Harvey and Heritage

Written by Texas-native and land use scholar Karin Patzke, who you may meet behind the host station in the Cider House.

We wanted to share our respect and empathy for the residents and farmers in Texas, and are grateful to Karin for putting pen to paper and offering suggestions on how to contribute (see end).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the images of south Texas are striking. For myself, the photos and videos that document the trauma of flooding and evacuation are difficult to reconcile with my own memories of the region. Growing up in central Texas, just north of Houston, I remember the concrete sprawl that characterized the city and its surrounding suburban spaces. Strip malls, five-lane highways, and constant development are what Houston (and most of the other cities in Texas) is known. Knowing that most of those spaces are underwater is difficult to reconcile, and I’ve struggled to understand how I might help those in need. Unfortunately, for those with close ties to the state, this isn’t a new feeling.

            Hurricane Harvey is the latest in a series of natural disasters that have wrecked havoc in south and central Texas in recent memory. From 2010-2015 most of Texas was under sever drought conditions. Cities limited access to water, and rural communities attempted to alleviate the strain on agriculture by developing new reservoir systems. However, the drought was alleviated not by good planning decisions, but by a series of massive rain and flooding events that strained the state’s watersheds for the next two years. Ironically, while devastating to individual property and watershed areas, those flood events helped to restore underground aquifers that had been severely strained during the drought. Harvey continues this cycle of devastation, albeit on a scale few could imagine.

             Many have questioned government officials concerning the decision to let residents remain along the coast during the events of the past week and half. The concern that this kind of human suffering could have been avoided will no doubt remain part of our news cycle in the coming weeks and months. But, it’s not just Houston and other gulf cities that are affected by Harvey. The rural lands that characterize the areas north and south of the city–and the farmers and ranchers who work those lands–have also been devastated. Flooding has caused the most damage as waterways have overflowed onto farms and ranches. While cotton, corn and soy characterize much of the monoculture practices that prevail in the state, hobby farms, pecan groves, and ranching outfits dot these areas as well. The devastation wrecked by Harvey was indiscriminate, just like the droughts and other flooding events that have strained the region in recent memory. 

Grazing lands from Karin's homestate, now under water.

Grazing lands from Karin's homestate, now under water.

            I was recently asked why people stay to farm in these rural communities, especially when one looks at the longer future of climate change in the region which will no doubt continue to put a strain on landowners. This is a question that I’ve struggled with as well. Central Texas is known for many things, and culturally the region is dominated by Czech, German, Italian and Polish immigrants who came to the area in the mid- to late-1800s. Central Texas is lush with rolling hills, prairies and oak savannahs, and my great-grandfather (and others like him) immigrated to the region not just for the new opportunities it offered, but because it looked like something he was already familiar. This sense of familiarity blossomed into an elaborate heritage of migration, landownership, and agricultural entrepreneurship. Families in central Texas pass down more than recipes, furniture and quilts with each new generation. Immigrant families created a cultural in central Texas that not only draws on diverse ethnic identity, but has also created a deep sense of connection that links family to land. Old County dialects, music and folk arts are passed down to successive generations as well. Giving up on the farm (or the ranch) is often interpreted as a kind of betrayal of familial heritage that few are willing to engage.

            While children of farm families may move to cities for school and work, in the cultural landscape that is central Texas, the farm is a shared communal space where everyone can return. The family farm or the family ranch (or what is now turning into the family wildlife management area) is a physical space that counters the suburban life style and creates a tangible link to family heritage. This rural heritage is difficult to abandon, especially when there is no keen sense as to what might replace it.

Pecan groves prior to flooding. Photo: Karin Patzke

Pecan groves prior to flooding. Photo: Karin Patzke

            Imagining what might come after Harvey is difficult for a variety of reasons. There is not a clear plan for how recovery might take place, nor are there clear visions for what kinds of landscapes might replace these affected regions. However, as images of central Texas and the Gulf Coast continue to emerge, I think it’s important to remember that leaving these vulnerable spaces requires a deep inquiry into why people settled there over a century ago. Hurrican Harvey is devastating, but it is a reminder that heritage is more than ephemeral memories of the past. In central Texas, the cultural heritage of migration, ethnic identity and agricultural production has created a landscape that is resilient—perhaps to a fault—and will no doubt recover with collective action and sympathy.

            If you are interested in helping those afflicted by recent events, I encourage you to donate not only to the Red Cross, but also to smaller organizations such as Farm-Aid.  

Red Cross Harvey donations.

Farm-Aid donations.