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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: New word for ‘rural’

by Dana Kelley | November 25, 2022 at 2:48 a.m.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural simply as anything that's not urban.

Such a default definition by an institution that measures everything by population count is obviously one-dimensional. It's also incomplete, and seems to be growing more so all the time.

Rural populations don't simply live non-urban lifestyles, meaning rural living isn't just something opposite of city or suburban life.

The word "rural" carries a lot of connotations, some of which no longer apply. Rural was once equated with rustic, but that's hardly the case anymore for a great many residents. In farm country, rural is often synonymous with agriculture. But, again, that's a misnomer for more and more rural dwellers who toil not at the labors of the earth--except perhaps in some hobby-farm capacity. For other areas, rural might mean livestock, or frontier, or sticks, depending on who is asked and who is asking.

In truth, the historic legacy definitions from rural apply less and less in modern America. "Rural" was once primitive, but electrification and county-wide water districts changed that. Even today, Internet connections are increasingly linking rural households to Amazon and Netflix and "smart home" capabilities at the same speeds cities have.

For centuries, rural has been considered unsophisticated, particularly regarding appreciation for finer tastes in arts and leisure. Yet rural and remote Taylor Swift fans were online last week, crashing Ticketmaster servers right alongside their most citified counterparts.

Maybe there's too much baggage with the word "rural" for it to continue to be meaningful without instantly conjuring up biases and prejudices. Perhaps the time has come to retire "rural" and replace it with something else.

But what?

The rural divide is real. This is not news; in fact, its reality predates our consideration of it in the U.S. today by about 2,600 years, which gives it something of a timeless nature. That's when the tale of "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse," and its moral, found its way into Aesop's stories.

Tucked in among "slow and steady wins the race," "heaven helps them who help themselves," "the battle is not always to the strong" and "once bitten, twice shy" is the country mouse's conclusion, drawn from visiting his city cousin's sumptuous household and narrowly escaping being devoured by a cat.

"You live in the lap of luxury, I can see, but you are surrounded by dangers," the county mouse said in bidding farewell. "Whereas at home, I can enjoy my simple dinner of roots and corn in peace."

So for at least two-and-a-half millennia, greater safety and security has been a rural social advantage. That's not to say there's no crime in the country; no claim could land further from the truth.

I like to recall the old Sherlock Holmes observation, expressed to Dr. Watson on a train ride in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," in which the sleuth admits that his cursed mind looks at everything--even a bucolic English pastoral scene--with reference to his jaded criminal detective perspective.

"Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?" Watson cried.

Holmes replied that in his experience, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

Thus no place is totally exempt from crime, not even peaceful rural vicinities. Wherever humans co-exist, lawbreaking can and does work its way in. It's rather a matter of rate and scale and time: Holmes was not comparing modern-day Chicago or New York or Detroit, or his remark would be altered.

Urbanization bucks against residual national DNA as well, because at the start of our relatively short American experiment, everything began as rural. The earliest Revolutionary War battles featured towns (Lexington and Concord) that were about the size of Marvell and McCrory, respectively.

Philadelphia was our fledgling nation's largest city during the constitutional convention, with a population roughly equal to Pine Bluff. New York City at that time was only slightly more populous than Paragould.

Almost all our national principles and precepts were conceived in a mainly rural, small town mindset, so it's little wonder that massive urban growth in the U.S. has been problematic. Aesop saw it coming in 600 BC.

Today, the rural and small-town lifestyle is less about agrarianism or unsophistication, and more about foundational quality-of-life features that include lower crime (and very little violence), greater space and privacy, fewer people in poverty, more affordable everything and a tightly woven social fabric.

A 2018 Pew Research study noted more people know their neighbors in rural areas, and rural residents ages 18-29 are more than twice as likely to know all or most of their neighbors than young urban adults.

Finding a substitute word for rural is challenging, however. "Country" has similar preconceived legacy connotations. This might be a good opportunity for readers to weigh in, especially those who identify as ruralists.

Is a new word needed? Or do we just redefine "rural" so it more accurately applies? Chew on that with yesterday's leftovers, and drop me a note with ideas: [email protected]

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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