Made on assignment for the North Carolina Independent in Durham, but never published.
It was the same day at two different spots in Madison County - Hot Springs and Hopewell (don’t you just love that name). It was the same roll of film, two different exposures. But the pictures are so different from each other - illustrating the change taking place in the county at that time, change that continues to this day.
The first is a photograph of Hoy and Juanita Shelton and their family, with two neighbor men. They have just finished a day of hanging tobacco. In 1983, burley was still king in Madison County, the leading county producer of burley in the state, with hundreds of small farmers like the Sheltons depending on tobacco for cash income. But tobacco’s days were numbered, and in ensuing years it has played a steadily decreasing role in the county’s lifestyle and economy. Farmers like the Sheltons either moved onto other crops, or more likely, gave up farming altogether.
The second photograph is of a group of teenage girls holding a platter they’d won at a small festival in Hot Springs. The platter has an image of ET on it. By 1983, Madison was firmly engaged in mainstream culture and had been for decades. Radio and TV, better roads, telephone, and a changing demographic brought new values to the community, so an image from a popular movie shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Yet still I was struck by the availability and acceptance of mainstream culture in the county.
It’s the pairing of the photographs that I really like. The image of place they offer – a place moving away from a tradition that had sustained it for many years and toward an image of an unknown, and otherworldly, future.
It seems so long ago.
And I suppose it was.
When we were new to this place.
And the place new to us.
Not yet knowing how to act,
Or what to say.
How to be a good neighbor?
What it means to be in a community.
We offer help.
It’s clear they need it.
Children have moved off.
And the Mexicans have yet to arrive.
I help also to learn the place, and test myself.
To see if I could be all day in a field, 90 degrees,
Sweating and sticky from the tar.
Me of the soft hands and clerk’s body.
In those days, help meant tobacco.
It’s what was here. Lots of it.
The lifeblood of the county.
Everyone had a hand in it.
Working with a group, there wasn’t a better time.
Talking, laughing, teasing, forming a bond.
And the tobacco we cut . . . At the end of the day,
We’d marvel at what we accomplished.
We’re going to cook and heat the house with wood. My friends across the mountain in Sodom are a family of loggers and they have a sawmill and an excess of wood. They offer a truckload of firewood as a welcoming gift. One Saturday we bounce up the side of a mountain on the back of a flat-bed truck, barely able to hold on. We cut an enormous load of mixed hardwoods, which we load onto the back of the truck. Some of the sawed pieces are huge, and heavy, and I wonder how long it will take me to bust them into burnable size. When we go to pull out, the truck is mired in the soft ground and won’t budge. We unload it, piece by piece, move the truck a few feet, and reload the wood. Everyone gets a good laugh. I was exhausted by the double effort.
No one died. But a long-term member of our community did sell his place and move. Wayne Uffelman had lived at Blue Hill Farm on Upper PawPaw for the last thirty-seven years. Most people knew him, or at least, of him. He farmed - tobacco at first, but after the tobacco buyout, he switched to chickens and organic vegetables, which he sold at local markets. He also produced grits, cornmeal, and flour from his own mill. I thought his grits were the best I’ve ever had. Lately, he has been getting back to his true love - carving. He’s been doing a series of spoons and utensils to go with the grits, which are all replete with a carved heart, or owl, or snake at the top of the handle. But his real skill is as a bird carver and his move will allow him the opportunity to concentrate on that.
I’ve known Wayne a long time now. We met a couple of years after each of our arrivals in the mid-1970s. It has not always been the easiest of relationships, I think we’d both say that. But for many years now, he’s been a great neighbor and friend - always there to lend a hand, or tractor, or back, or his knowledge on any number of things. We’ll miss him in the hood.
For a time, Kate and Shu lived in our barn.
They planted a garden and tended the animals.
They mended fences and mucked stalls.
They left a footprint.
At some point, while walking to my workspace,
also in the barn, I noticed this shoe.
Ah, I thought at once, it’s Shu’s mailbox,
but not a very practical one.
Then, I understood it to be a mark, a totem.
A Kilroy Was Here moment.
A Sign of Shu, meant for the ages.
Leather, nailed to a locust post.
Who knows how long it will be there?
It's history was as half of a pair.
A flower bloomed from the other until the dogs claimed it as their own.
Chewed and carried off, gone for a time, then rediscovered like a forgotten lover.
It finally came to rest, under a shrub, nourishing the soil,
a different ending than its crucified mate.
Out my window on Tuesday Night.
A little snow. A bit of wind.
A pinch in the pipe and a slow shutter speed.
The polar vortex has arrived.
We’ve had an abundance of industrial disasters lately – a fertilizer plant fire in Texas, a train wreck in Canada that destroyed a town and killed 47 people, pipeline ruptures that poisoned wide swaths of farmland, and most recently, the chemical storage tank leak in West Virginia that poisoned the capital city’s water supply. One of the more egregious things about this last incident is the responsible company filed bankruptcy immediately after the spill, effectively absolving themselves of any liability. West Virginians have not only had to live with the direct effects of the spill and lack of water, but they will now have to pay for it too. The company’s name, Freedom Industries, is priceless - must mean the freedom to do whatever they want.
I like to think we’re somewhat protected here in Madison County, but then I look around. Our portion of the French Broad River, that provides a significant economic boost to the county through recreation and tourism, is also downstream from industrial parks, water treatment plants and large farms. The Norfolk Southern rail line that parallels the river is a major conduit for coal and chemicals coming from Kentucky and West Virginia. A train derailment in Marshall or Hot Springs, or into the River could be catastrophic. Trucks on I-26 could be carrying most anything from hazardous wastes to petroleum products. Yet even with those hazards, our danger from industrial accidents, while worse than many places, is not nearly as bad as many others.
We’ve made the choice to use chemicals and fossil fuels and, despite our encouraging steps toward alternative energy sources, we’ll be burning coal and gas for a while longer. Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve intertwined our industrial worlds with our personal lives and it’s always been to the detriment of our communities and natural world. Until we decide our public and environmental health take precedence over the irresponsibility and profits of large corporations, I'm afraid we will see only an increase in the type of unnatural disasters we've been seeing lately.
Just wanting to wish Andy well on his trip to Nashville today. Knock 'em dead. Break a leg. And all that good stuff. We're all rooting for you.
I hadn’t seen Melanie Rice Penland in some time before running into her, her husband Nate, and their son Ezra at a party a couple of weeks ago. Seeing her reminded me of a photograph I made almost forty years ago. Melanie’s mom, Sheila Kay Adams, had taken me up to Dellie Norton’s house for the first of my many visits with Dellie and her family. Sheila had her young daughter with her and I was immediately smitten. Melanie had a presence even then at three or four years old. Direct, bold, and self-assured.
Children are among the hardest subjects for photographers. It’s relatively easy to picture youguns as cute and playful, the apples of our eyes. And they seem to know exactly how we want them to look - endearing, irresistible, and ultimately cute. But making an image that gets beyond the smiling superficialities and into the heart of the child is a different matter. In this case Melanie, with her open and patient gaze, made it easy.
I was reminded by my friend Betty Hurst of a comment I made while being interviewed by WUNC radio after the publication of Sodom Laurel Album. The interviewer asked why I liked living in Madison County. I answered that Madison County has the highest percentage of eccentrics in the entire state and I found that likable, as well as, challenging and inspiring. Now, that’s an invented statistic on my part; I doubt anyone has ever taken an official "eccentricity" survey. But after forty years here, I remain confident in the accuracy of my statement.
Merriam-Webster gives similar, but subtly different definitions of eccentric: Tending to act in strange or unusual ways; deviating from an established or usual pattern or style; not following a circular path. Synonyms include: bizarre, curious, offbeat, quaint, remarkable, weird, or as Dellie might say, “quar.” They all fit when I think of our home.
Remarkably, this old-world place allows its residents the freedom, encouragement really, to be as odd and quirky as they need or want to be. There’s a history of that here, both the individualistic behavior and the community-wide acceptance of it. You're given the opportunity to be yourself, to find your niche, to enjoy your own amusements and passions. There's room to do what you have to do; room to make do. Most places aren’t like that; they’re filled with distractions and celebrate conformity and sameness. Lifestyle and behavior are more standardized and people seem to want those conventional parameters.
I was speaking with a new friend the other night about all the people who have moved to Madison over the last ten years, since the opening of I-26. It’s really quite amazing. But equally amazing is the number of people who have come and gone, scores of people over my time here. For them, this place was a brief stopping point in the span of their lives. For whatever reason it wasn’t for them. Maybe it’s the wildness, or the distances, the lack of work, or the politics. Thankfully, Madison County isn’t for everyone, or most people for that matter. I’m happy it's a place that’s too true, too off-the-beaten-path, and too eccentric to suit most people.
I normally like my heroes to be a little older, but after some time with Gus Hess last week I'm making an exception.
Gus is eight years old, the son of Matt and Liza Hess who live off of Sprinkle Branch in the Walnut Creek community. On New Years Day the family hosted their annual clay bird shoot and a number men and their families showed up. It was Gus’s first time shooting skeet and to make it a bit harder he was using a small, single-shot .410 shotgun that throws off a very tight pattern of shot. It has a small margin of error. To make a long story short, Gus missed his first five shots, and looked discouraged. But after receiving pats and high-fives from the older men, and some specific suggestions from his Dad that Guss chose to listen to, he came back to hit four out his next ten. Everyone was glowing with him, as he justifiably beamed. But, that’s not why he’s my hero.
What I most loved was the relationship between Gus and the other adults, most especially his parents. The mutual respect, from boy to adult, and from adult to boy, was obvious. How refreshing to see a young person who not only listens, but also absorbs what he hears - life’s lessons, learning how to be a young man. He had clearly learned lessons about safety with guns. He was patient waiting his turn on the range. Inquiring, exuberant, careful. Fun to be around.
I’ve believed for a long time there is no better place to raise a family than Madison County. It’s a unique spot that teaches independence, responsibility, and respect for others. Families are embraced here. And young people have the chance to interact with adults with mutual fondness and regard. The community is readily open to new people who want to invest their lives in this place. And the land itself, in its bigness and diversity, gives children and adults alike an opportunity for humility, and the lesson we are all part of something much larger than our individual selves.
I lived in Marshall in the early 1980s on the top floor of what is now the Flow Gallery building. It was not an easy time. Newly separated, a young son, and little money and less work coming from my attempts at being a photographer/artist. It was empty warehouse space back then, not the elegant apartments there now. Unheated and unplumbed with rudimentary wiring. Just a big open space.
It was a lonely time, filled with trips to the dark holes that punctuate my life. Guilt. Insecurity. Questioning. Sleepless nights spent writing or in my jury-rigged darkroom. Sometime visits from a similar searching soul would only heighten the aloneness in the morning when she left. Cold. Or hot. Never just right. I did make some nice photographs from that perch. Thank you Gene Smith.
Marshall was visibly slowing then. Boarded up buildings along the entire stretch of town. Any attempts at new businesses quickly closed. The old stores, the mainstays of the town that had been there forever, were still open, but did only a shadow of the business they once did. Court, and its ancillaries, were the only growth industries.
In the morning I’d walk to the post office along Back Street. Past the jail, train tracks and river on my right, the back ends of buildings hovering above me, like a trap ready to spring. "Why here?" I thought. An old question, never far from the surface.
A few more steps and I’m at the back of Penland & Sons store. George Penland, one of the Sons, former mayor, and late husband to Barbara, was out on the stoop feeding the stray cats that lived behind the store. They served a purpose, George knew, rats and whatnot, so he kept them fed. George was cheerful - I remember him as always cheerful - and happy to see me on what was a fine spring morning. We talked, but I don’t recall what was spoken. I do remember thinking this moment of friendliness to me and kindness to cats is one answer to the question of "why here?"
He sinks to the depths about now.
Plunging, and making no effort to still the descent.
Taking comfort in the pitch where no one else is allowed,
or wants to be.
The safest place ever.
It begins with a confluence, a perfect storm.
Christmas, another fucking birthday, the New Year.
Rarely measuring up to images conjured.
Memories blurred without remorse,
but not without contrition.
The lapsed belief in the baby Jesus.
The Big Cheese altar boy at Midnight Mass.
Nothing more special to his mother.
And the strange non-Uncle,
the perfect Santa except for those roaming hands.
Green soup and lasagna. A ham.
The candles blown out, the ball dropping.
It all saddens the man.
The missing of those moments.
How he loves winter.
Visible breathe with the first step out.
The biting air, the sharper the better.
Add some wind, he prays.
The depth of the forest.
Frozen ground – crunching and hard.
The smell of wood smoke and
soup simmering on the stove.
Dogs laid up on the couch. Like they own the joint.
New images, he thinks.
A clear reality not faded by time, or muted by innocence.
Seen with gratitude and lived with pleasure.
They kept chickens. Sometimes they had more than others, often as many as thirty. The chickens did their jobs – they laid eggs, ate ticks and other bugs, and kept the ground stirred up with their always scratching and pecking. And they were pretty to look at, what with the different breeds and colors.
At night, they closed them up in a wired coop to keep them from the fox, bobcats and other critters looking for an easy meal. After the chickens jostled for spots on the roosting poles, the man would enter the coop. It’s dark, his headlamp the only illumination. As he stoops low to close the opening to the threatening outside, the birds coo and cluck their approval from above and around him – so peaceful and calming. But it’s an eerie peace that hints of havoc. Perhaps a peck on his hairless head. Sometimes, the man thinks Hitchcock or remembers stories of farmers knocked to the ground and flogged to death by their chickens. They go for the eyes first, he’s heard – striking at the shiny reflections of themselves.
It was their first walk together in a long time. The bum hip had kept them from it. But now, new joint in place and mostly healed, they set off down the driveway as they did when they first met. Talking, holding hands, enjoying the time and place together, free of aches, and pain. Remembering reasons for being here in the first place.
The forest this time of year is a soft brown, devoid of the brilliance of spring and fall, so open you can see deep into the trees. Around a turn, a flash of bright assaults us from the edge of the road. Plastic bags, filled with all manner of shit, literally, as they mostly hold used disposable diapers. Tossed, left for dogs and creatures to shred, the earth won’t ever absorb it. You think, “What ignorant fool would do this?” But it isn’t the first time and you know it won’t be the last.
We get to the one-lane bridge that is our turnaround spot on this day. The creek is beautiful here – light and water tumbling over rocks, creating large pools of sunlight where one can spot an occasional fish, following its age-old path to the river and the sea. A bubbling brook some writers might call it, but not in a heavy rain. A look from the other side of the crossing reveals the dead deer – hide, a skeletal carcass, forelegs with just enough sharply-cut meat attached to the bone to tell you this was the work of man. Killed, skinned, gutted, and butchered; the remains thrown in the creek, where it will feed others for days to come.
The road leveled out and they passed an overgrown field, barely enclosed by an ancient fence with rusted wire and still sturdy posts. “What was that for?” The boy asked. “Grandma and Grandpa had a lot of animals up here." the man answered. "You've never seen many animals. They had goats and sheep, lots of chickens. Mama said when she was little they had horses and llamas too. Grandma liked working with the animals, Grandpa did too. He liked them for the work they did around the place and he liked to eat them."
A couple of weeks ago, as we drove up Hickey's Fork looking for a barn with tobacco hanging in it, we passed by this sign. We were already driving slowly, but immediately slowed even more in case we encountered this unseen "deaf resident." I thought of this person and the sounds he was missing - the wind and rain in the forest, the bugs at night, a screech owl calling a mate. I also thought of a photograph I had made in 1998, also shot in Shelton Laurel, not far from where I was today. In it, the driving public was warned of a "blind resident" who walked Highway 212. I included the earlier photograph in my book, The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia.
The two signs are, for me, reminders of the intimacy and immediacy of small places. They tell me of the concerns of real people, of neighbors and family, who have real concerns that could be affected by our actions. These are not signs one would see on the Interstate. Rather, they are gentle suggestions of acceptable behavior in this small, quiet and slow place. A place where values and lifestyle are such that disabled residents are at ease walking our roadways; knowing drivers will heed their personalized appeals, slow down, and respect them for their strength and resilience.