Gone to Pieces

The decay and ultimate demise of a wooden fishing boat is a sad spectacle, although fishermen themselves generally are not very sentimental about their boats. Fishermen value a boat as long as it can do the work that it was built for. When it can’t, a boat has no value and is often stripped of its hardware and craned ashore where it can be taken to the dump. In the past, a fisherman might abandon a boat in a marsh or even burn it.

I first photographed the Linda in 1985. She was tied up at the dock of Luther L. Smith & Son fish house in the Down East town of Atlantic in North Carolina. She was built by Ambrose Fulcher of Atlantic in 1939 as a runboat for the long-haul fishing trade, but she also shrimped (as can be seen by her shrimp nets), clammed and crabbed. She was a versatile boat.

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Linda (at dock) in Atlantic NC in 1985 (all photos © Lawrence Earley).

Twenty years later (2005), I photographed Linda again at the Smith fish house. In the photograph she is obviously near the end of her working career.

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Linda in 2005

I photographed Linda from 2005 until 2011 as she literally went to pieces. Her bilge pump failed in 2007 and in 2011, she was destroyed by Hurricane Irene.

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Linda in 2006

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Linda in 2008

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Linda in 2010

Battered by the sea and by storms, wooden fishing boats have only a limited lease on life. Linda had unusually long and useful life on the water—a workboat built in 1939 is lucky to have lasted as long as she did. But she will be remembered. Like all old workboats, Linda played an important role by linking people, families and communities in a web of stories and memories. The stories and memories associated with a boat are like family tales told around the dinner table and passed down from one generation to another. They are as important to community life as family stories are to family life.

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Linda destroyed by hurricane in 2011

Sunday at the Park in Raleigh

On a walk from my house to the campus of Dorothea Dix hospital in Raleigh N.C. a couple of weeks ago, I discovered this group of painted plywood figures erected in the wide open spaces of the central lawn.

© Lawrence S. Earley

© Lawrence S. Earley

It was an almost perfect replication of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” (below). A couple of the people in Seurat’s composition are missing to the right of the foreground couple, and the spacing between that couple and the figures on their left could have been better, I think. But the organization of the figures matched Seurat’s remarkably well.

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courtesy Wikipedia Commons

I would have loved to know why they were there. It was a little eerie—all those figures, so artfully arranged, but with no explanation as to why. I took a photo with my iPhone and continued my walk. A few days after I made the photograph the figures were gone.

I’ve looked at my photograph quite a bit since then. Someone had taken great care to carve the figures to match Seurat’s composition, to paint them very carefully and to space them almost exactly.  You don’t just do that for fun.  Perhaps they had been made as a background for an outdoor theater presentation of Sondheim’s “A Sunday in the Park with Georges.” Perhaps a dance troupe could have danced through the figures. After the performance, the pieces were left to be picked up later. I’m sure it was something like that.

I could probably discover what they were doing there with a phone call or two, but I’m not sure I want to know. I like the mystery of it. Here today, gone the next, my photo the only evidence of its existence. There are a lot of possible explanations, including, of course, space aliens. They always seem to represent the best explanation for things that are hard to understand.

If I had a truck and made a few trips, I could have picked up the whole bunch of figures myself, although I’m not sure what I would have done with all the pieces. Maybe I’d keep the couple on the right, put them out in our garden. Maybe the little girl running. But I really didn’t think of doing that, although someone else might have. An eccentric drug king with a yen for Sondheim, for example, stole the pieces and had them reassembled at a large estate in another country. I think that’s pretty unlikely, but you never know.

On the Edge at Havasu Canyon

In the last few months, a couple of things have occurred that have made me more conscious about where I am on my life journey. One was my 50th college reunion, an opportunity for us old grads to gather, spin old stories of “Remember when. . .” and be celebrated on the golden anniversary of our graduation. To further entice us, organizers planned a golf outing.  I didn’t join them for either occasion but the reunion made me realize that at 72, to use an analogy that my golfing classmates would appreciate, I’m closer to the 19th hole than I’ve ever been.

That would be a commonplace thought of mortality anyone my age might entertain, except for something else that happened at about the same time.

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Havasu Creek entering the Colorado River. Courtesy Jim Parsons.

On a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, a group of us took a hike up Havasu Canyon to see the famous blue-green waters of Havasu Creek and Falls. Walking to the falls along a rock ledge in the canyon, I slipped on a loose patch of sand and gravel and tumbled down the slope to the brink of a sheer drop. I stopped just short of the edge, but close enough to glimpse a cluster of boulders below. I can still see them when I run that memory clip over and over in my mind.

I don’t remember hitting my head and opening up a bloody gash. I don’t remember how I hurt my ribs so that they were sore for weeks after. But when I peered over the edge at the rocks below, I was fully alert.

As I struggled to get to my feet, one of our group, a cardiologist named Dave, scrambled down the slope toward me and shouted, “Don’t move! Don’t move!” I thought he was worried that I was going to lose my balance, but he was more concerned about a possible concussion. “Your head is bleeding! Sit down!” he said. I noticed a trickle of blood coursing down my arm. He had me count backwards from 10. He looked into my eyes. “This isn’t really my line of work but I don’t think you’re concussed,” he said. Our guide Lars joined him a few minutes later with the first aid kit. He and Dave washed the blood from my head wound and inspected it. “You’ll have a big bump but there’s no skull showing,” Dave said. “That’s good.”

I thought, “There’s nothing good about this.”

Hiking in Havasu Canyon. Courtesy Jim Parsons.

Hiking in Havasu Canyon. Courtesy Jim Parsons.

A little later, a cold compress covering the wound, I walked back up to the trail. Other hikers paused on their way to the falls. “I’m okay,” I said about a dozen times. “Sorry to hold you up.” “How did you stop yourself from going over?” they asked, when they found out what had happened. I shrugged. “I don’t know.” I looked down at the rim where I had stopped and noticed a rock that sat right at the edge. “I think it must have been that rock,” I said.

It was an oval-shaped stone, about the size and color of a large loaf of Italian bread. It was rounded as if it had lain in a bed of flowing water for thousands of years. I can almost feel it as I visualize it—dusty and dry, light-colored but speckled with darker material. It was just a speed bump, really, a solitary rock at the edge of the cliff, but it stopped me cold. I had to roll down the slope at a precise point and angle to hit that rock. If I had taken a step or two further along the trail and then fallen, I might well have gone over.

Surely a 10-foot drop onto a bunch of boulders would have had ruinous consequences on my body, or worse. The way I began looking at it, the rock had saved my life.  Because of it I was able to walk away from the accident with bruised ribs, yes, a bad cut on the noggin, certainly, but also with my life, a future and a tale to tell. But what was that tale? I walked out along the canyon trail that afternoon, and for many days afterward, told a story about how close I had come to dying. And I would have died, too, had it not been for that rock.

After a few weeks I began to be less confident in my story. Would I have actually died? I never got a good look at what lay over the lip of that canyon wall, although I distinctly remember seeing large boulders. Maybe there was a small, sandy beach below, just between the boulders. And maybe a large bush grew on the sandy beach that would have softened my fall. Maybe an angel would have caught me in mid-air. There were a lot of maybes in the story.

It was frustrating.  I couldn’t tell a story until I understood what might have happened to me in Havasu Canyon.   I telephoned my friend Bruce who had been walking behind me that day. Had he seen what lay below? “No,” he said. “I never looked.  All I saw was you bleeding.”

I e-mailed Lars, the guide who had administered First Aid while I sat on the slope. “If I had gone over, what would have happened to me?” I asked.

“There were large boulders beneath you that would have stopped you before you got to the cataracts below,” he wrote. “I’m relieved that you were able to control your descent as more speed might have caused you to break something.”

Break what?  My skull, back, neck, the pinkie of my left hand?

His reply didn’t really answer my question. “You would have died!” That’s the clarity I wanted, the clarity I didn’t have.  When I started thinking about e-mailing other rafters with the same questions I began to wonder whether I had hit my head a little too hard. Did it really matter whether I would have been killed or just badly messed up if I fell over the canyon edge?  Who would be able to tell me that definitively?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I slipped and fell, bruised some ribs, gave my head a bloody whack and got a scare. I suffered a minor fall and avoided a major one.

It began to sound like something very ordinary had happened—a close call, say, something that happens any number of times in a lifetime. Like the innumerable times I’ve edged my car away from the curb outside my house without looking in the rear view mirror and stopped just short of hitting a passing car. Or the time, as a boy, I swung a softball bat that flew out of my hand in lazy helicopter circles toward a family of picnickers and just grazed the head of a man grilling burgers. Close calls.

Yet my fall at Havasu felt different from a close call. Many times since then, I’ve mentally retraced my steps along the canyon, felt the ground give way beneath me once more, followed my body as it rolled down the slope and then, inexplicably, stopped. The incident felt steeped in meanings.  Life is a gift.  Life is fragile.  Accident and chance shape a life as much as intention, so much so that my continued life seemed to depend on the presence of a single stone.

One or two of my friends invoked a deity to explain my good fortune–God put that rock there because He had more work for me to do. In Providential history there are no accidents; the universe is ruled by God’s mysterious purposes.  But after traveling for the better part of a week through one of the greatest geological lessons on earth, the Providential explanation didn’t sound likely. I had seen a mile-high stack of rocks formed by incredible forces through long, geological ages, a billion years of Grand Canyon faulting and lava flows. And then I saw my little rock, massaged and rounded by flowing water during more millennia, raised up by a mighty flood at some point and deposited on the very lip of a canyon wall.

Random natural forces put that stone there and there it sat until it collided with my own life’s orbit.

Beyond that the lessons were few. Would my accident prevent me from hiking again in high country?  No. Would I be more cautious as a result of my fall? A lack of caution didn’t cause the accident, so extra caution wouldn’t necessarily prevent another. What I increasingly began to focus on was my reaction at the edge of the cliff as I struggled to get up and remove myself from danger. The heart of the experience, it seemed to me, lay in my will to get back on my feet, my will to live. That was the story that I could tell. It was a simple story, but it was also the truest one.

 

Epilogue

A month and a half after returning from my trip, I fell off the second-story roof of my house while clearing a storm’s harvest of dead branches and twigs. It happened just about as fast as you can snap your finger. I hadn’t realized the shingles were slick from the rain, and I slipped. There was no rock to stop me this time. I slid down the slope of the roof toward the gutters and into thin air—just a six-foot drop to the first-floor roof below. I landed on my feet and then on my butt. I stood up and looked myself over.  No blood. No bruises. No one running to see if I was okay. No need for a doctor.

I climbed down the ladder very carefully. When I got to the deck I was shaking. Do I really need to be cleaning my roof, I wondered. Maybe that’s a job someone younger could do. It seemed like a very mature decision, and I felt good about it for a couple of hours. But by then the roof had dried in the sunlight so I climbed up and finished the job.

Thumbing My Way to Paradise

“It was a warm and beautiful day for hitchhiking.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Very few people hitchhike any more. Many states explicitly forbid it on highways, and as writer Molly Osberg observes, “The hitchhiker has been transformed in the public imagination from an unencumbered youth finding adventure across our vast nation to a crazed and dangerous maniac with a homicidal sneer.” Similarly, many would-be hitchhikers suspect drivers of being potential serial killers. As a result of this détente, hitchhiking has become a distant memory.

Fifty to sixty years ago, however, hitchhiking was a young man’s magic carpet, and the ticket to ride was an outstretched thumb. Hitchhiking most likely began earlier in the 20th century when Depression-era people, homeless and jobless, hitched rides or hopped freights trying to get from out of here to someplace better. Post World War II, hitchhikers became familiar figures on the country’s burgeoning interstate system, most of them young men lured to the romance of the open road by novels like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. By the 1950s and into the sixties, young people by the thousands were thumbing on roads big and small, heading north, south, east and west.

pablo-3.pngPhoto courtesy of Pablo

I was one of them. From my high school years well into graduate school, hitchhiking was the main way I got around. For those who didn’t have cars—and that was most of us—it was the cheapest way to go. Friends of mine hitchhiked to Florida, to Chicago, to San Francisco.  It was just what you did.  Not a lot of women hitched rides in those days although some did. In the early 1970s, my sister hitchhiked twice to the West Coast and back to New Jersey without incident.  Some people would say she was lucky.

I began hitchhiking as a junior in high school in order to get from my home in New Jersey to the country club where I caddied. I carried a book and my lunch in a bag, and very often all I would do is sit in the caddy yard, read the book and eat the lunch. Those were the slow days when the club members were busy doing something else and the professional caddies who bussed in from New York City got the few golfers that showed up. But no matter how bad the outlook, I’d usually stay all day. Caddying was my job. Sometimes I’d catch a $10 two-bagger late in the afternoon, maybe with a $2 tip, and that made the long stay all the sweeter. Then I’d hitchhike home.

When I went to college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1962, I hitchhiked home a few times each year. You couldn’t hitch a ride on the Massachusetts Turnpike itself, but it was legal to walk past the toll booth and thumb from the on ramp. The on ramp was where the roads after the toll booths converged into a single lane, and during the holidays they were crowded with guys hitching home. Hitchhikers and drivers observed a couple of simple rules. When you walked to the on ramp, there were generally others in a long line ahead of you. The main rule for hitchhikers was to walk to the end of the line. Drivers inclined to pick up a hitchhiker would pick up the first guy in line.

Very rarely would I get to New Jersey in one ride. One ride was like hitting a home run. Most of the time it took three or four rides. There were stops along the way in Connecticut, and maybe even a final ride across the George Washington Bridge where I would get out and look for a bus. A few times I took a ride across the Tappan Zee Bridge and ended up on Rt. 17 in New Jersey which took me to Rt. 4, where I could take a bus.

Once, my roommate and I got a ride in a big red 1950s Cadillac, one of the models with the tail fins. It was a convertible and the driver, a big, beefy guy who smoked a cigar, had the top down. My roommate was in the front seat and I was in the back. I sat there with the wind in my face under a hot, June sun for three hours while we flew down the road. By the time I got home, my face was almost as red as the Caddy, and it peeled for the entire week.

Since freshman and sophomores couldn’t have cars on campus, dating was difficult. Most of the time my classmates and I headed off to Boston and its suburbs where there were a bevy of women’s colleges. Somebody would know a girl at Newton College of the Sacred Heart and a couple of us would hitch there for blind dates. Sometimes we’d be lucky and an upperclassman would give us a ride. But most of the time we’d have to hitch from the bottom of the college hill to Rt. 9, the most direct route to Boston. I’d pick up my date and we’d either go to a campus dance or get a ride into Boston to meet with others. After returning the girl to her dormitory, I’d start hitchhiking back to Worcester. Heading west along Rt. 9 late at night and looking out the window of a stranger’s car at the lonely neon signs shining in the darkness was like viewing a series of Edward Hopper oil paintings. One that I remember well read, “Fred’s Eat.”

The system of using on ramps to hitchhike worked fine in Massachusetts, but it got me in trouble once in New York State. In my freshman year, I decided to hitchhike to Toronto during the January semester break to see a girl I liked. The route would take me from the Massachusetts Turnpike to the New York Thruway to Buffalo, and then across the Peace Bridge to Toronto. I thought I could make it in a day. When I started out early in the morning it was about 10 degrees and I had to wait 45 minutes or so for the city to wake up, get their cars started and give me my first ride of the day. After several rides, I got off the Thruway at the Albany exit about lunch time. After paying the toll, my ride let me out and I nonchalantly crossed the road so that I could get onto the on ramp. Blithely walking past the toll booths, waving to the attendants as I went, I positioned myself on the on ramp and stuck out my thumb just as I had that morning in Worcester. Within 10 minutes, a state police car slowed to stop beside me and told me to get in the back seat.

“You can’t hitchhike on the New York State Thruway,” he said.

“But I’m not on the Thruway,” I said, pointing helpfully to the on ramp.

“In New York, that’s part of the Thruway,” he said.

After a short drive, we exited the Thruway and drove down a two-lane country road. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“You have to appear before a judge,” he replied. “That’s where I’m taking you”

A few minutes later we stopped in front of a residence. “This is the judge’s house,” he said as he opened the door and motioned me out of the car.

I followed him to the front door and the two of us waited after he rang the doorbell. It was all very curious to me. I hadn’t expected a house. I had thought we’d be going to the county seat where there’d be a courthouse and a judge in robes.

We walked to the front door and a smiling older woman opened it. “Come in out of the cold,” she said. “So good to see you again.” She used the officer’s name, as if his appearance wasn’t an altogether unusual event, and the two of them exchanged small talk as we shrugged our coats off and hung them in the hallway. “We’re just about ready to have lunch, so you’ll have to join us.” She ushered us into a small dining room that was set for two and added a couple more bowls and plates from a cupboard.

A portly man came into the room drying his hands with a towel and the two men talked together for a few minutes. Finally, the judge roared, “All right, take a seat! Let’s eat.”

We sat down, the judge lowered his head and led a blessing, and we settled our napkins on our laps while the judge’s wife ladled soup into our bowls. The three of them kept up a lively chatter while we slurped soup, and then there were ham and cheese sandwiches and coffee. I answered a few questions tossed my way, but the conversation was mostly geared to their families and a few issues of law and order in the county. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but I had to admit I liked being there and being warm.

After we finished lunch, the judge’s wife removed the soup bowls and the plates and disappeared into the kitchen. The judge pushed his chair back a bit and said, “All right, this court is in session. What is this young man accused of, Officer?

“Hitchhiking on the Thruway, your honor,” the officer replied

“Hitchhiking on the Thruway; a terrible thing,” the judge replied. “How do you plead?” he asked me.

After the food and the light chat around the table, the proceedings seemed almost to be taking on the droll air of a comedy routine. I half expected him to wink at me, but I didn’t take any chances of smiling or in some other way suggesting that I didn’t accept the seriousness of my situation.

“I guess I’m guilty, your honor,” I replied

The judge gave me a little lecture on why hitchhiking was dangerous on a highway, and then he said, “Since this is your first time in front of me, I’m going to give you a suspended sentence! This court is adjourned!”

And that was that. We got up from the table and moved to the front door to put on our coats. The judge’s wife reemerged and after final good wishes all around, the trooper and I went back out into the cold.

As we backtracked along the country road, the officer seemed apologetic for delaying my trip, and he wished me good luck getting together with my girl friend. He wouldn’t drive me to the toll booth, he said, but he would leave me off a couple of miles short of it so I could reach it easily. “Don’t go beyond the toll booths!” he shouted as I got out of the car.

I felt good. I was warm and my stomach was full and I was relieved about the light sentence I had received. I quickly picked up a ride to the Thruway entrance where I stuck out my thumb once more and was picked up shortly after. I holed up in a Buffalo YMCA that evening, but the next morning I was on a bus into Toronto.

After college graduation, I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I continued hitchhiking. From time to time, I took a Trailways or Greyhound bus North, but buses in the late sixties often seemed more dangerous than hitchhiking. They were often occupied by haunted-looking Viet Nam vets loaded up on booze or drugs. Empties sometimes rolled down the aisle, and the vets glared at you with hostility.

Hitching from North Carolina to New Jersey was a day-long business. To drive it took about nine hours; hitchhiking took a bit longer. I didn’t have much of an alternative, and, besides, it was second nature to me by then. I was in this place, I needed to get to that place—stick out a thumb and go. Sometimes I’d get a ride just across the North Carolina-Virginia line before the driver got off the road. What I was hoping for was a home run. Next best was a ride all the way to the other side of DC where 95 picked up again. There were usually a lot of cars going to New Jersey from there and many of them were traveling to the very end of the New Jersey Turnpike near my home. My ride would leave me off at Leonia or Teaneck, and I’d call my father who would come and pick me up for the last ride of the day.

Once, I got a through ride from Virginia to New Jersey with a very silent driver. We hardly said a word all the way. He was content to drive and I was content to look out the window and think about my life of study and wonder when I would start to live and why I was so unhappy. He seemed morose and I guess I was, too. We made a good pair, I thought. I forget where the driver was going in New Jersey, but when we approached his exit he said he’d just rather drive me to my house. And he did. I got out of the car in front of my house and saw our porch light shining in the darkness. It wasn’t a home run, but it was pretty good.

Another time, a driver in a long, black Lincoln picked me up on 95 a little north of DC at about 6:30 pm. It had taken me all day to get there. When I got in his car, he told me he had to get to New York City by 9 pm. Normally that would have been a four-hour drive from there. I should have asked him to let me out immediately, but better sense prevailed—it was a ride! The driver was an artificial flower maker, and we flew down the highway at about 80 mph. He chattered all the way, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. He seemed to be jacked up on something. We reached the end of the Jersey Turnpike in record time, but it was well after 9 o’clock and I’m not sure he kept his appointment.

In probably the weirdest ride of my hitchhiking years, a car stopped for me on Rt. 85 somewhere in the middle of Virginia. As I about to get into the car, I noticed it was pretty full. There were three other guys, including the driver, in the car. I hesitated for a moment. Normally you’d get rides from a single man driving the car, or maybe two people. (Only once was I picked up by a woman.) An older man seemed to want the company, or they’d remember times when they were young men and hitchhiking themselves, or maybe they thought they’d better get this kid off the road. We’d chat a bit on and off until he’d let me out. But a car full of other men was a danger signal to me, and I usually waved the ride off with a “No thanks!” I did say that to the driver, but the guys in the back seat all motioned me in. They were all hitching, too, they said. So I slid into the back seat, shook hands all around, shared the usual information and then lapsed into silence. We didn’t know each other, and no one was in the mood to carry on a conversation.

I think the driver was going to the D.C. area, but before we got there the driver noticed his temperature gauge was in the danger area and he pulled off the highway. He popped the hood and steam flew. No one had any water with them, but there were a couple of empty soda cans rattling around on the floor, so we picked up the cans and walked to a little muddy trickle of a creek just off the road. We filled the cans with muddy water and brought them back to the driver who poured the contents into the car’s radiator.

We had no sooner gotten back on the road than we were stopped by a state patrolman who said that we were exceeding the speed limit and would the driver please accompany the officer to the station where he would be required to pay a fine. Everything went so fast, the driver didn’t give us much of a chance to get out, so we all went with him. The station was in a nearby town. After we arrived, the driver went in and then came out a few minutes later with an unhappy look on his face. “I don’t have enough money to pay the ticket,” he said. “Can you guys help me out?” We all looked at each other in disbelief and then shook our heads. I had a few bills in my pocket; if I had had any more, I would have taken a bus, that’s how close to the bone I lived in those days. We left him there, poor guy, and made our ways to the closest road. Eventually, we all got separate rides out of the town, and back onto 95.

By my third year at UNC, I met another grad student who lived in Closter, just up the road from Englewood. We tried to figure out where we had met before and it turned out we had both caddied at the same country club in high school. We became good friends. He had a Volkswagon Beetle. For the remainder of my graduate school years, I rode north with him. I never hitchhiked again, at least not in the States. In St. Thomas, where I taught in the Head Start Program for a couple of years in the early seventies, I often hitchhiked to the school where I taught four- and five-year olds. One day a car stopped and I recognized the driver.  He was a guy I knew from Tenafly, a town near Englewood. He couldn’t believe how lucky I was working in paradise—he was on a business trip, I think. Another day, I was picked up by one of my cousins from New York. He was on his honeymoon. We talked about how funny it was that he was honeymooning in the Virgin Islands.

 

Low Tide at Pawleys Island

Some decades ago, when my wife and I began spending a week each spring at Pawleys Island, SC, my black and white photography feasted on the splendors of marsh, creek and beach. My three-ring binders grew fat with negatives and contact sheets of landscapes, seascapes and marshscapes. People were noticeable in my photographs more  by their complete absence. In recent years, however, people have begun to creep into my Pawleys Island negatives in greater numbers.Low Tide #22.tiff copy           I’ve increasingly spent my time photographing during low tide, especially at the inlets. These were the most dynamic times of the day, when the inlet waters gradually lowered and narrowed, and the beach widened as the tide fell. The broadening space attracted great numbers of people. Sometimes they walked alone, sometimes in twos or threes, sometimes bending over in a pose of thoughtful discovery. Some looked for shells, moving in a slow and almost dreamlike way. Others walked across the shallow inlet to reach the sandy islands that had formed as the tide dropped. Parents gathered with their small children to wade and play in the warm tidal pools that formed at low tide. The tide’s retreat from the beach had created a zone of contemplation, discovery and play.

Low Tide #19.tiff copyLow Tide #17.tiff copy            I became interested in the way the figures moved about, and especially in the relationships they formed with each other as they moved. A figure’s pose might suddenly echo another’s at some distance and that’s when I’d take the picture. Some figures passed completely unaware of each other but they formed an interesting arrangement. I’d look for those kinds of pictures, too.Low Tide #11.tiff copy 2Low Tide #6.tiff copy 2All Photos ©Lawrence S. Earley

I photographed these “Low Tide People” at a respectful distance, not so far away that they would be only dots in the picture, and not so close that my presence might interfere with their spontaneous movements. I wanted to capture them as figures occupying a large space of sky, sand and water.

Please view more photographs in this series at my photography website, www.lawrenceearley.photoshelter.com.

A House in Maine

A photograph may be a little more complicated than you think it is at first.

Maine-House001(grgam).jpgMaine House, ©Lawrence Earley

This is a picture I took about 30 years ago of a house along the Maine coast. It’s a small photograph, 5¼ in. x 8 in., made from a 35 mm negative, and I’ve matted it on an 11 in. x 17 in. board. It’s something that I enjoy looking at quite a lot.

I like the different tonalities in the photograph, first of all—the gray tones contrasted with the garage’s bright white and the stark black of the small racing horse medallion. I like the comforting way the dark tones of the foliage almost cradle and protect the bright garage. From one perspective, there’s a great deal of comfort imagery in the photograph: the fence enclosing the property from the front, the screen hiding the interior of the porch, and the aforementioned foliage surrounding the garage from behind. This seems to be a photograph of interiors, safe interiors, a place where you are protected from people like me, the photographer, viewing from the outside.

What else is going on? It’s got a nice, slightly off-kilter balance to it. It doesn’t particularly say Maine to me in a clichéd or trite way. What it evokes to me now (and perhaps when I took the picture) is a sense of a well-ordered space.  That sense of order is present in the photographic composition and it’s also in the space maintained by the people who live there. Perhaps the scene said to me, “What a nice place to live.” My wife and I had recently bought a house and perhaps I had the house on my mind.

I’d like to sit on that porch in the summer. Would there be a porch swing there? There should be, or a rocking chair, perhaps. Perhaps the chair makes a slight noise on the wooden floor as it moves. I would be reading poetry in this space, not that I read a lot of poetry but I think the silence within that space would reward a reading experience in which you pay attention to the words.

But isn’t there another way of looking at the photo? It’s not one that I was immediately aware of, but it’s there, I think. Couldn’t this be an image about fear? All the doors and windows and gates are closed. It’s a walled space, a walled castle minus the moat. Then there’s the fence with the sword-point tops; the closed windows of the building on the bottom left; the opaque screens on the porch; the porch protected by two buildings, each of them closed up tight. Couldn’t this photo be saying “Keep out!”? Despite the homeliness of their wooden construction, aren’t these solid structures like defensive walls?

This is a good example of how enigmatic a given image can be, like a Rorschach inkblot which you can read in two or more ways, depending on how you’re feeling at the time or on your basic personality type. If you flip back and forth between seeing the scene in the photograph as protective and comforting, or closed and defensive, it’s a little like the famous optical illusion in which you either see an old hag or a pretty young woman.

A simple photograph may not be so simple.

 

 

 

Scenes from a Roman Piazza

Life in the Piazza

On an April vacation in Rome, my wife and I rented an apartment in Trastevere, an old working-class section of the city just across the Tiber River. It has become a tourist attraction in recent years because of its narrow walking streets, many restaurants, reasonably priced rental apartments and closeness to old Rome. Our apartment building was just off the Piazza di San Cosimato. We spent many hours watching the varied life there.

It didn’t take very long to realize how important this public space was to the neighborhood. In the wee hours of each morning Monday through Saturday, the fruit and vegetable venders convened to assemble their tables, unfurl their umbrellas and ready themselves for another market day in Trastevere’s only outdoor market. By sunrise, the fishmonger and cheesemonger, the butcher and even the bookseller had opened the metal doors to their stalls and crowds of buyers began to purchase what they needed for the day. By mid-afternoon, the venders had begun to fold their umbrellas and collapse their tables and pack away what remained of their goods.  Their day had come to an end.

_DSC4270.jpgMarket at Piazza di San Cosimato (mid-morning) ©Lawrence Earley
_DSC4305.jpgPiazza di San Cosimato (mid-afternoon) ©Lawrence Earley

But into the morning hours and throughout the day, small children accompanied by parents or grandparents moved into and out of a gated playground at one end of the triangular-shaped piazza.  And in the late afternoon, older children had returned from school and many of them gathered in the piazza. The teenaged boys played soccer. One boy served as the goalie near the cheesemonger’s locked stall while the others tried out their best moves to kick the ball past him, or, as happened often, over the stalls and into the street beyond. There didn’t seem to be many rules governing what they were doing. There didn’t even seem to be a game going on, or scorekeeping. Freelancing seemed to be the rule. A boy would kick the ball into the metal door of a stall, and when it bounced back another boy would command it, dribble it around a while before unleashing a terrific kick that banged off the stall doors again. Players left the field and sat on a wall every now and then, kibitzing with others, then hurtled back into the fray, heading a ball in the general direction of a goalie. Groups of girls flirted with the boys at the edge of the piazza. There seemed to be many centripetal and centrifugal forces operating in the piazza, as boys and girls ran in and ran out.

One of the places they ran to was the sidewalk cafes that lined the piazza. Knots of adults often gathered at the tables at this time, sipping coffees and colored drinks and talking animatedly. Sometimes the boys or their female admirers would detach from the piazza and run across the street to sit with a parent or grandparent for a while. The adults pretty much ignored the children, talking and smoking and sipping at their drinks, and after awhile the children would rejoin their mates.

In the early evening, the children slowly began to separate and head home. But well into the night, couples strolled or hurried through the piazza on their way to a restaurant or their homes.

 

Italian Voices

One morning we went to the piazza to shop for fruit and vegetables. We bought a couple of apples and oranges, and then stopped at the cheesemonger’s stall to find cheese for lunch. Unfamiliar with the Italian names of the cheeses, we hung back, inspecting each cheese and trying to decipher what the names suggested. Other buyers jumped ahead of us and made their purchases. One of them, a mother with a two-year-old girl in her arms, approached the cheesemonger and auditory mayhem broke out. Five or six elderly ladies began to croon at the child in vowel-inflected voices. The cheesemonger himself blew kisses and uttered words of ecstatic love. The choosing and wrapping and buying of cheese were abandoned as everyone at the stall expressed their amazement at this little girl. It was as if they had never seen one before. The little girl herself remained unimpressed throughout. We watched all this, enchanted both by the girl and the music of her admirers’ voices.

The Italian language is so musical that men and women seem to savor every syllable, their voices rising and falling even when sharing everyday matters. But when stirred by emotion (this little girl is so cute, the mail hasn’t come, Mama has died), voices take on a new enthusiasm in piercing sounds of appreciation, sorrow or anger.

As mother and daughter moved to another stall, hosannas of high-pitched good-byes followed them, but then life resumed in a lower key. People huddled over the rows of cheeses once more and their voices became murmurs. But wait! Mother and child have returned and the clamorous demonstrations begin all over again. Now the child realizes that she likes all this attention. She looks directly at individuals and points coquettishly. The response is gratifying to her and she points at others. Soon, cheese purchased and in hand, mama and child walk away. We are finally able to make our purchase. It comes to 5 Euros, 31. We pay 5 Euros.

“A discount for you!” says the merry cheesemonger.

 

Sweeper

After an afternoon of shopping in Trastevere one day, my wife and I returned to our apartment. Renee said she wanted to nap, so I said I’d grab a coffee somewhere. I took a table at one of my favorite cafes that looked across to the Piazza di San Cosimato. We often stopped here on our return from a day’s activities. We’d drink a Prosecco if it was late in the day, or a Café Americano or orange drink in the mornings and early afternoons.

It was about 3:30 or 4 p.m. I ordered a coffee and began to read a book by the British novelist Barry Unsworth that I had picked up at an English bookstore that morning. The piazza was empty. The fruit and vegetable sellers had already left. Tables, boxes and umbrellas were gone. Between the café’s outdoor tables and the piazza was a narrow one-way street occupied by an occasional noisy motor scooter or car on its way to the shops on the other side of the piazza. There was a nice feel about the day and I enjoyed my book and coffee.

From time to time I looked up and noticed a solitary city employee in his orange uniform sweeping up the refuse from the morning’s market. He wore a military haircut and had tattooed arms, and he carried a long broom and a shovel. He pushed fallen lettuce and cabbage leaves, the odd tomato or apple into a small pile, wheeled his trash bin over and shoveled the litter into the bin. He worked deliberately, moving from one island of refuse to another. You wouldn’t say he was working hard, but he wasn’t dogging it either. He was doing a job. I’d look up from my book and the man would be moving slowly across the piazza.

As I watched him, I realized how unusual the scene was. The man was employing a broom to sweep up refuse. How quaint! How delightful! How quiet! Where I live in North Carolina, no respectable yard and grounds man uses a broom or a rake any longer. They use powerful commercial backpack blowers with a dangerous decibel range that requires operators to wear ear protectors. Hardly a beautiful summer morning back home is unmarred by the jarring sound these instruments make. Two or three workers will gather at 7:00 am to chase a few candy wrappers, some cigarette butts and a lot of dust from a small parking lot. In the fall, when leaves drop, they blow them into the streets. These big blowers may be efficient at what they do, but they don’t seem to do much. Mostly what a blower does is noisily move trash somewhere else, usually to someone else’s property.

But here in the Piazza di San Cosimato, a single man employed a simple tool to remove debris from a large public space, and he didn’t break the silence of a pleasant afternoon to do it. I watched him close in on the last pile of refuse, shovel it into the bin, place the bin and his tools in the back of a small truck and drive away.