The photograph “Private Property” by Marc Soracco launches a new series on abandoned things, which will be a recurring topic at “In This Light” along with the continuing series on Appalachian photographers and writers. Other upcoming topics include graveyards, signs, steel mills, churches, small towns and main streets – imagery influenced by the work of Walker Evans. Evans referred to it as “the American vernacular.” Americana may be a more contemporary description. And since I’m living in the city which was the subject of one of Eugene Smith’s greatest photographic projects, there will be more posts and imagery about Pittsburgh as well.
Abandoned things have always intrigued me. In fact, anything that’s been left to ruin fascinates me. What happened? Who stopped caring and walked away? Why? When did the downward slide into ruin begin? There’s always a story behind the abandoned and discarded possession.
I may even be able to trace my fascination with abandoned things back to its root. When I was a young girl, I often spent weekends at my grandfather’s house. It had been the house where I’d lived for the first several years of my life, so there was always a sense of going back home when I visited. On the drive to Grandpap’s house, along a narrow country road winding through a valley, we’d pass an old abandoned house. I badgered Grandpap with questions, and he told me the house had once been well maintained and had been one of the prettiest houses around. What had simply been interesting to me before suddenly became spooky. What had happened to the people who’d lived in the pretty house in the woods? Why did they leave?
I loved those rides with Grandpap in his dark green Plymouth that had a big clipper ship hood ornament out front to guide us (I’m not absolutely sure of the year or model, but it may have been a 1950 Special Deluxe). It was a heavy car with rounded contours and creaky doors that closed hard with a solid thud. There were other clipper ship designs inside, including a flat chrome decoration attached to the glove compartment which had matchbooks wedged under it to keep it from rattling. There were also ship designs on the center of the steering wheel and on the big chrome disk hubcaps. Riding in that car with him felt like sailing, especially at night under starry skies with the air whistling through the tiny triangular side vent window – a safe transport through the valley past spooky old houses in the woods.
There was no radio in the car, so we’d talk. He listened to my childish imagination and I listened to his stories of being a boy. He would let me strike matches for him to light his pipe as he drove. He was absolutely my favorite person in my small world back then, and when we were out of my mother’s sight we were usually in cahoots about things like match-lighting and staying up past bedtime to watch TV. Or, walking to the filling station near his house at the edge of town after supper for soda pop, where the pop cooler was the old kind with icy water circulating around the bottles and he’d have to reach down into the cold water to pick out our favorite flavors, orange for me and birch beer for him.
I bet I asked Grandpap about that old abandoned house every time we drove past. The two-story wooden frame house was surrounded by what had once been a white picket fence. Only traces of paint remained, just enough to hint that the house and fence had once been white. There was no glass left in the window frames, yet on an old trellis at one end of the wide and sagging front porch, climbing red roses still bloomed.
Those roses haunted me. Old gardens live on, evidence of a different life, of what had once been, of a life that has moved on. I’ve come upon similar old gardens over the years. Once in the ghost town of Sewell along the New River in West Virginia, where only stone foundations remain and yet daffodils still bloom in what were once yards each spring. More recently in the town of Thurmond, West Virginia after all the residents had moved from the hillside houses when the National Park Service bought them out. And now, just a few houses up the street from where I live, the home of an elderly woman who died last winter stands vacant and tied up in probate while the heirs settle her estate, her garden still blooming with lupine and hollyhocks throughout the spring and summer.
All those years ago when I was a young girl riding in my grandfather’s car past that old abandoned house, I couldn’t understand that things age and decay, and if left untended are eventually overtaken by the natural world. Or that people move on and leave things behind. That old house along the country road was eventually covered with overgrowth and finally collapsed into itself. I suppose the roses were eventually choked out by weeds, or perhaps the tall brush blocked out the sun they needed to thrive.
Abandonment, lost homes and lost gardens, are some of our oldest stories, told and retold. I’ve been working on pulling together the ideas and imagery for a series on abandoned things for some time, but the topic of lost homes seems particularly relevant in our current economic climate. A recent post about losing a childhood home written by writer Jessica Keener at her blog, “Confessions of a Hermit Crab” is a reminder that we’ve gone through earlier difficult economic times. Be sure to check out Jessica’s blog, which I’ve added to my list of favorites on the sidebar at the right.
Photo Credit: “Private Property, Micopany, Florida” copyright 2008 by Marc Soracco. Used by permission.