The rural, rocky chunk of Michigan that raised me rested on the backside of a hill, my father’s share of my great-grandfather’s farm. Local lore said this pitiful piece had remained in the family only because the hill hid it from view. That is, my grandfather only kept it because he needed a place where he could farm on Sunday out of sight of the neighbors.
As a boy growing up in the ’60s, I also remember being instructed in the operation of our Farmall H tractor, particularly to make straight furrows. I dared to question this requirement, wondering what difference “straight” made to the oats. I was not-so-gently instructed as to the degree of shame that crooked furrows would bring on the family.
My grandfather may not have been as churched as the neighbors, but he was every bit as conservative, and then some. Beyond conservative, he was obstreperous and tough. Nonetheless, he still cared what the neighbors thought of him. These are not separate matters. Respect for local opinion was what enforced rural America’s conservatism a generation ago.
Those of us who live in rural America today face one of two sets of conditions, both radically changed since my grandfather’s time. We either live in places that are rapidly depopulating or places that are rapidly populating with sprawl. My bit of rural Montana falls in the latter category. My gulch has suburbanized in about 10 years.
During that time, I’ve gotten to know a few of my neighbors. Just a few; that’s the way the world works now. Many of those encounters arose through heated conversations, all with the same theme. For example, once I politely complained to a man that his rotund and rottenly spoiled child was using his filthy, obnoxious dirt bike to cut furrows up the side of my land, and it was not their crookedness that upset me. The man said, “We moved out here so my boy could ride his dirt bike wherever he wanted.”
The odd part is that this man and many of the rest of my neighbors call themselves conservative. I am not assuming; one only need read the stickers and flags covering their SUVs. Yet what is the foundation of this conservatism if it disregards what the neighbors might think, that is, ignores the community standard?
This is not a small matter. A misguided notion of freedom lies at the heart of the suburban cancer on the landscape. My neighbors will tell you they moved because in rural America you are free to do as you please. Where did they get this idea? Rural America, at least when there was a functioning rural America, never advertised any such freedom. Just the opposite.
All of this would be only so much personal vexation if they didn’t extend their disregard of community standards to the natural community. Miss the bluegrass lawn you had in New Jersey? No problem. Rip up that stand of Montana short grass prairie. No rain? Pump the aquifer dry to keep it green. Like horses? Go ahead. Fence that pasture big enough to feed 2.5 percent of one horse then put four in and graze it to rocks.
If you are oblivious to the natural community’s feedback, you can get away with these things for a while. You’ll not notice the elk disappear, the streams dry up, the noxious weeds creep up the dirt-bike trails. You’ll not hear these complaints if your relationship with community is fed through a satellite dish.
I can’t help but imagine my conservative grandfather would have been terribly appalled by all this. He thought that to let the land suffer was a truly sorrowful thing.
Actually, I don’t believe I have to imagine what my grandfather would have thought. A few weeks ago I met a man in his 90s who had cowboyed all his life in Montana. We happened to be driving past a typical suburban horse pasture, four forlorn horses standing in an acre of dust and rocks. I asked him what he thought of his neighbors. He shook his head, but he couldn’t speak. He was silent. It was simply unspeakable
Richard Manning's most recent book, "Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization," will be published in February. Manning lives in Lolo, Mont. He is a member of The Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.