PLAYA is thrilled to welcome the return of alumni Sarah Rabkin and Charles Atkinson to Summer Lake, on May 3 through 5, to lead our first master class of 2019. Former residents Chuck and Sarah both taught writing at UC Santa Cruz for many years. Sarah is the author and illustrator of What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World; she leads writing retreats and illustrated-journal workshops in a variety of alluring venues in California and Oregon. Chuck has published seven poetry collections, including several prize-winners—mostly recently This Deep In (Hummingbird Poetry Press) and Skeleton, Skin and Joy (Finishing Line Press).
Chuck chose to answer PLAYA’s questions in verse. Please read his delightful responses here, in his Atkinson-Summer Lake Journals. Once you enjoyed that read, check out Sarah’s answers below–and gaze upon these samples of her illuminated pages.
Sarah, what led you to PLAYA?
A friend told me about PLAYA’s then-nascent residency program. I was immediately drawn to images of a leafy oasis at the Great Basin’s western edge, out in the Big Quiet. I kept the place tucked in my heart and applied when the time was right. I’m grateful to have been granted a residency then and, three years later, a second one.
Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it?
I arrived for my first PLAYA residency expecting to work on an extended piece of writing. I did spend many hours on that project—but, to my surprise, also ended up dedicating much attention to a series of illuminated pages: annotated drawings, illustrated texts. That, for me, is one of the gifts of creative residency: the sense of permission to follow your inclinations where they lead, even—and perhaps especially—if they take you around an unexpected bend.
How do you think the land and waterscapes here affected your work?
I found inspiration in long vistas—dust devils whirling for miles; the chameleon playa shifting from yellow to lavender to jade. In a landscape whose initial impression is of wide-open space, I also delighted in myriad small details awaiting discovery at close range. The work I did at PLAYA was fueled sometimes by expansive sensations the place evoked and at other times by the intimate attention it invited.
One day I visited Summer Lake’s nearby alkaline companion, Lake Abert, whose sixty square miles of arid silence on that searing afternoon burned itself into my mind. I later learned that not long before I saw it, Abert’s thriving populations of brine shrimp and alkali flies had provided a lifesaving rest-and-fuel stop for tens of thousands of migrating birds. Then the lake’s volume shrank by ninety percent in a single decade, increasing the water’s salinity beyond the point at which the shrimp and flies can survive.
Research published in 2016 showed* that while drought was partially responsible for depleting the lake, increased agricultural groundwater-tapping and surface-water diversions from the Chewaucan River almost certainly also played a role. Complex hydrology, tangled water rights, and thirsty livelihoods apparently make it difficult to find out exactly where the water goes, let alone know how to keep the lake’s ecosystem from dying.
Abert’s plight mirrors the one from which a scrappy band of scientists and activists has for decades been saving California’s Mono Lake. I was surprised to learn that a landlocked body of salty water I’d long loved in my home state had a sister in Oregon. To encounter Lake Abert was to be reminded that even in the places we turn to for refuge, our own activities imperil the health of water and land. The urgency of that reminder colored my work, pushing me to consider how it might contribute, at least in some small way, to healing a torn world.
Describe a typical day at PLAYA
Wake to a rectangle of lightening sky in my cabin’s east-facing window; watch the sun break free over a low ridge at the far horizon. Dress, eat, work; run, shower, work; wander, eat, work. Open a bottle of wine with the painter in the neighboring cabin; watch together as a muskrat swims the pond. Cook, eat, read. Step out onto the deck for a last drink of black sky and starlight; slip into bed.
It’s a spirited, congenially contemplative way of life, one I could inhabit in deep gratitude for months at a time. In providing this gift to so many creative souls, PLAYA’s dedicated founders & supporters and skilled, hardworking staff do the world a profound service.
What were some highlights for you?
Rambling on the lakebed investigating the behavioral repertoire of playa mud. Meandering up toward Winter Ridge with my sketchbook under my arm. Sitting down at the desk at dawn and standing up dazed, long past lunchtime, having traveled to a new and necessary country.
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.