The Geography of Thought: We Are Where We Live

January 22, 2019


During my childhood, my family moved around a lot. I’m not exactly sure why, but I believe that my father, a metallurgical engineer, was in demand back in the 1960s and 70s as a knowledgeable turnaround artist in the grey iron foundry business.


But I also think he had a certain restlessness about him, that there were always greener pastures somewhere down the road.


As a result, I am a hybrid of sorts, a product of small towns from both the Midwest and the South. My first “dog” was a chicken, growing from a peep into a fierce yard guard rooster loyal only to me. That was in Columbus, Ind.


It was in Abilene, Kan., where I caused a crowd that had gathered to watch a recreated Old West shootout to stampede by yelling “twister.” The sky had darkened considerably.


The Turtle Whisperer


In Springfield, Mo., I was the box turtle whisperer, having learned to follow their trails in tall grass. I remember attending a small country school in Latham, Ill. (population 375) where the principal would take off from work for a week to labor in the fields during the fall harvest. 


I’ll never forget Red Bank, Tenn., a suburb of Chattanooga, where schoolyard fistfights were a prerequisite to making friends. When in Rome …


Then there was high school in South Lebanon, Pa. I remember skipping school on a wet, misty day to go pheasant hunting with buddies and being knocked on my butt when, with shotgun in hand, I accidentally backed into an electrified fence in a cornfield. I also recall shooting barn rats by flashlight on a Mennonite farm.


My father taught me about hunting and fishing, how to run a trot line, field dress a deer, and gig for frogs. Toward the end of his life, I would wade out in black muck of Delaware Bay at low tide and help him rake clams.


My experiences allowed me to become quite comfortable spending time outdoors in rural places. That attitude followed me into adult life as a newspaper reporter in Columbus, Ga., and Birmingham, Ala., where I frequently found myself out in the boonies on assignment.


In my latter career as a state and regional economic developer in Alabama and Indiana, I was mostly working in small towns, where easing into friendly discourse was the best way to develop trust and gain information. It still is.


A Country Within a Country


Today, I live in a big city, but consider myself lucky to having grown up in the American heartland, a sort of a country within a country.


I still identify with songs from the hinterland, like John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” or Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Same goes for Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” and Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen.” It’s probably why I picked up the guitar and the banjo.


I recognize that I am product of my experiences, of my environment like we all are. It doesn’t necessarily make me better or worse than anyone else. Perhaps I have gained certain insights.


This notion of a Red conservative America and a Blue liberal America is now accepted as political reality. And while I believe that attitudes are rooted largely in terms of where people live, it grieves me to think that we are not listening to one another.


More so than ever, we have come to view our fellow Americans as “the other” when they do not hold our same political beliefs. If you think about it, that it’s my way or the highway, well, that’s just crazy.


The Oldest Divide


This idea of a cultural/political/economic divide between country and city people goes back to the founding of the American republic. Thomas Jefferson said country dwellers were morally superior to their urban counterparts and should therefore dominate government.


 “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America,” he wrote to James Madison in 1787. “When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”


About 200 years later, as a student of journalism, I took special delight in reading Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko’s columns. He would habitually castigate people and their legislators living in downstate Illinois as "nothing but a bunch of rubes and bumpkins." (Never mind that I fell into that category, I loved his columns.)


Jethro and Tony


The urban/rural divide has been a central theme in books, TV and movies. How can you not laugh at Jethro Bodine or even come to feel empathy for a very flawed Tony Soprano.


The notion of rural goodness, celebrated in the Andy Griffith Show, was set on its head in the terrifying movie Deliverance, where backwoods Neanderthals stalk and attack four city dwellers who venture into a place where they clearly do not belong.


The historical drama Gangs of New York and television series The Sopranos perpetuates simmering urban violence, while Winter Bone portrays a disturbing isolation and hopelessness in the sticks.


I love the movie My Cousin Vinny, precisely because it pokes stereotypical fun at both urban northerners and rural southerners alike. The scene of Joe Pesci being told he has mud in his tires is classic.


A Wonderful Quilt


There is nothing wrong with pointing out differences in urban and rural America. My only concern is that we not think of people living in “the other” as being less worthy. Our differences have resulted in a wonderful American quilt, where the fabric of freedom, albeit with fits and starts, has continued to expand.


We should never forget that, whether we think of ourselves as conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. (I’m not sure if I’m neither or a bit of both.)


It is right for us to care, feel alarmed and to argue among ourselves on issues of importance. The current federal government shutdown hinging on border security is a case in point. But we should refrain from demonizing those who may not share our own political views. Do you honestly believe they want to destroy America? I don’t.


Place Shapes Thought


From my experiences, which have taken me from Maine to California, from Canada to Mexico, I believe environmental factors – particularly community size and density (the defining factors of urban and rural) – have a telling influence on how we live, think, work and relate to one another.


If I am living and/or hunting in some sparsely settled place, I won’t be disturbed by hearing a distant gunshot. But if I am living in an apartment in a dense big city, a gunshot from the unit below me will prompt a call to the police. Indeed, our general views about guns are largely governed by where we live.


Having said that, I’m sure there are some self-identified liberals today living in (disgraced) U.S. Rep. Steve King’s district in Sioux City, Iowa, just as there are some self-identified conservatives living in U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the Bronx. (Talk about polar opposites.)


My point is that different environments engender different beliefs. The fact that we come from different places are reflected in political thought, commerce, and every day life.


Jimmy Buffett had it right that changes in latitudes mean changes in attitudes. It is one reason why economic development strategies will differ according to place, as they should.


That is not to say that there is no right and wrong, regardless of geography. We should never excuse the inexcusable. Rep. King’s views on white supremacy has no place in American thought or dialogue. We are bound by justice and equality.


If the body politic in this country is to advance, which I believe is integral to growing the economy and providing more opportunities for people in both rural and urban settings, we must recognize our differences and our commonalities and work from there. We owe that to ourselves and future generations.


I’ll see you down the road.

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