Friday, February 10, 2012

A time, a place, a people

Restless, uneasy, wanting more than a caged interior existence, I went out as the sun westered. Shadows spread like spilled ink and the light warming to a golden luminance gilded the whitewashed monolith of the grain elevator with its sprightly sprig of wheat. Without thought or plan I drove the streets desirous of something concrete and real, something definitive, something that would speak without words or consciousness. That could be captured in a sliver of a second yet forever and for all time stand as testament not merely to my own vision, my own creativity, but of who we were, how we lived, both singularly and collectively, we residents of a small prairie town in the final moments before the fall. And I could not.

It was too much to ask. Nor could I explain what it was I sought. But something had called me out, something that having summoned me now withdrew and would force me to track it down like a wild boar in a dark thicket, watchful and waiting, and not altogether sympathetic. My mind for all its chaotic pandemonium remained a blank slate, incapable of coherence or clarity, also in wait for what might come.

Without tangible objective I drove south on Main and bumped across the railroad tracks where the road ascended from the valley through a gully already fading to twilight, and passed on into sunlight where the road leveled out to an unending vista of the northern Flint Hills. In my rear view mirror the town slipped unseen into its riverine shelter, all but hidden now behind a gray furze of barren trees and the undulant folds of the land.

The view didn’t work for my unfathomable purposes so I turned and retraced my route past the round town square and eastward to the bridge where I circled back to park on the shoulder. The Big Blue curved in an arc toward the setting sun and the last light sliding up the shoulders of Capital Bluff, the two seeming to cradle the town in an embrace. And yet the town kept slipping away from me. What I needed was an aerial view to anchor it into its geographical setting, and myself as well, first in a bird’s eye view revealing the upstream confluence and the glacial erosion that sculpted the valleys, and then higher and higher until the vast sweep of the Great Plains broke against the Rockies and the curvature of the earth gave way to the winds of space.

Not long ago I saw a photograph of the edge of the Milky Way with a tiny arrow pointing to a indistinguishable speck no larger than a grain of dust. “You are not special” the caption read, surely when put into such context the truest statement ever written. Those millions of teeming galaxies, those billions of life forms, certainly brings our vaunted exclusivity into question. “The significance of man is that he is insignificant and is aware of it,” Carl Becker wrote, accurate in a theoretical sense but blindingly lost on most humans. 

The intrinsic need to feel special is ingrained in our DNA from birth and not likely in danger of extinction anytime soon. And if occasionally we indulge in lifting ourselves or our friends to a higher ranking on the social scale than perhaps is merited, then we are only human, and fallible. Unless taken to extremes, as when politicians or preachers claim divine exceptionalism for divisive purposes, the fault is a minor one, easily forgivable and inconsequential. We are not special. We are only average.

But I wanted to raise the bar a little for our small town and the people who call it home.

We have been selected as a partner site for the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, “The Way We Worked.” While the actual exhibit won’t be hosted by our town, the Kansas Humanities Council provided a matching grant to the Blue Rapids Historical Society that will enable us to create our own version of the exhibit, a snapshot of how residents worked in the opening decade of the 21st century. Our goal is to document through interviews and photographs every business within city limits, farmers and ranchers on the periphery, and a few external businesses important to the local economy. The project will take about a year to complete, at which time a slideshow will be presented to the community and 100 of the most evocative images hung in a special gallery at the museum. 

That I was chosen to be the photographer (okay, I bid for the job, complete disclosure), makes me deeply honored, and humbled—to the point of restlessly circumnavigating the streets of our town, alas. 

It sounded so simple. When considered logistically, its complexity deepened to encompass the necessity for model releases for each identifiable individual, privacy issues related to clinics, banks and, perhaps the toughest nut to crack, the mortuary, and the number of hours involved in remaining at each business location to glean the best images possible. As I explained to the members of our chamber of commerce, I want to tell their story, what they do best in earning a living and serving our community. I want to tell our story. 

What makes it special—I hesitate to use the term, but find no better descriptive—is that we’re the only town in Kansas doing such a project.

It would be a mistake to see this as no more than a study of employees and businesses operating during 2012. While that in itself would be important for the historical record—our museum’s collection of such images amounts to less than two dozen—the implications are far more important. “Work,” Peter Drucker said, “is one of the ways in which a person defines himself, measures his worth, and his humanity.” This isn’t just how we worked, it’s who we were, what we did, how we lived. And someday it will be all that’s left to show of our time on this patch of land.

Sitting on the shoulder of the road, I watched the sun sink below the horizon. The flashing white strobe on the cell tower south of town dulled to a subdued red pulse while below dusk rose from the river and flooded the lowlands below the levee. From my perspective on the elevated roadway the gathering gloom spilled over the embankments and swept along the silent streets like a spectral fog. And in that short heartbeat before twilight, before streetlights flickered on one by one, before the last light faded from the grain elevator and sunset’s fiery glow burned to charcoal, I realized that there was nothing iconic to capture, nothing that would set our town apart from any other, that I could search high and low for the remainder of my days and never find what I sought, unless, of course, I looked for the underlying principle defining any small rural community—its humanity, its soul. For our tiny town was like any other, a people that could be here or anywhere, a place so ordinary and mundane that it seemed almost trivial, not so special after all, neither the first nor the last but merely one of many in the limitless aggregate of rural communities some of which were destined to disappear in the coming decades and some which would bravely struggle on, flawed and imperfect, and yet fiercely optimistic, here, now, ours, special. 


Carol said...

Haven't commented in a while, Tom, but always enjoy your work. Saw your new work photos on Facebook, then saw more here. You are off to a TERRIFIC start on our project. Hope it goes smoothly.

shoreacres said...

None of us is average. Every one of us is absolutely special. The only thing is, we tend to forget our uniqueness, our extraordinary nature, our ability to rise above our limitations. We allow the world to drag us down. We refuse to fulfill our own potential. We long for a world that doesn't exist, and ignore the one in which we move.

But sometimes, we get a glimpse of who we are, and the extraordinary shows its face in the most unexpected places. I can't wait to see the glimpses you find.

Tom Parker said...

I can't wait either! Thanks for sharing the journey.

Emily Brisse said...

Hi Tom--

Not even sure how I stumbled across your blog, but I'm so glad I did. This is not only beautiful writing (and those photos!) but a beautiful project, too. The dimensions of "small towns" tug and pull at my bones often, and I'll look forward to stopping by this space to see how they pull at yours.

Good luck to you and Kansas!

Tom Parker said...

Emily -- Welcome to my little patch of prairie. Small town life has suited us fine since we left the Big City (Denver) 12 yeas ago. With the start of the Way We Worked Project, I'm now going to be able to really document the town and, to a certain extent, my own personal vision of it. Thanks for stopping by.