Maps, maps, maps. I love ‘em! Always have, since I was a kid -- A.E. Van Vogt notwithstanding (couldn't help the geeky reference to “Null-A” novels that stress the general semantics notion that “the map is not the territory”).

The various measuring authorities in the government (
USDA’s ERS, the Census Bureau, the Statistical Abstract, etc.) have been working the last few years to redefine urban and rural. More on that later, but for the time being, the point is that they’ve introduced these things called “core-based” units. All the good measurements are done on a county-by-county basis, so the units are counties where there’s a “metropolitan” core population of at least 50,000. Or a “micropolitan” core of 10,000. From that, they create “combined statistical areas” that consist of a “core” and its feeder areas, tied to it by easy commuting routes to work, markets, etc. The result is a map that looks like this:

The purples are the combined statistical areas (CSAs). These are the cities and large towns it’s easy to call urban, and the surrounding counties that may look rural, but are economically tied to these centers. There are also cities and towns outside the CSAs. In Minnesota, for example, Duluth and Mankato (pop.s around 85,000 and 45,000, respectively) are not parts of CSAs. So it’s going to take some thinking to sort this all out.

But in the meantime, there are more colorful maps to look at! The fact that some of them contradict each other only adds to the fun!

This one, produced by the University of Illinois Regional Economics and Public Policy Group (REAP), suggests that over 300 rural counties are “more prosperous” than the national average. That’s interesting, and warrants a close look at the article backing up the map.

This next one, from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, claims Rural areas across the country generally have seen more growth in employment than have cities.” But the map tells a different story. The “Growth” they’re talking about is actually a slightly smaller DECLINE in rural employment relative to urban employment in some areas. Hardly the happy news advertised in the headline. Especially since there are FEWER JOBS in rural areas, so you’d expect less decline. Or am I missing something?

And here’s one last map for today, to dispel any lingering doubts about how peachy the economy looks in the country. The New York Times built this map showing the increase in people receiving Food Stamps in each U.S. county. 14.6% of rural residents use Food Stamps (vs. 10.8% of urban folks). From 2007 to 2009, the number of people using Food Stamps rose by about 30%, although in many places, only half of those who qualify are actually getting Food Stamps. The cool thing about the NYT map is that you can drag your cursor over it, and the statistics for each county will pop up. It’s SCARY. Good job, NYT.

Rural People?

So I’m looking at the first couple of pages of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. Yeah, I know I should really be reading student papers or writing one of my two final papers for this semester. But I was curious. This is one of the books everyone in Environmental History mentions, like Raymond Williams The Country and the City (which I also bought this semester, and haven’t read yet).

In any case, Berry starts strong, claiming “as a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be.” Berry compares the conquistadors’ conquest of America with America’s conquest of the moon; both filled with fantasy and avarice he says. But clearly there’s a difference.

An imperial technocratic bureaucracy sent two men to the surface of the moon in 1969. Although I remember the excitement and sheer adventure of this event, and myself sitting in front of a black-and-white TV explaining the technical details to my grandmother, that’s what it was. But not so much, the missions to the New World in the seventeenth century.

It took a lot of people to sail ships and establish colonies in the Americas. Doesn’t seem as easy, to say they all shared the motivations of the leaders. And even the leaders – what were their actual motivations? Even Cortes and Pizarro settled down, and became mayors of the towns they established. Cortes burned his ships; a pretty definite statement for a twenty-something young man to make about the old world and home.

In the north, where people came to start commercial agricultural colonies (Virginia) or religious communities (Massachusetts, Maryland), I have to wonder about the goals of the majority. Even for the Puritans, were they perhaps motivated just a little by the fact that there were limited opportunities back home? Even if we believe they were completely open about their own motives, are we to take the professed goals of colonist leaders as the reason
everybody came to America?

If not, how do we get at the motivations and thoughts of the majority? The folks who in large numbers became the same rural people whose wishes and needs go largely ignored in the agri-business dominated countryside Berry is going to talk about throughout the book? Yesterday I was reading the beginning chapters of David Danbom’s
Resisted Revolution. He was talking about the same thing: an “urban agrarian” agenda that motivated the Progressives’ Country Life Movement. So, it looks like this question of “what do rural people really think?” is going to be a recurring one.

Also this week, we talked about Rachel Carson in Environmental History. And again, on the drive home, I found myself wondering, how did actual farmers and country people react to this? Was it just a suburban-ecologists vs. urban-agrocorporate chemists type of thing?

(cross-posted on my
rural history blog)