(The following is recycled content from 2008, a post that grew out of a conversation with colleagues in the National Writing Project about the importance of place for rural educators.)
I grew up next to a pasture with the family milk cow mooing right outside my bedroom window, and while I’ve lived mainly in towns most of the rest of my life, they’re small towns, those Main Street slices of rural Americana that are vanishing from the national landscape.
A lot of us are sentimental at the loss of this part of our culture, because we grew up with this incredible sense of place connected to those small farms, towns, and communities. In fact, I consider service within the Rural Sites Network of the National Writing Project partly as a mission to preserve and even perpetuate the nobler aspects of these rural values and traditions. (I admit some of our values and traditions are less noble than others, and vice versa! lol?)
Anyway, several months ago I, along with several other rural colleagues, engaged one of our urban colleagues in an earnest conversation on this topic after he more or less challenged our assumptions about our “rural selves” by asking, “Why is place more of a big deal for you rural people than it is for urban people?”
I am rarely at a loss of words, but at the moment he posed that shocking question, I was temporarily dumbfounded. I began to blurt out all of our traditional assertions: “Rural people are place bound,” “Rural people are culturally isolated and thus deprived,” “Rural people are this and that and so on and so forth,” the same as we always suppose about ourselves.
But at every point, my earnest urban colleague confronted me with an example from the urban setting that showed comparable issues for the city folks, only their issues about place were dressed in different garb or came from a different direction. But they were similar issues and often grave issues.
That fascinating exchange caused me to realize that this is a conversation we apparently need to have among ourselves. We easily grow so accustomed to our assumptions and even stereotypes about ourselves as rural people that we run the danger of growing mindless, which is the precursor of growing meaningless.
Yikes! Do we need an apologetic?
I believe the answer is “yes.” Not that we need to apologize, mind you, but we do need to be able to articulate our raison d’etre so that urban folks understand us the same as we understand ourselves. This discussion forum is a good place to tackle that apologetic.
So here’s the question: Why is rural “place” so important to rural people, and how do we relate that importance to urban friends . . .
who have never trod barefoot through a dairy barnyard?
or sat in church on a summer Sunday morning with the windows flung open to that penned-up donkey across the gravel road braying along with the hynn singing?
or pulled a well-shaped tumble-weed from the fence row and into the living room to be flocked and decorated for Christmas?
or smelled the fragrace of freshly-turned earth at planting time?
In our hearts, we know the answer to those questions. But how do we explain ourselves? How do we celebrate the values? How do we hold on to the good of those Romantic notions and preserve them when the rest of our national culture is hell-bent in another direction?
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