My beautiful mother-in-law, Faye Cooper Stilwell.
Me and Waylon at Salix's Birthday Party. The only baby in the tribe who will let me hold him without wailing. In Sodom.
Somewhere, sometime, I read a quote from someone, I can't remember who. It goes something like this - "Growing a garden is the most radical thing a person can do in this life."
I've thought about this a lot over the years and have come to believe the statement's simple and eloquent truth.
A garden connects us with the earth, the soil, the dirt, the stuff from which we are made. To have our hands in this most fundamental ingredient of our lives, to which we are returned upon death, to smell it, to taste it if you dare; these are gifts a garden offers.
A garden gives us something real in our everyday worlds of plastic and electronics. In our lives of daily exhaustion, of noise, and crowdedness, and anxiety, a garden offers refuge.
A garden empowers us. It encourages us to take some measure of control over what we put into our bodies. It allows resistance to the mainstream culture and the junk it wants us to eat.
A garden requires faith. Faith the seed will germinate and grow. Faith it will produce a harvest that will nurture us and help us grow. Faith it will provide seed to start the process another year.
A garden provides us with memories - of earlier times, of our parents or grandparents, or of gardens we, too, have grown in our past.
I remember my first garden. It was my first taste of fresh spinach. Not the Popeye variety, in a can and cooked to death, but fresh crisp leaves that left your mouth feeling fresh and crisp. Swallowing, you could feel its goodness going down and know, from that day onward, it would be in your life every spring.
We want to believe we aren't like this anymore.
"That was a long time ago," we say. "Things are different now."
"But are they?", I ask.
Perhaps we should ask Trayvon Martin that question.
Or Eric Garner.
Or the man choked to death for selling loose cigarettes on a street corner.
"I can't breath," his final words.
Or let's ask any of the scores of victims of extra judicial killings for which no one is ever held accountable.
Or perhaps we should ask any of the thousands of refugee children separated from parents and caged in steel lock-ups.
"It's like summer camp for them,"
one enlightened legislator pronounced.
I don't pretend to know the answers.
But I do know right from wrong.
I know good from evil.
I know the difference between what is legal,
and what is honorable and human.
I know we have a choice.
Last week, I visited Birmingham, Alabama, to give a talk to a group of photography enthusiasts my friend Carl is involved with. While there, we drove down to Montgomery to experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial, and adjoining Legacy Museum, documents the history of slavery, lynching, and present-day mass incarceration of people of color in our country. Each of the 800 steel monuments (above) represents a county in the United States where a documented lynching took place, over 4,000, between the years 1877 and 1950. The names of the victims are etched into the monuments, which forces us to understand this was somebody, someone's son, or wife, or father; our son, our wife, our father.
As a long-time student of American History, I've visited numerous Sacred Sites around the country - Selma, Wounded Knee, the Little Big Horn, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Trail of Tears - among many others. My interest in these sites is a desire to understand the truth about our country - how it was really founded and enriched and how it continues to enact laws that continue the oppression of poor people, people of color, and people we simply don't like. This memorial is undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching and powerful I've seen and should be required viewing for all Americans.
I go to these Sites hoping to gain understanding, but my words after each visit are, "I don't understand." I don't understand how people could possible be so cruel. I don't understand people's need to dominate. I don't understand why people think they are better than others. And I don't understand our inability to see ourselves for who we really are and the debt we owe our fellow citizens whose land we stole or who we enslaved to build our country.
This Monument is hard for a white person, as well it should be. It forces us to experience our shared history and recognize our present-day complicity in a system that continues to not value the lives of fellow citizens, fellow human beings. As Carl and I were leaving, we looked at one another, and simultaneously wondered why any black person, or Native American, or Muslim, would want anything to do with whites. Carl answered, "It's because they are better people than we are; more forgiving, more caring, more human."
In this time of increased racial animus, with leaders who encourage the ugliness, it's important for all of us with open hearts and curious minds to resist the return to our hideous, dishonorable, and inhumane past.
I haven't published this photograph online before, likely because of the poor condition of the original negative. Photoshop has helped some, but it's going to take someone with more skill than I have to complete the repair.
But I looked at it the other day, thinking I would include it in a slide show, and the photograph brought back memories, as only photographs can do, of my earliest year in the area. Some of those memories are good, some bad, but seeing the picture also raised a photography question I've wrestled with throughout my career.
When I arrived in Western North Carolina, I viewed the place through adjoining filters of romance and nostalgia and this picture fills that bill. The angular man plowing with a mule into the sunset, the light on the peppers, the beginnings of mist in the background. The receding diagonal lines, the way our attention is drawn to the white shirt, the reins draped across the man's back. It takes us back to an older time, perhaps a better time. For me, this became my defining photograph of mountain life.
But I also knew something of the reality of this particular farm, and many others like it, and knew there was little romance about it. It was a hard life, physically grueling, financially insecure, and emotionally draining. And I could see in the landscape around me those small mountain farms and the towns that serviced them were dying, slowly being overtaken by modernity in the form of bigger roads, convenience stores, and more people working away from their places, seeking the mainstream.
I began to ask does the reality of life during that time make the romance and nostalgia of this photograph untrue? A fiction? Or, at the very least, not the entire story? Was I, in fact, misrepresenting an entire culture?
I've begun to believe all photographs are fictions. They have nothing of the smell, taste, and feel of the situations they represent. They are a momentary glance that turns a three-dimensional universe into a stilled life on paper or screen. Yet still, when we look at photographs, and the reality in them, truth is not so much our concern. Rather, we want the memories they evoke, always the good memories, those of romance and nostalgia, when life was more fiction than
RIP Richard McCracken, 1940 - 2018.
one last time,
in these waters of life,
and rest peacefully with the earth.
It's free, every Friday night. Music, dancing, cakewalks, a raffle.
As rich and authentic an expression of local culture as it gets.
In 1975, Sheila Kay Adams took me to meet her Granny Dell in Sodom. That was the beginning of what has become a series of lifetime relationships with Dellie's family and community that continue to this day.
Among the people I met that day were Joe and Marthie Chandler, Dellie's daughter and son-in-law, who lived a couple of miles down the road, but more often than not could be found up at Dellie's where the air was cooler, the view from the porch better, and there were always enough people for a round of "set back."
Marthie and Joe took me under their wing. When I moved to the Big Pine community Joe gifted me my first flock of chickens and I ate so many meals in Marthie's kitchen I soon lost count. In 1979, they paid me the ultimate compliment by asking me to drive them to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, to visit their daughter Sue and her husband, Vince.
Both Marthie and Joe are long gone now. But those of us who knew them - we remember and won't soon forget.
Thinking of my daughter today.
No Birthday. No Anniversary.
No Special Occasion.
I've been going to Paul Gurewitz's house for dinner, parties, volleyball in the old days, 4th of July yearly, weddings, farkell, and just hanging out for over forty years. I've made a lot of pictures while there. But more recently, I've found myself shooting fewer photographs, just wanting to give it a rest and enjoy the company. And after a lifetime of making primarily people pictures, the photographs I am making these days are more likely landscapes.
At Paul's last weekend, a small group came over for pizza and pork, and music and singing. I had brought my camera, more out of habit, than with any intention to use it. So I was a little surprised when the light sucked me in; that soft evening light that happens around here, coupled with the softness of a young person's skin. Where's my camera?
The light on Mr. Rutten was awful, but he got my attention with a version of The Lowland Sea that he just began singing acapella. I remembered the song from my time with Dellie Norton and her family in Sodom, who called it The Golden Vanity. Like Mr. Rutten they sang without accompaniment and somehow remembered the numerous verses.
And I'm just beginning to know this guy Jim Hampton. But he knew most of the words of my favorite Willie Nelson song, Hands on the Wheel, from the Red Headed Stranger album. It's kind of an obscure song and not many people play it. So, the fact he knew the song and could make a go of it helped turn the evening into another successful Gurewitz event.
I wanted a smoke, but had left my pouch of Drum at the house and was at a party where I sensed there wouldn't be too many people to bum from. Standing with my friend who was hosting, my eye settled on an older woman sitting under a tree. I watched as she performed a classic smoker's ritual of reaching into her purse and pulling out a pack of Winstons, I think they were.
Deborah and I approached her and she introduced me. "This is Bobby, our daughter-in-law's grandmother. She's 90 years old." Ninety years old and a smoker, I thought. This is a person I would like and enjoy talking with. To break the ice, I said, "Well, I gotta say, you look great for ninety, not a day over eighty-eight." She had a great laugh.
So, we sat together for a time - talking and smoking. She told me stories about being in Paris not long after World War II ended and the years she lived in Santa Fe. We laughed a fair amount and teased each other.
I remember talking with my Father one time a few years before his death. He was talking about feeling lonely and said, "No one wants to talk to old people these days. Young people just ignore them."
I thought of that conversation with my father as I was speaking with Bobby, staying dry under the tarp, smoking and laughing in the soft light of early evening. And, contrary to what my Father might have believed, I thought this ninety year old woman is the most interesting person here. And she had cigarettes to share. At one point she asked how old I was and I told her seventy. "You look good. You could pass for fifty-three." She won me with that comment.
I've had the good fortune to know Anna Woodruff since the day she was born, almost 38 years ago. And now look at her, almost barefoot, and certainly pregnant. And glowing. I have photographs of Anna as a young child, growing up on Big Pine, and she has that same irrepressible smile and openess in those images from long ago that she has today. I can't wait to meet her and Marco's baby.
There is a long and storied tradition of giving quilts for births, weddings and friendship in our little Madison County community, one that has been ongoing for forty years. This quilt is not so much a part of that community tradition, but a gesture of love from Anna's sister, Jenny, and her close friend, Olivia Shealy. The design is called Bargello, a quilting term today that originated in Italy in the 17th Century as needlepoint embroidery. This was Jenny and Olivia's first attempt at using this pattern.
Quilts are not only physical coverings, but are also symbolic embraces from the community that made it. An offering of protection. Of warmth. Of comfort. What I love, as a person whose son received one of the first quilts made in the community, is the continuation of the tradition. That quilt from 38 years ago was organized by Anna's mother Libby.
Marco looked at me, patted Anna's belly, and said,
"Look what I've done, Rob."
I think of Joni Mitchell.
A great afternoon walk with Kate and Justin through the Mendocino County Botanical Gardens in Ft. Bragg, California. 47 acres of plants, flowers, trees. stretching all the way to the coast. The rhododendron were in full flower throughout the park, too many varieties to count and other plants abounded. A stunning place.