Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Farmville Files: Charts and Maps

From an ongoing investigation:

Exhibit N (above): It would be interesting to consider again, as one member of the rural diaspora mentioned in these pages before, what the virtual lay-of-the-Farmville-land would look like if those fields were tethered to economic reality. 

Exhibit O: 

This is the map for Serve Your Country Food, a project of The Greenhorns--an organization that works to provide resources and community to young Americans looking to farm. As millions wake up early to harvest their digital beans, they are just a few clicks away from connecting with people who are doing the real thing. Look for more on The Greenhorns soon in this space.

Exhibit P: Is there a politics to Farmville?

Monday, March 29, 2010

For Your Consideration: March 29

By Ian Halbert

Check out these links which pick up the loose strands of the ongoing conversations here on The Art of the Rural:

1. Another example of urban chefs making the most of tradition ... and a pig! San Francisco Chef Chris Cosentino’s remarkable take on head cheese involving a very sharp knife, a blowtorch, a razor and, of course, a pig’s head:

2. More to read on bees and Colony Collapse Disorder

3. Did you know you can get artisanal gouda in Alabama? I didn't either. 

4. Alabaman artisanal cheesemen and others like them face controversial regulations regarding raw milk.

5. France seems to have the school lunch thing down pretty well, huh?

M.T. Liggett

photograph by Dave Nance

I've got all these windmills and these flags--you got to have wind. This art belongs in Kansas, out where it's windy, in a sea of grass. And that's where it is, and that's where it's going to stay. 

This weekend the Bob Edwards radio show broadcast a feature on the documentary What's The Matter With Kansas?, an adaptation of Thomas Frank's best-selling (and much-discussed) 2006 book by the same name. Mr. Edwards invited both the author and the director Joe Winston in to discuss the project, which seems in many ways to be an extension of Mr. Frank's book--less a one-sided ideological argument than a careful look into the lives of a range of Kansans, to understand how they and their state have migrated from a populist, Democratic electorate to a solidly Republican state that (as Frank argues) votes against their own economic interests for the sake of certain moral issues. Though both Frank and Winston are both left-leaning artists, the film has been receiving accolades for its even-handed approach of simply letting these Kansans speak for themselves. 

I was excited to hear that the film spends some time with M.T. Liggett, the iconoclastic sculptor from Mullinsville. If the directors were looking for a figure who would trouble easy partisan arguments, they could have done no better. If artists in specific, and rural people in general, share any traits, one of them would be a sometimes vigorous sense of contrariness. That's in full view in the  videos below, which will both help to explain Mr. Liggett, his art and how they could have only been made in the place where he has chosen to live. Please note that the following videos both contain profane language.

"Can you imagine the odds of M.T. Liggett being born in a town like Mullinville, Kansas?" the artist wonders in the latter video. "But the only reason I stay here is because you can't do this any place else. I've got to have Kansas on account of all the wind and this room: it's kinetic energy, it's movement." Mr. Liggett's sentiment's here, of having a deeply complicated relationship with place, was echoed here previously when we looked at the photographs of David Lundahl. Like him, Mr. Liggett is between categories--really neither a folk artist nor a "modern" artist--so he is catagorized as an "outsider artist." Like Mr. Lundahl, an attachment to a rural place keeps him "outside" the urban centers where art is supposed to happen; an adherence to some of the aesthetic values of modern art keep him from ever being fully "inside" the life of this same community, this same place.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Seven Blogs For The Weekend

photograph by Farmgirl Fare

-- The GOAT blog is one of the many facets of the High Country News, a non-profit media organization that focuses on life in the western United States. The GOAT blog's large staff of writers follow this imperative with creativity, making it one of the "must read" blogs for people interested in rural or urban issues. 

-- Fourteen Places to Eat is Kay Westhues' photo-blog. Her work aims to to "celebrate rural life without idealizing it," and the work has a nice range of themes and tones, from the cerebral to the downright hilarious. Visit the site...you'll see what we mean.

-- Mark Lynn Ferguson is a Roanoke native and an emerging writer. He has begun The Revivalist, a blog about all facets of Appalachian culture. Look for two recent series: Black in Appalachia and Modern Moonshine.

-- If you've been interested in our "Farmville Files" or our attention to food culture and urban-rural links, by all means check out City Farmer News: New Stories From 'Urban Agricultural Notes.' It's a well-written blog with a global reach and a profound message about what's possible in our urban centers.  

--Similarly, Real Food Media is another consortium of blogs filled with insight and a deep drawer of resources to help its readers follow its directive of "real food. small farms. green living." There's also a good write-up of Wendell Berry's recent testimony on the National Animal Identification System.

-- Susan is the writer of the fantastic Farmgirl Fare blog. She uprooted her life on the west coast to farm on "240 remote Missouri acres." Her site contains photographs of all facets of animal husbandry and farm life in general as well as thoughts on what it means to live and farm in her region.

-- To the east of Susan, in Boston, a young writer has put herself to cooking ALL the recipes in Fergus Henderson's highly-recommended Nose to Tail. Appropriately, her site is called Eating Nose to Tail, and it will inspire you to be more creative in the kitchen and to consider how we can use more of the animals we raise.

An Almanac For Moderns: March Twenty-Fifth

The beginnings of spring, the true beginnings, are quite unlike the springtides of which poets and musicians sing. The artists become conscious of spring in late April, or May, when it is not too much to say that the village idiot would observe the birds are singing and nesting, that fields bear up their freight of flowering and ants return to their proverbial industry. 

But the first vernal days are younger. Spring steals in shyly, a tall, naked child in her pale gold hair, amidst us the un-innocent, skeptics in wool mufflers, prudes in gumshoes and Grundies with head-colds. Very secretly the old field cedars sow the wind with the freight of their ancient pollen. A grackle in the willow croaks and sings in the uncertain, ragged voice of a boy. The marshes brim, and walking is a muddy business. Oaks still are barren and secretive. On the lilac tree only the twin buds suggest her coming maturity and flowering. But there in the pond float the inky masses of those frog's eggs, visibly life in all its rawness, its elemental shape and purpose. Now is the moment when the secret of life could be discovered, yet no one finds it. 

Follow this link for more on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Stan Neptune And The Art of Root Clubs

I recently learned that, in 2005, The Center for New England Culture featured the exhibit We're Still Here: Contemporary Indigenous New England Artists. Their online exhibit offers links to the artists and their artforms: baskets, jewelry, fiber arts, musical instruments and bead work. The site serves as a solid introduction to traditional Native American arts, and it contained a moment of discovery for me--as I was unaware of the practice of root club carving:
Traditional Wabanaki (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi'kmac, and Maliseet) root clubs are made of the stock and root bundle of grey birch trees. Today's carvers use poplar as well. Though pre-18th century root clubs may have been used as weapons, 18th-19th century clubs, embellished with fantastic, other-worldly faces, were used in spiritual ceremonies and are often called spirit clubs. By the late 19th century, the abundance of human faces on root clubs reflected an increased sales to non-Native tourists, moving away from the spiritual. In the 1920s, responding to the white man's idea of the "Indian," Wabanakis carved their clubs with western-style war-bonnets and sold them as war clubs. 
Stan Neptune is a root club carver from Passadumkeag, Maine who aims in his work to "express the natural continuum between the Indian past and the Indian present." While the small space of this site won't do his work justice, try viewing this introduction to his work and the artform courtesy of The Maine Basketmakers Alliance and The University of Maine's Hudson Museum. In the process, you'll learn more about his family of artists; Joe "Hugga" Dana (a carver), Molly Neptune Paker (a basketmaker) and Jennifer Sapiel Neptune (a beadworker). This interview with the artist from The Bangor Metro is also a good place to visit to learn more.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rural Studio And The 20K House

The Newbern Volunteer Fire Department was the first new public building in Newbern for 110 years. It houses fire trucks and satisfies the town's needs for a place to house elections, council meetings, volunteer firefighter classes, fund-raising and community gatherings. The building is supported by a wood and metal truss structure enclosed by translucent polycarbonate panels protected from the sun by cedar louvers.

In January I discussed Consuela Lee and the Snow Hill Institute, mentioning the community's hope that an Auburn architecture program might be able to rehabilitate some of the buildings in the future. Today I'm returning with more information on Rural Studio, a program begun in 1993 by Auburn architecture professors Dennis K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee that works to "improve the living conditions in rural Alabama while imparting practical experience to architecture students." Here's Fred A. Bernstein writing in the New York Times in 2005 about Mr. Mockbee's legacy in these rural communities:
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, the master of Taliesin, Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio's founder, was a larger-than-life figure. Born in Mississippi, Mr. Mockbee established the Rural Studio in dirt-poor Hale County, Ala., a place where trailers teetering on cinderblocks and disintegrating barns were two of the most common building types.

Hale County was where James Agee and Walker Evans lived when they gathered the material for their 1939 book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." And until Mr. Mockbee arrived, visitors remarked that little had changed since Agee and Evans captured its heartbreaking poverty in words and pictures.

Under Mr. Mockbee, who died in 2001, students identified the poorest of the poor, and built them modest dwellings. Materials were rudimentary - whatever they could beg or borrow - and so the students made their mark with quirky details: a window inserted on a 30-degree angle, a concrete wall studded with soda bottles to let bits of light through. One house has walls made of car tires; another is made of hay bales; yet another of stacks of carpet tiles.

It's an open secret that Mr. Mockbee liked to work in Hale County because there was no building code enforcement - allowing the students to experiment with unconventional materials and forms.

A number of the houses are in Mason's Bend, a hamlet near Sawyerville occupied by four extended families. At the center of the enclave is a community chapel, its towering glass wall made of surplus Chevrolet Caprice windshields. When I was there, one of the windshields had shattered and others were in need of washing. But the power of the building - rising skyward with ambitions that belie its low budget - shone through.

The Rural Studio's site is so visually rich that it's really worth a visit, especially to see some of the structures Bernstein describes. After Mr. Mockbee's passing, Andrew Freear took the reins as thesis advisor, and the focus shifted to larger community structures and an outreach program that could bring other students and community members onboard to help with, what seems to me, to be an absolutely visionary project, the 20K House. They've asked this question: "what kind of house can be designed for $10,000 in materials when the other $10,000 goes for labor costs and profit?" Here's a few answers:

There's much more information on the projects, their designers and the community on their site. The American Public Media program Speaking of Faith not only produced entire program on Rural Studio, but their site contains articles and resources, and some fantastic videos on everything from the philosophy behind the project to the hands-on process of building a 20K House. 

Update:  The film Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio premiered last week at the South By Southwest festival and is set to air nationally on PBS this summer. Follow the above link for a high resolution trailer for the project.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: March Twenty-First

The first entry in An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie.

March Twenty-First

On this chill uncertain spring day, toward twilight, I have heard the frog quaver from the marsh. That is a sound that Pharoah listened to as it rose from the Nile, and it blended, I suppose, with his discontents and longings, as it does with ours. There is something lonely in that first shaken and uplifted trilling croak. And more than lonely, for I hear a warning in it, as Pharoah heard the sound of plague. It speaks of the return to life, animal life, to the earth. It tells of all that is most unutterable in evolution--the terrible continuity and fluidity of protoplasm, the irrepressible forces of reproduction--not mystical human love, but the cold batrachian jelly by which we vertebrates are linked to the things that creep and writhe and are blind yet breed and have being. More than half it seems to threaten that when mankind has quite thoroughly shattered and eaten and debauched himself with his own follies, that voice may still be ringing out in the marshes of the Nile and the Thames and the Potomac, unconscious that Pharoah wept for his son.

It always seems to me that no sooner do I hear the first frog trill than I find the first cloud of frog's eggs in a wayside pool, so swiftly does the emergent creature pour out the libation of its cool fertility. There is life where before there was none. It is as repulsive as it is beautiful, as silvery-black as it is slimy. Life, in short, raw and exciting, life almost in primordial form, irreducible element.

Introducing Donald Culross Peattie

As spring arrives again, our thoughts turn to the fields, gardens and container plots waiting to be planted. Or, if we don't possess a green thumb, we wait eagerly for the warmer weather to bring the markets and roadside stands back into our lives, to sit down with that first bowl of spring greens, to bite into the first corn of summer or that first peach. 

As we all look ahead to these joys, let me introduce Donald Culross Peattie. He's a figure we're going to keep close by this season. Here's how one blog has summarized Mr. Peatties many contributions:
Donald Culross Peattie was the pre-eminent Naturalist of his day. After leaving University of Chicago and French Poetry for Harvard and Botany, he worked for the Department of Agriculture and produced several works of mostly scientific value—his A Natural History of North American Trees is indispensable, authoritative and exhaustive. Later, he married the novelist Louise Redfield, and turned to nature writing as a career, for which he is most remembered. Through the 30’s and 40’s he published a dozen or so books directed to the general reader which were, owing to his popularity, distributed through many book clubs; he also wrote for Reader’s Digest and produced columns for the Washington Post and Chicago Daily News.
Yet Mr. Peattie's career as a writer and a naturalist was not always so certain. It was actually a combination of the depression years and a return to his wife's rural community that provided the springboard for his many later successes. Here's Peter Friederici of Chicago Wilderness Magazine setting the stage:
In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Glenview, Illinois witnessed a subdued homecoming. A couple and their three young sons returned to the state of their origin after six years in the south of France. It was early winter, and bleak; the drought of the Dust Bowl had not yet broken. Glenview was more rural than suburban. Lacking snow, the northern Illinois farmlands looked "dingy now and threadbare." The great old bur oaks of the prairie groves appeared dead.

They were both writers. Their books had found publishers but not much of an audience. Jobless, the man doubted his own ability to provide for his family. "Still to put trust in me, I thought . . . was to perform more than I ever had yet," he wrote. For what, he wondered, had they left the warm delights of the Riviera?

Such was the homecoming of Donald Culross Peattie and Louise Redfield Peattie.
The book to emerge from from these Northern Illinois fields was An Almanac for Moderns (1935) a breathtaking combination of naturalism and poetry, with  a philosophical and observant eye that prefigures many of the agrarian writings that, a few decades later, would take a stand and argue for the validity and the necessity of rural culture. Remarkably, this book is currently out of print. (But can be found cheaply here.)

Here's Robert Finch describing the Almanac in The Norton Book of Nature Writing:  
The "moderns" that Donald Culross Peattie wrote for in his An Almanac for Moderns were a skeptical generation. They were the descendents of Darwin and Freud and the inheritors of World War I, who had seen "the trees blasted by the great guns and the birds feeding on men's eyes." ... His deliberate choice of the archaic literary form of a daily almanac contrasted the stable natural order of the ancient philosophers and naturalists with the modern existential view of nature as soulless and purposeless. Its short 365 chapters not only pose many of the philosophical questions that have preoccupied contemporary nature writers, but also contain an informal survey of natural science and evocative observations of seasonal life.
In a technological and social moment when the "archaic literary form of a daily almanac" doesn't really seem that archaic, we're hoping to use this site (updated almost every day) to celebrate the work of Donald Culross Peattie--and to hopefully start a word-of-mouth campaign to give this author the new edition he richly deserves.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Allan Benton Ham & Bacon

By Ian Halbert

Recently, Mary and I ate at a local restaurant we both love – Hungry Mother. The concept is something of a cross-section of a number of different food trends popular at the moment (and, with hope, for good): locally sourced, organic products; “slow food” cooking methods; traditionally humble, regional dishes refined with a gourmet edge. In essence, Hungry Mother is the grand product of a chef classically trained in the French tradition returning to recreate the dishes of his rural Virginia youth – boiled peanuts and all.

On our last visit, we had a charcuterie plate which featured some house-made meats and some sourced from a third party. On the plate was a particularly tasty smoked ham. I asked the waitress its origin and stumbled into Allan Benton.

After reading around, I found Mr. Benton to be a particularly interesting and engaging fellow, who apparently makes some mean bacon in addition to his hams: his bacons and hams are featured in many very well-known and well regarded restaurants, including Tom Colicchio’s Craft and David Chang’s Momofuku. Essentially, Benton has married an Appalachian operation and its resources to the great traditions of European curing methods:

“I call it country ham, but I'm lying through my teeth. It's just a curing process they've been doing for a thousand years in Europe. The way I see it, just because they live in Parma, or in Germany, or anywhere else, doesn't mean that they can produce a better ham than a bunch of farm boys from Tennessee can.”

This marriage of the rich resources of rural Appalachia and the country culinary techniques of the old world have produced an outstanding product that is meeting the demands of chefs and diners looking for quality products close to home.

Read around on him (and here) and you will find someone alive with humor – “Yessir, I take my Crestor like everybody else” – and as much a product of his place as his pigs: “I can't remember when I couldn't make corn bread.”

We have consistently pointed toward the rural/urban divide, and the mutual support each lends to the other. While I am eternally grateful for Mr. Benton’s passion and devotion, the fact is he should not be as rare as he is: there is much more pork in this country that could use a few months in salt and air. We must be careful not to romanticize what should, in reality, be normal practices for a healthy food culture. Please, don’t ever let me write something as unctuous as this:

A couple days ago, I received this text message from a friend: “At PDT in NYC drinking a Benton’s old-fashioned. Yes, it’s infused with our man’s bacon …”

Let’s get back to basics. Here’s a recipe for Benton’s “Red-Eye Gravy” you can find on the click-throughs also. You might as well order a ham from Allan for just such a dish:

Benton’s Red-Eye Gravy
Makes about 1/2 cup, or 2 servings
2 slices country ham, about 1/4-inch thick
1 teaspoon vegetable oil, as needed
1/2 cup fresh, hot coffee, divided
1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
Hot biscuits, for sopping 

Trim the fat from the ham slices. Put the fat in a large cast-iron skillet and set the ham aside. Cook the fat over medium heat until it renders, about 3 minutes. (If there isn’t much rendered fat, add the vegetable oil.) 

Pour 1/4 cup of the coffee into the skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted. Place the ham slices on top and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook over medium heat until wisps of steam come out from under the lid, then remove the lid and lightly brown the ham. 

Transfer the ham to a warm plate and keep warm. Discard any remaining pieces of fat. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of coffee. Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring up from the bottom, until the gravy comes together and cooks down a little, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve hot with the ham slices, as well as biscuits for sopping.

Thanks To The Daily Yonder!

Many times over the short life of this site I've referenced The Daily Yonder, a publication I see as rural america's digital front page: news and commentary, arts and culture, all delivered to your screen each morning. Their site has been a source of fresh and informative perspectives on rural issues; and, truth be told, The Daily Yonder was the example and inspiration that sparked us to start up our little site.

So, I'm excited to share the good news that The Daily Yonder has added The Art Of The Rural to both its blogroll and its feed of "Yonder Blogs" on its front page. We're honored to be considered among these vital rural voices, and we are looking forward to contributing to the discussion.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Root Hog Or Die

In one of our first posts, we mentioned Lance Ledbetter and his Atlanta-based label Dust to Digital. He's among number of folks, many from the younger generations, who are using modern technology and audio production to reclaim and share traditional music with new audiences. Say what you will about how the digital age has cheapened political discourse, made our lives more impersonal and lowered our standards for how we listen (and value) music, but it's been a miracle that has saved and restored many recordings.

Nathan Salsburg is another person doing absolutely invaluable work. While he's the production manager, digital catalog editor, and photo and video archivist for the Alan Lomax Archive (see our post on Cultural Equity) he also edits the amazingly rich Root Hog Or Die blog which he describes as "a directory of online concerns offering indigenous, local, traditional, site- or people-specific music." All of the sites he highlights contain full songs, most offer the songs free to download, and all of them can at least be heard in streaming fashion. You can check out his weekly Root Hog Or Die Radio Show which broadcasts over the internet on East Village Radio.

He also curates the Twos and Fews imprint, which is distributed by the always-wonderful Drag City label. I first came across his work after they released Nimrod Workman's I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful. It's a stunning record of songs by this legendary Kentucky singer and mining activist (reviewed here in Pitchfork) and, as with the releases on Dust to Digital's Parlortone arm, its also available on vinyl. In a similar vein, he's also written reviews and compiled playlists on E.C. Ball, Charlie Louvin and others for the online magazine Smoke. More or less, if you follow the strand of links associated with his projects you'll get a crash-course in the way that technology is making it easier for audiences to both locate this amazing work and have a personal and profound relationship with the music.

Mr. Salsburg is also a musician. Here he is performing Dave Van Ronk's "Tell Old Bill" with a fellow native of Louisville, Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

For The Weekend: La Charreada: Rodeo a la Mexicana

photograph by Nate Broshot

Follow this link to Folkstreams to watch La Charreada: Rodeo a la Mexicana, a 1996 documentary by Olga Nájera-Ramirez. Here's the film synopsis from the Folkstreams site:

This video focuses on la charreada, a unique equestrian sport that is the official national sport of Mexico. Consisting of various equestrian games and roping and riding competitions, the charreada emerged from the techniques employed in cattle ranching activities such as herraderos (branding events) and rodeos (roundups). Today, the charreada is practiced and preserved by Mexicanos living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Based on five seasons of ethnographic fieldwork centered in Sunol, California and extending to other parts of the United States and Mexico, this video demonstrates how the charreada helps construct a particular conception of Mexican cultural identity by invoking a set of images, landscapes, historical events, symbols and rituals which represent the shared experiences which give meaning to Mexico as a national culture.

Interviews with practitioners are presented in the original language (some are recorded in Spanish, others in English) and open captioning provides the appropriate translation to produce a fully bilingual documentary. This project offers a timely and unique contribution to the understanding of the interrelationship between Mexico and the Chicano community.

Friday, March 19, 2010

T.S. Eliot Among The Cows

By Ian Halbert

In a previous post I discussed the habit of Robert Frost’s father tippling cups of ox blood for to cure his consumption. This week, I have read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of T.S. Eliot and have come upon another curious bit of ruralia.

Eliot, the high priest of modernity and urbanity is not one we imagine to have had much of the rural in him, and we are not wrong in thinking so. Nevertheless, he spent much of his adult life visiting the English countryside, usually for restorative and curative purposes, nervous and sickly man that he was. Still, this countryside really has no actual place in his poetry, save maybe in the grand abstractions he built out of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding in his master work, Four Quartets, where for example he speaks of “We, content at the last / If our temporal reversion nourish / (Not too far from the yew-tree) / The life of significant soil.” This “significant soil,” whatever it may be, is not habitable ground.

As I read, I discovered that Eliot had a life-long aversion to large animals. As a bit of illustration, Ackroyd tells of a curious story on one of his trips to the country town of Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire with an old college girlfriend. It seems on one walk the Nobel Laureate was nearly trampled by a boisterous heifer and only escaped by diving into a mulberry bush! To commemorate the event he composed this little bit of light verse for the children of Frank Morley, a close friend in the publishing business:

The Country Walk

Of all the beasts that God allows
In England’s green and pleasant land,
I most of all dislike the Cows:
Their ways I do not understand.
It puzzles me why they should stare
At me, who am so innocent;
Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —
It’s positively truculent.
I’m very inconspicuous
And scarlet ties I never wear;
I’m not a London Transport Bus,
And yet at me they always stare.
You may reply, to fear a Cow
Is Cowardice the rustic scorns;
But still your reason must allow
That I am weak, and she has horns.
But most I am afraid when walking
With country dames in brogues and tweeds,
Who will persist in hearty talking
And stopping to discuss the breeds.
To country people Cows are mild,
And flee from any stick they throw;
But I’m a timid town bred child,
And all the cattle seem to know.
But when in fields alone I stroll,
Oh then in vain their horns are tossed,
In vain their bloodshot eyes they roll —
Of me they shall not make their boast.
Beyond the hedge or five-barred gate,
My sober wishes never stray;
In vain their prongs may lie in wait,
For I can always run away!
Or I can take sanctuary
In friendly oak or apple tree. 
You can read more about the incident here. Cows, the countryside and the realities of rural life were once common fodder for poets and their poems. There seems in this strange little incident something somehow symbolic of our way of life: One of the greatest poets of our age eye to eye with a cow, unnerved by its “stupid gaze.” Paradoxically, Eliot had an easier time staring into the The Waste Land of the western tradition, than into the simple, innocent life snorting there before him. Something in that scenario seems deeply unpoetic, no?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Geno Delafose

As we mentioned a few weeks back, The Western Folklife Center recently hosted its 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Navada. This year the WFC invited grammy-nominated Geno Delafose and his band, French Rockin Boogie, to perform. Mr. Delafose is a rancher from Duralde, Lousiana and the son of legendary Zydeco accordion player John Delafose. Here's a video of the band playing at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, with interviews with Mr. Delafose as well as Nick Spitzer, the musicologist and host of American Routes. Enjoy:

The Western Folklife Center YouTube Channel has a wealth of videos from the Gathering, and it's really worth exploring. Here's a look at some younger musicians who are "carrying forward" cowboy music into this new century:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Art of Coming Home

photograph by Kelley Snowden

Along with Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson is an agrarian thinker whose ideas are now finding widespread purchase in our contemporary dialogues about agricultural (and community) sustainability. Mr. Jackson is the head of The Land Institute, an organization with the mission "to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops." A visit to their site, however, will demonstrate that the Institute is equally interested in investigating the culture inside agriculture.

I mention Mr. Jackson because I've been thinking lately about one of the ideas that we're hoping to explore on this site--the idea of a "rural diaspora," the mass of americans born into rural communities who are no longer citizens of rural america. For this population, the prospect of "coming home" is complicated, to say the least. Mr. Jackson's book Becoming Native to this Place (1994), offers a series of meditations on this issue. I've been thinking recently about his notion of a "homecoming" major:
To a large extent, this book is a challenge to the universities to stop and think what they are doing with the young men and women they are supposed to be preparing for the future. The universities now offer only one serious major: upward mobility. Little attention is paid to educating the young to return home, or to go some other place, and dig in. There is no such thing as a "homecoming" major. But what if the university were to ask seriously what it would mean to have as our national goal becoming native in this place, this continent? We are unlikely to achieve anything close to sustainability in any area unless we work for the broader goal of becoming native in the modern world, and that means becoming native to our places in a coherent community that is in turn embedded in the ecological realities of its surrounding landscape. 
Here's one answer to Mr. Jackson's query. Dr. Kelley Snowden is a college professor and resident of the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm, where her husband Scott is the assistant manager. In her  Daily Yonder article Listening to the Farm's Next Generation, she spoke with two of the work-study students and asked them to reflect on their experiences at the farm, their opinions on america's relationship with agriculture, and their plans to return to their home communities.  Here's a short excerpt from The Daily Yonder, where Jerome D. Jones, a student from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, describes the challenges he faced since he began work at the farm:
“My mother was okay about it, but kind of didn’t like it,” he told me. “My friends thought it was very, very funny, and Grandma hated it because in Dallas there really aren’t any farms. It is suburban, and everyone thinks of the bad stuff that happens on farms. “

Bad stuff happens on farms?

Just because you work the demonstration farm doesn't mean you're out of touch. Jerome checks his messages.  “You know, my Grandma is worried about safety,” he answered. “The phone service is poor so I can’t call her everyday and she hates that.”

With this comment, both boys started to laugh and talked about how farms and small towns are always the setting for scary movies, and both agreed that the farm “looks like something from a scary movie” so maybe Jerome’s Grandma had a point. 

This set off a round of giggles during which Jerome added in all seriousness, “If you are Black and from the city, you’re not supposed to want to be farmer.”
Our Ohio, a publication we've discussed previously, also has another good entry in the homecoming syllabus, in this article by Seth Teter that visits with a few Ohioans who have found ways to return to a life on the farm. He suggests that conventional assumptions about such a lifestyle need to be reconsidered:
Perhaps it’s an unexpected trend. Long hours, little free time and hard, dirty labor. It’s not exactly what most people say they want to come home to after a day at the office.

However, not only do more people seem to want to sample the rewards of farm life, but the number of small farms is also on the rise. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent survey conducted, the number of farms with sales of less than $10,000 rose, while there was a decline in the number of higher grossing farms.

Even for many larger scale farm families, it is not unusual for one or both spouses to rely on off-farm employment. In 2009, the average family farm was forecast to receive only 8.7 percent of its household income from farm sources, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Putting Up"

By Ian Halbert

Canning and preserving have become something of a cottage industry here in Boston, and throughout other urban areas. All over the web, food bloggers and DIYers are brandishing their pickles and jams as if they were academy awards. Sarah Dickerson’s article at Slate has a full run-down of the trend with links to write-ups in the print media, as well as some of the more unctuous examples from the blogs of those urbanites whose good intentions have gone too grand.

Dickerson’s argument about the silliness of the seriousness of the trend, grounded as it is in the sanctimony of environmentalism and frugality, is dead on:
“And let's not kid ourselves that home-canning is particularly frugal. It's not impossible to save money by home preserving your food, but it takes a little investment to get set up for it, and you certainly won't cut costs by canning $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes. Without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself), you'll find cheaper products in grocery stores. ... Beyond money, canning demands an investment of labor and organization. In any volume, it can be serious drudgery. ... Furthermore, only select foods are easy to can. Botulism thrives in low-acid environments, so if you're looking to safely process beans and soups and other low-acid foods—on which you could actually base your diet—you get into the tricky business of pressure canning or the less nostalgic, less photogenic, but much simpler, alternative: freezing. If you're not a die-hard, you'll likely only can high-sugar, high-acid foods like jellies, jams, chutneys, or pickles—in other words, condiments.”
Still, the line “without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself)” jumped out to me (as it did to others). The line draws attention to the shortcomings of the article: namely, the canning and preservation of food is discussed exclusively through an urban lens, as if there were not rural families who actually do have access to “truly inexpensive produce,” very much “like vegetables [they] grow [themselves].”

There are many positive aspects to the current urban vogues for traditionally rural culinary activities. Nevertheless, we should not succumb to the naive romanticism that such activities give us an air of authenticity or originality. There are very real and practical reasons for canning and preserving, which, as Dickerson points out, don’t really apply to those of us who live in the city. 

I know this first-hand. Nothing goes better with charcuterie than pickles, of any variety. I often make pâté and have cured different meats (duck prosciutto, bresaola, etc.) and I like having a cabinet full of pickled onions, green beans or bread and butter pickles to have on hand for the occasions when I can slice open a new celebration of pork fat. But last fall I went to Whole Foods to buy 5 lbs of cucumbers for my pickles only to discover that conventional cucumbers were $2.50 each! There was nothing frugal or practical in pickling these and, in fact, it was an expensive little project. On the shelves of the local markets, the current commercial darling of the pickling “scene,” McClure’s Pickles, sell for as much as $12.00 a jar! A similar company located here in Boston, Grillo’s, sells a jar of pickles for $8.00. Brooklyn Brine is no different, with their wares clocking in at about $12.99 a jar.

All of this feels somehow forced and strange. Though “putting up” jams or pickled cucumbers may be a healthier engagement with food than, say, putting a Pop Tart in the toaster, perhaps we are kidding ourselves that both choices are not driven by same the unrealistic desires for and demands from our food.

Monday, March 15, 2010

100,000 Polaroids

Mr. Lundahl "cooking" a polaroid self-portrait through a hand mirror.

I recently spent some time visiting with David Lundahl, a photographer / sculptor / musician who lives in southern Wisconsin. I'm planning on writing more about Mr. Lundahl for The Art of the Rural in the coming weeks, as his story is a nexus of many of the issues we're looking to discuss here. He's created an amazing body of work in the last two decades: over 115,000 self-portraits, all taken with a Polaroid SX-70 using natural light manipulated with a series of mirrors and filtered through media such as stencils, scarves, organic matter and transparencies. Though the photographs included below may suggest otherwise, no digital processes were used in the creation of these images.

The story of David Lundahl's art and life can't really be put into one paragraph, but, as an introduction, here it goes. Mr. Lundahl's art, and his choice to live in rural Wisconsin, all speak to his lived experiences. He contracted polio as a boy in the 1950's and has worn a leg brace ever since; his family were prominent executives in John Deere; he came of age in the heady years of the late 1960's and decided to set out on his own path. As a result, his work values self-reliance and questions modern social and artistic conventions. It's also incredibly playful. When you sit down across from the table with him, and he sets out his latest work, it's hard not feel the way most of us did when we first fell in love with the arts: somehow more excited, more alive, and inspired to go out and make art ourselves.

But part of the story here is New Light Studios, the dilapidated farm that Mr. Lundahl rebuilt, largely by himself. Despite his restricted mobility, he reroofed and refloored the barn and completely rehabilitated the house and other buildings. Thus, an abandoned dairy farm became a place for people to come and visit and make art: the silo contains musical instruments, the barn is floored to accomidate dance performances, one room in the house is covered in three layers of white shellac to make it an overwhelming space for music-making, a modified shed is a welding studio and the corn silo is affixed with a level of decks leading all the way to the top--so that one can watch the sunset or just read a book 100 feet in the air. 

There's way more to the story of Mr. Lundahl, his art and this place. Though he has shown his work around the nation, he could easily be considered an "outsider artist." What I wonder  about (and what I hope to also explore soon) is everything that's packed between those quotation marks. Has "outsider artist" also become a shorthand for those who choose to make art outside of urban centers? Why would an artist such as David Lundahl, whose work has such clear ties to contemporary art, fall so easily into that category? Here's a few photographs and videos: