and any necessary supplies, although some parks might offer a stipend or per-diem to help cover food. Lodging can range from hotel-like rooms or apartments to private or rustic cabins; expect accommodations to be basic but sufficient. During the residency, some kind of public engagement is usually required of the artist, e.g. a workshop, reading, a lecture during a hike, etc.
A-I-R programs also often require that artists donate some work of art to the park after their residency. For writers, this may mean allowing their writing to enter the public domain, since the park is governed by a federal agency. However, writers would generally be free to publish their work elsewhere and to adapt the work into something fundamentally new (and thus copyrightable), as with any public domain work. Such requirements would be outlined in a contract that artists would sign prior to the residency.
Although the process will vary from park to park, generally A-I-R applications will require the following information:
* An artist’s statement about your particular writing focus, your background and accomplishments
* Project proposal to be undertaken in conjunction with the residency
* Description of public program (workshop, reading, etc.)
* Resume or curriculum vitae
* Writing sample(s)
* Contact information for references who know your work and can attest to your ability to work independently in this kind of residency
** Be sure to check individual national park web sites for specific information.**
National Park Service A-I-R web site
National Park Arts Foundation
Alliance of Artists Communities
Artist-in-Residence Field Notes (for former/prospective A-I-Rs)
I've always been drawn to cairns, those totemic piles of rock that appear alongside lakes and trails, almost as if by magic. Think about it: Have you ever seen anyone actually build one of these? I'm half-convinced that there are sprites in the woods whose sole purpose is to find a seemingly disparate pile of rocks and bring them into perfect balance.
Last summer, our family took a two-week driving tour to Wyoming, spending the largest part of our trip at Yellowstone National Park. On a day trip to the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone, we took a short hike around scenic Colter Bay, in whose blue water the snow-capped Tetons were perfectly reflected. We bounded down to the water's edge and were astonished to see the rocky beach full of cairns, large and small. The cairns were a clear nod to the mountains in the distance, a way of mimicking their towering forms while at once acknowledging that they couldn't possibly be matched.
They were lovely and powerful, and I felt perfect peace there.
Ten years ago, my husband Eric and I spent a week in Acadia National Park, a province of rugged but accessible peaks jutting out from the Atlantic coast of Maine. There too, the trails and summits are marked by cairns, some of which are known to be more than 100 years old. Yet the cairns invite so much fiddling by visitors in the form of adding and subtracting rocks that the National Park Service has to post signs urging people to leave them alone. I don't think I touched any of the cairns when I was there, but I confess to wanting to.
Part of me feels guilty about this cairn fetish, though, as if I should stand up for nature in its unaltered state. But I'm enough of a realist to know that not much of nature is truly unaltered. The same trail that brings me to the cairn was carved out by someone. Park boundaries are limited by the highway (or farm, or ranch, or suburb) on its edge. That might make me sound cynical but truly, I'm not. As a city girl, I want to let it all go, to believe I am a little bit lost and that nature prevails. When I'm out in the woods, I'm used to pretending I don't hear the jet engines overhead or see the footprints of others who have gone before me.
And yet I can't ignore a cairn. So it was yesterday. I'd just arrived at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for an eight-day writing fellowship in southwestern Virginia. After getting settled and actually getting some writing done (I'd expected more daydreaming for my first day), I decided to go exploring.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the VCCA Fellow's Residence and Studio Barn are surrounded by thick woods. When I checked in, I was told to look for a white- and red-blazed walking trail. This was easy enough to follow, for a while. But with it being winter and the trees barren, the trail was covered with leaf litter and hard to keep track of in places. The deeper I went into the woods, the farther and farther apart the blazes seemed to be. I tried not to feel nervous--after all, I could still hear the cars on a nearby highway, my cell phone still had a signal (see "city girl" reference above), and I knew the whole trail was no more than two miles--but I was a little chagrined that the trail wasn't clearer.
Then I walked up a hill and there was this beautiful cairn--a beacon bathed in late-afternoon light, a wayfinder in the woods, a sign telling me that I wasn't lost. It was a reminder, one I get far too rarely in my life, that everything was in balance and I was on the right path. I sent a silent thanks to the unknown soul who built it and kept walking.