Charles Hood, a writer and photographer based in the Mojave Desert, found his photography roots at PLAYA when he came to work on writing projects. He went bats for PLAYA–that is, he recorded Myotis species in audio and visual formats here and hasn’t looked back. He gravitates to natural spaces, having been a Research Fellow with the Center for Art + Environment, an Artist-in-Residence with the Center for Landscape Interpretation, a Fulbright scholar in Papua New Guinea, and a National Science Foundation Artist-in-Residence in Antarctica. His 13th and 14th books, both about natural history, are coming out in April 2019.
Charles, what led you to Playa?
Bill Fox, Mike Light, David Abel, to name three people who come first to mind. They had all gone to PLAYA to do important work; each told me I would be a fool not to apply. I didn’t yet know Dan Mayer or Shelly White, but if I had known them, they too would have drawn me to PLAYA as inevitably as an Imperial cruiser’s tractor beam pulls in the Millennium Falcon. I thought I was coming for the landscape, but it turns out I was also coming for the people.
Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it?
I was working on three books, all of which have since been published, and two have won national awards. Of the three, one was a trade book with dozens of photographs I took at PLAYA; more photographs from my residency will be published in spring 2019.
To create the two small press books, I needed a studio. I have an okay house for writing, but what I don’t have at home or at work is access to studio space.
Thank goodness for PLAYA. There was a studio with walls and floor space that finally allowed me to “see” the book as a whole, all at once, and then from there I could get the right flow. I had my music and my colored pencils and I was dancing around the studio, pulling things off the walls and rearranging them, then marking new text in color-coded notes. It felt like I was trying to edit Apocalypse Now or something.
I also could try out ideas on my roommate, poet Charles Goodrich, and of course the other residents. I am used to working alone: it was such a rush to have the space physically and mentally. And I just can’t rave enough about how that book was allowed to happen because of PLAYA. That it won an award later makes it so much better.
How do you think the land and waterscapes here affected your work?
I am an addict when it comes to viewsheds. I need to be able to look out at the land in order to think—Brooklyn seems like Hades to me—and that also means being able to look up, straight up, into un-light-polluted night skies. One of the three books was a poetry collection called Partially Excited States (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), and it has Great Basin material that came directly from my interaction with the landscape at PLAYA. [Note: Partially Excited States won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.]
Dan Mayer was at PLAYA then, too and was creating an accordion artists’ book called Myotis Sounds.
The image in Dan’s book was inspired by conversations he and I had about tape recordings I was making of bats with my phone. I’m rather a Luddite in my sense of tech, so both an iPhone and a bat detector keyed to it were new things to me. I got the bat detector just 24 hours before driving up to PLAYA, so I barely even knew how to turn it on. Discovering PLAYA’s bats—and there are a lot, over PLAYA’s pond—in turn has taken me into bat photography, both in the American Southwest and in Nicaragua.
Describe a typical day at PLAYA.
I don’t think this is healthy, so I don’t recommend it, but when I am really cooking on projects, I don’t keep normal hours. Starting at regular bedtime like 10 or 11 pm, I would sleep a few hours, get up and work most of the night, birdwatch or hike at dawn, work some more, and then try to make it up by sleeping in the afternoon. Then dinner with my roommate or the group, more work, then sleep a few hours before getting up in the predawn. You could go out on the playa and trip out on the night sky, and if that doesn’t fire your jets, God knows what will.
What were some highlights for you?
Three things I worked on at PLAYA were subsequently published: bird book, poetry book, fiction book (and the two *creative* ones won national awards). PLAYA work will go in a fourth book, too, out in April 2019 — a mammal book with the northern pond muskrat on the inside and a deer from up at the Summer Lake Wildlife Area on the cover.
Since being at PLAYA, I’ve become good at bat photography. While at PLAYA, when I was in the studio re-sequencing my book, a bat visited one night. Maybe a big brown bat? (The species, I mean.) Oh—and I saw a shrew! A species called “vagrant shrew,” which is a terrible name since it makes it seem like it is unemployed or in some way untrustworthy. That helped break my bad luck streak with shrews and since then I have seen at least six more species. (I keep an animal list, in case that is not clear.)
Charles Goodrich was highlight, too: I knew the name but not the man or the work. Among other things he reminded me that you can do good writing and still have time to make very good food for dinner. I wish he lived closer to me; I need the cooking lessons. He also is a gifted carpenter, so maybe there is a connection with the handmade and the homemade. I recommend his poetry to everybody. As for my work, it’s in the PLAYA library: readers of this blog should be sure to apply for a residency, and then they can read my work for free.
Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.