Tom Becker and Josh had the distinct privilege of grabbing lunch with David in May 2018 to thank him for his book and to discuss its relevance to current development in the county. This article was excerpted in The Front Porch Journal, Issue 12. If you'd like to to receive our bi-annual publication, please become a Member here for at least $10/month. You'll also get two free seats to any of our Forums (RSVP required). And you'll help us in our mission to engage our cultural moment from a convinced yet curious Christian perspective.
The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me colors and the furrows of reality, my first loves...No geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservation." --Eva Hoffman
I. Every couple years, usually coinciding with a new major residential or commercial development in Lancaster County, Lancaster Newspaper (LNP) publishes an article that asks some version of the question: when will it stop? The it in question is not the development itself, but rather the re-purposing of farmland that usually needs to happen to make new construction possible. Recently, a new "mixed-use" project that consumed a prominent and historic farmstead just to the north of Lancaster City prompted a reader to anxiously write in to the paper asking: "What is the build-out date for Lancaster County? When will there be no more land that can be developed? And how are we preparing for that moment?” Here, again, the animating concern is not so much the development that is appearing, but the farmland that is disappearing. LNP journalist Jeff Hawkes wrote in response that this question is ultimately a question about the county's identity, both past and future. Every new development in the county, he says, is part of a "decades long juggling of contrary aspirations: growing a diversified, high-octane economy and preserving the county’s rural character, landscapes and Old Order traditions."
This crisis of identity, as it were, is nothing new writes David Walbert in his 2002 book Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America. Over the past 200 years the country has been transformed from a place where the majority of the population was involved in farming in some direct or indirect way, to one in which now less than 2 percent are employed in agriculture. The pace of change quickened around the turn of the 20th century as technological advances increased the productivity of the individual farmer and opened up other sectors of work and employment. In the year 1900 many Americans lived and worked rurally; by the year 2000 much less of us did so. This transformation represented not just a changing economic landscape, as Walbert points out, but a changing cultural landscape as well.
Identity and culture are intimately related, and as culture changes and shifts, identities are often questioned and reevaluated. Lancaster County has had a long and storied history as an area where agricultural life and agrarian vocations flourished. The area was being referred to as the "Garden of Pennsylvania" as early as 1779 and by 1800 was being called the "Garden Spot of America." A favorable climate, rich soils, and the earliest European settlers, particularly those of German immigration who came to be known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch," turned south-central Pennsylvania into a region renowned for its agricultural productivity. The city of Lancaster and the towns that sprouted and grew across the county played an integral role in supporting the farms and their output. Walbert suggests that the rural character of the community was strengthened in part because of the healthy interlacing and interdependence of country and city. Lancaster was not immune to the wider cultural changes that came in the 20th century, however, and discussions of identity have been playing out around dinner tables, at small town feed stores, and in LNP letters to the editor ever since.
This, then, is the tale that David has to tell. It is the story of an urbanizing nation, and an urbanizing Lancaster County. He dives deep into the archives of the 20th century, reading local and national reporting, periodicals and personal correspondence--tracing the lay of the changing American landscape. He began the project, he says, with a desire to understand just exactly what it means to be rural, and why Americans have had a long fascination with it--from Thomas Jefferson's notion that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God" to the flocks of tourists who continue to come to Lancaster County to see the Amish today. He ends the project, however, by asking whether rurality and progress can truly coexist in the twenty-first century. At one point in time--up to the early 20th century--Lancaster Countians would not have seen these ideals as being mutually exclusive. Now, David argues, "Americans have come to identify rurality with the past, and the ties between rurality and progress have come undone."
II. I am a second generation non-farmer. My grandfather was raised on a farm and himself was a farmer in the middle years of the 20th century. My mother, after marrying a "city boy", had no desire to continue the farm life and so, while I was raised in the, small southern Lancaster County town of Quarryville, the rural character of the county was simply the backdrop to a culturally sub-urban life. While we lived in a house for much of my childhood that was surrounded on three sides by corn fields, our life was not connected to the land in any significant way. We bought mass produced food from the grocery store and mass produced clothing from national retail chains. With our car we were a relatively mobile family traveling around the county and the state frequently and freely. Most of the entertainment that we consumed, while more spare and restricted compared to my peers, originated from and was informed by the culture of American coastal cities. And I went to public school and received the standard state education that had a difficult time answering the question--what is an education for? While horse and buggies clip-clopped past our house every day, and we had connections to the Amish through a local business that members of our family worked for, our culture, when looked at with an attentiveness to daily practices, was really urban or modern in character.
Throughout Garden Spot David contrasts rural and urban culture, but he never clearly delineates the specifics of either. Indeed, as I said above, part of his interest in writing the book was to try to define more clearly what it meant then and what it means now to live a culturally rural life. He says that coming up with a definition of rurality recalls the Supreme Court decision about obscenity: "most people know it when they see it, yet they would be powerless to name their standards." Farms and tractors and animals; diesel pick up trucks and country music; Tractor Supply and Primitives by Kathy; small town organizations and church on Sunday, maybe. All of these things tend to be part of the jumble of images we have when we think about country living. Images of urban life, by contrast, tend to be mostly characterized by a particular built environment: densely arranged buildings and the dynamic energy that occurs with the concentration of human and financial capital. Less connected to the land, maybe, and influenced more by vocations of industrial production and the cognitive jobs of the information economy. It is a way of life that is thought to be faster paced, less traditional, and more influenced by global trends--"diversified and high-octane," in Hawkes' formulation. And yet, as we look closely at the lives that most of us live today, whether in the country or the city, there are contradictions between the images we have of these environs and the reality that is actually lived. One of Walbert's themes throughout the book is that while many think of themselves as country folk, especially those of us who live in Lancaster County where the images of rurality loom large in their visions of self-identity, most take their cultural direction from what has become a global urban culture.
I came across Walbert's book during a period of my life in which I was feeling adrift at sea--much like Robert Redford's "Our Man" in the 2013 film All Is Lost. My wife and I had moved to Lancaster City in 2012 after being influenced in part by a pair of books by James Howard Kunstler. In his Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, he articulates an argument against the built environment of suburban sprawl and for the historic, traditional patterns of country, small town, and small city. While some of the most vocal critiques of the suburbs have been from political progressives, Kunstler's rejection of sprawl comes from a concern for conserving a historic pattern of living with each other. The automobile has had a centrifugal effect on society, flinging us out and away from each other and separating, dividing, and abstracting the ways in which we relate and identify as a community. I moved to the city idealistically, in search of a more integrated and connected life, but it was hard to shake the patterns and habits that I had absorbed from what might be called liquid modernity.
The concept of modernity is helpful for me as I think about what it means to be culturally urban today. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that the culture of modernity is characterized in part by what he calls "disembedding mechanisms"--symbols and systems that separate the interactions of people and organizations from the particularities of locales. The technologies that populate our modern landscape facilitate this disintegration--whether it is our automobile and the (for now) cheap oil that allow us to spatially separate the spheres of our life or the electronic modes of communication that seem to make us simultaneously always accessible in spirit and yet never available in body. It is no surprise, then, that a sense of alienation and loneliness pervades the work of our most perceptive modern artists (think of a Thom Yorke, or a Billy Corgan, for example, and the sense of separation they express in their work). I had come to feel unmoored in the fragmented, hypermobile life that I was living. Shuttling to and from a job over many miles every day; working many weekly hours in a retail environment selling mass produced foodstuffs whose provenance was hidden behind sly branding and layers of vast distribution networks; imbibing news and media from national outlets that mainly focused on happenings in the foreign land of Washington D.C.; and living in a neighborhood whose inhabitants were just as busy and mobile as I was to engage each other in a significant way. I became disconnected and unaccountable.
This is the cultural life that many of us modern or urban people live today--whether we live in the city, the suburb, or the country house surrounded by cornfields. We may decorate our house with primitives, but we buy our food from the chain grocery store and get our news from a national outlet. We may choose to live in a suburban development for the generous yard it provides which allows the "boys to be boys" (a traditional notion), but we send them off to public school for an education that prepares them to become global citizens--denizens of everywhere and, maybe, nowhere. We buy a house in the city with visions of living a more public-spirited life, but we work and commute too many hours (high-octane indeed!) to know our neighbors and allow them to know us. Modern culture tends to dissembled us from the particularities of our situated-ness, obscuring the connections with and dependencies on we have with the land and with one another.
This is where the rural option may offer another way. Whatever images we may associate with rural or country life, it has traditionally and historically been a life of closer integration and interconnection. Those who live close to the land in a meaningful way--they work it and care for it and derive their living from it--seem more likely to recognize the relationships that they depend on: relationships between their stewardship of the earth and the food they eat, and relationships between their family, neighbors and their own health and well being. The cycles of life and death are more obvious and inescapable. The pace of life is slower; work, while often long, is less frenetic and often more satisfying; the planned obsolescence that guides much of consumer capitalism does not dictate shopping lists. Material conditions typically seem more spare, but the rural person learns to live and to be content with what they already have. Here David holds up the Amish as an example of a group of people who live a life in accord with a more rural vision of the good life, even though it is in stark contrast to the modern world. By no means a perfect community, they have cultivated a way of life that keeps the relationships and interconnections of their lives clear, close, and constant. As a result many Amish appear to us as residents of more impoverished countries appear to affluent Western travelers, living contented and satisfied lives.
This is not to suggest that we moderns all abandon our urban or suburban built environments and seek to take up some version of the rural life. But we may be living in a moment where it would be wise to asks questions of rurality, and what it may have to teach us about a more rooted, proximal and integrated life--especially if we desire to see Lancaster County retain a modicum of its rural character and landscape. Ultimately Walbert argues that the challenge of retaining Lancaster County's rural character--and its rural landscape--is a cultural challenge. Residents need to integrate habits and practices into their lives that attend not only to the land, but also to their neighbors that work it in a way that cultivates its health and conserves its character. You cannot be for farmland preservation in Pennsylvania, he says, while buying most of your food from California. Oil driven transportation may be one of the keys to a high-octane economy, but the clog and clutter of cars and trucks on county roads seems evidence against an identity of rural character and old-order tradition. In the end David admits he does not have a clear solution to "saving Lancaster County." But to the extent that it is to remain rural, the cultivation of a way of life that prioritizes integration and proximity will be an important part.
David writes in his epilogue that "cities need the country, and the country needs cities, not just economically...but culturally and intellectually and morally." I had envisioned the city as a place where we would live a smaller, closer, more local life, but the opposite turned out to be true. It is possible to live a rootless and fragmented life in the city and the country; it is also possible to live a connected and integrated life in the city and the country. The important thing is not so much where we live, but how we choose to live through our daily practices and habits. For many of us that will mean continuing to live where we are--the suburbs or the city--but learning to live within limits. It may mean buying more of our food from local farmers, and paying more to do so. It may mean giving up on the better paying job that requires the long hours and distant commute. It may mean that we are more attentive and discerning in regard to the technology that we adopt in our daily lives, selecting only the tools that help cultivate a life lived on our terms, much like the Amish. It may mean these things, and many others. And by doing these things: by consuming less, by integrating more, by knowing our neighbors and allowing them to know us--we may not just save the land that has given us our first "colors and the furrows of reality," we may save ourselves as well.