You Get Your Own Island
Poets & Writers Magazine|March - April 2020
Exploring Wilderness Residencies at National Parks Across the Country
Rachel Riederer

When poet Julie Chase-Daniel, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, spent a month with her husband, Matthew, a visual artist, on Loggerhead Key, an uninhabited island seventy miles west of Key West, Florida, she discovered a new sense of time. She’d start her mornings with a walk around the island, taking in the bird life and noticing how the tides might have shifted the sandy landscape overnight, and come back with her pockets full of shells and little objects she’d found, then spend the rest of the morning writing and reflecting. Her office was a beach chair and large umbrella. With no distractions—the island has no phone or internet service—she found a new rhythm. “It really changes the nature of time,” she says about life on the tiny island, part of Dry Tortugas National Park, without twenty-first-century technology. “You’re in tune with tides and the moon and the sunset. You’re able to understand your work more deeply across time,” she says.

The Chase-Daniels enjoyed their monthlong desert-island adventure, which took place in the late summer of 2017, courtesy of the National Parks Arts Foundation (NPAF), a nonprofit organization that runs writers- and artists-in-residence programs in cooperation with national parks, national monuments, World Heritage Sites, and other parks across the country. In some ways, a month on Loggerhead Key sounds more like a private-island vacation than the typical writers residency—the privacy of the island provides great freedom and an opportunity for artists to immerse themselves in an expanse of sea and sky that most people will never get to experience. For the Chase-Daniels, the hours of artistic practice were punctuated by carefree skinny-dipping and snorkeling jaunts to explore the coral reefs offshore. Julie steeped herself in stories about the island, which used to house a marine research lab, found references to the island in Hemingway stories, and learned that Cuban fisherman used to frequent the island to collect seaturtle eggs; she discovered a legend about a band of down-and-out circus performers who wound up bringing their caravan of animals to the island by boat. But without any source of fresh water, none of the island’s visitors—migratory or apocryphal— could stay very long.

While the stretches of uninterrupted time and turquoise ocean vistas are luxurious, the residency also comes with serious responsibilities, and the artists selected have to be self-reliant. When a park ranger brought the couple to the island via boat, they brought all their food and supplies for the month along with them. They stayed in a small house powered by solar panels and equipped with a desalinator that could make the ocean water drinkable. “I think it’s self-selecting for people who delight in being off the grid,” Julie says. Because of the intense isolation, the NPAF accepts only applications from artists in pairs—either couples, like the Chase-Daniels, or collaborators who know each other well enough to live together for a month with no other people. Aside from the off chance that other visitors might venture out to the island, the only other human contact was with the ranger station at a nearby island, reachable only via a two-way radio.

That radio came in handy when, a few days into their stay, Hurricane Irma approached southern Florida. The pair were evacuated before the storm hit the Florida Keys on September 10 and drove inland to Orlando, where they hunkered down and waited out the storm. After the storm passed and it was safe to return to Loggerhead Key, the NPAF ultimately extended their residency, and they were able to stay on the island through mid-October.

Despite the drama of the evacuation, and the intensity of the experience—or perhaps because of it—both artists regard their time on the island as a gift that profoundly influenced their work and their thinking. “All the distractions of everyday life can make artistry difficult. This forces it on you,” Julie says. The two also collaborated more closely than they had before, creating a book of photos and poems, The Blue Fold, that collects some of their reflections from the islet. On their last night on the island, they walked along the beach as some sea turtles hatched— there were more than four hundred turtle nests on the island that year—and got to see some of the tiny turtles making their way toward the relative safety of the water. Julie saw a crab approaching one—the newly hatched turtles make an easy feast for predators—and was able to save it and release it into the waves.

Tanya Ortega, the artist who founded the NPAF, says she loves to describe the Dry Tortugas residency with a simple phrase: You get your own island. But she suspects that sometimes artists and writers are shy about applying. Some years the organization receives hundreds of applications for the one annual opportunity. But one year, after the residency was featured on NPR, the number of applications dipped dramatically. She thinks that writers and artists, hearing about the residency in the media, assumed the competition would be too stiff and decided not to try—but she urges artists to go ahead. The NPAF residencies rotate among a range of many parks— the offerings for 2020 include Dry Tortugas, Hawai’i Volcanoes, and Gettysburg National Military Park, and there are plans to expand and include more.

The NPA F itself was born out of Ortega’s own often frustrating experiences trying to find opportunities for exist ing national-park residencies. She had worked in Yellowstone as a teenager and has a keen awareness of the ways that the history of the National Park Service (NPS) is intertwined with artistic work. “Art made the national parks!” she says. At the end of the nineteenth century, the painter and illustrator Thomas Moran captured the landscapes of what would later become Yellowstone, and his art— along with others, like the writer John Muir’s poetic dispatches from Yosemite—helped inspire the awe for these places that got the National Park System established.

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