“ I’m a country mouse, easily overwhelmed by humanity on the scale of cities, even those much smaller than this one (Kinshasa) … It struck me that the culture gap between city and country mouse might be wider than any other I’ve known.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver
I grew up in the suburbs of a small city in Texas. It was known as the “Panther City,” after a rival town newspaper said the place was so quiet that a panther could sleep in the middle of main street. My brother and I were often out in the surrounding country, hunting or fishing with our dad whose clients were ranchers and landowners. We often interacted with the local kids who were wise to the ‘country’ ways and liked to snooker city kids if they got the chance. Our cousins, who lived in a much smaller town, not too far away, also liked to play up the differences between us and show off their wild ways. When a little older, we also had the “opportunity” to help out with chores on some of the ranches — for example, driving fence posts for barbed wire fences.
In school, the peer pressure to be civilized versus “good ol’ boy” was finally mitigated when my brother and I became footballers, admirable but potentially just a brain-dead savage. At least then I had an identity separate from being ‘citified’ versus ‘countrified’ and could just be a jock.
But I was still conscious of the gaps between the cultures, even when they were pretended rather than real. While in school in Oklahoma, I mixed with many small-town teammates whose ‘countriness’ was not a façade, but a comfortable cloak as easy as their worn blue jeans with turned-up cuffs.
Suburbs, however, are expanding the reach of cities across the world. The ability to live comfortably in the country has waned, as jobs and populations shift to urban and suburban areas. The urban/country divide seems to be widening as the amount of ‘city’ expands and the amount of ‘country’ shrinks.
Barbara Kingsolver has noted the shift internationally, “A decade or so from now, half of all Africans will live in urban areas. The rest of the world already passed that mark, sometime in the late 1990s, with more humans now in cities than in rural areas. The shift accelerated in the last century as modern nations urged their populations toward a cash economy, away from land-based production. The civic advantages involve taxation and monetized trade.”
Locally we can see the new suburbs sprouting past the edges of the developed city fringes, consuming more and more less- or un-developed land. Kingsolver observes, “Year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land.”
Us old guys can’t help missing the open fields or woods that used to be there when we see the new developments. In our memory, hawks circled the cloudless blue sky, myriad animals scurried or bounded across green fields, ponds teemed with fish and peace reigned across the land. Of course, in reality the wildness was chaotic and temporary.
And, Kingsolver points out, “Urban life has inarguable rewards. An efficient collective can conserve resources and produce innovations that might yet save a planet — if we ever agree to put that goal ahead of other appetites. But year by year, fewer of us are left to see what’s lost as our species abandons the land. In human-built environments shared only with other humans, where else can one seek beauty but in the human spirit and things of our own making?”
I advocate taking the opportunity to see ‘others’ through travel or other life experiences. I spent two eye-opening and perspective-changing years on the Navajo Reservation, and also had the chance to work in Alaska and overseas. Vacation travel helps you to see the world differently, even if it’s only spent on the beach at Atlantic City or Cozumel.
Kingsolver knows, “A living fabric of a trillion interconnected species is a hard miracle to believe in, or fight for, if we’ve only known the one of them who’s us. Not impossible, but it’s a project, getting harder all the time. We can only love what we know.”
Aesop, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, Aesop’s Fables
Barbara Kingsolver, The Urbicene, June 17, 2022, Orion Magazine