A Change of Worlds: From L.A. to AL

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve posted here. Since then, we’ve survived Covid so far, my husband retired, and we left California to find a home and some land on which to put down roots. At first, we thought this place would be in eastern Tennessee, near Knoxville, an area Joe researched and he determined it was a place where we could find a house and some land while still being close to some culture and teaching opportunities for me. By the time we sold our house in CA, moved cross country with 3 cats, and established ourselves in a rented house in a crowded housing development outside Knoxville (one of many popping up all over the area), the real estate market in TN went nuts. Though we looked from Kingsport to Chattanooga, we didn’t find anything that spoke to us that wasn’t grossly overpriced or being fought over in a bidding war. Once there, we discovered that native Tennesseans weren’t all that welcoming in our area, feeling like they were being overrun by us western libtards clogging up the infrastructure, jacking up property taxes, and muddying the color of politics. So we expanded our search to include northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. We finally found a house and acreage in central, eastern Alabama on the outskirts of a small town called Alexander City. And while we swore our neighbors in the taupe-ridden “Shady Glen” development in TN were all in the witness protection program (we hardly saw them and rarely talked to them even though the houses were separated by only 8 feet), our neighbors in Alabama, being about a half a mile away from us in either direction, have been more warm and welcoming than we ever expected. They’ve brought us fresh eggs and homegrown vegetables. Joe shares a bourbon on the screened-in porch with one neighbor whose cattle we can occasionally hear across the way and who gifted us with one of the biggest heads of cabbage I’ve ever seen. The fact that Joe grew up in northern Alabama and graduated from Auburn University gives him some street cred around here that we might not have gotten as readily, particularly since we moved here from CA by way of TN, or maybe I’m just a bit jaded by my experience in TN.

Regardless, we have traded droughts, earthquakes, and wildfires for a verdant piece of land overlooking a huge pond, rolling pastures, and the kind of privacy we only dreamed about after living cheek to jowl with neighbors outside Los Angeles. Our vocabulary now includes words like “Bush Hog” and “Kubota.” We’ve made friends with Stella and Jake, our cattle-owning neighbor’s cattle dogs, who ride along with him when he drives his Kubota over from his land to ours. We wave to Miss Fancy and Butters, our other neighbors’ horses who are sometimes in the pasture that abuts part of our quarter-mile driveway. We enjoy the family of deer that live on our land in the woods beside the pasture. We’ll be harvesting blueberries from the enormous bushes in the garden area. We also witness phenomenal thunderstorms with strobe-like light shows and thunder that rolls on continuously for twenty seconds or longer. After a storm, we have to be careful not to run over any of the turtles in our driveway or on the road, turtles that have crawled to higher ground in advance of the storm.

“Broken Pane,” Cades Cove, TN

But along with our appreciation of this new pastoral splendor, we must also acknowledge this is an area steeped in a dark history. Most of our neighbors have been on this land for generations when much of what surrounds us was part of a plantation. Even though our road name bears the name of a chapel, the name of a little predominantly white attended chapel, I wonder why it doesn’t bear the name of the black church that’s also located on this road that has been here since before emancipation. Its cemetery’s gravestones are worn and some bear no markings, or the markings have long since been erased by weather and time. A half a mile away from this chapel, you can see a Confederate flag waving atop a run-down trailer. There are still Trump/Pence 2020 signs staked into front yards. One of the employees at the local hardware store has a swastika tattooed on his arm. We know that if we had moved here with non-white skin, we may have been received much differently. Nevertheless, we chose to be here, closer to Joe’s folks who live three hours farther south in AL.

So, the next adventure begins. We’ve been so busy there’s been little time to get behind a camera. I need to see how the light lays against surfaces here. I hope to connect with this place and let it reveal itself to me because I still believe, as Annie Dillard says, “…beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I try to be there with a camera in hand.

Thanks to Scott Baker, a photographer who grew up here, but who photographs landscapes, people, and commercial projects all over the world, whose article in the NY Times about returning to Alexander City during the pandemic gave me a terrific introduction to this place that I am now calling home.

A Year of Wonders

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Covid Selfie

I am borrowing from the title of Geraldine Brooks’s novel of the Black Plague, Year of Wonders. It’s been that kind of year, worried about friends and family, seeing people lose their jobs, or risk their lives doing their jobs. Everything is out of balance, even with the ecosystem in our back yard.

It’s also a year that marks the achievement of a lifelong goal. I have finally earned my Ph.D. in English, writing about the connections between American women writers and women photographers in the early twentieth century. One of the women writers I’ve studied is Katherine Anne Porter, who may be one of the few novelists who has included the Spanish Flu of 1918 in her novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, after she, herself, barely survived that plague. Lit Hub even features a short video clip from 1973 featuring an 83-year-old Porter describing her experience.

We can or will eventually relate to her words at the end of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: “[N]o more plague, only the dazed silence…noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow.”

Homegrown Green

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Green Peppers

Since Joe’s working from home during the Covid-19 quarantine and I’m in the last stages of completing my Ph.D., he and I decided to expand our backyard potted garden. There’s immense satisfaction in growing your own food, and it’s also a huge responsibility to be conscious stewards of an ecosystem that you’ve established. We appreciate the balance that is sometimes very tricky to maintain. Insects start eating leaves, but the birds pick through the herbs to forage for a meal of grubs or caterpillars. They did this often when they were feeding a nest of youngsters. The lizards eat excess insects. Spiders set up webs and feed off various garden pests. But we’ve also had to wrestle with leaf miners, who decimate the foliage on our cucumber plants. We wrapped the concord grapevine with bird netting, but that meant they couldn’t pick off the borer that’s now attacking the grapevine. And let me tell you all about fungus….black fungus, powdery white fungus, rusty-looking fungus. Basil leaves can get fungus. Who knew? But then you get a bowlful of beautiful vegetables like these bell peppers, and how could I disrespect such a vibrant green by shooting them in black and white.

Earth Day, 50th Anniversary

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I can’t escape the irony that on this anniversary of Earth Day, humankind is forced to retreat indoors because of a raging virus and we must leave the natural world to nature. As a result, the air has become cleaner, the water clearer, the animals free and unharassed. I embrace nature as it exists in my back yard, feeding the birds, rescuing honey bees that fall into the birdbath, breathing in the plants, the vegetables and the herbs growing in pots all around our patio. And I turn to poets who have deep roots in nature, like Wendell Berry:

Mama Bird, Baby Bird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry

A Curve Nearly Naked, A Wand

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Our worlds have shrunk, have concentrated, making us focus on what is immediately around us. For my husband and I, we were fortunate to plant our potted garden in the back yard before we all had to retreat into our homes. Those plants, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas have become our sanctuary. I’m also taking shelter in poetry and poets.org is offering to mail you a poem a day during April to celebrate Poetry Month, and they also offer Shelter In Poems: “This National Poetry Month, we ask our readers to share a poem that helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy, and a few words about how or why it does so.”

This particular poem was emailed to me today, “The Way We Love Something Small,” by Kimberly Blaeser. This poem resonates with me, even more so now as my photography often focuses on small things because it has been my experience, like Blaeser claims, that using one’s camera, like writing poems, is an “act of attention.” And these are the things that save us. These small things have always saved me, having the power to change me.

Pea Shoot

The Way We Love Something Small

Kimberly Blaeser

The translucent claws of newborn mice

this pearl cast of color,

the barely perceptible

like a ghosted threshold of being:

here     not here.

The single breath we hold

on the thinnest verge of sight:

not there   there.

A curve nearly naked

an arc of almost,

a wisp of becoming

a wand—

tiny enough to change me.

 

Melancholic Connection

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While leafing through a recent book on still lifes by The Getty’s Paul Martineau, Still Life in Photography, I discovered a couple photographs that made me realize I had an unknown connection to certain photographers whose work I admire but never saw these specific images. I have purposely created images that are homages to favorite photographers, but there are also images that I’ve created, not knowing that they echo an image created long before mine. Such is the case with André Kertész’s image of a drooping tulip.

Melancholic Tulip, André Kertész

My Broken Tulip was created because of the way the morning light hit this unfortunate bloom. The way the light hits a certain object often stops me in my tracks and I run to get my camera. Such was the case with this particular tulip that was long past its prime.

The Broken Tulip

The same is true of an image created by  Manuel Álvarez Bravo, another photographer whose work (along with the work of his wife, Lola), I greatly admire.  Books, however, have been

Libros, Manuel Álvarez Bravo

a frequent subject in my photographs since I am always surrounded by stacks of them, so it’s not unlikely that I would create a similar image. There are other photographers who photograph books beautifully as well (Morrell, Mansfield), even as they decay (Purcell).

Stacked

Martineau claims, “The revival of interest in the genre at the dawn of the twenty-first century comes as the digital age is transforming the medium.” My own still lifes feel less transformative, but rather contemplative, leaning back on those from whom I have, knowingly or unknowingly, drawn inspiration.