In case you hadn’t heard, the Libra Foundation is working on turning the Piscataquis County town of Monson into an artist’s dream town, purchasing and renovating buildings all over town (the new-old general store is already looking swell). The foundation is also hosting residencies for artists; one writing and art retreat that caught our eye is a collaboration with Maine Audubon at its sanctuary at Borestone Mountain, just 10 miles from Monson. Kimberly Ridley will be teaching a course called “Wild Words: Nature Writing.” We called her up to talk about what inspires her as a writer and teacher, and along the way learned about her childhood nickname and her favorite roadside ditch in Brooklin.

DEEP IN THE SHALLOW POOL: Ridley is a Maine native who grew up in Springvale, where she developed her love of nature. Her father was an avid gardener, and while he worked in the garden, she and her brother were free-range children. “I would just wander out into the woods by myself. It started with wildflowers. I was obsessed with finding the first flowers of the season.” Her favorite hangout was a large, shallow pool in the woods. The family had an old, “funky” pair of binoculars, and Ridley would take them out there and study the surroundings. She might bring home frog eggs to watch them hatch. It was only later that she realized her special spot was a vernal pool. “And that vernal pools produce more protein than any other part of the forest. They really help feed the entire forest.” Later, this would inspire one of her children’s books, the award-winning “The Secret Pool,” published by Tilbury House in 2013.

Kimberly Ridley estimates that she has visited more than 50 schools around Maine, opening children up to the idea of writing about nature and their interactions with it.

NICKNAMES: It also left her with a lifelong interest in food webs and the creatures within them. “That is where it started for me. The kids on the street called me ‘Mother Nature.’ And that wasn’t a compliment.” Which was fine, she said, because she was in love with nature. “Deep and abiding.” For nine years, she and her husband, the landscape painter Tom Curry, lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Ridley worked in Boston, including as a writer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She also got her master’s in science journalism from Boston University. All the while, she longed for Maine, stepping out of tall buildings to look up at the sky during lunch hour. She’d bring her binoculars with her, and eventually her co-workers noticed and asked her to teach them about the birds. She’d point out things like black-crowned night-herons to them. “They called me Bambi.”

THE AUDACITY OF HOPE: She began editing AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club. While she wondered about ways to get back to Maine, she tided herself over with swims in Walden Pond. And she looked, and listened, everywhere she went. She doesn’t require the exotic, she said. Nor does she keep a life list of birds. Then in 1995, Jon Wilson, the founder of Wooden Boat magazine, got in touch, with an offer that led to her moving to Brooklin. He asked her to help him with a new venture, Hope magazine, which was a small national magazine directed at covering people who were working to make positive change in the world. “It was not religious or sappy or Pollyanna,” Ridley said. After nine years, the magazine closed, unable to reach subscription goals of 100,000. “We were not a nonprofit,” Ridley joked. “We were a nonprofitable.”

ROOMS WITH VIEWS: But she was back in Maine, and her husband had plenty of landscapes to paint; his career took off in their new home. “The joke is I dragged him up here kicking and screaming,” she said. “The Universe has such a great sense of humor and irony.” Ridley has an active freelance writing life, and is a contributing editor to Down East magazine.

BACK TO SCHOOL: She also teaches nature writing in schools all around Maine; she estimates she’s visited over 50 schools to open children up to the concept of writing about nature and their experience within it, “from Kittery to Princeton to Greenville.” The message she gives them is, slow down, observe and record that direct experience. “There is no wrong answer.” She emphasizes that everyone has their own voice, not just in singing or speaking, but in writing as well. “Really the heart of my work is encouragement and helping each person find their voice.”

SMALL WORLD: Her own imagination is fired just as much by the small as any expansive woods. “I have a regular walk that I typically take in the afternoon.” It’s only about a mile, down to a beach, and it leads her past a ditch. “It is often filled with water and I always check to see what’s in there.” It’s the first place she ever saw the larvae of a spotted salamander. She realizes her ditch-gazing may seem a little quirky, especially to the UPS guy who often passes by just as she’s standing looking into the ditch. When he pulls up at her door, she wonders if he’s thinking, “OK crazy ditch lady, here’s your package.” But these are the places where she finds the seeds of stories.

LANDING THE GIG: How did she get the teaching job at the Borestone Mountain retreat? Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s poet laureate, asked her. He’d previously worked with Ridley when he was director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and she’d taught a nature writing class for adults there. The four-day retreat at Borestone, which starts on Sept. 23, is open to all applicants. “Whether people want to write for themselves, their children or grandchildren, or for publication.” Scholarships are available, but the base price is $800. Ridley will be teaching alongside artist Alan Bray, who is offering a painting/drawing class. For more information, visit maineaudubon.org.

READING LIST: Like most writing teachers, Ridley won’t just teach how to write; she’ll direct students on what to read, too. Some of her favorites? British writers Tom Cox and Robert Macfarlane. Annie Dillard, David George Haskell and Helen MacDonald. Also, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who will be speaking in Falmouth this week as a guest of Maine Audubon, and who Ridley says addresses the essential issue of resilience expertly in her work. “I am really curious about resilience,” Ridley said. “What are the conditions for it and how can we foster resilience in an ecosystem?”

TIME OF WONDER: Ridley says her passion is inciting wonder, both while she’s writing and teaching. But she clarifies that she’s referring to something beyond the kind of childlike wonder often associated with naiveté. “I’m talking about a deeper sense of wonder that’s rooted in humility, a word rooted in ‘humus,’ which means ‘of the Earth.’ The world around us is rife with wonder.” Even ditches.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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