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by Becca Lawton

It’s 5:30 p.m. and something’s missing. I’m standing at my kitchen island, certain I’ve forgotten an appointment. But what? Nothing’s on the calendar, everything seems in place. Still I have the niggling feeling I’m overlooking something important. My gaze wanders to the windowsill and a postcard propped up on it. The caption reads, Cedar Cottage, Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, Langley, Washington.

There’s the answer. My body remembered what my mind did not: if I were at Hedgebrook right now, I’d be arriving in the farmhouse kitchen just in time for dinner.

I’d be feasting my eyes on roasted local chicken prepared by lead chef Denise Barr, or handmade pastries rolled out by Julie Rosten, or an apple crisp filled by Anne Huggins with fruit just picked from a small orchard outside the farmhouse window. Or I’d be anticipating the bounty of several baked goods served up by Rio Carmen Rayne. Any one of these skilled chefs would be introducing the evening’s meal: local lamb, poultry, beef, or fish prepared as a curry, stew, or roasted entrée; steamed or casseroled vegetable from Hedgebrook’s garden tended by master gardener Cathy Bruemmer about one hundred paces away; tossed or chopped salad of greens from that same garden or a farm down the road; locally baked bread as well as a muffin or pastry pulled fresh from the oven moments before; just-made dressing concocted from the pantry of ingredients organized in labeled jars on kitchen shelves as beautiful as they are practical.

On 48 acres of forest and meadow on Whidbey Island north of Seattle, Hedgebrook is truly a refuge from distraction, other work, and daily responsibility that pull writers away from works in progress. The center hosts six writers at a time in spring, summer, and fall. A writer’s stay there has the quality of stepping back to a simpler existence. And one feels the mark of excellence on everything, from the dedicated staff who keep the wheels of retreat life turning, to the garden that’s nothing less than a work of art, to the hand-built writers’ cottages in the cedar forest where every detail matters.

And the food matters. Hedgebrook’s meals have earned a reputation that extends beyond the literary community. Chefs work every day, through the hours, to prepare a dinner feast, a packaged lunch for the next day’s sequestered writing, and a selection of breakfast goods from which the writers choose their own morning meals.

Dinner Monday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday are the only appointments a writers is expected to keep during her stay. A common feeling upon arriving is reluctance to leave one’s desk at dinnertime, but that reticence soon dissipates. Residents come to recognize that Hedgebrook’s work is done as much at the farmhouse table as within the cottages, because conversation leads to collaboration leads to synergy. With the main course, dessert, coffee or tea, and absorbing discussion about diverse subjects, each meal can last for hours. As the program notes claimed for Hedgebrook’s 2013 25th anniversary reunion, “So Much Depends on Dinner”: the Hedgebrook network thrives and grows from our being present to share meals as well as to give attention to each other’s work as ideas evolve every evening.

After residents enjoy the meal both prepared and shared by the chef of the day, Denise or Julie or Anne or Rio will rise to bring a dessert still warm from the oven: a pie, tart, crisp, cake, or fruit bar made from the day’s harvest and served with one’s choice of several frozen yogurts or ice creams. One of my favorite treats during my fall 2013 stay was a pan full of dessert bars baked fresh by Rio, the newest chef at Hedgebrook. Summer was still upon us. A hard worker, Rio showed up early to prepare five or six irresistible dishes for a single meal. She arrived each morning in a sundress over which she’d wrap an apron that added another layer of color to her lovely everyday clothes. She wore her long hair pulled back, her pretty earrings dangling. The kitchen warmed as she heated the oven and stovetop then moved through her chores. When we arrived to the kitchen each evening, she’d announce the dinner, her face and skin glowing with work. During my residency, her masterpieces lacked not only gluten but also almonds, to which she knew I’m allergic. She made walnut-coconut dessert bars twice while we were there, the second time in generous response to our love for them.

Rio Carmen’s Walnut-Coconut Bars


1 ½ cups ground walnuts

1 ¼ cups shredded coconut

½ teaspoon sea salt (Celtic or pink)

¼ cup coconut oil

2 to 3 teaspoons maple syrup or agave nectar

½ cup raisins


Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients with nuts and coconut. Transfer to food processor or use handheld blade mixer to add in oil and sweetener. Mix in raisins with care. Pour into 8 by 8 inch glass cooking dish. Wet hands, pat down lightly.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Makes a dozen or so servings depending on size of bars.


In quantum physics, field theory goes something like this: space is filled with fields, invisible, non-material influences that are the basic substance of the universe. Any place or group of people is filled with these influences and invisible forces that interconnect. None of us exists independently of our relations with each other. The individual within a larger network maintains a clear sense of its identity while relating to others in a way that helps shape it. The field has been used by experts in organizational theory to help train leaders to maximize a group’s potential.

The field at Hedgebrook consists of residents past and present, staff, and supporters who are linked by their experiences there. They share a continued love for the place and a purpose, best described by Hedgebrook’s tagline: “Women authoring change.” In creating a field of support, evolved thinking, and generous sharing, we learn to generate a better world beyond our borders.

Hedgebrook’s field is dynamic and nurturing. No matter how storied, honored, or lauded the resident—be it Gloria Steinem, Carolyn Forché, Dorothy Allison, Jane Hamilton, Ruth Ozeki, Monique Truong, or another of the many writers who are now Hedgebrook alumnae—she takes her place at the farmhouse table every evening and converses as a peer. She’s come to complete a manuscript, or start a new one, or contribute her expertise to Hedgebrook’s Creative Advisory Board. The very walls resonate with her ideas. The field is enhanced by each author’s presence even as she is supported and regenerated by not only her stay but also her presence at dinner.

One morning during my latest stay, the kitchen was abuzz with visitors from a Seattle television station. Chefs Denise and Julie were at work creating a lunch in celebration of their just-released Hedgebrook Cookbook: Celebrating Radical Hospitality. Both authors were waxing modest about the beautiful new book, to which they’d contributed recipes, text, and expert advice. Julie, also the illustrator whose watercolors dance off the book’s pages, claimed, “I’m not a writer! I’m just a cook. This is just something I wanted to give back to this place.” She and Denise were happy to leave the outreach about the publication to Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook’s capable and devoted Executive Director.

Amy describes the book as conveying “the essence of what happens at our retreat, when women writers come together in solitude and community.” Gloria Steinem adds to this sentiment: “It’s as if women took our 5,000 years or so of nurturing experience and turned it on each other.” And so we sat shoulder to shoulder, dedicated creatives working on novels, books of poetry, plays, short stories, libretti, essays, our efforts now connected forever through Hedgebrook’s famed radical hospitality. Who knew being radical could be so simple?

We residents salivated over an advance copy of the cookbook as well as the handmade meat pastries Julie had set before us. She’s just a cook, yes, and a sage, an accomplished artist, an expert in the art of living, and now a published author.

The day before I was to leave Hedgebrook, Rio was back working in the farmhouse kitchen. The evening’s dinner was to be our last supper together. I knew I’d miss poets and playwrights Suheir Hammad and Ana Maria Jomolca; novelists Roohi Choudhry, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Sarah Manyika; and author and editor Ann Medlock. We’d grown as close as sisters.

We’d asked Rio to bring photos of her husband, Ayo, who she met when she was traveling in Spain just out of college. As we arrived for dinner, she smiled and told us she’d left pictures of him home in deference to his shyness. In place of a photo, she’d brought two bottles of his wine. Ayo’s the winemaker and co-owner with Rio of Useless Bay Wines in Langley.  That evening she shared Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling from their personal wine cellar.

The wine was a rare gift. Ayo had learned his craft well from years of apprenticeship in Napa Valley; his wine was the finest I’d tasted while on Whidbey. A resident not just of Hedgebrook but also of California wine country, I recognized Useless Bay Wines as artisan wine at modest prices. Although Rio and Ayo closed their winery at the end of 2013, they will continue to share their gifts with the world in a new ways they’re just now contemplating.

Before I left Hedgebrook, Rio shared another recipe with me. This one is for a sweet, moist muffin—again, gluten free—that earned raves around the table. When I packed up my breakfast for the next morning, I made sure two (okay, three) of the muffins were tucked in my cottage basket.

Useless Bay Carrot-Nut Muffins


1 ¼ cups ground walnuts

½ teaspoon soda

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon sea salt (Celtic or pink)

2 Tablespoons olive oil (light)

2 eggs

¼ cup maple syrup

1 ½ cup grated carrots

½ cup raisins if desired


Preheat oven to 325°F.

Mix wet ingredients, add combined dry ingredients. Stir in oil, eggs, syrup, carrots, and raisins. Cook for 20 minutes. Makes a dozen or so moist, mouth-watering muffins. Enjoy!

From Hedgebrook’s meadow near the center of the property, views to Mt. Rainier across Puget Sound come and go with the clouds. The paths through the mowed grass allow one to glimpse the mountain if it’s “out.” No one calls the meadow a field exactly, but as I crossed it to my cabin I thought of it that way: a collection of kindred spirits, a synergetic way of being, an open sharing.

Though reluctant to leave Hedgebrook, as we all are, even so I’m always happy to return home to Sonoma. And as I stand in my own kitchen at 5:30 p.m., thinking of my cottage in the woods, I remember my sisters of the written word, Hedgebrook’s quiet and peace, our conversation at dinner, and the nurturance of fresh, good food. I am reminded of the words of Executive Director Amy, who joined us for a meal near the end of our stay. “Take it home with you,” she said. “Take this out into the world.”

I throw on my own cooking apron and get to work.


Rebecca Lawton (Becca) has had the great good fortune to stay at Hedgebrook twice; she has spent her time there writing about nature as she finds it in humans and the wild. Her first short story collection, Steelies and Other Endangered Species, was completed at Hedgebrook in 2013 and is forthcoming from Little Curlew Press (2014).


2013_AuthorPhotoBecca’s work has been published in Orion, THEMA, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Shenandoah, Sierra, and many other journals and anthologies. Her essay collection about her first career, whitewater guiding, is Reading Water: Lessons from the River, a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area Bestseller and ForeWord Nature Book of the Year finalist. She is co-author of three additional books on creativity and the outdoors, including the forthcoming Sacrament: Homage to a River, a collaboration with photographer Geoff Fricker on about California water issues (Heyday). With her agent, Sally van Haitsma, Becca published a debut novel, Junction, Utah, which she worked on during her first stay at Hedgebrook in 2009.

Becca has taught writing for Point Reyes Field Institute, Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference, North Coast Redwood Writer’s Conference, Skyline College, Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Petaluma Writer’s Forum, and many other venues. Her literary honors include the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers and three Pushcart Prize nominations—in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Above all, she has been honored with life-changing residencies at Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and The Island Institute.

For up-to-the-century news, visit Becca here:

Website: www.beccalawton.com

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


Becca Lawton
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