Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Am I not rural?

My hometown, Dunsmuir is one of the first settlements in the Cascade mountain range, which stretches up all the way to Canada. Boasting a population of something less than 2,000 and situated at least 45 minutes from any large settlement, it easily qualifies as rural under the US government definition as described by authors, Brown and Swanson.

However, nestled deep in a canyon, Dunsmuir's main income generator is historically the Southern Pacific Railroad, not crop production or other agricultural activities. So, when I read the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Perceptions of Rural America, a broad survey based investigation into American impressions of rural life, I questioned my own rurality.

The results of the Kellogg survey indicate that America, both rural and urban, conceptualizes rural life in terms of the idyllic family farm. This image remains in public perception despite that farming has almost ceased as a way of life for most of historically agricultural based America, which is now dominated by the service sector. Apparently, the perception of agricultural-rural is so prevalent that deviations are hardly worth noting. Yet, if the Kellogg Foundation were to ask me for impressions of my own rural life, agriculture would be farthest from mind.

I am more familiar with a culture supported by minimum wage service jobs in the tourist industry, seasonal and migrating construction labor, a water plant, and a few state institutions including the post office, elementary school, and high school. (The railroad, having adopted new and improved technology, long since stopped employing the town of Dunsmuir.) Agriculture is a completely foreign occupation to me. Because Dunsmuir is so small, I know my neighbors well enough to suggest that they are as unlikely as I am to describe their lives as agricultural.

Dunsmuir's story is not insular. Thousands of small towns spot the Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, Rockys, Appalachians, etc. These towns historically rely on non-agricultural industries including, inter alia, mining and tourism; and some have loud voices in our nation’s politics. Most notably, the coal industry which often operates in sparsely populated mountainous regions, plays major roles in the political constituencies of states like Wyoming and Kentucky. Environmentalists’ concerns over the effects of mining, places these communities in the center of raging political debate.

In additon, many mountain towns serve as vacation destinations. They hover outside national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone and ski resorts in famous locations like Aspen and Tahoe. They are visited and enjoyed by urbanites and ruralites from around the country.

Given that mountain communities seem like an obvious, visible, and deviating sub-category of rural,I have to assume one of three things about the Kellogg survey: either the surveyors (1) failed to ensure inclusion of mountain towns, or (2) failed to make a distinction between types of rural life and the number of mountain respondents were too small for their impressions to register statistically, or (3) the mountain respondents did not identify as rural.

Regardless of the reasons for the Kellogg results, studies such as Kellogg's increase the alienation of mountain people from rural identification. If the identifying marker of rurality in American perception is agriculture, mountain residents cannot connect with the prevailing American understanding of rurality. This is my own expirience. Unfortunately, this alienation may have real consequences for residents who, by internalizing the agricultural-rural definition, may miss public benefit opportunities for rural areas provided by the state and federal governments.


Sarah J said...

Thanks, D'arcy. Your post made me think about the diversity among rural communities in general, and how the "Kellog-type" assumptions that "rural must equal farm" might inform non-rural perceptions of the rural. Stereotyping "rural people" in a poor light seems to be a more common occurrence these days, yet somehow mountain and seaside towns whose residents consider themselves rural do not bear the brunt of the jokes. I wonder if this relates to gentrification at all. Is it that mountain and other non-agricultural rural communities are more easily gentrified, and thus people idealize them more than farming communities? Many people imagine building their second homes in the mountains or on the beach in a "quaint little town," but fewer fantasize about starting their own strawberry farm and retiring from their city jobs in order to "work the fields." I wonder if this trend of the idyllic "second home" has also contributed to the perception of places like Dunsmuir as non-rural. 

Caitlin said...

I think this really illustrates how subjective one's experience with the "rural" is, and how truly different a rural experience can be from place to place. I would argue that the differences are much more sub-regional than even regional. Part of the goal for me in writing a paper on legal ruralism will be to start with as few assumptions about what the rural experience is for the count(ies) I choose to focus on. Thanks for your perspective!