Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spatial challenges brought home

Over Spring Break, my wife and I flew to North Carolina to visit her sister, Michelle. Much to my allergy-ridden sweetheart’s chagrin, Michelle lives with her husband, Andy, and two-year-old daughter, Miriam, on a farm just outside Chapel Hill. Michelle and Andy are not full-time farmers (she is finishing up a PhD at Duke; he works for the local Catholic church), but they have enough time and space to fill their property with sheep, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Add to that a pair of dogs to keep the sheep in line, plus a trio of cats to keep the place relatively vermin-free, and you end up with a place your average country mouse would love to call home. (Except for the cats, I suppose.)

Miriam loves it. Like many young children, she adores all things bleating, barking, quacking, and clucking, so she thrives in her own personal petting zoo. Whenever it’s time to do the chores, she does her best to help by hefting the bucket of dog food, following the chickens to make sure they’re okay, or pointing out (repeatedly) where the sheep are in the pasture.

Because Andy and Michelle did not have a Spring Break, my wife and I ended up taking care of Miriam while they were at work. Most of the time, this entailed reading stories and eating imaginary muffins, but at least once a day we tried to get her outside so she could run around in the fresh air. Given her affection for the animals outside her door, this was not difficult: on would slide her coat and boots, and out we’d go.

Usually, Miriam was content to show me her chickens and rabbits, or to throw rocks in the nearby duck pond and explain how this created ripples. One day, though, we decided to walk into the pasture to visit the sheep. Michelle and Andy had told me not to let Miriam get too close, as the flock had grown aggressive in protection of their newly born lambs, but I felt no real reason for concern as I opened the gate and entered with my little niece in hand. Her parents routinely took Miriam with them when they fed these animals, so I figured it would be fine as long as I watched her like a hawk. The sheep were a good distance away, and two large sheep dogs separated them from us, so we would just go in for a moment, pet the dogs, wave to the woolly grazers, and then leave.

After securing the latch behind us, however, I looked over to find the entire flock staring us down. They hadn’t moved closer, nor were they showing any indication of impending movement, but every single sheep had turned around to watch us. And they kept watching us, silently maintaining icy visual contact as the dogs came over to greet me and my diminutive companion. If it hadn’t happened on a farm, I would call it unnatural. In any event, it was one of the creepiest moments of my life, and the only time I’ve ever been afraid of sheep. The alpha male’s horns suddenly looked three feet long, and every sharp hoof seemed poised like an unopened switchblade. After only a few moments of obligatory dog-petting, I scooped Miriam up and asked her to show me her chickens again.

Which brings me to my point about spatial realities and their effect on rural life. Andy and Michelle’s farm happens to be a short drive from the UNC medical center, so if anything had actually happened – if the ovine menace had done more than merely loom over my niece – help was as close as in any urban setting. But what about truly rural environments? Andy and Michelle live on the outskirts of a major university town; what about farms on the outskirts of nowhere?

On the one hand, it certainly breeds a level of self-sufficiency unknown in places where resources are more readily accessible. On the other hand, though, it leads to a unique helplessness at the point where self-sufficiency is simply insufficient. Beyond the lack of medical attention, we’ve seen this in several different examples in this class: the person who has no car and can’t take the bus because there isn’t one; the abused woman with nowhere to run; the law enforcement vacuum filled by the local meth gang. In short, physical separation from resources has a profound effect on rural livelihoods. It is an obvious point, but one I’ll remember every time I put on a wool sweater.


Chez Marta said...

Beautifully written post, Jon, thank you! As I was riding in my car and listening to NPR, as per usual, I heard a conversation on Forum about Alzheimer's Disease. Naturally, personal accounts of the devastation the disease causes to families was the only way I could grasp a problem that is looming, quite probably, in my near future. But it also got me thinking about the effect of this non-treatable affliction in rural areas, where treatment centers, doctors, and family help are not closeby and readily available. Critical thinking about spatial inequality is essential to bring about substantial equality, but we need to hear the personal stories to make such thinking processes possible and lively.

D'Arcy said...

This is a lovely personal insight into spatial inequality. It reminds me that we can read about inequality and lack of access to resources but nothing feels as real as when we find ourselves personally at risk because we are visiting an area that does not have the resources we are accustomed to. This is especially true with respect to medical care. A resource issue particularly troubling in my home county of Siskiyou, is access to substance abuse services. Often, when people are convicted of drug and alcohol violations in court they are required to attend programs like AA. However, in Siskiyou County many must travel long distances to reach the service centers. If a defendant lost his/her drivers license because of the offense, he/she is forced to take buses that may come as infrequently as once a day or rely on rides from friends and family. The lack of resources weigh against successful completion of substance abuse programs for these offenders and in favor of parole violations.

lauren said...

Great post and story. The sheep encounter sounds pretty creepy, but such a good personal account of how a lack of services can impact people in rural areas, on a day to day basis. This made me think about the snowstorm in NY, where ambulances were having a really difficult time reaching emergencies because of the massive amount of snow. We, in cities, are lucky and become so accustomed to quick responses from EMTs and fire departments, that any lag becomes obvious and, in the case of NY, changes are made to prevent the same thing from happening again. Assuming that EMT response time in rural areas is longer than in cities, I imagine that there is a level of self-sufficiency that one must develop, which urban dwellers don't.

Dusty said...

I love this lens through which to examine spatiality. I laughed about your concerns for a potential ram attack and similarly recognize the concern that spatiality brings up for accessing medical care. I noticed while being raised semi-rural and still living rural half time if I can help it,that there is a slight difference in attitudes towards medical care in rural areas, specifcally in households with animals. I have noticed that in rural areas vets are much more commonly on call and serve households,even in spatially isolated areass, as well they are often cheaper and usually more diversified, serving small and large animals. The tension bw the availability of rural vet care to rural medical person care is evident. So the ram that could have horned you would be able to possibly access a vet pretty quickly to salve his tender hornds, but as for your injury, on call doctors remain a privilege for the mostly affluent isolated rural people.