By any objective analysis, life in modern America is pretty darn good. You probably didn’t die in childbirth and neither did half of your children. You haven’t died of smallpox or polio. You probably haven’t lived through a famine or war. Cookies and meat are cheap, houses are big, most of us do rather little physical labor, and we can carry the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Wikipedians in our pockets. We have novacaine for tooth surgery. If you avoid drugs and don’t eat too much, there’s a very good chance you’ll survive into your eighties.
In the past, people grew up in small towns or rural areas near small towns, knew most of the people in their neighborhoods, went to school, got jobs, and got married. They moved if they needed more land or saw opportunities in the gold fields, but most stayed put.
We know this because we can read about it in historical books.
One of the results was strong continuity of people in a particular place, and strong continuity of people allowed the development of those “civic associations” people are always going on about. Kids joined clubs at school, clubs at church, then transitioned into adult-aged clubs when they graduated. At every age, there were clubs, and clubs organized and ran events for the community.
Of course club membership was mediated by physical location–if you live in a town you will be in more clubs than if you live in the country and have to drive an hour to get there–but in general, life revolved around clubs (and church, which we can generously call another kind of club, with its own sub clubs.)
In such an environment, it is easy to see how someone could meet their sweetheart at 16, become a functioning member of society at 18, get a job, put a down payment on a house, get married by 20 or 22 and start having children.
Today, people go to college.
Forget your highschool sweetheart: you’re never going to see her again.
After college, people typically move again, because the job they’ve spent 4 years training for often isn’t in the same city as their college.
So forget all of your college friends: chances are you’ll never see any of them again, either.
Now you’re living in a strange city, full of strangers. You know no one. You are part of no clubs. No civic organizations. You feel no connection to anyone.
“Isn’t diversity great?” someone crows over kebabs, and you think “Hey, at least those Muslims over there have each other to talk to.” Soon you find yourself envying the Hispanics. They have a community. You have a bar.
People make do. They socialize after work. They reconnect with old friends on Facebook and discover that their old friends are smug and annoying because Facebook is a filter that turns people smug and annoying.
But you can’t repair all of the broken connections.
Meanwhile, all of those small, rural towns have lost their young adults. Many of them have no realistic future for young people who stay; everyone who can leave, does. All that’s left behind are children, old people, and the few folks who didn’t quite make it into college.
The cities bloat with people who feel no connection to each other and small towns wither and die.
Opioids, whatever their source, bond with receptors all over our bodies. Opioid receptors evolved to protect us from panic, anxiety and pain – a considerate move by the oft-callous forces of evolution. …
The overdose epidemic compels us to face one of the darkest corners of modern human experience head on, to stop wasting time blaming the players and start looking directly at the source of the problem. What does it feel like to be a youngish human growing up in the early 21st century? Why are we so stressed out that our internal supply of opioids isn’t enough? …
You get opioids from your own brain stem when you get a hug. Mother’s milk is rich with opioids, which says a lot about the chemical foundation of mother-child attachment. When rats get an extra dose of opioids, they increase their play with each other, even tickle each other. And when rodents are allowed to socialise freely (rather than remain in isolated steel cages) they voluntarily avoid the opiate-laden bottle hanging from the bars of their cage. They’ve already got enough. …
So what does it say about our lifestyle if our natural supply isn’t sufficient and so we risk our lives to get more? It says we are stressed, isolated and untrusting.
(Note: college itself is enjoyable and teaches people valuable skills. This thread is not opposed to “learning things,” just to an economic system that separates people from their loved ones.)
I found this book a very interesting read in part because of its connections to my own personal past (as discussed two weeks ago,) and in part because of its insight into an era in American history that has passed away: post-WWII, pre-internet. Post-Civil Rights Act, pre-large-scale immigration. Post-industrialization, but before many of the farms were left behind.
I don’t normally review (positively) anthropologic works this recent, but I think Sapp did an admirable job documenting and understanding the cultural and political dynamics at play in the community. So let’s dive in.
On Horseback Riding:
“Interestingly enough, horseback riding for pleasure has long been disdained by countrymen. This attitude relates to differential traditional uses of the horse: to the small farmer the horse was a necessity as a draft animal and beast of burden; to the “gentleman farmer,” the wealthy town professional, the horse was a relatively inexpensive luxury and a means of transportation for supervisory visits to the small homes and fields of tenants. The gentleman farmer bred or purchased animals for qualities other than ability to pull a wagon or a plow: from horseback, one looks down to one’s servants.”
Population Nodes and Distribution:
“Churches, rural schools, and crossroads general stores have served as centers of widely dispersed rural neighborhood,s tying the scattered populace into networks of communication. Over the years a demographic shift in population has emptied half a hundred of these hamlet centers for each that exists today. … The railroads, as much as any factor, account for the distribution of population… Lizbeth, the present county sea, was formed forty years after the county was firs settled, as a station stop on a railway spur from Georgia.
“In Apalachee County [Note: today Suwannee County] farming neighborhoods appeared prior to Lizbeth… and decades before numerous and ephemeral market centers that sprang up every few miles along railroad rights-of-way. In those years before and briefly after the War Between the States inhabitants marketed preponderantly at the river. After 1880 or so, rural people marketed chiefly at crossroads stores and at tiny commercial nuclei strung like beads along country railway chains built to sell real estate and to haul timber. …
“In Appalachee County the dirt farmers arrived first. Townspeople, as small merchants and peddlers, part-time preachers … appeared on the heels of the farmers, setting up in dozens of rural neighborhoods, at intersections too small to be cross roads, at numerous railroad stops.”
Country Family, Town Family:
“The social nature of he work environment suggests that the family system of the townspeople differed from that of the country people. In the country men worked in the open where, till the advent of mechanized farming, income level depended in part upon amount of work done and the ability to be up and out before dawn till after sunset. Wives brought dinner pails into the fields so that work would be interrupted as little as possible. The more sons a family had, he greater the amount of work they could do. Work began before ten years of age and continued… until a man escaped or died. The extended family which ended to cohabit in the same rural neighborhood… participated in work sharing, especially in times of family crisis.
“The family system of the townspeople operated within a far more enclosed setting: the locus of work, a store or a mill. A man and wife or a man and business partner easily handled the business of the store, where income depended on direct commodity exchange for money (or credit) rather than on the duration of work-related activity inside or the number of workers there. Children were not a direct economic asset… The town merchant might marry his children into rural families to increase his clientele… but four reasons doomed even this as a conscious effort.
[1. Love as an ideal, 2. Town and country folk frequent different churches and so don’t meet, etc.]
“The town nabob group per se has not maintained a historical continuity in this community. Prominent families of the pre-1920s have generally failed perpetuate themselves biologically… The failure to abide and beget relates, perhaps, to differing export economies of the times…
“The rotation of elites prompted by changes in community revenue-producing activities has bequeathed two characteristics to the Apalachee own nabob class: small size and a tenuous hold on high status.”
EvX: There are a lot of social clubs in this town. I am reminded here of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which posits that there once existed an America in which people belonged to civic organizations. This must have been before the era of cable TV and Facebook.
I know a lot of the decline in club membership is attributed to rising diversity, but entertainment options have a lot to do with it, too. A world in which people have cars but only 3 or 4 TV channels–what do you do with yourself? You could read a book, or you could go hang out at the Rotary Club.
According to Sapp:
“Of the three principal white, mature men’s clubs, it is said:
The Rotary club owns the town;
The Kiwanis club runs the town; and
The Lions club enjoys the town.
For a full discussion of how the clubs work and interact with town governance, you may want to read the paper.
There follows a chapter on African American life in Suwannee, with special attention to the men of the turpentine camps. According to Wikipedia:
Turpentine (also called spirit of turpentine, oil of turpentine, wood turpentine and colloquially turps) is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin from live trees, mainly pines. It is mainly used as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis. …
To tap into the sap producing layers of the tree, turpentiners used a combination of hacks to remove the pine bark. Once debarked, pine trees secrete oleoresin onto the surface of the wound as a protective measure to seal the opening, resist exposure to micro-organisms and insects, and prevent vital sap loss. Turpentiners wounded trees in V-shaped streaks down the length of the trunks to channel the oleoresin into containers. It was then collected and processed into spirits of turpentine. Oleoresin yield may be increased by as much as 40% by applying paraquat herbicides to the exposed wood. …
Oleoresin may also be extracted from shredded pine stumps, roots, and slash using the light end of the heavy naphtha fraction (boiling between 90 and 115 °C or 195 and 240 °F) from a crude oil refinery. Multi-stage counter-current extraction is commonly used so fresh naphtha first contacts wood leached in previous stages and naphtha laden with turpentine from previous stages contacts fresh wood before vacuum distillation to recover naphtha from the turpentine…
According to Sapp, turpentining was the hardest work in Appalachee county; when the turpentine industry rand out, wood pulping became the hardest work. Unsurprisingly, this unpleasant work was carried out by African Americans, many of them “leased” from the Florida state prison system. In 1870, Florida prisoners were 20:1 black to white’ by the 1890s, that proportion had dropped to 2:1 as things like “evidence” became required for conviction.
Still, one gets the impression that life in the turpentine camps at the turn of the century was little more than slavery.
Quoting Zora Neale Hurston:
“… teppentime folks are born, not made, and certainly not overnight. They are born in teppentime, live all their lives init, and die and go to their graves smelling of teppentime.”
“Regional white people made fortunes in [turpentine], founded on a supply of unskilled, legally unprotected and dependent black labor. …
Negroes have provided the labor for the [turpentine] industry since the beginning of slavery in America. Generation after generation they have followed its southward migration, and the majority of those engaged in it today are descended from a long line of turpentine workers. More than any other occupational group these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. …
“White men with access to a black labor pool contracted to tap the trees on land owned by other whites. The contractor… then moved a settlement of black people into the area of the leased trees, housing them in portable huts in a “camp.” …
“Contractors sublet stands of pines to black men, encouraging them to maintain families in the camp on the theory that the men would thus be bound to their service and prevented from “running” when accumulated debt [to the camp commissary] negated any profit from a year’s activity.
“It was not at all unheard of for the owner to supply a woman for a man without, “marrying” the pair by the simple expedient of assigning hem to a cabin and opening an account for them in the camp commissary.”
EvX: The text doesn’t say how these women were obtained, nor what they thought of this arrangement.
Anyway, turpentining eventually faded as and industry (and today machines do a lot of the heavy work of hauling and chopping logs to be made into pulp,) and boll weevils killed the cotton crop in the 1920s, which probably had a big effect on black employment in the South and helped motivate the Great Migration, though the Wikipedia page on it doesn’t mention the weevils.
There follows a rather detailed description of the most important cafes/coffee shops in the county seat and which county officials sit where while drinking their coffee. Apparently a lot of governance happens through informal coffeeshop discussions between different local “factions.”
Banks loom large in the discussion, due to their influence and necessity in agricultural life:
“Occasionally a crop fails and bank notes cannot be met. In this situation a deferred note means continued solvency and perseverance in a preferred life-style. …
“At this point in the credit system the principle of “personalism” regulates the nature of the relation of power between lender and borrower. The alternative to default involves a loyalty complex “up” in exchange for continued credit loyalty “down.” To maintain the system in the long run, the flow of local resources up must somewhat exceed the flow down. … but too great a flow up would ruin the exchange and precipitate the collapse of the townsman-countryman pattern of relations. Loyalty “up” means that secondary goods and services (e.g. … supporting the creditor’s community projects and policies) temporarily take the place of the primary credit repayment and help assure continued future credit.
“Why should the credit lender not foreclose in these cases? As bank owner, the credit lender facilitates a continual flow of exchanges through his institution. Were the flow inhibited, the bank owner and his immediate family would not personally be threatened with ruin, but the thousands of transactions which the bank handles and which define the bank itself would teeter on the brink of collapse, pushed there by the uncertainty and insecurity of hundreds of other persons akin to the foreclosed in situation as well as kinship. Foreclosure (area bank owners boast of their efforts in assisting local borrowers on the verge of financial disaster) is an act of transactional finality. In the long run the institution benefits not from amassing wealth by foreclosures, but from extending overdue notes and translating the credit dependency to secondary areas.”
EvX: Finally, we have some comparisons to other small-town communities:
“Based on the evidence from this community study, we have not seen social disorganization or a “surrender to mass society” such as Vidich and Bensman (1958) witnessed in a New York township. … They found that the “controlling conditions” of local society were “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations”… While these conditioning elements are present in Apalachee County, the do not dominate the local social organization. Indeed, the county-community has tended to absorb new relational sets, incorporating them into extant patterns in the system. …
“Perhaps the town-country dynamic of the county-community, the internal dynamic expressed between county seat and rural neighborhoods, has proven more resistant or resilient as a social form to the advent of a “mass society” represented here by the townsman system of social relations. The country community has proven more resilient than the nucleated New England village community, wherein the essence of centralization was planted long ago. Perhaps “surrender to mass society” depends upon the social form of human community, if indeed there is any such thing.”
“Important political decisions about local affairs will continue to be made outside the community, but the future of life in the human community is not necessarily bleak. The local life of neighborhood and community will survive “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations.” Whether the county-community survives the twentieth century in its present form is not important. People adapt. the human community will absorb these changes as it has absorbed others of a dehumanizing nature, for it is the locus of the life of man.”
I wonder what Sapp–if he is still alive–thinks of the changes wrought in American society over the past 50 years, and particularly in Apalachee–now Suwannee–county.