A Taste of the Old (New?) World

Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans, 1935.

Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans, 1935.

Emails from my ex-boyfriend rarely include any of his own words. Instead, he forwards messages that originate from another friend of ours without so much as a word of introduction. The communiques appear like unidentified birds—words, or images or rants against the right-wing—flying in from the high desert valley of Washington where our mutual friend resides. Jim is about the same age as my mother, but it is as though they lived in a different era or country altogether, Jim inhabiting a radical landscape of which my mother knew nothing about. When S. and I were a couple, and we drove over the mountains to see him, we’d invariably stay up til dawn, drinking and smoking and listening to LPs in his old drafty house, finally falling asleep in the small side room, wallpapered with water-stained covers from old New Yorkers. In the morning, we’d drink coffee and see what was growing in the garden. Jim has fought the good fight all his life, keeping it simple and getting into trouble with his bosses or the law every now and again because of his acts of rebellion, large and small. Was it him or another of that group that we used to call the Unagardener, a lá Kaczynski? The years have slipped away and I can’t remember now, but it was good to read his words this morning, reminisces sent along with a bunch of striking photos from the Great Depression. He wrote:

I recently watched a very well done American Masters documentary on Woody Guthrie and a couple of days later these pictures were sent to me by a friend. I’m old enough to have experienced the tail end of this period as a small child riding around the West and Southwest in the backseat of the old Studebaker which was pulling a small trailer which was our only home. One moment that stands out through the ancient childhood haze is of soft summer air flowing in through open windows and over my face as we cruise across the panhandle of Texas late at night , the radio playing Deep in the Heart of Texas with mom and dad singing along quietly as I nod off. My dad was a construction worker and the jobs lasted anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and you found out about them through the grapevine. Sometimes you got there and there was no job and it was a moment of reevaluation before heading out on the trail of the next lead.  Of course I was just along for the ride and protected from the harshest aspects of the situation, but I tasted that old world that came before the affluence that WW II and the ’50s brought. It was a very different place and it stamped those conditioned in it in ways that are essentially incomprehensible today. Without romanticizing the terrible hardship involved during the worst of those times, it seems important to me to acknowledge that the bubble of excess in which most of us have lived out our lives has devalued and abandoned some important qualities of fundamental value. Now, it is looking like we’re going to have to go through a difficult process of rediscovering them.

It’s still hard for me to imagine things getting as bad as they were then, when Fortune magazine sent James Agee and Walker Evans off to document the hollow, humble faces of Southern tenant farmers. That’s me talking from the bubble of a semi-employed New Yorker, surrounded by friends who are still upgrading to the new cell phone. It’s also me after watching Jim, (ok, and S. and me too a little bit), heartily stock up reserves for a Y2K that never came (along with the hoped-for back-to-the-land ludditism that would make everything simple and romantic again). It’s me who thought, on the streets of Seattle in 1999, that something was about to change, then didn’t. The WTO just moved their meeting to places like Qatar.

But the jobs are still vanishing. The foreclosures keep coming. Cars become home, and sometimes even that slips away. One study approximated that 3.5 million people experienced homelessness in 2007, 1.35 million of them children, long before the multiple crashes of the last year. Will the the haunted look in those Depression-era images, the same startled scowl I see on the streets of India, return to American faces? Will the megachurches and McDonald’s that support our nation now be there when and if things get really ugly? We’re multiple generations removed from having grandmothers who can remind us how to can our food, and we can’t eat Wii. How long will our abundant collective fat reserves last before the bones press tight against the skin?

Jeff Sharlet has been in the media a lot lately, talking about the covert operations of the Family in response to the recent Republican sex scandals. But he reminds us that it is not about who the Family members are sleeping with in private because they consider themselves above some moral law that should be concerning us so. We should be more interested in pants-up negotiations with the powerful (and those they want to be powerful) because they consider themselves above legal laws as well. They believe in what they’re doing (who wouldn’t if all your activities, right down to cheating on your wife, were sanctioned by God, and your friends?). The assurance gives them the ability to dismiss the pesky rules put on paper during the messy process of democracy because some of us missed the fact that we are ruled by One, and only One.

Stuff like this roils Jim’s blood. Mine too, I admit. Remember that the Family arose to knock down unions that were organizing in response to the devastation from the Great Depression. Union busting brought to you by Jesus, care of the elite. Let’s hope my friend Jim’s prognostication of economic collapse helping us to rediscover our fundamental values can come without the photo opportunities provided to Walker Evans and the memory imprints of little boy Jim in the back of the Studebaker.

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.