As I arrived for a visit, my 90 year old father was perusing ads from his favorite big box store for chicken parts. Seizing the moment that all children savor, I sought to impress him with my declaration: "I buy my chicken parts – albeit at higher prices – at the natural foods store; you know daddy, where the chickens ate naturally off the barn yard floor like they did when you were a boy"? Not missing a beat and dashing my hope for an "at a boy," he retorted: "I saw what those chickens ate off the barnyard floor and I'll buy my chickens at Walmart(s)!"
And so, in his own way, my father just about sums it up – and puts me in my place. For one, he certainly doesn't long for the good old days that were anything but. He was raised poor in Appalachia Kentucky and likely had to work for his supper, wringing the neck of a chicken that ate whatever it could scrape from the dirt. He prefers the modern conveniences like the big box stores so hated by the urbane crowd. And, so we see the clash of the old versus the new; of culture that is good and culture that is changing to fit the times in which we live.
How does that translate into the lives we lead and where we are going? Note that the "Walmart chicken man" is the same father who observed that computers were evil because they had put blue collar line workers like him on the street. So, in this the age of "technology as savior" and as the end all be all, we are alas seeing a revival of interest in local culture. We are seeing the dawn of small versions of big box stores and the "re-sizing” of American lifestyles. As The Economist (May 15, 2010) has noted, some really smart people may simply wish to live next door to cows and chickens even if my father does not. There's a notion that small may appeal to people living in an outrageously outsized world. This can be seen in a renewed interest in coming home or staying home in the smaller towns of America.
But, that return toward local culture goes only so far. The palpable interest in lifestyles that eschew the "cold flickering computer screen in the middle of the night" in favor of warmer and more nurturing places does not mean we can return to the past. Frankly, as my father reminds me, we might not want to. The new small town lifestyle is anything but complacent and "old fashioned."
There are stories abounding of telecommuters working for big east/west coast companies inventing software programs – inspired by the springtime hills alive with rosebud trees. There is even the former advertising executive, who commented upon hearing of friend's involvement in a controversy: "There is always extraordinary life (in the countryside) beyond controversy ... I am farming these days and stifling my leadership urges except for cows, goats and Border Collies."
As much as we might like to think that youthful retirees and young millennials will relocate to the mythic "Mayberry," with its homespun values and slow deliberate quality of life, the successful Mayberry has to offer more than nostalgia. The pleasing camaraderie of neighbors is not enough. You also need educational opportunities, good health care and transportation. People may be seeking warmth and nurturance and bucolic scenes but we are demanding lot, fed by the 21st century to hold such contradictory views as shopping at Starbucks or Wal-mart while marching in the street for more locally-owned shops.
So in the face of all this, how do we build a rural America that can sustain our small towns and offer an alternative lifestyle of Americans who yearn for one? We are accustomed to turning our "lonely eyes" to technology for all the answers and indeed it is critically important. But, the answer for small town rural America lies in merging the blessings of technology with the culture that makes the small town lifestyle so special.
To put it bluntly: culture eats technology on any day of the week. Examples range from Afghanistan's impenetrable and powerful ground level tribal network that thwarts the strongest armies – from the British to the Soviets to the US – to the puzzling rejection of educational attainment in Appalachia due to the reality of fear that "getting smart" will only encourage children to leave home. In the rougher part of the world, "staying close to home" is deeply rooted in ancient cultural ties to land and place.
So, how do we combine the technology that will lift up economic prosperity and build wealth and while understanding better the role of local culture in creating the resilient rural communities of the future? I call it the ultimate "mash-up". It will require the combination of the five Ps: PERSPECTIVE and hard-nosed research to know where you stand: who is coming to or staying in your community or region; investment in PEOPLE and their education and health and other documented needs; recognition and promotion of PLACE, PRESERVATION of what is dear in our culture; and finally putting all that together with technology that can bring economic PROSPERITY not only in dollars but in quality of life.
We certainly need to take what technology offers, with its gift of allowing us to live and work anywhere. But this is a hollow benefit unless we imbue it with the culture that makes our lives special. It won't be computers that will make our rural places unique. It will be the native music, crafts and stories and how we preserve and adapt them to modern times.
Sylvia Lovely is an author, commentator and speaker on issues relating to communities and how we must adapt to the new landscape that is the 21st century.
Photo by pfly.