In the years since she landed in Princeton in 1972, Fran McManus has become known to the wider community primarily as longtime marketing and communications manager for the Whole Earth Center. Throughout, she has maintained a focus on food and farming, but branching out over the years to also become a freelance writer (she is a regular contributor to Edible Jersey magazine), an editor and co-editor of a line of cookbooks, among them Cooking Fresh from the Mid-Atlantic (2002), and an educator conducting food-focused workshops for children and adults.
In recent times she has broadened her focus by exploring the sensory, social, cultural, and economic relations that define a community. One result of that focus is a series of unique workshops being presented to the public this October by Friends of Princeton Open Space. McManus has been a member of that non-profit’s board for the last four years.
“Nature as Muse: A Sensory Exploration of One Landscape through Four Creative Perspectives” will run on four consecutive Sundays this month.
Each 90-minute workshop will include a walk through the woodlands of Mountain Lakes Preserve led by a Princeton-area creative professional who uses nature as inspiration in his or her work. Etienne Bouckaert, a perfumer with Firmenich, will discuss “Capturing the Aromas of Nature”; Gab Carbone, co-owner of the Bent Spoon artisan ice cream shop, “Taking Culinary Inspiration from the Natural World”; Sarah Smith, a graphic designer whose Princeton-based firm is Smith + Manning, “The Interaction of Color and Nature”; and Douglas Piccinnini, a poet, will cover “Expressing Nature in Words.” Piccinnini is also a classically trained chef and co-owner of Poor Farm Food in Lambertville.
“It’s an idea that I’ve been kicking around in my head for years,” McManus admits, “partly because I’m really interested in listening to creative people talk about their process. That’s often a difficult thing for them to do — to explain their own creative process — so I understand that it’s asking a lot.” Another reason she developed the idea, McManus says, is that she also has “a curiosity about what accounts for our connection to a place. And I think that the sensory experience is a really crucial aspect of that, of feeling connected to a particular place.”
She does not mean just what we see around us. “We’re so visually oriented in this culture, in this day and age, that I thought it worthwhile to get artisans who experience the world through other senses – like aroma and taste – or who use their eyes but for a deeper exploration of color, pattern and texture.” She relates it to her own struggle to describe places in her writing. “I often laugh at myself, when I’m writing a piece, say, for Edible Jersey, and am trying to set the background. I find myself thinking, ‘Well, the sky’s blue and there are some hills’ and then I think of reading John McPhee on the Pine Barrens, where you feel like you’re there. It’s in noticing and picking the right details.”
Gab Carbone of Bent Spoon is another example McManus offers up. “Gab is a master of this type of thing — and she happens to be very comfortable describing her creative process,” McManus says. Carbone, who will lead the October 16th workshop, explains her own perspective on the interconnections between place and flavor. “Working with fruit foraged from a tree that someone planted many years ago — when that was the fashion of the time — keeps us connected to our shared history. Those stories that we tell through food, that’s the thread of humanity” Carbone writes in her introduction to the workshop.
McManus recalls the time Carbone was asked to contribute an ice cream dessert to a benefit dinner for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed that took place at Elements, the Princeton restaurant, at the end of 2012. “Gab said she immediately needed to put a creative restraint around it, because otherwise there are too many possibilities. Hurricane Sandy had recently happened and she knew about this spruce tree that had come down at Cherry Grove Farm — and she knew how they managed the land there and wanted to use it. At the same time, she had in her head this memory of when she was a child what it smelled like when her father would cut off the bottom of the Christmas tree. So all of these things came together in this creation of spruce needle ice cream.”
McManus admits that she herself is especially interested in perfumer Etienne Bouckaert’s workshop because “aroma in particular appeals to me.” Her awakening came a couple of years ago at the Common Ground Country Fair in Maine. “I was standing at the edge of a pine forest where all day they had been cutting down trees to do sawmill demonstrations, and nearby was a field of new-mown hay. These two aromas hit me simultaneously and I thought, ‘I don’t know what to do with this! If I were perfumer or a chef, I might be inspired to develop a scent or some kind of dish.’ But I just stood there thinking that it smelled good.”
For those who attend all four workshops McManus has developed a sensory notebook. Each session will start with a short talk inside the house at Mountain Lakes, followed by a walk along the lake trail, and then a return to the house for a simple creative sensory exercise determined by the day’s presenter. “Mountain Lakes is beautifully situated and has an amazing number of different ecosystems,” McManus says. “I chose the lake trail for the workshops because it has so many aspects to it. You’re walking through the woods, then you’re down by the lake, then you’re alongside a stream and you look up and have a beautiful view back up from the lake to the house. And it’s a walkable route.”
Enrollment is limited to 15, and nine spaces had already been taken three weeks before the October 9 start date. Although registration requires signing up for the full series of four workshops (at a cost of $100), it is allowable for individuals to share one registration, attending different workshops. Still, McManus encourages the same individual to attend all four to get the maximum sensory-creative impact. “The point here is to step outside your own discipline, and hear from all those different perspectives.”
If spaces remain open after October 1, individual sessions will be available at $30 each (but without the inclusion of the notebook). McManus points out that the workshops will be held regardless of weather (“Unless it’s basically Hurricane Sandy”), and encourages attendees to arrive a few minutes before the 2 p.m. start times in order to unwind. “We’re living in this part of the country and in this culture where just showing up at the last minute and diving in is the norm. I am as guilty of this as anyone,” she admits. “But it’s important here to take a minute to exhale, to get into this natural space that’s a huge asset to our community for so many reasons. Apart from its recreational possibilities and its function as a wedding venue, it has also become this point of inspiration for creative people.”
If this inaugural series proves a success, McManus has ideas for expanding on it. “I’d love to hear a musician’s take on this, or an architect’s,” she begins. “Or you could just focus on exploring color on many different levels: photography, painting of nature, literally exacting color out of the landscape for natural dyes…”
For her, it all goes back to how we experience a place and what it means to be part of a community. “So yes, my work is about local food and farming. Those were the entry points for me, as was immersing myself in the buy-local movement. But all of those are about relationships, about interconnectivity, right? And part of that is about the deep-seated connection to a place that comes through sensory experience.”
For information or to register for “Nature as Muse: A Sensory Exploration of One Landscape through Four Creative Perspectives” visit nature_as_muse.eventbrite.com.