After all, he had already made a trip to Georgia to shoot his Last Movie. It featured his friend Jerry Payne, a Macon-area butterfly expert and folk artist who had also conducted pioneering research about how insects break down dead bodies.
It all seemed related somehow — returning to nature as life ends, through the lens of Tom and Jerry’s lifelong friendship.
But then Tom’s death sentence was lifted.
It turned out Tom’s doctor had misdiagnosed the remains of a bad case of pneumonia. There was no cancer. The end was not near.
The trouble with a new lease on life is that you have to figure out how to live it.
Like any good art, Tom’s film had taken on its own life, too. But Tom couldn’t see where it was headed.
“When you make a movie like this, it’s contemplative. There are a lot of strange themes, and to try to bring them all together was an interesting and difficult thing to do,” said Tom, who has spent his career making films about folklore and cultural documentaries, often funded through the National Endowment for the Arts.
“You sort of worry about it and dream on it. There’s something that goes on in your subconscious, especially when you feel kind of desperate about it: What am I going to do with this stuff?”
Tom took several years to decide that instead of being about his own death, the film was actually about his friend Jerry’s life.
It made quite a subject. Jerry, now 74, grew up a tenant farmer’s son on a 2,000-acre Virginia plantation, where he saved the skulls of every squirrel or rabbit his family trapped to eat. His first car had been tricked out to run moonshine by the ex-con who sold it to him.
Today, Jerry makes shiny monster finger puppets out of deer vertebrae and deliberately builds homes for pack rats near the home he shares with his wife, Rose. Two millipedes, a roly-poly, a spider, a beetle and a protozoan have been named for him. He knows more about maggots than most people know about anything.
It would be a movie about Jerry — and nature and death.
Tom was just lucky that Jerry agreed to it while Tom was sick.
Jerry’s initial reaction? “No way. I’m not interested.” He called the process “awful” because he felt pressured to have deep thoughts about things that had happened half a lifetime ago. (Now, he admits to being excited and said he thinks the film is outstanding.)
On top of everything else, Tom wanted him to return to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his five brothers and sisters for more filming. The family hadn’t all reunited since their father died in 1999.
Rose warned Jerry, “Tom’s not going to give up. Just go up there.”
So Jerry and Tom, who still lives in Virginia, visited Llangollen, the centuries-old manor where Jerry’s family had worked in the dairy and the thoroughbred horse barns. They toured one of the homes where Jerry grew up, now being renovated as new owners of the plantation prepare to turn the estate into a tourist attraction and polo training facility.
Visiting his hometown was painful, Jerry said, because hobby farms for the wealthy and agritourism have replaced the true rural culture that he knew. The bones of the buildings — and the community — are the same, but the old way of life has fallen away.
Tom’s film includes a segment with Jerry and one of his siblings setting a game trap as they were taught when they were kids. Trapping and finding wild plants and herbs was a key source of food for the family. It also provided Jerry with some of his first bones to study. He still has row upon row of animal skulls, from beavers to tiny bats.
“You do with what you got,” Jerry says in the film, often speaking with his eyes closed. “Insects were there. Plants were there. I realized really early in life I wasn’t going to be able to date many girls. How are you going to go to prom in high school on a bicycle?”
n n Two worlds n n
Jerry and Tom were from different social and economic classes in a place where that mattered very much. “It would have been the equivalent of the millionaire and the pauper,” Jerry said.
After they met on the school bus, Tom was allowed to play with Jerry only after Tom’s mother gave Jerry “the third degree,” Jerry recalls. When Jerry passed muster, he encountered a very different way of life.
“Every night at dinner they had to say what progress they had made with their music lessons or their reading — and talk about what they read,” Jerry recalled. Tom’s mother gave Jerry a reading list from their home library and then quizzed him on the books.
In the film, Jerry says most of his peers didn’t contemplate college. He didn’t either. There was no money for it.
But Jerry knew he didn’t want to stay on the farm, where work was seven days a week and you could be called day or night to provide extra services to “the big house.”
“There was no way to escape unless you joined the military, robbed a bank or married somebody with money,” Jerry recalled.
And although he didn’t take any of those options, Jerry got out.
He was offered a scholarship. The scholarship committee was dismayed to learn he hadn’t actually applied to college. But why spend $15 on an application fee for a place you couldn’t go?
Jerry started at Virginia Technical College, then transferred to the University of Tennessee. He worked his way through school by doing research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on how radiation affected small animals and cancer patients.
His doctoral studies at Clemson University led to the research that would help form the skeleton of modern criminal forensics.
Tom had always been fascinated by Jerry’s research films of insects thriving on the carcasses of dead piglets. In the movie, Jerry narrates some of the time-lapse footage of ants, maggots and beetles devouring an animal at lightning speed as the hands of a 1960s-era alarm clock whirl in the background.
Jerry said he used pigs because their skin is similar to that of humans. He weighed the pigs every hour and kept temperature and odor records.
Turns out, insects could reduce the animal to bones within an average of six days.
But Jerry was still curious. He wanted to compare how insects would operate in different conditions.
Bury the pig. Put it in water. Set it in a tree. What happens differently?
Previous research on the role of insects in decomposition was less thorough. Jerry’s work became cover-story news in Time magazine and Scientific American and helped set the stage for using insect activity to establish time of death.
His research has since been featured in everything from books for children to popular adult nonfiction such as “Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.”
Jerry’s research footage has gained a new audience, too. Tom digitized Jerry’s 16-millimeter, time-lapse footage of pig decomposition and posted it on YouTube, where more than 2 million people have viewed it.
Afterward, Tom offered the original film to any interested archives. The Smithsonian Institution took him up on it. It is now housed with other important artifacts of American history and science.
Tom said he hopes to market “Where Do They All Go?” to birders and butterfly watchers — a growing group as Baby Boomer retirees look for hobbies — as well as people interested in forensic science and in history.
The movie has also been submitted to a handful of film festivals, including the Macon Film Festival. The organization will announce in December which films have been chosen for the 2013 festival, spokesman Terrell Sandefur said.
n n Bonehenge and Tick Hill n n
Although Jerry’s doctoral work is famous, Jerry isn’t. His career was spent working with peach and pecan pests in Georgia.
Since his retirement, he has led efforts to record butterfly populations in the midstate. But most of his neighbors don’t know “he’d make a great character in a fictional CSI show,” Tom said.
“Pig decomposition doesn’t come up in our conversation in Bibb County,” Jerry said.
Most days, Jerry and his wife spend some of their time walking the paths Jerry has mown into their 80-acre property, a former farm on the Bibb/Monroe County line. They dubbed it Tick Hill and are letting it return to native plants that attract their favorite butterflies.
Outside the house stands Bonehenge: several posts wrapped with layers of animal bones — a painted deer skull, white leg bones, jaws full of teeth — attached with twine. They are garlanded with dried crab apples and tassled with ribbons.
The ribbons were Rose’s contribution, Jerry says. They attract butterflies.
As they walk over the dam of a pond they built, Rose points out an otter trail. A great egret takes off and struggles to fly against the wind.
Nearby stands a teepee of gray, weathered wood the couple built to encourage pack rats to move farther from the barn, where the animals used to steal small tools. A stick nest is visible peeking out of the stick house.
“It was supported by two trees, but the beavers carried them off,” Rose said.
Jerry is interested in life: plant life, animal life, insect life, human life. The movie about him deals with death, but Jerry’s not so into that. Jerry’s been around death a long time. He used to be excused from elementary school to be a volunteer pallbearer and later worked as a cemetery caretaker. He’s comfortable around death — but not his own.
“I talk to a lot of people my age, and they talk about death,” said Jerry, a lanky man who runs road races. “I don’t want to die.”
Yet he kicked off his career with carrion and he makes beauty from bones. After all, they are literally the skeleton you hang a life on. Bones, and the art he makes from them, remain long after the insects are done.
At stumps along the paths in Tick Hill are small collections of deeply weathered wood fragments — tree bones Jerry has picked up. He is waiting to find out what they want to be.
He looks at them each time he walks by, sometimes for years, until he can see the monster or fish that might emerge.
“Wood decays into fish,” Jerry says matter-of-factly, showing off a school full of shimmering specimens swimming in a glass jar. The orange-and-black striped one is called a “Mercerian.” (Many of his bone and wood animals have names.)
Some of his pieces depict glittering birds, identifiable by species. Others represent more complex ideas. A series of six turtle shells illustrate Rose’s description of how it felt to have progressive stages of shingles disease. They are still beautiful, decorated in bright star bursts in various patterns — but they represent the firing neurons that convey pain.
Jerry also decorates the plastrons, the bottom plates of turtle shells. He is painting some of these in Tom’s film, with a house cat often sitting in the middle of the operation and getting decorated a bit, too.
The title of the 45-minute film ended up being “Where Do They All Go?” It refers to Jerry’s observation that although animals die all the time, people rarely encounter the bodies.
Jerry asks rhetorically, “So where do they all go?”
At face value, the answer is that insects eat them. But the question provides a broader context for the film, too.
“It’s a question you use as a way to knock down your ego, like, where do you go after you die?” Tom said. “People might say heaven, but what do you mean by that? If you take up that question seriously, it’s a religious question.”
The movie features not only Jerry’s friendship with Tom, but his friendship with Father Francis Michael, abbot of the Catholic Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Portions of the film are shot in the Trappist monastery’s “green cemetery,” the first of its kind in Georgia, where bodies are buried without modern embalming.
Father Francis, who met the Paynes through their joint interest in butterflies, adds another dimension to the film as he talks about death.
Jerry is not a traditionally religious man, but he makes beautiful Christmas tree ornaments from dried grapefruit skins peeled in star patterns and from plastrons painted with “St. Psyche,” who resembles and angel.
“Psyche is the Greek word for soul, and a lot of people think butterflies are the soul,” Jerry said.
The distinctive pith helmet Jerry wears during all his butterfly counts (and in much of the film) resembles a green turtle shell decorated with raised images of animals. The underside of the brim is painted with a thousand tiny butterflies, which appear to cluster around his face above his scraggly white beard.
One recent day, after he and Rose walked their pastures tall with grass, Jerry took off the helmet. He flipped it over to reveal yet another pattern painted in the dome — the part no one sees.
Inside, it glows with shapes that look like stained glass.
“They say the mind is a temple,” Jerry said. He grinned.
Then he put the hat back on.