Bakersville’s Sue Wasserman is Steve Kemp’s 2022 writer-in-residence, which means she will live and work near Great Smoky Mountains National Park for six weeks. She will write, create photography, and deliver public programs on both the Tennessee and North Carolina side of the park.
Wasserman was chosen for the role in 2019 by a panel of Smokies board members and authors assembled by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which coordinates and funds the residency. But the pandemic has prevented the GSMA from hosting it so far.
Spreading her time in the Smokies over multiple stints that began in April, Wasserman is mentored by program namesake Steve Kemp, who was director of interpretive products and services with GSMA for 30 years, publishing books, magazines and other materials that further help preserve the park.
“Having a walk and dinner with Steve to kick things off was really great — especially considering our shared love of nature and writing,” Wasserman said. “After waiting over two years to come to the Smokies for this residency, I am extremely excited to begin this work and also to be a GSMA Ambassador.”
Wasserman’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Southern Living, Smokies Life, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, among others. She has published and promoted two books – “A Moment’s Notice” and “Walk with Me: Exploring Nature’s Wisdom” – both of which combine nature photography and reflective writing.
In some ways, Wasserman’s immersion in the Smokies represents a return to the natural world of his childhood in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey.
“The lake was literally in our front yard,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent hanging out on the dock or on that one stretch of grass on the shore watching the ripples. We had a tree by the lake that had this huge opening. My sister and I have invented countless adventures in this space.
Wasserman explained that White Meadow was essentially a Jewish community that formed due to anti-Semitism that kept families from living elsewhere.
“That’s how my parents got there in the mid-1960s,” she says. “One of my mom’s best friends from the Bronx lived there and when my parents found out they weren’t welcome in Mountain Lakes they moved to White Meadow.”
Wasserman went to Ohio State on a fencing scholarship — she laughs at how far away she is from fencing now — and from there embarked on a marketing career based in big cities like Atlanta. It wasn’t until her late 40s, she says, that the flowers began to call her back to living in the natural world.
“It took many years of unlearning to get back to the person I think I was always meant to be,” she told me. “And yet, it is all the experiences of my life in business that allow me to do what I do now.
Wasserman is passionate about nature and teaches it to others. She enjoys working with adults and children, using language and nature to evoke the nuances of each.
“I can’t believe I’ve lived in western North Carolina for 10 years without knowing the Smokies,” she said. “I feel like every trail has a story it wants to tell through the landscape, wildflowers, animals and insects. I want to understand these stories better.
She also believes, like many, that what makes the Smokies so special are the stories of the people who lived on the land before it became a national park – both the settlers and the Indigenous peoples before them.
“I also want to hear more about these stories and thank those who gave up such a magical place to allow people around the world to feel the magic of the landscape that was part of their heritage,” Wasserman said.
Based on his experiences in the park over six weeks, Wasserman will create essays and images to share in the GSMA’s Smokies Life journal and his Smokies Live blog.
One project will be themed “Hike-Ooh,” of which Wasserman said, “I find immense joy in writing haiku, a form of poetry whose influence is often nature. These simple poems also pair well with nature photography. My goal is to compile a series of these poems and images inspired by my experiences in the park with the possibility of culminating in a book.
Another planned project is the Perspectives quilt, an interactive creation that will begin with Wasserman asking questions such as: How do others see nature? How does that make them feel? Are some perspectives based on cultural biases? This will ultimately involve park visitors discovering their own insights into finding inspiration in nature – and sharing the quilt’s collaborative creation.
“There is a concept in Judaism – tikkun olam – which means ‘fixing the world’ and that each of us is responsible for doing something to that end,” she said, adding that much of that she is and what she does is rooted in that concept.
“Nature, it seems to me, offers so many life lessons if we pay attention to it, if I pay attention,” Wasserman concluded. “Through my meandering through the Smokies, I continue to learn more about myself, and in doing so, I become clearer about how I can give back to those around me. I’m not sure I can think to a greater gift than this.
If you would like to be involved in any way with Sue Wasserman’s residency projects, she would love to hear from you at [email protected]
Frances Figart is editor-in-chief of the biannual journal “Smokies Life” and director of creative services for the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Contact her at [email protected] and learn more at SmokiesInformation.org.