Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The uninformative rural mystique

In Chapter One of Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, the authors, David Brown and Kai Schafft, point out that if you do not like where you're living now then you're twice as likely to prefer a smaller town. Maybe even a small town. And it is the rural mystique, a social construct built up in our collective imagination, fueling the desire.

But as with any "mystique," the rural mystique is poorly misunderstood. The author declares fives values build the social construct into what it is: natural resource, nostalgia, existence, option, and bequest. Derived from characteristics of rural areas, each value is a social construct within the mind of contemporary persons.

All of this sounds great. The city slicker valuing whatever aspects they shall, seek to rurally retire. But the truth of the matter is they are unprepared and uninformed of the challenges that they would face in their "frontier" homes. Which serves to explain what the mystique really is: a sociological tool indicating how those migrating to rural areas are uninformed.

Consider this article detailing the changing dynamics of grizzly bears in Montana. The article explains that the grizzly population is growing, pushing out in all directions. The grizzlies were once plains predators, but settlers pushed them into the mountains. Now, with the benefit of federally-protected classification, the grizzly numbers have returned.

The increase in numbers means that people in Montana have two logical choices: kill off the grizzlies again or try to coexist. I'd like to think that modern America will choose option two. In fact, the values of the rural mystique seem to indicate the same.

Consider the existence value: the mere idea that rural-ness exists is a benefit to persons. "Yay! There are bears!" Or the bequest value, "I want my daughter to see a grizzly!" Or the natural resource value--the idea of living in the wild. Living with the bears. "Oh Marge, what could be more exciting!"

But Marge and her husband's values are fairly different from those that already live in the area. At one point the article considers lifting the protected status of grizzly bears, which would allow rural populations to take matters into their own hands.
Some here think removing federal protections is overdue, and would welcome it. “You’ll be able to protect your property again” by shooting bears, said Bert Guthrie, a retired sheep rancher. “That’s a good thing.”
This begs the ultimate of all questions, is the rural hopeful prepared for a grizzly confrontation? Or more so, can these persons adapt? The article points out that coexisting with grizzlies means making changes to daily routines.
Simple measures like taking in bird feeders and dog food at night and using bearproof garbage cans are a critical part of keeping bears alive.
Is the newly-rural retiree ready or even able to make these significant changes? Probably not. Instead, the responders to the studies highlighted by Brown and Schafft probably don't realize what rural life entails. While the above quote points to garbage duty, it is but one of many rural-life details that are different--even incongruent--with city life.

Even though the rural mystique partly explains why people are driven to rural towns, its criteria are, as the author points out, a social construct. A construct existing only in the minds of those that hold it. As an explanatory tool it helps sociologists determine why people move to rural areas; however, it also explains that these city-slickers are very uninformed.

Consider: the nearly retiree begins planning his retirement. He considers what he "knows" about other areas, decides a rural life is the life for him. How much of his decision is based on careful research? How much of it is based on the values highlighted by the rural mystique? The data highlighted by Brown and Shafft seems to indicate that what would drive his rural desire is this mystique. But the mystique can't be--and shouldn't be considered--an adequately informative tool for the retiree. It is a construct he already holds in his own mind; few thoughts could be more circular.

Likely, nothing will prepare new rural homeowners for their new rural lives, until they actually move in. Well, nothing except for the pepper spray.


Scarecrow said...

The rural mystic may provide some motivation for retirees to leave the city life. Another is their pocketbooks. While city slickers may not realize they'll be grappling with grizzlies, they know life is less expensive in much of rural America before they pack their bags.

CET said...

I think you've brought up a great point. Do people really understand the realities of living in a rural area? When choosing where to live, most people consider typical factors like the cost of living, proximity to work or outdoor activities, and quality of the schools. When moving to an urban area these are the logical factors to consider. A focus on these typical factors, combined with our glorification of the rural life, would make it fairly easy to overlook something like bears or mountain lions.

JLS said...

I always find it so entertaining to explain to outsiders (particularly those from the East Coast) what proximity we have to wildlife (rattlesnakes, scorpions, deer, mountain lions, and black bears) in my hometown--and I'm not even from a rural area!

This issue brings up a trend I've notice so far in the reading, which is the idea that newcomers to rural areas are somehow worse than those who are already there. Or at least that their intentions are bad. It isn't always explicitly stated, but I feels there is an idea that outsiders can't possible understand or truly value rural areas. Yes they might move to (or visit) rural areas because of the mystique, but why is than an inherently negative thing? It seems to me that appropriate growth (and a healthy respect for wildlife and wilderness) can help preserve rural life rather than destroy it.

Jason said...

The town I grew up in has seen a large influx of retirees and out of staters moving into the rural area in the last few years. Many do come for the "rural mystique" and with expectations on how things will be for them but many are taken back by the reality. I think it's also interesting to see the change these newcomers bring to the rural community with new ideas and new views. Once implemented it seems that the rural area changes and evolves to a more urban population. I think a lot of large ski resorts such as those found in Aspen, Tahoe, and Park City are excellent examples of this. Once small local areas have become big money makers and attracted an increasing number of people each year changing the overall feel of the community.

JT said...

Speaking of the grizzly population, my personal encounter with one while camping confirms the theory that I am in no way prepared for the realities of rural life. It shames me to admit it, but it's true.

That brings to mind a question of whether there is a reverse mystique: do those in the rural areas share a similar mystique about the city life? Do they adapt better? Do they also wonder wrestle with the decision of whether to kill off the city slickers or coexist with them?

From an economic standpoint, it might be better for the rural area to welcome the newcomers. As mentioned in the comments above, the influx could spark some developments and stimulate businesses. Perhaps because they have that rural mystique, the newcomers will be more likely to respect the integrity of the landscape and the dynamic of the rural area.