A feature essay from the Spring 2020 issue.
I wanted to get away from the noise, but I had nowhere to go. This ended up being a good thing, as I was desperate in writing a story of a religion that was at once immeasurably old while still in its infancy. An unlikely synergy started to form between Felix and me. We were both mixing what raw materials we had. He was throwing coconut shells; I was pounding a keyboard. The noises they produced didn’t sound much different.
The artist works in a style he calls “romantic realism.” In his paintings people are twenty pounds thinner and twenty years younger, often surrounded by heavenly light, riding exotic animals, or framed by mountain ranges. This willingness to flout the laws of space and time and his largely unflappable good nature have allowed Cowan to form relationships with the kind of people who will pay for a portrait of themselves with a lion, at the mast of a ship, or gliding through a Venetian dreamscape.
I never thought I’d experience the likes of Rancho Grande in Monticello, a Deep South hamlet named for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia manor (gleefully pronounced with a soft “c”) and about as cosmopolitan as a Baptist men’s prayer circle.
Down a dirt lane, I park under a pine grove. I spot the old man I’m looking for standing beside the front door of a small white home, dressed in charcoal slacks, braided belt, and red suspenders over a pin-striped dress shirt, snow-white hair slicked back. He gazes with shiny, vacant eyes at the treetops, as if he has just stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, only he has no cigarettes. The last chief of the Apalachee beckons me in.
We both loved Gary Stewart, and we both loved Grace.
My wife Grace’s father was a big man. He wasn’t much more than six feet tall, but I think folks thought of him as taller because he carried himself large. He tried being a hippie once, he said, but couldn’t abide the non-violence (too many people needed to get their asses kicked). At the first job he ever had, on a ranch, he got a business card with his official title: COWBOY. He kept that card. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He had the best hunting dogs in Levy County. For a while he ran a sawmill. For a while he was a watermelon farmer, then a beekeeper, then he raised buffalo on the family farm. That’s just a small sampling. His name was John. He went by Chuck.
The village of Ludowici, in the deep piney lowlands of southeast Georgia, got its name from a German fellow who came there in 1904 to manufacture clay roof tiles. But it was not his accomplishments that made the town famous. Rather, it took thousands of inhospitable acts toward thousands of out-of-town visitors to put Ludowici on the map—to give it a national reputation as one of the most venomous of a particular breed of Southern hamlet. In short: Ludowici was a classic speed trap.
What will happen when humanity pushes itself to the brink of extinction? That’s the question posed by Corey George in “Alas, Babylon,” a series of photographs documenting Florida’s vast underpopulated suburbs. Slowly yet relentlessly, nature is reclaiming places like Lehigh Acres, with its 100,000 empty lots and 10,000 miles of unused roads. “One day,” George says, “these roads will be gone, and this land will go back to being Florida scrubland and forest.”
In Florida’s Waterfront Wonderland Sean Salyards turns his lens to the real estate developments in Cape Coral, Florida. The series was inspired by Salyards’s late grandfather—a longtime resident of the Cape—as well as his father, who died of cancer in 2007.
Memories, particularly with loved ones, are a curious phenomenon. The good ones often do not fully announce themselves as anything close to “good” when they are happening. It’s only after the event, when a new perspective is gained, that they become an accepted—or funny, or weird, or sweet—episode in family history.