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Small places: In Search of a Vanishing America.

Small Places: In Search of a Vanishing America

Thomas H. Rawls. Little, Brown, $16.95. After Tom Rawls visited Fulton County, Pennsylvania, several years ago, he went home and turned out a sympathetic portrait of the rural redoubt and two "outsiders"--this reviewer and his partner--who were struggling to move from daily journalism to full-time farming.

The piece appeared as another of the "Small Places" that Rawls was writing up for Harrowsmith, a magazine about country life that he edits in Vermont. Rawls found Fulton County altogether charming and noteworthy for a local ethos that proudly treasures its ruralness even as the disconcerting fringes of the eastern megalopolis creep ever nearer.

The essence of the piece was that the people of Fulton County, whose own Chamber of Commerce trumpeted the theme "country still is country," deserved praise for resisting the pressures of Californication that have debauched larged swatches of America's rural landscape.

Rawls's point, however, was lost on the locals, and he soon became Public Enemy Number One in Fulton County. The local weekly newspaper excerpted his piece under a front-page headline, "COUNTY PANNED IN YUPPIE MAGAZINE," and all hell broke loose.

For weeks the newspaper printed letters from indignant nitpickers who expressed varying degrees of contumely for this itinerant editor's offense of describing reality as he saw it.

Time has a way of healing, and maybe today, with the inclusion of the Fulton County piece in this collection of Rawls's "Small Places" columns, the local critics will be less defensive, for compared with other small places, Fulton County is a gem.

As individual magazine pieces, Rawls's reports made interesting and even compelling reading for their bright writing and insightful observations. Better still, collected in book form, the essays become an important piece of reportage about the physical and emotional changes that are sweeping across the national outback.

This is not a wooly theoretician's prescription for stemming or reshaping change. Though written during a time when mean-spirited Reaganism was attempting to kill the federal programs that provided some small developmental uplift to rural America, Rawls's pieces are free of political cant.

They are instead a rather mournful recitation of many factors that contribute to the decline of those rural communities that we still romantically identify as the bastion of what's good about the USA. In some places, the locals themselves are the problem--insular, resistant to change, defensive and suspicious, unimaginative and yes, even mean and spiteful. In other places, it is the outsiders, the "weeds" Rawls talks about, who cause trouble.

Rawls has a theory that modern urban America has created a class of weeds--hardy souls who, much like their botanical counterparts, seek new environments in which to flourish or simply dominate. The weeds who appear in the "Small Places" columns either have taken over or have meshed and made their contributions.

In Antelope, Oregon, the weeds were the disruptive Rajneeshees who intruded onto the landscape and openly warred with the locals. In Point Reyes, California, the weeds were outsiders who helped the locals understands the importance of land preservation. In Missouri, they were monied absentee property owners around the Lake of the Ozarks who need for flood protection led them to ignore the needs of poorer folk in the upstream town of Osceola.

In Holmes County, Ohio, the weeds were the Amish, who created an edenic way of life, which Rawls describes with tender and respectful awe. In Nye, Montana, weeds were the hard-rock miners who came to work in a huge platinum mine. Around Keuka Lake, New York, they were the outsiders who injected new hope and vitality into a sagging wine industry.

Through all of these pieces, however, runs a thread of lament about the changes being forced on rural America. The towns, he finds, are either dying or being killed. Many of the locals he meets are incapable of coping with change or confused about their place on the planet. And the outsiders too often come in and take charge, imposing the very values that made them flee the city in the first place, creating separation and tackying up the countryside.

"The intention today appears to be to improve small places rather than adapt to them," Rawls writes. "Increasingly, economic considerations have become more important that spiritual ones. A way of life gives way to making a good living. Perhaps growing up was ever thus, but I feel a terrible sadness about what is happening."

"Before this transformation, each individual rural community might have been limited, but in total, these small places offered a rich diversity. With the spread of us week people, homogeneity between towns is becoming the rule. The sounds of the voices in any one place and even the landscape itself begin to resemble those found in other places."

Rawls is right and his sense of dissolution is correct. But to keep it in context, we Americans have always been weeds, pushing onto someone else's turf, imposing our majority values, such as they are, and offering little respect for the land. The problem is that "out there" isn't there any more and we've yet to come to terms with that.
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Author:Sinclair, Ward
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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