What I Wish My Children Could Learn From My Rural Upbringing
March 25, 2019 7:48 AM   Subscribe

 
of course he could just move back to the country but he doesn't even mention it. certainly a writer can work from the country. strange it seems so obvious??
and from my personal experience i can say rural community is not dead yet, in northeast usa anyways... but these damn screens aren't really helpful...
posted by danjo at 8:08 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Alternative title: I look back fondly and with nostalgia at my own childhood and mistake that for a universal truth.

With the exception of people who have gone through really horrible and abusive or war torn childhoods, most people look back at their childhood as a great time and one they learned great lessons from.

The thing is though, you can learn lessons of similar value out of just about any non-abusive or war torn childhood. I grew up in subruban Amarillo TX and learned self-reliance and economy too! And also lessons in how loyalty can go wrong and the deep structural flaws in capitalism, and many others as well. Anyone who grew up in a non-horrible environment did, and looks back fondly on their own childhood precisely because they were growing, learning, evolving, becoming, and also because they had no actual responsibilities and their parents took care of them.

I don't pine for the suburbs of my youth, nor do I bewail the fact that I can't give my child an upbringing roughly similar to mine.
posted by sotonohito at 8:23 AM on March 25 [100 favorites]


As for his complaint that we always ask what's wrong with rural America rather than what we can learn from it, I'd say the answer is simple: rural America is largely (though certainly not wholly) responsible for what many Americans see as a political catastrophe. Asking what's wrong is an effort to comprehend how so many of our fellow Americans, presumably people who are well meaning and not monsters, voted to bring great harm to so many people.
posted by sotonohito at 8:27 AM on March 25 [52 favorites]


My neighbors got together to put a new roof on another neighbor's house. Plot twist: we live in the suburbs!
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:33 AM on March 25 [18 favorites]


I had a pretty lazy and easy childhood so I'm not sure if I'm the one to criticize this, but this is conservative self-mythologizing at its worst: where only farm-kids work hard, where "the hammer shaft in my hand, the earth beneath my feet" are somehow only known to kids growing up in land-owning families. I mean, go to any small business in the city and you're just as likely to see a kid working hard at the register, I'm just not sure they would retroactively claim it as core to their identity.

I wander with them through our neighborhood, where we call Hello! to whomever we meet.

Again claiming a pretty universal act of American public culture as unique to their childhood.
posted by Think_Long at 8:43 AM on March 25 [51 favorites]


Not sure if I read the same article as you guys. He made it quite clear both how difficult and troubled his rural upbringing was, but also noted the positive aspects. The decline in the notions of "community" have long been known and exist across the country, but his experience of a town literally coming together to help during a family crisis obviously made a huge impact on him. My biggest issue with the essay was it felt like it was just getting started when it ended. I was hoping for a deep analysis, a further exploration about how he was thinking he would change, or raise his kids to find the best of both "worlds"

And sotonohito, give me a break. It was the suburbs that elected Trump just, if not more so, than rural areas (the politics threads have gone over this ad nauseum) It's just that rural areas are getting further screwed by him (trade war, climate denial, tax breaks for the rich), while the rich suburbs have just seen their 401Ks increase.
posted by gwint at 8:46 AM on March 25 [25 favorites]


We shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with rural America?” Rather, we might ask, “What can we learn from rural America?”

Despair kills. We can't make it here anymore.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:50 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]


Don't we spent a lot of time talking about what we can learn from rural living? Maybe it's just my upbringing, suburbanified country folks on my dad's side with just enough hazy memories of that life to provide a picture much like what author does, but it's definitely there in the culture. Whether it's Wendell Berry philosophizing, or the ubiquitous farming and ranching of truck ads showing Real Men doing Real Work, my life has never been hurting for people telling me to learn from rural America. No matter where we find the values he's talking about in life (and certainly hardwork and frugality are not unknown to urban or suburban America at all), in my mental map of America growing up those things were always situated in the country. That's what I was taught.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:57 AM on March 25 [26 favorites]


Things were better back when I was young and oblivious.
posted by aramaic at 8:57 AM on March 25 [18 favorites]


And sotonohito, give me a break. It was the suburbs that elected Trump just, if not more so, than rural areas (the politics threads have gone over this ad nauseum) It's just that rural areas are getting further screwed by him (trade war, climate denial, tax breaks for the rich), while the rich suburbs have just seen their 401Ks increase.

That being said, the man sells himself on his connection to rural areas and to rural working-class white people. This article is lionizing the same kind of upbringing. It's not out of line to react poorly to that, particularly in this context.

Not all suburbs are rich suburbs, either; particularly with gentrification in many cities, many people are being pushed farther out to suburbs far from where they work and without access to existing social networks. Framing this as a debate between rich and poor may be more honest than framing this as a debate between rural and urban areas, but the disproportionate power exerted by rural areas both in terms of real political power (e.g. in the Senate) and in ideological disputes between Americans (e.g. every conservative piece of messaging in the last decade) cannot be denied. Whether people actually living in working-class rural environments have access to that power is an open question, but then this writer isn't currently one of them, either. His participation in picking up these idealized communities to wield ideological power has to be acknowledged in this discussion if you want to understand negative responses.
posted by sciatrix at 8:59 AM on March 25 [16 favorites]


The decline in the notions of "community" have long been known and exist across the country, but his experience of a town literally coming together to help during a family crisis obviously made a huge impact on him.

Yes - and that's an experience not unique to rural America, which is the heart of what's wrong with the essay. What he says we can "learn" from rural America is not unique to rural America, and should not be treated as such.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:00 AM on March 25 [24 favorites]


I should say I didn't find this essay terrible and I expect that the author has some things to say I'd really like to read,* I just found the "let's think about what we can learn" to be slightly disingenuous way of selling the idea.

*He mentions "the colonizing economic and cultural forces responsible for the devastation of rural America" which sounds like a much more interesting topic than "country folks are self-reliant."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:02 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]


People get rich on agriculture subsidies while we begrudge starving families their food stamps. Fuck your "self reliance".

(I grew up in the country, I hated it)
posted by idiopath at 9:06 AM on March 25 [39 favorites]


Not all suburbs are rich suburbs, either

Yes, that's why I said "rich suburbs"

but the disproportionate power exerted by rural areas both in terms of real political power (e.g. in the Senate) and in ideological disputes between Americans (e.g. every conservative piece of messaging in the last decade) cannot be denied

I absolutely agree on your first point (disproportionate real political power), but I think the second is debatable.

begrudge starving families their food stamps

Rural Americans Are Now The Largest Slice Of Federal Food Aid Recipients
posted by gwint at 9:11 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]


I think it's tricky to talk about communal values as if they're unambiguously good or pinned to any particular community. What if, for instance, the person with cancer was a lesbian who'd moved there with her partner? Would they have gotten the machine shed? I mean, maybe....but nowhere near as certainly as the straight father. And of course, communal values are enacted all over the place.

This article points not so much to the communal values inherent in rural America but to the deracination that the author has undergone - if he were part of a close-knit church, union, neighborhood organization, etc, he wouldn't be so very nostalgic tight bonds because he'd have some. I do think that climbing the class ladder, moving for work, becoming a "professional", etc are in this country very individual/individualistic/individualizing experiences, so he's certainly onto something there.
posted by Frowner at 9:16 AM on March 25 [14 favorites]


the colonizing economic and cultural forces responsible for the devastation of rural America

the original inhabitants of your grandfather's much-mythologized farm would like to have a word with your white ass.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:19 AM on March 25 [39 favorites]


....certainly a writer can work from the country....
He may earn his living as a university writing teacher, I suppose, like many writers seem to do.

....Wendell Berry philosophizing...
I've been assuming, for a long time, that someone has surely argued that Berry's work is a reactionary throwback to the Southern Agrarian movement (indeed, he is mentioned in that article), or is essentially a quietistic, sentimental refusal to engage with the world we actually live in, but I usually see uncritical adulation by his fans, when he is discussed.
posted by thelonius at 9:19 AM on March 25


Why isn't this article titled "What I Wish My White Children Could Learn From My White Rural Upbringing"? Not once are PoC, Native Americans, immigrants, or LGBTQ folx mentioned in this article. He doesn't even bother to handwave how "community" has been denied to vast swathes of rural Americans, nor how so much of the "economy and self-reliance" he talks about is nothing more than mythologizing and actual whitewashing. Instead, he just...pretends it doesn't exist. He barely even mentions women except as either victims or caretakers. And the treacly smarm of the closing paragraphs is really a culmination of all that. Take for instance this paragraph:
In this fraught season of division, of incivility and outrage, much has been written about what is wrong with rural America, as if there is only sickness to be found there, as if the simplicity of diagnosis, rather than the complexity of conversation, is what is necessary. We shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with rural America?” Rather, we might ask, “What can we learn from rural America?”
Without even getting into the eyes-rolling-right-out-of-my-head nonsense about "incivility and outrage," he has a lot of chutzpah going on about the articles constantly being written about how we should sympathize with rural Trump voters. His article is just the same thing, down to completely ignoring anybody who isn't a white Christian libertarian man. He very clearly doesn't want to learn anything from rural America that goes against the noble Western settler narrative he is devoted to.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:37 AM on March 25 [43 favorites]


I think it's tricky to talk about communal values as if they're unambiguously good or pinned to any particular community. What if, for instance, the person with cancer was a lesbian who'd moved there with her partner? Would they have gotten the machine shed? I mean, maybe....but nowhere near as certainly as the straight father. And of course, communal values are enacted all over the place.

Exactly. I wouldn't say I grew up in a rural community (more like "small town"); my immediate housing development when I was a kid was like this for my family and most of the families on my block. ....However - it was not like this for the non-white family who lived there. Not that anyone outright shunned them, it was more like...I don't think anyone really reached out to them, and they didn't reach out to us.

This kind of group-pulling-together is not solely found in rural America. And conversely, there are people in rural America which get left out by this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:37 AM on March 25 [7 favorites]


I feel like Americans fall into a complete vicious cycle when discussing rural culture, which is that rural people praise the pure, simple values of rural life, which pisses off non-rural people and makes them accuse rural people of being terrible, awful assholes, which makes the rural people defensively praise the pure, simple values of rural life. Repeat infinitely. (Also, it feels like only white rural people count to either side, which is unfortunate.)

Maybe we should discuss this article about how consolidation in the agriculture industry is devastating rural areas, instead of having the "rural people: perfect or evil?" discussion again.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:39 AM on March 25 [19 favorites]


I saw, every day, the sad fruits of that devastation: poverty, scrapped hopes, broken homes. Alcohol addiction was rampant. So, too, violence—against the land, against wild and domestic animals, against human beings (especially women). What was different was frowned on, disallowed, while easy, dead-wrong mythologies—the ones you find in pop country music, mass-market movies, and the speeches of pandering politicians—were celebrated as the way things ought to truly be.

This passage jumped out and the celebration of community that came after could not erase the disquiet it created. I wish the author had provided a deeper examination of the contradictions he described in the piece.
posted by Cheezitsofcool at 9:44 AM on March 25 [21 favorites]


This passage jumped out and the celebration of community that came after could not erase the disquiet it created.
Me too. I'm still kind of lost on what we were supposed to have learned from rural areas (I grew up in one too). Was it really the contrite hard work and land thing, like it was taken from a pop country song? Do Montana landowners have lessons to teach about economy and self-reliance? What are they? That you should just go hunting on your vast land if you are hungry?
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:56 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


The hagiography of the rural is not that simple. The image we are sold is the self sufficient farmer who earned everything he has with hard work, and he is a man in charge of his family with the correct religion and ethnicity.

The definition of "rural" used in our political discourse is symbolic, and it excludes people of color and LGBT people and people outside the religious majority. Accepting the skewed definition of rural is participating in that propaganda.

This same style of propaganda is used to promote every successful fascist movement, revised for each country to reflect the correct ethnicity and religious convictions.
posted by idiopath at 9:58 AM on March 25 [17 favorites]


I think the point of that paragraph is that he's got a perceived audience, which is basically the Metafilter user base, and he's conceding what he believes to be their perspective. And then he's asking them to consider that there also might be some good things about his rural experience, despite the bad stuff that they're already familiar with. Unfortunately, what he has to say about the good stuff is not particularly original, so the end effect is that we're replaying the same old argument, even though he actually is ambivalent, at best, about the side that he's arguing for.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:01 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]


Joe Wilkins "received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho. He is the author of the poetry collections When We Were Birds (University of Arkansas Press, 2016), Notes from the Journey Westward (White Pine Press, 2012), and Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). He is the director of creative writing at Linfield College and lives in Oregon."

Joe Wilkins is the author, of several books, of memoir, creative nonfiction, and poetry

Joe Wilkins " is the author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers and three books of poetry, most recently When We Were Birds. As part of a writing residency, he and his family spent the summer and fall of 2015 living in an off-the-grid cabin in the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon. They were prepared for ticks, poison oak, and black bears, but they didn’t realize how much they’d miss having a nearby ice-cream shop."

Dry Season
These months we’ve spent in isolation on this mountain were my choice, my responsibility, just as our family’s life in the badlands of Montana was yours. Did you ever try to figure the escape paths we might have taken out? Did you wonder which way you would run with us when the river dried up? When smoke filled the sky? When the grasshoppers fell across the fields like a plague? And what sudden plans did you make when you woke one morning and had your wife feel your belly, which was by then nothing but a mass of tumor? You’d left behind a stable job with the U.S. Forest Service, left a pension and healthcare benefits, left access to a good hospital — where a doctor perhaps wouldn’t have misdiagnosed your cancer as ulcers for so long — left it all for a life you’d known would be hard. And it was hard, even harder than you’d reckoned. In response I have chosen a life of relative security: a good job, a house in town, decent savings. This mountain sojourn of ours is, I know, only a hint of the trial you lived and knew.
Conversation with Joe Wilkins
The meaning is changing for me. When I was in grad school encountering William Kittredge, Kim Barnes, and Mary Clearman Blew, Ivan Doig and others in my shared background, it meant a certain kind of story about the failure of homesteading and this pioneer myth we tell ourselves that isn’t really true. It was very much tied to that and tied mostly to the interior West. And I still think that working against nostalgia and mythology is part of what we do in the West. I don’t think that’s just the West. I think Southern writers do the same thing. But I do think the Western myth—the cowboy, the homesteader myth—is soaked in our culture. And that’s something writers have to take on.
It’s changed, though, for me. I’ve started to discover, since I’m here [Oregon] in a very different West, that there are a lot of other kinds of Wests. There are other kinds of communities. The country around here has a history that’s far different from much of the interior West—it’s older, it’s got a different kind of settlement pattern—and so I think, as a writer, for me now it’s discovering those other Wests, starting to try to figure them out.
In their big Montana anthology, The Last Best Place, Bill Kittredge and Annick Smith write something like, “it still might be possible to find a coherent way to live in the last best place.” That idea of finding a coherent way to live is something I feel like I’m seeing in the community I am in now, whereas, when I was growing up, many of the ways people were living were incoherent and unsustainable. So, how do we honor the landscape? How do we honor the fact that we’re here now and we love this place, but we need to live coherently with it and on it? A lot of being a Western writer, for me, are those issues.
The Big Dry is not a place I'd heard of before, looking on a map, think about a little ways north of Billings or so. He seems an interesting writer, pity the link up there is so short.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:07 AM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Good point ArbitraryAndCapricious. I'm guessing that if this was pitched as "This was my personal experience when I was young and now that I have a family of my own I am feeling the feels" rather than having a prescriptive element, it might be being received better here. I still think people are being weirdly hash about it though. "He didn't include the perspective of every possible group and therefore everything he says is BS" seems impossible to respond to.
posted by gwint at 10:08 AM on March 25 [9 favorites]


I have some opinions about rural areas that I wish I could share with my kids too, but they are more like (1) some animals are food not pets (maybe when they are older), that (2) the best land is owned by other people, but they probably don't have the resources to defend every inch of it, so you can still use it, (3) that being a big fish in a small pond can be pretty cool, and that (4) many things are better with collective resources (like your lame-o backyard swingset vs a city park).

Also horrible negative things like who you know is as important as what you can do, and laws are not applied equally, but they have probably figured those out already.
But nothing about land, hard work, or loss, because those are experienced equally everywhere.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:28 AM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Unfortunately, what he has to say about the good stuff is not particularly original

Yeah, that was pretty much my beef. I expect he could have put together an example of good things from a rural upbringing that really do depend on it being rural, but he went for "We had community!" as if that weren't a long-standing hallmark of urban neighborhoods.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:38 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Yeah I am getting the impression some people may have started off shooting from the hip.

From TFA:
What’s more, though I wouldn’t then have been able to name the colonizing economic and cultural forces responsible for the devastation of rural America, I saw, every day, the sad fruits of that devastation: poverty, scrapped hopes, broken homes. Alcohol addiction was rampant. So, too, violence—against the land, against wild and domestic animals, against human beings (especially women). What was different was frowned on, disallowed, while easy, dead-wrong mythologies—the ones you find in pop country music, mass-market movies, and the speeches of pandering politicians—were celebrated as the way things ought to truly be.
It doesn't smack of unconsidered hagiography, IMO.

What I sense in the essay is more the longing for a community like the one he felt he lived in as a child than the place; he's aware that his memories are rose-colored. One presumes that's why he hasn't, in fact, moved back to a rural town in eastern Montana to raise his own kids. One can be rationally aware that they can't go home again, because the place never really existed except in your own mind, but still feel homesick. If anything it makes the feeling stronger.

Though I agree with others, in that I think the "rural-ness"—like, the literal population density and built environment—is a red herring. The community spirit he describes and associates with his childhood—exemplified by the other townspeople turning out to help when his father was dying—is something that could have happened in the suburbs or a city neighborhood. (I mean, probably not in the form of everyone building a machinery shed, but manifested some other way.) And I don't think that he's alone in feeling as though there's something missing from many communities today.

I suspect that part of what he senses in his memories of the small town was a form of solidarity; farming communities, at least ones not dominated by mega-farms and agribusinesses, tend to have a sense of all being in the same boat, of struggling against the whims of the weather and markets, that someone's failure today could easily be your failure tomorrow. But that's not exclusive to rural farm towns; lots of places—factory towns, mining towns, really anyplace where a single industry forced some level of de facto egalitarianism—used to feel like that. The last few decades have largely erased that solidarity and replaced it with cutthroat zero-sum competition; like prisoners on a death march, it's better not to pay too much attention if the person next to you stumbles—better them than you.

I see a fixation on small towns and rural life as a correlation/causation mistake, and I suspect if you sat the author down they'd probably get it too. Doesn't make it any easier not to wish for something better for your kids, even if that "better" only exists in your head.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:38 AM on March 25 [7 favorites]


I dunno about the discussion here. Whenever one faction says, "We have all the Truth and they have none," I get itchy.
posted by mattwan at 10:52 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Asking what's wrong is an effort to comprehend how so many of our fellow Americans, presumably people who are well meaning and not monsters, voted to bring great harm to so many people.

alienation in a word ... or am I wrong to connect Trumpism with such terminology as "flyover country"? I mean, we've all got monsters in us, don't we? It's circumstances that tend to keep them at bay, or release them.
posted by philip-random at 11:00 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


...he actually is ambivalent, at best, about the side that he's arguing for...

Isn't it possible, even in 2019, to write about something without arguing for a side? To believe that although all communities contain multitudes, certain regions have more of certain qualities? That you can decide to leave someplace and be comfortable with that decision, and be happy to have found a community you prefer, while mourning parts of what you have left?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:14 AM on March 25 [9 favorites]


I think a lot of people are placing a lot of feels on this article that are completely unjustified by the article itself. Like: this article is not about Trump, and to analyze it through that angle needs a lot more intervening steps, unless we’re just here for a ten minutes hate and damn the original source.

What it makes me think of - as a Hispanic kid of an immigrant family - is the difference between working to solve your problems and having them benevolently fixed for you, and this /isn’t a left vs right issue/, right, like the same critiques and analysis can also be found in mutual-aid-vs-charity leftist analysis as well. What the author is describing here is essentially a system of mutual aid - the help that everyone gave in the barn raising is not Lady-Bountiful charity provided by people outside the community, but solidarity from inside the community, people who were probably helped or influenced by the authors father at some point.

Building a rooted community doesn’t need to be a left vs right thing, and we suffer when we make it so. Because we could, and should, ask - why does solidarity flourish among misery and disappear so easily in plenty? This is a question I ask myself a lot, as someone who grew up desperately poor and is now raising a middle class child who has charitable impulses but doesn’t have, bone-deep, that sense that we all must pull together or we will die. Neither do her friends.

When we sneer at work ethic as “oh, bootstrapping”, we dismiss genuinely important impulses. It matters when people feel motivated to do their utmost for a thing and when they are too alienated to do so. It matters when people are willing to do anything to advance their family and when they have fallen into hopelessness. And it doesn’t matter because people are more morally worthy in one or the other, but because you can’t build a society with people in the middle of despair. And you see this in leftist spaces too - people who believe they can genuinely build a new world in the shell of the old work /so fucking hard/, while people who believe they are just shouting their anger at the void don’t.

Maybe the difference in rural communities is because people believe they’re supposed to help each other, or because they have a permanence of home that leads to a permanence of community. I don’t know. But I think figuring that out is way more important/interesting than determining who is more morally worthy depending on where they live.
posted by corb at 11:17 AM on March 25 [15 favorites]


It was an interesting, if under-developed argument, that a certain strain of mostly-long-gone rural living was different from city living or contemporary rural living in respect of its demands upon family and community, and as such produced usefully different examples of family and community function. It's an argument from diversity, not moral superiority.

As a bigger point thoughtful people in rural America overall seems to be quite pragmatic when it comes to economic questions; nostalgia for small family farms in places where large operations are more efficient is really just that (nostalgia, not a serious political argument). The discussion of Trump's trade policy with China is going to be a heck of lot more informed and nuanced at the lunch spot between the pork co-op office and the main growers' bank in some town in Iowa than it's going to be on the train the bond traders ride back to the suburbs from Manhattan, that's for sure.

By the way, I don't think any actual rural Americans want sympathy from city people. Left-leaning rural people want city people to think they're not an alien species. Right-leaning rural people want self-governance rather than being outvoted by city people.
posted by MattD at 11:37 AM on March 25 [7 favorites]


My negative reaction isn't necessarily political but anti-hagiography. I don't mean to refute your overall point, corb, but how can you not see the contrasting value statements between this:

I think figuring that out is way more important/interesting than determining who is more morally worthy depending on where they live.

and this from one line earlier?:

Maybe the difference in rural communities is because people believe they’re supposed to help each other

like, try to find a community that doesn't think they're 'supposed to help each other'.
posted by Think_Long at 11:40 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]


I grew up in a rural area too, albeit in Canada rather than America, but people say the same stuff about rural "community spirit" around here. My family very much did not experience it. Perhaps it would have been magically different if one of my parents had died, but I honestly doubt it. I've encountered far more "community" after moving to the city, where nobody cares if you haven't lived there for generations (or that we weren't farmers, or whatever other reason we were very clearly viewed as outsiders, I don't honestly know). People were at best indifferent to us, certainly not friendly or welcoming or helpful.

Would never, ever consider moving back to a rural area, doubly so if I had kids.
posted by randomnity at 11:43 AM on March 25 [17 favorites]


That.

My boyhood in rural America taught me to get along without any significant human contact, and that I never wanted to go back to rural America.

I mean I guess I'm glad his was different. But it was pretty damned different from mine, so it's hardly a universal truth.
posted by Naberius at 11:49 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]


I have lived on and off in rural America all my life. My experience mirrors randomnity. The "community" that everyone keeps talking about is very much of the conditional sort, and usually reserved for a select subset (usually either members of extended family, sometimes fellow church attendees).
posted by Chrischris at 11:53 AM on March 25 [12 favorites]


The discussion of Trump's trade policy with China is going to be a heck of lot more informed and nuanced at the lunch spot between the pork co-op office and the main growers' bank in some town in Iowa

Maybe Iowa is special, but it sure as fuck ain't more nuanced at those sorts of establishments in the Swan Hills, or near Vegreville, south-central Minnesota, or SE Wisconsin, all of which being rural places I've spent significant time (willingly, mind).

...but, again, maybe Iowa is special.
posted by aramaic at 11:54 AM on March 25 [8 favorites]


tmotat, that's helpful, and I'm glad to see the point that "rural"varies, just as communities come in all different kinds.

I'm in a slough of despond about bringing my kids up in a rural setting, both at home and in my area. Miss 11 tells me that it's her dream to live on the Lower East Side, and hectors me daily about when we're going to visit the city. I'm pretty sure she's one of the few kids in the county to have a rainbow flag in her room...and a view of the neighbor's Trump/Pence 2020 flag out of the window. She lives online, partly because it takes 25 minutes to drive to a friend's house. She's totally on board with raising animals to eat (lesson here: home-raised wings are the BEST of all possible Buffalo wings) and is completely and totally uninterested in the work of it. She's 11, and says things like "That's a dead meme, Mother" and "Ugh, my brother is telling me about Joe Rogan again" and grabs all of the online cultural capital she can, because who wants to be from here? She's a natural up-and-out, and iwill probably be utterly unsentimental about the enormous vegetable garden, and the hours of canning, and going to the state fair every year. I tell her to remember what she saw, as her friends later in life will be equal parts amused and horrified by her stories.

Mr. 15 is slowly figuring out how to turn his conditions to his own advantage. He's looking forward to driving, so he practices on the tractor and mower. He turns to the .mil neighbor for fitness advice. A trip to the fair is an opportunity to hang out with friends. But he does not, fundamentally, love the work of a little farm, and he recognizes to some extent that he is curious and reflective in a way that's different from most of the kids here. It breaks my heart a little that I have tried to give him real responsibilities, and that he handles them in a perfunctory manner, not bothering to connect to them as things to learn from or care about. He takes note of the confederate flags in the area. And the pellet-holed stop signs, and the casual intolerance, and the profusion of Republican candidate signs, come election season. He devours homemade applesauce and salsa without reflecting on having grown their contents; he's too busy gaming with his buddies in other places.

What I wish they were learning now is a harder question. And maybe it's not a thing you can ask of a kid, to draw the lessons about responsibility and community and interconnectedness as an adult would. It must be hard for my kids to think of Rural Virtue when they see their mother ranting about the anti-Mueller meme posted on FB by a Republican candidate for county-wide office. Or when they see parents shaming their kids in public. Or the broken beer bottles on the side of the road, tossed out of passing trucks. I guess they're learning something about rural life, but I may have to wait for the essay to find out what it was.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:54 AM on March 25 [18 favorites]


I think there actually are some meaningful differences between the experience of growing up rural and not-rural, for what it's worth. For instance, I work with college freshmen, a fair number of whom grew up in rural areas or small towns, and they describe a lack of anonymity which is very alien to my urban experience. For their entire lives, they have mostly interacted with people who knew them, knew their parents, knew their grandparents, knew everything about them. My students typically describe this as both comforting and suffocating. It is very weird for them to be in a place where they don't know most people, and it's often kind of freeing. I think that's an interesting experience, and it doesn't fit neatly into the political narratives that dominate these discussions.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:56 AM on March 25 [15 favorites]


like, try to find a community that doesn't think they're 'supposed to help each other'.

I can think of some townhouse neighborhoods that are nearly as anonymous as hotels, and where people have about as much connection to each other as they do to the person behind them in traffic. (Who may, in fact, be the same person.) They invariably have a development name that sounds vaguely English, brick veneers, six-foot backyard fences, and professionally manicured lawns. They tend to have weird little white-painted gazebos in locations that guarantee they'll never be used. They're an endless wellspring of petty HOA bullshit, snitching neighbors, and people you know on sight but can't really remember the name of. Because they owe you nothing and you owe them nothing, and in five years you'll live somewhere else or they will and you'll never think of them again.

But maybe you're right, in that nobody would call them a "community" unless they're a real estate agent. They do exist, though.

I'm sure there are other equally-alienated places; those are just the particular type I happen to be most familiar with. FWIW, it's not fair or correct to say "the suburbs" are like that generally; actually a lot of suburbs are quite nice and communitarian. Exactly why some places are like that and others aren't is a longstanding mystery to me. I think it's a certain level of transience that does it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Right-leaning rural people want self-governance rather than being outvoted by city people.

Nevermind the fact that rural America has outvoted urban America pretty much since colonizers started building cities, but even if this was true, then it seems like being more dependent on government aid kinda puts a pin in that balloon. Anyway, seems like maybe both you and right-leaning rural people have a whole ton of their own mythologies to examine.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:03 PM on March 25 [14 favorites]


corb: Maybe the difference in rural communities is because people believe they’re supposed to help each other, or because they have a permanence of home that leads to a permanence of community. I don’t know.

You experienced solidarity, community and mutual aid growing up. Was that in a rural area? Are "economy and self-reliance" rural values"? Are they so lacking in non-rural areas that they can be meaningfully described as "rural values"? What about work ethic? What about alienation?

Joe Wilkins, based on my reading of his books and poems and the interviews he gives and the books he's teaching at a little private school is deeply interested in place and what I'd call placefulness. He touches on this with a (buried, deep) reference to "A Place Of First Permission" not present in TFA.

Are there meaningful life lessons to be learned from dust farming, a gift of antelope backstrap, lessons from a hammer in hand and not a socket wrench (or soldering iron)? Maybe there are. They'd be tied to the seasons, the big open places, the mountains and the penetrating cold. Too bad he doesn't explain in a shade over 1,000 words.

Right-leaning rural people want self-governance rather than being outvoted by city people.

You say this, and there's an upcoming political fight in my state in which I fully expect the rural voters to rip away the Wet Side's attempts at self governance, all the while trumpting "local control" and "liberty" and "$30 car tabs."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:05 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


My rural childhood was shoveling manure. So, so much manure. Enough to make me run to the city as soon as I possibly could and never, ever go back.
posted by Mogur at 12:08 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Maybe the difference in rural communities is because people believe they’re supposed to help each other

Nope, this is just further mythologizing. From Pew's What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities:
Four-in-ten adults in rural communities say they know all or most of their neighbors, compared with 28% in the suburbs and 24% in urban areas. However, among those who know at least some of their neighbors, rural Americans are no more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to say they interact with them on a regular basis.

About half of adults who know at least some of their neighbors in urban (53%), suburban (49%) and rural (47%) communities say they have face-to-face conversations with a neighbor at least once a week. Other forms of communication, such as exchanging emails or text messages or talking on the phone with neighbors, are less common: About one-in-five or fewer in urban, rural and suburban areas say this happens at least once a week.

Americans are generally trusting of their neighbors, but those in suburban and rural areas are more so. For example, about six-in-ten of those in the suburbs (62%) and in rural communities (61%) say they have a neighbor they would trust with a set of keys to their home, compared with about half (48%) in urban areas.

There is little variation among those living in different types of communities in the share reporting they have social support, feel optimistic about their lives or feel lonely. And the idea that life in the city feels more hectic than life in the country is not borne out by the data – only about one-in-ten urban, suburban and rural residents say they always or almost always feel they are too busy to enjoy their lives.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:20 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


For their entire lives, they have mostly interacted with people who knew them, knew their parents, knew their grandparents, knew everything about them. My students typically describe this as both comforting and suffocating.

This rings very true for my current community (rural), and it doesn't for the various suburbs in which I grew up. Maybe the key word in there is various. If you've spent all (or most) of your formative years in the same basic "neighborhood" (be it off on some island or just a little north of downtown Toronto), I suspect your take on the nature of community is going to be different from somebody like me who lived in seven different communities before they hit puberty (and that's not counting extended visits to the two small towns where my parents grew up and still had roots).
posted by philip-random at 12:25 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


We moved from a suburban to a rural environment a couple years ago, and while the depth of some of the connections we've made feels small-town-ish - our vet is also the parent of one of my wife's students and also my wife's occasional riding buddy - we have not met the neighbors on either side of us in a year of living in this house. (This is a major contrast to the suburban development we were in, but that was a weird one - having the whole development centered around the community-run stable meant that we knew our neighbors way, way better than we ever wanted to.) But then, the rural northeast isn't the rural midwest which isn't the rural south.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:26 PM on March 25


like, try to find a community that doesn't think they're 'supposed to help each other'

There are some really interesting ideas about what happens when you define community by things that are immutable or relatively sticky (family, place, religion) and what happens when you define community by things that are very changeable. I speculate that it’s more difficult to make long term bonds in the latter, but that may be because culturally Americans don’t have a habit of it anymore. Like: functionally, what is the difference between a social club with a physical location (how many people built bonds decades ago) and a fandom? Or, if we want to get really meta about it, what is the difference between a poker club and Metafilter itself? We’re an intentional community, which often pulls together to help each other out, and I’ve made many friends here - but I can’t imagine a situation where if I died, my kid could ask for help on Metafilter in five years and people would help her fix her roof. But it’s really easy for me to imagine her calling up my veteran friends in the same situation and having a host of people on her doorstep the next day. What does “supposed to help each other” mean, and how long are you counted as part of a community? These things shift and change depending on who you’re asking.

Similarly, the difference may not be “rural vs urban” exactly but more “home owners vs renters”, in that the latter are more transient than the former, which means you don’t get decades long relationships, because usually renters eventually wind up having to move /especially under the conditions landlords currently operate under/.

I don’t know - I don’t think these things have easy answers, and I think we should be suspicious of easy answers in general. Learn from what we can, but be aware of the places we don’t know the answer, is what I would say.
posted by corb at 12:30 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


Right-leaning rural people want self-governance rather than being outvoted by city people.

Framing this as a desire for "self-governance" kinda feels like it flies in the face of democracy and the concept of the nation-state. Taken to its logical conclusion, why stop at a rural/city divide? Why can't I have "self-governance" on my own land, and not be "outvoted" by other people who live in my town? I should be allowed to define e.g. gun laws for myself, and no town or county or state should be allowed to say otherwise because then I'd be being outvoted by people who are from "elsewhere" (a.k.a. not my land).

tl;dr when right-leaning folks complain about city folks outvoting them, 99.99% of the time they're arguing in about as good faith as people who get animated about "states' rights" who of course can never explain which rights the states are being denied other than "to own people and treat women and poc as chattel".
posted by tocts at 12:31 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


Four-in-ten adults in rural communities say they know all or most of their neighbors, compared with 28% in the suburbs and 24% in urban areas. However, among those who know at least some of their neighbors, rural Americans are no more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to say they interact with them on a regular basis.

Theory: Suburban and urban areas are likely to be more transient, and how well you know your neighbors—or the chance that you know/interact with them at all—increases with the amount of time you've lived next to them. But other than that, people are broadly similar everywhere.

This certainly jives with my experience, which is that the suburban neighborhoods filled with high-turnover rental properties seemed like they'd be a great place for an H.H. Holmes-type serial killer, while low-turnover suburban neighborhoods are the kind of places where nobody locks their doors and school-age kids roam the street unsupervised. And I'd bet, although I've never lived in one, that urban areas where people tend to stick around for a long time (co-op buildings? rent controlled areas? idk) probably have the same sort of community feel.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:32 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


I think the issue here is that the essay has two underlying assumptions that are implicit but would have benefited from being made explicit: (1) that rural and non-rural America are different in significant ways and (2) that two important ways they're different are that people are more willing to help each other and that growing up in a rural area teaches one "economy and self-reliance." That is - rural areas somehow have these positive qualities while non-rural ones don't. The problem is that while (1) is certainly true, (2) is not, and it's a big claim to make without any sort of backup beyond personal experience.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 12:33 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


two important ways they're different are that people are more willing to help each other and that growing up in a rural area teaches one "economy and self-reliance."

What's most absurd about this to me (not your statement, but the sentiment you're detecting and which I've seen many times before) is that it's basically arguing both sides of a coin. Rural people are better at handling stuff for themselves, but also they help (and thus get help from) each other more, which somehow doesn't make them any less better at also totally doing everything for themselves, except when they're being helped by the other rural folks who are so helpful but receiving whose help doesn't count as not handling it for yourself, because ...

It's an ouroboros of smug self-satisfaction.
posted by tocts at 12:37 PM on March 25 [18 favorites]


I think the idea is that people in rural areas have stronger organic bonds, which are enforced by social norms, and so they don't need the government to tell them to take care of each other, the way city people do. This is bullshit: rural communities in the US have always relied on the government. Always. But it's bullshit that a lot of people believe.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:52 PM on March 25 [16 favorites]


I don't understand how you square a desire for "self-reliance" with the story of a community coming together to help complete a project.
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:07 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I grew up in the country, and I have more human interaction now in my urban neighborhood. Your mileage may vary, but my experience is that you're far more likely to run into people where it's more densely populated, than on an isolated farm.

My inlaws have town friends, and at least one full-on rural nemesis who keeps stealing water from their ranch's aquifer (their other rancher neighbors are lovely people that they like, but let's not pretend that assholes and predators don't also fester in small communities).

There are entire racks of literature about painfully lonely old bachelor famers dying alone.

In conclusion, growing up my brother and I found this song to be a fairly accurate depiction of the rural teenage experience.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:19 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


The argument is that they're still self-reliant, because they voluntarily decide to come together. There's no coercion, the way there would be if the government were compelling people to work together. But again: this is bullshit. The rural economy only works because the Federal government is heavily subsidizing it, in the form of highway funds and other infrastructure funding, among other things.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:21 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


I have the terrible suspicion that "self-reliant" means "reliant only on people exactly like myself".
posted by restless_nomad at 1:24 PM on March 25 [14 favorites]


ArbitraryAndCapricious is right that the discussion of the end, and pain involved in that end, of rural America is likely the root topic here.

I think we've seen it as a "sudden" end, because for literally everyone's life it has been going slowly but hadn't really reached a true crisis point. In fact, we've been seeing the end of rural America for the entire history of the USA.

In 1850 about 60% of the American population lived and worked on farms.

In 1900 it was about 40%.

In 1950 it was less than 15%.

Today less than 0.5% of Americans live and work on farms.

The reason is automation. Starting with horse drawn reapers, then moving on we've seen farm work become increasingly automated and as a result produce huge amounts of food for almost no human labor at all. Right this second you can go to any John Deer dealership in America and buy, off the shelf, a combine that can harvest a field with no human driver and likely no human involvement at all.

The reason we're seeing it as "sudden" is because the long decline in rural communities is finally hitting the point where many/most are vanishing completely rather than just getting steadily poorer and seedier as more people leave and more businesses shut down.

In 2000 the Texas state demographer predicted that in 20 years about half of communities with a population under 1,000 would vanish. It's not quite 20 years, but he's on track to be correct. Around half of the very small towns in Texas have simply closed down, you can argue they still technically exist in that there's a family, or maybe even two, still living there, but when even the gas station is shut down it's not really a town anymore.

The important thing to remember is that there's no reversing this. There is no salvation for rural America. This isn't the result of any particular bad actor or even a group of bad actors, but rather the result of advances in agricultural technology. There's no fix, there's no cure, there's no healing or help for America's small rural communities. All we can do is help people fleeing the wreckage of rural America make a soft landing and get a new, better, job in the cities.

Which is probably fueling a lot of the articles like this one. People have always idealized the mythic bucolic "simple life" as a source of "real America", and it's always easier to idolize something that's vanished or vanishing than something surviving and inconveniently real and with all the ugliness that real things have.

I'll also note that a lot of the backlash against the linked article is probably due to context. Taken in isolation it's one thing. But it exists not in a vacuum, but in a sea of other articles proclaiming (white) rural America to be the seat of all that is good and worthy in the world, and imploring us evil city slickers to be sympathetic to the plight of (white) rural Americans who just want their country back. Thus we get people saying that perhaps people in rural areas believe they should help others, which is a nonsensical statement unless you assume an unspoken "unlike filthy (non-white) city people who don't believe they should help others". And most Americans get understandably tired of being constantly told that they're a bunch of bad people who don't even count as real Americans.
posted by sotonohito at 1:50 PM on March 25 [20 favorites]


People in this thread are really, really mixing up "rural community" with impoverished backwoods and/or the movie Footloose. I grew up in a rural area and OF COURSE most of the kids were the exact same as in town. We dressed as nice as we could, we gossiped and lived for trips to the city. We also all still keep in touch despite living quite literally all over the world in out 20s and 30s, most all of us went to college and a lot of people have moved back as they've had kids. You had to be smart and tough to run a farm in the 40s-80s, which is our parents. It's not longer economically as viable and many rural areas have been taken over by meth and rural residential "I'll do what I like on my 5 acres" but that doesn't mean it was always like that. People who live in the woods on a few acres and have weird flags and are anti-government are NOT "rural communities". That's like saying all cities are dens of vice.

Why isn't this article titled "What I Wish My White Children Could Learn From My White Rural Upbringing"? Not once are PoC, Native Americans, immigrants, or LGBTQ folx mentioned in this article.

Have you ever been to a rural area or just seen them on movies? The community of people I met growing up in a rural area and in in a decade spent working on farms, a community I'm still very much in touch with even though most of us had to move to "real" jobs primarily due to health care concerns, was about 1,000x more diverse than any city job I have ever had.

I'm also not sure people read the article but it's a way of life that is mostly gone now in the US. Family farms have been dying for 30 years or more.
posted by fshgrl at 1:52 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Because farming is tremendously risky and financially insecure, and devastating for the people who engage in it, as we see in the news every day. This is like complaining that mill towns and mining towns are dying out. This is like complaining that war doesn't bring people together like it used to. Yeah...these lifestyles probably should die out and be replaced by much more sustainable industries that cause less harm.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:16 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


"He didn't include the perspective of every possible group and therefore everything he says is BS" seems impossible to respond to.

It's not just: spaces like that are bad for me as a Latinx queer person. It's also: small towns and rural communities are often not even good for the people they were trying to be good for, now. We can't go back to more "traditional" lifestyles and just cherry-pick the parts we want and leave behind what we don't. To get a little Biblical, here, because I think it's appropriate: A good tree doesn't produce bad fruit. If the existing communities in rural areas and small towns are falling apart, I don't think it's actually a good idea to say that their core values are good core values.

I grew up in a small town and in a family that was heavily influenced by ideas like self-reliance and economy, and those things held me back so much for so many years. My grandmother tried to teach me that re-using foil and wrapping paper was going to make my life easier. My mom thought it was a virtue to never buy food that wasn't on sale. These things did not help me. I got taught a variety of hard work that was not at all compatible with the kind of work I have to do to make a good living. To look back to barn-raising as the model for what a healthy community looks like doesn't make sense, to me, in a world where we don't need that many barns and we do need people to vote to pay more taxes. Making these into useful values for inclusive, modern communities requires abstraction to the point of meaninglessness.
posted by Sequence at 2:26 PM on March 25 [20 favorites]


Have you ever been to a rural area or just seen them on movies?

Not that this extremely fucking dumb gotcha should matter, but yes, I've been to rural communities. I've lived with people whose families who are barely removed from antebellum sharecroppers and still deal with white people wanting to drag them behind pickup trucks. I've worked with Latinx folks in Texas who have had their basic rights to things like social safety nets and voting and healthcare taken away from them because rural whites with better access didn't want them to have it. I have LGBTQ friends who can't return to their rural lives because at best they will lead miserable lives, and at worst the "community" will either collectively abuse them or tacitly approve of individuals doing it. One of the biggest reasons my dad became an advocate for social justice was because he joined the Army and saw how rural communities treated natives and PoC, where many of them had never had decent clothes or footwear or shelter until the state provided it for them because the "community" really only took care of white people (and occasionally "the good ones"). When you're talking about people who left their communities because being forced together with strangers from all walks of life for the opportunity of getting randomly shot or blown up was the more welcoming option, maybe rural life for those not playing on the default settings ain't exactly Shiny Happy People.

Like, it's great and all that you were able to find a community that reflected a certain diversity, but I'm not sure why your anecdata is supposed to be representative and I'm apparently just making shit up because I saw it in a Western or something. In the end it's still anecdata, and it just doesn't jive with actual data.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:36 PM on March 25 [30 favorites]


For instance, I work with college freshmen, a fair number of whom grew up in rural areas or small towns, and they describe a lack of anonymity which is very alien to my urban experience.

I grew up in the suburbs, where teachers at our elementary school remembered my mother attending, and my sister was constantly furious that everyone she met was already somehow known by someone else in the family. Hell, there is a rich vein of stories about the deeply intertwined communities in the inner cities. Maybe if we stopped publishing every mindnumbing rural white autobiography that got pitched, we could all learn a little about not-rural-america for a change.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:39 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Also, I can't believe this has to be said (again), but there are people who grew up or lived in rural areas right here in this thread refuting the narrative Wilkins recites about rural communities. Maybe engage with their experiences and concerns instead of playing stupid games with imagined cityslicker stereotypes.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:48 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


It's so weird that we don't see similar community organize in majority POC urban communities. It's like if they started a free school breakfast program and kept on eye on their neighbors the full force of law would come down on them and even resort to outright assassinations. They could start some sort of organization, let's call it Tree Seed, and congress and the right-wing media would attack them relentlessly.

If the Grange were located in majority black areas it would be labeled a terrorist organization.
posted by stet at 2:49 PM on March 25 [17 favorites]


Do you want barn-raisings? Because this is how you get barn-raisings.
posted by valkane at 2:50 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


If the Grange were located in majority black areas it would be labeled a terrorist organization.

Previously (and it's about time for another fpp on the Grange movement): "Grange Halls are common landmarks in America's rural communities. But what is a "Grange"? The Order of Patrons of Husbandry is a fraternal agricultural organization, but it's not just a social group for farmers; Grange lobbying fought railroad monopolies and led to Rural Free Delivery, the Farm Credit System, and other "progressive legislation that will benefit U.S. agriculture, rural America, and the nation in general". But after 140 years, the Grange is fading away."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:04 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


People have always idealized the mythic bucolic "simple life" as a source of "real America",

The late Middle Ages and the roughly 50 squintillion pastoral novels that were written then would like to put in a word for Europe.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:44 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


so I continued to be interested and read the goodreads reviews for Joe Wilkin's memoir and found this review interesting:
However, unlike my short-lived Big Sky adventure (We moved to the Bay Area just as I turned 12, ruling out the shotgun), Wilkins’ nostalgia for the Big Dry is bittersweet. Writing in his early 30s, Wilkins reflects on his youth as a story of survival. His father died when he was 9, leaving his mother to raise him and two siblings on a 300-acre sheep and hay farm in a gritty dot of a community called Melstone. They survived on the whims of rainfall and a coal-fired furnace in a drafty house “cobbled together from the ruins of homesteader shacks.”

“You couldn’t call it a living. It was a kind of ritualized dying,” Wilkins writes.

More than a memoir, the book is an indictment of the ideology of rugged individualism so deeply rooted in the arid American West. The success-through-hard-work religion no doubt makes for rugged individuals. However, this book shows that it also turns individuals against their land and, ultimately, themselves.

Wilkins’ portrays a dismal array of childhood peers, including an overgrown bully named Rooster. Several are abandoned or abused by their parents or relatives. By his mid-teens, Wilkins joins his lot in drinking hard, driving fast and doping on nicotine. But he stops short of throwing punches and smoking marijuana. He has boundaries because he has hope.

That hope springs from his rancher grandfather who gifts him a vision for some better life beyond Melstone and from the stories told of his esteemed father whom Wilkins has subconsciously erased from memory. The author was also blessed with imagination, thanks to his college-educated mother, Olive, who gifts him a love for reading.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:02 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Grew up in the suburbs, spent 10 years living in the country in Japan, now bringing my kids up in the city. City life is 1000% better.
posted by JamesBay at 4:29 PM on March 25


As part of a writing residency, he and his family spent the summer and fall of 2015 living in an off-the-grid cabin in the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon. They were prepared for ticks, poison oak, and black bears, but they didn’t realize how much they’d miss having a nearby ice-cream shop.

This is kind of a recurring theme (No Impact Man, no-air-conditioning guy). Can anyone name a single woman writer whose family had to spend months or years living “off the grid” or similar for the sake of her latest creative project?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:04 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Barbara Kingsolver, for her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:10 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


for their entire lives, they have mostly interacted with people who knew them, knew their parents, knew their grandparents, knew everything about them. My students typically describe this as both comforting and suffocating. It is very weird for them to be in a place where they don't know most people, and it's often kind of freeing.

In the eminently readable Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, authors/sociologists touched on this phenom and how, for some rural kids, going to college was something of an existential crisis because they went from knowing their "place" in a town (as defined by the people who had known them all their lives, and in relation to other residents) to being forced to interact with people who took them as they were without all the "their people are [fill in the blank]" or the "she was our cross-country star."

Some of the kids, when confronted with the reality of making their way in a world where they were wholly responsible for how people knew them, went straight home again.

I think about this a lot -- how one would raise a person to think about themselves in seemingly contradictory terms -- who are you apart from your place and people? How do place and people make you who you are?
posted by sobell at 5:29 PM on March 25 [9 favorites]


People get rich on agriculture subsidies while we begrudge starving families their food stamps. Fuck your "self reliance".
Fuck, yeah. The dad dying. The grandfather selling off the farm. Those fat cats had it schweeeeet.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:53 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


We lived for the past 15 years or so in rural Vermont. Very rural - town has about 500 people, no stoplight.

And we definitely had community. Our town meetings actually have some measure of governance, small d democracy. We helped organize first responder services, road maintenance (very challenging in the north country), flood prevention, etc. We had political divides, political tendencies, long-running controversies, the works. Beyond town meetings we also organized monthly cultural events, a local historical society, wood supplies for those who needed it (again, very important in the north country), alternative energy support, and more. We arranged for trash and recycling through a biweekly central deposit; that emerged as a kind of ad hoc social center.

Most of the time we lived there we also had a school board for our elementary school (very small: about 40 kids). That was taken away by state action a few years ago, and replaced with a country-level school board.

We definitely experienced community in Ripton. We got to know everybody, from the local environmental hero Bill McKibben to the yarn-spinning trash pickup guy to the lawyer who was a state political leader for a bit to retired school teachers. We came together to survive and rebuild from two extraordinary floods. We helped each other through winter's stresses, from chopping wood for those who needed it to hauling people's trucks out of snow drifts. When the local Post Office manager tried to ax our little PO, I and a friend organized protests that succeeded in preserving the thing.

My family homesteaded, starting from scratch, so we got to learn a lot by talking with people in town. That's one way we learned the best ways to grow corn (or try to, in that climate), which fruit trees to try (apples, basically), how to gut chickens and milk goats. We compared notes on wood stacking techniques, which is pretty nerdy, come to think of it.

There was sense of everyone being in the same fix together. Rural Vermont isn't an easy place to live, and we tended to help each other out.

Our kids didn't have the same experience. The town was too small to provide enough peers for them, especially as they were nerdier than the average. A lot of community interaction felt like old folks' stuff to them: boring. They did pitch in with trash and recycling, and our daughter did great service in one flood (she was on the fire department). At times they appreciated growing food. I think they enjoyed having woods to explore. But both wanted to get the heck out, and each did.
posted by doctornemo at 7:11 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Can anyone name a single woman writer whose family had to spend months or years living “off the grid” or similar for the sake of her latest creative project?

Singer-songwriter Carole King. At least, that's how she'd like you to see it, though reading Girls Like Us pretty clearly paints her as a woman whose relationship pattern was to pick dominating-to-outright-abusive males, and let them call the shots on her money. Which is how she ended up moving to Idaho with her kids and husband number - three? and living the life of a frontier woman while suing her neighbors at her husband's instigation.
posted by Lunaloon at 10:00 AM on March 26


When I was in 6th grade, my immigrant parents moved us from a city to a small midwestern farming town. I definitely saw the community spirit. Being the only non-white family, though, I was never included in it. My brother sure got beat up a lot, though.

And it wasn’t just me. Newer white families were merely tolerated. “Weird” kids of all kinds barely so. There was a very narrow definition of belonging, and a clear hierarchy, and I learned pretty quickly where I stood. Mostly people were nice about it. It wasn’t personal. I just wasn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s sour grapes, but after awhile I didn’t even want to be one of them. I saw how a blind eye was turned toward abuse, violence, etc. there were good people, but there were also dangerous people, but community ties meant that the latter were given wide latitude. It almost felt like the small size of the community made people unwilling to amputate any part, no matter how cancerous. Most of all, I saw how being told that nobody and nothing would ever be as good kept my friends there despite the large toll it took on their mental health and economic well-being. I can’t imagine ever going back.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:01 AM on March 26 [11 favorites]


Also, if you want to see self-reliance and economy, you should visit any third world city. The things my cousins build out of literal trash are astounding.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:03 AM on March 26 [7 favorites]


Sobell: my cousin was an all-something soccer player for his tiny school in his tiny small town. He got courted by several good colleges but on his first visit to a college campus, he visited their soccer team and realized those guys were as good as he was if not better and he wasn’t going to be a big wheel in this program, just another guy. He couldn’t take the idea at all and went right home and never went to college.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:35 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


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