The best back-road trips with Doctor Flowers aka Roy Burke usually included forays into small towns, which if they rated, featured some weathered windows and doors for Doc to suss out and capture on his trusty camera(in later years a digital Nikon). The entrepreneurial dreams and aesthetic choices he loved to capture were those of the independent hangers-on in the near-abandoned blocks nearby the square. The actual commerce in many these places had long before decamped to the bypass or the interstate, plopped down in a late 20th century shopping mall tied to the Wal Mart, or the food gas bathroom node at the interstate crossings of Generic America. Left behind are often the ruins of the glory days when everyone ‘came to town’ to trade, to gossip, or in the case of this would-be club, sip a Bud Light. He took this photo on one of our last Christmas week runs together, in 2013. Our ultimate goal was to see and feel the mysterious Ohoopee Dunes, which we saw and documented the next day outside of Swainsboro. But towards end our first day out we found ourselves in Downtown Louisville, Georgia, with the perfect winter afternoon light to hunt some windows and doors. The uneven-ness of it all, the land and carpentry and paint job, the Rothko-like color and line juxtaposition, the light fixture from another century standing guard, the ghostly Bud Light light, with the battered OPEN sign putting the lie to it all–it’s a quintessential Roy Burke photo.
Crows were one of Doc’s favorite creatures. They are one of the easiest birds to watch because they live almost everywhere, from downtown to the forest and most places in between. Their raucous calls(crows) to one another always seem to be delivered with the spirit of the back-row heckler or inveterate smart ass. A regular funny highlight of our back roads runs was the sight of a diligent crow or two(or three) patiently hopping out of the state route right of way as the cars passed, then heading right back for some tasty roadkill. “Must be something good there, Rob.” “I think so, Doc. Good as the Golden Corral to a crow.” At one point Doc purchased and learned to use a PS Olt crow call. I admired it so much that he bought one for me as a Christmas gift one year. But you have to be pretty savvy to try to call up/fool a crow. They are legendarily smart, shown able at various points to remember people, give gifts, and use tools. Your best bet is to lean flat against a large tree trunk and act inconspicuous as you blow the call. Most of the time the crow will spot you and call you out for the piss-poor crow imitator you are. Every now and then you can fool them into returning a companionable call, beginning an authentic crow call and response, but not often. Corvus brachyrhynchos is no fool.
Strangely enough in Doctor Flowers’ photo archives there aren’t too many pictures of crows. The one above is the only one on hand, although he kept a dozen or more archival pictures of crows from other photographers. Now-days when I spy a crow I think fondly of my friend and usually start up a conversation with the crow, an animal spirit stand-in for Doctor Flowers. “How’s it going today, Doc?” The crows seem to cut me some slack, not thinking me crazy. I’d like to think if there is a heaven, it is much like that Dade County, Georgia transmission tower shown above, my best friends and loved ones gathered on the cross beams, cackling and crowing to each other, no more care for the world below.
Doc had a soft spot for abandoned, rural gas pumps. We discussed the logistics of acquiring one and putting in the back yard at Ground Zero but things never quite lined up. He took many pictures of them, though, including this one in Hancock County, Georgia in 1998.
Ground Zero was Doc’s home base, his safe place, his patch of land, suburban retreat. He bought the house on Brasac Drive in Stone Mountain in the late 1980s when the neighborhood was still under construction, choosing the house and lot because it overlooked the wetlands on the fringe of Hairston Park. He could look out the back of the house and see woods and swamp, not other suburban houses. After he moved in he made a grand landscaping plan(seen above) called Loco-Motion/The Three Year Plan. Thanks to Paul Lamarre for unearthing this drawing to be seen here. Much of the plan Doc created, sweating away countless hours weeding and digging on days off, the physical labor an antidote to too many days sitting at a desk or in a conference room. He built a morning glory net over the living room picture window and enlisted some friends to pour a concrete(not flagstone) patio out back. It was his shelter and the place where he spent many of his happiest years. I and his closest friends and neighbors were lucky to spend time there with him, too. The house is still there, but Ground Zero only exists as an idea anymore, in drawings like this one, the busy, deep mind of Roy Burke spilling out on the page again, a marvel.
Around Christmas time, Doc and I would get together, sometimes with Paul, for a holiday toast, a meal, exchange gifts. We would listen to Bell Wringer, his Christmas music mixtape. Sometimes I would stay the night in the guest room at Ground Zero, preparatory to an early morning run into the mountains or down to South Georgia the next day. I always read before I go to sleep, and the light in the guest room came from one of these lamps. He had a few in the upstairs guest rooms. They aren’t antiques or museum pieces, just a functional little lamp with an unmistakable low-wattage yellow lightbulb. I keep one by the front door today, and the atmosphere it creates reminds me a little bit of good times with my friend, especially around this time of year.
Doc loved the Blue Ridge Parkway. It sang him a siren song of beauty, majesty, sound engineering and good governance. In honor or Rev. Reheis’ August pilgrimage the length and breadth of the ‘Parkway, here are three shots on film of S curves near Big Spy Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia near mile post 26, taken last century.
Stone Mountain Park was Roy’s refuge, relief, workout facility and subject for much of the final 30 years of his life. It was a woodland buffer from the grind of urban life, all the fine particulate matter in the air and the bureaucrats downtown. Those of us who knew him would give anything for another of those walks together through Stone Mountain Park on a breezy day. Post full-time retirement he walked there every day that he could, taking pictures in all seasons and all weather. His second blog Stone Mountain Meanderings is worth your time if you didn’t catch it first time around. This photograph of Stone Mountain Lake at the beginning of 2009 evokes Monet and his water lilies in its painterliness. They were both old men with beards who were familiar with their subject matter, and the brief moments in an average day when nature and weather combine to focus the eye, the hand on the canvas, the camera’s lens.
Two years on it still hardly seems real Doc, that all that would be left are the logbooks and maps, photos and blog posts and memories and laughs and the many, many remembered miles we spent strutting and fretting our way across the back roads and creeks and country churchyards. A headstone in your hometown and a righteous sendoff by your friends were good, but not enough. I still grieve a little every day recalling afternoons whiled away at Ground Zero, digging deep into South African resistance music or the oeuvre of Slim Harpo, tossing off jeers and asides at the ballgame on the TV down the hall. “That’s the Cavs,” your disgusted mutter standing in for every let down anyone ever took in the gut, as time expired. So there’s this photo, from your 2006 Blue Ridge trip, an image of American Pastoral that makes me smile at the thought.
Country Churches were one of Doc’s very favorite subjects. He made sure to visit them(and re-visit favorites) throughout his ramblings. If there was not a national forest handy, lunch at the tailgate would nearly always be in a country churchyard. His church aesthetic for the best photographs were exacting, and very nearly impossible to reach in the time and place he shot most of his photos. This shot, about as Currier and Ives as you can get in 2006, fell short by the length of the two utility wires crossing the picture, a technological affront to the identity of the country church as a simpler, earlier place in his mind’s eye.