We Are All Local


Paul Anderson skinning raccoons, Big Pine, 1978.
From Little Worlds


In 1978, I was the recipient of a Photo Survey Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency begun in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Programs. For a young photographer like myself, the small grant was an opportunity to spend time making pictures in the entire county without the pressure of selling the images. I could shoot what interested me. Many of the photographs from that year made it into Sodom Laurel Album and others will be included in my next project, Little Worlds.



Family members praying over graves in the new Little Ivy Church Cemetery, Mars Hill, NC 1996. from The New Road


In 2000, I was awarded a Independent Research Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete photographs and writing on I-26, for what became my book, The New Road. NEH, another Federal Program, was begun at the same time as NEA, and both are part of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act. 

Between 1965 and 2008, NEA awarded over 180,000 grants, totaling $5 billion. These grants not only funded small projects like mine, but also larger projects in bigger places. NEH was much the same, sponsoring programs like Ken Burns' monumental endeavor, The Civil War, and The Treasures of Tutankhamen, an exhibit seen by over 1.5 million Americans. NEH also sponsors initiatives such as the Bridging Cultures Initiative, which explores ways in which the humanities promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives. 



Iktome Glyph, Sprinkle Creek, Madison County, NC 1998. From The New Road.


The new president and Congress have earmarked NEA and NEH for elimination and with them the thousands of music and dance programs, projects in underserved inner-city and rural communities, and countless performances that serve to teach us something about who we are as a people and society. Both agencies have budgets of approximately $150 million dollars, a mere pittance compared to the entire federal budget. By way of contrast, we taxpayers are presently paying about $1 million a day, $365 million a year, in rent and security so Melania Trump can stay in New York, rather than move into the White House like every other First Lady has done. 
I wonder if and when we will get our priorities straight again and spend our money on projects aiding our children and communities rather than gifting it to the gilded few.


The New Road


JD Thomas Walking Away from his Burning Home Place, Sprinkle Creek, Madison County, NC 1997

I know while JD's momma was still at home, after his dad died, I said, 'Momma, what if that road comes through your land?' And she said, 'Aw, woman. It'll never change. It'll never happen. We'll never have a road like that; it'll never be. I'm not worried about it.' It's just unreal. We used to walk over all those hills. We used to go after school and on the weekends, and we'd walk all the way to Big Knob. We'd play, and we'd go up in the fields and pick apples and grapes and all that stuff off the farm. It never even dawned on me that this was going to happen to that place. He won't admit this, but I knew that night they burned the house I could see tears. It hurt him. It really did.
                                                              Lela Thomas, Sprinkle Creek
                                                              - from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia 


The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia will soon be out of print. This is Book Two of my proposed trilogy of books from Madison County. The book uses photographs, oral histories and narrative writing to tell the detailed story of the largest earth-moving project in North Carolina history. If you have yet to add this book to your collection, now is the time to do so. I will gladly sign and inscribe as you wish. Go to robamberg.com/store for information.


Supervisors Inspecting


Supervisors Inspecting site of a recent blast, Buckner Gap, Madison County, NC 1997
- from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia

A worker stops, surprised to see me photographing among the just shattered rock. He warns me to watch out for unexploded blasting caps that could still detonate, if I were to step on them. 


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.



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.