Do you plan to learn, to leave a legacy? Either one, writes Tim Collins, requires a place to work from, a place to remain.
I grew up in the suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s. The constant movement of the city into countryside always bothered me. I hated to see trees and farm fields torn up and replaced by developments. This experience has led me many places, urban and rural, in what gradually became a quest for understanding.
So, I’m reading Robert A. Beauregard’s When America Became Suburban (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) with more than a casual interest. Beauregard relates suburbanization to, among other things, Americans’ belief in a constantly expanding frontier. Beauregard notes, quoting William Leach’s Country of Exiles, a long “indifference to place” deeply embedded in American culture. He may be right, but I’m not in that number, well not exactly.
Since leaving home for college in 1970, I’ve lived in at least 11 places ranging in size from 250 residents to half a million people or more. So, I understand the country’s restlessness. And, while I guess I’ve seen a lot of indifference to place, I’ve never understood it myself.
Place is sacred. It is not only the space you occupy, even in an ethereal world of instant global communications. It is the community, not only of people, but of the landscape, whether urban or rural. Place offers opportunities to learn, to understand, to contribute something, to leave behind a small piece of yourself, and to develop a perspective, one you may take to a new, different place.
Perhaps place resides in my “cultural genetics.” The Irish Adams side of the family farmed for several generations in southeastern and central Pennsylvania and then, like so many others, ended up in cities, in their case, Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio.
My preference for rural places has been with me for as long as I can remember, tangible memories from childhood: my mother (from the Adams side) pointing out where the glaciers stopped at what I later learned was the Allegheny Plateau in southeastern Ohio, as we walked on a friend’s farm near Canal Winchester; visits to a dairy farm for vanilla ice cream flavored with honey; the view from atop the Ferris wheel at the Gandolf Ford festival in the late 1950s, looking east from Columbus along U.S. 40 toward the slowly rising Appalachian foothills.
Place certainly is here and now. It is the flat and rolling areas of Western Illinois between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, a well-kept secret with too many problems tangled into its subtle beauty. The area has wonderful people living on a landscape that is special, especially at sunrise and sunset. For the most part, we are in decline now, but I hope it will not always be so. This place, with its heritage of archeology, prairie remnants, agriculture, industry, and education is too rich in possibilities to stay on a downward path.
Place is a sense and a feeling that helps ground your mind and body where you are. I’ve always made the best of the cities where I’ve spent too much of my adult life, getting an education in urban-based Land Grant Universities. Even there, I always sought out the more “rural” settings, the brick street running through a tree-lined ravine that absorbed the city noises; the untended river shore on the other side of the railroad tracks; or the nature preserve far away from downtown. “Getting out into the country” became an imperative, especially as I pursued advanced degrees in agricultural economics and rural sociology.
Here’s the restless part. Place also is out there, somewhere else to go when, for one reason or another, it’s time to move on to a new frontier, whatever that means in a mobile, highly urbanized society. For my part, I am always happy to leave urban areas. When I go to Chicago or other cities, I get the feeling that my small-townishness exudes from my demeanor. Despite many years of living in cities, rural and small-town living has become part of me. I must look like a rube as I gawk at the skyscrapers, flinch when horns blow too close to me, watch people much too closely, engage in conversation with people who are giving out flyers for one cause or another, and walk or drive too slowly. Cities are just too interesting, and engaging people is a part of small-town life. So is driving slowly. After all, what’s the hurry?
This is not to say that rural life is somehow superior to urban life, a myth that has persisted since Thomas Jefferson’s professions of agrarianism in the eighteenth century. We are long past that. After all, rural areas are in many ways urbanized and largely industrialized, just with fewer people across the landscape. But small towns do have their advantages. I enjoy being on first name basis with the staff at the doctor’s office and the owners of our locally owned hardware store and restaurants. I certainly enjoy driving to work with relatively little traffic. I like knowing the people I see around town, even if it’s just in passing with a smile and a nod. I also enjoy the relative quiet and tree-lined streets.
I’ve lived in rural places for too many years to hold an overly romantic view of them. And yet. And yet. Rural life is superior for some of us, a conscious choice of place that gives us comfort, whatever the disadvantages. Rural places tend to suit my disposition. Living in larger urban areas, especially the larger ones, has helped me appreciate small towns and rural places all the more.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.