Bill Best, who founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, saves seeds—not in the way that people save stamps or coins, but in the way that people save endangered species, or possessions from a fire. He grows and stores about 700 varieties of beans on his farm in Berea, Kentucky, where he lives with Irmgard, his wife of fifty-one years, in a midcentury ranch house she designed, with stone chimneys he built. Some of his seeds are more than 150 years old—one goes back to the American Revolution.
My friend Dan Philips, a wine importer, likes to drag me into discussions of the Civil War. Though he lives in California, Dan has roots in the South, eats and drinks his way through the region often, and reads voraciously. Dan is smart. And he asks great questions. But I rarely take the bait. The reasons are complicated.
The first Japanese Americans began leaving for internment camps in the spring of 1942, effectively banished from their homes by the United States government. Norman Sagara, six years old at the time, can still recall how it played out for him: the FBI visiting his farmhouse in southern California; his older siblings translating for his parents, simple chicken ranchers; his family packing up their belongings and, then, late that summer, boarding a train. “We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Sagara, now seventy-eight. “They wouldn’t tell us. And three days later we ended up in McGehee, Arkansas.”
When I was six years old, I shot a man. People think I am joking when I say this, as I do occasionally, if prodded, in a group that wants to talk guns or hunting or the excesses of the rural South. It has been nearly twenty years since I discharged a firearm or spent any time in a deer stand or duck blind, yet I am considered an authority on such matters, since I live among people who are not.
In looking at Appalachia—not just from the outside, but from within as well—we reveal more about ourselves as observers than the region objectively. The subjects show us shades of our own individuality. That’s not easy to unpack, or even admit to, but I think it is why some depictions of Appalachia make us uncomfortable.
One morning in February, I woke up to the tragic news of Jamie Coot’s death from a venomous snakebite. I’ve been documenting the Pentecostal Holiness community since 2011, and this was the second time I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of a pastor’s death on a congregation. These profound events have had an immeasurable impact on my understanding of ethical representation and my belief in the integrity of documentary practice.
For more than a century, Pittsburgh has existed in the shadow of its own industrial-age narrative. Like much of Appalachia, Pittsburgh is a place dogged by stereotypes and assumptions. In recent years, an increasing number of photographers have come to western Pennsylvania with the intent of documenting the aftermath of the steel industry’s collapse. Some offer a fresh take on the present, others reinforce the limited views of the past.
I’d take it out multiple times a day, turn it over in my hands, read the press materials—then put it back. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. In her handwriting. To peer over her shoulder and read what she’d written to God, and God alone?
I believe that finding one’s place in the world is every individual’s most challenging question. It comes easy to some, but for many others finding that spot requires much groveling and hunting to get there. I have always fallen in with the groveling crowd.