Letting the Barn Cat Out of the Bag

Happy Tuesday, KIR readers! If you opted-in for the Thanksgiving hullabaloo this year, I hope you had a lovely time, and if you opted out, I respect that a lot. Either way, I hope you’ve had time to rest your animal body as winter descends upon us in the Northern Hemisphere. 

I have a secret to share that I’ve kept to myself since taking over this newsletter two months ago, and I really hope it doesn’t drive you toward that unsubscribe button. 

I feel like a rural fraud. 

I have never lived in a small town. The most rural place I’ve shared a zip code with is Carson City, capital of Nevada and population size 59,000. Not very rural. 

When I joined the Daily Yonder team last year, I worried this lack of lived experience would prevent me from accurately reporting small town stories. But, the more time I’ve spent writing about rural places and people, the more I’ve come to realize that rural doesn’t just mean your proximity to your neighbor’s house. For many, rural is more a state of mind than a geographic location, and in my opinion, all of us – small town and big city-dwellers alike – are closer to rural life than we think. 

“City life” is a relatively new phenomenon in this chapter of the anthropocene where we can fly across the planet in a day and heat our houses with the press of a button. Earlier this month, the world’s population officially hit 8 billion, proving the possibilities our technology has afforded us (for better or worse). 

Notable rural to urban migration in the United States didn’t happen until the late 19th century, and urban populations have only outnumbered rural populations over the past 100 years, according to PBS. Yet for many urbanites, cities are all they know, despite being separated from a more rural way of life by just a couple generations.

My own rural roots are closer than this: my grandma, dad, uncles, aunts, and cousins all live in rural Pennsylvania, where my family has been for generations. On that side of the family, I’m the odd one out living in a metro area larger than a couple thousand people. This small-town connection is the same for many city dwellers who are just one generation removed from rural life. And, for myself and my urban peers, I’ve seen a longing for rural experiences that belies the busy city idealized by pop culture. 

Most cities, which have so much potential to efficiently serve their residents, have failed to deliver on promises of convenience, culture, and community. Instead of meeting the basic needs of their residents, cities (read: politicians) choose to bend to the wishes of the wealthy. Folks who have gentrified neighborhoods and caused a homeless crisis our country is woefully unprepared for. Additionally, many urban areas, especially in the American West, are built for cars, not people, so on top of being unlivable, cities have become traffic-riddled hellscapes that do nothing to deliver on the urban promise of improved efficiency. And as livability decreases, people are leaving cities, Census Bureau research shows. 

We live in a very lonely time. What you think would be a given in a city – proximity to more people who can provide community and mutual aid – has become the exception. This, I think, has made rural life much more appealing. 

Not that rural communities are without their flaws. Many small towns are not the safe spaces they need to be for Black and Brown and queer people (and often, cities aren’t those safe spaces either, but at least their diversity is marginally better). Rural areas can also lack the opportunities that encourage young people to stay, often due to a declining economy caused by the lack of federal rural development policy. 

All of this is true, yet there is still so much to learn, or rather remember, from our rural roots. Just a couple weeks ago I was in rural eastern Kentucky speaking to people whose lives were upended by the devastating floods in late July. The loss was horrendous, yet people were still hopeful. Empathetic. Invested in their neighbors and communities. Ready to fill the gaps their local and state governments left them with.

Rural communities shouldn’t have to be so resilient, but they are, and it’s an example us city dwellers can learn from. 

My rural fraudulence comes from never having lived in a Small Town™, but I’m not sure that matters so much anymore. Tapping into the rural roots we all have can teach us about community, about loving the land you live on, about slowing down. It can teach us the resiliency and strength that — this past year of reporting has shown me unequivocally — is a uniquely rural quality.

Rural Reading List

One Third of Rural Roads Are in Poor Shape, Report Says

A new report highlights what many rural people already know: rural roads are in bad shape, and fixing them will take a big (monetary) lift from policymakers.

Denied, Dispersed, Disadvantaged: Chinook Tribe Pursues Centuries-old Fight for Federal Recognition

This article is a fantastic look into the Chinook Indian Nation’s fight for federal recognition, the lack of which has caused them to miss out on tribal pandemic assistance, Covid-19 tests and vaccines offered under the CARES Act of 2020. This, tribal members say, is “nothing less than genocide.”

It’s Public Land. But the Public Can’t Reach It.

Public lands in the West are often “landlocked” by private property, making them impossible to access. A legal dispute between a Wyoming landowner and four hunters is the latest development in an issue as old as private property rights.

One More Thing: The Case for Inefficiency

In celebration of slowness and inefficiency and doing nothing (three of my favorite things), I’d like to leave you with this lovely passage from Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a non-rural book about Silicon Valley and its obsession with optimization (a very urban fixation).

Unfortunately for me, I liked my inefficient life. I liked listening to the radio and cooking with excessive utensils; slivering onions, detangling wet herbs. Long showers and stoned museum-wandering. I liked riding public transportation: watching strangers talk to their children; watching strangers stare out the window at the sunset, and at photos of the sunset on their phones… I liked full albums, flipping the record. Long novels with minimal plot; minimalist novels with minimal plot. Engaging with strangers. Getting into it…

I could get frustrated, overextended, overwhelmed, uncomfortable. Sometimes I ran late. But these banal inefficiencies – I thought they were luxuries, the mark of the unencumbered. Time to do nothing, to let my mind run anywhere, to be in the world. At the very least, they made me feel human. 

The fetishized life without friction: What was it like? An unending shuttle between meetings and bodily needs? A continuous, productive loop? Charts and data sets. It wasn’t, to me, an aspiration. It was not a prize.

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