Book Review: ‘Listening to the Land’

Posted by | November 1, 2013

Adam BoothPlease welcome guest reviewer Adam Booth. Booth is a young Appalachian storyteller whose family stories, original tales, and audio collections have won state and national awards, including four state titles and honors at the 2013 Storytelling World Awards. Recalling the tales he heard from old people in his family, his storytelling is mentored by Dovie Thomason, a teller of Lakota and Kiowa heritage. Adam is a sought-after teacher and teller. Learn more at www.adam-booth.com and www.themountaincamealive.com

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for books about West Virginia. Some of the draw is because I’ve always been fascinated by publications that look and sound like home. But some of my fondness came later in life when the value of history developed alongside the necessity of recording and documenting endangered ideas for future knowledge.

Listening to the Land cover I felt the pull on both sets of heartstrings as I read Listening to the Land, with text by Jamie S. Ross and photos by Tom Cogill. Supported by the Cacapon & Lost Rivers Land Trust, a conglomerate formed to connect and preserve parcels of land in eastern West Virginia, this book uses visual and printed story to raise awareness of the changing nature and related issues of the Cacapon and Lost River Valley.

The pages of the book are flanked with a bifold map of the Cacapon River Watershed indicating public and private lands, both agricultural and forested. Because I can easily get lost in a great map, it took me a while to begin reading the book. Yet, I returned to the cover often to locate the communities and natural features that were mentioned in the interviews.

The photographs in this book are vivid and at times striking. While they contribute to the story told in the text, photographer Tom Cogill has done an excellent job of using image to create its own narrative. As with many photographic documents of Appalachia, Listening to the Land has its share of standard landscape images: the blurry and babbling brook, the broad and rugged landscape, the active forest floor. But unlike other accounts, all of these images are beautiful. And the broad, more generic shots are interspersed with specific images such as a morel, mechanical gears, and a cluttered tool shed.

We see a cycle of life in these photos. We see people in their living and working environments. There is a play of light and land that documents the changing of time: one image shows massive transmission lines running across the land, recalling a haunting scene from the 1982 enviro-pic Koyaanisqatsi.  And as the book progresses, the photographic narrative reaches toward the historical landscape integrated with the technological side of living in the Valley.

My favorite images from Listening to the Land capture the feeling I get when I drive through the Cacapon and Lost River Valley: the narrow plots of flat land brushing forward from the toes of the mountains, plots that feel like the beds of ancient rivers, the feeling of sacred land that has a connection to the natural being, so far removed from what we experience in the technologically inundated world.

Jamie S Ross

Jamie S Ross

In addition to the imagery, it is clear that author Jamie Ross made a strong connection to the people and land during the story collection process. Some of this is detailed in the Introduction, but the real sense is felt within the text. Some of the stories read like those the landowners have clearly told over and over again to any ears that will listen. But others come from the act of deep, caring listening, as when a member of the Randolph family confided, “This place is my mom and dad. The moment I drive up the lane I feel their presence…[our mom] had three meals on the table every day when you came in off the farm.”

The book is laid out in such a fashion that large blocks of story are broken up with pages of images, relevant quotes, and anecdotes. At first I didn’t care for this format, but I soon came to identify it as kin to the conversations interjected with commentary that happen around the supper table or on the front porch.

The text of the book has a strong center on the people of this Valley and their stories. Great care is taken to present strong family heritage, rich oral history, and unique local lore. Each chapter focuses on a particular person or family and slowly moves back to show their relation to the area and the land. One such relationship is found in the third chapter, when local returnee Bobby Ludwig recalls his father’s guidance on loving and preserving the family home place, “To keep everything, you need big money. Whatever you buy will seem expensive when you buy it. In ten years you’ll wish you had bought twice as much.”

This collection presents knowledge built on generations of acquiring said knowledge, which underscores the theme of the book. The stories are personal and touching and include idiomatic heartfelt sentiments such as, “I can step within probably five feet of where I shot my first deer” and “God doesn’t make any more land. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.” As with the photos, the chapters slowly turn toward a greater story: recollections of the past in the face of destruction and change.

If read carefully, the book seems an artwork kin to the gorgeous Kubrick film Space Odyssey: 2001 — not at all in its content, but in the way that a viewer gets lost inside the vast stretches of scenes of life that lie between powerfully compacted storytelling. I stared for countless passages of time at a two-page spread of a partly-paned window in a log wall set alongside a photo of a thread dwindling from a dishrag that waits on the handle of an old appliance. Within the pages of this book one is filled with the notion that here are ordinary people and drop-in sights, but at the same time they are extraordinary and far bigger than themselves.

Not only is this an interesting and visually pleasing book, but it actually feels good in the hands. The size is great for a lap and the thickness of the pages feels good between the fingers — that is, once you’re done gazing into the photographs and bring your mind out of the stories to the point where you are ready to turn the page. The book could easily be read in one sitting, but this is more of a book for people who are not in a hurry to finish it.

The history presented in its pages took a great deal of time to create, and to truly enjoy it, one should use a relative pace.

Cacapon River. Photo by Tom Cogill.

Cacapon River. Photo by Tom Cogill.

As with many advocacy books, I wonder how many passersby would pick up this book and read it. Although the ideas conveyed between the covers are universal and important for the perpetuation of community, I wonder if the area in focus lacks mass-appeal or draw. Also like many accounts of activism, it will probably take word of mouth, gift-giving, and social media to get a large audience for this book. The heart is in the combined visual and textual storytelling, and if enough people find that heart then this book has the potential to stir new preservation and heritage acts in other regions of the world.

 

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