Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Going Down the Road," this time from western Iowa

Here's the latest in the NYT's "Going Down the Road" series. This report from Monica Davey features the dateline Iowa Falls, Iowa, and the headline is "Vanishing Barns Signal a Changing Iowa." It uses the state's many disused and falling-down barns to discuss the parallel demise of the type of neighbor-helping-neighbor community (what rural sociologists call gemeinschaft, sometimes translated "community") long associated with the rural Midwest. The story is very rich and full of rural themes such as multi-generationality in rural communities and attachment to place. Here's a short excerpt:
But the tale of the disappearing barn, a building whose purpose shifted, then faded away, tells a bigger story too, of how farming itself, a staple in this state then and now, has changed markedly since those writers drove through.

What had in the 1930s been an ordinary farm here — 80 or 160 acres and a few cows and sheep and chickens — is today far bigger and more specialized to pay for air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors, so much fuel and the now-skyrocketing price of farmland.

Read the rest of this very sentimental story here, with interviews of various residents of western Iowa's small towns. See the interactive feature here. Stories like this one make our nation's rural past sound so appealing that I find myself incredulous that it was ever quite as good as the old-timers say. Nevertheless, it is rural associations such as that with gemeinschaft, I believe, that fuel the "love" part of our nation's ongoing love-hate(disdain) relationship with rural America.

P.S. It is surely a reflection of that "love-hate" relationship that, more than 36 hours after this story was posted to the NYT site, it is still one of the 10 most emailed items. We remain nostalgic for our rural past, perhaps even more so as we see signs -- like the falling barns and the farm consolidation -- that it is slipping away.

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