“We’re all connected,” is a sentiment you hear in a places like our winter home, Seattle. But there it’s more of a metaphor, sometimes a kind of new-agey aspirational thing. In a rural, small-town area, like our summer home in Wallowa County, it’s literally true.
My grandmother and her friends used to sit around on a Sunday afternoon and visit, talking about people. Gossip, I guess, but it wasn’t malicious. Identity was tied to family history. “He’s a Johnson,” or “Oh, she married one of the Beckman boys,” they would say making the connections. Of course, the connections can sometimes bite. The other day a friend mentioned that he had been going on about some guy he found to be a pain in the you-know-what, when the fellow he was talking to said, “He’s my cousin.” “Oh,” said my friend. The other guy added, “Yeah, he’s kind of a pain, but he’s my cousin.”
People have often fled small towns for the big city to escape being quite so connected. But these days the flow may be reversing. People moving to smaller communities. There are upsides to the web of relationships and inter-connections. Last Sunday at church a 90-year-old woman asked for help in her garden. Linda signed us up. Now we dig and plant in the fertile soil of Alder Slope on what Janie (the 90-something) terms “our garden.” We seldom come home from the garden without a dozen eggs or a jar of jam or some fresh greens. It helps that my grandparents all lived here and that people can say (of me) “Oh, he’s a Booth. You remember Clarence and Mary . . . George and Kay.”
One of the upsides: it’s a good environment for kids. Kids here have real jobs for real reasons, as part of the family farm or business. As another friend put it, “If you’re a kid here and don’t have a job by age 10 something’s wrong.” They are taking care of an animal of their own, helping out in the family store, or mounting the four-wheeler to help set irrigation pipe.
Mostly they work alongside Mom or Dad, which means that parents are more mentors than chauffeurs, as is sometimes the case in the urban/suburban setting. For kids this means you are needed, plus you spend time with your parents, or other adults, seeing what they do and learning to do it yourself.
One place we see kids having a great time is the O.K. Theater, one of the County’s main music venues (see photo). When I was a kid the O.K. was a movie theater. Then, for a long time, the marquee was blank and the doors locked. Several years ago the musical Brann family took it over, sometimes playing themselves, but often bringing in terrific touring bands. A highlight last year was the band “Joseph,” three women who have local roots. The blues great Shemekia Copeland is coming up.
All the concerts at the O.K. are family affairs — grandparents, parents and lots of kids — digging the music, the free ice cream and general scene. Last week when we heard the rock guitar great, Greg Koch and his ensemble, a dozen pre-adolescent boys charged down to the front to dance wildly. We were struck by how comfortable and happy those boys looked, how free they were to throw their arms around their buddies for some line dancing or a group hug. Girls jumped in too. And before long, the adults joined in.
My parents, who grew up here, were part of the more mobile society emerging in the post-WW II era. They left Wallowa County to go to college at U of O in Eugene. After the war my Dad took a job on the other side of the country in Washington, D.C. Linda and I too moved for education and employment. We kind of thought that’s what everyone did. But people who live here, and some who have moved here and put down roots, are willing to forgo the opportunities of the upwardly mobile life for the sake of community and connection. For many it’s a conscious choice. They want this kind of local, small-town culture. They work hard to sustain it.
The mobile versus the settled is one of the many divides in our society these days. There’s some overlap between those two and the more familiar Blue and Red divide. These two — the mobile and settled — have become quite different cultures, and sometimes have a hard time understanding one another. For some, people here might be the folks who in candidate Barack Obama’s regrettable description “cling to their guns and religion.” But that’s a caricature no more true than saying everyone in Seattle or Portland are rich, arrogant techies.
There is something to be said for all these mingled connections, for neighbors who know and depend on one another, and for kids growing up in the midst of a thick community, with a sense of place. As we ask for tolerance for diverse life-styles in our society, let’s include the life-style choices of people in a place like this remote corner of northeastern Oregon.