Monday, December 31, 2007

There's oil in them thar plains . . .

Some of Western North Dakota's towns are booming these days due to oil exploration, according to this story in the New York Times. Almost 200 new wells have been drilled there in the past year. Towns like Stanley and Killdeer that were previously on the verge of drying up and blowing away (perhaps literally, as well as figuratively, out on those plains) are now seeing population stabilization, even growth. But locals have mixed feelings about the turn of events. John Warburg, pictured above on his farm, says: It seems like God flew over this country, and a dart landed on Granddad’s homestead.” But he also laments the change:
I hope the place won’t change, but it probably will ... I have thought about this a lot. I guess what I hope is that I don’t change.
Ken G. Halvorson, the eight-term county sheriff and coroner is more skeptical, indeed outright negative: “We’re going to get nothing out of this except a headache and a heartache.” The skepticism stems not only from a concern about loss of a way of life and the environment, but also because another nearby city suffered in an earlier "oil boom." In the early 1980s, when oil prices were on the rise, nearby Williston invested $20 million in infrastructure to facilitate the city's growth, which never came. So, the oil's presence has been known for some time, but it's taken the spike in oil prices to renew interest and investment in this onshore exploration. For better or worse, that has put towns like Stanley and Killdeer back on the map.

Small-town National Guard Prepares for Surge

We have perhaps all read enough on the demographic profile of U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq to know that many are young men and women who join the military due to lack of other opportunities, and that a disproportionate number are from rural places. But this story in the National Journal on December 14, 2007 discusses yet another angle on the phenomenon -- the role of the National Guard. Turns out that the National Guard, which is set to increase its numbers in Iraq by about 10,000 in 2008 (over the current 46,000 level, that is), flourishes in small-town America. Generally speaking, according to the report, a state with a lower population density and a lower percentage of minorities will have a higher percentage of its populace serving in the Army National Guard. In North Dakota, for example, 52 of 10,000 persons is serving in the Guard; in California, it is only 4 in 10,000.

Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., who wrote the story for the National Journal, explains this phenomenon by reference to the nature of small towns: "Since the first colonial militia mustered on the village green, National Guard units have been hometown troops. ... An Army National Guard unit recruits from its local community and may keep the same soldiers together for decades. That those communities keep producing volunteers six years into a global war speaks to the depth of their military traditions." He also points out that the ties among a guard unit's members -- and to its community -- are strongest in small towns, more so than in both more rural areas where people are more spatially dispersed and in "large cities, with their abundance of social an economic alternatives." He quotes David Segal, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland: "Being in the guard is how one earns one's bona fides as a member of the community."

The Iowa caucuses as a spotlight on rural America

Easy as it is to be put off, even numbed, by the constant news stream about the Presidential campaign, I have enjoyed following the news in the run up to the Iowa caucuses because it provides a window into rural America -- or at least into rural Iowa. When, except in days and weeks before the caucuses, do you see datelines like Pella (population 10, 245), Indianola (population 14, 227), Storm Lake (population 9,882), and Denison (population 7,339) in the national media? Noting where the candidates are spending time gives one the impression that rural America actually matters. Of course, this fact is crazy-making for many who decry the disproportionate power of states like Iowa (along with New Hampshire and South Carolina, which also feature significant rural populations and rural associations) to make or break candidates early in the game.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Going green in rural America

An urban article from the NC News & Observer on cities such as Baltimore, Phoenix, and San Francisco that offer incentives for those people who choose green alternatives sparked my interest on what incentives could be offered in rural towns. Baltimore has offered $2,000 grants to home buyers who purchase within the vicinity of work. Berkeley has offered financing to the cost of solar panels.
Incentives are one way to go. I am also interested in comparing city recycling programs and when cities or towns decided to begin recycling. The Nebraska State Recycling Association was founded in 1980. According to one former resident, Omaha, Nebraska began recycling before 1995. Cary, North Carolina began recycling around this time as well. Fresno, California began recycling around 2005, right around the time I moved there. I wonder what accounts for the differences. Some of these towns have transformed into cities since the 1980s and are no longer rural. But I still wonder what determines how successful the green movement will be in cities and towns of varying sizes and rural areas.

I found this link to a blog entitled "Going Green in Rural America."

Extending the backyard

In Colorado and Utah forests, off-roaders are transforming federally owned lands into recreational areas according to a NC News & Observer article entitled "Illegal Off-roaders Stir Dust." This article is along the lines of some of the previous articles discussed regarding rural development and coalitions that address urban recreational visitors.

Apparently, outdoor recreationists flock to lesser-known forests and other public lands where administration of justice is lax, presumably due to the lack of law enforcement in rural locations. The federal government is having trouble adequately enforcing the law due to a lack of "manpower." A deputy state director for the Bureau of Land Management in Salt Lake City said "you'd have to have Patton's army."

Due to increased rural development, more than 28 million homes sit approximately 30 miles or less from federally owned land. According to the article, people now view those lands as "extended backyards." Arguably, ranchers have had this view of these areas for some time, but now ranchers are competing with ATVs and climbers for this "extended backyard space." Perhaps, its not that the urban newcomers or exurbanites are introducing a new "extended backyard view," but rather are using the public lands in a different manner.

Rural teens and technology

In response to Jeff Edwards' post...

In the North Carolina News & Observer today, an AP article entitled "Kids Exploit Suicide to Avoid Exams" described cell phone text messaging in a rural Arkansas town. The town, Augusta, Arkansas, has a population of approximately 2,400.

The article explained that after a former student's suicide, students text messaged, by cell phone, other suicide plans and plans to bring weapons to school. In the 200-student school, officials believed the threats were attempts to avoid semester finals. What prompted me to post this article was the quote from police that "the proliferation of cell phones gave electronic-age wings to small-town gossip." The police captain said that rumors spread in the town "like you just cannot believe because everyone knows everybody. . . ninety percent of people is kinfolks with somebody else..."

The police responded to the threats by scanning students with a hand-held metal detector, but they found only cell phones.

I wonder what the explanations are for the increase in rural teen texting compared to urban teen texting (as referenced in the Texas Texting Blog Post). The News and Observer article seems to suggest that the increase in technology increases the spread of rural teen gossip. What is not addressed in the article, though, is the teen suicide in a school population of 200 and its effect on such a small student population, apart from technology and gossip.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Poor dental health in Kentucky a top-10 story?

This NYTimes story about the consequences of poverty for the dental health of Kentucky residents mentions the rural angle a couple of times. In particular, the reporter notes the drastic shortage of dentists in rural areas, a situation exacerbated by low Medicaid reimbursement rates in the state. Kentucky has the highest percentage of any state whose over-65 population are without their teeth. The story notes, too, the role of factors such as malnutrition, unflouridated well water, wife abuse, preemptive pulling of teeth to avoid the need for unaffordable or unavailable dental care, and even those who crack their healthy teeth to feed an addiction to pain medication. As in another NYT story in 2005, this article notes the role that methamphetamine use plays in Kentucky's dismal dental health statistics.

Perhaps the thing I find most curious about the publication of this story is its attraction among New York Times readers. As I write at mid-day on Christmas day, a day after the story first appeared, it is the second most emailed story on the newspaper's website. It's right up there with "The Minimalist: 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 minutes or less" and "A Threat so Big, Academics Try Collaboration" (about cross-disciplinary efforts to solve the problem of global warming). OK, so maybe it is a slow news day, but I wonder what it is about reports like this that Times readers, a presumably affluent and well-educated set, want to share with friends and family by emailing it. Are we readers surprised that this degree of deprivation still exists in our own fair country? that rural poverty exists, along with the urban poverty that is at least slightly more visible to us. (I must add that the story does not surprise me because it is the story of many of my older relatives and acquaintances in rural Northwest Arkansas; I still regret -- especially on my semi-annual visits to the dentist -- the unflouridated well water of my childhood there). Just as likely, reading about the stark reality of others so much less fortunate than we are makes us especially grateful for our affluence, particularly at this season. Indeed, another of the most emailed stories today arguably makes a similar point. "Anarchists in the Aisles; Stores Provide a Stage" is about so-called "shopdroppers," who seek to draw our attention to "hyper-consumerism."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Rural appeal and Huckabee's ascent

As a native Arkansan (albeit one long out of the state when Huckabee became governor), I have been surprised at Huckabee's ascent in the polls not only in Iowa, but also in states like California. It's made me wonder if part of Huckabee's appeal lies in his rural roots -- or at least what voters perceive to be rural roots.

Huckabee comes across as an earnest, down-home guy from a proverbial Maberry. A recent feature on Huckabee in the NYT Magazine reported that he was born in Hope, Arkansas, a micropolitan area in southern Arkansas made famous because it is also Bill Clinton's birthplace. This story in the NYTimes a few days later noted the frequency of Huckabee comparisons to Jim Nabors. (Incidentally, the earliest online version of this story used the word "rural" in the headline, as in noting Huckabee's appeal in rural Iowa). Many of the places Huckabee has lived and worked in Arkansas (e.g., Pine Bluff and Texarkana) are not thought of by most Arkansans as rural. Huckabee may nevertheless be perceived by the wider electorate as a product of rural America, in part because Arkansas is a largely rural state and in part because of the rural persona in which Huckabee cloaks himself.

So, is there something in our collective nostalgia for our rural past that makes Hucakbee an attractive presidential candidate? Does Huckabee's appeal lie partly in the straight-talking, right-wrong, hard work, Christian-and-family values simplicity associated with rurality? (Perhaps his quasi-rural background also explains his attachment to fences as solutions -- even at the border!) Since long before Huckabee became a Presidential candidate, let alone a viable one, non-Arkansans who know him personally and those who just knew of him told me he could be a contender because he comes across as being so "nice" and "likable." Maybe Huckabee represents an antidote to Rudy Guliani, the ultimate urbanite, sophisticated but hard-edged?

I recall marveling in 1991 and 1992 at Clinton's ascent in the polls. I had then relatively recently moved on (at least in a literal sense) from my small-town Arkansas roots and was living in cosmopolitan London. I thought the British press surely had it wrong as they wrote of the viability of Clinton's candidacy. I was sure Clinton had no hope of getting the Democratic nomination (let alone the presidency) because he would be seen as a rube from the South. The negative stereotypes associated with rurality, I assumed, doomed his candidacy. Happily, I was proved wrong.

As different as I believe Huckabee and Clinton to be in outlook and in their pre-Presidential capacity to grasp complex foreign affairs matters, they nevertheless share more than a home town and stints as governor of Arkansas. Perhaps the viability of each of their candidacies was/is rooted, to some degree, in their rural identities and our own longing, however naive it may be, for a simpler time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Immigration and Rural America

Since I've been researching and writing these past few months on the topic of immigration and the rural South, I found myself somewhat surprised at this story which appeared in the New York Times this week. The story features Storm Lake, a micropolitan area of about 10,000 in the northwest part Iowa. Rural areas like Storm Lake began experiencing an influx of Latina/os about two decades ago, primarily for employment in the meatpacking industry. As some folks quoted in this story acknowledge, immigration has saved towns like Storm Lake from shriveling up, given the shrinking rural economies and the accompanying population loss that previously plagued them.

Call me naive, but I expected a greater, more consistent appreciation for the economic shot in the arm that immigration has provided to places like Storm Lake. This NYT story, however, indicates considerable resentment, as well as a misplaced sense that the immigrants -- many of them admittedly illegal -- are competing with long-time residents for jobs. In fact, various studies indicate that this is not the case. Rather, most indications are that as immigrants come in to do work that the native population is no longer willing to do, the native population have an opportunity to move up the labor hierarchy. Perhaps if there were a greater understanding of this reality, long-time rural residents and Latina/o newcomers could stop focusing on their differences and begin to see that which could unite them: shared values such as family and hard work.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Lars and the Real Girl" and the "Real Rural"

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing an excellent film, "Lars and the Real Girl," starring Ryan Gosling. The film is about a young man, Lars, who lives in a rural town somewhere in a northern region populated by the descendants of Nordic families.

He keeps to himself, works in a nondescript job, and drives an old car. One day his life changes when he orders Bianca, a life-sized doll, from the Internet. He manifested a delusion that he was ordering a real girl, a Brazilian missionary in a wheelchair. When she arrives, he starts referring to her as his girlfriend. Much to the shock of everyone in his little town, he takes her to parties, speaks with her as though she is real, and expects his brother and sister-in-law to bathe, clothe, and feed her. The premise is a little strange, but the movie is so touching -- and it reflects some of the best aspects of rural life -- that I would highly recommend it.

The most heartwarming part of the movie is that everyone in town goes to great lengths to welcome Bianca and, underneath it all, to show their love for Lars. They start treating her like a real girl, and in doing so, Lars realizes that he is truly loved. You can read a synopsis and see a trailer of the movie here.

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but think about the way rural themes shaped the story line. The fact that the town rallied around this young man with a mental illness shows the rural value of independence and the preference to "take care of our own." In a suburban or urban setting, I suspect a family member would have been much more likely to take Lars to a hospital or treatment center. But here, Lars's brother and sister-in-law seek the services of the kindly doctor, who is also a psychologist ("You have to be, this far north," one character tells us .) The religiosity of the people -- social life revolved around the church --is also a strong rural theme that unifies this town. And, the informal communication networks (a kind version of a "rumor mill") played an instrumental role when Bianca fell ill.

I was curious about whether others had written about the rural angle of this film, so I did some research and found this article by Utah-based film critic Eric D. Snider. In reviewing the film, he wrote, "You have to take the film as a fable and not as a strictly realistic account of rural America. It's valid to point out that in real life there's no way the entire town would humor Lars -- but only because in real life, 'entire towns' don't do anything. You accept it as a necessary element of the story."

I disagree with Snider's idea that "entire towns" don't do anything. In this tiny town, which may well have had fewer than 100 people, the entire town may have in fact rallied around Lars. We just don't know. We do know that several dozen people from church and work all cared deeply about this young man. It was easy for the community to rally around Lars because he looked like they did -- he is white and of Nordic ancestry. Lars and his family are insiders and rural communities tend to support those who have established themselves in the region.

I refuse to believe that the kindness of the rural residents in the film is part of a larger "fable." A strong sense of community spirit is a uniquely rural value and one that I hope never leaves rural communities. I firmly believe -- and hope -- that somewhere in America, members of rural towns still rush to the assistance of those who are sick and need help.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Grocery stores in poor areas (rural and urban)

I came across these two articles and I thought they complimented each other nicely.

The first discusses the difficulties that people in rural areas have accessing grocery stores. Because grocery stores are often long distances away, people shop at them only occasionally. Locals do much more shopping at convenience stores, which have more junk food, higher prices and less fruits and vegetables. This impacts finances and health. The image of Fannie Charles pushing her shopping cart six miles to the nearest grocery store about once a month seems much more like an urban image to me than a rural one. According to the study the article is based on, 75% of the stores that sell food in Orangeburg County, SC, are convenience stores. So much for the bucolic images of rural farmers living off the land.

At the same time, I found this article about how San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood is finally getting a full service grocery store after a ten year battle. The issues in Bayview are largely the same as above. Bayview has limited grocery stores and lots of fast food options. People need to travel to get to large grocery stores. Here, what is different, is that this is part of the city's plan to improve the neighborhood and neighborhood health. Still, despite city funding, the major chains all said no before this agreement with Tesco, a British chain expanding into the U.S.

Perhaps the issue isn't really rurality, but poverty. The advantage in the city is that there might be, at times, the political will to solve these kinds of problems. These problems may also be easier to solve without distance playing a part. Certainly, the neighbors in Bayview do not have to push their shopping carts six miles along unpaved paths to get to Safeway, but their healthy, economical choices are still limited. And despite the differences, I suspect the new Fresh & Easy store may find a few patrons pushing shopping carts home.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Umbrellas as a reflection of urban-rural difference

This story in the City section of today's NYT suggests that umbrella use during snow, which is something folks apparently do in the city, is a reflection of the urban-rural divide. The author writes: "It’s the old rural-versus-urban divide, the difference between accepting and finding enjoyment in nature’s arbitrary whims and refusing to find pleasure in this sort of thing." Do you agree?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Rural Japan graying and shrinking, in parallel to the United States

This article on the cover of today's business section of the New York Times reports on the "Wal-Martization" of Japan -- but without the Wal-Mart. In short, what we call big box stores ("national chains") are helping the urban middle class in Japan, but closing down "rural" downtowns, severly damaging local economies. Just as rural youth in this country migrate to cities for better opportunities, so those in Japan move to Tokyo. Just one consequence is the graying of rural Japan, again a demographic trend that parallels the United States. This is just one of several stories that the New York Times has run in recent months on the woes of rural Japan. Here's one on obstetrics services there, and here's one from last winter on cuts to public services.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rural road use

This article offers an interesting vignette of the interaction of rural and urban, urban use of the rural, and ways contemporary economic development fails to account for rural impacts. The article discusses the impact of GPS navigation devices on some small communities in the English countryside where the shortest route may not make for the best. The article mentions that the Village of Barrow Gurney, with a population of fewer than one thousand, hosts 15,000 vehicles a day, many commercial trucks following GPS-designed routes. While the village is situated along a road connecting two larger trucking routes, the streets was laid before automobiles became the dominant form of transportation and a designed much more narrowly than many drivers anticipate. As the article points out, this has caused some unintended consequences: hitting fences, smashing car mirrors, and even lifting the roof off of one house. The local community wants off the GPS maps, but the companies in charge won't budge.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A rural life (as distinct from "The Rural Life")

Effie Lea Shatwell, Lisa R. Pruitt and Elver Shatwell,
at their home in Vendor, Arkansas, 1995

A rural life ended this week with the death of my maternal grandmother, Effie Lee Shatwell of Vendor, Arkansas. She was 92 and is survived by six children, 18 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren, and 10 great-great-grandchildren.

Reflecting on the life of "Grannie Shat" has served as a reminder of so many of the aspects of rural living that have drawn me to think and write about rural people and places. Certainly, her life and times were worlds away from "The Rural Life" depicted by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his popular blog by that name. While Klinkenborg makes a good living as a writer and keeps a farm in Columbia County, New York, as an avocation, my grandmother spent the vast majority of her life actually eking a living out of a subsistence farm in the Ozark mountains of Northwest Arkansas. Born in the community of Red Rock in 1915, she married my grandfather in 1939 and lived out her adult life in nearby Vendor. Both of their families had already lived in the area for several generations. She and my grandfather made their living almost entirely from their hill farm, putting in a full garden every year until my grandmother had a stroke and went to live in a nursing home more than 9 years ago. That year, my grandfather's last, he put in and harvested the garden without her.

Throughout her married life, my grandmother canned and stored all summer to have food to get the family through the winter. Only a few years before her stroke did they stop keeping chickens, pigs, cattle, and a mule to pull the plow. They sold eggs, milk and butter to their neighbors, and supplied them also to their grown children. As the mother of young children, my grandmother took money earned from selling eggs and other produce to buy dry goods to make all the kids' clothes. The fabric was used again and again, as girls' skirts were turned into shirts for the boys, then quilt tops. The food I most associate with my grandmother is a pot of pinto beans with a big ham hock in it for flavor. Second to that, there was the "big mess of squirrel" she'd fry up after my grandfather had gone hunting.

My grandfather worked as a logger in the timber woods and did some work stints in Kansas City when there was no work to be had in Newton County. Only after I moved to California did he tell me of his stint working in a cooperage in Oakland, presumably during the Dust Bowl era. "I hated California," he said, "and I wanted to be back here, so I caught a ride back to Arkansas in the bed of a pickup truck as soon as I could." In their latter years, my grandfather brought in a little extra money from carving miniature wooden plows and making birdhouses to sell at the tourist stops along nearby Scenic Highway 7. My grandmother never worked outside the home, never paid into Social Security, but I have no doubt that she contributed as much to her family's survival as my grandfather did.

Many of the themes of rural living that we have discussed this semester are reflected in my grandmother's life: poverty, hardship, and deprivation (she and my grandfather got indoor plumbing in their home only in 1990; they drew water manually from a well at the corner of the front porch, and you can see part of the wringer style washing machine in the photo above); the informal economy (as noted above); social and spatial isolation (my grandparents came to the county seat, traveling in part on dirt roads, every Saturday to buy feed for the animals and what few foodstuffs they didn't grow); and attachment to place (although no one has lived on the farm for almost a decade, my mother and her siblings have been unwilling to sell it).

And then there's law's relevance to rural lives like those of my grandparents. Or, perhaps I should say complete lack of relevance (except, of course, to the extent that the rule of law permitted them to own their farm and live there in peace). Perhaps law has become more relevant only in their absence. My mom tells me that a meth house is operating down the road from their vacant farm. Now that I think about it, maybe this doesn't represent change in terms of a role for law. Law remains largely irrelevant to their lives (or more precisely, those of their heirs) if law enforcement resources are so strained, or so influenced by local considerations, that the meth house is ignored.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More on the rural elderly

Carolyn's post about Medicare reminded me of the large percentage of rural dwellers who are elderly, as well as of the particular challenges that spatial isolation and lack of services create for them. The departure from rural areas of young people searching for better economic opportunity means that rural areas are more gray these days than the rest of the country. This demographic trend is further exaggerated when urban folks retire to rural places in search of a quieter pace of life and a lower cost of living.

This piece in last week's New York Times is about a place in rural, coastal Maine that is representative of the phenomenon. The elderly depicted in this story are often living on their Social Security payments (around $600/month for several interviewed), sometimes supplemented by meager state fuel allowances and such. For the most part, they spent their working lives doing menial labor, sometimes seasonal, like blueberry picking. They now have little to show for it, as they struggle to survive on their limited fixed incomes. The isolation associated with rurality, aggravated by the isolation associated with aging is sobering indeed, although some note the considerable benefits associated with a sense of community and family nearby.