Feature Friday - Ashley Williams
What is your full name and where are you from?
Ashley Eliza Williams
I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern Virginia, lived for seven years in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and recently moved to the Berkshires, in the foothills of Mount Greylock, just a few minutes from the Appalachian Trail. (North Adams, Massachusetts)
In your own creative definition or description, please share who you are :::
I’m a painter interested in biodiversity, rewilding, and interspecies relationships. Making art is a way for me to remember ancient landscapes, to dream of new ones, and to imagine different ways of interacting with nature and each other. I have spent most of my life so far exploring, making things, and studying relationships between humans, non-human animals, and the environment. My goal is to reach a deeper understanding of the natural world we live in, one lichen at a time, and also to tell stories about the landscapes that we have and that we’re in danger of losing.
Please describe a meaningful experience in nature from your childhood :::
There are so many!
1. Bugs: I grew up in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains just within the Humid Subtropical Zone that spans most of the South-Eastern United States. My sister and I spent summer afternoons riding our bikes to Back Creek - a shallow tributary of The Potomac that teemed with life. We turned over rocks, watched crawdads, water spiders, and daddy longlegs, and played with roly poly’s (pill millipedes). At night, we’d catch lightning bugs. It often felt like I could explore one square foot of the world for the rest of my life and still find new things, which is actually more accurate than I understood as a child.
2. Trees: Once I grew tall enough to reach the lowest branches, I remember spending entire summer afternoons climbing trees. A squat little maple tree in our front yard was an ideal hiding place. My favorite playscape was a long stand of pine trees in our back yard, so densely packed that it was possible to climb from one tree to the next without touching the ground. Pine sap doesn’t wash out of hair or clothes easily and my sister and I spent most of our early adolescence with pine needles stuck to our elbows and knees. When I learned in school about small dinosaurs trapped in amber, I remember thinking that if I stayed in the trees for too long, the same thing might happen to me one day.
3. School: One of my favorite school assignments was The Sixth Grade Leaf Project. My classmates and I were tasked with finding and labeling all the major tree species in our area. I took this project very seriously and my family and I went on long hikes in the Appalachian Mountains searching for different tree species. I extracted a single leaf from each new tree, pressed them into a notebook, and proudly labeled them. It was a very simple exercise, but it encouraged all of the students to explore and look closely at nature. It was also a meaningful bonding experience with my Dad, who studied biology in college and could already name many of the trees. It helped me to understand my immediate environment in a deeper way, and I started noticing details that I had overlooked before.
What role, significance or theme does the natural world hold for your life today?
I’ve lived in the mountains my whole life and I’m at my most creative when walking in mountain forests. My explorations are curiosity-driven and my work is about wonder, abundance, and possibly. I’m interested in all the systems, beasts, and organisms of the non-human world. I’m also fascinated by concepts like re-wilding and de-extinction. I want scientists to re-populate the landscape with giant sloths and extinct carrier pigeons, and I’m delighted by fringe environmental and conservation-based projects. I desperately want to be an environmental optimist, but anxiety about climate change is never far below the surface.
My goal over the next few years is to tell stories about the emotional experience of scientists working on climate change research, conservation, and species extinction. Since 2017, I’ve been interviewing scientists about their experiences with environmental grief. I’m fascinated by the choices we make in studying or protecting one specific animal or ecosystem over another. I’m also interested in the ways in which scientists grapple with issues of loss, mortality, and optimism on the front lines of the climate crisis.