Guilt by omission

I remember my first trip to see Earl Groves. I had been told about his sawmill, powered by a steam engine. A relic from the past located in a place called Deep Hollow. The narrow gravel road curled along a creek colored bright orange by acid mine drainage. Great heaps of coal waste – gob piles – loomed overhead. Sunlight could barely breach the sharp cleft between the hills. The sawmill was a brown skeleton in the ruined landscape.

I’ve had the prints of the photos I shot for years. I remember when Earl took a ten dollar bill out of his wallet and used it to clean his glasses. I remember thinking he was showing off a bit.

The story and photos never saw publication in The Preston County News, the weekly newspaper I edited. The probable reason is they failed to meet my high standards. In Missouri’s photojournalism program, our “bible,” Visual Impact in Print, written by Professor Angus McDougall (his co-author was Gerald Hurley), contained these definitions:

The picture story has visual continuity. Its form is essentially narrative.

The picture essay sets out to prove a point or explore a problem. It is basically interpretive.

The picture group is an arrangement of miscellaneous pictures on a single subject. It has neither the picture story’s continuity nor the essay’s point of view.

The lesson: a picture group is inferior. And that’s what I had. The Earl Groves pictures had no narrative. I suspect that I was so taken by the visuals that I didn’t put down my camera to pick up my notebook. I don’t know for certain. I have my negatives; I don’t have my notes from the past.

It is difficult to simultaneously perform the duties of writer and photographer. But I could have done it had I committed the time, had I spent the necessary hours with Earl. I didn’t carve a space in my schedule. I was in my mid-twenties; I had not yet learned that time whooshes by at an alarming pace.

Here’s an excuse that could be true: I didn’t pursue the story because my presence at the sawmill caused Earl to work harder than an 80-year-old man should. Perhaps I was afraid that the old boiler he stoked would explode. So I wasn’t a slacker; I was a fretter.

In the photos, taken during two visits, Earl brings the sawmill to life. He wrestles with the boiler that powers a web of belts that make sharp saws spin into blurs. In photos taken early in the day, Earl is clean and smiling. Clean was an effort in a place layered with dirt, sawdust, and grease. If you look closely, you can see something in Earl’s breast pocket. You can’t tell that it’s a postcard of a two-headed calf. Earl gave me that card; I still have it somewhere. In the final photos of each shoot, Earl is filthy. He looks exhausted.

I think this may be the only mention of Earl in The News:

My column, Under the desk, in April 1978.

I was delighted to see a good friend of mine at an auction Saturday.

Earl Groves, 83, is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my more than three years in Preston County.

I have been working on a story about Mr. Groves for more than two years. It has yet to appear in The News because I don’t consider the story finished.

The story centers around Mr. Groves’ steam-driven sawmill located near his home in Deep Hollow. Not only does Mr. Groves run the mill single-handed, he also harvests the lumber he cuts.

And there’s more. After the lumber is cut, Mr. Groves uses it in to construct wondrous things.

Because of a busy working schedule I don’t get to visit Mr. Groves as often as I’d like. But I promised him Saturday that I’d be down to visit him in the near future and wrap up the story.

Now that the promise is here in black and white, I’ll have to do it … and it will be my pleasure.

Instead, this story – or non-story – became my shame. I remember talking to Earl on the phone. And I’m sure I visited to give him copies of these photos. His grandson James told me that Earl had enjoyed being the object of my attention.

Every story in The Climb from Salt Lick is vivid in my memory. I am a stickler for the truth. And I am not certain why I failed to finish the Earl Groves story. So he is absent from my pages once again.

Earl is long gone. So is the grandson who introduced us. Although I haven’t relaxed my standards in the four decades since the photos were taken, I’ve mellowed. I don’t care that there’s no narrative here. I appreciate the photos because they capture a proud man and his passion for his work. And a steam-driven (steam-driven!) sawmill. All gone to dust now.

This piece was first published in April 2018 in Booktimist, a blog about books and culture from West Virginia University Press. For more photos, follow the link:

Abrams Nancy