Artist captures ’ghost voices’ of an abandoned past

By Adrian Higgins The Washington Post

Once the structural elements of a garden are built and the landscape is planted, it takes about five years for the plantings to have real presence and another five years or so for the garden to achieve an air of solid maturity.

This is predicated on continual maintenance and adjustment, on mowing, watering, pruning, replanting and all the other aspects of cultivating a paradise. If you walk away, the process of decay is almost immediate.

Even the most modest garden, thus, is a fragile and fleeting thing, and if neglected for years rather than just weeks, it submits wholly to the forces of nature. Shrubs grow rank, perennials peter out, trees expand and die, and any voids are filled with invaders from dandelions to monstrous vines.

When paired with the corresponding decline of a vacant house, the scene can be romantic, sad, poignant or nostalgic.

For more than 20 years, Merideth Taylor has been bearing witness to old, fading buildings in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where she lives. Most are small homes or farmsteads, empty and cloaked in a mantle of abandonment and decay. Contained in their flaking paint, sagging roofs and enveloping vines are the traces of lives that have been lived and the joys and sorrows of the people who once occupied them.

These “ghost voices,” as she calls them, have been captured in her book, “Listening In: Echoes and Artifacts from Maryland’s Mother County.” Her images are accompanied by imagined narrative vignettes for each property, where fictional occupants speak to one another. The stories are drawn from oral histories that she has conducted, including those of African Americans whose not-too-distant forebears were sharecroppers. Their ancestors were slaves in the tobacco fields.

Many of the places in the book have a haunting quality about them that draws power from their dilapidation. They are typically small, built by the owners from simple materials, and seem to date to the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. They capture the culture of an essentially Southern agrarian community passing into history, a place where tobacco farmers and oystermen have given way to commuters and suburban tract housing.

Part of Taylor’s motivation, she says, was to explore the continuing gaps in our society between rich and poor but also the loss of a cultural landscape. “I began to see the buildings’ gradual collapse and, in many cases, disappearance altogether as metaphors for the passing of time and fading of a way of life,” Taylor writes.

The properties were scattered in and around the back roads of southern Maryland, and not all are strictly within the boundaries of St. Mary’s.

They speak to a time when small houses were crowded with large families, people relied on vegetable gardens and farm fields to feed themselves, and frugality was not so much a virtue as a mode of survival.

But for all their simplicity, some of the houses strove to present a stylish face. One tar-paper abode has a Dutch theme: red with white shutters ornamented by stacked diamond patterns. “What struck me was the attempt to present something decorative,” Taylor says. “I really liked what that house had to say. Now it’s gone.”

And what of decay as the artist’s subject? “As people age, they may not be beautiful in the same way as when they were young, but their character shows and they are more interesting,” she says. “To me, the structures are a lot like characters.”

The gardens were as unpretentious as the houses, with the comforting shelter of shade trees and lots of foundation shrubbery. You find unsinkable, decades-old forsythias still bursting into early spring bloom, though there is now no one to love them. You see historic varieties of crape myrtle that would have been too tender to survive in Washington or Baltimore.

In one picture of a once-elegant old house of cedar siding and a raised-seam metal roof, a bare wintertime wisteria has climbed to the roof ridge. In another, a wisteria in flower and other vines seem to be intent on pulling the house down, like rapacious tropical lianas.

Their abandonment is the last chapter in the historical arc of these places. Taylor recalls photographing one vacant house and the owner of the adjoining property coming outside. “He said it was his daughter’s and she was going to fix it up. Now the roof has started to cave in. I watched this with a number of places,” she says.

Taylor’s narratives seek to embody the voices that once echoed in and around these houses. “I tried to focus on experiences that are still very relevant. People still get born and die, and bad things happen and people have a hard time getting along, and those problems are still with us,” she says. “That’s what saved it from being some kind of romanticized picture.”

Gardening Tip

A season swinging between flood and drought is taking its toll on tree foliage, with leaf scorch and blight widespread. Some trees are dropping many leaves prematurely. No long-term damage will result, but fallen leaves should be removed and bagged to minimize future disease problems.

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