My mother, Phyllis, steadying herself with one hand, hoeing with the other.
It’s a Saturday morning in April. I’m sleeping in my childhood bedroom in the house I grew up in. This strip of suburbia is known as Little Hollywood, which is an inexplicable name for a 1950s neighborhood built on an old strip mine in the coalfields of southwest Virginia.
I drove six hours yesterday for this visit, and I’m coming off some stressful weeks at work, a tired story in itself. So, I’ve taken this opportunity to sleep a little later than usual. Not to mention it was sometime between midnight and dawn when my parents, my brother and I, gave up the old ghosts last night and let the stories taper off with no endings.
When I pull myself from sweet slumber I look out the window and there is my Mother already working in the garden. This won’t surprise anyone who knows her. But let me describe the scene a bit more. These are the Appalachian mountains, and there isn’t a lot of flat ground.
Our house sits at the bottom of a steep hill, and for years my parents grew a very large garden way up the hill. Now my Mom has smaller gardens closer to the house, including some raised beds my brothers built her in a back corner. But today she’s working the soil along the bottom edge of an old rose garden that now shares space with radishes and garlic, and when she’s finished this morning will have a small patch of early peas. She works close to the house because the climb up the incline to the big garden feels insurmountable most days. She’s pushing 82 and her hips ache even when there’s not a storm on the way. In the heat of the summer she will still make the trek a few times, carrying soapy water to rid the tomato patch of stinkbugs, or to check on the potato rows my Daddy plants.
But this morning when I look out my window, she’s working this small piece of ground by leaning on her cane with one hand and hoeing with the other. Steadying herself.
There’s so much more I could write here, but for now I just want to think about her steadying herself. And express my gratitude for her steadying hand in my life.
This is one of the raised beds my brothers built. She uses it mostly for greens.
I was lost when I found this house. Headed east in North Carolina, toward Pungo Lake to observe the migrating birds, I missed a turn. I came to a crossroads, looked left, and there she was at the far end of a fallow field. Overgrown evergreens stood tall by the porch and it felt as if the house was trying to hide. I approached slowly, in part because I was sensitive to trespassing, and because I just wanted to visually absorb what lay before me.
The second shot was a bit closer, through raindrops clinging to a bush.
After hanging around the property for about twenty minutes I began to get more confident that no one really minded me being there, so I began to get closer.
It’s the pathos of things that draws me. I’m going to quote from a book called “Pouring Concrete” that my brother Ben “loaned” me a decade or so ago. “Zen Buddhists have a phrase – ‘the pathos of things’ – that refers to seeing the world in depth. It is the feeling we have when we look at something transient, perhaps a flower, and see in it something of the infinite. Anyone who spends time directly perceiving the world eventually experiences some sense of this pathos.”
Like many photographers, I’m drawn to ruin. It’s almost embarrassing how many photographs I’ve taken of abandoned houses. I even tried to make myself stop by creating projects that require me to photograph humans more.
But I can’t look away. The pathos, and patina. The intersection of transience and eternity. I like to imagine the sounds that might have been in the houses at one time. The lives lived out there. It’s mysterious and not mysterious. We come, and we go.
This barn sits on the bluffs known as “Sugar Hill” above the Clinch River just outside St. Paul, Virginia. It is located very near the site of a failed French settlement called St. Marie on the Clinch. So much history that we were never exposed to as children growing up in the Appalachian mountains. Kudos to the town of St. Paul for creating these walking trails and preserving the site.
Now, more than ever, it’s time to celebrate our mixed ethnicity and to overcome the divide that racism can create. Thrilled to be showing my “melungeon voices” documentary, and even more excited to have a home for my “People and their People” exhibit for a few weeks. If you live near the MARC, please consider getting out to see this exhibit over the Thanksgiving holidays, if you can’t make the talk tonight.
This is Albert Rascoe holding a photograph of his Mother, Fannie Williams. Albert, as you can see is a Veteran, so I’m posting this in honor of Veterans Day. I photographed Mr. Rascoe as part of my ongoing portrait project “People and their People.” While it grew out of a deep interest in people with mixed ethnicity, I have since expanded the concept to include groups of people who are bonded by place, or by circumstance. More on that in later posts as I’m still hard at work on it all. There is an exhibition of the portraits beginning November 17th and running through December 4th at the Museum and Archives of Rockingham County.
Each time I photograph someone for this project I ask them to tell me a story about the ancestor they chose to include. Here’s part of Albert Rascoe’s story: He’s holding a photograph taken in 1967 when he returned from his service in Vietnam. His Mother is wearing a kimono he bought for her in Japan. Pictured is the car he purchased after he returned. It’s a 1963 Ford Fairlane convertible. Mr. Rascoe was born and lived in Hamilton, NC until he moved his wife and daughter to Raleigh in the 1970s. He stayed in Raleigh, until he returned to Hamilton in 2007 to help care for his ailing Mother.
He is standing in the school yard of the historic Rosenwald School in Hamilton, NC, where both he and his Mother attended. The Rosenwald School is currently in restoration by the Roanoke River Partners to be used as community center and interpretive site.
This photograph shows Albert Rascoe holding a school portrait of himself from his days at the Rosenwald School.
This caught my eye on 87 north between Pittsboro and Saxapahaw, NC. So many unanswered questions . . .
Some things I saw while driving the blue highways in Virginia.
For about a decade I’ve been traveling to Ocracoke once a year or so. It’s not the long history some folks have with this tiny little village but it’s enough that I have my favorite spots. At the end of the day, when the light goes golden I put my cameras in a backpack and jump on my bike. I like to find the Ocracats that hang out at the old fishing cabins.
I like the fading paint on old buoys and the grey boardwalks. I like the way the marsh grass waves gently in the breeze underneath a pink sky.
There’s no pretense here. The weathered patina is not some faux fashion look. It’s the texture of a place and a people who love the sea, who live by the sea, who live from the sea. There’s a long long history and I like to get quiet and see how much of it I can feel.
I grew up deep in the Appalachian Mountains, so the trappings of a fishing village are details I know nothing of. I’m enamored with simple things like old fishing nets, or abandoned ropes. And I’m infatuated with that rocking chair bathed in the setting sun. I think I’ll sit and stay a while.
The recent snow and ice storm served as a reminder of how quickly our world can change. It forces us to slow down a bit. Proceed with caution. But it also is a great opportunity to spend a little more time looking at things around us. Ordinary objects can take on a new life. The truth is this is always out there for us to see if we just open our eyes and our mind, and look around. I often find myself trying to look at things from a different perspective, especially in a photographic sense. The water frozen on the end of the watering can spout seemed to be saying so much. I’ll let you add your own words to what it brings up in your mind.
As we pause to assess the changing of the calendar, let’s try to continue to dream and hope and wish. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Put your boat in the river and drift. If you need to go faster then paddle, but don’t paddle so fast that you’can’t see what’s unfolding around you. Honor your elders and your ancestors while encouraging your children. Turn off your television and read a poem. Wear your favorite boots, or your roller skates, or go barefoot so you can feel the ground beneath you. Notice the sacred geometry that is everywhere around you. Leave some white space, some empty space, some open space, for what’s to come. Do not be afraid. Practice compassion.
I had the great fortune this past year to spend quality time with family and friends, and fit in some meaningful work at the same time. Highlights included two trips out west including a canoe trip down the Colorado river. I also had the great fortune to take a few long drives through the country of southwest Virginia with my parents and my brothers. I traveled east in North Carolina several times to see the wonder of migrating birds. Everywhere I went I made a point to stop and talk to people. Often I asked if I could take their photograph. As I reflect I’m mostly grateful for a bountiful life. Did I have challenges? Yes. Do I wish I’d accomplished more? Yes. But that’s a useless emotion mostly. I’m just going to keep my eyes and my heart open, cause I believe the signs are there if you’re awake to see them. I’m still willing to trust in the divine, and myself, to keep me on a path that works. And I should add that I get by with a little help from my friends. You know who you are.
Julie, January 1, 2016