Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Daffodils from another time

This mild winter has given us a host of luxuries, from cold, dry days made for long walks in the woods, to mild afternoons that gave us time to finish the painful clearing of brush and brier from the face of the pond dam, and a good start on reclaiming some of the fields that have started to go over.

 I've read that you can lose a farm field in as little as two years if you don't mow every year; what we've found is that nature starts reclaiming the edges first. Every time there's an ice storm the tree branches sag a little lower, making it harder for tractors to mow to the old edges of the field, and before long you realize you can't even see the original fence line.

  So it is with the field bordering our leaky pond.  In the 1990s  I brought a canoe up from Raleigh and kept it on some old saw horses by the rusty barbed wire fence -- bobwar, we called it when I was a kid, not knowing there was more to it.  We sold the canoe long ago to friends, but left the sawhorses by the fence.  Not long ago, as we were cutting back the saplings and hawthorn and locust and greenbrier, I found the remains of one of those sawhorses, and realized that nature had taken back more than 20 feet of the field in some places.  We were just getting there in time.

We've watched, too, as the daffodils down by the old house began putting out green shoots, then faintly yellow buds, and in the past few days bright yellow blossoms.  They're short-stemmed daffodils, perhaps 5 or 6 inches at most, a hardy variety to stand up to the harsh winds that blow up the narrow notch from where the creeks converge half a mile down the way.  We've been watching those daffodils reappear each spring for decades now, and often I wonder who planted them and what life was like on this old farm. The old house hasn't been occupied for at least half a century, but years ago met some folks who had lived in the house in their youth. It was a good place for a kid to grow up, Buford Wood told me a few years before his death -- hard times, but a good place to learn how to shoot, how to hunt and how to live on a little.

  We think the house was built early in the 20th century, perhaps about the time the springhouse was built, but well before a little root cellar in the hillside.  The house has a central chimney of dry-laid stone, and inside the fireplaces on either side of the central wall were converted to what looks like an oil circulator.  Electric lights were put in, too -- a single bulb for the rooms downstairs. The second-floor stairs are too decrepit to give much confidence in prowling up above. Besides, the last time I looked a critter had adopted the space, and left his mark in little piles.

  But outside the daffodils by the rock foundation bring a fresh look to the old place each year. I imagine a farmer or perhaps his wife put them in the ground, perhaps as late as the 1950s, possibly even earlier.  If so, that would make these old bulbs at least 60 years old and still growing strong.  I can't quite fathom what those farmers' lives were like in these hills and hollows, but it surely would have been a struggle some years to scratch a living from the land, especially after the chestnuts died off.  But I'm grateful to them for the apples that still provide bright red fruit every few years, and the daffodils that come up each spring, heralding the end of a long winter -- and sometimes a short one.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Still a mystery: The Brown Mountain Lights

When I was growing up down in the flatlands, the mysteries of the natural world thrilled me:
--The Maco Light down in Eastern North Carolina, supposedly the ghostlight of a railroad brakeman who had been decapitated and was still looking for his head.
--The Devil's Tramping Ground, near the center of the state, a circular path in the woods where nothing would grow.
--Lovely Lydia, a ghost said to be waiting once a year by the railroad underpass near Jamestown, still looking for a way home after an auto accident that took her life. I later found that many communities across this nation have a similar story, and a popular country song popularized the girl who never came home.
--And the Brown Mountain Lights of Burke County, still unexplained after all these years.  That's the one I most wanted to see, after hearing the legend of a trusted old slave still looking for his master in the hills of Western North Carolina.

The other day a group of scientists and the curious gathered in Morganton for a symposium on the lights. These lights can be seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway and from the Brown Mountain Overlook on Highway 181.  See Julie Fann's story in the Morganton Herald here.
  You may have heard the song popularized by The Kingston Trio in the 1960s by John Stewart, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. You can hear the song here.  The lyrics tell the story:

The Legend of the Brown Mountain light
In the days of the old covered wagons,
where they camped on the flats for the night;
With the moon shining dim on the old highboard rim,
they watched for that Brown Mountain light
High, high on the mountain, and deep in the canyon below
It shines like the crown of an angel, and fades as the mists comes and go.
Way over yonder, night after night until dawn,
A lonely old slave comes back from the grave,
Searching, searching, searching, for his master who's long gone on.

Many years ago a southern planter
Came hunting in this wild world alone
It was then so they say that the planter lost his way
And never returned to his home.
His trusting old slave brought a lantern
And searched day and night but in vain
Now the old slave is gone but his spirit lingers on,
And the lantern still casts its light

Then the other day I discovered that the song originally had been written by Scotty Wiseman, whose Uncle Fate Wiseman (for whom Wiseman's View is named), a pre-Civil War cattle drover,  had told him about the lights. Scotty Wiseman, of the famed country music duo of Lulu Belle and Scotty, had written the song with a first verse I had never heard:

Way out on the old Linville Mountain,
Where the bear and the catamount reign;
There’s a strange ghostly light, can be seen every night,
Which no scientist nor hunter can explain.


Not too long after that song came out, my friends Woody Allen, Fred Birdsong and I formed what would now be called a tribute band, singing folk songs and some blues but mostly focused on The Kingston Trio. In time Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison and Dave Safford also played with us.  When we did Brown Mountain Lights, it was Fred who would hitch up his britches and sing that high lonesome note on "searchinnnnngggg" for the old master. We lost Fred to an auto accident years ago and Jimmy to cancer a couple of years back, and it hasn't been the same since.

Woody, who keeps up with Kingston Trio original Bob Shane, sent him a link to the story on the Brown Mountain Lights the other day, and Bob replied via email, "Woody: Very interesting….there should be a song about it! :-)
Aloha, Bob Shane"
Also interesting is the fact that, more than half a century after Scotty Wiseman wrote that song and predicted as much, it's still a mystery. Maybe it ought to remain that way.

A footnote: Lulu Belle's real name was Myrtle Cooper, and she and Scotty had a number of hits, including "Have I told you lately that I love you" and the comic "Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?"  In 1977 she was serving her second term in the N.C. General Assembly as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, where I was covering politics for the Greensboro Daily News.

  During debate on the restoration of the death penalty that year, supporters of the bill were trying to write it in a way that would comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had struck down capital punishment in a number of states for being overly broad. Those driving the bill wanted to keep out troublesome provisions, such as the death penalty for arson or rape, that would likely bring about another rejection on constitutional grounds.  Rep. Wiseman silenced the House when she rose to describe how, years before while on tour, she had been raped.  She left the House chamber immediately after that stunning revelation, but the legislature, aware of the difficulty of getting judicial approval of a new death statute that covered more than murder, made the bill apply only to first degree murder.   

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Kodak moment, no more

I still remember the first time my Dad let me borrow his old black metal Kodak Brownie camera for a third-grade class trip down to Chapel Hill. It was the first visit I can recall to that wonderful place, and it was the first picture I recall having taken.  The power of the knowledge that I could capture a moment in time, in a little black box, and keep it forever was overwhelming.  You'd think I might have picked a more memorable subject -- the Old Well, maybe, or Old East, the dorm where my father had lived one year in the 1920s, but the memorable picture I took at the Forest Theater was one of my friend Charlie McNairy taking a picture right back at me on his Dad's Brownie. We thought this was clever beyond imagination.

It would be years more before I had my own camera -- a little Kodak Instamatic -- and many more years before I had the object of my dreams: a 35mm single lens reflex camera with the swing-up mirror that allowed capturing exactly the image you saw in the viewfinder.  And after getting my first job, I finally got the holiest of the photo grails, a used Nikon with a 35 mm wide angle lens and a 135mm telephoto.  Hot stuff.

I wanted most to make my living with a camera, and for a time collected cameras -- many of them the early Kodaks -- of every variety. I had a Crown Graphic 4x5, a Yashica twin lens, an early Sears view camera with red leatherette bellows, a large 5x7 mahogany view camera that was sold to me by a portrait printer in the Army Photographic Agency lab at the Pentagon, where I was stationed. My favorite was a Kodak 1A Autographic Jr. that had a little flip-up slot on the back that allowed picture takers to inscribe a name or date or place where a photo was taken. That information would show up, in the photographer's handwriting, at the bottom of the print. You could sign your own picture, thus carrying your autograph in the picture taken on your Autographic.

I found an image of the camera online after a short search following disquieting news that arrived Thursday: Eastman Kodak, the company that was to photography as Ford Motor company was to the automobile world, would no longer make cameras. Here's  a graf or three from the AP story:

Eastman Kodak Co. said Thursday that it will stop making digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames, marking the end of an era for the company that brought photography to the masses more than a century ago.
Founded by George Eastman in 1880, Kodak was once known all over the world for its Brownie and Instamatic cameras and its yellow-and-red film boxes. But the company was battered by Japanese competition in the 1980s, and was then unable to keep pace with the shift from film to digital technology.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, said it will phase out the product lines in the first half of this year. It will look for other companies to license its brand for those products. 

Here's a link to the full story at the News and Observer.

That failure, or inability, of Kodak to foresee and take advantage of the sweeping changes of the digital age is hardly novel. A surprising number of major industries, including the newspaper business where I worked for decades, were unable to fully anticipate the changes that the electronic revolution would bring about even though Kodak virtually invented the digital camera and even though newspapers, for example, were often on the cutting edge of creating the best Internet Web sites in the early days of the digital boom. That was before information consumers, who used to be called readers, got used to getting most if not all of their news and other information for free, just for the taking.

There was a time when I spent much of my day with Kodak products -- using Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X film, processing prints in Dektol on Kodak photo paper, shooting KodaChrome film and marveling at the vivid color of slides.

More lately I have contributed to Kodak's bankruptcy.  It has been years since I worked in the darkroom, years since I bought Kodak (or anyone else's) 35mm film, though I have bought Kodak digital printing paper to run through my HP photo printers.  Last fall I acquired, for the first time, a new Nikon digital camera with a couple of lenses and more tricks than I can even tell you about. The thing will figure out exposures, set them, focus the image and do everything but grab you a beer so you can watch a big screen slide show full of the images you took 30 seconds ago. When I was a kid it was sometimes 30 days before we got back blurry black and white photos, so I'm not complaining. Today is a marvelous age, and electronic gizmos are scary smart, fast as whips and will do things George Eastman could not have imagined a century ago when he was building Kodak into an industrial giant of the 20th Century -- for what turned out to be just a Kodak moment.  Say cheese.

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