What Rural Is

Fifteen ways of being in the country

| March-April 1996

1. I live in a large university town. I work at a small college in a much larger city 25 miles away. What I drive through to get to and from work is rural. Rural is the stuff I see outside my windshield. Corn and soybeans. Grain elevators. A river. When the spring rains come there are herons and egrets in the swampy fields.

2. My students tell me, you want to know rural, go work on a farm. Get up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows. Bale the hay in 90-degree August heat. File down the chickens’ beaks before you put them in their cages. Walk the beans. Detassel the corn. Rural is work.

3. I was born in suburbia. One time I tried to irrigate my mother’s flower bed. Billy Johnson and I dug a series of canals and ditches to each pink petunia. We exposed all the roots. My mother was pissed, not pleased. “At least,” she said, “you won’t be a farmer.” To my mother, who was a recent Hungarian immigrant, rural living meant being a peasant.

4. My first job after college was supervising a landscape and horticultural crew in Fairfax, Virginia. My boss lined up the jobs and gave estimates. I directed the crew and assigned tasks. We all liked working outdoors with our hands, and we were all ashamed of the low status associated with the work. The pay was lousy. It was classified as agricultural employment. Rural labor meant a lower minimum wage than working at McDonald’s.

5. I left that job to go to grad school, then I left grad school to teach high school. I was an instructor at a county vocational school in south central Pennsylvania. Most of the students knew more than I did. I said let’s take a soil test, and a smart kid in a cowboy hat licked the dirt and said it needed nitrogen and lime. We tested it. The soil needed nitrogen and lime. Rural people often know the land, but this kid got a job at Pizza Hut after graduation and was happy about it.

6. My wife and I would drive the rural roads for fun and entertainment, stopping at the small-town cafés for greasy eggs and homemade pies, eavesdropping on strange citizens. In Arendtsville a local girl had made it big by becoming a life-size scratch-and-sniff Hustler magazine centerfold. They had the poster hung up at the town’s one bar. Copies of the magazine were sold out within a hundred-mile radius. Being rural meant being proud of whatever anyone had done that someone somewhere else had noticed.