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For what must be the fifth time in 21 years, I voted in the presidential election at Red Hill School, just south of where I live. And for what was definitely the FIRST time in 21 years, I was excited, almost elated, as I drove down route 29 and along the gravel road, past cattle farms, to the school.
I’d made this trip hundreds of times–all three of my kids attended Red Hill for all or part of elementary school, so we had lots of pick-up and drop-off journeys along this road, which has changed very little. I looked forward to seeing the gathering of last-minute campaigners, huddled under tents near the parking lot, thrusting sample ballots into everyone’s hands; I hoped to see the same ladies lined up behind the cafeteria tables, checking in the North Garden voters as we walked into the school, which looks much as it did when Lily started kindergarten in 1990. And sure enough, the faces were familiar: neighbors, friends from grade-school days, parents of long-grown former students, folks I’ve sung with at church. The school was far from crowded, but I wasn’t the only one who was obviously excited. A deacon from the local Baptist church was beaming under his tent and, when not handing out leaflets, was engrossed in reading a biography of Barack Obama. People were smiling, stopping to chat and shake hands with old acquaintances after ducking back out from under the red voting-booth curtains. No lines, no impatience, no hurry. When you live in a rural area, an election is one of those times–like the elementary school Halloween carnival or the community advent church service–when you see yourself as part of a community, one that’s defined by cycles and seasons, things that come around again and again. The campaign signs, voting booths, neatly lined-up tables, all create a sense of order and routine in the midst of woods and cow fields and in the face of an increasingly chaotic world.
For the record, it was raining a little; I can’t remember ever voting here when it was NOT raining. I also can’t remember ever voting here with such a sense of conviction and optimism. All of my anxiety about this election subsided, at least for awhile, as I walked into this familiar, friendly school and pushed the four buttons that cast my vote. I was even able to squelch my nervousness about taking pictures at the polls and in fact, sent a few in to the New York Times polling-place project (readers’ photos of voting locations are being submitted from all over the country). I may still be worried about tonight’s final results, but it’s time to have some faith in the people we live and vote with. Here’s hoping that all of our energy and hopes are justified in the hours and days and years to come.
This little story was a big part of our spring, and “the view from Red Hill” seems like the place to put it in writing. In April, shortly after one of our photographing and bush-whacking expeditions down around the quarry lake, our youngest dog Charlie up and disappeared. Evan was headed for bed one night and said “Has anybody seen Charlie?” We realized that we hadn’t. Terry had taken a walk in the afternoon and noticed that only two dogs tagged along, but he hadn’t thought much of it. Charlie had vanished.
So we phoned in a report to the SPCA, went for walks and called him, and kept our fingers crossed. I wasn’t optimistic. Charlie is shy–won’t let anyone pick him up if he’s spotted by the side of the road–but out in the woods he’s a risk-taker. Just before his disappearance, I’d documented his pursuit of a beaver down at the quarry lake: he must have swum after the critter for 25 minutes without ceasing, pivoting in the water to track it, and I remember thinking “that beaver is trying to tire him out till he drowns.” I figured that my goofy little dog had just chased some varmint into a place of no return.
When he hadn’t reappeared by the weekend, we got our act together and printed out some flyers, which we hung up in the Red Hill and North Garden country stores and post office. Within two hours, we had a phone call–Charlie had been spotted down on the Plank Road, maybe a ten-minute drive away and, although a small mountain and a couple of big dairy farms were en route, it was a straight shot down the railroad tracks, an easy run for a stubborn little dog. We spent that evening, and the three that followed it, down in North Garden, near the tiny, rural subdivision where he apparently lurked, driving up and down through farmland, yelling “Chaaaarrrrrliiiiiieee” out the window like idiots. The apple brandy factory (pictured below) seemed like the perfect place for him to hang out, and Evan and I gave ourselves the heebie-jeebies wandering around in this weird environment and investigating ditches, ravines, and trackside brambles where a little hound-dog could hole up. No luck. This is a dog who was brought to the SPCA as a young puppy after having been flung out of a car window down in southern Albemarle County. He’d acquired two hernias and a lot of obvious emotional trauma as a result of that experience, and he’d always clung close to us after we adopted him. For him to disappear seemed…well, just wrong, but it also made sense that he was staying away from strangers and cars. We knew he was alive, but we began to think that we wouldn’t get him back.
On a Thursday evening, ten days after Charlie went walkabout, we came up the driveway and, without fanfare, he was home. No different–well, maybe a little thinner, and festooned with ticks. Not any more neurotic–in fact, maybe a bit less so. Still knew to sit when told, lie down for treats, wait by the door. Same stinky hound-dog Charlie, back from his big adventure. After ten days of living on his own and finding his way back to Red Hill, he seems to have learned that home is for keeps. Not a bad lesson for a growing-up dog; certainly a lesson in patience and faith for his people.
Before we moved to Red Hill, we lived in town, but my husband Terry always said that the only way to live in a good place was to live in a place that was good for dogs. His reasoning was that if our dogs could run pretty far without bothering anybody or getting hit by a car, there probably was enough peace and privacy for us too. Our strange little neck of the woods may not be perfect (railroad tracks are both curse and blessing) but, by and large, it’s a good place for the dogs, and we’ve had a lot of them. Whether born here or brought from a shelter, they’ve been in dog heaven: rabbits and groundhogs for chasing, a lake for swimming, steep wooded hills for running, plenty of smells, not many people or cars.
And as it turns out, good places for dogs are also good places for photographers. If we spend time here (say, a weekend day with nothing to do), it’s almost like being on vacation. I photograph the quarry and the kudzu–as well as the dogs and the lake–and the landscape has taken on new layers of meaning for me in the 20 years we’ve lived here. I’ve stretched my boundaries as a photographer, and often recharged my batteries as well. My daughter, who graduated from college last May, is longing to get a dog and hopes to acquire a puppy soon. She knows that it’ll limit her options when she moves away from the farm school (in northeastern Ohio) where she currently lives and works, but on the other hand, she’ll have to go someplace where both she and her dog will be happy and safe. As a photographer, she’s drawn to woods as her subject, and as a person, she needs a peaceful, rural environment. Here’s to carrying on at least one family tradition!
Having posted so many digital pictures recently, I’ve been feeling the urge to balance all the color with some black-and-white. I’ve also wanted to put up some square (medium format) images, which I return to again and again in my work. I could focus on a number of different things but am leaning toward landscapes that are part of my history. Whether in Maine or Virginia, woods and water make me feel at home, and I’ve always felt compelled to make pictures in these places.
When I first moved to Red Hill (over 20 years ago), I tried constantly to make photographs that conveyed the sense of mystery and otherworldliness I felt in these woods, but the images I produced seemed banal to me. The first one that really worked was this image of Lily in the paradise trees, and it “clicked” for many other people as well. But although it took place in the landscape–told a story about the landscape–as an image, it wasn’t a landscape,” really. Shot with my venerable Rolleicord, it was printed on Portriga Rapid, split-toned, and hand-colored with Marshall’s photo-oil pencils, techniques that were pretty popular in the mid-80s and that still appeal tremendously to my students today (although that lovely Agfa paper is no longer with us). For this particular picture, the method really did suit the madness: slow, hand-made alteration somehow created more meaning than could be achieved with pixels.
I don’t shoot this way so much anymore. If I make a medium-format image, it’s almost always with a Holga, which on its own evokes that sense of image-remembered. The Rolleicord, though meterless and funky, is still quite sharp, with the visual richness that seems to go with German lenses. This image of my first child evokes a very specific time and place for me as a mother, a photographer, a person.
The other landscapes shown here are from Maine (the campground at Rangeley Lake) and Virginia (Red Hill and Camp Strawderman, near Woodstock). They’re taken with the Rollei (Maine) and the Holga (Virginia), and I never used a light meter. One or two of the Rangeley images are sepia toned, and the Red Hill contact sheet (bottom of post) is a Van Dyke brown print. Although I have photographed my Red Hill habitat many times with a variety of digital cameras, the Holga/VDB combination seems to suit it best–again, conjuring up that feeling of a real place remembered.
One of my most interesting and gifted students has suddenly and unexpectedly switched from shooting blurry, “edgy” portraits with her Holga to photographing landscapes, some of them double-exposed, all of them beautiful and fascinating. She’s surprised to find herself drawn to this kind of work–but I’m not. It’s the only way for her to make sense of her surroundings, and the Holga (with its square format and fuzzy resolution) is uniquely able to evoke that sense of memory. What could be more natural for a high-school senior than to turn toward photographing the place where she’s lived, the place that in six months will be “home” in a different way?
And as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes…and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
–A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V, scene vi)