Okefenokee Haints (1934-1942)

Field recordings paired with these images were recorded in rural Mississippi by John and Alan Lomax between 1934 and 1942.  Click here for a comprehensive review of the collection, which is archived at the Library of Congress.


“Gwan Roun Rabbit”  

“I’m Going to Leland”  

“Little Rosie Lee”  

“See Lye Woman (Sea Lion)”  

Whittling Palo Santo

Mexican flame vines buttress Robert and Madeline’s verdant enclave from Orlando’s relentless congestion. After chocolate and coffee, we toured their small, one-room workshop where essential oils are blended, poured, packaged, and shipped.  One of their latest offerings is palo santo, from South America.  The “holy wood” was used by the Incas to purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy/spirits.  Robert offered a bag of sticks to take home.

The winter break’s first read was Amy Greene’s Bloodroot, an apropos tale for a cabin Christmas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Set in rural Tennessee, a doting grandfather whittles animals for his granddaughter. Inspired by his crafty gifts, and equipped with enough palo santo wood to cleanse an old apartment complex, I set out to try my hand at folk art.

Lloyd showed me how to use a range of tools for deconstructing, repairing, and building ramps and skateboards.  Despite his disdain for the sport’s inherent destruction, throughout the years my grandfather passed along well-worn various and sundry tools, including a small pocket knife.

The cube above was first, then the pyramid.  Pleased with fragrant basics, organic figures followed.  The boy in baggy jeans was originally intended to be a sphere, but symmetry proved illusive.  So the kid slowly revealed himself as a raver from ’97, and the pyramid became a hat.


Beneath an enchanted canopy of live oak limbs and Spanish moss, groggy commuters swerve to avoid cyclists on a road built for cars much smaller than the Fordasaurus that almost ended the day.  Old St. Augustine Road is one of the first in Florida, and for 23 kids, a left turn onto Grassroots Way leads to freedom, direct democracy and self discovery.

Educational buzzwords include “collaborative problem solving,” and “academic choice.”  For freeschoolers around the world, said concepts have been honored for decades. Last spring, Helen Hughes kindly invited me for a visit to the Windsor House in Vancouver.  During our correspondence, a parent of one of my students (homeschooled until third grade) mentioned a free school in Tallahassee. The Grassroots School is roughly 2,500 miles closer than Windsor House, so I headed south to the lush Florida panhandle.

An excerpt from their website… Grassroots School, modeled on the Summerhill School in Great Britain, opened in Tallahassee, Florida in 1972.  It was founded on the idea that all children are born with an innate sense of wonder and a desire to learn about the world around them.  Grassroots School continues to follow these basic beliefs, and fosters in its participants not only a love of learning, but also individuality, critical thinking, creativity, and a sense of responsibility to community and individuals.  The students at Grassroots School are taught responsibility and accountability through shared school jobs, direct participation in a working democracy, and through the self-direction of their own educations.  Students are treated as valued members of the community, equal to adults, however with less life experience and more limited emotional development.  Both children and adults enjoy an exceptionally low student to teacher ratio which allows the students’ unique interests and talents to blossom and flourish.   The school is set on a beautiful, four acre, wooded campus, where children are free to be themselves as they are enveloped by nature and the love of a community to guide them in their life’s journeys. Before visiting, a Grassroots resident and teacher urged me to read A.S. Neill’s book, Summerhill.  Founded by Neill in 1921, the British boarding school offers children a natural approach to learning without coercion. In Neil’s words, “By compelling our students’ attention to subjects which hold no interest for them, we, in effect, condition them for jobs they will not enjoy.”

Luis greets me on the porch with a handshake and a smile.  In addition to administrative tasks, he offers lessons in bicycle maintenance, building projects, Brain Gym exercises, food preparation, nutrition and Spanish.  His son, a former Grassroots student, now attends 9th grade at a local public school.  After introductions, Luis immediately initiates a tour of the 4 acre wooded campus. Ten minutes in, a child yells from the porch, “Luis!  Jan called and said a teacher named Cameron will come to visit this morning!”  As an educator in a standards-based, Title I public school, I wonder if I represent the establishment, and hope curiosity and further discussion of pedagogy can alleviate any suspicion (and calm my nerves).

The grounds include a circular garden, playground equipment, a bike path and loads of shade.  The two main buildings were moved to their current location by residents of the Grassroots Community when they established the land co-op in the early 1970s. One was an old house which now has a library/reading room, art room, office/computer lab, and a classroom.

Pat Seery is Grassroots’ first teacher and resident free school guru. He imported the philosophy following a visit to Sumerhill. The first thing Pat says is, “We take democracy very seriously.”  I can’t help but consider the Georgia 3rd grade standard that requires children to differentiate between direct and representative democracy, a concept taught through ersatz decision making on issues irrelevant to trained clockwatchers. Imagine a place where a five year-old’s sense of responsibility and self-worth begins with a weekly vote that holds the same weight as the oldest staff member’s.

The school day begins at 9:30, but some students are dropped off prior to that for “early care.”  During the two day visit, I noticed that everyone arrives at different times between 7:30 and noon. Attendance is non compulsory, as are classes. There is no curriculum or testing.

Everyone eats lunch when they’re hungry. Luis explains how students who first arrive at Grassroots from traditional schools quickly learn to listen to their bodies. After eating lunch too early, a growling afternoon stomach suggests waiting next time, or maybe having a snack. The students bring their own lunches, and a community watermelon fund makes the most of the peak Florida fruit season. We devour one purchased from a Gainesville farmer with a stand on the corner.

Children are admitted from ages five to eleven. After that, students from traditional schools often have trouble adjusting to the freedom Grassroots offers. Years of dictatorial adults suppressing individual interest, curiosity and naturally nuanced behavior causes some to become disruptive once unrestricted.

Wielding a shovel on the second day, Luis and I talk while digging holes in the garden for blueberry bushes. We share some parallels. Like my mother, Luis’ father and uncle attended the Sorbonne. When mentioning a trip to Chile last summer, and my appreciation for Neruda’s poetry, Luis offers a family tale of cold war politics:

While at the Sorbonne, his uncle was roommates with Salvador Allende, the future president of Chile, who many contend was assassinated with the help of the C.I.A. His uncle later wrote for a newspaper in Caracas, and composed a piece in 1976 denouncing the C.I.A. and Henry Kissinger to be published upon the Secretary of State’s arrival for a meeting with president Perez, and Foreign Minister Escovar Salom. Luis said the “lifts” in the office building weren’t working, so his uncle had to climb multiple flights of stairs to deliver the piece to an editor on the top floor. On the way back down, he fell and fractured his hip. So the ongoing joke in the family, which Luis remembers hearing as a child at the dinner table, was that Kissinger killed both Allende, and his uncle. Our families also share a sick sense of humor.

When I first contacted Grassroots about a potential visit, Jan responded enthusiastically to my inquiry. The kind matriarch lives next door to the school, and often welcomes students and parents for meals, games, meditation, or to harvest shitaki mushrooms. Following Luis’ tour, she took me on another that included gardens, fruit trees and a comfortably simple home.

According to the former Grassroots website, Jan teaches “high school prep math, gardening for fun and profit, big map geography games, card games and art projects.” A rustic old church serves as a theater and meeting place during inclement weather, and over the years, Jan’s studies of visual arts in college grew into a passion for theater. With the aid of Jan’s experience and costume design skills, the students research and write a play about the history of Old St. Augustine Road, dating back to the beginning of time. “The Old St. Augustine Road Show” starts with a range of beginnings, from The Big Bang and Creationism, to Native American animist beliefs. To prepare for the play, the students interview local historians, study topographical changes, and research the arrival and influence of the Spanish. Laughing, Jan explains that invariably, the girls’ favorite scene is from the plantation era because “they get to wear poofy dresses.” The play offers children an opportunity to engage in creative expression, while nurturing a sense of place within the context of historical influence on the local community. And they choose to do so.

Sierra is a former student who now volunteers. Her rapport with the children is wonderful. In the photo above, she orchestrates a bird’s eye group photo. In addition to teaching sign language, she helps with creative yearbook logistics as the year comes to a close. On the porch, Sierra offers thoughtful and compassionate advice to a young student considering what to do about an uncomfortably close insect. “You don’t need to step on bugs because they don’t want to hurt you.”

New to the area, Sierra fills me in on local vegan fare, and a restaurant called Soul Vegetarian turns out to be amazing.  After collards and a gyro, a scoop of creamy chocolate ice cream is perfect on a sweltering day. Sierra’s kind hospitality fits well within the Grassroots collective.

In terms of getting an idea of the free school movement’s core philosophy, the weekly Pow Wow is the most illuminating event. Each Wednesday at noon, parents, staff, volunteers and students gather on the porch. Attendance is optional, and noon is opportune because parents participate during their lunch breaks. When asked who conducts the meetings, Luis says he usually does, but “it’s open to anyone.” He turns to a boy walking by and asks if he would like to conduct Pow Wow the next day. The brave eleven year old says, “Yeah!” It’s his first time.

The next day at 12:00, the boy rings a cow bell (also used to signal clean-up each afternoon), and the majority of students converge on the porch. On a chalk board, with some spelling help from Luis, he writes the agenda: “Introductions/Announcements/Questions/Issues/Personals.”

The meeting commences with introductions. “Does anyone want to introduce themselves to the group?” Everyone’s eyes turn my way. I raise my hand and say, “My name’s Cameron.”  I spell it as he writes it on the board. “Will you allow people to ask you questions?” Anxiety peaks but I respond, “Sure.” The day before, Pat mentioned that Pow Wow can last anywhere from fifteen minutes, to five hours. When all the hands shoot into the air with questions for this curious visitor from Georgia, I understand how lengthy the meeting can become. Of the twenty people present, all but the most timid have at least one question, and many are quite thoughtful. In addition to standard favorite food/animal/color questions, I am asked why I chose to visit, and who would I like to be if I could be anyone else.

“A student here at Grassroots.”

Announcements, questions, and issues follow. While thumbing through old Pow Wow minutes from 2003, I discover the following rule:

“The basic agreement at the Grassroots Free School is that anyone may do anything as long as it doesn’t hurt or bother anyone else. Sometimes others annoy us or hurt us without meaning to and so we have to tell them.”

Rules are created, amended, and abolished in a vote where everyone’s voice counts “one for one.”  This includes anyone present at the time of the vote, and there are three possible outcomes: those in favor, those who disagree, and those who choose not to vote. Everyone makes a decision, and even if they don’t want to vote, they openly choose to do so.

The young moderator reads the first name on the list of people with issues to address. A boy with a broken shoulder wants to keep his ticket to Wild Adventures Theme Park, a much anticipated annual field trip funded by Pow Wow donations and fundraisers. Luis suggests returning the money to the Pow Wow fund.  A younger student raises his hand and says, “I think he deserves to keep his ticket.”  The injured boy’s mother backs him up and points out the fact that he got up early on Saturday to set up and work at the yard sale, which raised half of the money used to purchase tickets to the theme park. Luis resists. “I think it sets a bad precedent. Much of the money was raised by former students who won’t be going.” The issue of individual versus community comes to a head with 12 votes in favor, 6 choose not to vote, and no votes against. Luis’ knack for fostering discourse no doubt stems from many opportunities to play devil’s advocate.

A few announcements follow, including an upcoming potluck, watermelon fund, and the boy with a sling says he has a Sharpie so everyone can sign his cast. Next on the agenda are the personals. Pairs of names on the board are read aloud as respective issues and consequences are discussed and voted upon. The first involves a pair of sisters. The oldest turned off the lights and closed the door on her little sister while using the restroom. Smiling, she admits to it. The younger sister suggests a punishment of fifteen minutes in the corner, which the group votes in favor of. When asked if the consequence seems reasonable, the accused agrees and says, “It was worth it.” Once the consequence is voted and agreed upon by the accused, the accuser decides whether or not to carry-out the punishment. The forgiving girl opts not to punish her big sister, instead simply bringing awareness to her discontent in an effort to thwart future pranks.

After lengthy discussion, most issues result in little or no punishment. For the grassroots community, conflict resolution is more about discourse, understanding, forgiveness and empathy, than justice and retribution. In contrast, how can public school teachers under the gun of performance pay and high stakes testing step out of their quantitatively scrutinized comfort zone to nurture social emotional development?  The effects of overemphasizing testing include, among others, a lack of self-efficacy, motivation, and self-worth. If authenticity promotes genuine interest in learning, what level of imagination and ingenuity can we expect from a citizenry accustomed to homogeneity and coercion? Divergent, critical thinking, and creative problem solving benefit all learners, yet curriculum that fosters these skills is often exclusionary and resigned to gifted programs. Within the education-industrial complex, counteracting the systemic diluting of novel thought falls on the backs of individual teachers. The only piece of advice offered during my visit to The Grassroots School by founder Pat Seery is one of the most critical, yet challenging things an adult can do for a child. “Just step back.”

Gilmer County Mindfulness

The Zen practice of stone stacking brings mindful awareness to balance, weight, texture and shape.

Resident trail guides Buster and Dixie collect stones from the stream, often carrying them great distances.  Buster greeted the sculptures with growls and barks as the fur on his shoulders stood straight up.

Baseball and Succulents

My grandfather was the greatest baseball fan ever, and played minor league ball in Detroit during the Depression.  U.S. Rubber offered him a job because they wanted him to play for their company team.  The male cousins were expected to become professional golfers or baseball players.  He signed me up for private golf lessons in High Point, North Carolina, and I played little league for Tangi Finance in Ponchatoula, Louisiana.   More paternal tales and a DIY succulent planter…

White Calla Lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica

Mr. calla lily lives in the shadow of a cemetery in Valparaiso, Chile.  His name comes from an Italian botanist, Giovanni Zantedeschia.

A group of artists tend this garden on the southwestern  side of the cemetery.  Beyond the lily grows an avocado, or “palta” plant.  A sculpture dries in the sun.

Valparaiso, Chile

Mentor and Apprentice

Much of the work here involves restoration of marble headstones and statues.

After exploring the graves, we discovered a stairway leading under the cemetery.

A Friendly Host

The cavernous, open-air studio consists of subsections for a variety of creative trades, from sculpture restoration, to mosaics.

Random curiosities like this mummified cat greet visitors.

Mummified Cat Biting a Dwarf

Valparaiso’s labyrinthian escaleras are an endless canvas for local artists.

Dogs and Cat

Graffiti Porteño, Valparaiso

Rickety funiculars cut the time it takes to scale Valparaiso’s steep hills.

The old funiculars are loud and rickety, yet strangely comfortable and familiar.  Listen to audio within a Valparaiso funicular on its way down:

Red Bougainvillea, Bougainvillea glabra

St Marys, Georgia

Elqui Valley, Chile

This bougainvillea adorned balcony in Santiago’s Barrio Bellavista rests around the corner from “La Chascona,” Pablo Neruda’s home named for his lover and third wife, Matilde Urrutia.  The name means “the uncombed.”

Street art surrounds the curious homes in one of Santiago’s most bohemian enclaves.


In the center of Santiago, some college kids spent an afternoon of their winter break giving away free hugs, or “abrazos gratis.”  In stark contrast to the youthful positivity, the man standing next to his bike was prosthelytizing about brimstone and hellfire, and the second coming of Jesus.

At times it was safer to pull out a handheld recorder, than a bulky camera that could easily get snatched.  Listen to a stroll through the heart of Santiago:


Later, we came across a blind couple and their young daughter singing for change.  The girl sat on the ground between her mother’s legs.  Listen below:

Pearl Fryar’s Topiary

Last month I drove to Bishopville, a small rural town in Central South Carolina.  It’s home to a kind soul named Pearl Fryar.  Around three thirty, he was speaking to a group of middle-aged tourists. Unbeknownst to Pearl, his website states that the gardens close at four on Saturdays, but after the group left, our conversation lengthened with afternoon shadows.

After working more than thirty years in a can factory while sculpting trees and shrubs each night, Fryar has managed to transform pockets of the depressed town into fantastical worlds of living sculpture.  Pearl’s self-taught craft began with discarded “junk plants” from a local nursery.

“How did I impress her (Martha Stewart), cutting bushes.”

“You should be nice to everybody.”

“We have a system in this country.  The system is set up for failure.”

“If you want to enjoy life, keep it simple.”

 “If you got an idea, and can’t afford it, start it.”

Pearl Fryar’s latest endeavor is metal sculpture, which he calls “junk art.”

Hardly junk.

Fryar Topiary Gardens
145 Broad Acres Rd
Bishopville, SC 29010-2819


Click here to read more about the visit.


This fridge magnet was fashioned from my cat Juicy’s dreadlock.  She’s a Rastafarian.

For The Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden To Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks

by Martin Espada

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,

the wait staff and the boss

share the complexion of a flour tortilla.

I have spooked the servers at my table

by trilling the word burrito.

I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity

with the refugees of the Americas,

since they steam in your kitchen.

I know my cousin Esteban the sculptor

rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips

of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.

I understand he wanted to be a waiter,

but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,

so he hissed in Spanish

and his apron collapsed on the floor.

May La Migra handcuff the wait staff

as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;

may a hundred mice dive from the oven l

ike diminutive leaping dolphins

during your Board of Health inspection;

may the kitchen workers strike, sitting

with folded hands as enchiladas blacken

and twisters of smoke panic the customers;

may a Zapatista squadron commandeer the refrigerator,

liberating a pillar of tortillas at gunpoint;

may you hallucinate dreadlocks

braided in thick vines around your ankles;

and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies

to the menu wait for you in the parking lot

at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.

– Martin Espada