Driving through the North Georgia mountains a few weeks ago, I kept passing abandoned wooden buildings. At one point, I passed a newer house with a brick chimney, which appeared to be part of a previous building, in the driveway. Rolling fields and distant mountains peaks stretched behind these structures. As I drove, I recalled Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This and the ways she addresses the fleeting nature of our existence and the passage of time. In Como, Italy, Radtke thinks to herself, “I wandered around Como like there was something specific I was looking for, rubbing my hands against the stone I couldn’t imagine the life of and leaving sweaty palm prints behind.”
Through her thoughts, Radtke links the past, present, and future of Como, Italy. She calls to mind those who have lived or passed through the town before she got there, she shows her present moment in the town placing her hand on the stone, and the future when that palm print will disappear, leaving no trace that it, or Radtke, ever touched it. As I drove past the crumbling structures nestled in the fields, I thought about Radtke’s book and I thought about Jared Ragland and Cary Norton’s Where You Come From Is Gone.
In Where You Come From Is Gone, Ragland and Norton photograph sites where the Creek and other Eastern Woodland tribes were forced to uninhabit. Ragland and Norton’s project, as Catherine Wilkins puts it, “explores the importance of place, the passage of time, and the political dimensions of remembrance through the historical wet-plate collodion photographic process.” These sites do not have markers. They do not have structural ruins. They are landscapes. They are sites where individuals lived, worked, loved, and died. They are sites that we drive by on our way somewhere else. They are sites where the “sweaty palm print” has faded with time.
Along with the photographs, Ragland and Norton provide detailed captions about the images and the sites. They thoroughly researched what occurred at each site, and they convey that information to the audience. The captions to images are important as I’ve talked about before. They affect the ways that we view and interpret the images. With this in mind, I want to focus on a few of the pieces in Where You Come From Is Gone that stuck out to me when I viewed them in the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum.
The above image struck me the first time I saw it. What caught my attention, apart from the fog like covering was the tree branch. At first, I thought the tree originated at the right of the image, breaking at the top right and falling to the left. However, I soon realized that it originated in the bottom left and the branch at the top right curled down the right hand side. My initial reading came about, partly, because of the black spot in the upper right. I thought this was where the the roots were and the tree somehow dangled in the air.
During his talk with students, Ragland pointed out that during the photography process, something went wrong and the fog-like covering came over the plate. I assume that the black spot also occurred in the same manner. Ragland and Norton could’ve taken the picture again, fixing what went wrong, but they left it, allowing the “mistake” to become part of the picture. In doing this, they draw attention to the fact that the photograph is merely representation, not the actual site. As well, the “mistake” adds a new dimension to the image.
Ragland and Norton write that the site is on the Coosa River near where the Cherokee chief Pathkiller ran a ferry. In his later years, he would watch the river from the banks, and “[h]e was buried on the bluffs overlooking the Coosa, his body laid to rest facing the river.” When I looked at the image in the museum, I began to focus on the black spot. Drawing my eye downwards from the spot, I started to see apparitions appear in the fog as they emanated from the branch. The apparitions moved towards the left of the image, obscuring our view of the river.
Taken with the caption, the fog remind me of Pathkiller’s spirit, still hovering over the site where he lived and work. Still hovering over the river he loved. His physical being does not walk anymore, but his presence, just like the presence of all that walked there before, including Ragland and Norton, and all who will walk there afterwards, inhabits that part of the banks of the Coosa River.
Initially, the above image did not capture my attention; it looked merely like underbrush in the woods, nothing to really draw my eye except the tangle of plants wrapping around each other struggling for space. However, as I looked closer at the image and read the caption, more of the image came into focus.
This site is close to the Coosa River where, in 1540, Hernando de Soto and his men forded the river. He had “native slaves with him. Later, in the early 1800s, the site would be “home to General Andrew Jackson’s Fort Smother,” the fort where he launched his campaign against the Red Stick Muskogee Creeks in 1812. In the 1880s, a river lock opened up more of the river for shipping, and today Alabama Power Co. owns the river and the land.
Ragland and Norton’s caption note that the photograph contains “divergent paths,” but I do not see them clearly. Instead, I see, on the right, what appears to be an opening in the path as light from the sun shines through. To the left, I just see a gnarl of bushes, trees, vines, and grass. Yet, when I looked at the bottom of the image, in the middle, something caught my eye. At first, it looked like a coat hanger sticking out of the earth, some refuse someone must have left behind. As I looked closer, I began to think it looked like a thin plant, bent awkwardly.
However, neither of these thoughts satisfied me. Examining it closer, it looks as if there is rust on the object near where the bend in on the top left. That indication of rust tells me it may be something more contemporary, at least from the 20th century, and that it is metal. If the Alabama Power Co. owns the land, then could it be some of their equipment left behind in the dirt, succumbing to the expanding landscape? If this is the case, then this image brings together not just the spatial divergent paths but it also brings the temporality of the site, conjoining what occurred there in the past with the more recent past of the power company.
Even with this item, though, those who once walked the site have passed on. The paths that they cut through the brush have be retaken by that brush, becoming obscured and unrecognizable. This site and the paths served colonization. They served displacement. They served environmental harm. Yet, they do not remain that way in our memory. If I came across this space, it would be during a hike, a trek along a well-worn path. I would not know who came before. I would ponder who might have been there, but the actual facts would not enter my mind unless I researched earlier.
We exist on the foundations of others. Sometimes, as is the case with the sites that Ragland and Norton document, that foundation propped up massacres, violence, hatred, and white supremacy. We need to dismantle those foundations and rebuild. To do that, we must be able to recognize and remember sites and stories like those that Ragland and Norton document. If we don’t remember, then we will be doomed to repeat them because no one will speak up when someone tries to do similar things either to others or to us.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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