Patchwork Nation makes a valiant attempt to measure the differences from place to place in America. The challenge to us is to find a better way to calculate local culture. Here's a start.
My husband, Mike, and I split time between our small farm in Couch, Missouri, and the closest university town, Jonesboro, across the Arkansas line. Each week, we make the two-hour trek from the Missouri Ozarks to the Arkansas Delta and back. We’re both folklorists, so on our drives we often talk about folklore kinds of things, such as cultural sustainability.
We pass over the Black River, a geographic and cultural divide between the Delta and Ozarks, often saying over and over again with our three-year-old son, “Delta, Delta, Delta, Delta…Ozarks, Ozarks, Ozarks” when we’re on the bridge. The towns of Jonesboro and Pocahontas, Arkansas, have the universally familiar Walmart and McDonalds, but there are many more markers along the way that speak much more of place, such as the café at the cattle sale barn or the Mennonite grocery in Dalton with peacocks strolling out front.
We always check the water level when we hit the Eleven Point River, one of the nation’s few remaining wild rivers, and observe the progress of the renovation of the Rice House, believed to be the oldest domestic log structure in the state. When we get home to Couch, there’s no cable, no broadband, no Cracker Barrel, and certainly no Starbucks. My weekends are spent trying to organize local food producers, teaching fiddle lessons, and trying to catch the Friday night jam sessions at Juggbutt’s, the county’s only coffee shop and the closest Wi-Fi hot spot.
Perhaps this is why I was so taken aback when I discovered the “culture” tab on the Patchwork Nation website.
The map is an interactive visual manifestation of the book, Our Patchwork Nation, written by Dante Chinni, a journalist, and James Gimpel, a political scientist. The website and book came from a desire by the two authors to offer a more in-depth understanding of America leading up to the presidential elections in 2008, one that would go beyond the over-simplification of Red and Blue states.
There’s some very useful information both in the book and on the map. In fact, I used the food desert map on the site for a grant application about a month ago. Still, I’m disturbed by the categories presented by the authors in describing and categorizing American culture.
The Patchwork map offers the following categories: Walmart locations, Neiman Marcus—Saks stores, Casino Locations, Counties with Cracker Barrel Restaurants, Cracker Barrel Restaurants, Whole Foods, Counties with Whole Foods Outlets, and Gun Shops and Dealers.
This model defines American culture solely as being consumption in a market economy. And it defines American culture as predominately corporate and chain owned. Only gun shops offer the possibility of being independent. Ironically, these categories grossly over-simplify culture in the same way that defines states as Red or Blue.
Hey, it’s culture, so it’s complicated. The whole country’s complicated. With Patchwork Nation’s millions of dollars in funding from the Knight Foundation and the backing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, however, I expected more.
The book adds Starbucks locations and some statistics on religion. At least the religion section begins to identify over-arching cultural themes. I haven’t quite been able to make sense of how a corporation’s decision to put a box store in a community might offer any explanation or understanding of a community’s culture.
On our drives, Mike and I have often talked about what an accurate cultural atlas would be for our county. It usually involves layers, so you could compare things such as settlement patterns, language, music, native populations, native plants and domesticated crops. The ideal map would allow you to, say, …
Determine how much fiddle music is being played today, in the Eleven Point Watershed, where the Osage used to hunt for deer.
Or, find what percentage of the folks there today live under the national poverty line and for how long. Where most people go to church, or if they go at all. The residents who have broadband. The location of the nearest hospital. What people do for work or recreation. What else they make and do.
The Patchwork map challenges us to imagine what the digital manifestation of a useful cultural atlas could and should be. In some ways, something as ridiculous as identifying the number of strip clubs per county in America would offer more insight into American culture than the number of Starbucks. To that end, here’s the start of my list:
In the Patchwork Nation’s cultural map, our county barely counts. We have no culture. After all, we only have one Walmart.
We know from living here that this is wrong. The majority of counties in our country are, like ours, rural and rich with culture of all types and persuasions. I’d be interested to know what defines the culture of your place.
What would you like to see mapped?
Rachel Reynolds Luster lives in Couch Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains. She is a writer, folklorist, fiddler, textile artist and community organizer. She is a contributing editor to one of our favorite websites, The Art of the Rural.