Rural Identity and Race

This is the season of growing grass in Oregon. Soon enough the rain will cease and the green will fade to beige and blow in hot dry winds until fall. The mix of rain and warm and you can hear it growing if you pause long enough. The sheep are fat and sleek; two are off to slaughter. Not my favorite day, but the meat fills the freezer. In the slow cooker bone broth brews from last fall’s pigs and a ham thaws for Sunday dinner. Various chores await my attention outside but here I sit drinking coffee and watching the grass… growing. The house smells of free range pork and spices. Yesterday the sun shone through a squall running down the valley in a brilliant sunset . Every day home my mind rests on this truth:  it is a gift to live this way, a gift denied many.

When the news these days speaks of “rural”, they mean largely the white, not college educated rural America. This is simply because that is the reality across large swaths of the country.  People say this as if it has always been so; disregarding their were millions of non-white people who used to live all over  the United States in varying degrees of rural living who were largely destroyed and displaced to make room for the very life we now enjoy. Here where I live the people were called the Kalapuya who were moved to the Warm Springs Reservation after being decimated by smallpox. To my knowledge there are no native Kalapuya speakers alive today. Back east it can be easier to overlook this aspect of history; in my youth while we spent days on the Plymouth Colony there is only a short mention of Corn Hill in Truro where the colonists found and abandoned town’s corn. No mention of why the town was depopulated. Historians disagree over the actual cause of the Pandemic that Europeans had brought to the new world, but whatever it was it killed ninety percent of the Native people before the settlers had landed. In Oregon the great-grandchildren of the tribes displaced still live here. It is harder to ignore it out west but many people manage.

Beyond this fist scouring of the land there are many others; a history of land theft, a homestead system designed to favor white Americans (white Anglo Protestant Americans to be precise) racial exclusion laws in Oregon, a history of lending bias by rural development agencies of the Government all worked together to create the “rural” we see today. Add to this centuries-long policy to the electoral college which puts a thumb on the side of the (white) rural vote and the current political landscape is not only understandable, it was inevitable. A class of people were protected and preferred for centuries, gained control of most of a continent and are now fearing loss of that control to the very concepts we pretend to worship; Democracy, Fairness, Justice.

All of this creates an internal conflict for me. At heart I know I am a rural person. Despite nearly two decades living in Portland, before it’s transformation to Mecca of the West or North San Francisco, I always strained at the confines of urban life. The closeness pressed on me, the having to pee in a bathroom every single time, the noise and motion. However I miss the culture; my local elementary taught reading to children who spoke 27 different languages. In walking distance of my house I could buy Pho, Philly Cheese steak, Chinese, Ethiopian, Indian, Carolina BBQ, Italian food. Even whitest-city-in-America Portland was far more diverse than my diverse-for-small town-America new home. And it saddens me knowing this is no accident but rather by design. That there were Chinese and other Asian immigrants who were cast out across America, that there were African-Americans who wanted to come here but were first excluded than mistreated by laws and banks. Rural America could have a decent egg roll, sushi BBQ but cultural purity would not allow it.

Yesterday I spent twenty minutes just standing outside watching my sheep in the deep afternoon. No one came by, no one called or interrupted my thoughts. Raised in Suburban Boston this was not natural to me; but after six months in Maine at seventeen I flew down to Boston to visit friends and my whole previous existence was alien to me. The city that was once my beloved home was now a loud, smelly cacophony. Ever since my urban life has been defined in the times I could escape it- to the Olympics, Cascades, Siskayous, to the deserts and beaches. Now home is my escape. When the ship runs aground the sea has spoken; here my ship is buried keel deep in Willamette valley mud and

Surely among all the urban people of this country there are others like me people who just are not well adapted to city life. And if they aren’t white, aren’t Christian and often not Republican they will have a hard time finding a place for themselves. It is a problem so large it’s hard to see from inside. But taking a step back and it all comes clearer.  There is no easy solution, no simple law or rule to change a history of bias.  But there is a dream of a better place; with open space and pan Asian cuisine. A conscious choice to be kind to strangers, welcoming to the outsider, the newcomer. It is easy for me having spent a lifetime as a lonely visitor to make eye contact with road dogs and other tried arrivals.  To set aside my preconceptions and judge people on their actions not my expectations.  It is a small thing and not hardly enough but that’s all I have.

” I am a lonely visitor.
I came to late to cause a stir,
Though I campaigned all my life
towards that goal.” – Neil Young, The Campaigner.


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