Thursday, March 31, 2011

Abandoned house - Albemarle County, Virginia 

Most often abandoned houses are found on back roads and out-of-the-way places, but this old house stands just a few yards from Route 29, the busy four-lane divided highway that is the main north/south route in this area. I drive past it every day going to and from work.

The house is so overgrown that in the summer it is almost completely hidden by the foliage, and even in the winter it is easy to miss. It was a substantial old house, capable of housing a large family in comfort and some style. It was built on a field-stone foundation and the chimneys are also stone. The construction suggest that it was built in the first decades of the twentieth century, or perhaps even earlier . In its current state of neglect, it is doubtless beyond repair, but yet it is hard to imagine why such a substantial building has been left to the elements.

It was raining when I drove by yesterday, and and the faded house was just visible in the brown weeds. A lone forsythia was blooming in the yard.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Charlotte Hall School - St. Mary's County, Maryland 

This one-room schoolhouse dates from around 1820 and is located on the grounds of the St. Clement's Island Museum, on the lower Potomac River. The first settlers landed at St Clement's Island  on March 25, 1624 to establish the Maryland  colony.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Public School No. 18 -  Fauquier County, Virginia 

This is the last one-room schoolhouse in Fauquier County. After the Civil War, the Virginia constitution provided for the establishment of free public schools and schoolhouse #18 was built in 1887 near the town of Marshall. It was closed in 1963. The building has been restored and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Virginia Historic Landmark.

This picture of the school in a state of neglect was taken around 1973. That's my oldest daughter in the lower corner of the frame. I probably fussed at her for getting in my picture, but now, of the several shots I have of this old building, this is my favorite. It is one of the few time she looked eager to go to school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

Walker Evans - Ferry and river men - 1936 - Vicksburg, Mississippi 

In the spring of 1936, Walker was in Vicksburg Mississippi photographing for the Farm Security Administration. James R. Mellow, in his biography of Evans writes:

". . .Evans developed a vestigial affection for the southern landscape and he viewed his Vicksburg sojourn as a special one. Late in life, asked by a young southern writer and photographer, Bill Ferris, if he remembered Vicksburg, he remarked, 'Of course I remember Vicksburg. You know, to someone who hasn't been there before, it has a tremendous appeal to the eye. I can understand why Southerners are haunted by their own landscape and are in love with it."

 Modern tow boat at Vicksburg, 2006 

Vicksburg waterfront - 2010

Walker Evans photo is from the FSA collection at the Library of Congress - LC-USF342-001308-A
Vicksburg waterfront  2010 - photo by Allan Leese, copyright 2010. 
Excerpt from Walker Evans by James R. Mellow, Basic Books, 1999

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dunkum store - Green Springs, Virginia 

Green Springs was the scene of a 1914 murder that lead to one of the most famous trials in Virginia's history. The original store burned down on the night of the murder, was later rebuilt on the same foundation and now stands vacant.  Read more about it  here.

The photo above was taken in August, 2010. Shot on Fuji Acros Neopan 100 film  with the Pentax MX camera

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

At the Amtrak station - Charlottesville, Virginia 

Spring is not easy.

One day the air is warm and sunshine calls us outdoors. Only the brown grass and bare trees remind us that it is not summer. Another day, a cold and damp wind blows in from the north and the sky is leaden with thick gray clouds. It looks like it might snow. The yellow blossoms on the forsythia shivering in the cold are the only reminder that we are not still in deep winter.

Transitions are often difficult, but spring will triumph. Frogs will awaken and sing; the mockingbird will flash his wing-bars and go courting; the sound of lawn mowers and the smell of wild onions will fill the air. The outline of the mountains will be softened by the new leaves, and ants will invade the kitchen. It happens like this every year, but it can be touch and go for a while in March when spring grapples with winter.

Tonight, a cold rain is falling. We will see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gazebo moon 

The story that I posted here about my grandmother and the copperhead appeared last week on Appalachian History. I was pleased that the story was also included in the weekly Appalachian History Podcast. 

The podcast is like a thirty minute radio show, with stories, music and announcements of upcoming events in the region. This week's show also includes a look at the secret cold war bunker underneath West Virginia's Greenbriar Hotel, a tale of the underground railroad, and thoughts about the origins of mountain dialect. It is an informative and entertaining thirty minutes. Listen to it here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Supermoon" going down on Sunday morning, March 20, 2011

If I had been a working photographer on assignment to photograph Saturday night's supermoon, I would probably be looking for a new job this morning. It is not that I didn't try. It is not that I didn't have a plan.

Sunday morning
The time of the moonrise was easy to find on the internet. The location was a little trickier, but with the help of a map and compass and using an azimuth table, I was confident that the moon would rise behind the perfect landscape that I had chosen for it. At the appointed time, I was ready with camera and tripod. It was a beautiful scene, but the moon didn't rise.  I checked my watch against the dashboard clock.   Five minutes went by, then ten. No moon. Finally, I saw the moon through the trees about 45 degrees from where it was supposed to be. You can't trust Mother Nature.

A moonrise is most dramatic just as it clears the horizon, particularly if the atmospheric conditions are right. I relocated and set back up, but the moon was well above the horizon, and not looking very super at all. By this time, it was too dark to include any part of the landscape, so I took a few desultory shots and headed home.

Sunday morning I got out of bed at 6:30 to catch the moon going down over the Blue Ridge from my front yard, but it set well to the south where our view of the mountains is blocked by closer hills and trees. So I made the best of it, and was thankful that my job did not depend on my photographic skills.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Spring 2011

If you live in the northern hemisphere, today is the first day of spring. For our neighbors south of the equator today is the first day of autumn. This year's vernal equinox also coincides with the occurrence of a "supermoon." Yesterday, the moon was full and closer to the earth than it has been in 18 years.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Anas platyrhynchos - mallards

Summer Ducks

One Saturday in August several years ago, my friend Tom and I made our way up a creek which led off the Potomac River and wound through the marsh for a couple of miles before becoming too narrow to navigate even in our small inflatable boat. Far back from the river, we came upon a small landing jutting into the swamp. Around the landing was a  raft of juvenile mallard ducks.

Juvenile hens and drakes look alike
We stopped and got out of the boat to stretch our legs and look at the ducks. After a few minutes, a four-wheel drive truck pulled up and a man and his young son got out of the truck, grabbed a cloth sack from the back and began to scatter corn for the ducks.  The boy and his father fed the ducks in a business-like manner; it was clear that these ducks were not pets.

After they had finished and were putting the feed back into the truck, we walked over, introduced ourselves and asked about the ducks.

"Well, " the duck man said, "in the spring I buy these hatch-ling ducks, and we raise them up in a pen at home. My boy helps feed them and he keeps the pen clean. When they are old enough, we bring them out here and turn them loose. They hang around together and we come out and keep 'em fed." The boy sat silent on the tail gate and looked out over the ducks. As his father talked, he occasionally nodded his head.

"The corn not only keeps 'em fed, but it will bring in the wild ducks too. Then these ducks will take up with the wild ducks, and after a while fly away with them. Come duck hunting season, we should have right many ducks on this creek." He slammed the tailgate and they got back in the truck. "I better get this boy home for his lunch. See you around. " "Bye," said the boy and they drove off.

Duck Blind
After the duck man and his son left, we took a walk down the dirt road they drove in on. When we got back to the landing, the ducks swam toward us, expecting more corn.

I pictured a string of mallards flying over the marshes on a crisp November morning. The wild ducks see humans and think "DANGER." Their hand raised cousins think "CORN!" It doesn't seem quite fair.

We did not see a wild duck all day.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Barn and silo, Greene County, Virginia 

Without the comfort of place . . .
Everyone suffers loss at some time in their life. We are consoled by friends and family, and comforted by the familiar routines of our lives. A cup of coffee in our own kitchen, a walk down a familiar street, the well worn view from the porch, we find comfort in familiar places and things.

Our thoughts and prayers go out the the people in Japan who have lost everything.  Every familiar part of their life has been swept away, the very landscape altered beyond recognition. Where do they turn for comfort?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Barn and silo, Albemarle County, Virginia 

Yesterday was a beautiful Sunday here in central Virginia. The air was so clear you could almost see bare branches on the mountain slopes. The sky was blue except for a few high thin clouds and the sunlight was bright and flat. But it was warm, and so I took the camera and went for a drive. It was good to be outdoors in a light jacket after being inside all winter. There was a hint of green in the grass, and trees glowed with opening buds. The spring sunshine seemed to smile on the old farm buildings that I found to photograph. Next Sunday is the first day of Spring.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My grandparents circa 1942, Buchanan, Virginia 

One summer when I was about ten years old, I spent a couple of weeks practicing with my Daisy air rifle in preparation for a visit to my grandparents. My intention was to hunt snakes, and I dreamed of coming home with a beautiful and frightening diamondback rattlesnake skin. When my mother heard about my plans, she said I would do no such thing. The BB gun stayed home.

At my grandparent's house, the grown-ups were constantly yelling after me "don't slam the screen door" and "watch out for snakes." I watched for snakes behind the high sill of the out buildings before stepping in and I made sure no snakes lurked in the rafters. The thought of being in the out-house with a snake still gives me the creeps.

I never saw a snake around my grandparent's house, but there were snakes in the mountains, copperheads and rattlesnakes, and hunters would occasionally stop by to show off a large snake stretched out on a board. On the kitchen porch, my grandfather kept a tobacco tin with rattlesnake rattles in it. They felt alive and dangerous in my palm. One Monday morning, just a few yards from that porch, my grandmother was bitten by a copperhead while doing the wash.

The water for washing clothes was heated outdoors on a large stone fireplace. A copperhead, driven out of the rocks by the heat, bit my grandmother near the ankle. "I've been bit!" she said. Luckily my uncle was close by. He quickly cut open the wound and extracted as much of the poison as possible. He saved her life, but she was bedridden for months, and nearly lost her leg.

All that happened years before I was born, but the family was still vigilant and instilled in me the habit of being careful. I was glad that my BB gun had been left at home so I had an excuse to not hunt snakes. I took my elders advice to watch out for snakes, and secretly hoped that slamming the screen door would frighten them away.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Horse and rider - Graves Mill, Virginia 

I was out photographing near Graves Mill when several horse trailers stopped nearby and began to unload and saddle up for a ride in the mountains. I have never spent much time around horses, but they did not seem to mind the camera and I asked a couple of the riders if I could take some pictures. Taking photographs of strangers is not very comfortable for me, but these folks were friendly, and the presence of the horses made it easier.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

Early blooming spirea - Greene County, Virginia

I sometimes think that raking leaves could be an indication that we are not living the life nature intended for us.

A wife, on the other hand, tends to believe that not raking leaves is a sign that one is not living the life she intends, and so I found myself raking leaves a couple of days ago. It was a sunny afternoon and the temperature was in the low 50s, ideal for working outdoors. As I picked up dead branches that had been pruned from the trees by winter storms and raked back the leaves from the cold ground, the first tiny signs of spring appeared. The bridal wreath  (spirea) was covered in bright green buds, and on the south side of the bush a dozen or so tiny white blossoms had opened.

A tiny blue wild-flower nestled in the grass caught my eye as I was raking. On my hands and knees I looked for more, but there was only one, the first tiny blue flower of spring. I don't know what it is called.

In a couple of hours the back yard was clean, the brown grass combed and the leaves raked into a large pile. The bare ground looked cold without its blanket of leaves, and I went back into the warm house hoping that spring would not be late this year

Winter Jasmine

Friday, March 4, 2011

Waiting for spring - Greene County, Virginia 

On Veteran's Day last year we noted that Frank Buckles was the last living veteran of World War I. Mr. Buckles died last Sunday (Feb. 27) at the age of 110.  RIP.

Update:  There is a very interesting video of Frank Buckles, made when he was 107, here. Thanks to Robert for recommending this.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Persistent leaves - Madison County, Virginia

Autumn is the season of falling leaves, but in the spring several species of deciduous trees still have dry, brown leaves ready to fall. In this area, the leaves of oak trees are conspicuously persistent, but other species keep some of their leaves through the winter as well. Biologists call this marcesence.

Does marcesence benefit the tree? There are several theories about this. Dropping leaves in the spring may provide an extra dose of organic material around the base of the tree when it is needed most. Perhaps the leaves help trap snow around the tree to retain moisture. Persistent leaves may help protect buds and tender twigs from frost, or they may deter browsing deer.

Humans persist in their efforts to understand our world and learn the lessons that nature can teach, but maybe leaves cling to the trees through winter for no reason at all. Maybe it is just the way things are.

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.
Oliver Wendell Holmes - 1895

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fence, trees and snow - Greene County, Virginia 

The blackbirds of spring

In recent days, the blackbirds have arrived in our yard. Robins are the traditional harbingers of Spring, but they are unreliable, likely to show up in December or early January when even the thought of Spring seems remote. But when the blackbirds arrive, Spring is just around the corner.

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) arrive first, followed immediately by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). My wife doesn't like the grackles because they bully the other birds at the feeders but I like them for their oily black sheen and fierce yellow eyes. Cowbirds are dull looking and disreputable, with the unattractive habit of laying eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their offspring to be raised by foster parents while they hang around the feeder all day admiring the grackles.

This year, a small flock of red-winged blackbirds stopped on their way through, spending a day at our feeders arguing and showing off. This time of year, red-winged blackbirds are often segregated by sex, and our visitors were all males. Male red-winged black birds are polygamous, gregarious and  territorial. They lead a complicated life.

The cowbirds will move on when the weather warms up and the grackles will hang around until early summer. The flock of red-winged blackbirds is already gone, but we usually have a few take up residence and raise their families near the lake. Ah, Spring!