Backroads and Byways

Forest at Shady Grove Church

My first memory of the photographs of William Christenberry (1936-2016) is in 1973 in an exhibit at the art gallery in Garland Hall on the University of Alabama campus. I was on campus for freshman orientation and had a couple of free hours one afternoon. It is my first awareness of putting Christenberry’s name with images that seemed immediately familiar somehow.

I have written about Christenberry in the past. He photographed the forgotten byways and captured a disappearing South; his disappearing South has nothing to do with nostalgia or the myths of any “lost cause.” He was drawn to the kudzu-covered landscapes and decaying buildings of primarily rural areas, mostly in Hale County, Alabama, where his “people” came from.

Christenberry’s photographs of places rarely have people in them, so his best-known work has escaped the racial politics which sometimes taints contemporary perceptions of  20th Century Southern photography. (He did have a somewhat obsessive installation called “The Klan Room” on his property, behind locked doors; rarely seen – except in photographs in books – it included objects that the artist collected and created to express his fascination and revulsion with that racist terrorist group.)

As I have begun to wander out a bit more recently, I find myself taking back roads and being attracted to the kinds of places that Christenberry exalted and taught me to better appreciate. These are not sad places. Instead, there is a pride that comes through the decay and a sense-memory inspired by them.


Thorsby, Alabama

A couple of weeks ago, traveling to Harrison Fruit Farms in Chilton County for my first “peach run” of the season, I became acutely aware of places on the side of the road that I have probably passed hundreds of times over the years. A group of abandoned buildings in Thorsby, Alabama, called out to be photographed. Especially appealing are the ruins of the once stately Bank of Thorsby building, dated 1909. It is in the remaining details – the cornices, the lettering in the windows, the date – that the history is revealed and the legacy is sealed.

The town of Thorsby was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th Century. They were among the first farmers to cultivate the famous Chilton County peaches. The current remains of the town’s business district still face the railroad tracks running alongside U.S. Highway 31. Concordia Cemetery, a peaceful resting place for some of those early Scandinavian settlers, sits on the town’s edge. 


A few days after the peach run, I took my mother on a quick trip to Ryan’s Creek Cemetery in Cullman County to check on her parents’ graves and make sure the flowers placed for Decoration Day on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend had survived recent storms. We always drive around and visit sites from Mother’s childhood during these trips. On this day, she wanted to see the Shady Grove Church that I had photographed back in December. She had never been there but had admired the photographs I took several months ago.

The little church is in the Logan community, on the other side of the county from Ryan’s Creek, but we took off down backroads and eventually found our way to the churchyard of Shady Grove Methodist, part of north Alabama’s “Hallelujah Trail” of historic places of worship. Dating from the 1890s, the church is a peaceful and quiet place. During the half hour we were there, not a single car passed on the narrow road that runs between the church and its adjoining cemetery. The church has not held regular services in a hundred years, but it is well-maintained and freshly painted with bud vases and cut flowers in the windows. Paths lead down into the woods in several directions. Visiting there is a tranquil interlude in a frantic world.

These were the kinds of places Christenberry was drawn to several counties away. I think of him whenever I find one. On this Memorial Day, get off the interstate and find a place of contemplation along the backroads, wherever you might be.

Review: Shaking the Gates of Hell by John Archibald

My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

Alabama Writers’ Forum : News & Reviews : Book Review Archives : Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution (writersforum.org)

Other Windows

Front porch display

It’s still mild enough for the potted pansies and violas, left over from the winter, to flourish a little longer before the heat gets to them. They are joined now by the green and sprouting abundance of spring. In the midst of what is turning into an extended house hunt, opportunities to breathe deep and think hard are welcome in the ever-changing landscape of an assertive Spring.

Over the years, it has become my habit to plant declining Easter lilies in spots in my parents’ back yard. They have come back and bloomed over time to the point that the backyard flower beds have an ancillary “lily season” each April. A pink calla lily, a Mother’s Day gift to my mother from my brother’s family a few years ago, surprised us last year when it popped up amidst a pot of fading pansies. This year it’s sprouting again, in a pot all its own.

Easter lily

The dogwoods took their Easter cue and had their brief peak a couple of weeks ago. Red roses in the back have sprung forth while the rose bushes in front are taking their time.  The crape myrtles and Rose of Sharon are revving up now for blooms throughout the warm season.

Out the back window, lavender wisteria cascades among the foliage down the mountain. Three fresh bird feeders await discovery by the many birds that come and go; so far, they’re being ignored. We’re trying to discover why the mourning doves, so plentiful in the past, have disappeared. Several cardinals have become regulars in their absence. A hummingbird feeder perches in a window, replacing the one that succumbed to old age several months ago.

More variety is available at the farmers’ markets that reopen and spring up everywhere. Strawberries now mark the procession of fruits that help to gauge the season. The lengthening of days and warming temperatures always give me a lift.


I try to be even more aware than usual of nature around me as I continue reading a new Library of America volume of three books by naturalist E.O. Wilson. I am not very science savvy, but I appreciate nature and always find Wilson’s explanations of the evolutionary processes all around us to be well-written and accessible. He explains a lot of what we’re seeing, if we will just pay attention.

Wilson, an Alabama native, is considered the world’s foremost expert on ants; his expertise seems equally astute on other flora and fauna of the world. He has been repeatedly named as one of the most influential scientists in history. Reading Dr. Wilson at the same time that I install a fieldstone and pea gravel walk in my parents’ side yard gives an added dimension of curiosity for every stone that’s overturned. Wilson is a formidable companion and guide to the wonders of the back yard and the world beyond.


A more nonsecular companion on the reading nightstand is one I just discovered. Recently, while writing a review of the latest collection of essays by writer Rick Bragg, I ran across a title that was new to me. Wooden Churches: A Celebration (1999) has an introduction by Bragg; the bulk of the book, however, is black and white photographs of (mostly old) wooden churches and services with literary excerpts from a long list of writers.

Since my annual Christmas card usually features a photograph of a wooden Alabama church, I was curious to see what this book has to offer. It’s a charming book to browse. Some of the photographs are familiar, by noted photographers, and others are more personal and obscure. There are several haunting old photographs of churches in the aftermath of Civil War battles.

Any period of life that involves real estate is a challenge. These days, while I’m neck-deep in house-hunting, the simple pleasures outside the windows, simple projects outdoors, and compelling reading are welcome distractions in brief interludes. Prospects of change become somehow less daunting in the views through other windows.

Wisteria

Window

Outside the upstairs bedroom window, I see the upper branches of my Chinese cherry tree and beyond. It has become the place from which I preview the weather of the day and gauge the seasons as the sunrise moves back and forth across Green Mountain.

That cherry tree is the last of the blooming trees on this section of the street to show. The first blossoms of the season appear in the treetop just as the final russet blooms of the crabapple next door give way to its bronze-hued leaves. The cherry tree in a neighbor’s backyard is on a different schedule from mine and bursts forth with white blossoms filling the back guest room window just a couple of weeks before my Chinese cherry begins its stunning, short-lived moment of full bloom.

In the back yard, the young Japanese maple, introduced last year, is budding with promise and I sigh with relief that it weathered its first winter. The camellia finally went crazy in February with crimson blooms. A few rainstorms caused them to droop to the ground and the remaining camellia blooms, holding steady, will soon drop, too. Both wild roses in the back yard – the one that belonged to my grandfather and the one I foraged from a lake shore – are fully-leafed and will start to bloom by Easter.  The recently acquired Peggy Martin “Katrina” rose is thriving in its pot, ready for a suitable place to start climbing.


I managed to strain my back on the second day of unpacking when I moved to this house years ago and the doctor ordered three days of bedrest. My bedroom had been the first room I set up so I closed the door and let it be my refuge while I got back in shape. During the day time, I would open the curtains and watch the activity of the birds in the trees and the traffic and pedestrians on the road beyond. It was the perfect place to read.

Over the years, I have observed robins busily building nests in the cherry tree, eggs hatching, and one year I happened to be home on the morning that the babies left the nest. I pulled up a chair and quietly watched. Within an hour, they were all gone and oblivious to me cheering them on.

When a deadly outbreak of tornadoes ravaged much of Alabama in April 2011, the storms took out the power grids and cell towers throughout a wide swath of north Alabama. My neighborhood was without power, internet, and phones for five days. The night sky was amazing with no power for more than fifty miles in all directions. There was a dusk to dawn curfew and my sleep was erratic. At all hours of the night, I found myself lying in bed and staring out the window at the empty dark landscape and the night sky above. An occasional utility truck or police car might pass and any unexpected sound would prompt shining a flashlight out the window, often highlighting the stop sign on the corner. It was much later when I worried that my bright flash of light might have shone into the windows of the houses over in that direction.

Over time, the pattern was established of a retreat to the bedroom and the window whenever a break was needed. Nowadays, I am in the habit of opening the curtains first thing in the morning and reading as the sky goes from dawn to daylight and I prepare to face the day. Reading before rising seems to bring clarity to the day.


This week, I am busily packing to move to another city in a few days. The town I’m moving from after eighteen and a half years has never felt like home, but this house – with my books, and art, family mementos, and “stuff” – has.

And the view from my window has sustained and fortified me through all times and challenges. This morning, outside the window, the first hints of pinkish blooms on the cherry tree are beginning to show.

It will be full of blossoms in a few days. And I’ll be gone.

Alabama Marble

Sylacauga marble

 

 

Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):

“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”

I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.

Gantt’s Quarry

Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.

Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.

“Head of Christ” by Giuseppi Moretti

Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.

More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.

“Sylacauga Emerging” by Craigger Browne

Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.

If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.

“Falling Star” by Don Lawler (foreground)

Do You Know What It Means …

Tonight, as the final hours of the Carnival season wind down and Mardi Gras closes along the Gulf Coast, I keep humming Louis Armstrong’s version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”

Because of pandemic, parades were cancelled in Mobile — the origin city of American Mardi Gras — and New Orleans, its American capital. I have amused myself with online viewing of New Orleans-based “Yardi Gras” displays on porches and yards throughout the Crescent City. In my years as a teacher, I would throw beads to my students at the end of Fat Tuesday classes to celebrate. Last night, before I went to bed, I realized that my stash of beads is depleted and I only have a few strings of purple, green, and gold beads to distribute to neighbors.

There were enough. I will remind myself to order beads before Mardi Gras next year — when we can only hope that things will seem substantially more “normal.” The word “normal” has taken on new meaning in the past year. In the past, I often spoke it with a sense of scorn and condescension; who decides what’s “normal” and what’s not?

Now, “normal” just means being able to go out more or less fearlessly, to socially interact. “Normal” means having our lives back in whatever sense of “normal” that used to apply.

A Mardi Gras wreath adorns my front door. It was a gift from my next door neighbor who died a year ago. I always put it out two weeks before Fat Tuesday; as a traditionalist, I must have it down before midnight tonight.

It will be adorning my door in a new location on Fat Tuesday 2022.

Minerva at Tuscaloosa

In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.

Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.


When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.

Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.

Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)


But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.

The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.

Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.

O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.

Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.

For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.