ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: THE HOMECOMERS

By James M. Decker

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer, viewed by many as one of America’s greatest living writers. Most of Berry’s writing (both fiction and non-fiction) centers around his home area of rural Kentucky. He is one of the foremost proponents of a connection between people and their place, which is something that I’ve written about several times in the past. Berry coined the term “homecomer,” which he defined for Time Magazine as someone who left home, but then returned to the farm or their local community. A homecomer is someone, he said, who “followed the universal advice that they couldn’t amount to anything where they grew up and have gone away, but have found reason to come back.

One such homecomer is Michele Anderson. She recently wrote a magnificent opinion column in the New York Times entitled, “Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown.” Anderson grew up in rural Minnesota, left for college, and spent a decade in Portland, Oregon working in nonprofit jobs, until she had her epiphany: 

“My work felt trivial and temporary. These feelings were magnified every time my rent increased and I found myself deeper in debt, or whenever there was a crisis or celebration at home, and I spent hundreds of dollars for a flight back to Minnesota.”

She thought more about it and realized that, in a world that can feel ever-more uncertain, she was lucky enough to have a place with strong roots, where she could rekindle her connection to a place. She loaded up her belongings, drove cross-country, and moved back to her grandmother’s hometown of Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

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In Fergus Falls, Anderson felt rebellious against the conventional wisdom that young people need to live in the city and that creatives should move to the coastal cities. When she arrived, she was soon engrossed in a new nonprofit job focusing on arts and community development. She was quickly engaged to assist with a historic preservation project. But not everything was positive back home. Fergus Falls (population: 13,000, located an hour from the nearest metro area of any size) had lost some major retailers. It had a history of cronyism in local politics that excluded anyone not part of the town’s “old guard.” It has flaws to overcome. And yet, her fierce loyalty to her place has only grown.

Annoyed by the American media obsession with rural America after the 2016 election, Anderson wrote that she was ready for new attention to rural America, “directed somewhere between bleak landscapes of ignorance and bigotry, and Pollyanna illusions of the pastoral life. This is where most rural Americans actually live and where some of the most important work is being done.”

Anderson writes that the homecomers can help drive that new attention. As she observes, a November Gallup poll found that more Americans, given the choice, would choose a rural area (27%) than any other location. When you combine rural areas and towns, fully 40% of surveyed Americans would prefer to live outside of the city or its suburbs. Preference for rural living also rises with age. The age 18-29 demographic leans towards a city or a big-city suburb, but each successive demographic favors smaller, more rural areas with higher frequency. The polling bears out what many of us experience in our own lives—youthfulness in the city has its perks, but as we begin to establish our own families, we focus on the merits of rural areas and small towns.

Another interesting piece of data in the Gallup poll is the disparity between where Americans actually live and where they want to live. Only 12% of Americans live in rural areas, but 27% aspire to. That disparity between reality and aspiration is the largest on the survey. More people live in the city than actually aspire to do so. Meanwhile, if aspirations became reality, the rural population would almost double.

So how do we make that happen? As Michele Anderson experience, “home” is not a perfect place, but it’s one worth fighting for. You’ll see more from Michele Anderson’s op-ed and Wendell Berry’s writings pop up in future essays. This opens the beginning of a new series that’s on my mind—Americans aspire for a rural lifestyle, so how can we bring those homecomers home?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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