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Wednesday, 23 May 2007 00:00

A hard day’s work

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On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs by Tim Barnwell. W. W. Norton, 2007. 224 pages.

For a time my father’s love affair with decaying barns and farmhouses became something of a family joke. If he decided to take a back road to get anywhere, those of us in the car with him knew that we were in for a long ride. Every time we would pass some swaybacked, gray barn with half the tin roof missing or a farmhouse with a tumbledown chimney and windows like gray, broken teeth, my father would slow or even stop the car. Sometimes he would reach for his camera or sketchbook — he was both an amateur photographer and painter — and we would inwardly groan. We knew then we might be stopped for a while.

“They’re disappearing,” my dad would say each time. “All these old buildings are crumbling away.”

Some of his best paintings were of old barns and rural scenes. Hanging above me as I write is one of the first watercolors he ever attempted, a painting of a barn on my grandfather’s farm. At one point my father owned his own small farm in Traveler’s Rest, S.C., and he also made several paintings of that property.

At least once he’d gone to one of these derelict buildings and collected timber from them, incorporating the weathered beams and siding into his house. He collected small farm tools as well — hammers and awls and scythes and mauls, and knew how they were used.

At the time my siblings and I were bored with his side trips and snapshots. We’d come of age in rural North Carolina, in the great tobacco country around Winston-Salem where we were surrounded by hills and barns and farmhouses. Some of those buildings looked ancient indeed, and some were already disintegrating into dust and splinters, but our father’s warnings still seemed premature. Surely the barns were as an immutable part of the landscape as the red clay fields or the mules and tractors that shaped them.

We were wrong, of course. The tobacco fields of Yadkin County gave way to grapes and wineries. The barns fell apart or were pulled down to make room for housing tracts, condominiums, and suburbs. A good number of Americans have never seen a mule in the flesh, and tractors are used as much for mowing as for plowing.

For most of his adult life, Tim Barnwell has documented through photographs and oral histories this same trend in Southern Appalachia. In his latest book, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs (ISBN 978-0-39306267-0, $35), Barnwell brings together more than a hundred of the black-and-white photographs of rural Appalachia he has taken over the past 25 years.

Although this volume contains pictures of buildings, abandoned cars, apple trees, and snowy pastorals, the majority of Barnwell’s stunning photographs are of farmers, their friends and family members.

Here is Kella Buckner with his mule, pulling a sled of rocks in Madison County; here are families putting up hay. There are shots of youngsters playing on a tire swing and attending a church social. Here are photographs of a hog killing, of beans being shelled, of tomatoes and other produce picked from gardens, of cane being ground at a molasses mill.

Doubtless everyone will find certain photographs in this book that they prefer over some of the others. My own particular favorite can be found on page 28. Titled “Doug Messer, resting from tilling field, 2003,” this photograph shows Mr. Messer hunkered down at the edge of a muddy field. In one hand he holds a cap with what appears to be a military logo. In his other he clutches a rag with which he has clearly just wiped the sweat from his face. He sits with his face and body in profile to the viewer. His face, a picture of heat and exhaustion, has as many gullies and furrows as the land around him.

His eyes are nearly closed; a hank of hair falls across his brow. His mouth hangs half-open as if he can’t quite catch his breath. Around his waist he wears a brace. In the background stands the tiller, the tool with which Messer has worked the field. The photograph reminds us, if we need reminding, that it still takes a man to work the machine that works the field and that the man will often take a beating from the work.

In addition to the photographs, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow includes more than 30 pages of oral histories taken from conversations between Barnwell and the people he photographed. We meet Alton Price, who has never ventured more than 75 miles from his home. We meet Plato Worley, whose father drank a cup of hot water for breakfast, water throughout the day, and a glass of milk with supper; Worley remembers when he finally persuaded his father to try an orange soda. We meet person after person who grew up in a family of 10 children or more.

What is refreshing about On Earth’s Furrowed Brow is Barnwell’s refusal either to romanticize farming or to regard our region’s past with melancholic nostalgia. That farming is tough, body-breaking work we can see in the faces of those who spent themselves on the land. And while there is a sense of nostalgia here, of a people and a way of life giving way to new ways and irrevocable time, Barnwell’s photographs give us a feeling of hope for our own future. We sense that we, like these people, will face our own struggles, that like them we will find our own solutions and make our own peace with change.

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