Unidentified Infant Graves


Unidentified Infant Graves, Woody Cemetery, Mars Hill, NC 1996
- from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia


I've thought often of these two children
In the twenty years since I pictured their graves.
One boxed. One shrouded.
Shrouded -
It's how I want to be laid to rest. 

But what of these two?
Born, lived, and died
At a time when this place was raw.
Probably the mid 1800s. But who knows?
No markers.
We don't know their names,
If even they had names.
Much less their ages.
Or cause of death. 

They weren't on this earth long,
judging by the size of the holes.
Maybe they died in childbirth.
Many did back then.
We can figure something of their lives,
a close proximation, at least.
From history, and stories, and
The shape of this place.

Birthed in a small cabin made of chestnut logs,
Perhaps with a midwife, but probably not.
Likely, their parents were farmers, subsistence, poor,
growing enough to survive, little more.
Maybe new immigrants, from Scotland or Ireland.
About to be caught up in the Civil War,
Or already lived through it.

The exhuming crew probes and prods and soon
uncovers the graves.
There's little evidence but for the shape of the holes.
A button, a remaining sliver of wood.
No bones or cloth. 
They box what they find with
a few shovels of dirt, to be
moved to a new unmarked grave. 
Away from the new road that's taking their resting place.



On Sheila's Porch


On Sheila's Porch, Madison County, NC 07/09/16

I say to students, 
Look beyond the subject to the background. 
See that it's not interfering or
But rather, enhancing and completing.
Sometimes you'll be surprised
And pleased by what you find.

And so it was on Sheila Kay's porch.
Me, making portraits.
Her, on the swing.
Quiet, pensive, assured.
Like the background behind,
A reflection of the reality before.
A contemplation of her.


For Our World


Would be that it could always be like this.

Kate and friend at the 4th of July Party, Anderson Branch, Madison County, NC 1993

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren't you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind.
- Langston Hughes


Mia Nonna


Jenny Galeano with me, her first grandson, Silver Spring, MD 1948.

My grandmother would have been 118 years old today had she lived. She didn't, dying at the ripe age of 96. We think. 
I wasn't her oldest grandchild. That honor goes to my two cousins pictured below, Janice Reed, who passed away earlier this year, and Dolores Oliveri who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
But I was the first grandson, which in Italian families, carries a certain import that I presume includes wearing little dresses and berets. I do think the outfit served to inform and strengthen my feminist side. 
I've written about my grandmother before on this blog and here I've chosen to repost the eulogy I presented at her funeral in 1995. 



Cousins Janice Reed (left) and Dolores Oliveri, maybe in Delaware, ca. 1947.

Time with Donna Ray


Donna Ray Norton, Sodom, Madison County, NC 2016

I had the good fortune to spend a few hours this past Sunday with Donna Ray Norton at her childhood home in Sodom. Donna is one of a small group of young people who continue to sing the ancient ballads that Madison County and Sodom are noted for. She is an 8th generation ballad singer and has a voice to die for. You can listen to her on this video that was produced by the Knoxville News Sentinel about seven years ago. 


In 1916, Cecil Sharp, the British musicologist, arrived in Madison County with his assistant, Maud Karpeles, where he collected more ballads than anywhere else in his travels through the southern mountains.  He famously claimed that people in Madison County were more comfortable singing than speaking. His work resulted in the definitive volume: English Folk Songs from the southern Appalachians, which was published in 1934. This fall Mars Hill University will mount an exhibition to celebrate the Cecil Sharp Centennial as part of their annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, which will run from September 26 to October 21, 2016, with an opening reception on October 1 from 5-6 pm during the Festival. 


Doug and Jack


Doug (left) and Jack Wallin, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1994


As we prepare to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Cecil Sharp's coming to Madison County, where he collected more ballads than anywhere else in the country, here are two of the county's finest singers.

This photograph is an outtake from images I made in 1994 for their seminal album: Doug and Jack Wallin: Folk Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains.

A Visit from Carl

We had a visit a month or so ago from our friend Carl Schinasi who lives in Birmingham. We've known Carl for ten or twelve years. He is a retired English professor at Miles College, a native of New York City, a writer, painter and budding photographer. We met over pottery and baseball, but have found over the years we have so much more in common than that. We share literature, art, and political leanings born in the sixties. Last summer we visited him and went on a great tour of Civil Rights/Birmingham with his good friend Virginia who was on the front lines of that struggle during the sixties.    

With Carl in our kitchen, PawPaw, 2016

A few years ago Leslie and I were taking a trip to Maine and Nova Scotia and were looking for someone to house and farm sit. Carl was interested as he could hunt for pottery while staying centrally located and free. Seemed good for all involved. We had some initial concerns like when he got out of the car and mentioned he was deathly allergic to cats. We had five in the house at that time. Later, explaining our feeding and egg collection system, Leslie suggested he watch out for black snakes who sometimes ate eggs and rested in the nests. "Why," he asked, "don't you kill it or remove it?" "Well," Leslie responded, "He helps with the mice and rats." Carl, in his best NY accent said, "Great. Rats and snakes, my two most favorite things." He had never really been on a farm before or even out in the country all that much. 



But we left. Carl called a few days later to check in and mentioned he hadn't been sleeping that well. "Why?" "One of the dogs, Ralph I think, barked all night long, just wouldn't quit and I was sure there was something out there. Then I remembered the headline of the newspaper that came today and was sure the guy was out there, coming to get me."  We assured him that wasn't the case and if, in fact, the guy had been out there lying in wait for Carl, he would already be dead. 

A few days later we were staying in an old sea captain's house on the Bay of Fundy that had been turned into a B&B. It was quite idyllic. Our phone rang about ten that night. The house was asleep. It was Carl. "I think Isabell died under your bed." "Why?" "She's been under there for thirty-six hours and won't come out." "Why? Did you have any rain, thunder?" "Yes, and she's been under there ever since." "Get a bowl of grease or a hot dog and try to lure her out." Next call ten minutes later. "Didn't work. She didn't budge. She growled at me." Leslie grabbed the phone, "Plug in the vacuum cleaner and shove the nozzle under the bed. See if that works." Next call, "She ain't dead. I stuck that nozzle under there and she came out like a greyhound."


 Carl Schinasi with his affectionately named Dick Tree in Birmningham, AL, 2015 



High School Graduation, 1965.

Madison County, NC 2010

One of the underlying reasons for my solo road trip last fall was to think about my relationship with the place I’ve called home for the last forty-three years. To be honest I was tired of the place in a way that had not happened in the past – tired of the maintenance work around our farm, tired of the daily drama that often seems like the lifeblood of the community, tired of the expectations of others regarding my work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love where I live and continue to believe that moving to the mountains was the single best decision I ever made. But increasingly as I’ve aged, and ostensibly “seen it all,” I find myself asking what if? And if that question was persistent enough, what would I do about it?

Throughout my time in Madison I’ve heard the old adage, you ain’t from around here. I’ve generally ignored it, but lately I’ve come to understand its truth. My upbringing, my values, my cultural influences, my manner of speaking and acting, and many other characteristics all mark me as an outsider. Sometimes, those ways of being come into conflict, but most often they don’t because I’ve learned if I can’t be from the place, I can be of the place.

The difference is subtle. I think of it as the difference between thought and instinct. I’ve been able to learn how to live here: How to sort of manage our place – the firewood, the water, the gardens, the mowing, the dead animals; how to live and relate in a community as foreign to me as some small village in Sicily. I learned the dialect, and about ballads and tobacco, and how to be moderately self-sufficient. I learned about darkness and quiet. Some of those lessons were hard learned and few, if any, came instinctually.

What comes naturally for me are Italian Delis, Broadway Musicals on Sunday morning and Blues and Rock the rest of the time, and the ever-present light and hum of a big city. I know the proximity and abundance of people, the availability of anything I want, anytime I want it. I can talk fast and do so without thinking. I love to dress up. I know pavement and chain-link fences and comfortably motor the DC Beltway. I effortlessly find my grandparent's graves in Arlington Cemetery or my parent's in Gate of Heaven. Of course I can, this is where I'm from.

It's the same for people who are from Madison County or the wider region. I watch them – how they interact, or dig, or grow things, walk and talk, how they live their lives - and I say, “They are from here.” There is an ease about them – a sense that what they say or do comes from a knowledge learned long ago, so ingrained it’s now part of the DNA. “How do you know that?” I might ask a local friend about something that stumps me. “Why,” he would answer, “I just do. I'm from here.”

Debbie and Dellie


Debbie Chandler brushing her grandmother's, Dellie Norton, hair, Sodom, Madison County, North Carolina, 1991


I've been thinking a lot about Dellie .
I'm not sure why today.
Most days I see photographs of her hanging in my studio
so it's not like she isn't around. She is.
But for some reason, today, she's popped in my mind and stayed. 
I'm fine with that.

This photograph was made about two years before she died.
She had been in declining health for a couple of years prior.
Here, after a stay in the hospital, back home,
with family members taking turns in her care.

Perhaps that's why she's stayed with me today.
Because of our own situation caring for Leslie's mom.
Watching her age, needing more and more, 
content to sit and be quiet.
Me knowing, it won't be long.