Humble Hideaways

Birdhouses aren’t just aviary hangouts—they’re reflections of the people who build them.

Every day I drive past this beautiful garden just inside the Lexington city limits, in Rockbridge County. I search regularly for scenes to photograph for my Southern Places project—a collection of images, mostly rural landscapes, that I started several years ago—and the garden always caught my eye. Beginning with each spring planting, the small plot would fill marvelously with tall, neat rows of corn, squash with leaves as big as elephant ears, and tomato plants loaded with fruit and straining against the wire cages that held them upright.

One afternoon in 2004, I stopped the car and walked over to take a closer look, thinking I might make a photograph. The man who owned the garden, Mr. Nelson Nicely, met me with his hand outstretched. He was happy to show me around. In addition to the vegetables I’d seen from the road, there were peas and beans in profusion, cucumbers and pumpkins, and sweet potatoes nearly ready to dig. The soil was dark and smelled rich.

After he left me alone with my camera, I noticed something toward the back of the plot. It was a birdhouse—unobtrusive, utilitarian, and tucked so discreetly into a corner that no one, save a bird, would have imagined it was there. I could see straw sticking out of the hole. I thought, here was the perfect hideaway.

I took various photographs that day, and the best of them is of Mr. Nicely’s birdhouse. I like it mainly for what it suggests about the man who placed that humble structure so considerately for discovery, for use. I’ve been taking birdhouse pictures, among others, ever since that day.

Whenever I have exhibits of my photography, the birdhouses inevitably attract the most interest. Some people assume that I’m a hobby ornithologist, but I couldn’t be less interested in what kinds of birds live in the houses or whether birds live in them at all. For me, these photographs are about the people who installed them, and in many instances made them, with such apparent care.

I began to think of the birdhouse pictures as a distinct body of work and decided to publish some of them in a book. I didn’t want a traditional coffee-table book, but rather something handmade—a tactile representation of the hand-printed photographs themselves. Birdhouses, published in July of this year by Horse and Buggy Press in Durham, North Carolina, is the result.

In my introductory essay for the book, I describe how I came to view birdhouses as extensions of ourselves—a meditation, if you will, on home, place and identity. They are all central concerns of the subjects I’ve spent years studying, teaching and writing about in my work as an English professor at Virginia Military Institute: Southern literature and culture.

Four of my best birdhouse photos come from a single place—the sprawling yard of an elderly couple who live in Rockbridge County. As with Mr. Nicely’s property, and I’m sorry to say he has since passed away, I drive past this couple’s house every day, too. For a long time, I was obsessed with trying to get a good look at an enormous purple martin house atop a very tall pole in their back yard. One day last spring, tired of straining to glimpse the birdhouse, I stopped and found the couple working in a flowerbed. Camera in hand, I explained my purpose. They both smiled broadly, and the man started pointing around the yard. There were birdhouses everywhere—dozens. He’d built most of them. As it turned out, the martin house didn’t make a very good photograph—but the others were sublime. It was like striking gold.

At one point the man opened one of his birdhouses, having seen the mother bird fly away. Inside were three perfectly beautiful eggs.

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