Thursday, February 01, 2007

Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside

A few weeks ago, somebody whose opinions I was beginning to admire made a statement which, on the front of it, seemed rational and reasonable, not at all out of the ordinary. But the more I thought about it, the more it gnawed at me.

This man’s story is not unusual.

He had been born and raised in suburbia, and made his way to yon hinterlands in college, then bounced around awhile before finally returning to those stomping grounds of his late formative years. He decided to stay, because there was a steady job for him here, and because it was a nice place to raise kids. He liked the straight streets on an even grid, the fact that one could walk down them at night unmolested. He found he even liked and respected the people. What this man said was, “I was shocked by how many erudite people lived out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Initially, I couldn’t understand why this statement would bother me so much. After all, virtually the entire rest of the world felt the same way. My mother reminded me of an occasion when she had spoken with a woman who had come to the region to instruct the locals on various government and private plans for long-term farm growth. Mom said the woman was surprised these farmers so easily grasped her difficult business concepts.

And then it hit me: this bothered me because these prejudices are so widely held.

The common perception from city and suburb is that, if one is a farmer, one is a nitwit. If one is raised in a farming community, one is fated to be a caricature -- a bumpkin, a rube, a hick, a hayseed, a clodhopper, a goober, a chawbacon, a Tony Lumpkin with straw still clinging to his hair, ever wondering why everybody in the Big City is staring at him while he gawps at “them tawl buildin’s.”

But life is not Green Acres. The commonsense man is not a mere transplant from Manhattan, plunked among villains and boobs.

Here we have open spaces between buildings, between townships, but not between the ears. All the city slicker stuff isn’t exactly new to us. Long-range business planning was invented by farmers, who needed to be able to set things by for their children. These days, the farmer who doesn’t know what a spreadsheet is, is a rare breed indeed. Farmers use computers to plan, use the internet to order supplies, to buy and sell crops, to keep track of market trends, to do all sorts of things other than simply to communicate with friends, relatives, and associates. Today, farmers are often the first to recognize and utilize new technologies -- who else has such vested interests in advances in genetic research, climatology, environmental conservation, geology, machine dynamics (including engineering and maintenance), fuel efficiency, alternative energy, building construction, mass international transportation, and so many other “hot” topics of the day?

Farmers’ kids, too, are in touch with whole wide world, and have been so for my entire lifetime. For as long as I can remember, we out here have had access to public television, and all the culture it brought. Before that, too, rural kids had radio shows, libraries, artists, musicians, coffee shops, and most of the cultural amenities the city kids had. We still have rapid transportation to and from major cities, so we from the dingles can visit museums, galleries, and cultural centers to our hearts’ content, and still be home in time for the Tonight Show.

Plus, we get our produce fresher than city kids do. It doesn’t take a genius to taste the difference between a tomato picked green and shipped from some distant state to be sold at the supermarket and a fully-ripened tomato still warm from the vine.

By no means am I saying that life in a rural community is superior to that of a city or suburb (I may often think it, but I won’t speak the words aloud). But what I am trying to say is simply this: it should come as no surprise to anybody who pays attention, that living out in the boonies of America is not what it was a century and a half ago. The day of the blindly ignorant, isolated, gee-whiz plowboy is gone, and it’s high time people recognized the fact.

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