City or Country?
It was five o’clock, almost sunset on January 2, 2020. We were excited to have the special combination lock number from the realtor, which would open the front door of the house without a realtor dictating our walkabout. The front door took us into a spacious living room with a cathedral-vaulted, pinewood-lined ceiling that could have made a small church proud. The sunlight pulled us into the kitchen, surrounded on three sides by windows. Whoever built this house loved to cook. Directly from there onto the back deck, we took in the bright fascia of the winter sunset over Pine Valley Mountain. Snow on the ground, deer nosed their way and rested in an oak grove in the backyard like they were the owners of the place.
City or country? It’s a question our species has been asking for 10,000 years. Those of us who don’t have it all jetting around from New York to Aspen to a ranch in Wyoming, that is. Some of us commit to a single residence. It’s been four years since I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to rural Southern Utah. After twenty years in metro California, it was time to return to the country for the majestic mountain peaks, freezing winters— extended family, and its opposite, solitude.
Historians tell us the first city called Catalhoyuk was in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Catalhoyuk was much more than the villages in which humans had lived for hundreds of thousands of years, and it dates back to 7,400 to 5,600 BC. It is thought that the first cities formed in the Neolithic Revolution, or when man developed agriculture. Farming the land back then meant you were near a city.
During my twenty years in big metro areas, I never lost a deep connection to the countryside. Unlike that city dweller, Hercule Poirot, star of the Agatha Christie series, I've always longed to be out in nature.
In one of Christie’s novels, Poirot arrives in the country and, stepping out of the train, asks the porter, “What is that smell?” “You mean the fresh air?” the porter replies. Poirot shudders and walks on in his tailored suit and shiny Spatz.
I loved being in and around a big city: career opportunities, the pulsing energy, great music, and restaurants. Sex. At least, I told myself I did with genuine enthusiasm. But each summer, it was becoming more difficult to return to the large populated areas after camping trips in the Sierras. It’s only the depression that comes with ending one’s vacation, I told myself.
But I was less and less convincing. Why not move back to the country where it’s always a vacation—where one doesn’t need so many vacations? I heard the voice in my head ask. I define a city as a place where people stack themselves in such high numbers that they must invent most of their activities to cope with and pay for it.
What was it that I missed most about the rural setting? Was it the afternoon breeze in the warming pinyon pines? Was it the country folk with their rich traditions of hospitality and intrusive kindness? The real haunting question was whether I would get out into rural America and realize it was no longer there.
In a new book, The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America for what It Is—and Isn’t, author Steven Conn argues that the idea of rural America is not as real as we would like it to be. First of all, rural is difficult to define. Is it just that which is not the city? Is it the hinterlands, the empty space? Contemplating a recent trip to China, where rural areas are much more populated than they are here, Conn surmises that America is a uniquely empty place with an empty feeling. He argues that the romantic haven I had long been craving, this empty rural place, is artificially created and depends upon the city. Whereas thousands of years ago, the city may have depended on the land, now the land depends on the city.
"There is something contradictory or even paradoxical about that empty feeling. The evidence of human activity in all those places is easy to see. Those places are no less shaped by our ambitions and desires, technology, and greed than any city skyline. We rarely see the people responsible for this shaping because there are so few of them—or because they are elsewhere. Far from being local and small-scale, the forces at work on these landscapes are usually huge and remote. It takes only a solitary driver piloting a combine roughly the size of a two-story house to gobble up hundreds and hundreds of acres of that Kansas wheat. He may own that land, or he might rent it from some distant absentee landlords—but either way, he helps pay constant attention to wheat prices in Chicago or some other global commodities market as his GPS pilots the highly sophisticated piece of farm technology with a precision that would have made the Apollo crew envious. Yet, to watch him, he appears solitary, out there all alone.
That sense of emptiness obscures. It prevents us from seeing what is at work in rural America, and it veils what has been hiding in plain sight.”
Conn then elaborates on the dependence of rural areas on the culture of the cities. Most folks in small towns work for the government (military and educational facilities) or large corporations such as Amazon or a network of healthcare providers. Or they depend on tourism, the influx of city folk to enjoy the empty landscape. Their main streets are filled up with one chain restaurant after another.
In his delightful and supportive review of the book Beyond the Myth of Rural America, Daniel Immerwahr from The New Yorker begins by contemplating the ultimate rural painting, American Gothic, by Grant Wood. He points out that Wood saw the house on a tourist trip back to the Iowa farm country where he was born and raised and persuaded his dentist and sister to pose for him as the “farmer and wife." In total agreement with Conn, Immerrwahr suggests the great American work of art that has been seen to authenticate the rural, in fact, undermines it with its artificiality.
Is rural America “artificial,” with no authentic culture or feeling of the land? I have wondered, reading these two authors. Is the landscape and small-town culture of Southern Utah just an extension of the city where I’d been living?
Conn concludes there is no “rural” in America and never has been. He quotes a scholar from 1982 who says: “There is an increased homogeneity between metro and non-metro areas.” This rings more true in the age of Facebook and Netflix.
“One viable alternative remains—to consider the rural as an essential component of a predominantly urban society. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s population and 97 percent of the nation’s space is to be found there. The conclusion, therefore, is that the rural is an important and diverse component of urban life. (Emery)"
Do I agree with this? Is rural America an "adjunct, a subset, of urban life?” Is the rural a kind of neighborhood in the vast national city?
The artist Grant Wood would certainly have disagreed. In his 1935 manifesto called Revolt Against the City, Wood argued that his inspiration as an artist came “in the distinctly rural districts of America” and that “cities were far less typically American than the frontier area whose power they usurped.”
I agree. And can we not just as easily turn things around and say the city is an artificial construct? Conn boils it down to a theoretical discussion of the differences between “place” and “space." He suggests that rural America is a place in our minds, and it could be a place in the minds of city dwellers as well as those out in the country. And that place is different from the actual space.
I’m not sure it’s so easy to separate place and space. Conn is defining place as a mental subjective construct, but space as the actual objective physical space out there independent of the mind. Why is place subjective but space objective? Surely, there are objective places as well as spaces. Growing up in the high desert 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon, where sagebrush dots the sand and bright red cliffs boldly catch the setting sun, for me, place equaled space. The stitching and unravelling of these two has been my daily needlework.
In college, I spent a summer attending Cambridge University in England, where, along with having fun with other young people, I encountered an older culture and discovered how much of what we think . . . comes from a literary tradition. Did Shakespeare invent romantic love? Did the Romantics separate the rural from the city? Here, there was a rich tapestry of spaces to choose from: the past, a Shakespearean drama, cow pastures, the quiet colored light on the cathedral floors at my college. Culture itself seemed to mix harmoniously with the physical objective space.
Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon in my youth, one could not rely so much on culture. The physical space demands most of the attention. Surveying that vast canyon, one hears a silence like in no other place or space. The faint trace of the breeze and perhaps occasional echoes of a Native song. Conn would argue that The Grand Canyon as a national park is a place created by people in the city. Some would argue it is a place created by a river. The Hopi say it was created by two brothers, Pokanghoya and Polongahoya, when they tossed lightning bolts and piled mud to build the supapuni and the river that cuts through it.
In his review, Immerwahr reminds us that if the rural means pristine, unoccupied, and that which came before, surely rural America would belong to the people here first.
"There are still places where people have lived continuously for centuries, such as the millennium-old Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. But the rural Americans with the deepest roots, the Native ones, were very often violently dispossessed.
The people who replaced them, meanwhile, were transplants, less sprung from the soil than laid like sod over Indigenous lands.
Settlers styled themselves as pioneers who had won their land with their bare hands. This is how it went in “Little House on the Prairie,” with the frontier family racing ahead of the law to seize Indian property. (“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” would have been a more accurate title.)”
I grew up next to a Paiute reservation. The feeling of an ancient tradition became part of life for us settlers who came next. That history is now part of rural America.
My favorite activity in a city is visiting a museum. One day on such a visit, I realized that most of the paintings were of the countryside. Cities all feel the same to me. When I travel the world, it is the rural spaces that give me a sense of the place. These lines by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth ring as true now as they did when I first read them that youthful summer in Cambridge. Surely, it is the city that is the extension of the rural. Which came first, the land or the city?
O there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale
Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
The earth is all before me.
The Hopi consider this existence to be the Fourth World, humans having inhabited three prior ones and made a mess of them.
Really, what Conn is saying in so many words is that the human species has come to dominate more and more of the planet. The landscape of my youth has become much more populated—and unfortunately my hometown seems to have no environmental policy--I wonder how many of the spaces that defined the places of our minds, whether we live in the city or the country, will be there for future generations.
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