Goin’ Up the Country-The Great Urban-Rural Divide
I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
All this fussing and fighting, man, you know I sure can’t stay
Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.
Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Aesop’s Fables (2600 B.C.)
Thinking of moving to the country?
Keep thinking until that dreamy-eyed feeling goes away. Then I’ll order us some cakes and ale and we’ll talk about it. (I’m good with beans and bacon, too.)
And that bit about escaping fear and uncertainty? Yeah right. Fear and uncertainty are so everywhere nowadays, there’s a new Zen proverb for them:
Wherever we go, there they are.
Covid told us we can work anywhere, so why not in Arcadia’s rustic innocence simple quiet idyllic pastoral untroubled bliss? Don’t worry too much about roughing it-Arcadia comes with upgrades-nouveau-chic country home décor, country clothing, tools that feel substantial and life-affirming in your hands, plus microbrew and wild-caught salmon all delivered up the stone steps to your front door. Plus a gig of internet at the local co-working space.
I know these things because I’ve spent the last year living in Non-Arcadia. Writing this, I look away from the screen and the view is not just a mountain but a whole mountain range. There’s a life lesson in that view: getting here isn’t climbing one peak, it’s crossing the whole range. We’ll call it the Great Urban-Rural Divide, and it’s not about geology, it’s about sociology-two sociologies, in fact-urban and rural are so sociologically different, each has its own branch.
The Great Urban-Rural Divide is about worldview. Urban vs. rural worldview has been endlessly polled, conferenced over, and written into doctoral theses, but the pollster findings and academic papers don’t capture the essence. To get that, you need to experience it. Worldview isn’t about data and analysis, it’s the whole package of how we think life works-what’s safe and real and true and normal. And what’s not. Worldview runs in stealth mode-it operates in our assumptions, perceptions, prejudices, biases. It does its work while we’re not looking. And that can be a problem.
Worldview on one side of the Divide isn’t the same as on the other. You can’t just cross over and still be who you are now. We’re so used to celebrating our personal power and self-efficacy and freewill that we think if we zap ourselves from our current circumstances to somewhere else we’ll still be us, the same as we are now, living the same kind of life-a few adjustments to make, but otherwise we’ll fit right in.
Nope. Doesn’t work that way.
Worldview creates context. Context matters. We exist in context. We experience life in context. We find meaning in context. We express ourselves in context. We reach conclusions in context. Context is biological, cultural, environmental, temporal. There are huge contextual differences between urban and rural. The differences aren’t just a matter of taste, opinion, political preferences, educational levels, gender identity… the two worlds simply aren’t the same. The people on one side aren’t like the people on the other. Sometimes, the differences are so striking you wonder if they’re the same species.
The Great Urban-Rural Divide got a lot of attention after the 2016 and 2020 elections. It seemed like something new but it’s not. Aesop wrote his fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse 2600 years old. It was probably inspired by his experience of visiting Delphi. Aesop was a country boy-his world was poverty with security, beans and bacon in peace. Delphi was bigtime urban-the Greeks thought it was the center (the navel) of the world. Plus there was Apollo’s temple and the famous oracle, and an impressive view of Mt. Parnassos… it must have been quite the scene. Aesop met his end when his stories insulted the Delphians so much they threw him off a cliff. (Or made him jump, some historians clarify. Um… how exactly to you make someone jump off a cliff? Apparently the gods were country people too-legend is they avenged Aesop’s death with famine and pestilence. I’m not buying that the gods were unanimous in their judgment-several of them had some pretty cosmopolitan tastes.)
I have a middle school memory of experiencing the Great Divide at Boy Scout camp in the Minnesota north woods. A troop from the Twin Cities had the campsite next to ours-we often took the same road to the main lodge at the same time. It seemed like I was always walking behind this one guy… He wore sandals and frayed white bellbottoms, had a keep on truckin’ way of walking, and he was always talking, always seemed to have a lot to say, was always holding court, had this cocky self-assurance.
He was like a one man sideshow. Mesmerizing. He didn’t demand attention, he assumed it. I didn’t know anybody like that. He entirely personified everything I’d ever felt when I met kids from the Twin Cities. When we had big dances-like homecoming-whoever arranged that kind of thing always brought in a band from the Cities. Our chaperones kept a wary eye. City kids knew things, did things. They were tough, cool, confident. Their high schools were a jungle. They had gangs. They had cigarettes and sex and beer.
They made headlines. We just read them.
They weren’t like us.
“Not like us”-three words that tell you everything you need to know about the Great Urban-Rural Divide.
On the country side, “not like us” often comes with a judgmental edge. They don’t get us. They don’t appreciate us. They can’t be trusted. We don’t want them telling us what to do. We do fine without them. The urbanites, on the other hand, don’t seem to care. Yeah, rural is out there, they vote differently but we outnumber them so sucks for them. Rural feels neglected and unappreciated and threatened while urban goes about its noise and haste. Rural is out there doing whatever it is that rural does while urban heads to the oyster bar with friends, with plans to catch the game later.
I was one of the smart kids in high school. My destiny was scripted-I would leave for college and never come back. Nobody knew what people did out there, but everybody knew that kids like me would go do it. It was the way of things. So I went to college where pretty much everybody was a city kid. They were smarter, talked about books and writers I’d never read, liked music I’d never heard, planned to major in subjects I didn’t know about, had been to places I wasn’t aware existed. I ran to catch up. By the time I graduated, the differences were gone on the outside, but there was still a lot of country on the inside.
My college sweetheart and I graduated and got married as the 70’s were making their post-60’s swerve into the 80’s. There was a back-to-the-land movement happening-one of many in a long historical line. Where I came from was suddenly trendy. Living on a farm was suddenly cool. We had Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog. We had Dylan and The Band moving to Woodstock, Neil Young buying a farm in California, Paul Stookey doing his “John Henry Bosworth” routine in Maine, John Denver singing “Thank God I’m a country boy” in Aspen. We learned to cook vegetarian and make our own granola and yogurt, dreamed of building our very own geodesic domes and nightly guitar and harmonica jams passing the joint around the campfire. Dye-tie, bandanas, torn jeans with flower patches, macrame, peace signs, a broad-brimmed hat like George Harrison’s, some daisies in my girlfriend’s hair…
My wife and I were a couple years into our marriage (yes, she wore a tiara of flowers) when we joined a house-church group (now I’m an atheist) that talked in awed tones about some families that were starting their own Christian commune in the country. They were actually growing their own food, chopping their own wood, plowing their own dirt, living off the land. We went with another couple for a visit.
Christian Country Utopia turned out to be three couples with small children living in the converted hayloft of a barn-family quarters separated by draperies hung on clotheslines, room heat and oven and cooktop provided by a potbelly stove in the center, lots of tie dye and bandanas and big hats and guitars and harmonicas, also a fiddle-don’t forget the fiddle. They said they had room for more but didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it. Mostly they seemed kind of worn out, like they could use a hot shower and a laundromat. My wife and I and our friends had thought maybe we’d stay the night. We didn’t. Not enough FOMO to make us stay. Or want to go back.
My wife was a city girl-it was the better choice. Instead of heading back to the farm I became a city kid. We built a city life, raised city kids. Even then, I held onto this self-image of being one of those boys you couldn’t take the country out of. Now and then I’d go on a binge-read books like We Took to the Woods, The Egg and I, E.B. White’s essays about leaving NYC for Maine, Walden, everything Wendel Berry wrote. Once I spent a couple days at a Luddite conference at a Quaker church in southeast Ohio. One of the speakers was an Amish guy who described plowing that morning with his team of horses. I was in raptures-not that I’d ever driven a team of horses pulling a plow, it just sounded way cool. All that while building a career as a JD/MBA in management consulting and law. Go figure.
My career hit its stride when I switched from corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions to estate planning and family business succession planning for agricultural families and their farms, ranches, and Main Street America businesses. I played my country boy card to the max while I cultivated a city boy law practice (I personally rarely met with our country clients-local people handled that).
Fast forward to today.
I said I didn’t want to leave where we were, but that’s a lie. I’m here because of an unresolved case of Goin’ up the Country. I hadn’t gotten my visions of Arcadia out of my system, and now here I am, living at the end of the world in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere not on the way to anywhere. Yes the view of the mountain range is something. Yes the air is clear. Is that enough to live on?
Before we moved here my wife and I took a road trip looking for new affordable places to live. Where we ended up wasn’t on the list. It should have stayed that way. We were having an ice cream in a small town one day, watching the people and all the pickups and ag haulers and equipment rumbling by when my wife had an epiphany. “I get it,” she said, “All the stuff we think is so important, it’s not to these people. It’s not anywhere in their world.”
Not anywhere in their world. They’re not like us. We’re not like them. There’s a mountain range between us.
I’ve been out of law practice for several years (for reasons unrelated to the rural/urban thing, so I won’t go into them), but I thought hey why not, maybe I’ll fire up the estate planning practice again. It lasted exactly one client meeting, where I sat there thinking “if I have to do this for a living….”
That’s when the despondency began in earnest.
I had to find a new word for how I felt about living here that went beyond “depressed.” I settled on “despondent.” Despondence comes from a different place in your psyche. It’s deeper, thicker, heavier. It’s not about losing the struggle to be motivated and hopeful and upbeat, it’s a tangible emptiness that soaks into your whole body. Hope and courage, vibrancy and vision aren’t just gone where you can’t summon them, you don’t even want to-there’s no point in it, they don’t exist.
I looked into a new career in economic development and urban and regional design-you know, stop complaining and figure out how to turn this into the kind of place I’d like to live. I did some informational interviewing-the Dean of one design program listened to me describe where I lived. “Have you thought about moving?” she asked.
I know, I know… I’m acting urban. I need to get over myself, embrace my inner rural. Got it. Guilty as charged. But sometimes I think if I never see another pickup or hear another long-haul truck roaring down Main Street my life might be good again. That, and not having the guy with an open-carry pistol strapped on one hip and a Bowie knife on the other wishing me a “blessed day.” Then maybe I’d feel some of Aesop’s peace and security (not that it ended all that well for him).
Numbed. Shocked. Stunned. PTSD. Despondency will do that to you.
Lately I’ve been reading psychiatry books about things like death and stress and trauma. Turns out there was a lot packed into my unresolved country boy identity. I’m grateful for a chance to deepen. I’m working on a plan to come back to my senses, re-create myself.
I’m workin’ it.
I’d say think, think, and think some more, and then take some time for cakes and ale in fear, and enjoy some plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
There’s a lot to be afraid of here, too.
 The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse — Fables of Aesop Eliot/Jacobs Version,
 For a long list of poll results and analysis, see Similarities and differences between urban, suburban and rural communities in America | Pew Research Center May 22, 2018.
Originally published at http://iconoclast.blog on September 23, 2022.