Send a Care Bear Stare: Progressives & Permaculture in the Rural Heartland

My husband and daughter (sitting down, in pink) looking over my family’s land a few days after our arrival in rural Oklahoma

Fellow Left-Coast Permies (earth-based crunchy folks who generally share progressive values and practice sustainable land design):

On November 10th, 2016, many of you wondered why rural areas across this country would vote against their interests. Some of you did not wonder this, because you grew up in a small town in the South or Midwest. My family and I were there, in the town you may have left behind, wishing you were with us.

Folks, when it has come to the point where a Permaculture Convergence can have hundreds of gardeners from just one neighborhood of a big, progressive city, maybe y’all could join hands and Care Bear Stare some of that magic...back to the place that some of you call home.

We write this to you because, contrary to public opinion, progressive people pass through red states and rural areas all the time, whether it’s a road trip, a family visit, or, around here, a re-acquaintance with tribal heritage. We’d like more of y’all to stay, or stay longer. But, let’s be honest, towns like this have a reputation for spitting up & chewing out people who care about sustainability, social justice, or who don’t fit any number of societal norms. We’ve met those people.

I’ve made a list of our hard-earned tips below to help you also explore the previously unthinkable.

But first, our story: We left Parkland, Wa in fall of 2015 as a permaculture designer (myself) and university sustainability coordinator (my hand-fasted husband), kissed our niche careers goodbye, and packed up our 2-year-old for an adventure in rural Oklahoma. My grandparents were aging fast and they could use our attention, as could their land. My dad’s mother is from a small town of about 1,000 people.

I knew the town from occasional visits in which I would go on long walks through the town, or out of it, admire the vernacular (though falling apart) infrastructure, and pretty much enjoy doing nothing. Moving here has been a process of learning how the town works and what happens here, because the aging signage and quiet streets do not give visitors any obvious clues.

Downtown: is a store an actual open business or not? It takes some research.

When we got to town we put in a garden, that grew into a market garden, and that grew into a key vendor in a community-requested Farmers Market. (Well, ‘key’ insomuch as this: who else would be sucker enough to run a farmers market as a volunteer, than a vendor who can rationalize it as a shorter drive than a market elsewhere?) We got involved with the local environmental justice non-profit, breathed a sigh of relief that federal priorities and funding overlaid many of Oklahoma’s draconian economics, and crossed our fingers for a lesser-of-two evils in the 2016 elections…

Well, you know how that worked out.

My husband Nick as Farmers Market Manager complete with Green Man face paint for Summer Solstice. His hat is from the local bank, but he stopped wearing it that summer of ’16 because at a glance the red hat and white letters started to mean something else.

It was one thing to live in the town and entirely another to see the political underbelly, and, thankfully, we learned we weren’t entirely alone. Nick went with a group of veterans to Standing Rock, my daughter and I found friends in the Women’s March (both at the state capitol, and locally), we got a Farmers Veteran Grant to plant up a food forest, I got on the City Council (long story), and to bring you roughly up-to-date we’re really grateful to that crazy old internet for keeping us involved with Permaculture and other like-minded connections. Though our goal is for income to come primarily from our land, we don’t yet, but hey, food forests don’t produce overnight.

I know you, my generous audience, may be quite comfortable with your skyrocketing rent, hectic schedule, and small yard constraints, but, just entertain for a moment that a move to the hinterlands might be possible.

1. Our first hurdle was having a totally different resource base. Our previous urban site was filled with resources like: free woodchips, free seeds and plants from gardener friends, free urbanite, free spent brewery grains, free coffee chaff (or grounds), free chemical-free grass clippings, and of course ‘free piles’ in the neighborhood every month to rummage through. Ironic, isn’t it, to be in a rural area surrounded by land and wonder “but where are the waste products we’re so used to?”

It’s just different.

For one, if you’re looking for something organic, don’t bother. Just find someone who doesn’t bother spraying and has a messy pile of something on their land. No, they won’t know the environmental impact of clopyralids, but if they don’t spray or medicate their livestock, congratulations. (And hey, I can’t complain about the $2.50/gallon fill-your-own-jars raw milk at our Mennonite neighbors place; they’re not organic but since I can see the actual cows and how they’re doing, that does count for something).

Cheap raw milk with cows just outside: Neener neener

There are waste products, or dirt-cheap products, out there that I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole (like from industrial chicken houses). Helpful people might point you to these resources and then wonder why you don’t want them. If it doesn’t make sense, or puts too much strain on the relationship to try to explain, just make a joke about how stuck up and silly you sometimes are about things.

Additionally, it takes time to build social capital, but it will make or break your projects. I thought it quaint and hobbit-like that my grandfather would till neighbors’ gardens as trade for pecan pies, but now I recognize this as serious business. Living in a rural network, we can’t wait to lend equipment or favors to key people who always seem to out-favor us back (Darn Them!) Put favors into the social capital bank as much as you can.

Also, no one has ever stolen a bike from us here, so you can almost call that a net gain in resource availability! Our local friends would laugh to have seen us that first month, religiously locking up, putting tools away, and worrying about them all night, because we’d been trained to lock-it-or-lose-it in urban areas. There are just less people in general, so less people interested in our bikes and drill bits.

Tips:

  • Walmart bakeries get frosting in buckets that they could give to you, or sell for dirt cheap, with lids!
  • Lumberyards get shipments wrapped in tarp-like things that they throw away
  • It’s a pain, but the plastic netting off big rolls of hay can make cheap, trashy-looking fencing
  • Craigslist sucks in rural areas because it’s not clear which city (which Craigslist!) you’re affiliated with. We’ve had better luck with our town’s ‘Buy/Sell/Trade’ group on Facebook.
  • We’re quite proud of all the contour-mapping we’ve done with flags we receive free every time we call in utility locates.

2. Welcome to being a generalist. Many permaculture folks already are, but especially in a setting that lacks herbalists, landscape designers, farmers markets, gardening columns, urban sustainability planners, wild plant foragers, or compost pick-up services, guess who you are now? All of the above and more! Most people here don’t equate me with permaculture because I rarely bother to even say it’s something “I do”. There’s obviously lots of “permaculture” to do though.

For example, I never really thought I’d find myself needing to advocate for vegetables, I’m so, like, beyond annuals. But, if you live in a community where food access is poor, where diabetes, obesity, and poverty are huge factors, and where there’s momentum for your Farm or Market to help in that cause, you better believe we’re on the veggie bandwagon.

First, eat your veggies! Later we’ll talk about how awesome perennials are.

In the same vein, my husband never dreamed he’d be anything near the OSHA advocate on a construction team, but he finds himself reading labels aloud to his supervisor “Do not operate (or inhale) in enclosed spaces”. To only get the response, while closing doors and windows, of “Well, this isn’t California!” (Like hazardous materials cease to be when they operate in different states). This is a far cry from ‘Fragrance Free Zone’ signage so lovingly posted, with hearts and flowers, in the workplaces we used to frequent.

Tips:

  • Unlikely partners for small organic growers in the cities, but highly likely here: health departments, churches, small-town newspapers, libraries. Basically any public institution which you’re too busy to connect with in a big city, you’re still too busy here, but you’ll share some goals in common. Team up.

3. Welcome to a slower pace. That’s what we want, right? I love cities because of the healthy press of people nearby who’ve read more books than me, climbed more mountains than me, have more responsibilities than me, and somehow answer their emails way faster than I do! It’s awesome, and it’s exhausting.

On the other hand, rewind to the 1990’s (I mean, here) and you’ll call and email one person about one thing for weeks, and eventually find just the right moment at a totally unrelated social event to talk to them. Government or public offices don’t have multiple lines or voicemail, so you just get a busy signal or it rings endlessly. And for numerous people over a certain age, the best (or only) way to reach them is the old fashioned stop-by-their-house and talk face to face. Sometimes it feels like extra work. But in my previous life I would sometimes weep before opening my email inbox. So, am I missing much, really?

Our city ordinance stating that toilet lids should be kept closed at all times. This is a throwback to the first days of indoor plumbing.

Tips:

  • You can ask “Do you have an email address?” but just skip the hassle and find them on Facebook Messenger. This might be happening in urban areas too, but we honestly don’t know much about that anymore.
  • We now have, and love, a landline. And there’s this cool free book with all the numbers in it alphabetically!
  • If you’re used to organizing via Google Drive, Loomio, or even Doodle, just forget it.
  • Do not expect any business to have an accurate website or online presence, you might find something, but you’ll likely still have to call or go in person anyway.

4. You might be a freak just ’cause you’re here. Whatever. With a background of living off in the woods doing permaculture, or being a regular at a nearby coffee-shop who works online, or any number of roles where whole swaths of people live that way, you might be the first person like that people have met. I never thought we’d be considered an oddity because we ride bikes (especially in a town that is flat, small, and really easy to bike in!) but you’ll have no idea what you are doing is strange. I still don’t. And yes, in the middle of the country, people assume that adults only ride bikes when they have a DUI, so you’ll get The Look.

We’ve had people assume we’re really poor because we line-dry our laundry, carry reusable water bottles, and don’t drive if we can avoid it. I’ve definitely heard comments like “Well we’ve all seen your breasts” that I’m still trying to puzzle out. Breastfeeding? Not owning a bra? Really hot, sweaty weather? I don’t know.

People will offer you water in styrofoam cups, Christians will assume you haven’t read the Bible, cashiers will throw away plastic bags that you decline. Let’s not even get started with home lacto-fermentation, edible landscaping, celebrating the equinoxes, knowing a lot about humanure systems, or a husband who couldn’t care less about football. You can see where this is going. Some people don’t know what espresso is okay, so wipe that smirk off your face in advance!!

One scenario we imagine for fun, is a teleconference between the Conservation District board back in Pierce County, WA with the Conservation District board here. It would seriously be like contact between two entirely different planets. (I won’t go into details, but once you’ve lived in a rural area and had numerous conversations with your C.D., and your back-at-home C.D. is totally revolutionary, you’ll see what I mean).

Fuh-reaks! What are they even doing with those things? And why is that poor child up there? For sure That is not an EQIP strategy, oh wait… (That’s an inside joke for Conservation District regulars)

Tips:

  • Let’s face it, we grow food we don’t read Mary Jane’s Farm, Pioneer Woman, or any number of other blogs about farmy-type-looking-interior-design. It is a handy mental category though that makes what we do approachable to people.
  • Conservation Districts: go up. Someone at the state level who handles Organic farms (even if there’s just 5) or who goes to conferences with other states Conservation Districts, will “get” your strategies if you’re local rep doesn’t.
  • If there’s only 5 Organic farms or permaculture sites in the state, make it a point to try to be friends with all of them. They’ll help you navigate even if you don’t plan to certify. The same goes for Young Farmers Coalition, even if you’re not young.
  • Likewise if you’re a person of color, find the other farmers of color, these might help, Black Farmer Association, Minority Landowner, and Repatriation Map.
  • Cities! Yeah, it might be a 4 hour drive but you can drink some great microbrew while talking about permaculture and humanure while breastfeeding a 4 year old. Take a break sometimes.

5. You might be depressed for about two years. Of course we didn’t learn about this until a year and a half in, sitting around a campfire with like-minded folks who’d also moved here from elsewhere, (and honestly were incredulous to how accepted it was by everyone past that benchmark). And now, we’re past that benchmark and we are accepting of it.

We were new to living as a nuclear family because we’d always lived with housemates and strived to live inter-generationally. So we fought about that. We also fought about trying to make a permaculture site or Farmers Market work while still needing to educate people about what those are. We ate a lot of home-baked cookies and gained weight. And we’ve been hit with mourning for the lives of friends here who die too soon for basically being LGBTQ, poor, and/or dark-skinned. I’m not talking about murder, though that is a reality, I’m talking about substandard medical care, depression, and constant macro-and micro-aggressions that just make living here really difficult. Just seeing small-town rural living through that empathic lens is really depressing, I’m not going to lie.

Cookies anyone? Photo from Pixabay because we don’t take pictures of our cookies, we’re busy eating them.

Tips:

  • We got counseling, yup. I met my therapist on Inauguration Day and we were both wearing black. Thank you.
  • St. John’s Wort. It takes two weeks to kick in and then for some reason you’ll find yourself thinking “Gosh, this and this sucks, but I’m just darn happy”. It’s a little creepy actually.
  • Stay in touch with your friends from your more progressive pockets. All kinds of friends. Keep perspective.
  • National Public Radio not only reaches a lot of rural areas, it also helps keep your small-town problems in perspective with global issues.
  • If you’re more privileged, do something. Actively support folks who are queer, poor, or dark-skinned, in any sort of personal or political aspects. Their lives matter.
  • Do your homework. Racism got you down? Then learn more about how your own actions could be racist. Homophobia got you down? Likewise. I’m serious. It does make you feel better because changing you is something you can do.
Make friends! Give away leaves if you have to! This pic from Women’s March in Oklahoma City. One friend we met there said “My small town makes Oklahoma City feel like San Francisco”

6. It’s possible you won’t make any friends, but you probably will. Silly as it sounds we considered it a real possibility we would just read a lot of books and sit around staring at each other. Going from vibrant and diverse neighborhoods, workplaces, and social structures was heartbreaking, especially considering our young daughter’s previous sense of normal. Even if all the public presentation of a town seems jarringly not you, or not people you think you’d be friends with, just look deeper. Even in Western Washington, I could assume I was in a town that was plain vanilla, and get on the public bus to find my people. Figure out where that figurative bus is. For us, it was a newspaper ad for a yearly environmental conference about a nearby Superfund site.

Or as the community organizer Becky McCray says “Raise your flag high and gather you’re crowd”. Don’t worry about the people who don’t like that flag, make sure the people who do like it know that you’re there. She’s not talking about progressives, just people who’d like to change their town for the better, but that does segue into my next topic…

First, Tips:

  • Good webinars about small town revitalization at http://SaveYour.Town
  • Community of Christ is very queer friendly (as official policy), the local congregation might be a mixed bag though. United Methodist is often a strong runner-up for progressives.
  • The Indivisible network has been awesome for us to find more friends. #bluewave #redstatewoke
  • And the Democrats! Though I’ve only been registered Green Party before this, it just doesn’t exist here, but the local Democrats group would be glad to have you.
  • Southerners on New Ground is an organization of people working on queer and POC-oriented issues in the south. Connect!
  • Azure Standard has rural deliveries of organic bulk food. Good for food, and for finding friends.
  • Honestly, most of our really good friends here have lived in New York, Portland, San Francisco. It sometimes feels like a group of ex-pats.

7. Spinning off from this, you’ll find remarkable things in common with sometimes the most unlikely people. I’ll generalize for the sake of any locals who’ll read this, but suffice it to say that you cannot judge any books by their cover. It goes both ways, I’ve blabbed my mouth away with people I pegged as liberals based on who-knows-what social cues, and been wrong. Oops. And I’ve totally not recognized potential allies who eventually pull me aside to reveal themselves as a closet ________ (many things can fill the blanks), but shhhhhh it’s not public knowledge.

This is not our sign and we still don’t know who lives here, but we thought the back of the sign equally as precious as the front

Given the numerous political news stories always on my mind, I’m always up for a good debate, but also just drop that debate for any number of community efforts, whether it’s a missing kitten or a large public event. Moreso than me, my husband can disagree heartily with co-workers while at the same time supporting their physical safety. “You sound like a racist f*** but let me hand you up the nailgun.” It’s beautifully poetic.

Tips:

  • Mennonite or Amish networks. They’re great bakers and babysitters and can usually give awesome garden advice. They don’t vote and as a generalization don’t pay much attention to politics.
  • Native American Tribes: Do not assume any political slant because you’ll be wrong! (I’ve heard some of the fiercest anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant logic within tribal communities), but, suffice it to say, you’ll find folks who also geek out on the local watershed, native plants, etc. Don’t be a dick, support their sovereignty, do your homework on their history, do things that help their goals, and please drop the word “homestead”. (The Homestead Act of 1862 was anything but benign).
  • If you feel safe, be you! Even on social media! Raise that flag high so that others can find you.

In Closing:

Contemplating this move is especially important if you are white or straight, or both: Let’s face it, we can all understand why a person of color, or anyone LGBTQ, would be counting down the days until they get out of dodge. If we weren’t white or straight (in an area that’s largely white and christian) we’d be high candidates for being tokenized, “speak for our race”, “have a chip on our shoulder about….”, etc. As it is though, we can bear the inevitable backlash and vile that comes from debating progressive policies, and for us it’s just another day that is still largely free from personal micro-aggressions in which we’re letting other folks blow off steam. By speaking up here we help give space to the vital composting process of outdated social norms, so less-privileged people here (or who may return) experience less demands on their emotional labor.

Plus, small town likes these already have the infrastructure that urban planners are struggling to build in the cities, without the relocation, soaring prices, or gentrification that often accompany it. There is a walkable Main Street in the heart of town, and it’s not utilized. The edge of town is sprinkled with big lots and country roads. And everyone pretty much knows each other. Think about how awesome this is, and that there are lots of aging towns like this everywhere in this country.

Come on! This old bank has three storefronts, on the corner of Main St and a rural highway, has been empty for years, is selling for $20K, and there’s nowhere to buy espresso or microbrews in town! Seriously folks.

Plus, you’ll find a different kind of charm and grace here that’s hard to find in the big, hip city anyway. People here can read the weather, fix things, and trace their family’s history through local landmarks for generations. They can remember the winter of ‘__ when they had to check on one another, or they can point to the plants that their family would eat during the depression. The plants are still growing right in the same freaking spot! Comparatively, the transience of cities seems like a bunch of wandering souls.

Yes, there’s a lot of reasons why not to move out here and they aren’t funny (the holdovers to sundown towns, extraction-pollution industries, people who remind you of your uncle you can never agree with, or the actual uncle). But…

If you work the land in any capacity, you’ve dreamed of what you could do if you had more space without a higher rent, or could get a small storefront somewhere, or could do natural building to your heart’s content. In Oklahoma, we have 33 counties that had bigger populations at statehood then they do now. Tempting, right?


Kelda Lorax is a secret permaculture designer disguised as a gardener, mom, and city council member. She loves staying in the loop with cool permaculture happenings, like this all-women-taught online permaculture design course. If you’re ever in NE Oklahoma we’ll give you a camping spot and a tour (of our site or the town!), contact through the first link in this bio.