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A Story About Black Walnut

Sometimes a great story begins to take shape long before we know it is going to be a story at all. It can be the little things in life making their impressions on us and beginning to add up into sentences that brings about the urge to tell a story. That’s the way this story came to me. It’s about a black walnut writing tablet that led me to a sanctuary farm in New Hampshire this past Memorial Day weekend where I landed on black walnut floors to fill myself with silence. I departed on the second day having heard everything I needed to know. I write now from my home in Boston days away from having broken my silence to tell you everything I know by way of a story.

Once upon a winter day in the historic seaport town of Portsmouth New Hampshire where my partner George and I were living for the winter I sauntered over the Memorial Bridge to Kittery, Maine and found a warm and inviting shop to step into. What caught my eye was the beauty of the wooden furnishings and artifacts. And there it was, a piece of black walnut shaped into what the shopkeeper had called a wooden clip board calling out to me. I picked it up and touched it on all sides as it immediately transformed in my imagination from a clip board into a woodland writing tablet. I was in love. But as I tried to imagine a use for it in my life I couldn't, and so I put it down. To support me in my letting go I tapped into George’s beautiful engineering mind that questions the “use case” for all material things in our lives. But as I turned my back and left the shop, I knew somewhere deep inside of me I was coming back.

And then just a few days later my phone rang. It was my friend Kim, a fellow curator of books and stories asking me to co-create with her around an idea to spark wonder for individuals with seasonal retreats. She knew my work with Curative Reading that focused on the health benefits of making deep connections with literature and the natural world, and she wanted to integrate these ideas into a unique vision of her own bubbling up around wonder and nature. I immediately knew my response to Kim was to be a hearty “yes”! I had also found a use-case for my woodland writing tablet. It could become a gift for retreat participants to use for reading and writing while also serving as a tactile reminder of their connection to nature. By the time we hung up the phone WonderLIT Wellness Retreats had been born.

WonderLIT Wellness Retreats: Bringing people together seasonally to enhance wellness with wonder through inspired literature, sacred nature, and vibrant local food.

Within days I returned to Kittery with George—both of us now fully on board with my use-case—to meet the shopkeeper to tell her of our interest in purchasing a quantity of woodland writing tablets for WonderLIT. We learned that each board could be custom cut by the shop’s owner, a wooden boatbuilder and miller with an emphasis on sustainable forestry practices. During the visit we also discovered our shopkeeper was a wellness chef with a deep well of experience in local foods and healthy cooking, including her management of Stonewall Kitchen’s cooking school. She and I exchanged numbers to talk some more to explore the idea of bringing local farm-fresh foods to the retreat. I left the shop that day with deep connections beginning to take shape and a feeling of wonder washing over me. A vision to bring people together seasonally to enhance wellness with wonder through inspired literature, sacred nature, and vibrant local food had become clear.

By mid-April WonderLIT became a reality bringing twelve retreat participants to the literary capital of America in Concord, Massachusetts. Our theme was re-story-ation offering anyone moving through challenging change and transition the opportunity to imagine a new story or next chapter in life by allowing the health of their body, mind, and spirit to follow the rhythms of the natural world. We stayed in a newly imagined healing home sanctuary of a gifted intuitive sound healer and reiki master. We walked the woods of Walden Pond, taking in the transcendentalist sentiments of Henry David Thoreau while also reading a contemporary work, Collisions of Earth and Sky. It offered us tools to stay deeply rooted to nature, spirituality, and mysticism in the modern world. The author joined us for the weekend taking sojourns, eating local vibrant foods, and practicing self-care with us all along the way. Our healing home had peaceful sleeping rooms with all organic bedding for twelve, a sacred labyrinth to walk on the property, far infrared sauna and Biomats, an outdoor hot tub, a quiet reading room, and private meditation nooks. It did not take us long to find the rhythms of re-story-ation.

Each of us became storytellers, listeners and healers during those three days all the while holding on to our woodland writing tablets as the words fell out. One evening we sat together with our tablets on our laps before bed and asked them to inform us in our dreams of that next chapter yet to be written in our lives. There was no doubt in my mind that my black walnut tablet had a plan for me. In that moment I promised to close my mouth and listen.

The interesting thing about listening is that we must be completely silent inside to deeply hear. And sometimes what we hear does not form into sentences that make logical sense. But there is always something to hear. I returned home from WonderLIT with two words… Let Go.

Within the month that followed I returned to Boston from my Portsmouth winter and put my home on the market after thirty years of Back Bay living feeling the call of greener pastures in a smaller walkable village with access to local food, clean water, and kind community. My home sold within the week and suddenly my future was a wide-open sky of blue. That’s when I knew I needed more listening and opened my email to find a season of silent retreats being offered by Hallelujah Farm in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. This is a place with hundreds of sacred acres of open pasture and farmland. I had visited the upper farm with my family in 2014 for a reunion when the vision for a lower farm retreat house was just taking shape. We took a tour of the new construction where I got my first glimpse of black walnut in the beautiful custom woodwork.. I was mesmerized and knew I would be back one day. Why it took me almost a decade to come back is another story having to do with a protracted illness that ultimately led to a magnificent reshaping of my entire life and career in hospitality.

Perhaps this is the point in the story where you may be expecting to hear the enlightened part, the part where I heard all the beautiful messages about what I am supposed to do with my life, how Kim and I will make WonderLIT into a non-profit to transform suffering, and where I will go when I leave Boston on June 30th. But the interesting thing about listening to all that black walnut in the silence is that it offered me only negative space and nothing at all except a deep sense of feeling loved and held by grace. I moved to the rhythm of three other beautiful humans, a coyote, a hummingbird, a babbling brook, mottled sunlight, black flies, and ants. I drove away with only a question, “How am I to respond?”.

And so it is that you will have to wait for my story to unfold knowing that my black walnut writing tablet and I will be leaving Boston within thirty days and nights. Know that wherever I show up black walnut has made me a better listener and with this gift I find a renewed certainty that wherever I go I will hear the call and respond with love.

Catherine Brooks

Literary Apothecary & Curator of Stories for Medicine

Curative Reading

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