Reflections on the 12th Annual Thunder Arm Writing Retreat

As members of the current M.Ed. graduate cohort, we often have opportunities to assist with North Cascades Institute programs and courses outside our regular teaching schedules. Last month I had the awesome opportunity to assist and participate in the 12th Annual Thunder Arm Writing Retreat offered at the Environmental Learning Center. Poet Tim McNulty and essayist Ana Maria Spagna led three dynamic days that dug deep into self-exploration through prose. Below I’d like to highlight my experience and reflections of the retreat and showcase a poem I wrote over those inspiring days.
I’m an Environmental Educator with an English degree. Simply put, I love reading. Reading has the ability to transport the reader and as a result has enchanted me my entire life. When I volunteered for the retreat it had been some years since I last wrote creatively but only a few weeks since I’d delved into a book. In school I was trained to dissect another’s writing through close reading and critical analysis, not to freely capture my own thoughts through creative writing. The essay for me historically evokes a sense of drudgery, as words like “term paper” and “final exam” flood into my mind. At the beginning of the second day of the retreat, Ana Maria gave a craft talk titled “Peeling Back: The Movement toward Honesty in the Personal Essay.” Through group free-writing exercises she demonstrated how the essay can be viewed as a door to get at the truth of the moment. For the first time my academic experience of an essay transformed into an organic process of self-reflection and natural development of ideas. Both Ana Maria and later Tim McNulty demanded that as writers we trust our voice.

Fallen bigleaf maple leaves amongst the striking evergreen hues of Oregon grape. Photo by Kiira Heymann.

Tim’s passion for poetic expression revealed to us that inspiration is all around us. Over the course of that sunny September weekend we sought the truth of the moment in our sensual experience of nature. Natural history speaks creative inspiration. By closing my eyes and concentrating on my senses of smell, touch, and hearing, I was able to widen my scope of perception. If you’ve ever smelled a ponderosa pine tree, you know how a world opens up beyond your first impressions. No longer is the ponderosa’s main attraction its jig-saw puzzle bark, but rather the sweet vanilla scent it exudes. It has the ability to transport one beyond mere details to a multi-sensory experience of nature. We walked the trails with Tim on a multi-sensory expedition, exploring through poetic prose the towering douglas-fir trees and the dense green understory of salal and Oregon grape.
Through the essay and poem, Ana Maria and Tim created a forum where individuals could find their path to creative inspiration. They reminded us burgeoning writers that writing is an act of attentiveness, a collaboration between the artist, experience, and the process. With that reflection I will leave you with a poem I wrote during the Writing Retreat. Writer or not, I encourage everyone to attend the wide array of programs offered through the North Cascade Institute.


Shot dead by summer

a leaf

lies slumped over a branch.

Warm September sun pierces

its lacey decaying exterior.

A pesky fly

shooed away.

The branch shrugs,

leaf cascading

back to the soil.



this leaf would not survive

I remember

leaves are immune to suffering.

Through decay

only regrowth is possible.


A single fire-red Oregon grape leaf

pokes its head out,

from the understory

beckoning winter.

Yearning to join, its short-day friends.



contradict the warm September sun

with your rainbow colors.


Leading photo of Elise smelling the bark of ponderosa pine. Photo by Elise Ehrheart.


  1. Miro

    How rewarding to read and smell the scent of the Northwest in Autumn…all the way from Arizona. Delightful! Uplifting!

  2. zach

    With all you’re already taking on as a grad students I’m continuously amazed at the participation in extracurricular activities.
    I love the descriptions of your experiences and might feel a slight twinge of jealousy about your wonderful weekend! Glad to.see that my favorite poem of that retreat made it into this post.

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