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Early in the pandemic artist Amanda Hakan left New York for remote Northern California. What was intended as a brief stay turned into a year embedded in a community facing radical change, and prompted her own questions about the myth of place, family belonging, and rural isolation.

Photography_  Amanda Hakan 

Text_ Amanda Hakan & Nich McElroy

Early in the global lockdown artist Amanda Hakan and her partner left New York to visit family in remote Northern California. What was meant as a brief stay turned into a year embedded in a community that already faced radical change before the pandemic: an aging population who had willfully left urban centers four decades earlier, the rapidly altered character of an ecosystem under climate stress, and the economic and cultural impacts of accelerating marijuana-grow agribusiness. Hakan spent the year looking closely at her assumed family, both finding solace in a domestic life lived close to the land and the generous ethos of a welcoming “pod.” She’s subsequently relocated to Los Angeles, where her questions about the myth of place, family belonging, and rural isolation loom large over the future of the work. We spoke in May 2021.

Amanda: I’d visited twice before the pandemic and had made work during those visits, as I often do in a new place. Between the unique beauty, its remote surroundings, the tight knit community and interwoven nature of my partner’s family I knew immediately I wanted to create something there, yet didn’t know how or when it would be possible. Before the pandemic hit, I’d had a strong desire to transition back to California that had been gnawing at me for quite some time; I’d been feeling directionless in New York. My partner and I left with the intention of returning to New York. It had been my home for 10 years, but Humboldt felt like the place that would be safest and most comfortable through Covid. I feel like everyone wanted to escape to the woods, and we were in the fortunate position to not be able to afford New York anymore and have a heavenly place to go. I would say that it was chance, necessity, and a deliberate choice that got me started with this work.

A: It’s more than an hour from the highway on a very poorly maintained road, at the top of California. It’s vast expanses of redwood forest, ag land and natural meadow, a stunning rocky coast line. “Downtown” is a post office, general store, a gas pump. A lot of land and very few people. It’s likely there are more cattle and horses than people.

My partner’s family is deeply entrenched in the community there. They’ve been there since the mid-70s when they relocated from the Bay Area as part of the Back To The Land movement. This part of coastal northern California was where they could afford land and find the resources necessary to homestead: good soil, natural springs, rainfall, lumber for building. The ethos of the 70’s persists, but honestly the culture has been changing, in part because of the legalization of weed in California in 2016. There have always been grow-ops in this part of the state, but as the years have passed they’ve evolved into large-scale scenes, now highly commercialized, and often overtaking sizable swaths of land. I’m learning more about the socioeconomic effects it’s had and will continue to have on the community. I’m also seeing what happens in many rural populations when the elders begin to age -- younger generations are slowly taking over, but the population is contracting. The isolation makes it extremely difficult for older people to have the resources they need out there and younger people often begin working in weed or move to nearby cities. With those two options it can be challenging for contemporary youth. Beyond my very domestic experience of the rural life of this family, there’s a wider socio-economic an environmental gyre turning that’s upsetting a lot of what’s been taken for granted in the community.

But despite all of this the ethos and intention of sustainable living is still there.

A: Ha, I was basically born in a shopping mall. My childhood was spent in the car. My parents were self-employed and in perpetual motion. I didn’t know what composting was until I went to college and I had never heard of a co-op. I craved much more than my surroundings provided. I’ve since found how...

A: Yes, exactly. At first I was like “is this place real?”

A: Now I see it a lot more clearly: it’s very isolated from the world. Every part of your life takes work. If you’re cold you have to create a fire, and for that there has to be dry wood and kindling. Are you craving a specific food? You have to have the ingredients and make it.

And of course, on top of the complications of the place itself, there’s the complex reality of becoming part of an already established family system. The act of living under the same roof as one’s parents undoubtedly results in regression of some kind. Not to mention sharing intimate space with your partner’s family. I was quickly faced with the realities of their complex dynamics and emotional innerworkings. Trying to navigate that while balancing my desire to make work took the veil off my eyes pretty quickly. My perspective widened and my creative response quickly became less about documenting this loving family in a beautiful town and more about investigating the inner workings of its community and the realities of living life in a small, isolated, rural place. This work is ongoing and I have a lot left to explore. I’ve recently relocated to Los Angeles and I feel like my move is providing me with an opportunity to explore feelings around the isolation and remoteness of my partner’s family’s community while having access to cultural and practical resources on a level I’m more familiar with. The contrast is clarifying.

There’s an aspect of the routine experience in this community that everyone has been sensitized to in the last year, which is how deeply affecting isolation is. On the one hand being there during Covid allowed us to escape the types of urban isolation many others were experiencing. On the other, being so physically isolated on top of the social isolation had a compounding effect.

A: Personally and creatively the isolation was beneficial, but as far as emotionally and socially... It was deeply challenging.

A: Yes, as with any family there can be tension at times. There’s a joke in the valley now that the population is aging -- the back-to-the-landers are in their 70’s and grocery stores are far away -- it’s become the Back to Costco movement. There are different layers to the tension: within myself, within the family, within an ecosystem, a historical moment, a socio-economic scene. It’s an interesting moment to explore all of these transitions.

Last winter was so dry that the rivers in town are running lower in May than they normally would in September. Water is so scarce that some ranchers have begun selling off cattle. There’s another sense in which, outside of the pandemic, a larger global reality is imposing itself. This town is the place that people normally go to escape what feel like the complex problems of late capitalism. Now a very environmentally conscious and aware community -- one which is deeply in-tune with, and builds a livelihood and culture on its interdependency and interactions with the natural world -- is being confronted with those realities.

 

A: Yes. There are all of these different frames I’m beginning to take into consideration, and meanwhile I’m deeply implicated in the work. This is my partner’s family. There’s the intimacy within a shared home, and my growing sense of familiarity with the place. It’s a childlike interest to want to project oneself into others’ circumstances, but I also have to accept that increasingly these are my circumstances. I’m not a tourist or detached, and I’m becoming a part of this family. There’s a way in which I’ve willed this reality into being, and what comes next is translating this into the work and allowing it time and space to evolve and ripen.