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A Conversation with Martha Park

Excerpt from an interview and profile piece on an alumna of the Jackson Center of Creative Writing at Hollins University.

Published by Hollins MFA

Zooming from her home in Memphis, Martha Park (MFA ’15) tilts her laptop to show us the illustrations she’s been working on just prior to our call: a series of landscape paintings. Fitting for Park who is a writer, illustrator, and an emerging voice at the intersection of religion and the environment. With recent features in The Bitter SouthernerImage Journal, and Guernica, Park’s work brings stories woven with regional spirituality to the national stage. She explores the tension and kinship that arises between faith and place with a care and conscientiousness that can come only from a life lived close to her subjects. 

The daughter of a United Methodist preacher, Park says her journey to becoming a nonfiction writer may have started in the pews listening to weekly essays in the form of her father’s sermons. A disciple of famous Hollins alumnae Annie Dillard and Sally Mann, Park found her way to Roanoke and earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2015. Following her degree were a myriad of early-career successes including the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing, a fellowship with The Religion & Environment Story Project, and grants from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Though she says writing and illustration require separate parts of her brain, she frequently weaves the artforms. The landscape paintings sitting to the left of Park are for an upcoming essay to be featured in Orion Magazine this spring, adapted from an essay in her debut collection, World Without End, out with Hub City Press in 2025.  

Our conversation touches on her forthcoming collection as well as reflections on the time she spent at Hollins, her journey to writing nonfiction, and her identity as a Southern writer. About her experience at Hollins, Park says, “It’s such a precious time.” Before we sign off, she asks if there is still a poster of Sally Mann in the graduate student lounge. She turns her laptop again to show us the same Sally Mann poster, framed and hung in her home—a gift to her from former faculty member and program director, Richard Dillard. It’s a testament to the strong community at Hollins, but it’s also indicative of Park who makes space for the places and people around her, living fully with and among them.  

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Manatees & Mermaids: A History of Animal Myths

Excerpt from an article for Natural Habitat Adventure's Good Nature blog, the partner travel agency of the World Wildlife Fund.

Where do myths get their start?

Manatees are marine mammals and are often called “sea cows” because they graze on aquatic grasses. They’re known for their curious and calm nature, often approaching humans and investigating vessels. Travel to Florida between November and April, and you’ll likely see Manatees in rivers, estuaries, and along coastlines. Intimate interactions with wildlife in their natural habitat like those afforded on Nat Hab’s Florida Nature Safari reveal a species’ temperament and the most minute of its tendencies. These close encounters often unveil the origins of an animal’s mythos. As you watch Manatees bob below the surface from the seat of an airboat or float alongside them in a sea kayak, you might recall those early sailors who mistook the creatures for mermaids.   

Why do humans mythologize animals?

The animals that inspire us are often exotic and infrequently seen, contributing to their mysticism and our consequential curiosity (as the manatees certainly did for early sailors.) But humans have a long history of relying on the animals native to our home regions and living closely with them. Animals have provided us with resources throughout our species’ history.   

The animal lives that fed, clothed, and kept us in safe company are also ones we mythologized. This traditions is especially strong in Indigenous cultures. Indigenous people on North America’s Northwest Coast depicted stories and illustrated folklore on wooden monuments known as totem poles. Tlingit and Haida artists often carved animals that provided resources and carried spiritual significance. Throughout the ancient archipelago, Haida Gwaii—which translates to “Land of the Haida” and is home to an oral history that spans 7,000 years—totem poles erupt from mossy coasts with pictures of native animals such as bears, orca whales, ravens, and frogs. The poles tell stories of tricky ravens and strong bears, and they capture how animals surrounding us were some of our earliest sources of inspiration.

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