GCC workshop focuses on ‘sense of place’
Submitted photo Erica Wheeler will hold her two-hour workshop, followed by a concert, on June 2. The 1 p.m. “Soulful Landscape” workshop, for which advance registration is required, will be followed by a 3 p.m. concert by Wheeler that’s open to the public. Both events will be at Katywil on Stetson Brothers Road.
COLRAIN — Singer-songwriter Erica Wheeler remembers growing up in suburban Maryland, where her father imbued her with a sense of curiosity about the stories behind everything they encountered.
“My dad would take us on lots of trips to the country,” she said. “He’d teach us about the places, these little Maryland towns he loved. He’d ask, ‘Why do you think the train station’s here?’ and ‘What’s the industries here? What happened, and where did it all go?’ He’d help us see these layers of time.”
Wheeler, who moved to the region in 1979 to attend Hampshire College, and then after 14 years of living in Florence and then Shelburne Falls, moved to Colrain 10 years ago, began leading “Sense of Place” writing workshops in 2002, around the state and around the country.
Now she’s preparing to lead her first such workshop in her own town, a two-hour workshop followed by a concert, on June 2, sponsored by Greenfield Community College’s Pioneer Valley Institute. The 1 p.m. “Soulful Landscape” workshop, for which advance registration is required, will be followed by a 3 p.m. concert by Wheeler that’s open to the public. Both events will be at Katywil on Stetson Brothers Road. (Reservations for the workshop and concert can be arranged by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org )
“When I was a teenager, I learned about myself through learning about ecosystems and nature, and history — the layers of time,” said Wheeler, whose curiosity and passion about the natural and cultural landscape expressed itself through her involvement in an Audubon Society youth group. “I could understand who I was by understanding what came before me.”
With her voice set against the murmur of Taylor Brook just outside her living room and traffic from dump trucks of manure going by from the dairy farm up the road, she said her workshops are geared for anyone who wants to get their creative juices flowing.
“I help people generate ideas and imagery to use, however they use them,” she says. It begins with a discussion about not only the place they’re inhabiting at the moment, and the awareness of the layers of cultural and natural history there, but also a place that holds meaning for them. Then the exploration begins of what makes that important to them and why they feel connected.
“I help people remember what they care about,” said Wheeler, who has been surprised that in most cases, people at her workshops are focused less on “great vistas and important places,” and more on “small intimate experiences: the crook of a tree, a walk with someone special, the smell of the pines that day.”
For her, the moment that holds power was that early spring day when, walking across the railroad tracks on her way to school in suburban Washington, D.C., when she first looked up at the tree buds and noticed “so many variations of reds, yellows, light and dark greens. I’ll never forget that day, that moment and place.”
It’s that kind of strong sensory memory and passion for where we are that many of us experience without consciously stopping to acknowledge and appreciate it. “Sometimes I get busy, I don’t take the time. ... This is about having time for reflection and integration, for understanding the intersection between their life and that place.”
The June 2 workshop — an abbreviated version of sessions she’s held atop Mount Sugarloaf, as well as recently at Yosemite National Park and the Adirondacks — provide “an opportunity to slow down and see what stories and connections you may have or may never have made before, and learn the skills that help you create something from those.”
In concert, the singer-songwriter will share some of the songs about the mills and about farms that were here and were gone, and about how they changed this place.
“I think it’s a yearning that can be evoked,” says Wheeler, who strives to do that through her own singing, and believes the workshop can help people tap into those memories that help root them and deepen the meaning of their lives. “A GPS tells you where to go, but it doesn’t ground or orient you.”
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