It’s spring now, finally. I’m watching the lights of a tractor crawling back and forth across the field in front of my house. It’s 8:00 pm; they’ll probably be out for another hour or so. It’s the circle of life in this community; the land is waking up, and someone has to be ready for it.
If you’ve chosen to read this, I’m assuming that you are in some way a part of this circle of rural life. You might be driving past cattle pastures and empty fields on your way from work. You might be fishing off a bridge. You might be thinking back on your hometown, happy to have escaped its pull. You might be in the cab of the tractor in front of my house, driving back and forth, back and forth.
It can be hard to dream in a place like this, where everything is flat space and tight-knit communities that go generations back. It can seem as if there’s nothing to do but waste gas on the way to nowhere. Expressing yourself can feel especially risky here because everything reflects on your family, which is an extra consideration that not everyone worries about. (I worry about that. A lot.) People here seem to have a crystal-clear idea of what’s “normal,” and how you fit into that.
Maybe that’s not just a rural thing.
We are conditioned to believe that cities are where creativity lives. Just think about every movie you’ve ever seen, with a plot centered around someone with “big dreams” who lives in despair until they move to New York or L.A. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But it does feed into the idea that rural voices are silent when it comes to art, music, dance, writing, theater, comedy, journalism–the list goes on. We don’t have to be silent. In fact, we shouldn’t be.
The beauty of homegrown rural art is that it keeps us acquainted with a way of life that’s often misunderstood. Rural culture has changed so much during the past few decades, and yet many of our communities stay grounded in mostly-discarded conventions. We are often painted with a broad brush, portrayed as enemies of progress. That’s probably true in some cases. But there is value in preserving old ways, and in constantly searching for a balance between tradition and evolution. It’s harder to do that in an environment that’s all about moving fast, to the next thing and the next.
This is why the world needs us.
Rural people have distinctive voices which are rarely represented in mainstream art (except in country music, which is rapidly losing touch with actual country life.) I believe one of the best ways to change this is for us to create where we live. A few weeks ago I learned that there used to be a pretty vibrant community theater in one of the tiny towns near where I live. Just last weekend I saw my coworker on stage singing with a local band. These were huge revelations to me, even though I’d grown up with a dad who created and performed regularly. It made me realize, more than ever, that in order to encourage rural artists we have to be open about our own creativity. We have to show that it’s possible–celebrated, even!–to be expressive. Even if some in the community don’t quite understand what we’re expressing. They still need to see it. And if we can cultivate vibrant art spaces where we live, what’s to stop us from sharing that with the world?
We trick ourselves into thinking that a tight-knit community would never accept anything new or original. But for any rural creator who needs to hear it, I’ll say: give people a chance to prove you wrong. There is a sea of people around you with creative instincts and a strong point of view. Don’t underestimate your neighbors, friends, church leaders–mine have surprised me within the past few months, and I’m willing to bet yours can surprise you too. And lastly, I’ll urge you tell the stories of your rural life, in whatever way you can. Don’t save it all for New York or L.A. We need you, right here.