I grew up in a beautiful region that did not know it was beautiful. That is the starting point of this tale, like the ugly duckling. Once upon a time there was a region called ugly. Its language was called backward; its people uneducated. Its ancient green mountains were labelled not-city, and its productive family farms labelled not-industry.
Where you grow up matters. And what you are taught to believe there matters even more.
This series looks at regional development starting points. When working in or for or with rural regions, it’s important to understand our own starting-points. These affect how we see the regional development landscape, and how we frame problems and solutions.
The first starting point is where you are from.
This isn’t as simple as saying “I’m from a rural region.” That can be a point of credibility, of course; I have heard it used by city-based colleagues when discussing rural issues or rural communities. It suddenly become important for them to say:
I grew up in [insert name of rural town here].
Subtext: “I get it”.
Whether or not they actually do “get it” depends. But the point here isn’t about being born “rural” or “not-rural”, or some hybrid of suburban or mobile childhoods. These categories matter very little.
Rather, it’s about our specific starting-places: real physical places with landscapes and buildings, trees and rocks, people and ideas, that formed your first views of the world.
These starting points tend to keep on colouring and framing what we see, even many years later. They make a difference to how we think about concepts like regional development, and the logics we use to create change.
From my own “home place” here are three frames that still influence what I see today.
- The Hollow
Hollow, pronounced holler, is West Virginia dialect for the deep valleys between hills. Hollow was a word people used, but it wasn’t a proper word; nor were hollows themselves particularly proper. In the cultural imaginary hollows were wild, wooded places, hillbilly havens, full of pickup trucks and stills. In practice they were very loosely defined geographies: narrow valleys far from town, most with roads and houses. Some people admitted to living “up a hollow” though most did not.
Hollows taught me that we had our own words; I loved the sound of them, though our traditional Appalachian dialect did not fit the rules of grammar. Hollows encouraged me to look at a landscape of streets and trees and wonder what was else was there, behind the surface, down back roads, their banks tumbling wild with touch-me-nots and honeysuckle. I began to wonder what lives were lived behind the hills, right nearby, just out of sight.
Hollows taught me to look at the world from the bottom up.
2. The Shops
I’ve always had a fascination with shops. It might be because shops were where my grandmother went to escape. There was a shop called Hills and she used to take me there with her, in her big car. It was the type of shop that had everything, in the days – when I was very young – when some department stores were still local. Another local shop recycled dolls, people brought in their old ones to trade and my grandmother saved them: gave them new dresses and new hair. I still have some of those dolls.
I remember shops and I remember how they disappeared. The Hills closed, so many years ago, I was maybe five. Then Murphy’s – with the soda fountain – closed, the Parson Sauders became Stone & Thomas, some big city firm, and only the old people kept calling it Parson Sauders. K Mart came in, and another big chain, and one by one the signs went up the hill, big shiny signs in the trees, names from somewhere else. No one owned these shops; and no one seemed to control them. One day, they chopped the top off the hill. That hill became paved, with big names you know: the Walmart, the Lowe’s.
The shops taught me to notice what is local, and what is not.
3. The Roll of Stamps
When I was eight I told the grownups I wanted to be a writer. The grownups told me: Writers don’t come from West Virginia. Years later, I learned that was wrong…but when you’re eight, you believe what you’re told. Right?
Well, no. I wrote, regardless; I sent my manuscripts away to editors in New York – starting when I was about nine. Poor editors! I can only imagine what landed on their desks. Apologies if any of you are reading….
These were the days of electric typewriters, then dot matrix printers. Manuscripts had to be typed double spaced, one sided, no mistakes, and accompanied by a SASE – a self-addressed stamped envelope. That meant for one piece of writing, I needed at least two stamps: one to send it away, and one to bring it back. So all through my childhood, birthday presents and Christmas presents always included the one thing I needed most: a roll of stamps.
My words traveled in envelopes to New York, where books came from. Then they traveled back again folded up in small their SASE, with little notes to say they were not wanted.
Until I was eighteen, when a New York editor said yes.
I learned that if you start on the margins, you need to buy a lot of stamps.
Those stories from the rural region where I was born just hint at some of the ways my own starting points have influenced how I see rural people and places. I remain unshakably convinced that beauty and brilliance can come from places that other people consider poor, or marginalised, or in need of paving-over. I look for the potential on the ground and am suspicious of the shiny signs on the hill. These are my biases, and my strengths.
And what about you? How does your “home place” – where you are from – influence how you see rural regions? How does it colour and frame the causes and ideas that you are most passionate about? Admitting our biases is also admitting what we know, and what we don’t know. It is the first step toward reflexive practice: that is, the ability to see yourself and your role in the regional development story.