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Retreating to the Writerly Life at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

In May, 2004, the Eagle fire torched some 9,000 acres in Southwest Riverside County. Orange and yellow flames whipped to frenzy by Santa Ana winds fireballed through Dorland Mountain Arts Colony near Temecula. The colony's nine buildings -- cottages, studios, kitchen, music room, etc. -- burned so hot even the windows melted. Rare books, paintings, records, administrative records, Mrs. Ellen Dorland's concert Steinway, two other pianos, and everything else -- destroyed. Typewriters in the soot, twisted to a melted mess.

In the 1930s, Ellen Dorland, an internationally renowned concert pianist, and her mathematician/musician husband, Robert, homesteaded 300 acres southeast of Temecula. With a getaway in mind, they built an adobe cabin where artist friends visited and recharged. Ellen's friend, Sergi Rachmaninov, the Russian pianist, often visited, playing piano for evening's entertainment. Ellen sometimes performed intimate concerts there. Students drove all the way from Pasadena for lessons. 

Robert built a pond to collect water from a natural spring, a magnet for birds and beasts. The Dorlands liked their getaway so much, they eventually moved full-time onto the property. Keep in mind Temecula was little more than a dusty cowtown at the time, and the Dorland property was remote and wild.

In the late 1970s, after visiting artist retreats in the East, Ellen and her environmentalist friend, Barbara Horton, decided to convert the Dorland property to a retreat similar to those they saw. Over the years, they added six redwood cottages designed to accommodate writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers. They added more buildings for caretakers, a shed for maintenance, a large kitchen house where communal meals were prepared and served.

Dorland's reputation as a serene yet artistically charged place grew. More than 1,200 artists came over the years to find alone time, the serenity of nature, the starry skies, the camaraderie of other artists, conducive to exploring their art. The redwood cabins were rustic, spare, yet cozy. Without electricity, resident artists wrote by the glow of kerosene lamps, heated their cabins with wood stoves, showered with water warmed by wood. No TV, no easily accessible WiFi, there simply was no excuse not to work. Many great noteworthy works have been produced here. Alice Sebold, author of "The Lovely Bones," worked on her rape memoir "Lucky" in a Dorland cabin.

But the fire.

The fire incinerated all that.

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony didn't give up. It's been a community effort to resurrect the colony, the board of directors taking an active role to raise money to rebuild. Slowly, funds permitting, the colony reincarnates. Some relocatable buildings have been installed for staff. Two cabins, architecturally inspired by those designed for Katrina victims, are up and running. The new cabins feature modern conveniences the old cabins lacked. New cabins sport electric lights, functioning kitchenettes, and best of all, air conditioning. The old cabins baked in the summer heat. Now thermostats control the cool. Wood-burning stoves, though, still heat the cabins, with Dorland providing the wood.

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony | Photo: Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

In dawn's pink light, Janet Roberts, writer, hikes down the road to Highway 79 and back up the incline to her cabin. It's a meditative outing, a way to germinate and solidify ideas. After her walk, or before sleep, she engages in an hour of yoga. "I need my yoga practice," she says. "It really helps to calm me and keep me focused on the writing."

With classical music drifting through the screen door, she sits on the front porch of her writer's cabin, sips green tea from a yellow cup, and drinks in the expanse of rolling, brush-covered hills that eventually lead to the city of Temecula about eight miles away. Hummingbirds of iridescent green plumb nectar from nearby yellow brittle brush. The sights and sound of Southern California are new and exciting to her. Very different from her native Philadelphia. Plus she has spent the last decade or so in international service, seven years of it in China. The SoCal landscape offers new surprises with each turn in the trail.

While in China, her parents died, and so did her cat. She returned stateside needing a place to collect herself, sort through her grief, and immerse into the memoir and poetry she had in mind to write. She'd been to writer's retreats before, but since she would be in San Francisco, she wanted one on the West Coast. She longed for a quiet cabin in the mountains, and discovered Dorland online. It sounded perfect.

And Dorland has been good for her. She wrote 50,000 words on her memoir and polished a poetry collection she's tentatively titled "Reflections, Reflexions, and Refractions." As a bonus she penned 70 haikus, connecting words to nature. She took the words of Albert Einstein to heart: "Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better."

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony | Photo: Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

She marvels at the cottontail rabbits nibbling shoots trailside, the deer camouflaged amid the chamise, the songbirds trilling from oak branches. Casting bird seed to the birds is part of her morning ritual. Some oaks survived the fire, their serrated leaves rattling in afternoon breezes. The sights and sounds of the land inspire her work.

Roberts studied literature and writing at the University of Wisconsin Madison and has the equivalent of a master's from University of Oxford, England. She's taught writing, both fiction and non-fiction most of her life. She's found a writing rhythm here.

Up early, frequent walks, sometimes three a day, yoga, reading, writing, quiet meals. She doesn't have a car, but Dorland staff drives her to the Temecula Farmer's Market on Saturdays for fresh produce and a bit of fish. She eats very little meat. But like Virginia Woolf who she quotes: "Who can possibly write well if you haven't dined well," she enjoys her meals. She makes good use of the cabin's kitchen. But she's been at Dorland almost three months, some days never talking to another human, and admits to feeling a bit isolated at times. It's been good for her, sure, after all she wanted mountain-cabin solitude, but: "Be careful what you ask for," she says with a chuckle.

Pre-fire Dorland featured a common room big enough to accommodate gatherings. Evenings, with the work done, artists often relaxed after dinner with glasses of wine or gin and tonics to talk about their work, about their lives, about how damn hot it was that day.

Amie Charney, Dorland board member, says such a facility is high on the wish-list. "We're working to establish Dorland as a gathering place for local artists as well as out of town residency artists," she says. "We want Dorland to be a focal point for art in the region."

A writer and poet, Charney has herself done a Dorland residency, and like so many, became enchanted. She's become an advocate. As a board member she looks for innovative ways to raise funds to bring Dorland back to it's full glory, she says.

Toward that end they the board started an Associated Artists program. For $100 annual fee, residents artists who sign up before hand, can paint, write, photograph, or simply be on the grounds Monday and Tuesday between 10 a.m and 3 p.m

Associated artists can use the Dorland logo on business cards, letterheads for promotion. They can choose to be included on lists that help promote artwork. Discounts are offered to those who want booths to sell their art at Open Studio Days, mini-art
festivals that promote local art.

Jill Roberts, Dorland director, says the colony is accepting applications for residencies that last anywhere from one to eight weeks. The cost is $300 a week, you supply your own food.

Dorland is a hymn, an adventure, a confluence. From watching closely as an ant lugs a seed to its underground colony, to climbing a trail to view the chaparral-covered hills from the heights, to sitting in the gazebo reading words of Basho, to fingering chords on a cabin piano, to drinking coffee on the porch at break of day, life and beauty intersect at Dorland.

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony | Photo: Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

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