“Let’s try to find Buzzard Mountain again,” my husband said on Sunday. We had driven all over creation looking for it on Saturday. I had a mountain of chores: laundry, grocery shopping, office work. But I threw them over for another day in the country.
This time my husband drove while I studied thready roads on the atlas. We decided to approach Buzzard Mountain from a different direction. But first we had to eat lunch. The sweet little café run by a woman whose hearty daily specials included dessert (“White sheet cake today”) was gone. In its place was trendy coffee shop with charcoal sofas and tin ceilings and a chalkboard-painted shutter listing specials.
Inside were more highlights, tight boots, tight jeans, and tight asses (not the well-toned kind) than a Hollywood casting call. We ordered salads but found it impossible to talk in the clattery-racket. I couldn’t wait to go. I missed the homey cook and her squares of white sheet cake. How I hate change!
I thought about William Christenberry, another photographer whose work I’m studying. Christenberry was born in Alabama in 1936. Old road signs, old stores, and dirt roads shaped his childhood and he has made a career of documenting their changes over time.
Christenberry moved to Washington, D.C., to teach at the Corcoran. Summers, he would visit his family in Hale County, Alabama. He took snapshots with a Brownie camera he’d gotten as a child, concentrating on buildings falling into decay and advertising signs. He photographed the same buildings on each visit (with a better camera). This practice of return-and-record has led some to describe his work as personal and mythical.
The thready roads went from two-lane to no-lane, from paved to hard-pan. We clipped around curves and dipped down steep hills and juddered over puddles, the only vehicle for miles. This stone chimney, standing alone in a field, caught my eye. William Christenberry said that all objects leave their individual mark on the landscape, even when the object is destroyed in reality. The house is long gone, but the chimney remains, as rooted as the trees and grass and weeds.
Along the road were well-tended farms and places like this one. It would be easy to classify the people who lived here, especially since mounds of garbage sacks littered the property. In reality I didn’t know these people any more than I knew the sleek, laughing customers in the coffee shop. As a writer, I often characterize people with snap judgments. It’s a habit and sometimes a failing. Maybe the people in the green house can’t get to the dump on a regular basis. The window stovepipe indicates a risky heating situation but the rooftop dish says, So what?
Buzzard Mountain proved as elusive as the day before. Some of the thready roads– muddy tracks, really–ended in chained gates. I found a series of lanes that crossed the lower part of the mountain. If we couldn’t drive up it, we might be able to see it, at least.
The countryside unfurled and with it, our cares. Unlike spring and summer, lush with bright color and birdsong, you have to work at finding the beauty in our tan and gray winters. In the hushed fields, bluebirds twittered and juncos kicked in the brush. Red-tailed hawks flew low, showing creamy underwings.
Suddenly there it was. Like most mountains in central Virginia, Buzzard Mountain wasn’t much more than a big hill. We backed into a driveway so I could hop out and take a picture. When I turned around, I saw the house. I waded through thick grass chopped by a tractor up to the front porch.
The house was sweet and four-square and I was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to own it, fix it up, sit on the porch and stare at mythical Buzzard Mountain across the sweep of fields. If I could just do that, everything would be all right.
Of course I walked around back. A small pond glittered in the sunlight. The falling-down shed had boards fine enough to reclaim.
If I opened the back door, it would squeak and slap shut like all good country screen doors. I told my husband how much I loved this little house. He said we would come back now that we knew how to get here and I could take pictures in all seasons.
Then, because those few sprigs of balsamic-dressed lettuce had done nothing to fill us up, we drove to Frost Diner in Culpeper. Business was slow on a Sunday afternoon, but we sat at the counter anyway. Families chatted pleasantly. My husband ordered an entire roast beef dinner. I ordered French fries and Boston cream pie.
Someone had left behind The Washington Post. My husband read the headlines. I wrote in my journal, happily swinging my feet. I dipped my fries in mayonnaise and mustard, redneck-style, and thought, So what?
New Year’s Day, I decided I would be “shattering” this year, or at least try to be. That meant looking at things differently, looking for stories that would crack my heart open. But the new year shattered me instead. It’s the Big C—a very close family member—and as bad as it gets.
After days of reeling from the news, I had to get out. January offered a gorgeous weekend—clear skies, 60 degrees. I picked Buzzard Mountain from the atlas as our destination and Saturday we headed west in the truck, both ready for restful vistas.
I drove, pondering my goal. Would I find shattering scenes to photograph in the cattle-dotted farmscapes? Would I know a shattering story if I saw it? My judgment felt shaky. I thought about the photographers I’d been studying lately.
William Eggleston, born in Memphis in 1939, is known for bringing color to art photography, but he’s even more famous for his “mundane” subjects. His first show at MOMA in 1975 nearly caused a riot. The tricycle photograph is possibly Eggleston’s most iconic image.
Back in the 60s, he spent nights in a photo processing lab, noting subjects in casual snapshots were usually centered. People (like my family) just clicked away, paying no attention to composition or the Rule of Thirds.
In the introduction to Eggleston’s 1989 book, The Democratic Forest, Eudora Welty wrote:
In landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, roadside scenes, at every sort of public converging-point, in dreaming long view and arresting close-up, through hours of dark and light, he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.
The photographs focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world! When you see what the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say.
He remains a photographer who never trifles with actuality: he works with actuality, and within it—the self-evident and persisting world confronted by us all.
Could I find that in the ordinary world of mid-winter Virginia? Could I find Buzzard Mountain? It was hard trying to navigate a strange two-lane road, look for mundane-but-shattering-scenes, and search for a mountain that had no direct road to it.
I stopped at a deserted church. I got out and wandered through the cemetery. One plain gravestone gave the bare facts of a rich story. Husband and wife were both born in 1895. The husband had died in 1962 but his wife didn’t pass until 1995. All those years she had lived as a widow, until she was 100. This marker, though, made me thoughtful. I imagined Dicey had been a strong woman and had born many children who carried her faith into this church generation after generation.
Camera in hand, I walked around back. This time of year, trespassing is a piece of cake. No snakes or briars, few people. The best stuff is always in the back.
I wasn’t disappointed. This large red metal frame seemed to be dreaming in the woods. It was at once jarring and mysterious, unexpected and waiting for me.
The burn barrels reminded me of my stepfather burning our own trash in the back yard. I would inhale the Sunday afternoon smoky smell but I was also nervous, afraid the flames licking at the barrel’s brick foundation would escape and run wild across the grass when our backs were turned.
Coming around the side of the church, I saw this. The pristine white church, where Dicey’s children worshipped, reached its steeple heavenward, but that clutter brought the peaceful scene down to earth. Maybe this is the persisting world we all must confront, the actuality of the trash we leave, of sickness, of fear running wild behind us.
Back in the truck, I realized Buzzard Mountain was probably on the other side of the railroad tracks that paralleled the road. We saw plenty of buzzards soaring tilt-winged in the cloudless sky, but they weren’t giving up the location of their mountain.
She came to us one December night. My husband saw her curled up on one of our porch chairs, small with soft parti-colored fur, lying in a nose-to-tail circle like a little fox. I realized she was here to stay and began leaving food. I resisted naming her because that meant she would be ours forever and we already had three cats—the last two had showed up with pre-existing medical conditions and no health insurance.
But she was so pretty and since she came to us in the winter I called her Persephone, after the goddess who lived in the Underworld six months of the year, creating fall and winter. But I soon changed her name after this stray began making demands. Imagine Tallulah Bankhead’s haughty drawl: “I had salmon yesterday. I want chicken.” “I want in. No, out.” “Pet me. Don’t touch me.”
And so the pickiest cat in the world (I saw why she was homeless) was renamed Persnickety. Like many females, Snick lied about her age. Since she was very petite and quick enough to catch skinks, I thought she was about ten months old and took her to be spayed. The vet found an old spaying scar. Snick’s eyes told us she’d been around the block more than a few times. We figured she was between five and eight years.
Because she was Number Four and the house was already at cat-capacity with Mulan, Xenia, and Winchester, with Mulan and Xenia hating each other, and both despising Winchester, Persnickety had to stay outside. She slept in the garage, with full run of the outdoors. And so began life in the Ransom Cattery, where we had to keep Mulan and Xenia separated, Winchester and Xenia separated (Mulan tolerated Winchester after he became her loyal slave), and Snick from streaking inside.
After my husband’s cat Mulan passed on, Snick sensed a vacancy and wiggled her shameless calico self into his heart. Xenia left us next. But we couldn’t bring Snick inside—if anything, her bitterness over Winchester had grown. At five pounds of pure fiestiness, she would kill him, even though he is twice her size (and a great big baby).
Eight Decembers have gone by. Persnickety has had her share of health troubles. A tumor on her tongue. Hyperthyroidism caused her weight to drop below five pounds and requires balanced medication. She is a holy terror to take to the vet. When the tech draws blood, you can hear Snick’s yowling in West Virginia. They always bring her out at arm’s length to avoid her slashing paws. The orange patch on Snick’s head, the one that looks like it was sewn on last, bristles with indignity.
Persnickety is the cat in the Iva books. I named her Yard Sale, after the stellar cat of my friend Amanda Cockrell, but made the cat look and act like Snick.
Now, between thirteen and sixteen years, she is stone deaf and on many pills that require all my wiles to disguise as something yummy.
She has claimed my red truck as her castle. Summers, she sleeps on the roof. Winters, she has a condo of cat beds, towels, rugs, and cushions. One bed is heated and we heat the garage on very cold days. When I go out, I factor in an extra ten minutes to unplug devices and shift the beds, towels, rugs, food plates, and cat. Then off I go, cat fur flying, paw-prints stamped on the hood.
Because Snick is so small, just a scrap of a cat, really, I often check to make sure she’s breathing. She still sleeps curled up nose-to-tail, like a fox, her parti-colored fur soft as ever. I have a feeling this is her last year with us. But then she might fool us. It wouldn’t be the first time.
New Year’s Day . . . we take down our tree (bad luck to do it sooner), eat black-eyed peas cooked with a dime (for prosperity in the coming year) and make resolutions. We airily declare to be better, do better, get better.
My January 1, 1964, diary illuminates two points: one) you’d never guess I was already writing books by the dullness of this entry, and, two) my NEW YEAR’S resolutions were a flat-out lie. Those four resolutions came from the fake me trying to be the good girl my mother wanted. They had nothing to do with who I really was—a lazy, messy-roomed, tartar-toothed sixth grader more interested in her own agenda than pleasing anyone else.
This page stapled to my 1970 journal is more truthful. Instead of making dishonest resolutions I couldn’t keep for ten minutes, I set goals. As a high school senior, I knew I had to lay track as a writer right then and not wait.
But now I’m 60 with a lot less energy and a lot more flab. I need to make a stab at shoring up my out-of-kilter life, but can no longer face resolutions I will fall down on.
So this year I’ve come up with six words. Three words for health, three words for work. The words are reminders, not vows carved in stone. My three words for health:
Fiber. Sugar. Walk.
These cues will pop into my head when I’m at the grocery store, in a restaurant, or sitting at my desk too long. My day will be less dictated by “Eat five servings of vegetables” or “Exercise one hour every day” and more shaped by small changes.
The three words for work: Look. Record. Shatter.
Shatter? Yes. A while ago I found White Trash Cooking in a bookstore. I opened it to a section of down-home photos: a man and his coon hound, a beat-up colander in a dish drainer, etc. I bought the cookbook for its pictures and stories.
If you think White Trash Cooking (published in 1986) is a joke, you should know Harper Lee had this to say about it: “Now that it’s harder than ever to identify the genuine article on sight . . . we’ve long needed something other than the ballot box to remind us of their presence. White Trash Cooking is a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage . . . the photographs alone are shattering.”
Shattering! Harper Lee described pictures like a basket of crookneck yellow squash as shattering. When I showed the photos to my husband, he said they were depressing. To me, the pictures seemed tender, those people, their food, their homes achingly familiar. But how were they shattering?
I began an odyssey, studying the work of Southern photographers William Christenberry and William Eggleston, reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with Walker Evans’ photographs. I looked. I read. I listened.
When my sister told me about the first Christmas she was married, I realized what Harper Lee meant. Shattering wasn’t necessarily an earth-shaking event. It was something that cracked the heart open. My sister’s story cracked my heart open. The photographs of Christenberry and Eggleston and White Trash Cooking split my heart wide.
This year I hope to look deeply, listen closely, record what I learn, and write stories that crack the heart open. And maybe, after I’ve been good a while, I’ll fix Gaynell’s Tater Toes Casserole with Willadoll’s Hula Bread. And take a shattering picture of it.