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Long Days and Small Wonders
By Merle Henkenius
This book is about three photographic projects, each sprouting from the ground beneath my formative years. It’s about Nebraska farms and the distances they can launch you. It’s memory caught in machinery. It’s leaving home and going home and the light that falls between. It’s grievance and forgiveness in a tangle, an ordinary life pried open a bit. It’s about the conditioning nature of time.
The Neligh Flour Mill
“Neligh is the county seat of Antelope County, (Nebraska). The town was established in 1873 along the Elkhorn River by John D. Neligh. The water powered flour mill which was the economic anchor of the community for many years remains virtually intact as a State Historic Site”. www.neligh.net
When I gaze east through the third story windows of the Neligh Mill, and see Nebraska Highway 275 narrowing toward Norfolk, I can see that this road is like a tabular index of my early life, with memories bristling from nearly every intersection. Same for old Highway 14, as it steps south across the Elkhorn River and angles west to the hay plant. The plant is closed, but the asphalt retrieves what I forgot: that I loved the scent of scorched alfalfa, and vaguely, that someone I knew didn’t. And the northern view, it’s just as compelling, as it runs like a vandal up Main Street. These road views through a mansard roof, they catch me off guard. They’re like a camera to the heart through a vein. I can fly up the slippery vessel of the past, kick up some platelet dust, or take my time, pause at the capillaries, luxuriate, cringe.
I wanted to photograph the Neligh Mill because I’m drawn to primitive machines, because I once worked in such a place, because it’s easiest of all to miss the art in the familiar, and finally, because time is picking up speed. It’s really time’s imprint that I like to shoot, not time receding. I’m not obsessed with the past. I’m obsessed with the now and the next, which are filled to the brim with the past.
Growing up, I must have passed this place a thousand times, walking, riding, driving. I ignored it, but like so many things, it left an impression anyway. It had a certain spatial heft, plus activity. I know it was still milling flour when I was dragged into town for polio vaccinations, because the walls around the windows were a wispy white. I would have been eight or nine at the time.