Saturday, April 1, 2017

BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS

Fog in Fairbanks Woods, Sewanee, TN
The heavy fog this morning reminded me why I frequently call Sewanee, TN, my second home, "Grayburg."  During this morning's services at St. Mary, I kept looking out the window overlooking the bluff and countryside beyond for sunlight, but it's now 10 a.m., and the fog still shrouds all signs of spring, including a few blooming dogwood and forsythia scattered about the woods.

The dense fog reminds me of a program I presented to the Fortnightly Club in February — one about the Great Smoky Mountains Park, another setting with a plethora of gray days. The program focused on the part that photography played in establishing the park as a national icon in the southern Appalachians. Western parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, were carved from the public domain, but each acre of the Smoky Mountains was held in private lands made up of thousands of small farms and summer homes. A decade-long effort resulted in funds being raised to buy those lands because, originally, the Federal government wasn't going to put up any of the money to acquire property for a park. So the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, composed of ordinary citizens and philanthropists — even school children — began to raise the money.

Their campaign was aided greatly by a group of photographers who supported the cause. During the early 1900's, when photography was in its infancy, professional photographers had to tote large, cumbersome view cameras, fragile glass plate negatives, and wooden tripods into the wilderness to photograph scenery that became the Smoky Mountain National Park. A photographer would set up a shot and wait, sometimes hours, for a moment of light before clicking the shutter to record images in black and white.

The photographers were also avid hikers. They logged thousands of miles carrying tents, bedrolls, food, and fifty pounds of cameras and various equipment on their backs on unfamiliar, rugged ground. They also build trails and measured, mapped, and named most of the land features that would become the Great Smoky Mountains Park. They made thousands of pictures of trees, waterfalls, and mountain peaks in all kinds of weather and created portraits of mountain people working in their homes, on their farms, and with various crafts, leaving a cultural record of the mountain dwellers.

Many of the facilities and restoration of historic buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains Park was done by the CCC's, (an organization to which my father belonged but not in the Smoky Mountain Park), and many of the trails, beautiful stone buildings, and bridges in the park are examples of their work.

However, the photographers were the real movers and shakers in the campaign to establish the park. They campaigned, "through their lenses" to pique the interest of government officials and private donors to acquire 6,000 small farms and large tracts that had to be surveyed, appraised, dickered over, and sometimes condemned in court. Lumber and timber companies with standing inventory required compensation, and some people were given lifetime leases if they were too old or too sick to move. Finally, in the late 1920's the Legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina donated two million dollars each for land purchases, and by 1928, five million dollars had been raised. Then the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated five million dollars. The Great Smoky Mountains Park was formally dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940 as he spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap astride the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Ansel Adams, who was famous for photographing Western national parks, once set out for the Great Smokies following WWII and spent only a week in early October, making 47 images, four of which were published and three printed. In the book, Pictures For A Park, How Photographers Saved the Great Smoky Mountains, by Rose Houk, Houk tells the story of Adams complaining about the hazy light in the Appalachians ("Grayburg!"), comparing it to the strong light in California's Sierra Nevada. Adams wrote to a friend that the Smokies were "Okay, but are going to be devilish hard to photograph." A copy of Adams' photo entitled "The Dawn, Autumn Forest" appears in Pictures For A Park, a black and white close-up of a stand of trees, "their luminosity displaying Adams' prowess with light and lens and darkroom technique..."

My favorites among the photographs I viewed in the book by Houk were those of the faces of the mountaineers in the Great Smokies. Many of them are melancholy and weathered, and I wasn't surprised at the expressions on the faces of the mountain folk — the photos were probably taken on a day like today in "Grayburg!"

Photograph of fog by Victoria I. Sullivan

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