I sold my part of his little farm to my sister and started looking for a place of my own. A cottage, a cabin, a shack, a garden, a woodlot, a stream, a place to go to, a place to get away. Then I met a girl named Holley, and then the forty acres along the river at the foot of the mountain.
[ EPF 2013 SHORTLIST ]
Over thirty years ago, photographer Dana Matthews and writer Richard Giles met in the rural deep south. Matthews came from her grandmother’s farm and Giles from the Delta by way of farms in the Mississippi Black Belt. Between Matthews’s home in Alabama and Giles’s home in Mississippi lies Hale county Alabama, where Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated to make “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, that amazing document about people struggling to survive in places where food, hardship, beauty and hunger meet. These realities very much describe the lives of small-scale farmers in America today.
We came north, not together, but by separate accidents, and found our familiar ‘south’ in the Catskills region of New York State. Delaware County, three hours out of the great city, the watershed from which New York drinks, with its deep rich soils along the rivers, is one of the poorest counties in the state. This ironic tune plays again and again across our country rich land, poor people; good food gone over to a land of potato chips. Giles came back to the country with his wife Holley, to farm small and to write. Matthews came from her Brooklyn art studio in a blighted urban wasteland to her cabin in the woods to create.
All of this is to say that the collaboration between this photographer and this writer began years ago and now lives on an old farm in a whole new world of local food, clean food, food touched again by human hands. And the life of the farm and the life of the food comes, yes, from the dirt, but also from the hands of those who grow and harvest it, wash it and pack it into boxes. And this collaboration comes to this land and to these farmers who farm the land to ask for images the photographs and the paragraphs each lusting in their own way for images that, taken together, might make sense of the life of our food.
Excerpts of the writing that will accompany the photos can be found in the “additional details” portion next to the photographs.
Kalan mutters to Alese as they work together. ‘Shut up’ She says. We work across the field, cutting, packing, loading the truck, and pulling off our jackets as the morning warms, piling them in heaps on the seat of the truck. Pretty Daniele and pretty Ashley shake their hair out of their sweaters, take their coffee containers from the back of the truck, sip twice, then back to the lettuce. We work into the sun, blessed. Before the morning is half gone, we’ll send a loaded truck of cool lettuce back to the barn to wash and pack. Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn, our lettuce will smile down the grocery aisles of New York City.
Her face is long and beautiful, her nose could slice peaches. I wanted somebody to fix me toast, and she needed a man to fix her toaster. She wanted two children, a girl and a boy. The land is silt loam four feet deep, laid down by the glacier and then overlaid by the river. Chocolate cake with sweet icing. The first time I walked over it was a Monday morning toward the end of October. Little bits of snow were flying into the thick corn stubble. The river ran clear as glass over rocks. I wanted to lie down and eat handfuls of the dark loamy dirt! I plowed and planted and named the patches of the farm. Holley tended wild flowers, and eagles cruised the river. I quit my job. After lunch we floated down the river on tractor tubes. It was the story of Eden, and then things went wrong. But that’s the story of Eden all over again.
Through the next weeks we farmed the best we could, wandering the fields like mental patients, heads down, hands behind us. Everything important was suddenly trivial. Everything trivial was suddenly loud and bright and significant. Sleep was no intermission. From some corner of the night, a dark breeze came up the valley against the barn and awakened a squawking piece of sheet iron roof that had blown loose in a thunderstorm fifteen years ago. The dogs barked until their voices were hoarse.
The morning after the wreck I tried to make sense of the way his wheel tracks ran out of the highway curve and across the meadow and then almost back to meet the highway. Like a muddy map back to Saturday night. Could have had a happy ending? the map of a good time, a map of the Forth of July, a shortcut home to bed with his girls.
I’m crossing the barnyard to the shop, talking on the phone to Joe about Wednesday’s order, when I see the cloud coming up the valley. There’s more of everything in the field than I had expected, so we’re revising the offering, adding cases more of lettuce, collards, spinach, and escarole. From west to east the cloud rolls into the blue afternoon sky, silent, powerful, deeply American in its beauty. It’s the moment you’ve seen caught in some painting of agriculture and weather. The boys are running their tractors away off across the field. The girls run to fasten greenhouse doors, and I shut the doors to the barn and shop and then turn again to the west to see a brilliant curtain of white sweeping up the valley. In the moment before the storm hits us, I see the air go green, hear the odd clatter in the trees out on the mountainside, notice the precipitation leaping from the earth as the storm bounds across the field toward the barn, and I think: hail storm, as if the words might…
By noon the boys have torn the ruined axle out from under the smaller truck. We light into it with wrenches and pry-bars, tossing bolts into a coffee can. When we pull the gear chunk from its housing, the raw smell of gear oil fills the shop, and there among the cogs are chunks of disintegrated pinion bearing, some of them rolled flat like Quaker oats along the curved faces of the gears. Beautiful. The problem and its solution lie in the same heap at our feet. By tonight we’ll have the truck on the road again. We’ll be in business.
Next morning we all huddle around to look at the photos he made of a quiet field, where the reflected sun breaks across the pools of melt-water as if the reflection were the sun itself. Outside the soil is soggy, and there is no need to go out and look again at our destroyed crop.The girls begin their work in the greenhouse, watering and tending their plants on the benches and then dropping thousands of new seeds into little blocks of soil that they have pressed and arranged on trays.
It comes on for half an hour like grape-shot running horizontal in a forty knot wind, piling in great shoals along the windward side of the buildings, hammering so loud on the greenhouse roof that we give up trying to talk and bow our heads in a kind of reverence, the girls and I, to what has to be. When, just at the end of the storm, the boys run in laughing and shedding their wet clothes, we look at them and know that they haven’t thought about those thousands of tender plants in the field but only of the wild adventure of weather.
Today we harvest lettuce, kale, colored Swiss chard, forty boxes of beans, beets, and peas. Tomorrow is broccoli and carrots. Friday when we’ve finished washing the crop for the weekend markets, we’ll bring beer down from the store and sit together talking on the benches outside the barn, sobriety slipping away toward evening, like history, like intimacy, like love.
I pull my boots back on and go outside with the kids, which is what they wanted anyway. Play with us, Daddy. I push them down in the deep snow, first Sibyla those big startled, laughing eyes set in her mothers fine face?and then Asa, puffed like a small bear in his snowsuit. They get up and attack me, and I push them down again and again. Out through the snow, beyond where my trucks are parked, we climb the big dirt pile, now a snowy mountain. Asa makes it to the top first and defends the peak. I remember that the bigger truck wouldn’t build up brake air when I started it last week and I go over to crank it and let it warm up. Asa yells, brokenhearted, from the top of his mountain, Daddy, you were supposed to play with us.
All of this is too much. I carry my boy up the barn lane toward the house. The frost-proof water valve in the barn froze and cracked last week. I need to replace the broken head with the head from the one that broke its rod two years ago. Where did I put that piece of junk? Crescent wrench and a 14 inch pipe wrench, and I could fix it in fifteen minutes, half an hour at most. The iron pipe and the tools so cold your fingers stick to them. We climb on up the path toward the house. I tell Asa that, yes, he can stand on his chair and stir the cocoa into the milk for the hot chocolate. Wonder do we have enough milk, is that pint of cream still good. Yes, yes, Sibyla, you can whip the cream.
“What??” she says, and then “Leave me alone” she says, laughing. She laughs, as my grandmother did, about everything sad or mean or painful. She’s sleeping some nights with a handsome man who’s no good, and her brother and her sisters can’t let it be, rising as they do again and again these mornings to batter her with their logic against idiocy and ruin. And I see her worthless man taking form again and again in their anger and fear. As if he existed only there in their breath of words against him, spoken into the cool September morning air. As if a day without mention of him might cause him to leave the world. This much is true. He’s filling the empty crater left by Micah. The day will come when talk of him will die, and then it will be as if he has died. And he will leave her life or she’ll kick him out like a dog.
I knock the snow off my boots and come into the dog room, but she’s re-arranged the room, and when I go to set my boots near the heater vent to dry, she says, No, they go over there now. This pisses me off and I throw my boots against the wall. “I hate this fucking house,” she yells and goes slamming through the kitchen door. I pull my boots back on and go outside with the kids, which is what they wanted anyway. Play with us, Daddy. I push them down in the deep snow, first Sibyla those big startled, laughing eyes set in her mothers fine face and then Asa, puffed like a small bear in his snowsuit. They get up and attack me, and I push them down again and again. Out through the snow, beyond where my trucks are parked, we climb the big dirt pile, now a snowy mountain. Asa makes it to the top first and defends the peak. I remember that the bigger truck wouldn’t build up brake air when I started it last week and I go over to crank it and let it warm up. Asa yells, brokenhearted…
The night that Micah crashed his car we all went insane. He and Alese had a beautiful kid together, and then they fought their battles across the fields of vegetables, she crying and ripping at the lettuce leaves, he carrying his love for her like a sack of dirt, hunched on his shoulders through the morning. Crushing love.
All his life, Daddy worked around crops and animals and farmers, but he never owned a farm until he was just about done working. He and Mama built a house, and then Mama got sick and died, and then Daddy thrashed around on the farm another eight or nine years before he died. In the end he wanted to live. The day they cut open his heart, he already had the plug in the bathtub drain for the next morning. The house sat there on the farm without them. Their shrubs and pear trees grew and bloomed, and the water started running rusty out of the faucet in the kitchen.
Daddy’s mother was a farmer’s daughter and his father was a travelling salesman. It’s like a joke that Daddy would have told. But he didn’t like to talk about it. His father drank himself to death. His mother, my grandmother, was tough as a hickory stick, ninety three pounds on the bathroom scale, out the door walking to church on Sunday morning, and lying like a tiny shrunken bird in her blue satin-lined casket at the age of 99. She told us grandchildren story after story about growing up on the prairie in Missouri. The one I most remember is about the hired man who killed the team of mules because he wouldn’t take the bits out of their mouths to let them drink at noon. And Grandmother laughing and her crooked finger wagging a scold at that long-gone hired man as she finished telling the story.
Kalan mutters to Alese as they work together. “Shut up” She says. We work across the field, cutting, packing, loading the truck, and pulling off our jackets as the morning warms, piling them in heaps on the seat of the truck. Pretty Daniele and pretty Ashley shake their hair out of their sweaters, take their coffee containers from the back of the truck, sip twice, then back to the lettuce. We work into the sun, blessed. Before the morning is half gone, we?ll send a loaded truck of cool lettuce back to the barn to wash and pack. Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn, our lettuce will smile down the grocery aisles of New York City.
Dana Matthews was born in Alabama and currently resides both in Brooklyn, NY and upstate in the Catskills. She received a BFA at the University of Alabama and an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. For the past twenty years she has worked with her cameras creating photographs and installations that are related to the environment and the sensitive time that we live in. She chooses to practice traditional and alternative processes such as wet-plate collodion, cyanotypes and gelatin silver printing.
Currently, she has a solo show of seascapes at Urban Zen in Los Angeles, CA. Most recently, she had a solo show titled “The Cruel Radiance of What Is” at chashama gallery in Chelsea, NYC and a photographic installation as well as ‘still life’ photographs in an exhibition titled “Freak Antique” at Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. Dana’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the United States and is represented in domestic and international collections.