Saturday, June 25, 2011

Branding the Community

Editor’s Note: This post vividly captures essential aspects of cattle ranching community life -- most specifically, branding this livestock and the social networking that this task entails.  However, animal activists, vegans and vegetarians, as well as pet owners with a conflicted conscience about whether or not to eat animal meat, may not be comfortable with some of the photographs. 

Posted by Betty Spackman, BENTON, SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA -- My niece married a rancher.  During one of my research trip this past month I was able to visit and observe a ‘cattle branding’.  I had already come to realize through their many stories, that these events are not just a necessary part of the job of owning cattle, but essential to building community for all those involved. The branding part is about keeping track of valuable livestock. In open ranges grazing cattle can disappear for several weeks, intermixing with other ranchers’ livestock. Branding helps ranchers sort out who owns which cattle. Typically branding is done when the calf is two-to-three months old. The community aspect has a similar function in that ranchers within vast amounts of land get to know each other…and their cattle. This was my chance to the experience the entire process first hand.

Men and women from city desks, as well as cowhands from various ranches – all volunteers – met at the site to spend however long it took to get the job done.  It would be a weekend of trailer and motor home living, set up in the middle of an immense, open, prairie landscape. Cow brandings are some of the most important social events of the year for these folks, and I could see that they were carrying on a tradition of pioneer neighborliness that my grandparents who homesteaded the land a century ago would recognize – except for the trucks, iPods, portable flush toilets, and gas BBQ grills, of course.  And in a couple of weeks the same thing would be repeated at another site, on another ranch, and those who could, would gather again. 

After some hours in the morning bringing in the horses and rounding up the cows with their calves from about 14 quarter sections of land, the volunteers took up their posts with very little coaching. They worked hard into the evening to process about 150 animals – branding, castrating, and inoculating them. At this event the rancher’s wife did most of the castrating. She was helped by ropers hauling the animals in, crews of three or four handling them, and others branding and giving the shots. After a few minutes of pain the bawling ‘patients’ were ready to be released. Upon release they rushed off to return to their regular grazing routine. The branding takes all but three seconds; castration and shots another several minutes.

To people unfamiliar with life as a rancher the process may seem very cruel, as well as a stark remainder of the calves’ eventual fates. But it is a fundamental part of the business, and all involved make every effort to ensure that the process is as painless as possible for the animals. If you watch them off grazing with their mothers after ‘the event’ it is difficult to see any lasting effect.

The older members of the community made meals, kept the beer cold, and watched the children. I was the city slicker aunt who was welcomed and offered what would be considered the privilege of helping (had I known what to do).  Instead I took pictures.  It is part of my visual research about the various types of relationships humans have with animals, and was a rare treat to observe this practical and giving social networking that built far more than a strong herd of cattle.  I know there is much interest in urban settings to understand multicultural human behavior.  In my current work as an artist and writer I am more interested in the collision of human and non-human animals, whether it is on a farm, in a factory, or on the living room furniture, and how those interactions play a part in re/forming cultural idea/ls. 

Betty Spackman, MFA, is a multi media installation artist and painter who has exhibited internationally, and taught Studio Art at various Universities in Canada and the United States for 15 years. Her work most often focuses on cultural objects and the stories connected to them. She is author of  A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch. She is currently working on a 3000 sq. ft. installation entitled:  “FOUND WANTING, a Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude.”  This project is built around a large collection of animal bones and addresses, among other things, issues of sustainability and animal/human relations. She can be contacted at

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunshine Segregation

Posted by Leah Meyer, LITTLE MEXICO, GAINSVILLE, GA – I know from my Sociology classes that there are supposedly two types of segregation: dejure and defacto. Dejure (meaning lawfully enforced segregation) has dwindled since the Civil Rights Movement. What this implies is that most of today’s segregation is defacto (not lawfully enforced, just a matter of fact). Little Mexico epitomizes defacto segregation, and it is particularly apparent during the endless summer sunshine when foot traffic within the community’s business district swells because of increased job opportunities. Of course, this may soon change because Governor Nathan Deal recently signed the Arizona-like immigration bill requiring businesses to certify that all employees have a legal right to be in the United States.

Little Mexico hasn’t been around all that long. Construction projects preparing for the 1996 Olympics took advantage of the cheap labor offered by Mexican immigrants. When those projects were finished, many of the workers ventured north for employment in the chicken factories surrounding Gainesville. Little Mexico emerged because it is in close proximity to these factories. But this small community is both culturally and economically separate from greater Gainsville, and certainly not equal. Though most in the community work, their wages remain low.

Spanish-speaking businesses such as taco stands, hair dressers, and most importantly taxi companies serve and thrive in the community, perpetuating the lively and industrious Mexican culture within it. Some might write off Little Mexico's segregation as being a matter of residential choice. But, institutional influences such as access to transportation, real estate practices, and a limited job market for Little Mexico’s residents restrict their housing options. Non-Catholic native Christians from nearby Gainsville neighborhoods attempt to assimilate Little Mexico’s inhabitants into their own culture and brand of Christianity by running thrift stores and offering charity within the community, albeit in a rather patronizing way. They even placed a large billboard painting of Jesus with the word “eternity” across the top. This billboard is on the side of a building where gang members from the highly organized Surenos 13 have left their tags. Ironically, the billboard faces a sign for a local tarot card reader named Jesus David. I can’t be sure, but my guess is that Jesus David gets a lot more business than the nearby non-Hispanic evangelists.

Leah Meyer is a Sociology major at Georgia State University who grew up in Gainsville. She can be contacted at

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Posted by Leonard Nevarez, BALTIMORE, MD -- The Maryland Deathfest (MDF) is the biggest festival for "extreme heavy metal" in the U.S. – and, so far as I know, the only urban festival in North America for heavy metal of any kind.  Since 2003, the event has drawn performers and fans from metal's most controversial sub-genres: death metal, grindcore, black metal, doom metal, crust punk, stoner rock, and their various hybrids.  These are the sounds that make parents around the world freak out if discovered in their kids' iPods.  On the whole, this music is bracing in its volume, speed, and discordance; the bands' names and lyrical content are intentionally blasphemous or stomach-churning; and vocalists' guttural growls and raspy screams convey the experience of eternal damnation and the despair at humanity's inevitable extinction. 

Needless to say, none of this music comes within miles of the music charts.  This is metal's deepest underground, historically overlooked by the corporate music industry. Yet it has become a significant industry of independent recording labels, music distributors, merchandise companies, music periodicals and blogs across the world.  While few of these bands could play to sizable crowds by themselves, MDF provides them a rare critical mass of consumers and media attention.  In turn, bands and listeners alike have lauded MDF for its discerning taste and global scan in selecting the most exciting and obscure bands in extreme metal.  This year the 63 bands on the festival schedule came from 17 nations across 4 continents.  Predictably, Scandinavia was well represented (Satanic black metal being almost synonymous with Norway), but even Greece and Saudi Arabia yielded excellent groups.

Admittedly, I'd lost touch with heavy metal's evolution since the 1980s and early 90s, the years when thrash metal (the first extreme sub-genre: Metallica, Slayer, etc.) flourished, and hardcore punk crossed over subculturally into the metal underground.  By that time, as cultural critics and sociologists of subculture have observed retrospectively, those musical developments contributed to the consolidation of the peculiarly omnivorous yet ironic cultural sensibility associated with the post-punk "neo-bohemia", captured so well in Richard Lloyd's Neo Bohemia and Ryan Moore's Sells Like Teen Spirit. Metal has since fallen largely under the pop-cultural radar, so I was eager for a quick submersion back into its underground.

As an urban sociologist, I was also interested in MDF’s social and geographic insertion into central-city Baltimore. Like so many other American rustbelt cities, Baltimore has continually lost population over the post-WWII era, having shrunk by almost a third since 1950.  Yet since 2000, according to the most recent American Community Survey, the 25-34 age group has increased, and now represents 16.7 percent of the city's total population. Evidence of a thriving bohemian enclave can be found around Baltimore, particularly the neighborhoods surrounding Johns Hopkins University. In these neighborhoods independently-owned coffeeshops flourish, along with renown record and zine stores; fashion boutiques and giftshops that incorporate with a wink the city's 1960s-era aesthetic (best captured by the films of local hero John Waters); and a small but celebrated local indie-rock scene (epitomized by Beach House, Dan Deacon, and Wye Oak).  Traditionally, heavy metal isn't associated with urban music scenes so much as state/national distinctions and the suburban landscapes of adolescent alienation.  However, I wondered if the elevated degree of musical/subcultural connoisseurship illustrated by MDF’s organizers and attendees reveals an emerging identification with the distressed-brick exteriors and haunted cityscapes favored by so many contemporary urban bohemians.

Three days in Baltimore at Deathfest provided much food for thought, if only speculative at this stage, as well as ringing ears.  Video footage from this year's MDF can be found all over the internet. Decibel Magazine's videos are a good place to start but watch the volume.

Leonard Nevarez is an associate professor of sociology at Vassar College.  He is the author of two books, Pursuing Quality of Life and New Money, Nice Town.  You can read more about Maryland Deathfest and view the rest of Leonard's photostream on his blog Musical Urbanism. He can be contacted at

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Public Art Where Community Counts

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, FREEDOM PARK, ATLANTA, GA – In his new book Cosmopolitan Canopy Sociologist Elijah Anderson puts forth the notion of public spaces as canopies: pluralistic places of racial diversity and harmony. But canopies shouldn’t be confused with community. Even if they evoke a sense of interaction, exchanges are superficial, fleeting, and uneven – for example homeless people are less welcome than others. 

Are there public places where diversity builds community? Surely such a question will yield multiple and conflicting answers. But Rise Up Atlanta by Artist Charlie Brouwer, provokes our imagination to the possibility. This innovative public art installation was made out of ladders of all different types and sizes, each depending on the other, and equally important to the finished sculpture. And not just any ladders. They were loaned to the project from all types of people from all walks of life in the Atlanta community. Even Governor Nathan Deal loaned a ladder, although that certainly doesn’t let him off the hook for signing the Arizona-style immigration bill, and cutting funding to the HOPE scholarship which enables many low income Georgians to attend college who ordinarily wouldn’t have had that chance. In fact, I'm surprised someone didn't try to something to his ladder. No extra security was apparent at the scupture's site. Perhaps this didn't happen because in Rise Up Atlanta, Governor Deal’s ladder is on the same footing as all the others. As Brouwer sees it, the loaned ladders fit together in complex and unexpected ways, becoming a powerful metaphor for the hopes and dreams of the community as a whole -- hopes and dreams where those of each individual matter.

The striking sculpture moved people to stop, look at it for a while, and talk about it to the strangers next to them. But the viewing came to an end on May 31st and the ladders will be returned to their lenders or donated to the Atlanta Community Tool Bank. Will Rise Up Atlanta have any lasting social impact? That would be a tall order. But it certainly gives one hope. At least for a month-long moment there was a symbolic space in the city where everyone in the community counted.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and the Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at