What Rural Is

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.

7. Every small town had its claim to fame. One had an Indonesian restaurant. Another had a statue of Jim Thorpe. Each place looked the same with its town square, soft-serve ice cream stand, churches, and bars, but each had a different history. When the train companies closed their depots each town grew smaller. Being rural meant having to get there by car. Even the buses didn’t stop there anymore.

8. We wanted to move to a city where we could both find work, but instead we went back to graduate school in the heart of Iowa. My three children were all born in Iowa. By the standards of my home state, New Jersey, that alone makes them rural kids. We don’t live on a farm. Our neighborhood isn’t quiet. Being rural means coming from a place like Iowa even if your hometown is a standard metropolitan statistical area.

9. My poker-playing tennis-partner buddy comes from a family of hog farmers. He’s a computer maven for the geology department. When his family of origin goes on vacation, he and his wife hang out on the farm, ostensibly to help with chores and take a vacation from suburban life. They have a good time, taking long walks in the country and reading books. Being rural means relaxing from the cares of everyday life.

10. I had a Fulbright to teach in Hungary and traveled through much of Eastern Europe. Everywhere there was evidence of industrial contamination. Tall towers emitted particle dirt and soot that killed forests. Coal-burning heat left smoke and ashes on nearby fields and orchards. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and such left much former farmland scarred and barren. Rural meant the wretched evidence of pollution.

11. I went to Poland on vacation with two colleagues. We stopped at Auschwitz, where my mother had been enslaved and her parents, grandfather, and six brothers had been exterminated. The Polish prairie land resembled that of the Midwestern United States, even at the concentration camp site. While we visited the decayed barracks, a peasant was harvesting the on-site fields with a horse-drawn tractor. His child played in the tall grass near the acidic lake where numerous bodies had been thrown to decompose. The farmer and his child seemed oblivious to the nefarious nature of their surroundings. The day was sunny, bright, and temperate. Rural meant not wasting good soil, no matter what the place had been previously used for.

12. My first job after grad school was teaching at a large land-grant institution. Most of my students came from rural backgrounds. They said farm animals were a renewable energy resource. They taught me the secrets of farm life. That turkeys are stupid and will drown themselves catching rain in their beaks. That bulls have to be castrated to become good meat. That chickens are cruel and sometimes peck each other to death. Being rural meant having insight into the true nature of animal life.

13. Our presidential caucus comes early and attracts much media attention. Every four years it’s the same thing. Some network anchor will stand out in some farmer’s cornfield telling the nation what we think, even though most of us do not live on farms. Rural is the backdrop that proves you are in Iowa.

14. One of the local newspapers ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the dangers of farming. According to insurance actuarial tables, farming is a more hazardous profession than race-car driving or professional boxing. The machinery, the farm chemicals, the business stresses create a scenario ripe for trouble. Rural means risking your life.

15. A friend lives in an old one-room schoolhouse in nearby Amish country. She got in a car accident on the Orville Yoder Turnpike, a small farm road with a fancy name. The tires of her station wagon went flat and her vehicle wouldn’t start after she hit a cow in the darkness. At least no one was hurt. As she and her passengers awaited help by the side of the road, being rural meant it could have been worse.

Reprinted from Witness, (Vol. 9, No. 2).

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