‘Now all the petrol has stopped and we are immobilised, at least immobilised until we get new ideas about time.’ This was how the author Elizabeth Bowen described wartime life in Ireland to Virginia Woolf, in a letter from 1941. Bowen explored some of these new ideas in her London war fiction, which is full of stopped clocks and allusions to timelessness, the petrifaction of civilian life in a bombed city. Across the literary Channel, Jean-Paul Sartre’s war trilogy, The Paths to Freedom, is, like Bowen’s Blitz work, in part a study on how time itself becomes a casualty of war. In one scene Sartre describes German troops ordering a division of captured French soldiers to adjust their watches to their captors’ hour, setting them ticking to ‘true conquerors’ time, the same time as ticked away in Danzig and Berlin. Historically power has been wielded through the pendulum, and revolutionary change has been keenly felt through murmurs in the tick and the tock of one’s inner life. King Pompilius adjusted the haywire calendar of Romulus, which had only ten months and no fidelity to season, by adding January and February. Centuries later, the Roman Senate renamed the erstwhile fifth and sixth months of the Romulan calendar to honour Julius Caesar and Augustus, thus sparing them the derangement still suffered today by those once-diligent months September–December. For twelve years, French Revolutionaries claimed time for the Republic with their own calendar of pastorally themed months, such as misty Brumaire and blooming Floréal.
The digital revolution likewise inspired a raid on the temporal status quo. In 1998, the Swatch company launched its ill-fated ‘Internet Time’, a decimalised system in which a day consists of a thousand beats. In Swatch Time, the company’s Swiss home of Biel usurps Greenwich as the meridian marker, exchanging GMT for BMT. This is a purely ceremonial conceit, however, since in this system watches are globally synchronised to eradicate time zones. A main selling point of BMT was that it would make coordinating meetings in a networked world more efficient. This ethos severs time from space, giving dawn in London the same hour as dusk in Auckland, and binding every place on earth to the cycle of the same pallid blue sun. As it turns out, we didn’t have the stomach to abandon the old minutes and hours for beats, and the Swatch Time setting that persists on some networked devices is the vestige of a botched coup. Although this particular campaign was a failure, digitisation is nonetheless demanding that we find our own ‘new ideas about time’. For as the digital’s prodigious memory allows our personal histories to be more retrievable, if not more replicable, we are finding in the civic sphere a move towards remembrance that shadows the capacity of the network to retain the past. But while time is not lost in the ways it used to be, the tendency of digital technologies to incubate and circulate a doomsday mood is making the durability of the future less certain. As a result, the four-dimensional human is developing new strategies to navigate a timeline that seems to thicken behind us and evaporate before us. Read more…
I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs.
Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. That’s where I’m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.
At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say I’m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though it’s July. The road signs are clear enough, though— the first one says runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: all commercial vehicles are required to carry chains september 1—may 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Let’s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they won’t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rolling—maybe I’ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I won’t. I roll.
I can feel the sweat running down my arms, can feel my hands shaking, can taste the bile rising in my throat from the greasy burger I ate at the Idaho Springs Carl’s Jr. (It was the only place with truck parking.) I’ve got 8.6 miles of 6.7 percent downhill grade ahead of me that has taken more trucks and lives than I care to think about. The road surface is a mix of rain, slush, and (probably) ice. I’m one blown air hose away from oblivion, but I’m not ready to peg out in a ball of flame or take out a family in a four-wheeler coming to the Rocky Mountains to see the sights.
I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm I’m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and I’ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. It’s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.
It doesn’t happen, this time, but the weather’s getting worse. I hit 28 again, caress the brake back down to 23, and start the sequence again. Fondle the brake, watch the mirrors, feel the machine, check the tach, listen to the Jake, and watch the air pressure. The air gauge read 120 psi at the summit; now it reads 80. At 60 an alarm will go off, and at 40 the brakes will automatically lock or just give up. Never mind that now, just don’t go past 28 and keep coaxing her back down to 23. I’ll do this twenty or thirty times over the next half an hour, never knowing if the trailer will hit a bit of ice, the air compressor will give up, the Jake will disengage, or someone will slam on the brakes in front of me. My CB radio is on (I usually turn it off on mountain passes), and I can hear the commentary from the big-truck drivers behind me.
“Yo, Joyce Van Lines, first time in the mountains? Get the fuck off the road! I can’t make any money at fifteen miles an hour!” “Yo, Joyce, you from Connecticut? Is that in the Yewnited States? Pull into the fuckin’ runaway ramp, asshole, and let some
“Yo, Joyce, I can smell the mess in your pants from inside my cab.”
I’ve heard this patter many times on big-mountain roads. I’m not entirely impervious to the contempt of the freighthauling cowboys.
Toward the bottom, on the straightaway, they all pass me. There’s a Groendyke pulling gasoline, a tandem FedEx Ground, and a single Walmart. They’re all doing about 50 and sound their air horns as they pass, no doubt flipping me the bird. I’m guessing at that because I’m looking at the road. I’ll see them all later, when they’ll be completely blind to the irony that we’re all here at the same time drinking the same coffee. Somehow, I’ve cost them time and money going down the hill. It’s a macho thing. Drive the hills as fast as you can and be damn sure to humiliate any sonofabitch who’s got brains enough to respect the mountains.
My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact. My cargo consists of a dozen or so crated modern art canvases, eight 600-pound granite gravestones of Qing Dynasty emperors, half a dozen king-size pillow-top beds I’ll never figure out how to assemble, and an assortment of Edwardian antiques. The man I’m moving, known in the trade as the shipper, has purchased a $25 million starter castle in a hypersecure Aspen subdivision. He figures, no doubt accurately, he’ll be safe behind the security booth from the impecunious widows and mendacious foreign creditors he ripped off, but I digress.
I’m looking downhill for brake lights. I can probably slow down, but there’s no chance of coming to a quick stop. If I slam on the brakes I’ll either crash through the vehicle in front of me or go over the side. I want to smoke a cigarette, but I’m so wound up I could never light it, so I bite off what’s left of my fingernails. I’m fifty-eight years old, and I’ve been doing this off and on since the late 1970s. I’ve seen too many trucks mashed on the side of the road, too many accidents, and too many spaced out-drivers. On Interstate 80 in Wyoming I watched a truck in front of me get blown over onto its side in a windstorm. He must have been empty. On I-10 in Arizona I saw a state trooper open the driver door of a car and witnessed a river of blood pour out onto the road.
The blood soaking into the pavement could be mine at any moment. All it takes is an instant of bad luck, inattention, a poor decision, equipment failure—or, most likely, someone else’s mistake.
If any of those things happen, I’m a dead man. Read more…
About a week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, while I was still in Paris, I got a call from Peter Finn. He wanted me to talk to another Post reporter, Adam Goldman, who was trying to identify the “the Beatles.”
Adam’s booming voice and thick New York accent reminded me of a character from a detective movie. He told me he’d heard that Jihadi John was of Yemeni descent, that his first name was Mohammed, and that he came from East London. He asked if I had good contacts in the Yemeni community in London. Not exactly, I told him, but I did have sources among radical Muslims there. I had reported in London and its suburbs after the transit attacks of 2005, and I’d interviewed Omar Bakri, a prominent British Islamist cleric, and some others who didn’t often talk to reporters. I told Adam I’d ask around.
I made some calls, but no one wanted to talk on the phone, so I flew to London. Once there, I reached out to ISIS and Al Qaeda supporters, jihadi recruiters, and a handful of Bakri’s former students. The identities of “the Beatles” was a hot topic around London, I learned. Some of my sources told me that even if they knew who the men were, they wouldn’t tell me for fear of being punished as collaborators or supporters, since they hadn’t shared their information with the police.
One of my sources was a bit older and lived outside the city. He had been involved with a couple of high-level Al Qaeda operatives and was seen as a sort of godfather by many radical young men in and around London. The man said he’d heard rumors about Jihadi John, and he thought he might have met him before he left to join ISIS. Read more…
The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.
Drug laws and their enforcement in the United States have always been a deeply racialized project. In 1875, San Francisco passed the country’s first drug law criminalizing “opium dens” associated with Chinese immigrants, though opium was otherwise widely available and was used by white Americans in a variety of forms. Cocaine regulation at the turn of the twentieth century was colored by racial insecurities manifesting in myths that cocaine made Black people shoot better, rendered them impervious to bullets, and increased the likelihood that Black men would attack white women. Increasing criminalization of marijuana use during the early twentieth century was similarly premised on racialized stereotypes targeting Mexican immigrants, fears of racial mixing, and suppression of political dissent.
The “war on drugs,” officially declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, has come to refer to police practices that involve stopping and searching people who fit the “profile” of drug users or couriers on the nation’s highways, buses, trains, and planes; saturation of particular neighborhoods (almost entirely low-income communities of color) with law enforcement officers charged with finding drugs in any quantity through widespread “stop and frisk” activities; no-knock warrants, surveillance, undercover operations, and highly militarized drug raids conducted by SWAT teams. It also includes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, which contribute to mass incarceration, and a range of punitive measures aimed at individuals with drug convictions.
Feminist criminologists assert, “The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women.” Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women make up a grossly disproportionate share of women incarcerated for drug offenses, even though whites are nearly five times as likely as Blacks to use marijuana and three times as likely as Blacks to have used crack. According to sociologist Luana Ross, although Native Americans make up 6 percent of the total population of Montana, they are approximately 25 percent of the female prison population. These disparities are partially explained by incarceration for drug offenses. These statistics are not just products of targeting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; they are consequences of focusing on women of color in particular. From 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by 9 percent while men’s decreased by 7.5 percent. These disparities were even starker at the height of the drug war. Between 1986 and 1995, arrests of adult women for drug abuse violations increased by 91.1 percent compared to 53.8 percent for men.
However, there continues to be very little information about the everyday police encounters that lead to drug arrests and produce racial disparities in women’s prisons. For instance, less well known in Sandra Bland’s case is the fact that before her fateful July 2015 traffic stop, she was twice arrested and charged for possession of small amounts of marijuana. After her first arrest a $500 fine was imposed. After the second, she served thirty days in Harris County jail, a facility criticized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for its unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Read more…
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Detail from the single illustration that appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Via Wikimedia.
With the possible exception of Asa Gray, no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes, which until recently had never been published, comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. In their attention to detail, they suggest someone who assiduously followed the gradual unfolding of Darwin’s ideas, the unspooling of his argument, as though the book of science were an adventure tale or a travel narrative.
He was drawn to Darwin’s compendium of facts, which illustrated the delicate interplay of causes leading to the survival or extinction of species. Darwin wrote, “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests.” Thoreau copied the sentence into his notebook, probably because he enjoyed the cause-and-effect relationship it implied. He had always been interested in the quirky, arcane detail. “Winged seeds are never found in fruits which do not open,” he read in the Origin, transcribing the sentence into his natural history book. He recorded the strange (if incorrect) statement that “cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf,” something Darwin had gleaned from a work on zoological anomalies by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire, who mistakenly assumed that all blue-eyed cats were deaf rather than the majority, as is actually the case.
He also admired Darwin’s genius for experimentation. Thoreau had described his own efforts in Walden to disprove the local myth that the pond was of unusual depth. With a stone tied to the end of a cod line, he “could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me”— a procedure that enabled him to chart the pond’s topography and discover its shallows and depths. He had even provided a map for interested readers. Now he discovered a similar impulse in Darwin. The British naturalist wanted to determine how far birds might transport seeds caught in their muddy feet; this would explain how identical plant species might be found thousands of miles apart. From the silty bottom of a pond near his home he procured some “three table-spoonfuls of mud,” which “when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces.” He kept the mud in his study for six months, “pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!” The charm of the experiment resided in its simple ingenuity; from common household items Darwin had made a marvelous discovery: 537 plants!
Thoreau was most urgently drawn to Darwin’s ideas. That the struggle among species was an engine of creation struck him with particular force. It undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations. While living on Walden Pond, he had tried to discover the “unbroken harmony” of the environment, the “celestial dews” and “depth and purity” of the ponds. “Lying between the earth and heavens,” he wrote, Walden “partakes of the color of both.” But sometimes a darker reality intruded upon this picture. “From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth lake but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake.” Something portentous and uneasy lurks about this sentence. The “simple fact” that animals must consume other animals to survive upsets Thoreau; it disturbs the equilibrium of one who wishes to find harmony and beauty in his surroundings. Thoreau tries to laugh it off, calling the dimpled lake the result of “piscine murder.” Yet Darwin provided an explanation for nature’s murderous subtext. Competition and struggle influenced “the whole economy of nature.” It drove species to change and adapt. It created. It was the cost of doing nature’s business. Read more…
J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.
The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.
I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.
Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.
That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.
I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.
Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.
I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…
They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.
The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.
For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.
They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.
For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Maricruz Ladino, who shared her story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Produce Truck Driver
Born in: Sonora, Mexico
Interviewed in: Salinas, Monterey County
Agricultural region: Salinas Valley
Sexual harassment and violence in agriculture is both widespread and underreported. For years, the everyday threats and assaults faced by female farmworkers was a story that mostly stayed in the fields. In the past decade, however, a number of investigations—made possible by the bravery of women who have come forward—have uncovered a human rights crisis. In 2010, UC Santa Cruz published a study based on interviews with 150 female farmworkers in California. Nearly 40 percent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their supervisors; this harassment ranged from unwanted verbal advances to rape. Two years later, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Cultivating Fear,” based on interviews with more than fifty farmworkers across the country, which concluded that the persistent harassment and violence faced by women in the fields was “fostered by a severe imbalance of power” between undocumented farmworkers and their supervisors.
Maricruz Ladino knows all about that imbalance of power. “A supervisor can get you fired with the snap of his fingers,” she tells me. And so she stayed quiet, putting up with her supervisor’s daily harassment—and later, violent sexual assault—in order to hang on to her job at a lettuce packing plant in Salinas. Then came the day she gathered the courage to walk into the company’s office and file a complaint. She feared the worst: she could lose her job, or be deported. Both came to pass. But she has never regretted her decision.
We meet at a vegetable cooling plant in early October, where Maricruz welcomes me aboard her truck, which is carrying pallets of iceberg lettuce eventually destined for Honolulu. While she waits for more produce to be loaded, she talks about growing up on the border, her intense drive to always keep moving forward, and why she eventually broke the silence about the abuse she suffered. Read more…
Below is an excerpt from Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir The Farm in the Green Mountains. Having fled Nazi Germany, the Zuckmayers ended up spending several years of their exile on a farm in Vermont, where they engaged in a war of extermination against an invading army of rats. A bestseller in Germany when it was published in 1949, it was reprinted this month by New York Review Books. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
I felt suddenly that I was not alone.
It was the third summer.
That was when I saw them for the first time.
It was evening, and I had gone into the shed to mix the feed before dark.
In this shed the buckets in which the feed was kept stood across from the entrance in a long row.
There was laying meal, feed grain, and the mash for fattening the chickens. There were buckets for duck and goose feed, which we mixed ourselves.
Zuck had carried the heavy sacks into the shed for me and left them in front of the empty buckets.
I began to untie the strings of the sacks and to use a measuring scoop to fill the buckets with the prescribed amounts of oats, bran, fattening mash, and corn meal.
The quiet of evening filled the shed. Ducks and geese peeped in their sleep. Lisettchen sat above me on her beam. I called her name, but this evening she only blinked at me and wouldn’t fly down.
The feed rattled into the buckets and smelled like fields at harvest time.
Suddenly I stopped in the middle of my work, because a violent, overwhelming terror seized me, like the fear of the unaccustomed and unknown. I felt suddenly that I was not alone with my animals, that I was being watched closely from some corner.
I stood motionless and waited.
Now I heard a noise—a disembodied, ghostly tripping across the wooden floor. Then I saw something standing on the stairs. It was a large, gray-brown rat. Read more…
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Former sheepherder
Born in: Junín, Peru
Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County
Agricultural Region: Central Valley
Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.
Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”
Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it.Read more…