Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Farmville Files: Living The Dirty Life

photograph by Deborah Feingold

One of the most fascinating narratives of this fall's season of new books is the long-awaited emergence of Mark Twain's unexpurgated autobiography; I've thought again of the Hannibal, Missouri native this morning, as I received suggestions to visit NPR's interview with Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life.

Just under 150 years ago, Mr. Twain helped found the literary sub-genre we know call "travel writing," with his Innocents Abroad. Flashing forward to this season's publishing cycle, we have the chance to encounter Ms. Kimball and her own narrative of traveling upstate from the high-culture and high-couture world of New York City's East Village to interview an enterprising young farmer. The story she relates in The Dirty Life is one of unlikely matches, as the city girl falls in love with the organic farmer and, in the process, discovers the poetry and vitality of agrarian life. 

Of course, these "back to the land" narratives, coupled with books on urban-hipsters and their rural arts, now offer a kind of romance and escape just as commercially viable as Mr. Twain's genre of travel writing (indeed, Ms. Kimball began as a travel writer). If you're reading this from a computer screen somewhere in rural America, or if you number among our country's rural diaspora, your reaction to this recent trend may fall somewhere on a sliding scale between hopeful optimism and downright cynicism.

The difference here, with Ms. Kimball's book, seems to be her honesty and her sense of perspective--how the back-breaking, never-ending work of running a 500 acre CSA is also profoundly satisfying and life-affirming. 

NPR's interview with Ms. Kimball, and an audio-slide of Essex Farms, can be found here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: Hunting Season

November Tenth

The folk who want to shoot ducks, and the naturalists who would protect them, meet, occasionally, in conventions and in the lobbies of legislatures. They have this much in common, in the present day, that they are both interested in duck conservation, for sportsmen have begun to understand that unless they restrain each other, there will soon be nothing to shoot. It is the contention of the fowlers that the ladies and professors who make up the conservative ranks are as incapable of understanding why a man wants to shoot as pacifists of seeing how a soldier can find war ennobling.

Hunters, like pipe smokers, are recruited from two antipodal types of men--gentlemen and worthless loafers. I will say this for them all, that as I know them, they are naturalists of a sort. They know the ways of a rabbit as a dog knows them, the ways of a duck as a hawk does. They have a fund of intimate observation upon Nature exactly as it is, that might be envied by the behaviorists putting caged creatures through mazes and paces. Without the least poetry in their way of expressing it, they are none the less appreciators of the wilderness in a fashion scarcely possible to the city dweller, for when they go into the marshes, or in the brown fields or the silvered woods they must proceed to their quarry by accurate observation. They know what to expect as the norm and what is out of the way. The very fact that a hunter is following a trail to kill arouses instincts in him that observe more than the diffident, tolerant student can hope to notice.

November Eleventh

I remember the first baldpate duck I ever saw, floating upon a marsh, in a cold evening damp--floating motionless, with speckled and green head, and blue bill outstretched lovingly upon the water, the exquisite mantle of brownish gray laved by the wind-driven dark ripples, the green and black-bordered wings outspread as if in an ecstasy to catch the wind. So, like a lovely boat, this creature of beauty drove on before the breeze, toward open water, more graceful and more silent than a swan--and dead. Gone was the fowler who had wounded him, but failed to retrieve him. With the bullet in his body the wild thing had still fought for its life, got clear away--to die unconquered, its proud plumage still unplucked; to drift, like this, a Viking's funeral, between the water and the sky.

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reimagining The Corn Crib

photograph by Ansen Seale

It would have been a completely different exhibit if this had been in a gallery somewhere, and we were only pointing to the land, saying yeah, it's out there someplace. No, you have to come out here to experience the land, and you have to walk into this building and see these glowing panels.

Last fall The Land Heritage Institute invited Texas-based digital photographer Ansen Seale onto their grounds to contemplate a site-specific installation. When Mr. Seale visited the LHI, an organization dedicated to preserving the "archeological, cultural, educational, environmental, historical and recreational resources" along a 1,200 acre stretch along of the Medina River, the artist found himself immediately drawn to a small stone shed that had once been used to dry corn. The end result of considering this place, and the agricultural traditions it represented, led to The Corn Crib, a series of photographs housed within this structure. 

When we say "photograph," we must explain that Mr. Seale's camera, and the method it uses to capture an image, challenge our assumptions about how this medium works. Here's the artist's explanation:
Rather than suspending a single moment, my photography examines the passage of time. To accomplish this, I invented a modern digital version of the panoramic camera. In my version, a single sliver of space is imaged over an extended period of time, yielding the surprising result that unmoving objects are blurred and moving bodies are rendered clearly. The model in the studio must move in order to be captured. In the Water series, the stones in the river do not move, and so, become stripes. The water flowing past them perturbs their static image, creating a kind of color field painting. This is no trick. This is photography in the purist sense, but a form of photography where abstraction is the norm, not the exception.
By placing this attention to "the passage of time" and "moving bodies" within this former site of agricultural work, Mr. Seale has created a space in which audiences can reconsider their relationship to the land, agriculture, and our shared cultural histories as these rows of kernels are re-presented in a solar glow. All of this is beautifully illustrated by this short piece by Walley Films:

The Corn Crib from Mark & Angela Walley on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Two Years Later In One Rural Town

a screenshot from the video posted below

A little over two years ago, Senator Barack Obama campaigned through the Ohio Valley on the eve of the presidential election.  En route from one rally to another, his tour bus passed through my hometown of Smithfield, Ohio. In an unplanned move, the candidate stopped for a brief moment to greet folks who had gathered to cheer along the motorcade. I'm grateful that someone with a digital camera captured this moment for posterity; as the candidate emerges from the long-awaited bus, he seems almost to be returning from a moment of goodwill that we have since misplaced:


When Obama pulled out of Smithfield, Ohio, what he left was a town still resilient in the face of many of the same issues that haunt all of rural America. The main street our future President stood upon was shadow of its former glory--abandoned businesses, dilapidated houses, the high school long gone--but also a metaphor for a state-of-the-nation we sought to amend. As the motorcade snaked its way along the ridge leading out of town, it passed farms owned and preserved with great difficulty by generations of families; among the cattle and crops, as with my family's farm, sat the giant strip pits--old enough to be unreclaimed--standing for another metaphor we invested in a candidate's care.

I wonder how the folks in the video would react if the President's bus stopped again, unannounced, in Smithfield. What would they discuss, what tone would this discussion take?  I ponder this as the video plays again, as the images begin to move like ghosts across the computer screen--a moment lost, a memory consigned to the past.

Aside from our own party preferences, there's no denying that a sense of decorum has vacated our political discourse; while this is no doubt a reflection of our national recession--already mature in November 2008--it is also a comment on our willingness to think, with generosity and civility, beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspectives. Now, more than ever, we need artists to challenge our neighbors' (and our own) frustrated myopia.

The Rural Blog and The Daily Yonder will be excellent sources for the news and analysis of the rural dimension to this election cycle.  Also, this interactive Google map will help locate your local polling place.