Deaf and Blind on Shelton Laurel

Hickey's Fork, Shelton Laurel, Madison County, NC, 2013.

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.


Highway 212, Shelton Laurel, Madison County, NC, 1998.

Blinking and Staring

Sylvester Walker's Granddaughter Playing Basketball in the Back Yard, Spivey's Corner, North Carolina 1989

I love it when photographs both stare and blink.

When they look intently, with time spent in the seeing.

Revealing detail as only a photograph can.

The background and backboard.

Chickens frolicking with tires.

Piled-up stuff you know has been there for awhile,

And will likely be there a while longer.

A freezer on the porch - so Southern.

Staring is like that – it offers us the particulars.


But there is nothing like the blink of an eye.

The instant the crux is revealed.

The Decisive Moment, the master Henri called it.

To trust eye and hand, and mostly instinct.

Knowing to push the button right Now.

With ball poised between hand and ground.

The foot in ballerina pose, anticipating the next movement.

A shoelace, attached to the shoe, but seeking its own direction.

Blinking is like that – it lets the breath of life invade our stillness.


One day a couple of weeks ago, French Broad Electric Membership Corporation arrived to spray the right-of-way for the power lines with a toxic mix of chemicals produced by everyone’s favorite corporation, Monsanto.

We were expecting this and, in anticipation of it, had posted “no spraying” signs in English and Spanish around the targeted portion of our land. Our thinking was to stall the process, hoping an early freeze might solve the problem. But that wasn’t to be and we were faced, as is every homeowner who contracts for electricity with FBEMC, with allowing them to spray the right-of-way, or clearing our 50’ x 500’ swath of head-high briars ourselves by hand, or by goat. FBEMC, by right of eminent domain, can do whatever they deem necessary to clear right-of-way under power lines. Up until three years ago, clearing was done by hand by FBEMC when, in an effort to save money, the company switched to chemicals.


The arrival of electricity to small mountain communities, as late as the 1950s and 1960s in some places, was a culture-changing event and it significantly altered people’s lives and lifestyles. Few of us could get by for very long without electricity - I know I wouldn’t be writing this blog without it. And I think French Broach Electric does a reasonably good job of keeping us supplied with a steady and reliable source of power. Part of that reliability comes from keeping the right-of-way cleared and to that end I have no problem with cutting problem trees and overhanging limbs.

But I have a problem with chemicals. Annually in the United States, we apply over 500 million pounds of herbicides to our land. Most of these poisons are considered endocrine inhibitors by the EPA, which means they alter the reproductive systems of animals and invertebrates, not to mention what they do to plants. These poisons ultimately end up in our streams, creeks, and rivers; they drift over our crops; and they imprint brown, sterilized swaths onto our verdant green landscape. It looks atrocious and reminds me of a piece of mountain wisdom about fouling your own nest.


I, and I suspect many of my neighbors, have a problem with anyone claiming the legal right to poison land we’ve spent decades nurturing and stewarding. Eminent Domain is supposed to be for the good of the community and I simply don’t understand the good in spreading a blanket of chemicals over our landscape.