If you live in a city, you might not know your neighbours—something I still find hard to grasp, I confess—but chances are high that you know people. People that you can meet up with in physical space. They might be in your neighbourhoods, or nearby, or readily accessible, and you might have gatherings with them on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps it’s dinner parties or meeting up at bars, going to plays, seeing art openings. You have a social life, and it is one that takes place in real space, where you can interact physically as well as emotionally with people.
I often hear that life in rural areas must be so dull without culture, but it’s not as simple as that. You can find culture in rural areas; we are not a cultural vacuum, and we are capable of seeking out culture. No, we don’t have great galleries or museums, theatres, and other cultural organisations that can only be sustained by big populations, but that doesn’t mean we’re all uncultured. No, what’s more difficult is finding not just culture, but people. Your people. Your community.
Some rural people get lucky. They happen to live in communities where some like-minded folks can be readily found, and some of the numerous obstacles that can stand in the way, like lack of public transit, disabilities, the expense of owning a car, work schedules, and farm maintenance don’t get in the way. It’s not uncommon to see people grouping up as a way not just of creating community solidarity and getting tasks done, but also of socialising; a group of parents, for example, takes on homeschooling. People with a mutual interest in horses get together regularly for events. Hunters go on trips.
But that isn’t always the case. For others, rural life can be extremely isolating, because the deck can be extremely stacked against you. There are so many pieces to a complex jigsaw that must fit together in the right way in order for you to have a social network in your community—and while I love my friends in the internet, and I firmly believe those relationships have incredible value, they are not always a replacement for friends in my community. Because sometimes, an email or a call from a friend is not what I need.
Sometimes, what I need is someone to come over and help me tear out brambles. Or to watch bad television with me while eating fruit in the summer heat. Or just to hang out when I am having not such a great day. Humans, as the kind of animals we are, need these physical social interactions; many of us can start to feel starved and uncomfortable without them. And for some people in rural areas, a sense of deprivation can set in, and it can be compounded by the smallest thing. Maybe your car breaks down: suddenly your fragile web has collapsed. People come by and visit for a while, but their visits trickle off.
Your impairment gets worse. It’s hard to leave the house, and you can’t get the support you need to make that happen; there’s no paratransit in rural areas for the most part. The labour rotation on the farm shifts, and you can’t afford to get away; maybe you had to cut a farmhand to save money (because farming is a costly and difficult endeavor) and thus need to be on site more to take up the slack. You have young children who can’t be left but can’t tolerate the drive to somewhere else. So many things can stand between you and the freedom to see people in your community.
That can become even worse when even the phone or internet aren’t viable options. There are some places in the US where telecommunications services are not available or very limited. Others where services like internet are available have wildly, frustratingly sluggish connections and thus aren’t really functional, especially with an internet built for high-speed, urban connections that can handle complex sites and big graphics. Bit by bit, your world can be chipped away until you’re left floating, seemingly alone.
The answer to reports of isolation in rural communities from urban people is often that obviously people need to try harder (in the face of obvious evidence that this is not helpful advice) or relocate to an area where there is more activity and it might be easier to meet people and establish connections. Not everyone chooses to live in rural areas. It’s not always easy to get out of them. And people shouldn’t be forced to leave a place they may deeply love in order to have social opportunities, especially when many of the barriers involved for rural residents are not just personal, but social.
Why shouldn’t there be functional paratransit in rural areas? What about decent telecommunications services? Support for small farms so people aren’t forced to make difficult choices to keep them running? Support for rural towns, which are slowly dying, so they can become community hubs and stay functional? When people go into town, there should be something there, and that something should provide what they need, in a format that’s accessible to them. There’s no reason people should be forced to order online or drive several hours to a more settled urban or suburban area for supplies, yet they often do.
Isolation doesn’t have to be the way of life in rural areas, although who want it are welcome to seek it out. But it often becomes such, thanks to social pressures, and to see this discounted in conversations about the rural experience is troubling. It suggests, in a sense, that rural people aren’t fully people, don’t need the same things in life that urban people do.