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Hedgebrook forges ties to community with help from alumnae

Ruby Dixon is one of the in-house chefs who provides gourmet meals using freshly picked garden produce for writers staying at Hedgebrook. - Patricia Duff
Ruby Dixon is one of the in-house chefs who provides gourmet meals using freshly picked garden produce for writers staying at Hedgebrook.
— image credit: Patricia Duff

There is a place of enchantment here which finds its way to women’s hearts, and their pens.

That seems to be the sentiment of the women writers of Hedgebrook, the Langley retreat where authors are nourished in body and soul.

The writers are fed with hand-picked food from the garden, given their own cottage where they can rest and write without interruption, and surrounded by the quiet beauty of island nature.

Now Hedgebrook is inviting the more than 1,000 writers who have passed through their gardens and forest cottage doors to return to the island and read their work.

“Women Authoring Change” is a reading series made up of four parts.

“Literary Landscapes” is one part of the brand-new series created for the Whidbey Island community which will be inaugurated at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 30 in the Hedgebrook orchard with authors Kathleen Alcala, Nassim Assefi, Claudia Mauro and Holly Hughes.

The island series takes place the last Saturday of every other month; future readings in August and October will finish the 2007 season. The series will continue in 2008.

Lucky stiffs

All the authors reading have been guests at the non-profit retreat and have enjoyed visits — ranging from two weeks to two months — where they spend their days in solitude; writing, reading, walking the forest trails or the long stretches of Double Bluff Beach.

In the evenings during their stays the writers gather in the farmhouse kitchen to share their stories over a home-cooked meal made with fresh Hedgebrook garden produce by in-house local chefs Jess Dowdell and Ruby Dixon.

The women invited to the retreat come from all countries, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, levels of experience and all genres of writing. Their commonality: they’re women and they’re writers.

Some of the most recent writers said that they step into the bucolic unplugged existence at Hedgebrook and find a lightness of being in their bodies and in their work.

“It gives you what you didn’t know you needed,” said Susan Somers-Willett, a recent resident of Hedgebrook.

“I’ve wanted to be a writer for a very long time,” added Sheela Reddy, a co-resident and journalist from India.

“This place does something for you — you are not looking for a story any more. This kind of cherishing is transforming. You don’t have to produce saleable stuff to call yourself a writer. You begin to see that here,” she said.

Community time

Hedgebrook executive director Amy Wheeler explained that the mission of the retreat, which was founded by island philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff 20 years ago, has been attained and surpassed. That mission is “to invest in women who write by providing them with space and time to create significant work in solitude and community, and by developing an international network to connect writers and audiences.”

Now that Hedgebrook has matured, and succeeded in developing a stewardship of the land and a refinement of the retreat, Wheeler said the institution is ready to reach out to the Whidbey Island community and enhance the spirit of collaboration that exists here.

Hedgebrook is deeply committed to fostering ties with local vendors and organizations, and has already established strong partnerships with Burning Word Poetry Festival and the Whidbey Island Writers Association. The Hedgebrook staff also uses local businesses for their banking, bookkeeping, groceries, housecleaning and garden supply needs.

In addition, staff members recently held a “Community Conversation” event in May where they brainstormed with community members on how Hedgebrook could strengthen its ties to the community even more.

“We’re part of this vital artistic community and until now, have been a quieter part in order to protect the privacy and solitude of the writers,” Wheeler said.

“But now, we are finding ways to feature our 1,000 alumnae who would like to be more of a presence on the island,” she added.

Writers enamored

Even celebrity writers find they can’t let go of their connection to the retreat and want to give back what they’ve gained there once they’ve left.

Hedgebrook alumna Gloria Steinem is the leader of the first Creative Advisory Council, which was organized to guide Hedgebrook into the next phase of supporting women’s voices.

Steinem returned to Hedgebrook in July 2006, nearly a decade after her first visit. There she continued work on an non-fiction account of her 35 years of traveling and political organizing, with the working title of “Road to the Heart: America as if Everyone Mattered.”

Equally as enchanted by her forays to Hedgebrook as other writers, Steinem said, “I’ve experienced the truth of the Hedgebrook phrase, ‘radical hospitality.’”

Wheeler said that spirit of hospitality was inherited from Nordhoff, who started inviting writers to stay when Hedgebrook was her private home.

“That hospitality comes from Nancy,” Wheeler said. “It’s her style; humble and generous.”

That spirit is pervasive, and many of the writers have expressed an interest in returning for the readings, teaching workshops and becoming ambassadors for Hedgebrook in the Puget Sound community. And the Hedgebrook staff is actively heeding their call.

Looking ahead

The other parts of the “Women Authoring Change” reading series include “First Thursdays: Hedgebrook alumnae readings at the First Thursday gallery walk in Seattle’s Pioneer Square,” “City Wor(l)ds,” with Hedgebrook alumnae readings and community literary events held at venues throughout Seattle, and co-hosted readings at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle with Hedgebrook alumnae.

Wheeler said they are also in the beginning stages of creating an endowment and have set goals that include building a solid financial base that will sustain Hedgebrook for another 20 years and beyond.

If the writers who go there are a barometer for the future of this island treasure, Hedgebrook will sustain itself for many years to come.

“Hedgebrook brings you back to your self in the strongest and gentlest way possible,” said writer Ruth Forman.

For more information about Hedgebrook and the “Women Authoring Change” reading series visit www.hedgebrook.org, or call 321-4786. Hedgebrook is located at 2197 Millman Road in Langley.

In case of rain, the reading series will be in the Longhouse instead of the orchard.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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