Nancy’s Nature Notes: Flocking bluebirds

This morning on the front porch of the Yellow House I noticed two interesting phenomena. One, a sun dog at about 9am. This is a bright piece of rainbow that appears about 22º to the right or left of the sun when ice clouds are present and the sun is low in the sky.

Sun dog 22º to the right of the sun, seen from the Yellow House porch

Then I heard what sounded like a chatter of bluebirds. Because I didn’t realize they can sometimes flock in large groups in winter, I thought it must have been some other species of birds that “sound like bluebirds.” I grabbed binocs but at first I couldn’t catch a good look — they just looked like some random drab passerines. So I spent the better part of an hour scouring through Sibley’s, reading the bottom lines of each page, trying out different sounds to see if anything was a fit: toowhiip toowip? Nah. feefee chr-chr-chr-chr? No, not really. What about tsi tsi tsi tsi ti ti ti ti seeee? Um, no. Oh, hell, I’ll go make breakfast.

But as it turns out, bluebirds DO flock in winter, and because they are not in bright breeding plumage, they can look a little drab and unremarkable. Finally heard them again at the end of the day, grabbed the binoculars and caught a really good look. Yup, definitely bluebird.

If you’re in a place that has some open woodland near a field, stand quietly for a while and if you’re lucky, you may hear their gentle chatter. Or in Sibley’s words, “Song a pleasing soft phrase of mellow whistles chit WEEW weidoo and variations. Call of similar pleasant musical quality; a soft, husky whistle jeew or jeew wiwi, also a short, dry chatter.”

Data Sonification and Life Forms

One of the things we do as AS IF Center is to catalyze collaborations through Art-Science Matchmaking. I hope you enjoy this guest post by Judith Casseday about one such collaboration with Rob Dunn Lab.      – nl

I have a keen interest in data sonification that furthers our understanding of the data. This
blog post by Mark Ballaro and George Smoot increased my interest in exploring how modal/timbral shifts that are set in a familiar, well-tempered scale spectrum might illustrate data-driven relationships. Recently, I read a notice from AS IF about collaborating with Rob Dunn’s Lab on a project studying microbiology of sourdough. It felt like a dream! I have a two and half year old sourdough starter which is used to create 75% of the bread I eat, I recently studied cell biology and neurobiology, I have a deep interest in molecular chemistry about which I am just learning, and I am looking for a data sonification project. I sent the Dunn Lab an inquiry, they checked out my sound work, and I was invited to participate.

First I met with the sourdough folks at Rob Dunn’s Lab — Erin McKenney, post-Doctoral Fellow in Microbiome Research and Education and a research lead on the sourdough project, and Lauren Nichols, Dunn Lab Manager. I learned that the sourdough project is looking at the ecology of sourdough starter communities as relates to yeast and bacteria growth in flour when exposed to water and the local microbial environment. I attended a Dunn lab staff meeting and learned about the amazing research they are doing. All the projects are basically looking at how the smallest phenomena impact much larger phenomena and vice versa, the micro to macro to micro feedback loop. They keep finding that diversity is the key to sustainable growth and a healthy environment. I left the meeting excited and inspired! Next stop will be the AS IF Center in October, for a retreat with some of Rob Dunn’s collaborators on the sourdough project.

I wanted to sonify some data to prepare for the sourdough meeting, so I reached out to the Dunn Lab folks, and Erin McKenney sent me a data set to try my hand at. The data, from Erin’s dissertation study, is about nine lemur babies belonging to three different species, and enumerates how the microbial colonies in their guts evolve from birth to weaned. We have identifiable parameters that can be orchestrated to show changes over time. Perfect!

The lemur microbial data is on a massive spreadsheet with lots of terminology I don’t know… yet. This will be an interesting process as we work out exactly what the sonic illustration will depict. I sense that certain data will lend itself to sonification and that is the part I do not yet know. After spending some time studying the spreadsheet, I asked Erin how we can cluster some of the microbial data together, and she sent me the data sheets for the bacteria, classified at the phylum and class levels. The phylum-level data became my focus as there were only 35 phyla as opposed to 95 classes and 255 strains of bacteria. One of the lemur mothers had triplets so I decided to put together phylum-level profiles on this small group. Culling through the data for these specific individuals narrowed the number of phyla down to 24, then I made an arbitrary cutoff point of >.00 density for each phylum (Erin said this was fine and is actually a tool scientists use to declutter data). Now I was down to 15 phyla – a manageable number for timbral illumination.

The microbes were collected from the three lemur babies at six time points, from birth to nine months old. These time points were birth, nursing, introduction of solid foods, regular consumption of solid foods, and two times as they were weaning. Microbes were collected from the mother when she gave birth. Erin had the brilliant idea to have the mother’s phylum-level profile (which represents the stable adult community, and does not change over time) be a drone under the babies’ phylum-level profiles in the sound illustration. This allows you to hear when the profiles diverge and when they converge.

The sonic substance for all this is a phyla megachord that stretches from G1 to G5. Each phylum is voiced by a single pitch, so, for example, Protobacteria is G1. Since there are only thirteen pitches in a chromatic scale, some of the phyla would land on the same pitch, different octaves. There were five phyla that tended to have the highest presence in each sample, so I made them the Gs, and all the rest had separate, distinct pitches. I used amplitude to render the amount each phylum was present in each sample.

The next question was how to voice the individual profiles in order to hear the data as clearly as possible. After much experimentation, I decided to represent the mother’s voice as a woodwind with steady, slightly pulsing tone throughout. I chose bell-like voices for the three lemur baby profiles, letting each phase ring out four times over the mother’s profile. The idea is to listen and compare the mother’s profile with the babies’ profiles. Listen for the change (or lack of change) as the each stage rings in four times. What you hear is a uniformity of tone at birth that becomes more dense and dissonant as the phyla diversify with the babies’ diversifying diet. Then the final wean profile settles into more consonance with the mother’s profile.

You can listen to the lemur data sonification project here, and soon I’ll begin experimenting on sonifying data from the sourdough project.

-Judith Casseday


The American chestnut returns to AS IF Center

If you were to walk among the forests of the eastern United States over a hundred years ago, you would likely be walking in the shade of Castanea dentata,  the American chestnut. It’s estimated that there were about 3-4 billion of these majestic trees in the east, possibly making up a quarter of the trees in the Appalachians.

Original range of the American chestnut

The trees could grow to a massive size and provided food for wildlife, domesticated animals,  and people. The wood was incredibly rot-resistant — historic cabins with chestnut siding still stand in our mountains today, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The chestnut seemed indestructible, until the first half of the twentieth century when chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees, wiping out entire forests all across the east within a period of about 40 years.

American Chestnut trees destroyed by chestnut blight, Chattahoochee National Forest, north Georgia, 1930. Photo courtesy of ChattOconeeNF.

Yet a few of the trees persist. Miraculously, the roots of some of the trees have stayed alive, producing shoots that leaf out and grow for about a decade, then when the sapling reaches reproductive age, it gets the blight and dies back, only to leaf out again a few years later. One of the most optimistic sights in the southern Apps is encountering one of these everlasting chestnut saplings on a summer hike.  You reach out to touch them, and you’re touching a sacred remnant of our past.

But you might also be touching the future. Is it possible we could restore our American chestnut forests one day? For over 90 years, there have been efforts to restore this beloved tree species, often using the genetic material of those brave saplings that persist in our woods. In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was founded to continue restoration efforts, and has been using a backcross method with Chinese chestnut species to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees. They have developed genetic lines that are fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut, with one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut for blight resistance.

To support the TACF research and restoration effort, and as a gift to High Cove community and to Carol Jacobsen & Marc Poland whose land and facilities make our art-science center possible, AS IF purchased chestnut trees to be planted in our community this spring.

The seeds arrived in late winter and sat dormant in the fridge for a few weeks, little treasures packed in moist sphagnum moss, sealed in plastic bags. As the spring weather approached, several community members gathered at the Yellow House to select planting sites that would be optimal for chestnut — dry ridges with loamy, well-drained soils. Lucky for us, a geologist happened to be in our midst (thank you, Kaye Savage!) who got out her soil maps and advised us about site selection.

At the Yellow House, selecting optimal sites for our chestnut babies. L to R: Olga Ronay, Carol Jacobsen, Richard Martin, Kaye Savage

We had a late spring this year. It snowed, it stayed cold, it rained cold rains, then snowed some more. And then it snowed. And again. When spring finally came, it lasted about a week — then suddenly it seemed summer would be upon us. So we waited and waited for the right moment, then a week later, we were in a hurry — time to plant! One hot late spring/ early summer day, Olga and I geared up to plant our seeds. To keep voles and other small mammals away, we cut the top and bottom out of a beer can and created a metal sleeve for the seeds, burying them about halfway into the ground. To protect for deer, we made cages of goat fencing. Such a lot of hardware for one little seed!

Olga adjusts the deer-proof fencing around our chestnut seed.

We also planted a couple of seeds in pots that we will be tending throughout the year — when they are strong, we will plant the saplings next to their sister trees. Wish our little seeds good luck!

Good luck, little seed!

Addendum: Read this article from the Washington Post about biotechnology and the American chestnut, also featuring an image of a giant chestnut tree from our county in 1914!

American chestnut tree in Mitchell County (where AS IF Center is located) from 1914.




AS IF resident artist Joe Bigley will explore effects of small organisms on big ecosystems

Curious about what’s going on at Art + Science In the Field? Please join us Saturday, May 19 at 4pm for a presentation by resident Joe Bigley followed by an Open House at AS IF Center studios. The presentation will be held at High Cove Firefly Lodge; after the talk, join us at AS IF Center’s Yellow House garage and studio facilities, where we will serve light eats. BYOB. A mere two dollars per person will help us cover the rental fee for use of the Lodge.

Joe Bigley is an assistant professor of art and sculpture at Spelman College in Atlanta. He received an MFA from Alfred University and has taught at the university level and lived abroad. His creative practice is typically a form of social commentary. He works in various sculpture processes, site specific installation, painting, collage, kinetic works, performance, and digital video.

Conglomeration #8, wood, copper, brass, stone, gut. 16” x 7” x 5”

At AS IF Center, Joe will focus on two different projects. First, he will continue progress on a 100-work series of collages that incorporate various scientific principles into the text and imagery. Second, he will work on a project in response to present invasive pest species that affect our local forests. He will conduct research on forest ecology, including collaboration with the US Forest Service. The end result of this project will include large scale semi-permanent sculptures installed at High Cove. The installations will highlight the widespread impact of unseen forces on expansive ecosystems, focusing on small organisms such as the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, or Phytophthora ramorum spores which cause Sudden Oak Death.

Product placement (2017), Site-specific Kinetic Installation. Trees (21), Motion Sensor, Motors, Microcontroller, Mixed. 16′ x 18′ x 60′ (Eyedrum Gallery. Atlanta, GA)

To get to AS IF Center, follow the directions to the Firefly Lodge. If Lodge parking is full, go back onto Rebels Creek, take a right, then in just a few meters take the first right at Castanea Street (at the black studio under construction). Park at the pullout areas off Castanea Street, near the black studio and community garden on the left, or near the barn on the right, then walk past the pond and the Lodge driveway. For questions, please contact us.

Reflections on Art as a Pathway to Effecting Change

This is a guest post from AS IF Center resident Cynthia Reeves, who was the Art of the Climate resident in March.

The biggest takeaway from the first annual ClimateCon held in Asheville March 19-21 was how climate change affects every facet of society—from major considerations such as protecting the global food supply in the face of increasing threats caused by climate change to more minor considerations such as how climate affects day-to-day consumer choices. The conference attendees represented every sector of society—business, government, NGOs, non-profits, the arts—all responding proactively to climate change. I was especially impressed by how many corporations have established sustainability departments not only to burnish their reputations as good actors on the global stage but also to bolster their bottom lines. Participants effectively dispelled the myth that mitigating climate change impacts increased costs. The opposite is true.

The conference, hosted by The Collider, has as its mission to deliver a “collaborative experience with a wide variety of business and science professionals who come together to advance the development of data-driven products and services.” Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the arts were not a significant presence. As a writer whose current work incorporates the science of climate change, networking with scientists, business people, innovators, public sector sustainability professionals, academics, and NOAA and NCEI data managers did provide me with a wealth of information to use in my fiction. Scientific facts alone, however, aren’t enough to convince climate change skeptics; art can be used to communicate on a human scale how climate change affects us all. Translating those facts into “story” and characters grappling with a world in which climate change exists may help motivate a skeptic’s change in thinking.

Cynthia Reeves writing upon landing in the Arctic Circle

Likewise, during my residency at AS IF, I had the opportunity to reflect on art’s role in providing a pathway to effecting change by presenting a talk—“Of Ice Floes, Whale Bones, and Abandoned Mines”—about my experiences aboard the tall ship Antigua as a participant in the 2017 Summer Solstice Expedition to Svalbard (Norway). The Arctic Circle sponsors this artist-scientist collaborative residency. The talk focused on the otherworldly beauty of the Svalbard archipelago and how it has inspired my fiction. As part of that presentation, I had the privilege of screening “Moving Image Study of Smeerenburg Glacier,” a six-minute film of a massive glacier calving set against the quiet, sculptural splendor of an ice field. The British cinematographer and filmmaker Adam Laity—one of my fellow Arctic travelers—created the film from footage and sound captured by him and others as we witnessed this spectacular event.

The talk was a study in juxtaposition: the Arctic’s pristine natural landscape contrasted with the human imprint upon this fragile environment. I wanted to emphasize the positive: that we can preserve this environment. The talk reflected that positivity—but also the inherent contradictions—of life in the Arctic now. At the very least, I hoped for the audience to be awestruck by nature and (possibly) nature’s ability to heal itself. Given the audience’s reaction as the film unfolded—the gasps and wonderment and even tears it provoked—I believe the talk succeeded.

-Cynthia Reeves

Very, very cool: A writer shares insight from the Arctic Circle Summer Solstice program

On Sunday, March 17, AS IF Center writer in residence Cynthia Reeves generously shared her time, expertise, and passion for writing with the Toe River Arts community, by way of two events – a workshop in using science research in writing fiction, and a talk about her experience in the Arctic Circle Summer Solstice Expedition.

For the three-hour workshop called Making the Leap from Fact to Fiction, Cynthia prepared readings, gave writing assignments, and offered expert writing guidance to nine workshop attendees, three of whom traveled from Asheville in order to participate. Cynthia challenged workshop participants to think about character development and point of view while weaving science facts into the writing.


Following the workshop, in a talk entitled Of Ice Floes, Whale Bones, and Abandoned Mines: Close Encounters from the Arctic Circle Summer Solstice Expedition,  Cynthia regaled us with tales of her adventures to the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. She took us to abandoned coal mines taken over by noisy flocks of Kittiwakes, shared grief for a beach piled with remnant whale bones from the archipelago’s heyday as a whaling center,  and concluded with this arrestingly beautiful short video of a calving glacier, filmed by fellow resident artist/ shipmate Adam Laity. 

As we shook off the winter chill and yearned for spring, we were reminded of melting glaciers and other meteorological dramas unfolding on remote parts of our planet. Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing your writing insight and Arctic adventures with our community.

These two events were brought the Toe River Arts community through a partnership with AS IF Center and Toe River Arts Center. We are grateful to TRAC for offering their space and helping us host these two events.  




In My Backyard


An art-science talk by Kristen Orr and Kate Fleming

This event is co-sponsored by AS IF Center and Toe River Arts and is free of charge.

Artists Kristen Orr and Kate Fleming will be in residence at AS IF Center for two weeks this spring. They will give an art-science talk titled “In My Backyard” at the Arts Resource Center on May 5 from 11am-12pm.

During their residency, Kristen and Kate will be creating a series of prints based on an artistic and scientific research trip they took across North Carolina in May 2017. The artists spent a week visiting seven nature preserves, each within a distinct ecoregion of the state—Roan Mountain, Linville Gorge, Uwharrie National Forest, Weymouth Woods, Green Swamp, Black River, and Carolina Beach State Park. They documented the species, colors, textures, sounds, and smells of each location using a variety of artistic and scientific methods. Using the data they collected on their trip, they are collaborating to create imagery that is representative of each location.

At the talk on May 5 at the ARC, the artists will share stories from their epic road trip across the state and describe how they used artistic and scientific methods to capture the essence of an ecosystem. Their collected visual data, including notes, sketches, paintings, color swatches, pressed plants, soil samples, and field recording will also be on display.






Kristen and Kate are working on their project with scientific guidance from Dr. Peter Weigl, an ecologist at Wake Forest University and from The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina.

Kristen is a multimedia artist and designer from Winston-Salem, NC. She currently works as an exhibit designer for the Museum of Science, Boston and holds a BFA in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. Kate is a painter and printmaker based in Arlington, Virginia. She works as an exhibit specialist at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC and graduated from the College of William and Mary. 

For more information about the May 5 talk, visit the Upcoming Events page.

Interview: Ingrid Erickson

During Penland’s Winter Residency, I had a chance to catch up with Ingrid Erickson, a mixed media artist who specializes in cut paper. She often includes scientifically accurate images of birds, bones, and other natural history subjects. Ingrid has had several opportunities to install herself as a sort of “artist in residence” among several scientific groups, something which I have done as well. We had a chat at the Penland Coffee Shop in January.

NL: I’d like to talk with you about the ways in which you insert yourself as a sort of artist in residence working in the lab or in the field among scientists, and what that process is like. I’ve done that a few times and it’s really interesting.
IE: I’ve just found scientists to be really welcoming in general, once they understand I have a certain seriousness about the topic and that we’re approaching it from a very, very different set of lenses. I’ve found people to be really welcoming and supportive.

NL: So when we talked before you were saying you’ve been working Prairie Ridge. Can you tell me more about that?
IE: I have data from the last twelve years from Prairie Ridge Ecostation and I’m doing a project about bird banding, an installation piece, it will be large scale involving paper infusions and an actual ornithologists mist net. I went there several times to observe bird banding, and also went to the National Bird Banding Laboratory, an office at Patuxent [Wildlife Research Center] in Maryland.

NL: What did you do at Patuxent?
IE: I was there for three weeks and I was actually a member of the Crane Team. So I was working with eight scientists primarily, raising endangered Whooping Crane babies.
NL: That’s so cool. You got to actually participate in it as one of the researchers?
IE: Yes. Every morning there would be a team meeting and then people would suit up and you’d have to wear your costume, which is a head-to-foot white outfit with mesh screens so you can see, but your face is not visible. You have a puppet on your hand to feed the chicks, and you’re teaching them to eat and drink as they grow.

NL: So were you working mostly with postdocs and graduate students? Who are the folks that are on this team? Are they volunteers?
IE: There are some volunteers. It’s a really interesting interface. There are volunteers from the community who’ve been helping out for years and years, there are graduate students, there are scientists who’ve been working there for the past 20 years or so and they all know each other, so it’s sort of an interesting community.

NL: How did you get involved with that? I mean did you sort of write somebody and say, can I come join you?
IE: When I decided I wanted to do this piece on cranes, I found out there is an International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin that’s involved in research and conservation and then there’s also a team of biologists who meets every three to four years for a conference, and so I went.
NL: Where was that?
IE: It was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There were about 300 scientists there, and then me, the lone official artist.

NL: When you first started doing this kind of work, did you reach out to a specific scientist whose work you were interested in? What was your first step towards this sort of partnership?
IE: Well, for this particular project, I went and I heard all their papers and I talked with people about their research, and then identified people I might like to work with. I found some folks who were receptive to the idea of an artist collaborating. So that’s how I found out about going to Patuxent and doing some work at the vet hospital there, and also met some wildlife biologists in Mississippi and Louisiana, folks from the Calgary Zoo… it’s a really big operation.

NL: So when you first approach them are you showing them examples of your work?
IE: Yes.
NL: What appeals to me about your work, both as an artist and a scientist, is that I look at these species of birds and they are identifiable, it’s almost like scientific illustration using cut paper. So they were taking you seriously because you’re taking the science seriously?
IE: Yes, absolutely. The specific reference point is that I’m interested in a particular species and the ecosystem that it’s involved in and the role that it plays, why it’s important.

NL: Are you weaving other things like that into the work somehow? Do the background patterns have something to do with environmental information?
IE: Yes. In some of my older work, there are architectural references that I’ve developed but in the newer work I’ll include numbers sometimes.
NL: Representing what?
IE: Specific data points that have to do with the project. For instance, I decided I wanted to include some of the costume-wearing puppets, so I have 186 of these individual paper cuts that are part of the installation, and some of them are eggs. I got to watch the whole incubation process and see how they number them and how they clean them. It’s really complicated and intriguing to me. They sterilize the egg before it’s put in the incubator so it won’t contaminate any of the others. They collect it in a cooler and transport it.
NL: So when you were there, there were cranes at lots of different stages? Egg, newly hatched ones, older ones…
IE: Yes
NL: Is there a breeding season?
IE: The breeding season starts in January and then there is hatching going on throughout May, so it’s the beginning of May when all of that kicks into high gear.

NL: What’s next for you?
IE: I’m doing a project with the Duke Lemur Center and I got a grant for some video equipment which I am really excited about. I don’t have a background in video or anything like that.
NL: Do you have a background in lemurs?
IE: [laughs] No! But I’m going to be gathering a lot of visual information, filming some of the nocturnal species. I’m particularly fascinated with the Aye-aye. They have a really strange, attenuated third finger which is thin and long – it’s for feeding and grasping. And they’re really just kind of bizarre-looking creatures.
NL: And you’re going to do an installation based on this?
IE: It will be an installation involving large scale paper cuts but I’m not sure about the specific form yet

NL: What’s your relationship like with the scientists that you work with? Do you have an example of working with a scientist where it changed the direction of your work in some way?
IE: That’s a great question. The lemur project is just starting for me so I don’t know if can draw an example from that. But thinking back to some of the research that I’ve done for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, I’ve done some research in their bird collection and I just keep my ears open when I’m sketching and working in the collection. I hear conversations when people talk about their work and there all kinds of things that come up that are really interesting to me, so always keeping an eye out for interesting topics.

Ingrid and I chatted some more about what a great intellectual and creative adventure it is being the lone artist among a scientific team. We agreed that we are glad that art-science is gaining acceptance so that this kind of adventure is becoming less rare. Thanks so much to Ingrid for sharing her process with us!

Crazy about Maps

Here in the Toe River region in the winter months, our neighbors down in the Celo community publish a calendar called Cabin Fever University, filled with good reasons to get out of the house: it might be a dinner cooked by a Congolese neighbor, a night of French cinema, or a contest for nibbling a slice of cheese into the shape of a country. CFU keeps us entertained. This past weekend, High Cove community member Olga Ronay hosted a CFU event at the Firefly Lodge called “Crazy about Maps.” About ten of us descended upon the Lodge with rolled up maps under our arms, inflated globes with meteorological markings on them, historical maps, links to electronic maps, all things cartographic.

A map of Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.

Tania shared this wooden book cover, handmade  in Belgium by her father, decorated with a detailed map of her native Yugoslavia. Larger place names are burned into the wood and smaller ones are labels decoupaged onto the surface. Bodies of water and other large features are painted on. In 1955 when this map was made, wood-burning was a popular craft technique.

On this 18th century map of St. John Island, Patrick points out the location of the Akwamu rebellion of 1733.

Patrick and Emily brought us a map of St. John Island from the 1700s. Residents of St. John for many years, Patrick and Emily had explored every inch of the island. Sweating and bleeding their way through tangled vegetation, venomous spiders, thorny lianas that snag your skin, and no access to food or water, they scouted across the island to locate ruins and learn the island’s history. Committed to leave very little trace, they bushwhacked but did not blaze trails. A reprint of a Danish map used for tax purposes, the map they shared was surprisingly accurate for Patrick and Emily’s outings, which explains why it’s so well worn – it went on a lot of those bushwhacking trips through the Caribbean jungle. Above, Patrick points out the location of the Akwamu Rebellion of 1733, when King June and several other enslaved people from Akwamu (present-day Ghana) led the first successful revolt of enslaved African people.

Map of Virgin Islands with island silhouettes, useful for mariners.

We are fortunate that Patrick and Emily now live up the road from High Cove and visit often to share their stories. They still spend their days walking miles of territory both on and off the roads and trails so they know everyone and everything there is to know about our neck of the woods.


Patrick and Emily have gained a lot of expertise about Mitchell County in a few short years by walking everywhere and talking to everyone, but they can’t match the decades of historical knowledge of Byrne Tinney. Born in West Virginia and educated at Berea College, Byrne has been living in our neck of the woods for the better part of sixty years, at least when he wasn’t teaching university at UNC Chapel Hill, or living in Spain, North Dakota, and points beyond. He shared with us a teaching tool he has used for helping folks understand meteorology, one of his many areas of expertise.

Byrne’s meteorology notes on an inflated globe.

Olga Ronay, AS IF Center board member and one of the primary instigators of the High Cove community, was also the instigator of our little cartographic party. She shared a number of cool electronic maps, including a map of smells in a Manhattan neighborhood and a data map of Brooklyn showing Brooklyn blocks where people sent to prison cost over $ 1 million  (at $30,000 per year, multiplied by x years of the sentence, multiplied by the number of prisoners from the block).

Map of New York smells.

Heat map of arrests in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

We also shared some great online resources including a tragic and data-rich visualization of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, a free, interactive Mitchell County NC map collection, and a site that uses three-word combinations to help people anywhere in the world remember and locate a GPS point.

With folks from Germany and Yugoslavia, folks who’ve lived in the Carribbean and Spain, and folks who have collectively traveled on most continents, our little party was keenly aware that the map is not the territory. Our conversation turned from maps to our own experiences of places – from swinging bridges of Mitchell County to carrying food and water through the jungle. Maps are a great tool for sharing details from past adventures, and for planning and dreaming about new ones. We geeked out over maps for two hours and we can’t wait to get together again next month.

We crowd in for a better look at this topo map of Mitchell County.

Weaving Research into Creative Writing: Two Events

Writer Cynthia Reeves is the 2018 “Art of the Climate” resident AS IF Center. Her current writing project is a trilogy of linked novellas entitled The Comfort of Water. All three are set on the Svalbard archipelago, where in June 2017 she shared the Arctic Circle Summer Solstice expedition with 31 other artists. Cynthia is pleased to offer two events, co-sponsored by AS IF Center and Toe River Arts — a workshop on using science in creative writing, and a talk about her adventures in the Arctic and how they have inspired her writing.

Both the workshop and the talk will take place on Saturday, March 17 [NOTE NEW DATE] at the Arts Resource Center at Toe River Arts, 269 Oak Avenue, Spruce Pine, upstairs. Events are free of charge, but participants will need to RSVP to reserve a spot, and will be encouraged (but not required) to make a small donation to AS IF Center and Toe River Arts.

The author writes: “That one can ‘live’ on an ice floe—at least for the time the floe remains intact—is fascinating to me. During our trip, we anchored to an ice floe so that I was able to experience what that would be like, the dangers inherent in it, the way it moves without you noticing.”

WORKSHOP: Making the Leap from Fact to Fiction
Saturday, March 17 10:00am-2:30pm with a break for lunch (try Fox & the Fig or DTs Blue Ridge Java). This workshop will focus on finding inspiration for creative writing in “fact” and incorporating research into fiction. We will address questions such as: How do you write authentically about subjects with which you might be only tangentially familiar? Why do certain subjects–climate change and historical events, for example–intrigue you? How can that fascination be put to use in your writing?

Preparation for the workshop will include completing several reading assignments totalling approximately eight hours. The workshop will consist of an informal lecture as well as a writing exercise that will be completed in class and shared with other participants. Due to time constraints, there will not be an opportunity for Cynthia to read the work of participants beforehand.

Minimum 8 participants / Maximum 12
Workshop registration closes March 10

To apply, write a brief (250-300 word) essay about why you are interested in the workshop, and email to us by March 10.

TALK: Of Ice Floes, Whale Bones, and Abandoned Mines: Close Encounters from the Arctic Circle Summer Solstice Expedition
Saturday, March 17, 4:00pm-5:00pm

This talk will reflect the ways in which travel and research inspire Cynthia’s work. She will share photos and personal experiences from her Arctic Circle residency aboard the schooner Antigua, and will read from her work-in-progress inspired by encounters from that residency. One impetus from her trip that shaped her project were serendipitous comments from her fellow artist-shipmates as they wound down their adventure. They would say: This is our “last landing,” our “last beach,” and “our last glacier.” The idea of there being a “last glacier” jogged something in her mind—tying the idea of climate change and its potential impacts directly to her work. The stunning and otherworldly beauty of the Arctic landscape was also a source of inspiration, especially contemplating what would be lost if that landscape continues to be compromised.

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