The Wren’s Nest Comes to You

The Wren’s Nest is excited to announce the launch of its first guided virtual tour, now available here!

In the wake of COVID-19, The Wren’s Nest has been closed to visitors since mid-March. Like so many businesses and museums, we have shut our doors until we know it safe for visitors to return. It’s been a shame to have this house, which has been a museum for more than 100 years and is a physical link to the historic West End neighborhood’s past, sit empty for months. But the great challenge of a physical link to the past like a historic house is that it’s just that: physical. It’s not something you can easily send or share with others.

Thank goodness for technology. Because now you can take a guided tour of this Atlanta fixture from the comfort of your own home. That’s right: This is a tour you can take without ever putting your shoes on. Or your pants. It is #quarantinelife after all and we’re not here to judge.

 

This general information tour provides an overview of some of the museum’s highlights. Using Google map technology, you can move throughout the house and discover facts about the rooms and/or the objects in them. Discover how we got our name in the East Parlor; move to the Girls’ Bedroom and learn why there’s a mirror on the floor; or stop in at Joel Chandler Harris’s Bedroom and see a room basically untouched by time.

In a strange twist of fate, we have actually been working on this tour for several months, before the pandemic ever struck. We were fortunate enough to receive a grant from Georgia Humanities funding the project and have been working with the talented Google Trusted Independent Photographer DJ Jennings from Atlanta Street View Inside to make the idea a reality. It just so happens that now more than ever, a virtual guided tour of the house is the only way to take a guided tour of the house.

We hope that will change soon. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this virtual tour. And we hope to bring you more of them highlighting different subject areas in the future. We look forward to the day when we can welcome visitors back in person to actually walk through the museum. Especially since we were busy renovating the house before COVID-19, so there will be a few changes the next time you visit.

And we will insist that you wear pants and shoes then.

Writing in a time of coronavirus

Perhaps it was an omen.

Three Scribes at KIPP Strive Academy working on their stories before the shutdown. From left: Amaya Conner, Faith Lawrence, Amirah Jabbie.

In January, when we asked students in our Scribes writing program to pick a topic for their stories, we suggested that since it was 2020, they look 20 years ahead and describe the world of the near future. Our students are middle-schoolers and love science fiction, so many of them imagined doomsday scenarios involving meteors and climate disasters.

We had no idea how eerie it would all seem in a few weeks.

Scribes is one of the best things we do at the Wren’s Nest. Every year, we recruit media professionals to mentor middle-school students at the KIPP Strive Academy, a public charter school that occupies the former Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School building near our home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Lain Shakespeare, our former executive director, started the program in 2010. More than 125 students and more than 110 different mentors — writers, academics, journalists, PR people — have participated. This is our 10th anniversary year.

My wife, Pam, and I — both semi-retired journalists — directed this year’s program in consultation with KIPP English teacher Celeste Clark. Twenty-five students and 15 mentors signed up. We would meet every Thursday after school and spend an hour working with the students, getting to know them, helping them choose their topics, talking about storytelling, critiquing their early drafts in Google Docs. You could feel the enthusiasm.

Then the pandemic struck.

The 2019 class of Scribes in the entrance of the old Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School.

We had just finished our March 12 session when the Atlanta school system announced that all classrooms would be closed because of the coronavirus. We were seven weeks into a 12-week course, and we weren’t sure whether we could continue.

We tried to mentor our students online. But as any teacher in America can tell you now, distance learning, while better than nothing, pales in comparison to classroom instruction. Some of our Scribes had internet connectivity issues. Many were distracted by the strangeness of trying to work in a shelter-at-home environment. Some no doubt saw it as an extended snow day.

The goal of Scribes is to produce a collection of stories that the Wren’s Nest publishes in a book. We’ve put out 10 Scribes volumes since 2010 — that’s last year’s cover on the left. Every Labor Day weekend, we host a launch party for the students and their families at the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest and best book festivals in the country. I’ve been to many of these parties and have never tired of watching bright middle-schoolers become published authors for the first time.

It’s going to be different this year. More than half of the students have not finished their stories, so we don’t have enough content for a traditional book. Nor is the book festival likely to take place as it usually does, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets and crowding assembly halls and church sanctuaries to hear authors talk. There will be no book launch party for our Scribes and their families this year.

So we’re doing what we can to celebrate these student authors. We’re editing the stories we have, choosing excerpts from some of the incomplete ones, and publishing samples of their work on the Wren’s Nest website in the coming weeks. It isn’t what we planned, but we’ve all had to change plans of late.

We promise these stories won’t be too apocalyptic. One of the unfinished ones, for instance, was going to describe a world overrun with giant cats. The working title: “Cat-pocalypse.”

If only our reality had been as cute.

Our first Zoom book talk

At 4 p.m. this Sunday, May 17, the Wren’s Nest will host its first online book talk. Jonah McDonald, an entertaining Atlanta writer and tour guide, will talk about his new book, Secret Atlanta: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. It contains a short chapter about the Wren’s Nest … which made us curious.

We’re assuming that since our historic house is not truly obscure, we are either wonderful or a little weird. We wouldn’t disagree with either. Jonah focuses on Akbar Imhotep, who has been performing Uncle Remus tales at the Wren’s Nest for 35 years. Good storytellers have a way of finding each other.

That was certainly the case in 1882, when Mark Twain, an admirer of the Uncle Remus stories, invited Joel Chandler Harris to New Orleans to give a book reading at the home of author George Washington Cable. Twain told Harris that he could make more money on the lecture circuit than he could selling books. But when it was time for him to stand up and read, Harris, a lifelong stutterer, couldn’t bring himself to do it. Twain tells the story in his 1883 collection, Life on the Mississippi:

“Mr. Cable and I read from books of ours, to show him what an easy trick it was; but his immortal shyness was proof against even this sagacious strategy; so we had to read about Brer Rabbit ourselves.”

We can assure you that Jonah McDonald has no such apprehensions. Too bad they didn’t have Zoom book talks in 1882. Joel Chandler Harris might not have minded public appearances as much if he had been able to do them sitting in a rocker on his porch peering into a laptop.

To attend the talk: Register at Eventbrite and you’ll receive an email with a link to join the meeting on Zoom. It’s free, and books will be available for sale. Hope to see you Sunday — virtually, that is.

 

 

Cinco de what?

One of the stranger things we’ve found at the Wren’s Nest is this book from 1993 titled Uncle Remus con chile.

Get a load of that face. Looks like our storyteller has discovered Tex-Mex and become a hipster. Love that red hot chile pepper shirt!

The book is a legitimate collection of humorous folklore from the borderlands along the Rio Grande Valley. It was one of the last volumes published by Américo Paredes, a great Mexican-American folklorist who taught at the University of Texas in Austin and helped found what is now called the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at that institution.

Univ. of Texas Libraries

“I must apologize to the serious reader for the title of this volume,” Parades writes in the introduction, apparently wondering whether the Uncle Remus allusion is too gimmicky. The introduction is the only part of the book that’s printed in English.

He needn’t have apologized. Peredes was collecting folklore –  humorous folklore – and if that made him think of Uncle Remus and Joel Chandler Harris, well, of course.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.

 

Take a Sad Song and Make it Better

Written by Jim Auchmutey, Wren’s Nest Board Member

This was to have been the fifth summer that Jazz Matters performed outdoor concerts from our backyard stage. Much to our regret, the season has been canceled — or at least postponed — because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jazz Matters is a local nonprofit that promotes the music and tradition of one of America’s greatest cultural contributions. Founded by veteran Atlanta musician Edwin Williams and his wife, Janice Williams, Jazz Matters organizes three or four summer concerts on the Wren’s Nest grounds, using the stage that was built in the 1920s for the annual May flower festivals that were held for decades. The concerts draw hundreds of people to the Nest and make our yard look like a West End version of the Chastain Park amphitheater, with candlelit tables, picnic spreads and wine bottles. If you’ve never been, these concerts are some of the most fun events that happen at the Wren’s Nest.
If circumstances permit, we hope to host a couple of outdoor Jazz Matters concerts this autumn. In the meantime, we’ll soon start posting online performances and other surprises from our musical friends. And soon, we’ll tell you about another event scheduled for this summer that had to be canceled because of the pandemic — another concert that might have drawn the largest crowd ever at the Wren’s Nest.

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