red Oesch, the guy who used to run Gallery Neo and who now heads his own environmental architecture firm, was hosting a little Easter Sunday barbecue today and he'd invited me and anyone I might choose to bring along. Jessika and Deya were already lined up to go, and we thought we'd bring Wacky Jen along too; it seemed like the sort of adventure she would appreciate.
While Jessika and I were working on a poem called "When Jatasya Got a Lobotomy," Wacky Jen showed up, this time sporting green hair. We left in separate cars because Jen would have to get back before the rest of us.
At Farmer Jack, we stocked up on things we would need for a barbecue: chicken, hotdogs and vegetarian patties. Though Deya had been a vegetarian, of late I've seen her eating things like chicken. It didn't upset her that most of the things we were getting were meat-intensive. We did, however, shy away from the absolutely cheapest hotdogs, which claimed to contain "mechanically separated meats." We didn't like the prospect of a robot figuring out what was good and what was bad for us to eat when all robots ever eat is...
Fred's place is in rural hilly southern Albermarle County. He lives in a tiny two story shack in a line of several such shacks along route 800 just a mile north of Schulyer, setting for the infamous Jehu End of the World Party. Though most of his neighbors keep tidy lawns, his is overrun with weeds.
hen we arrived, we found the core Gallery Neo group hanging out around back. Lydia, the current owner/operator of Gallery Neo, was lounging in a chair, sipping on a beer and enjoying the bright sunshine. One of Gallery Neo's more consistently-showing artists, Edward Thomas, was casually sketching on a piece of paper. Finally there was Sydney, a small, withered, mentally-challenged old man who is often seen on the Downtown Mall sweeping up messes. Sydney has a certain infatuation with Lydia, and she occasionally pays him to sweep the carpet of her gallery.
After we'd said our hellos and made the necessary introductions with this group, we continued to the rear of Fred's parcel of land.
In the rural sections of Albemarle County, new lots must be no smaller than two acres in size. But Fred's house is part of a jazz-era "development" that is only now being reoccupied, and the small weather-beaten two-story dwellings of which it is comprised are centered only 100 feet apart. To get each 100 foot wide parcel of land to be at least two acres in size, they've each been made 800 feet in length. This takes them far back beyond the houses into a strange terrain chewed up with 80 year old soapstone quarries. Not far behind Fred's house, there's a cliff-edge of one such quarry. It drops down steeply to an isthmus between two half-acre sized ponds, what used to be the setting for a massive soapstone mining operation. Each pond is 80 to 100 feet in depth. They have steep walls, corrugated by drill holes, that plunge down from the rectangular shorelines on all sides.
We descended a freshly-constructed wooden stairway down to the isthmus, where we found Fred and Lydia's boyfriend John. Fred explained that the soapstone mines had once produced laboratory desk surfaces for a Finnish deskmaking company. Evidently soapstone, one of the softest minerals known to man, is almost completely chemically inert. In the pools of cold water I could picture the workers, the activity, the noise, the dust, the lung problems, even the occasional labour unrest. Fred said the workers had all been housed in the shacks along route 800 (bought in kits from Sears and Roebuck some 80 years ago).1 But the workers' jobs weren't to last forever; the mines were forced to close down with the advent of plastics, cheaper and more chemically inert even than soapstone.
Beyond the isthmus was a jumbled pile of soapstone blocks, each corrugated by the numerous regularly-spaced drill holes used to extract them. The blocks were the size of horses, or even bigger, and the spaces between them defined a labyrinth worthy of exploration. Jessika was very impressed. She kept telling me how much she wanted to buy one of the shacks, asking me if I wanted one too.
Edward showed us various large chunks of soapstone that others (who had what are known as "salvage mineral rights") were busy working into fountains and other grandiose stone objects. Soapstone is a wonderful substance for artists since it's softer than wood but has no grain. It can be carved like soap with soft metal implements, though it's chemically inert. Builders and solar energy enthusiasts like it because it has enormous heat-retention capability, but it's also a good insulation material. In the Schulyer area, I believe that the impressive soapstone deposits have a volcanic origin. The rock is so weird and abundant that some have attached a mystical significance to it. For example, the members of the Gathering (the cult that threw the Jehu End of the World Party) believe that soapstone concentrates psychic energy and provides protection from alien invaders.
Back behind Fred's little shack, the barbecue grill was fired up and various food items were prepared one at a time. I watched a small lizard race across the sunny side of the neighbor's shack, casting a shadow that resembled a tiny manic squirrel.
hen Sydney gave a little music performance. From one of his overstuffed overall pockets he produced a harmonica and a tin can and then spoke a long, rambling introduction to his first song. Sydney doesn't speak very clearly and, adding to the problem, he has a rather thick traditional southern accent. He "amplified" his voice by talking into the tin can. In his introductions, he talked repeatedly about so-and-so "walking the dog on the Downtown Mall." Sometimes it was Lydia (he pronounced her name "Lydio") "walking the dog," sometimes it was "Lydio and John," sometimes it was neither. Then he'd sing the final line or two of the introduction and conclude by playing the harmonica. He did three songs in a row, stopping at one point to allow Fred to snap a few pictures (something he wouldn't allow while he was performing). The narration varied a little bit between numbers, but the harmonica part was always identical. Jessika was clearly delighted. She really likes strange little old men for some reason.
I happened to notice that both of Sydney's arms were adorned with multiple wrist watches of various styles, worn over his shirt but under his jacket.
In the middle of Sydney's performance, the neighbor's female white collie/mut dog came over to socialize with Lydia's black Labrador Julia, but they were somewhat contentious and, oddly enough, liked to stage their irritatingly machoesque fights whilst leaning against Jessika.
Lydia helped Sydney dye a number of Easter eggs; it looked to me as if he'd never done such a thing before. Poor Sydney has had a rough life. I learned later that he was born a normal child, but was beaten so severely by his parents that now he's retarded and somewhat crippled. With his 70 years of limping and impaired reasoning he's still paying for some small incident that a misguided father no doubt took as a personal injustice.
Sydney lives the life of a sweeper, and I've subsequently learned that it's an "ecological niche" common to small cities. He has the perfect personality for it. Several times I saw him, extremely serious look on his face, asking Lydia, John or Fred whether we would be cleaning up our mess soon.
First Wacky Jen, then Lydia, John and Sydney, all left to return home to Charlottesville while Jessika, Deya and I looked around the yard at interesting bits of collected soapstone industry relics. We also checked out some of Fred's art which was hanging on the walls of the house and outhouse. He's made a few interesting works that combine computer renderings of images with bits of two-dimensional and even three-dimensional analogue reality pasted in, collage-style. Finally, we examined Fred's Sears & Roebuck house in a little more detail. It's definitely a fixer-upper. Large parts of the insides have already been remodeled and made liveable, but there's a whole stack of windows yet to install and a number of big gaping holes in the outside wall planks that need to be filled in, at least in time for next winter.
red led Edward, Jessika, Deya and me on a walk down a trail that snaked to the south from the back end of his property. The trail passed through a massive patch of kudzu killed by the winter frosts, looking like the cover of the REM album Murmur.
We arrived at another pair of ponds that had also been soapstone quarries and walked out on the isthmus between them. This quarry looked rather different from the one on Fred's property. It had been done later, after a number of technological advancements in the soapstone mining industry. The rock here had been mined without the use of drills at all. The rock had simply been cut by massive crane-mounted saws and the slabs had been lifted directly from the quarry. What remained behind, the sides of the quarry, looked almost like the faces of buildings: smooth, blue-gray and nearly featureless.
We climbed up the steep rocks on the high end of the isthmus where a rugged Virginia Pine had seized a foothold in an old saw cut in the rock. Deya is scared of heights and had the most difficulty reaching this vantage point. Edward popped open a bottle of champagne, and the cork flew several dozen feet and landed in the still deep waters of one of the artificial ponds. We drank from plastic cups. Fred pointed out various places around us that might make for interesting building sites, incorporating the soapstone face of the quarry itself or the concrete structures that had once been the mountings for the saw-bearing cranes.
Edward headed home and somehow we who remained got to talking about all the political trouble my Dad got himself into back when he used to actually have a career. This was all new stuff to Fred, but Jessika and Deya have heard me talk about this before. I said that my father's trouble-making spirit must be in my genes, and then we discussed the trouble this website has caused me. As I talked, I carved a small flake of soapstone with an old Volkswagen ignition key.
As darkness descended, we headed back to Fred's property. We came upon an unknown figure on Fred's isthmus, building a fire. Fred introduced the young man as his son, Arian. To fuel the fire, we all hauled small trees from the site of a redneck neighbor's anti-tree holocaust. For whatever reason, when a redneck buys a a parcel of land, he takes his chainsaw and a stack of NO TRESPASSING signs on his very first exploratory expedition. Fred's neighbor to the north was no exception to this rule of sociology.
Before it was too dark to see, Jessika, Deya and I gathered chunks of soapstone to take home and try sculpting.
We drank some beer and wine and talked about a wide range of things. I gave Arian some job-hunting tips, which is ironic since I'm very much still unemployed.
t a certain hour, Deya was making movements that indicated we should be going. So we said our goodbyes and climbed the wooden stairs up out of the quarry. Poor Fred; we found his yard drenched in the pasty blue brightness of the redneck neighbor's two redneck lights. Not only did these lamps obliterate even the chance of rich rural darkness, but their loud electric humming drowned out the songs of insects and amphibians. My redneck friend Josh Furr has one such light because (like all rednecks) he's extremely paranoid. The power company charges him $30 per month to run it (as much as birth control or cable teevee). Rednecks are indeed a strange breed.
related linksCentral Virginia Soapstone Geology- among other things to be found in this long HTML file.
What is Soapstone?- a commercial link.
1According to correspondent Greg Lang (writing from Minnesota):
Sears sold catalog houses from 1908 to 1940. There were 448 different models offered at various times. On the low end was a five room countrycottage for $449 (obviously not inflation adjusted). There were over 100,000 sold including my house with still has the original blueprints.The exposed lumber has numbers stamped on it that match the blueprint.Sears had in the past destroyed the records on the house and aroundfive years ago made an effort to locate surviving Sears houses. I got a $100 gift certificate from Sears for being the first Sears houseidentified in the Minneapolis-St. Paul MN area.
one year ago
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