Dirt poor, dirt rich


When I was in high school, my history teacher assigned each member of my class to interview someone who had lived through the Great Depression to better understand how life had changed during that time. I chose to interview my grandmother, who was 20 in 1929 when the stock market crashed.

I anticipated tales of woe and of desperation and Grapes of Wrath-like suffering. Instead, I got this: Things really didn’t change much around here. We hardly noticed, I guess.

It didn’t provide the dramatic story I had hoped to take back to my classmates. But it did provide a valuable lesson.  

My grandmother was the fourth generation of her family to live in and farm and ranch on the broad, glacier-carved Animas Valley in southwestern Colorado. Her great-great grandmother had come from Kansas in 1874 and settled beneath the looming red cliffs of the foothills of the San Juan Mountains. They became attached to the place – the fertile fields and the warm breeze in springtime and the river that, after tumbling violently from the mountains, ran agonizingly slowly through the valley.

They grew food for themselves and to sell to the men in the mining camps upstream. They bartered with other local farmers and ranchers for things they didn’t grow themselves. They quite literally lived off of the land, an occupation that continued into the 1970s, when I was a child. And they were poor, to an extent that many of us today can’t even imagine; a good yearly gross for my grandparents’ farm, even in the 1970s, was $10,000.

Which is why the stock market crash of 1929 meant so little to them. National and global financial markets were abstract concepts at best – they had virtually no connection to them. When the crash came, life in the valley simply went on as it had before – people still had little, but they needed even less. The failure of a big New York bank didn’t affect whether the corn grew that year or whether the cows calved, and those were the things that mattered.

When the money ran out, people in the Animas Valley could simply turn back to the earth.

It’s tempting to romanticize that life. In reality, though, it was very limiting. For most of their lives, my grandparents couldn’t really travel. If they left more than a day or two at a time, the cows would go unmilked, the fields unirrigated and their very livelihood would dry up. A late frost could whither seedlings impatiently planted; a summer hailstorm could wreck tomatoes or raspberries meant to be sold to the passersby from town. To be connected to the land is also to be tethered to it, beholden to the vagaries of the earth and the sky.

My parents’ generation resisted these ties. My grandmother relished the ability to buy canned food, even though she had a cellar full of jars of peaches, beans and pears. My mother swore to never live on a farm again (a promise recently broken). My father, worried about strip mining and dams wrecking his homeland, pushed for a new economy, one that didn’t rely directly on natural resources.

Today, we are free. I don’t need to grow food or work in a mine to survive. I have easy access to French wine and Costa Rican mangoes. I can write something at my desk in Paonia, Colorado, and receive feedback, moments later, from China, Zimbabwe, Iceland. I can go down to the coffee shop and chat with an acquaintance, but don’t need to (I have my Facebook friends and email); I can go pick an apple off a neighbor’s tree and eat it, but won’t be affected at all if an early freeze kills his entire crop. If the coal mine up the road shuts down, everything won't grind to a halt because the new economy has brought money in from elsewhere.

These days, however, as we teeter on the brink of another depression, I’ve come to realize I’m not liberated at all. Sure, I can go on vacation now and then and not worry about milking the cows, and I don’t have to watch the sky, dreading a storm that might kill my crops. Instead, I frantically watch Wall Street, unemployment rates, economic indicators. I don’t have any money in the stock market, but its fluctuations – thanks to the complex web of the global economy – can affect the value of my home and even the stability of my job. Instead of being a slave to the earth, I am a slave to concepts such as consumer confidence, credit, subprime mortgages. Even the farmers in this agricultural valley are caught up in this web: Their peaches will ripen on the trees regardless of the failure of Citigroup, but the retirees who buy their peaches won’t be able to afford them anymore. The few farmers who actually depend on their farms for a livelihood won’t go hungry, but they’ll have no money for other things, like the mortgage payment on their land, gas for the tractor or health care.

This is the new economy, and this is the New West. Unlike my grandparents, who were able to turn to back to the land when hard times hit, most of us don’t have that option. Many of us have nowhere to turn, really; we’ve long since severed the intimate connections to land, family, community, and traded them for the freedom to be bandied about by the global economy.

The pessimistic side of me believes that we are too far detached from … well … reality, for a new New Deal to have any substantial effect. Can another Civilian Conservation Corps, or farm subsidy programs fix a crisis whose causes are rooted not in roads or parks or dams or fields, but in some abstract financial ether? We’ve already thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at banks, and that’s not working. What makes Obama think that his plan, which includes creating jobs by fixing infrastructure, will work? But there’s an optimistic side, too. Somehow, perhaps, we’ll grasp this opportunity to create a new new economy. Maybe the government will invest, not in speculative financial ventures, but in things that are real: the arts, the people, our parks, renewable energy, entrepreneurs, family farms. Perhaps that would help us regain that connection to the land and to one another that my grandmother’s generation knew.

I know, to even suggest such a thing is sentimental to the extent of being downright cheesy. But it’s worth hoping for. And these days, hope is a valuable commodity.