It’s Complicated: Climate Change and Oral History in the Rural South

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Jessica Taylor, Virginia Tech
As the politics and science surrounding the pollution and ecological instability of the Chesapeake Bay has developed since midcentury, Virginia’s aging watermen—those who crab, fish, and oyster for a living—are forced to change as well. Aware that young watermen face a difficult future, older interviewees describe their resentment towards outsiders they term “come-heres,” who celebrate rural eastern Virginia’s beauty and authenticity but from an outsider perspective. Watermen attribute political power to come-heres and the legislators who they see as pursuing interests counter to their own: tourism, suburban development, and pleasure fishing. From the outsider perspective of a “come-here,” this presentation discusses the complicated relationship between older rural people and the researcher as a “come-here” with privilege and power. Surmounting this gap requires acknowledging that interviewees, in this case primarily watermen, and their interviewers often disagree about the causes of environmental degradation, but both want to save the bay. Loyalty, for this researcher, means commitment to present and highlight the knowledge and opinions of people with which we profoundly disagree. In Liz Stanley and Sue Wise’s words, we should abandon the hope that researchers “can become experts in other peoples’ lives.” Instead, through its tie to research institutions and academics, oral history amplifies the voices of these less privileged stakeholders, and creates a new role for watermen as experts, the arbiters of what is and is not authentic to their communities.