What I Wish My Children Could Learn From My Rural Upbringing
"A boyhood in rural America taught me economy and self-reliance."
Joe Wilkins is the author of Fall Back Down When I Die.
I was born and raised in the distances of eastern Montana, on a hay and sheep ranch along the Musselshell River, just north of the Bull Mountains. It was a far, hard country, and we organized our days and nights around the work the land demanded. I well remember the long, hot weeks of harvest and the midnight passes through the lambing shed, the low bleats of sheep, the good stink of lanolin and straw. For most of my growing up years, we made it pay—but barely. We made do. When the pump blew or the pickup coughed to a stop, we rolled up our sleeves and fixed it ourselves. We grew a tremendous vegetable garden, gathered wild asparagus and chokecherries, hunted for deer and antelope in the fall. As a boy, I could count the number of times I’d eaten at a restaurant on one hand. Until I began to save to buy my own clothes, I don’t know that I ever had a pair of jeans that wasn’t a hand-me-down. Like most rural folks, we lived close to the bone.
But then, when I was nine, my father died, and no amount of making do could make up for that. We were forced to sell the sheep and lease out the irrigated land along the river. Not long after, knowing that with my father gone there was this unspannable gap in the generations, my grandfather sold what was left of the ranch he loved, the prairie land he’d given his life to.
And me? Though I grieved my father, though I knew the loss of our land was indeed a loss, I turned away. I’d always been a dreamy, bookish boy, and though I walked fence and drove grain truck and did what I had to do, I’d never shown much talent for horseback work, and like many rural kids, especially those who do well in school, I had long been told that to live I’d have to leave, that the world was anywhere but here.
What’s more, though I wouldn’t then have been able to name the colonizing economic and cultural forces responsible for the devastation of rural America, I saw, every day, the sad fruits of that devastation: poverty, scrapped hopes, broken homes. Alcohol addiction was rampant. So, too, violence—against the land, against wild and domestic animals, against human beings (especially women). What was different was frowned on, disallowed, while easy, dead-wrong mythologies—the ones you find in pop country music, mass-market movies, and the speeches of pandering politicians—were celebrated as the way things ought to truly be.
As a young man, I put my shoulder to the hard task of leaving all that, and I did: I earned a scholarship to an out-of-state college. I studied hard and tried on new ideas and slowly bent the course of my life in another direction. I live in town now. I read and write my days away. I am for the most part whole and well.We shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with rural America?” Rather, we might ask, “What can we learn from rural America?”
And yet, and yet. I begin to feel—especially now that I am a father—I am forgetting something. “Abstraction,” Wendell Berry writes, “is the enemy wherever it is found.” So let me get right down to it. Let me tell you a story:
The summer my father was sick, sick down to his bones with cancer, our neighbors one morning began to show up at our house. They slapped the dust of the road from their jeans and shook my father’s shaking hand, hugged my mother, asked my brother and me if, big as we were, we weren’t about to bust out of those shoes. The men hauled buckets of tools out of the backs of their pickups, the women ferried fried chicken and potato salad and jugs of sun tea to the tables they set up in the yard. All that long, bright day, we worked. The lot of us.
Women and men, boys and girls. We framed and roofed and walled the machine shed my father had planned but in his sickness not been able to complete. There must have been a hundred hammers hammering, a thousand bites of rhubarb pie forked hungrily up. There was always someone with my father, someone to talk and laugh with him as he watched us and hollered instructions, leaning on his cane. He would be dead in less than six months. Yet even as stars cut the early dark, we kept working, kept believing that we were indeed, though we held no bonds to one another beyond a shared place (my mother was one of a handful of Democrats in the entire county; my father, a moderate Republican, might as well have been a Democrat), a community.
That barn-raising was as good a thing as I have ever been a part of, and I hold it now where I hold the memories of my boyhood wanderings in the cottonwoods ringing the far field, closest to my heart. A boyhood in rural America taught me economy and self-reliance, it taught me hard work and wonder, it taught me that our bonds to one another are as important, perhaps more, than our own definitions of self. It taught me the hammer shaft in my hand, the earth beneath my feet.
In this fraught season of division, of incivility and outrage, much has been written about what is wrong with rural America, as if there is only sickness to be found there, as if the simplicity of diagnosis, rather than the complexity of conversation, is what is necessary. We shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with rural America?” Rather, we might ask, “What can we learn from rural America?”
Though my politics have never matched those of the place I call home, I yet tell my son and my daughter the stories, I take them into the backyard where we gather eggs and dig potatoes, I wander with them through our neighborhood, where we call Hello! to whomever we meet.
Fall Back Down When I Die is out now from Little, Brown and Company.