When I was first contacted about becoming Mary Jane’s Rural Farmgirl, I was living in an apartment, in Anchorage, with a short elevator ride to my car; a car which I rarely used because I could walk to work, walk to the store, walk to a coffee shop, and walk to the park. However, this wasn’t me. The view from our window was of Office Depot, the ambient noise and light from the surrounding city was constant, and our arguing neighbors could be heard way too easily through our too thin walls. Luckily, at the time that MJF contacted me, we were slated to move to Spring Creek Farm in one month’s time.
I told my family that I was going to be the “New Rural Farmgirl” for Mary Jane’s Farm. They laughed. They questioned me, “What about you is rural? You’ve never lived in a rural area!” Here, I had to interject, “I have lived in a rural place!” That “rural” place was Yeoju, South Korea. Sure, Yeoju was considered rural by Korean standards, it only had 150,000 people living in it and the tallest building was only ten stories as opposed to Seoul and other huge cities. It also had a well developed and used bus system, food delivery of all types at all hours; it had night clubs and more than five types of pizza places to order from. Yeoju was not rural, by my newly defined standards.
While my family and friends doubted my innate ruralness, I knew it was in there and yearning to get out. I had a pull to rural areas, areas where folks wave to each other from behind dusty windshields, where the “Big City” isn’t too close, where you can’t see the glow of a television in your neighbor’s window, but the nearest neighbor isn’t so far away that you feel secluded.
The United States Census Bureau has fairly nebulous (at least to me) definitions of rural: “all territory outside of Census Bureau-defined urbanized areas and urban clusters.” Rural is not the city. Duh. So, what is an urbanized area? It is an “urban nucleus” whose population exceeds 50,000 and has a core with a population density generally exceeding 1,000 persons per square mile. Rural areas comprise open country and settlements with fewer than 2,500 residents and a population density of 1-999 people per square mile. That population seems pretty low.
How about the USDA’s Office of Rural Development? It defines rural area as any area that is not a city or town that has a population of greater than 50,000 inhabitants or the urbanized areas contiguous and adjacent to such a city or town.
The dictionary defines rural as, “Of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture.” “Rural” comes from the Latin ruralis, from rur- meaning open land. It was first used in the 15th century.
This tells me that any place that is not urban is rural. Seems too easy. Here, the objectivity of defining “rural” is lost to the subjective definitions of any and all individuals attempting to define it.
In Alaska, almost any place that people live seems to fit the rural definition. So, if rural-ness prevails, is it still rural? or is it just life in Alaska? In Alaska, many of the cities aren’t accessible by car even if they aren’t islands; we call them “Bush Towns.” I had to examine my memories of towns that I considered rural: Crosby, Minnesota; Valley City, North Dakota; Viroqua, Wisconsin. Were they similar to Palmer, Alaska in terms of size and accessibility? Were the buildings the same height? Were there the same ratios of bars to churches and craft fairs to gun shows? Were there farms on the outskirts? After some brief, topical examination, I determined: Yes, Palmer, Alaska is a quintessential rural town.
Palmer has just over 5,000 residents, the population density is about 1,500 people per square mile. There is one Dairy Queen, there are several churches, a bar crawl in Palmer goes very quickly, men and women do everything in Carhartts (in fact, some people have “fancy” black Carhartts). The State Fair is the town’s pride and joy. There are two grocery stores but no big box stores. Fire fighters from nearby cities have to called in to help with big events (like the recent grass fire in a nearby neighborhood!). Faces and places are familiar to many of the town’s citizens. There are four or five intersections in Palmer that have traffic lights.
Last week, Sherry Simpson, an Alaskan writer, visited one of my classes. She shared with us this quip, “It should be harder to get into the city than out of it.” This summarizes rural living so well. Cities are great, cities are integral parts of the human experience. Living in a rural area, it is not impossible to get into the city (while it is nearly impossible to get to the city from Alaskan bush villages), we go to the city for work or school, or for a Target run, or for some Big City entertainment like the ballet.
We go to the city for things that every city offers. We go to rural towns for the specific things that those towns provide. For Palmer, that is the State Fair, the agricultural history, the beautiful juxtaposition of farmland and soaring mountains, and the omnipresent guy on the corner that really, really, REALLY wants to impeach Obama NOW (this guy would be commonplace in the city, but he’s a treat in our rural town).
“Rural” has a subjective definition. But for me, it is an area with a pretty low population. It is an area that provides enough conveniences to keep life easy, but not so much that life is no longer simple. It is a place that is surrounded by farms. It is a place where one waves to passing cars because there aren’t too many to wave at. It is one where kids are often dirty, unsupervised, little explorers. It is one where the local movie theater went under long ago or struggles to stay open because of low attendance.
Can you bring the rural to the city? Or the city to the rural (ask our City Farmgirl!)? Do I have a rural state of mind? do you? Now that I have my own loose definition of rural, I can delve into these metaphysical questions…
Until Next Time my Sisterly Farmgirls (whether you be City, Ranch, Mountain, Suburban, Beach or Bush!),
Sending You Peace and Love,