The Tragedy of the Rural

On No Unsacred Place, Sara Amis has a beautiful and thought-provoking piece on Appalachia.

Do you think the beauty of the mountains is somehow in ironic contrast to the ugliness and squalor of its human inhabitants, that they just somehow wound up there by happenstance and are as insensible to the complex living world around them as so many bumps on a log from a old-growth tree? Or are you willing to contemplate the idea that they are the descendents of people who chose to live in all that beauty despite the difficulty of making a living there, and that that could say something about who they are? that their enthusiastic preservation of oral storytelling and old ballads and music and arts of all kinds indicates a love of such things for their own sake? that their ingenuity and ability (not yet entirely lost) to make anything out of two sticks, a rock, and a piece of home-made string, or to cure sickness with weeds out of the yard, are due to an intimate knowledge of the environment which might be useful somehow? that you have been sold a bill of goods, about the region, about the people, about us?

It’s a truly haunting and elegant piece of writing, and it brings up for me some deeply personal questions.

I grew up in south-east Ohio, near the border of West Virginia.  And the land is truly maybe the most beautiful in America that I’ve seen thus far, more beautiful in my mind than even the Northwest.  This is subjective, of course, but really–the forested hills, the creeks, the caves, the sudden vistas all have such an ancient, story-book feel that they’re not easily forgotten.

And then there’s the coal mining, and the paper mills, and the really high rates of cancer (my uncle and step-grandfather both died of brain cancer, and there’s a severe amount of birth defects in the area I grew up in).  And also…the trash.  It’s near impossible to walk for too long along a road and see a vast dumping ground of household appliances, trashbags, old cars.

And, well, there’s the racism and homophobia.  While she’s right–the rest of America is fed a steady stream of propaganda about the backwardness of Appalachia, and much of it is classist, it’s not all untrue.  My mamaw (“grandmother”…interestingly, it appears to be derived from the French “maman,” or mother) casually spoke of “votin’ for that ‘n-gger’, AIDS jokes are a matter of course when speaking of homosexuals, and the very notion of being anything other than Christian (not Catholic, mind you) was to everyone I knew there the most hate-able offense.  Also, I could count on one hand the number of families I knew which hadn’t suffered domestic abuse, and I can count one on finger the amount of childhood friends who are still alive.

The typical “liberal” or “progressive” response to such societal issues is to point to education and sometimes poverty (more a Marxist critique than a Progressive one) as the root of much of the bigotry.  But having worked with chronically homeless adults in Seattle, poverty isn’t the sole answer (as a matter of fact, my clients were often times more accepting of alternative modes of existence than many self-avowed liberals in Seattle).

Appalachia isn’t alone in such bigotry.  I spoke with a friend the other day about the Hoh rainforest, as he intends to visit it in a few weeks.  Another hauntingly beautiful place, full of magic and spirits and also, unfortunately, surrounded by some awfully hateful people.  Every gay man I know who grew up that area escaped the first chance he got, often long before finishing high school.  And even where I’ve been living, the more into nature you go, the more unsafe it is to be homosexual or pagan.

There’s an unfortunate reality any queer person who is also a Pagan encounters.  The safest place for a sexual “deviant” is in the cities, where others of our sort congregate, where people are more likely to have learned to accept difference through the sheer number of other opinions and backgrounds inhabiting a city.  At the same time, the city is often seen as the height of evil by many ecological folks.  Even the Archdruid of the AODA, John Michael Greer, evinces a great dislike for the urban in his blogs.

I don’t have an answer for this problem, nor do I have any good sense of why it is places of untouched nature also tend to be the most unsafe for people like myself (and, to be clear, I don’t “present” as apparently deviant, and most people don’t know I’m gay unless I tell them).  It’s just this huge question I have that doesn’t seem to be addressed by many people, and I hope it will be one day.  I don’t think the rural has to be hateful, anymore than the urban has to be tolerant (and to be fair, Seattle was becoming a surprisingly intolerant place before I left, with several gay-bashings occurring in the remnants of what had once been the gay enclave in the few months up to my departure).

I’d really, really love to hear your opinions on this matter, because, again, I don’t know the answer to this problem.


4 thoughts on “The Tragedy of the Rural

  1. I don’t know what the solution is either.

    I grew up both in the city and in rural landscapes, since I traveled back and froth between them often in childhood, but the rural area I went to was largely full of liberal folk – elderly liberal white folk, but still liberal. But if we left our small little town, we’d encounter the hatred and hostility. (Which I was encouraged to hide when I got older. Strange behavior as a child was seen as ‘cute’. Strange behavior as an adult was seen as very, very bad.) And there is such conflict – the mountains that I visited, the forests, the rivers and creeks, the smells of a rural area…they’re captivating and call my soul back constantly.

    But it wouldn’t be safe for me to live out there. And there isn’t any easy solution to the problem of hatred and bigotry…nor even any solution I can think of that would be very effective.

    1. Have we talked about the Radical Fae, Aine? They’re a bit hippy and their theologies are all over the place, but I love them dearly and, best of all, they do big festivals on sanctuaries in the middle of gorgeous wildlife. I think you’d like ’em lots.

  2. I don’t have a clue, but your post intrigues me.

    Do you think it has anything to do with the size of the population? Maybe people in big cities can ignore the “deviant” in the crowd of strangers just so long as there are no “deviants” in their particular circle.

    Or is it that people need a “deviant?” In rural areas, maybe everyone is very similar or tries to conceal not being similar, so people are eager to point out the “deviant.”

    I really don’t know, but I’d be interested when you figure it out.

    1. I’m not sure I’ll figure it out. : )

      There’s a couple of things I’m thinking about, though, stuff that’s come up as I think on the matter. The possibility of population density being the determining factor is certainly there, as John Beckett also mentioned on a facebook comment. The denser a population, the more one necessarily needs to be “tolerant” of other behaviors as one doesn’t have as much choice in the matter. But that also brings up the possibility that urban folks are less “free” to express their beliefs, which is a popular conservative complaint (consider all the rhetoric about “liberal, god(s)less new york,” etc.

      Something hit me a little bit ago, though. So, the social outlets for someone in a city are myriad. Endless choice of bars, cafes, restaurants, churches, parks, theatres, street corners, etc.. However, the main participatory (excluding media) social forum in rural areas is often just the churches. And of course, in America, these are Christian and often primarily right-wing (one doesn’t see many UCC’s or liberal episcopal churches in rural Appalachia, for instance). So, if this is one of the primary influences of socialisation in the rural, then this whole question has taken on a religious dimension that hadn’t occurred to me.

      If only one could find out whether or not rural Greece were homophobic and xenophobic. We’ve got histories of Germanic tribes drowning homosexuals, but we’ve also got histories of other cultures being matriarchal and polyandrous (and oftentimes, polyandrous cultures are open to homosexuality). So…hmm.

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