The population in urban spaces has grown dramatically over the last few decades. Many small towns are small and getting smaller. As the cities grow, waves of migration wash over small towns leaving residents to pick up the pieces. Grandparents accept that their purpose in life is to enjoy retirement with a daily trip to the cracker barrel, not to care and tend and provide wisdom to the incoming generation who are being raised in the nearest urban center.
Migration happens for different reasons. Some stick around post college, some are drawn to cities for high paying professions like architect or doctor, and some for entrepreneurial opportunity or working class jobs. And then others are there for resources. For the mental health care, VA hospitals, homeless shelters, SNAP agencies, transportation, food pantries, and other social programs that help people who have been forced into cycles of endless capitalism-induced struggle. Such strikingly different situations.
For a while I thought cities were a part of the problem, a concrete nightmare of traffic, pubs, restaurants, car exhaust, and moms driving their “kiddos” from the suburbs to soccer practice. That view has changed over time. I always feel drawn to the natural mountain spaces, the backwood waterfalls, the rolling pastures and deep valley floors that swell rich with a cool wetness. But the appeal of the city is there too. The ease of obtaining, the ability to bike and avoid driving, the constant potential for connection and friendship. The realness of it all. You see humanity in the city, in all its glory and kindness, in all of its despair and selfishness.
No matter what brings you to a city, or whether you have been there your whole life, it is a decidedly different lifestyle than the rural. Both with potential and both with very different circumstances and accolades. In Huntington, WV I walk to my nearby Kroger, over behind the tow yard, a path through the brush and across the tracks, check both ways for the train even though you’d hear it coming, and whisk myself across. I walk the somewhat awkward gravel, track side. I watch for needles. I talk to the guy hanging out nearby. When I reach the destination, coming out just behind the dumpsters, there is often a cop car stationed outside. I wonder to myself if this just serves as intimidation to deter petty theft. I understand that my trespass on the tracks won’t land much attention at all because I am a white woman. And I also understand that this simple walk to Kroger I enjoy is less likely in the rural, where most trips require a car ride.
I feel perpetually torn between the rural and urban, like two parts of me are being pulled in opposite directions. With a passion for farming I long for the ability to shape a piece of land. To learn all about its every curve and hill, to work with the land to cultivate life and sustenance. To discover from the land itself what I can and cannot do. But in the city I find easy connection. On the trip across the tracks that I value so much, I can meet people. I can ask what they want out of life. I can work with them for common goals.
And I wonder, can the truly desperate and most ostracized of our world exist in the rural countryside? Can they consume the abandoned waste from dumpsters without question, or encounter enough passersby to scrounge the money needed for a fix or a meal? Does this mean cities are one of our best hopes for a life built on solidarity for the many and not the few? Or is it that in the country, people rely more on one another in those desperate situations because the institutional support net isn’t as strong, or because travel becomes more difficult? I really don’t fully know those answers.
Maybe the point isn’t what they provide as opposites, but how the two can work together. I have hope for what this relationship could look like. In the perfect vision of a city there are parks and food and gardens and fruit trees. Clear running creeks meander through, ponds collect. People live in shared spaces, working together, using tools to help them collectively gain ownership. We are honest, we share our pain and frustrations, we admit guilt and mistakes, and we move forward. Power production is sourced through spinning windmills and solar arrays. Water is easily collected, purified, and stored. Bike paths cross through and weave the city into a beautiful basket. In the ideal city you find remediated and cleaned soil hosting food throughout.
In the small towns, in the country, we have to maintain the quality of life that makes the rural so wonderful. The small town feel, the neighborliness, and the connection with nature is what can be most promising in these places. In the ideal small town farms are plentiful and the infrastructure needed for processing of locally grown foods is readily accessible. Resources can be moved from these small towns to cities and back again, and with diligent methods we can create sustainability. It doesn’t have to be this hard we just have to put some real thought and resources into it. By putting food, shelter, water, and people first for both the urban and rural spaces, and with a focus on collaboration between the two being essential, we can create small ecosystems of abundance.
I have started to see the city and the countryside, not as opposing ideals, but as complementary ones. We need solutions that model synergy, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects”. In this practice the city continues to do what it does best, even better, and the countryside the same. They work together to fill in the gaps and places where the other leaves off. They share and manage resources, production, and food. City and country work to perfectly support one another, and their inhabitants, in a way that is positive, life-affirming, and helps people control their lives with dignity and truth. Their partnership unites the forces inside all of us. The forces that guide us toward connection, to both land and to each other.