Feature Story: The fact seeker

For nearly the last half century, Newark native Charles Lewis has spent his career as an investigative journalist, author and teacher. Through his ingenuity, he has created opportunities for his colleagues to seek the truth in every story 

The fact seeker

By Alessandra Nicole, Contributing Writer

originally published in Newark Life Magazine, Fall/Winter issue, October 2020

It is a cold and sunny March morning on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C., and Charles Lewis sits at his desk in his office in the McKinley Building, where he is a tenured professor in the School of Communication. 

Although non-descript, the space is nonetheless filled with plenty of light and plenty of books, but what stands out most are the photographs that document Lewis’ 43-year career as an investigative journalist, television news producer and author. They hang between his Honors Award, his MacArthur Fellow and his honorary doctorate degree from the University of Delaware in Newark, where he was born and raised.

The photos show a younger Lewis — a man in his thirties — around the time he was a reporter for ABC News, and later the producer of 60 Minutes. While the photos in Lewis’ office attempt to document the grand sweep of a life spent in journalism, they account for only a sliver of what has been a career that not only reports the news, but takes it under the microscope and examines it.  He founded two Pulitzer Prize winning organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and is also the founder and executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

He was called “one of the most notable investigative reporters in the U.S. since World War I” by the Encyclopedia of Journalism in 2009.

He is the author of several books, the most recent being 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity, published in 2014. In the book, Lewis takes a hard look at the future of truth in America, how the deadliest abuses of power are being orchestrated by government and big business, and how the news media “watchdog” role in holding both factions accountable is changing.

He has spoken about investigative reporting at workshops and presentations around the world, and given hundreds of interviews that have appeared in some of the world’s most prominent newspapers, magazines and on national radio and television broadcasts.

Earlier this year, Lewis received a phone call from a reporter in Delaware, asking him if he would be interested in participating in an interview for Newark Life. He told the reporter that the only reason he took the call was because he was excited to see the “302” area code on his telephone screen.

He said, “Yes.”

For the first several years of his life, Lewis lived in a house his once owned on East Main Street near Tyre Avenue in Newark.

“At the time, East Main Street was not the nicest part of Main Street,” Lewis recalled. “So I was at the poor end of town on the other side of the railroad tracks. My family first came to Newark in the 1700s, and I believe I have a direct ancestor who was the sheriff of New Castle County in the 1800s.

“And we loved it! It was the house of my father’s ancestors, who had owned it 80 or 90 years earlier.”

His first job was working for a Chinese laundry in Newark. It was where he met Kai, Warren and Richie, with whom he is still very good friends.

“Richie is my age, Warren is a little older and Kai is the oldest,” Lewis said. “We’re very close. We do damage to our livers two or three times a year when we see each other. We call each other brothers; I don’t actually have any brothers as far as I’m concerned, they’re my brothers.”

When he entered Newark High School, Lewis tried out for and made the school’s football team, but his early interest in politics led him to become the president of his junior class and later, the president of the student government in his senior year. It was at Newark High School where he developed an interest in what would eventually become his career.

“I was an editor of the student newspaper, which means that I wasn’t that high up at the Yellowjacket Buzz, but my younger sister and I had a secret column called “Purple Haze,” named after the Hendrix song, and this is where we were snarky before the word snarky was invented,” he said. “We were very sarcastic. We took on the principal, the teachers, everyone. We said what we really thought, and it was not the nicest thing, but people got a kick out of it.”

Lewis had an early writing colleague: His younger sister. Both wrote under the disguised name, nom de plume Martha Mumblesum.

“I was president of the student government, and my sister was president of the sophomore class at the time, and we were also both writing the snarky stuff,” he said. “My father worked as a security guard at GM in Wilmington, and while he was doing the night shift, my mother would make us hamburgers at 11 o’clock at night while my sister and I figured out what we were going to write for “Purple Haze.” It was fun. We had a blast. And in the last issue of the Yellowjacket Buzzthat year, we identified our real names.”

By the time Lewis entered the University of Delaware that fall, his interest in politics led him to work as intern for Delaware Sen. Bill Roth for the first six months of 1974. As fate would have it, Lewis’ internship came during one of the most cataclysmic periods in American history, when the twin forces of the Watergate scandal and journalism collided in a powder keg of corruption and revelations.

“Think about that,” Lewis said. “[President Richard] Nixon resigned in August of 1974, all of the Republicans were either hiding under their desk or leaving town. They didn’t want to be anywhere near Nixon. They didn’t want to criticize him, but they also didn’t want to support him. It was really interesting.

“So, I’m reading [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein and [Seymour] Hersh articles. I’m going to some of the Watergate hearings. I’m right there in the thick of it. It was very, very exciting for anybody to live through that, right in the moment, right there.”

After graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in Political Science, Lewis then received a Master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Service (SAIS). After he graduated, he had very little interest in pursuing a career in Foreign Service, and for the next five months Lewis, now married, scrambled to find a job, “but not just any job,” he said.

“And on page D-29 of the style section of the Washington Post, in one paragraph, there’s a TV column, and it said that a special reporting unit was being formed at ABC News, and that it would be created by Roone Arledge and headed by Sander Vanocur, the vice president of news at ABC,” Lewis said. “I had never worked in TV in my life. I’d never done anything in news in my life, but I sent a resume in and called the secretary, who told me that there had been 600 applications for six positions.”

Eventually, it was through that secretary – Sue Meyer – that Lewis secured an interview and eventual job at ABC News, a position that paid him $17,500 a year. After the unit disbanded, he was reassigned to ABC News’ Washington Bureau, where for the roughly six years, he covered attempted presidential assassinations, unsolved crimes from the civil rights era, the selection of Supreme Court nominees, and other subjects. In 1979, he began covering the ABSCAM scandal for the network, a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting operation that led to the convictions of seven members of the United States Congress.

Lewis’ work at ABC News eventually led him to CBS News, where he became an investigative producer for 60 Minutes, but by the late 1980s, the political scene he had first witnessed with Watergate, and subsequently covered for nearly 10 years had lost its original luster and became in his words, “dirty,” and he began to see prime-time television journalism as a hugely influential vehicle that was not providing sufficient coverage of the most important stories.

In 2014, Politico Magazine published an excerpt of Lewis’ book, “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” in which Lewis shared his growing frustration with the way the news was being chosen, reported and delivered, both at ABC News and 60 Minutes.

“It became painfully apparent over time that network television news was not especially interested in investigative reporting, certainly not to the extent or the depth of the best national print outlets,” he wrote. “In fact, the most trusted man in America around this time, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, had told Time magazine something in 1966 that still rang true more than a decade later: that ‘the networks, including my own, do a first-rate job of disseminating the news, but all of them have third-rate news-gathering organizations. We are still basically dependent on the wire services. We have barely dipped our toe into investigative reporting.’

“Gradually, television’s daily editorial insecurity vis-à-vis the older print world and its own tepid commitment to enterprise journalism caused me to conclude that all three major networks were mostly interested in the illusion of investigative reporting.

“…I had also seen things at two networks that had troubled me profoundly: nationally important stories not pursued; well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices that were not investigated precisely because of the connections and the power they boasted. 

“It was a matter of principle. It was simply time for me to leave.”

Two weeks after he handed in his resignation to CBS News in 1989, Lewis began what has become a continuing mission to advocate for the power of investigative journalism. He formed the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan newsroom that investigates democracy, power and privilege, with specific focus on the influence of money and the impact of inequality on society. Through data, the Freedom of Information Act and collaborations with local and national news sources, the Center produces journalism intended to change lives and give voice to citizens and communities.

In 1997, he began the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In 2003, Lewis became the founding president of the Fund for Independence in Journalism, an organization to promote independent, high quality, public service journalism primarily by providing legal defense and endowment support to the Center for Public Integrity.

In July 2009, he co-founded the Investigative News Network, a group of 90 nonprofit, non-partisan newsrooms around the country dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism. A few years later, the organization changed its name to the Institute for Nonprofit News and today, it has approximately 250 nonprofit news organizations!

In between, Lewis taught at Princeton University (2005) and was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University (2006), and in addition to teaching at American University, is a frequent lecturer on the subject of investigative journalism in the United States and around the world.

The current climate of communication and truth, Lewis said, is both disturbing and dangerous.

“We have leaders around the world imitating [United States President Donald] Trump, using words and phrases like ‘Fake News,’” he said. “I was in South Africa and some other countries, and they are all the despotic leaders throughout the world, enjoying the role of being a character and saying slightly off-the- wall things that become shtick.

“They are all are highly amused by it and in the course of that amusement, they are abusing their power. It is not like that that didn’t happen before, necessarily, but the slightly cartoonish and buffoonish elements of that would be funny if it weren’t also very scary.

“The whole world is kind of upside down in some ways. I have a granddaughter and a daughter and a son, so it makes me worry about the future.”

The photographs on Charles Lewis’ desk at American University are the reminders of a career spent chasing his curiosity. There is very likely much more room in his office for additional photographs.

“I am very lucky,” Lewis said. “I’ve worked with amazing people. I love all these journalists. I mean, we’re all comrades, you know, we’re all kindred spirits and investigative ambassadors…I was going to be a politician, and I ended up investigating the bastards.”

To learn more about Charles Lewis, visit https://charles-lewis.com.

Feature Story: A Second Chance for a Woman Who Believes in Second Chances

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Words and Photos By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

(originally published in Greenville & Hockessin Life Magazine, June 2019)

To know the nurturing resilience of sunshine is to know the heart that belongs to Patricia May.

On a humid Sunday afternoon in early June, May sat in the bright kitchen of her Hockessin home, one filled with an array of framed Bible hymns and beautiful original paintings done by incarcerated people and bought from art fairs inside her former workplace. Sweet old rescue cats serenely snaked around her ankles, begging to be let through glass sliding doors to the large and sunny deck outside.

The doors framed a view of nearly two dozen enormous planter pots that sat bursting with everything from snap dragons to mint. Near the doors, a small table supported a smaller assemblage of plants, and the electric water bowl for the cats beneath the table gurgled peacefully.

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Ms. May displays one of a vast collection of original paintings showcased in her home that was painted by and purchased from inmates from art shows over the years.

In stark contrast to this soothing serenity was the jarring fact that this gentle-spirited, sparkling-blue-eyed woman is a prison riot hostage survivor.

One morning in February 2017, May, a former counselor with the Delaware Department of Correction, went into work at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, and a few hours later was taken hostage by an inmate wielding a sharp object.

She was tied up with a hood placed over her head as other inmates raged violently throughout the rest of the building.

She was moved to two cells and held for almost 19 hours.

Her life was in the hands of her faith and the men who surrounded her in the same facility where she would regularly bring bouquets of flowers she arranged from her home gardens to bring some joy to those visiting.

“At James T. Vaughn, I was known as the ‘Flower Lady,’” May said. “During spring and summer, I kept flower arrangements in the administration building and in the Gate House for the enjoyment of staff and visitors. Many times I was told by a visitor that the flowers would brighten their day when they may have been sad for having to visit a loved one in prison,

“I never accept pay for my arrangements. This gift was given to me by God, and I believe giving to others is a way of showing God’s love in a practical way. No doubt this brings me joy to be able to give something that brightens everybody’s day.”

Why then, you might ask, would this woman, now since retired from the Department of Corrections, choose to return to do work with incarcerated people in a program to offer them a second chance?

 

In the 1960s, May abandoned her home economics major at a local community college in Florida to embark on her studies in criminology. It was a course of study that was virtually unheard of for a woman at that time, but for May, who grew up the daughter of a pediatric nurse and a policeman and listened to stories nightly of chases with moonshiners to the Everglades, it seemed like a natural step. The stories became her children’s nursery rhymes.

“On many nights, my dad would wake me up at two o’clock in the morning, and tell me, ‘We’re all hungry,’ with a trail of police behind him,” she said. “Sometimes he called me on the phone and asked me to prepare something for them to eat on some mornings.”

“My dad’s friend at the police department played a part in me changing over to Criminology.” May attended Florida State University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology, Magna Cum Laude. She eventually left Florida and embarked on a 40-year career. May worked for the Attorney General’s Office for the State of Delaware; Public Defender’s Office; Department of Correction, Community Services and Bureau of Prisons; Juvenile Corrections; Treatment Foster Care; a women’s Transitional Living Program and Substance Abuse Treatment programs.  Patricia retired from the State of Delaware, Department of Correction in 2018.

During that time, she nurtured her nearly lifelong passion for gardening – cultivating outdoor flowers and vegetables and small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

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Ms. May’s small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

While working for the Delaware Department of Correction, May thought of ways to dovetail her profession with her love of gardening. An opportunity arose to direct the My Brother’s Keeper Mentorship Program, a faith-based program in 3 sections: Monday Night Group; Residential and Reentry at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.  A horticulture program (hydroponics) was hoped to be included but ultimately was not accepted by Vaughn Administrators.

“The goal was to teach the inmates a new skill that could be used in the future, and learning how to grow food for the institution was part of teaching inmates about a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Growing food within an institution reduces cost to the state, supplies nutritious food and reduces the carbon footprint of food being transported. Horticulture programs have been shown to reduce tension; reduce idle time; give hope; and improve the health of the inmates, which is not only humane, but cost effective on health care costs.”

My Brother’s Keeper emphasized the use of mentors, education, substance abuse recovery treatment and other aspects of restorative justice. Its mission rested on the belief that most people with criminal behavior can become productive and contributing members of society if given the opportunity to learn pro-social values and employment skills. The program also included a reentry section, which supplied mentors and guidance for men returning to the community. May was also staff advisor for the Monday Night section of the program, which was for men who were not able to be housed in the residential program.

“We [My Brother’s Keeper] were about changing the heart, with 40 different classes all about teaching and training and mentoring.

“Change the heart and that will change the behavior.”

In her kitchen, May opened two enormous five pound black binders and set them on the countertop. They were the training manuals for My Brother’s Keeper that included a multitude of educational modules, ranging from social skills development to architecture and engineering. Title headings like “Basic comparative religion” and “Introduction to the brain” were listed among a variety of others in the table of contents.

May moved her index finger down the page. “Money management.’ ‘Effective communication skills.’ ‘Moral decision making.’ ‘The art of conflict management.’

“We had 100 men in the residential program, and about 30 or 40 who attended the Monday Night program who weren’t a part of the 100 residents, in a prison that had around 2,700 people,” she said. “Do you know what it’s like to see someone who is serving a life prison term, and you give him something to live for?”

While the impact of the My Brother’s Keeper program was, at times, transformational, it was eventually ended and she was transferred to the fateful C Block building where it was known that trouble was brewing. On Feb. 1, 2017, inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center took four corrections department workers – including May — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Wielding sharp instruments, inmates were demanding education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody,” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending.

The day-long hostage standoff ended after state police stormed the building, rescuing May and her fellow workers, and finding Sgt. Steven R. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction, unresponsive. Floyd was later pronounced dead.

“Everything I had worked for so hard was taken away,” May said.

In the aftermath of the riot, May retired, and at first, her days were isolating and wrought with tremendous PTSD and depression. When she looked back on her career – one filled with compassion for others – she saw that it was met with unprecedented resistance. For the next year and a half, May retreated to her Hockessin gardens, but nearby, an opportunity that was tailor-made for her was popping through the soil in nearby Wilmington.

Local entrepreneur Ajit M. George began to consider how the community could find methods to fight the recidivism epidemic facing this nation while simultaneously addressing other serious threats like water pollution, environmental damage, unemployment, poor quality produce, and food deserts.

Part of the solution to the problem lay in hydroponic vertical farming, and so George created and founded Second Chances Farm, which will be an indoor vertical farm that hires exclusively men and women returning to society after serving their time in prison. All crops and produce will be fresh, organic, nutritious, completely free of pesticides and herbicides, and grown within 150 miles of anywhere it is available for consumption, seriously cutting down long-haul shipping costs and pollution. Since it is indoor and light and temperature controlled, it will be fresh and available 365 days a year, no matter what the weather brings.

On July 24th, 2018, the founding members of Second Chances Farm had lunch with May, and after a long and passionate discussion about the concept of Second Chances, May was asked to join the team.

May immediately became a valuable member of the Second Chances team as the Restorative Justice Program Coordinator, where she now handles all programming related to re-entry, therapy, and other employee related issues. Second Chances will be the first vertical farm in Delaware, and the first vertical farm anywhere to exclusively hire men and women returning from prison.

For the farm, it is a chance to not only provide jobs for those returning from prison, but also to harness entrepreneurial skills and allow farmers a chance to become compassionate capitalists and business owners.

For May, it is the next, serendipitous chapter – a second chance — in a career that has been spent advocating for the second chances of others.

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To learn more about Second Chances Farm, visit www.secondchancesfarm.com.

Like a pulsating mix of champagne and meteors

New York City skyline Photographs by Alessandra Nicole

A woman like me alone in a city like this spells trouble, which is presumed, and I wish that you were here for the adventure. I love New York City like I will never again love any inanimate object that seems real and breathing to me, she embraces me every time, my passionate lover.

I am seated in patient anticipation. I hear her voice from afar only to come around the curve after Newark and see her brightly dyed hair tumble upon the nape of her bone-white neck in the form of the latest color scheme on the top of the Empire State Building. Her hands stretch out to greet me with a different bauble for every finger of her warm-heart-cold-hands. I leave the train, climb the escalator, step through the automatic doors to 8th Avenue, and am intertwined with her once more. She steals my breath into her mouth and slaps me across the face with her icy January winds for not calling. I love her with all of my heart and I let her seduce me, caressing every part of me, until I look at my cell phone and see it’s after midnight and someone else is awaiting my arrival.

She pouts with her arms suddenly folded, the black lace strap of her bra slipping down over her shoulder, and I put my finger to her blood red lips, Shh, not tonight, but I will be back tomorrow. I’m just as disappointed to leave as she is to see me go, onto the ferry, where she closes her eyes in sorrow like a woman who knows she’s the Other One in my life, and I realize some of her glittering eyeshadow has rubbed off on my cheek. A man next to me thinks I am crying, and maybe I am a little teary at the heartstopping way her skyline is sparkling like a pulsating mix of champagne and meteors; he offers me a handkerchief.

Anyone would be jealous of the way I dream of her at night, the way I think about her throughout days away. In the morning, she awakes me with the memory of her warm deep kisses and here I sit at 9:30am, plotting the hour when I will steal away to my secret lover New York City. Oh, if only you could see us when we’re together…

words ©️Alessandra Nicole 2004

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars

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Words and Photographs By Alessandra Nicole, As appeared in the spring edition of Landenberg Today, April 2015

filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars. Four white plates containing these objects were lined up on the hardwood floor in front of a fireplace in a cozy Landenberg apartment all awaiting their screen debut and their sacrificial destiny — on the strikingly cold and misty Saturday morning when I performed in a music video, on assignment from Landenberg Today.

I was greeted at the door by the broad Cheshire Cat smile of writer/film director/musician /Renaissance man Chris Malinowski, who was creating a music video titled “White Deer” that would soon serve as part of the soundtrack for his latest film, “Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir,” which has been screened at several festivals around the nation and is now available through Amazon on DVD.

I stepped through the doorway of his cottage, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, that simple step forward was as good as signing my name on the dotted line of a contract issued by a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator. Stay with me here.

After returning Malinowski’s smile, I very shyly offered my own to a small group of five other women, all strangers. Gathered to one side of the virtually empty living room, they were completely clad in black just like myself, as Malinowski’s email a week prior had requested. On the room’s other side, a man with a camera adjusted a rig, holding it belted firmly around his waist.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

In the rain, still others were positioning a large light just outside of a bank of windows that led into the living room. A flick of a switch and Ahh: Instantly the cold, misty Saturday morning was transformed into the fantastical mind trickery that was a perfectly realistic sunny afternoon. The “sun” streamed luxuriously across the floor of the room and the women flocked toward it, smiling.

I knew little about Malinowski, beyond his unapologetically gregarious and dramatic stage performances (at times in full makeup) at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, with his band, The Collingwood. As frontman and lead guitarist, he seemed to be a man possessed. His eyes would roll back into his head in an inner-lighted bliss.

A well-known fun fact about Malinowski is that his favorite place on earth to visit is New Orleans, and that not only does he bask in the well-known undercurrent of ・voodoo・ central to the core of the city, he channels it, often, in his creative work.

For me, it wasn’t the most absurd thing to agree to show up to the set of a music video. Years ago, I was an art student at a college in Savannah, Ga. There, I found myself participating in courageous filmmaking and acting projects, convening with my fellow students in basement coffeeshops until the small hours, fleshing out their visions. We all worked tirelessly on film shoots, propelled forward by the natural electricity of inspired artistic discourse and execution.

After college, I was a production designer on several short and lengthy projects, grim horror stories, high-concept dramas and dark comedies. I lost hours and days without realizing it while in production.

In Landenberg, I was totally in my element.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

The six of us sat cross-legged on the floor around the white plates. We held hands. Malinowski sat in a wooden chair in a corner of the room with one more statuesque and masked woman standing at his shoulder. We fumbled with our ill-fitting masks, offering one another rolled bits of paper to keep the masks from chafing our faces.

Someone pressed ‘Play’ on a boombox that sat on the floor by the door, and suddenly, the room was filled with the haunting, melodic sound of Malinowski’s guitar on the track “White Deer.” It was the first time I heard the tone of the song, and the first time I would get a real feel for what our director was looking to achieve. The song was played with saturating volume, the tempo slow, and it cast a spell over us. I am a hyper-aware introvert and holding hands with a stranger of the same sex was a hyper-real experience on its own, but I barely noticed the camera hovering around us.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

At first, we were to sit as still as possible. Severals takes were made. In between, we smiled, and fixed one another・s hair and masks. I was in the company of extraordinary women; it was as if the setting and the music had peeled off our earthly bodies and we were these radiant young souls. The more vulnerable and transparent one of us became about a wrinkle or an ill-placed strand of hair, the stronger we became, and the greater we were as a formed circle.

When I stole looks across the plated offerings at our knees to the ladies facing me through the ill-aligned holes in my Zorro mask, I saw our manufactured golden sunshine creating angelic halos around their heads. Something quite special was happening to us. Soon, we were on our feet, dancing in slow motion, hands waving around.

Malinowski coached us in that the footage was going to be slowed down so that we would appear to be in slow motion, but I felt that it was already happening, in that way you feel when you are aware that you・re going from merely buzzed to full-blown drunk. Although we were all clearly sober, time was slowing in the most peculiar and special way.

There was one part to the shoot left. Alhough it was raining, Malinowski asked if we would be willing to go outside and dance in the elements. I looked to the other women, and it was a universal understanding that this was the perfect evolution of the day — to ground our collective heightened spiritual experience by dancing in the rain in the cold Landenberg afternoon.

A few of us removed our shoes and decided to dance barefoot. We ran outside and gathered at a tree behind the cottage, and without any external music guiding as at all, we danced together, slowly, beneath an overcast sky while rooted to the earth beneath our tender feet. The more I trampled the frozen world beneath me, the more I felt vested by the women around me, and existence itself, to stay vibrant, new, open.

a frame from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

I left the set of Malinowski’s music video feeling transformed. His cottage and his song provided the backdrop to such a special synergy that I will not easily forget. It’s wondrous when you’re open to brand new experiences to begin with. My own reaction to life prior to this had been one of isolation, but to meet creative women who are all on the same stage, was like seeing the glow of a lighthouse after having been at sea for too long, and getting to dance with that beam of light.

I want to live in that light, to bask in that light.

Still from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

Alessandra Nicole is a writer and photographer. Her essay, “Like a Ballerina in the Air,” appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Landenberg Today. To learn more about her, visit www.alessandranicole.com. Other published essays include: “Sunlight, Held Together by Water,” which appeared in Fall 2014’s edition of Kennett Square Today magazine, and “Requiem for a Tree,” which first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of West Chester and Chadds Ford Life magazine.

To view the “White Deer” video, visit: The Collingwood: “White Deer” Official Music Video, on YouTube.

Alessandra's article in Landenberg's 10th Anniversary edition, spring 2015

page 3 of Alessandra's article

Landenberg Today Magazine, Spring 2015

Sunlight, held together by water

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Galer Estate Vineyard and Winery has become one of the leading boutique wineries in the region, marrying old world methods with modern technology to make wine. Recently, one local oenophile spent a day among the grapes and the vines at Galer, learning the art of what makes its wines so unique

Sunlight, held together by water

By Alessandra Nicole

I spent one day this past September in a beautiful, golden daze, up to my elbows in freshly harvested Chardonnay grapes.

As the late afternoon sunshine glowed on the vines, I dove into the two-ton tub of bright green grape clusters. Big, brazen bees buzzed unabashedly all around me, attracted to the delicious sticky juice on my hands. I was feeling a fulfilling fatigue from having worked a very honest day in the fresh air.

On assignment from this magazine, I was a winemaker for a day at Galer Estate Winery and Vineyard.

Few things paint a more romantic picture in my mind than winemaking, and my own romance began the year before I was of legal drinking age. I studied to be a wine sommelier while attending art school in Savannah, Georgia, which gave me a realistic insight into the culture, science, art, and profession of winemaking.

Though a career in photography eventually won out, my personal love affair with the end results of each bottle of wine I uncork is very much ongoing. With each inky elixir I tip to my lips, I acknowledge the hard work that goes into what eventually ends up in my glass, on my dinner table, and enjoyed with my friends. Wine has stayed quite interwoven in the great and continuing tapestry of my life.

My teacher at Galer was the exceptionally talented and personable Virginia Smith Mitchell, Galer’s new winemaker. Soon after I met her, I realized that this assignment had given me the opportunity to spend a day with someone who aspires to keep the bar raised very high for this very special winemaking region. Learning from her was like looking into the window of my missed calling, and knowing that it’s all being handled by an extraordinary visionary who is attending very much to hers.

A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Mitchell, along with her new husband, Chase, both graduated from Penn State with food science degrees. Mitchell worked a couple of internships with large commercial wineries in eastern Pennsylvania and abroad in South Australia at Two Hands during college. She returned to Erie after graduation and worked her way up to assistant winemaker at Mazza Vineyards, one of the first wineries in Pennsylvania and the largest in the state.

Mitchell utilized her time there to work on new products and hone in on what she really wanted from her career and trained under a really great winemaker and oenologist. She was able to make her first vintage in 2011.
At Mazza, as many as 50,000 cases – about 1,000 tons — of wine are produced annually, compared to 25 tons of grapes processed each year at Galer. Part of the reason why Mitchell left the large winery was to become more involved with the grapes and be more hands-on in all aspects of the process.

“I felt I was missing out on some things at the larger winery,” Mitchell said. “Mazza gave me a lot of opportunities to make products, but then those products became owned by the winery. Working at a boutique winery like Galer gives me an opportunity to work directly with the grapes and the winemaking, put my name on the product and share some ownership of it.”

For vineyard owners Brad and Lele Galer, bringing Mitchell on board was a very easy decision. Galer opened in 2011 and with it began a new standard of winemaking in Chester County, that marries “Old World” style winemaking with advances in “New World” technology. “Old World” winemaking is an intelligent combination of respect of the history and wine producing abilities of a particular region, melded with reliance on terrain, soil and climate. It is an elegant art form of embracing “what is,” in terms of seeing what the process yields as the grapes are harvested and fermented. The Galers worked closely with a team of experts to build the highest level of wine-making facility, allowing them to control all aspects of winemaking, from production to bottling.

I arrived for my day as a cellar hand mid morning, wearing the recommended long pants, waterproof shoes, and t-shirt, and walked through the signature towering rust-colored iron gates. Mitchell took me on a brief tour that included the Barrel Room, which she had recently pressure-washed the floor of herself, and with the assistance of her husband, arranged the pretty oak wine barrels into neat rows. I was able see her well-lit white laboratory where we would later test grapes for acidity to determine when they would be ready for harvesting.

Mitchell then took me past the bottling machine. “Next to fermentation, bottling is the most important aspect of winemaking,” she said. “The bottling line is the end point, and if something gets messed up in the bottling line, that’s your end product, the end result. Brad wanted to buy a new car, but they decided to buy a bottling machine instead.”

The machine can both cap and cork the bottles, and labels them. It takes up to three people to run — one person to feed the bottles into the machine, another to take the bottles off at the end to put them into cases, and someone in the middle to make sure everything is going properly.

We ended the facility’s tour up in the fermentation room, where we began the day sanitizing large long plastic hoses so that we could “rack the Chardonnay,” a process that moves the juice from one temperature-controlled vat through an air tight hose via a pump into another tank where fermentation is added and monitored daily until it is ready to be aged in oak barrels in the Barrel Room below.

Mitchell clamped the end of a hose to the spout at the bottom of the tank of grape juice harvested a few days prior, and asked me to press the big button on the pump. The juice began flowing through the hose.

While the Chardonnay was racking, Mitchell showed me how to document the ferment of a nearby tank of Pinot Gris. Documentation is very important to Mitchell so that she will be able to look back year to year and track information and progress. From the documentation, she is able to create graphs for her processes. This information will become her Winemaker’s Diary. She wrote down all of the ferments daily which consists of temperature and a Brix reading – or sugar concentration.

“20 brix will give an alcohol of 11.5 percent,” she said.

While the Chardonnay we just racked had a brix of 21 ― which will make an alcohol equivalent of about 12 percent — We used a thermometer and a hydrometer to check the sugar reading of the Pinot Gris. Mitchell observed the color and aroma of the Pinot Gris. She took a taste of it through the hydrometer, and offered me a sip. The juice had a thickish salmon color and a slight yeasty taste that reminded me of beer.

With the Chardonnay racked and all the daily ferments checked and documented, we set out in the early afternoon sunshine to walk Galer’s lower vineyard to take grape samples from different areas for a diverse test sample to represent the entire vineyard. When the grapes are tested at around 20 brix, she decides along with the vineyard manager when to harvest.

We hiked down through the upper vineyard where the fourth-year vines twist and curl their lovely little grip around the stakes and wire in natural elegant filigree until we reached the lower vineyard. These vines were planted in 1994. We plucked a few grapes from various areas and different places of the cluster and I popped a grape into my mouth, enjoying the sweet meat of it and worked the seed out, politely discarding this as I kept up with Mitchell’s stride. The rows hadn’t been mowed in a few weeks, and tall husks of grass met the edges of the brown soil at the base of the vines.

I turned to admire Galer’s property from the bottom of it’s lower vineyard. Set just behind Longwood Gardens, Galer is a quiet, peaceful place away from most traffic where the songs of bird and insect are able to dominate a charming and rustic landscape. I had seen this beauty before, only much bigger.

Last September, I was gifted a trip to the Napa and Sonoma wine regions of Northern California. Each breath of air I took seemed to take on the enormity of a personal revival. We drove through miles of grapes and uncorked some of California’s best 2010 vintages. We fell in love with many remarkable bottles, scribbling down names and notes. We spoke with other travelers, with many sommeliers, chefs, winemakers, and especially with each other. It had been a long time since I had sipped wine so very consciously. All of my antennae were up. All of my senses were engaged and my palette rejoiced.

With lower vineyard samples in sealed zip-lock bags, we headed back up to Galer and into Mitchell’s laboratory, where we popped the grapes in the bags, mashing them until they were nice and juicy.

Mitchell poured the juice into a little bowl and calibrated a pH reader for three tests to be done on the juices from our sample. Testing is not Mitchell’s favorite part of the winemaking process.

“I would rather just be making the wine instead of doing all the tests myself,” admitted Mitchell, though she’s really good at the data and lab part of this process and it’s really important to her. She continued to show me how she tests the acidity of the juice to determine if the grapes are ready for harvest.

When we emerged from the lab, it was time to climb into Mitchell and her husband’s pickup and drive ribbons of roads through the southern Chester County countryside, past Embreeville, to an enormous, gorgeous vineyard in Coatesville, one of two in the area. I had no idea it existed. The vines seemed to stretch endlessly. We took a drive around it’s perimeter so that I was able to take it all in before circling back to meet the vineyard manager for our Chardonnay pickup.

“It varies year to year but this year the only grapes we have at the winery is the Chardonnay, which is about 7 or 8 tons,” Mitchell said. “We don’t really ever have to supplement the Chardonnay. Sixty-five percent of the wine that we make is grown by the Galer’s property. At Galer Winery and Estate, we keep Chardonnay and then there’s the home winery [where Brad and Lele Galer reside], which has five varietals.”

The vineyard manager used a tractor to push the tubs of grapes onto a large scale pad that weighed the grapes. He sent us back to Galer with two and a half tons of absolutely delicious-looking Chardonnay on a trailer on the back of the truck. We returned to the ribbons of road, winding through the country side with the windows down and air blowing our hair around. I watched the grapes through the back window of the truck’s cab, strapped in and following us in four very large plastic lugs on a trailer. I couldn’t imagine a more rustic and romantic sight than being on horseback on one of the green hilly farms and watching three people in the cab of a pickup hauling Chardonnay grapes.

Soon we were back at Galer and Mitchell’s husband used a tractor to lift one of the huge bins of grapes onto the deck where we would manually scoop them into buckets. For me, this was probably the most pleasing part of the day from a tactile standpoint. It was later in the afternoon at this point and the shadows in the upper vineyard were drawing out slowly. The glorious shining sun was losing altitude. Working so closely with the grapes all day and getting that amount of fresh still-summery air had been especially gratifying.

Wine is sunlight, held together by water.

I held these green weighty clumps of grapes in my hands, with Galileo’s quote on my mind and admired the wholesomeness of them. These exact grapes will be juiced in the machine, the marrow of them flowing through the long hoses into the fermentation room, into a holding tank, and carefully attended to by Mitchell through her fermentation process. Afterward, they will be casked in the oak barrels stored downstairs where they will rest for many moons, and bottled, saving their very unique poem until someone is incited to open one, pour it into some stemware, and finally tilt the glass to their lips. That moment will be a couple of years or more from this very moment.

By then, Mitchell will have spent a couple of years flourishing with Galer and will have blossomed into an award-winning household name amongst foodies and oenophiles alike. Yet at this moment, as I admired the grapes, Mitchell was standing next to me. She was nursing a fresh bee sting, her second sting of her first harvest season at Galer Estate and Winery. She shrugged off the sting, as if to say that such mishaps are part of the bargain for choosing to follow one’s passions – the necessary evil of one’s artistic imprint.

The bees bounced off of my arms and my smiling, sun-kissed cheeks as I continued to help fill the buckets.

————

Alessandra’s story and photos: http://www.kennettsquaretoday.com/magazines/kennetttodaywinter14/index.html

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Like a Ballerina in the Air

Landenberg Today Magazine Landenberg Today Magazine

After putting her pursuit of a pilot’s license on hold for more than a dozen years, a writer/photographer returns to the air over Landenberg and beyond, and falls in love again with the memory – and sensation – of soaring through the skies

Like a ballerina in the air

By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

I have always believed that there is something so strong yet so vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I am in love with that duality; it’s like both cursing gravity and knowing you’re also at the mercy of it, so when I arrived at the New Garden Flying Field on July 25, on assignment from this magazine to write about my return to flying, I knew that I was about to re-live that duality.

For there it was, waiting for me. A flawless shiny red 1946 Fairchild 24.

The first flight I ever took I do not even remember. I was a colicky infant coming over to the United States from Germany with two new parents who reported that I cried for the entire eight- hour flight.

When I was 16, my father and I flew to Miami from Philadelphia the week I graduated high school. I was glued to the window the entire time. I had never seen clouds from the top before; the sight of such impacted my portfolio for art school; as a direct result the experience married my obsession with Degas’ graceful, blue-bathed ballerinas and the ethereal cloud shapes through which we flew on the trip to Miami and back.

When I was in my early twenties, I held a job in Washington for three years as a federal contractor that required me to fly to just about every major U.S. city a week at a time. The constant travel at that age felt glamorous, and every Monday morning for me was filled with prickly anticipation at my next big- city destination.

But the first flight that overtook my heart was one I experienced while attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. I had begun contributing some of my photography to a local entertainment newspaper. On one of my assignments, I found myself in the belly of a large military plane headed to Fort Bragg, N.C., along with 100 Green Berets. They were required to routinely take what’s called a “Hollywood Jump” to maintain current parachuting status, and I photographed them as they stepped one-by-one off the back of the cargo opening and floated out over the beautiful patchwork quilt of farms below.

On the return to Savannah the pilots had me join them in the cockpit for the flight, and from there I was absolutely hooked. It felt like glorious magic watching the pilots guide such a tremendous machine through the air. I loved everything about it, the banter of the pilots on the head sets, the communication with air towers, all the dials and instruments, the updrafts that would put butterflies in my stomach, and the feeling of defying physics to some degree ― the thrill of some form of anarchy against nature.

Years later, on my commutes from my office in southwest Washington, D.C. to my home in Delaware, I would regularly pass a tiny airport outside of Annapolis on Rt. 50. It had a large banner advertising their flight lessons. In late summer of 2001, I was intrigued enough to find my way to the landing strip and go up in a small twin engine airplane to see if it was something I’d like to further pursue.

The experience I had in Annapolis on my hour long first lesson that August afternoon was a total delight of the senses. Being in a small aircraft was completely different from being in a large cruising commercial airliner. It felt personal. It was intimate, delicate, highly technical; an elevated experience in a spiritual sense. I felt like a ballerina in the air.

When we landed again I was absolutely over the moon about the flight. I wore an enormous irrepressible grin for hours, even days afterward. I signed myself up for lessons immediately; I couldn’t wait to learn more! I couldn’t wait to feel like I was levitating again. I wanted to see the mosaic of homes and hills stretch out to the horizon, to see sun spill across the Chesapeake Bay in endless throngs of glitter beneath me. I was looking forward to the prestige of mastering a unique skill unheard of in my family and social circle. My first lesson took me into the air and taught me about using my heightened sensitivities to feel the changes in the air mass around me and gave me confidence in my innate desire for finding balance within the given atmosphere amidst all of it’s unpredictable changes and excelling through the elements. I loved it in the sky.

A few short weeks later in September, however, two commercial airplanes were redirected from their flight patterns and were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another flew into the Pentagon, and still another crashed in rural Pennsylvania. The world was in shock. Things were never to be the same again. Life as we knew it as Americans was changed forever.

My life changed, too. I was a handful of blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when they were attacked. The magnitude of witnessing such a thing deeply changed my own life’s course. My small flight school was closed for federal audits as our nation’s government sought to learn more about who was taking lessons on simulators for domestic commercial aircraft. The greater Washington, D.C. area shifted into a mode of sheer fear and daily panic, heightened security measures were implemented all around. The day’s color-coded terror alerts were discussed over our morning coffee. My own job subsequently got very busy; many of my co-workers refused to fly for a long time and I, still being willing to go up in the air, was assigned a great deal of travel. The goal of working to earn a pilot’s license would be put on hold indefinitely.

Today, I am a professional photographer, and more than 12 years after my last seat in the cockpit of an aircraft I was given the opportunity to climb back in. As I made the tranquil, picturesque drive to New Garden Flying Field to meet with it’s manager, Jonathan Martin, I felt nervous to the point of nausea. My heart was in my throat at the anticipation of the experience. I parked the car, fumbled clumsily around for my camera bag, took a great big deep breath, and trekked over to the landing strip, where Martin met me with an encouraging smile. There, he revealed his stunning and fully-restored 1946 Fairchild 24. My nervousness vanished. An enormous irrepressible grin – one that had accompanied me on all of those past flights years before – had returned.

We flew Martin’s red vintage plane over Landenberg and out to the Chesapeake Bay and chatted about how we each fell in love with aviation. The Fairchild 24 is a cozy craft with 4 seats, crank windows, high wings, and an inverted (upside-down), self lubricating 200hp engine. Martin’s plane hadn’t flown since 1952, and, as the third owner in 2011, the Fairchild 24 was his second total aircraft restoration. I could tell it was restored lovingly. “Truly a labor of love,” said Martin, “Wanna fly it?”

“Yes!” I gasped. Very gingerly I took over the flight.

The Fairchild handled like a Danseur noble with complete aplomb. It was a smooth, steady, responsive: a gentleman of the sky. We took a course out over Havre de Grace, saw the Cecil County Fair from above, and saw the sun spill it’s treasure over the vast Chesapeake Bay once more. I was captivated. I fell in love all over again.

After some time I relinquished control to Martin who curved us around back toward New Garden. “Wanna land it?” asked Martin.

“Oh- No, no thank you!” I exclaimed, suddenly very nervous.

“Aw, come on. It’s the most important part! Take-off is optional but landing is mandatory,” he laughed. Indeed! He vectored us in for a landing in the grass right next to the landing strip.

“This old plane prefers to land in the grass. Easier on the rubber.”

New Garden Airfield was originally built by the duPont family and was sold to New Garden Township in 2007. Jonathan Martin, who has had a special place in his heart for New Garden Airfield since he was 12, was asked to join the Township as manager of the airfield in 2008.

I was elated to learn that Martin along with Court Dunn, a pilot with a teaching background, have been very enthusiastically heading a young aviation program for the past 5 years. The Future Aviators Summer Camp was established in 2009.  This first year they had 28 campers and every year the program has grown and now attracts children from all over the US.  This year they have 130+ campers registered for this summer!

I told Martin that I wish I had been exposed to aviation from the small aircraft vantage point much earlier on in life and that these young people are fortunate to have access to such a thrilling program. I believe Martin is responsible for inspiring and changing the trajectory of young people’s lives in a very positive way. It would be an honor to know that at the end of your day through your passion for what you do you implemented a program that has impacted the lives of young people in such a horizons-expanding manner. I believe exposure to small craft aviation sets a young person up for the ability to dare to achieve worthy things in life.

The return to the cockpit was such a spirited and emotional one for me. The return to the wide open skies in that gentle and elegant way was a return to myself. I left the experience feeling a decade younger and I text messaged one of my friends with shaking hands, “There is something so strong yet vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I had all but forgotten the wonder of it.” Moments later he responded, “Strong yet vulnerable? You’re describing yourself! Welcome back.”

published: http://www.landenbergtoday.com/magazines/ltfall14/index.html?page=48