Call and Response

Call and Response: Kristian Thacker and Nichole Dobo

Kristian Thacker . June 1, 2015. The faint trail of a deer that had been feeding in this field earlier in the morning. Fort Hill, Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Kristian Thacker. June 1, 2015. The faint trail of a deer that had been feeding in this field earlier in the morning. Fort Hill, Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Watch for the fawns

When we turn onto the lane, my two-year-old daughter calls out to me from the backseat.

“We are in the forest!”

This dirt road, with holes filled in with shale from the strippins, takes us to my grandparent’s house deep in the mountains of rural, western Pennsylvania. As we near the farmhouse we come to the hayfields. As a teenager, I’d stand on a rickety hay wagon here and lift compact square bales off the machine pulled by my grandad’s tractor. Sometimes, the whole operation would shut down for a bit when he’d discover a new fawn with bright white spots and soft hooves. It would be nestled in the tall grass, staring up at us, unafraid.

My daughter hasn’t seen a fawn yet. She isn’t of this place. I grew up here. Then I went to college, moved away and became a writer in the city. It’s the place where I can make enough money to pay my bills and send my child to the kind of school where she won’t be bullied for reading too many books, asking too many questions or being different. And yet. My heart aches for all she will miss. She won’t learn all I know. She won’t live near our enormous family. 

I’ve been gone nearly 15 years. But I still know how to tend to a coal furnace, make dilly beans, raise a hog and safely carry a gun. None of this seems immediately useful anymore, but the bigger lessons -- my ability to make something from nothing and to persist -- carried me to the place I am now. I have a good job and so does my husband. My daughter will go to preschool this fall that costs a sum that makes me feel faint. But in this place I am in now, in the city, I will always be seen as different, one of “those people,” when I tell people I meet where I am from. After Trump, and that J.D. Vance memoir that city people seem to think is a textbook, Appalachia has suddenly become all the rage. Exotic. People ask me if I can explain everything about everyone, everywhere in these vast hills. 

What do I even know, really? I’ve been away so long. And, more to the point, can anyone really explain everything about everyone in any place? 

I do what I can. I explain how people are not the familiar caricatures. But there are problems. Some are familiar to me. Others are new. Too many people are milling around at the gas station at noon, glassy-eyed and wearing dirty pajama pants. A few years ago my great aunt invited someone in for a cup of hot tea, and she was tied to her kitchen faucet and robbed. The man was looking for money to buy his next fix. It was winter, and she remained tied up overnight, alone. The untended coal fire dimmed and she was so, so cold. She survived, a testament to our hardy pioneer stock, which traces back to before the American Revolution. But this isn’t the kind of thing we should have to endure.

Is it my responsibility to move home and try to fix it? Fight the so-called war on drugs. Push the school board to improve the education. Repopulate our dwindling church with children I bring into this world. I type those words on a page and then delete them because I know how they will be received. I know the correct answers. I’m not special. I complain too much. I am ungrateful. I am no longer who I once was, and I do not belong. I am a flatlander, a braggart, an interloper. And, worse yet, I tend to write about things that are better kept private. 

Who do I think I am, anyway? 

I know this much: My daughter will still come here for Christmas and sit on a bear skin rug by the twinkling tree. She will learn to gather, prepare and crack black walnuts. She will start a fire with sticks she gathered. She will pick blueberries, so blue they are black, warm from the sun, juicy and sweet-tart, and nothing like the kind we can buy in the city. She will sleep in a farmhouse that has been in my family for generations on a piece of land that has been in our name for even longer. We no longer make hay here, the cows are long gone, but I can still teach my girl to watch for the fawns.

My daughter will not be of this place, but she will know of this place. I hope that is enough.

Nichole Dobo. New York, New York.

Call and Response is a photo-literary exploration devoted to the relationship between photographs and words. Using photographs from the Looking at Appalachia project, writers are encouraged to respond narratively to a single image in 1,000 words or less. We hope to use this platform to expand our community and encourage collaboration between photographers and writers. Learn more about how to submit here.