Humanistic Themes in "Where Do They All Go?"

Humanistic Themes in "Where Do They All Go?"

Tom Davenport is drawn to the human issues and values he finds in folklore. He started Being a Joines as a project to document the tall-tale repertory of John “Frail” Joines of Wilkes County, North Carolina. He ended embedding the tales in the story of wounds and healings in the lives of Frail and his wife Blanche. He began A Singing Stream as a study of a black male gospel quartet in rural Granville County, North Carolina. The film grew into the story of their family matriarch’s use of music to unite, motivate, train, and lift her children. This search for human significance is what unites his work in three areas: the documentaries he has made, his films dramatizing folktales, and his creation of the Folkstreams website.

It was Tom’s personal experience, however, that prompted Where Do They All Go? The folkloric elements were incidental. Tom tells of having a protracted, serious illness in 2009. At first he resisted medical treatment. He thought he had influenza and would throw it off. When he kept getting worse, he did see his family doctor. In an extended interview in the Fall 2014 issue of the Appalachian Journal Tom says the doctor told him, “You haven’t got the flu. You’ve got pneumonia.” He gave Tom antibiotics, took an x-ray, and said, “Well, there’s something on your lungs. I think you should go to a pulmonary specialist. Nothing to be alarmed about, but we want to check that out.” Tom went to the specialist, a young doctor, who prescribed a CT scan, put it up on the screen, and he said, “Well, you have terminal lung cancer.” Tom asked, “How long do I have to live?” The doctor said, “You have about 18 months.” He suggested a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, but Tom said, “Can’t you give me something? And if I get better, then we will know it’s not cancer.” He got pills and went back home. Then he looked on the internet at the symptoms for lung cancer. “Oh my God! Everything I had was just like it,” Tom said. “All the symptoms were there. I was convinced. My wife said, ‘Ah, you know you don’t have it,’ but I could tell she was worried. I decided, if I’m going to die, I’m going to make another movie. I’m going to make my last movie.”

Shocked into confronting his own mortality, Tom looked back across his life, thinking about people who had been important to him. One was his childhood friend Jerry Payne, now linked to Tom’s situation through his doctoral research on decomposing pigs. Tom had already put on YouTube a video of the time-lapse film Jerry made when he was in graduate school at Clemson doing research on “dating death with insects.” By 2009 this film of a decomposing pig had some two million hits. “I thought I could make a film about Jerry’s scientific work,” Tom said, “and relate it to our friendship and my death.”

A related theme also suggested itself. Jerry had for a long time been living in Georgia, and his wife Rose sent up a picture of Jerry with their friend and amateur fellow naturalist Francis Michael Stiteler, abbot of a Trappist monastery near Conyers. Tom made plans to go down to see Jerry and stay in the monastery. He himself has for years regularly gone on Zen retreats. Perhaps the monks in this contemplative order would be as interested in meditation as their fellow Trappist Thomas Merton. He could show the monks Bodhidharma’s Shoe, a documentary he had made a few years earlier about his Zen retreats. With these things in mind Tom went off on a pilgrimage to Georgia in April 2009 and came back with video material for a documentary. “It was going to be my swan song,” Tom says. Then he went back for a follow-up CT scan, and the pulmonary specialist said, “It’s all cleared up. You don’t have lung cancer.”

This was a most welcome reprieve for Tom. Learning of it, however, Jerry’s wife thought “What a bummer” for the film—now Tom had lost his reason for making it. But the mistaken diagnosis of course continued, and still continues, to reverberate in Tom’s consciousness. Moreover, he had even earlier been fascinated by Jerry’s film on decomposition and by the huge response to the streaming of it. He suspected the viewers were teenagers trying to come to terms with death.

Jerry doubted whether teenagers think that deeply. His own choice of his doctoral project had grown from his inborn curiosity and his training in disciplined scientific research. As a naturalist he had a sharp awareness of the interlinking of the living with the dead, but he wanted to study the role of insects in the process of decomposition under a set of controlled specific conditions. Jerry nevertheless also traces the source of his interest further back in his own past. He says, “I was fascinated by death at an early age, because on Llangollen farm they didn’t bury the animals. They drug them off into the woods to a place they called ‘no man’s land.’ I used to go there and see the dead animals, shoot them with a 22 rifle, and take a match and light the gas that came off—methane or whatever it was—and get bones and skulls and things like that. I was interested. I don’t know why. I just thought the bones were pretty.” Death and burial, Jerry says, were not a subject of conversation in his world. “When I was a kid growing up, that was taboo. You did not talk about it.”

But Jerry had curiosity and was full of questions, and death was only one of many related forbidden questionings. “I went to an elementary school,” he says, “that had religion. “We had bible, and I liked it, liked those old stories, always loved the biblical stories—Zaccheus climbing up the sycamore tree to see, the parting of the Red Sea, the plagues, whatever. They’re great stories. But you weren’t allowed to question them.” The response he got was “Boy, why do you ask so many questions? Don’t you have something else to do?” So Jerry says that he learned very early that if he questioned anything at church—or even his father, if he asked his father things—it was taboo. “Don’t go there, if you questioned any of that! They accepted it totally on faith, if it was in the bible. I just had a very hard time.”

Asked if his study of science had an impact upon his thinking, Jerry says, “Very much so. I was a student at the University of Tennessee, living in a trailer park. One of the ladies in the trailer park came into the house and looked at the book case. Had Darwin’s books up there. She said, ‘You don’t read those!’ Said to my wife, ‘You allow him to keep those in the house?!’ And so I found out you just do not talk about that subject in Tennessee. Do not talk about it! You got to remember, I was going to the University of Tennessee, where it was against the law to teach evolution at the time. The law was still on the books. The Scopes trial was still on everybody’s mind: ‘We’ve fought that battle. We’ve won. You’re not going to teach evolution.’ So you try not to bring it up in conversation. Of course I work at Oak Ridge National Lab, and everybody there believes in evolution. Just totally different to go from one background to a science background, tampering with nature, splitting the atom, and so forth, but you don’t talk about it out in the public where you live.”

Asked if he ever went back to the Baptist church after studying zoology, Jerry answers, “No. Nor the Methodist Church, either. About the age of thirty I became a retired Christian, and people say, ‘What is that?’ I was churched a Baptist, then a Methodist, then a retired Christian by age thirty. I have accepted the idea ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Try not to get yourself to Heaven by worrying about what’s going to happen after you die. It’s like the internal combustion engine, which works without my input, without any great understanding of why.”

Tom Davenport was struck by the friendship that Jerry and his wife Rose share with a deeply religious man, the Abbot Francis Michael of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. Since meeting him on a butterfly-counting expedition, they for some years have spent most Saturdays with the Abbot, observing nature together and talking. Jerry says he never knew a Catholic when he was growing up. He first became acutely aware of the Bible Belt prejudice against Catholics when John Kennedy ran for President. “I was living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the time. I never saw so much hatred towards a presidential candidate because of his religion—you know, ‘the Pope is going to control the church,’ and all that. And come to Georgia, there was still some of that anti-Catholicism.” He says, “I didn’t have a fixation against Catholics.”

Before meeting Abbot Francis Michael, Jerry says, “I never was personal friends with a man of the cloth. I never knew a Baptist or Methodist or Episcopal person who I could talk to, or was friends with anyone like that.” They were “always beyond our reach as children.” Abbot Francis Michael, on the other hand, he finds “a very kind and gentle man willing to accept anybody. We ask him very deep and warm questions regarding religion. We discuss that. I don’t do that with anybody else. He will do it with me. He will do it with my wife. Nothing is taboo. I like that.” The friendship is mutual. When Francis Michael was elected to serve as abbot, he asked to get one day a week off from his responsibilities—felt he needed that to get relief and spiritual refreshment. That was accepted by the brothers. “He tells everybody in the community—the brothers—that we’re his therapy,” Jerry says. “We’re the ones that renew him back for monastic life.”

Tom Davenport taped a lengthy interview in which Abbot Francis Michael spoke of his own background and spiritual journey. He grew up in a row house in Philadelphia, the son of a toolmaker, in a world that he says was urban but very insular. His father was a Lutheran and a Republican, his mother a Catholic and a Democrat, but they and everybody else in his large extended family and neighborhood thought alike. He calls it an “all-of-one-piece kind of world.” He had a Catholic upbringing, but he sees himself as having been not particularly pious or in any way remarkable as a child.

When he went to college for two years in the early 1970s, he found a welter of different ideas and values. This disoriented him, and for several years he behaved and dressed (with shoulder-length hair, overalls, and “a denim engineer’s cap, which was embroidered with bright flowers and said ‘Burn out’ on it”) like the stereotypical rebellious adolescent hippie of the period. But he began reading the bible and a biography of Mother Theresa and unexpectedly met her twice while wandering in Europe. The readings and encounters began to clarify for him that he was seeking a deep relationship with God. It was only when he actually came to Conyers to try the life of this monastery that he suddenly felt he had finally found his spiritual home.

Abbot Francis Michael also traces his thinking about death back into his childhood. “One of the early things that probably marked my life,” he says, “was my best friend died when I was seven years old. He was eight. Lived right next door. Michael. Went into the hospital to get his appendix out. His appendix burst the morning of the operation, and he died. That was pretty heavy, to lose your best friend.”

This painful experience of death eventually became for him very enriching. He explained, “When I got to the Monastery—because there was already a Francis Joseph (those are my grandfathers’ names)—I took the name Michael, Francis Michael. And so I get to remember him, you know, which is good. As a Catholic, my experience is that those people who have died and gone before me are still very present to me. I don’t see them, I don’t hear their voices, but I know they’re just around the bend, just around the corner, and that they’re loving me. So Michael is somebody I can pray to, talk to—again, he doesn’t talk back to me. I don’t have dreams about him or anything, but I know that when I get to heaven he’ll be there. I know that his love for me didn’t cease when he died. I don’t have any doubt about that whatsoever. And that’s true of. . . I grew up with many, many great aunts and great uncles—my grandparents’ brothers and sisters—and I just love them.”

At the same time, Abbot Francis Michael blends this faith-based understanding of death with the scientific understanding that Jerry and Rose have of the interlinking of the dead and the living in the physical world. As the film shows, he and his community offer a portion of their land for green burials and practice this simple return of the dust to dust. The monastery, he says, has “the first natural, conservation cemetery in Georgia.” He sees this as “a wonderful way to use the property, and especially for us as monks to allow people to be buried here”—and adds, “We'll pray for them of course.” It’s not surprising then that, with this breadth of response, he also appreciates and wants to photograph and catalogue Jerry Payne’s “found art”—the bones which Jerry finds beautiful, so beautiful that he brings them home and further beautifies them, painting them with vivid colors and patterns like those on butterflies’ wings.

Tom Davenport sees Jerry Payne’s “found art” as coming from a second side of Jerry’s personality. He has a scientific mind, very curious about everything. “He likes to read a lot and think about things.” But, as Tom sees it, “his art work is like an antidote to this.” Jerry is “really like a visionary artist.” He “sees these shapes and forms” just as we all do looking at clouds. “He sent me a little piece of driftwood with a Buddha in it and a fish.” Jerry’s artworks, Tom thinks, are “expressions of his unconscious.”

Jerry looks at Tom’s films, on the other hand, with the eyes and mind of a scientist. He asked Tom, “when he was shooting the movie did he have a playbook he was going by, a schedule. He said, ‘No, I’m winging it.’ He said, ‘Ninety percent of what I shoot I won’t use.’” Jerry was floored: “Here I am a researcher, trained in science. If ninety percent of what I get wasn’t going to do anything, I’d be fired. I can’t understand it. You have a plan, you have some hypothesis, you have something all laid out, of how you’re doing it. You’re not winging it!”

For Tom, however, intuition plays an important role as he creates a documentary film. He has a number of rational reasons for selecting the subject for a film. “One of course,” he says, “is the practical one of can it be funded? Another is will it interest me—will I be working with people I like? And as I age, can I do it close to home?” For his earlier films made collaboratively with folklorists, their personal contacts with the subjects and the richness of the traditions were key factors. Both careful planning and happenstance and intuition typically play roles as Tom shoots extensive footage in a number of visits over several years. Back home he reviews it, and intuition plays a larger role. Tom says, “It’s a little like a story I hear about how an Eskimo carver looks at a piece of ivory. The craver begins to cut and chip away without a lot of thought about what the craving will be. And gradually a walrus or a seal or a fish emerges.” Some of Tom’s presuppositions are perfectly clear to him. He tries to give voice to the socially voiceless, showing their perspective faithfully and respectfully. He looks for a striking first scene, one that will catch the viewer’s attention and announce the theme of the exploration. In the process of editing, however, he usually finds himself blocked at some key point, a “dark night” he has to suffer through. “Depression,” he says, “is a part of the process because that is the emotion that allows you to let go of preconceptions.” Finally breaking through that produces an illumination that lets him finish the film. Tom adds, “Generally I like to test my edits with people who are not filmmakers or scholars. I used to invite the UPS man in to watch drafts of my fairy tale films. (Can’t do that now because the drivers are monitored electronically. In the old days, they could get away with a break like that.)” What he wanted to learn from their responses was whether the film had broad human interest.

To the contrasting perspectives on death in Where Do They All Go? Tom Davenport brought his own knot of complicated responses. He is now an active member of an Episcopal church in Delaplane, Virginia, but he recalls going to an Episcopal service as a boy with the family of a friend and being embarrassed by not knowing when to stand or to kneel. Both of his parents had reacted against their religious upbringing. His father, “who had been very active in a ‘Christian Endeavor’ club in his church in Norfolk, Nebraska, came to see traditional religion as privative and reactionary.” When the family moved to Delaplane, the church for Tom “was a place where we could meet other young people. We had dances there.”

Later as a senior at Yale in 1961, Tom was selected for the Yale-China program , a two-year appointment to teach English in a Chinese college in Hong Kong. He began to study Chinese, and after those two years he received a scholarship at the newly formed East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. It was there that he began his interest in photography and film and also read about Zen Buddhism. He made several trips to Taiwan, first as part of the East-West Center’s program and later as a freelance photographer based in New York City. In Taiwan, he shot footage of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, from which he created his first film, and began to practice Zen meditation.

After he married and moved back to Delaplane with his wife Mimi, he at first looked down on the church. “I was pretty much a “Zen snob,” he says. “I liked the social community aspects, but the religious practices didn’t resonate.” Over a long period his religious understanding deepened as, he says, “I began to bring Zen and Christianity together in my heart. Mimi, of course, helped. She seldom talks about religious matters, and she often says ‘the only good religion is a weak religion’ (meaning I think that people should be humble about their beliefs) but she loves the liturgy and hymns. And for years has been the church treasurer and keeper of the cemetery. I followed.”

A third strain in Tom’s thinking grew from his interest in folklore, molded by the mythological approach of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Joseph Campbell’s other works.

Tom reads both folktale and Bible not as records of fact but as symbol and archetype, deep insight and instruction. What, for him, binds together the experiences and approaches to death of Jerry Payne, Abbot Francis Michael, and himself is not the answers any of them finds and rests upon. In Tom’s view, what binds humans together is not the answers offered by any of our cultures, but the universality of our questions. This is why he chose to end the film with these words of Abbot Francis Michael: “You know, my hope is, whatever years I have left—I'm fifty-nine this year. I'm not that old—I'll just do what I continue to do. Give myself to the life. Ponder God. Ponder creation. Ponder the world. Ponder friendship.”