Mapping Culture

[imgbelt img=Peacock.jpg]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.


[imgcontainer left] [img:hogkilling.jpg] [source]Rachel Reynolds

How do you measure the culture of a community? Maybe you count the number of hog killings on a cool Fall morning. This is our culture, near Couch, Missouri, in the Ozarks.

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

Patchwork Nation

Patchwork Nation shows the differences within the country by counting the kinds of stores that are clustered in counties. This map shows the concentration of gun dealers per capita. The darker the purple, the more gun dealers there are per resident.

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 Art of the Rural.