A Tale of Two Cities–Place and Personal Identity

Water-filled quarry in the middle of Belle Isle in Richmond, Va.

Water-filled quarry in the middle of Belle Isle in Richmond, Va.

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


–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

“Mrs. Jane Calthrop, of course, is not your average vicar’s wife,” whispered Ethel to her cousin Gladys, just after the chorus closed out the last harmonies of “Teach the Children.”

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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Debut Jubal’s Kin CD Has Depth, Lyricism

Jubals Kin CD_CoverReleased in 2010, Jubal’s Kin self-titled debut album is one of the most original roots albums of the past few years. The spare instrumentation, haunting lyrics, compilation of songs from a wide range of sources and subtle vocal shifts give this album an ability to transport listeners to different worlds, from the tragic story of a pedlar in Elizabethan England to America’s great depression to the modern dilemma of a singer-songwriter trying to make a living in an era when file sharing has made copyrights virtually worthless.

Composed of Gailanne Amundsen (fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals), Roger Amundsen (guitar and vocals) and Jeffrey Amundsen (upright bass), the band on its website describes their music as “Appalachia-infused cosmic Americana.” On the one hand, I think the description is perhaps a sign of how difficult it is to describe their music. On the other hand, having listened to the album a good many times now, I suppose the description is as good as any label as it suggests a host of associations such as acoustic instruments, themes of living close to the land and close to the bone, and the ultimate transcendence of the human spirit.

Besides being a talented multi-instrumentalist, Gailanne has a vocal style that ranges from a slight twang in songs such as “No Depression” to a more rounded, full-bodied style in melodies such as the “Rowing Song.” Roger’s whispery harmonies make a nice complement to Gailanne’s strong leads. At times, the pair’s voices are slightly off-kilter and intentionally out of sync, an effect put to good use in songs such as in Cuckoo Bird.” The “bird,” or woman, of the song is beautiful but bound to bring her lover plenty of trouble.

The influence of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings is apparent in both the vocals and the instrumentation. (I suspect it may be nearly impossible to gauge the influence of these two performers on younger roots musicians.) Their style is clearly in evidence here, starting with the lovely cover of Rawlings and Welch’s “Everything Is Free Now.” There are also the songs with a Carter Family-style, Depression-era delivery. In addition, The instrumentation is often spare. At times, Roger’s guitar work is primarily a way to deliver accent marks over key passages and lyrics by giving a percussive effect to the chords. Gailanne’s driving fiddle on several of the songs infuses the music with much of its resilient spirit. Both of these, for example, contribute to the sense of distress and disorientation–and perhaps a sense of guilt too–in “Raleigh and Spencer” after the town’s tavern burns to the ground.

This album has songs of tragedy, loss and pathos. For example, the song “Eli, the Barrow Boy” tells the story of an Elizabethan pedlar who drowns himself as a result of unrequited love. Even in death, he is not free, but pushes his barrow just as Sisyphus pushes his famous rock: “Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown/ Made of gold and silk, Arabian thread/ But I am dead and gone and lying/ in the church ground/ And I push my barrow all the day/ Still I push my barrow all the day.”

By now, you’ve probably realized that Jubal’s Kin is not the album to play at your next party. But, if you listen to it when you are in a quiet, more reflective mood, you’ll find it full of heartfelt emotion.

Check out the band”s “Cuckoo Bird” video on YouTube to experience the depth and lyricism of its music.

–Mark Caskie

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Cook’s Wall, Hanging Rock State Park Photos

While hiking at North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park this past fall on the Cook’s Wall Trail, I was struck by the dramatic clouds in the sky–and the raptors riding the thermals along the cliff-faces. In these photos, I like the way the vultures silhouettes are in sharp contrast to the the amorphous shapes of the clouds–and how the clouds add drama to the mountain views.

Clouds and Raptor Raptor and clouds

Raptor with Sauratown Mountains in background Pilot Mountain and Sauratown Mountain viewed from Cook’s Wall

Clouds over Hanging Rock Hanging Rock viewed from House Rock

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N.C.’s Stone Mountain Photos

While N.C.’s Stone Mountain is a long ways from Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan in terms of both size and distance, they do share something in common. Granite! Stone Mountain, an outlier of the Blue Ridge, is a geological feature known as a pluton, a large mass of granite originally underground but long since eroded to the surface. Like El Capitan and Half Dome, Stone Mountain is a favorite with climbers who like the variety of routes provided by the massive 600-foot cliff face. Also, hikers are drawn to the popular Stone Mountain Trail that traverses the summit, offers views of the cliff face from a meadow at the mountain’s base and includes a large waterfall. I photographed Stone Mountain in black and white, which emphasizes the texture and striations of the granite, in tribute to one of my favorite photographers, Ansel Adams.

Stone Mountain in the distance

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

Center section of Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain with tree in the foreground

Center section of Stone Mountain with tree in foreground

Stone Mountain with a crown of trees

Just right of center section of Stone Mountain

–Mark Caskie

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Hidden Falls and Window Falls, Hanging Rock State Park

Hidden Falls and Window Falls are two of the most visited falls at N.C.’s Hanging Rock State Park. That’s due to their proximity to one of the main parking lots and picnic areas. It’s less than a half-mile to Hidden Falls and less than three-quarters of a mile to Window Falls from the trailhead. While neither fall is large, both are scenic and worth the short walk, and Window Falls has some unusual features that deserve special mention. Because the water there free-falls off a large overhang, you can walk behind the waterfall (or even stand in it when the weather is warm). There is also its namesake window, a hole in the rockface just to the left of the falls, no doubt carved by the water in the distant past. But there is something else that is not so obvious. If you go up the left bank and around the end of the rockface, you will find a dark ravine that leads to another hidden waterfall. Think of it as a bonus waterfall (no signs will tell you that it is there), and the view out the window is much more interesting from this direction as well.

Hidden Falls

Hidden Falls

Window Falls

Window Falls

The window

The window

Bonus waterfall just above Window Falls

Bonus waterfall just above Window Falls

–Mark Caskie

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Until the War Ends


“Deprive me of a husband, but he would deprive me of kindness as well,” Laurel confided in her best friend Summer, barely suppressing her anger.

She didn’t dare speak the king’s name for spies were everywhere. So long as she didn’t speak his name then she could perhaps deny her words–say she was speaking on an overattentive suitor, blame such actions on the shepherd or the village blacksmith.
“You must run away,” replied Summer. Her face colored as she suppressed the name of Laurel’s fiance, but his name “Hunter” hung in the air nevertheless. She know the dangers of speaking too freely of this matter.

It was an impractical suggestion. Where would she run to? How would she find Hunter on the distant battlelines where thousands of men fought and died daily? But she loved her friend Summer all the more for the indignation and defiance that ran through her veins on Laurel’s behalf. And one day she would run away, she told herself, but not until she could do so with Hunter.

She remembered the sudden appearance of the young king in her humble cottage in the late spring while her parents were away tending the sheep in the mountain pastures. His crown had bumped against the doorframe as he entered, and, unlike the young men of the cottages, his skin was as fresh and unmarred as a baby’s.

She had been so flustered by his unlikely visit, that at first she didn’t catch the drift of what he was saying. He patiently repeated his assertion of the divine right of kings, she understood that all right, but it was the part about bestowing the “blessings of God” on her upcoming wedding that she didn’t fathom. The “right of Primo Noctur,” he called it.

When she finally figured out his meaning, she had been terrified and humiliated. “I love Hunter and only him,” she declared, before fleeing into the nearby forest. She had hidden in a small clutch of fallen trees, her heart pounding along with the pounding hooves of the king’s horses as they criss-crossed the forest searching for her. By morning, the king and his men were gone, and she wondered if she had simply dreamed the strange events.

But that same day the king had suddenly sent Hunter off to the battlelines. She barely had time to say good-bye to him, much less tell him what had happened.

Then the rumors started. Rather than sympathy, her neighbors blamed her. She found herself ostracized by the village for somehow tempting the young king, though she had barely laid eyes on him before that night. It was difficult without Hunter or her family to support her. Only Summer had stood by her. They would met in secret and talk without naming names. She was determined that Hunter would return to her to find her as chaste as the day he left.

A month later, the king had made it known by secret messenger that one day he would come to her cottage again, and this time he would stay till sunrise, welcomed to her bed.

“Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly to Summer. “I don’t think he will come, after all,” she said as she took out a small pouch from the folds of her dress. “Men don’t like it,” she whispered hurriedly.

Summer gasped at the sight of the pouch. Laurel thought for a moment that Summer might be imagining that Laurel planned to poison the king. He might have wronged me, but he is still divine, she thought. To clarify she said, “Wives don’t like it either.”

It had been relatively easy to sneak into the king’s castle disguised as a scullery maid and sprinkle the substance from the pouch onto the king’s dish. She had done it nightly for three weeks now. The truth was that the pantries in the bowels of the castle were largely unguarded, if you knew which passages to take. And the pedlar had not lied about the substance’s properties.

“Rumor is that she sleeps alone,” Laurel said. “And he avoids her at every turn.” Laurel leaned in closer to her friend. “I fear theirs will not be a happy marriage until the war ends.”

–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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