Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way

Well they got some damn songs, now, hell, a man can't even figure out what in the hell's going on, don't you know. But the old songs, usually they was made in telling a damn story. A lot of the old English, old Irish ballads--they'd tell you story, a tragic story, usually. But they make some songs now that don't show you nothing.

This week the Twos & Fews label is releasing The Good Old-Fashioned Way by Hamper McBee. This record is an instant classic--a document of a singer, a storyteller and a spirit that, in this combination, truly has no match. Readers of this site may remember our earlier post on the label and its curator, Nathan Salsburg. At that time we discussed Nimrod Workman's I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful, as well as Mr. Salsburg's work with Cultural Equity, his excellent radio show and his own music. This latest recording seems to draw from all of these streams and--among the folk/field-recordings I have heard--occupies a space all to itself.

Charles Wolfe, in the included liner notes, does the herculean effort of succintly describing all the facets of Mr. McBee:
Here is Hamper McBee, the ginger man of Monteagle Mountain. He's a fine singer, a hard worker, a hard drinker, a wildly funny storyteller, a semi-reformed moonshiner, and a general all-purpose life force in this end of Southeastern Tennessee. Here he is at his best, relaxed, among friends, working his way through a couple of six-packs, sitting in Jake Marlowe's big front room, telling stories and singing his songs in the way that has made Hamper a local legend, and has won him friends from Memphis to Johnson City.
Hamper was born in 1931, in Emory Gap in Roane County, Tennessee, but moved to Sewanee when he was a small boy. His father was a state highway inspector who supplemented his income by searching the mountains for herbs and roots. Hamper himself did this for a time after he quit school--he sold Black Haw bark for 65 cents a pound--and then in 1950 joined the army, doing a hitch in Korea and Germany. "After that I started in to making whiskey," Hamper recalls. "And I stayed drunk a lot of the time. I did all sorts of jobs: construction, timber cutting, mule driving, working in taverns. Spent some time working for three or four carnivals." All the jobs usually lead back to Monteagle, though, and it's there that Hamper lives today, in a trailer set back in the woods a few hundred feet from I-24.
Mr. Wolfe's reminiscences above are reprinted from a 1978 lp, Raw Mash, that has long been out-of-print. As it stands, Twos & Fews is effectively bringing the music and the storytelling of Hamper McBee back into the American vernacular and, via its partnership with the Drag City label, introducing this man to a new generation of listeners. Here's Mr. Salsburg's own thoughts on discovering the work of Hamper McBee for himself, published on his Root Hog or Die blog:
I had only heard of the moonshiner, carnival barker, singer and raconteur Hamper McBee (who was first recorded by Guy Carawan and ended up an impossibly scarce Prestige LP called “Cumberland Moonshiner” in 1965) in passing – just as a subject of one of [Sol] Korine’s films I had never seen – until I met Sol himself through his filmmaking son Harmony. Knowing my interest in those folkloric films of his dad’s, made with Blaine Dunlap in the ’70s, Harmony had a screening of Sol and Blaine’s “Raw Mash” profile of Hamper in his Nashville home, and it rendered me speechless. There’s no other way to say it: Hamper was an absolute original. His clothes; his mustache and pompadour; his lusty dedication to booze, cigarettes, and light cussing (“goddamn” and “hell” being foremost in his lexicon); his keen intelligence and creative grace (sincerely) sharing space in his conversation and repertoire with hysterically bizarre, irreverent, and filthy songs and tales from a life spent on the carnival circuit, at the moonshine still, in the Wauhatchie railroad yards, in the back of Sheriff Bill Malone’s patrol car, and as Hamper McBee.

The above song, "Jasper Jail," is included in a different from on this newly released album, which was recorded by Charles Wolfe and Sol Korine in Mr. Mcbee's home in November of 1977 and January of 1975. Click here to listen to the version of "Jasper Jail" as it appears on The Good Old-Fashioned Way. I'll leave it to our readers to pick up the record to learn more about Mr. McBee's thoughts on drinking on Sundays, making moonshine, and all his other philosophies on life, love and work. If for no other reason, his story about "Hot Rod Hogan," a carnival monkey, is worth the price of admission. "The Good Old-Fashioned Way," in all its forms, is the true art of Hamper McBee.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In Memory of Robert Byrd

photograph of Bruce Jaeger playing with Senator Byrd

Poetry, simply put, is beauty defined.

Today, among the many other remembrances and celebrations of Robert Byrd's life, we'd like to reflect upon the Senator's life-long love and support of the arts. While Congress has lost the longest-serving member in its history, and West Virginia has lost one of its tireless advocates, we all have lost an individual who carried himself through the halls of Congress with a sense of purpose and responsibility, with a sense of historical (and poetic) perspective we wish to see in all our elected officials.

Senator Byrd was a man who would come from a segregationist South, as a former member of  the KKK, who would later renounce those views--and would renounce his early opposition to the Civil Rights legislation that transformed America. His story of change is also the story of a changing perspective in many rural communities. The Senator was not afraid to admit his mistakes, and to correct them; and as his opposition to the second Iraq War so clearly demonstrates, he was also not afraid to take unpopular positions when he felt that government was not working in the best interests of the American people. 

These are personal qualities that Senator Byrd would learn from his rural upbringing, but also from the pages of books written in far-distant places, far-distant times. There are precious few lawmakers (or, for that matter, poets) who can now quote from both Shakespeare and The Bible, Tennyson and The Constitution. Here is Senator Byrd enlisting the help of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to remember his good friend Ted Kennedy:

Like many of this country's best artists, Senator Byrd was able to see with a historical and cultural perspective that could trade lines of Tennyson with fiddle runs, to see a broader and richer spectrum of human expression. Though this may be less commented on in the memorials to come, he was also an accomplished fiddle player. Here he is, atop Mount Parnassus, on stage at the Grand Ole Opry:

Lastly, here is Robert Byrd with accompaniment, playing fiddle and singing a song equal to poetry's greatest works: "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

For The Weekend

photograph of the 2010 Mount Edgecumbe Dancers via The Bethel Council on The Arts

Here's three items worth checking out over the weekend, between enjoying the summer weather, rooting for the US Soccer Team and relaxing in general: 

I. If you took interest in our write-up of The Tundra Telegraph, pay a visit to The Bethel Council on the Arts: they host a series of arts events that highlight both contemporary and traditional forms of expression--with a specific emphasis on dance. Through this site and The Tundra Telegraph, there's a whole world of Native Alaskan dance to discover; we'll be featuring more soon. Check out their site for the 2010 Cama-i Dance Festival, where, aside from a photo archive of the event, they are featuring a streaming selection of songs heard at the Festival. this week, then check out.

II. The Daily Yonder recently published this reflection by Dee Davis, the President of The Center for Rural Strategies. Mr. Davis reads in the current events emanating from the gulf a profound historical narrative that, as a country, we avoid at our own peril:
Dandling just above the sprawling crude is the future of hundreds of small towns and villages that have endured for generations, many since before we were a country. Whatever the odds, they’ve sustained themselves, the fisheries, the rookeries, and a uniquely American cultural heritage. And they’ve done all that sustaining in the face of storms, floods, pestilence and worse -- but maybe nothing worse or more toxic than what they face today, a spill with the potential to suffocate the ecosystem and chase away the towns.

In this sense “rural” is not empty expanse, or the trees and farms between the cities, or even the place where the rest of us get our supplies of natural resources. Now, “rural” is the test of our sustainability.  What must endure? Whose places are we willing to sacrifice for some notion of a greater good and smoother sailing?  Who gets to go home again?
 III. We've written before about The Revivalist, an excellent new blog authored by Mark Lynn Ferguson that focuses on Appalachian arts and culture. Mr. Ferguson has recently written about the peculiar business of accents and the culture of beaten biscuits, among other things. You may also want to visit his interview with Mike Geiger, the creator of the County Ghost cartoon. We'll include one of Mr. Geiger's episodes below:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"We Shall Not All Sleep" by Shane Seely

Today we're offering the second of two poems by Shane Seely to inaugurate our Rural Poetry Series. "We Shall Not All Sleep" is published in Mr. Seely's The Snowbound House and appeared in magazine form in Image.

We Shall Not All Sleep
Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.  -- I Corinthians 15:51

After the smell of lilies filled the tiny country church;
after we drove down valleys and across mountians
through winter rain and fog and dissipating

snow; after the funeral director
took our coats and intoned in a low voice
his professional compassion, a kind

of snow itself; after the unexpected shock
of first seeing the coffin; after the townsfolk
and childhood friends moved through, offering

their condolences, and after we shifted from one foot to the other
beneath the burden of their sympathy;
after the remembrances, after the sons, the daughter

their sons and daughters, after the old
farmhand, the surviving sister, and the neighbor who one winter
took all his meals beside her fire remembered her

kindness and good humor as we
suffered our own memories of her kindness and good humor;
after the preacher mounted his podium

and said For God so loved the world and
If Christ be not raised;
after we took or did not take

our consolations in the miracle of the Resurrection, and after
the fugitive sun shone through the stained-glass shock of wheat
just so, we gathered in the church basement

around long tables and ate.
The United Methodist Women fed us ham and potato salad,
Jell-O with fruit suspended inside.

We remembered to each other
that she, the absent one, had been one of these women,
had served food and spoken kindly

to the families of old farmers who had died in their hard beds
or in the dust of the fields, and had received
this kindness, too, upon the death of one husband

and then another, as outside
the rain began again.
One of the United Methodist Women cried

remembering her own dead husband, and was consoled.
Upstairs, in the empty sanctuary, the coffin
and its contents removed, I sat alone

in a middle pew. Through the floor
came voices
rising and falling together.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Tundra Telegraph

photograph by Evan R. Steinhauser from his Photo Haiku project

We're back after a short time away, and we have a real treat today: The Tundra Telegraph. This site, which operates in conjunction with The Alaska Dispatch, was launched in February of this year--and it runs on a steady stream of writing and multimedia articles submitted by the Dispatch's staff and bloggers from the the Alaskan region. Here's editor Jennifer Canfield on the Tundra Telegraph's mission:

Tundra Telegraph is for all Alaskans, but we are working extra hard to give voice to rural residents. Rural Alaska has long suffered from a lack of media coverage due to financial, logistical and cultural challenges facing both the state's media and the remote parts of the state. This has contributed to an ever-present urban-rural divide. Tundra Telegraph aims to knock down those barriers and spur discussion. Our hope is that this will lead to a more connected state.

As editor of Tundra Telegraph, I view the site as a movement of sorts; a change in how we share our experience as Alaskans. By sharing our own stories, we ensure our voices are heard unfiltered by media and politics. This idea resonates with me. I come from a generation of young Alaska Natives who are searching for who they are and what it means to be Alaska Native. We find ourselves trying to right past wrongs our ancestors experienced as a result of insensitive education systems and laws that contradict traditional ways. Some of us live urban lives while trying to maintain connections and identity to a land where our spirit has existed for thousands of years. We do this in the face of losing the glue that holds any culture together: language.
Ms. Canfield is working to reach out both to those living in these rural communities as well as those who have migrated to urban locales; as her insistence on language suggests, The Tundra Telegraph seems deeply interested in how internet technologies can enable a kind of storytelling across spatial borders. Even after only a few months, it's a rich and wonderful site. Like so many of the place's we've discussed, one can really become immersed in what is to be found here--as one article leads to another link and so forth. 

I'm sure that I'm among the majority in saying that, before visiting this site, my knowledge of Alaskan arts and culture was pretty minimal. The great virtue of this site is that it gives its readership the tools to amend this. We'll be incorporating some connections we've discovered through The Tundra Telegraph in upcoming posts. Until then, here's two recent featured videos that speak to Mrs. Canfields' mission to "maintain connections and identity to a land." First, a video of traditional dance from the Emmonak community hall; in the second video, we get to hear from a student at The University of Alaska-Anchorage who is learning the Yup'ik language. There's many more fantastic articles and media on The Tundra Telegraph site.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The National Rural Youth Assembly

photograph by Shawn Poynter

53 rural youth from 28 states recently gathered in Sante Fe, New Mexico, on the grounds of the Institute of American Indian Arts, for the 2010 National Rural Youth Assembly. It was the the first such gathering of its kind. The young people, age 18-25, met as part of the larger patchwork of The National Rural Assembly, a body made up of hundreds of local organizations whose mission is to improve the state of rural America by building upon their "guiding principle" that "an inclusive, prospering, and sustainable rural America improves prospects for us all."

The Youth Assembly worked toward these ends as well, discussing a series of issues central to their home communities such as "job creation, education, local culture, and conserving natural resources. What's most exciting, in visiting the site, and listening to the participant's perspectives below, is how a dialogue is developing here where the younger members of these rural communities are beginning to see a number of continuities between their own rural areas and those across the country, and even across national lines. 

Instead of summarizing all of this myself, I invite you to listen to their stories below. Visit the Youth Assembly Blog for more videos and essays from the participants. Appalshop's community radio station WMMT has also recently produced a Radio Gram episode from the Rural Youth Assembly that's worth considering. 

Though the work of the Assembly, to some, may not seem to have an immediate link to what we've discussed here at The Art of the Rural, I believe that some time spent listening to these stories will prove otherwise. It's clear that the preservation of these local cultures and the making of art are interrelated processes, that each contribute to the health of their communities. Indeed, within the rural arts, the notion of preservation is central: so many of the efforts we have highlighted in these pages speak to that impulse to save and preserve rural culture. It's incredibly heartening, then, to see this dispatch from The Rural Youth Assembly, and to see these young people--including those of the diaspora who might return--begin to take these cultural traditions and artforms and re-imagine them for a new generation of rural citizens.

Here's Hwineko Walkingstick talking about "the youth movement" he sees happening in his hometown of Cherokee, North Carolina:

Here's Renee Steffen from Miller City, Ohio talking about the importance of leadership and community programs to the vitality of rural America:

Nella Parks, from Cove, Oregon contributes here another facet to the dialogue--how a new generation is considering the role of agriculture in local food systems:

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: The Restless Voice

June Fourteenth

There is no breeze today except the wind of rumor that perpetually blows through the cottonwoods, and it would be a mystery where they find it in this heavy atmosphere unless one examined their leaf-stalks with an attentive eye. For these are flattened and where the heart-shaped blade joins to the petiole it is as free, almost, to swing as if suspended on a pivot. The merest whisper of a breeze suffices to set the leaves twirling, to rustling and talking.

The wise of the earth assure us that all poplars, like the willows, are trivial trees, short of life, weak of stem, prey to more ills than mortal man. These things are so, and we are bidden only to admire the oak and pine, that outlive the centuries, that grow in surety and have the sterner virtues. But is there no room in the forest for the poplar, with its restless, talkative foliage? The strong and silent folk of earth--I would rather praise them than live with them. I have never grumbled at a chatterbox, providing that her tongue was kind.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

For The Weekend: Think You've Heard Robert Johnson?

For your weekend consideration: 

We all know Robert Johnson. He sprang out of rural Mississippi and went on, in his short undocumented life, to define the blues with songs that have influenced musicians on every corner of the globe.

Some listeners are voicing loudly what has been percolating in audio circles and online forums for years--that we've never actually heard Mr. Johnson's songs as he intended them, that the pitch and speed of his classic sides such as "Cross Road Blues" were deliberately altered in the mastering process.

WNYC's Soundcheck recently featured a discussion with Jon Wilde, a writer for The Guardian newspaper in London, who contends that Mr. Johnson's songs have been sped up by 20%. The program compares the versions of "Cross Road Blues" we know with how the song might sound slowed down. The results, far from being "right" or "wrong" are fascinating. Enjoy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Work is Art and Art is Work

photograph from Bernard Allen's workshop by Rita Reed

For nearly three decades, The Missouri Folk Arts Program has been working to celebrate and document their state's folk culture, while also offering exhibitions and apprentice programs so that a new generation can have the opportunity to carry forward these arts. Their Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program has, in its twenty-five year tenure, worked to bring new practitioners to all fields of folklife--from music to dance to the occupational arts--and these apprentices have had the chance to work with "over five hundred individual traditional artists, many in underserved rural, inner city, and ethnic communities in every corner of the state." To their credit, they see "folklife" with a wide-angle lens that recognizes the richness and variety of the state's culture: apprentices have been given the chance to learn Sudanese ceremonial music, Native American ribbon work and well as how to make box turkey calls. 

There's an ethic to the program that draws no distinctions between "aesthetic" and "practical" acts, but sees them as interrelated experiences--one feeding into the other. This is the notion that informs their Work is Art and Art is Work online exhibit, an expansive series of online slideshows and videos that consider how "the visual and aural art of luthiery - the intricate craft, repair, and restoration of stringed instruments - is central to musical expression." Here's is an excerpt from the exhibit's introduction:
By the 1860s, St. Louis was home to multiple small luthier shops and two manufacturers of stringed instruments. Perhaps Missouri's most influential manufacturer was the Schwarzer Zither Factory founded in 1866 in Washington by an Austrian immigrant. Employing German craftsmen, he developed award-winning, innovative, and elaborate instruments that are still admired for their quality. Luthiers were needed in isolated rural areas, too. Local musicians often served in that role, as a sideline to their primary occupations. Periods of economic hardship required creative solutions, so instruments were strung with braided horsehair or screen wire, and fiddles were created from recycled cigar boxes and other found wood.

Research in the archives of the Missouri Folk Arts Program uncovered a tribute to the late Cope Ashlock, a luthier who once operated The Violin Shop in downtown Columbia. He printed a telling motto on his business cards: where work is art and art is work. Ashlock's philosophy aptly describes the dominant theme in this exhibit - building instruments by hand is an art, and creating art requires skill, precision, and lots of hard work.

Today, despite the ready availability of mass-produced stringed instruments, luthiery remains a living art form in Missouri. As mandolin maker John Wynnstresses, "Putting together a mandolin from a kit is not instrument making; it's assembly. I make every part and decorative feature of my mandolins from beginning to end. I take pride in the quality of my work."
The exhibition reveals not only the physical artistry of luthiery, but a series of cultural connections that always run alongside the course of the chisels and planes that give shape to these instruments. Work is Art and Art is Work features six luthiers (each has also worked in the Apprenticehip Program) in multiple slide shows, and also in lengthy video interviews, where we have the chance to hear the artists in their own words.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Gift of Good Water

Flowing Well South of Anderson, IN; Kay Westhues

Given the last few posts here on The Art of the Rural, and the oil plumes stretching out like dead branches across the Gulf, this might be a good moment to return to one of our favorite artists. Kay Westhues is an Indiana-based photographer whose work we've discussed previously: first, her Fourteen Places to Eat project, and, more recently, Well Stories. If, as a nation, we are beginning to contemplate the spectre of a gigantic "dead zone" of polluted ocean, we might also do well to consider how we can act as proper stewards for our water supplies, how good water relates to the health of ourselves and our communities.

We should place Ms. Westhues work within this discussion. Here's Julie Ardery, from a recent Daily Yonder piece, describing the contours of this project:
Kay is as much interested in the cultures and traditions that have grown around these springs as in the water wells themselves. She writes that her larger intention is “to explore the notion of ‘ownership’ of water, contrasting a consumer-driven perception of water as a commodity, with a more indigenous understanding of water as a local resource.”


Kay’s photographed pennies tossed for luck in the flowing well near Martinsville and graffiti along a rockwall near the Spout Spring, Martin County. The Tree Spring, on private land in Fountain County, was for awhile restricted to outsiders, but now is accessible to the thirsty and the merely curious alike. In Michigan, Kay says, some bottling companies have tried to monopolize and market ancient springs. But like the geological pressures that force these waters to the surface, there are social pressures too, to keep them flowing -- public and free.
We were thrilled to see Erik Eckholm's piece on Well Stories in The New York Times last week. While it wasn't Mr. Eckholm's mission to consider the centrality of Well Stories in a larger, post-BP discussion of our water resources, the connections are very present in his article There's an urban-rural dynamic to the places Ms. Westhues is discovering--and the narratives she has uncovered extend farther back into American History than we might expect:
Most of the working wells are in rural areas, though Ms. Westhues found one in a vacant lot in Gary, with tire tracks and footprints around it. Some flow into attractive structures of stone or concrete that someone built, others are channeled to a pipe that spills onto rocks.

At the flowing pipe in the town of Pittsburg, in Tippecanoe Township, Marsha Synowiek stopped with her container after driving seven miles to get water for her turtle tank, as well as for her family. “We use it to drink instead of buying bottled spring water,” she said, marveling that even during bad floods, the well water had tested safe.

The artesian spring that feeds the pipe in Pittsburg was used by Indians migrating along the Wabash River. It was also a rest stop in the forced relocation of the Potawatomi Indians in 1838, a wretched march to Kansas now known as the Trail of Death, said Phyllis Moore of the Carroll County Historical Museum.

Some wells are steeped in lore that is, perhaps, too good to try to verify. In the 1920s, the Mudlavia Spring in Kramer was the centerpiece of a resort and hot springs where henchmen of Al Capone and John Dillinger reportedly went to cavort; the charred remains of an old hotel are said to be haunted.
The Well Stories site contains more photographs and videos since our previous post on Ms. Westhues' work.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Two Documentaries We Should Consider While Oil Flows In The Gulf

a film still from Sludge

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the agrarian and appalachian responses to the Gulf oil disaster, here are two documentary films which expand the discussion further to reveal how what's occurring off-shore right now is actually endemic to the rural communities across this country. Tucked away from urban media coverage, these towns have endured the same corruption, lack of oversight and outright acts of reckless arrogance that have found a confluence in the Deepwater Horizon. 

Sludge is a 2005 documentary produced by Appalshop and directed by Robert Salyer. It's the culmination of a four year project that follows the after-effects of the Martin County, Kentucky slurry pond spill. It's a phenomenal film that balances investigative journalism with local storytelling to reveal both the troubled science and the politics behind this wide-reaching environmental disaster:
Shortly after midnight on October 11, 2000, a coal sludge impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky, broke through an underground mine below, propelling 306 million gallons of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. By morning, Wolf Creek was oozing with the black waste; on Coldwater Fork, a ten-foot wide stream became a 100-yard expanse of thick sludge. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek. The spill was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez and one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the southeastern United States, according to the EPA.

Gasland is a current documentary that has been receiving an increasing amount of media attention after it landed Sundance Film Festival's Jury Prize for Documentaries earlier in the year. The film is directed by Josh Fox; after a gas company offered him $100,000 for the rights to drill for natural gas on his land in upstate New York, he decided to learn more about the process of "fracking" these operations use in order to release the natural gas from the underground layers of shale. Gasland is the documentation of his process of discovery, a journey that takes him to all corners of the country; what he finds is frightening, especially given that, due to changes made by the Bush Administration, these drilling operations were not required by law to report to the EPA. Mr. Fox is currently touring with the film to communities in New York and Pennsylvania (where large gas deposits are currently being pursued) to spread the word on his findings:

Here also is an informative interview with Mr. Fox from the NOW program on PBS:

Monday, June 7, 2010

An Appalachian And Agrarian Response to the Tragedy in the Gulf

photograph by The Associated Press

The people of the Appalachian Mountains and Louisiana bayous have a lot more in common than fiddle tunes and distinctive accents. More than most, they are called on to sacrifice to satisfy this nation's appetite for fossil fuels. And more than most, they are economically dependent on energy production.

Last week The Rural Blog posted a link to an editorial (quoted above) from the Lexington-Herald Leader that articulated what many folks, especially those in the Appalachian region, may have been thinking since the early days of the explosion in the Gulf Mexico. In the words of the editorial staff, this latest tragedy has "a familiar ring" to it. It follows the metric of all extraction economies in that it is tremendously lucrative and yet vastly destructive on all levels: the environmental, spiritual, and social. And especially in an "economic downturn" its oversized fiscal footprint disarms innovative and sustainable ideas in the region. Throw in lax regulatory oversight and a lack of political will in the statehouses and Congress, and what we see in the Gulf is Mountaintop Removal's first cousin. 

Certainly, the anger and resignation that our nation is working through this week--as officials warn that the oil may leak into the ocean for many more months--is of a kind similar to what many of us who may be from the Appalachian region are well acquainted with: that complicated and tortured understanding of how we all are linked, all implicated, to an industrial model that is destroying the structure of our communities all the while it puts on a show of setting up a few beams to hold things in place. 

This line of thinking has led me back to the work of Wendell Berry, and to the absolutely prescient short essay he wrote in the weeks after the September 11th attacks--Thoughts in the Presence of Fear. What Mr. Berry saw in that piece, and in the national conversation that followed 9/11, was an opportunity to engage in a kind of reappraisal of how, as a nation, we are carrying ourselves in our world, in our environment and in our local places. As an agrarian argument, it's worth revisiting in light of the events in the Gulf. Here are the first three sections: 

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day.

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living in a “new world order” and a “new economy” that would “grow” on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be “unprecedented”.

III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world’s people, and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor people all over the world; and that its ecological costs increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the supposedly prosperous.

Continue reading Thoughts in the Presence of Fear at Orion Magazine, and as always, make sure to visit Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky for more insight.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Introducing The Rural Poetry Series

photograph by Corinne Wohlford Taff

Today I'm very pleased to announce a new feature on our site:  The Rural Poetry Series. Our aim with this project is, most importantly, to share outstanding new poetry with our readers; given the nature of our site, these poets also share connections to the issues we've been discussing. There is a rich and various body of contemporary poetry that considers rural america--its heritage and its modern dimensions--though editors and reviewers rarely place an emphasis on what these poets are telling us about life beyond the cities and suburbs of our country. If you visit your local bookstore, take a look at the poetry section: you'll see poetry anthologies for every possible grouping and category, yet no publication that considers "rural American poetry" (or some such thing) exists. We are working, by beginning this series, to correct this omission.

We are honored to present below our first poet in this series, Shane Seely, the author of The Snowbound House, which won the 2008 Philip Levine Prize For Poetry and was published last year by Anhinga Press. Mr. Seely is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Washington University in Saint Louis and a native of northern Pennsylvania: an area of the state "known for having more deer than people," he told me, a county the size of Rhode Island with only two red lights. His grandparents on both sides of his family were dairy farmers, and The Snowbound House speaks to the kind of meditative knowledge that comes from his experience working on these dairy farms and from his own evolving sense of the significance of this place, and this community.

Speaking of his poem "The Beech Nut," Mr. Seely offered some insight into the agricultural history of the region:
When he was a young husband and father, my grandfather moved his family from western Ohio to northern Pennsylvania. His brother and his brother's family joined them. My mother was a small child at the time. Western Ohio is flat and gridded; northern Pennsylvania is ridged and hilly, covered with hardwood forest. The area was settled by the timber industry, and any farmland must be claimed from the ever-encroaching forest. The pastures of my grandfather's dairy were carved out of the woods and draped over the steep, rocky hills.
"The Beech Nut" appears in The Snowbound House and was originally published in University of Nebraksa-Lincoln's Prairie Schooner, one the finest journals in this country. The poem is reprinted in the following post.

"The Beech Nut" by Shane Seely

I did not imagine
such hands could be so delicate

as he cracked the beech nut open
and offered me the tiny jewel of meat inside.

His palm was a field
left fallow through the winter,

in which I might watch white-tailed deer
leap a fence or linger into dusk.

With a finger the girth and color
of a shovel handle, he nudged

the burred husk
and pried the soft nut free.

Those hands, which I had seen
wring a chicken's neck

as though they were returning the cap
to the jug of milk in the refrigerator.

Those hands, which I had seen
fix tractors, fell hemlocks,

lead cattle to their slaughter
by the horn.

The beech nut tasted
exactly as the forest smelled

that sun-ripe day
early in the winter, a little sweet,

with an overtone of something just beyond
my apprehension.

Years later he would wait
with my mother and the hospice nurse

for death to come. With his hands
he would smooth the care-home's gown,

the color of the sky
in which the clouds are stained with blue

by the indefatigable sun, or he would fold
his hands across his chest.

Other times he would raise those hands
before his eyes

and say to the shadows in the room,
What can a strong man do to leave this life? 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Horse Feathers

photograph by Tarina Westlund

Justin Ringle is a rural Idaho native who fronts Horse Feathers, a band from Portland, Oregon. This group of musicians honors traditional music and while carefully renovating the form to fit their perspective as twenty-first century artists and citizens. They have just released their third record, Thistled Spring, to great reviews, stopping by NPR's World Cafe to talk about the role of rural place in their music, and, more broadly, the influence of the pacific northwest in their work. Mr. Ringle and company have received many accolades for their sound--honest, yet not overcome by sentimentality or nostalgia.

It's interesting to hear a folk group composed of cello, violin, guitar and banjo discuss how the vibrant 1990's indie/punk scene in the northwest opened them up to first considering how the arts related to ideas of place. As perhaps the best articulation of this--and of how this younger generation of rural artists are considering the interplay between traditional, local arts and their urban counterparts--it's interesting to note that this gorgeous, meditative record is being released by the hugely influential northwest independent label Kill Rock Stars, the folks responsible for Elliott Smith, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and The Thermals.

Here's Horse Feathers' video for "Belly of June," from their latest record: