Blake Ells documents Birmingham, Alabama’s often overlooked rock and alternative music scene in his new book, Magic City Rock: Spaces and Faces of Birmingham’s Scene. I enjoyed reviewing it for Alabama Writers’ Forum. You can read my review here:
On the first morning waking up in my new house, I opened the upstairs bedroom shutters to a foggy warm morning. A family of deer grazed on the pine-forested hill just beyond the back yard – at eye level, maybe thirty feet from the window. A solitary cardinal perched on a branch of a mimosa, his bright red plumage dazzling against the frond-like leaves and feathery pink blossoms of the mimosas climbing the abrupt hill toward the pines.
I took it all as a good omen after retirement and a challenging fifteen months of social distancing culminating in an exhausting move. I decided to get my camera and take a picture; by the time I got back, they were all gone.
In the current crazy housing market, my house in north Alabama sold in one day with multiple offers. Then, I became the “buyer” and was quickly schooled on how challenging it is to buy a house these days.
I started out with high hopes of finding a place downtown or on Birmingham’s Southside, where I had last lived in an apartment on Red Mountain overlooking the city. It was a small and inexpensive apartment with a priceless view.
I always answer “Birmingham” when I’m asked the inevitable Southern question, “Where are you from?” Some may argue with my answer since I wasn’t born in Birmingham; I don’t know anybody born on an army base who considers the army base their home town, and we left the army for Birmingham when I was about a month old.
Birmingham is where my grandparents lived and where we spent our holidays when I was growing up. With frequent moves while I was growing up, and even more frequent moves for my career, I have lived away from Birmingham more than I have lived in the city, but this most recent move feels like a homecoming after twenty-seven years living in other places.
My house hunt started in the city and gradually moved farther south. The downtown and Southside places in my price range were usually too small and the ones I liked were gone before I could make up my mind. I looked at a twelfth-floor flat in a historic skyscraper in my idea of a perfect location in the central city; I loved it, but realized that I needed to have at least a balcony close by.
My realtor was patient and, more importantly, he was calm. Our search spread to townhouses south of the city and things began to look up as I found places with manageable and sufficient space for my “stuff” and enough outdoor space to satiate my need to get my hands in the dirt, plant some herbs, and have a place to sit in the sun.
When I found a townhouse looking out onto a tranquil park sloping down to the Cahaba River, my perspective changed and I decided I wanted a place near the river. Another place, with a terrace looking down at the river, shored up my resolve. Both were grabbed up before I could make an offer and my realtor assured me that the right thing would come along at the right time.
We scheduled a tour of the house I bought on the first morning it was on the market and made an offer on the spot. These are things you quickly pick up if you are a buyer in the current housing market. Later that day, I was surprised to learn my offer was accepted (you must also prepare yourself for disappointment if you are a buyer in the current housing market).
This house is not on the Cahaba, but the river is less than a half mile away. And it has those lovely woods behind it. I had told my realtor that I wanted to either be in the middle of things or in relative seclusion. I got the latter. I can hear traffic from an interstate when I’m in the front yard and one billboard pokes up above the trees in the distance. Downtown Birmingham is just a few minutes away, but the place itself seems remote and peaceful and surprisingly secluded.
I hosted my family for Independence Day, so the place has been given a social trial run. One morning I decided to work on plants for the walk leading to the front door. Thumbing through a book on New Orleans gardens with my morning tea, I felt fortified to tackle some pot gardening and headed to a nearby nursery.
There’s still a big “to-do” list to complete, but now that I’m no longer coming in to a stack of unpacked boxes and furniture to be rearranged, and now that my books are all organized neatly on the shelves, coming in has started to feel like coming home.
Last night, as I drove into the neighborhood, five deer stood watching from the side of the road. As I passed, they disappeared behind a house and up into the woods. Once again, there was no camera close by.
Here is my latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Fourteenth Colony is a fascinating look at a marginal and mostly forgotten part of the American Revolution.
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.
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.
Author Rick Bragg is a first class storyteller. Here’s my Alabama Writers’ Forum review of his latest collection of essays: http://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2021/05/19/where-i-come-from-stories-from-the-deep-south
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.
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.
Here’s a link to my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. It’s a loving tribute to a life and a marriage. Enjoy:
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.
My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum.