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EDITOR’S NOTE: Vivian Medina is a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tennessee. She wrote the following essay for a social work course after hearing a guest lecture on rural culture by Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies (which publishes the Daily Yonder). Coe spoke, in part, about how negative and one-sided stories of rural America can overwhelm our ability to see a more balanced picture of rural life.
I live down the street from a dilapidated barn and home. The house was once beautiful, and I can tell from the broken-down shell it is now. The barn looks like it may topple over any day now, and sometimes after it storms I’m surprised it hasn’t. This is what I think of when I think of rural. Maybe that’s because in high school, I always heard my friends talk about getting out of this “s*** town.” Maybe it’s because I tend to watch heartbreaking documentaries at an alarming rate, and I have seen that the worst conditions some children live in are in rural areas.
Listening to [the lecture] I began to feel ashamed that this was the first image that popped into my head. I was ashamed because I am a part of the problem. I think of these rural areas as dying, and I use it as motivation to go to school, to get out of my town. I don’t think of the ways I could help these towns. I don’t think of the opportunity there is to create. I only see the falling barn. I only see the arrests for meth. I only see one story.
There are problems with rural areas, but if everyone were like me and saw the hospitals leaving and decided this is it, this is where I pack my bag and run, it would only get worse. We all have such great opportunity to help here. Even if it’s just by dumping the negative views of these rural areas. Even if it’s realizing that there is more than the two severe points on the spectrum, that the middle ground exists and should be acknowledged. I hate the negative attitude I have adopted about my rural area, that I have accepted all the one-sided stories. That I took everyone else’s complaints and carried them on my shoulders. I realize [now] that those single stories never spoke for me.
After I pass the barn each day I continue my drive down to my piece of heaven (which also serves slices of heaven). The bakery of my boss and role model, Stuart Shull, stands just a couple of miles away from the National Forest. His business is a shining beacon of what rural areas need. It’s an example of the potential these areas have. He bought an old destroyed building when he was in his early 20s with his wife, Anissa. Both are professional bread and pastry chefs. Then with a whole lot of help from the community of Tellico, they managed to revamp the pile of brick and sheet rock into Tellico Grains Bakery, which is in its 16th year of business.
We buy our fruit from local farmers. We get firewood from a guy who lives up the road. We sell eggs we receive from a lady who calls her farm “Happy Chickens.” I talk to local bee farmers every day. I bake the bread that goes on their table every night. We are beautifully intertwined. How could I let all the negativity block out all my love for this? This magic that only happens in rural areas!
That house I mentioned earlier, I noticed something I have never put any thought into until after hearing [Coe] speak. The field in front of that house and barn is a hay field. And my neighbor, who doesn’t know the owner very well, goes and mows it whenever it gets high enough. He makes that field look perfect. He doesn’t profit from the round bales either. He lets the owners have them, free of charge. Sometimes he gives them away. He says they aren’t his to sell. That’s the good in the world. That’s the good in rural. This is the middle ground I ignored. I focused so hard on the house I forgot the golden field.