Moments of Clarity


Fireworks, Matt and Taylor's wedding, Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC 2016

There was a moment in time recently when it hit me. I was at the Marshall Fashion show, photographing a swirling group of young people, modeling clothing made by other community members. So beautiful, and assured, and clearly in control. It was sweaty hot, the audience was packed, cheering wildly, moving too to Erich and Danni's driving beat. I thought, "I am really old and this is no longer my world."

I've had more than a few such moments of clarity lately; brief flashes of understanding in a world gripped by transition and disruption. As if to say, "So this is what the world will look like."

There was the bittersweet moment of Jamie's leaving. But, today, gone a week, he called and we chatted long, our normal weekly update for so long now.

The melancholy of my own children - the eldest clearly, and happily, on his own path in his own place. Child #2 taking the necessary steps we all know toward her own world. But me, thinking of times not long ago when it was the four of us here, always. And missing that.

Fay, the kindest of mothers-in-law, on her own journey, sometimes here, with us, but more often in her own world of increasing darkness.

The loss of relationships, once close, that have fallen victim to our disjointed times and a sense, an acceptance really, of who I am as a person. "How," I wonder, "did we ever stay friends so long?"

At Matt and Taylor's wedding party, it's light passing through a dress that first catches my eye. Like a moth, I'm drawn to such things. It blends with the flowing arc overhead, framing the music, highlighting the party. And then the gift arrives, the moment of clarity. It comes from stage left. Comfort for an old person that life will not only continue, but a particular community and way of life will also move forward.


At Matt and Taylor's wedding reception, Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC 2016












Jamie Paul, in my studio, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2013

It's a rare thing when a person enters your life who profoundly influences you toward new thinking and action. When that happens in one's later years, with the tendency to become fixed in our ways, it's even better. And when the person is young, more than half your age, that's the sweetest of all.

I'm not going to list the details. To do so would make this an extra long post and one of the things Jamie keeps hammering in my head is to keep these ramblings of mine short. The secret is in the edit. 

Thank you, Jamie.

Oh, yes,


Jamie at Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC, 2013


Pictures and Words


At the Democratic Party Fish Fry, Marshall, Madison County, NC 1990

This has long been one of my all-time favorite pictures. The way it moves. The moment in time. The gesture and posture. The audience. The framing. Loose and spontaneous. 

I will be leading a workshop at Doe Branch Ink, just off of Big Pine, in Madison County, NC, from June 14 to June 20. The workshop is open to anyone, but would be especially interesting for both writers and photographers. The setting is ideal - quiet and stunningly beautiful, with perfect hosts and good grub. You will sleep well and be stimulated to be creative.

People have asked what I plan to do, or teach at this workshop. My work is largely about place and man's response to particular spots in the world. It is also about time and how time affects those places and communities. I tell those stories about those subjects with pictures and words. I find myself consistently fascinated by the joining of the two mediums. How words can complement a photograph through an extended caption, or a poem, or with no words at all. And how an image can inform a story with documentary fact, or an individual point of view, or surreal renderings of reality. I think about this stuff a fair amount, as sick as that may sound.

My hope for the workshop is for a healthy ongoing discussion and that participants come away with new ideas, new work, and a new appreciation of time and place. 


ShatterZone - a Fiction: Pickin' Maters with McKinley


McKinley Massey, Big Pine, 1981.


We don’t start until 9:30 or 10,
late in the day for farm work.
Even then, the plants are heavy with dew,
our clothes soaked before we finish the first row.

It’s the usual crew.
Mckinley and his two daughters, their husbands,
a neighbor and his elderly parents.
And a few hippie types, I don’t know why.

The men drink warm PBR throughout the morning.
How do they do it and still work?
They do.
Never missing a beat. 

Finished Picking, from left, Chuck Durdin, Jeff Johnson, Mckinley Massey, Ish Massey, Charles Massey, Jerry Reed, Big Pine, 1981.

Ish, the old guy, is mostly there for the beer.
He smokes a pipe, which he packs with a mix of PA and pot.
He doesn’t pick many maters, but he’s funny
and everyone likes having him around.

There’s a constant banter in the field.
The daughters are hilarious.
The talk occupies the mind,
distracting you from your reality.

Culling and Cleaning, Big Pine, 1981.

Hot, muggy, and dirty best describes the work.
Maters coated with a toxic layer of chemical poisons.
Only way you can grow ‘em around here, McKinley says.
My eyes itch and I cough a lot.

He’s a bit of a renegade, McKinley is,
maybe contrarian is better.
Beyond skinny, consumptive almost, but stout,
with long ropey muscles and huge hands.

Picking done, we go to the house for dinner.
Pearl, his wife, has laid out a feed.
After, a short rest, and then back outside,
culling, cleaning and packing.

Dinnertime, Big Pine, 1981

I do this for a couple of summers,
two days a week throughout the season.
At first I think of it as school, learning ways of man.
By the end it’s more about being a neighbor.


Digging John Henderson's Grave



John Henderson at Home, Big Pine, 1978

I almost didn’t recognize him in the grocery store. After I moved from the community four years earlier, I lost touch with many of my neighbors on Big Pine – John Henderson among them. There were a couple of years before my divorce and move when I saw John most every day - helping him with tobacco, mostly, but also socializing together on many occasions. He was older, a local man, a tobacco farmer who was also a substitute driver at the post office. During World War Two he was in an engineer battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in front of the front lines. He was tough, strong man with unlimited stamina. He enjoyed hanging out with the new people in the community, the hippies, and he loved to work.

But here in the grocery store was a spent man – his face and frame gaunt and hollow, while his stomach extended like a ripe melon. He would have been about 70 years old then, not young after a lifetime of work, but he moved with the gait of someone beat down. It had been some years since we had spoken and I asked what was going on with him. “It’s the cancer,” he said. “They say I likely got it from all that sprayin’ I did for the tobacco and other stuff. All them chemicals.” It wasn’t long after that conversation that I got word he had died.


Digging John Henderson's Grave, Big Pine, 1988

A group of men gathered at the graveyard one morning to dig his grave. It’s a very precise endeavor, grave digging, and there were men there who knew how to do it – the squaring and leveling, and the deliberate work of digging. Others stood around talking, waiting their turn at the shovel. The talk was of John and his commitment to the community. He wasn’t a churchgoing person, but he was always ready to pitch in or lead when something needed doing – kind of an individual neighbors-in-need program. The men talked about that. What they liked about him. His character. Funny stories. Sad stories.

At the Worley Cemetery, Big Pine, 1988

From the left, front, McKinley Massey, Jim Woodruff. Rear, George Marler, Cylde Anderson, Clyde Randall, Randy Fowler, Robert Buckner, Unknown, Alan Payne, Earl Roberts, Jerry Anderson

John would have enjoyed the mix of work and talk and the words being spoken by his neighbors - people he had lived with his entire life. I remember thinking how deeply intimate and spiritual this act was – the digging and handling of the earth John would be buried in. And also, how fortunate we were to live in a place where those rituals remain - men gathering, offering their backs and their memories to John one last time. Funerals remind us of our mortality; grave digging even more so. As everyone gathered for this photograph, we were aware that at some point in the future we, too, would no longer be in the picture, but would only exist in the memories of our friends. 

Carrboro Arts Center

Nicholson Gallery Exhibit

Madison County - Past and Present

Photographs by Rob Amberg

                  At Ramsey's Store, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1977


             At Cricket's Birthday Party, Big Pine, Madison County, NC 2011

As a documentary photographer living and working several decades in Madison County, North Carolina, Rob Amberg has chronicled the lives and stories of people in isolated mountain areas such as Sodom. The photographs exhibited in Madison County - Past and Present include some of Amberg's oldest as well as most recent work demonstrating thechanging culture of Appalachian North

Opening Reception: Friday, June 14, 6-8pm in the Nicholson Gallery

The exhibition runs from June 3-30.

The opening reception on June 14 will feature a performance by noted Madison County ballad singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams. Adams was just awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is widely considered the highest honor for the Arts in the nation.


Sheila Kay Adams, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1975