Spring has come to the southern Willamette Valley! In its own way, at least. In the time since I last wrote to you, gentle readers, the snow has melted, the temperatures have warmed, some buds have opened but alas the rain has not quite stopped. But agricultural laments aside, the season has changed and we could not be more grateful. This past winter has been long in many ways, time for one (objectively it has been a more difficult spring than in years past), but also in lessons. When I moved to Veneta in September, I expected to learn a lot about soil health, planting schedules, weed suppression, and direct to consumer market development. I am learning all these things, but the weight of the anthropology degree I and my family paid so dearly for in so many ways (not trying to be dark here, I mean time and money–there was no blood pact required for Dartmouth graduation) still hangs like an albatross around my neck. The heft of this beast curls my spine and pulls my nose close to the ground to see the patterns of the ants moving about underneath my clouds of to do lists and new farm tools to master. I can’t help but examine the minutia of the people around me and I have finally come to some universal truths I feel comfortable extolling about my new life in Rural America.
Rural America. For the past ten-ish months, many in my liberal bubble have been seeking to understand it but, from within the confines of the urban context, I am not sure that true insight is possible. This concept has been discussed in board rooms, rented campaign halls, online forums and every coffee shop in America as far as I can tell but without knowing what it is to be part of one of these communities then I can take those discussions as little more than conjecture. There are storytellers of these communities standing up and saying their piece. I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir of Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy. This book has been lauded as a way to understand Trump’s victory and the people who made it possible, shining light on the dying culture of white, rual America. Vance himself was a product of a sometimes violent, always unstable Scots-Irish hillbilly family based almost equally in Kentucky and Ohio. He describes his ascent from the depths of society’s most resented class as a miracle and emphasizes that not many people get out of communities and hometowns like his. While I am skeptical of anyone who claims to speak for an entire culture through a personal experience, even members therein, the voices of lived experience speak louder than all the pundits and analysts the world over. But I think that some of the cultural tenets and social expectations described in Vance’s story extend further than his family, or even Appalachia.
Pride, incredulity, and defensiveness serve as hallmarks of the hillbilly mentality Vance describes. These traits seem to be alive and well in most of the rural places I have been and lived in our fair country. Even here thousands of miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the hollers and hovels look very much the same to the ones I drove through on my way to the Red River Gorge from my childhood in Louisville, KY. Many people accumulate the detritus of several bygone lives, pile up trailers and mobile homes next to a dichotomy of increasingly ramshackle or immaculately cared for homes. While the yard fills up and more and more is brought in, the need to defend these possessions becomes increasingly entrenched. Promises of privacy and seclusion play out in the no trespassing signs, the private property placards, and the barbed wire fencing lining the over grown fields. Sometimes I look around and ask myself what exactly my neighbors are trying to protect. The world is constantly telling them how worthless their work and contributions are through dropping wages, dearth of opportunity, lack of community resources and development, and the gathering ire of the liberal stronghold of Eugene , clinging to the once grand objects that they hoarded to feign affluence seems the natural thing to do.
This is the backdrop of Veneta. My little slice of agrarian bliss is an even split of aging hippies and intellectuals spilling out of Eugene (or coming up from California as the local natives fear most) and the long toiling native born Venetians who have commuted to industrial West Eugene or ridden the tides of agriculture, meat processing, tractor repair, and the Oregon Country Fair that have kept this fair town afloat since its inception in 1912. Since moving here in September, we have learned what being a good rural neighbor means.
Most people who choose to live in the country, or were brought up here have a deep sense of privacy that neighbors need to make clear they will not violate. Their land is their land and any incursion can be viewed as a lack of respect for those whose sanctum you’ve invaded. While the twists and turns of dirt roads can take you to the back of a neighbor’s acreage while standing 100 yards from your front door, best bet is to use the main entrance. This seems like a given but when you are tromping through the underbrush to find your three dogs who have escaped for the third time that week and you suddenly come upon a very surprised woman gardening in what you are now realizing is her back yard….it becomes apparent that more weight on this matter is necessary. Speaking of that situation, that is exactly how I learned this lesson.
In the winter months, with their bitter cold, abundant freezing rain, and short days, most people spend the vast majority of their time indoors. I tried to count myself among that group this past season of snows but alas, Ru had other plans. While he systematically acquainted himself with all terrain within a three mile radius of our front door throughout the winter, I got on the bad side of our adjacent country dwellers. Our fence is incomplete in many places due to faulty barbed wire, old agreements of shared grazing land, ease of access for the friendships of previous owners, and you know stuff like the freaking driveway. These holes provided a temptation too delicious for our canine companions and that liberty bred entitlement to the point that they knew the consequences, the punishments, and the shame involved in being caught, but simply could not ignore the siren call of the forest beyond the boundary. And so I became a law breaker. A trespasser. A transgressor. I crossed to boundaries to try to get the dogs back before their presence was noticed, but alas, mine was.
So here is to finding the boundaries by having crossed them. This is the first time in my life that I have found the concept of a feud to be real and true. This is all to do with my misunderstanding and status as an outsider. I mean hell, even this post is all to do with my misunderstanding and outsider status. Coming in has made me a target for ire through mostly (though not entirely) through my own actions. My neighbors see my misunderstanding of their boundaries and etiquette the same way the people of Portland saw the free speech protesters in Portland last week: out of touch, out of place, and out of context. The same way that I feel exasperation at people I encounter who think BLM is pointless or that feminism is about a future without men, I am destructive for them. This is another time in my adult life that to maintain peace I must put my most true feelings and reactions on the back burner and wear the mask of indifference to keep my own personal peace. But those who trade freedom for safety deserve neither according to my paraphrased memory of Benjamin Franklin. Understanding and acknowledgement of values and guiding principles different from your own does not erase your convictions and your personal position. But, that being said I think that some of my assimilation and silence in the face of some things I don’t agree with makes me a hypocrite. While I do not encourage or contribute to the divisive conversations of the values and respect of those around me I do quietly keep my view of what’s right to myself. Without the understanding I have gained of the “way things work” here in the rural outskirts of Eugene I would not understand the rules, but I also wouldn’t have become afraid to violate them. Now the question becomes that if I know and see these trends that I see as bad for my community and my town, should I call them out? What is the good to come of my reflection and knowledge if it stays within my liberal household?
Food for thought……..and hopefully not food for the feud.