Born To Be Rural

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1992. All rights reserved.

"Next time," says the author Frank Waters, "by hook or by crook, make sure you're born with a mountain in the front yard."

And an acreage out back, I would add.

Waters was born to the Colorado country and wrote several classic books (Masked Gods, The Colorado, The Book of the Hopi) about that land and its people. I come from the plateaus of eastern Montana, where your eyes rest on backlit mountains after crossing miles of open range.

"Edge of Town" by Steve Smith It makes a difference what you're born to, of course, whether its the black sod of Kansas prairies or the slick sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. Places put things in your head like those silly tunes that you hear once and can't shake. They get in your dreams and wake you in the morning. You find yourself humming them in the shower, at breakfast, on the job. Who can say why?

The song of open spaces stuck with me early on, and though I've known my share of cities -- Kansas City, London, New York, Seattle -- it's in rural places that I've been most at home: wheatfields on the Palouse, the lush dairylands of Tillamook, wind-swept high desert country on the Snake River Plain, the timbered Ochocos of central Oregon....

But rural life has changed. It ain't like it was in grandpa's day when "country" meant a place removed from "city" doings and influences. Today we have fax machines and computers and overnight deliveries from coast to coast. There's no escaping the effects of network news and federal regulations and MTV. Interstate highways and their tributaries intrude on even the most private of places.

And the people living in the country have changed. It used to seem they were all of a kind,  from place to place, descendants of the same ethnic group that settled the land. But now there's more diversity, with people of all kinds of races and backgrounds calling the same place home.

What hasn't changed much, though, is the real meaning of the word "rural." It derives from the Latin word "ruralis," which referred to open country or open land.

To be rural is to live in the country. That means a place close to the land, where the soil is your closest neighbor and best friend. The earth gets under your nails and into your skin. You can't wash it out. It stains the way you feel.

To be rural is to share your life with animals. No farmstead is without its creatures, wild or domestic. You can't keep out the cats and dogs and horses and cows any better than you can permanently fend off wasps and mice and raccoons and robins. Ruralis breeds animalis.

To be rural is to know the weather. The country offers no escape from midsummer's thunder or winter's white coat. There's no hiding from the colors of autumn or the smell of spring's new growth. You have to feel the wetness when it rains and the aridity when there's drought.

Being rural can also mean knowing your way with tools, since the nearest repairman could be miles off and days away. It can mean having a green thumb, because you'll want some say in what the soil obliges. And it can mean a good measure of self-reliance to make up for the absence of the public utilities and government services city people enjoy.

I've been rural and I've been urban; I prefer rural.

Cities are best for professional baseball. Country is best for everything else that interests me.

I would rather know a thing or two about the land I  live upon than understand the inner workings of Wall Street. Give me a farmstead with a few animals and I'll forego fancy sportscars and Caribbean cruises. I'll take a prairie thunderstorm over the lights of Broadway anytime.

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