31 December 2012

The History of Objects, part II

stick on a black sand beach in south Iceland
Proust had his madeleine. Others have shells, stones, fossils. I've been thinking more about the last post. The history of objects. What they evoke.  How we are transported by an object to some other time. Here's a thought from French photographer William Klein about the idea. His object was a sheet of photographic contacts:

"You look at a sheet of contacts, you look a little contact...and it brings back all the memories possible, you know? You remember whether it was raining or whether you were tired, whether you were full of beans or ready to walk another 5 miles.

A contact photo reminding him that he was full of beans. I love that.  There's a feeling associated with a photograph or a song or an object that evokes the exact senses you had at the time when its meaning was initially established. I remember the first time I ate a banana sandwich and liked it.  It was after a high school soccer game in LaGrange, Georgia. Now, banana sandwiches make me think of grass-stains and shin-guards.

28 December 2012

The Memory of Places

Kiruna, Sweden
I've done a lot of moving the in the past five years. Some of my recent homes include: a 7th floor apartment in Paris, where I'd climb onto the roof with friends and enjoy a bottle of wine while gazing upon a sea of rooftops; a tall blue house on Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, just a half a block from the Atlantic Ocean; an apartment in St. Elmo, a neighborhood in Chattanooga at the base of Lookout Mountain, where the Confederate troops were defeated by the Union army in the fall of 1863; a basement room in Iceland off Laugavegur, Reykjavík's long main street - I remember going to sleep at midnight there and it still being sunny outside due to the bright Arctic summer.

22 December 2012

Scenes from Christmas in Sharpsburg

Mom's turkey feather wreath

Grandad calls this rose bush outside his house the "Fried Egg Bush."

Shooting mistletoe with grandad.

Inspecting a log full of oyster mushrooms beside the creek. They were too soggy to eat this time.

Merry Christmas!

16 December 2012

On a Teacher's Salary

I recently spent several days in western North Dakota making radio and multimedia stories for  Black Gold Boom, a series of radio stories documenting people and places impacted by the oil boom (fracking). The stories air on Prairie Public Radio, North Dakota's public radio network (the last story I did also aired on Marketplace!). This next story (listen below) is about teachers and airs in North Dakota this week.

Finding a place to live in oil country is almost a joke. Housing is scarce. Prices are through the roof. Oilfield workers might be able to afford the $2000/month commonly required to rent apartment in rural North Dakota, but for schoolteachers, finding an adequate home without going broke is a challenge. This story follows three schoolteachers in Stanley, North Dakota whose workplace gone above and beyond to find them a place to live.

13 December 2012

Alabama Shakes - Brittany Howard

I've always been fascinated by the places people appear to go to when they're playing music. Some people disappear into their own little worlds. Some people find have to make an effort to connect to their audience. Some people just take the song and own it. And I love that. A song is a feeling and a place, and the best singers and musicians are loyal to the song before anything else. They escape into the music, even before a huge audience. And that's why I love this video, aside from the fact that it's a song I completely dig.

Also,  how awesome is it that she rocks the song without being sex symbol?  She's wearing a plain T-shirt and black pants and just blows the world away. No makeup, no sexy get-up. Not that those things are bad, but I love that she feels comfortable and confident enough to perform in her own style and buck the norm of female singers being decked out in fashionable clothing and makeup.

Go, Brittany!

Have you seen this video before? What do you think?

10 December 2012

Christmas greenery

Oriental bittersweet my brother gathered for me in Sewanee, TN.
  I love bringing the outside inside. Maybe it's because I grew up in the country, maybe it's because my mom is an expert at it, or maybe I just find it a bit more serene to have green things around. Throughout the year there are always flowers or grasses or branches sticking out of some old bottle on a tabletop or windowpane in this house. So Christmas, for me, is the ultimate excuse to have even more of it around. Here are some of the things that I've been making and the greenery that inspires it.

30 November 2012

words from Christmas creek

Sometimes we come to a place to think and when we arrive we cannot.  All there is to do is watch - wait, watch, and be silent.

I came to see the sun rise from the marsh.  Tide is low.  Best time of day to fish. The raccoon knows  - emerging from a canyon in the Spartina, it waddles noisily out to the edge of Christmas Creek.  As it approaches the water's lip, its spindly joints plunge into dark mud with deep sucking sounds, like a congested frog trying to croak.  With muddy paws it combs the shallows for nibblins, finds nothing, and decides to swim across the creek to an oyster bed.

28 November 2012

oysters, music, a family to live for

I love hanging out with my family. I know I'm a little biased, but I think they're some of the best folks around. Each Thanksgiving, after spending a week on Cumberland Island with all 28 of them, I come away with enough memories to last me another year. This year, notable ones included digging for clams and oysters off Burbank Point,

Thanks to my cousin Alden for this picture!

playing music with the family around a fire one evening, roasting fresh oysters, coming upon a bald eagle walking on the beach, spending time with the residents from the south end of the island (and making more music with them), hiking among huge twisted live oaks and scratchy palmettos and mushy sand dunes, and hanging out with the newest member of the family, a wide-eyed two-month old boy.

22 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

It's not fig season anymore, but this is what the fig trees look like right now. After the first frost, they drop most of their leaves and remain dormant until spring. These trees are on Crabtree Farms, a nonprofit educational farm in Chattanooga.  There's still a bit of green fruit on the tops of some branches. Pretty, huh?

16 November 2012

Undulus asperatus

Okay, cloud nerds, it's been a while since I've talked about the great gig in the sky, but I absolutely had to show you this. I was driving through the Atlanta suburbs Wednesday afternoon when I noticed that the sky had this eerie, underwater look to it. I pulled off and took a few photos from a hill beside a parking lot. And got really excited.

08 November 2012

Why Being 25.4 Years Old is a Milestone in the USA

 It wasn't a special day. In fact, I don't even remember it. According to a rough calculation, it probably happened around September 23rd. On that day, I passed the mean age of a U.S. woman at the time of her first birth.

05 November 2012

A new story

Shannon Atwell and her family of four boys moved from a nice farm in Missouri to a cramped skid shack beside an oil rig in North Dakota.  They moved to be with their father, Jesse, who works in the oilfield. With four young boys and a fifth due in January, she told me about what it's like to raise her young children in a 12 X 56 foot house with tanker trucks wheeling through her front yard every day. The story airs on Prairie Public Broadcasting today.

UPDATE - This story was picked up by Marketplace today! (Tuesday, December 5th) It will air on this afternoon's show.

16 October 2012


That's one word that describes a lot of North Dakota. But the picture doesn't always look like this. In fact, from that vantage point, you could spot several oil pumpers - those hydraulic metal machines that look sort of like a fat-beaked bird continually dipping it's snout into the soil - out in the middle of wheat fields, and behind this sign there were miles of pipeline laying on the dirt, waiting to be assembled:

 No Hunting. But you can grade a swath of this field and lay a natural gas pipeline.

Natural gas isn't the reason there's a boom in North Dakota. People are getting rich here from oil, which lies within a rock formation called the Bakken, about ten thousand feet beneath the earth's surface. But when the oil is pumped out, after some very precise drilling and hydraulic fracturing, natural gas comes up, too, and can be worth trapping if you have the means to transport it. So far, that's a big if. Most oil companies just burn it off because the infrastructure does not yet exist to transport it, and as a result, most oil wells have flares beside them - a small pipe coming out of the ground with a continuous flame on the end. The flame can range from the size of a small person to the size of a small car. (Tonight, as I was driving across the prairie in the dark, I saw a particularly large flare whipping and lapping in the wind right beside the road, silhouetting an oil storage tank nearby. The flare was so large that I thought the tank was a house on fire, and I changed lanes to avoid it.)

I'll be here three more days. So far, I've run into people who love and hate what oil is doing to this land and the culture. At a bar in Palermo, North Dakota tonight, a woman told me that a few years ago, her town had 75 people including livestock. Today, the town is strewn with campers, RVs, and tank trucks. The bar parking lot had literally nothing but rows of brand new, dusty pick up trucks. Inside, there was a hand-written message taped to the wall that prohibited getting mouthy with the bartender and fighting - a message that would have been meaningless a couple years ago.

Yet residents who aren't profiting from the boom are still trying to hang on. Locals crowded the bar tonight, and it's only Monday. When I sat down, the bartender introduced me to every person there, including the mayor, who was wearing overalls and swore like he was in the navy. A farmer walked in wearing a black cowboy hat and passed around his phone that showed pictures of his new twins on it, born last week eight weeks premature. Over the course of two hours, three different people bought everybody a round of drinks. For a second, you could forget that there was even an oil boom. But then a tank truck rolls past the window on the tiny two-lane highway, and you remember: this is North Dakota, and like it or not, there is one hell of a boom going on.

10 October 2012

Prairie Arrival

Three days on the road, and I find myself whisked from a Chicago hotel room six stories high to a basement in a house on 2nd Avenue, Williston North Dakota. What we passed through to get here:

Space. The folds of white rock whittled away by the Mississippi to the scattered patches of Minnesota forest to space,

                        wide                                                                            open

space. Prairie stretches in all directions away from us here, the hills long and slow to rise, the grass covering the land in one ubiquitous color. The sky turns purple in autumn noon light and the land under sun looks like molten gold.

Also, cows.  Like this one in New Salem, apparently the world's largest Holstein.

I'm here for the boom, like everyone else. But instead of mining oil, I'm mining stories. Black Gold Boom is a project run by radio producer Todd Melby - he talks to people doing interesting things in the oil patch and makes radio and multimedia stories about them.  And I'm here to help.

From Williston, North Dakota.

01 October 2012

Chicago, the Wild Wild West, and in the meantime

Well, it's gearing up time. In three days, I make a trip to oil country - western North Dakota - which, I've been sternly reminded by many a concerned friend, is STILL THE WILD WILD WEST.  I know.
And it makes me excited.

But first, a detour through Chicago for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, where radio geeks run wild with headphones around their necks, where story lovers congregate to let each other in on their favorite storytelling secrets, and where, for three straight days, the largest (and dare I say coolest) gathering of radio producers will mingle, exchange advice, and generally kick ass.  Chicago!

I think the first time I became aware of Chicago (since it wasn't on my 1st grade state capitals quiz) was in middle school when we read the poems of Carl Sandburg. Trains. Steel. Blues. Lights in the dark and railroad tracks.  I associate these things with first learning that funny word that I've read since is actually a derivative of the Great Lakes Indian word for onion.

But back to today. I'm on track to air my first radio story for WUTC (Chattanooga public radio station) this week, a piece about the Muslim community. Sadly, I won't be able to hear it since I'll be on my way to Chicago, but hey, I'll be on my way to Chicago! And to listen to radio!

In other news, I've been working on an audio story about the local restaurant, Zarzour's, which is, as someone put it "Chattanooga's version of Cheers." And I was lucky enough to share some thoughts and ideas with Pradip Malde's Lens and Landscape class a couple weeks ago about multimedia storytelling, which turned out to be a great, even inspiring experience. And before that, I was invited to speak to Cindy Potter's 6th grade class to talk about clouds around the world and even got to sing them a song.  Cindy (Mrs. Potter) has since shared with me that one of her students was so inspired, she has started making time lapses of clouds in her favorite places. 6th graders! What cool people.

So friends, there will be more, soon. I just acquired a new lens and I've been photographing all sorts of boring unimportant things trying to get used to the feel of this new appendage. So keep reading! I'll send you word from the land of Carl Sandburg, trains, the WILD WILD WEST. Thanks for reading.

31 August 2012


If you've ever cracked Jules Vernes' Journey to the Center of the Earth, then you might be familiar with this sight, if not in real life then at least in your imagination. This is Snæfellsjökull, the volcano explored by the crew of three attempting to reach the planet's core. While the story might be fiction, the mountain actually exists, and it has made history this week because for the first time since people have observed it, the glacier on its highest peak has melted. An Icelandic geologist posted a picture of the bare peak on his blog (bottom photo), and considers this an excellent opportunity to study the top of the mountain that has until now been buried in ice. When I took this photo in July two years ago, tour companies were offering jeep rides to the top to see the glacially-capped peak. Now, they might have to do some rewording on those tour descriptions.  Some Icelandic geologists predict that in 30 years, the entire glacier will melt, and in a couple centuries, the whole country will probably loose all its ice.

But for the geologists wanting to examine volcanic rocks, glacial melting literally uncovers new opportunities. Who knows, maybe Vernes' legendary explorer Arne Saknussemm had some foresight when he wrote these words:

Descend, bold traveler, into the crater of  Snæfellsjökull, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done.

15 July 2012

It Takes an Island...

In April, I spent a hunk of time traveling from Portland, Maine to Swan's Island, a tiny island about half-way up the coast. To get there, I'd drive to a dock four hours north, wait on a ferry, then ride it 35 minutes out to the island, 7,000 evergreen acres 6 miles out to sea. I did it to make a story about two inspirational and entertaining women, both residents of Swan's Island, and both a part of a story that is unfolding on many other islands and rural communities where healthcare is scarce and kind people are abundant.

Theo is 95. She doesn't have hospice care. She doesn't employ nurses. She has good neighbors. Here's a story about Theo and her neighbor Donna, who often acts as Theo's caretaker and a little bit more, a woman who helps her sort pills and also makes sure she's wearing the right sized slippers.

Happy listening.

12 June 2012

Cumberland: thoughts from day one

A poison ivey'd arrival on Cumberland and at the first scratch of a pen in nearly a month, my whole world of tenuous thoughts comes crashing down around me. I write and I live, and I rejoice in those two facts.

Today we glimpsed five roseate spoonbills feeding in the little pond amongst the woodstorks. On the beach, a loggerhead laying, missing a back flipper.  At willow dock, an alligator and two raccoons. The world is alive. Here we are, too.

I have no words for this place. Only feelings. But wide, expansive feelings, ones that swell up like a thunderstorm and clack across the sky and burst apart in a fury of rain. Feelings as delicate as the tiny Mycena mushrooms growing out of horse manure, as luminous as the goldfoot fern in the crook of the lovers oak. Feelings that shift like the dunes, that bury themselves in the sand like the fiddler crabs. My love for this place is indescribable.


12 May 2012

Eight O

My grandad recently turned 80. He was born on May 6, 1932. Before color photographs became the norm, before nylon and air conditioning. He was born into the era of wax paper, Amelia Earhart, and AM radio. Before the music of Duke Ellington and jet engines.  Into the gap left by the Great Depression.  The dust bowl. Prohibition.

He was born in Atlanta and lived there until he married my grandmother and settled on a farm in Sharpsburg. I grew up there, too, on the same old farmland, walking the same trails, experiencing the same seasons, watching the sun set from the same places. They raised their four kids there. Two of those children raised their families there, too. Now there are 12 of us that call that place home.

Last weekend, I returned to "the farm" for a day to celebrate his birthday (we also celebrated my grandmother's birthday, which is on May 7. She's 77. In three years, I suspect she'll be the star of the party). One thing that my aunt did in preparation for the big day, was to write to over a hundred of grandad's friends asking them for letters  - memories, anecdotes, anything celebrating their connection to Sam (grandad). The result was incredible. Over 70 people responded, sending in letters that told of memories we'd never heard, talking of the Sam as he was known to his friends, in every stage of his life. A childhood friend recalled pranks they played on the teacher in middle school. A cousin told of being teenagers together, racing his '34 Ford down to the Georgia coast. A buddy from the Air Force spoke of yet more pranks that happened in the cockpit during flight training. My aunt pasted all the letters into a big book and gave it to him that afternoon, and he spent the rest of the day reading through them. What a way to celebrate.

I've always been saddened at the thought of celebrating people after they die. On the radio yesterday, there was a great piece on Evelyn "Mama Bird" Johnson, a pilot who logged more flight time than anyone else, and who passed away at age 102. Charlie Mayer produced the story from an interview she gave in 2003, but imagine if it had been released before she died, perhaps when she turned 100. It's good to hear about people while they're still around, to know they're there, breathing, somewhere. It's more than good. It's fulfilling. It's important. It's what life is all about. Making connections, having feelings, especially warm ones. And it's good for the person, too, to feel appreciated.

After the family party and receiving his album of letters, my grandad returned to his house with my grandmother, Betsy.  Hours later, they were still curled up together on the couch, reading letters. My grandad said it was the best day in his life. And he's had a remarkable life. I was happy to be a part of it, but the best part was seeing that pair so happy. Why wait til it's over to give thanks?

Photos by Frank & Beth Marchman

25 April 2012


morning in a glass.

Swan's Island, ME

15 April 2012

what else

There are sewing needles in my camera bag. Yesterday as we were looking at old pictures, Theo picked a packet of them up off the dresser and said, "Do you want these?" I showed her the sagging pocket on my sweater and told her I'd been meaning to fix it, but didn't have a needle. Well there you go, she said and put them in my hand.

I've been spending long days driving up to Swan's Island and back lately, even staying the night one time. I know the dog, Georgie, who hangs around the dock in Bass Harbor and asks you for peanuts. I know the ferry worker, Gordon, who's originally from Charlottesville, Virginia and used to work on the research vessel Columbia. I know by sight the clammer who lives in his car and goes back and forth to the mainland in muck boots that roll down at the knees.  I know that the last boat to the mainland on Saturdays this time of year is practically empty and that the one going across on weekdays at 6:45 am is packed full. I know that at that time of day, the moss and seaweed on the rocks by the ocean look fluorescent orange and the lakes in Acadia are like silver.

It's been almost two weeks since I first visited Swan's to (re)create this story. I say recreate because that's what it feels like. The pieces are all there and will still be there after I leave, it's just my job to splice it all together in another place for someone else to see, hear, and understand. I'm the funnel.  I shuffle things up. When they come out, hopefully it will be true to what's really there. We hear a lot, at Salt, about "getting" the story.  About asking the right questions, capturing the perfect moments, digging deep into somebody's words to pull out what's really being said. But the thing they don't tell you here is that there's more to the whole process than that. There's a lot more. There's Gordon and Georgie. Silver lakes and ferry rides. Muddy boots and homemade applesauce. And when you get back, sewing needles in your camera bag.

08 April 2012

first multimedia collaboration...

A few weeks ago, the multimedia class at Salt had to do a project called "Doc in a Day." The idea was this: in teams of two, we'd go to Saco and Biddeford, Maine (just south of Portland), find a story, then record audio and take pictures all in one day.  After, we'd take those images and recordings and make them into a story with our partner. This is the one that my partner Ellen Sherwood and I made. We finished it last week, and next week it will be screened at a gallery in Biddeford, along all the other students' pieces.

Here's the teaser: Barbara's grandparents came to the US from Greece and settled in Saco, Maine. Although her family is now gone, she has found a way to spend her Saturdays doing something that reconnects her to both her relatives and her neighbors.

01 April 2012

Harbor Fish Market

A quick note to say...my first piece was piece was published on DownEast.com! This was a homework assignment. Our task was to produce an "audio postcard," so we had to pick a spot somewhere in Portland, go there with our recording equipment, interview people, and narrate on location, all in about an hour and a half. I chose the Harbor Fish Market on the old wharf, a place where...well, you can listen for yourself and find out!

Check it out, here.

22 March 2012

lions and lambs

Early morning run. The morning is so beautiful. Just being outside, breathing ocean air, seeing the sun rise over the water and cast the bay in that glowing orange net that dissolves after a few minutes...this edge of the continent is breathtaking. Makes me wonder why there are not more sets of eyes out here prowling about.

It's strange, this year. The first day of spring arrives like a sheep. The lamb came this month, after the lion in February (a two-day snow storm).  So the sun is out, people are working in their yards, wearing shorts, riding bikes...and the trees are bare. The sun cuts bright and clear through empty branches and casts nothing but skin-and-bone shadows. That's the strange part.

Where are the flowers? Where are the sprouts, the buds? I did see crocuses in someone's yard. But the place still stinks of lion's breath. Snow drifts in shadows and in dark spots in dirty parking lots. Still there.

We play outside while we can, we dig our toes into dirt, suspiciously, hesitantly, wanting to believe that it's spring, but watching, wary for the lion, fearing for the sheep, questioning the full sun and the empty trees and our hopes for a breezy summer.

16 March 2012

on the ice

A camouflaged baseball cap. Two of the men were dressed entirely in camo. Which seemed funny at first, since everything around us was entirely white. And we were fishing. But their clothes were warm. And out there, that’s definitely the most important thing.

I went to Sabattus Pond to meet Rick, a registered Maine guide, for the Maine Statewide Ice Fishing Derby.  When I got out of the car on the side of the pond (which was more like a lake), Rick pulled up on a camouflaged four wheeler with chains wrapped around the back tires. He got off nimbly, which was impressive because he’s not a small guy.  He cut the image of a man who spends his fair share of time outdoors. He grinned and asked me if I was Laura. When I said yes, he told me to hop on, and we drove out onto the ice.

Rick set up his traps. He drilled holes with a giant auger and dropped his line down, then set his flags. Every hour or so, Rick unrolled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, then went about his business while puffing on his cigarette.  He hopped on the fourwheeler and checked a trap. He came back. Still smoking.

From time to time, we could hear exceptionally clearly the shouts of nearby camps. To our left there was a small shanty with two kids running around a lot, checking flags and laughing. On the other side, a different story was unfolding: a group of men, maybe a dozen, from whom we occasionally heard an expletive or loud shout, followed by a bunch of laughter. 

We decided to go over and hang out.  The first thing I noticed was the heap of dead fish in the center of a ring of shanties and atv’s. Probably about 30. And these aren't small fish like you'd put on a dinnerplate. I'm talking on average 15 inches.  A few of them were bloody, some cut into pieces. There were guts strewn everywhere, a long intestine over here, and what could probably be a kidney over there. Every once in a while an eagle would fly over looking for extra fish. 

Also everywhere - beer cans. As one sober guy loaded them into a trash bag, another yelled out “Hey, I was gonna save those. My kids need to go to college.” Followed by wild laughter.

The guys stood around and goofed off, talked sports or hunting, even cooking on occasion. Every once in a while a guy would duck into a tent and yell out a question. If a guy said yes, a beer would come soaring through the air towards him.
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