The Aerial Classroom: Pieces of Pretty

The third 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.

After completing our first aerial landscapes of a former tobacco farm in Cerro Gordo, North Carolina, we traveled with the students to two nearby towns. The first, Fair Bluff, is a town of approximately 900 people, and although it has touches of small-town charm—benches and flower boxes, colorful flags along Main Street—you can’t miss the signs of financial struggle. The town’s only bank, recently closed, had signs on the door and deposit window directing you to branches in Whiteville. Empty storefronts, dusty displays. Even the online betting parlor had been cleared out.

Students spread out across the town’s three blocks, taking photographs and interviewing residents and shopkeepers. They knew this town—there were so few other places to go—and had an idea of what they wanted to capture, in words and images.

Senior Jenna Greene, who noted the town’s struggle, chose to focus instead on the river walk, which allows visitors and residents an up-close look at the Lumber River:

With fewer than a thousand people living here, the town still manages to keep a few businesses open. While walking past some of the closed-down businesses that I remember being open a few years ago—The Train Stop, Scott’s Movie Theatre, The House of Pizza—I also noticed customers walking in and out of the surviving businesses. B.H. Small & Co., Valley Gun Works, and Ellis Meares and Sons: these were businesses that were family owned, friendly, and very welcoming. The struggling town managed to support a variety of businesses, including a grocery store, a drive-in, two hardware stores, and a pharmacy.

Outside were decorative street lamps and landscaped sitting areas. The scenery complimented the river walk advertised all over town. The 1.24-mile-long river walk winds through the trees over the Lumber River, and it offers hunting, fishing, boating, and swimming areas. I like wandering the river walk after being at my church across the street on Sunday afternoons. Since it was built a few years back, they have added on and have plans for it to go even further—the extended walk may take up to an extra hour to walk, there and back.

Interestingly, many of the photographs taken on this trip focused also on the natural landscape: things that looked naturally “pretty” to the students. Animal tracks and Spanish moss along the river, trees and flower boxes, even vines creeping up along abandoned warehouses. Our PicasaWeb album of photographs selected by the students includes 128 photographs of nature, and only three interior shots of the thrift store and the pharmacy (these, of course, were the most interesting). They wanted, also, to apply filters to their photographs using Photoshop and Instagram, to make things look more old-fashioned.

On our next outing, a couple of weeks later, we visited Chadbourn, a town about twice the size of Fair Bluff. By then students had more experience looking at and describing what photographer Ken Abbott calls “human landscapes,” as well as with conducting and writing interviews.

Senior Michelle Wallace, a Chadbourn resident, described her town with the same clear-eyed fondness that characterizes the students’ photography from this week:

In Chadbourn, you have to look close to see the beauty. Traveling through the town, you’ll see rotted railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, a few businesses aching for customers. Familiar faces walk the roads: you may see family, friends, a teacher from long ago.

If you visit Chadbourn, there are a few things you should see. Take a few minutes to explore the scenery. Ignore the trash, or the disorderly uncut grass. See the small park hidden between old buildings, filled with flowers and benches, trees and mulch, a little piece of pretty in all the ugly. Examine the tarnished old-time buildings, try to imagine them bustling with business. Try to open your eyes to what was, what is, and what could be.

I grew up surrounded by new buildings, traffic lined up as far as I could see, cement in place of grass, and listening to proper talking instead of country slang. Where I lived, there wasn’t any farming, no fields or old buildings. Transitioning from the city to the country was strange and awkward but exciting. By moving to Chadbourn, I’ve changed. I’ve learned to see beauty where there’s none. I’ve learned to look deep into something and imagine its story.

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. Great to hear how you’re
    getting young people to look
    more closely at towns, for their beauty
    and human geography, too. Towns are not just places to flee.

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