Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kayakers v. big energy

California happens to be home to some of the best whitewater kayaking in the world, and some of the best white water kayakers originate from California’s rural mountain communities. These adrenaline junkies, drop off waterfalls 40 feet tall without blinking an eye and are some of the only people to see the higher reaches of the American, Feather, Rubicon and Sacramento rivers. Because they traipse across mountain ridges lugging kayaks filled with overnight food supplies and carefully packed cameras for documentation, they understand the full effect of big energy production on the river beds they frequent.

PG&E, SMUD, and county water agencies run a labyrinth of damns, diversions and other innovations throughout the Sierra’s, Cascades, and coastal mountains to create energy for California’s cities and towns. While these agencies provide services they also make billions of dollars at the expense of several interests groups and the environment.

Dams and diversions wreak havoc on river beds. While, most dam operator maintain enough water flow in rivers to allow continued aquatic life; in many instances operators divert rivers entirely, leaving barren beds of rock with no sign of the smallest freshwater snail. Kayakers live close to the water and develop deep interests in the health of aquatic habitats. They also keep careful tabs on water levels to know what times rivers run at their best for white water play. When dams shut down entire river beds they impose both on the environment and one of our state’s recreational activities.

Darin McQuoid is a local professional kayaker and photographer who works for Eddie Bower, Kokatat, and Jackson Kayaks. McQuoid travels the world in search of new river descents, but grew up in a little town in the Cascades called Scott Valley, which barely makes the map. In his pursuit of new runs and the exercise of his profession here in California, Darin regularly rubs up against hydroelectric companies and has participated in a number of their re-licensing activities.

Because hydroelectric uses a public resource (water) companies must go through federal licensing processes every thirty to fifty years. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is responsible for licensing hydroelectric faculties. In the next three years several of these licenses need renewing. Energy agencies dislike the licensing process, in part because they must contend with interest groups including the kayakers. Mr. McQuoid can site at least one instance where an energy company tried to evade the process altogether. Licensing involves extensive environmental impact reports and flow tests as well as public comment periods that allow for various groups to voice opinions. As part of their recreational mitigation, PG&E, SMUD and others actually fly kayakers into remote locations to test the “flows”.

Darin and his colleges participate in these flow assessments. After running a section of the river they provide advice on what water levels best suit recreational purposes. Unfortunately, as Mr. McQuoid reports, these agencies rarely follow through with flow levels. The most kayakers generally hope to get out of their interaction with hydroelectric giants is public access to information on flow releases. Now, when a company schedules a release, the California boaters jump on board and all show up in specified locations. But Mr. McQuoid wishes these companies would go further and actually maintain flows adequate both for aquatic life and white water paddling.

Monday, May 30, 2011

To urbanize China ....

The Chinese need American coal--metallurgical coal, to be specific--to meet their goal of "urbanizing" another 300 million Chinese by 2025. China is using the coal it is importing from the United States (much of it mined in rural Western Pennsylvania) and elsewhere to create the infrastructure--especially buildings--associated with cities. Indeed, a great deal of China's urban infrastructure has been built in just the last two decades.

Listen to Zoe Chace's story about this urban boom in China. It presents China's current urbanization goals as parallel to those of the United States a century earlier. The United States became more urban than rural in about 1920, and right now China's population is about half rural, half urban. In many cases, the cities China is building will be brand new cities, though existing cities are sure to continue to sprawl, too.

I have written here about the challenges presented by uneven development and spatial inequality in Asia.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Educating a persistent poverty county

I write often about my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, population 8,311, and I've written quite a bit recently (here, here and here) about K-12 education there. Today I want to discuss higher education in relation to the county's populace and, in particular, to consider what the data might reveal about educational challenges in persistent poverty counties (those with poverty rates in excess of 20% in each of the last four decennial censuses). The chart below shows the county's population over the past 70 years and, beside each decennial census population figure, the percentage of the county's adult populace who held at least a bachelor's degree at that time. The source of all the data is the U.S. Census Bureau, though the higher education data was made easily accessible via this interactive website that the Chronicle of Higher Education posted in January, 2011. This interactive map shows county-level higher education data for every county in the United States, including such data back to 1940. To put this Newton County data in perspective, note that about 27.5% of adults in the United States are graduates of four-year, bachelors degree programs. Standing alone, this is a shocking figure (shockingly low, that is, in my opinion), but it also points up the severe impoverishment (not only fiscally, but intellectually) of Newton County. For me, a striking thing about this Newton County data is how it fails in some ways to parallel national trends. The 1950s and 1960s are often discussed as the boom years in higher education in the United States because so many men were able to take advantage of the GI Bill following WWII. But this interactive map indicates that the growth in those with college degrees has been relatively steady over the decades, rising from 4.4% in 1940 to 7.7% in 1960 to 16.2% in 1980 to 24.4% in 2000. The gain has typically been 4-5% each decade. The biggest leap in a single decade came between 1970 and 1980--a rise from 10.7% to 16.2%, or 5.5%. The pattern in Newton County has been more one that reflects fits and starts. During the decade between 1950 and 1960, the county's percentage of adults with college degrees nearly quadrupled--but because it had been so terribly low before the war, this put the county's 1960 figure at only 2.54%. Still, I assume this dramatic increase--like that in the rest of the nation--was largely attributable to the GI Bill. Newton County's other boom decades--if you could call them that--came between 1970 and 1980 and again between 1990 and 2000. In each of those decades, the percentage of adult college graduates living in the country roughly doubled. What explains that phenomenon? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that in both decades it was largely attributable to newcomers. In the latter decade in particular, I am guessing the rise in college degrees is a consequence of the county's increasing degree of rural gentrification. Read related posts here and here.Link Another thing that stands out in this comparison of Newton County with the nation is the fact that, while the county was only about 2% points behind the nation in terms of college education in 1940, today the county is more than 15% points behind the nation. This seems just another manifestation of the growing spatial inequalities in our nation. Nationally, the percentage of young adults with college degrees in 2000 was only half that of the average city. (Read more at pp 131-132 of The Big Sort). This data also surely supports the idea of a negative feedback loop about education in a place where shockingly few have achieved higher education. After all, one consequence of this "under-education" is the dearth of well educated role models in places like Newton County.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Media progress in figuring out what's rural

As I've followed the devastating news out of Joplin, Missouri over the past few days, I have been relieved that none of the news reports I've consumed has referred to Joplin as a rural place. The New York Times has consistently referred to it, including in headlines, as a "Missouri City," and has made many references to its population--just under 50,000. I see this as progress of sorts because I suspect that most people outside the four-state area where Joplin sits had ever heard of the city before Sunday night. Often, when a place is unknown on the coasts, it gets labeled "rural" in that broad brush of national journalists referencing places which lie in the "flyover" states--other than, say, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver. (See a recent example of media sloppiness on this issue here). With Joplin, however, journalists have gotten it right. This may, however, be less a reflection of an emerging sensitivity to the nuance of the rural-urban continuum than it is attributable to the fact that a key aspect of the Joplin story was that the tornado was so deadly because it struck an urban cluster, not a sparsely populated locale.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Virginia's Crooked Road: A musical destination

The cover story for the Sunday New York Times travel section was about the so-called (that is, officially designated by the state of Virginia since 2004) Crooked Road in far southwest Virginia, a thin slice of territory surrounded by West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. Sarah Wildman observes that, "where the economy has faltered, the local music culture is thriving." She describes the phenomenon--the "old-time" and blue grass music that originated in this area, and which still flourish:
The heritage of the path can be found in this dance, in that tune, learned by ear from house to house and passed down through generations. The Road isn’t one single highway — it’s a roughly 300-mile series of interconnected two-lane byways and long stretches of Route 58 ... . The sound here is Appalachian: mountain music. Joe Wilson, who wrote a book on the Crooked Road, calls the area the “pickle barrel” of American music. “You know you can’t make a good pickle by squirting vinegar on a cucumber,” he said. “You have to let it sit.”
Wildman touches on the musical influences of the region--specifically the dulcimers, fiddles, and tunes that the Scots-Irish and Germans brought with them when they settled this area.

Wildman's descriptions of the musical gatherings remind me of those my mother recalls from her childhood in the Arkansas Ozarks--and, indeed, which still take place there. Wildman writes of the Crooked Road, "Every night you’ll find pick-up jams on front porches, performances in theaters and quartets that pack storefronts, an old courthouse and even a Dairy Queen." This, in turn, reminded me of one of few happy scenes from "Winter's Bone," the one in which the heroine visits a home where a music party is taking place.

The photos accompanying this story are vivid and well worth a look, and a multimedia feature is available, too. This story last week also touched on the Appalachian appreciation for music. Another story about mountain music--this one from 2008--is here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Isolated" school funding to follow students in forced consolidations

I've written a bit about the public schools in Arkansas recently, here, here and here, with particular attention to those in Newton County, which are facing the prospect of further consolidation. One concern several folks in Newton County mentioned recently is the prospect that--if further consolidation occurs (specifically, if the Deer-Mt. Judea school district is consolidated into the Jasper district)--the school district will lose its status as an "isolated" school district because it will have more than 1000 students. This "isolated" status is apparently a creation of the state of Arkansas, and it represents additional funding to schools so designated.

Now, the May 4, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports some good news on this topic. Without explaining exactly what benefits or funding supplements and opportunities "isolated" schools receive, the story reports that the Arkansas legislature recently passed Act 996 as part of its 2011 legislative session and that this Act "ensures that isolated school funding follows the student after a consolidation or annexation of school districts." This Act "struck a rule" which would have caused loss of "isolated" school funding if a district's enrollment exceeded 1000 students.

In addition, the legislature put about $500,000 in a "one-time pot" of money from which schools with "tremendous" transportation costs can apply for some type of reimbursement. The Jasper School superintendent is quoted as saying this "money will buy lawmakers time to further study school districts' transportation costs and come up with a more equitable funding bill." He said that "the state is giving all schools around $300 per child to pay for funding expenses," while the Jasper School District spends more than $900 per child for transportation to and from school. The Jasper School had supported a bill with a "special transportation line item," but that bill did not pass.

Pictured above: A bus pulling away from the Jasper School in 2009.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Report on Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is surprisingly frank

The state of West Virginia yesterday released its report into the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion of April, 2010. Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times writes that the report was uncharacteristically hard-hitting. Tavernise summarizes:
[A]n independent team of investigators has put the blame squarely on the owner of the mine, Massey Energy, concluding that it had “made life difficult” for miners who tried to address safety and built “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

* * *

But it was more pointed in naming Massey as the culprit, using blunt language to describe what it said was a pattern of negligence that ultimately led to the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in the worst American mining disaster in 40 years.

The report concluded:

The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking.

A lawyer who represents miners, Tony Oppegard, noted that the report "talked about political pressures and things you don’t typically see in accident reports.” The report quotes a number of miners who expressed concern about the mine's safety, either to family and friends or in their work reports, in the run up to the explosion. One miner, Gary Wayne Quarles, told a friend the day before the explosion:
Man, they got us up there mining, and we ain’t got no air. I’m just scared to death to go to work because I’m just scared to death something bad is going to happen.
Read the New York Times editorial about the report here. Read the report itself here. NPR's report of this news suggests that federal regulators get a share of the blame, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXIX): Community calls for additional police resources in Jasper

An ad/public service announcement placed by "Concerned Citizens" in the May 4, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times requests that readers sign an online petition to "support the effort to STOP THE BURGLARIES and other criminal activities" that have recently occurred in Jasper, the county seat, population 357. It also states:
In recent months, a string of burglaries has and continues to plague our City. We are writing to ask that everyone band together to support a petition to City Council to authorize the Chief of Police to get additional resources as necessary to stop the burglaries and thefts occurring in our city. No home or business is safe as long as these break-ins continue. It threatens to destroy our way of life.
Later, the announcement calls in particular for "an officer to be on patrol from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. 7 days a week."

I wrote about the most recent burglaries here.

I can't help wonder what it would cost to have a night officer on patrol 365 days a year, but I look forward to the newspaper's coverage of any future city council meetings that address this issue.

In other law and order news, the April 13, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that two people (a 52-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man) were arrested for a home invasion in the Murray community. The resident of the home returned to it on a Sunday night and found the burglars there. The sheriff reported that "a physical confrontation ensued and a friend of the resident, who was rendering help, was injured." He also reported that "neighbors' help ... was instrumental in identifying and locating the two in a rapid manner." The two were charged with breaking or entering and residential burglary, and the male suspect was also charged with aggravated assault. I took these photos in and near Murray about a year ago; the structure is the Murray community center. As you can see, it's a quiet place.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Seeing Appalachia through theatre

Sabrina Tavernise reported in the New York Times a few days ago about a series of plays set in Harlan County, Kentucky--coal country--plays that celebrate Appalachian culture. A professor at Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College, Robert Gipe, wrote the series, called "Higher Ground," which includes one called "Talking Dirt." In doing so, Gipe, an expert on Appalachia, collaborated with a folklorist and a music professor at the community college. Tavernise explains that Gipe had "grown weary of watching flip-chart presentations about the region’s problems. Their remedies were too sweeping, and their language, full of terms like “sustainable development,” were too lofty." Gipe says he was "interested in addressing issues, rather than endlessly naming them." A description of the plays follows:
The series, “Higher Ground,” describes in nuanced tones and local accents the hard realities of life here in Harlan, the heart of Kentucky coal country, which has been battered by decades of decline.
The title “Higher Ground” comes from the places communities flock to escape rising flood waters and is a metaphor for the monumental problems facing the area — drug abuse, strip mining, dwindling populations of young people.
Harlan County's 2009 population was 30,999, down from 33,202 in 2000. The county has lost half of its under-35 population since 1980. The rural brain part of the story reminds me of my own economically depressed home county where--for generations--young people left for jobs in cities, but where many return in their retirement.
Gipe says, "we have these hard things [like population loss] that we should talk about.” To do so, Gipe draws on a rural tradition of "getting together, telling stories and making music."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Natural disasters highlight rural attachment to place

I've noted the attachment-to-place theme in recent news stories, such as here, but the theme was even more prominent in this story from yesterday's New York Times, dateline Butte la Rose, Louisiana. Butte la Rose is unincorporated and not even a census designated place, but wikipedia reports that this place in the Atchafalaya River basin and surrounding swamp features 800 homes, often referred to as camps. Those camps are in the process of being flooded now by the opening of the Morganza Spillway, an act of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which will help save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding.

In this story, "Where Water is an Old Friend, Until it Turns into a Nemesis," for the NYT, Kim Severson writes in the lede:
You do not really want to ask a Cajun why he lives in a swamp, especially when he is packing everything he owns because the very swamp he loves is about to swallow up his house.
Later, Severson answers the question with reference to Russell Melancon, 55,as he "crated the belongings of three generations of family on Friday and got ready to pack his relatives into campers and cars, the answer was plain as the sticky Louisiana day." Severson quotes Melancon:

“It’s where we was raised. Where my daddy was raised. Where we make our living ... Why you are here is something you never even think about. You are this place.”
And that is reality for so many rural Americans, even when living in such places leaves them vulnerable to events like this one, which Severson labels "surely the nation's slowest moving natural disaster."

Here's a post from a couple of years ago on response to natural disasters in rural places.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Another human interest story arising from recent storms in the South

The dateline is De Valls Bluff, Arkansas, population 672, and James Card's New York Times front-page story is headlined "Neighbors 1, the Elements 0 (For Now)." It's another in a string of feel-good stories associated with the tornadoes and flooding that have struck the nation's mid-section and southern reaches in recent weeks. Here's an excerpt:

Floods were drowning huge parts of the Midwest and the South, but the residents of Prairie County had decided that Russell Petty’s house, at least, would stay dry — even if they needed flat-bottom boats to get to it.

They fortified a moat and a levee, protective rings around the three-acre property that, once the nearby White River had crested, left Mr. Petty’s house out of harm’s way, like a castle in the English countryside. It stands as a symbol of one minor victory over the elements in a region suffering widespread hardships from tornadoes and floods.

This quote from one of Mr. Petty's neighbors, William Saul, illustrates the paradox of rural community--the tension between stoicism and pride in self-reliance on the one hand, and the generosity and selflessness of rural neighbors on the other.

“I don’t think he wanted to put other people in the position of having to help him that way. He just didn’t have a choice.”

Mr. Petty is an auto-mechanic, and he and his wife have no flood insurance. In spite of the headline, the story makes clear that the Pettys' friends and nearby neighbors were not the only ones who helped. Many in the community, including a Czech exchange student, also contributed to the effort.

De Valls Bluff is a county seat of Prairie County, population 8,776. The other county seat is Des Arc, population 1,867. The De Valls Bluff school closed in 2006 because of declining enrollment. The old school gymnasium is now being used as a place to house and feed those who have been forced from their home by the floods.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXVIII): Burglars execute (relatively) sophisticated plan

The April 27, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports on lots of damage from Easter week-end storm, along with news of a rather elaborately planned burglary of three Jasper businesses early on Easter Sunday. The city's police chief reported that Bob's Market, the Subway sandwich shop, and Dollar General were all burglarized after the criminals cuts phone lines and drilled into the safes used by these businesses. In addition, a significant amount of merchandise was stolen from the town's Radio Shack. A closed circuit camera at Bob's Market photographed one of the burglars, but he was dressed in black and wearing a mask, and so was not identifiable. Of particular interest in relation to these crimes is the fact that Jasper's only patrol car was the object of vandalism a few hours before the burglaries began, rendering it useless for purposes of responding to the crimes.

In other law and order news:
  • 53-year-old Michael Yount was sentenced to 20 years in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections as a habitual offender after he was found guilty of felony counts of residential burglary, breaking or entering and theft of property, as well as a misdemeanor count of criminal mischief. Yount entered a residence and took a cross bow in Oct. 2010, when he also took two mini-bikes from a shop building, along with two window air conditioning units.
  • 44-year-old Calvin Summers was placed on six years of probation and credited with 146 days of jail time served in a criminal case involving illegal drugs. When arrested in October, 2010, he was in possession of the raw materials for cooking methamphetamine.
  • 18-year-old Jady Allen Brannon was sentenced to 10 years of probation after pleading guilty to drug-related charges. He was arrested in Sept. 2010 for distributing methamphetamine and was found also to be manufacturing it.
  • The state dropped charges against 29-year-old Richard Carlos Ray, who was charged in August, 2010, with delivering psilocybin mushrooms, a controlled substance. He was also charged with possession of moonshine. The state dropped the charges because of lack of evidence to prove the defendant's involvement "in the foregoing crimes except his mere presence when they occurred."
  • 27-year-old Nathan W. Mock was sentenced to 24 months in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections Community Correction Center after he was found guilty of commercial burglary and theft of property. He "was a co-defendant in the March 2010 burglary of the Jasper Pharmacy," in which prescription medications and three flat screen monitors were stolen.
In other news:
  • Under the headline, "County bracing for more bad weather," the paper reports road damage from recent storms, as well as "the ends of some bridges ... washed out." About 250 Carroll Electric customers lost power, and the cooperative said it would have to re-set 13 poles.
  • Some county offices will begin working 4-day weeks as a cost-cutting measure. The road department is among those which began the new schedule on April 25.
  • A 17-year-old kayaker missing in the upper Buffalo Wilderness Area was rescued. On Easter Sunday, April 24, he and his grandfather had attempted to use inflatable kayaks to kayak the "Hailstone" section of the Buffalo River, a "challenging section of seasonal whitewater" which attracted them in the midst of seasonal rains. Both men capsized shortly after they began their journey, and they swam to opposite sides of the river. Searchers found the grandfather on Monday and the 17-year-old grandson on Tuesday. Both were uninjured, though mildly hypothermic.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A dearth of substance abuse treatment facilities exacerbates the rural drug epidemic.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy has identified issues unique to the rural drug epidemic. In 2008, over 23 million Americans ages 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem. However, less than 10% received the necessary treatment for their disorders. In 2008, rural Americans used illicit drugs at lower overall levels of current use than their suburban and metropolitan counterparts and tended to also show lower rates of diagnosable drug abuse and dependence, but rural youth indicate higher rates of use, particularly for methamphetamines, prescription pain killers, and alcohol. Read more here.

Just under a month ago, the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities issued a report regarding the disparities between rural and urban drug treatment services. This report highlights yet another example of how those who live in rural areas are less likely to have access to critical social services simply by virtue of where they live. However, the data isn't as straightforward as that. There is actually some evidence that rural treatment facilities are providing more comprehensive care than their urban counterparts.

Based on this report, it appears as though rural facilities are lacking in a number of areas. Rural facilities are less likely to involve mentoring and/or peer support (32% of rural facilities contain these services whereas 51% of urban facilities have some such service), self-help groups (29% compared to 47%), and employment counseling or training for clients (25% instead of 40%). Urban facilities were also more likely to give HIV or AIDS education, counseling, or support (43% in rural facilities versus 63% in urban treatment centers), early intervention for HIV (15% instead of 34%), or general health education (35% compared to 58%). Other previously-issued reports from the Carsey Institute serve to further substantiate these claims.

However, despite these deficiencies, rural treatment centers are doing better than urban ones with respect to a few key issues. Rural facilities were more likely than their urban counterparts to combine treatment with mental health services (56% of urban facilities contained these services versus 64% of rural treatment centers). Both urban and rural facilities were equally likely to provide case management services, and there were only minor disparities in rural facilities' ability to provide assistance with obtaining social services, domestic violence—family or partner violence services, and child care for clients' children.

As someone whose family has dealt with finding suitable substance abuse treatment options, I can attest to the fact that having a range of options to choose from makes the process much easier. Something as simple as having a choice between a facility that provides only a 12-step program approach and one that provides a cognitive therapy model in conjunction with a 12-step program can go a long way in convincing a family member that the treatment facility will be effective and therefore worthwhile.

If the nation stands a chance of combating the growing epidemic of substance abuse, we will need to adequately research and address the disparities and inadequacies that exist as a result of rural spatial isolation, and also ferret out those programs that work well in rural areas in order to try replicating them in an urban setting.

Population loss in Appalachia

This story, "With Death Outpacing Birth, County Slows to a Shuffle," appeared on the front page of the New York Times a few days ago, with a dateline Weirton, West Virginia, population 18,875. Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff's story, however, makes Weirton sound much smaller. The gist of the story is population loss:

With just 71 babies born on average for every 100 residents who die, Brooke County, in which Weirton is partly located, has the largest such gap in the nation among counties in metropolitan areas, save for a handful of places that are magnets for retirees. (Hancock County, which contains the other part of Weirton, is in similar demographic straits.)

Tavernise and Gebeloff's story explains that the national figure is 171 births to 100 deaths, and that Brooke and Hancock counties are headed in the other direction because a dominant demographic trend has passed them by: the influx of immigrants, who tend to be younger. The authors do not explain why immigrants have not come to Weirton, though they have settled in so many other American communities. They suggest, however, that the community is dying because of lack of jobs.

What really moved me about this story, though, were some descriptions of the community--referring to the collective as a living organism, as much as the individuals are. The local Catholic priest is quoted:
[Weirton]’s like a clinically depressed person, who curls up on the couch and withdraws ... It’s the hardest assignment I’ve ever had.
Tavernise and Gebeloff observe that Weirton's residents don't trust anybody after the local mill's closure, so that "it seems stuck in place." A map that accompanies the story shows that the vast majority of West Virginia counties are suffering net population loss, along with Appalachian parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina.

On a more positive note, the story closes with the tale of a couple in their 30s, the Sheperds, who live in nearby Beech Bottom, population 549. They have applied for and received grants to pay for a playground and a recycling center. “We need someone to help us keep the plates spinning,” Mr. Sheperd said. “There’s just not a lot of us here.”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Television ownership declines, especially amongst rural Americans.

The New York Times reports that The Nielsen Company, the organization responsible for issuing weekly television viewership ratings and other related data, revealed that television ownership amongst Americans has dropped for the first time in 20 years. Now 96.7 percent of American households own sets, down from 98.9 percent previously. Nielsen postulates that there are two main reasons for the decline, including recession-based poverty and web-based television replacements. Many of those reporting that they do not own a TV live in rural areas. After a semester of Law and Rural Livelihoods, this is not surprising to me. As the article points out, the reason why TV sets are declining in rural areas is because of the double-whammy of resource and access deficiency.

As Nielsen's research indicates, many TV-less households generally have incomes under $20,000. Because a TV is not an essential commodity like food or gas to commute, if the TV is broken or its technology is outdated, it likely won't be replaced in a low-income household. And as we know, rural places tend to have higher concentrations of low-income people, especially poverty-persistent counties.

Furthermore, access to digital broadcasting is less reliable in rural areas. In 2009, the federal government switched from analog broadcasting, making many TV sets technologically-obsolete. Moreover, some rural areas don't even receive digital signals that are strong enough for broadcasting. Unless you can afford a satellite dish, watching TV is not an option even if you have a working TV set.

The digital divide is encroaching on more than just web-browsing now that TVs are more and more often replaced by computers. Nielsen in part attributes the drop in TV ownership to people who are watching TV on their computers, but from other blog posts, we know that those people probably aren't rural TV viewers because internet access is too slow to make watching TV online feasible.

Those who choose to live without TV may wonder why this matters. I would argue that no matter what you think about the quality of American television, it is a lens through which to experience parts of our culture, obtain news, or seek respite from a stressful day. I don't have a TV, but I certainly watch a TV show every now and then on my computer. Also, I'm so glad I could watch the President's address about the growing deficit and later, his speech about Bin Laden's death, in real time and without the filter of a newspaper. It seems unfair that rural Americans are unable to do the same just because they live in remote areas and may not have the economic resources necessary to keep up with changing technology. It is just another example of how rural America gets left behind.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Piecing a life together: quilting, the Great (Rural) American Art.

Toad in the Puddle Block

On my recent flight across the country, as I was gazing out the airplane’s window, I looked down on vast stretches of sparsely populated farmland. The ground looked like a big patch-work quilt of browns, greens, and yellows. The scene reminded me of the short story, A Jury of Her Peers by early feminist writer Susan Glaspell. In that story, first published in 1916, the wives of the county’s important officials tag alongside their husbands to visit a murder scene. Apparently, a rural woman has killed her husband, nobody knows how or why. The women discover the causes of this tragedy by observing the details of the first floor of the house (i.e., the kitchen and the parlor), details which only a woman would understand, while the men fail to find any evidence pointing to a possible motive of the crime. In short, the men fail to understand the intricacies of this household's dynamics.

One of the key pieces of evidence the women understand is the quilt the lady of the house worked on. They notice that her quilt had some impeccably pieced squares but, all of a sudden, the work turned shoddy, as if the maker of the quilt had suddenly lost her touch with the quilt — and with reality. The story poignantly shows why rural women, in their solitary and frugal lives, had long embraced the tradition of quilting, used it not only for providing their families with warm blankets at no extra cost, but also for telling stories about their nearly invisible lives.

As a woman who learned knitting and crocheting, embroidered and sewed her own clothes at a very young age, I was intrigued by the importance of quilting to rural American culture as well as in the self-reliance it embodies.

Since time immemorial, rural women had a difficult life, often spent working from dawn till dusk to carve out a meager subsistence living. They did the best they could with very little. Warm blankets were expensive and fabric was scarce. Thus, rural quilts were made for everyday use by rural women out of necessity. Women made quilts from scraps of fabric, discarded clothing, or feed and flour sacks. Thus, the quilt serves as a metaphor for the myriad of ways in which discarded scraps and fragments can be pieced together into something whole, unified, and beautiful. Quilting represents the way that unimportant, trivial, and meaningless things can be made useful and — more importantly — valued.

Alice Walker also used the quilt metaphor in her early story, Everyday Use. Quilting and quilts describe African-American women's lives, which traditional history and literature have often ignored or misrepresented. The quilt in her story represents the passing of one’s maternal legacy onto the next generation by giving a long-treasured quilt to one’s daughters.

Women that worked on a quilt by themselves created an heirloom for their children and usually signed them. These quilts were a source of internal pride for rural women, but as typical of women of 19th century America, such as Aunt Jane, they did not consider a quilt a piece of art. The cultural norms of that era regarding modesty would have frowned upon any praise showered on a woman for either the object or the skill in creating a fine quilt. These social conventions of modesty inhibited expressions of pride.

Quilt making was slow and labor intensive, often taking months to complete. Rural women waited patiently for a stash of little scraps of fabric to accumulate, for them to make something out of nothing but a torn shirt, a discarded flour sack. Quilting manifests the slow passage of time, the monotony of days, years, and decades spent on the farm. Quilting was often a very solitary pursuit, but sometimes it was the only means for socialization with other women, called a quilting circle or quilting bee.

At the turn of the 19th century, Eliza (Lida) Calvert Hall penned a best-selling collection of short stories entitled Aunt Jane of Kentucky. American readers fell in love with the reoccurring central character of these stories: Aunt Jane, an old spinster woman living in a rural southern town who spent time ricollectin’ about the domestic nature of women’s lives to her young women visitors. Aunt Jane told them stories about quilts:
I've always had the name of being a good housekeeper, but when I'm dead and gone there ain't anybody going to think of the floors I've swept and the tables I've scrubbed, and the old clothes I've patched, and the stockings I've darned. But when one of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one of these quilts, they'll think 'bout Aunt Jane and I'll know I ain't forgotten.
Eliza Calvert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995 reprint ed., at 78). Rural women could relate to Aunt Jane’s wisdom and saw themselves, too, as capable and creative persons who merely lacked opportunity to be valued at their true worth. As one of Aunt Jane’s guests says:
I looked again at the heap of quilts. An hour ago they had been patchwork, and nothing more. But now! The old woman's words had wrought a transformation in the homely mass of calico and silk and worsted. Patchwork? Ah, no! It was memory, imagination, history, biography, joy, sorrow, philosophy, religion, romance, realism, life, love, and death; and over all, like a halo, the love of the artist for his work and the soul's longing for earthly immortality.
Id. at 82.

Quilts from the last century had very rural names like Corn and Beans, Toad in A Puddle, and often explored biblical themes, such as the Star of Bethlehem. As Patricia Mainardi argues, quilting is the Great American Art, a women’s art, but, also, a very rural form of art. Again, the feminine and the rural are intertwined and forever linked.

When it comes to defining rural, it's all relative

A friend forwarded me this story from yesterday's Los Angeles Times because he knows I'm from Arkansas. The story's headline proclaims "Wal-Mart family's $800 million art museum gift is stupendous--but not record."

But what really caught my attention was the lede's use of the word "rural":
It makes for a good story, but the munificent $800-million gift from the family that owns Wal-Mart, meant to endow programs and operations at Alice Walton's under-construction art museum in rural Arkansas, is not the largest such gift ever made to a U.S. art museum.
It seems to me that the writer uses the adjective "rural" here to diminish the place--just as the story also puts the museum endeavor in perspective (the largest endowment, the journalist informs us, was from J. Paul Getty to the Los Angeles art museum that bears his name because, adjusted for inflation, that gift would be three times the Walton gift to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Otherwise, why use such a geographical descriptor at all? Perhaps to distance and distinguish the place from uber-urban LA?

If the journalist who wrote this knew anything about Bentonville, Arkansas and environs, s/he would know that it is not rural by any definition--unless it's that definition coastal journalists often use, referring to pretty much any flyover state, in its entirety, as "rural." Admittedly, the immediate setting of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art may be bucolic or pastoral, but Bentonville is not a rural place by my estimation, nor by any definition that the U.S. government uses.

Bentonville is part of the two-county metropolitan statistical area called the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA. With the 2009 population estimated at 464,623, it added about a quarter of that population just in the last decade. The area was the sixth fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation between 1990 and 2000. Bentonville's population is just 33,648, but the county's population is about 210,000. With Washington County to the south, these two counties' combined population is exceeded only by Pulaski County, home to Little Rock and North Little Rock.

So, Bentonville as "rural"? I don't think so. The only way you could possibly justify that label would be by broad-brush dichotomy that reserves "urban" for behemoths like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Yes, if it takes a megacity like Los Angeles to qualify as urban then, perhaps, Bentonville could be considered rural. But if you look at the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum codes, which run the gamut from one as most urban to nine as most rural, Los Angeles is a one and Bentonville is a ... two. That leaves a whole lot of room for a wade array of "rural" places running the gamut from three to nine. By this metric, Bentonville and Los Angeles are not worlds apart at all. And maybe the Getty and Crystal Bridges won't be either.

A few years ago, I commented here on another story in which a national journalist refers to this thriving, metropolitan corner of Arkansas as rural.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In the news: Rural communities and natural disaster

Three stories in the New York Times over the past few days have depicted the relationship between small-town life and natural disaster, just as this story (about which I blogged here) did a few days ago.

First, one focus of this story in yesterday's paper was the population loss associated with an extreme drought in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, population 2,652. The headline is "Survivor of Dust Bowl Now Weathers a Fiercer Drought," and the dateline is Boise City, population 1,295 (according to the 2005-2009 Census Bureau estimates). Here's an excerpt from the story that describes the place, which has gone 222 consecutive days without more than a quarter inch of rain:

But this drought is a reminder of just how parched and unyielding life can be along this wind-raked frontier, fittingly called No Man’s Land, and it is not clear how many more ups and downs Boise City can take.

“The community is drying up,” Mark Axtell, the area’s only funeral director, said on a walk through the cemetery, where brown tufts of buffalo grass crunched underfoot.

In the last decade, Boise City lost almost 16 percent of its population, according to the 2010 census. Just 1,312 people live here now — far fewer than the 3,000 who bought the first lots in 1908, only to discover that they had been hoodwinked. The land was inhospitable, and promises of railroads, water and trees (Boise is from the French “le bois,” meaning trees) were a fraud.

Watch a NYT video about Boise City here; it is a powerful story of attachment to place. Cimarron County is in the far western Oklahoma, panhandle stretching even farther west than the state of Nebraska, to border New Mexico and Colorado.

The other two stories are out of Alabama, here and here, and they report on the aftermath of last week's tornadoes. The first, is "Devastated Alabama Town Struggles to Account for its Missing," with a dateline Hackleburg, Alabama, population 1,644, and the second is "Tornado Leaves Couple with Nothing, but Not for Long," dateline, Henagar, Alabama, population 2,567

The first story illustrates the lack of anonymity in rural communities with this lede:
Over the last week, this close-knit little town has had to grapple with a most unfamiliar feeling: not knowing where everyone is.

When the tornadoes came through last Wednesday, ripping over the hills at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour, it left a town alien to itself. The bodies of strangers showed up in backyard ponds, survivors found themselves lying in open fields away from homes that were no longer there and, at night, there was no light, not as much as a streetlamp, to gather around and take stock.

Accounting for everyone, even here, in a town of 1,576, has proved a daunting task.

The second illustrates the sense of community in rural places with this lede:
There’s the kindness of strangers, and then there’s what is happening to Regina and Jerry Wayne Walker.

They used to rent a mobile home for $150 a month on a dirt road in this slice of rural northeastern Alabama.

Then, last Wednesday, winds from a tornado so strong it killed 33 people in the county pushed their mobile home across the road like it was a toy.

They woke up under a pile of rubble.

* * *

They were broke, bruised and stuck in a part of the country so remote that the Red Cross did not show up for three days.

* * *

Someone, no one knows who exactly, brought a tent.

Now the couple are living in a donated recreational vehicle, albeit one without a motor. This is a heartwarming story of the community taking care of a very downtrodden couple who cannot even read or write. And here is yet another life-affirming post-tornado story, this one with the dateline Yazoo City, Mississippi, population 11,380, about recovery from a spring, 2010 tornado.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Council of Europe takes notice of rural women

On April 14, 2011, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) issued this statement regarding rural women.
[PACE] today asked European governments for specific legal, economic and social measures to improve the situation of rural women. The Assembly members stressed that unemployment, poverty and low quality or absence of basic services particularly affected rural women, as did stereotyped roles and subordinate status, the outcome of traditional attitudes.

Following the proposals of the rapporteur Carmen Quintanilla, (Spain, EPP/CD), the parliamentarians called for measures aimed specifically at improving their situation and fostering equal opportunities. They stressed the need to involve women in the framing and implementation of the policies and decisions concerning them, and to promote their greater participation in decision making.

Where improving their economic situation was concerned, it was to be ensured that women “are not discriminated against in having access to property and inheritance rights” and that wage discrimination be ended. Provision of microcredits should be facilitated, as should loans for women wishing to set up a firm whether individually or in a co-operative.

Regarding social rights, the Assembly called in particular for a comprehensive legislative framework on the status of helping spouses, enhancement of essential services to allow the reconciliation of private and working life, and the availability of medical care facilities and services linked with sexual and reproductive health.

One thing that strikes me about the statement is how similar it is in substance to the priorities articulated by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) regarding rural women. CEDAW's Article 14, which I have written about here and here, is all about rural women. It discusses this group's role in development planning, ownership of property, access to credit, marketing facilities and extension services, and the right to form co-operatives and self-help groups. In addition, Article 14 mandates that rural women have access to the full range of rights that the Convention elsewhere guarantees to all women.

All European nations are Member States to CEDAW and periodically report their activities and progress in relation to the Convention, including Article 14, to the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. You can read some of their so-called country reports here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A poignant depiction of the Missourians whose land was flooded last night

Here's a quote from A. G. Sulzberger's story on the Army Corps of Engineers' destruction last night of a Missouri levee in order to relieve pressure on other levees along the rain swollen Ohio and Mississippi Rivers:

Just days after a farmer and his wife celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary saying goodbye to their newly built home, they planned to return to the area Tuesday to see if there was anything left. Another farmer spent the evening worrying that the sudden onslaught of river water had stripped and scarred the prized soil that gave the land its reputation for bounty. And an old man, stubborn enough to try to stick out the flood, spent the evening just trying not to think about the only place he has ever called home.

Sulzberger notes that all of these residents of the spillway had "lifelong ties to the area," continuing:

But what they shared — beyond that streak of stoic perseverance native to farm country — was a sense that the value of their work had been diminished.

He quotes one woman who points out "[t]his is our industry, this is our factory," and noting that she and her husband grow food for the very folks blowing up the levee. She is presumably also thinking about the residents of Cairo, Illinois, population 3,132, whose city was particularly vulnerable to flooding had the Army Corp of Engineers not taken this action to sacrifice the Missouri farm land.

Sulzberger also quotes 60-year-old Milus Wallace, a farmer who plans to relocate:
It’s the ground that can never be replaced. ... They don’t make any more ground, and this ground in the spillway is the best in the world.
The dateline for the story is East Prairie, Missouri, population 3,063, which is west of the spillway. Sulzberger notes that the breach of the levee that is flooding the spillway will put pressure on another levee that protects a more populous area.

Here's a story from the May 4, 2011 paper discussing the aftermath of the levee's destruction. An NPR report on a class-action lawsuit that 25 spillway farmers filed against the Army Corps of Engineers is here. The farmers are seeking the value of what they say was taken by the Corps' action in flooding the spillway. Another NPR story about the Corps of Engineers' decision, including comments from Tom Vilsack on USDA assistance for which farmers may be eligible, is here.

P.S. The New York Times published this editorial about the loss of top soil in Iowa on May 5, 2011.

Another story featuring the "attachment to place" theme is here--and the place is "urban" Cairo, Illinois, not exactly a booming metropolis at about 3,000 in population. The story's dateline is La Center, Kentucky, population 1,214, across the river from Cairo.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part III): Do rural schools prevent agro-terrorism?

In the process of researching the lawsuit that the Deer-Mt. Judea school district recently brought against the state of Arkansas seeking to prevent consolidation, I came across another recent suit brought by a small school district in Arkansas. This 2010 suit against the state of Arkansas was filed by Friends of Weiner School District in federal court. In arguing that the Weiner school in northeast Arkansas should not have been consolidated with the neighboring Harrisburg district, the plaintiffs asserted that consolidation "negatively impacts the agricultural interests of Arkansas in violation of Article 10" of the Arkansas Constitution which requires the General Assembly to pass laws to "foster and aid" agricultural interests." In addition, the plaintiffs argued:
[B]ecause Arkansas is the nation's leading producer of rice, any statute that negatively impacts agriculture also violates the Commerce Clause due to an increased risk of agro-terrorism and food supply issues. Plaintiff contends that if schools close in farming communities, farmers will have to move to other communities which have schools. As a result, farmers will be unable to monitor their crops on a daily basis. Without daily monitoring of the crops, the risk of terrorism is increased. "The negative impact on rural communities then negatively impacts the production of agriculture and interstate commerce and simultaneously increases a security risk for our country."
The Weiner School District was involuntarily consolidated with the Harrisburg School District in 2010, although the Weiner school remains open. Thus Weiner students are not being bussed to Harrisburg, and farmers in the Weiner area have presumably not been compelled to move "to town."

In a November 29, 2010 ruling, Judge James Moody of the Eastern District of Arkansas dismissed the law suit based on lack of standing and on failure to state a claim. He wrote:
At the hearing on this matter, the Court questioned the Plaintiff's witness and attorney as to whether there as been an increased threat of agro-terrorism since consolidation. The answer was no. Likewise, there has been no allegation that the consolidation has caused a negative impact on the production of agriculture or interstate commerce in the Weiner area. ... Absent an injury in fact, the Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction.
Because no evidence was presented in support of this agro-terrorism argument, its persuasiveness was not tested by this suit.

See a recent Daily Yonder post about agro-terrorism here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More on meth in Missouri

I've blogged a lot about meth in rural places, including in Missouri, this past year. The Missouri focus was driven largely by the attention I have given to the film "Winter's Bone," including here, here, here and here. Now, the New York Times reports today from Ellsinore, Missouri, population 373. The headline for A. J. Sulzberger's story is "Drugs in Ozarks Town Infects Even Sheriff's Department." Sulzberger tells the story of Tommy Adams, the man who was county sheriff for two years until his recent arrest for dealing in methamphetamine. Though the story details events leading up to Adams' arrest, the focus of the story is less the lawman-turned-bad theme than on the community's response. Sulzberger writes:
But in this long-struggling community in southeastern Missouri where distrust of law enforcement has always run deep, the story of a sheriff enabling the scourge he was supposed to fight has not provoked outrage. Rather, many local residents are accepting it, even sympathetically, as another disappointing chapter in what they see as a hopeless fight.

* * *
People recognize the symptoms of use in neighbors but, reflecting a culture of fierce independence, say nothing.

“We all know who does what, how they do it and when they do it,” said David Bowman, a school maintenance worker who is the mayor of Ellsinore. “You just turn your head and go on.”

Sulzberger notes that Missouri leads the nation in the number of meth labs discovered. "[T]hroughout the Ozarks," he writes, "the drug has metastasized."

Ellsinore is in Carter County, population 5,894, a persistent poverty county in southeast Missouri. Just two-thirds of residents have a high school diploma, and only 11% have a college degree. The poverty rate exceeds 25%. See more demographic information about the county here, all of which arguably helps explain why meth has such a strong hold there.