Postcards From Whidbey Island || The Radical Hospitality of Hedgebrook

Posted in Literary, More Stories, Postcards from Whidbey Island

Dear One and All:


Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women located on the south end of Whidbey Island, held its annual open house on a recent Saturday. The event pleases everybody: alumnae who revisit the place that’s nurtured and encouraged them, islanders who tour a few of the 48 acres and glimpse the handcrafted cottages where writers work their magic on the page and staff who host a celebration of all things Hedgebrookian.

Hedgebrook springs from the mind and heart of Nancy Nordhoff, local philanthropist and Langley resident. Once the land suggested itself to her as a haven for women writers, she began creating the kind of paradise she thought would inspire them. Some of the elements of her mind/heart quest included: gently-cultivated nature that shielded one dwelling from another for privacy; a distant horizon that included a contemplative view (of Useless Bay); healthy, tasty, locally-sourced food; simple, beautiful, functional dwellings; the camaraderie of other writers over one shared meal every day. SONY DSC

Nordhoff’s ambitions coalesced around, and eventually emerged as, the notion of “radical hospitality.” Accordingly, Hedgebrook’s huge garden provides vegetables and fruit from which produce is canned in the golden light of summer and served to writers in the blue light of winter. Routines have been streamlined to minimize interruptions to the work of writers. The crew has figured out ways to care for the acreage by eliminating certain utopian features that turned out to be problematic or worked against the grain of the land.


Although Hedgebrook is rural and offers peace and privacy free from distractions, it knows it lives in the modern age of technology-driven lives and, consequently, has had to choose the best of both worlds, both for the writers in residence and for itself. Contemplation is necessary to creativity, yes. But computers make writing the next draft easier and faster; the internet delivers research to the doorstep. At the open house, this creative tension was artfully expressed by a video about Hedgebrook looping on the latest edition of an Apple computer nestled into a wood cookstove (cold, for the moment) manufactured around 1922. Technology meets hospitality…meets humor.

More than 1,500 writers have dwelt at Hedgebrook over the last 26 years for residencies lasting from two to six weeks. During this time, the focus of Nordhoff, the board and staff has increasingly shifted to what is truly essential: the mission to support women writers so they, in turn, can tell the stories and communicate the ideas that shape our culture through novels, poems, plays, songs, screenplays, graphic novels and memoirs.

SONY DSCThe notion of Hedgebrook has expanded from a place to a state of mind through salons, master classes, festivals, lectures and other events held periodically—on Whidbey Island, in Seattle and further afield. Through these offerings, the public is invited to participate in the intellectual and emotional life of Hedgebrook.

Hedgebrook has local roots but international influence. Alumnae have received prestigious fellowships, prizes and awards. Prominent female authors and thinkers speak glowingly of the importance of a residency to their own work and to the concept of Hedgebrook as a “nest” and “a haven of deep grace.”

But lest things become too heady, the Hedgebrook cookbook—zucchini bisque, ginger pumpkin bread, smoked salmon cheesecake—brings it all down to earth, back to the land that was so very central to Nancy Nordhoff at the beginning.

The open house at Hedgebrook was a celebration of the spirit and promise of the place and its people. And so, of course, I wish you were here.

Maybe next year? SONY DSC


Photos are courtesy of the writer.


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