A Bright Light

Ms. Estes and I are organizing produce prior to the mid-week farmers market that was held at the garden. Photo courtesy of Anne Clay Kenan. Circa 1997.

If memory serves me correctly, it was late summer 1999 when Ms. Lillie Mae Estes agreed to “demonstrate” how she tended her community garden plot. At the time, I was the site’s director and eager to document the gradual transformation of the vacant lot located in Northeast Central Durham, North Carolina into the community green space. It would eventually become a space which included both a mural and garden plots where local residents could grow organic vegetables. On this day, I had invited cinematographer Roger Beebe to come to the garden to capture Ms. Estes’ actions with his 16mm camera. My goal was to produce a feature-length film about the garden and the neighborhood using Roger’s footage and the Super 8 film I had captured over the course of several months. Ultimately, what I produced was an audio soundscape that meshed interview soundbites with the sounds of garden and neighborhood activities. While the finished product differed from what I originally intended to produce, this period marked the moment when I realized my passions for urban agriculture, green spaces, and doing documentary work.

Now more than 20 years later, I am so thankful to have this footage of Ms. Estes. One of my favorite images is a freeze frame of her gardening that I used as cover art for the cultivating justice blog. Another is the image at the top of the blog that shows Ms.Estes and I preparing to sell leafy greens at the mid-week market that was held on site. At the time, she was one of my North stars—no matter what, during the growing season, you could always count on her presence at the garden. Most days, barring bad weather or a previously scheduled trip to the grocery store or another errand, she would arrive early usually wearing a baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat with a hoe in hand and a teasing look of disappointment if I arrived after her. Born in 1919, Ms. Estes was “raised on a farm in the country,” where she acquired her knowledge of all things gardening before later moving to Durham in the ’70s. In mid-August of 1994, our paths crossed when I was hired to assist with the transformation of the vacant lot, and my life was forever changed. Ms. Estes is no longer with us and I am decades removed from my time at that garden, but every time I visit the blog and see her image, I am transported back to that time.

Ms. Estes demonstrates how she tends her garden. Filmed by Roger Beebe circa 1999.

Published by will atwater

I'm a documentarian and my latest project is focused on the history of African Americans in agriculture.

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