Saturday, August 19, 2017

Margaret Morganroth Gullette's "Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People"

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of prize-winning books (Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America and Declining to Decline), and of many essays cited as notable in Best American Essays. Gullette named the field of age studies in 1993 and has been expanding its multi-disciplinary range since. Her father briefly ran a nursery and taught her some of the skills she admires.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, and reported the following:
Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People is arranged to present increasingly grave instances from the array of ageisms that my research uncovered. In each chapter, something fails the test of fairness, equality, or basic humane dealing. Some are glaring neglects in private or public life, grossly hostile speech, abusive images, cruel practices, threats, incitements to self-harm, or violence. In each chapter, suffering is allowed to speak.

Why does a book about the evils of ageism have a chapter with an odd title—“Vert de Gris, Rescuing the Land Lovers”--about small family farmers around the globe? These producers provide food for more billions than the agro-industrial complex I call Big Farma. Seventy percent, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, are women. Without these indispensable people who feed the world, you and I would not starve, but others would. How would the cash-poor eat, if they didn’t feed themselves?

To my mounting astonishment, I also discovered that most of these remarkable, neglected producers are old. In the US, the average age of the farm population is fifty-eight. Principal American farm operators over sixty-five, the hands-on farmers, now outnumber those under thirty-five by more than seven to one. Not a typo, but a statistic about endurance, not generally known. In the UK, the average age is fifty-nine. In Japan, it is sixty-seven. Thank heaven for the old woman, the old man, with the tractor or the hoe. Their situation is a cause for both gratitude and alarm.

Why is this not widely known? Why are their working conditions so harsh? Why don’t their governments assist them? If we care about hunger, food security, soil degradation, land theft, organic farming and environmental regeneration, we owe attention to these women and men in their plights. Justice may be as simple as listening to survivors and naming malefactors.

I want to give these people a little respect, as Walt Whitman did in “I Sing the Body Electric,” when he narrated his attraction to a farmer, a man of “wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person—he was wise also,” and then noted, in passing, that the man was eighty years old. Page 99 shares with readers some of the suffering and losses that make old farmers the stoic heroes of the vulnerable Earth we all depend on.
Within the fierce macro-history of land losses, physical aging seems a lesser factor. Many researchers count sixty as “old” in censuses of farm work. It might be truer to conditions on the ground to put “old” at fifty-five or even fifty, depending on rural life expectancy in a given country. Ill health in later life represents the accumulated effects of life-long deprivations: farming, despite its cardiovascular benefits, is hard on the body. The risk of injuries and death is higher than in other professions. Exhausting labor and repetitive motions take their toll on the musculoskeletal system. The exposure to sun ravages the skin and damages the eyes; exposure to pesticides can cause organ failure. A 2014 report by the FAO and HelpAge International found that 76.8 percent of the elderly small-holders they surveyed suffered from chronic ailments, including hypertension, backache, vision problems, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Women live longer than men in many developing countries, too. Those who married young and had many children too young are likely to suffer more than men from ill health as they age. One Chinese woman of seventy-three offered a definition: “When one feels too weak to work, one becomes an old person.”

As people lose strength, the need to tend either a garden or a farm can be “acutely depressing and enforce feelings of powerlessness as others may need to be employed to carry out tasks once carried out by oneself with ease.” Frustrations undermine “the long-felt ontological security of ‘home,’ and give rise to the feeling of ‘not being at home.’ ” Past prime working age, some [who can] do leave. [In the United States they may] move closer to their urbanized families to be looked after or to get better access to social and health services and transportation than exist in their isolated and dispersed communities. Others defiantly choose to age in place in overlarge troublesome houses precisely because they can’t face a dismal urban future. They plant seeds in a south-facing window.

Moving away from whatever land they possessed, displaced land lovers find themselves in places where almost everything at ground level is hard-scaping: brick, mortar, concrete, iron. They sit in parks with flowers they can’t touch, grass they are forbidden to walk on, shrubs they could prune better, not a vegetable in sight. Some may like surcease from toil, but to my mind the neatly tended public park fails the public. In cities suffering from disinvestment, residents walk past expensive or substandard grocery stores, toxic dumps, and vacant lots that attract trash, drug dealers, junked cars, and kids with no other place to play. Where are their healing gardens, their fresh vegetables, their aerobic exercise, their chances for chat and longevity?
Page 99 is notable for its intersectional homage, but my favorite pages are the last two of the whole book, “A Declaration of Grievances.” In designer Carolyn Kerchof’s elegant version, a poster of the pages is available free for download.
Learn more about Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People at the Rutgers University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America.

--Marshal Zeringue