Summer Writing Resident Wenbo Bai: Breaking Earth

Wenbo Bai is the third writer of the Summer 2022 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


Read on for a peek into Wenbo's experience below. You can also read more about Wenbo and her fellow residents (past and current) here.

 

The first morning I drove to Woodlawn, a tiny rock threw threw itself onto my windshield and cracked the glass. I have a tendency to catastrophize—was this an omen for a terrible week? No, I told myself. Don’t go there. Instead, what if the rock symbolizes the splintering of old habits, a small, sharp slap on the face of complacency? What if the rock is Woodlawn?



Still, as I turned my car onto the Woodlawn property, I felt a delicious sense of possibility in the air. I was also a bit nervous. I had arrived with exactly one idea: a sentence that had been stuck in my head as an opener to a new piece. It was the first thing I wrote on paper on Monday morning. From there, it felt like I had been silently holding back words the whole time, and they suddenly wanted out. The dreamy, drawling sunrays glowing into the Woodlawn mansion and the cool, clerestory caverns of the Pope-Leighey House provided the perfect settings to experiment with my writing. Throughout the day, I took regular breaks to walk around the lovingly-tended property. It was all truly a privilege.


I enjoyed chatting with Executive Director Shawn Halifax. A historian and public educator by trade, Shawn was in the middle of revamping the Woodlawn tours to revise the previous focus on its white owners to incorporate the history of Black lives that had toiled on the land. From the enslaved to the freed to the post-Civil War community that was ultimately displaced by the US Army to create Fort Belvoir, Shawn was determined to ensure that the full history of Woodlawn was incorporated into the tours. There’s also interesting histories with the different religious groups in the area, he said. With the Quakers, of course, but with the Baptists as well. He was in the process of transforming Woodlawn into a renewed purpose—one that is focused on ethical interpretation, healing, and wellbeing. Shawn was also keen on fostering closer partnerships with the Arcadia farm, which shared the Woodlawn property.

I met Sam one morning on the farm to learn more. He told me that Arcadia doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides and runs exclusively on solar power. The produce is sold via mobile markets to food desert areas around DC, and they also have a veterans program. In turn, Sam asked me about the residency program: how do you know when you’re done with something you’re writing?

That’s one of the hardest parts, I admitted, knowing when to stop. Sometimes it feels like you could just keep rewording and editing forever.



As we sorted carrots, Sam tells me they’re preparing for the fall harvest by planting quick-growing, temporary crops, which return nutrients back into the soil. A transition period. Bare soil is bad, he explained. Ever notice how every inch of a forest is covered, even with moss? Organic farming takes much longer, Sam said, but it’s better for the earth and for the people.

I looked out at the bed of black-eyed peas that would soon be planted with turnip seeds. I couldn’t see the Woodlawn mansion from here, but I had a feeling that the eclectic mix of activities on this land were all connected by a common thread of rediscovery and reclamation, and that the land was healing in more ways than one. Every lovingly planted seed seemed to reassure the land, the former people of Woodlawn: we will continue to take care of this place, and we will also make it better in the process. In contrast to a piece of written work, Woodlawn has the opportunity to reframe its past to nurture and coax its histories and communities powerfully into existence.

Later in the week, I brought my car in to fix the windshield. The repair is just structural, the mechanic said, not cosmetic—so there’s still a small crack visible.

I don’t mind. It means that I will always have this note, this blemish, this birthmark of sorts, as a memory of this transformative week —and to keep drawing me back to Woodlawn.


I’d like to thank Shawn, Sam, Stephen, Peter, Christy, James, Dave, Lindsay, Jessica, Pam, and the rest of the Woodlawn and TIL teams for making me feel so welcome during my stay here. Their love and care for the property manifests in many different ways, and I can’t wait to continue following Woodlawn on its journey.




Excerpt:


Intention


Around this land, animals pant in the sun waiting for water

As blistering blue skies darken,

As thunder rumbles in the distance,

As dripping leaves leave droplets

Weeping into the earth


For this land, saved from the brink of collapse time and time again,

From heavy trees touching the ground,

From ripe fruit rotting onto bare soil,

From forced silence across generations,

Resurrecting quiet voices lifted from weathered pages


Over this land, the truth has no statute of limitations

Over and over it spins,

Over and over reflecting in golden mirrors,

Over and over stamping permanent fingerprints in brick,

Heeding those who were forced onto this land, then forced away


On this land, shifting a paradigm is slower and more difficult than

Bending a cypress cabinet door,

Bending a steel pipe,

Bending a river course,

Carving a canyon from water alone


Throughout this land, redemption blooms not from atonement, or guilt, but

Of fierce love,

Of higher expectations for humanity,

Of standing outside on every scorching day

Nurturing the seedlings underneath the ground


Upon this land,I stand inside the screen-covered patio

No sun,

No bugs,

No butterflies,

Looking out at the frightening beauty of the garden so green

Almost cruel,

Almost overwhelming,

Almost touching beauty

Remembering that this country’s arteries were built by people shipped from continents away


Below this land, bitter melons grow to be consumed by people who look like me

Sleeping soundly on the warm soil,

Sleeping in a truck before they are split open and fried in searing oil,

Sleeping well once returned to the earth,

Dreaming of blooming in the spring

 

Wenbo Bai was born in China, raised in Las Vegas, and lives in Arlington. A Wellesley College graduate and former Fulbright fellow, her travel writing and creative nonfiction has been featured in Writer’s Bloc: A Las Vegas Valley Author's Showcase, Counterpoint, The Wellesley Review, and Letters to My Ex. Wenbo’s work aims to explore themes of travel, nostalgia, loneliness, and the Asian-American experience. Through her volunteer work at KAMA DC, she has organized workshops and storytelling events to highlight local immigrant and refugee skills and stories. Wenbo is currently pursuing her MPH at George Mason University and enjoys biking and eating around the DMV area.