The Aerial Classroom: Small-Town Blues

The second in a miniseries from Belle Boggs, in which we follow a group of North Carolina high school students as they document their community via interviews, portraits, and aerial photography.

One of my favorite pieces of writing to share with rural students is Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Though most of the students I teach are unfamiliar with the south Georgia landscape Ray describes, they immediately recognize and respond to her intimate and honest portrait of the people and landscapes of her childhood. That personal narrative writing can be loving but unsentimental, fanciful but also direct and factual, is often a revelation to them.

In Columbus County, North Carolina, Ken Abbott and I used low elevation aerial photography to help students connect in an even more immediate and truthful way to the landscapes they inhabit. Our hope was that by working with the elevated camera rigs, following them around fields and towns, and then examining the resulting work in the classroom, they’d have a new appreciation for everyday sights—hay bales and forest edges, railroad tracks and roads—as well as a better understanding of their own place within the landscape.

Here, senior Will Edmund riffs on Ray’s introduction, and explains what it’s like to spend your summer in a tractor cab:

Many people have always lived in the small place known as Columbus County. It’s a county that is framed by two things, farming and family. To a newcomer’s eyes, it may not be more than a bowl of dirt, but to those of us who have been living here, it’s the best place to be. You are never bothered, because your neighbors live too far for you to hear or see what they’re doing. It’s peaceful, with the lack of traffic, the relaxing chirps of birds and crickets, and the entrancing smells: fresh-cut grass and wheat, the sugary scent of cropped sweet corn.

There are not any hills or mountains, just flat, beyond flat. Tractors burn high-octane diesel all throughout the county, but a bit more in my end. My homeland is Cerro Gordo, the smallest of the small. No stoplight; a BP gas station is our only attraction. Sometimes we get two boys trying to prove who has the better truck.

If you want something to do, you have to go to a surrounding town, such as Chadbourn, Whiteville, or Fair Bluff. Still, all of these towns have a few things in common: the population is small; you’ll still hear the sounds of John Deere, Kabota, New-Holland, Case, and Massey-Ferguson tractors, whether it’s light or dark; and the only real disaster is when it rains on the corn crop the day you were supposed to pick.

At my family’s small farm, our rustic machinery is far from new. It seems like our combine is haunted, but that can be blamed on the fact that it is a twenty-three-year-old New-Holland with a rusty brace, warped pulleys, and worn-out belts. Its cab is enclosed, but since the air doesn’t work, it’s hotter inside than outside.

It’s my job to drive that family heirloom. My typical hot, humid, summer day consists of shutting myself into one of our old Massey-Fergusons or that old New-Holland. It’s not the most fun thing, to sit on a tractor all day, now in the ninety-eight-degree heat, but I wouldn’t trade it.

Branton Williamson, also a senior at West Columbus High, imagines moving elsewhere:

In Columbus County, particularly Evergreen, everything is as plain as potatoes without salt. Evergreen, like most of our towns, consists of a crossroads with a school on one side, a post office on the other, and a half-rundown store right in the middle.

My community stands among corn and bean fields that are scattered between tobacco fields on old back roads that only locals have use for. At night, my town is populated by the noises from crickets, a bullfrog here and there; sometimes you’re lucky enough to hear the turbines of a jet taking visitors to foreign lands. Even with all these noises, it’s ominously black. The turbines yell “travel”; they remind me of my trips to Washington, D.C., the most significant place I’ve ever visited, and my hopes of “hitching the first train outta here.”

In ten years, I see myself traveling the world with my significant other, or with my mom. Amsterdam, Washington, London, and Paris are all places I hope to call home at some point in my life. For one reason, life is more exciting there. Another main objective for moving is better job opportunities with my degree. Unless you want to take over the family farm, work manual labor or retail, there are not many jobs in Columbus County. Farming is not for me.

I hope to eventually settle in Raleigh so I’m close to my family, but still within an arm’s length of shopping, theaters, and eclectic restaurants. I see myself coming home to Evergreen whenever the urge strikes. Knowing, however, that I have a home elsewhere will make coming back easier.

Leslie Waddell used the aerial perspective to inspire a description of her home:

I live in a small farm town in rural, eastern North Carolina. In Cerro Gordo there isn’t much to do if you don’t own a four-wheeler or twelve-gauge shotgun. I live off a highway where you hear transfer trucks driving through the town, never stopping. The city limits of my town enclose a post office, an elementary school, a high school, and a gas station.

My long gravel driveway leads up to a small gray house with a blue tin roof. As you walk through my back door, the laundry closet is on your left and the kitchen is on your right. On opposite sides are four bedrooms, two on each side. One for my father and stepmother, one for me, and two empty bedrooms that used to belong to my older sisters.

Surrounding my house is nothing but overgrown woods and cornfields. From above, you can see acres of farmland for every house. You see small storage buildings and hay bales scattered across these pieces of land. At night you can hear leaves shaken by the wind, crickets singing a moonlit lullaby, and distinct dogs barking at whitetail deer looking for a midnight snack in the cornfields.

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen and the forthcoming novel The Ugly Bear List. Her essay “The Science of Citizenship” appears in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion.


  1. Yes, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” is such a classic, wonderful that you’re introducing youngsters to it.

Commenting on this item is closed.