I often encounter the attitude that people living in rural areas have nothing to contribute to the rest of the world. They are hayseeds, rednecks, country bumpkins. This thinking comes from the idea that the only work ‘of worth’ in this society is creative work, that a novelist is more important than a farmer, a sculptor means more than a mechanic, an actress is more important than a stay at home mom homeschooling her kids[1. And that all of these categories, of course, are mutually exclusive.]. This pervasive attitude contributes significantly to the devaluation of rural communities in the United States; to the idea of the ‘flyover states,’ for example, like huge swaths of the country are just cultural voids. Their citizens don’t do anything. They don’t make creative work. They don’t invent things. They don’t work to make the world a better place.
They just…what do you think rural people do? Work on farms? Maybe in some aspect of a support industry for farmers? Do you think rural people are all farmers or tractor mechanics or horse trainers or cowherds or something? Because that’s the impression I get from a lot of people when they talk about how rural areas have nothing to add to the rest of the country. Oh, sure, they make food, but that’s about it. Who cares about food, I mean, really.
I live in a rural area that does not produce food, not in the sense of staples like wheat, corn, rice, vegetables, fruit. Our primary agricultural products are marijuana and wine. I guess that means we don’t do anything except get people drunk or high. Oh, except, wait. I’m a creative professional, living in a rural area. Which…seems to suggest that maybe some rural areas contain creative professionals who, like, write books and stuff. Maybe they’re journalists, photographers, sculptors. To name just a few of the things my friends, who also live in this rural area, do.
Aside from the fact that producing food is a huge contribution to society, that urban areas cannot produce their own food and rely on farmlands to do it, that people in the city would not survive if it wasn’t for the work of the ‘flyover states,’ rural areas have a lot to contribute if you’re going to use the ‘creative people are the most important people’ metric. Creative professionals can and do live in rural areas, and they build careers there. I know literary agents in remote areas of Ohio. I know Hollywood actors who live in rural communities. I know tons of authors, documentarians, journalists, visual artists, who all live in rural communities. I know attorneys who argue in front of the Supreme Court who live right here, in this community.
Our work is regularly displayed, discussed, and promoted in urban areas, but no one talks about where we come from. No one talks about the fact that we are coming from some of the most maligned communities in the United States, that despite the claim that everyone who lives in a rural community is a ‘useless redneck,’ we are contributing things that urban communities value highly. We are accomplishing these things in the face of tremendous odds; we don’t just have to try and build creative careers, we have to do so when we may have trouble accessing the Internet, when we can’t easily attend meetings in urban centres. And when we are constantly reminded that we have nothing to contribute, and we are devalued.
I’ve talked before about the attitude I commonly encounter here where I run into people and they say ‘oh, you’re still here,’ with a sneer on their faces. I’ve always been bothered by this (one may as well make the same comment to them). People act like I am giving up and turning into a failure by returning to the community I grew up in. They talk about how I had such promise and a bright future until I ‘gave it all up’ by coming back to Fort Bragg, like it’s functionally impossible for me to contribute to society in any meaningful way as long as I live here.
The idea that rural people have nothing to contribute is so widespread, so entrenched, so widely believed, that even people in rural areas, who should know better, buy into it. People tell me it’s impossible to build a career in writing or journalism without living in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or preferably New York, cornerstone of the publishing industry. People tell me that I am throwing my life away by stubbornly remaining in my home town.
Newsflash: Some of those books on the New York Times bestseller list? Were written by rural people. In fact, about half the year, when I take a look at that list, I see a book written by someone from this area. This particular rural area happens to have a lot of creative people, and so it’s not surprising that I encounter their work being singled out for praise by city people a lot. The demographic is a bit skewed. But this is not the only rural area with creative people. This is not a strange outlier. This is a place, like a lot of other places.
This is a place, with people in it, and they are contributing things of value to society. We are not bumpkins, hayseeds, rednecks. That guy down the road with the jacked up truck and the gun rack? Yeah. You call him a redneck, but he’s a poet with a very lengthy list of publications in very, very prestigious places. So, you tell me: Do you still think rural people have ‘nothing to contribute’ according to your fancy city metric that says only creative people are of value?