Interview with the folks that made the docuseries "On the Farm"
I spent the last two days at the headquarters for the USDA. The sheer mass of the USDA complex at the Smithsonian Metro Stop, and aligning the mall along with the Smithsonian Museums reveals the mass of its undertakings. In Big Rural I critique one agency having so many disaprate missions. Chatting and listening to USDA reps from a range of its departments tieing in their office's link to combatting rural suicide, especially suicide among farmers, demonstrated the breadth of what the USDA is tasked to tackle. The panels I attended seemed as much for sections of the USDA folks to learn what other sections were doing as it did for parties seeking to or working on this issue on the ground.
The highlight for me, and also mentioned to me the next day by another person in the room who let me know that along with being a counselor, she also farms professionally, was the pre-panel viewing and discussion of a section of the docuseries "On the Farm" (discussed in the video above). The section we saw tells with story of the Gilmer family in Alabama and theitr struggles to remain lucrative as a smaller conventional dairy. What stood out to me and the farmer/counselor woman was the discussion in this video of the younger Gilmer farmer discussing their choice to switch to beef cattle and to give up dairying as this choice enabling him and future generations to remain on that farming. The younger Gilmer also happened to be in attendance and a speaker at this event, and I approached him afterward, asking whether the highlighting of having options had been something he offered the filmmakers or something they elicited from him.
In the film he pointed out his father's reliance solely on the farm for income, and when he spoke to me he pointed out his father was still the principal farmer. I asked if he had gotten any assistance from any agencies or anyone to help him see that his farm had other options. He replied that, no, no, but this had been something that he and his dad had been mulling over for some time.
I brought to the attention of folks in the room that for this issue of rural suicide deterence, and I would argue more broadly in the rural, folks need this message that there are options beyond what feels as though "it" (whatever it is!) has always been done this way, done here, done by these people...when we know that for most of us, that is simply not fact.
Part of the myth creating for a legacy farm, or, working in single sector industry that can take on the kinds of indentity, place-based associations, family commitment of legacy farm work, is the manufactured tale, a tall tale, of doin' what has "always been done" even if always may only mean a couple of generations. Yes, that pressure is real in the mind, in the hard work put in by prior generations, but what was smart about this video, as the identity was reframed as place-based, not particular farming based. The younger Gilmer discusses his commitment to wanting to have his children grow up in that place, even it it means changing up what kind of farming was done there.
What might that mean in other situations, like for farmers that can no longer do the kinds of work they were capable of when younger, work that may be too hazardous now? How could they be supported to still farm, or, even better, to start planning early on for farming though the stages of their lives?
And places--what can be rethought of places, early on, before their fiscal viablity tanks, and people must leave that do not want to leave? What if places were planned from their onset with the recognition that what seems lucrative now may not last? What if envisioning other options, and, support for other options, became touchpoints? What might any of that mean for rural single sector places, or, single production farms, as the inevitable happens, and things beg for change? Beg for options?
Two works have been working my mind about grief--Elizabeth Bishop's powerful poem One Art and the Buddhist teaching of the inconsolable woman and the mustard seeds, who finds that no house had been left untouched by death.
A friend of my husband's says you never get over the loss of your mother. It will have been four years in February since my mother's brutal passing, three weeks before worldwide shutdowns from Covid. In my mind, I still sit in the hospital room she was moved to once the doctors had given up, or the hospital understood it would not be paid indefinitely for the care of a failing 83 year-old woman. I sit and spoon feed her chocolate pudding from a plastic cup, and during that time, we seem to connect again through what had been her nonstop delirium that had, until sedation, pushed her to beg every single semi-lucid moment for water.
Before we landed in the room where the two doctors would good cop/bad cop me the next day to send her to hospice, in the ICU a week or so before, I renege on my oath to police the medical staff to keep them from giving her any kind of opioid, synthetic or "natural," as their being prescribed with wild abandon by doctors in the region had greatly dimished my mother's quality of life during her last years. A surprise diagnosis of late stage cirrhosis coupled with a failure to medicate her correctly at the facility where she was only supposed to be getting physical rehab, ended with my mother with compounded issues: a UTI, sepsis, blocked bowel, a re-swollen abdomen filled with liters of fluid. I find a nurse, and say, please, please give her something to quieten her down, and opioids of some sort or another then course her veins. Then a couple of weeks later, even on the dexemedetomidine, lorazepam, midazolam, or propofol when she sees the chocolate pudding, she wants it, the first of anything she has eaten since being brought to the hospital from the nursing facility.
There is one last small pleasure in her life, this chocolate pudding from a cup, and each spoonful I give her, she devours with a look of intense satisfaction.
This past week I looked to inch my way forward on the Big Four Motel project--apparently waste water engineers are famously slow to get in touch, and I need an assessment from one to know the viability of the Big Four Motel and Gallery project for a reasonably priced septic system. Just as I begin to doubt whether attempting this project of hospitality and art may be one of folly, the arts get tossed out at WVU and I come late to the party of Tyler Childers.
Since my twenties I have taken long breaks from pop culture, whether TV or music, in order to have time to pursue my own projects. I have not always had the bandwidth to be both creator and consumer, and often, the pursuit of the former left me without the funds to do the latter. But this week I found Tyler Childers and he hit me with his flavor of high lonesome, of loss and pain and whiskey and love amid the opioids, with telling stories of places and spaces like those peppered throughout Appalachia, ignored but begging to be seen. My mother would have liked Tyler Childers. His music sounds like the country I grew up on, if the edges and real stories hadn't been softened by men in suits.
I remember the goal of this gallery project is for people to be able to come to tell, in their own way, or to learn new ways, to tell, their own stories.
In a dream this week, my parents, who divorced a few months after I left home, were still together and maybe in their early sixties. They still lived in the smallish ranch style house they last resided in together, on Nutmeg Street in Eleanor. Eleanor, still touting that it is the "Cleanest Town in West Virginia," but advertising less in recent times that it is named after Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to visit this WPA project as its residents, paid by the large government program, shaped it into a town just as the men shaped the locks in it on the Kanawha River.
In my dream our sliding glass door faces a different side of the house, toward the woods where I once saw a bear wave off a coyote across the curved paved road. Though the ground outside is covered in snow, it begins to rain, and water floods under the sliding glass door, turning into thin sheets of ice running through the dining room through the wide opening and across the mustard yellow linoleum in the kitchen. The layered sheets of ice halt midway across, and my son, still a baby and in his cloth diaper, sits and plays with the snowcone-like slush. My mom goes about her business in the kitchen at the sink, and my dad sits across the open plan room, reading The Charleston Gazette or Daily Mail (back when they were two separate papers) from his favorite spot on the plaid green, cream, and yellow couch.
I look around and my husband comes through from the hall. We are the age we are now, and I express the need to fix the seal around this sliding glass door to keep the currently pouring rain from coming under and forming these sheets of slushy ice.
He and I set about searching for a seal to stop this flow, to keep the rushing water out, to stem the ice floe inside.
In my waking life, this week I peered for the first time into the container we bought to store some of my dad's stuff. Some. My father had a terrific output of production the duration of his life: artifacts from his business, his work in his business, creative outputs, inventions.
I had expected what we brought to fill up the container--mostly files and leftovers of work not sold. In reality, I see it does not quite even fill the back of the space.
And there I am, a little out of breath, standing in the gravel in my farm boots, then leaning onto my husband's and my old Ford F250, crying. I say, "That's it. You work a lifetime, and that is what is left of you..."
No house untouched.
No need to tire out anyone reading this that there are other kinds and types of grief, those of Bishop's "hour badly spent" in her poem. I have been practicing these griefs, too. Open grief was not part of my parents' vocabulary. It was not part of their generation or culture. They grew up surrounded by people who had suffered the loss of WW I and WW II and the Great Depression, and then later peers or near peers who had been to Korea and Vietnam. Both of my father's best friends, both men older than him by twenty years, had served in World War II. What self-importance it would have been for my parents to openly grieve.
With these smaller griefs, these griefs of loss and trials and errors, and most likely even with the larger griefs, too, my dad would have counseled me to move on, that each "wasn't a disaster."
About fifteen years ago, I called my dad up after I had had to put a beloved pet to sleep. My dad had referred to my dog jokingly as "dear boy" always accompanied by a foppish hand gesture, and during the time he spent with him, my dad sympathized often with my dog about with his plight of having a vegetarian (I am not anymore) as an owner, and my dad would mix bacon grease in with my dog's food.
At first, when I called my dad for sympathy or comfort about this pet, he was short with me, that this was just the loss of a dog, no big deal.
Memory fools me, but I don't know if it was then that the conversation turned, or that my dad spoke up the next time I called, with the closest he would ever muster to an apology.
As the only child at home, and I know often lonesome (as I read between the lines in some of his other stories of his childhood) his dog Shep had been his best friend. Shep had been killed by a car. The adults around my dad had been unmoved.
Since his later 70s, my dad had often said that most of the people he had ever known were dead. With his paid work and other outputs, my dad had busied himself with his interior life to master losing.
After feeling his response to get over the loss of the pet had shocked (this pet had seen me through my being hit by a car and, later through a divorce and then a breakup), he had circled back and mumbled something about being too short with me when I had called to tell him about "dear boy."
My dad gave what some folks would see as unconventional advice--such as this one that stuck: you don't have to do only what is good for you, you can also try things in life because they are interesting.
I think this advice is also along the lines to keep trying, right? Even with and through the grief, to keep putting yourself out there to master losing. Losing, it could be argued, is not good for you. But as Bishop points out, it can be mastered.
On his deathbed in October 2022 my dad asked me what my plans were for income during my "retirement," by which he meant making some kind of actual income from a business and not relying only on Social Security. I am a good ways off from retirement, but in any case, I picked up the conversation we had started the summer before about the Big Four Motel in Kimball, WV.
Usually my dad was not excited about my wild or crazy ideas, but when I brought up to him in August 2022 the opportunity I had to purchase the Big Four Motel in Kimball for what seemed a reasonable price, and, that someone in the know about real estate said that it was worth pursuing, he got excited. I had already been working in McDowell County, WV in some capacity on economic development issues for about six years. I had a book coming out that features the Pocahontas Coalfield as a case study. My dad had been up every "holler" in the Pocahontas Coalfield when he worked as an insurance investigator back in the 1960s and early 1970s and remembered the Big Four well.
A couple of months later, from his hospital bed in Teays Valley, WV, lifting up the oxygen mask to be able to speak more clearly, he said, "Good, good," to me as I explained I still planned to pursue the Big Four Motel. I told him I would turn my attention to it as soon as I got the edit done for my book.
Since then, both the Big Four Motel and my book about single sector rural spaces, Big Rural, have taken leaps forward. As of this writing, the book is being indexed and proofs created for my review; the motel has a business plan, and I am investigating the costs of the kind of aboveground septic system it will need.
These two projects are becoming intertwined in my life as Big Four becomes a kind of project I discuss in Big Rural. I have settled on the motel not just being a motel, but being a third space--a space for people to meet outside their homes--not only a motel but a gallery for local creative output and a place where local people can learn video production, so that they may tell their own stories.
This blog I am starting here details my journey with both Big Rural (the book) and Big Four Motel and Gallery (motel/gallery/remote work/and economic reinvestment space).
August 2022 my dad told me all he knew about who the "Big Four" were.
He was downstairs at his building and I had come to visit. It was obvious his COPD had taken a turn for the worse. He could no longer walk up the stairs at his and his wife's place. Also while talking, he faded in and out of sleeping.
In between micro-naps, he told me he had heard the story of the "Big Four" many times. According to him, they were White explorers that slept in the Big Ben area or at the Tug Fork [river] when they explored the area: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett--those he recalled, and also a French trapper that stayed there. His cousin's best friend told him this story last--some time in 1960, when working as security for US Steel in Gary, WV. Dad had told me he would look up the name of the French trapper, but he didn't get a chance to do that before entering the hospital, and then hospice, in October.
In December I pushed a version of Big Rural to my editor Courtney at Lexington Press.
January 2023 I made good on the deathbed promise and I closed on the Big Four.