Scenic Graffiti III

October 12, 2014

I’m often in the Virginia mountains this time of year, on my way to visit relatives in Covington, near the West Virginia line. Following the two-lane Rt. 32 West, which runs from Lexington, Va., through Goshen Pass, on the way to Warm Springs, I pulled off as usual at the waist-high stone wall overlooking the Maury River, some 80 feet below. The view there is beautiful, but it’s hard to photograph scenic images without resorting to visual cliché. So when I visit this spot, rather than feature the natural beauty, I like to foreground the graffiti. New scribbles are added all the time. It has been three or four years since my last visit, so another update is in order. Same place, third time, fresh doodling. (To view the two earlier posts, just type “graffiti” in the window to the right and tap “search,” then scroll down a bit. To make it worth your while, the original post even ends with a little graffiti “punchline.”)

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Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

Personal Essay

September 2, 2014

Provenance

By Florence Newman

FloChildOne summer when my friend Ellie and I were ten years old, we had a secret hiding place behind the trunk of a big oak tree that bordered Tom’s Creek Road, the street where I’d lived all my life. At the time, the road was a rural lane running out from the Blacksburg town limits into the countryside. On the vine-covered embankment beneath the tree, we had cleared a patch of dirt amid the weeds, an elevated alcove where we could crouch, invisible to passersby. If being the sole possessors of a private hide-away were not enough, we were thrilled that our spot lay only a hundred yards or so down from a small family cemetery and that it was backed by a wrought iron fence surrounding the overgrown gardens of the undoubtedly haunted Victorian house at the corner of Tom’s Creek and Price’s Fork Road.

Bones2As we explored our diminutive domain on hands and knees, Ellie and I soon began finding bones: rib bones, vertebrae, even two or three skulls. They belonged to cats, which had long since shed their fur and flesh. We arranged the bones skeleton-style in rough approximation of cat anatomy and gradually added to our collection: fragile leg bones and tiny crania with pointed snouts that must have been mice, bird wings with bits of tendon and feather still attached, big soup bones sawed off at one end. Like good scientists (we fancied ourselves archeologists), we categorized and curated our discoveries on the dusty ground and conferred seriously, in whispers, about what we would do with them.

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The fate of the collection was decided for us, and our secret world shattered, one morning when I awoke to the sound of heavy equipment on the road outside. The street was being widened and bulldozers were already gnawing away at the bank where the oak tree stood. I grabbed as many cardboard boxes as I could carry and ran down to the ruin of turned earth and broken branches, no doubt astonishing the county workers who weren’t expecting a small girl to scramble up and disappear into the bushes they were about to uproot. I threw handfuls of bones into my cardboard boxes, heedless of genus, species, or physiology, and hauled them back to my house. By the end of the day, the huge oak had been felled and chopped into pieces, the embankment had been leveled, and the verge had been cleared for a wider expanse of asphalt and, eventually, an actual cement sidewalk.

Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, the bones remained in boxes in my basement. I’m not sure why Ellie and I never spread them out for display again. Perhaps the mystique was gone (especially after the old lady in the corner Victorian died and Animal Control came to empty her house and yard of dozens of feral and half-feral cats); perhaps my mother forbade it—although it’s a testimony to her tolerance that she let me keep them as long as she did. Even if I didn’t go through the boxes, however, I couldn’t throw the bones away, because I knew their provenance. Not, of course, the precise location where we had found each of them (we weren’t that good scientists), but their origin in that special place under that particular tree during a specific year of my childhood.

“Provenance” is a term usually associated with works of art or bottles of wine. Establishing the provenance of a painting—the artist, the time and place of production—often enhances its monetary value. For oenophiles, provenance has recently become associated with terroir, the idea that the soil, climate, periods of sun and shade, and other indefinable characteristics of the place the grapes were grown gives a wine its unique essence: the wine made from grapes grown on one side of a hill in Bordeaux tastes slightly different from a wine made from grapes grown on the other side. We don’t necessarily need to know the provenance of a painting or a Pinot Noir in order to appreciate them for the pleasure they bring us. But we also don’t doubt that the origin of a thing matters—or that everything comes from somewhere. Nihil ex nihilo, “nothing comes from nothing,” according to the ancient Greek philosophers (and more memorably, Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music). Every being on earth, living and non-living, came from some preexisting time, place, and substance. Provenance. Terroir. Whether red blood still throbs in its veins (or ever did), whether it has been reduced to bleached bones (or was always inorganic material), each terrestrial creature emerged on and from the earth.

Celestial bodies like the moon, on the other hand, seem suspended outside of time and place, ungrounded, lacking provenance. So we invent stories to explain where they came from. The Chomoru people of Guam, for instance, believed that the sun and moon came into being when Putan, the first man—who dwelt in the ether of space and happened to be omnipotent—felt he was about to die and instructed his sister, Fu’una, on the disposal of his corpse. When the time came, Fu’una, having inherited her brother’s limitless powers, carried out Putan’s last wishes:

With his body, she made the earth;

With his breast, she made the sky;

With his right eye, she made the sun;

With his left eye, she made the moon;

And with his eyebrows, she made the rainbows.

                                                (roland.web.gu)

Medallion2One Aztec creation myth holds that Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the earth goddess, Coatlique, conspired with her four hundred sisters and brothers to kill her mother, but at the last moment Coatlique gave birth to a fully armed warrior, Huitsopochtli, who saved her from her attackers, then cut off Coyolxauhqui’s head and flung it into the sky, where it became the moon. In another tale from Aztec mythology (there can never be too many), the gods held a council at which it was decided that two of their number should sacrifice themselves in order to resurrect as the sun and the moon. Two towers were constructed, fires were lit at their bases, and the chosen ones, wearing crowns and feathered robes, ascended to the platforms. After four days, they cast themselves into the flames and were consumed. The other gods waited beside the towers for another four days, until the sky filled with a terrifying red glow: the blinding sun appeared on one side of the sky, and the moon, equally bright, appeared on the other. To dim the moon’s brightness, one of the gods seized a rabbit and threw it onto the face of the moon, etching its shadow on the luminous sphere.

Modern astronomers and physicists tell their own stories: the moon was blasted from the Earth by the impact of a giant protoplanet; long before that, stars and galaxies were formed when atoms of hydrogen, helium, and lithium coalesced under the force of gravity; some 14 billion years ago, a single point contained all the matter in the universe, until a sudden, violent expansion—the Big Bang—sent primordial bits and pieces spinning into the void.

We have no stories for non-being, for what existed prior to the Beginning: we literally cannot imagine it. In our minds, one body inevitably begets another. Nihil ex nihilo. To everything its provenance. Scientific American recently reported that one of Saturn’s rings has apparently spawned a “moonlet,” as particles on the ring’s outer edge, drawn together by gravitational pull, have congealed into the seed-pearl of a future moon. The moonlet may grow large enough to migrate out of the ring and become a separate satellite of Saturn. Or it may be pulverized by asteroids plowing their oblivious course through the cosmos. Or it may disintegrate on its own into ice crystals that drift slowly apart, like disembodied vertebrae relinquishing their bonds.

Copyright © 2014, Florence Newman

FloHdshot2Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Doodlemeister is looking for first-person observations up to 1,500 words on any subject for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you experienced, or simply thought about, please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@aol.com


One-Minute Memoir

November 30, 2012

First Love

By Jim Sizemore

I arrived at her door nervous, like a teenager on his first date. It was my mother’s 72nd birthday. I was 42 then and had driven nearly six hundred miles from my home in Baltimore to our hometown in Virginia to take her to dinner. My plan was to retrace 40 miles on the Interstate to Lexington, a college town with a decent restaurant. She answered my knock wearing a simple house dress under a thin tan raincoat, her gray hair wrapped tightly in a flower-patterned dime-store scarf. The scarf material appeared to be cheesecloth. I pointed, “Must you wear that thing?” My mother looked at me as she often did, like I was crazy. “It’s clean,” she said, an answer that made no sense to me. Typical — our life together had been one long misunderstanding.

We headed back east to the restaurant, the sun setting behind us; I kept looking at the back-lit mountain ridges in the rear view mirror and the reflected light on the sloping hills ahead. When I mentioned the beauty all around us she shrugged, just sat there, scrunched down in her seat like the wrinkled shell of some creature you come across in the forest. My face had started to wrinkle, too, and I saw that the lines were forming into her patterns. It was eerie. I could look at her face and see my own, thirty years down the road.

At dinner all she did was complain. The place was too fancy, the meal too expensive, and anyway, that “pile of food” would just go to waste. Besides, she said, she didn’t like people to make a fuss over her. I made a mean joke about her “plantation mentality,” her inability to enjoy the good that came her way. We left the restaurant in silence and I drove her home, very fast. Outside the car window the black sky was background for a line of darker mountain ridges. The headlights illuminated flashes of broken white lane marker, and the dash instruments cast a dim, yellow light on my hands, tight on the wheel. I began throwing up curses from my gut, spitting them out in random combinations, alternately screaming and whispering every blasphemous oath I knew. It was an evil performance, variations on a filthy theme, a jazz riff of profanity, of streaming dark passion. The foul words had bulk and filled the dark cavity of my car. I had trouble breathing, seemed to be drowning in my own angry bile. “What does it take to move you?” I screamed, and the words echoed in the tight space.

No reply. I was sure she was smiling at my intensity in the dark. “You damn well should know what’s got me going like this! The sunset! That beautiful goddamn sunset!” After a long silence, I blurted, “What the hell does it take to move you?”

More silence. “Answer me!”

Her voice came back quiet, calm. “I never raised you to talk like that.”

I spit out my reply like another curse. “You didn’t raise me! You were gone by the time I was twelve!”

Not a peep from her, but I knew she was thinking how odd I was. She had always claimed I was different from her other sons, didn’t behave like a regular baby, didn’t cry much — that I was serious, like a “miniature man.” Then she said, “Well, it’s all done and over — the good times and the bad — your daddy and me — me and you. And from now on I’ll not let on like I’ve had all them babies, diapered ‘em, raised ‘em up ‘til they was teenagers or thereabouts, stayed up of a night when they was sick. Kept ‘em clean and fed.”

I took the first exit into town, heading for the Esso station on Main Street. I needed gas, but also wanted an excuse to leave the car before I started bawling. As the gas pumped and I cleaned the bug-plastered windshield from the trip down through the Shenandoah Valley, I tried to stay focused on my hand and the paper towel. But in the bright light of the gas island my eyes moved from the splattered glass to my mother’s face. There it was — that bemused smile on her thin lips, and I’m thinking: Damn, this is one cute woman!

Then a memory of her snaps into sharp focus: I’m a little kid, standing in my mother’s bedroom in the company shack where I was born, over by the paper mill where my father worked, and I can’t be more than three or four because I’m looking up at the window sill, looking up at it and watching dust motes dance in a shaft of light. The warm light is reflected from the floor onto the wall and ceiling and it looks like magic. She’s sitting at her round-mirrored dresser, her back to me, wearing only a full slip, brushing her beautiful auburn hair that looks with the morning light in it like a sunrise, patiently counting the strokes.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to a thousand words, on any subject, in any style — as long as it happened to you. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for the lighthearted tone. And if need be we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com 


Hip Shots

November 4, 2011

Natural Bridge

By Jim Sizemore

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The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames  exposed the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click the “Hip Shots” tag above for many more examples. This feature will appear most Friday’s.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

Moving George

March 2, 2011

This is the first in a series of occasional Wednesday posts designed to document the construction of the new Fort McHenry Visitor Center. Early in the process, the statue of George Armistead, which stood on the east side of the old visitor center, pictured directly below, was dismantled and moved to a location just south and east of the new building’s site.

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Dismantle

Born on April 10, 1780, in Caroline County, Virginia, George Armistead was one of five brothers, all of whom later served in the War of 1812. On May 18, 1813, while serving as an artillery officer at Fort Niagara, New York, he took an active part in the American attack on Fort George across the Niagara River in upper Canada and was accorded the honor of delivering the captured British flags to President James Madison. On his taking command of Fort McHenry in June 1813, Armistead ordered a flag made “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” He earned his enduring place in American history under that flag at Fort McHenry whose stalwart defense of Baltimore against British attack in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Armistead remained in command of the fort until his untimely death at age 38 on April 25, 1818. He is buried in Old St. Paul’s Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

Move

The company contracted for the complicated task of moving the George Armistead statue, Lorton Stone, of Springfield, Virginia, is family owned and operated, with a history in the stone business that runs back several generations. It was obvious they took extreme care — and pride — in the project. Their work history involves everything from the renovation of the Washington Monument to construction of marble lobbies in commercial buildings. They have the experience and skill to tackle any project related to stone masonry, from historical restoration to marble mosaics. For more information about Lorton Stone, click on the sidebar link under the “Business” tab.

Reassemble Base

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Complete Move

Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

Scenic Graffiti II

October 27, 2010

Around this time of year I’m usually in the mountains of Virginia, on the way to visit relatives in my hometown near the West Virginia line. And this season, on two-lane Rt. 32 West, which runs through Goshen Pass on the way to Warm Springs, Virginia, I pulled off as I always do at the nearly waist-high stone wall overlooking the Maury River, some 80 feet below. The view is beautiful but, as I said in last year’s post, it’s hard to photograph scenic images without resorting to visual cliché, so when I visit this spot I like to foreground the graffiti on the wall. New scribbles are added all the time and an update is in order—same place, one year later, but with fresh doodling. And you’ll notice in the last image this year I had photographic competition. (But wait, is the lady focusing on the graffiti, or the fallen leaves—or her foot?)

(Click images for larger views.)



Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Crow Happy Hour

May 19, 2010

Photo Doodle

For me, the interesting thing about this picture is what you can’t see—and, perhaps, just as importantly, what you can’t hear. On a trip last fall to visit relatives in my home town, I spent two nights in Lexington, Virginia, which is  40 miles east of my destination. When I’m down that way, I camp in Lexington because it’s a small town situated in a beautiful spot just off I-81, in the gentle foothills where the Shenandoah Valley narrows between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. There are lots of things to see and do nearby, in contrast to where I come from, which is also situated in a beautiful area much deeper into the mountains. My birthplace is a depressed (and for me, somewhat depressing) paper mill town very near the West Virginia line. Lexington, being a university town (Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Institute), has all the amenities that come with that, including many good restaurants. It’s a wonderful destination and not just a stopover. On my first evening there this trip, while killing time before dinner, I wandered around town with my new digital point-and-shoot camera and soon found myself in the graveyard in which “Stonewall” Jackson is buried. The historic site is in a residential area on Main Street, just a few blocks south of the business district.

I shot several pictures in the graveyard, but the one above is my favorite. I love the way the late afternoon light comes through the silhouetted trees and creates those long shadows, the darker edges of the image framing some of the gravestones. Of course I was thinking about that when I composed the picture, and that’s also when a sort of eerie-beautiful event took place. As I stood there (and I stayed in that one spot for at least five minutes), a large flock of crows began to swoop in and out between the trees, caw-cawing the whole time as they cavorted. I had seen this sort of “happy hour” bird behavior before during the “golden hour” just before sunset, a favorite time of day, it seems, for birds, photographers and cinematographers. But I had never witnessed it in quite so dramatic a setting and with such loud sound effects. (Imagine being in the middle the gathering-of-the-birds scene in that Hitchcock movie, but experiencing it as pleasant rather than threatening.) This may have been the only time while out and about photographing when I wished that I had video instead of a still camera. Another disappointment: I had hoped to catch a bird perched on the foremost gravestone, but no luck. Not one bird landed while I was there, and even if it had I doubt I would have been quick enough to capture the image. You see, I was still a pretty slow photographer at that point, consulting the instruction book for just about every move I made with my new camera.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.