Staying Home with the Others in Rural America
My neighbor said, “I’m concerned about what’s going to happen after the election.” I agreed, and we talked about homesteading and stocking up our freezers, root cellars, and pantries. Gradually I realized that we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum: she a conservative, and I, a liberal. I was on this woman’s farm a couple of weeks ago to help her with young piglets that had been birthed as a result of the services of my boar. I started to consider: we talk a lot in my political circle about Fox’s polarization and fear-mongering. But othering is happening on the left, too, albeit with a remaining respect for science and some facts. That moment listening to my neighbor was a genuine opportunity for a civil discussion about our different values because we had two major values in common: self reliance, and mutual support in a rural community. We have to take care of ourselves where we live because neither major political party has served us. We are used to uncertainty here. We are used to needing each other despite our differences. So far, we have fought off a mine, a CAFO, and we’re fighting a pipeline through our precious ecosystem. We found the courage to do this because this is our home, though outsiders have tried to divide us.
Our rural reality for dialogue and building common ground has yet to be tapped by a nation scornful of country folk and dismissive of livelihoods based on physical labor. I have been fascinated by pandemic tributes to frontline workers that almost never mention farmers or food processing workers. Farmers are less than one percent of the population, old, and mostly white, although getting to be more female. We stole all the land from the brown peoples. A complicated process of repatriation has begun (see, for example, Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black) even as a new corporate land grab is underway as the old farmers go out of business. Food processing workers are mostly brown and immigrant, which are additional reasons why they remain invisible.
I stretch between two worlds: a quarter century growing up in Chicago and earning all manner of theory-based degrees is grounded in another twenty years making my living as a farmer in a very rural and economically depressed northern Wisconsin. Nothing in my higher education taught me how to listen to the plants and animals on my farm, though I read much of theories of place, multi-species ethnographies, and feminist science. (Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble came close. So did Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.). Twenty years of working with the land requires me to respect the other people and to pay attention. This year the voles showed me in July it would be an early winter. We don’t share a language, but I’ve learned to read the tilt of a turkey’s head, the stillness of pigs watching, and the flowering of trees. The other people speak in patterns: the way the body is held, in the pauses of movement. The crows tell me when there is an owl nearby with designs on my chickens. Some of my Chicago friends didn’t even notice there was a drought this summer. It might take many more generations before the settlers actually feel at home, like the characters in C.J. Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna. I wonder if it will be in time.
People have been buying land around me like crazy since the pandemic started. Some of them are quiet. Some brandish their guns and spend a lot of time at the local bar, Covid-19 or no. I have guns too, but I have no need to advertise them. It’s hard to ask your neighbor to pull you out of the ditch in the snow after you’ve hit a deer when you’ve previously waved a gun around him. Seeing the newcomers’ tracks through the woods, and the casual wreckage they leave, gives me some taste of what it must be like to continually deal with my people, the other settlers. A Saami friend once told me that he was driven to distraction by non-human ethnographies, because we are still trying to speak for the others. “We,” he said, “don’t understand why you can’t let them speak for themselves. You still can’t hear them. You must feel so lonely.” The Anishenabe have lived here in northern Wisconsin for hundreds of years. When we started fighting the mine, an Anishenabe leader invited us settlers to join the several-hundred year resistance, “Wherever you came from, you are home now.”
I don’t live in rural America to hide out. I have not given up on humanity. I am trying to find and build models for living with uncertainty and loss. Those need both theory and practice. It is easy to despair. A fair amount of critical theory is a fine veneer over the despair. I practice farming instead, while I chew on theories. Another neighbor, who generally brews mead for a living, made a spirit this year from local apples that he calls “Ass Kicker.” He’s charging twenty dollars and twenty cents per bottle. We pause. We make ourselves at home.