If you move to the country, you may have to cultivate friendships as well as crops.
“My family will be moving to a rural area within the next few years,” wrote Diane Unger in MOTHER EARTH NEWS issue 96’s Dear Mother column. “One thing that concerns me is whether we’ll be accepted by the people who already live in the region …. What has been the experience of MOTHER EARTH NEWS types who have made the move?”
Well, that simple but significant question loosed a virtual flood of letters from our readers so many letters, in fact, that despite running a number of the responses in the Dear Mother columns of MOTHER EARTH NEWS issues 97 and 98, we still had lots more to share.
Here, then, is a wealth of additional insight from readers who, though not necessarily in agreement, all have something important to say on rural relations between newcomers and natives.
Moving to the Country and Acceptance Into the Community
When Nancy and I made our move to the country in northwestern Montana, we noticed that the natives had a somewhat reserved attitude toward newcomers — but it was never a real hindrance to us. We didn’t have time to let it be one; we were too busy working our land!
I realize now that our hard work is one reason the local “newcomer mentality” never had much effect on us. And I’ve also come to understand that there’s good cause for reserve when it comes to making friends with new arrivals.
In the four years that we’ve been here, Nancy and I have said good-bye to at least a dozen couples who came with intents similar to ours. In all too many cases, they departed leaving garbage behind for others to clean up, or (worse yet) owing money to local residents. And this after imposing heavily on their native neighbors for help and advice.
There’s no telling how many times the folks who’ve lived here for decades have witnessed the same sorry sequence of events. Little wonder that most longtime residents have adopted a wait-and-see attitude!
So here’s our suggestion to would-be country immigrants: Make your move, and then get busy providing for yourselves. Work hard, be honest, and cultivate your own self-reliance. Don’t lean too much on others. Learn the ways of your newly chosen homeland rather than trying to change them. And don’t expect acceptance overnight; let a few years (yes, years) pass. If you really work at making it on your own in the country, the triumphs and tribulations of it all, the joys and the aching muscles, will smooth your city edges and get you past the time-in-residence hurdle. Before you know it (and without even realizing it at first), you’ll have become an accepted part of the community.
My wife, Brenda, and I moved from the suburbs of Boston to the mountain community of Butte Falls, Oregon, some six years ago. We were about as green as you can get short of turning frog-yet we’ve always felt welcome. The people in our town are exceptional, I suspect, but I don’t think our luck is the only good luck around.
Anyway, here’s our advice: First, expect everyone to look at you. As a newcomer, you’re an oddity. And second, expect to be judged — but not unfairly.
Be open to everyone but maintain a certain reserve; the first folks you meet will probably be the town characters. Listen to their gossip but never retell it.
Don’t reject any help offered. People in small communities need to help each other, and they do. The other side of that coin is that, in moving to such a town, you’d best be the kind of person willing to help as needed. (Your new home is bound to have a volunteer organization of some sort. Join it.)
Don’t wait for others to start a conversation. Ask questions; crops and weather are good for starters, and so is local history. The more you ask, the quicker folks will learn who and what you are.
And that brings me to the most important point of all: Be yourself right from the beginning. In a small community you can’t pretend to be anything other than what you are. Don’t worry about being accepted; you’re worth what you’re worth and that’s that. If you’re a churchbody, sit down with the parson first thing. Offer your time and energy. If you’re a tavernbody, get plastered with the rest of the crowd on Saturday night. Give people a little time to realize you’re there and apt to stay, and then give them everything they need to know to judge you by. They will anyway, sooner or later, saint or sinner — so you might as well save them the trouble of finding out the hard way.
The beauty of a small town is that everyone already knows where he or she fits in. If you’re “good people” in the natives’ eyes, they’ll make room for you.
Butte Falls, Oregon
I was born and raised in rural northern Michigan, and years of observation and experience brought me to expect certain undesirable attitudes in city immigrants.
First (and most infuriating) is the notion that simple folk are simpleminded. If you want proof to the contrary, read any American history book.
Second, many people are moving to the country and then start pushing for “improvements” that make the place they came to more like the place they ran away from. And it’s usually at the expense of already overburdened native taxpayers. Country folk like things the way they are (or, perhaps more accurately, the way they were).
And finally, there’s the issue of money. Many country people choose to live where they do because they place a greater value on how and where they live than they do on making money. Bragging and conspicuous spending can quickly turn a “new neighbor” into a “pain in the tush.”
If you keep yourself free of these attitudes, and if you respect and understand the local citizens, your chances of being accepted are much greater. I rambled all over this country for several years and found the people in 95% of the places I visited to be friendly and helpful. The other 5%? Why bother with them, when there are so many good places in the country to call home?
Spring Valley Farms
As a publisher of newspapers in rural towns, I’m familiar with the problem Diane Unger asked about. Diane, you must remember that most of the people who live in small communities have already formed their friendships — usually as classmates in school — and they’re a little shy of newcomers.
I’ve raised five children in this town, and each had a circle of about five friends who became close, lasting companions. It’s hard for any newcomer to break into such a circle. Friendships are sometimes counted not in years, but in generations.
But there’s hope. Just as a new boy in school wins instant acceptance when he shows his classmates he’s an outstanding athlete, you can win acceptance by making your talents and time available. Every community has local organizations — church, school, and civic groups — with certain needs. Join one that you can help, and you’ll be on your way to becoming accepted. (Generally, the smaller the group, the easier it is to win your welcome.) As the others get to know you, you’ll change in their eyes from a stranger to a person who can help them accomplish their goals. When you reach that point, you’re in.
A little over five years ago, we moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to an old farm on 40 acres in east central Alabama. The people in this part of Alabama aren’t sociable in the same sense that urban neighbors might be. They all wanted to know who the strangers were that had moved in down the road, but they didn’t come forward to introduce themselves. When I started adding two rooms to our old house, our driveway suddenly became a major turn-around for neighbors supposedly going somewhere else. Some would sit in the drive five minutes or longer, but if I started down the ladder or came to the door, they’d hurriedly leave.
The front porch of the country store was a regular meeting place for menfolks in the community, and it was here that I met many people and got a chance to pick up some local history and gossip. Some were openly critical of our move, giving us six months to a year before we’d be “hightailing it back to the city.” Others were encouraging, assuring us that we’d made a good choice of lifestyle and location.
We cautiously joined the community center and attended the annual events. My wife started going to the monthly women’s meetings, where neighbors quilted, sewed, exchanged recipes, and talked about whoever wasn’t there. Gradually, our neighbors began to appear comfortable in our presence.
But it wasn’t until we lost our house and all our belongings in a fire that we knew we’d been accepted. We never dreamed that neighbors could be so helpful. They opened their homes and hearts to us, brought us food, provided a camper for temporary shelter, removed debris, helped set up a house trailer, mended our fences, tended our animals, and collected furniture, clothing, and a considerable sum of money to help us get back on our feet. No one held anything back.
We now feel very much a part of the community. We’ve helped organize a volunteer fire-and-rescue unit . . . we’ve begun a small appliance repair business . . . and we’ve just moved into our new underground home, which has become a major attraction for Sunday afternoon visitors.
So yes, newcomers can be accepted in rural America. But you have to remember that country ways have evolved over the past two centuries and aren’t prone to rapid change. It is the newcomers who must show respect and who must do the adjusting. Keep an open mind and allow things to happen gradually. You need to allow people plenty of time to get to know you and determine your potential value to the community.
Bernie and Inez Jones
As a soldier moving from base to base both in this country and abroad, and later as a civilian Yankee who moved to the South, I’ve frequently faced the problem Diane Unger mentioned. Maybe my experiences will be helpful.
First, I’ve learned to make it a point to be slow to speak or spend money. Nobody likes a know-it-all or a person whose wealth (whether real or imagined by others) sets him or her apart from “plain folks.” Also, I’ve found that if you want respect, you have to give it to others — and earn it for yourself.
For example, when I first came here and it was time to plant a garden, I knew exactly what kinds of seed I’d use. But instead of just buying the seed outright, I took the time to drink a couple of soda pops at the store, and — after letting the owner introduce me to them — asked some of the “older” locals for their advice on the best types. (Elderly people may be scorned in the city, but in the country they’re given the respect their experience and knowledge entitle them to.)
Later, when my garden was ready for harvest, I invited a few of the more curious natives — the ones who’d stopped by during the summer to be neighborly — in for coffee. After a bit of conversation and a walk through my garden, they left expressing their admiration at how well I’d done. The following spring, some of those same old-timers came around to “talk seed.”
Respect comes first, then the warmth of friendship. Both have to be earned, and words can never replace actions in accomplishing that.
To put it the way my daddy did: “Plant corn if you want corn.” If you give respect and offer a firm handshake and a friendly smile, you’ll reap the same in return.
Lee Van Hoesen Jr.