I saw a UFO once. I mean that literally, as in an “unidentified flying object.” It was back when I was a kid and my family was getting up very early in the morning to go on some long trip. I went outside, to put something in the car or get something from my father’s truck, and somehow I noticed something extremely tiny and odd up in the sky—it is rather amazing I noticed it at all, so small and far away it was. It looked like the tiniest of circles hovering in the stratosphere. I went and got my dad, who came out and looked at it, and then went back inside and got his spotting scope—the closest thing we had to a telescope. Even through the spotting scope, we could make out very little, just a few appurtenances or gewgaws coming out of the thing. Eventually we decided that it had to be some sort of weather balloon, high up in the atmosphere. Sorry if you were expecting tentacles.
In September 2015, I took a page from infamous presidential accident Andrew Johnson, who in 1866 conducted what has come down in history as his “swing around the circle,” a series of campaign stops designed to influence the upcoming Congressional elections in his favor. It started off okay but, God love him, President Johnson came to Ohio; Ohioans were vocally none too happy to see him, and it went downhill from there. His trip was widely considered a disaster. Luckily, my own “swing around the circle” was not at all a disaster. Rather, I embarked upon a pleasant, meandering circle around the area of Ohio between Columbus and Cleveland, a region rather devoted to agriculture.
When I was in high school, I was a member of the Math Club. Yes, you heard me correctly, I did not lose my virginity in high school. One year we traveled to Monahans, Texas, about 250 miles away, for an academic competition. It was probably more than just a math competition, because we went in a school bus. On the way back, after a long day, I stared out from the bus into the darkness of the west Texas desert, listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park on my Walkman knockoff. When the song “Homeward Bound” started playing, I was suddenly swept up, listening to the lyrics, by a feeling of incredible melancholy. To this day, when I hear that song, especially when I am traveling, I still feel those strong emotions—there is something in that song about a desire to be rooted, to be anchored, to belong somewhere, that to me is very powerful. It may speak to me so strongly because it sometimes seem to describe my entire life rather than merely an episode in it.
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio. There’s 550 miles of Texas between the two cities. Over the years of driving back and forth, you come to learn things—traveller’s things, at least—about the places in-between: Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Junction, Kerrville, etc. You’d know where you can get gas, which towns or villages had a place to eat—which town had the Pizza Hut, which had the McDonald’s, and which had the “Dairy King.” That was all driving on I-10, I should note, the same drive, every time, which gave me a very limited view of half a thousand miles of Texas. Though I drove near it many times, I never once saw the village of Iraan, Texas (“the second largest town in the second largest county in the second largest state”). Of course, when you have half a thousand miles to cover, minutes become precious.
That’s one of the things I like about being in Ohio and taking my little excursions. I can explore and see all the things you can’t see from the freeway. I feel “invested” in Ohio, because of this, more than I ever felt invested in Texas.
Ask two people about farming in America and you are likely to get two different answers. Or, somehow, even three. America’s farm economy is booming, but the family farm is in steep decline. Except when it is not. So here are some quick facts, or generalizations. First, the amount of American farmland has been relatively stable for many decades—it has had a steady but slow decline of acreage, largely due to development, which has been more than compensated for by increased production. There are around 2.2 million farms in the U.S., but there are more bus drivers than farmers—and farmers are aging, though there are signs that a new generation of farmers is emerging. Analysts often talk of “corporate” farmers and indeed a relatively small number of farmers account for the majority of farm production, but most farmers themselves are still family farmers, with many of the so-called “corporate” farms still being run by families that have incorporated for business purposes. The size of the average farm is about 440 acres or so, triple that of a century ago—and this is a good thing, as it illustrates (among other things) the disappearance of tiny sharecropped farms. In any case, 440 acres is still a pretty modest average.
In mid-July 2015, I had an opportunity to take a drive through southwest Ohio’s farm country at the height of the growing season and it was a pleasant journey indeed.
A couple of years ago, I was inspired to see if I could find a house listing for my childhood home in El Paso. To my surprise, I found it on newspapers.com, a 1970 listing for a tiny (probably around 1,100 sq. ft.) 3-bedroom, 1-bath house listed at $13,750. That year, 1970, was the year my parents moved from Pennsylvania to El Paso, Texas, and bought the house. I was four years old. About 34 years later, after many years of rental living, I bought my own home. Just a few days ago, I mused at the fact, because it hardly seems I have been living in my home for a dozen or so years now.
I mention these facts because this excursion—actually the second half of a long excursion that took place on March 21, 2015, features a lot of houses, of many different kinds, and they were all homes to one or in some cases perhaps many families. Many of these houses now lie abandoned and ruined—at some point they ceased being homes and reverted to being mere structures again. For some reason, that makes me sad.
I am not a very adventurous type; adrenaline-soaked thrills are not the sort that typically appeal to me. But I do understand the lure of exploring, of seeing something you’ve never seen before—or perhaps even something that few or no other people have seen before. Exploring combines the intellectual interest of discovery with the experience of being there. So when I go on one of my little excursions into the nooks and crannies of the Buckeye state, I always hope to see things I’ve never seen before. On this vernal equinoxian expedition, taken on March 21, 2015, I certainly did see some new things.
We pick up the narrative again in relating a frigid February 2015 expedition into the snow-covered hills of northeastern Ohio Appalachia. As I write, a year later, the weather outside my window is not so different from what we see here, so I am channeling my inner Yeti. I’ve been finding taking photographs in snowy conditions is rather interesting; snow can really change the character of a photograph, whether landscape or otherwise. It has both a visual effect—the addition of so much white into a photo frame—and a psychological effect, creating distance, loneliness, sometimes purity.
So a dozen or so years ago I bought my first house. I had lived in a series of apartments for 16 years and was sick and tired of not having enough room for my books (of course, back then I did not quite realize that I was on the hoarding spectrum and would accumulate books to fill any space). Plus, after a long period of financial travail, I had finally gotten out of a huge amount of debt, everything from credit card debt to student loan debt to tax debt, while my job situation seemed to have stabilized. It just seemed like the time to do it. It is hard to believe I have lived in this house 12 years; it really doesn’t seem like it. In fact, I never did fully unpack from the move. I guess it is that way with most people. But somewhere along the line my house became my home. This excursion, taken on a very cold and icy February day into the wilds of northeastern Ohio, has a lot of photographs of houses—and homes, if you take my meaning. It is a very building-intensive entry, but it’s worth the effort.
When I began reviewing these photographs, taken in mid-January 2015, I was struck by how lonely some of the images seemed to be. The dead of winter conspires against sociability; we have to fight against that natural instinct to hunker down, to hibernate. As I take many landscapes and photos of ruined buildings, many of my photographs have that desolate look to them no matter what the season is, but winter accentuates that impression. I am a reclusive person and often deal with feelings of loneliness, but some of these photographs could make anyone seem lonely. Wow, I’m really selling this, aren’t I? Actually, this blog entry contains several of my favorite photographs of 2015.