Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Field Day: A Day with Tom Carroll from a Guest's point of view

 This past spring, Perkins Center for the Arts held a fundraiser called A Toast to the Past: Celebrating Evergreen Lawn's Centennial. At this fundraiser, one of the items in the silent auction was A Day in the Life of a Folklorist. The following is a recounting of the experience of the winner of that auction item, 18 year old Zachery Finio.

October 25, 2011 - Field Day with Tom Carroll

We left Collingswood early in the morning and headed south to meet with two glassblowers; one had his studio within a shop where he sold his wares, the other’s studio was outside his home. Each showed us the furnaces and talked about the craft.

Our next stop was a Hindu Temple. We sat outside for awhile, unsure of whether it would be intrusive for us to enter. A teacher from the Temple invited us inside. We took off our shoes and talked with him for some time. A young man spoke to us as we were leaving, and gave us each an apple.

Then Tom took me to visit a collector who had old, unusual tools in his shed, and rare glass was displayed throughout his home.

As we drove along, Tom noticed an older man sitting in a field. Tom said, “I’ve never seen anyone here before, let’s go talk to him.” We stopped at the side of the road and approached the man. At first he seemed timid and unprepared for discussion. Tom asked some questions about the man’s farm and the surrounding community. He explained about his folk life interests and recognized the farmer’s Jamaican accent. At this point, the farmer relaxed, he and Tom began to talk about Jamaican food and cooking. In a short time the farmer was showing us his vegetables - banana-size Jamaican okra and some peppers that he warned us were “very hot” - we tasted an English star pepper that was tangy/sweet. As we left, Tom and the farmer planned to meet again to talk more about the farm.

Tom has an amazing way of putting people at ease and expressing his interest genuinely. It’s like seeing an artist take a blank piece of paper and draw an image - Tom starts up a conversation and a story emerges.

Our day ended at the edge of the Delaware River, talking with some local fishermen. I’ve lived in Southern New Jersey my whole life; in this one day I learned what folklore is and realized its significance in connecting us to one another.

-Zachary Finio

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've done a fair amount of fieldwork in and around the Repaupo area, Gloucester County.  This area lies along Repaupo Creek just south of Gibbstown, between Route 44 and the Delaware River and between Route 44 and the Repaupo town center, which is just a small crossroads.  I've found this area to be rich in history and culture, and interesting in terms of the people who live there.  Among those who come to mind, I've written about some in these pages, for example, Calvin Fisler, and I've mentioned others from the Flood Gates area of Repaupo, such as Joyce Vanneman.  When I visited Joyce this past summer, a friend of hers named Boots Hughs stopped by.  Boots and I talked a bit that day on Joyce's deck, beside Repaupo Creek, and later that very afternoon, I drove over to Boots's house and spoke with him some more.  I was interested in pursuing our conversation even further, and went there again the following day, to spend several more hours with him.  Though it's taken me a while to get around to it I first visited Boots this past June), I want to take some time here to focus on Boots and his work.

"Desperation Market" Sign in Front of Boots Hughs's Home

I believe that Boots was born and raised in the Repaupo area, near the crossroads east of Route 44, at a time when most of the land there was being farmed by local families.  The local farms have suffered an array of interconnected fates in the years since Boots was coming up, succumbing to flood and the vagaries of weather in some cases, but more generally to shifting economic conditions, and perhaps especially to government policies and politics that do not favor family farms.  When I first met Boots, he was eager to have me visit him at his place.  He wanted to show me his shop, his handiwork, his collection of tools.  He also wanted to talk to me about the place where he's lived all his life, and share with me his sense of how his work and his place, his sense of past, present, and future time, form a seamless whole.

I've been fortunate to meet a number of people over the years with just the sort of quiet enthusiasm that emanates from Boots.  In my experience, such people hit upon some sort of work that may at first simply please or interest them, but they soon discover that it has meaning beyond the activity itself.  They thus persist in doing such work, often against heavy odds.  Odds arising from the need to make a living, from family interests and demands, from neglect or disinterest of the wider community.  They persist despite these obstacles, and fortunately, they're often eager to share and explore the significance of their work with others, especially those interlocutors with enough time and interest to invest in the twin and deeply related processes of dialog and inquiry.  I can't say I know everything there is to know about Boot's work, nor do I fully understand why he does what he does.  In fact, my grasp is very slight, my knowledge admittedly slim.  But in speaking with him, and with others about him, I've caught intimations of the value of Boots's efforts, and I trust that these friendly ghosts will guide my hand as I write this post. 

Ostensibly, Boots's activity focuses on care of his property, and care of his collection of tools and other artifacts.  The tools, especially, reflect historical experience in the Repaupo farmer and forester communities, as well as the history of tools and the work that they do more generally.  Boots is an avid collector of old tools, and he has a special way of showing them off.  To do that, he leads you through the back door of his house, down a concrete path that leads toward the rear of his property, and on to the door of an old weather beaten shed, that's maybe fifty feet long.  He unlocks the door of the shed, finds a light switch on a cord by reaching into the darkness and feeling his way through an intricate web, a myriad of hanging appurtenances, electrical cords, spiderwebs, cobwebs.  A web somewhat more weighty and substantial than a spider's but by human standards, just as busy and as intricate.

Once the room is lit, Boots invites you to follow him inside.  As your eyes adjust to the light, you see that there are pieces of equipment everywhere, shelves loaded down and bent under the weight of materials -- paints, tools, artifacts and artifact fragments of various sorts --  and amidst the woodworking machinery, lying on every surface and covering nearly all available floor space, there are scraps of wood, sawdust, bits of leftover material from a recent or maybe even a long ago wood or metal working project. We pass through this area and into the rear of the shop, where there are still more power tools, looming out of the half darkness, mysterious shapes until Boots locates the cord of a drop light and presses the switch.  All these power tools are in good working order, of course, despite the clutter.  Boots climbs over some piled up material and dodges around a piece of equipment, scrabbles around in a corner, and produces and passes an old metal artifact along to me.  "Do you know what that is," he asks, handing one tool over, and then another, and another.  Soon, we're absorbed in talking about old tools, and the people who used them, for whatever task they were designed for. 

Like Calvin Fisler in Flood Gates -- another part of Repaupo -- and like a number of other people I've met in this area, Boots is a collector.  He wants to tell the story of industry, of farming, of timbering, in this part of the world, and he tells it through the vast assortment of tools he's gathered and collected.  Like Fisler, Boots is a historian of sorts, or perhaps even a historic preservationist.  He's a steward of this local history, told through the shapes and angles, the shafts and edges, the blades and heads of his seemingly vast tool collection.  As with Fisler's collection of river booty, Boot's collection rises, or so I believe, to the level of an original composition.

Stepping into Boot's shed and shop, I was reminded of a visit I made earlier this year to a woodworker in Burlington County, in the town of Pemberton.  That place was vastly more "open" than Boot's place, that is, had much more total space than Boots's shed, but was even more cluttered, and featured a much greater distance between floor and rafters.  The effect was a little bewildering, and a little disconcerting.  There was wood, and timber, and furniture piled everywhere, punctuated here and there by a standing power tool, with scraps of wood strewn all about the floor, and sheets of plywood along with stacked cut timber piled on either side of pathways that had been more or less kept open to allow for movement from one section of the shop to another.  But these had all overflowed and, despite all good intentions, had covered over those hoped for pathways, making stepping and proceeding in any direction a most difficult and dangerous preoccupation.

Power tools and woodworking equipment scattered everywhere through the main shop, an old sawmill in a shed adjoining that building, at the rear, and attached to the shop, to one side (east, I think) yet another building, a sheet metal shed formerly part of a local Agway facility, disassembled and hauled from that place and reconstructed at its current site.  At the owner's invitation, we crept along the overgrown pathways, wading through an ocean, it seemed, of fallen and overflowing wood, eventually made our destination.

We hauled open the door to the 100 foot long, fifty foot high shed, and were met with an extraordinary, even breathtaking sight.  There were huge slabs and boards stacked everywhere, rough cut on the old mill next door, and placed here, stood on end, stacked and piled on the floor to form vistas, it seemed, stacked high above our heads on a system of lofts, huge thick slabs from what must have been giant, ancient trees, cut into longish shapes with their bark still visible and running along the edges, some of them forty or more feet long, some four or five or more feet wide, some several inches thick.  They filled the shed.  Altogether a truly breathtaking sight.  It was a cathedral of wood.  Cathedral.  Really.  An act of love on the part of a Piney whose great passion, and overarching interest, is the pine and oak forest, a passion extending to each and every tree, apparently, of that native place.  Someone who can't let a fallen tree lie.  A salvage expert.  A historian and conservator of cut timber.  This is something to do justice to in a separate post, at some future time.  But for now, back to Boots.

It wasn't possible to take photographs of most spaces in Boots's work shed.  The light was much too dim, though I was able to get shots of some items in situ.  I carried other pieces outside and posed them for photographs.  Boots showed me a number of axes, hatchets, adzes, and related tools.  He often buys only the heads, because that's all that has survived, and in many cases will carve a new handle and affix it to the head.  I carried a number of these items outside, into the light.  The axe handles are interesting, not at all a casual piece of work, but shaped to the hand and arm, shaped for controlled flight.  There's that poem by Gary Snyder, "Axe Handles":

"...And I hear it again:/ It is in Lu Ji's We Fu,  fourth century/A.D. "Essay on Literature" -- in the/Preface: "In making the handle/Of an axe/By cutting wood with an axe/The model is indeed near at hand."" 

Snyder concludes:  'My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen/Translated that and taught it years ago/And I see: Pound was an axe,/Chen was an axe, I am an axe/And my son a handle, soon/To be shaping again, model/And tool, craft of culture/How we go on."

There is wisdom here, I think, which applies to Boots and his work, and which he in turn reflects back onto the world.  His tools, artfully gathered, extend arm and hand toward the production of new objects, which express his own culture and perception of that culture.  Farmers, foresters, builders.  Boots makes decoys among other things, which reflect the historical milieu of decoy carving and duck hunting in his area.  His decoys lie within the Delaware River carving tradition, featuring elaborately carved tail feathers, and with more detail carved into the body of the decoy.  I don't believe that Boots hunts ducks.  Instead, his decoys are part of an effort to impart some meaningful thing about the history and culture of Repaupo.  They express and preserve that history, and make homage to its traditions.
Unfinished Decoy by Boots Hughs
Boots has an inquiring mind, always seeking ways to provide an articulate response to the passage of time, and make sense of the shifting location of culture.  I mentioned that Boots is a collector, in the sense that collecting is a cultural and historical assertion of some sort.  Sitting inside his home, sipping coffee, I noticed a display cabinet against a wall of Boots's kitchen.  It's filled with historical glass artifacts he's collected over the years, some from local glass makers long out of business.  I asked about a special arrangement of some glass artifacts, all of different colors.  Boots went over to the cabinet and opened the door, handed out some pieces, explaining that they are his "chakras," in reference to the ancient Hindu system of seven colored prisms, arrayed from the base of the spine to the top of the head, which direct and harmonize the flow of cosmic energy through the physical and spiritual body.
Boots Hughs's "Chakras"

I'll note here that there's a Hindu ashram and temple just a few doors down from Boots's home, and that he's had numerous conversations with the spiritual head of the temple.  I asked Boots whether he learned about chakras from the Hindu priest, and he answered no, he hadn't.  He knew about chakras, he said, long before the temple was established here a couple of years ago.

The Hindu temple is yet another indication of the shifting nature of the place, of all places in the region and elsewhere, really, and of the ongoing and further enrichment of this particular locale.  Boots embraces "change," while operating within the deeper currents of "tradition."  Pass it along.  Keep it moving.