Joining a Rural Community: Why It Takes Years to Be Accepted

Country people have a reputation for viewing outsiders with skepticism. But it turns out they have good reasons for doing that.
Names carved in tree by Randy Robertson.

Joe didn’t come to our farmers’ market booth last year because he wanted meat. He needed Bob to weave him a pack basket for trapping. In the course of our conversation, we learned he and his wife grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but he had been making a living as an auto mechanic in the New York metropolitan area. He and his wife had saved up to buy a fixer-upper in the Catskills, where he was able to hunt for their meat, and where she could keep a garden. They were in the process of exiting from the city to make a life up here. They weren’t typical New York City weekend visitors.

It’s no secret that the definition of "newcomer" in a rural community is pretty expansive.

A year later, Joe stopped by our booth and announced that they were one step closer to their goal. They had fixed up the house enough to live in it, and his wife and daughter are now here full time. We congratulated him, and told him we’d be looking forward to seeing the whole family at the market.

"She won’t come here," he said, slightly embarrassed.

"Is something wrong?" I asked. "Well, she came to talk to your manager about joining the market with her homemade herbal teas, and she got told 'no.'"

"That shouldn’t discourage her," I said. "No one is allowed to join the market mid-season. Our manager runs a tight ship."

"I know. I’ve heard that. But, well, it’s more than that. It’s like, well, we were treated like city people... Since we aren’t from here, it’s as if we don’t have a right to be selling here at the market."

"That’s because the market is limited to locally produced products. If your teas are still made in the city, then they aren’t local."

"I know, I get it, and my wife will be making the stuff here. It’s just that, you know, it’s hard. It feels like we’re not one of the locals, that we’re just newcomers, and that kinda hurts, ya know?"

It’s no secret that the definition of "newcomer" in a rural community is pretty expansive. I’ve heard folks observe that they lived in these Catskill mountains for ten or twenty years before they were accepted as being "from here." Having lived in the same county since I was four months old, I’ve nearly always stood on the "from here" side of the equation, and have felt taken aback when newcomers mocked our rural ways by commenting on our slow acceptance of new neighbors. The inference seems to be that we have our own backward elitism, or that we lack trust, or that we’re just plain slow in all that we do.

I used to fight these stereotypes. I didn’t want to seem cold or closed-minded to new people. But as I am pushing forty, I am starting to see things differently. In the last three years, our family has grown close to five different "newcomer" families. Our children have played with their children; we have helped each other out in times of crisis; sat and cried together; hugged, laughed, and shared meals. And as each of those families has decided to leave our community, we are left staying put, a little more brokenhearted each time, waving goodbye with promises of phone calls and visits that become too difficult to fulfill as they all move on to "something better."

There is no blame to throw around. The truth is, in a rural area like this, it is hard to make a go of it. Jobs aren’t that plentiful, they aren’t very remunerative, and they aren’t particularly secure. Some towns are able to support a bit of tourism, some have small colleges, some have hospitals, and there are a few occasional strip developments littered with big-box chain stores. But the fabric of the local economy is woven by family farmers, family businesses, and scrappy rural characters who figure out how to hold their lives together with baling twine and blue tarps. Lots of people fall in love with the landscape, with the slower pace of life, with the bounty of local, fresh food. But more often than not, those things aren’t enough to hold them here.

It hurts to know your community can’t meet someone’s needs.

In this neck of the woods, to earn the distinction of being "from here" takes a long time. It is a commitment as deep as a marriage: to love, honor, and obey this place, until death do you part. For some of us, there was never a choice. It is a matrimony in bondage and misery. For others, it is a marriage based on love and deep commitment. Lots of people move through. They think they are in love; they begin the courtship. But they don’t stay. They would never be able to make a marriage work over the long haul.

And for us who are "from here," that can hurt. It hurts to know your community can’t meet someone’s needs. It hurts to fall in love with people who will only move away. It hurts to start to depend on a neighbor who suddenly doesn’t exist.

Certainly, it is wonderful to make new friends, to have them touch our lives as they move through. But a "from here" is a different relationship. You can call a friend who is far away to talk about your troubles, but the "from here" is the one who will watch your kids while you take a family member to the emergency room. The "from here" plows you out when the snow is too deep to shovel. The "from here" shows up to help put your life together after flood waters have ruined your home. The "from here" feeds your cat when you go on vacation. The "from here" cooks your meals when your family is coping with tragedy and chaos.

The "from here" may rebuild muscle cars, collect old washing machines on their front lawn, be a yoga instructor, a civil rights activist, a junk food addict, a conservative old farmer, or a teacher. There is no one type. "From here" isn’t about what you do for a living or what you do for fun. "From here" isn’t just about your past. It is about your plans for the future. It is great if a person can perform the role of a "from here" for a few years before moving on someplace else. But a true one will be in the same place, playing their part to the end of their days.

"From here" is a big commitment. And all of us need to make it to some place. Understandably, some people need to cover a lot of geography before they find the place where they can truly be a "from here." And out here in the country, we know that more people will go away than will come to stay. So before we award anyone that badge and lay our hearts on the line, we’re going to watch for a while and see how things unfold.

I have no doubt that Joe and his family, if they truly desire a space at our farmers’ market, will be allowed to enter next year. I have no doubt about their ability to make friends quickly in this place. Heck, I already like them. But for now—and for the next few years—they will just need to accept that they are the newcomers.

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