Sunday, July 26, 2009

Appalachian Images: Tim Barnwell (Part 1), "Sundays"

(click on photos to enlarge)

On a morning in April 2008 when my husband and I were out photographing in Roanoke, Virginia’s Historic City Market District, we stopped to browse in a bookstore there. Cantos Booksellers is a small independent bookstore, the kind with creaky floors and a few chairs among the shelves where you can sit to leisurely page through a book. The cover of one book in particular caught my eye that day – Tim Barnwell’s On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs.

I opened Barnwell’s book to find gorgeously reproduced black-and-white images of the hill farms and people in the mountains of North Carolina. These photographs struck such an emotional chord with me that they actually brought tears to my eyes. The photograph that started the waterworks – not the bawling out loud kind, but the throat-tightening silent tears sliding down the face kind of crying – was an image of churchgoers crossing a stream to get to the Sunday worship service. I closed the book and looked around to see if anyone had caught me crying, and then took the book to a more secluded area of the store where I found a seat behind a row of shelves before opening the book again. I turned the pages slowly, examining the images: tobacco fields and churches, farmers and hill farms, homey kitchens and gardens, and front porches that look as inviting as the general stores where folks stop to sit a spell and talk to their neighbors. I sat a long time with that book, caught up in a familiarity that harkened back to my own growing up among rural hill farms in a different part of the Appalachians.

It’s all there in each image, everything that makes a good photograph and a good story – the interesting perspective and light, the artful composition, the sense of place, and interesting characters. There is even an underlying sense of tension that the peaceful scenes depicted are about to change, evoking a sense of loss. And just as in any good story, there are many threads woven together to make the whole. We all bring our own stories to what we read and see, filtering it through our own experience, and one of the threads that stood out for me was Barnwell’s series of “Sunday” images.

The Sundays of my own growing up years were different from the Sundays of today. Sunday mornings were for churchgoing, and Sunday afternoons were for visiting. And somewhere between the morning church service and evening twilight was Sunday family dinner, which usually involved several generations of extended family members. It was the day when we connected with our larger family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Stores were closed on Sunday and no business was conducted except at gas stations, restaurants, and certain markets where you could buy a Sunday newspaper and an emergency quart of milk or loaf of bread. No one even considered doing yard work or chores (with the exception of cooking and dishwashing). The house had been cleaned and there was always some sort of special treat ready in the kitchen to bring out for whoever might stop by. The women tended to gather around the kitchen table, the men in the living room in front of the TV. And in warm weather the front porch swing and the backyard picnic table were the favored spots. At the edges of it all were the children who ran in and out of those kitchens and living rooms, played in the yards and on the porches, listening to and absorbing the stories the adults told.

Times and demands change, and the world moves much faster now, which makes me appreciate Tim Barnwell’s photographs all the more. He’s captured a glimpse of that slower pace and older ways that have long vanished in most places, documenting it through the photographs and the oral histories in this book. You can see more of his images from both of his books at his Website gallery. He has a new book coming out this fall which I’m looking forward to seeing, and he may just drop by here to do a guest post then.

Photo credits

All photographs copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

Top Photo: Crossing Creek to go to church, 1986. Grapevine, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

Middle Photo: Old church in tobacco field, 1981. Big Laurel, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

Bottom Photo: Ernest Teague and Ernest Rector, Sunday visit, 1983. Marshall, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ann Pancake: Strange As This Weather Has Been

I seem to have an affinity for Appalachian writers, particularly writers from West Virginia. No doubt one of my earliest and best writing teachers, Chuck Kinder, had an influence. The Mountain State has produced a literary legacy of fine writers, and many of them are involved in an anthology project I’ve put together of stories and photographs linked by a railroad motif. Ann Pancake's Pushcart Prize winning story, Dog Song, is part of that project. Her short story collection, Given Ground, won the 2000 Katharine Bakeless Nason Fiction Prize, and her 2007 novel Strange As This Weather Has Been won the Weatherford Award and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann during the spring of 2008 when she was visiting her family in Romney, WV. We sat on the wide front porch of the farmhouse that has been in Ann’s family for several generations, discussing literature and language and land. Strange As This Weather Has Been is a novel about the effect of mountaintop removal coal mining on families in southern Appalachia as well as the impact on the environment. Pancake has a strong writing voice, telling the story through multiple points of view with language distinctive in syntax and regional phrasing. She began writing the book after helping her sister, filmmaker Catherine Pancake, interview families whose land and drinking water were being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining methods.

Despite reading about and seeing photographs of mountaintop removal mining, I was still not quite prepared for witnessing it firsthand as I did last October on Kayford Mountain just south of Charleston, WV. Instead of tunneling underground and hauling out the coal, mountaintop removal mining is an extreme form of strip mining which blasts the entire top off the mountain. The coal is then extracted and the rest of the dirt, rocks, and trees that had been the mountaintop are dumped over the side into the valley below. The coal is processed at the mining site where huge slurry impoundments are contained behind earthen dams. These are essentially toxic lakes of sludge and chemicals which leach into the ground water. The families in the shadow of these mountaintop mines suffer by having their land destroyed, their drinking water contaminated, and their health compromised. There are dozens of such mines operating in West Virginia and Kentucky, which can readily be seen by using Google Earth maps and zooming in with the satellite view.

Perhaps I am so moved by the West Virginia writers because I come from a similar place in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. My grandfathers and uncles were coal miners at one time, before the mines there were exhausted. I try to imagine how enraged I would feel if this type of destruction were to occur on my own beloved Jacks Mountain. The coal in the region where I grew up has been mined out, but the mountains still stand. Now when I drive east from Pittsburgh to visit my family back home, I see wind turbines on the crests of those mountain ridges, just as I saw wind turbines in southwestern PA that day last spring when I drove south to West Virginia to interview Ann.

Our regional identities are shaped by the land around us, and so are our stories. Ann Pancake is one of the writers telling the stories of Appalachia and making an effort to protect her home state from the corporate and political interests that would destroy that heritage by hauling the mountains out of West Virginia, coal car by coal car, one train after another.

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Photo credits:

Top Photo of Ann Pancake, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams

Photo of Kayford Mountain, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams