2013-05-30 / Views


Editor’s note: This submission represents the personal opinions of the author and should not be used to characterize the opinions of the Pioneer Tribune.

— — — To the people of Manistique:

My name is Toby Roberts, and though I live thousands of miles from the northern shores of Lake Michigan, the blood bonds to the small town of Manistique maintain me closer than it appears physically. My father, Ken Roberts, was born and grew up in Manistique, and throughout my childhood, our bi-yearly visits during the snowy winters and sunny summers entrenched within me a unique appreciation for your lovely, little town.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Manistique with my father for the first time since my Grandma Paula Anderson passed away over two years ago. Perhaps it is the result of growing older and learning to value what was once often overlooked, but this last visit instilled within me an even greater admiration for all that Manistique represents.

After having lived for much of the last decade in small, rural towns in different parts of Latin America, the enchantment of the cosmopolitan, fast-paced urban life has withered and every day I am more convinced of the inimitable opportunities that small-town life offers. I would like to offer, as a token of my appreciation for your hospitality over all these years, a few reflections that grew out of this last visit to Manistique.

Though I don’t hold in contempt the wonderful childhood that I had, I recognize that as a child and adolescent, I was heavily influenced by the industrial, consumer culture of the modern times. I was born into the heart of a mobile society where too often success was measured by how far one could distance himself from his origins, especially if those origins were anywhere rural. Even in the small town of Kentucky where I grew up, I remember a vivid discrimination towards the “hicks and rednecks” that lived and farmed in the countryside by the supposed superior and modern town folk. For a young man on a farm in Kentucky, the symbol of success would be to find your way off the farm, into the city (the bigger the better) and ideally into some sort of corporate, salaried, office job.

During the few days that I spent accompanying my father in that short visit back to Manistique, it wasn’t hard to see the parallels between rural Kentucky, Manistique, and really any other small town around the globe. The simple fact that Manistique has decreased in population from 5,000 from the days of my father’s childhood to 3,000 today embodies the plight of rural areas that stems from the assumed supremacy of the urban, industrial society that considers backwards, archaic, and un-cultured the rural communities.

Yet for me, that bias is unfounded and superficially one-dimensional. Though I am sure that it has its problems, Manistique exemplifies everything about small, rural towns.

Firstly, everyone knows everybody and in their own, peculiar way, they care deeply for one another and take care of one another. In the two days we were in Manistique, we couldn’t go anywhere without some folks recognizing my father, reflecting on childhood memories, and sharing gossip about who had married who, who had passed away, and who was in jail. One old friend of my father’s who hadn’t seen my father in 30 years was moved close to tears as he said something like: “For those of us who have never left, it sure is special to see folks who come back.”

Compared to the aloof coldness of impersonal city life where neighborliness, hospitality and affability are reserved for the chosen circle of one’s social life, it seems to me that the small town conviviality where “everyone knows everybody”, despite the sometimes claustrophobic tension that it may cause, is a healthier and more human form of coherent community.

Secondly, the land or territory surrounding Manistique is unquestionably familiarly and intimately known and still, in some way or another, depended upon. The “outdoorsman” mentality seems to be pretty fairly intact as great deals of folks depend on fishing and hunting as a source of food and (besides the bars) a main source of recreation/ entertainment. Everyone knows the woods, and a great deal of them have their “camps” located somewhere along the winding rivers where hand built log-cabins protect and hold tight to decades of memories of deer hunts and drunken nights where friendship and good neighborliness enriched and strengthened the bonds of community.

Modern, urban lifestyles could not be further removed from this reality of familiarity and deep understanding of the local landscape and wilderness. For the modern urbanite that has never baited a hook or hunted a deer, never mind walked through the woods on a cold, winter day, nature or land is nothing more than a distant and unknown bank of resources to be mined to provide for their consumer lifestyle and a sink to receive the wastes of that consumption. The way in which the people of Manistique speak of the “Haywire” and the “Pipeline” and this river and that river and this path and that path conveys, I think, a deep connection to the land that they know and care for and use, not destructively, but in terms of the deepest respect.

Lastly, Manistique also unfortunately epitomizes the decline and regression of small towns and rural livelihoods around the world. If there is one universal, adverse consequence of globalization it is that: the scorn and eventual decimation of small towns and rural life. What saddens me the most is that folks in Manistique, in the same way as the Mayan people of Guatemala where I live; too often accept the prevailing notion that their lifestyle is backwards, inferior and substandard.

The folks that “stayed” in Manistique are the ones who “didn’t make it”. Those who are “successful” are those who “made it out of town.” It really doesn’t matter where they went, what they did, or how they lived. A great many of those who did stay are generally convinced that their children need to “get out of town” and higher education is often the path towards that end. Naturally, the predicament isn’t that some folks chose to leave and others stayed, but rather that there is an imposed scale of value that creates an inferiority complex amongst those that stayed.

The problem, of course, is that what folks in Manistique or any other small town escape to (industrial, salaried, city life) is often far worse and less human than what they left behind (rural, often cashpoor town life). It is certainly much more destructive as it is founded upon the collective and imposed fantasies of unlimited growth, infinite desires, and unchecked power. They leave a place that, though sometimes considered parochial, close-minded and uncultured, was a place of close-knit community, intimacy, and shared memories; where any empty moment could be filled by a walk in the woods, a lazy day fishing by the river, or a spirited conversation around a round of beers at the local bar. It was, in the very least, a place where one could be heard, known and cared for and where the limits of the place were countered by its very real and human possibilities.

Youth is, of course, a time of “going out” to explore the world and one’s place in it. It is a time of journeying, adventure and experience where one delves into the mysteries of the universe. But wisdom is attained by returning to place (perhaps to one’s origins) to enrich community with the lessons learned from afar. Regrettably, we suffer from a sort of Hansel and Gretel Syndrome where we have lost our “way back”. We go out to never return except for the occasional (and often commiserate) weekend visit to parade our success and status as those who “made it.”

Agrarian writers Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, responding to this situation, entrust folks who have gone out into the world to find the resolve to “stop and stay somewhere”; to renounce the mobility that is demanded and expected of us and to dig in and begin the long and necessary work of belonging to community and place.

On a personal level, living in small towns and witnessing all the blessings and challenges of small towns like Manistique has led me to want to feel the risk that comes with living authentically in a rural community. I want to engage in the long, hard work of rebuilding a local community where my children and my children’s children will belong intimately, held by the bonds of a shared spiritual connection to a place and the practicality of having their livelihood and well-being interconnected with the local community and the limits and possibilities of place.

I hope that folks, and especially young people, in Manistique feel the same sense of devotion to their very special town, recognize the blessings, advantages and goodness of its way of life, and take on the important work of continuing to make it a good place to live.

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