Friday, July 30, 2010

Legal Ruralism and Western Swing

The Side Kicks performing in Goree, Texas; photograph by Hanaba Munn Welch

Legal Ruralism is a site that we've been wanting to highlight for a while: it's a blog with a staff of two dozen writers that discusses issues of law, governance, and policy--and many other elements of contemporary rural life. Recent posts have considered President Obama's signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act, the bias against rural whites in college admissions, and a fascinating report on how the town of Beatrice, Nebraska passed their Homestead Act of 2010 in order to reap the tax benefits from vacant properties. Legal Ruralism is an invaluable resource, and it's one of the sites that fall under our "daily reading" category. 

They recently offered a link to Wade Goodwyn's NPR piece on the Bobby Boatright Memorial Music Camp in Goree, Texas. Established in memory of a local fiddle player who died of leukemia, the Camp serves as one of the dwindling opportunities for this small town (population 300) to come together as a community. It's a chance for local youth to learn the music of their parents and grandparents; in a town in danger of disappearing from the map, folks are seeing this camp--and this musical heritage--as a way to preserve families, culture, and even a sense of economic sustainability. Here's an excerpt from Mr. Goodwyn's report:
The camp is housed in what used to be the junior high in Goree — that is until last September, when the school district gave the building and campus back to the town and said, "Good luck." That was a big blow because the junior high was pretty much the only reason anyone still came to Goree.

Tammy Trainham looks out over the school courtyard and smiles. She is the mayor's wife and this is her doing — she talked them into bringing the fiddle camp here. These five days are all that's left between Goree and oblivion. 

"We're trying to rebirth a town," Trainham says. "It was dead — graveyard dead."
If you're new to western swing, the NPR link will provide a few other articles that will help to tell the story of this music and its artists. Western swing has a special place here at The Art Of The Rural: our first post discussed Texas Dancehall Preservation, and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys are always in constant rotation. Leading into the weekend, we'd suggest checking out their Tiffany Transcriptions records. If you are familiar with their studio recordings, the Tiffany recordings will be a revelation--with a little more room to expand the songs, it's easy to see Mr. Wills as country music's Duke Ellington (they do indeed cover some of Duke's compositions) and the Texas Playboys as a group that undoubtedly cleared a path for later rock musicians--some of the guitar and pedal steel solos on these records are just scorching. Here's a television performance of "Ida Red;" it lacks the verve and grit of the version of the Tiffany Transcriptions recording, but still swings:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: Thrush Song

July Seventeenth

I never hear the thrush now, without wondering if it will be the last time this season that he sings. After each burning day I feel sure that, like a flower of the field, the song will be wilted in the heat. All too soon the thrush will molt. He will be here hopping about silently in the woods and thickets, but he will not sing. Then indeed the dead of summer will be upon us; breathless heat and heavy-hearted silence will settle on the spots where now he still takes up his evening station to refresh the hour when the soul can breathe in quiet, the brief, brief moments between the fiery setting of the sun and the falling of the heavy-leaved darkness.

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

Monday, July 26, 2010

Following Up: Movies, Maps, Cherokee Art and Rainbow Quest

Roscoe Holcomb on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest television show

Here are some follow-ups on some artists and issues we've recently been discussing. 

First off, here's a regrettably short NBC Nightly News report on the resurgence of community-volunteered movie theaters in the northern plains:

Last week The Daily Yonder offered a fresh installment of Roberto Gallardo's analysis of the decade's census data--with an emphasis on the shifting population trends amongst rural young people. As you might guess from the preponderance of red below, rural America (like all of America, we learn) is getting older. However, Mr. Gallardo sees signs of growth and optimism in certain regions. 

We would like to thank Benjamin for offering this article to us on our Facebook page: Mike Osborne, writing for The Voice of America, spent some time recently with Cherokee artists in North Carolina and found a success story in the midst of our nation's recession--these artists are doing good business while also finding the resources to insure that their cultural traditions thrive within the coming generations. His article can be found here, and also contains (at the bottom of the page) a five-minute audio clip of artist Davy Arch talking about how he came to work in these art forms.

Lastly, we'd like to present two video clips from Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest television show, which he hosted in the mid-1960's. A little searching provides numerous performances online and speaks to the relaxed environment Mr. Seeger cultivated for the stunning list of folk, blues and country artists who stopped by to chat and play music. Kit MacFarlane, writing in PopMatters, has called Rainbow Quest an "Anti-TV TV" program that was more about the conversation and music than catering or pandering to audience demographics. He includes this quote by Mr. Seeger, one worth considering at this point now that we've traded tube televisions for laptops:
“This is one of the big worries of most people who like folk music. That television is going to obliterate region after region… Curiously enough, in spite of TV and everything ... I can see all around the country people doing things which are never heard of on TV, and it doesn’t make that much difference to them”
In that spirit, here are two performances. First we see John Cohen's friend Roscoe Holcomb; in the second video, Mississippi John Hurt offers a gorgeous version of "Lonesome Valley." Enjoy:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Work From Minnesota Artists

One of our earliest posts related our discovery of MN Artists, an organization with a mission "to improve the lives of Minnesota artists and provide access to and engagement with Minnesota's arts culture." Their site is a model that other states would be wise to follow: it offers, in one place, a rich and various selection. While artists can display and sell their work, MN Artists also offers a good deal of interviews, features and reviews--in short, it's the portal through which anyone can learn more about the Minnesota arts. 

As our readership has expanded since our earliest months online, we'd like to re-present this site and offer a small selection of the work to be found therein. When the artists have offered statements to accompany these pieces, we'll include them below. Enjoy:

from The Disappearing Homestead Project, Jeffrey Morrison
Futures of our rural landscape continue to be the focus of my work.

Currently interested in exploring systems involved with suburban expansion into agricultural lands, my art practice probes philosophical notions regarding shifting populations and land stewardship.

As more and more rural acres are appropriated for urban development and city expansion the disappearance of family farms continues to grow at alarming rates—current annual rate average of prime agricultural land converted to developed uses is 2,416,200 acres. [
As reported by National Resources Inventory Census of Agriculture]

Vested in bring agricultural-related issues into the public eye to attract audiences as well as raise awareness, I continue to explore our relationship to the land and to the pioneering spirit our ancestors brought to the Midwest.

Overseeing The Crops, 54" x 19" Oil Paint on Canvas, Jill Peterson

"Overseeing the Crops was inspired by black and white photographs that I found in my grandmother's old albums. Besides seeing family members, some I had never met before, it gave me a chance to glimpse at brief moments of history that made up generations of a life in rural North Dakota. As technology progressed, the tedious work with horses was replaced with the invention of the combine, which led to a more productive way of working the land. It also allowed oneself to stand back and admire the vast golden fields of wheat, a collaborative effort that has been built upon by many generations of farmers."

Flood, from a Polaroid series, Jaid Jacobson

"This is a collection of polaroids taken in the summer of 2008 when Spring Green, WI was flooded out." 

"The reality of abandoned houses in rural areas is apparent but the past easily forgotten. The past cannot be denied because it is incapable of existing in lasting structures. Memories may not be visible but linger in the forms that still exist. The series of work titled “Rural Inhabitants” reawakens memories prominent in such structures. The walls of the abandoned house conceal the past. Beyond the structures, which have proved impermanent, we cannot distinguish ourselves from those of our ancestors. In effort to describe the past, I have introduced the human figure. The figure represents a memory while the structure itself is associated with the present reality. Inspired by the tendency to bury the past away in structures incapable of existing forever, the memories of the past too become a form, tangible and capable of decay."

Corn Mill, Leanna Becker

"In these times, farmers are overlooked and taken for granted, and rural family farms are disappearing more each day. The hog market has crashed in the last two years causing a crisis for farmers, especially in the Midwest.  People are constantly laid off and looking for jobs, but farmers have a steady job from dawn until dusk everyday. Our farm could not survive successfully without the family members. Everyone plays an important part on the farm, from working the fields and giving shots, to filing the papers and reviewing the payroll. This is a job that takes a large amount of labor, but is paid a low amount of income. However, this is still very rewarding no matter what the circumstances.
I have been working on our family farm since I was as small as a pig. When you are born into a farm family, you are immediately taught the importance of family and work ethic. Even though we have to work together day in and day out, we remain a really close-knit family. Most of our summer outings include our family, our aunt and uncle’s family, and my grandparents. My dad loves to quote the saying, 'Friends come and go, but family is forever.'"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Remembering The High Lonesome

Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, Kentucky, 1959 by John Cohen

In the seven months since we began The Art of The Rural, the work of John Cohen has returned again and again to inform the artists and discussions in these pages. I was reminded once more of his experiences in Madison County, with Dillard Chandler, last week when discussing the insider/outsider tension at the heart of our nation's reckoning with Mountaintop Removal. Cut along the lines of this binary is another dichotomy that's just as slippery, one that (in the aforementioned post) Ashley Judd has been set between: the over-arching friction between "rural" and "urban." To see the distance between these two terms as set-in-stone, or of an easy-to-define textbook nature, is to misapprehend the fluidity of each classification. As mentioned last week, rural America (however it is defined) is in a process of radical and emphatic change. 

So much of Mr. Cohen's work is a moving example of this give and take--and should remind those of us living in rural America (or among the rural diaspora) that the dialogue between rural and urban, "insider" and "outsider," has produced so much of the intellectual and artistic material that best characterizes American life. We owe a great debt to Mr. Cohen for understanding this from an early age, and for making a life's mission out of preserving and celebrating that beauty. Regardless of the obstacles along the way, he repeatedly ventured from the city into Appalachia; in an age before the internet, he established a remarkable camaraderie, a common ground, with the folks he met and the singers he recorded and filmed. Without doubt, if this artist had not made the leap of faith from the city into these hollows, we very well may have lost these voices. 

I'd like to include some links below that may be of interest both to those who know and love his work, but also for those who may not have come across John Cohen before. First, here's Remembering The High Lonesome, a 2003 documentary film by Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld. Here's their introduction:

Remembering the High Lonesome is the story of the making of a classic documentary film. It is also a profile of filmmaker, photographer, artist, and musician John Cohen. Through interviews, as well as Cohen's own photographs and scenes from his classic film The High Lonesome Sound: Kentucky Mountain Music, filmmaker Tom Davenport focuses on Cohen's journey to rural Kentucky in the 1950s to document the lives of the people there and his "discovery" of the musician Roscoe Holcomb. Remembering the High Lonesome also examines the birth of a new artistic ethic and counterculture through John Cohen's involvement with the Beat Generation, abstract expressionist painters, and the Folk Music Revival, and explores the role of an outsider documenting the life and arts of an Appalachian community.

The full documentary is available for view, absolutely free, from the amazing Folkstreams website right here. Here's a trailer, followed by a clip from The High Lonesome Sound of the brilliant banjo player Roscoe Holcolmb:

The High Lonesome Sound Revisited is a fine companion piece to this documentary--it's a 2009 lecture Mr. Cohen presented at The Library of Congress that tells the story of both his field recording and movie-making, while also considering the impact these projects had on the development of documentary filmmaking and ethnographic research. Follow this link to a high-quality video of Mr. Cohen's talk.

In an effort linked to his song-gathering, Mr. Cohen also performed with the legendary folk group The New Lost City Ramblers during those watershed years of the late 1950's when America was rediscovering the value of its traditional music. Here's two links to documentaries that help tell the story of these musicians' impact on the course of American music. The first clip is from Play On, John: A Life In Music, a film by Rick King featured on The Smithsonian Channel; the second is from Always Been A Rambler, a film by Yasha Aginsky and The Arhoolie Foundation.

More of Mr. Cohen's photography, music and film are on display at his official website (also highly recommended: his book of photographs There Is No Eye). You can follow these links to also learn more about the heady milieu John Cohen was a part of in the late 1950's in New York City (Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Alan Ginsberg) and how his work helped to influence those conversations that happened hundreds of miles from the towns where Mr. Cohen drew his inspiration.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Zenchilada And Corn Cob Wine

photograph by Kat Kinsman, who also writes for Eatocracy

The Zenchilada is a new online magazine that aims to discuss the ways in which food can be "our vehicle for better understanding of ourselves and others." We'd like to thank Chuck, a reader from North Carolina, for suggesting this publication--we think that folks are really going to enjoy it.

What's fascinating about this magazine, most immediately, is it's format: when you direct your browser to the site, the current issue opens up, complete with an easy-to-use browser bar. The Zenchilada is gorgeously illustrated, and its layout is artfully done; the site accentuates these features without getting lost in the technology. What's also really exciting about this magazine (as opposed to the hundreds of other "cooking magazines") is that it's equally concerned with the culture that complements these dishes. A quick glance to this first issue's contributor's list speaks to this: chefs, food writers, poets and folklorists have all gathered in these pages to offer a range of perspectives on these foods' connections to people and place. 

The current issue opens with "Meditation on the Corn Tortilla Nation" by Ronni Lundy, the editor-in-chief and a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the writing to follow also considers the culinary and cultural reach of maize. One piece that caught our eye was The Lee Brothers' introduction to corn cob wine. In this excerpt from their Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners, they discuss and "end of the summer ritual" they learned from Gordon Huskey of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee:
Since it's difficult to shear all the kernels off the rounded cob, a fraction of sweet kernel gets left behind. Rather than send this residue to the compost pile, Huskey put it to a higher use, making wine by packing the half-naked cobs in a water-filled pail. Airborne wild yeasts did the work of extracting the remaining sugar from the cobs and converting it into alcohol. Corncob wine has a nice balance of sweet and tart and a nutty, unmistakably corny flavor.
Explore The Zenchilada for the corn cob wine recipe (on page 97) and to discover all kinds of other inspired takes on our staple crop. You'll also find poetry, storytelling, archaeology and some wonderful recipes within--we can't recommend this site/publication highly enough. It's a model for how we can use a sometimes-depersonalizing technology to share some profound stories with each other.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

William Faulkner At The University of Virginia

photograph from Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.

This morning NPR featured a piece on an exciting new digital archive that should be of interest to many of our readers. It's the Faulkner at Virginia audio archive, an impressively comprehensive document of the writer's time on campus in Charlottesville during the 1957-1958 academic year.

This archive was directed by Professor Stephen Railton, with the assistance of a vast number of folks in the UVA community, and it is incredibly thorough: all facets of Faulkner's visit are covered in the contexts section of site, as this essay is complemented by ample photographs as well as dozens of primary sources from contemporary newspaper accounts and even Faulkner's own correspondence. For readers of Faulkner, this is a treasure. 

The entire audio archive of Faulkner's various lectures and discussions is included therein, and a full manuscript is also included--all of which is searchable. I have long been considering writing about Yoknapatawpha County--that landscape located between the creative mind of William Faulkner and his "apocryphal county" of Lafayette in Mississippi. This archive is a great step towards considering how this writer's visions of South, and of the rural, still haunt us and still feel so necessary to our lives. 

Here's just a taste; the audio clip can be found here:
Unidentified participant: Sir, why do you sometimes satirize the South, and at other times very—very strenuously satirize it? [And] what is your general feeling of the South, and the deep South?
William Faulkner: It's my country, my native land, and I love it. I'm not trying to satirize it. I'm—I'm trying—that is, I'm not expressing my own ideas in the stories I tell. I'm telling about people, and these people express ideas which—which sometimes are mine, sometimes are not mine, but I myself am not trying to satirize my country. I love it, and it has its faults, and I will try to correct them, but I wouldn't try to—to correct them when I'm writing a story, because I'm telling—talking about people then.
Enjoy wandering through these discussions. Also: In 2008, the University of Virginia Magazine featured this write-up on Faulkner's visit, including a video interview with alumni remembering his visit.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Rural Decade: Painting By The Numbers

chart by Roberto Gallardo / Census

Today The Daily Yonder is offering fresh information and analysis on rural population trending over the last decade. The chart above is one of many in Roberto Gallardo's article; his work with these numbers is fascinating, and it tells a profound narrative of how America changed, county by county and region by region, in the opening years of this century. While many would not be surprised that rural population growth (2.9%) did not keep up with their exurban (13.1%) or urban (10.1%) counterparts, the regional and racial dynamics of these shifts tell a much more complex story.

Mr. Gallardo's analysis speaks for itself, so I'll not quote extensively from it here. Aside from the social and political implications of the numbers, I sense that all of us who are creating and engaging with the rural arts need to pay close attention. Both regionally and nationally, who are our rural arts audiences? Does this census data suggest to us that, yet again, we must rethink what comprises the rural arts? 

The classifications of rural, exurban and urban in the research The Daily Yonder offers can be explained in greater detail here: where editor Bill Bishop explains the logic behind the definitions they reached with geographer Tim Murphy. The argument over "what is rural" is only slightly less contentious than "what is art," yet this system makes a great deal of sense. It corrects federal models which have led to all kinds of confusion, such as considering the The Grand Canyon "urban" and Cape Cod "rural."

As a final tool for reconsidering our how we phrase the rural arts, I'll offer this interactive map suggested by one of our readers. Forbes created this county-by-county map using IRS data to show inbound and outbound migration during fiscal year 2008. It not only shows the numbers, but also draws lines to all the places to which people migrated and displays their average per capita income. Here's a screen shot below of what this looks like for Wayne County (Detroit), with the red lines standing for out-migration, the black for in-migration:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Three Mormon Towns: Past and Present

photograph by Dorothea Lange, Life, September 6, 1954

Earlier in the year the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City, in conjunction with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, presented Three Mormon Towns, a photography exhibit by Mark Finch Hedengren. While this young photographer presented new work, the past crowded around the corners of these gorgeous black and white prints; Mr. Hedengren's project in Three Mormon Towns was a response a photo collection of the same title published in Life magazine in 1954 by perhaps the two of the most influential photographers of the last century: Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.

Their photo essay (which can be viewed here) was the product of an ill-fated collaboration: the two artists argued throughout the process, and their final selection of stills was cut significantly before the issue's publication. The result: a feature heavy on photographs and light on text. Aside from Adams' landscape shots, readers could just as easily assume these to be images from any number of locations in rural America. People in the three towns of Gunlock, Toquerville and St. George also recoiled against their portrayal: the small portion of text offered a picture of rural Utah and the Mormon faith that appeared isolated, bitterly difficult and out of step with contemporary life.

Mr. Hedengren returned to these communities 45 years later. He chose to not visit the same exact sites of Adams and Lange's work, but to capture life in these three towns as its exists now. Hedengren, a 29 year-old native of Provo who returned to the area after living in New York City and Europe, found the rural communities to be wholly different through his own aperture. These rural towns, once facing depopulation and dwindling economic resources, have been repopulated, as those earlier perceived detriments of rural life have become selling points. The small farms Adams and Lange found throughout their travels have disappeared; instead affluent families occupy their grounds. As Hendegren notes, these farms now represent historical and material value and no longer function to sustain their inhabitants in any of the old ways. Below are three photographs from the Three Mormon Towns exhibit:

Mr. Hedengren's project was an extension of this work on The Mormons a book of photographs that documented communities within Utah, but also around the world. Included below is a local news report that follows the photographer in the midst of his project.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bessie Harvey And Her Tennessee Roots

Untitled (Cobra).  23 1/2 x 18 x 19" paint on wood with beads

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City is currently featuring an exhibit entitled Approaching Abstraction, a survey of work from their permanent collection that counters the popular assumption that "contemporary self-taught artists work solely in a representational style, eager to engage in storytelling and personal memory." As the introductory materials to this show suggest, perhaps modern art audiences have been missing the ways in which these artists (from both rural and urban backgrounds) have been--while addressing the "social" content of their work--also thinking about the formal and aesthetic questions that we normally associate with the academic, insider, art world:
But while the narrative tradition often is a primary impulse, a significant number exhibit a tendency to be seduced by material, technique, color, form, line, and texture, creating artwork that omits or obscures representation.
The exhibition's insistence here is fresh, and in some ways vindicating. While Ken Johnson's review in The New York Times rightly suggests that we can't successfully separate the stories of these artists from the pure "form, line and texture" of their work, it also seems to reflect back on the industry and academy outside these pieces: how often, when viewing much modern and post-modern visual art do we find an absence and, indeed, a refusal of social content? It's refreshing then to watch AFAM curator Brooke Davis Anderson describe the exhibition below:

Ms. Davis spends a significant amount of time towards the end of this segment with the work of Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), an artist from eastern Tennessee who worked primarily with roots, though her art differs in profound and wonderful ways from the root club sculptures of Stan Neptune, who we discussed in March. The Bessie Harvey Homepage is the best place to begin discovering her work; it was written by The Knoxville Museum of Art in conjunction with local Austin-East High School, and it interweaves Ms. Harvey's biography within the developing arc of her sculpture. It's a story of uncanny perseverance in the face of cultural and familial obstacles, a triumph of the spirit and of a woman's faith in her religion and her own abilities as an artist. As the Approaching Abstraction exhibit would suggest, her own relationship with her artistic medium--though in a different time and place--bears an intimacy that we might associate with great masters of abstraction such as Mark Rothko. Here's an excerpt from the Homepage:
After resonding to its form, Harvey often sought its identity by speaking to it directly, asking, "Who are you?" For the sculpture Birthing, however, the artist's initial indentification proved to be incorrect: "I went out into the yard and I found this piece and to me it looked like an old man leaning on a walking stick." After bringing it into the house, Harvey was shocked that her vision had suddenly and dramatically changed to that of "an African girl; she's a queen, and she's giving birth to a baby, and the baby's head's already out." As with Birthing, Harvey often was struck by the fact that her imagery sometimes seemed disconnected from her life experience, as if extracted from a previous lifetime on another continent: "I get the feeling that I been in the world before, and I think it was in the darkness of Africa," and "There are some things that I know and some things that I do that I can't understand how I know these things if I haven't been here before."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

For The Weekend: Colbert, Silver Screens, and Mother Vines

photograph of The Mother Vine from

Here's a few follow-ups and items of interest for your weekend consideration:

Earlier in the week we discussed the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs" campaign. Here's the UFW president Arturo Rodriguez with Stephen Colbert, who has become the fourth person to accept a job in the fields:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arturo Rodriguez
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

After our mention of Patricia Leigh Brown's New York Times article on small town movie theaters, Andrea, in a comment on our Facebook page, suggested this film: Small Town Silver Screen. Produced, directed and edited by Bryce Jarrett, this film describes the culture of small town movie theaters in rural South Dakota. The trailer is included below; you can follow this link to watch the whole film on YouTube:

We're looking to explore the culture of wine-making in rural America soon, and this NPR story caught our attention: The Mother Vine, the oldest cultivated grapevine in North America (400 years old!) was sprayed with herbicides by a utilities crew this spring. Melissa Block talks to John Wilson, a member of the family who is currently working to restore the vine to health.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Coal, The Media, And The University

photograph via The Rural Blog

On Wednesday The Rural Blog shared the above image and it's story: this week a coal industry golf event in Prestonburg, Kentucky was adorned with this billboard-size reproduction--paid for by "an anonymous donor." It's in response to Ms. Judd's comments to The National Press Club last month, when she described Mountaintop Removal practices as "the rape of Appalachia." The Rural Blog's discussion of both this event and her preceding comments also features video links to her speech, as well as local media reports of Kentuckians' reactions. 

The site-specific nature of the billboard is in reference to a comment made by Judd (a self-proclaimed hillbilly) about the very golf course hosting the event, which was built upon ground reclaimed and reshaped after a mining operation. Ms. Judd told the assembled journalists "I'm not too keen on reinforcing stereotypes about my people, but I don't know many hillbillies who golf." As someone who has golfed a few times on a reclaimed golf course near my hometown, I'm less sure about that: I prefer those manicured sloped to the unreclaimed gaping strip pits which moat our family farm on three sides. Yet, this much is true of the reclamation ground in my home county: very little other than fairway greens and shallow pastures can be sustainably grown on them. 

The more universal regional issue here, if you read through The Rural Blog's analysis and peruse online comments, is to some extent an argument of outsiders vs. insiders that permeates so many issues in rural arts and culture, from the debate over extractive industries to the field recordings of John Cohen. Is Ms. Judd really a "hillbilly," really a "Kentuckian?" Does her acting experience give her any purchase to criticize an industry that is providing jobs and services to local economies? Why should people who live far from the hills of Appalachia (and reap the benefits of Mountaintop Removal everyday) feel as if they can impose their politics and their philosophical standards upon these communities? 

To argue against Mountaintop Removal and ignore the regional, cultural and economic dynamics of this debate is to propagate a such an insider - outsider binary that only ensures that the practice will continue. This is an instance where the rural communities devastated by this practice need their urban counterparts to not only help them, but, even more importantly, to understand them. Ms. Judd seems to speak to this in a recent blog post from OnEarth, a news site for the Natural Resources Defense Council:
The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest in North America; they may well be the oldest mountains in the entire world.  Peaks and ridges so ancient that geologists call them - rather poetically, I think - "deep time."  Mountaintop removal only happens here; on no other mountain range in the United States would it be allowed to happen.  Indeed, it is utterly inconceivable that the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened - that bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima would be detonated every single week for the past three decades.  The fact that the Appalachians are the Appalachians makes this environmental genocide possible and permissible.
The emphasis here is my own: as a country we would be well-served to examine our relationship and dependence on Appalachia. Though part of the most powerful democracy in human history, so much of mainstream America's relationship to this place is of a nearly-colonial nature--we extract it's resources while avoiding commensurate investments in the region, and we obscure Appalachia in either a media blackout or in ugly and abiding stereotypes. You can read this between the lines of the online commentators arguing that Coal Keeps The Lights On!: they resent the opinions of folks from the outside urban (and, for the sake of the analogy, imperial) centers. 

The first step forward should be recognizing that the people from the Appalachian region have good reason for this resentment. The second step: think about how we can begin to invest in communities, how we can propagate sustainable local economies in place of this extractive industry. We can visit I Love Mountains, No More Moutnaintop Removal, the Coal Tattoo blog and Appalshop to learn more this about this facet of the discussion.

Wendell Berry has for many years been arguing that our investments in the environment only succeed when we are equal caretakers of our communities and our families. The sad companion piece to the ugly bit of billboard above is this news, also reported on The Rural Blog, The Daily Yonder and elsewhere, that Mr. Berry is removing his archives from The University of Kentucky. His decision comes a few months after UK announced that it would name its basketball dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge, thanks to a $7 million dollar gift from the CEO of Alliance Coal. Mr. Berry's decision here suggests that--if this region of rural America is looking for good ideas that can link the environmental, social and cultural spheres together--the University (and not just the one in Lexington) is abdicating its responsibility to the citizens it has a mission to educate. In this era of state budget shortfalls, and the evolving trend towards specialization and away from a "well-rounded education," the argument in favor of naming a state-owned structure Wildcat Coal Lodge begins to resemble--to eerily resemble--the pragmatic arguments in favor of continuing the practice of Mountaintop Removal.

Below is a brief selection from an excellent conversation between Charlie Pearl and Mr. Berry published  last week in The State Journal. As always, we can count on the Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky site to offer the latest news and commentary on this controversy.
CHARLIE PEARL: Talk about what has happened regarding the decision to pull many of your personal papers from the University of Kentucky's archives.

WENDELL BERRY: I’m sad about it. The ideal thing would have been for my papers to be there. William Marshall was the archivist when the university made that purchase of my papers before I began to deposit these on loan and he asked at that time if I would donate them. I said I have two children farming and these papers have a value, and if I come to feel that the university is really serving the interest of people like my children who hope to prosper on small farms, then I may consider donating them.
But until they’re secure and I’m assured of the university’s interest in people like them, I’m not going to do it. And I’m not na├»ve. I was not at all inclined to make an issue of the university’s manifest lack of concern about surface mining in Eastern Kentucky and it’s ecological implications, it’s implications for the forests, for the survival of the wild creatures and maybe preeminently for the rural people there that a land grant university is mandated to look after and help. This form of mining is literally hell for the people who live near those mine sites. I know some of them and I’ve heard the testimony of many others and I’ve seen with my own eyes what they’re going through.

I understood that it was probably too much to expect, even a land grant university, to take an interest in those things. But when the university accepted that ($7 million) gift and agreed to name their basketball dormitory after the coal industry, that meant they had passed over from indifference to a manifest alliance with the coal industry. I don’t think a university ought to make an alliance with any industry. I know that’s going on at other universities, and I think it’s always a breach of intellectual integrity and reputability and a breach of public obligation. That is a public university. It ought not to be allying itself with a private interest of any kind. When that happened, that made it impossible for me to tacitly accept that in terms of my own relationship with the university. So the question I had to answer was whether I wanted to be associated with the university on its terms, and the answer I had to give is that I don’t.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Farmville Files: Take Our Jobs

photograph by Rick Nahmias from The Migrant Project

Last evening the NPR program Tell Me More featured a conversation between host Michel Martin and Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers; his union recently launched a campaign called Take Our Jobs. Coming on the heels of the federal lawsuit over Arizona's new illegal immigrations law, the campaign offers an easy online application form through which everyday Americans (presumably in borders states) can apply to work alongside the documented and undocumented. Here's how the UFW frames the presence and necessity of this immigrant farm workforce and their place in our country's current economic and cultural debates:
There are two issues facing our nation--high unemployment and undocumented people in the workforce--that many Americans believe are related.

Missing from the debate on both issues is an honest recognition that the food we all eat - at home, in restaurants and workplace cafeterias (including those in the Capitol) - comes to us from the labor of undocumented farm workers.

Agriculture in the United States is dependent on an immigrant workforce. Three-quarters of all crop workers working in American agriculture were born outside the United States. According to government statistics, since the late 1990s, at least 50% of the crop workers have not been authorized to work legally in the United States. 
To counter their notion that "we are a nation in denial about our food supply," the UFW is welcoming applications. While this campaign is undoubtedly geared as much toward the media as toward unemployed Americans (Mr. Rodriguez is appearing on the Colbert Show tonight), it raises a whole host of questions that extend far beyond the current flare-ups in Arizona. These are questions just as pertinent in Wheeling, West Virginia as in Phoenix. 

Ms. Martin also included journalist Gabriel Thompson in the discussion: he's the author of the recent Working In The Shadows: A Year Doing The Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, a book that chronicled his experiences working alongside Latino immigrants as a bicycle delivery "boy," at a rural Alabama chicken slaughterhouse and, among others, a farm worker in the southwest. Here's a segment of the transcript:
GABRIEL THOMPSON: People would say after five days you start getting use to it and the pain goes away. But really what happens is you just you start redefining what constitutes pain. And so you just have to become use to always having your hands swollen, and used to your back going out, and used to falling asleep at the drop of a hat.

I would say, the positive is that, as opposed to some of the other jobs I did, there is a real feeling in the fields - at least where I was - of solidarity among workers - about workers really feeling that the work they're doing has a lot of dignity. And they - even if American consumers in grocery stores dont make the connection, workers in the fields make the connection that they are literally feeding the United States American citizens and doing some of the hardest jobs that exist. 

MICHEL MARTIN: Mr. Rodriguez, I noticed that you laughed when Gabriel mentioned that living with the constant pain and you actually chuckled. Why did you chuckle? 

ARTURO RODRIGUEZ: No, because it's true. I mean your hands are swollen. They're cut up. They're stained. And the women that oftentimes theyll work on their knees and their knees are brown so they won't wear skirts because they're ashamed of showing that off to people. I mean those are just the realities that farm workers face every single day. So it's a grueling effort, a grueling job that takes place and they get very little recognition for what they do. But the reality is, that if it wasnt for them, we would not have food on our tables every single day. 
For another interpretation, visit The Migrant Project, a photography exhibit by Rick Nahmias, from which the image above was taken. The University of New Mexico Press has recently published a book of these photographs alongside a selection of essays on this issue. Through this book, and Mr. Nahmias's sale of prints and his speaking appearances, a great deal of money has been raised to benefit these workers and their families.