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When you look at a map of Alabama, you see it has a little tail at the bottom. It is where you find the city of Mobile, and where you find Baldwin County. Mobile is to the west, Baldwin County to the east of the vast Mobile Bay. 

My daughter, Susie, worked for years at the Mobile Register — she is the third generation to become a journalist — but lived across the causeway in the county. 

The two are very different. Mobile is urban, with shipyards and warehouses, high rises and traffic. 

The county is rural, with farms, fishing shacks and at least one high-end bayside resort: the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. 

When we lived in Phoenix, Ariz., we visited Susie and our granddaughters once or twice a year and I managed to circumnavigate the county pretty thoroughly. 

I would sometimes make day-long excursions with my camera. I was a photographer before I became a writer. For six years, I taught photography at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va. 

But that was back in the days of Dektol, D-76 and Kodabromide. Cameras used film and gave us negatives to print. I was trained at a time when for most of us, photography was black and white. 

That tended to govern how we approached our subjects. If color meant nothing, we had to focus on form, on darks and lights. 

As a result, my eye was attuned to shadings rather than hues. 

And so, my first forays into the back of Baldwin County were seen in black and white. 

What I had in mind, more than anything else, were the photographs of Walker Evans, who made some famous Depression-era photographs in Alabama. Old service stations, abandoned farmhouses, agricultural towns with raw main streets. Evans was wonderful. 

When you see a boatload of his work, you can’t help seeing how many times, on the same day, he made multiple images of the same subject, trying to capture it from different angles and distances, later choosing the one image that said what he wanted to say. 

Walker Evans, “Selma, Ala.”

So, as I drove through the backside of Mobile and the county, I sought out similar things, and made multiple angles, too. 

One day, when the womenfolk were out shopping for clothes, or shoes, or whatever it is that the female gender tends to focus on, I took my camera out and drove up and down County Route 13, which runs north to south in the County. 

In a single day, I finished a project that I printed up and displayed under the show title: “Southern Baroque.” 

I found ruins, 

trees,

homes,

cotton fields,

Tractor paths,

and weeds, lots of roadside weeds. 

And at the end, Weeks Bay, an offshoot of Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of pelicans bobbed like decoys in the water and scattered in the air. 

In all, I wound up with about 50 good images to show in the exhibit. 

On an earlier trip, I tried to capture Mobile. 

I found oil tanks,

shipyard derricks,

downtown iron-rail balconies,

and restaurants on stilts along the causeway, safe from storm tides.

But Tri-X and Photo-Flo went the way of the mastodon, and I eventually had to take up digital photography. Turns out, it was a revelation. 

I was never happy with color film. Kodachrome was too garish, Ektachrome too grainy. Some photographers, such as Ernst Haas and Eliot Porter, managed to make stunning color photos, but they had the advantage of dye-transfer, a process way too expensive for a mere teacher. 

So, over the decades, I had worked at training my eye to see in textures, shades and shapes. My sense of color had begun to atrophy.

But using the digital camera, I began to relearn color. I began to see in color. I hope I have been able to blend that with the lessons of shape and light I had already learned. 

And then, when I traveled Baldwin County, I had an eye for color. It screamed out at me. 

And instead of traveling down Route 13, I followed the Fish River, a few miles to the east (and also ending at Weeks Bay.)

I began where the river is not much more than a rivulet. It was crowded with multiple greens, and the rich tawny stream bottom was delicious in contrast. 

It was early fall, and leaves had begun to turn, and those that hadn’t were drying out. 

I wandered down the road by the river, stopping once in a while to catch a patch of grass,

or a tangle of branches,

or a great tree

or a beautiful tangle of old oaks.

But I cannot credit merely the change in technique for this awareness of color. It seems to be something that has come to me with age. 

When I was young, I tended to see the world in starker terms. I was cocksure of myself, and so often wrong. But the black and white coincided with that black-and-white worldview. 

As I got older, I grew softer. I became more attuned to my insides — how I felt, and aware of how others felt.

I imagine this has something to do with a decrease in testosterone — and thank god for that. I am a kinder man than I ever used to be. 

It may also have something to do with having a family made up almost entirely of women: daughter and two granddaughters. I can’t say I learned empathy — that implies a will to do so.

But rather, that an empathy has pupated in me and emerged in my senescence, fully colored. 

Whatever the cause, color now delights me no end. Sometimes when driving, I will choose a color and make an especial notice of it and how often it appears. It’s surprising how much yellow there is in the world. 

And like so much else I’ve learned over the long span of years, it is paying attention that matters. Live slower, notice more, enjoy more. 

Click on any image to enlarge

inez fishing

I have a problem with aquariums. I love them and visit every one I can possibly find, but I can’t look at all those fish swimming around without getting hungry. All the fish look so darn tasty. Whether it’s the salmon, silver as Boeing jets, at the Seattle Aquarium, or catfish in New Orleans, which I fantasize wearing corn meal suits, I imagine all those finny beasts on my platter.

So, you might think I was a big fisherman. Catch my own dinner, hold up the sea bass for a photo, scale and gut it and fry it up in butter and white wine. But I have only been fishing three times in my life. I consider it one of my character flaws that I never became an angler; it’s a missed opportunity. But growing up in New Jersey did not nourish the outdoorsman in me. I knew a lot more about discount malls than I did about trout.

The first time I went fishing, I went out on a half-day boat with my uncle when I was a teenager, off the Jersey shore. We caught flounder and sea robin — certainly one of the ugliest of Providence’s creations — and the grown-ups drank beer the whole time. I figured that fishing, like TV football, was really just an excuse to lubricate the church key.

The second time I went fishing was some 20 years later when my wife and I were invited to a North Carolina pig pickin’, and were encouraged to fish in the trout ponds that our host had built near his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I fished with cheese balls on my hook and caught a half-dozen rainbows and browns. They were good eating.

Norris Allen

Norris Allen

The third time, though, I went with my daughter in Alabama. We went out on a pier in Weeks Bay, off Mobile Bay, with Norris and Inez Allen. Inez was my daughter’s nanny for her twin daughters. In the South, a nanny is more than an employee; when you hire a nanny, you are starting a lifelong relationship. It’s more like hiring an aunt or an extra grandma for your babies.

We spent the day in October on the dock, casting and reeling in our bait. Norris caught some pinfish with our boughten bait, and immediately started cutting them up into little pieces, so we wouldn’t have to pay for any more chum. The fishing trip was really an excuse to picnic and gab.

It was a social event for my daughter, her twins, the Allens and my wife and me. Inez sat in an aluminum folding chair under the shade of a broad straw hat. She held a fishing pole over the side, but never paid much attention to it. Norris, though, was a dedicated angler.

Norris cutting chum

Norris cutting chum

“I like to go out at least once a week,” he said. “But I’ve had a problem recently, so it’s been a while. I got to go to the doctor again tomorrow.”

Norris was in his 70s and as lean as Inez was not. Norris caught the most fish, but I caught the biggest.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“That’s a white trout,” he answered.

It was about 10 inches long and weighed about two pounds. Most of what we caught were pinfish, three or four inches long, silvery discs in the hazy sunlight. But we caught a few white trout, too, long and torpedo shaped. They fought harder and splashed water angrily as we hauled them out of the bay.

White trout

White trout

I mention all this because of two things. The first is that we ate the best fish dinner that night I have ever tasted. I was in ecstasy. My wife can attest. I ate pinfish and white trout, fried in cornmeal the proper Southern way, and I nearly cried when I was too full to finish off any more fish.

The second is that the following day I went to the Weeks Bay Natural Resource Center, about a hundred yards from the dock where we fished, to talk to a park ranger and ask about the fish we caught. I wanted to find out more about our worthy opponents.

“What were they?” she asked me.

“Norris said they were pinfish and white trout, but I don’t know what their scientific names are.”

“Well, there’s no such thing as a white trout,” she told me.

(There really is, it’s scientific name is Cynoscion arenarius, and it is one of the weakfish family, not really a trout, but who cares?)

“No such thing,” she repeated.

“That’s too bad. It was the best tasting fish I ever ate. For that matter so were the pinfish.”

“Pinfish?” She seemed confused. “No one eats pinfish.”

Pinfish

Pinfish

“No? They were delicious,” I said.

“No. No one eats pinfish.” She repeated that mantra several times in our conversation as if that settled the matter, as we looked through several reference books trying to match up what we ate with the pictures and IDs.

It was one of those oblique demonstrations of the differences over race in America. The ranger was a White woman in her late 20s, obviously college educated, and just as obviously oblivious to the culture around her.

Black Alabamans eat pinfish with relish, but apparently the ranger’s well-to-do White family thought pinfish beneath comestibility. This wasn’t a case of overt racism, but an illustration of the profound breach between cultures, which is magnified in the American Deep South.

And I can guarantee, after eating a bellyful of pinfish, that it is White America that is cheating itself.