Near the end of a two-year sabbatical, and two weeks before the earth shifted on its axis 11.6.2016, I drove away from my Richmond, California home the day it closed escrow and two days later, took possession of my new property in Cave Junction, Oregon. Cave Junction is in Southern Josephine County, which is in the Southwest part of Oregon about 20 minutes north of the California border. It is one of many red rural counties in Oregon, and the poverty is like nothing most urban dwellers in the United States have ever personally experienced, except to drive through. (It took months for my urban orientation to adjust enough to really see and understand–to feel–this kind of poverty.)
Josephine county is also deeply authoritarian: power is stolen and hoarded by those few who claim authority, forcing those with less or very little power to adapt to that power scarcity and comply or face punishment in some form, the threat of which is directly expressed or implied. I’m confident I’d win a wager that no one like me—an active San Francisco Bay Area researcher whose areas of expertise are culture, power, and change–has ever actually lived in and studied a culture like the one growing in Josephine county. Frankly, I was not prepared for the profundity of unfamiliarity—or the totalizing effect of isolation–in this nearby rural world.
I assumed before moving out of California that the presidential election outcome would be different. I assumed I would have a front-row seat to witness the white supremacists and militia freak out in Josephine county after the first woman occupied the Office of the President. (At least a dozen more assumptions I held turned out to be dead wrong.) I assumed I could experience those events, write about them, and share, offering what knowledge might be useful to address the cultural conditions that produce such violent racist phenomena. On November 7, 2016, the day after the unimaginable occurred, I began methodically documenting relational power aspects of the rural culture in which I was immersed.
I’d moved to Josephine county to write and learn, and I did. I’d researched the politics of the place before moving to Cave Junction, but I took them about as seriously as I’d taken them in a lifetime of cynicism and democratic privilege as a SF Bay Area native. For me, the politics didn’t matter. I wasn’t there for politics. I was there to live a life I’d imagined: experiencing the natural beauty of the place, participating in the culture, and showing what was normal in the culture I documented, through words and images. Except for an 8-week unavoidable foray into activism, my time in Josephine county did not include talking about, researching, or participating in politics.
Instead, my ethnographic documentation extends into every aspect of creating and living a basic life in the Southern part of this poverty-ravaged rural county: I interacted with, observed, and noted relational interactions between folks in the local health care system, the grocery stores, the post office, the adult learning center, the vet, the mechanic, the pharmacy, the hardware stores, and with contractors and tree guys and real estate agents and those who called themselves activists.
With no internet access (like most of my neighbors) for the first 8 months, socially and geographically isolated with only my two kittens, and with power relations that mirrored my authoritarian family culture background—what occurred was a 19-month, fundamentally life- and identity-changing experience. And, I saw the connections light up: from the power relations in my authoritarian family culture background, to power relations in this rural world, and up to power relations dominating broader worlds.
As an outsider, especially one from California, I entered the culture at the very bottom, unknowingly. The thousands in the bank, my education, my plans, and my intellect were unexpectedly invisible in this culture, as was my role as a researcher. What existed about me online was inaccessible to nearly everyone with whom I interacted in the culture, either by choice or (mostly) a lack of access. Even though I shared, in the beginning, what I was doing, it didn’t matter: I was invisible and marginalized by power relations that annihilated my very existence. It was a completely foreign experience—and a deeply painful and humbling one–for someone like me, who’d been accustomed to being recognized and known, even before stepping into a room; someone used to having her power reflected back to her. (I’ve found that neither people or power exist except in reflection back.)
When I was able to record and process enough to see past my own pain, I saw that everyone in the culture had been and continued to be negatively impacted by the non-democratic power relations, including those few who embodied authority. The social soil being created in which we were all living was poisonous, and it was slowly destroying every single very basic aspect of being a healthy human: a sense of safety, a sense of trust, and a sense of well-being.
Those relations also kill conditions that nurture healthy change: they imprison human agency. They chain the ability—the power–to push back, to resist, to say, “no,” to even know that resisting is an option (especially in a closed, information-scarce culture). The imbalanced power relations also stop the forward momentum of those simply trying to live a basic life. The shame of white rural poverty lives in the practices that marginalize and annihilate all of those human beings born or replanted in social soil they did not make, and that poisons them, daily, as they live and grow.
Being white, educated, and financially solvent carried absolutely no cultural value for me whatsoever in Cave Junction. My whiteness was taken for granted, my education unfathomable, and my assumed financial status–“rich” by CJ standards–prompted disgust or suspicion. This unexpected vantage point—without the power of status and privilege, or the distractions of technology for 8 months–provided a profoundly unimpeded immersed perspective up into this culture’s power relations. It was an extraordinarily dense, personal paradigm-shifting set of new experiences.
After meeting my 1-year ethnographic immersion mark, I put the Cave Junction property on the market, representing myself, and at the 19-month mark, it closed escrow (June 6, 2018). On June 7th, I drove out of Josephine county and home to California, rich with data and a deep, first-hand, methodical understanding of a culture I could never have imagined had I not lived at the very bottom of it. Or grown up in one with the same power relations.
I landed in The Sea Ranch, a seemingly wealthy Northern California rural coastal development of mostly vacation homes and rentals. As the homeowner’s association website narrates it, The Sea Ranch dream began in the 1960s as a utopian experiment in “Living Lightly on the Land.” My imagination–nourished by the online Sea Ranch narrative–painted a picture of extraordinary ethnographic possibilities: Sea Ranch would be the perfect deep-blue contrast to deep-red Cave Junction.
The possibility of immersing myself for a year in this little-known culture—a San Francisco Bay Area rural resource most only visit for a few days—was just too attractive to ignore. So, instead of heading all the way home to the East Bay after emerging from Cave Junction, I spent 4 months living in 7 short-term vacation rentals waiting for the one run-down cottage in the entire development into which I could move my work, my Sparkles, and my own things to live and research (what I expected would be) a contrasting culture for a year. From day one–June 7, 2018–I began documenting my experiences with power relations in the rural Sea Ranch culture.
Although I still live in the Sea Ranch cottage*, I completed the formal aspects of my ethnographic data collection on September 1, 2019. My findings floored me. My experiences in Sea Ranch blindsided me. I was not prepared to find power relations—outright power-stealing and -hoarding practices—in a rural California culture like Sea Ranch. Nothing in the online narrative suggested the findings; indeed, the study’s ethnographic findings directly challenge The Sea Ranch online narrative’s “utopian” (“live lightly on the land”) message.
The second ethnographic immersion into Sea Ranch included what I learned being immersed the first time in Cave Junction, and the cultural norms were much easier to see, navigate, and understand in Sea Ranch. This second comparative ethnographic study —without the obscenities of white rural poverty—supports the claim that, at least in these cases, capitalism (jobs and money) will not solve for what ails rural America: its mostly unchallenged everyday authoritarian practices.
*Home in the East Bay March 16, 2020.