Sunday, April 22, 2012


A green and leafy jungle of tomato plants overflows the bed of the white pickup parked on Ashland, Alabama's courthouse square. Their overall-clad caretaker cheerfully expounds on the merits of each variety, the canning tomatoes that ripen from the inside out, the hearty beefsteaks, the heirlooms that grow to almost grapefruit size. His silver hair shines bright beneath the sun. Each pot sports a popsicle stick with a handwritten name.

I settle on a Rutgers, and Parker hands him our dollar. He takes it, then turns to survey the abundance in the truck.

You're sure you don't need any more? he asks.

No, I say. I don't have space for more than one.

It's a weak excuse, of course, and doesn't slow him down a bit. He picks up a second pot, and hands it to Parker.

That's a jellybean tomato, he says. You can grow it in a five-gallon pot. His daughter lives in military housing where pots are all they have, and the jellybeans do just fine for her.

As we keep talking, I tell him that we've driven down from Charlotte. His smile brightens, and he picks up a third plant, this time a beefsteak. You can grow that in a pot, too, he says. Since we came all this way, we ought to have another one. He'll tell his friends that some of his tomatoes are going to North Carolina. He looks back at the truck, clearly trying to find a reason to give us yet another, but decides it's time to stop.

Parker looks down at his armful of tomatoes and grins.

This is why I brought Parker to Clay County, Alabama. I wanted him to meet the people I once saw almost every day, the ones who don overalls and live on gravel roads and have the most generous hearts I've ever known.

If only Ken Elkins were here to take a picture.

If only we hadn't come to Alabama for his funeral.

For almost half a century, Ken Elkins and the rural people that he loved made art together. They raised children, grew tomatoes and worked hard at mostly low-wage jobs, while work, sun and age roughened their hands, swelled their joints, etched wrinkles deep into their faces. 

They decked their houses with American and Confederate flags, with pictures of family members, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King. They turned the task of making do into an art: fashioning door locks from pieces of rough wood, staking gorgeously straight rows of beans, hauling ponies in the back seat of a car.

Ken devoted his life to catching them on film, not from a distance, but up close. I remember the way he'd sit down on someone's porch steps to chat. After a while, he'd raise his battered camera and start sighting it around, casual, just looking. By the time he got down to business, taking shot after shot, trying angle after angle, most people were ready to give back, to share of themselves the way they shared flowers, cucumbers and recipes. The results touched people all across the state. 

As he made his rounds, Ken schooled generations of young Anniston Star reporters, opening their eyes to a world they never knew, sharpening their appreciation of texture and detail, teaching them the secrets of getting to know the people whose lives they sought to depict. I was one of those.

Eventually I left the Star to follow in Ken's footsteps, bearing a tape recorder instead of camera gear, asking questions instead of making pictures. During the year I spent in Clay County I heard stories about goats and raccoons, about car wrecks and tornadoes, about faith and love and war. I drank home-churned buttermilk, played practical jokes, turned my violin into a fiddle and went to my first open-casket funeral. 

All the while, Ken was riding the same roads, taking his magic pictures in-between assignments for the Star. His images and my new friends' words ended up in a book, You Always Think of Home.

When Ken died last week at the age of 76, I'd been absent from Clay County for almost twenty years. Still, as I turn onto Highway 9, the place looks just like I remember it. The ground rolls gently up and down, like swells out in the ocean, and you know that you're deep in the country. The long ride into Ashland traverses a familiar landscape of pastures, newly plowed fields, squat chicken house arrays and the occasional frame house with a garden and a porch. 

The biggest change I find is in the graveyards, where I have more friends at rest. Although we don't have time for all of them, Parker and I visit one small hilltop plot, where Annie and Hilton Dawkins, Teddy Freeman and my dear friend Howard Hamil have joined several generations of their predecessors.

We park at the courthouse square, and Ernestine, who still runs Sunshine Cleaners, grabs me in a hug. "Your mother loves Clay County," she tells Parker with a smile. Johnie Sentell, proprietor of High Points Coffee and Books, is delighted to meet us, and talks eagerly about Ken, about You Always Think of Home, and about the historical museum that he and other residents are developing. We explore the square, give out a couple of books, have a few more conversations. Parker talks me into buying him a second-hand CB radio. Then we stop by the tomato truck.

"I like Clay County," Parker tells me as we head back to Anniston for Ken's service. "I like it too," I say. 

Once home, I plant my Clay County tomatoes in the front garden, alongside a descendant of Annie Dawkins' forsythia bush and near the wren gourd that Howard Hamil made for me. I pull out my stack of Ken's photos and leaf through them, marveling once again at all the life he captured with his lens and with his heart, remembering the people and the place that changed my world forever. 

Thank you, Ken.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


The pair of white cabbage butterflies wheels in circles, spiraling up toward the cloud-streaked sky, descending to the green tangle of our emerging butterfly garden, tumbling over new-cut grass towards the school picnic benches, then veering back to the garden beds.


It's a gorgeous day – "abundant sunshine" as the weather reports put it, but not as hot as earlier this week. Winter-dormant plants are exploding from the ground, and the beds teem with life. The pussy willow we planted last year sports kitten-soft gray catkins and firework bursts of yellow. Robins, mockingbirds, chickadees and doves make their appearance, and the space around the garden rings with chirps and trills and snatches of melody. 

The wings of the cabbage whites have blurred gray edges, with black spots at the center. It's a little early for most butterflies, although I've spotted some tiny spring azures and a couple of yellow sulfurs in other beds. We don't have much in bloom right now, except the fourth grade's daffodil bed, and the cabbage whites don't seem interested in those. I wonder what they're whirling for – whether it's a fight, a mating dance, a frantic search for food or just a way to pass the time.

I've come to dig out cutleaf coneflowers, who have taken advantage of our good dirt and started to colonize our beds. The plants are already a good three feet tall, and if left to their own devices would overspill the beds in weeks. We have too many other plants to give them that much space, so out they go. 

It's the first day of spring break, so the pathways around the garden lie largely silent, bereft of their usual parade of children moving from one place to another. The birds and bugs will have a week of peace before school starts up again. The work goes faster without constant interruptions, enthusiastic questions and the customary stream of greetings and hugs, but I miss them.

As I prepare to sink my shovel once again into the damp, dark dirt, a flash of movement catches my eye. A tiny shape darts out of a birdhouse and is gone, too quickly for me to identify. 

The birdhouse – a small, wooden box with a sloped roof – has been in the garden for some time, hanging from a wrought iron hook that has patiently performed a variety of tasks over the years. I can't remember who put it there. One thing I like about our garden is the way it collects inspiration ­– a turtle box, a birdhouse, mystery plants, all of which just appear, and make themselves at home.

It's dark inside the house, and I twist my neck back and forth, trying to catch the light. Then I see gray feathers and, just barely visible in the darkness, three small, white speckled eggs. A miracle. 

Happily, it is a teacher workday, and two of our first-year science teachers, Robin Tench and Laura Howden, are working in nearby classrooms. When they emerge, I beckon them to look, and they light up with delight. A little later, when head custodian Grady Houston wheels a trash can round a corner, I call him over too. He leans down, peers back and forth, then smiles the biggest smile of all.

This is how we've built our school, one shared moment at a time. Even as we've piled up data and projects and assessments, this has been the glue that holds us all together. To create the kind of place Shamrock has been, people have to care about each other in ways that show, in moments that buoy spirits and cement bonds.

I like working in the garden because it makes so many of these moments possible – always something new to discover and to share. I remember the day that students gathered to marvel at our first spicebush caterpillar, the morning they discovered gulf fritillaries everywhere. I think back to all the wide eyes and open mouths as students got their first looks at baby rabbits, blue robin eggs, seed-snacking goldfinches and parsley caterpillars, bright green and yellow striped creatures which when poked rear up and shoot out small, orange horns. 

And of course our school is filled not only with the miracle of nature, but that of children, unfolding around us every day. I love the way our teachers revel in the dozens of individual miracles that parade through their classrooms, the way I hear them the hallways swapping stories and laughter and advice, searching for the way to touch each one of their students, building the bonds that nurture not only children but each other.

The six years I've been engaged in this endeavor have been among the most rewarding of my life, a day-by-day amassing of encounters and experience, one after another, much like the way we filled our butterfly garden beds.

When it came time to fill the beds we couldn't fit a truck into the courtyard, so we had to dump the dirt out back and bring it in one wheelbarrow at a time. We called it wheelbarrow day. Parents, teachers and neighbors descended on the school to dig, wheel, spread and haul. We cooked food, made paper butterflies, held a raffle and had a great good time. Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, the beds filled up. Moment after moment, we got to know each other better.

Three years later, the foundation laid that day endures, in the plants now springing up under the March sun, and in the friendships and connections that have grown as well. It's such a joy to share the results with newcomers such as Ms. Howden and Ms. Tench, to draw them into the circle of bird eggs and butterflies, moments and miracles, into the love that nurtures gardens and children and schools.