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In Pennsylvania's Bald Eagle Valley

Summer Travels


DRIVING BACK TO central Pennsylvania with my developing chemicals and enlarger in my trunk, I feel a little like a Civil War photographer travelling with a darkroom in his covered wagon. I'm headed for an old eight-bedroom farmhouse that saw its heyday fifty years ago when, according to my mother, it boasted the largest barn in the valley. Now, only the first floor is occupied by tenants who come and go. I'll live there for four weeks while I photograph the people I meet and learn about the rural valley where my mother was born and raised.

THREE DAYS AFTER I arrive, I am sitting in a tiny Baptist church right off Route 220, watching a daughter of my mother's high school classmate get married. "To serve your husband is to worship God," the minister declares. The congregation is silent, waiting for him to continue. Several women fan themselves with folded wedding programs.

"Tammy, you must allow your husband to have dominance in the political, economic and social realms. To submit does not make you inferior. We submit to the government when we pay our taxes and obey traffic laws." Tammy does not seem troubled by the message. She hold's Garrett's arm tightly, stares into his eyes.

THE PACE OF life is slower here. People work hard, yes, but they work with unharried determination. I meet Chris, a man who operates an auto body shop out of his garage.

"During the day I mostly loaf and work at night when it's cool," he says.

"So you can take a day off whenever you want to?" I ask.

"Hell, I take a whole week."

A fascination with the automobile pervades the area. When I think of the small towns in the valley, the first image that comes to mind is a man, or perhaps two or three, huddled over an engine, pointing to the hoses and speaking in muted voices about the carburetor. Driving on the most forlorn and deserted road, interrupted only once every few minutes by a farmhouse or cow grazing, I pass a sign proclaiming, "Dave's Auto Welding shop." Dave, like his neighbors, has worked on cars all his life.

A HORSE VETERINARIAN, Doctor E. Scott MacAllister, lets me ride with him for a day, to watch him work and take some pictures as he makes his rounds to local farms (local meaning within fifty miles of his home.) Though cloudy, it is so bright I must squint to keep my eyes from smarting. He tells me last year he put 45,000 miles on his Astro-Van. We sit in the two front seats with the rest of the van filled with pills, salves, buckets and the other tools of his trade. We stop at eight or nine farms that day.

We stop by a small farm where a woman shows us the barn where she keeps her three riding horses. MacAllister gives one mare a pregnancy check and discovers that the horse, 45 days pregnant, is bearing twins. He works to convince the owner, quite clearly anti-abortion, that the unborn foals must be aborted. It is dangerous for a mare to give birth to twins, he tells her.

We later drive up to an Amish farm, and MacAllister asks me to leave my camera in the car. He dislikes the way the Amish--his boyhood neighbors--have been turned into a tourist attraction. "The joy is to walk up to them in your blue jeans and talk to them like ordinary folks," he says.

MacAllister decides the man's horse has the strangles, which seems to be the horse version of a bad head cold. During the visit, I realize the Amish man is not a curiosity or an artifact, but a man not much different than my father: rational, hard-working, serious about his job but quick to laugh at a joke.

His children stand in bare feet in the straw of the barn, and like me, listen quietly to the elders discussing important matters. I wonder if the boys next to me, dressed like their father in white shirts, black pants and suspenders, will be able to withstand the encroachment of the modern world as well as their parents.

I MEET ELEANOR while I walk down the main street of Port Matilda, which is landlocked and not a port at all. She is restaining an ancient rocking chair on her porch. Eighty-two years old, she has lived in that town all her life. She is not unusual. Most people I meet are natives. When I ask one man if he has lived there all his life, he tells me, "Naw, I was born up the road two miles and lived there till I was 23."

This rural part of central Pennsylvania is one of the few places I've visited where a strong social fabric continues to bind a community together. Women walk their children through town and say "hi" to everyone they meet. Men gather in the evening on a porch and talk. Children ride their bicycles up and down the dirt roads. Though I can not accept their values, I envy their sense of community. And I can thank them for letting me--briefly--into their lives.

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