A Mom And A Baby Find Out What's Really Rural In California

Feb 8, 2012
Originally published on February 8, 2012 4:47 pm

Most moms probably don't want their babies around pot growers, but San Francisco-based writer-photographer Lisa Hamilton is totally cool with it.

In fact, her baby, Ada, is a little over a year old and has probably already seen more of California than most Californians. And that, to Hamilton, is a problem.

For her, the basic issue is exemplified by something like this: We can see what a stranger in Japan is having for lunch on Flickr. But we can't so easily see where that lunch came from, or who harvested the ingredients.

Hamilton's fear: Urban Californians have become too far estranged from rural life. Her solution: Show them what the rest of the state looks like. Photos from her project "Real Rural" are currently on display throughout San Francisco's public transportation system — and will later be displayed at the California Historical Society museum.

With funding from a few places, including Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, Hamilton and baby Ada hit the road.

"I didn't want to stop being a mom in order to work. I didn't want to stop working to be a mom, so I wove the two together," she says. To this day, they still have not spent a night apart.

Together they met Charley Custer, a former journalist-turned-pot-grower in Humboldt County, who laments how cannabis culture has evolved from a social experiment to "just another agribusiness," he is quoted as saying on the "Real Rural" site.

They also met Linda Hussa, a rancher and poet. Keith Roquemore, a bull rider. Jose Ruiz Dionicio, a sheepherder whose family is still in Peru. Michael Preston, a college student and Winnemem Wintu tribe member. The list goes on.

Rural life is a topic of deep concern for Hamilton. She has been writing about food and agriculture for years, including her 2009 book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.

"I started thinking less about food," a popular topic in San Francisco, she explains, "and more about rural communities. I realized that with all the attention California gets, no one was talking about the communities that support people."

Though the 20 stories in "Real Rural" barely scratch the surface of America's third-largest state, Hamilton expresses hope that viewers will get the point.

Born in Massachusetts, she moved across the country to study community development in Washington state, where she discovered an organic farm and students studying to be farmers, she says, "which was totally unheard of to me."

Hamilton developed a crush on a farmer, she recalls with a laugh — and that explains a lot. But there was something else that turned her on: "[the idea of] food and agriculture as this way of enacting your beliefs about the way the world should be," she says.

"Having a human involved in agriculture means that human is bringing these elements that only a human can — things like caring about history and caring about the future and being able to quantify value beyond dollars and bottom line."

Of course, not everyone in rural California is involved in agriculture, but many are. And Hamilton's notion is that if San Franciscans won't travel to the countryside, she can bring the countryside to San Francisco.

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