Last week we had the pleasure of a visit from our nephew Timmy, his wife Jody, and their five children who live in Springville, Indiana. Great family, great kids, although Leslie and I would both admit to being exhausted after having five kids in the house for two very rainy days. Wouldn't trade it for anything. My apologies for not getting pictures of Jody with their three month old baby, Canaan.
What could be better than seeing young people commit to our community and to each other. In these trying times it gives one hope that all will be okay in the world.
The Babbitts left Orlando, Florida, in the early 1970s, when their orange grove that had been in Howard's family for thee generations was swallowed by development surrounding DisneyWorld. They planted apples and raised their children on Sprinkle Creek. We bought rocking chairs at their yard sale before they moved because of I-26.
- from The New Road
There are copies of my book I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia available for purchase on my website. Copies of my other books, including Sodom Laurel Album, are also available. http://robamberg.com/store/
Last week after posting the image of my mother from 1942, there was a comment from a woman named Lana Robinson. I didn't know her, but have noticed over the last couple of years that she is a regular reader of my blog posts. In her comment she mentioned she was the baby in her family and her mother was Belva. I've only known one person in my life with the name Belva and that was Belva Cutshall, who was the daughter of Berzilla Wallin, one of my favorite Madison County people.
Lana moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1971, which explains why I never met her since I didn't move here until 1973. She thought we had maybe met at Berzilla's or her mother's funerals, but I have no memory of it.
In 1979, I was working on a Photo Survey grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The idea was to do a year-long look at the county and present the work in an exhibit at Mars Hill College. The entire project is now housed at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
I didn't know Belva well. We would see each other at family decorations, or events where her mother and brother, Doug Wallin, were singing. But my memory of her is formed by this photograph I made at the Marshall Bypass in 1979 as part of the grant - genuine, easy to be around, direct and colorful.
Photography has opened many doors for me. It has taken me places I wouldn't dream of going and introduced me to amazing people I never would have met otherwise. So, it fascinates me that forty-two years after meeting Berzilla, who was eighty-three when I met her, I find out her granddaughter, who I don't know, reads my blog. I think this speaks to how communication has changed during that time period; the technology has changed us. But also, I think it shows us how photography provides us with not only memories of our shared and personal pasts, but also offers opportunities to engage in the future.
I don't see much graffiti in Madison County, which might serve to explain my fascination with it. Italians, at least those in the cities, seem to believe every available surface is just another pallet, made to carry a message. Often, the language is political and speaks to dissent; there is clearly a sense of darkness somewhere below the surface. I wonder who paints them, and mounts these posters, and why? And I marvel at their existence alongside the Italy of light and color, that of gelato and high fashion.
In 1978 my friend John Rountree and I made a canoe trip the length of the French Broad River. We called it The River Trip. We started just outside of Rosman and ended at Lake Douglas in east Tennessee. John had received some monies from the Tennesse Valley Authority and Mars Hill College to do a photographic survey of the French Broad and I was along for the ride. The French Broad was a mess in those days. We passed numerous industrial plants dumping raw effluents, cows wading, defecating, and dying in the river, and remote areas used as community dumpsites. In Madison County in those days many families straight-piped directly into creeks that emptied into the river.
This problem of water pollution wasn't isolated to the French Broad. Rather, it was a national issue and most everyone remembers stories of the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio spontaneously catching fire one summer day from all of the industrial waste. So, in 1972, under Richard Nixon's administration, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Altogether, this has been a good law for the land that has benefited all of us. In Madison County, over 50,000 people raft the French Broad River annually and trout fishing is now estimated to be a $384 million dollar industry in western North Carolina. The River Arts District in Asheville is now a nationally-known destination for art lovers and beer aficionados. All made possible by the quality of our water.
So now I read that the new Administration, especially the EPA director, wants to roll back regulation and eliminate the Clean Water Act. They want to make it okay once again for industries to dump their waste into our rivers and streams - places where we take our children and families to picnic, get cool on hot summer days, and fish.
They say this is about Freedom and jobs. But for me, the reasoning behind this way of thinking is pretty evident - it's about money, more money in the hands of their benefactors, their industry cronies, and their friends. They act like they are populists, working for the good of the common man, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every common man knows that only a fool would foul his own nest, yet that is exactly what this new administration is preaching, or selling. Our nests get fouled while their nests get feathered.
Hanging around in Sodom in the mid-1970s, one was sure to meet Morris Norton. He was in his early 80s at that point, cantankerous, not working much, but fit enough to wander around the community dispensing wisdom and opinion. I thought of him as the unofficial Mayor. He fathered many children, ten or twelve I think, mostly boys, most of whom were the nicest people you'll ever meet. Morris played at music, picking a banjo and playing harp. He could flat-foot dance pretty well for an old guy. He also made and played tune bows, an instrument I had never seen before, similar in sound to a jews harp. It's old and basic, but in the hands of a skilled player could put out a rollicking lick and keep people on the dance floor.
Two or three years after first coming to Sodom, I was in Maryland visiting family and took a day trip to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Wandering through the numerous and incredibly detailed displays I came to one on early American music. There was a section on instruments and there in front of me was a tune bow, accompanied by a tag that read: Tune bow made by Morris Norton, Sodom, North Carolina. I remember thinking, "Wow. I know this guy." But with the thought came an understanding that History isn't just the grand events, the things and people we know from books and the classroom, but also involves the lives of everyday people.
One of Morris's sons, Emmett, is a singer/songwriter who regularly plays on Friday nights at the Depot in Marshall. Not too many years ago, he approached me and handed me a tune bow. Identical to one his father might have made, he offered it as a gift to me, his signature on the inside face - a piece of local history and, for me personally, something that evoked memories of a photograph, a man and his family, and an instrumental time in my life.
You think about someone, almost forty years ago,
and what they're like now and
you look for comparisons.
And maybe you can say.
"She hasn't changed a bit," or,
"She's always had that smile and laugh."
But, I don't know if that's true, the comparisons.
It's far easier to recall the memory of a day
with a happy child in it.
Yesterday, February 20, was Ecko's twenty-sixth birthday. When we first met Ecko five years ago she was traveling the country with her pet white rat, Figs. Needless to say, Leslie and I were both intrigued and since that time she has become part of our family. Figs has moved onto a new location and Ecko is now a permanent part of our community. She has a two-year old daughter and provides us with valuable time with Leslie's mother. You'll see her sometime.
Wish her a Happy Birthday.
It was 1984. Someone, I don't remember who, suggested I go over to this farm in Spillcorn to photograph some Mexican farmworkers picking tomatoes. That there were even Latinos in the county was news to me so I went. Spillcorn, back then, was about as remote as you could get in Madison County and the creek I followed was stereotypically Appalachian, littered with junked cars, appliances and all manner of plastic. I turned off the main road and forded the creek into a little holler, which opened to a beautiful, contained cove. At the lower end was a field of ripening tomatoes.
At the edge of the field was a lone woman, squatting over an open fire warming beans, meat and corn tortillas for the workers. There was a tape player blasting mariachi music to the hills. The men, six or eight of them, were picking the tomatoes into five gallon mud buckets, which they then transferred to shipping crates.
I had picked tomatoes for my neighbor McKinley for a couple of summers and I knew what the men were dealing with. Hot, the tomatoes wet with dew and coated with chemical residue. You stayed stooped over, each bucker heavier than the last. It was work I was glad to no longer be doing.
Since that time I've had the good fortune to meet many Latino workers across our state who do jobs that are scorned by Americans - hanging sheetrock, building fence, cutting and hanging tobacco, picking the food we eat. My experience with these people as workers, neighbors, and photography subjects has been only positive.
The fear and hysteria surrounding this group of kind, hard-working, family-oriented people are totally misplaced. They are not our enemies. They are not here to harm us. Rather, if we are looking to place blame, or find a cause for our fear, we should look to the politicians and their supporters who seek to turn us against one another.
We often hear we are a nation of immigrants and with the exception of our Native American citizens, it's true. My family migrated from Italy and Germany, my wife's from the British Isles. All were seeking freedom from oppression or poverty in a place that promised a new life. And they found it here. We should let others find it, too.
For much of the last two weeks, I’ve heard the phrase, It’s Not Who We Are,” used in response to the Executive Orders signed by the new president: The banning of Muslims, The border wall, Eliminating health care benefits for veterans and others, The gagging of government agencies, The refusal to separate from his businesses, The Nepotism, The ignoring of Federal Courts. The phrase rings true for me and for most people I choose to be around. These hideous actions are not who we are. I’m proud of that.
However, those of us who are not supportive of these edicts, and many more yet to come, do ourselves no favors when we ignore the reality that, This Is Exactly Who We Are. Not me, or us, per se, but millions of people around us, citizens of this country like you and me, are in complete agreement with these new principles and policies. And they are now in a position to bring many of these ideas to fruition. Many people simply wanted a change from the way things were and I can understand that. But for a significant number of the new President's advisors and supporters, the nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and bullying are exactly who they are and what they want. Those people scare me and I fear will take us to places none of us want to be.
Anyone paying attention understands our country has always been divided, which at various times in our history has erupted into civil disobedience, bitter dissension, and violence. Mostly, the antipathy has been kept under wraps. But, encouraged and emboldened by our present administration, the divisiveness is growing more intense and deep. The distrust, ridicule, anger and outright hate on both sides of any issue are far more extreme and unyielding than in the sixties and seventies. People are lining up in a way we've not witnessed since the 1860s. I fear for our present and future, things will get much worse .
I'm not exactly sure why, but this photograph seems appropriate for the New Year.
SO, HAPPY NEW YEAR.
A Merry Christmas to All.
So, we're getting new members of our community over here on PawPaw. David and Laura Cheatham and their daughter, Calla. I met them a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps you know them already. They're cutting the driveway now so it might be awhile before they move. But we are happy to have them as neighbors.
We've seen many people come into Madison County over our decades here. Many we've known for forty years, or thirty, or twenty. Some stayed but a year or two, quickly realizing it wasn't for them, but then we all learn soon enough that Madison is not for everyone. It takes a special breed.
I love it when people make a commitment to this place. They build a driveway or a home, plant gardens, raise children, become involved in the community; people who will be here forty years hence. We've been fortunate as a county in that regard. Good people seem drawn to this place and many have stayed.
But there is no denying that Madison is different then it used to be. I often find myself shaking my head in wonderment at things and people I now see in Madison County. Maybe disbelief is a better word. And I can't help but think if some of what Madison County has become is hard for me, then it must be truly difficult to accept for many born-in-county people.
Paul and I talk of what the county was like in the early 1970s - small and insular, but vibrant and alive in a purely local way. All of us early transplants were adopted by local families who included us in their lives. They showed us how to do things; how to live in a place that was not meant for everyone. Differences, be they political, or social, or religious, were simply accepted as part of our shared humanity and mutual love of place. Values that kept both Paul and i, and many, many others, here for a long time. As Steve commented after my last post, "You uns are local, now."
I SOMETIMES find arrowheads and pottery shards when plowing our garden spot next to the creek. I keep those pieces of evidence in a bowl in my kitchen and look at them when I’m thinking, or talking about, questions of status. At what point do you really become part of a place? When are you no longer “ain’t from around here?" When do you become a local? Does it take a certain amount of time? Does it take turning the soil, burying animals and family in it, stewarding it for the time you are on it?
I DON’T KNOW the answers. But I do know people have been migrating in and out of this region forever, some staying longer than others, most everyone leaving a footprint on the landscape. Now, in a time of great change, I wonder how we judge one footprint to be more native or true than another? Aren’t we all local?