Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Blacksmith's Shop

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW: "The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: ...and here is the blacksmith's shop. It was the hub of the farm, at the meeting point of the two major axes of work. Three walls have windows to catch the breeze when its hot and so on a cold day approaching winter solstice, as here, sun shines in all day long. The farm house is just beyond the window shown above; the barns are behind.

Unused shops are a magnet for clutter, but much of the clutter here is what was left when the forge ceased working at least a half century ago.

Click on the image and you can step in and have a real look around.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Storm Over Skarf Mountain

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The farm's founder was a blacksmith. His land was fertile and prime, on the top of a mountain just outside of town. When the sun shined, it shined here from dawn until dusk. His family were leaders of the community. Some of his grandchildren live on the hills behind me.

Like most New England farms, the crops varied with the economy - tobacco, corn, grain, and always dairy. It's been a half a century since the golden Guernseys who once grazed here, last "came home." Except for a bit of hay, both barns and farm house sit empty.

The large barn on the left was the cow barn. The barn has received so many changes and adaptations that it's hard to tell for what purpose it was originally built. There are both metal cow stalls and older wooden ones still in place. To me they look too small to hold the large dairy cows I see on farms today. Most of the up-hill portion of the barn is for hay, but at some time in the past a milk room was carved out of part of the bottom floor. Hidden behind the cow barn in this image, and facing onto a common barnyard, is a small barn for bulls and another for heifers. On the far (south-facing) side of the cow barn are giant doors that swing open onto the barnyard, and in the fall someone still pushes a tall wagon full of hay inside between rows of empty cow stalls where it will stay dry. Beside these large doors is a long row of windows that still fill the milk room with sunlight and whose shadows still mark the passage of a day.

The two, wooden silos were made by the Unadilla Silo Company in 1951. They probably replaced earlier silos in the same spot. Wooden silos were inexpensive, and farmers expected to have to replace them as they aged. The boards of these have shrunk, the iron hoops fallen slack from disuse. The bill for each silo was $250 and another $50 each to ship them from Unadilla, NY. A small passage leads from a space behind the silos down into the milk room. Most summers vines block access.

The buildings on the right include chicken coops, outhouse, a corn crib, machine shed and food storage. They cluster nicely around an area that may once have functioned as a dooryard, orchard, and garden. The old farm house is visible at the back. At the corner where the axis of the barnyard galaxy and the axis of the dooryard galaxy cross is the blacksmith's shop.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

May the Joys of the Coming Year Be Many

The photo and greeting card above was made by my daughter, Melissa Cherniske. Portrait photography is her business and her bliss. You can find out more about her work and commission her to photograph your family by going to, and clicking on "portraits."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Idea of Farm House No. 8

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: From my former classmate Tom Hubka, in his excellent book on the connected farms of New England, I learned the phrase the old-timers used to describe the farm. I've added a second phrase to make a two stanza rhyme:
Front house,
Little house
Back house

Front yard
Door yard
Barn yard
In the early 19th century the farm had no front yard, no pickets, but it always had a dooryard. The door yard is the place outside the kitchen in front of the ell or, "little house," but it was often also adjacent to the back house where the farm shops were located.

So it was the true center of farm life. It was not only a place to chop the firewood or harness the ox. There, vehicles were repaired and animals butchered. A chicken running headless one moment might soon be plucked there. Nearby corn was shucked and apples sorted; bushels for canning as sauce, crates to be pressed into cider, a few choice ones chosen for pie, and one red beauty polished and eaten. It was also the place to greet neighbors and spend some time catching up on the news of the day. Young ones played and old ones idled. Keeping a messy door yard was a sign of slovenliness and akin to moral turpitude.

Today the door yard may be grass or it may still have a vegetable or herb garden. Very possibly, however, it has been paved for parking. As a place, the dooryard, once the work center of the farm, has completely vanished.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Idea of Farm House No. 7

I too have a garret of old playthings.
I have tin soldiers with broken arms upstairs.
I have a wagon and the wheels gone upstairs.
I have guns and a drum, a jumping-jack and a magic lantern.
And dust is on them and I never look at them upstairs.
I too have a garret of old playthings.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Idea of Farm House No. 6

FRANK GOHLKE"Among the few positive things we humans may do that other species don’t is to create Places. We can quibble about the details, but most people who have thought seriously about the matter would recognize a few necessary components in any satisfactory definition: places, like landscapes, do not occur naturally; they are artifacts. A place is not a landscape; places are contained within landscapes. Place is a possibility wherever humans linger, but it’s not inevitable. Sometimes we just occupy space. Places can be created intentionally or as a side effect of other actions with other intentions. Place seems to be more likely to come into being the longer we stay put, but many nomadic cultures roam in landscapes whose minutest features are named, recognized, and given a place in the story of a people and a world. 

"Place has something to do with memory. The evidence of the actions of human beings in a specific locale constitutes a physical version of memory. In the visible traces of their passage I read the investment of desire, hope, ambition, sweat, toil, and love of people who set this location apart from raw space. I don’t need to identify the origin of every feature to sense its significance. The intentions of the inhabitants may be opaque to me; I only need to be aware that intentions were acted on here. Long-enduring Places demonstrate Wright Morris’s dictum that the things we care about don’t so much get worn out as worn in. Some would go further and say that the vital energies, positive and negative, that are discharged on a site create a psychic echo chamber in which what happened there can continue to reverberate indefinitely. It is that faith which informs Joel Sternfeld’s pictures of locations associated with horrific crimes, utopian communities, and the civilization of ancient Rome, moments whose perturbations can persist for millennia. 

"Human history takes many forms, some material, some mental. Place partakes of both. One way to define Place in a few words, in fact, might be as a unique and significant intersection in space of human history and natural history. Is the Grand Canyon a Place? In what sense? When did it become a Place? When the first human being set eyes on it? When the first band of Archaic hunters camped on its rim or along the river at the bottom? When the first story about it was made? The first permanent settlement? When the first photograph was taken? When Congress made it a National Park? Or was it when the uplift of the Colorado Plateau and the downcutting of the Colorado River began 17,000,000 years ago?"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Idea of Farm House No. 5

COLLABORATIVE JOURNAL (guest contributer, Jane Roth): Old farmhouses go through many incarnations from the vision of the original owner, through renovations driven sometimes by changing need, sometimes by changing values. Sabbaday House began modestly but rose in stature. The rooms were small, and one flowed into another without halls. Remove the kitchen addition and the first floor bedroom wing (added in the 1950's), and you're left with four rooms on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second floor but with small "eyebrow" windows. Eyebrow windows hint that earlier this was probably attic or garret.

In any case, the second floor became the bedroom floor, divided, minimally, by need for privacy. The flow of the current layout would be unsettling to the original owners. The 4 over 4 (or sometimes 2 over 2) pattern was repeated all over New England. The first important addition was usually the kitchen ell. The old structures adapt well; farmhouses often have "good bones."

We toured Ridge Farm with the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the farmers who built it in the 19th century. In the kitchen was an old, cast iron, wood stove and a gas range. Someone explained that it was years before the gas stove was actually connected, and they stopped using the wood stove. The granddaughter, already an adult herself, remarked on the lack of a dining room. Where did they eat, sleep, bathe? Where did the family gather on cold, winter nights? Again it was explained; there was always something cooking on the wood stove so people gathered there, and the tub had a large wooden top that served as a table.

The second floor of the house had some built in cabinets, and flooring that didn't match the layout of the rooms. In spite of good bones, this was an awkward renovation. What might be acceptable to gain a bit of space within the same space? When the bathroom was added did they rearrange the boy's and girl's spaces? It was a tight fit, but back then boys slept in one big bed, girls in another. Even then, someone explained, the second floor was always considered "not for company."

We lived in an 1820s or 30s farmhouse when we first moved to Connecticut. By 1830 New Milford was a hub, and the property on the top of a fertile hill was choice farmland. The house still had its original, central chimney and large bones that provided for spacious rooms. It suggested this had been a profitable farm, but the stairway was narrow and very steep. It doubled back on itself to avoid need for a passage along the side and to make space for the large chimney. It was the most economical way short of a ladder or spiral to connect the floors.

At the top of the stair a tiny landing had just room for a window ahead and a door to each side. The doors led to the two front bedrooms. They were spacious and sunny. Behind them were more rooms, but we can only guess they followed the traditional layout. The only thing certain because of the stair configuration and the original chimney, the people who lived back there had to pass through the front bedrooms to reach their own. Wasting space for a common hall or vestibule would have been profligate.

What had probably been two back bedrooms was at some point made into three cubbies connected by a long, windowless hall. It's hard to imagine that whoever designed the thrifty stair also designed the wasteful hall. The saved space of the stair was given back, and one still had to pass through a front bedroom to get to the back. In the bedroom cubicles one could do little more than sleep, but everyone slept alone. Then, the largest of the cubicles was converted to a bathroom, and everyone had to use the back hall. We learned that in the 1920s or 30s, when "the Jewish family" moved in, a new wing was added with servants quarters. When we rented the original section, The farmer lived up the street and his hired hand lived in that wing. The long back hall in our section ended at a door, forever locked, but on the other side the hall was still going.

The clear pattern in all three houses is for an escalating need for privacy. At Mountaintop Farm there's another empty farmhouse. Behind it is an old outhouse with spaces where three can sit and share one or another of life's pleasures together. In many houses today every room has a private bathroom where one can take long, hot showers and a computer terminal through which one can look back at the earth from cameras in space. Perhaps never before in history have we been so free to be alone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Idea of Farmhouse No. 4


What is the process by which a place becomes just space?
How long till the energies fade?
Do they float among dust motes?
Do they make the floor creak?
Can one spot them as they glimmer,
Too indistinct to have a name?
And that moment, waiting for reply,
Is it still suspended there in the silence?
Can these survive a hundred seasons?
Can a photograph catch and hold them as they vanish?
How keen is the edge of what lingers?
How hollow the pull of what's gone?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Idea of Farmhouse No.3


Stairs without landings
Banisters without bottoms
No garret at the top
Where heirlooms gather dust
No dank cellar
Where everything reeks and rots
We take steps two at a time
And grasp only from newel to newel.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Idea of Farmhouse No. 2

ALFRED STIEGLITZ (as quoted by EDWARD WESTON): "A maximum of detail with a maximum of simplification."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The kitchens are gone, the old ones with the great chimneys that rise and embrace the house so that whatever gets cooked in the hearth or oven tastes of cast iron, and is digested first to fuel the next day's work, and then passed down to fuel generations. Families lived on everything that got canned there and on the bread that was baked daily, and arms got strong hauling kettles and washing laundry and the lessons learned were serious, the recipes passed down, tasty.

The old kitchen was in the ell until July when the women escaped to the summer kitchen. What lore, what culture blossomed in the dooryard with the lilacs and the chickens? No room has changed more or more constantly than the kitchen, not even the privy, and it's hard not to wonder how we've digested the changes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

TODAY'S PHOTO - The Idea of Farmhouse No.1

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Thoughts on photographing an abandoned farmhouse.


At the threshold
Milk was left
And muddy boots
And ill will
And first kisses

In the blizzard of '88 the snow was piled to the top of the door.

Summers, the screen door
Let the breezes pass
And whispering
And the smell of midday meals
And the tractor's steady grind.

One fall the dog sat on the stoop and barked all night.

Across the threshold footsteps tracked
The days and weeks,
Wearing the boards.
Till the paint on the door jamb was thick,
The wood, brittle and dry.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sunrise on Winchell Mountain

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: And here is the "long trajectory," referred to in my journal entry of December 7th. The sun, just rising above Connecticut mountains far behind me, rakes across the ridges, touches Winchell Mountain in the upper branches of these two autumn maples and at a few other points outside of this image, and lands next and finally on the side of the distant Catskill Mountains many miles away and on the other side of the Hudson River. At the top of the Maples day begins while I stand still in the shadows of night. In a few more moments the sun would have lit the whole hillside, but the cloud window closed, and the moment passed, and an overcast day began.

In October I posted the first image of Pleasant View Farm which I took from near this same location. I had intended to end the Pleasant View Farm series yesterday with this image, but I couldn't resist posting one of this week's snow photos first.

NOTE: best viewed full screen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

First Snow

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The first snow of the season and I'm standing near where the last two images were shot. It's Tuesday and I'm about to meet a friend to shoot a deserted house. It's getting hard to get up here before sunrise. It takes 50 minutes on the road which means I have to leave home at 6:15. When I make my sunrise run to Pleasant view now, it's colder than it was over the summer. Ripeness is all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Between Fields

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: "Ripeness is all." (reprise)

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Looking at yesterday's image, my brother found himself on the Yellow Brick Road. I'm hoping this image, shot on the same day, might leave some viewers also somewhere in the Oz zone, perhaps off to the side of the famous road and slightly dizzy from that perfume of untamed nature that doesn't affect tinmen. Every farm has areas between the corn and hay and cows too rocky or swampy, where nothing useful grows, and something else is always lurking.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Last Day of August, 2009, Pleasant View Farm


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Yesterday's image was taken on August 8th just after the hay had been cut. This was taken over three weeks later in afternoon sun as the corn tassels were darkening. Both belie the truth that we never really had summer this year, and the corn was over-watered, and the hay had no time to dry. I hope viewers will ignore all of this in favor of whatever truth the image suggests.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Valley Mist

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The gentle roll of the land in this photo might suggest a broad plain, but the head of cool steam that's blowing off has risen from unseen valleys. This is the top of Winchell Mountain, a fertile plateau about a half mile across. It's named for James Winchell who as a young man in 1760 began the first farm here, and for his descendants who cultivated the land for three generations after. In addition to farmers, his descendants thrived and included scientists, lawyers, carpenters, ministers, teachers, engineers and a university chancellor. The land is farmed today by a family whose roots in the area are at least as old.

Winchell Mountain is an excellent spot to learn how morning happens and to watch the vapors as they cloud and drift and vanish. Off stage left I can look eastward, beyond corn fields, deep into Connecticut. If I walk right and look where the hill saddles, and the cow's graze, I can look west above a patchwork of hills, and beyond where the Hudson River must be, to the towering, shadowy Catskills. That's a long trajectory for the sun to shine its beam.

Even on mornings when the top of Winchell Mountain is in cloud, I've learned to wait and catch the drama as the cloud curtain lifts. This is a grand spot from which to collect morning.
NOTE: This one needs to be seen approaching full-screen.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Susurrus at Pleasant View Farm


It was really very soft,
That pedalpoint moment
When the sun's eye
Cornered the globe,
Swept past ridges and mountains
And made earth sweat,
Every blade bathed and dotted
By dew drop globes
That eyed back the sun,
Sustaining the pedalpoint
Softly over the whispering birds.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Still cows, but my lens has moved from the slopes that rise above Twin Elms Farm to the top of Winchell Mountain and Pleasant View. It is late summer on one of those afternoons when I can almost feel the vital pulse of the planet, the ways it refreshes and rejuvenates itself. Here is the grand organism at work, even if this year provided rather more rain than farmers wanted

This is a large dairy farm, the kind of operation that takes the constant attention of a knowledgeable staff. In addition to twice daily milking, they raise and harvest many acres of corn and hay, and breed and raise calves. I know how much work it is running a dairy farm, and I'm thankful there are still people who do it, whose herds still graze on what's left of our Eastern farmland. For me there is a complex mystery, easily taken for granted, at the heart of the odd partnership of humankind and dairy cows. The mystery is not apparent when I read the stories of the great breeds of domesticated cattle.

In any case, I was thinking about this as I was driving back from a shoot today when a "Birdnote Moment," played on National Public Radio. It described another odd relationship, this between humans and a species of undomesticated bird. Somehow it seemed to shed light on why I think we underestimate the mysteries of our relationship with many animals. Rather than explain it myself, I refer you to the Birdnote text and/or the aired Birdnote mp3 where you will hear the bird's song.

Are we changed when there are no scenes like the one above to reflect upon, only cartons of milk and plastic-wrapped burgers?

Be sure to click on this image to see it large.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eye to Eye

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: If your mind is of a literary bent, I recommend this link to parodies of a belov├ęd bovine verse: