My dear Katie sent me the loveliest gift: an old photo album, full of anonymous photos of three women posing in the woods, on the beach, and in what appears to be the garden of their home in France (Katie is living in Paris currently). Looking at the physiology of their shadowy faces and the style of their clothing and hair, I would guess that the women are sisters, and that the photos were taken around the First World War. One snapshot features two men in ill-fitting uniforms, posing a bit stiffly in the distance, leaning up against a tree.
In most of the photographs everyone is smiling, and occasionally a small black and white dog is underfoot, so it’s easy to forget that they were taken during a time when influenza was stopping beating hearts left and right. Just kilometers away from where cheerful picnics took place under the arbors of shady trees, young men were sunk deep into trenches, fighting and falling. So hauntingly beautiful.
I have a friend who doesn’t like looking at old photographs, or antiques, or visiting museums. It makes him feel anxious, he says, looking at all those dead people. Maybe he feels like he’s staring directly at mortality, and how these people who smile so calmly in old photographs inevitably perish, just bones to dust, with only photographs as testament to their existence. That’s exactly what I love about looking at old things, come to think of it. We live on in the every day objects that we leave, and the things that we create.
I am doing a story on the literary history of Knoxville for a small magazine out of Nashville. Last week, Gary and I walked around downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, where he shot photographs of some of the landmarks of the town’s creative past. One of the locations is a small garden park in the neighborhood where James Agee grew up, just blocks away from the home where he based his Pulitzer Prize winning, autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. The house itself is gone, and the garden sits on the old foundation of another home was that leveled many years ago. Some of the mansions are still kept up in the manner of the style of the neighborhood in a sort of shabby genteel way, but many have been chopped into student apartments, with grills on the gracious covered front porches, and flags hanging from the intricately carved dormer windows.
But still, there’s a calm sort of beauty that’s settled in from the past that sits in between the neighborhood’s present state, and the garden is lovingly kept up by volunteers who love the neighborhood and love Agee. Hundreds of different species of flowers and herbs fill the park with fragrance and color, and there’s an elegantly crafted metal gate marking the entrance from the street.
When we found the park and stepped inside, I felt a sort of very mellow peace mixed with a hum of excited new intention. Maybe I was picking up on the energy of the bees and their collective and calm hum as they guzzled pollen; maybe I caught a glimpse of the spirit of the flowers as they stood quiet and beautiful while pushing up slowly from the ground and unfurling toward the sun. And of course I thought of Agee, and wondered what he might think of the small garden in his childhood neighborhood. In life, he might have felt more at home with the college students smoking weed on second floor balconies than in the little garden. Maybe in death he would recognize the quiet and the calm as something like his own.