My colleague Willie Lockeretz is in his final pre-retirement year as a much loved and admired professor in the program on Agriculture, Food, and the Environment at the Friedman School at Tufts. This week, following an annual tradition, he presented his eloquent multimedia yet PowerPoint-free presentation about American agriculture and rural life in the 1930s. Willie uses the songs of Woody Guthrie and other country musicians, and the priceless yet copyright free images of the Farm Security Administration, to bring to life the dreadful and inspiring story of America's passage through the Great Depression.
In the dark lecture hall, I see Willie's slide of Walker Evans' famous photograph of the graveyard near the steel mills in Bethlehem, PA, and remember my final high school years spent there in the midst of the city's economic depression of the 1980s as the last factories were closing. I see the slide of a hobo and remember my great uncle's story, told to me from his hospital bed near the end of his life, about riding the freight trains for free to get home to the Midwest from college in the 1930s. I see a slide from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and remember my hot sweaty summer as a 14-year-old working on my grandparents' farm there, before the farm was sold and they passed on. I think of my other grandfather, who escaped from Russia to the prairies of Canada in the late 1920s, just in time to live through the Depression here in the Americas. Where will we be if, in our privileged lives so far removed from the soil, we forget these things in years to come?