Street Mural

Matt Lively's Bee Mural

Last time I was in Richmond, Virginia, I went looking for this mural by Matt Lively (who long ago drew several covers for the school literary magazine where I once taught). I found it near the old city bus barn along with hundreds of other murals. It’s a really fun work of art. In the photo, I also like the way the truck and pile of bricks anchor the mural’s whimsical “flight on fancy” quality to the everyday world.

—Mark Caskie

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A Japanese Garden Revisited

Japanese Garden, Maymont Park

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, one of my favorite places to visit was Maymont Park, a 100-acre park that included a zoo, a Victorian mansion, a formal Italian garden, a Japanese Garden, and towering bluffs overlooking the Kanawha Canal and James River. (Since then, the park has added a nature center.) In those days, the Japanese Garden was in disrepair and overgrown so badly that it existed more in outline beneath a profusion of vines and brush. As a child whenever I explored the garden, I felt a bit like an archaeologist discovering a Mayan ruin, half-buried by jungle vegetation.

Later, not long after I moved from Richmond for college, the gardens were successfully restored. Now, in the warm weather months, a man-made waterfall tumbles over a cliff, and there is a lovely koi pond that has a series of stepping stones. On the rare occasions I’ve been able to visit (I no longer live in Richmond), I’ve found myself studying the shape and color of a single tree, or contemplating how a rockface frames some nature-inspired statuary. Following on my last blog entry, it’s a reminder that not all natural landscapes are sublime, majestic or overpowering.

The views in this garden are intimate and personal. They are natural, but also enhanced by careful landscaping. The Japanese garden provides a stark contrast to the Italian garden, which is located next to it at the top of the hill. In the Italian garden, you find the landscapers more concerned with ordered patterns. The Japanese garden, by contrast, is more about focusing attention of the natural world through the framing of tableaux that lead the eye to small, singular expressions of nature’s variety and beauty.

–Mark Caskie

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Why We Photograph Natural Landscapes

For several years, I’ve been following the twitter feed Best of the National Parks, which aggregates Flickr photos of some of America’s most beautiful national parks. On an almost daily basis, I take a few moments at look at two or three of the most recent posts. By the time I look at these photos, I have already checked my email and glanced at the morning headlines, which are usually dire in nature, so it comes as a kind of relief to be reminded of some of the wonders of the natural world.

I have been doing this long enough that I’ve noticed some recurrence in the types of photographs that appear on the site. This led me to wonder why we choose to photograph certain natural landscapes and not others. I should note that in this case, familiarity isn’t such a bad thing. I enjoy seeing how different people choose to frame often-photographed subjects, looking for some fresh or original slant on them. At the same time, I think the photographs reveal something about our notions of beauty in the natural world——and the cultural reasons we gravitate toward certain subjects.

What follows is a list of some of the recurrent subjects in these photos and some observations about them:

• Cliff faces, Yosemite National Park. Anecdotally, these granite mountains are among the most photographed landscapes in America. The influence of John Muir, who worked for the creation of the park, and Ansel Adams, whose monumental photography of the valley long ago established this location as one of the most recognizable natural landscapes in the world, is undeniable. For those looking for a fresh angle, it’s a challenging place to photograph. Several photographers on the Best of the National Parks site have chosen to shoot unusual angles of these mountains, while still others look for unusual lighting situations, such as a golden light just touching the mountaintops.

• Rock Formations, Arches National Park. Made famous by Edward Abbey in his book Desert Solitaire, the arches are a favorite subject for photographers on the website. The images seem to create the natural equivalents of windows and bridges. That is, you have the experience of looking through, under or into another place. (That other place is often a strikingly blue sky.) There is often a sense of the working of geologic time, and a long-scale sense of transience because you know in a few eons the arches will collapse. Photographers sometimes like to include people, usually as small, unrecognizable figures, to give a sense of the size of these rock formations.

• Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Yes, you do see photos of wolves and stoic, snow-covered bison from Yellowstone on the site, but I feel like the most common photos are of the mineral-rich hot springs. I was recently reading Richard Fortey’s Velvet Worms and Horseshoe Crabs. In the book, he talks at length about how the bacteria and archaea that create the vivid yellows, greens, blues, etc., are survivors from deep time, descendants of some of Earth’s earliest life forms. Photographically, the colors are often striking, if a bit amorphous. At times, these photographs bear some resemblance to Impressionist paintings, only we are experiencing the effects of seeing through water rather than through the atmosphere.

* Moulton Barn, Grand Tetons National Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if this barn isn’t the most photographed barn in America. I suppose it evokes the days of the early homesteaders, but I can’t help thinking as barns go, it’s not a particularly interesting one. Although obviously the setting, with the jagged peaks of the Tetons in the background, is superb. Even without the barn, the sawtooth Tetons are a favorite subject. They are undoubtedly the archetypal Western mountain range.

• Roads, mountain creeks, and closeups of vegetation, Smoky Mountains National Park. The eastern parks tend to encourage fewer panoramas and more focus on in-the-woods shots. (The exceptions, of course, are photos of the seemingly endless mountain ranges, fading into the distance.) The long tunnel-like passages of empty roads beneath an all-enveloping canopy of trees, especially during peak fall foliage, and cascading streams with long exposures creating a sense of the flow of the water, are common subjects. In the spring, rhododendrons and the South’s many other flowering plants tend to have their moment. These subjects reflect the intimate spaces created by the woods in the eastern U.S.

Some of the other parks that appear with regularity include Grand Canyon National Park, Arcadia National Park, Zion National Park and Bryce National Park. It is easy to see why certain landscapes lend themselves to certain kinds of photos, sometimes because of the landscape itself, but at other times because these landscapes have become known either for artistic or scientific reasons. Our ideas of what is “photo-worthy” are in part shaped by our culture. Who, for instance, hasn’t at least thought about shooting in black-and-white a la Adams, while in Yosemite Valley? To any photographer, I would say go ahead and take those classic photos, but then look for a new subject or a new way to shoot an old subject. (And I should add, thank you for posting your photos.) For everyone who loves the natural world, I would recommend this twitter feed for the moments of escape it provides and the grounding, however brief, in the natural world that it offers.

––Mark Caskie

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A Tales of Two Homes

One of the houses that has recurred in my dreams is an old rambling, rundown Victorian in a neighborhood that has seen better days. In my dreams, I am constantly amazed at the size of the house and feel some anxiety that I don’t really use all of the rooms. That’s because it’s too large for anyone to practically inhabit, and I’m constantly thinking of rooms in the house that I never seem to spend time in. Perhaps, my favorite aspect of the house is a combination high porch/clifftop-like patio that overlooks the surrounding city. All in all, these dreams are marked by a sense of wonder that I live in such a fine and eccentric house. I have dreamed of this house so many times that it seems very real, and I can remember it in detail in my waking hours.

Recently, I had the opposite experience when I visited my childhood home. That is, I visited a real house that had the quality of a dream. In my mind, my childhood home is fixed in time and I imagine it looking just the way it did when I lived there. The house is a typical 1960s two-story suburban brick Colonial with pseudo-pillars and a shallow porch along the front. While that is still all true, what else I discovered on my visit came as something of a shock.

The house had an overgrown lawn with six cars parked in it and two more along the street. There were now two driveways instead of one. All of the trees that had once been in the front yard were gone. The backyard, so far as I could see it, had piles and piles of surplus materials and parts in it, possibly for construction. The white post fence that had once been along the front? Gone. A low-slung one-story addition jutted off the houses on one side. While I didn’t get to see inside the house, I imagined it subdivided into living spaces for the many people who owned the cars in the front yard.

So which is the nightmare? Ironically, the changes wrought in the real world were much more horrifying than the psychological house of my dreams. It reminds me of the Thomas Wolfe title that often gets bandied about by speakers at commemorative events–“You can’t go home again.” That is, apparently, the case with my real-world house. By contrast, when I return to my dream house, I am always happy and amazed to see it, although it is both familiar and unfamiliar to me.

–Mark Caskie

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A Distant Shore

“How much wine, Sarah?” the voice asked.

Sarah was sleepy, and didn’t want to be bothered answering such questions. As she lay in bed, she visualized running along a lake shore. The surface of water was gun-metal gray and the light was low in the sky. It wasn’t easy running on the sandy beach in her heavy boots and winter coat. The sand giving way beneath her feet made every step seem like the greatest effort.

“Sarah, are you hot? You’re kicking off your covers,” the voice said. The voice seemed distant and faraway. Where was it coming from? Maybe it’s coming from the sky–the voice of God? No, it was only Paul, her husband. And she realized that she was on their bed at home.

In the distance, she could see an emerald green object lying on the beach. It was resting in a large debris pile, which included a broken-off corner of a Styrofoam cooler, a torn life jacket and the bright beads of a fishing rig all lying in a small, tide-created depression before a rock. She could not quite make out what it was.

“How much wine, Sarah?” Paul asked again.

Sarah had always enjoyed long walks on the beach, looking through the jetsam and flotsam of ships and the odd castoffs of beach-goers that would inexplicably wash up in the oddest places. They seemed like the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup that a fortune-teller might use to tell the future. She felt an urgent desire to find out what the green object she had spotted up the coastline was. But it seemed to get farther away, the more she ran.

Now she heard Paul’s voice again, but this time his voice was directed to someone else. “I think she’s OK,” he said. “She’s just had too much to drink.” There was something in Paul’s voice that wasn’t right, she thought. A kind of shakiness. Amused, she wondered how she had ever mistaken his reedy voice for the voice of God. For a moment, she had a vision of Paul as a small, lost child.

She spotted a boat covered with a tarp tucked behind a nearby sand dune. When she pulled back the covering she found it contained a small outboard motor and a gas can. With the steep slope of the shoreline, it was easy for her to pull it down to the water. Soon, she was speeding along the lake’s shore, the cold winter air blowing through her hair. Freedom, she thought despite the biting cold, feels like this.

“Well, all right,” said the other voice that she realized as belonging to their neighbor John. “Have you thought about getting her back in treatment” he asked hesitantly.

Sarah throttled the engine into high gear, and it’s whining soon drowned out the voices. Impulsively, she took a small knife that she had found tucked into one of the gunwales of the boat, and maliciously cut the line attached to the anchor. She picked up the anchor, which was surprisingly light, and gleefully threw it into the water. I won’t be needing that, she thought. She watched as the bubbles rose where the anchor had entered the water, and wondered what it might meet on its way to the bottom.

“Yes, I know,” said Paul resignedly. “She has been–erratic. I thought she was doing so much better.”

Sarah felt her heart beat faster as a wave of anger rose within her. I won’t go back to that place. It’s like prison, she thought, and so humiliating. She felt a shiver go through her body. Paul was always trying to save her, but she knew her heart.

By the time her anger subsided, she realized that John had left and that Paul was sitting on her bed next to her.

By now she had reached the shore that had become the object of her journey. She waded through the shallow water–feeling the deathly cold water through her rubber boots–onto the beach and walked a few steps so that she stood over it, the large green bottle on the beach. So that’s it, she thought.

“A magnum,” she said weakly.

Paul leaned in close to her. “What?” he said.

“You asked me how much wine.”

Paul didn’t respond, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps something was really wrong. She began rummaging through the debris with her foot.

“A magnum,” she said again.

With a little push of her foot the bottle rolled down to the waterline. In her half-sleeping, half-waking dream, she gave a little gasp. Half-buried in the sand where the bottle had been, was a handgun. The one she kept in her bedside table with the .357 magnum cartridge.

I’m so sorry,” she murmured with sudden realization. And for a moment she was very grateful to Paul. He had not called the police, only the doctor who was also a neighbor. Good, sweet, dear Paul. Why did I shoot at him with my gun?

“Don’t worry, Sarah,” said Paul slowly after a long silence. “I know you didn’t mean to. We’ll get you the help you need this time.”

Sarah reached down and carefully picked up the gun as if she didn’t want to get her fingerprints on it. Examining the gun’s chamber, she found three bullets left. She thought of the group and individual sessions, the forced, false sense of community, the bogus psychotherapy. And through it all she would have to lie about her true feelings, if she ever hoped to get out of that awful place. Sarah stared out at the lake, watching the boat that had brought her here drift far away. For the first time in a long time, everything seemed clear.

“Good, dear sweet Paul,” she murmured, and she could feel the weight of his body as he held her in a long embrace.

She retrieved the magnum wine bottle and placed it on the rock and then walked off twenty paces, turned and fired. The bottle shattered in a violent explosion of glass, fragments flying everywhere. She felt a surge of power as she shot twice more, reducing the remains of the bottle to even tinier shards. She felt her face flush with happiness. It was a good day for hope seemed to have returned. Yes, she would get control of her life again, all right, she thought, as a smile spread across her face. Good, dear, sweet Paul, next time I’ll aim for your heart.

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rules of my writing game are that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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A Tale of Two Cities–Place and Personal Identity

Last winter, I took a dialect test that was posted by the New York Times. Despite the fact that I have lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for nearly a quarter-century, the test still correctly identified me as being from Richmond, Virginia. It got me wondering about the wider influences of place on tastes and temperament.

This summer, I passed a milestone of sorts when the total number of years that I’ve lived in Greensboro equaled the amount of time I lived in Richmond. I’ve lived in other places, too. But none of those cities come anywhere close to matching the time I’ve spent in my hometown and where I live now. Does that mean that I am now equal parts Richmonder and Greensboroian? Yes and no.

In terms of influence, nothing can match the places you spend your childhood and your young adult years. Even now, when I visit Richmond, memories from those days bombard me in a constant stream. Even the most incidental, everyday experiences seem to have left their indelible mark.

Then again, I am equally struck by the the changes in my hometown. (How could the West End commercial sprawl of Broad Street extend all the way out to Short Pump, a former two gas-station wayside in the country, for instance?) Like Joyce’s Dublin, the Richmond of an earlier time is lodged in my brain.

Richmond, by far the larger of the two cities, is a city of old brick buildings with a tragic history deeply intertwined with the Civil War. But it has also blossomed with a music and arts scene that attracts performers and artists from across the East Coast and beyond. And, of course, there is the James River, with its islands and rapids going right through the heart of the urban landscape. While for years, the city had an ambivalent relationship to the river, it seems to have at last embraced it. Belle Isle, for example, once home to a POW camp during the Civil War, has become a favorite destination for day-trippers to swim along its edges, kayak its rapids, explore its industrial ruins or learn the rudiments of rock climbing along its cliffs.

Greensboro, by contrast, has little historic architecture beyond a few neighborhoods of wooden Victorian houses. It’s history centers around the Revolutionary War (the Battle of Guilford Courthouse) and the Civil Rights movement (site of the first sit-ins and home to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.) Originally settled by Quakers, the city was also an important destination on the Underground Railroad. While the art scene doesn’t compare to Richmond’s, the city has a long literary tradition, thanks to the writing program at UNC-Greensboro, one of the first such programs in the Southeast. While there is no river, the city is much closer to the mountains and is known for its many parks and extensive watershed trail system.

I am, of course, talking about these locations in very personal terms. I know that either of these places for someone else might be the greatest or the worst place on Earth. Class, generation, historical currents and chance all play a role in forming who we are.  But, even in these days of mass media, place still plays a role in forming personal identity.

–Mark Caskie

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Watkins Glen State Park Photos

If you are looking for a place where you can have a secluded experience of the natural world, Watkins Glen State Park in New York State is probably not it. Busloads of tourists regularly descend into the gorge to see its many waterfalls. But a visit to the park soon shows what all the fuss is about. The 1.5-mile trail, which has more than 800 steps, follows Glen Creek through a deep gorge as it descends about 400 feet beneath 200-foot-high cliffs of sandstone and shale. Originally opened in 1867 as a private attraction, Watkins Glen became a state park in 1924. The gorge’s steps, bridges, stone wall and tunnels have aged gracefully and blend in beautifully with the surroundings.

Cavern Falls

Cavern Falls

Behind Cavern Falls

Behind Cavern Falls

A waterfall on the Gorge Trail

A waterfall on the Gorge Trail

Another waterfall on the Gorge Trail

Another waterfall on the Gorge Trail

Stairs to the Mile Point Bridge

Stairs to the Mile Point Bridge

Mile Point Bridge

Mile Point Bridge

–Mark Caskie

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Catawba Falls, Pisgah National Forest

Located near Old Fort, N.C., the trail to Catawba Falls is a scant three miles from Interstate 40, a location that virtually guarantees a steady stream of hikers. But the four-mile round-trip to the falls shows they have much more to them than an easy-to-reach location. Divided into a distinct lower and upper falls, the two cataracts could not be more different, so much so that I’ve nicknamed them “The Beauty and the Beast.” The lower falls is the beast of the pair and appears more like a river running wily-nilly down the mountain. Consisting of several cascades, sometimes separate and others times braided together, the massive falls is impossible to take in all at once. The lower falls size alone would make that difficult, but it also twists with the curvature of the mountain so that its top section is partially obscured by trees from the bottom. The huge volume of water, channeled by jagged rocks, gives the impression of power rather than elegance. By contrast, the upper falls is the beauty of the pair. Elusive, hidden among the trees until you are virtually right on it, the water falls in a single, gorgeous sheet before dividing on the rocks at its base. The difficulty of reaching the upper falls (along parts of the trail ropes are anchored in place to help you climb) heightens the sense of a secret, almost magical spot. On a warmer day, I would have been tempted to lounge in the large pool at its base. In addition to the waterfalls, the trail also has an old dam and the remains of a stone building.

Lower Catawba Falls


A section of The Beast

Upper Catawba Falls

Beauty

–Mark Caskie

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Ticket to Ride

Ticket window at Greensboro, N.C. train station

My hometown of Greensboro, N.C., doesn’t have a lot of notable architecture. A wonderful exception is the train station. I recently took this photo of the ticket window there. Southern railway originally built the station in 1927, and it currently has three trains daily on both northbound and southbound routes.

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The Good Samaritan

Bringing popular music into the service had been Jane Calthrop’s idea. To appeal to the young people, Ethel supposed. But it was really an unexamined assumption on her part since most of the songs were more suitable for her generation than the young people of today. Ethel preferred the old hymns, not because she disliked the popular songs in their place. But between the granite walls of the village’s centuries-old church they just seemed more fitting.

Ethel had no time to tell Gladys about the bra burning that Jane Calthrop had organized as a young woman years ago when she was a college student in London. We were all a bit radical back then, Ethel admitted to herself. It was the times. But the way she talks about it so freely with that full-throated laugh was just too much. “I made the evening papers,” she once said with a laugh. “Standing on top of a VW Bug without a bra on–you could tell because I didn’t have a shirt on either. The caption called me a modern Lady Godiva.”

Ethel, almost an exact contemporary of Jane Calthrop, recalled her own early ’20s. I didn’t have time to go around showing off my breasts in public. I was too busy sacking groceries and trying to scrape enough money together to get my own flat.

The congregation had flipped to the back of the hymnal for the responsive reading, and Ethel had done so automatically as well. This was always her favorite part of the service. The collective voices of the church-goers rushing past her like a river of words.

The passage was the story of the Good Samaritan. For a moment, Ethel wondered who she might be if she was a part of the parable. Would she walk on past or help the poor, injured soul?

Now, as the congregation settled back into the pews, she said to her cousin, “She studied with a guru in India for three years, and she has started a yoga class here at the church, and I’m not talking about yoga just for exercise.”

“Does anyone come?” asked Gladys, eager to hear more.

“Of course, they do. She is the vicar’s wife,” replied Ethel, as if Jane Calthrop’s influence were the most obvious thing in the world.

Vicar Calthrop began his sermon with a story about a trip to the mall, and it was hard to tell were his message might be leading. He was very handsome man, which she felt gave him an unfair advantage when it came to his winning souls or even enlisting the ladies of the church for the annual bake sale. She knew it was hard to say no to the good reverend. But it was such a shame about that wife of his, she reminded herself.

Ethel was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she really wasn’t following the sermon very well. Or for that matter even paying attention to the dress of the other women in the congregation, which she sometimes critiqued when she was bored. She loved nothing better than getting together with her friends after church and discussing the fashion successes and failures of the day.

That’s why it came as a surprise to look up to see Jane Calthrop hurrying past her in the aisle. Her eyes looked watery, though she did her best to hide them behind a raised hand. Her face was flushed as if she had been crying.

It was only an instant, but it was as if her world had shifted suddenly. Hadn’t anyone else seen Jane Calthrop’s distress? Apparently, not. Vicar Calthrop continued his sermon, the congregation appeared as it always did in rapt attention.

“Excuse me,” Ethel said under her breath to Gladys. She got up and quiet slipped out of the pew to follow Jane Calthrop.

I’m hardly the best person to comfort her, she thought as she made her way toward the door. When she emerged from the church, Ethel saw Jane Caltrhop looking at the roses in the far corner of the small graveyard that was directly next to the church.

By the time she reached Jane Calthrop, she had already seen Ethel coming. She greeted her with a faint smile.

“Are you all right” Ethel said, her voice trailing off.

Ethel could see for herself that Jane Calthrop had been crying.

“How good of you to come,” said Jane Calthrop. “And I’m so glad it’s you; I’m not sure anyone else would understand.”

“What?” asked Ethel with real surprise. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m sorry, I know that we’re hardly spoken, but I’ve always had the feeling that there is some sort of connection between us.”

Ethel nodded her head, feeling a bit hypocritical for remaining silent. But she was here to help, wasn’t she?

“I’m so embarrassed. It’s just I heard Emily Dalton make an unkind remark about my dress. I don’t know why it bothered me so much. It’s just so hard being the vicar’s wife sometimes.”

Ethel reflexively looked at Jane Calthrop’s dress. It was rather formless and a dreary pink, she quickly concluded.

“I knew you would understand. You and I are alike, don’t you think? Like sisters,” she said with a note of excitement in her voice. We’re like sisters separated at birth, I can tell. What do you think of my dress?” she asked as she made a girlish curtsy.

Ethel stood for a moment, taking in the woman before her. “It’s lovely,” she said at last. “So lovely, I think you should wear it as often as you like.”

Jane Calthrop gave her a hug then. “I knew it,” she said impetuously.

“It’s lovely,” Ethel repeated again, as she stood stock still in Jane Calthrop’s embrace. For now, Ethel had decided to enjoy the moment. But later, she thought, I must figure out why I advised her to wear that horrid dress.

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rules of my writing game are that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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