Rural by Choice: Rachel Reynolds Luster
From her home in the “MOzark” Mountains, Rachel Reynolds Luster invests a lot in her community as a librarian, folklorist, co-op organizer, and musician. In return, the community has invested a lot in her, she says.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about yourself- who you are, how you spend your time.
Rachel Reynolds Luster: I’m a folklorist, librarian, fiddler and community organizer living in the Missouri Ozarks. A lot of my time is devoted to organizing food producers and artisans in my home county. I also run a one-room rural library and play music every chance I get. I live with my family on a small farm and a good deal of time is spent there too, puttering in the garden or doing other projects.
DY: Tell us about where you live in the Ozarks.
RRL: I live in Couch, Missouri, a small, unincorporated village in Oregon County. We are in the Ozark Mountains right on the Arkansas/Missouri line. I like to call it the MOzarks. The county is geographically large and sparsely populated with a large chunk of the land being held in National Forest. Our land here is a karst topography, built on a thin layer of dirt over a series of caves. Our farm is between two watersheds, the Spring River and the Eleven Point. It’s beautiful here. The land and water is virtually unpolluted and, while it’s difficult to scratch out a good living in all this clay, it’s a worthwhile venture, one that folks have been devoted to doing for generations.
DY: How did you come to live where you do? How long have you lived there, and how long do you plan to stay?
RRL: I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, so this cultural landscape and way of life is familiar. I had taken a job in a neighboring county working for a local arts council doing folklife work, part of which was to do field work in five counties, including Oregon County. My soon-to-be husband had just taken a position across the line in Arkansas as the Director of the Arkansas Folklife Program. I had to be in West Plains twice a week for meetings, and he had to be in Jonesboro once a week for meetings. The rest of our work was pretty much done on the road or out of the house. Given that mathematical equation, Couch was pretty much the middle for us. We started looking. We had called about a little white farmhouse we’d seen on a flyer in the window of a shop in town. The agent said she couldn’t show it to us till Monday, but we asked for directions anyway. We went for a drive. It had just rained, and there’s this special Oregon County lighting that happens after a rain. It’s beautiful. It makes everything look like a painting of Tuscany. When we got to the place, the sky had opened up and there was a rainbow shining down on this little farmhouse. It was pretty much meant to be. We’ve been here going on 10 years. I have a lot invested in this community, and the community has invested a lot in me and my ideas. I have to say, I’ve never been in a place that felt more like home, and that was BEFORE my mom moved down the road. I can see living here for the rest of my days.
DY: Why did you choose to live here? What are the benefits?
RRL: My reasons, for the most part, were totally impractical, or would be considered as such if you asked most people. It really had to do with falling in love with the place, or the sense of place. I had an idea from the field work that I had done, but it really was an overwhelming sense of a feeling of home that drew me in. I have a sometimes irrational love of place (land and people) and, to me, Oregon County has it all. Once that decision was made, I felt obligated as a member of the community to use whatever skills and talents I might have to contributing to the health of the community. I’ve, at this point, devoted the last 10 years to doing just that, five researching and writing, and five just doing. It has been the most meaningful work I could imagine. Part of that work is to create understanding about value or what is valuable and to highlight that all value is not monetary. Why do people choose to live in a place where over a quarter of the residents live below the national poverty line, where broadband access is limited, where there are four times more cows than people? Because they love it, that’s why.
DY: How does work/employment factor into where you live? Does living in a rural place affect how you make your living?
RRL: I’m a firm believer in value other than money, but I have to say, the money thing is hard here. I, like most people working here, have multiple jobs, part time, with no benefits. Luckily, my husband has had insurance through his salaried position. It’s not easy, but it’s how it’s done by most of us. My deal with myself is to not take any work that moves the ball backward. Preferably, I move the ball forward in terms of my cultural and community work, but never backward. So, locally, I organize the co-op which I don’t get paid for (monetarily) except through the same percentage of sales that all of our selling members get. This does supplement our family income, which is part of the goal for our members. I run a library. I’m the only employee. It’s only open 20 hours a week, and I make a little over minimum wage. I count everything else as a third job. I write, play in two bands, am working on my Ph.D., and frequently am a speaker across the country on matters of community sustainability in a variety of disciplines, all of which bring some money in. Other people work and have cattle and rental properties. I remember another community worker whose family has been here forever saying, “It’s hard to make $40,000 a year here, but you can make $10,000 a year four times at different jobs.” I know that the job market for me would be much better in another place, but here is where I want to be. My work here is not done.
DY: What are the drawbacks of living in a rural place?
RRL: We’re three hours from anywhere. By that I mean fancy things like airports and good sushi. Also, that there is not broadband access everywhere in our county, and what we do have seems to be somewhat random. We do not have high speed internet available at our house through the phone company or satellite networks. Our property line is a creek; there’s broadband on the other side of the creek. Our public school does not have it yet. Emergency medical care is also an issue. We’re an hour from the nearest hospital and two hours away from the nearest one that you would want to go to.
DY: What’s your favorite thing about your town or home?
RRL: The community-mindedness of so many here, especially young people. We’ve recently formed a Co-Op Youth Council and it is amazing to work with them towards making our communities more livable. More broadly, I love the sense of fellowship here and that people make time to visit with one another.