Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Remembering Dorothea Lange on the 120th anniversary of her birth

Read more on NPR here.  Lange was born in 1895.   An excerpt from Maria Godoy's story, which is accompanied by several of Lange's extraordinary photos, follows:
Her photographs gave us an unflinching — but also deeply humanizing — look at the struggles of displaced farmers, migrant laborers, sharecroppers and others at the bottom of the American farm economy as it reeled through the 1930s.

Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, chronicling rural poverty across America and the agency's efforts to provide relief.

Her most famous photo is often referred to as "Migrant Mother." Shot in 1936 at a campsite full of unemployed pea pickers in Nipomo, Calif., the image features Florence Owen Thompson, a poor farmworker flanked by two of her seven children, while a third, a baby wrapped in burlap, rests on her lap.

Freezing rain had destroyed the pea crop. Thompson and her kids "had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed," Lange wrote in her notes. "She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."
Godoy reports that one of Lange's pet peeves was having her photos published without the captions she put so great effort into writing for each.  One author who has written about Lange's Depression- era work, Anne Whiston Sprin, notes that Lange traveled to the Imperial Valley of California in 1935 to document
the situation of Mexican, Filipino and "white American" farm workers "living in hovels made of cartons, branches, and scraps of wood and cloth, with primitive privies, no waste disposal, no potable water." One of Lange's captions noted: "On these workers the crops of California depend."
Accompanying this story are also Lange photos of African-American farmers in North Carolina, "Mexican" farm workers in the Imperial Valley, and a white family en route to the Arkansas Delta to pick cotton.  Of the latter, Lange wrote in her notes: 
The people have left their home and connections in South Texas, and hope to reach the Arkansas Delta for work in the cotton fields. Penniless people. No food and three gallons of gas in the tank. The father is trying to repair a tire. Three children. Father says, 'It's tough but life's tough anyway you take it.'
Of a father and daughters whom Lange photographed planting sweet potatoes in North Carolina, she wrote:  
Her father hopes to send her to school.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Boko Haram and the rural/urban dichotomy

In the midst of my distress over today's NYT story about the widespread rapes by Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria, I was intrigued by the mention of "rural" in the story's lede.   
Hundreds of women and girls captured by Boko Haram have been raped, many repeatedly, in what officials and relief workers describe as a deliberate strategy to dominate rural residents and possibly even create a new generation of Islamist militants in Nigeria
In interviews, the women described being locked in houses by the dozen, at the beck and call of fighters who forced them to have sex, sometimes with the specific goal of impregnating them.
What is odd—and frustrating—is that journalist Adam Nossiter does not circle back in the story to explain the emphasis on "rural."  Is he suggesting that Boko Haram seeks only to dominate rural places and their residents?  or that it is only the rural places and residents that the militant muslims have thus far succeeded in dominating?  The story's only other mention of spatiality as it relates to the rural/urban axis is this one:
As the group has lost control of towns and thousands of people have fled in recent weeks, a grim picture of that treatment has emerged: hundreds of women and girls as young as 11 subjected to systematic, organized sexual violence.
Perhaps the point is that, until recently, the towns and villages of this region have been easy pickings for Boko Haram—that the Nigerian government has not devoted the resources to protecting these spatially dispersed residents who are presumably harder to reach.  Perhaps these places have been seen as less worthy of the government's investment in protecting them because fewer lives are at stake.  Perhaps it is the "space tames law/the state tames space" phenomenon I have associated with rurality.

This also reminds me of the attention that has been paid to the challenge that rurality and remoteness has created in Nepaelse efforts to respond to the earthquake there last month.  Read more here, here and here, along with this story about the reverse migration wrought by the natural disaster.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

More bad news for rural (really "agricultural") California

Timothy Egan writes in an editorial in today's New York Times under the headline, "The End of California?" with some bad news for "rural" California.  It seems to me that Egan is, more precisely, writing about agricultural California, which is not quite the same thing.  The story is basically about California's drought and how the state must respond to survive—which Egan is confident it will do. Here are some of the key quotes regarding the rural-urban binary:
The morality tale behind California’s verdant prosperity will most certainly change. In the old narrative, the evil city took water from powerless farmers. Swimming pools in greater Los Angeles were filled with liquid that could have kept orchards alive in the Owens Valley, to the north. 
* * *
But now, just about everyone in California knows that it requires a gallon of water to grow a single almond, or that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used by humans here. Meanwhile, the cities have become leaders in conservation. It takes 106 gallons of water to produce an ounce of beef — which is more than the average San Francisco Bay Area resident uses in a day. 
* * *  
It’s outlandish, urban critics note, for big farm units to be growing alfalfa — which consumes about 20 percent of the state’s irrigation water — or raising cattle, in a place with a third of the rainfall of other states. And by exporting that alfalfa and other thirsty crops overseas, the state is essentially shipping its precious water to China.
Egan notes other rural vs. urban morality twists, such as the fact that San Francisco gets its water from the Hetch Hetchy dam, in Yosemite.  The flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is widely believed by conservationists to be one of the bigger crimes against nature in the state's history, and many advocate restoration of the Valley.

Egan notes that California agriculture produces just 2% of the state's GDP and employs only 3% of the state's workers.  In light of that, Egan predicts a power shift coming from the drought, one that puts more power in the hands of the wealthy—and the cities, of course (with whom "wealthy" is largely synonymous).

Nevertheless, Egan predicts, "[a]griculture will not give up its perch atop the power pyramid without a fight."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Rural drug abuse in Indiana makes it onto the NYT front page

Abby Goodnough reported a few days ago in the New York Times under the headline, "Rural Indiana Struggles to Contend with H.I.V. Outbreak."  The dateline is Austin, Indiana, population 4,295, where more than 140 residents have tested positive for H.I.V. in this "largely rural region just north of the Kentucky border."  Austin is in Scott County, which is 98% white and has a poverty rate of 19%, just short of the "high poverty" designation.

One of the women who has tested positive hasn't yet started treatment because she does not want to be seen entering the clinic on Main Street.  She comments:
I thought it was just a homosexual disease. I didn’t ever think it would be in my small hometown.
Goodnough explains that this crisis "would test even a large metropolis" and Austin is especially ill-equipped to handle it, even with help from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, along with non profit groups and the state.

In fact, it seems that the state may be part of the problem:  
Gov. Mike Pence reluctantly authorized a needle exchange program last month, but local officials are not running it according to best practices, outside experts say. Austin residents still must wait for addiction treatment, even though they have been given priority. And getting those who are H.I.V.-positive on medication, and making sure they adhere to the protocol, has been difficult. 
Officials here say the need for education is urgent and deep; even local health workers are learning as they go. 
Specifically, the local officials have become aware of local discomfort at visiting a needle distribution center, so they are taking needles directly to users in a van.  One local public health nurse commented:
If you would have asked me last year if I was for a needle exchange program, I would have said you’re nuts.  I thought, just like a lot of people do, that it’s enabling — that you’re just giving needles out and assisting them in their drug habit. But then I did the research on it, and there’s 28 years of research to prove that it actually works.
Austin lies not far from the I-65 corridor, which has led to an educational campaign "encouraging truck drivers and travelers along I-65 between Indianapolis and Louisville to avoid prostitutes, use condoms and limit their sex partners."

An earlier story about the southern Indiana crisis, this one on NBC, is here.  Other New York Times coverage is here, here, here, here, and here.

One of those stories included this quote from Austin's police chief regarding the crisis and it's broader impact on the community:
It's done a lot. It's probably hurt our economy. It's hurt the people, maybe kept away some people who come here and spend money. There's a lot of negatives that can come with something like this.
And this quote—very depressing indeed, especially if it is correct in associating this epidemic with rural America--is from Jennifer Walthall, the Indiana Deputy Health Commissioner:
There's nothing that makes Scott County different than any other rural county in America. It just happens to be the first that brought our attention to this constellation of events. There is an opiate epidemic across the United States.